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Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East): The Secretary of State will be aware of two particular problems with the SSA formula as it affects the London borough of Newham which have already been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). They are that the assumed outstanding debt figure within the capital financing element is a poor proxy for actual debt and that, in the past, the cost of meeting the statutory duties of local authorities with regard to the homeless has barely figured at all in the SSA formula. To what extent has one or both of those issues been addressed in the revisions to the formula this year?
Mr. Gummer: The latter point appears in the housing programme figures. There is always an argument about how the SSA should be made up depending upon which local authority group is pressing its point. I think that we have the balance right, but I am always prepared to reconsider.
On the hon. Gentleman's first point, it is impossible to take into account actual debt, or one would reward those authorities which had borrowed without any concern for the future, not those that had been sensible. That would be an intolerable position. How would decent authorities feel if the kind of borrowing arrangements that some local authorities have gone into, and would still be going into if they had not been stopped by law, were rewarded? That could not possibly be done.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that on recent visits to the London borough of Newham and for many years I have shown a particular interest in the special
Column 1347problems of Newham and I hope that he will find that the changes that have been made here will not be disadvantageous.
Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the effect of lower than anticipated inflation will be that many authorities will have over-provided for additional costs in the current year which will be incorporated into their balances carried forward to help them next year and that many of them will be able to effect a budget reduction by virtue of that lower inflation?
Mr. Gummer: Of course that must be so. If there had been higher inflation, they would have had to spend and find more money. They have not had to find that money. It is there and it can be applied in ways that they had not expected. It is also true that those authorities that have had a better performance in the collection of council tax--there are many--will have more money to spend as a result. I hope that efficiency therefore benefits the taxpayer.
Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in cash terms, the grant to be distributed to local authorities next year will be 0.4 per cent. less than this year, and that he is applying the toughest capping criteria ever? Will he confirm also that residents of Nottinghamshire and throughout the country will face a double whammy--cuts in services but the privilege of paying more for them?
Mr. Gummer: They will face that only in those parts of Nottinghamshire where councils are not effective enough to make up, by better efficiency, that which they do not receive from the centre. If Nottinghamshire county council had not spent so much money on campaigning for its own continuation, but had behaved itself rather better over its spending, it might have more money in the kitty to help.
Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the level of community care funding that he announced is sufficiently generous that every local authority should be able to fund community care for all who need it? Does he agree that where authorities claim that they are unable to fund community care sufficiently this year, the problem is not underfunding but mismanagement of their social services budgets?
Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend is right. We are providing significant extra sums for community care. Although local authorities were surprised by the generosity of the amounts, they used the opportunity to blame the Government for their own inefficiency. That is the long-standing view of the sort of local authority that takes no responsibility for its own actions but blames everybody else.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): It is nice to raise hopes that more money will be spent on education, which would be most welcome in my constituency--particularly in Tameside and Stockport, which must spend less on primary education than most other local authorities. However, most people will be disappointed that only pious words have come from the Secretary of State, not extra money. Does he agree that the only way in which local authorities can spend more
Column 1348on education is to cut other services? Does he not realise that local government is often the only employer in some deprived parts of the country, in terms of school meal and home help provision? People will be resentful if such services must be cut to improve education.
Mr. Gummer: That is precisely why, in a tough settlement, we have ensured that there is more money and a greater proportion for education, and why we have a system that is increasingly accurate in making certain that money goes to the neediest places. I know that the hon. Gentleman will be pressing his local authority to ensure that important front-line services are protected. That will be done by greater efficiency, more sharing with the private sector and ensuring that money that does not need to be spent will not be spent in less important areas.
Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South): How much money do local authorities have in balances directly, and how much indirectly through local management of schools? Could not that money be used to improve local authority services, instead of being squirrelled away? What does my right hon. Friend propose in respect of capping the London borough of Barnet's SSA?
Mr. Gummer: Detailed arrangements will have to wait until we have discussed the matter with local authorities, both as a matter of courtesy and to ensure accuracy. As to the generality, a considerable amount of money is held in balances by schools and local authorities. I do not say that there should be no balances, because some are necessary. However, it is obviously sensible for local authorities to review their balances, to ascertain whether they should be spent in these circumstances. I have no doubt that they will do so. Unfortunately, some local authorities find it better to remove their balances from the public gaze.
Mr. Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire, North): Will the Secretary of State admit that he has failed to cover the cost of the police negotiating body agreement and that police budgets will be stretched even further after the settlement?
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Will my right hon. Friend send a clear message to local education authorities that increased resources should be directed at improving classroom provision, not soaked up by a top -heavy bureaucracy? Should not all local education authorities scrutinise their administration costs, particularly in the light of the increasing number of schools choosing grant-maintained status?
Mr. Gummer: I am sure that my hon. Friend is right, and he now has the support of the Leader of the Opposition, who has clearly chosen grant- maintained schools because they spend their money on what matters and do not have to carry the extra costs of over-weighty administration.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East): How will the new formula on police affect the position in Derbyshire? One of the problems that Derbyshire faced was that, because it had adopted a policy of civilianisation--a policy now recommended by the Home Office--and thus had a smaller establishment, it did not receive the grants based on the old formula. Will that be
Column 1349taken into account? Will it be given any money back to compensate for the money that was lost through the fiddled formula that the Government operated?
Mr. Gummer: The long-standing anti-police attitudes of Derbyshire county council meant that it underspent on the police year after year. It will no longer be able to do that. An extra 5 per cent. is available for Derbyshire this year. The politicisation of the police by those who do not want to support the forces of law and order will now be overturned by this much better and independent method of funding.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury): Is my right hon. Friend aware that no less a body than the Police Federation has just issued a statement warmly welcoming the settlement for the police? Will he confirm that the change in funding formula for the police will be warmly welcomed by the people of Gloucestershire, because it will become more transparent how much is being spent, for example, on the excellently run constabulary in Gloucestershire? I thank him very much for listening to the representations that I and my hon. Friends who represent constituencies in Gloucestershire have made so that we get a reasonable settlement of around 3 per cent. this year for the police in Gloucestershire.
Mr. Gummer: I am pleased that the Police Federation has announced that. It stands in stark contrast to the Labour party, which clearly cannot welcome anything that is ever given to the police, because it does not make it a priority. The Labour party does not believe that law and order comes first.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Last year, Cheshire county council made cuts in front-line services. The figures show that, this year, it will have to make further cuts. Will the Minister tell us who is right--the Government or the Tory-Liberal alliance in Cheshire county council? Is the definition of sufficient resources those resources that result in charging for mental health day care centres?
Mr. Gummer: The SSAs are worked out in consultation with the local government organisations. It is never possible to get all of them to agree on every one, because each has a different set of priorities, but we seek to do it as closely as we can. That is the basis on which need is assessed. Like other county councils, Cheshire county council has found significant money to promote its own case for continuation. Perhaps it will be able to find even more money to deal with the specific problems about which the hon. Gentleman speaks.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): Part of the additional money that local authorities receive in the year comes, in London's case, from the sale of assets by the London Residuary Body. It is then distributed to the London boroughs. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether, in the LRB's most recent accounts, the £10 million of deferred capital relates to the sale of county hall and is money owed by Shiriyama to the LRB? If that
Column 1350is so, when does the Secretary of State expect that the LRB will receive that money? When will it be distributed to the London boroughs?
Mr. Dobson: I have two brief points. Before the Secretary of State attempts, as I predicted, to blame everything that is wrong in local government on the Labour party, perhaps he and the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason), who made his point and has now gone, should bear in mind the fact that the Tory councillor for Bromsgrove, Rita Taylor, said this morning, while speaking on behalf of the Association of District Councils:
"The public are going to have to pay more . . . Conservatives in local government are in despair at this settlement."
Like every other Member on the Opposition Benches, I perfectly well understand that the capital available, or not, to councils for building houses is not covered by the settlement. But it does nevertheless have revenue effects, because if councils are not allowed to build houses, more people become homeless. Councils have the obligation to rehouse homeless people. Instead of the sensible solution--putting people into new houses that they have built for them--they are forced to put them into bed-and- breakfast accommodation, or rent from the private sector at exorbitant rents.
We all know that it would be cheaper, more humane, more sensible and more practical if councils were allowed to build houses and put people in them instead of having to dump them all around London and other big cities in privately rented accommodation or
bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I should have thought that, as a self- proclaimed expert on local government finance, the right hon. Gentleman would have known that capital expenditure, or non-expenditure, has an impact on the revenue demands on local authorities.
Mr. Gummer: There is an impact only if one adheres to the view that the only houses worth counting as houses are local authority houses. The coming of the housing associations means that there are many nominations to those associations which local authorities have and use.
That is one of the reasons why the number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has fallen steadily over the past few years: the fall is due to the Government's actions. It is one of the reasons why the number of people sleeping rough in the centre of London is now at an all-time low, according to figures provided by the charities concerned. It is also one of the reasons why Conservative Members believe that the hon. Gentleman has not read a figure or a fact for the past seven years: he is still quoting figures that are hangovers from a period of Labour government.
Monday 5 December----Continuation of the Budget debate.
Tuesday 6 December----Conclusion of the debate on the Budget statement.
Wednesday 7 December----Committee and remaining stages of the European Communities (Finance) Bill.
Thursday 8 December----Committee and remaining stages of the European Communities (Finance) Bill.
Friday 9 December----Debate on standards in education on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Monday 12 December----Second Reading of the Health Authorities Bill.
The House will also wish to know that the following European Standing Committees will meet at 10.30 am on Wednesday 7 December, as follows:
European Standing Committee A: European Community Document No. 11496/93 relating to a European vessel reporting system in Community waters; European Community Document No. 5841/94 relating to ship safety and control of pollution; European Community Document No. 6655/94 relating to training for maritime occupations; and European Community Document No. 7919/94 relating to a European vessel reporting system.
European Standing Committee B: European Community Document No. 9400/92 relating to personal data protection.
[Wednesday 7 December:
European Standing Committee A--Relevant European Community documents: (a) 11496/93, Reporting System for Vessels in Community Waters; (b) 5841/94, Ship Safety and the Control of Pollution; (c) 6655/94, Training for Maritime Occupations; (d) 7919/94, Reporting System for Vessels in Community Waters. Relevant reports of the European Legislation Committee: (a) HC 48-x and HC 48-xxii (1993-94); (b) HC 48-xvii and HC 48-xxii (1993- 94); (c) HC 48-xxii (1993-94); (d) HC 48-xxvi (1993-94).
European Standing Committee B--Relevant European Community document: 9400/92, Personal Data and Information Security; Relevant report of the European Legislation Committee: HC 79-x (1992-93) HC 48-xxiv (1993-94) and HC 70-i (1994-95).]
Mrs. Taylor: Will the Leader of the House tell us whether the Government will consider a vote on VAT on Tuesday to be a vote of confidence in them? Will he also give us an idea of the Government's intentions with regard to the new position that has arisen following the loss of their majority in the House?
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, when similar circumstances arose in April 1976, the then Leader of the Opposition, Mrs. Thatcher, tabled early- day motion 351, demanding that the Committee of Selection appoint Members to Standing Committees in equal numbers from
Column 1352Government and Opposition parties? Does he intend to move a motion in line with that approved by the House on 7 May 1976? That motion stated that
"only an overall majority in the composition of the House should guarantee a majority in each Standing Committee".--[ Official Report , 7 May 1976; Vol. 910, c. 1738.]
Mr. Newton: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already made clear the position regarding any vote that might take place on Tuesday in relation to the matter to which the hon. Lady adverted. As for the second part of her question, the position is not on a par with that in 1976, which arose from changes in the composition of the House. These matters are for the Committee of Selection, and it is not for me to comment on or interfere in its business; let me point out, however, that the Standing Order governing the Committee's activities enjoins it to have regard to the composition of the House. It may have escaped the hon. Lady's attention that the composition of the House is exactly the same this Thursday as it was last Thursday.
Sir David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West): Does my right hon. Friend expect that there will be a statement from the Government about the Child Support Agency before the Christmas recess, particularly as the Select Committee on Social Security has produced another important report? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the sooner we end what the Select Committee called the "chronic maladministration" of the CSA, the easier our constituency advice bureaux will be?
Mr. Newton: I am obviously conscious of my hon. Friend's concern about those matters, not least because he seizes every opportunity, whether formally or informally, to make that clear to me. My hon. Friend referred to the Select Committee report; I need hardly assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security is studying that report with great care, with a view to forming conclusions.
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East): Will the Leader of the House tell us why there is no provision in the business next week for a debate on Bosnia, not least because it appears that the Foreign Secretary is to go to Belgrade this weekend as part of a team which may, by its negotiations, give undue reward to Serbian aggression? Does the Leader of the House appreciate that many of us were extremely disappointed that the Government were unable to make a statement about Bosnia this week, particularly after the visit of Senator Dole, and that that disappointment might be alleviated if a debate were held in early course?
Mr. Newton: I understand and respect the reasons why the hon. and learned Gentleman raised that point. He has almost given the answer by referring to what will be quite an intensive further round of diplomatic activity over the next few days. I cannot undertake that that will necessarily give rise to a statement, but I know that my right hon. Friends will give careful consideration to when they should appropriately report to the House.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North): Will my right hon. Friend consider providing time for an early debate on the progress of community care? Is he aware that 18 Liberal and Labour-controlled authorities appear to have lost control of their community care budgets, despite very generous funding, and are now cutting vital
Column 1353services for the elderly and infirm, even though they have reserves in the kitty due to lower inflation and the success of our economic policy?
Mr. Newton: I take note of my hon. Friend's comments. I took the opportunity to discuss some of those matters in my constituency, which adjoins that of my hon. Friend, when I was on a relevant visit just under a week ago. l hope that my hon. Friend's remarks will be taken into account by all those concerned with those matters.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): Given the amount of time that we seem to have on our hands, and in order to keep us off the streets, could we have a debate next week or some time soon on the conference at Fort Lauderdale of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species--CITES? Many things were said about rhino, elephants, vicuna, whales and mahogany. We should have a debate or a statement about that, so will the Leader of the House please arrange that as early as possible? While he is on his feet, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether we are to have a Christmas recess and when it is likely to be?
Mr. Newton: Not for the first time, there is some tension between the implications of the second half of a question and the plain request of the first half. I do not in any way minimise the importance of the matters raised by the hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid that I cannot promise an early debate unless he wishes to sit on Christmas eve.
I can help the hon. Gentleman with the second part of his question. I said last week that I hoped that the House would be off on Christmas day. I can go a little further today and say that I hope that Christmas eve and Boxing day might be included, but I cannot go beyond that.
Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud): May we have an early debate on the subject of far eastern countries, bearing in mind the fact that last night's Budget response by the shadow Chancellor--or should it be a party political broadcast?--suggested that Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan have faster-growing economies than our own? Would that enable us to express a view about whether the success of those countries is due largely to socialism or capitalism?
Mr. Newton: That is an interesting point about a broadcast that I have not had the opportunity or privilege of observing. I thought that lurking in my hon. Friend's question there might be an implication of a sort that I might be less willing to accept, but, taken at face value, it was interesting.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): Will the Leader of the House make time for a full debate on the inadequacies of the cold weather payments system? It is evident that vulnerable people should automatically receive extra money for heating. Is he aware that in my constituency the readings to trigger off the cold weather payments are taken miles away, yet many of my constituents live well above the snow line where it is much colder, so the readings are false? There are many inadequacies in the cold weather payments system. Given the growing
Column 1354number of deaths from hypothermia, the growing number of cold-related illnesses and the cost to the NHS, is it not time that the House discussed the issue properly?
Mr. Newton: I should be more willing to respond in the way that the hon. Lady wishes if she had at least acknowledged the extent to which over quite a long period the system of help with cold weather payments has been improved substantially in its administration and automaticity and, most recently, in its amount, with a further increase announced in the Budget only this week. I should also have been more willing to respond in the way that the hon. Lady wishes if she had acknowledged the extent to which all that has changed from a time when a Labour Government did virtually nothing about it.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Following what was said by the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be useful to have a debate next week comparing the compensation packages that people will receive now because of the introduction of VAT on fuel with what happened in 1974-79 when electricity prices were soaring through the roof thanks to hyper-inflation and people received no compensation whatever? Where was the Labour party's care then?
Mr. Newton: That is a good point, and I must tell my hon. Friend that I have arranged a debate in which he might make that point. I do not know--although perhaps I ought to--whether he has yet taken part in that debate, but if not, it is called the Budget debate. There is still today and two more days to go.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Can we have a statement about the number of hon. Members on each side of the House? In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), the Leader of the House said that the situation now is different from what happened in 1976 when the Labour Government lost their majority, albeit due to by-elections and John Stonehouse finishing up in Australia after leaving his clothes on the beach in Florida.
The truth is that the Government have lost their majority because they kicked nine people out of their own party. In my view, the Government should be penalised for having the arrogance and audacity to take the Whip away from nine of their people and then the cheek to tell the nation that the situation will remain the same. If they had any guts and decency, they would remove themselves from that position. If they really wanted to be decent to the British people, they would get out and call a general election.
Mr. Newton: It appears that the hon. Gentleman is advancing a somewhat novel constitutional doctrine. When I replied to the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), I said that there had been no change in the composition of the House since this time last week. There is a clear majority of Members elected as Conservatives, and the composition of the House is determined by the electorate.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): In view of the fact that there is hardly anything more unpopular at the moment than putting the full rate of VAT on domestic fuel, would it not be proper for the House to reflect that
Column 1355feeling, by at least having a free vote on that issue next week? Would not that be far more appropriate than using threats and intimidation against Tory Back Benchers who may well have the courage to reflect the feelings of their constituents, or are they to lose the Whip as well?
Mr. Newton: I have already said that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear the position for next week and my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor made clear on Tuesday the Government's policy on budgetary matters as a whole, including this one.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the British Waterways-opposed private Bill completed its Committee stage in the spillover period in October after intense scrutiny in both Houses over almost three years. Will my right hon. Friend find an early opportunity to list the Third Reading of that Bill so that we can be fair to the promoters and, we hope, get it on to the statute book?
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): On Monday's business in Edinburgh, will the Leader of the House persuade the Lord Advocate to offer a statement in view of the Lord Advocate's deeply unsatisfactory response to Alan Francovich's film and his even more deeply unsatisfactory response on Monday to the representatives of the Lockerbie relatives? After all, it was the biggest crime of murder against western civilians since 1945. Will the Lord Advocate at least offer some sort of statement?
Will the Leader of the House comment on a letter sent to me by the Secretary of State for Scotland, which said that, apparently, the Lord Advocate cannot answer Adjournment debates? Furthermore, it solemnly gave the lack of seating arrangements for the Lord Advocate as a reason why it was difficult. Will the Leader of House inject some common sense into the position?
Mr. Newton: The hon. Gentleman has advanced his arguments in a characteristically courteous way. I have three points to put. First, he will accept, if he has read the Secretary of State's letter--of which I have obtained a copy, as you, Madam Speaker, would say, for the sake of greater accuracy--that the seating arrangements are not presented as an argument. Secondly, the position on Ministers who were not members of the Committee taking part in Adjournment debates was made clear in the documentation provided before the Standing Order debate earlier in the year. Thirdly--the most important point--as the Secretary of State's letter says, it is open to the Lord Advocate to volunteer a statement if the usual channels agree that it is appropriate, as they do for statements on the Floor of the House. I take the hon. Gentleman's points as a request for the matter to be brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State through the usual channels.
Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House draw the motion for the debate on standards in education on Friday next week widely enough to encompass the important principle of choice of school? That would allow my constituents--who like to choose between the eight grant-maintained schools available to them, and who know that those schools are seriously discriminated against in terms of resources and, particularly, in terms of special educational needs, by Ealing's Labour council and the Labour party, which would like to eliminate grant-maintained schools--to take account of the wish of one or two socialists, including the Leader of the Opposition, to send their children to those schools.
Mr. Newton: On the second point, I said that the debate next Friday will take place on a motion for the Adjournment, so it could hardly be more widely drawn. I should have thought that my hon. Friend's points would, subject to you, Madam Speaker, fall within the terms of the debate. On his first point, I express my gratitude to him and to you, Madam Speaker, for ensuring that you, and not I, will be the person responsible for Christmas trees.
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Hon. members have many opportunities to discuss uprated benefits, but when will it be in order for us to discuss the 30 social security benefits and allowances that have never been increased since their introduction? The widow's payment, which was first announced in 1985, is particularly unfair. It replaced the widow's allowance, which was uprated every year. The widow's payment should be £1,600 next year, but it is frozen at £1,000. Is it not particularly mean of the Government not to allow increases in the payment, which is made to widows during the difficult time of bereavement?
Mr. Newton: The hon. Gentleman will undoubtedly be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security made a substantial uprating statement only yesterday. With his experience in this subject, the hon. Gentleman knows well that an extensive series of orders follow an uprating statement to implement the uprating. That should provide him with an opportunity to make his points, if he wishes.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Will the Leader of the House make further inquiries into the question of majorities in Committees? Does he accept that Lady Thatcher tabled her motion, not as a result of a death or resignation by an hon. Member, but because of John Stonehouse's decision to leave the Labour Whip and to join the Whip of, I think, the English National party? That is an exact parallel of what happened last week. There was a change, not in composition, but in the allegiance of
Column 1357hon. Members. Is it not important that the Government demonstrate that they are consistent rather than merely opportunistic?
Mr. Newton: Compared with other Labour Members, the hon. Gentleman has at least accepted the basic thrust of the point made earlier and he has implicitly accepted what I said about the composition of the House. On his second point, I do not think that he has a parallel on that front either.
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): May I refer the Leader of the House to the reply in column 710 of yesterday's Hansard to a written question by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) on the proposed extension of article III of the Anglo-American mutual defence agreement on atomic matters? Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Government intend to ratify that extension under the Ponsonby rule and that, unless an objection is raised in the House, the extension will saddle the British public with a bill of some £20 billion, covering the servicing, maintenance, operation and decommissioning costs of the Trident programme? Does he therefore accept that some hon. Members object to that going through and will call for a debate to be held within the next parliamentary week to discuss whether the extension should be agreed?