|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 1122have less scope for drawing reinforcements from neighbouring fire brigades. We have considered once more area cost adjustments, and we have responded to local government representations on the deemed debt of the former Greater London council and the levy of the London Pensions Fund Authority, which has helped inner London councils considerably. Detailed discussions with local authorities have led to that.
Since then, during the consultation period, we have received a number of representations from authorities about the data that we propose to use in the calculation of SSAs. Some of those representations brought to light errors that we have been able to correct. In particular, we have been able to improve data on pupil numbers, and we have tried to find ways of dealing with imperfections relating to pensions in the police SSA. We shall continue to discuss the SSA methodology with local authority associations.
Several hon. Members rose --
Mr. Gummer: I undertake that, if right hon. and hon. Members are able to produce examples of a different way of doing all that, particularly suggestions in regard to weighting, I shall be happy to consider them. I want to try to have a system that is increasingly able to meet changing circumstances such as those mentioned by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), who spoke of certain difficulties in Liverpool. Hon. Friends from Devon raised other matters.
I said in December that I would continue to pay a special grant to compensate authorities that have lost more than 4 per cent. of SSA as a result of the incorporation of the new census data and the changes stemming --
Mr. Gummer: The House should hear the comments of the hon. Member for Greenwich. He said, "That is a backhander." It is what local authority associations have universally ask me to do. It is a pretty wide backhander if we give it to every local authority. The hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of himself for saying that.
This is a fair arrangement, phasing out transitional support so that grant can be redistributed elsewhere. I propose also to pay a special grant to police authorities whose combined SSA and entitlement to police grant next year will be reduced by more than 2 per cent. as a result of the move to the new police funding formula. Perhaps the hon. Member for Greenwich would say that that universally asked-for change is a backhander. Special grant report No. 12 will establish those grants for 1995-96. Some £261 million of special grant will be distributed to local authorities in that way. The capping of local authority budgets--I come to the last point that I want to make-- [Hon. Members:-- "Hear, hear."] Opposition Members have asked me to give way. I have no means of orchestrating the Labour party, nor does anyone else. The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) rose, but he was unable to intervene. He cannot complain because other hon. Members had an opportunity to put their points of view.
I have considered carefully the representations that Ministers in my Department and in other Departments have received from a range of authorities. In the light of those representations, I have decided to make one change to the intended capping criteria announced in December.
Column 1123Last year I announced in a similar debate an adjustment that benefited authorities that had been the subject of a substantial reduction in SSA as a result of the SSA review implemented in last year's settlement and which, under the initial criteria, would have been required to reduce their budgets in cash terms. I propose to make a similar change this year. It will apply to any authority whose SSA was reduced as a consequence of the 1993 review by more than 10 per cent. as measured for the purpose of SSA reduction grant. The effect, as last year, is that any such authority will be required to freeze its budget rather than to reduce it in cash terms. I also announced in December my proposals for the calculation of notional amounts for authorities whose boundaries or functions will change from 1 April. They provide the base from which I shall measure increases in budgets in determining whether those increases are excessive. In addition, I announced provisional criteria which made allowance for that expenditure on care in the community which is being met this year by the special transitional grant.
Apart from the changes which I have described, my intentions as regards capping criteria remain as I described them in December. The House will recognise that capping is an essential tool for retaining the effective control of overall spending required by the Government--indeed, any Government's--economic strategy. I understand that there are even suggestions that capping would form part of a Labour Government strategy. We will not hesitate to use our capping powers should it prove necessary.
This year's settlement will give local authorities some difficult decisions to make, but, in the interests of the national economy, local government-- like central Government--must restrain spending and make each pound it spends go further. The settlement also demonstrates the Government's continuing commitment to a fair distribution of available resources, on a basis which uses up-to-date information and objective formulae. I commend the settlement and these reports to the House.
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras): Now that the 70 minutes of sermonising are over, we should return to the real world. I remind the House that, in this coming year, real council tax payers in England will end up paying more and getting less. There may be a few councils where the council tax will not go up, and there may be one or two where services will not be cut, but, taken overall, nearly every council tax payer in this coming year will pay more and get less because the Government are cutting the grant.
It is not just the Labour party which is saying that. The Minister of State --using elegant phraseology to which I could not possibly aspire--is reported as saying:
"We have all been stuffed by the Treasury".
Councillor Rita Taylor, the Tory chair of the Association of District Councils' finance panel, said:
"the public are going to have to pay more . . . Conservatives in local government are in despair at this settlement".
The general situation has not changed much since the Minister made his statement at the beginning of December. From the Government's figures, we can expect the average council tax increase over the whole country
Column 1124to be about 6 per cent. It will be lower in some areas and higher in others, but even including that average increase, and using again the Government's figures, the money available for councils will be £1.5 billion short of what is being spent on services this year. That does not allow for any forthcoming pay increases, the additional cost of about 100,000 extra children starting school, the needs of more old people, better services for the disabled and other demands.
Mr. Dobson: I would rather get on, if I may. [Interruption.] Legions of hon. Members want to speak on behalf of their communities. We had a speech of 70 minutes from the Secretary of State, and I shall give way to a limited number of hon. Members. [Interruption.] I shall give way to the Minister.
Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman says that the settlement is inadequate. Therefore, the Labour party would either give more grant or would allow capping to be relaxed and council taxes to go up. Which is it to be? By how much would revenue support grant go up? By how much would the hon. Gentleman be willing to see council taxes rise? There is no alternative to one of those two options, or perhaps both.
Mr. Dobson: We are not hear to discuss what a future Labour Government might do. We are here to deal with a proposition that the Government are putting forward today. It is fairly unlikely that the Labour party will be in charge of the country within the forthcoming financial year, although I hope that we are. We look forward to dealing with the problems and making the best of the opportunities. We are discussing the Government's proposals tonight, and it is up to them to defend them.
The Government's figures suggest that, during the next three years, council tax payers will have to find an extra £2.8 billion in council tax. That is equivalent to 1.5p on the standard rate of income tax. They will have to find that not just next year, but the year after and the year after that. People can expect to pay more and get less. Ministers try to give the impression--God knows the Secretary of State has taken enough time in doing so tonight--that the formula is objective and is as "fair as humanly possible", as the Secretary of State said. However, the standard spending assessment is based on the Government's assessments of need, and one does not need to be a member of the Royal Statistical Society to see that that cannot be right.
Never mind how the Government arrive at their criteria for deprivation-- what one should do is judge them by the outcome. According to the Government's social index of need, Westminster is more deprived than Brent, Lambeth or Southwark; Runnymede is more deprived than Oldham or Liverpool; Hove is more deprived than Hartlepool; Salisbury is more deprived than Knowsley; Windsor--I know that it is going through a bad time at the moment --is more deprived than Bury, Langbaurgh, Ipswich, Thurrock or Darlington. I do not think that anybody believes that that is right.
The system is a party political racket, and everybody knows it. It has been designed to help Tory areas and to help keep Tories in power. A supreme example is the
Column 1125special fiddled funding for Westminster. Westminster used to be the Tory flagship, but scandals are turning it into the Tory ship of shame. If the Conservatives think that Westminster is their flagship, they should remember that their last flagship was the poll tax, and Westminster will sink them like the poll tax did.
Time and time again, the Government have rigged the grant to help Westminster, first to keep down the poll tax and then to keep down the council tax. The Secretary of State may say that there was no rigging. Let me read from a note prepared for Lady Porter, the leader of Westminster city council, on 9 May 1989. The note compliments the Secretary of State-- he was not the Secretary of State at the time--and says that he is the "most alert" of Ministers to political nuances, and that he would be particularly conscious--
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hesitate to raise this point of order, but I thought that we were speaking today about the revenue support settlement for the coming year, not for some years ago. If all that the Opposition can rely on is something which happened years ago, it shows that they are fairly bankrupt of ideas.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I must draw the attention of all hon. Members to the fact that the motion is concerned with the revenue support grant and the Local Government Finance Report (England) 1995-96. Anything may be used in evidence, but that obviously is the primary purpose of the debate.
Mr. Dobson: You will be familiar, Mr. Deputy Speaker, with the fact that one of the reasons why Westminster is in such a good seam at the moment is that skulduggery and fiddling in the past have allowed the council to build up enormous balances. In many cases, those balances exceed the amounts of expenditure which some councils can look forward to in the coming year.
I now return to the report, written when Westminster started building up those balances. It was reported to Lady Porter that the Secretary of State- -then the Minister of State--would be particularly conscious that, with safety nets, a number of high-spending Labour London boroughs would appear to get off the hook with community charges "lower than Westminster". The Tories then set about making sure that those community charges "lower than Westminster" did not come about.
Westminster will have to be given very large sums of money this year to make up for the millions of pounds that have been lost within the council through corruption and incompetence. That is not just a matter for Westminster, because the extra funds which are constantly found for that council and which, it is proposed, should be given to Westminster in this settlement, are taken from the funds available to councils elsewhere. That is in not just the rest of London, but the rest of the country. Every other council gets less so that Westminster can get more.
At a previous Question Time, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) drew attention to the rather unfair treatment of St. Helens compared with Westminster, despite the fact that they have about the same population. My hon. Friend will give further details if he manages to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. St. Helens receives £104 million in grant from the
Column 1126Government while Westminster receives £194 million. The grant per head for St. Helens is £578 and the grant per head for Westminster is £1,024.
It could be argued that, as St. Helens is not in central London, those figures are not strictly comparable. As the Secretary of State seems to be obsessed with the London borough of Camden, let us compare Camden with Westminster. Both boroughs are roughly the same size, geographically and in terms of population, and are adjacent to one another. Virtually the only difference is that more rich people live in Westminster than in Camden. One would think, therefore, that Camden would get more money than Westminster, but that is not so. Westminster receives £194 million whereas Camden receives £178 million. Westminster will have got nearly £16 million more in this settlement. It got £21 million more in the year that is coming to an end and £20 million more the year before that. However, that clearly does not have a direct effect on performance because, as the Secretary of State's officials can confirm, the Audit Commission's indicators show that Camden is better run than Westminster. How has the grant been rigged to benefit Westminster at the expense of everywhere else in England? Some time ago, Westminster received £7.2 million to spend on flood defences. It spent £700,000 and therefore had a kick-back of £6.3 million. It was also given £2.2 million to give a grant to the English National Opera and the English National Ballet. It gave £200,000 and kept £2 million for itself. That is £8 million to start off with, which others should have received in a fair system. However, the swindling is much more systematic than that. The special weighting for tourists was doubled at one stage to £5.3 million. The standard spending assessment for Westminster includes a £54 million allowance for the extra cost of visitors.
Another special factor is at work in Westminster, which, for some reason, is not allowed for in the SSA. In the current year, Westminster receives more than £20 million in income from parking charges, and that sum is expected to be more than £30 million in the forthcoming year. One would expect a Government who are so concerned with public spending to abate or to reduce Westminster's grant to reflect that massive income, which is not available to other councils. Instead, Westminster is allowed to keep every bit of it. It is a racket: extra money for visitors is not offset by the money that visitors bring in. Moreover, it has all been done as part of a political swindle.
Why was that necessary? First, it was to keep the poll tax down; secondly, it was to keep the council tax down--
Thirdly, it is to make up for money lost by that Tory council deliberately by fraud, incompetence and corruption. Everyone in the country now knows that Westminster council is being done by the district auditor for the "homes for votes" scandal in which £21 million has been lost, but there has been a more recent revelation. The Secretary of State said that he did not deal with figures unless they came from the auditor. These figures are from the auditor--Westminster's internal auditor--who says that the council lost £30 million by not
Column 1127collecting service charges, management charges and the cost of repairs to flats and houses that it sold. That cannot simply be forgotten, as it did not happen by accident. It was deliberate, and the papers show that the council ignored legal advice and kept the facts from committees and the public. That is why the Labour party is calling for a special audit of Westminster city council. I now challenge the Secretary of State to order a special audit of--
Mr. Dobson: In case the hon. Gentleman does not understand, the money that Westminster city council has not collected is having to be made up by Government grants. Therefore, grants are not available to people in his area or in areas represented by my hon. Friends. Will the Secretary of State establish a special audit to root out corruption in Westminster, or do the Tories reserve special audits for Labour councils?
Mr. Gummer: The auditor is, at this very moment, dealing with a number of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong to say that any of those makes any difference whatever to the distribution of grant, either this year or in previous years. So he should not mislead the House. Moreover, the House will have noticed that he has now been speaking for 15 minutes but has dealt with nothing except the past arrangements of Westminster city council and has given no answers about scandals in Camden, the lists of which were public, not spread about by leaked documentation. The hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of himself.
Mr. Dobson: How can the Secretary of State say that the scandalous waste of public funds in Westminster has not affected the funds that it receives from central Government? He says that he did not know about it. If he and his officials did not know about it, they would not know why there were such gaps in the accounts, which had to be made up in this settlement. That is why we are concerned about what is going on.
If the Secretary of State wants to bandy about figures for Westminster and Camden, let me give him a few. The Audit Commission selected 12 indicators at the middle of last year. On those, Camden far out-performs Westminster. There are 12 indicators and 12 inner London boroughs. Camden comes top in four of those indicators and is either first or second best in seven out of 12. Westminster comes top in only one and either first or second best in just three of the 12. Camden has the best educational results in inner London, even before they are adjusted for deprivation. When deprivation is taken into account, Camden is second best in the whole of England, and Westminster is 99th. I hope that the Secretary of State is proud of that. When it comes to handing out mandatory awards to students, 99 per cent. of students in Camden got mandatory awards on the due date, whereas no students in Westminster got mandatory awards on the due date. So I hope that the Secretary of State will shut up for the time being.
Column 1128Is the Secretary of State satisfied with the present arrangements, powers and resources of the Audit Commission and the district auditor, or does he agree with the Labour party that the present system is letting everyone down and that the Audit Commission and the district auditor need to be strengthened to eliminate fraud and corruption wherever it arises?
Mr. Gummer: As the hon. Gentleman has obviously not listened to anything anyone has said, I shall repeat it. I am opposed to impropriety of any kind, wherever it comes from, and will seek to ensure that it is rooted out. I note that it has occurred in a number of boroughs and, in those circumstances, no one has been more ready to support those who have been found innocent and oppose those who have been found guilty. The hon. Gentleman seems not to remember that it is a principle of English law that a man or organisation is not found guilty until he or it is proved guilty. He thinks that he can fling about any statement in the House because he is protected by the privileges of the House. I wish that he earned those privileges.
Mr. Dobson: I have never said anything in the House that I am not willing to repeat outside it. In commenting on Westminster city council in the House today, I have only repeated what I have said on television and on radio.
I may seem to have spent a lot of time discussing the Westminster city council, but the Government's treatment of it shows how unfair and party political is the system. Only four places in
Britain--Hackney, Tower Hamlets, the Scilly Isles and the City of London-- receive a higher proportion of Government support than Westminster. The rest of us get less so that Westminster can get more.
I shall give some examples of the reduction in council tax that would occur in other areas if those areas received the same level of external Government help as Westminster. The Camden council tax would be reduced by £261, the Croydon council tax would be reduced by £73, the Enfield tax would be reduced by £274 and the Bristol tax would be reduced by £258. That is nothing compared with many other councils. If they received the same level of external Government support as Westminster, council tax payers in Bury and Oldham would not pay anything at all--they would get a refund every year. The same thing would apply in Redbridge, Plymouth, Dartmouth, Langbaurgh, Gloucester, Dover, Stockton-on-Tees, Southampton, Northampton, Carlisle, Watford and York. I do not understand how anyone could think that that is not a racket.
Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman does not understand how people would not think that it is a racket, but why does not the Association of County Councils think that it is a racket? It thinks that there is a reasonable level, as does the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and all of the other people and organisations which are involved in the process. The decisions are arrived at after full discussion with local authorities. The only other person who does not agree with it is the hon. Gentleman's predecessor on the Opposition Front Bench.
Furthermore, independent authorities such as Mr. Tony Travers have said that what the hon. Gentleman says is simply not true. The only people who think as the hon.
Column 1129Gentleman does are those who have done so little homework that they do not understand how the system works to the benefit of the whole country.
Mr. Dobson: I have done enough homework to recognise what the Minister means. When he says that decisions are taken in consultation with local authorities, he really means that he decides after he has consulted with them--and he usually ignores what they have said. The results reveal the true integrity and fairness of the system. Under the settlement, people will pay more this year and receive less: council tax will rise and services will be cut. I do not have time to list all of those services because I want to keep my contribution short.
Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East): My hon. Friend did not mention wonderful Wolverhampton in his list of authorities which would benefit in the way that he outlined. Wolverhampton is an exemplary authority--the Secretary of State would confirm that if he got to his feet- -but in the coming year, in order to stand still, we shall have to find an extra £7 million by either increasing charges or reducing our services because the Secretary of State has not honoured his commitment to the wonderful people of Wolverhampton. They will bear the pain in the next financial year as a result of the Government's failure to recognise the needs of local government.
Mr. Dobson: I apologise to my hon. Friend for not mentioning Wolverhampton in my list of places which would receive a refund if their councils were as well supplied with Government funds as Westminster. However, we do not have time to list them all. He reiterates what Labour Members have said: in most cases, people will pay more and receive less.
I shall give some examples of what is happening to council services. As more children are living in poverty today than at any time in the past 30 years, school meals should be becoming more important. In 1979, when the Government came to power, 63 per cent. of children took school meals; now the figure is only 43 per cent. The reason is that the price of school meals has increased from 20p all over the country to 120p in some areas, while at the same time nutritional standards have been abandoned.
Will the Secretary of State confirm whether there will be further rises in the price of school meals in the coming year? Will nutritional standards fall further? We asked him those questions when he delivered his statement in December but he did not answer. If he cannot be bothered to answer now, it is clear that he does not care.
Apparently, some Tories claim that the size of school classes does not matter--which is strange as nearly all of them send their children out of the regular school system to be educated. They send their children to the fee-paying schools which have smaller class sizes. [Interruption.] I do not know why Government Members are getting excited because I do not know anyone on the Opposition Benches who sends his or her children to a fee-paying school.
Column 1130Let us assume, therefore, that the children of Tories benefit from smaller class sizes. Most people think that it would be a good idea if all of our children could enjoy the educational benefits of smaller class sizes. According to the Government's own figures, in the past 10 years there has been a 9 per cent. increase in class sizes in primary schools and secondary school class sizes are rising as well. There are reports of that occurring all over the country. I ask the Secretary of State: will there be further increases in school class sizes? Does he know? Does he care? I can assure him that parents care, but they are faced with paying more and getting less. Youth clubs are another part of the education service which is increasingly neglected. Those clubs do not constitute a statutory provision and they are closing all over the country. Government Members then ask why there is an increase in juvenile crime. In London, and in many other parts of the country, the youth clubs which used to keep children occupied have been closed. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman, with his religious leanings, would recall the old saying, "The devil makes work for idle hands." The closure of youth clubs has certainly led to other problems.
Mr. Gummer: Will the hon. Gentleman reconsider what he has just said? He made a direct assertion about my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, South, but he will not give way to him. Will the hon. Gentleman have the courtesy to give way to someone whom he has insulted?
Mr. Dobson: I can cast my mind back to the occasion when the hon. Member for Suffolk, South made assertions about the veracity of my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown). That led to Madam Speaker having to make a statement about the whole matter--so I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Yeo: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for an hon. Member to make unsupported assertions, in respect of an hon. Member sitting in the Chamber, about what happened in a previous Parliament, and then to refuse to give way to him?
Column 1131May". I think that this whole debate has become a little too excited; but how hon. Members conduct themselves in entirely up to them.
Mr. Dobson: In 1979, luncheon clubs provided meals for 15 million old people. In the last year for which figures are available, they provided meals for only 7 million people. Those clubs provide old people not just with a meal but with a chance to get out and enjoy a bit of company--to stir out of their homes, in which some of them feel imprisoned because they are fearful of going out. Will more or fewer pensioners be having meals in luncheon clubs as a result of today's announcement?
As for care in the community, there are all sorts of calculations about NHS funding, local council funding, voluntary sector funding and private sector funding. I admit that the system is byzantine in its complexity, but the evidence of people's eyes and of our advice services and post bags show that the figures speak for themselves--sad figures, stumbling around the streets with no one to look after them. People have come to us because their neighbours cannot help being a nuisance when they are in a crisis, but there is no one to look after them; there are no acute or secure beds to cope with them. From the inner cities to the shire counties, care in the community is not working properly--and we all know it.
I shall continue with a few more examples of what seems likely to happen. No doubt the Government will refer to them as anecdotes. These days, the definition of an anecdote is a reality that gives the lie to Government statistics. The Government claim that the threats to services are exaggerated by councils. There may be some truth in that; there may be exaggeration by teachers and by pensioner groups. For every spoonful of hyperbole on the part of local people, we get a bucketful of litotes from Ministers. [Hon. Members:-- "Of what?"] For Conservative Members who have not had the benefit of a classical education, I shall try again. For every ounce of exaggeration by local people, we get a ton of complacent understatement from Ministers.
In Warwickshire, there is a threat to schools. Yesterday, I encountered someone in a meeting to do with the green side of my environmental duties. Towards the end of our discussions, he suddenly said, "I hope you are going to oppose what is happening to schools in Warwickshire, because we are faced with a possible loss of one teacher from every primary school and every secondary school. That will harm the education of my children and of the children of my neighbours." Does the Secretary of State deny that that is likely to happen?
Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud) rose --
Mr. Dobson: No, I want to get on with my speech so as to allow some of my hon. Friends to speak up for their communities. Shropshire faces a £1 million reduction in spending on the elderly. It faces a reduction of nearly £500,000 in spending on people with learning difficulties, and a loss of more than £500,000 for spending on services to children in families--including the council's efforts to prevent child abuse. Last night I, like all hon. Members who attended the debate, heard about the nationwide concern over the funding of the police service and the attendant threat to the fight against crime.
Column 1132that the immense problems that we face there stem not just from this year's settlement but from a succession of four bad settlements which have meant that services have been consistently threatened for four years? There is near-universal agreement in the county that the only way services can be maintained is by going through the capping limit.
Mr. Dobson: I understand that. We are not making a party political point because, as we understand it, all the members of Shropshire county council--Tory, Liberal and Labour alike--believe that the capping limit is too low to allow them to provide the services that they believe their people deserve.
If we can believe what we read, the Tory members of the county council have been making representations to the Secretary of State, presumably to the same effect--although I hope that they have been more successful than some others who have made representations. I have checked on what happened to the seven Tory-controlled councils--there are so few of them these days-- which have made representations to the Secretary of State or to one of his Ministers. They include Solihull, about which the Secretary of State was looking so concerned. Solihull went to ask for more; it ended up with £51,000 less. Castle Point went and came out with less. Likewise Dartford, Ribble Valley, Rushmoor, Thanet, and above all Brent, which went and lost £500,000 as a result of its representations. And that is what happens to Tory councils.
Even more seriously, last year the fire service in South Yorkshire was so short of funds that it had to capitalise fire fighters' pension lump sums. In ordinary language, it took out a mortgage to find the money to pay the lump sums to fire fighters retiring from the service. The Government accepted that South Yorkshire was skint enough to have to do that. This year one might have expected the council to get a bit more from the Government to ease matters a little, but it got less: a cut of £1.4 million from a total budget of only £32 million. For the past two years, that fire brigade has not been able to afford new uniforms or new tyres for the fire engines. It needs to replace the fire engine tyres: worn tyres are not exactly a good idea.
The chief fire officer says that the authority cannot cope. I have to tell the Secretary of State--I had hoped that the Government machine would warn him of this--that the Home Office inspector has said that South Yorkshire cannot meet its minimum standards of fire cover on its current budget. So the people of South Yorkshire will have to pay more for less fire cover. I understand that the same applies on Merseyside, which has a £4.7 million shortfall. The authority fears that it will be in breach of its statutory duty. While we are in South Yorkshire, let me mention Barnsley, which is apparently far less deprived than Runnymede and similar places. Over the past few years, Barnsley has lost 20 pits. In their desperate efforts to get the pit closure programme through the House, the Government promised to set up enterprise zones in the areas most deprived as a result of pit closures, yet they are so slovenly and useless that not one of those enterprise zones is yet in operation. The one in Barnsley certainly is not, and Barnsley has been capped on its standard spending assessment. It faces the prospect of having to close day centres for the mentally handicapped, for
Column 1133instance. Even if it can avoid that, it may have to withdraw one of those little, kindly forms of gentleness that make life better for people who are in a bad way. Until now, when people have gone to the centres for the mentally handicapped in Barnsley they have been given a little pay--£4 or £5 a week--to give them a bit of self- respect and spending money. Under this settlement, it seems likely that, even if the centre can be kept open, that little bit of self-respect will have to be withdrawn.
Mr. Yeo rose --
I think that the Barnsley experience epitomises what is happening in Britain under this Government. Taxes increase and vulnerable people suffer. Vital services such as the fire brigade suffer; our children's schooling suffers. Old people suffer while the rich get richer. The operators of privatised buses line their pockets at everybody else's expense. Tory Ministers receive their pay-offs by joining the boards of industries that they privatised, or boards of city firms that have made a fortune out of privatisation. All this is happening while corruption in Westminster continues to be subsidised by the taxpayer and the council tax payer in the rest of England. We are all sick of it. We do not want to pay more to get less. 6.30 pm
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) made a disappointing speech. Smear, hyperbole and shroud waving are no substitutes for policy. It is little short of a travesty to suggest that changes in standard spending assessment have been fiddled. I well know that the changes have been brought about by local authority associations. I have in mind especially those recommendations that related to unemployment and social deprivation, which were fought hard, but accepted. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras was so uncertain of his argument--the House will draw its own conclusions--that he did not dare allow a Conservative Back-Bench Member to intervene in his speech. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was right when he said that we are dealing with a tough settlement. It is one of the toughest local government settlements that I have seen, but no settlement can be judged on the basis of one year. Last year's settlement was extremely good for local authorities. It was much better than it appeared to be at the time. There was no justification for the extravagant claims which were made, such as serious reductions in service. The net fall in the number of people employed by local authorities was slightly more than 1 per cent. Taking into consideration schools that opted for grant-maintained status and the effects of compulsory competitive tendering, we see that last year's settlement was about neutral.
The fact that this year's settlement would be tough has been well flagged in the specialist press. It is well known that directors of finance and leaders of councils, being prudent men, have taken note of reports that the settlement would be a difficult one. They have had much more than three quarters of a year to prepare for it.
Column 1134We know from a recent Audit Commission report, entitled "Paying the Piper", that there is about £500 million within the system that could be diverted to front-line services.
We have seen the usual parade of amputated stumps. Young people and the elderly have been used as battering rams. When my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) talked about parents and elderly people being in terror, Opposition Members broke into laughter. I do not believe that that happened because they are callous. They laughed because they know the truth; they know, for example, that no teachers will be made redundant.
Cuts in teacher numbers will not be made. I know that, as do Opposition Members and the media. The only people who do not know that there will be no such cuts are frightened people. Opposition Members may not have had to deal with people coming into advice bureaux shaking with fear because the local authority is threatening to take away home care from their elderly parents. There are also parents who are worried about their young child returning from school with a letter from the local authority suggesting that teachers will be made redundant. I believe firmly in the professionalism and independence of local authority officers. If, however, the majority party of a council decides that a letter should be sent to the people of the area, I do not accept that it should be sent in the name of a local authority officer.
I believe that head teachers are entitled to protest. They are entitled to say what they think about the level of service within their responsibility. If, however, schools are short of resources, they are not entitled to use school notepaper to draw attention to what they regard as shortages, thereby depriving schools of equally valuable resources.