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This year's revenue support grant settlement is a great disappointment to Durham county council, which provides services in my constituency. It appears to have been severely punished under the capping regime for having adopted a cautious and realistic approach to past spending.
For a long time, the county council has sought changes to the area cost adjustment, but it has been ignored. It is the county council's contention, and mine, that the area cost adjustment is fundamentally flawed. It is now three times higher than five years ago and it has grown six times faster than local authority resources generally in that period. Some local authorities may need to be compensated for labour cost variations, but it is difficult to understand the size and distribution of the compensation-- or perhaps that was explained to us earlier. It could have something to do with the political control of certain councils in the south of England, but perhaps I am being cynical.
The settlement is divorced from reality. The three major employment groups are teachers, the police and firefighters, who are all on nationally agreed wage scales. Durham county council, like many other authorities outside south-east England, has been deprived of its fair share of SSA.
The capping limit has been increased since last year's settlement, but it is well below last year's level for Durham county council. I appreciate that some factors have changed in the calculation of SSAs. Nevertheless,
Column 1147the county will have to save £14.5 million this year to set a budget at the capping limit. If it is to save that money, it will have to make cuts, including in administration, to maintain services to the community. It is inevitable that services will suffer. Specific decisions have not yet been taken, but, without doubt, some appalling cuts will be made. That is not scaremongering. Libraries will close.
Durham county council has given schools funding of £1.5 million to take into account the increase in pupil numbers. The Government have ignored that cost and have failed to provide any extra funds to pay for the cost of the teachers' pay settlement in 1995-96. That will have dire consequences on school budgets.
Road maintenance schemes will be cut by £500,000 and public transport support will have to be cut. Economic development, to which the council has attached great priority in recent years because the Government closed the mines and the steelworks in the north, will be severely cut.
I accept that the money transferred to social services under the special transitional grant is sizeable, but it is inadequate to meet needs, particularly the growing number of private nursing home places. Consequently, those services will come under significant pressure and will face cuts. Community care in Durham is under threat.
Cuts are not being made for the first time--far from it. In 1991-92 the council had to cut £1 million; in 1992-93 it had to cut £4.2 million; in 1993-94 it had to cut £6.9 million and in 1994-95 it will have to cut £10 million. It cannot go on.
Durham county council's education committee has been instructed by the policy resources committee to cut £2.125 million from its budget. No final decision has been made, but the cuts may include a reduction in education welfare posts, an increase in outdoor education charges, cuts in swimming provision, cuts in child guidance and an increase in school meal prices. The hon. Member for West Derbyshire may disagree, but many children need subsidised or free meals because it is often the only decent meal that they get during the day. Cuts will be made in resources for local education authority initiatives and in the GEST--grants for education support and training--programme. School budgets will have to be cut because the Government have reduced the SSA calculations in Durham by £95 per primary school child and £195 for each secondary school pupil. As I have already said, the Government have made no provision for teachers' pay increases.
That scandal means that the council has no alternative but to reflect those cuts in school budgets. In addition to failing to fund teachers' pay increases, the Government have failed to recognise the increase in the number of students or to take account of inflation. Schools will have to deal with those factors themselves.
What does that mean to individual schools? The head teacher of Durham Johnston school told me that if his funding is cut by 4 per cent., which seems likely, he will have to find £120,000 from his budget. Apart from staffing, which accounts for 80 per cent. of his budget, he will have to cut repairs and maintenance to his school, he
Column 1148will have to stop purchasing any new furniture or replacing computers. He will have to reduce ground maintenance and cut a large percentage from the allocation to subject departments to buy books and equipment. Mr. Dunford, the head teacher, wrote to me and said: "This school now has just over 1,400 pupils, including a Sixth Form of 280. It is, as you know, popular and over-subscribed. In short, it is not the sort or school which we were led to believe would have financial problems under the LMS formula. But there are no safe havens now--all schools are facing a very difficult financial year. If this were to be an isolated school year, the situation would look bad, but what concerns me even more is that we are told that the Department of the Environment intends to follow the same policy in local government finance for the next two years. If we are asked to prune our budget by a similar amount in 1996 and 1997, I do not believe that it will be possible to educate all children full-time up to the age of 16. We will not be able to afford the staff to be able to do so.
I believe that the situation is reaching a crisis point". That reveals a desperate situation. Those are the words of one of the country's most respected head teachers--I am not exaggerating as I believe he is vice- president of the Secondary Heads Association and serves on many national bodies. If a head teacher of his renown is saying such things, we are certainly in a deplorable state. Even the Secretary of State for Education wrote to her Cabinet colleagues recently about the effect that the teachers' pay award would have on school budgets. She recognised that schools were in an impossible position. She has already urged the Prime Minister to cut any recommendations of the independent--or so-called
independent--teachers' pay review body to 1.5 per cent. She recognises that local education authorities cannot pay any more. Once again, teachers are going to be punished thanks to the inadequacy of this year's local government finance settlement. The independent review body should recommend a fair pay settlement and the Government should fund it fully.
The revenue settlement this year clearly shows the Government's lack of commitment to state education and, in particular, to teachers. If the Government had any real commitment to the state system, they would ensure that schools were well resourced and teachers were well rewarded for their work, but all that we get from them is rhetoric. In the meantime, however, millions of children go on suffering in our schools.
I do not dissent too much from the speeches made by right hon. and hon. Members who are in the Conservative parliamentary party and I am grateful to the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), for seeing representatives of Norfolk county council on 4 January. His hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), wrote to me on 27 January about that meeting. His letter states:
"At the meeting the council representatives asked for a higher spending limit for Norfolk and spelt out their particular concerns on the reduction in Education SSA, on the Area Cost Adjustment, and on personal social services. These views will of course be taken into account by the Secretary of State prior to making his decisions on the 1995/96 Local Government Finance (England) Report and the Special Report."
Column 1149My hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) spoke about the area cost adjustment and reflected the considerable concern that exists in many counties, irrespective of party control, about the unfair way in which it works.
The result of Norfolk county council representatives' meeting with the Minister of State was that, between the announcement on 1 December of Norfolk's revenue support grant settlement and today's debate, Norfolk's grant was cut by £210,000 by the right hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench.
Norfolk has consistently spent well below the average for English counties. Suffolk is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, South (Mr. Yeo), who intervened on a fellow Member--the Secretary of State--who represents another Suffolk constituency, to complain about the Lib-Lab way in which Suffolk was being run. Curiously enough, despite knowing the bad way in which it is being run, the Secretary of State has given Suffolk an increase of £300,000 since 1 December.
Surrey's grant goes up by £2.69 million. I accept that it is a big county and has high expenditure but the increase goes down very badly with my constituents in Norfolk, bearing in mind the fact that, in 1992-93, Norfolk county council spent £584.54 per head on county-provided services whereas the average figure for English counties in the same period was £613.78. The county council has a spending limit set by the Government of £424.4 million. The county treasurer calculates that this represents a shortfall of £20 million on projected expenditure in 1995-96.
As several right hon. and hon. Members have said, local authorities want to spend more. Most people, including Conservatives, seek local government service because they want to promote improved services for their communities but county treasurers cannot always have as much as they want.
"Norfolk has a long history of strict economy when budgeting and it has every reason tonight to expect as many of its parliamentary representatives as possible to impress on the Government, as have other right hon. and hon. Members, that enough is enough."--[ Official Report , 20 January 1986; Vol. 90, c. 93.]
I quote further:
"Norfolk has been a sensible, moderate, low-spending authority".--[ Official Report , 25 July 1985; Vol. 83, c. 1331.] Those are the words of the then Secretary of State for the Environment, which I cited in my speech on 20 January 1986. The Secretary of State who spoke appreciatively of Norfolk when he announced the 1986-87 RSG settlement on 25 July 1985 was the then right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford, now Lord Jenkin. On the night of 20 January I also said:
"Socialists and Liberals have never controlled Norfolk county council, and they never will, because I am confident that, recognising the strength of feeling among Conservative Members, the Government will introduce a more equitable system next year."--[ Official Report , 20 January 1986; Vol.90, c.95.]
In fact, my predictions were doubly wrong: the Government did not introduce a more equitable system and nor have they done so for Norfolk today. My prediction about the election result was wrong because in 1993, for the first time in the history of my county, we were lumbered with a Lib-Lab alliance to run our affairs. I partly blame the Government for that result.
Column 1150The overall increase allowed for in funding essential county services in Norfolk is 0.5 per cent. If the Government had said on 28 November that they were going to limit the increase in their contribution to the European Union budget to 0.5 per cent., I would still be a member of the parliamentary party because I would have voted for that. However, we are giving money to the European Union but are making our own local authorities impose cuts.
People who say that there will be no cuts are wrong--of course there will. One cannot increase overall expenditure by a mere 0.5 per cent. at a time of 2 per cent. inflation without making cuts. Let us not be mealy-mouthed about that. If the European Union can have the money, so can Norfolk. I want it spent on schools in Great Yarmouth and on highway maintenance in my villages, not on subsidies for tobacco growers in Greece and olive growers in Italy.
This afternoon, the Secretary of State for the Environment talked about the difficult decisions faced by the Government in restraining and reducing their own spending. In fact, the Department of Health--
Mr. Carttiss: Someone is interrupting although I said that I would not accept interventions. He is saying that my constituency has assisted area status but we got precious little money back from Europe for that.
The Department of Health's budget, quite rightly, goes up by 3.8 per cent. this year. The Department of Education's budget rightly goes up by 4.1 per cent. Very difficult decisions have to be taken by right hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench to limit central Government expenditure--4.1 per cent. on education and 3.8 per cent. on health--but, at the same time, they are telling local authorities, which have to run such services locally, that they will receive an increase of only 0.5 per cent.
On that famous night of 20 January 1986, to which I referred, 29 Conservative Back Benchers voted against the Government. None of them lost the Whip; some of them were ex-Cabinet Ministers--Lord Pym, Lord Prior and Lord Gilmour--and some of are in the Government now. The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) voted against the Government in 1986; he is now Minister of State in the Treasury. He should know that if the settlement was not good enough when it was much higher in 1986, this year's settlement is not good enough.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) is now a Minister of State in the Foreign Office and I accept entirely that he cannot be expected to worry about revenue support grants, but he voted against the Government that night. Look how these people get on when they vote against the Government. Notably, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the Member for Hertfordshire, West, wrote to me- -I quoted from his letter--and told me that Norfolk could manage and that the settlement was fair and equitable. It was not fair and equitable to him when he voted against the Government on 20 January 1986. Now, as Under- Secretary for the Environment, he is telling me that 0.5 per cent is--
Column 1151Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. This is all very interesting as a defence of the hon. Gentleman's case, but could he get down to local government finance?
Mr. Carttiss: I am drawing attention to the fact that right hon. and hon. Members on the Front Bench say one thing when they are where I am, yet when they have a chance to put into effect what they said when they were on the Back Benches, they conveniently forget it. If that is not relevant to my contention that Norfolk has been treated badly, I do not know what is. However, I defer to your judgment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and as the clock shows that my time is up, I shall conclude with three quarters of my condemnation of the Government happily left unsaid.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): I shall speak about the problems faced by the city of Newcastle upon Tyne, although similar problems face the metropolitan borough of Gateshead, which, as a recent written answer to a question asked my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) showed, has the unenviable record of being eighth out the 10 authorities that have lost the largest sum through the changes to the education standard spending assessment formula.
Tyne and Wear fire and civil defence authority is facing a £1.8 million cut in its budget, which will result in a loss of jobs and will affect our emergency services, with consequent threats to life and limb. In that context, I draw the House's attention to early-day motion 489, which 27 hon. Members and I have signed.
Hon. Members have drawn attention to the fact that the settlement is harsh. I must remind them that it is harsh not on Labour councils, which no doubt is the intention, but on the people who will lose their services and the many who will lose their jobs.
Newcastle's SSA is £224 million. The provisional capping criteria allow the city to spend 0.5 per cent., when, as the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Carttiss) has just reminded us, inflation is 2.5 per cent. If the capping criteria are unchanged, Newcastle will have to cut £5 million from its budget of £239 million to meet the cap limit.
Cuts of £5 million require a £2.3 million net cut in education, a £750,000 net cut in social services and a £650,000 net cut in leisure services. Two million pounds will be taken from schools, which will result in the loss of the music service, £100,000 will be taken from libraries, which will result in branch closures, £300,000 will be taken from child care services, which will result in the closure of nursery and welfare rights projects, the number of social workers and occupational therapists will be reduced and residential homes for the elderly, respite day provision and day centres will close. Those cuts will be made despite the fact that in the past five years £40 million--almost 20 per cent. of the budget--has already been cut, resulting in 1,500 redundancies, the loss of 2,500 jobs and a loss of services. I say to Conservative Members who accuse us of spreading scare stories that since 1989 pupil-teacher ratios in Newcastle have risen from 14.4:1 to 16:1 in the secondary sector, eight homes for the elderly, three residential homes for children and two day centres have
Column 1152closed, the library book fund has been cut by 28 per cent., branch library opening hours have been reduced by 13 per cent. and the arts budget has been cut by 15 per cent.
All that has happened despite Government recognition, under city challenge and other initiatives, that the city needs more, not less, help. How can it possibly make sense that a day nursery in Scotswood in my constituency faces possible closure, when the policies of the same Government made that place the centre of the city challenge area? If the Government's present policies persist, Newcastle will face a further three years of cuts worth £20 million, resulting in the loss of another 1,000 jobs.
None of that is desirable and none of it is wanted by the people of Newcastle. The stark reality is that none of it is necessary. When the Government's revenue support grant to the city is added to other income and to council tax income, the total is sufficient to maintain services at current levels and to avoid the painful cuts to which I have referred. The nonsense of the capping criteria is such that the council cannot spend at that level and is therefore obliged to cut council tax by £70 in band D, rather than maintain jobs and services.
That was explained to the people of the city by the local evening newspaper, the Evening Chronicle. In a survey of opinion, it reported that people were in favour of maintaining the council tax at its current level to avoid cuts by a ratio of 20:1. That opinion has been further confirmed in the city today, where a huge demonstration against Government-imposed cuts has taken place.
If Newcastle were allowed to freeze its council tax and set a budget at that level, there would be no net service cuts in the city. If Newcastle were given the inner-London capping criteria, the cuts would be reduced by £1.7 million and council tax would fall by £50 in band D and by £33 in band A. If the city were given the same support as Westminster, it would be able to improve services and give council tax payers money back.
If the capping criteria are not changed, Newcastle will be forced to consider for the first time the possibility of setting a budget above the provisional cap, just as Shropshire and other councils are. Like Shropshire, the appeal to the Secretary of State to recognise Newcastle's problems was supported by Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors from the city.
All those facts are a vindication of Labour's policies to decentralise power and give it back to local communities. When the people of Newcastle, or anywhere else, are prepared to pay for a service in their own communities, based on their knowledge of the needs of their community, why should some Minister in an ivory tower in London tell them that they cannot make those decisions and that they will have to cut taxes, despite the consequences and their own wishes? It is a clear example of the erosion of local democracy under this Government and it emphasises the importance of Labour's policies to restore to the people of the regions, the nations and the localities of Britain the power to pursue their policies according to their priorities and at their pace. All those who believe in local democracy should join us in the Lobby and vote against the motion. 7.48 pm
Column 1153of considerable controversy, especially locally, where the Liberal Democrats have been at their campaigning best in sending out petitions, organising letters and shouting and screaming about the education budget that they, of course, have decided to impose on the county. Indeed, the Somerset county council policy and resources committee aims to secure a reduction of £12.5 million in the education budget. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) has written to all Somerset Conservative Members of Parliament urging them to vote against the settlement. I am always prepared to consider representations from any source, but it is a pity that the right hon. Gentleman did not stick his head into the Chamber for just a few minutes to listen to the debate when he is urging us to vote against the settlement.
Mr. Gummer: Did my hon. Friend notice that, although we were promised clearly by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), that he would explain how Somerset could increase the number of people it employed by more than 3 per cent. and how it could receive significant extra sums this year, but that that meant there had to be a cut in the education budget, he did not manage to get to that point in his extremely long speech? Does my hon. Friend know the answer?
Because of the way in which Somerset's local management formula works on schools, the budget will be very harsh if the county council persists in its course of action. That would be extremely disappointing for many people because Somerset county council has been doing very well in the education league and, over recent years, it has brought its pupil-teacher ratio up to the national average. There is no doubt that this year's settlement is difficult, but we must ask whether Somerset county council's response is legitimate in those circumstances. Together with my Conservative colleagues in Somerset, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and my hon. Friends the Members for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), I have examined the county council's proposals. We agree that alternative strategies could be followed which would protect Somerset's education budget from the kind of unjustified pressure that will be placed on it if the Liberal Democrats have their way.
We are supported in our view by the very experienced Conservative leadership on the county council, including the well-respected former chairman of the education committee, Councillor Bea Roberts. As part of our scrutiny of the county council's budget, we uncovered underspending in this year's budget.
I suppose that we should not be surprised that, since the Liberal Democrats took control two years ago, meetings allowances and travelling expenses have escalated, as has already been pointed out. A recent Audit Commission report shows that the size of the council's legal staff is well above average and record sums have been spent on legal costs.
Column 1154However, Somerset has had no difficulty finding the funds to protect its anti-hunting crusade. One moment it takes steps to remove travellers from its land at Podimore in my constituency and the next moment it invites them back to spend a month-long Christmas holiday there, to the fury of local landowners who have suffered damage and threats to their livestock.
We now have a tight settlement, but the council's so-called community initiatives, which involve the establishment of information points or offices in 13 Somerset towns, seem to be more important than protecting teachers' jobs. There is no question of cutting those initiatives.
Some of the things that I have mentioned may involve only small amounts of money, but they all add up. At no stage is there a suggestion that an audit of expenditure should take place to discover whether further savings can be found. We believe that such an audit should be carried out as a matter of urgency.
However, larger sums can also be identified. For example, the county's capital fund could produce over £2 million with some judicious postponement of planned projects until the funding improves. In addition, revenue balances could be utilised and, if I am not mistaken, those balances are net of cap. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that when he replies.
The county council has informed me that those balances amount to £9 million. However, I understand that the Department of the Environment estimated a substantial cash balance of £36.4 million on 1 April 1994. Can my hon. Friend the Minister confirm his Department's view of the state of Somerset's cash balances, given the different figures that are now being bandied about?
What is so typical of the Liberal Democrats is that they refuse point blank to discuss or consider any alternative ideas. I can only conclude that their strategy is to put party advantage first and children's education second. That is already clear. The weakness of the Liberal Democrats' argument is shown not just by the fact that the right hon. Member for Yeovil could not take part in what he regarded as a very important debate, but in the fact that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) would not give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater. The weakness of the argument can be exposed very easily and it is exposed by our very experienced county councillors who have drawn up their alternative budget.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already stated that the settlement proposes an increase in spending. However, local Liberal Democrat-inspired petitions talk about the "massive cut" in funding from central Government. How can an overall increase in SSA for Somerset of 1.4 per cent. compared to the overall county average of 0.6 per cent. be considered a massive cut? It is absolute nonsense.
Mr. Sebastian Coe (Falmouth and Camborne): Will my hon. Friend thank the chief executive of Somerset county council for passing on to me, and to my two colleagues in Cornwall, some remarkably helpful information which I have with me in the Chamber? That
Column 1155information supports my hon. Friend's point and it reveals the lie about massive cuts. Cornwall county council's total spend per head of population is £589.60, which is £18 higher than the county average. How on earth can that be portrayed as a cut? We are talking about priorities which are being set by Liberal Democrat councillors.
Mr. Robinson: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The information with which he has been provided shows that Wiltshire's provisional SSA provision per head is below that of Somerset, but I understand that Wiltshire is making no cuts in its education budget. That supports the argument of the Conservative leaders on Somerset county council.
With regard to education, the SSA is up by 2.5 per cent. in Somerset compared with an average of 1.1 per cent. across the counties. It seems that Liberal Democrats do not care about children or teachers; they care only about securing political advantage by any means at their disposal.
As my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, my right hon. and hon. Friends in Somerset and I, together with the right hon. Member for Yeovil, have joined county councillors of all persuasions to press for a modernisation of the area cost adjustment formula which appears weighted against the south-west, mainly through outdated criteria. I give the people of Somerset an assurance that we shall continue to press our case on that score. In supporting the motion tonight, I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to see that the current reviews of methodology are given a sense of urgency. We met the Minister last summer about that. Progress must now be made to bring the matter to a conclusion to ensure that we do not have to return to this argument next year.
Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North): I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate and I make no apology for returning to a theme that I have pursued for the past four or five years--the continuing disgraceful treatment that the people of St. Helens receive from the Government in the annual revenue support grant settlements.
Local government finance is a difficult and complex subject, but it directly affects every man, woman and child in my constituency. When they receive neither justice nor fairness, they have a right to expect a Member of Parliament to speak out on their behalf in the Chamber. St. Helens has consistently been treated unfairly by the system, although, at the same time, the council has striven to improve the delivery of service to the public.
Staffing in St. Helens council has been reduced by 11 per cent. since 1992, and overall spending has been reduced by £13 million over the past two years, but the system continues to discriminate against the council. In 1995-96, the council faces further cuts of more than £7 million to avoid capping, but council tax payers face an increase of more than 14 per cent. due to losses in revenue support grant. It will be impossible for St. Helens to fund any increase in teachers' salaries in the coming months.
The Government frequently imply that, in some way, the problems of St. Helens are due to inefficiency on the part of the Labour council. Indeed, in an intervention, the Secretary of State hinted as much again tonight. Is St. Helens council inefficient? It is not, according to the
Column 1156district auditor who, on several occasions in the past few years, has praised the council. Indeed, last year he gave it a glowing report.
The district auditor's report for 1993-94, which was produced in December, praised the council's work in relation to the implementation of the citizens charter, the quality of children's services, the financial management of schools within the borough, progress in implementing care in the community, and progress on issues that the district auditor raised in previous reports. He finished his comments by saying:
"We are pleased to confirm that the Authority has made good progress towards implementing the recommendations made in these reports, consequently there are no issues we would wish to draw to members' attention."
The auditor's reports make it absolutely clear that St. Helens is a well- run, efficiently managed council. However, that cannot be said about the London borough of Westminster, whose previous auditor's report three years ago was a devastating expose of maladministration and corruption, with senior councillors and officers threatened with a £21 million surcharge, which is still hanging over them. There have been no further auditor's reports on Westminster over the past couple of years, so God alone knows what the current position is. It is sufficient to draw attention to the front page of today's edition of The Guardian . It is revealed that, according to documents which have been leaked,
"Thousands of people who bought council flats in the Conservative run city of Westminster have been given unlimited free repairs to their homes for life, under a deal revealed in a confidential report by the council's own auditors."
Incredibly, the Government do not accept that Westminster council is corrupt and inefficient. Indeed, Tory Members claims that the reasons for Westminster's low council tax are its efficiency and enterprise. I ask hon. Members to consider the reply to me by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment on 18 January. He said that the average council tax for a band D property in St. Helens "is £652 and for Westminster £245. If St. Helens were to spend at the same rate as Westminster relative to standard spending assessment, the band D council tax in St. Helens would be £224--even lower than in Westminster."--[ Official Report , 18 January 1995; Vol. 252, c. 698.]
Even the Prime Minister, in reply to a question that I put to him on 3 May 1994, referred to
"some of the reasons why Westminster is so efficient".--[ Official Report , 3 May 1994; Vol. 242, c. 589.]
However, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, in answer to my supplementary question, said:
"To describe St. Helens and Westminster as broadly similar authorities is ridiculous".--[ Official Report , 18 January 1995; Vol. 252, c. 698.]
I decided to investigate further the two metropolitan boroughs, Westminster and St. Helens, which have exactly the same statutory duties placed upon them by Her Majesty's Government. I used the citizens charter for the information, because it requires local authorities to publish their performance indicators. I discovered that 96 per cent. of housing repair jobs in St. Helens are completed within target times, whereas in Westminster the figure is 7 per cent. In St. Helens, 5 per cent. of tenants owe 13 weeks' rent or more, and in Westminster the figure is 10 per cent.
Column 1157Management costs per dwelling per week in St. Helens are £4, and in Westminster they are £21. In St. Helens 14 per cent. of benefits claims are processed within 14 days, and in Westminster it is 66 per cent. In St. Helens, 92 per cent. of housing benefits claims are processed within 14 days, and in Westminster the figure is 76 per cent. The gross cost of administration per claimant in St. Helens is £64 and in Westminster it is £226. As for the council tax, the percentage of net yield collected in St. Helens is 100 per cent., and in Westminster it is 91 per cent. The net cost of collection per dwelling is £16 in St. Helens and £25 in Westminster.
No one could seriously dispute that, on that information, which has been supplied by the authorities themselves, St. Helens is far more efficient than Westminster.
On many occasions I have drawn attention to the huge differences between the Government's SSAs for St. Helens and those for Westminster in respect of education and social services. Tonight, because of the time constraints, I shall refer to only one example, and that is children in care. The SSA for St. Helens is £30,000 per child per annum. In Westminster, it is £50,000 per child per annum. It is nonsense that Westminster should receive £20,000 more per child.
Another interesting matter is highways and street lighting. Incredibly, the boroughs are rather similar. St. Helens has a greater length of roads, whereas Westminster has more traffic flow and more visitors. I do not know whether the Minister is aware of the effect of extra traffic and visitors in respect of maintenance costs. According to Her Majesty's Government, it is significant. The SSA per 1 km of road in St. Helens is £8,004, and in Westminster it is £28, 895. Extra traffic can add considerably to maintenance costs, but surely not to the extent of £20,000 per 1 km of road.
How much strain do visitors to Westminster place on the council's finances? It is no less than £3.7 million. That shows just how much additional SSA is paid to Westminster in respect of highways and for "visitor nights".
St. Helens and Westminster serve similar populations. The resident population of St. Helens is more than 180,000, and that of Westminster is 189,000, but how much do those authorities need to spend on services such as leisure, libraries, parks, car parking and refuse collection? The amount that is allowed to St. Helens for those services is £27.2 million. The figure for Westminster is nearly £109 million.
I shall put the matter into perspective. When Westminster spends £1 on services, it is required to ask for only 3p from the--