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Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth): The financial settlement is indeed a tough one, but it is also well considered. I pay a small tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration, whom I know well and have met on several occasions to talk about the settlement in Hounslow. He listens. He absorbs. He is a master of his brief, and he acts on the advice and information that he has.

I listened to the points made by Opposition Members. One would think that the Conservatives--particularly the Minister--are a group determined to inflict pain and suffering on a vast area of the countryside. Let us for a few minutes examine what the Labour party has been doing. We all know that the Labour party has not been in power--national Government--for the past 15 years. I think that I am correct in saying that the leader of the Labour party stated, in The Spectator , on 1 October 1994:

"I don't think the character of any party becomes clear until you're in power."

It has not been in power for the past 15 years, and the character of the Labour party in national Government may not be clear, but what is clear is that the Labour party has been in power. It has had control of vast areas of the country through the local government system. Let us look at that record to see what the character of the Labour party in power has been.

Even the Tribune on 15 May 1992, was forced to concede that Labour local government is

"lacklustre and incompetent . . . ineffectual or rotten Labour councils . . . have been a feature of political life for as long as anyone can remember."

Let us look at the council tax bills, band for band--bands C and D. The average charge for band C in a Conservative-controlled local authority is £429, but in a Labour-controlled local authority it is £560. For band D in a Conservative-controlled local authority it is £482, but in a Labour-controlled local authority it is £635. Why is it more expensive to live in Labour-controlled authorities? At this point, I ask my hon. Friend about something that has concerned me for some time. We cap local authorities--Labour and Conservative. By so doing, we do not expose the profligacy of Labour-controlled authorities to the tax payer. If we do not cap them, some will go completely over the top and will never be elected back into power. That is something that my more learned hon. Friends must think about.

Let us look at more figures. We know that some Labour-controlled local authorities are indeed in deprived areas, as the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said, but does that mean that they cannot collect their taxes? If one look at the rate of tax collection in Labour-controlled local authorities, one will see that

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Lambeth has collected only 48 per of its taxes, Hackney, 67 per cent., Islington, 67 per cent., Southwark, 73 per cent., and Newham, 73 per cent.

Let us look at rent arrears. Is it so difficult to collect council tax and council house rents? Why has Hackney collected only 31 per cent., Greenwich, 25 per cent., Newham, 24 per cent.--

Mr. Dobson: Give us the Ealing figures.

Mr. Deva: The hon. Gentleman is right. One Conservative-controlled authority--Ealing--has collected only 23 per cent., and I am sure that there are people who will do something about that.

Let us look at debt. Why do Labour-controlled local authorities have the highest debt in the country? Manchester has a debt of £1,326 million. Its total debt per head is £3,000. In Birmingham, it is £1, 233; in Islington, £946 and so on. Why is it that those uncollected taxes and rents are in Labour-controlled local authorities? Let us return to that great quote from the Leader of the Opposition--that the character of any party does not become clear until one is in power, because it is very clear indeed. Those Labour authorities have been in power for generations, for far too long, and some day their ratepayers will wake up and say, "This is no good. We have to do something about it."

In Hounslow, we have a Labour-controlled local authority that is more efficient than the local authorities that I have discussed. Its revenue support grant is about 0.5 per cent. more than last year. I know that this is a time to whinge, but I am not going to whinge. I merely put on record, as my hon. Friend knows, that we have to build two new schools this year, because our population is increasing faster than predicted, and we have a problem with refugees because of the airport. I know that my hon. Friend has taken that on board. 9.6 pm

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton): I am grateful to my hon. Friends who limited their contributions so that I might have an opportunity to put briefly Warwickshire's case. I notice that the Minister has dashed away to his advisers--to listen all about Warwickshire, I assume.

Mr. Dobson: He is on the run.

Mr. Olner: Already.

Conservative Members and Ministers have been talking in two ways. They know very well that the cuts in the rate support grant settlement are real cuts to their communities. It really is no good the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) talking about the figures in the briefing for councillors, issued by Conservative central office. He really should show it to some of the Conservative councillors in many of the shire counties throughout the country. They are councillors, and political beings, as are the Liberal Democrats and the socialists, but they are representatives of their communities. Those councillors know full well that the rate support grant settlement will cut into services in their communities, which, as elected members, they hold just as dearly to their hearts as does each one of us. The hon. Gentleman does Conservative Members no good at all--

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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Is it in order for a Member of the Labour party to use a brief specifically prepared for Conservative Members of Parliament?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): That is not a point of order for the Chair, as I think that the hon. Gentleman knows. He should not waste the House's time, which is limited.

Mr. Olner: I can produce another briefing, in case Conservative Members really expect to get any satisfaction from the Minister's reply. Many of them have referred to the 0.5 per cent. cap, which cannot possibly cater for the needs of communities; they have also referred to the extremely flawed SSAs. I advise those hon. Members--who have urged their Minister to act with haste--to listen to what their local authorities have said.

In 1989, Warwickshire county council embarked on an attempt to persuade the Minister and his civil servants that the county's SSAs were flawed and unrealistic, and did not take account of local needs. The same applied to the cap. The council persevered, making representations in 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994 and trying to persuade the Government to reconsider their SSAs and rate support grant settlement for Warwickshire. I have joined the council in its representations. We were listened to very politely, but at the end of the day nothing happened, although it was a Conservative-controlled authority that originally complained to the Government.

Some hon. Members have referred to councils setting expenditure limits above the cap, and then throwing themselves on the Secretary of State's mercy in an attempt to have the cap increased. I do not think that Warwickshire will dare to do that this year, unless the Secretary of State gives a sign that he is prepared to increase the cap before it sets its budget. If the Secretary of State does not take into account the amount by which the budget exceeds the cap, rebuilding that budget will cost another half a million pounds of council tax payers' money. Local authorities are being squeezed in a pincer movement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) mentioned a double whammy, but when councils can make no sense of the SSAs, cannot secure additional funds from the revenue support grant or a lifting of the cap and cannot even ask their council tax payers to contribute an extra 25p a week, it is really a triple whammy. Warwickshire's SSA is one of the lowest in the country, and should be reassessed. The 1995 cap will reduce school budgets in cash terms, and seriously damage the education of children in my constituency. Last Friday, I went to a meeting in Leamington. Conservative Members are wrong if they think that they can hide the facts from their communities. More than 800 people attended the meeting--parents, head teachers, school governors and chairmen of governing boards, of all political persuasions. Those people know exactly where the blame lies, and that what has been done will lead to the demise of Warwickshire's education service.

A wonderful machine is now wheeled out on Saturday evenings. Numbers are drawn out of it. I think that it is called the national lottery. The SSAs are very much like that machine; the only difference is that it costs local authorities very much more than a pound to have a go.

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It seems that, even now, the Government do not know how they constructed the SSA machine. For the same reason they do not know how to fix it, and the mess in which they find themselves will be to the detriment of everyone in the country.

9.13 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner). I am sorry that his party is so bereft of ideas and policies that he has been forced to use a Conservative party brief prepared privately for Conservative Members.

This is a tight settlement, which amounts to about 25 per cent. of the Government's total expenditure of some £43.5 billion, but it is 2.2 per cent. higher than last year's. My county, Gloucestershire, is to receive an increase of 2.4 per cent. overall. For some services, it will get an increase of 4.3 per cent. compared with the county average of 3.3 per cent. Therefore, it has not fared as badly as many other shire counties.

The Liberal and Labour parties form the ruling group in that shire county. On average, in every community charge band Labour charges £100 more than the Conservatives while the Liberals charge £50 more. Representatives from Gloucestershire council came to see my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration with a proposal to cut £7 million from the education budget--a cut of 4 per cent. That is a disgrace and it is unfair to the children in my county. Last year, Gloucestershire council threatened that there would be a loss of 150 teachers. In the event, six were made redundant and 111 were retired, but 165 full-time appointments were made.

Gloucestershire requires only two more grant-maintained schools to reach the magical 75 per cent. at which all grant-maintained schools will be funded by the Further Education Funding Council. I recommend any school in my constituency which is running into budget problems to seek to become grant maintained. It will then be funded nationally and the children in the school will not be disadvantaged. Gloucestershire council spends £1,000 a day for computer consultants. It is advertising for a third PR man for its social services department to rectify the public relations disaster of funding a safari holiday in Africa for a child in a special needs school. The child was difficult and had committed crimes and, believe it or not, the council sent him to Africa for a holiday. That is the nature of the council which is controlled by the Liberal and Labour parties.

The council owns more than 5,000 acres of agricultural land and I have had serious discussions with it on how it could sell some of that land to reduce its debt. When the council was under Conservative control in 1986, its debt was £26.5 million. Today, under the Labour and Liberal parties, it has a staggering debt of £120 million. That is an increase of well over 1,000 per cent. since the Conservatives lost control in 1986, and it has occurred simply because the council cannot control its expenditure. Its budget is almost £300 million and it should be able to

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make efficiency savings. I know of no other business or local authority with a budget of that size which could not make some efficiency savings.

County hall in Gloucester has office after office. What do the occupants of those offices do? I have no idea, but I am sure that it is possible for the council to make savings. I shall give an example. There is a footpath through my land. Gloucestershire county council has no less than four full- time footpath officers. The footpath on my land has been walked perfectly satisfactorily for 20 years and those officers are perfectly happy to use my field gate. They now want to move the footpath just 10 yards so that they can walk through the middle of my orchard.

The council wrote to me stating that it would like a gate cut in my fence and said that it was prepared to do it for £60. I wrote back and said that I would be delighted to have people walking through the middle of my orchard. I wrote, "Please do it for £60, that is very good value for money." After a fortnight I got another letter. Goodness knows what it costs to send them all, but in that one the council said that it had had another look and that the job was not quite as simple as was first thought. The letter said that a special gate would be required and recommended that it would be cheaper for me to do the job myself. I wrote back saying that I would be perfectly happy to do it and that I would make the necessary arrangements.

That is a typical example of the wasteful expenditure of Gloucestershire county council, yet it sends a delegation to see my right hon. Friend. It whinges, complains and produces a magical budget whereby it wants to spend another £22 million, no less. It then complains to my right hon. Friend that it has a cut on what it would otherwise have liked to have spent.

Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: No, I cannot. I have less than a minute to finish my speech.

To all my constituents in Gloucestershire, I say that they have £300 million to spend. They should consider the best way of buying services, whether from the private sector or whoever, to ensure that all my constituents and, especially, the children in my constituency can benefit to the greatest extent.

Council officers or anyone else should not encourage the public to write and complain to me that the people of Gloucestershire are getting a bad deal from the Government. They are getting no worse a deal than many surrounding shire counties--in fact they are getting a better deal. The council should look wherever it can to provide a better service. I am sure that it will be able to do the job better than it is at the moment.

9.20 pm

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford): The House was entertained by the comments of the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton- Brown) about his orchard, but I am not sure whether it was the most central speech today. It is a great shame that the House spends less than one day debating what is the most important thing that affects local government. Even the Secretary of State for the Environment made the point that local government is responsible for something like a

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quarter of the funding that central Government provide. On that basis, I hope that we will have a much more lengthy debate in the future so that, if for no other reason, hon. Members on both sides of the House can have a little more time to make their points. Confusion seems to exist between the two Government spokesmen. Just after the local authority statement was made in December, the Secretary of State wrote to hon. Members and said:

"Local authorities, like central Government, must play its part in restraining the growth of public spending . . . we are not asking authorities to do more than Government is itself having to do to control its costs."

As has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House, that is simply not true. The record can be put clearly and simply. A number of hon. Members have made that point.

If we consider the settlement for local government, it is the Minister who is right. I do not think that he was speaking in a personal capacity when he said that he had been stuffed by the Treasury. He was expressing that view on behalf of local government, about which, I would be the first to say, he knows something. His view is rather different from that of the Secretary of State. Everyone knows that the settlement is bad for local government, which will have to make cuts of about £1.5 billion and increase the council tax across the board by 6 per cent. on average to stay within the settlement.

Local government has been given a cash increase of only about 0.4 per cent. in real terms, yet the budgets of other Departments of central Government are increasing--that of the Department of Health by 3.8 per cent., that of the Department of Social Security by 3.7 per cent., and that of the Department for Education by 4.1 per cent. That is happening at a time when the Secretary of State says that the schools budget can go up only by 1.1 per cent. That shows that central Government treat themselves differently from the way in which they treat local government.

The most significant budget increase involves the Secretary of State's former Department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Its budget has increased by some 13 per cent. now that he has gone, but he has been able to achieve a paltry increase for the local government family. That is an indictment of Ministers.

If the Minister and his right hon. Friend really do believe that the SSA methodology is one

"upon which decisions are even handed, rational and based upon the most information available for all authorities"

he is out of touch not only with my hon. Friends, but with his hon. Friends.

We had a number of interesting speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans), for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), and for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg), as well as by the hon. Members for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin), for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Carttiss), for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson), for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) and for Windsor and Maidenhead (Mr. Trend). They all complained about the methodology used for the SSAs. The Minister must accept that the methodology needs to be challenged. My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Mr. Dobson) gave examples of the social index scores. I can give the House another example. Liverpool

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is one of the most deprived cities, not just in Britain but in the whole of western Europe, yet it is in 81st position with a score that suggests that it is less than averagely deprived. The City of London, that well-known centre of deprivation and urban squalor, is 19th in the list of deprived local authorities. If that is the index that the Minister is using, it really is time to look at this issue differently.

Local authorities up and down the land are being deprived because the index does not take proper account of the real statistics. For example, Surrey local education authority gains £8 million every year for the young people who live in the area, many of whom go to private schools outside Surrey. Surrey is a wealthy local authority and that £8 million is being provided at the expense of other authorities. The Minister must look again at the way in which the SSAs are calculated.

The jewel in the Government's crown, the authority around which the structure of local government finance is written, is the London borough of Westminster. We have heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Holborn and St Pancras, for Coventry North-East and for St Helens, North about how Westminster is treated so much more favourably than the rest of local government as to be nothing short of a scandal. The Minister should explain to the House not why Westminster is an efficient authority--we know that it is not--but what he intends to do about that running sore which will discredit him, the Department of the Environment, and the Government unless they are prepared to act.

The real losers in this year's settlement are not Members of Parliament but those whom we serve and who use the services in our local authorities. Let us look at the settlement for education. Many hon. Members have mentioned that. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, West said that it is ridiculous that local authorities have to set their budgets before the pay settlements are known. That is made even more ridiculous by the fact that this year the Government have given, even in their own terms, a cash increase of 1.1 per cent. in the education SSAs, while the practical reality is that teachers' pay increases are outside the hands of local government. The local authorities are expecting to face bills in excess of that 1.1 per cent. and will have to find that money at the expense of education. We know that another 110,000 pupils are coming into our schools this year. Although we know that the pupil rolls will increase still further, it is only Education Ministers who believe that that will not be at the expense of the education of our young people. The number of pupils per teacher and per class in our primary and secondary schools is about 25. In Japan it is 17 and in France it is as low as 13.6. If it is good enough for children in Japan and France to have classes of that size, why is not it good enough for children in this country?

Mr. Don Foster: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lloyd: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give way because time is short.

The House will be interested to learn of a letter that the Secretary of State for Education wrote to one of her Cabinet colleagues. She said:

"If teachers' pay increases by 2-3 per cent., then there will be a loss of 7,000 to 10,000 teachers"

in England. I hope that the Minister will comment on that. The decision whether to fund the teachers' pay round properly is in the hands of the Government. It is up to

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them to decide whether local government should be properly reimbursed or whether they will take out that extra cost on every child in every school up and down the land. The children will face bigger classes and the educational consequences of that.

Let me deal with social services. The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) talked about his county council. Gloucestershire county council's care programme is £1 million in the red in the current financial year and is providing emergency care only to people at risk. John Standing, the Conservative group's spokesman, said that

"community care began as such a good idea but it is no good if we do not have the funding to carry out the ideas."

That is a Conservative county councillor talking about what the Government have done to local government and community care. In its recently published report entitled "Taking Stock: Progress on Community Care", the Audit Commission makes it clear that the community care system is under intense pressure. It states that it is underfunded, yet we know that the Government have de facto placed a freeze on the social services SSA for the coming year. In practical terms, that means a cut in funding for social services which, in turn, means cuts in services for the elderly and vulnerable. Those are the values of this Government--they are certainly the values that they have been pursuing for some years.

The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth has broken free from the constraints that once chained him and is now able to tell the truth. The implication of what he said was that there is a degree of hypocrisy among those sitting on the Conservative Front Bench, and it is not for me to disagree with him on this occasion. His was probably one of the better speeches that we heard from Conservative Members this evening.

Across the length and breadth of the land, county councils with social services responsibilities are saying that funding for the care in the community initiative is inadequate and that they cannot cope on the basis of the Government's settlement. It is no good the Minister saying that it is a good settlement when we know that his view is somewhat different--he recognised that the Treasury had managed to work one over on him and his colleagues.

It is important to get away from the idea that the debate is merely a competition in which Government supporters try to find Labour-run authorities to criticise and Labour Members are told that their own local authorities are nothing but incompetent. I shall refer to a number of local authorities where there has been all-party agreement on their approaches to central Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) said that an all-party delegation from Newcastle went to see the Minister to tell him that it was unacceptable that Newcastle had to cut its council tax and its services when the local populace wanted the services maintained. The Minister should respond to that point as we are told that capping is in the interests of local people.

The Minister should consider the borough of Havering, which sent a delegation to meet, I think, the Minister of State. The delegation was made up of members of all political parties on the council. They pointed out to him

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that it was invidious that the council had to make £17 million worth of cuts and, at the same time, increase the council tax by some 11 per cent. Perhaps the Minister can explain to Havering and the House why residents will have to pay more but get fewer services. Perhaps he can also explain why, despite the claim that the council was terribly inefficient while Labour was in charge, that Labour council was able to point out to him that it has cut about £30 million plus from the budget that it inherited from the previous Conservative authority. There has been no suggestion, even by the Conservatives, that it is a high-spending, loony left Labour council. It is a good, sound Labour council forced to cut services and increase the council tax because of the Government.

Let us consider Warwickshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) and at least one Conservative Member said that there was a threat of the loss of some 200 teachers' posts there. Again, it is no good the Conservatives saying that that is scaremongering; that is certainly not the view of people of stature in the community, and not that of politicians. Mr. Seamus Crowe, the head teacher of St. Francis primary school in Bedworth, told a county-wide meeting at Leamington on Friday last week:

"Our argument is not with the County Council, it is with the Government".

Ordinary people involved in communities up and down the country are saying to the Minister, through us, that the Government have caused the problem and that it is for them to deal with it.

The Minister met an all-party delegation from Shropshire headed by a senior Conservative Member of Parliament and one of my colleagues. That delegation comprised councillors of all persuasions. They made the point to the Minister that Shropshire had been traditionally high spending on education under the Conservatives. That high spending had been maintained under Labour with the support of the Conservative group on the council.

Last night, the Conservative group on Shropshire council decided to support an attempt to go through the cap. I hope that the Minister will comment specifically on Shropshire, where his own colleagues in local government are saying that they think that the Government have got it wrong and that what the Government are doing is incompetent and ineffectual. I ask the Minister especially to note the comments of the leader and the deputy leader of the Conservative group. The leader said:

"Government needs to recognise the disaster it is heading for at the general election if it continues like this."

The deputy leader said:

"The Government in London is remote from the impact of their decisions. I have to tell them they have got it wrong and we have got it right."

Conservative local government is saying that the Conservative Government have got it wrong and that Conservatives in local government know better.

Mr. Knapman: The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) spent almost an hour telling us that Conservative councils-- Westminster and others--had been favoured at the expense of others. Now the hon.

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Gentleman is saying that Conservative councils are, as he would have it, in trouble in the same way. Both cannot be right, can they?

Mr. Lloyd: I hate to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. If he knew the political geography of this country, he would know that Shropshire is not a Conservative council, nor, indeed is Warwickshire any more. It is interesting that the last time that Warwickshire council was capped was when the Conservatives ran the council, which may also say something about the way in which Conservatives in local government increasingly see central Government.

I shall quote briefly from a report about Shropshire in this morning's paper in which Alan Cooper, head teacher of The Marches school in Oswestry- -a school considered to be among the best, not only in the county, but in the country--said:

"It was not the fault of the county council, . . . but government spending curbs which limited central grant to Shropshire". Up and down the land, the Government are being rumbled. People know that when class sizes increase it is because of the Government. People know that cuts in the social services budget, so that the vulnerable and the elderly cannot get the social services that they need, mean that the Government are at fault. People know very well that when they send delegations from their communities to meet the Minister, the answer may be sympathetic, but it is still no. My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras made a rather interesting point that each Conservative council which was considered to have whinged too much, and went to see the Minister, came away with a budget cut. That is an interesting statistic which perhaps explains the rather more credible view of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East, who told the House that the more secretive diplomacy of Westminster council was the way to get the Government to provide more funding.

We see the results all around us. We know that if the same favourable treatment which Westminster council received were offered to councils everywhere, few councils would not be able to reduce the council tax and few councils would not be able to provide better services. That is the reality of the modern Conservative Government. They are a Government who have no vision for local government, they see no future for local government, they let local government suffer further cuts for the foreseeable future and they treat local government in the most contemptuous and most corrupt way. The Minister should answer the charge. They are a Government who are not prepared to deal with the running sore of Westminster council. A Government who are prepared to reward Westminster council are, simply, not fit to be in charge of the future of local government. 9.38 pm

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration (Mr. David Curry): Right hon. and hon. Members have raised importanissues and I shall attempt to address those broad issues tonight. If I do not deal with a specific point, I shall write to them to cover it.

I begin by repeating the question that I put earlier to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). He said that the settlement was inadequate. If that is so, there are only two remedies: the first is to raise

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the revenue support grant which is financed from central taxation and the other is to permit the council tax to rise. We need to know which remedy the Labour party favours.

Mr. Clelland: There is a third option. I explained in my speech that, because of its situation, Newcastle city council need only freeze the council tax at is current level and set its budget at that level; there would then be no need for cuts or an increase in the council tax. What does the Minister have to say about that?

Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman is not right. The question remains the same. If the settlement is inadequate, either the council tax must rise or the revenue support grant must be increased; either public expenditure must rise or the Government will have to provide further grants. That is the case even in Newcastle. We need to know which is the Labour party's policy and by how much. Labour Members cannot say that the settlement is not good enough if they are not prepared to say what would be adequate. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras will not say what would be adequate.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Curry: If my hon. Friend will allow me, I shall give way in a moment.

The Opposition claim that the methodology is crooked. Not one serious informed person believes that. Labour local authority leaders do not believe it, the local authority associations do not believe it and Tony Travers and Rita Hale do not believe it. They are the only two independent experts in this area.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Curry: I shall not give way, as I want to give the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras a little more evidence.

Tony Travers stated:

"It is small wonder that the allocation of such large sums of money to hundreds of local authorities should lead to accusations of political bias. Yet there is no evidence of such political intervention."

The Environment Select Committee, reporting unanimously with Labour Members agreeing, stated:

"We should like to place on the record our understanding that the Government's recent review of SSAs has been conducted in an open manner. DOE tested all of the options that it was asked to consider, and it has made data available in a readily usable form to interested parties."

The Audit Commission, which the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras intends to wheel into action as a Cooksey's cavalry to charge against local authorities which he thinks are spending to much, said:

"The determination of SSAs, being wholly formula based, is explicit and open to scrutiny. It is a more sophisticated system for equalising needs than any overseas system examined in this study and it is an improvement on its predecessor in many respects." That is what objective people say about the methodology. Any suggestion that the methodology is rigged is sheer nonsense from start to finish. It is about time the Labour party understood that. Let me illustrate that point. If it were rigged, it is curious that the SSA per head for Westminster is £1,278 with a total support grant of £1,023 while it is £904 for Wandsworth, £1,104 for Lambeth, £1,295 for Hackney and £1,535 for Tower Hamlets. There is nothing wrong

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