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Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Gummer: I will give way, but I want to make clear a point that is often not understood outside; sometimes I fear that it is purposely not understood.

First, there is the TSS. As I have said, it is possible to spend more than that, up to the capping limits, by raising more on the council tax. There are other ways in which councils can spend; either from fees or from reserves. So it is always true that, at the end of the year, councils have spent more than the TSS at the beginning of the year. That means that, if we wish to compare like with like, we must compare the year end spending with the following year end spending, or the TSS at the beginning of the year with the TSS at the beginning of the succeeding year.

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One cannot compare one set of TSS figures with one set of spending figures. Those of us involved in local government know that, but sometimes that mistake is made. I want to ensure that it does not occur in our discussions, because it shows a lack of understanding of the local government system. I do not want to accuse anybody of that, but sometimes that is the basis for argument.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe): The Secretary of State is talking about comparisons. What happens with a new unitary authority where making comparisons is difficult? For my new authority of North Lincolnshire, the standard spending assessment will mean cuts across the board--an 8 per cent. cut in education, for example--and a substantial increase in council tax. That authority inherits no balances, and is very much dependent on the standard spending assessment laid down by the Department of the Environment.

The Secretary of State has received delegations from the authority, which made the not unreasonable request for capital borrowing over three years to mitigate the cost of the reorganisation, as well as to help deal with the problems of establishing itself as a new authority. That request has been refused. In those circumstances, does the Secretary of State accept that the education cuts are a direct result of his Department's policy, and have nothing to do with North Lincolnshire, which is a brand new authority with no track record?

Mr. Gummer: There are difficulties when one is transferring from an authority such as Humberside, which has a long history of excessive expenditure. It is difficult for one or two such authorities to move to the new structure without carrying something with them. They carry the history of a lack of efficiency in the services taken over. That has disadvantages, but it has an advantage, in that it may be possible to make significant savings in the running costs.

There is a whole range of provisions. One of the reasons for notional amounts rather than historic figures is that they take into account problems such as those raised by the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley). There is a damping grant should the council tax become excessive.

I am happy to look again at any of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. The system is designed to help, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman that his circumstances are made worse by the previous management, which was one of the worst in the country--it was recognised as such. Humberside is an unlamented lost county.

Mr. John Greenway: May I move my right hon. Friend slightly further north, to deal again with reorganisation? I thank my right hon. Friend, the Ministers and the officials for the helpful way in which they have considered how best to redistribute money in North Yorkshire out of the creation of the new York unitary authority. The county council has done rather better than many of us feared. That must be put on record.

However, is my right hon. Friend aware that we still have a problem with Ryedale district council, which has a notional amount that is almost £750,000 more than the SSA? My right hon. Friend mentioned the use of reserves. Is there any way at this stage in which we could bridge

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that gap without the whole cost falling on the council tax payers in Ryedale, because the sums that they will have to pay are substantial?

Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend is perfectly right. I would look sympathetically at a request from Ryedale district council to capitalise some of those costs, which would help it considerably. Unfortunately, it has not yet made such a request, and I cannot respond to a request that has not been made. I hope that my hon. Friend will remind the council that it is a perfectly reasonable way to do things--indeed, the way we expect them to be done. If the case can be supported, I shall consider it carefully.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton): I appreciate being given the opportunity to intervene. Will the right hon. Gentleman take account of the position in my constituency, where deprivation is severe because of the closure of the mining industry and the ancillary works that supplied it?

Wakefield district council has brought in fees and charges over the past five or six years because of the restrictions imposed by the Secretary of State. It cannot simply keep charging local people, who can ill afford to pay because of problems such as unemployment. Will he reconsider the problems, so that we can be allowed to provide the services in education and community care that people demand?

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman knows that I have a reasonable knowledge of Wakefield, and I recognise the problems in the area. I am sure that he will agree that, in recent years, we have given Wakefield and the surrounding area extra help in a number of ways. Of course I will examine the points that he has raised. Although we have reached a conclusion on these matters in a number of areas, I am happy to reconsider, because I recognise the problems to which he referred.

Within the system, a significant amount of money is being diverted because of the factors that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That is why some areas, such as Wakefield, do better than other areas where the resources and opportunities are greater. I shall consider the particular points that he raised.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton): In my right hon. Friend's introductory remarks, he mentioned his joint responsibility with our right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary for the police service, but he did not mention the fire service. He is aware that worries have been expressed in various quarters about fire cover for London, and the possibility that the reduction in the fire service's SSA will disadvantage its ability to provide cover.

Will my right hon. Friend give a categorical assurance that fire cover is wholly adequate in London, and that that will in no way be disadvantaged by the reduced SSA?

Mr. Gummer: As the Minister with responsibility for London, I naturally consider these matters very carefully. I today responded to a Labour Member who has written to me on the very issue my hon. Friend raised.

The fact is that, next year, the authority's SSA will increase by more than £1 million, to £253.6 million. It will have by far the highest SSA per head of any single-purpose

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fire authority. London does better than any other single-purpose fire authority. Other areas throughout the country note that London has been given additional resources.

The proposed capping limit would allow the authority to increase its budget by more than £5 million compared with this year, which would take its budget more than 2 per cent. above its SSA. The authority's decisions will be very much in its own hands.

About 22 per cent. of the authority's work force are support staff behind the front-line services, Perhaps it could look for ways to make savings there. Perhaps it could look more closely at some of its accommodation and resources that are not being used. There is a wide range of things that it can do. The money provided to the authority certainly ensures that it can give fire cover. Indeed, it would not be allowed to close any installation without my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary being sure that there is still fire cover.

I reassure my hon. Friend on the matters that he raised by pointing to the facts that the authority has been allocated extra money and that London is specifically advantaged by that provision.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras): Does the Secretary of State accept that the London fire brigade's standard of performance over the past few years has risen substantially? The brigade transferred to computerised call-out with no problems, and changes to its management structure and working practices have made the brigade a credit to London, its management and other employees. That is in marked contrast to the London ambulance service, which fails every national standard, is grotesquely mismanaged, and is run by a quango--unlike the board, which represents people from London boroughs and has been so successful in improving the London fire brigade.

Mr. Gummer: I would not have made that comment about the London ambulance service, especially as I--like the hon. Gentleman--depend on it for emergency services. His comments do not characterise the people who work for the ambulance service.

There are evidently two classes of people in society. There are the people whom the hon. Gentleman thinks will not vote for him, so he is rude about them. There are the people from whom the hon. Gentleman thinks that he might get a vote or two, about whom he is always polite. I do not think it right to attack the London ambulance service in a blanket way, as the hon. Gentleman did.

The improvement in the London fire brigade is creditable, but only what one would expect of a properly run organisation. It is doing its job properly, and will continue to do so. If it becomes better and more efficient, it will have more resources to spend on things that really matter, which are front-line fire services.

The TSS figure of £44.93 billion represents an increase of £1.42 billion--3.3 per cent. over the 1995-96 figure. That substantial increase reflects the importance that the Government attach to education and to the care of the vulnerable and elderly. We have provided for a 4.5 per cent. increase in provision for education and 6.9 per cent. for personal social services, including £418 million transitional community care special grant.

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When we talk about priorities, we are concerned that the money made available is used for the proper purposes. It concerns me that there are already signs that local authorities, instead of spending money on education, are seeking to use the money for other purposes.

I have a letter from someone who calls himself the "chair" of Hertfordshire county council's education committee. He is Bob Mays, who leads the Labour group for that purpose. Writing to fellow governors, he began his letter, "Dear Comrade". That would have gone down a bit oddly in Hertfordshire, so the complete salutation reads, "Dear Comrade/Colleague". I am interested to know whether "comrade" is old Labour and the "colleague" new Labour, or whether that form of address is to get everybody involved.

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