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Mr. Pickles: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson: No, I will not.

Even that is not the end of the story. Westminster council clearly needs central Government help to make up for the funds which it has lost through fraud and mismanagement. The district auditor is about to issue his final report on the homes-for-votes scandal, which he said has cost £29 million. To get that huge sum--£29 million--into perspective, hon. Members should understand that, of the 365 district councils in this country, 261 have total budgets of less than £29 million. Therefore, 261 councils in England have less to spend on their citizens in a year than Westminster has unlawfully squandered in just one of the many financial scandals for which it has been caught out.

It is not only the scandals that consume public money in Westminster, but the grotesque expense of the services that the council provides. According to the Audit Commission's figures--I always use official figures--Westminster spends £53 per head on refuse collection and disposal compared with Camden, which spends £24 and St. Helen's, which spends £18 per head. Street cleaning in Westminster costs £37 per head. In Camden, it costs £14 per head and in St. Helen's, it costs just £2.28.

Westminster's administration of housing benefits costs £226 per claimant--that is the highest figure in the country, like so many others that I have cited--and only

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62 per cent. of applicants receive their money within two weeks. In the neighbouring borough of Camden, which has similar problems and a fairly similar population, the equivalent figure is £103 and 95 per cent. of applicants receive their money within two weeks. That is why the Government gave Camden's benefits section a charter mark.

However, the Tory Government never say a wrong word about Tory Westminster council. We can only conclude that it is because they approve of every single thing that the council does. The Government's problem is that they do not have to answer only to the voters of Westminster--although, with the boundary changes, they will lose one Member of Parliament to Labour in Westminster at the next general election. They also have to answer to the people in the rest of the country.

The people know that the Government are furtively pushing up council tax and cutting local services, while at the same time publicly and repeatedly drawing attention to the 1p reduction in income tax. In other words, the Government give with one hand and take away with the other. As a result, local people all over the country will be forced to pay more and get less. That is why the orders are wrong and that is why we shall vote against them tonight.

5.41 pm

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby): As a Member of Parliament who represents a northern seat, I found it bizarre to hear the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) focus so obsessively on Westminster. It is quite impossible to follow the debate, which has serious implications for the whole country, when the hon. Gentleman dwells obsessively on Westminster.

I cannot understand why the hon. Gentleman is so obsessed with Westminster. Is it simply because his constituency is situated near Westminster? Are there rival football teams? Is lacrosse at the root of his obsession? What is the explanation of his extraordinary obsession with Westminster? Why did the hon. Gentleman not mention a word about Holborn and St. Pancras so that we could, perhaps, get to the root of his obsession with the city of Westminster?

The hon. Gentleman compared the cost of street cleaning in Westminster with the same service in St. Helens but, in so doing, he was comparing the sun with the moon. What conceivable parallel could be drawn between the cost of street cleaning and sweeping in St. Helens and in Westminster? A vast number of people from every part of the country often gather to protest in the City of London and in Westminster.

Mr. Betts: To protest about the Government.

Mr. Alison: It is true that they sometimes protest about the Government, but that is an occupational hazard that we readily accept--it is part and parcel of being in government. People come to protest for many other reasons. For example, Turkish citizens may protest about events in Bosnia. I hope that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) welcomes the fact that many people, including overseas visitors, come to protest outside the Home Office--quite irrelevantly--about the persecution of Turkish minorities in Bosnia.

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Has the hon. Gentleman seen the muck and the rubbish that accumulates in all sorts of central London locations--near embassies and so on--when a large number of people gather to protest and object? That is why there is a little disparity between the cost of street cleaning inSt. Helens and in Westminster.

Mr. Betts: Are the right hon. Gentleman's constituents happy to subsidise Westminster in the way my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras(Mr. Dobson) so clearly described? Does the right hon. Gentleman think that it is fair that there should be a double subsidy--as the chief executive of Westminster city council pointed out--in terms of the standard spending assessment on day and night visitors and car parking income? Should not one subsidy be offset against the other? What would the right hon. Gentleman's constituents think about that?

Mr. Alison: I must be careful how I respond to that intervention as I hope to bend the ear of my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration about certain improved transfers to the Selby district. I hope to gain his sympathy in that regard.

As to the hon. Gentleman's question, I simply refer him to the intervention that my hon. Friend the Minister made during the speech of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras. My hon. Friend pointed out that the situation was worse when Labour was in power: Westminster received more subsidy and more help. The idea that the present arrangement is a Government racket geared to improve the lot of Westminster voters does not stand up to analysis, as my hon. Friend said earlier. I should like reassurances from both parties as to what will happen if there is a little money to spare, as I am particularly concerned that the Selby district should benefit.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras referred also to the old, pernicious and damaging system of the business rate. I am very proud and happy to represent the Selby district. The area has a gigantic industrial base, which includes the Drax and Eggborough power stations as well as the whole of the Selby coalfield. If we were to return to the old business rate system, we would have a bonanza, but how much would we then lose in rate support grants? How would the balance be adjusted?

What would happen to the wretched neighbouring areas which have no industry? Some of them--particularly Merseyside--have no industry precisely because the business rate system drove it out. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that a return to the old business rate system is a great leap forward to modernity? If that is Labour's policy come the general election, we shall be happy to debate it.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, if my local authority in Stoke-on-Trent had increased expenditure by anything like the percentage by which the Government have jacked up the business rate, it would have been capped three times over?

Mr. Alison: I should have received notice of that question. I shall ponder it in my bath when I am in a reflective mood, having carefully read the hon. Gentleman's intervention in Hansard.

Mr. Gummer: I am sure that my right hon. Friend will recall that the business rate may not be raised by more

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than the percentage increase in the cost of living. He will probably also recall that, when the business rate was in the hands of local authorities such as Sheffield, it was used as a mechanism for taking huge amounts of money from business with the result that almost all businesses in Sheffield would have moved out if they could have sold their premises.

Mr. Alison: I entirely accept my right hon. Friend's reminder. It is bizarre that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras poured such acidic wit and criticism on the attempts that local government associations have made, in co-operation with the Government, to produce some sort of objectivity in the analysis of need.

The hon. Gentleman showed, mockingly, using various lists, how implausible that seemed to be, but he is offering to go back to the weird system of raising the business rate in an entirely irrational and undifferentiated manner, which depends entirely on the location of historic industrial premises and those that have been swept to new locations as a result of the Labour party's battening on to the fatted calf in certain areas. He gave us a wholly inconsistent critique. He criticised my right hon. Friend's attempt to be objective, but then proposed a return to the old system of business rates.

While I have the attention for a brief second of my right hon. Friend and of my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration--and I cannot hold it much longer--I wish to refresh their memories of the peculiarly Procrustean torture that befalls local authorities that have large chunks of their old district removed as a result of structural or boundary changes.

My hon. Friend the Minister was kind enough, at the end of October 1995, to allow me to bring Selby's chief executive, Mr. Chris Edwards, and chief finance officer, Mr. Martin Connor, to meet him to explain the problems that have arisen because the district has suffered a loss of resident population of nearly one third. That is a big chunk--from 92,000 to 72,000. Selby has lost some 20,000 of its resident population through the boundary changes associated with establishing the new neighbouring York unitary authority.

We told my hon. Friend the Minister, and he was kind enough to listen with great patience and perception, that--alas--local government services and their costs cannot be cut precisely to match the transfer of outgoing population. Procrustes had a bed which unwary wayfarers were made to fit. If they were a bit shorter than the bed, they were stretched in an agonising rack; if they were a bit bigger they had bits chopped off.

My hon. Friend the Minister has unwittingly imposed the perversion of that fearful torture on the Selby district--a combination of chopping and stretching. The chopping happens because lots of local government officers have to be chopped off after a big loss of population--which amounts almost to one third. In the case of Selby, that will produce a redundancy bill of£1 million which, considering our grant from central Government is only £4 million, is a large proportion of extra costs. The stretching happens with the services that are left behind--they have to be stretched over a large, but thinner, district. We will have fewer local government officers, which produces redundancy obligations, and

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probably a poorer standard of service. We cannot cut precisely to match the loss of council tax paying population.

When we met my hon. Friend the Minister on26 October 1995, the provisional SSA figures were just about to be published. On 30 November 1995, only a few weeks later, my hon. Friend published his provisional SSA figures. I found that Selby's provisional SSA figure was £6.513 million and I thought that, as a result of meeting my hon. Friend at the end of October, we would see some evidence of recognition of our Procrustean dilemma when the definitive figures appeared.

I was appalled to discover that the SSA has fallen from the provisional sum which was published just after I met my hon. Friend. I can only conclude that we in some way offended or outraged him. That is why I am doing my very best today to offend and outrage the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras--so that I may win the enthusiasm, support and friendship of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench.

It is certainly true that the so-called relevant notional amount in the case of Selby has been raised to£7.19 million, but that simply means that our capping limit has been adjusted upwards to take account of the problems with local government structural and boundary changes. The sum still has to be funded and financed by the local council tax payer. That will mean, for example, that the estimated council tax for band D, which is now £92.67, is likely to go up--if we go to the full new capping limit of £7.19 million--to £105. That is an increase of 13 per cent. or more.

I just caught the wisp of an indication from the conclusion of the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that there might be some help for Selby--and north Lincolnshire--in the new limit that he has established to give special help to local authorities with severe boundary and population movement changes. I shall consider carefully what he has to say. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends realise that if we have to spend up to the new capping limit to accommodate£1 million of redundancy money, we will have to do exactly what the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras accused the Government of doing overall. I dispute and repudiate his accusation, but in Selby, because of a unique and non-recurring phenomenon, we will have to charge people more for reduced local government services. People will get a poorer service, but they will have to pay more for it.

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