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Mr. Pickles: The problem that my local councillors have is that they rely on the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) for advice, which is the road to ruin. The Government are saying, "We don't mind you using your reserves, but we want you to do so in a way that will get your budget down." It is no use substituting measures and hoping that one day something will turn up. The hon. Gentleman has let those councillors down terribly, because he produced an alternative budget that proposed not a penny-piece extra for district councils. He is saying to the Liberal district councillors in Brentwood, "Sorry, chaps. I've deserted you. We want to make education a priority."

I appeared on a television programme with the hon. Member for Newbury. He is very nice to be on television with; he is a very nice man indeed. When I put the point to him, he looked shocked. I do not know whether he was let down by his hon. Friends in his Treasury team--

Mr. Robert G. Hughes: Nobody told him.

Mr. Pickles: My hon. Friend suggests that no one told the hon. Gentleman. I suspect that that is true. If it is, I do not think that that was fair. He should have been told.

I had an opportunity to talk to my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Field), who told me about his Liberal-controlled council, which has been given an extra £1.5 million for its education budget. It did not want to give that money to schools, so there was a tremendous row--Liberal against Liberal, shouting at one another. Eventually it offered a compromise: it will keep £300,000 and let schools have the rest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight and I say, "let the schools have the money that has been allocated to them." We shall judge the settlement by whether the money is passed on. Will priority be given to education and social services? If Opposition Members do not do that, we will not, under any circumstances, allow them to forget it.

6.41 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): The Chancellor pledged in his Budget speech last November that an additional £878 million would be made available for investment in education in 1996-97. Of that amount,£770 million was to be channelled through local government. We now have the finalised local government settlement, but we do not have the additional £770 million that was pledged. The total amount of external finance for local authorities has not risen in real terms. That is the important point. All that the Government have done is to raise the standard spending assessment for education by 4.5 per cent.

To make that increase meaningful, the Government have at least raised the capping limits for many authorities this year. As we heard from the Secretary of State earlier,

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however, the Government have refused to do what many hon. Members have called for and to remove capping limits altogether. If the Government are serious about local democracy, it is time that capping went.

Mr. Barry Field: I wrote in my local newspaper on the Isle of Wight that the council and the Liberal Democrats had campaigned for capping limits to be raised or abolished, but they said that they had never asked for that and tried to suggest to school governors on the island that that was not Liberal Democrat policy. I should be obliged to the hon. Gentleman if he would emphasise the point so that I can take it back to the Liberal Democrat councillors on the Isle of Wight.

Mr. Rendel: I am delighted to underline Liberal Democrat national policy. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman precisely what was said on the Isle of Wight, but I can tell him, happily, that it is also Conservative party policy, as passed at the last conference, although the Government have not yet taken that on board. Only when capping has been removed can people really hold their councillors to account, because only then will councillors face making real choices about the provision of services and how to fund them. With capping in place, it is not the local electorate who decide what value to place on education for their children but the Secretary of State in London.

There are two ways of looking at the line taken by the Chancellor and the Secretary of State. We could assume that the Government are recommending that councils stick to the SSA for education. If so, it should be noted that last year local authorities spent more than the Government recommend that they spend this year. If we assume that the Government really want councils to stick to their SSAs, that will lead to a cut in education spending, not an increase. If, however, the Government are urging local councils simply to spend 4.5 per cent. more on education regardless of whether they were above SSA last year, with no additional funds from central Government, they are calling for a substantial increase in council tax, coupled with a programme of cuts in other local authority services. Even then, it will not be possible for many education authorities to boost spending by the amount that the Government suggest.

I realise that Conservative Members may be unwilling to take my word on that, so I will quote the words of the Treasury Select Committee, which published its report on 15 January. That Committee, which has a Conservative majority, revealed the extent of the Chancellor's con trick when it said:

It went on:

The Committee concluded:

The Government have told us throughout the debate that that would be entirely the local authority's fault, but the Treasury Select Committee has pointed out that it is inevitable, given the Chancellor's Budget.

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Clearly, any increase in education spending will be a matter of too little too late. It will not even be enough to cover the £191 million needed to cover rising pupil numbers. Nor will it be enough to cover the £131 million required for additional costs in the provision of special needs education. It takes no account of the 8 per cent. reduction in schools' capital grants and credit approvals.

Let us consider what it will mean to one education authority. In Cambridgeshire, the SSA for education in the current year was £226.1 million. Next year, it will rise to £237.3 million--up by 4.9 per cent. Generous, one might think. But Cambridgeshire, one of many shire counties no longer controlled by the Conservatives, has already decided to spend £241.1 million on education this year, because the present authority places a much higher value on education than the Government do. That is already some £4 million more than the Government suggest that the authority should spend next year. The extra resources this year have been found partly from reserves and partly by raiding other areas of spending, which have consequently been starved of funding to a level below even that which the Government think appropriate. As was bound to happen, the reserves have effectively run out.

The Government are providing less money than Cambridgeshire was already spending. The authority has no money left to make up the difference. It has increasing pupil numbers and demands for special needs. Moreover, of course, it is not allowed to raise any extra funds because it is capped. In anyone's book, that can add up to only one result: cuts in education.

It is no wonder that the teachers and governors of Cambridgeshire are up in arms. Those figures were produced not by some party political body, but by a combination of the primary governors group, the secondary governors group, the primary heads forum, the local education authority secondary heads, the Special Schools Heads Association and the National Association of Governors and Managers.

I have used Cambridgeshire as an example, but I have received briefings from many other county councils showing that almost exactly the same is happening all over the country--in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Dorset, Berkshire and Hampshire. The list continues across the country.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives): The hon. Gentleman mentioned Cornwall. Will he cast his mind back to what was said in Cornwall a year ago by all his Liberal Democrat colleagues--that Cornwall would face horrendous cuts in school budgets, and that teachers would be laid off right, left and centre? They did a survey and produced bogus figures just before the local elections. Does the hon. Gentleman know how many teachers were actually laid off in Cornwall last year? They were fewer than the fingers on my hand.

Mr. Rendel: I am delighted to hear that confirmation of how well Cornwall is being run now. The council has managed to avoid cutting a lot of teachers' jobs despite cuts in Government funding. That is a wonderful example of how well Liberal Democrat councils have managed.

When the Conservatives have succeeded in infuriating such huge bodies of opinion in the way that I have described, is it any surprise that they have lost the confidence of the country?

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I realise that statistics will abound in the debate, but there is one that is especially well worth recalling in view of the Government's claim that they are doing so much more for our schoolchildren this year. Since the general election the standard spending assessment per secondary school pupil in England has fallen by 9.5 per cent. in real terms.

Time and again, the Government have raised parents' hopes that their children's education will get the funding that it deserves, only to dash those hopes when it is revealed that Government promises are nothing but a lot of hot air. Their attempt to con parents is motivated by the desperate desire to win votes, but they will soon realise that the British public do not take kindly to a Government who seek to pull the wool over their eyes, especially where the education of their children is concerned.

The Secretary of State continues to play the Chancellor's fiddle. Yet he and the other Conservative Members are already gearing up to criticise local authorities which respond in the only way possible--by cutting services and increasing council tax. We have already heard such criticism in the debate.

The Government themselves produced figures in the Budget Red Book showing that they expect a 10 per cent. increase in council tax revenue this year. That translates into an additional bill of about £61 for the average household. For the Government to cut income tax one day and then reimpose that tax burden in a less fair way the next is nothing new, but it is still dishonest: it is still an outrageous Conservative sham.

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