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

Ms Armstrong: No; I will not give way.

Let us consider the facts clearly and objectively. Education authorities will receive an increase in central Government grant of exactly 1.2 per cent. in the year ahead. When Conservative Members speak about money, they need to speak about the actual money--1.2 per cent. The increase in SSAs is 4.4 per cent.

Mr. Pickles: How wide is the gap? How much extra would Labour give?

Ms Armstrong: I will not answer questions about how much we shall give until the Government deal with their waste. They should deal with the waste, and then ask us questions about what we shall spend. We know that the Conservatives would not tell us the truth before the most recent general election so, if we try to say anything now, we shall have to change it once we see their cooked books.

It is an illusion that there is more money for education throughout Britain. Parents know that there is not, teachers know that there is not and the Tories know that there is not. That is why the Tories have been blustering and bluffing during the debate.

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Mr. Tipping: Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Ms Armstrong: I am happy to give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Tipping: I was interested to hear my hon. Friend mention blustering. I wonder what she makes of the fact that, in Nottinghamshire, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been saying that there is extra money for education in Nottinghamshire. The local authority in Nottinghamshire has spent all the extra money in schools, yet next year, in the Chancellor's constituency of Rushcliffe, teachers' jobs will be lost, and £6.3 million of repairs remain to be done at schools. Is he being economical with the truth?

Ms Armstrong: My hon. Friend the Memberfor Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) will know that if Nottinghamshire received what Westminster receives it would be able to provide an extra 4,000 teachers.

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

Ms Armstrong: The Chancellor of the Exchequer might then be able to uphold some of his promises. As usual--

Mr. Pickles: Give way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. From where I am sitting, it seems obvious that the hon. Lady is not giving way.

Ms Armstrong: The Chancellor of the Exchequer, like other Ministers, is saying one thing and doing another. The Government have made commitments on tax which they have not kept. They are not very good at telling the truth about it either, as we saw from Prime Minister's questions yesterday.

This is a pay more, get less settlement. Council tax payers and service users will pay the price of the Government's economic incompetence and waste. Councillors are being placed in an impossible position. They must either cut essential services such as school services, meals on wheels and home helps or they must set the council tax at a level which they know that local people can ill afford. Some councils have to do both. That is not what local democracy should be about.

The Government have made it impossible for local people to determine the level of services or what should be paid for them. Of course, local democracy is not the Government's overriding priority. Their obsession is to stay in power and run the economy into the ground. How can they otherwise afford the income tax cuts that they are looking for?

I believe that the electorate will not be fooled. When they see services cut, they will know that the Government are to blame. When they see their council tax rise, they will blame the Government. That blame will be clearly expressed in the local elections in May and in the general election. I know that people want that election because they are sick of paying the price of Tory obsessions, dogma and mistakes. Instead of the people of this country paying the price, we look forward to the Tory Government paying the price.

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9.41 pm

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration (Mr. David Curry): It is not often that, in a debate on local government finance, one can begin with Procrustes, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) introduced him, I have taken some affection for him and done my research. He apparently lay in wait on the Athens road and equipped people who came for lodgings with a bed that was not necessarily the right size. If the people were too long, he chopped them. I did not realise that capping had such a distinguished antecedent, but I am encouraged to know that I follow in such a long tradition. I understand that Theseus fastened Procrustes to his own bed and chopped his head off--he had clearly missed his vocation as a local government Minister.

When the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) forgot her speech, she said some sensible things. I agree with one thing that she said; that local government should be the engine of local regeneration. I am grateful for that endorsement of our policies. A Labour Government did not introduce city challenge, from which areas such as Sheffield have benefited. A Labour Government did not introduce the single regeneration budget, from which many Labour-held areas have benefited. A Conservative Government brought local authorities and the private sector into play to promote creative regeneration activities in their areas.

I spent this morning in Dudley seeing regeneration by a Conservative Government in practice. What is happening there demonstrates what can be done by local government if it breaks out of the mind-set in which the Labour party would leave it. We want to develop that concept, so I look forward to the endorsement and support of the hon. Member for North-West Durham for the principle of capital challenge. It works on exactly the same principle as asking local authorities to define their priorities and work in partnership to deliver them. I am delighted that the Labour party, belatedly, has woken up to the creative activities of the Government.

I fear that my text for the day has to be based on the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). I should like to quote him. He may not live to acquire the fame of Procrustes, but his fame will last at least until the election. The hon. Gentleman said, "I don't endorse anybody else's numbers except my own and you're not getting those out of me.". It is not quite the Book of Revelations, but at least we now have "Dobson's dictum" which appears to be: hear all, see all and let nowt out. Does the Labour party intend to go to the next election without revealing what it will spend? Will Labour Members simply say, "We condemn your settlement and our local authorities say that it is £3 billion short."?

Every Labour Member who spoke in the debate said that he or she wanted more money for education, community care, social services and so on, but the Opposition will not add up the cost--and that is what matters. If they claim that expenditure is inadequate, they must know by how much it is inadequate. The Labour party cannot be a lobby organisation: it is supposed to be an Opposition, yet Labour Members simply say what they do not like and refuse to put a figure on the cost of what they want.

The money must come from somewhere, and it can come from only one place--the taxpayer. It can come from more Government grants of taxpayers' money, or

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more money can be collected from the taxpayer locally. There is no other way of doing it. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras must tell us how much money the Labour party would spend and where it would come from, otherwise it is simply mystery money and phantom finance. Opposition Members are afraid to say a word to anyone in case we start to add up the sums for ourselves.

Ms Armstrong: Will the Minister tell us who paid for the £4 billion that was wasted on the poll tax?

Mr. Curry: Why will the hon. Lady not answer one simple question? Everyone who intends to vote at the next election wants to know how much it will cost. Labour Members exhibit an unusual degree of Trappism when it comes to finance: they will not say a word. [Interruption.] The Opposition housing spokesman, the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford), is guilty also. He has said that he will release capital receipts, but he will not say how many or for how long. It is all shrouded in mystery. We have only gesture politics; none of the arithmetic has been done. At least we know what the Liberal Democrats stand for--sort of.

Mr. Coe: Oh no, we do not.

Mr. Curry: I did say "sort of". I shall give a few examples, but they may not add up to the total picture. The Liberal Democrats would lift the cap completely and remove all safeguards. At least the Opposition would retain some safeguards, with the Audit Commission assuming the curious role of the US cavalry that would gallop over the hill if it thought that people were transgressing. The Liberals offer no such safeguard.

Mr. Dobson: Is the Minister saying that he cannot see the sense in our proposition? We believe that the Audit Commission should set a timetable for improvement and, if councils do not meet that timetable, the Secretary of State could act. Does the Minister think that scandals such as that in Lambeth should be allowed to continue for decades, as occurred under the existing law?

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