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Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton): It is Labour-controlled.

Mr. Dobson: Yes, Labour-controlled Lambeth was a disgrace. Something should have been done, but the Government did nothing for a decade. That is why we want to change the law.

Mr. Curry: There is no point the hon. Gentleman saying that he will do this, that and the other if he will not answer the biggest question: how much money will the Labour party spend? What will it cost? The hon. Gentleman talks about sending in the Audit Commission when councils have overspent or underspent. Such a role would take the Audit Commission into completely new territory. I think that we all agree that it is currently playing a useful role setting out objective indicators to assist local government in managing its affairs.

We agree that some councils should be reformed. Where wrong has been done, we condemn it--irrespective of where it occurs--once it has been proved. However, I

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do not believe that we should send in the Audit Commission to do any old job; it should stick to its present role.

Ms Armstrong: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Curry: I shall give way to the hon. Lady in a moment. She should concentrate on answering the question: how much will a Labour Government cost us? How much would a Labour Government cost the taxpayer, centrally and locally? What is the right amount for the settlement? The hon. Lady can illustrate her point by referring to the current settlement.

Ms Armstrong: If the Government had taken action against councils that were defrauding their council tax payers, the country would be in a better state and there would be more money for the settlement. For a kick-off, the Minister could have recovered the £29 million from Westminster. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. These interventions are very long. The House must settle down. The Minister has a right to reply to the debate. The hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) was given a reasonable hearing and the Minister must be given the same courtesy.

Mr. Curry: Let me focus on the arguments.

Mr. Betts: That will make a change.

Mr. Curry: Well, the argument is about how much the Labour party thinks it is right to spend on the settlement. I have asked that question a dozen times, but I receive no answer. If the Labour party was to form a Government, all local authorities would parade to its office and ask for more money. They want to know whether they would receive it, but the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras will not give them--or the taxpayer--a clue. It is the most important question in politics.

Mr. Jessel: Is my hon. Friend aware that the former Labour-controlled Greater London council set up a 30-year contract to transport waste and that that contract still has 21 years to go? The cost now falls on my constituents and others in six boroughs in west London. It amounts to several million pounds a year, which is completely inequitable. Will my hon. Friend look to see whether anything can be done to undo the damage done by the Labour-controlled Greater London council?

Mr. Curry: My hon. Friend is referring to the landfill tax. It is true that some local authorities are locked into long-term contracts that were signed some time ago. They have known the intentions behind the tax for more than a year and I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that, last year, local authorities received £26 million for waste regulation. The responsibility goes to the Environment Agency, but the resources stay with local government and there will be some offsetting national insurance contributions. I promise my hon. Friend that, during the deliberations which must follow the vote tonight, I will pay attention to that issue.

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It would be helpful to mention the work on the SSAs that must be done over the next year, because that is important to local authorities. The SSAs must change and develop. Nobody thinks that this is a rigid system that is carved in granite. We make changes and review every year on a rolling programme. People know that that is the case. All the work is shared with the local authority associations and none is done privately.

It is true that interests are not the same. We hear that most obviously in the arguments about the area cost adjustment. Some local authorities have a strong commitment to it, but some think that it is pernicious. There are representatives of each view on both sides of the House. The idea that there is some absolute truth is nonsense. We have to find a system that works well and which people accept as being objective. They must also be able to accept that if they make sensible representations and make a good case, we will try to take it on board.

Our first priority this year is the area cost adjustment review. I do not know what the outcome will be. I have said before that it will have to be intellectually robust and demonstrate a need to spend. If that is the case, we will incorporate it. We are aiming to have the results by June so that they are available for next year's settlement. I hope that local authorities will agree on it, but that is perhaps somewhat optimistic. It is important to be satisfied that it is the best possible intellectual basis for allocating money.

The second area of investigation, which is also important, is the sparsity factor. Here again, many rural areas are concerned about the cost of supplying services in wide open spaces. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The House must settle down and give the Minister a reasonable hearing. That applies to both sides of the House. There has been chattering on both sides of the Chamber while the Minister has been trying to answer the debate.

Mr. Curry: There are equally pressing concerns among urban authorities where the population lives in crowded conditions and where there are problems of health, for example--the Webber-Craig authorities. They are concerned to see the SSA formula adjusted to take account of those problems. The sparsity work is scheduled to be completed in time for next year's settlement.

The children's element of personal social services has a completion date of July. It will have an important effect, especially for some urban authorities. The elderly element is also subject to review. Those are the principal elements of work this year. I do not know what will happen--some may neutralise each other or they may push in the same direction. We will incorporate data where they are demonstrably the most effective and up to date available. We do not want local authorities to fall over the edge of the cliff, so we must not give them too difficult a task on adjustment.

Hon. Members will be pleased to learn that authorities that have to deal with the problems of unaccompanied refugee children will receive a grant in the coming financial year. The Department of Health will consult on the means to distribute that.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and I have had many exchanges across the Chamber on different matters, but I share his desire that the new unitary authorities should get off to a good start.

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Mr. Morley: Which ones?

Mr. Curry: All of them. Everybody understands that they cannot inherit all the spending patterns of their predecessors. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Humberside has a difficult legacy. I am anxious for the process to work and I shall listen to representations from the new unitary authorities that have a particularly difficult legacy. Of course, one or two of them may get a legacy that they had not expected. Apparently there is an Aladdin's cave in Avon, which had not been anticipated.

I understand the concerns expressed about the fire service. We have taken into account pensions, fire safety and fire prevention. It is a difficult area and it is not easy to find an effective formula. The associations are keen on a particular approach based on fire stations. I have said that I am willing to consider it. Some circularity is involved because it reflects existing spending patterns. Also, certain high costs could fall on metropolitan areas. However, if those problems can be resolved, I am willing to consider objectively whether the formula can be improved.

All these matters are of considerable importance. Many of my hon. Friends raised questions of detail, to which I cannot reply tonight in the short time available. I shall write to them and deal fully with the points that they raised. My hon. Friends the Members for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) and for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern) referred to problems in their county areas and difficulties in their district areas.

I understand that the account given by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) was meticulous. I look forward to examining it in the detail it merits.

What happens now is that the preceptors must set their budgets by 1 March and the billing authorities must do so by 11 March. Capping decisions will be taken at the beginning of April and authorities have four weeks in which to decide whether to accept them. If they do, the process ends. If they do not, they have to challenge the cap by the beginning of May. Meetings with Ministers will take place and we will consider the arguments. As I have shown in recent years, where a good case is made, it receives thorough attention. We expect to issue the final caps in late May. That is a traditional timetable and I am sure that local authorities will, as always, avail themselves of the process.

I want to return to the problem that I highlighted at the beginning of my speech--that we do not know where the Opposition stand on these matters. We know that they want to end compulsory competitive tendering and to hand power back to some of the public sector trade unions. We know that they want to end capping, which would impose extra costs on the council tax payer. We know that they want to put business back in the clutches of local authorities by repatriating the business tax, but there would have to be a redistribution mechanism for that. The Opposition say that they will do something about capital receipts, but they do not say what.

The biggest question is: how much would the Opposition spend? That is true of Labour and of the Liberal Democrats. The elector is caught between a rock and a soft touch. I am afraid that the best recourse for them is to support us in voting for this measure.

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Question put:--

The House divided: Ayes 300, Noes 264.

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