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12 Feb 1996 : Column 708

Local Government Services

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.13 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I beg to move,

I wish to make it clear at the start that I hope that the debate will not descend into the trading of insults about whose councils are worse than others. Many debates on local government in the House have been degraded in that way, and I hope that it will not happen tonight. If we chose, Liberal Democrat Members might use our time to attack Westminster or Lambeth, just as Labour spokesmen might do nothing but attack Wandsworth, or perhaps Tower Hamlets as it was under the Liberal Democrat administration, while Conservative spokesmen might do nothing but discuss Cornwall or Walsall.

If we do that, however, we shall merely succeed in losing what little esteem Members of Parliament are left with in the eyes of the public. Nothing makes politicians lose the respect of the public so fast as Members of the House using valuable debating time merely to criticise one another's councils. The public believe that instead we should consider positive ways in which all local authorities might be helped to provide better services at a lower cost.

People may say--and many do--that local government is on the brink of crisis, but a crisis is usually short-lived, whereas, sadly, the problems of local government are of long standing. Local government now faces a challenge from central Government that is perhaps greater than at any time in history. For the past 15 years, local government has been attacked by a Conservative Government who are keen to centralise as much power as they can. Even before that, there was always an imbalance in the relationship between local and central Government.

For too long, local government has been regarded as the property of central Government, its powers and responsibilities relating not to the public, but to Ministers and bureaucrats in Whitehall. Under the past three Conservative Administrations, local authorities have been regarded as the localised implementers of the philosophy and politics of the new right Conservative Government in Whitehall.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be constructive and not use the debate merely as an opportunity to knock the Government.

Mr. Rendel: I am happy to be constructive, as the hon. Gentleman will find if he will be patient. I said that it was important to use the debate to consider the whole of local government, not just to criticise individual councils.

For far too long, local government has been the property of central Government. We must change all that. From May 1996, the Conservatives will be left in control

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of no more than a small handful of local authorities. As their losses in local government have increased, so their determination to control local government from their Whitehall bastion has also increased. Every year, our local authorities find it harder to cope with the financial burden placed on them by central Government. They do so under a dead weight of bureaucracy and over-regulation.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton): The hon. Gentleman talks about the powers and restrictions that central Government place on local authorities, and I believe that we can have a reasonable debate on that. Nevertheless, I draw his attention to the specific case of Taunton Deane borough council, held by the Liberals since 1991, which has never been capped. Two years ago, the council was awarded an extra grant of £1.3 million from central Government--the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration, my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), knows my opinion about that--which was far more than any other council in Somerset or Devon, and the grant has not been significantly reduced since. This year, the council proposes to increase its precept by 158 per cent., resulting in a

as the Somerset County Gazette reports. What has the hon. Gentleman to say about that?

Mr. Rendel: I have already made it plain that I hope that the debate will not be degraded by that type of intervention, and I shall not even honour the hon. Gentleman with an answer in that respect. I hope that no other hon. Member will seek to degrade the debate in the way that the hon. Gentleman has done.

Every year, our local authorities find it harder to cope. As the Conservatives have been driven from town halls throughout the country, the Government have wreaked their revenge. To ease the burden on central Government--largely to pay for reductions in income tax--the Government have increased the burdens placed on local authorities. At the same time as local authorities have had their resources pulled from under them by central Government, increasing statutory responsibilities are being passed on to them from central Government.

One need only think of the nightmare represented by care in the community or the endless red tape of compulsory competitive tendering. It is fair to sum up the problem which confronts local authorities of all political complexions as that of having a wide range of responsibilities dictated by central Government, without the resources needed to meet them or the freedom to secure those resources.

Let us consider some recent financial settlements. Last year, the Government at least had the honesty to admit that the settlement was very tough. They could hardly do otherwise when their own press release confirmed that, bearing in mind the new burdens in respect of community care, the contribution from central Government had decreased in cash terms. It meant a cut in Government funds of well over 3 per cent.

This year, unfortunately, there has been rather less honesty from Ministers. In November, the Chancellor of the Exchequer pledged that an additional £878 million would be made available for investment in education for

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1996-97. Of that, £770 million was to be channelled through local government. As I asked in the debate on the local government settlement, where is the extra £770 million? Funding from central Government for local authorities has not risen in real terms.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that his party's alternative Budget at the end of last year showed no extra money for local councils? Does that mean that the extra money that Liberals wanted for education--equivalent to 1p on income tax--would not be spent under their plans, or does it mean that new taxes would be imposed? Or does it mean that money would be taken from some local councils and given to others?

Mr. Rendel: The hon. Gentleman is wrong in his description of our alternative Budget. It is clear that the extra money from income tax would be spent on education. That is a local authority service. That money would have gone to local authorities for that reason.

This year, the Government have increased the standard spending assessment for education by only 4.5 per cent. Yet local authorities are already spending more this year on education than the Government suggest they should spend next year. If local authorities are to fulfil the Government's pledge of an increase in spending on education of 4.5 per cent., the reality is that the Government are, in effect, pressing local authorities to increase council tax by an average of 8 or 9 per cent., and to cut other services to the bone.

Even then it will not be possible for many authorities to boost spending on education by the amount that the Government suggest. I remind the House of the report produced by the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service, which was published on 15 January. One section read:

In Cambridgeshire, for example, the education SSA for the current year was £226.1 million. Next year, it is due to rise to £237.3 million, an increase of 4.9 per cent.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I am fascinated by the hon. Gentleman's argument. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) was told off for using a specific case--presumably one which did not suit the Liberal party's purposes--but we are now being treated to a specific case from the hon. Gentleman. What are the Liberals up to? Do they understand the case that they are putting, or are they merely making it up on the hoof as they go along?

Mr. Rendel: The interventions are becoming more and more futile. I referred to the need not to make foolish interventions merely to describe where certain councils had gone wrong in order to make cheap party political points. I am talking about the way in which the Government's financing of local government has affected certain councils. That is a very different matter.

Cambridgeshire has already decided to spend £241.1 million on education this year because the authority places a greater value on education than do the Government.

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That pattern is repeated in a range of county councils from Northumberland to Cornwall. Indeed, it covers the length and breadth of England. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) will no doubt confirm when he replies to the debate, exactly the same pattern is repeated in Scotland and Wales.

The Conservative party controls only a tiny handful of education authorities. No doubt that is why the counties place a greater emphasis on education.

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