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Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gummer: I want to make some more comparisons; then I will give way.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has spent two years working on his argument--the same argument as I have heard throughout the two years during which we have been discussing the matter. Let us see how he is doing. Has he shown that the system applied to Westminster is different from those applied to other local authorities? No, he has not. He cannot, because the same formula is applied to every local authority in the country. The system is completely open.

Has the hon. Gentleman explained why, if the current system is rigged in its favour, Westminster did better under the last Labour Government than it does under the present Government? No, he has not. [Interruption.] I think that the hon. Gentleman needs to listen to this. He knows that his own local authority, Camden, is treated more generously in comparison with Westminster under the present Government than it was under the last Labour Government.

In other words, under the system employed by that Government, the hon. Gentleman's authority did less well than it does now, while Westminster did better. There was a different system, which was better for Westminster and less good for Camden.

Ms Armstrong: Why was that information not included in a parliamentary answer to a question asked earlier this year? A Minister was asked

He replied that the requested information was not available before 1990-91.

Mr. Gummer: The reason is that the question was an entirely different one. It asked about totalities; I have been using comparators. I have said clearly that I am comparing two local authorities. The hon. Lady clearly has it wrong.

The amount that went to Westminster under the Labour party's system was proportionately more than the amount that went to Camden, while the amount that went to Camden was proportionately less than the amount that went to Westminster. If that is so, it cannot be true that the Government are fiddling the figures. It seems to me that the only fiddling of figures was done by the Labour party, which did it so badly that, when it left office, the system it had produced would not stand up.

The reason is simple. Labour was able to change the arrangements for one authority as against another, while our system makes it illegal and impossible to change the arrangements for one authority: we can only change them for a whole class of authorities. That is why the comparison must be made by reference to a class of authorities rather than a single authority.

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The whole system would have to be rigged--which could not be done without all the Labour councils pointing out that it had been done. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras is the only person who believes that it was done.

Mr. Stephen: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, far from being imposed arbitrarily by central Government, the SSA methodology is worked out in careful consultation with the local authority associations, and that, if any change were made, there would be howls of protest from Labour authorities which would lose? Will he also confirm that the people of Scotland and Wales, which are represented mostly by Opposition Members, receive far more subsidy from central Government than anyone living in England?

Mr. Gummer: Such issues are discussed regularly with representatives of all the local authorities, all of which are dominated by Labour, all of which are involved in any change in SSAs, and all of which disagree with one another on every individual case because they want what will help them in particular. I understand that, but we discussed these matters in great detail, which is why so many changes have been made.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) rose--

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) rose--

Mr. Gummer: I want to make an important point. We introduced other measures of deprivation into the index, including the problems of unemployment, specifically because the Labour-controlled local authority organisations wanted us to.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer: No.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has failed to produce any evidence that hordes of Labour leaders are demanding changes of the sort he wants. That is probably why he cannot make expert opinion support his case. I know that he would not expect experts to agree with him, because he has said that he does not always agree with them. The hon. Gentleman has said that he never felt compelled to agree with experts. But what do the experts say? They say that this is the most sophisticated system in Europe to give fair and equal treatment to the whole country.

If the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras believes what he says, would he not have got up two years ago, a month ago, or even last Thursday, and said, "We propose a radical change in the share-out system." He did not do that; he left it to the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) to say what she thought about it.

The hon. Lady told the Local Government Chronicle that she would not like to promise major changes at this stage. I am glad about that. [Interruption.] I think that, in the same article, she did not promise any radical change, but presumably she agrees with her hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, who said that this is a major scandal of the Government rigging the arrangements.

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If the Opposition believe that, they would promise change, but they do not, because they know that the allegation is untrue. It is only in the House that they can get any vestige of support for their allegation, because they do not have support from the experts or from their friends in local authorities. They have no support from the facts, and they do not believe it themselves.

A few weeks ago, the Audit Commission published a wealth of information comparing the performance of every council in the country. I considered that it was worth looking at Westminster council in 1996, because I thought that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras would attack that council in his speech. He attacked not just the council that was reported on by the auditor, but Westminster council in general. Indicator after indicator shows that Westminster city council provides a service far superior to that of its closest Labour neighbours--Camden, Hammersmith and Fulham, Islington, and Southwark.

It is worth putting the record straight. I hope that hon. Members will agree that one of a local authority's most important jobs is the collection of council tax. Poor collection means less to spend on services and higher tax bills. According to the Audit Commission, Westminster collected 88.8 per cent. of its council tax in 1994-95.

Mr. Betts: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Gummer: No. I want to finish my speech, and there is not much time in which to do it.

That compares with a collection rate of 86 per cent. in Hammersmith and Fulham, and in Camden, while Islington managed only 82 per cent., and Southwark managed only 79.9 per cent. Despite having the best collection rate, Westminster spent less per dwelling than Camden, Islington, and Hammersmith and Fulham on collecting the money. It takes longer to get a decision on a planning application for those who live under Labour.

Mr. Betts rose--

Mr. Gummer: No, I will not give way. I want the hon. Gentleman to listen to these figures, because he might learn from Westminster.

Westminster decided on 74 per cent. of household planning applications within eight weeks. Southwark managed 65 per cent., Hammersmith and Fulham 63 per cent. and Camden only 53 per cent. Islington said that it managed 48 per cent., but the Audit Commission has expressed doubts about that council's figures. Even if Islington's figures are correct, it is still the slowest council in London, and the second slowest nationally, in deciding on household planning applications.

I thought that it was worth while looking to see how Islington performed on the council tax. I wondered whether it would be a good idea to consider what would happen to tax throughout the country if every council got the same Government grant per head as Islington. I took the views of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras on Westminster and transferred them next door to Islington.

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Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley): Oh, very clever of you.

Mr. Gummer: It was not bad. It took some time, but we have done it. I thought it was also worth while to appreciate that Islington--

Mr. Foulkes: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I can find no reference in the motion or in the amendment to Islington. I understand that it is in order to make passing references to matters that are not in the Order Paper, but the Minister is not doing that: he is rehearsing a whole volume, and I think that you should ask him to sit down.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I remind the Secretary of State that the amendment states:

It would be advisable and to the benefit of the House if the Minister would return to that.

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