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Mr. O'Hara: Will the Minister bear in mind the fact that the multi-activity vehicle is based on the platform of the Escort? It is likely that there will be under-capacity for Escort production for the market beyond the millennium. Will he investigate with the company the possibility of investment not only to bring the MAV to Merseyside but to retain the Ford Escort? There is a case for having both.

Mr. Knight: I do not rule that out. Yesterday, I met Tony Woodley, whom many hon. Members will know. I was impressed by his constructive position. I understand that he is having further discussions with Ford tomorrow. We intend to have further discussions with Ford next week. We will bear the hon. Gentleman's point in mind. However, he must appreciate that it is ultimately a matter on which Ford must make a commercial decision.

Sir Malcolm Thornton: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Knight: This must be the last time, because the debate must finish at 11 am.

Sir Malcolm Thornton: My hon. Friend knows that there have been all-party discussions on this. With the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara), we have been able to meet Ford and the unions. Will my hon.

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Friend ensure that the information we get is thoroughly checked, because there is a huge dispute between what Ford says about productivity and cost and what Mr. Woodley and his colleagues presented in our discussions. That is fundamental to any discussions that the Government might have.

Mr. Knight: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Some hon. Members have said that they have evidence that disputes Ford's figures. If that evidence is available, I would like to see it. I shall consider it. To date, such evidence has not been supplied to me.

Many hon. Members mentioned our employment laws. In making a product, what matters is the productivity of the plant. One does not close down, or reduce output at, the most productive plant. That is the position that Liverpool has to address. Ford has also suffered a setback in the markets, as some hon. Members rightly acknowledged. That has added to the problems that have had to be grappled with.

I cannot deal with all the points raised in the debate, owing to lack of time, but I shall answer the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) who commented on objective 1 status. Only last month, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch, who is with us today, met the council leaders of Merseyside, and they all agreed that matters were progressing much faster. There seemed to be no dispute about that, so the hon. Gentleman's comments were out of date.

Many fine cars and memorable names have rolled off the production line at Halewood since the first 997 cc Anglia. I have owned two cars built at Halewood: a Ford Anglia and a Ford Capri--they were among the best cars that I have owned. I hope that, for many years to come, others will be able to say the same of new models that have yet to be made at Halewood.

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Revenue Support Grant (Kent)

10.59 am

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford): I am grateful to have secured today's Adjournment debate on revenue support grant for Kent county council. Such a debate is timely, and I welcome my parliamentary colleagues from across the county here today. Among those whom I welcome are my right hon. Friends the Members for South Thanet (Mr. Aitken) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley), and my hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman), for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), for Faversham (Sir R. Moate), for Dover (Mr. Shaw) and for Medway (Dame P. Fenner).

We also have a message of support from ministerial colleagues--the Secretary of State for the Home Department, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Sir P. Mayhew) and the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), who cannot be here today owing to ministerial duties.

No Government cuts have been forced on Kent county council's budget. That fact must be clearly identified as a thread that will run through the debate. Kent received a fair settlement in recent announcements on local government finance--Kent county council will receive a £22 million increase for the year 1997-98. That increase allows it to spend a massive £1,029 million and makes it one of the highest spending authorities in the country but, controlled by a Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition, it is imposing more severe service cuts than any other county in England while refusing to implement efficiency savings or embark on a restructuring programme, as it has been advised to do by professional financial commentators, Price Waterhouse.

The council's failure to acknowledge the fair Government settlement, and its failure to slim down bureaucracy, leads it, allows it and enables it to attack services for the most needy and most vulnerable people in our county. To exercise a different philosophy and different policies from the Conservative party is one thing, but to fail to take action in any one of the past four years to reduce bureaucracy and administration is incompetence. It is nothing less than a declaration of war by the county council majority on the people of Kent.

The socialist alliance at Maidstone cannot say that it did not see the problem coming. The problem was as evident to us as it was to the alliance: it was as clear as the appearance of a juggernaut on a straight country lane. If not negligent or incompetent, the behaviour of the Labour and Liberal Democrat members on Kent county council is wilful and malicious, and the people of Kent will have none of it.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham): I am listening carefully to what my hon. Friend says. Does he agree that the Liberal and Labour regime's adoption at county hall last autumn of the old highwayman's call to stand and deliver was most appropriate? Does he further agree that the county council was dishonest to pursue a campaign demanding an outrageous 10 per cent. increase in grant while knowing that it would receive only an inflation-rate

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increase, then to brand that increase as a cut? Does he agree that the behaviour is akin to Saddam Hussein's human shield in terms of using the elderly and vulnerable--those who use adult centres, the youth service, libraries, the fire service and the Kent music school--as a human shield to create as much mayhem as possible across the county?

Mr. Dunn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is right, and he will know that Conservative representatives on the local education authority voted against cuts to Kent music school. That is on record and can be seen by those of our constituents who support the music school. I shall refer to other matters raised by my hon. Friend in a few minutes.

I take this opportunity to welcome into the Chamber my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department and my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe). The intellectual power on this side of the Chamber is increasing massively by the hour.

The political majority on Kent county council has signally failed to act responsibly. That is no surprise to Conservative members, as the political leadership of the council is clearly well beyond its second best.

I was asked by Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, the excellent leader of the Conservative group on Kent county council, to make something crystal clear. When the Conservative party retakes control of Kent county council on 1 May--and restores a political pattern that has served our county well for more than a century--the Conservative-controlled Kent county council will, first, reinstate any fire stations that have been closed; secondly, reverse any cuts in the adult education service; thirdly, reverse cuts in the youth service; fourthly, restore full library opening hours. Those are absolute commitments from the leader of our group on Kent county council.

Dame Peggy Fenner (Medway): I am heartened by the pledge my hon. Friend has just made on behalf of the Conservative members of Kent county council. The area that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) and I represent is about to become a unitary authority. That is a sign that the area is the largest conurbation in Kent and its most industrial part. It unwittingly contributed to the peace dividend when it lost its major employer in the dockyard in the early 1980s. Adult education is essential--I am sure that all hon. Members know that it is vital to have a centre where the young can go to develop their education and their skills, where those who took early redundancy from the dockyard can go to develop new skills and where our considerable elderly population can go for exciting recreational and educational facilities. I am sure that people of all political persuasions agree with that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. This intervention is becoming a speech.

Mr. Dunn: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, whose record of service to our county is distinguished. Conservative Members would like to pay tribute to her for the battling way in which she has fought for her constituents, whom she has represented so well and over so many years. I should particularly like to pay tribute to her on her contribution to the future of the adult education service.

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The commitment that has been given by the Kent county council Conservative leadership is so good that I must repeat it. We will reinstate any fire stations that are closed, reverse any cuts to the adult education service and to the youth service and--

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