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12.14 pm

Ms Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham): I shall be brief. In many senses, this has been a rather sad debate. Every authority faces difficult choices. I know that none

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of the Conservatives here today was able to be present for Monday's debate, but everyone who spoke--including Ministers--acknowledged that this year's local government settlement is very tight. The Government acknowledge that the burden is being shifted on to local councils to the extent that they expect the average rise in council tax to be about 6 per cent. and that, in the next three years, some £4 billion is likely to be required from local government and the council tax.

Mr. Jacques Arnold: Will the hon. Lady confirm that Kent received an increase in its grant and its SSA? Would a theoretical Labour Government increase the grant to Kent and allow it to spend more--yes or no?

Ms Armstrong: It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman was not here for Monday's debate. Had he been here, he would have heard what we have to say on that. We recognise that this year's settlement is very difficult, but I pointed out on Monday that the level of public debt is completely out of control and that, as a consequence, the next Labour Government will not be able to promise more money to anyone. We did promise, and we shall continue to promise, a fairer distribution of the grant and a more open system for distributing the SSA.

Let us deal quickly with the SSA for education. Like many people, we are concerned to ensure that education is protected and that we give our children and young people the very best opportunities. What has been happening in Kent over the past six years? When the Conservatives were in charge of county hall in Kent in 1991-92, the council spent £53.2 million less than the SSA--that is £53.2 million less than the Government said was necessary for education. Last year, the present local authority spent £10 million more than the SSA allocation, or 0.9 per cent. above the SSA.

Rather than being spent on refurbishing county hall--Conservative Members were not bothered about that £7 million of expenditure--money has been used for front-line services, and it is because the authority tried to protect those services that there is a real problem this year. Obviously, Kent Conservative Members were not worried that the former Conservative administration in Kent was spending so many millions of pounds below the SSA, which is the Government's assessment of what is needed.

Mr. Thurnham: Although Kent's community care provision has been praised by both the county's health authorities, the Department of Health's figures show a 10 per cent. shortfall in community care funding for Kent. Should we not be debating those facts, rather than making political points as Conservative Members have done?

Ms Armstrong: I wish that we had had a proper debate this morning about the problems facing Kent and the way forward. The tragedy is that not one suggestion has come from the Conservative group at county hall, other than merging the posts of the chief officers. That has been the Conservatives' only suggestion for budget cuts for next

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year. They have not produced figures on how to pay for retaining services without putting up council tax. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. A debate seems to be going on from a sedentary position on both sides. That must cease. The hon. Lady must be allowed to make her case.

Ms Armstrong: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When I read the letter from the Conservative chairman of finance, I wondered whether we were back in the 1980s. It pledged no cuts in services--we have heard that today--and no increase in council tax. It is reminiscent of Lambeth and Liverpool in the early 1980s.

Mr. Jacques Arnold: Who ran those?

Ms Armstrong: They were run by the Labour party, and the Labour party tackled the problems and sorted them out. Today we have seen Conservative Members colluding with the Tory Trot tendency in Kent.

Mr. David Shaw: Labour cannot run local government.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must control himself.

Ms Armstrong: Ministers acknowledge that the settlement is difficult for all authorities. Difficult choices are being made. Those choices will have to affect central administration as well as front-line services, but such cuts will not be sufficient. The authority is already spending substantially above the standard spending assessment on the fire service. It is in difficulty because the Government do not acknowledge what hon. Members have said today about the needs of the fire service. The money needed to meet the commitments is not there. Incredibly difficult choices have to be made. It is our responsibility to work with all the councillors in Kent to ensure that they are able both to protect as much of the service provision as possible and to come within the spending limits.

Efficiency savings of £23 million a year have been made. The Government have admitted that the situation is difficult. It is difficult for Kent; it is difficult for all authorities. I wish that many more Members present today were prepared to get down to sorting out the problem instead of making desperate pleas to keep their marginal seats. As the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) knows, I visited his area last week and had discussions with councillors about the problems that they face. They are trying to address those problems honestly. I wish that that were true of some of Conservative Members.

12.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford): I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) and every Conservative Member from Kent.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: And me.

Sir Paul Beresford: Interestingly, one or two strays from Lancashire and Cumbria have also been present.

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An authority has to be really bad to get such a united reaction from the local Members of Parliament. Kent had 100 years of relative calm and stability under the Conservatives. It was a good authority, judging the quality of service by its outputs rather than, as the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) suggested, by the amount of other people's money spent on it. We should also recognise that this is a matter of private grief for the people of Kent. That is why hon. Members from Kent constituencies are here, pushing the point solidly.

I am astonished that the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) is here. He wished to speak on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, but could not because of the time. I remember some of his past statements on similar issues. Supporting the unsupportable behaviour of the Liberal Democrats in the Lib-Lab pact in Kent would contradict many of those statements.

The hon. Member for North-West Durham talked about finding a different method of distribution. One is tempted to suggest that it would be a distribution favouring friends rather than an objective approach. Independent experts accept that the standard spending assessment is an objective approach.

Ms Armstrong: What about Westminster?

Sir Paul Beresford: Including Westminster, although the hon. Lady does not seem to appreciate that.

It is worth noting that Kent's difficulties have been recognised. It has the highest standard spending assessment of all shire counties. Its SSA for 1997-98 is more than £1 billion. Admittedly, it also has one of the highest populations. Even so, its SSA per head is still the second highest of all shire counties. The overall SSA has increased by 2.2 per cent. on the 1996-97 figure. Within that, the education element has gone up by 3.5 per cent. and the fire service element by 5 per cent.--twice the rate of inflation.

The Lib-Lab pact councillors presented their case on a piece of paper last month to the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). Their technique was fascinating. They should learn from some of the contributors to today's debate about how to approach budgeting. The normal procedure for setting a budget is to look a year ahead. They are looking at the last minute.

On their piece of paper, they rolled forward everything that they had spent in 1996-97 and then added a long list of all the expenditure that they would like for the coming year. They compared the result with their provisional cap limit. The difference, they explained, was a shortfall. They then said that they wanted to list certain items as service cuts to meet their wish list or shortfall. Nowhere in any of the documents was there any mention of how priorities might be reordered. Nowhere was there mention of efficiency savings in a budget of more than £1 billion. They could not find savings in that--they could only produce a wish list.

It is not for me to tell Kent county council how to find savings, although I am tempted to do so on occasions, but it is worth reminding hon. Members that the Audit Commission has given it ample scope for considerable savings. The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours)--Workington is in Cumbria,

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400 miles from Kent--mentioned the district auditor's comments. Every district auditor's report is a curate's egg, and the hon. Gentleman has been selective. The auditor has pointed out opportunities for savings. For example, it is possible for authorities to recognise the millions of pounds being wasted on maintaining surplus places in schools. Kent's record on that is far from perfect. In 1994-95, the most recent year for which audited figures are available, more than one fifth of the secondary school places in Kent were unfilled.

That might sound depressingly familiar. Kent's council tax payers have a right to expect a little more imagination from their elected representatives on the council. I was not allowed to interrupt when my hon. Friends from Kent were criticised and I must defend them, because they are well known for placing considerable pressure on the Government on behalf of the people of Kent. They are successful because they put a good case. That is shown by the size of the SSA, the amount of funding that has been provided, and the efforts made on the single regeneration budget and on some of the roads. They continually make their case to the Government through letters, questions, general meetings and specific meetings. Time and again, they have put the case for Kent, but they recognise that times are difficult, money is tight and savings need to be made. Conservative councillors have made it quite clear that they intend to do that.

Members on both sides of the House will agree that a 10 per cent. increase in Kent's budget is not the only solution. It is high time that some people involved in Kent local government learned to face up to their responsibilities. There is a saying that under Labour it will all end in tears. That may happen if we allow Kent to remain under Labour control.

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