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8.3 pm

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): It is a great pleasure to follow such a thoughtful speech as that made by the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), although I disagreed with some of his conclusions, especially the one relating to his Californian example. The way in which the economy works in that part of the United States is so fundamentally different from the way in which it works here that I am not sure that it would be possible to import the system. Nevertheless, the House should heed the hon. Gentleman's thoughtful comments.

A few minutes ago, a telephone message was passed to me, consisting of some of my daughter's interim examination results. I am rapidly putting money aside for to fund her university education.

The debate began with what appeared to be a campaign to secure shadow Cabinet places under the next Labour Government. I want to deal with two specific issues, one of which was not dissimilar to a point raised by the hon. Member for Wantage. The first is public funding for science, which used to be--and doubtless still is--of great interest to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury; the second is the funding of local authorities. There are serious anomalies in the Government's attitude to both.

In his usual robust fashion, the right hon. Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt) spoke about the Wirral, South by-election, and made a number of comments about the

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European dimension. A week ago today, I attended a party in Hulme hall, Port Sunlight, to celebrate a magnificent victory. The last time I was in that hall, I was negotiating with Unilever on the creation of a European works council--that was during my previous life. Unilever, one of our most successful companies, has agreed to set up works councils to cover the various divisions of its operations, and now recognises that there are benefits to both company and employees in keeping the organisation moving.

I return to the public funding of science. As most people will know, during the past two days, the Science and Technology Committee has been considering the subject of a sheep called Dolly, which has probably had more jokes made about it than any other sheep that has ever existed. Some important issues were raised. In a public hearing today, the Roslin institute gave extremely important evidence to the Committee.

What worries me is that, in our drive to lower the headline public expenditure figures, we are not looking behind that headline and at the detail. As a result, confusing messages are emerging. The Roslin institute has links with not only the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food but the Home Office, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Health, and the funding structure is very confused. We were shocked to hear today that the institute, which is doing very valuable work relating to animal husbandry and future medical benefits, is suffering massive cuts. It is rather ironic that the Minister of Agriculture should be limping with a broken limb today, given that one of the 30 per cent. cuts was in bone biology. We are missing the point. A long-term investment strategy should be adopted in such areas to ensure that the public get the best value for money.

One of the great problems--the Chief Secretary will recognise it from his days as a Science Minister--is the long gestation period of such research. It has been especially difficult to create the right financial structure in the United Kingdom to generate private sector companies that will support the type of innovative companies that exist on the west coast of California that do research in, for example, human genetics, and will give more support to the work of the public institutes and the universities. One company, PPL, works closely with the Roslin institute, but such companies are rare in this country.

Our venture capitalists seem to lack the confidence to support research in areas in which the Government might pull the plug. For example, tremendous work is being done with transgenic sheep, an area of research that may yield clear therapeutic benefits for cystic fibrosis sufferers. That will be of great benefit to individuals and, of course, to the public purse, because supporting those who suffer from complex genetic illnesses costs significant sums. Financially and morally, we should try to create the environment in which such research can take place.

Sadly, because headline cuts are needed to satisfy the soundbite politics of the Chancellor, we have not addressed the long-term strategic needs properly. The work that is the subject of the Select Committee's inquiry will receive a 50 per cent. cut in this financial year and is projected to lose all its funding from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the following year. That is shortsighted, and it will have two effects. First,

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it will mean that the Roslin institute has to cut its major research programmes that could be beneficial to animal husbandry and human health. Secondly, people will lose their jobs and, potentially, become a burden on the state. The entire team might be headhunted by countries with a more innovative approach to the public funding of science. The team could go and work on the west coast of the States, because of the different funding environment. I hope that the Government can give some reassurance to those people. The bizarre tabloid headlines of the past week may have woken the Treasury up to the need to continue funding for that research because of its long-term social benefits.

I shall now consider the problems experienced in Ellesmere Port and Neston, which the district auditor believes to be a well-run local authority. Again, the Government are missing the point about some serious problems. Extraordinarily, given the language that we often hear from Tories, the Government are missing the point about the relevance of investment. That shows in a wide range of areas. The Government have deployed various arguments to explain why they have changed the freedom of local authorities to establish their spending base. The Government now decide the total spending, the planning fees that local authorities can charge, and what they can borrow. Local authorities have to compete with other local authorities for additional resources, such as the single regeneration budget. The projects on which SRB money should be spent are also decided by the Government. That is bizarre. I do not understand how someone 200 miles away can determine the best strategic approach for the redevelopment of a town centre.

Last night, the council set a budget figure for 1997-98 that I predicted almost precisely when I commented on the Chancellor's local government figures in the Budget. The increase in the council tax is some 6.4 per cent. The district council collects the money for the county and the police authority, and those two institutions take up some 83 per cent. of the funds collected. Locally, we began the budget process with a Government decision that we needed to spend some 3.2 per cent. less than last year, despite inflation increasing by 2.5 per cent. The reduction of 3.2 per cent. in what we are supposed to spend is almost the highest reduction in the country.

The reduction in spending does not take account of comments made by the district auditor, or of programmes to promote inward investment and to raise housing standards. We all know the correlation between poor housing and poor health. Because of the inflexibility of the funding decisions, the programme of work to renovate pre-cast reinforced concrete properties has been halted, even though it would provide financial advantages for the local authority and the central Exchequer in the long term. If the programme remains stagnant for much longer, the authority will have to demolish properties because they will be beyond economic repair. That is not a good use of public money.

Similarly, there is less flexibility on business rates. Hon. Members who do not live in areas with heavy industry perhaps do not understand the problem. The petro-chemical complex that stretches from Runcorn to Ellesmere Port is a hazard site, and significant funds have to be invested to boost fire service protection and to deal with the environmental health issues that arise from public worries about pollution, yet we derive no benefit from the business rate, which is drawn down to the centre.

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The local authority is charged with the duty of collecting it, but it does not get its fair share back. Under the previous rating system, there was an element of equity. I believe that Shell was the biggest ratepayer in the county at the time, and that money was available to help boost the shortfall on fire safety and environmental protection issues. Again, we have found ourselves somewhat disadvantaged.

The result of the financial programme is that repairs have been postponed and staff have been reduced--including, I have no doubt, people from the direct works department, which generates a profit and is certified to BS5750. It has been able to get out into the marketplace and win some exciting tenders, but is being stymied by this process. We expect increased charges, even for services that affect our elderly population, such as bus passes. The programme of minor improvements is slowing down and the issue of balances is close to being a joke because the balances are almost non-existent.

How the calculation works and, as I have suggested locally in the past year, the fact that the Government seek to blame the local authority for its council tax rise, is clear when we see how the council tax calculation is made. Of the average increase of about £19.28, the local authority is directly responsible for only 8p. That is extraordinary when we see the Government again running the headline about the successes that they claim will emerge from the Budget.

All the Government have succeeded in doing in both the examples that I have cited is to pass the buck elsewhere. First, the headline cuts in public science will result in long-term disadvantages to the country as well as potentially higher expenditure on unemployment. Secondly, we are seeing an attempt to blame local authorities for something over which they have 8p in £19.28 responsibility. That is not a fair burden of blame. The real blame lies on the Government Benches.

We have heard today a number of examples of how the iniquities in society have grown worse as a result of the processes with which we are currently faced. The right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton) referred to the minimum wage, but he failed to address the other side of the coin. He did not seek to justify employers squeezing down wages and sending people down the road to gain family credit and income support. That is not a proper use of public money. We should set much higher standards than that.

We have also heard about people's rights. The Deputy Prime Minister referred to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), to deal with what he was alleged to have said in a television interview. My right hon. Friend quite honestly said that he believed that people have rights.

I have referred at length to people who I believe have rights. For example, the people who will benefit from the long-term work at the Roslin institute have rights. The people in my constituency living in poor housing have rights. We as politicians should address those rights. That is where the Deputy Prime Minister missed entirely the point of my right hon. Friend's contribution. We must address the needs of those categories of people and we have a social responsibility to do our best to do that.

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