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Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon) rose--

Dr. Harris: I give way to the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown), who was an active member of the Labour group on Oxfordshire county council in former years.

Ms Drown: I thank the hon. Member for allowing me to take part in the debate. I wanted to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because my constituency borders on Oxfordshire, and some of my constituents work in, and many are affected by, services in Oxfordshire.

My constituents have raised with me--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. In such debates it is customary not to give way unless there has been some prior agreement. I understood that the hon. Lady was simply making a brief intervention. If she is making a speech, that is rather a different matter. Was there a prior agreement?

Dr. Harris: I was warned that the hon. Member for South Swindon might intervene, and I am happy to give way so that she can briefly make the points that she wishes to make, in an intervention.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Lady may complete a brief intervention. Then the debate can continue.

Ms Drown: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have three brief points to make.

First, my constituents, too, are affected by what the hon. Member is describing. Secondly, all parties on Oxfordshire county council agree on the need to point out that the county's budget has been slashed by

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£52 million over the past six years. That may have produced some efficiencies in the past, but it is now causing great pain.

Thirdly, I shall give an example of the sort of thing that is happening in Oxfordshire. The 400 children on the child protection register are not being properly supervised.

The spending level that the county proposes represents a very modest increase. All parties on the council are asking for that degree of flexibility. I support what the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is saying, and urge the Minister to do all that he can to give Oxfordshire the modest flexibility that it requests.

Dr. Harris: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making those points, which I shall not repeat.

To continue from where I left off, the words that I used may have seemed grand words to describe such a small sum. The difference between the budget that in the view of all groups in Oxfordshire is needed to preserve essential services, and the capped level, amounts to 54p per week on the council tax for a band D property. Indeed, the council tax rise at the capped level--2.4 per cent--will be the lowest rise of all the shire counties.

The £6 million that we are talking about amounts to less than 0.03 per cent. of the public sector borrowing requirement, and a mere 0.008 per cent. of total local authority spending. It is salutary to note that as a percentage of total public spending, the figure amounts to 0.000023 per cent.--approximately one fifth of a millionth of total public spending.

Another point in Labour's manifesto--which swept the Government to power with such a large majority--concerned the need to get rid of crude universal council tax capping and to retain only measures needed to prevent excessive council tax rises. I would agree that Oxfordshire is extreme--it is extreme in that it is the lowest spender per head of all county councils. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), who is in the Chamber, is a former leader of the Labour group on Oxfordshire county council. No one could describe him as an extremist.

Labour's manifesto also said that the party was committed to a fair distribution of Government grants. Clearly that complex subject has been mastered only by a few distinguished intellectuals with patience and insight, and I include the Minister in that description. That is why the Liberal Democrat group on Oxfordshire county council has chosen a mathematics don to lead its arguments. That will take a lot of time to review, and I urge the Government to listen in the meantime to the views of the local Labour party and the people of Oxfordshire as expressed at the ballot box.

Oxfordshire has been through a lot. The revenue support grant and capping levels have led to more than £51 million of cuts in the past six years, and the capped budget itself followed a decision to cut funding and services needed in Oxfordshire by £12 million--mainly, I am afraid, from social services. That cut is not the action of an irresponsible or extreme, high-spending council. The council has used all its reserves and balances, as the Government would request. The standard spending assessment takes no account of

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rurality or of the sparsity of population which, in Oxfordshire, is the worst in the south-east in financial terms--although it is the best for those of us who live there. I stress also that the cap is particularly rigorous in the case of Oxfordshire because it is only 1.3 per cent. above the SSA. It is a fierce cap, as the average for shire counties is 2.4 per cent.

I conclude by quoting the present Minister of State, Departments of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for North-West Durham, who, in the debate last year, referred to the exasperation at the cap imposed on Oxfordshire following a cap that had been imposed the previous year. She said:


She added that the then Secretary of State for the Environment had learnt nothing from the previous year. All we are now asking is that Labour Members do not forget what they said--and, I think, believed--last year.

11.42 pm

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage): I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on winning the ballot for this debate in which he spoke for our county of Oxfordshire, and I thank him for inviting me to take part briefly in it. I am pleased that he recognises the consistent support that I have given to the county's efforts to spend on locally provided services what local people judge to be both prudent and necessary.

In replying to the debate, the Minister will doubtless tell us that Oxfordshire has to prove that it is different. That is what his civil servants will advise him to say, just as it was their advice to his predecessors. This brief debate is not the occasion for that demonstration, which will have to come when he meets representatives of the county and local Members of Parliament in due course.

I want to make two political points. First, I recognise that the Labour party won the general election in part because it responded to people's quite reasonable resentment at what had become an over-centralised system of Treasury control of local government and its services--particularly education. Everywhere in Oxfordshire and throughout the country, Labour candidates campaigned on the basis that centralised local authority expenditure capping would be abolished and replaced by an efficiency audit to ensure that money raised locally was being properly spent.

The Audit Commission studies show that Oxfordshire is undoubtedly one of the more efficient counties, and the message that our constituents want to be allowed to spend more of their money on local services has come over loud and clear in Oxfordshire.

During the general election campaign, the Labour party tapped into a widespread sense of grievance about those matters. I trust that those of my constituents who succumbed to its blandishments will not find that they have voted simply to exchange grievance for disappointment.

I had hoped that the matter might have been settled in favour of the county before the election. To that end, I took part in various conversations and private

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meetings with Conservative Ministers, before the shutters came down when the election was announced. It was always my clear impression that Ministers at the time were sympathetic to Oxfordshire's case.

The House, the new Government and the Minister might like to know that I am authorised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), the former Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration, to say that it was his intention, after hearing Oxfordshire's detailed case, to recommend to his colleagues in the previous Government that Oxfordshire be permitted to levy a council tax at a rate above the capping limit. I hope that in his reply the Minister will be able to speak at least as fairly as that.

11.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on his good fortune in securing this debate and on articulating in a forthright way the concerns of his local county council and his constituents. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) on her brief intervention expressing similar concerns. We have heard, too, a short but useful contribution from the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), who spoke in the equivalent debate a year ago, although I note that he voted in favour of the cap on that occasion.

Mr. Robert Jackson: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recall that that was on the basis that the Government were allowing Oxfordshire to make some supplementary borrowing--not an increase in the cap, but some additional borrowing.


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