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11 pm

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): I associate the Liberal Democrats with the best wishes that have been sent to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). We look forward to his return.

It is extremely regrettable that we must discuss the capping of Derbyshire county council's revenue budget. The fact that we are shows how far this Labour Government are prepared to go to implement a Conservative agenda; how much they are prepared to say one thing in opposition and do exactly the opposite in power.

In opposition, the Labour party consistently opposed capping of local authority budgets. In 1993, the then hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said:

I could not put the arguments against capping more eloquently.

In 1995, a Labour party policy statement on local government said:

Just two years later, we find ourselves with a Government formed by the Labour party which, in its election manifesto, said:

    "Although crude and universal council tax capping should go, we will retain reserve powers to control excessive council tax rises".

In office, they implement exactly the crude and universal capping that they promised to end.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the chance to intervene--unlike the Minister, who would not. Like you, I share the sentiment that an overwhelming majority in the House support the views exposed by the then hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). What do you think--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Member has been in the House long enough to know whom to address.

Mr. Hancock: I apologise. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) is as curious

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as I am to find out what impediment stood in the way of the large Government majority doing something about the unfortunate capping regime.

Mr. Sanders: I am sure that the Minister, who is a believer in open government, will comprehensively answer that later.

I find it even more regrettable that the Government are imposing a cap on Derbyshire's budget only two weeks after the end of their consultation on reform of local government finance.

In the Green Paper, "Modernising Local Government--improving local financial accountability", the Government state that modernising local government is dependent on radically changing the relationship between councils and their communities and between councils and the Government. They suggest that one way to achieve that is

Can the Minister explain how she thinks that she is achieving that by interfering in Derbyshire's tax and spending decisions?

Even those of us who remain opposed to capping might have understood the Government's action if Derbyshire had set a budget £10 million or £20 million above cap, but it was set only £3.9 million above cap, and the Government appear to have agreed that £2.9 million of that was needed. We are here tonight because the Government cannot allow Derbyshire county council an extra £1 million, less than 0.25 per cent. of Derbyshire's total revenue budget. If that is not central Government prescription and control run riot, I do not know what is. It is also regrettable that the Government think that spending an extra £1 million on public services is unacceptable when they have just announced £3.6 million for spin doctors in Whitehall--a strange sense of priorities by any standard.

The Liberal Democrat group on Derbyshire county council did not support the controlling Labour group's decision to set a budget above cap. It agrees that capping, crude or sophisticated, should go but believes that there were ways in which the council could have achieved savings and stayed in budget. It has no wish to inflict the cost of rebilling on council tax payers. Out of the £2.9 million gained by Derbyshire, £320,000 will have to be spent on rebilling every household. One could argue that the council is still £2.5 million better off so perhaps it is worth it. If that gamble had not paid off, the council would have had to cut services even further and the local community would have suffered.

The case that Derbyshire county council made in arguing for extra Government grants tells an all-too-familiar story in local government. Over the past nine years in Derbyshire, central Government have reduced the council's revenue budget by £214 million. Service closures include the school music service, the only local home for disabled people, a toy library and five homes for the elderly. Discretionary and clothing grants were abolished in 1996. Those cuts will hurt the most vulnerable, reinforce deprivation and perpetuate social exclusion.

Liberal Democrats have spent many years campaigning against the incompetence and inefficiency of Labour-run councils and we have no wish to become apologists for them. However, the fact that Derbyshire requested only

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an extra £3.9 million, of which the Government concede that it needs £2.9 million, suggests that there may be a case. We intend to vote against the imposition of a cap on Derbyshire's budget because capping is an abuse of central power, demeans democracy and undermines the right of local people to decide what services they are willing to pay for.

In 2001, the people of Derbyshire will be able to pass judgment on the track record of their council. They could choose to pass a vote of no confidence in the council because of higher spending or to endorse its decision to fight for more money for its communities. More likely, most voters will not vote at all, confused about who is really responsible for spending decisions and concerned that, however they vote, central Government will set priorities and dictate community needs. People will not bother to make the detour to the polling booth on local election day. The Local Government Association recently conducted a MORI poll that showed that more than one third of people do not believe that voting in local elections makes a difference to local taxes or services. Will the Minister admit that her actions reinforce that view?

I hope that this is the last time that we are called to the Chamber to debate the capping of a local authority's budget. We should like the Minister's assurance that that is the case. The Government cannot continue their practice of promoting democratic renewal while constantly interfering in local spending decisions without rightly being accused of hypocrisy.

The Government have promised to provide greater freedoms for "well behaved" councils in their local government Bill. Perhaps the Minister can tell the House when we might expect to see that Bill. If they really believe in local democracy, they should give councils the freedom to raise taxes and to work with local communities to agree local service and spending priorities. If the local government Bill offers only more sophisticated versions of central Government control of local councils, the House will know that the promise of democratic renewal was all spin and no substance.

11.9 pm

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): We have just heard from the representative of the Liberal Democrat party, the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), about the plight of my constituents, and it is a strange tale that he has told. When the controlling Labour group in Derbyshire decided, with my support and that of other Derbyshire Labour Members, to go through the cap because we felt that the county had been treated unfairly, what did the little band of Liberal Democrats on the council do? The Liberal Democrat representative has now informed us that they did not have the guts to challenge the Government to try to get more money.

Now that, through our efforts, we have an extra £2.9 million for the Derbyshire ratepayers, for more schools and all the other services, the hon. Gentleman has the cheek to come here and say that the Liberal Democrats are now complaining that that is not enough--although they did not want any more money in the first place. I like to challenge the Tories about hypocrisy, but that takes some beating.

It is not as if the Liberal Democrats do not usually find a way of saying, "Raise taxes." That is their usual ploy, but the Liberal Democrats in Derbyshire did not have the guts to say it, so we need no lectures from their Members of Parliament.

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When the whole saga began, many years ago, we had the awesome experience of seeing a Tory Government come to the House with their revenue support grant settlement and Tory Members of Parliament from Derbyshire stand up in the Chamber and demand that the Minister should not give Derbyshire too much money. In all my years of experience, I had never before heard Members of Parliament saying, "Don't give us money for our schools and our kids, or for our welfare services." Yet the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and his colleagues who represented Amber Valley and South Derbyshire at the time all used to jump up and condemn Derbyshire for asking for too much money. Today, however, the Tories are coming along to say the opposite.

On one such occasion I wanted to put Derbyshire county council's case in an Adjournment debate, to explain how the Tories had robbed it of £214 million--actually it was a bit less than that at the time, because they still had a few more years left in which to take away even more money. I thought that it was high time that someone put the county's case, which was a good one.

I got my Adjournment debate, and stood up to speak--I was on the Opposition Benches in those days--but I had got only one sentence out of my mouth before a Derbyshire Tory Member, who later became Government Deputy Chief Whip, demanded to intervene and stop the debate on a point of order. A Member gets only a quarter of an hour or 20 minutes to speak in an Adjournment debate anyway, but all that I managed was another couple of sentences before the Derbyshire Tories raised several more points of order. I still carried on, but I was not getting very far.

The Tories talk about wrecking things in the House of Commons, but what happened then was that one of the Tories called, "I spy Strangers," and called a Division in the middle of my Adjournment debate. It took them 20 minutes to vote and my whole debate was lost--and now they have the cheek to talk about democracy. All that I was trying to do--

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