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11.24 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): We have just heard a speech that hardly mentioned the capping order in question, and instead focused on abusing the Minister. I give the order a qualified welcome, because I oppose capping on principle; I have never supported it, and I find considerable difficulty in accepting its application this time around.

Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said, two thirds of a loaf--as, roughly, it is--is rather better than none. I acknowledge that Ministers have done their best to respond to concerns of hon. Members, and of contingents from Derbyshire, pressing the county's case. It will be a test of the county's ingenuity to implement, within the budget, the full effect of the standard spending assessment increase given to the education service in Derbyshire. Nevertheless, I am confident, because of the record of Derbyshire county

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council, that it will achieve that. It has shown originality and innovation in much worse circumstances, and I believe that it can respond to the challenge.

Mr. Levitt: Is my hon. Friend aware that £2.9 million is being given to Derbyshire in the context of£1.16 million under the standard spending assessment to address class size, £1,000 per school for books, money for capital spending in education and so on? That would never have existed under the Conservatives.

Mr. Todd: Indeed. Since the general election, there has been considerable Government largesse for Derbyshire, and that is welcome as a small step in redressing the legacy of 18 years of Conservative government. Tory malice toward Derbyshire was effectively admitted by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) in the previous debate on this subject, and it was conceded by the Deputy Prime Minister in responding to that debate.

Evidence of consistent attempts to find ways to tinker with the SSA to achieve a lower settlement for Derbyshire is obvious to all concerned. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover has drawn out one implication of that--that this is a first stage in responding to Derbyshire's concerns. It is a welcome first stage, which I shall support in the Lobby tonight, but it means, together with the Minister's strictures, which I accept, that the county must settle for managing within its budget this year and looking for ways of finding economies, which is always a duty on a local authority. It will also be a duty of that local authority to present, with hon. Members, a coherent argument for new ways of looking at the mechanism that provides resources to local government. It is clear to me that Derbyshire has faced settlements that are inappropriate in comparison with those for the leafy suburbs of the south-east--an imbalance that we should do our best to redress in future.

Without the extra space within the cap, libraries and a family support unit would have been closed. I was fortunate enough to spend most of last week in my constituency, when I visited, among other places, a family support unit. It provided detailed help for individual young people who were estranged from their family, and tried to support them through the education process in the worst circumstances. If one of those units closed, the young people would never be able to advance their education and might be in jeopardy. Such are the terrible choices that would be faced by the county.

I also spent time visiting youth centres across my constituency. Again, there would have been massive cuts in the youth service across Derbyshire to stay within the original cap. That service provides critical support for young people in our community, to keep them out of trouble and to provide them with pathways into education. Such services would have been lost, too.

There is much to celebrate in our record. The Audit Commission showed that Derbyshire's record in helping elderly people to stay in their own homes was second to none. That is one further steer on how the standard spending assessment should be reconsidered. I do not believe that that goal of the county, which is well met, is properly recognised in the current spending assessment.

Just think what we could do as a county with a proper and fair settlement that would bear comparison with the settlements of some of the authorities represented by Opposition Members. My optimistic message for the

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future is that Derbyshire can beat the rest with a fair deal, and we shall continue to fight for it, but tonight we shall support the order.

11.30 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): I begin by wishing the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) a speedy recovery. Although I have disagreed with him on many occasions, I respect the fact that he always had the best interests of Derbyshire at heart when he spoke in the Chamber.

It is refreshing to hear Labour Members say how much they wanted this debate to take place. Only last week, for the first time ever, the Government were trying to get a capping motion through in Committee. Never before has a capping order been taken in Committee.

Ms Armstrong: Never before has there been one authority involved.

Mr. McLoughlin: I wish that the hon. Lady would check. There have been several occasions on which only one authority has been capped. She comes to the House badly briefed if that is what she thinks.

Every previous capping order has been taken on the Floor of the House. If the Government are so proud of what they are doing, why was the first question on the matter tabled by a Sunderland Member, and why was a question about the final decision tabled by a Kent Member? Are no Derbyshire Labour Members ever in the Chamber? Are they always in their constituency?

We have heard the excuses from the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), who said that he was in his constituency last week, so he was not available to table the questions. Sometimes it is not necessary to be physically present in the House to table questions. Hon. Members can table written questions.

Mr. Skinner: I do not put down planted questions.

Mr. McLoughlin: What about the other six Derbyshire Members?

We are here to discuss the Government's proposals. It is worth quoting from the Labour party manifesto, which states:

I assume that the Government regarded what Derbyshire wanted to do as an excessive council tax rise. If Derbyshire Members support the Government tonight, they will be confirming that.

Judy Mallaber: No.

Mr. McLoughlin: The hon. Lady says no, but how can she vote for the cap? The Government are introducing the cap because they believe that it is an excessive council tax rise. If they did not believe that, they would not try to cap Derbyshire county council. Perhaps Labour has some new logic. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) made clear, capping is a power of the Secretary of State, not a duty. The Government have assumed that duty.

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The Government initially proposed to cap Derbyshire by £3.9 million. They have now changed their mind and will cap Derbyshire by £1 million, allowing it break through its cap by £2.9 million. I am wholly critical of the cynical way in which the Government are dealing with this issue. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon said, in order to stop Derbyshire spending £1 million out of a £470 million budget, the Government propose to reduce Derbyshire's spending by 0.21 per cent. That is what the Government are considering capping; that is an excessive council rise in new Labour speak. Let every council be aware of that for next year.

The cap will cost Derbyshire council tax payers some £320,000 according to the latest estimates. The first estimate submitted was £550,000. The Minister could not confirm when the Department was told that the figure had changed; I am surprised that no note has come from the Box. The figure that the county council has in its papers for tomorrow is £550,000. That would be sufficient to build extra classrooms at St John's school in Belper, which is grossly overcrowded, or it could go some way towards building a new school in Belper, which is desperately needed. It could be used to fund a study of the Ashbourne bypass or possibly to build a new primary school in Tansley.

Mr. Levitt rose--

Mr. McLoughlin: I shall give way in a moment. Yesterday a group of parents from Wirksworth Church infants school delivered a petition to No. 10 Downing street protesting that the school is threatened with the loss of a teacher. That £320,000 could have paid for a teacher for the next 20 years.

Mr. Levitt: Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that all the serious underfunding issues that he has listed have emerged in the past 12 months? Do they not relate to the period when the previous Government capped Derbyshire to the tune of £214 million over several years? Is he saying that he would have allowed Derbyshire to break through the cap completely to the level that it had planned?

Mr. McLoughlin: I shall come to that point shortly. I want to address the whole issue of capping in Derbyshire.

In its publicity, which it releases at regular intervals, the county council says that rebilling is the fault of the previous Government. This capping decision is the fault of this Government. It was said that we did not change the law. That is correct, but the Government do not have to use it. I reiterate that it is a power of the Secretary of the State, not a duty. The county council is being capped for only 0.21 per cent.--the smallest cap ever introduced.

The last time we debated capping in the House, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and the right hon. Members for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) and for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and, I suppose, the Minister--although I have not checked the record--voted against the cap. That made a difference of £112 to the average household. We were talking then of a reduction for each person of about £56 and, therefore, an average reduction for households of £112. This cap will make a difference,

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on average, for the vast majority of households, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon said, of £2.87. In Amber Valley, 40 per cent of houses are in band A, as are 19 per cent. in High Peak and 30.9 per cent. in South Derbyshire. Those are facts in terms of reductions in those council areas. The proposed cap does not stand up to justification.

The way in which the Government wanted to take the matter through Committee was deplorable. It was clear that not one Labour Member representing a Derbyshire constituency would be a member of the Committee. None of them would have the chance.

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