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24 Oct 2002 : Column 473—continued

Judy Mallaber: The hon. Gentleman referred to the possibility that money might be transferred to other parts of the country. I come from a rural coalfields area, which the Government want to help, and we cannot understand how some of the southern counties receive so much extra per pupil than our area? Can he explain

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that? Does he agree that there should at least be a floor and that the lowest-funded authorities should reach that level?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Lady makes her points in her own way. I can only regret that she had no chance to speak in the debate. If her Government had provided more time for the debate, she might have had that chance. May I suggest that her points could be made in an Adjournment debate?

Other Members spoke tellingly. I was especially struck by the contribution made by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney). I cannot discuss the contributions of every Member who has spoken about the f40 group, but I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work on the group. He has led an effective campaign, in which Gloucestershire was included. It would be wrong to introduce changes in this grant distribution formula that affect councils like Gloucestershire, which is likely to lose funding of as much as #135 per pupil, yet is already one of the lowest-spending authorities.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) who said that fairness delayed was fairness denied. He rightly pointed out that schools in Cambridgeshire already receive #270 less per pupil than those in neighbouring Hertfordshire.

The real joker in the pack was the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks). I think he was issuing his new manifesto as putative Mayor of London. I always knew that old Labour was a gamble, but I had not realised that its supporters had a gambling policy and that they wanted to introduce municipal casinos. No doubt that will be part of the hon. Gentleman's manifesto, so the people of London can judge whether the proposal is a good one.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) made the perceptive point that his constituency has a particular problem owing to the high percentage of elderly people. Indeed, as I represent a constituency that has the third highest number of people aged over 85, I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend. Personal social services will be especially affected in local authorities such as my hon. Friend's. Like other hon. Members, he pointed out that in his area health spending will also be affected, so the combined nutcracker effect of cuts in health and social services spending will be misery. There will be more bed blocking and more people waiting for treatment. Throughout the country, more people will suffer.

The new Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) made an interesting contribution. She said that she has received representations saying that there should be no more police in Dorset because the people there could not afford the council tax increases. That is a sort of sideswipe at the Government, but, in my experience of elderly and vulnerable people, they will spend more if they feel that they can obtain more police and feel more secure in their own homes, so I am not sure whether I entirely agree with the Lady on that matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) made the telling point that his county council could be the worst affected in the country. He

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gave some fairly horrendous figures—a wide band of between #4.1 million and #43 million—and said that that would particularly affect the police force in his constituency. I hope to return to the police if I have time, because that issue is of particular concern.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) spoke very sensibly, as always, and made some telling points about the methodology used in the proposals. I should like to quote quickly the Rural Services Partnership's views on that because the methodology is very important, and I hope that it will be rigorous and soundly based when finally introduced. It says that

It goes on:

I hope that the Government will be able to attend to that. It concludes:

I have little doubt that it could be subject to political interference in the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) made the telling point that the island obviously has costs because of its geographical position. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said that his local authority could lose 300 police officers, and he is not alone in the shire authorities. In particular, the proposals on the police are very worrying.

I think that I have covered the contributions of all my hon. Friends. There were telling contributions from Labour and Liberal Democrat Members, but I do not have time to deal with all of them.

I am concerned—my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley touched on this—that the Government have increasingly proscribed the way in which local authorities can spend their money with special and specific grants, top-ups and so on. There are also legal obligations as to the services that local authorities have to supply—for example, in education and personal social services. So if there is a shortage of money because of the Government's proposals, the areas of discretionary expenditure that remain—for example, highways—are likely to be particularly badly hit. That must be a real worry.

As I have said, there are seven blocks in the discretionary paper, and there are some worrying proposals. Most worrying of all is the resource equalisation proposal. As always, the devil is in the detail, and the resource equalisation proposals are right at the back in chapter 11. If hon. Members did not reach chapter 11 in this huge tome, they should look at the proposals in option RE2, which show that the shire counties and district councils could lose a staggering #328 million. Indeed, the south-east and south-west alone could lose a staggering #128 million.

It must be wrong that efficient low-spending councils' money is being redistributed, because of their tax base, to high-spending, often highly indebted, highly

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inefficient, northern Labour councils. That cannot be fair and it cannot be right. Councils that have been prudent over the years should be allowed to provide a reasonable level of service.

The next particularly worrying block is that for the police, under which, for example, Devon stands to lose 200 police officers.

The third particularly worrying block is that for environmental, protective and cultural services. Again, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea will be interested in the fact that one of the proposals—EPC3—does not allow for commuters and day visitors, so London would lose #272 million under that proposal. Under EPC4, the shires and districts would lose a staggering #259 million because the weighting for deprivation, commuters and visitors would be removed.

As my hon. Friends have said, this proposal is one of Labour's redistributive measures. It is unfair and unfounded, and the Labour party should take it back to the drawing board. When the people of this country realise that the Labour Government, with their tired brand, are delivering an unfair system, they will vote in the ballot box to remove the Government because of what they have done.

4.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Christopher Leslie): This has been a lively, interesting and detailed debate. There has not necessarily been the consensus that we usually achieve in the House, although I would not necessarily agree with the view of my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) that this was a whingers' debate. That is not true; it was not a whingers' debate, and it has been well-mannered and well-argued in content.

Before I continue, I should like to say that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions has asked me to apologise for the fact that he is unable to attend the debate to hear the winding-up speeches.

We are considering a very significant issue today—the formula grant review. We are talking about local authorities in England that currently receive grant via the SSA system. As many hon. Members have said, some 25 per cent. of public spending goes through local government, most of which comes from central Government, with the balance raised locally via council tax. For some time, the Government have been reviewing the fundamentals of how those resources are divided between authorities. Although it might be an obvious thing to say, we do not have limitless funds. A finite pot of grant is shared by reference to an authority's circumstances and to its ability to raise council tax.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) recognised in his contribution, three basic factors form the foundation of the system: the basic amount per head of population, an appropriate emphasis on the need to tackle deprivation and reflections of the variations in pay costs between areas. Of course there are other components.

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