Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Reports (Nos. 102 and 104)

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Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): I, too, have a few questions to ask the Minister. For those who have not been here on previous occasions, may I say that I have been a chair of social services? The quality protects grant has been an important part of the funding of social care during the past few years. Its purpose is to improve the management and delivery of services to children. I am pleased that the Government are focusing on this important area and are determined to bring about change in the quality of services provided to young people.

I thank the Minister for her recognition in advance of my concern about transparency. It is important that we know how the money is allocated. The total sum awarded to local authorities appear to be skewed when comparing like with like and I believe that the Government should act to demonstrate their commitment to fair distribution that meets need. I emphasise that because most of us recognise that when standard spending assessments are used to achieve the distribution, they do not always reflect need. Considerable work has been done in Stockport, where I was chair of social services. It was clear that the relative affluence of the borough did not in any way predict the level of need for children needing the services of the local authority.

I should feel considerably happier if the methodology by which the grants are allocated were tabled simultaneously with the report. I recognise that the Government are acting within the terms of section 88B(3)(c) of the Local Government Finance Act 1988, which was amended by the Local Government Finance Act 1992, but the matter is not as transparent as it should be. If we were dealing with small sums it would not matter so much, but £1.3 billion was allocated via ring-fenced grants in personal social services alone last year.

I am pleased to see that information technology for looked-after children features, and that section 24(1) of the Children Act 1989 extended assistance to 16 to 21-year-olds who have been in the care of a local authority. That is my interpretation. I am assuming that a young person who is still at university or some sort of higher education after their 21st birthday will not have their computer removed. I would be particularly concerned about that.

I think that we have already had the answer to my next question. I was going to ask if the amounts indicated for capital expenditure on IT in annexe A have any relationship to need. Obviously, if they have been calculated on the basis of SSA, we have already discussed that. It would be possible for local authorities to say precisely how many bits of kit they needed to meet the needs in children's homes, or foster homes—if provisions extend that far. Some local authorities have already been able to provide computer equipment for those categories.

What assessment has the Minister made of satisfactory process with the MAPs, and were any local authorities penalised by refusal of grant, or part of grant? The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has already focused on

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that area. Has the money already been paid for the current year? I acknowledge what the Minister said: we have come to the matter sooner than we did last year. However, that does not alter the fact that we are still several months into the financial year. I think that it rather undermines the work of Parliament if we are given information after the event, rather than at least at the same time.

If local authorities know that the money is coming, or it is already there, they may simply spend the sums that they would have spent on other things. The Government can ensure that the money is spent on what they want, but that does not alter the fact that it may be a temptation to local authorities simply to move things along, if they know that the money is coming anyway. Is the Minister not worried that the effect of the grants is centralising? They effectively take away control and responsibility for bringing about change from elected members of local authorities.

As for the quality protects regional development worker grant, I am absolutely in favour of spreading good practice—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. I must ask hon. Members to be quiet when someone is addressing the Committee.

Mrs. Calton: Thank you, Mr. Hood. How were the seven councils selected for annexe D(3)(a)? New section 88B(3) in schedule 10(18) to the Local Government Finance Act 1992, which amends the 1988 Act, clearly states:

    ''where the Secretary of State proposes to make two or more special grants to different authorities he shall, before making the grants, make a determination stating with respect to the grants—

    (a) to which authorities they are to be paid''.

Annexe D(3)(b) states:

    ''any other authority which incurs relevant expenditure during the relevant period''.

There is no identification there. I wonder whether it is lawful not to specify which authority is the ''any other authority'', particularly part of the way through the year when presumably part of the money has already been spent. What guidelines have been given for maximum expenditure, and has the Treasury agreed to any maximum sums?

4.58 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hood.

I support in principle the objectives that the Government have set. I would be churlish not to welcome an injection of money into these services. The children whom we are talking about are among the most vulnerable people in our society and it is quite right that we should give as much attention and help as we possibly can to all children, especially to those with particular needs. I support the report in principle, but I have to say that I am worried about some of the detail, and I should be grateful if the Minister responded to my questions and put my mind at rest.

My first worry is methodology. A few days ago, I said in one of the Committee Rooms that I had heard mention of the dreaded initials SSA. The moment I hear the term SSA, I worry about the methodology

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used to do any calculation. When, later. I address the annexes to the report, I shall explain my apprehensions in greater detail.

My concern over methodology and the effect of SSA leads me to worry about the fairness of the exercise. Although I have no difficulty with the principles, I do have a difficulty with any distribution of money that is unfair to some parts of the country. I make no apology for highlighting again the effects of the reports on my county, Surrey, where other people are convinced there are no problems and little deprivation; I have been told before that we have enough money of our own, so we do not need help from the Government. However, things are not quite like that, and we need to explore the idea of fairness.

Another worry is the timetable to which the Government are working. As the hon. Member for Cheadle pointed out, we have already started this financial year—in fact, we are a quarter of the way through it. However, only now is Parliament being asked to authorise the exact details of the report. If I set off on my domestic budgeting for the year and got a quarter of the way through without knowing my income, I might get into problems, and certainly my bank manager would be on the phone to ask what was going on. Why does a local authority have to get a quarter of the way through the year before it knows for certain what it will receive?

There are probably two explanations for that delay. One is that there is incompetence in the Government and they simply cannot organise things in time, so any old time will do. That is the more charitable of the two explanations. The other relates to the development of the principle of total contempt for Parliament. Any time will do, because there is never any possibility of proper debate. However much scrutiny Parliament can provide, the thumping great Labour majority will ensure that a mindless, unthinking strategy will be rolled out to rubber-stamp what the Government have decided. That is the less charitable explanation. Perhaps the Minister can say whether the reason for delay is incompetence or a much more sinister contempt for Parliament; it must be one or the other.

The question of split responsibilities also worries me. That general issue has been highlighted by the way in which the Minister introduced the special grant. She explained how much money we started with in 1999—I believe that it was £75 million—and said that it had grown to £230 million. She then said that the figure is not really £230 million, but is actually double that if one includes the contributions from other services, and other parts of local government and central Government. She said that the money available for the work that we are discussing is therefore growing to £462 million. Here we have the Department of Health taking the lead on an initiative that we all support in principle; it says that it is being active. However, we then discover that that is not what is happening at all; if the Minister's figures are correct, and if I understand them correctly, we are considering only half of that figure for investment, because the other half is coming from somewhere else.

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That is a splendid example of split responsibilities. I have said it before, and I will say it now and in the future: we need to examine how we co-ordinate services. We should not deliver packages of care to particular groups of people—in this case, the more vulnerable children in our society—on a split basis. We should put together an agency effort, so that all the money is channelled through one source. If that means upsetting Departments' arrangements or treading on the toes of certain people in local government, so be it.

The Minister said that half the money would come from one grant and half from another, which shows that bureaucracy and service providers matter more than the people who receive the service. Those people would get better value for money and more attention if the care was not split up. It is all very well to say, as the Minister does in the document, that the Secretary of State will monitor what is happening and has powers to take away and to require. I support that, because it has to be done somehow, but that is only half the activity required. Someone else must monitor the other half and take away, if necessary. The proposed set-up cannot be sensible. If a local authority is failing under the terms of the special grant, we can be certain that its services are failing elsewhere. Responsibility for any intervention should not be split. One Government inspectorate or independent body should be able to look in from the outside and encompass the entire investment in this very desirable service, not just the half that we are considering this afternoon. Those are my concerns about a measure with which, in general, I agree.

We are told that

    ''(2) Amounts payable to authorities''

are to be determined by SSA. Will the Minister tell us which children's indicators under the SSA are being used? Will she tell us what else is being used? The last time I had this discussion with the Minister, we were talking about special grants to the elderly. On that occasion, the distribution formula under the SSA was calculated on the basis of some figures and star ratings in relation to the elderly, which is right. However, to a certain extent it also took into account SSA and star-rating considerations for children's services. The way in which local authorities received money for the elderly therefore depended on how they dealt with children. If that is so, I fear that the Minister may tell us that the reverse is now true, and that consideration is given not only to certain parts of the SSA formula that relate directly to children, but to parts that overlap. It would be useful if the Minister could tell us which parts are relevant, rather than referring generally to the part of the SSA that relates to children. The SSA has many parts, only some of which are relevant.

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