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14 Nov 2002 : Column 250—continued

Mr. Butterfill: Can the Secretary of State comment on the existing anomaly whereby those who take their 25 per cent. tax-free lump sum get a tax break, but those who put all their pension pot into the purchase of an annuity get no tax break?

Mr. Smith: Those are the choices available to people within the system. The hon. Gentleman's expertise on these matters is acknowledged, and in asking his question he enables me to knock on the head the repeated claim that we will somehow use the tax system to end reliefs, and to hit high earners' pension contributions. Let me repeat the commitment that I, and Treasury Ministers, have given. We have no such proposals, and if we did, we would tell the House of Commons.

The hon. Member for Havant asked whether we had backed off on housing benefit sanctions, and about the position on child benefit sanctions. As I said in my opening remarks, this Queen's Speech puts forward a range of measures to tackle antisocial behaviour. On nuisance neighbours—the neighbours from hell—there are measures such as injunctions, fast-track evictions and antisocial behaviour orders. As far as those who truant from school are concerned, we are looking at the effectiveness of fixed penalty notices, fast-track prosecution and parenting orders. The test is what works: the measures that will be speedy and effective in stopping nuisance neighbours, and in stopping children truanting.

In this Queen's Speech, our approach to both health and pensions is to devolve power to front-line staff, to couple investment with reform, and to ensure that we can simultaneously build a strong economy and a strong society, in which we each fulfil our obligations to one another.

Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Ainger.]

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 12 (House not to sit on certain Fridays),

Question agreed to.


Fishing Industry

7 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): It is my privilege to present a petition from the fishing community of Fraserburgh, the most fishing-dependent area in the whole of Europe. The petitioners fear the destruction of the economic fabric of their community and of communities along the coastline of Scotland. In a few days, their campaign attracted 9,000 signatures and they now wish to see their cause represented at the highest levels of Government. They intend to take their campaign nationwide throughout Scotland.

The petition reads:

To lie upon the Table.

14 Nov 2002 : Column 252

Local Government Funding (Derbyshire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Joan Ryan.]

7.1 pm

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): I thank the Speaker for granting me this debate on local government funding in Derbyshire. I was greatly concerned to have missed being called in a previous debate on the funding review, especially as so many representations have been made to me by my constituents. I am pleased that other Members representing Derbyshire constituencies are in the Chamber, as they, too, may want briefly to contribute to the debate. I shall reiterate some of the points made by hon. Members in the previous debate, but I want to raise some issues relevant to Derbyshire that were not considered on that occasion. I shall begin with highways. That issue was only touched on in the previous debate and I did not raise it in my written submission to the review. I am concerned that Ministers are coming under great pressure not to change the current formula. We want to support the proposed new formula on highways.

The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), may not be aware that the Woodhead pass on the Sheffield to Manchester road has already been closed this year due to snow. He may not know that Derbyshire county cricket club was the only one to have a first-class cricket match cancelled because of snow in June. We are very well aware of the problems caused by snow, but the new formula should none the less use temperatures rather than lying snow as a measure. They are more relevant when determining whether pre-gritting is needed.

Derbyshire grits about 52 per cent. of the total highway network—even more than the Audit Commission recommends—but that is essential for road safety. An icy or frosty road can be more dangerous than one where there is melting snow. Winter gritting takes place between 60 and 70 times a year in Derbyshire, but there is snow on only 20 of those occasions. Furthermore, when snow readings are taken, urban areas sometimes benefit due to the fact that snow has fallen in high regions elsewhere.

The proposed new highways formula also removes the threshold whereby Derbyshire gets no extra cash for traffic flows. Such money is mostly awarded to urban areas. A certain volume of traffic, such as heavy lorries, causes the same damage even if it flows during a longer period, so there should be some recognition of that, rather than an artificial cut-off point.

If Ministers do not agree to changes in the formula, Derbyshire will suffer twice. The main, and very busy, road through the county, the A6, and other roads have been de-trunked and the special grant of #12,000 per kilometre that we currently receive would be reduced to #5,000 per kilometre in the standard spending assessment. That would result in a loss of #1 million for the carriageway for which the county council has recently become responsible. We were told that the grant would continue for longer, but it will now be absorbed into the SSA after only nine months. We have not objected to that because the new standard spending assessment formula is more rational, but it will be a double whammy. We will be very upset if not only do we

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not get the new rational formula, but we also lose out on what we might otherwise have expected to get because we have taken over responsibility for the de-trunked roads.

On education, I will reiterate some of the arguments made in the previous debate, but also ask Ministers to consider a proposal that I made in my submission to the review, which seems not to have been considered. I have replied to 300 letters from constituents asking for the review to put right the unfairness in the present system, which has discriminated against Derbyshire children for many years. They support the arguments put by the worst funded education authorities for a proper basic level of funding per pupil. They are not arguing against extra help for those areas with great deprivation, but they cannot understand why children in more affluent areas, such as Hertfordshire, get more—#300 more per secondary pupil and #250 more for primary pupils. They do not understand why there is a home counties subsidy.

The sense of grievance undermines positive feelings about the additional resources that have come into education under Labour, which have been of huge benefit to our schools. If the problem is not recognised, it will undermine the good that has been done as a result of that extra spending. It needs to be recognised in some way that the current disparity in funding is not based on real educational and social needs, otherwise there will be huge disillusion.

I appreciate the difficulties for Ministers in trying to deal with that problem, as they face pressures from all sides, but surely there is only one principle, which is the one put forward by our education chair in Derbyshire—that similar schools with similar characteristics in different authorities anywhere in the country should get similar resources and be able to employ a similar number of teachers and support workers and have similar information and communication technology equipment and so forth. That is the basic principle. It might mean different amounts of cash going into different schools, but there would be parity between schools with similar characteristics.

How does that principle work for one of my head teachers, who moved from a southern county to Derbyshire? He moved to a similar sized school, but one that takes pupils from far greater areas of deprivation and has more statemented pupils. He had #300,000 less in his budget, which is equivalent to about 18 to 20 teachers on top of the present 73, than he would have had according to the formula in the county from which he came. That head teacher has emphasised to me his appreciation of the help afforded by the extra money that has come from the Labour Government. The school now has technology status. Frankly, he went for that because he could not afford to buy computers for the school. He appreciates that, but feels aggrieved—as do many of his pupils. The head of the neighbouring primary school told me that the Ofsted inspector frankly refused to believe him when he described the level of funding it received.

I want the Minister to respond to three points on education funding. Like hon. Members who represent other authorities, I want higher basic funding per pupil and I support the option that includes working families tax credit as one of the indices of deprivation, which

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should also apply to the social services formula. That system would better reflect poverty in rural areas, where unemployment figures may not be as high as in inner city areas, but pay levels are very low.

On the first day of the debate on the review, a major clothing company announced the closure of two more factories in my constituency and the neighbouring Erewash constituency. A huge number of jobs have gone in the east midlands in that sector. My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), lost 700 jobs at Biwaters in Clay Cross, but our local jobcentres tell us that those job losses have not been reflected in the recorded unemployment levels. Many of those involved must have disappeared from the register and may well have gone into much worse paid jobs elsewhere. Any change that would better reflect deprivation would give a truer reflection of local circumstances and needs.

Will the Minister consider a proposal that I put forward in my submission? In the previous debate, I was able to intervene to make the proposal, but I am afraid that I was rather unclear and he thought that I was talking about floors and ceilings as with the damping mechanism. I was proposing that there should be a mechanism to level up education authorities in the lowest quartile of SSA for the proposed new education spending blocks. I gave examples that included the education 2 proposal, and did not help authorities just because they got the area cost adjustment. The mechanism would level up the lowest funded education authorities.

We have a real problem locally. Every teacher and parent in Derbyshire seems to know about the gap between our area and others. Levelling up would be an easily demonstrable method of proving to those parents and teachers that we care and that we understand about the poor levels of funding. I ask the Minister for his response to that proposal.

We have been asked whether it matters that the funding of authorities such as Derbyshire is so much lower than elsewhere. We keep our education and social services spending above standard spending assessments to compensate at the expense of other services. The Government know that teachers are concerned about work loads. Our teacher contact ratios are substantially higher than nationally, a majority of heads in small schools teach more than half the week, all non-essential support services—curriculum development support, teachers' centres, community support and a range of other services—have been lost over the past 10 years and nearly half our key stage 2 pupils are in classes of 31-plus.

I visited an infant school in a severely deprived part of my constituency—a good school with beacon status. The head told me that when she meets heads elsewhere, she is amazed that they have the resources to allow non-contact time for infant and primary teachers. She told me of cuts in a major literacy project and how such shortages are limiting her school from making yet more progress. I ask the Minister to respond on the specific proposals that I have made, some of which were put forward by other hon. Members in the debate. The other specific proposal is about levelling up.

My next point, about the area cost adjustment, was well aired in the debate, so I will not go into it at length. However, at Prime Minister's Question Time on the day

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before the debate, the Prime Minister reaffirmed the Government's commitment to help coalfield areas and talked about the resources that were going to help those communities to raise their aspirations. However, the consultation document does nothing seriously to reform the area cost adjustment, which makes coalfield areas such as Derbyshire subsidise the home counties solely because they are wealthier and, moreover, adds to the inflationary spiral in the south-east. They do not have higher costs that justify the huge subsidy. The ACA has gone up from 1.8 per cent. to 4 per cent. of costs. They sometimes have to pay higher retention payments for staff and put them higher up the scale, but not at a rate that justifies this ever increasing proportion going to the area cost adjustment. Surely joined-up government should not allow coalfield areas to be given money with one ministerial hand only to have it snatched away with the other.

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