Previous SectionIndexHome Page

27 Nov 2002 : Column 121WH—continued

27 Nov 2002 : Column 122WH

Reusable Carrier Bags

1 pm

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): Thank you, Mr. Benton, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate. I have spoken before in Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall, but this is the first time I have spoken on a subject of my own choosing.

I approached this subject with an open mind—which is, I accept, unusual for a politician. It presents a challenge to any Government who are genuinely concerned about the environment, particularly as it is estimated that as many as 10 billion plastic carrier bags are used every year by consumers in this country. I am sure that we can all agree about one thing—that it is important to encourage consumers to reuse those bags.

The key question is: how do we do that? Since the beginning of April 2002, the Irish Government have pursued the very radical—and, in some quarters, very popular—policy of imposing a 15 cent tax, which is 9p in real money, on every plastic carrier bag issued by the supermarkets. That tax cannot be absorbed by the supermarkets; it must be passed on to the consumer, or there would be no point in levying it in the first place. The United Kingdom Government have suggested that they might consider imposing a similar tax.

In response to a question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz), who is present today, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment described the 90 per cent. reduction in the usage of plastic carrier bags in Ireland as quite daunting, although he went on to say that there might be other ways to reduce the consumption of plastic carrier bags. Five days later, my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury said:

The purpose of this debate is to give the Government the opportunity to clarify their position. I do not expect the Minister to say today that they will or will not impose such a tax, but I hope that they will use this opportunity to explain where we are now, and whether we are considering imposing one. Depending on one's point of view, today might be either a good day or a bad day to raise this issue, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be making his pre-Budget statement in the Chamber later, and he might address this subject.

I approach the issue from the point of view of someone who is concerned about jobs not only in my constituency but throughout the United Kingdom. Last week at business questions I raised a matter concerning a company in my constituency called Simpak. Its managing director, Neil Young, first brought this matter to my attention. In this country, private industry is never slow in coming forward to express reservations or to imply that there might be job losses in response to almost any regulation or taxation proposed by any Government, but we must take industry's view seriously, or at least listen to it in the first place.

Simpak manufactures paper bags but imports large quantities of plastic bags from Asia—which is where the vast majority of plastic bags used in this country are made. The threat is credible; Simpak's concern that a

27 Nov 2002 : Column 123WH

significant decrease in the use of plastic bags on the same scale as in Ireland could result in a loss of jobs in my constituency is credible.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and also to the Minister for allowing me to intervene. Given his constituency interest, I recognise my hon. Friend's sincerity in relation to such issues; I also understand why manufacturers involved in the production of plastic carrier bags do not believe that a ban would be a good idea. Does my hon. Friend accept that the problem is based not only on the amount of plastic used in the production of bags, but on how the bags are disposed of, and the contribution that such action can make to combating litter and the throwaway society? Given the public support for the early-day motion that I tabled in our previous Session, does he not think that the industry, rather than simply opposing the innovation of carrier bag tax, should look for a way of diversifying its production?

Mr. Harris : I accept that my hon. Friend's views are genuine, and I agree with many of them. He has been a strong supporter of the measure for a long time, and I shall deal with some of his arguments. We must consider whether the sacrifice that may have to be made in terms of the number of jobs throughout the country would be justified by what I consider to be the dubious environmental advantages. I have taken a peculiar—some would say unhealthy—interest in the litter on the streets of my constituency. Far from there being large quantities of used plastic carrier bags, the main culprits are discarded cans that once contained lemonade, and plastic and polystyrene food containers. It is estimated that only 1 per cent. of the litter dropped on the streets of the United Kingdom, and only 1 per cent. of landfill, is taken up by plastic carrier bags. That is because many people already reuse plastic carrier bags. A National Opinion Poll survey in October 2000 found that four out of five consumers already regularly reused the carrier bags that they were given free at supermarkets.

One consequence of the new tax in Ireland is a 90 per cent. reduction in the use of plastic carrier bags, but there has also been a 300 per cent. increase in the number of black plastic bin liners sold in shops. Such bin liners are rarely reused, as the smaller carrier bags are. Furthermore—and we must learn from what has happened—there has been a massive shift in Ireland away from plastic carrier bags to paper carrier bags. Environmentalists will welcome that, because paper bags degrade far more quickly than plastic carrier bags.

However, the environmental disadvantage of that practice is that a paper carrier bag is six times the weight of a modern plastic carrier bag. It also takes up 10 times the storage space of a plastic carrier bag, which has consequences for the transporting of paper bags. In other words, for the number of plastic bags that could be transported in one lorry, it would take 10 lorries to transport the same number of paper bags. I hope that the Government will take that serious point into account when considering the way ahead.

We are politicians and we must be careful not to raise expectations. If only 1 per cent. of landfill and 1 per cent. of street litter is plastic carrier bags, even a decrease of 100 per cent. in the number of plastic bags used would

27 Nov 2002 : Column 124WH

result in a mere 1 per cent. decrease in landfill and a 1 per cent. decrease in litter. Is such a negligible improvement in the environment worth the opprobrium that we would surely suffer from consumers and electors if the tax were to go ahead?

We should acknowledge the hard work done by the industry in recognising that it has environmental responsibilities. The best example of that hard work is the fact that a plastic carrier bag today uses 70 per cent. less plastic than it did 20 years ago. The industry should be congratulated on that achievement, not penalised for it.

As with all consumer taxes, my main anxiety is that a plastic carrier bag tax would be regressive. When I go to the supermarket with my wife to do the monthly shopping, we use as many plastic carrier bags as we need to carry our shopping to the car park. If the tax were introduced, I suspect that my habits would not change, and nor would the behaviour of many other people who are lucky enough to earn a good income. However, such a tax would affect the poorest people in my constituency, who are already living at or below the poverty line. Supermarkets are already planned around the car culture, and the proposed measure would only help to penalise people who do not own a car and already suffer from supermarkets' lack of accessibility.

I shall finish by making what some would consider a cynical point, but one that I consider realistic. All politicians want their political party to benefit and prosper electorally. I accept that taxes are unavoidable, but introducing the proposed tax would hand our opponents a ready-made, custom-built manifesto commitment to abolish the tax. Such a commitment would be popular among the millions of swing voters that the Labour party has been courting assiduously in the last 10 years, and our opponents would seize upon it. The tax would probably be the most unpopular since the poll tax, and we do not have to think back too far to remember the consequences of that tax for the Conservative Government.

I am not one of those Labour Members of Parliament who instinctively welcome all taxes and think that we should raise them left, right and centre; I believe that if we can abolish or reduce a tax we should do so. We only have to think about what happened in 1997 to see the consequences for the Conservative Government of raising taxes that the electorate were not convinced were justified. I approached the matter with an open mind, but the more I learn about the subject, the more I am convinced that imposing the tax would mean the worst of both worlds. We would reap a negligible benefit to the environment, and the unpopularity of imposing an unfair tax on the people whom we were elected to represent.

1.13 pm

Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) on securing the debate. We all agree that meaningful and effective steps must be taken to improve the environment. We are required to work within the terms of European directives or pay the penalty for not doing so. I therefore understand the Government's position in taking steps on environmental issues where they can make a significant

27 Nov 2002 : Column 125WH

difference, and they have been successful in doing so. I have an open mind, and my right hon. Friend the Minister's argument may well convince me. However, at present I share some of my hon. Friend's concerns.

I had not given a great deal of attention to the subject until I had read some of the relevant documentation. Certain questions remain unanswered—for example, how effective a tax of this nature would be in making a significant change to environmental pollution. My information is that only about 2 per cent. of all the oil consumed in Europe is used for plastic film, and plastic carriers represent a small part of that percentage. The vast bulk of oil—nearly 85 per cent.—is burned as fuel in cars and lorries, or for power and heating. A carrier bag tax will make no real difference to global oil consumption. Such questions need to be answered if anyone is to be convinced that such a tax will make a significant difference.

My hon. Friend outlined some of the issues regarding the purpose of carrier bags. We all take for granted the plastic bags that we are given by the supermarkets every weekend. I do not know what the reaction would be if they were not available, nor how the public would be expected to cope without them. They are a part of people's way of life now, and such a change would lead to questions about why that practice had changed. Any increase in tax would therefore have to be weighed against the benefit to the public, and a clear argument would have to be presented to justify such a measure.

In general, I believe that if taxation is to make a difference it should be as little as possible, yet effective; in this case, it should be applied across industry, so that no particular industry is unfairly targeted. Industries that cause pollution should pay the penalty for that pollution; either a tax should be imposed across the board, or it should relate to the scale of the pollution. We should resist taxation unless it can be shown that polluting industries would make a significant contribution; in that case, taxation would be easily justified, and I am sure that the public would be on board.

I remain to be convinced that putting a tax on carrier bags will be seen as effective. The Minister may have an effective argument against me; he may say that I am wrong and that my fears will not be realised. I hope that he will consider the points raised by my hon. Friend, and I hope that he can reassure me that if taxation is to be applied, it will be done for credible reasons. If not, perhaps the matter should be reconsidered—if it is not too late. No one knows whether my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make a contribution to this debate this afternoon; we wait with bated breath, but other issues may figure higher on his agenda. I do not want to take time unnecessarily, so I shall let the matter rest there.

1.18 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher) : The three contributions by my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) and for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) were well made. Before such new measures are introduced, there should be a

27 Nov 2002 : Column 126WH

proper public debate and a general understanding of the rationale behind them. As a result of a leak, information was passed to the media, which ran with the story in a particular way. That is a classic example of a hare being started when the information was largely inaccurate. That is not the best way to conduct a public debate. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to respond to this debate.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Central Fife said, it is somewhat ironic that this debate is being held only a few hours before my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer presents his pre-Budget report. I cannot disclose any of its contents that might be relevant to the debate, but clearly, we shall look both to that and to the strategy unit's waste report, which are both highly relevant.

What I can talk about is why this has become an issue. I receive many letters about packaging, which is probably the issue that most concerns the public in terms of the unnecessary frivolous waste of resources. The Government are taking action to reduce the tonnage that retailers use in packaging by introducing certain measures that will give them incentives to do so. However, in 2001 there were 1.7 million tonnes of plastic packaging in the waste stream—an increase from 1.6 million tonnes in 2000. The figure is slowly rising. Point one is that the proposal would be a way of reducing the use of a form of packaging that many members of the public find unacceptable.

The second point concerns sheer quantity. Research conducted in September 2000 indicated that UK consumers used about 8 billion plastic carrier bags per year—an average of about 134 bags per person. That is a huge number, and it is difficult to justify the use of all of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart made a reasoned case from the sceptical side. He suggested that the amount going to landfill might be no more than 1 per cent. and asked what happened to the other 99 per cent.

It is true that if we assume a 20 per cent. replacement of conventional plastic packaging with bioplastics—one solution is to replace non-biodegradable bags with biodegradable ones—the estimated landfill space saving due to the degradation of plastic will be less than 1 per cent. of the volume taken up by municipal sustainable waste each year. Of course we have to take account of the other 99 per cent.—and we are doing so with strict landfill targets, the increase in statutory recycling targets and trading permits in the Bill that we are introducing this year. However, even the 1 per cent. that goes to landfill could still, if all plastic bags ended up there, be about 68,000 tonnes—not an insignificant quantity.

Litter is the issue that concerns most members of the public. The perceived plastic bag disposal problem is based on the view that most go to landfill. Litter is the more obvious issue because discarded bags are very visual, and very unsightly when they blow about in hedgerows or on the street, as they do in my constituency—and, I am sure, everywhere else.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart raised a couple of points that I shall try to deal with immediately. I was puzzled by his saying that the measure could be unpopular. I entirely agree that nothing should be done without a much better public understanding of the rationale behind it. However, if the

27 Nov 2002 : Column 127WH

measure is as popular in Ireland as it appears to be, and has led to an enormous reduction—about 95 per cent.—in the use of plastic bags, I find it difficult to understand why it should be so unpopular in England. We are not exactly the same as the Irish, but I should have thought that there would be a similar reaction here. My hon. Friend also said that there could well be, as has happened in Ireland, a 300 per cent. increase in the number of bin liners. I am sure that there would be a substantial increase in their use. That is a fair point, but I would suggest that those bin liners would actually be used for transporting waste, whereas the litter issue with so many plastic bags is that although once they are brought home they might be used as bin liners, many find their way to other destinations, where they blow about in the street looking unsightly.

Mr. Harris : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way to me, and giving me a second bite at the cherry. Is he not perhaps confusing popularity with acceptance? Despite the non-payment campaigns, 90 per cent. of people paid the poll tax, but that did not mean that it was popular. I have no doubt that the tax in Ireland has been successful, but whether it is popular is another matter.

Mr. Meacher : Of course I understand that. No one likes paying taxes, and there is no such thing as a popular tax; that is a bit of an oxymoron. To take up the point about acceptability, however, there could be a good reason for us to pay a tax, and it could help us to achieve objectives with which we all agree. That is perhaps as far as I would press the point.

There are alternatives, and the Government want to consider them all before proceeding. We are assessing the extent of the problems created by plastic bags, as well as the possibility of a tax, although my hon. Friends know that tax is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, not for me. The results of our work will be considered alongside the report of the Government's strategy unit, which will be published shortly.

I would be the first to recognise that there are disadvantages to a plastic bag tax, and there is the issue of increased unemployment. Some of my hon. Friends may have plastic bag manufacturers in or near their constituencies, and that is a significant issue. A tax could lead to companies going out of business, although my experience suggests that they are good at finding ways to adjust, provided that they have a sufficient transition period. I also understand the point about there being no conventional plastic manufacturers in Ireland. That is significant.

27 Nov 2002 : Column 128WH

Several food retailers have introduced "bags for life" schemes, and we are probably all familiar with them from doing our shopping. They all follow the same basic pattern. A charge is made for a strong and durable plastic bag, which is replaced each time it wears out. It takes a long time for the bags to wear out, but when they do, the plastic from them is recycled. Some supermarket schemes have had considerable success; for commercial reasons, I probably should not name the supermarkets involved, although I think that they are familiar to us all. However, those schemes have yet to take off in a major way across the whole retail sector.

I readily admit that retailers see "bags for life" schemes as a better way forward than a tax. Although they recognise the schemes' overall lack of success, they have, through the British Retail Consortium, shown an interest in introducing a well publicised, voluntary national "bags for life" scheme, as advocated by the curator of the Science Museum. Such a scheme would involve putting a national logo and strapline on all bags, which would be customised for all supermarket chains and types of retail outlet, and designed to be as environmentally friendly as possible. Advocates of that approach take the view that what is missing at present is a properly promoted and co-ordinated scheme to cover all retailers throughout the country. They also recognise that it is crucial to motivate consumers if we are to encourage the reuse of bags. Once again, it is important that we carry the public with us.

There is no doubt that a tax-based policy moves consumer behaviour in the right direction. However, it may also encourage consumers to reuse bags for the negative reason of avoiding tax, and it would be much better if they were incentivised for the right reasons. If consumers are to have positive reasons for changing their behaviour, we must raise awareness and convince them of the environmental benefits of reducing waste and recycling used bags.

Finally, the Wales Environmental Trust and Asda have set up a project to encourage the reuse of plastic carrier bags. Its objective is to find an effective means of reducing the number of single-trip plastic supermarket carrier bags used in Wales. It tries to answer two questions in a two-part project over 10 weeks. The first question is whether the attitudes of the general public on the reuse of supermarket carrier bags can change without the introduction of a tax or some other charge, and the second is what is the best reusable option to provide for consumers. For a trial period of six weeks, single-trip carrier bags will be removed from all Asda stores in Wales, and bags for life will be issued free in their place. That is the type of measure that we will consider before we take a final decision.

27 Nov 2002 : Column 127WH

27 Nov 2002 : Column 129WH

Local Authority Funding (South-East)

1.30 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I am grateful to the Minister for attending to take part in the debate. I am a Surrey Member of Parliament, but the concerns that I want to raise are shared by Members across the south-east of England. That is why I gave the debate its specific title. Across the political spectrum, we are all profoundly anxious about the implications for our local services of the planned funding review that the Government are undertaking. About 10 days ago, the leaders of Surrey, Kent and Hampshire county councils held a press conference to raise their concerns about the potential impact on the services that they offer.

All 11 Members of Parliament, irrespective of party, who represent the constituencies in Surrey are today sending a joint letter to the Prime Minister, urging him to pay attention to the risks inherent in the Government's proposed funding changes. I want to take advantage of this opportunity to set out some of our concerns. I will speak briefly, so that my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) can raise issues on behalf of his county, Hampshire.

The fundamental issue in the south-east is that we are under pressure in a variety of ways. In the past generation, there has been a huge migration of economic activity and population into the south-east—a trend that is continuing relentlessly year by year. Public services across the different counties in the area are already significantly overstretched, for various reasons. We have a substantial elderly population. Parts of Kent face a significant influx of asylum seekers, who need support within the communities to which they move.

Our police force is under pressure as a result of the increase of resources in London, especially the higher rates of pay offered there. There has been a migration of experienced officers into London and other areas. Our social services face a distinct shortage of care home beds. Against that background, all our public services operate in an environment in which the cost of maintaining them is rising relentlessly.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so early in his speech. Does he not think it disgraceful that in care homes in my patch in Kent—and, I imagine, in his as well—an elderly person can have two and a half times as much local authority funding as the person in the neighbouring bed? The amount paid depends on whether the person comes from the privileged boroughs of London or from our constituencies.

Chris Grayling : My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Minister must be aware that the shortage of beds that has resulted throughout the south-east—in London and outside—as homes have disappeared means that London boroughs with deeper wallets are taking up care home places further out. That means that there is less choice available to the social services departments that try to meet the needs of our constituents. There is a shortage not only of care home places but of carers. People in my constituencies are blocking hospital beds

27 Nov 2002 : Column 130WH

simply because the people are not there to deliver the home-based services that the hospitals and social services believe they require.

Against that backdrop, the review threatens at least to engender a drip-by-drip bleed of finance from our services over the next few years. Several scenarios have been suggested. At worst, my county could lose £60 million in funding. I accept that the Government have said that there will be a floor at zero per cent., so there may not be cash cuts in funding, but even if there are increases, if those increases are significantly below inflation, over several years the consequences for services will be devastating. That is because local authority services do not simply operate according to inflation. For example, there are teachers' pay settlements that are higher than inflation and need fully funding. There are increased pension costs and above-inflation increases in care home costs. There is a whole raft of additional pressures that require additional resources, especially for housing for those who are homeless in our areas, because affordable housing is not available for all those who need it. Such pressures make it almost impossible for local authorities to do their job properly. If they lose significant funding over the next few years, even in a drip-by-drip way, our services will become poorer. The consequences will be damaging both for our region and for the nation as a whole.

My area generates a significant contribution in tax revenues to support the things that the Government are doing in the rest of the country. If we undermine the ability of the south-east to function as an effective economic unit, and we do not have good public services in the parts of the country that create the most wealth, we shall lose business, investment and good people, not to other parts of the country but to continental Europe. If the south-east loses, the country loses. I urge the Minister to take that into account as he and his colleagues work on the review in the weeks ahead.

The policing situation is of particular concern. I refer to the proposed changes in police funding in Surrey, which has recently been a weak receiver of funds. In terms of the funding from central Government, Surrey's police budget has been reduced by 14 per cent. in real terms over the past five years. That funding has had to be made up by increases well above inflation in the police precept.

The force is already underfunded, and it now faces further cuts as a result of Government reviews. Review options vary from Surrey losing a bit to Surrey losing a lot, at a time when the force cannot afford to lose anything at all. The Minister may not be aware of the fact, but varying pay structures in the public sector mean that police in London receive £6,000 a year more than those in Surrey. That structure is repeated in teaching and many other public services, but nowhere is it more acute than in policing.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): In addition to the problem of the difference in salary, is the Minister aware that the Metropolitan police offer incentives such as paying police officers for travelling from many of the home counties into London?

Chris Grayling : The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and there are further benefits on top of that, such

27 Nov 2002 : Column 131WH

as pension rights and fringe benefits, which make the case for moving to London all the more compelling. As a result, forces outside London are often staffed by newly qualified officers. Forces have lost the bulk of their experienced officers, who have moved a short distance up the road to earn significantly more money—and who can blame them? Consequently, we cannot deliver the effective policing that we would want.

The chief constable of Surrey has said publicly that his force is in crisis because of the tendency that I have just described, and that he is not confident that Surrey police forces will be retained in their current form if funding changes are made according to the formulae that the Government have proposed. That is a profound worry in a busy part of the country, which may have less crime than London but is none the less vulnerable to increases in criminality. Policing is needed there, not only for major inquiries such as the tragic Milly Dowler case, but for additional security at Heathrow and Gatwick, and for the M25.

Our schools are the greatest concern, however. One of the infant school heads in my constituency has written a very spontaneous letter, which says:

There's the rub, because council tax increases—if, indeed, we must have them in Surrey and other parts of the south-east—disproportionately affect those on low and fixed incomes, such as pensioners who have been retired for a long time and who do not have above-inflation pay increases to enable them to pay above-inflation council tax increases. Teachers and other public servants struggling to buy their first houses in the south-east cannot afford significant increases in their council tax.

If the Government cut away funding from Surrey and other counties in the south-east so they have to maintain statutory services through big increases in council tax, ultimately we shall lose more of the people who find it a struggle to get by in the south-east, and our public services will deteriorate still further. The Minister must take into account circumstances in the south-east before he takes steps that will do lasting damage not just to the region but to the economy and the rest of the nation.

1.40 pm

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing the debate, and I concur with many of the points that he made. I shall focus on the impact on Hampshire in particular. Hampshire county council has estimated that in a worst-case scenario it would lose £80 million, which is equivalent to 9 per cent. of its budget. That would lead to a 32.6 per cent. council tax increase, equivalent to an increase of £170 for band D. Even with a mid-point change Hampshire would lose £35 million, which equates to a £98 increase in band D council tax.

Of course, that is only one aspect of the changes facing council tax payers in Hampshire. Changes in police authority funding will affect them too, and in

27 Nov 2002 : Column 132WH

Fareham there is particular concern that the merging of the rate support grant and the non-domestic business rate will lead to a loss of funding; in Fareham that will be about £75,000. When the Minister's colleague gave a seminar before this parliamentary Session, he said that an announcement would be made very shortly about that funding change. I hope that the Minister will suggest when that announcement will be made, and what might be in it.

A 9 per cent. cut in the budget for Hampshire county council would be equivalent to losing 900 teachers—that is, two teachers from every school. That would add to the pressure being placed on schools by the increasing demands made of them by central Government. Social services budgets are already under pressure, and that is already causing beds to be blocked in Hampshire. On one day earlier this month, 60 patients were waiting to be discharged from hospital, with nowhere to go. A 10 per cent. cut in funding for the elderly would lead to a loss of 400 places in residential homes. That would reinforce the pressure that hospitals are under from the closure of nursing home places and the lack of domiciliary care.

It is clear to me from talking to county councillors that the cuts in services that would arise from the shift in funding that the Government have been talking about would hit the most vulnerable people the hardest. Even if a transitional arrangement softened the blow in year one, the cuts would work their way through the system.

My hon. Friend referred to council tax increases. Earlier in the month the Government announced the uprating of pensions for married couples by £160 a year. A 32 per cent. increase in council tax in Hampshire would wipe that out straight away. I have had many letters from constituents—as, I am sure, have many other hon. Members. Mr. and Mrs. Bradshaw, who live in central Fareham, wrote to me:

They are not alone in that. People on low and fixed incomes fear the effect of the increase in council tax on their income.

Even if the cuts are mitigated by transitional arrangements, even a 15 per cent. cut in funding this year could lead to a £2 a week increase in council tax, which works out at £100 a year—almost two thirds of the Government's uprating in the married couples allowance. Will the Minister think again?

The shift in spending will affect many people in Hampshire—the elderly, children who are reliant on services provided by the county council, schools, old people's homes and children's homes. Council tax increases will also impinge on the incomes of the elderly and others on low or fixed incomes. The consultation period is ending and time is running out for people in Hampshire. Please Minister, think again about the impact on the most vulnerable people in the community, whether they are in Hampshire, Surrey or Kent.

1.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Christopher Leslie) : I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on calling today's debate on an

27 Nov 2002 : Column 133WH

important matter, about which he spoke with passion and conviction. I appreciate that local authority funding, though sometimes quite technical, is the foundation on which many public services are built. It is a matter of concern to his constituents, as it is to all Members in this House, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are assessing all the relevant points carefully before we take final decisions for the next financial year. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman, like the other Members who spoke, is particularly concerned about the high cost of services in the south-east, and I acknowledge the strong feelings on that subject.

At this stage, it would be useful to examine the important formula grant review process, which is about fundamentally examining the formulae according to which we distribute grants to local councils throughout the country. We want a fair distribution of grant; that is our overriding priority in responding to the widespread consultation exercise. The review is also about how best to deal with a fixed pot of money; any changes will mean that some gain more than others. In total, however, more money is available for local authorities overall, with the 2002 spending review providing good increases in council grants for the next three years. That builds on the grant increases—real increases of about 20 per cent., compared with a 7 per cent. reduction in the last three years of the previous Administration—that we have found since we came to office.

The hon. Gentleman worries about the south-east losing out; that is obviously his prime consideration in calling for the debate. Some council leaders in the south-east have made wild claims that funding will be taken away from their authority and given to others purely on the basis of geographical location. That is simply not true. There is no question of shifting resources according to crude political geography. It would be stretching the powers of Machiavelli to discern any such motivation. We want a grant distribution system that takes account of each authority's circumstances and puts the money where it is most needed. We are trying to balance all the different pressures, which is never easy. Evidence and representations have been coming in, including submissions from councils in the south-east, as we move towards taking the final decisions.

The hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) talked about Hampshire council losing significant amounts of grant. Some authorities have spent time speculating that the grant review will mean large cuts. To dispel that myth, let me make it absolutely clear that we have already guaranteed that on a like-for-like basis, no authority will receive less money in the next settlement than they received this year. Counties in the south-east will not get less grant from the Government next year. The figure of 9 per cent. is wrong; it is not on the cards. The hon. Gentleman's speculation about 32 per cent. increases in council tax is no part of our plans, either.

Mr. Hoban : County councillors are concerned about that. Even assuming, as the Minister has, a zero per cent. floor and no reduction of grant in cash terms, that would

27 Nov 2002 : Column 134WH

still translate into a £2 a week increase in council tax, largely because of other funding pressures placed on Hampshire county council by the Government.

Mr. Leslie : I appreciate the fact that the hon. Gentleman has neatly moved me on in my argument about our guarantee of no cuts on a like-for-like basis. Obviously we hope to do much better than that, but at this stage, when we are calculating all the formulae and seeing how they pan out, it is the baseline on which we hope and intend to build. We have talked about the concept of floors and ceilings, which will ensure that a level of protection is part of the new system, and that will feature in the local government financial settlement for at least two years. The system is intended to damp the effects of the introduction of any new methodology by smoothing any volatility caused by data changes.

Fears about council tax increases have been raised, but those concerns are premature. In the spending review for the next three years, we have provided increases in funds, which local authorities will be able to use to ensure that they can improve the delivery of key services while setting reasonable tax levels. Of course, decisions on levels of council tax are for local authorities to take. Local authorities are responsible to council tax payers, and they should be talking to them about the level of council tax that they will bear, and where the money is spent.

Chris Grayling : The Minister made a point about operating by formulae, but he needs to understand the background provided by the Government's statement that one of the criteria being used in the review is the ability to increase the tax take. In areas where the tax take is already high—in Surrey it is 45 per cent., compared with a national average of 25 per cent.—there are concerns that the Government sees those areas as milch cows.

Mr. Leslie : I think that the hon. Gentleman is alluding to a part of the equation called resource equalisation. It is a technical term that does not mean cuts in grants for local authorities—in the south-east or anywhere else. We have already guaranteed that no authority will lose out on a like-for-like basis, and resource equalisation is already part of the current system. Resource equalisation involves looking at a council's relative ability to raise resources from council tax, by examining the tax base, and it is right and fair that it remain part of the new system. The question is the extent to which we take the ability to raise council tax into account. Resource equalisation is another part of the system on which we are consulting, and our decision on it will be made alongside other decisions. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the no grant loss guarantee applies to that area of the formula in the same way as it applies to others.

Mr. Oaten : Can the Minister confirm that the consultation and the proposed new formula will take the most recent census data into account?

Mr. Leslie : The Government certainly want to use the most up-to-date evidence on need that we have. We have to make sure that the census information is incorporated, and that the floors and ceilings

27 Nov 2002 : Column 135WH

arrangements will apply if there are significant changes, because obviously there will be peaks and troughs in crude formula applications, which, if they were taken on their own, could mean significant changes for authorities. One has to bear in mind that the floors and ceilings will kick in after some of those factors have occurred.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I am grateful to the Minister, and I must apologise for my earlier absence, which was due to a shadow ministerial commitment. I heard him talking about counties not losing out on a like-for-like basis, but I am always a little suspicious when such conditions are attached. Precisely, does that mean that next year each county in the south-east will have the same amount of cash as it has had this year, but uprated for inflation: yes or no?

Mr. Leslie : The hon. Gentleman is almost there. Every county will have the same level of cash for the coming year as for this year. When I say "on a like-for-like basis", I am talking about the composition of an authority, its size and whether new functions have been added to it. Of course, if an authority suddenly found that it had acquired a social services function, for example, the amount of grant would change. However, if a council's structure and services remain the same, it will get that level of cash increase. That is the minimum guarantee that we are giving for now, but we hope to do much better. So far, we have been able to make sure that we give a real-terms increase for education, which is the largest part of most councils' budgets. The spending review envelope will prove to give significant sums to councils as a whole.

I know that Members are concerned about area cost adjustment. There have been several research programmes and projects to examine that over the years. It affects the south-east considerably. In the studies that have taken place, about 21 variant models of area cost adjustment have been devised, and authorities have not agreed on the merits of each option. There is much strong feeling about the matter. The vast majority of people recognise that pay costs should be recognised in the system. We agree, but the question is how much weighting there should be. The options in the consultation document suggest redesigning and trying to remove something of the existing cliff-edge effect. All I can say now is that we are carefully considering the responses to the consultation.

On education, a very significant issue, I shall give a broader description of where we stand at present. The options for the education formula reflect the fact that for the next three years, the spending review will include significantly more investment. We want a clearer fairer system justified by the educational needs of children and based on more up-to-date evidence of costs and need. Any formula must include an element to allow for deprivation, and for enhancement in areas where schools need to pay more to recruit and retain staff. I appreciate the extra costs faced by authorities in London and the south-east, including Surrey, because of the higher costs of recruiting and retaining staff there. It costs more to live in London and the south-east, and earnings differentials there are higher.

The options set out in the consultation paper are based on evidence that suggests that authorities with significant deprivation and additional staff costs need to

27 Nov 2002 : Column 136WH

spend significantly more to achieve the same results for their children. The four options reflect the scope for different judgments to be made about weighting.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell mentioned his concerns about the police. The aim of the police formula review is to develop a more robust mechanism for the fairer and simpler distribution of grant to ensure that it addresses policing needs in all parts of England. We are aware of differing pressures on policing, especially between rural and metropolitan areas, and of the need to allocate resources as fairly as possible to address varying needs in different areas. There has been a genuine consultation process and the responses are being taken into account. That has taken place against the background of a substantial increase in police resources. By 2005–06, the total provision for policing will be about £1.5 billion higher than in this financial year.

Chris Grayling : Not in Surrey.

Mr. Leslie : Nationally, significant funds will come through from the spending review and filter through to local authorities.

This financial year has seen education spending rise by 8.8 per cent., personal social services spending rise by 3.6 per cent. in real terms, and total police funding increase by 6.1 per cent. During the next three years, local authorities will benefit. Under the spending review, social services funding will increase by a further 6 per cent. in real terms on average, education funding will increase by 6 per cent. and policing funding, as I said before, will also rise.

In Surrey, whereas under the previous Administration the standard spending assessment grant went up by only 2.7 per cent. on average, this Administration have managed to increase the standard spending assessment by 4.8 per cent. As for social services, children's grant has increased by 12.8 per cent. this financial year, and carers grant by 21 per cent. Education spending has increased by £121 million—almost 39 per cent.—over five years, with the capital expenditure allocation rising this year to £38 million. An extra £24 million has so far been allocated for next year.

We have consulted at length on the formula grant review. The no cuts guarantee is there, on a like-for-like basis. I urge hon. Members to wait for and listen to the announcement before speculating and scaring too many people about the future. We want a more transparent formula. We know that we must try to strike the right balance between the competing arguments, and the involvement of not only councillors but Members of Parliament in the debate on the new formula is extremely important. My principle is to give local authorities a decent grant, which matters for the improvement of public services, and I hear the arguments that hon. Members on both sides of the House are making on the subject.

Question put and agreed to.

 IndexHome Page