Previous SectionIndexHome Page

28 Nov 2002 : Column 578—continued


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6)(Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

28 Nov 2002 : Column 579

Northern Ireland

Question agreed to.




Cliffe Airport

7.34 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): I am honoured to present a petition signed by thousands of local residents who are horrified at the prospect of an airport at Cliffe which would operate on a 24-hour basis.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

28 Nov 2002 : Column 580

New Midlands Airport

7.36 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): This is the first petition that I have presented in my 10 years in the House. It is signed by 15,767 people in my constituency and elsewhere and reflects how distressed we are about the proposal to build an airport between Rugby and Coventry. It states:

To lie upon the Table.

Christchurch Road Post Office

7.37 pm

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): I am honoured to present a petition from people living in the community served by the Christchurch road post office in Reading. They are unhappy that it closed on the retirement of the previous postmistress and that the Post Office has not followed the process set out in its urban reinvention programme to review need in the area. The petition has been signed by almost 3,000 people on the initiative of Councillor Riaz Chaudhri.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

28 Nov 2002 : Column 579

28 Nov 2002 : Column 581

Local Government Funding (Swindon)

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

7.38 pm

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): I welcome the opportunity to put Swindon's views on the review of local authority funding.

My constituents have made it clear that they want and value improved local government and police services. A key part of that relies on new investment. My constituency has the worst-funded unitary education authority and my constituents have called for a fair funding system. We welcomed the review because we thought that we were bound to gain from it. Unfortunately, it has emerged that virtually every authority thought it would gain.

Imagine, then, our disappointment when we found that although almost every other one of the 40 worst-funded education authorities with which we had campaigned looked to gain from at least some aspects of the new education formula, Swindon did not gain from any of the education options put forward. It is therefore no surprise that the review team and I have received a huge number of letters about the issue from teachers and parents in Swindon. Swindon has already received more education funding under this Labour Government—over £500 per pupil per year. However, teachers make it clear to me that extra funds are needed and would be well used to extend students' opportunities and to raise standards. Similarly, it is clear that we need more funds for social services.

On all funding methods I urge the Government to give more details on how changes will take place. They have said that no authority will get less grant next year, but it is not clear whether that is in real or cash terms. The Government have also promised that, as the new system is implemented, no authority's schools will lose out, so schools simply need clarification about the period of implementation. However, for other services, and authorities overall, including police authorities, the position needs to be clarified.

Given that the Government have allocated substantial resources to public services, they would give much reassurance to local authorities if they made it clear that, for police and local authorities, overall funding would be maintained in real terms for 2003–04, 2004–05 and as many more years as they felt able to make that promise. Authorities could at least plan on a level playing field, even if nominally they may lose out under the new formula. There should be no allowance for existing spending patterns, except as part of the process of implementing the new formulas. This is not a fair basis of funding. It is an allowance for existing spending and it will box in populations who have suffered under low-spending authorities and ensure that they remain in that position.

I turn now to specific issues on particular services. Swindon has the third worst education standards in the south-west; Bristol has the poorest standards and receives the most funding, well above the south-west average, which is logical. Swindon receives £34 per pupil below the average. The lower standards are not because we have worse schools; they reflect deprivation that has

28 Nov 2002 : Column 582

not shown up in existing formulas or a lack of baseline funding to meet pupils' needs. I want the formula to be improved, not to take away from others but so that more future growth moneys support the lowest-funded authorities—where they are needed, as they are in Swindon.

Giving extra funds for additional education needs is sensible. One of the questions under consideration is whether the working families tax credit should be included as a measure of deprivation, or whether only income support should be included. There is a powerful case for including the working families tax credit, or its equivalent in the new post-April system. Employment is rising, but in many constituencies that means that families are moving from no pay to low-paid work, and that does not change the education opportunities or attainment of those children overnight. If we want to ensure that the education challenges faced by families with no pay or in low-paid work, the way forward must be to take into account data on the working families tax credit as well as on income support.

I would expect that to produce smoother changes in allocations, as the change in data for income support plus the working families tax credit is likely to be less dramatic than that for just income support. Smoother changes are a good policy goal. Whichever indicator of deprivation is chosen, the current threshold system fails the test of being easily understandable.

In terms of deprivation, Swindon is about 110th in the 150 authorities, so we are about the 40th least deprived authority. The threshold in education tries to create what Swindon wants—a fair base level of funding for many authorities. Under option 2, the threshold was seen as high, with a baseline set at the bottom 50 authorities. However, it is not clear whether the additional funds for education needs are given to the bottom 50 authorities or levelled up to the 50th least deprived authority. If we assume the former, whereas under the current formula Swindon's existing needs are recognised, under the new formula they are ignored and taken to be just the baseline, so Swindon would lose £2 million compared with our current grant. That cannot be justified—Swindon's results do not justify reduction. We are currently in the bottom 40 authorities. The new formula is not levelling up, but is levelling down further, which does not make sense. The additional funds are concentrated on the 100 most deprived authorities, leaving few funds to distribute along the baseline.

If Swindon is supposedly levelled up to get the resources of the 50th least deprived authority—a more deprived area—it is not right that that leaves Swindon with fewer resources than we have now. The threshold has to move up 105 authorities to be neutral for Swindon. Only then will a third of education authorities get extra help for special needs, and more resources will go into basic needs for all schools. That is difficult to justify—why does the extra support have to be concentrated on 50 authorities before the formula for Swindon is back where it started? Swindon is among the most poorly funded authorities, so it does not have a high basic level of funding. That alone shows how hard it is to follow the formula and suggests the need for a rethink.

28 Nov 2002 : Column 583

Option 5 proposed by the F40 group is widely supported. Of the 55,000 responses to the consultation on the review, 53,000 were made as a result of the F40 group's campaign. That represents a magnificent response from parents and staff who are keen to see a higher base level of funding. I hope that the Government in turn can respond positively and adopt an option along the lines of the F40's proposal, which builds up a higher base cost for all schools.

Additional costs are inevitable in areas of high employment and housing shortages such as Swindon and must be acknowledged if there is to be sufficient recruitment and retention of staff. Head teachers have made it clear that they face pressures not experienced by their colleagues in other parts of the country when recruiting staff. Only yesterday a head teacher in one of the most deprived areas in Swindon told me that she had advertised a key post but received only three applications. The only suitable applicant came from abroad—she recruited that person, but unfortunately they did not stay at the school. That is just a small sign of the pressure we are under, and shows that we need extra resources to deal with our serious recruitment and retention problems. If the Government want to achieve equal opportunities for all students, those extra costs must be reflected in a new formula.

Most work on this problem is not in the review of education but in reviews of area cost adjustment. Members on both sides of the House have recognised that the existing system is unfair. Proposals in the review paper are a vast improvement on current arrangements. A change is much needed and can be justified by the detailed work in options 2 and 3. Option 2 suggests using the method recommended by the independent review of the additional costs allowance in 1996 and taking more detailed account of differences in the structure of labour markets in different authorities. Swindon is a good example, as our economy is widely recognised as being different from that of the wider economy in Wiltshire and the south-west. With the exception of London, it is hard to find a town or city with as many national and international headquarters, but the prosperity that that brings hides deprivation, which is hard to tackle in an area of high wage and housing costs. That should be picked up by the formula, as options 2 and 3 propose.

The arguments for options 3 and 5 are appealing, as private sector wages reflect the market, whereas public sector wages are fixed. If an area has a lot of public sector workers, the inclusion of the public sector will dampen the effect of wages, yet the pressure to find staff may be even greater in those areas. That applies as much to education as to other services, particularly social services. Although education rightly receives much of the limelight in the discussion of local government funding, the funding of social services is equally important. Many authorities, including Swindon, spend well over current Government assessments of funding, which indicates their huge needs. Swindon certainly faces huge pressures in social services for children, the elderly and people with mental health problems, all of which are essential in any civilised society.

I should like to get back to the days when a home help service was available. It did good preventive work, but we are a long way from having it. Again, I recognise that the Government have put more investment into social

28 Nov 2002 : Column 584

services, but there is still a long way to go. Whichever proposal is chosen, the population basis should be the resident elderly population, plus those in residential care who are supported by the authority but live outside it. It does not seem right to exclude people who cost the authority a great deal of money. It is right that they should be supported, and if they are the responsibility of the local authority, they should be recognised in the formula.

On fire service funding, a radical approach is needed to remove the perverse incentive of the fire calls indicator, which has been discredited. We should be doing all we can to promote preventive work, and I am very proud of the work that Swindon and Wiltshire fire brigade does in that respect. That has often been at the forefront of preventive work across the country. The fourth option for the fire service gives an extra top-slice for fire safety education, and an extra sparsity top-slice, which is surely justified. That is the most attractive option if the Government genuinely want to prevent fires and deal with the difficult pension problem facing the service.

The second option, which makes only minimal changes, does not deal adequately with those issues. As the consultation has proved to be complex and painful, it is unlikely that Ministers and MPs will take part in such discussions every year, so any changes made now should be significant and substantial.

Many concerns have been raised in Wiltshire with regard to police funding, particularly the rural policing fund. I was delighted to hear the Home Secretary announce last week that the rural policing fund would be preserved outside the formula. That is making an important difference in Wiltshire already and we want to see it retained.

Whereas education services funding looks to use working families tax credit and income support data, environmental services funding takes account of income support only. It would seem logical to use both sets of data across Government Departments. I know that the Government have responded by saying that many of these services are subsidised in the day, but I cannot think of many services in Swindon that are subsidised in the day. In the case of cultural services, the same issues of access and inclusiveness would apply to those on low pay as to those on no pay.

On population growth, I urge the Government to recognise that Swindon has been growing rapidly and it is a huge frustration to my constituents that the infrastructure does not keep up with that expansion. Formulae must take account of that. Swindon may be in a unique position, as we have effectively been a new town without being defined as a new town. We have been the fastest-growing town and services have not caught up with the expansion of population. The borough council planned for that as much as possible but, because of rate capping and other problems, it was not able to do as much as necessary. Outside the funding formula, perhaps the Minister will consider allowing more of Swindon's uniform business rate to be returned to the town for a defined period so that we could catch up with the investment needed. With our Government-backed urban regeneration company and new regional development agency structures, this may be a key time to deliver on that.

28 Nov 2002 : Column 585

My constituents rely on local government services and appreciate the value of those services. They want the Government to adopt a new, fairer formula for funding local government services to reflect the differing needs and costs of services in different areas. I have highlighted some of the issues that the new formula should address. I emphasise three points: first, a review of the area cost adjustment is crucial to reflect the pressures that high-cost areas such as Swindon experience; secondly, the need for a higher basic funding level for education authorities; and thirdly, the need for major additional investment in social services.

Next Section

IndexHome Page