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5 Dec 2002 : Column 1077—continued

Mr. Raynsford: I note that the hon. Gentleman did not make any reference to the 3.7 per cent. increase that his county council has received, which he ought to welcome. Had a Tory Government been in power, his authority would have been facing a cut in its settlement. He should be celebrating the real-terms increases that the Government are delivering. Our concern is to reduce the incidence of bed blocking. It is precisely to encourage and incentivise authorities to do their best to deal with the problem that the arrangements that I have described were put in place.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): I congratulate the Minister on the continuing increase in local government funding. How can the settlement that he has announced help the Liberal Democrats who run Liverpool city council to address the continuing problems of multiple deprivation and population loss?

Mr. Raynsford: I know that my hon. Friend will celebrate the fact that her city has received a 7.3 per cent.

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increase. We did not hear much about that from the Liberal Democrats, did we? All we heard from them was doom and gloom about how poorly local government is doing. Actually, local government knows that the Government have been helping authorities with real-terms increases in grant, and those increases are going to authorities of all political persuasions. There is no discrimination against a particular category of authority. Liverpool should certainly be pleased about the settlement that it has received.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): The Minister has given an assurance that no local authority will have a cut in cash terms. The right hon. Gentleman will also know, because I have mentioned it on several occasions, that the London borough of Havering is one of a small group of authorities throughout the country that has received a perversely low settlement under the old formula. Will the Minister give a further assurance that the London borough of Havering will not receive a cut in overall terms?

Mr. Raynsford: Yes, I am pleased to give the hon. Lady that assurance. The Havering settlement involves an increase of 3.5 per cent., which is a good percentage point ahead of inflation, and I hope that she and her constituents will be pleased with it.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): My constituents in Staffordshire Moorlands and Stoke-on-Trent will be asking what extra money there is and whether the allocation is fairer. Will my right hon. Friend tell me how, in respect of neighbourhood renewal funding, it will be possible to make sure that every penny provided will be allocated to the areas of highest deprivation in Stoke-on-Trent?

Mr. Raynsford: I am sure that people in my hon. Friend's constituency will be pleased about the settlement. Stoke-on-Trent is receiving a 6.5 per cent. increase and Staffordshire Moorlands district is getting a 12.5 per cent. increase, which is on the ceiling. So there are good results for my hon. Friend's authorities, and I am sure that her constituents will be pleased. We obviously want the considerable resources allocated through neighbourhood renewal to get through to meet real needs, but that should be determined locally, with the local strategic partnership working with the local authority to ensure that there is an identification of projects dealing with real need that can be the focus for that very important funding.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): For about 15 years we have waited for the day when the old formula system was swept away and Somerset schools got a fair deal equal to that of other parts of the country, and we had enough funding to put policemen on our streets. However, that step change in education has not taken place and there will be fewer, not more, police officers in Somerset as a result of the settlement. Is that fair?

Mr. Raynsford: The previous settlement was not introduced 15 years ago but came in more recently, so if the hon. Gentleman has been waiting for a change he has got his figures wrong. That is not altogether

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surprising, because his curmudgeonly question did not recognise the fact that his local authorities have done extraordinarily well out of this settlement. Somerset county council has received a 6.8 per cent. increase and Mendip one of 12.1 per cent., but the hon. Gentleman did not have the decency to recognise that fact.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Is my right hon. Friend aware that Cumbria county council, which is run by the Conservatives in cahoots with the Liberal Democrats, has been saying on its website that the council tax will have to go up because money is being taken away from rural areas? Can he confirm that that is not true? Can he also confirm that Cumbria has a 7 per cent. increase for education—the highest anywhere in the country?

Mr. Raynsford: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I confirm, as I have already said in response to an earlier question, that rural shire districts have done well out of the settlement. It is certainly the case that local authorities in his area have benefited. Cumbria county council is receiving a 4.7 per cent. increase, and Carlisle, I am sure that he will be delighted to know, is getting a 9.9 per cent. increase. I know that his constituents will be really pleased with that.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): For next year, the Government have responded to the strong campaign from Members of Parliament representing Hampshire and elsewhere who were concerned about the big increases in next year's rates by raising the floor above their previous proposal—and we welcome that. But does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there are enormous longer term consequences for Hampshire residents from changes in the formula, and that unless he can go further than he has gone so far today, my constituents will simply assume that the pain has been deferred?

Mr. Raynsford: I know that the right hon. Gentleman is very familiar with these issues, because he occupied my post in a former Government—but of course when his party was in government he had to stand at the Dispatch Box and justify cuts in allocation, whereas I am pleased to be able to tell him that Hampshire county council is receiving an increase of 3.7 per cent., and that his local authority, Test Valley borough council, gets a 5.8 per cent. increase.

As I have said, the floors will continue in the system indefinitely. They play an important role in giving certainty to local authorities. The one thing that I cannot do is to predict precisely what the floor level will be—for reasons that I made clear in answer to an earlier question—but the right hon. Gentleman will know that the floors this year are not that dissimilar from last year's levels. It is certainly our intention to ensure that there are no steep changes in the floors year by year. We have to examine the latest detailed figures before we determine the floors in any one year, but our aim is to try to build consistency and give greater certainty to local government.

Mr. Iain Coleman (Hammersmith and Fulham): I welcome the Minister's statement, but his decision to set

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the floor for London local authorities at 3.5 per cent. will come as a grave disappointment to my local authority, Hammersmith and Fulham. My right hon. Friend is well aware that Hammersmith and Fulham is a high-performing authority, but the borough treasurer advises me that it faces a £10 million cuts package and a likely council tax increase in excess of 10 per cent. Can he assure me that if the local authority can show evidence that the settlement gives them peculiar difficulties, he will meet us and listen to those representations?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend's authority is one of several in central and west London that have been affected by the census data to which I referred earlier. I should have thought that he would welcome the fact that there was a floor to protect authorities from suffering a cut. I should have thought that, rather than being disappointed with a floor of 3.5 per cent., he and his constituents would be pleased that the Government have ensured that there is an above-inflation increase for the authority, which would not otherwise have been the case, because of census information.

I entirely acknowledge my hon. Friend's point that Hammersmith and Fulham performs well, and we look forward to seeing the result in the comprehensive performance assessment issued by the Audit Commission next week. High-performing authorities have generally proved their ability to work well and prudently with their budgets and to deliver cost-effective services, and I am sure that my hon. Friend's authority will want to do that.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): How will the Minister allay the concerns of East Sussex county council that a small increase may indeed turn out to be a reduction when we take account of the additional responsibilities that the council will be required by the Government to carry out? Is it not the truth that the figures do not compare like with like, because the services that the council has to cover this year have been extended?

Mr. Raynsford: I find it slightly odd that the hon. Gentleman should regard a 3.8 per cent. increase for his authority as a rather poor settlement. He will recall that when his party was in power authorities were getting reductions, not 3.8 per cent. increases. This is a good settlement for the hon. Gentleman and the people of East Sussex and, with the extra margin above inflation that we have granted, it should certainly enable the authority to work prudently and deliver efficient services.

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