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House of Commons

Wednesday 29 January 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock



The House being met, the Clerk at the Table informed the House of the absence of Mr. Speaker from this day's sitting, pursuant to leave given on 28 January.

Whereupon, Sir Alan Haselhurst, the Chairman of Ways and Means, proceeded to the Table, and after Prayers, took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.


Transas Group Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Wednesday 5 February.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Grant Settlement

1. Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): When he will announce the Government's response to the consultation on the provisional grant settlement for 2003–04. [93766]

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): We will be publishing our final proposals on Monday 3 February.

Mr. Chope : That means that there will be just two days before the debate on those important orders, which is unacceptable and typical of the Government's arrogance. Is the Minister aware exactly how angry the people of Dorset are about the vicious attack on their standard of living in the proposed settlement? Does he realise that pensioners in Dorset will receive an increase of £1.95 a week in their state pension but, because of the Government's policies, will be expected to pay over £4 a week in council tax increases? Is that not—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Questions must be more concise.

Mr. Raynsford: I am a little surprised that the hon. Gentleman has forgotten the timetable that has applied for many years, and used to apply when his party was in

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government. He will realise that local authorities need certainty to plan their budgets, so there is a timetable which involves a provisional settlement published in early December, representations in December and January, the publication at the beginning of February of the Government's proposals, a debate in the House, then implementation by local authorities. That timetable has existed for many years, so his anger is entirely synthetic.

As for the figures, Dorset is once again getting a very good settlement. Last year, it had a 6.7 per cent. increase, despite which it raised council tax by 9 per cent. If there is scaremongering about high council taxes, the people that the Opposition should be looking at are the councillors of Dorset county council, not the Government.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): Will my right hon. Friend accept thanks from Government Members for his effort to try to regulate local authority expenditure? Does he also accept that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) belonged to a Government who devastated that expenditure? When looking at the consultation and the response from local government, will he take into consideration concerns about high council taxes in some areas?

Mr. Raynsford: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks about our efforts to ensure a fair settlement and consult widely with local government. This year, local authorities throughout the country have got a settlement that gives them an above-inflation increase. Every authority has had such an increase which, we believe, makes it possible for them to set a reasonable level of council tax and maintain council services. We hope that they will do so.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): The Minister has just said that each authority has received an above-inflation increase. At the same time as the provisional announcement, the Minister for School Standards, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband) sent out a letter promising 6.6 per cent. for schools.

What advice can the right hon. Gentleman give to those 13 local education authorities where the change in grant is insufficient to meet the demands of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills? Should authorities, the day after the Climbié findings, take money away from vulnerable children or the care of the elderly, or should they take the stealth option and increase council tax on the backs of hard-working low-income families?

Mr. Raynsford: First, my advice to all local authorities is that in the six years in which the Government have been in power there has been a 25 per cent. increase in real terms in grants for local authorities, compared with a 7 per cent. cut in real terms in the last four years in which the Opposition were in power. Local government is therefore getting a better settlement and has better prospects. I have met a number of authorities that have difficulty meeting their passporting obligations, as has the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), and we have advised all of them to talk to our colleagues in the Department

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for Education and Skills, who have indicated willingness to be flexible where there are genuine pressures. However, we want money to be transmitted to schools to improve education, and we want continued improvement in social services. We want to give local authorities the opportunity to develop and improve services on the basis of the real increases in grant that the Government are delivering.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): I am grateful to the Department for receiving a deputation from my local authority, Barnet. However, when my right hon. Friend is putting together the final draft, could he bear in mind the special circumstances facing us? The impact of the census and the new scheme has had bizarre consequences, and our education budget will be under considerable pressure as a result.

Mr. Raynsford: We have given careful consideration to the representations that we have received from many local authorities, including my hon. Friend's authority. We will make clear our conclusions in the announcement on 3 February. Some areas have experienced difficulties because of census changes relating to previous mid-year estimates, but the floors ensure that every authority is protected against what might otherwise be a sharp change in grant entitlement. The floor ensures that every authority has an increase at least above the level of inflation.

Bed Blocking

2. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): What discussions he has had with the Department of Health on the impact of bed-blocking charges on local authorities. [93767]

The Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women (Mrs. Barbara Roche): Ministers and officials in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister regularly discuss matters of mutual interest with their colleagues in the Department of Health.

Tom Brake : I thank the Minister for that response. I am sure that those discussions will have revealed that many local authorities work well with the local NHS trust, as mine does. However, bed blocking happens for complex reasons. Will the Minister confirm that, in Sweden, where bed-blocking charges have been introduced, they have not got rid of bed blocking?

Mrs. Roche: I must tell the hon. Gentleman that we are introducing the system in our own way. He is right that this is a very important matter. In his area, the discharge rate for the Merton and Sutton primary care trust is above the national average. He will know what an issue that is for the 5,000 delayed discharges that we have every day. We are confident that the measures that we have taken, plus the extra resources that we have made available, will deal with the problem.

Jean Corston (Bristol, East): Does my hon. Friend agree that one cause of bed blocking is that people on discharge from hospital have too few opportunities to

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benefit from packages that would allow them to be supported at home? Does she agree that most people, faced with the choice after hospital of going home or going to a residential home, would prefer to go home? Will she discuss with her colleagues in local authorities ways to give people increased opportunities to be supported at home rather than go into care?

Mrs. Roche: I absolutely agree with the important points that my hon. Friend makes. From my own experience as a constituency Member, I know that what she says about people's preferences is true. That is why we have made available to local authorities an extra £100 million for each full year that the new scheme is in operation. I shall certainly make sure that the Department have the discussions that my hon. Friend suggests, so that we can ensure that those important opportunities are available for our older people.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): Has the Minister had time to read the Hansard report of Monday's Second Reading of the Community Care (Delayed Discharges etc.) Bill in another place? Does she realise that the Bill is virtually friendless there, as it was here? Will she use her influence with the Secretary of State for Health to withdraw this misconceived piece of legislation?

Mrs. Roche: I have not had a chance to read that report, but I shall make sure that I do. Real issues have arisen to do with the different roles and responsibilities of acute hospital trusts and local authorities. We believe that the new arrangements, in addition to the new resources that we have put in, will deal with the matter. Taken together with the better working relationships between local authorities and hospitals, I am confident that they will lead to a great improvement.

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