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The Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire (Mr. Nick Raynsford): In 200304 all councils had an above-inflation grant increase for the first time ever. Given this, we were very disappointed that local authorities chose to raise council tax so substantially with an average increase of 12.9 per cent. That trend in council tax rises is not sustainable and we have made it clear that we expect councils to budget prudently in the coming year with a view to council tax increases in low single figures. We have also made it clear that we will use our capping powers if local authorities persist in unreasonable council tax increases.
Mr. Mackay: What does the Minister say to my hard-pressed council tax payers in Bracknell who face a council tax increase next year that will be many times the level of inflation? Does he appreciate that even though an extra £700,000 has been granted as an additional payment because the Government realised that the passporting of money to schools was far too high, there will still be many other costs that Bracknell Forest borough council will have to meet? Those costs, which the Government force on the council, will not allow it to restrict its council tax increase to a modest amount. What is he going to do about that?
Mr. Raynsford: I have spoken to the leader of the right hon. Gentleman's council, and made it clear that I expect it to budget prudently and introduce a modest council tax increase. That is entirely possible, because Bracknell Forest borough council has received a grant increase in the current year of 5.7 per cent., which is double the rate of inflation, and will receive in the coming year, following our provisional announcement, an increase of 7 per cent., which is three times the rate of inflation. We expect it to budget prudently.
Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the majority of local authorities appreciate the way in which the Government have helped local authorities with council tax and benefits? The formula that was recently introduced has helped local authorities considerably, and will he agree to continue to meet SIGOMAthe special interest group of municipal authorities, of which I am chairman in the House of Commonsto discuss further policies and progress on the formula? We do not want to return to the problems of the poll tax, which was introduced in the early days of the Tory Government.
Mr. Raynsford: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks about the grant distribution formula. I had an enjoyable visit to his local authority just before Christmas, and was impressed by the steps taken by the new management team and the leader of the council to ensure improved services for people in the area and, indeed, prudent budgeting. I assure him that there is absolutely no question that the Government will go back to the nonsense of the previous Government, particularly the poll tax.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Whatever the size of this year's settlement, the Minister will be aware that the Government are still incapable of managing change competently. Is he aware that for many district councils the change in the method of paying rent allowance and council tax benefits, which is now done entirely by grant, and the removal of the population-based revenue support element mean that almost the entire increase in Government grant is swallowed up by the loss of revenue associated with those benefits? A council such as Harrogate will get the princely increase of 35p per inhabitant next year to cover all its additional costs. Does the right hon. Gentleman therefore accept that the safety net proposed by the Department for Work and Pensions is inadequate, and will he strengthen it before councils set their budget? Will he draw the lesson that, yet again, the Government cannot manage change and are simply incapable of joined-up government?
Mr. Raynsford: That is somewhat rich coming from the right hon. Gentleman, whose Government had a remarkable record on change in local government finance. I need say no more but, on his specific point, the change from the current framework, whereby local authorities are reimbursed for costs incurred in paying council tax grant and housing benefit, is complex. There are two separate elements, but it is generally accepted that it is sensible to have a single element, and the reform is broadly welcomed by local government. The right hon. Gentleman understands these matters, so he will appreciate that any process of change involves transitional difficulties. The Department for Work and Pensions has proposed a transitional framework, which it is continuing to discuss. I hope that representations from his authority and other authorities with concerns will be taken into accountI am sure that they will.
Mr. Curry: Last year, the Greater London authority precept was increased by 29 per cent. Given the strictures that the Minister has just repeated about the need to limit increases in council taxes and precepts, and given the fact that he has capping powers over precepts, what figure has he given Mr. Livingstone, his new party friend, for the maximum permitted increase in the GLA precept?
Mr. Raynsford: We have told all local authority leaders, including the Mayor of London and the leaders of all London authorities, that we expect them to budget prudently and introduce increases in low single figures. As the right hon. Gentleman knows only too well, we have said that we will use our capping powers if necessary, and intend to do so if authorities are not responsible or prudent. That applies to all authorities, and I remind him that the largest increase in London last year was in the Conservative-controlled London borough of Wandsworth, which increased its council tax by a staggering 57 per cent.
Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that despite the help in the pre-Budget report, shire boroughs are still having some difficulty because of the changes in the formula? Does he also accept that much of the public resentment related to local government spending is linked to the fact that the
Mr. Raynsford: First, for the second year running, all district councils in the country are guaranteed an above-inflation grant increase. This is the first time that it has happened, and despite the concerns raised by my hon. Friend and by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) in relation to the transitional arrangements for support for housing and council tax benefit grant, I believe it will be possible for district councils to budget prudently. I am sure they will. Secondly, with regard to the wider issuethe banding systemthis is one of the issues that we are considering in the context of the balance of funding review that is currently taking place.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): In the light of his answer to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), the Minister will know that the Deputy Prime Minister's newly rediscovered friend has published his draft budget, which proposes an increase of 12 per cent. in council tax band D for the GLA precept. Will that level be capped?
Mr. Raynsford: I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recall his days on the Standing Committee of what became the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which created the Greater London authority. He knows that the budget is a complex process whereby the Mayor may propose a budget but it is subject to the approval of the assembly. The assembly has not yet discussed the Mayor's proposals. I am sure that its members will want to examine them very closely indeed, and I hope that they will ask searching questions about an increase that certainly does not meet our expectation of low single figures.
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): My Office is tackling the root causes of antisocial behaviour though our sustainable communities plan, which will create thriving communities where people feel safe and want to live. We are also tackling the symptoms of antisocial behaviour by introducing a raft of measures in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 and the Housing Bill, and through ongoing programmes such as that for neighbourhood wardens, with encouraging results.
Mr. Bailey: My local authority, Sandwell, is engaged in a consultation process to identify areas in the borough where public drinking is a nuisance. Given the importance of local authorities, the Government and the police working together to curb antisocial
The Deputy Prime Minister: Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. He will know that that is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and she is issuing guidance for parliamentary consideration, which we will consider in the House. It will bring about more uniform practice in respect of licensing and contribute to dealing with antisocial behaviour connected with drink.
Helen Southworth: Will my right hon. Friend monitor progress on the new local authority licensing powers, particularly the new responsibility that local authorities will have to order the temporary suspension of licences, so that pubs and clubs that allow under-age drinking, binge drinking and antisocial behaviour will get a swift penalty?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I certainly see the sense of that recommendation. Indeed, guidance from another Department will be issued shortly and the House will have to make a judgment as to whether it thinks that it is adequate. I shall pass on my hon. Friend's comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that one of the acts of antisocial behaviour that gravely disfigures our country, in every town and street, is the spitting and spreading of chewing-gum? I know that the Government have introduced some initiatives, but will the issue be covered by the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, as we really have to do something about chewing-gum?
The Deputy Prime Minister: There used to be a song about sticking chewing-gum on the bedpost at the end of the day. This is a very important issue, however. Anyone going into any of the regeneration areas can see the disfigurement caused by the casting away of chewing-gum. It is a deplorable practiceI know that it is controversial to say thatand we are looking at a number of measures that we can take to clear up the problem, which disfigures some very good developments and regeneration areas.
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend tell me what his Department intends to do to persuade certain local authorities that are reluctant to use the new powers that they are about to be given in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003? What is his Department going to do to give them a kick up the rear end?
The Deputy Prime Minister: Well, I would not want to be associated with such violent action, but I think that we are making it very clear to local authorities what new powers in the legislation will allow them to do. Many authorities complain that they do not have the powers that they need or that they are not clear enough. The new Housing Bill and antisocial behaviour legislation will make an awful lot of improvements, and I expect all
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): Is the Deputy Prime Minister sufficiently confident about the improvements that will be brought about by the new legislation on antisocial behaviour here in Great Britain to give an undertaking to us from Northern Ireland that his Government will seek to make the legislation available for use in Northern Ireland as quickly as possible?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I am convinced that the legislation will work. In fact, I think that there is a great deal of encouraging evidence about how such measures have affected antisocial areas in a number of countries. We think that the new framework will work. I am a little unsure about the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question and whether the measures apply to Northern Ireland. I take it from his indication that they do not do so, but he has raised an issue, I do not know the answer and I shall write to him about it. [Interruption.]
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that in many areas, including my constituency, the police and local authorities are working together to use the new powers that they have been given? One of the problems, however, is that at the end of the process of eviction, tenants are all too often rehoused in another local authority house or end up in the private rented sector, where the landlords can be just as irresponsible as the tenants. Will he therefore give guidance to local authorities saying that we should not create a merry-go-round for antisocial tenants whereby they are simply moved from one property to another? There should also be a requirement for private landlords to assume wider responsibility for the antisocial behaviour of their tenants.
The Deputy Prime Minister: Security of tenure and the sanctions used need careful handling. The new Housing Bill that we will introduce to the House, I think on Monday next week, will cover some of the issues involved. However, this matter is not only about public housing and social landlords, but about licensing private landlords. We get a lot of difficulties in that regard, and we are now taking the powers to deal with the problem.