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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Orders [28 June 2001 and 6 November 2003],

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Question agreed to.


Queen's recommendation having been signified—

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with Bills),

Question agreed to.


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

Environmental Protection

Question agreed to.

12 Jan 2004 : Column 641

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Southend Borough Council (Financial Settlement)

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

10.30 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): The financial settlement for Southend borough council for the year 2004–05 is nothing short of a scandal. In fact, I would go further and say that the Government have behaved vindictively towards the council. I hope to charm the Minister into reflecting on what I have to say and into revising the figures.

When the Chancellor of the Exchequer trumpeted another £340 million for council tax payers, our borough treasurer worked out that Southend borough council's share would be £4,000. I am sure that the Minister will understand how badly that went down with residents in Southend. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the three letters exchanged between the leader of the council and the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire, and that he will reconsider that right hon. Gentleman's refusal to meet a delegation from the council. If the Government felt that they had treated Southend borough council fairly, I should have thought that they would be prepared to meet a delegation. Up until now, I am told, they have refused to do so.

I also hope that the Minister will reflect on the census figures, which are inaccurate as far as Southend borough council is concerned. I hope that he will reflect on how the money has to go into education, which means that terrible cuts are having to be considered in social services and highways. I hope that he will reflect on the difficulties that the council must face on issues surrounding asylum seekers. Finally, I hope that he will consider the lousy deal that we have been given by the Government for looking after our young people.

There is currently great concern about the level of council tax. Some of my colleagues might groan at what I am about to say, but I am proud to tell the House that I made my maiden speech on the Bill that introduced the community charge. I still believe that if the community charge had been introduced with many exemptions and at a reasonable level, it would have proved much fairer than the council tax has. Every year Labour claims that its funding settlements are generous, but every year council tax across England soars. Every year Labour breaks its promises. Most recently, the Labour promise, made by the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire was that

In reality, the average council tax bill rose by 12.9 per cent., with band D bills passing the £1,000 mark for the first time. Council tax on band D homes has increased by 60 per cent., or £413, since Labour came to power. During the years of the Conservative Administration, on average, taking all factors into account and after inflation, council tax bills rose by 2.1 per cent. in real terms. Under Labour, council tax has risen by more than double that figure, averaging 5.2 per cent. a year in real terms. I ask the Minister to reflect on the fact that Southend borough's council tax is the seventh lowest in

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the country. We are very proud of that. The average council tax for a band D property in Southend is £851, compared with a national average of £1,102.

I am grateful to Councillor Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, who is the leader of Kent county council—Essex Members have many friends across the water in Kent—who advised me that the proportion of the council budget funded by Government grant in the south-east for 2003–04 was 64.5 per cent., whereas in the north-east it was 75.5 per cent. That is some 10 per cent. more, which is grossly unfair. Some 35.5 per cent. of the council budget was funded by the taxpayer in the south-east, but only 24.5 per cent. of the council budget was funded by the taxpayer in the north-east.

Southend band D properties paid £854 for council services for the year 2003–04, which is a 15.7 per cent. increase. However, in Gateshead, a band D property paid £1,115, a 9.8 per cent increase. Gateshead council receives £261 more per household than Southend borough council. However, the real unfairness is that Gateshead council, which raises more money from the council tax, is rewarded by being given 10 per cent. extra grant by the Government. Total public spending per head of the population in 2002 for the south-east was £4,444, compared with £5,793 for the north-east. Why is that disparity so great? I would like the Minister to address that question.

Southend borough council's treasurer, Mr. Andrews, has advised me that if the council is to spend to the formula spending share, it will have to increase the council tax. The leader of the council, Howard Briggs, stated in a letter to the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire that for services to remain at their present standard the council needed to increase council tax by

The borough treasurer has said that even with an increase in council tax, savings of £7 million would be needed. Like Kent county council, Southend borough council sees job cuts as the way forward, but that cannot be what this Labour Government want. The council intends to make savings by freezing recruitment and only advertising job vacancies internally. Job cuts will be made through natural wastage and all efforts will be made to ensure that there are no compulsory redundancies.

I know that the Minister has copies of all the correspondence between the council leader and his colleague, but I draw his attention especially to the letter of 3 December. The council leader states:

as I have already said—

That is where the real unfairness in the system lies—in social services.

My constituency is No. 1 in the country in terms of the number of residents aged between 100 and 110. That says it all. People in Southend, and especially in Southend, West, are living longer, and that ageing

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population requires tremendous extra expenses for social security support. In England as a whole, there has been a 4.9 per cent. increase in funding for social services for children, but in Southend the figure is 2.4 per cent. The increase for social services for older people in England as a whole is 8.7 per cent., but it is only 8.2 per cent. in Southend; the increase for younger adults—those aged between 19 and 64—in England is 4.1 per cent., but in Southend it is 1.4 per cent. The situation is the same for other services; for example, the amount for highways in England is 2.8 per cent. but 1.2 per cent. in Southend.

The leader of the council warned the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire that the council tax increase would be 20 per cent., which is obviously wholly unacceptable. I have read the Minister's letter carefully, but neither the leader of the council nor I agree with any part of it. The letter was very, very disappointing.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary will refer to education funding. However, Mrs. Sally Carr, the chairman of Southend education committee, has advised me that Southend's entire budget settlement was not sufficient even to cover the increased amount to be passported for education—hence, extra money was given. The amount left for the rest of the council's services once the funding for schools is taken out will not even cover the rate of inflation, so services will be cut, charges will be increased and a high rate of council tax will be needed just for the council to stand still.

Southend was the highest delegating authority in the country, so it will have to continue to passport the same amount even though it is not directly funded. Last year, Southend took £700,000 from the LEA block grant to make up the difference for school funding and it will have to do exactly the same this year to maintain the amount that the Government say must be passported.

Southend cannot continue to sustain such amounts. We spend less per pupil at LEA level, because of all the extra work that the authority has to do with no extra funding; for example, by the end of 2004, it must be the clearing house for all secondary admissions, which is putting a real strain on central resources. Schools have received the required amount—less the £700,000 that we have to make up—but the rest of the local authority has received nothing, and social services especially will suffer.

I have said that settlements for children and older people are disappointing compared with those for the rest of the country. The social services department will receive an average increase of 4.6 per cent., compared with an increase of 6.3 per cent. for England as a whole. Southend's director of social care, John Nawrockyi, has advised me that up to 60 jobs will have to be cut due to the financial settlement, although he hopes that the cuts will be spread evenly across the department.

The council understands that the Government will penalise local authorities if they are found guilty of what is described as "bed blocking". If social services cannot move elderly people out of Southend hospital, they will be penalised with fines of £100 per person. In an article in the excellent Leigh Times, the leader of the local authority stated that those provisions would

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The £100 penalty will be yet another blow.

I say again to the Minister that the local authority corresponded with the Office for National Statistics and the census figures showed that the number of vacant houses did not tally with the council's council tax returns. The figure for vacant houses was not accurate in respect of, for example, the Palace hotel, which looks after many homeless people and asylum seekers.

The Government have been very unfair to Southend borough council, which has done a splendid job in looking after local residents. It has coped with the increasing demands made on it, but it is faced with a crisis, whereby it will have to introduce a high council tax, cut services and staff and increase charges for off-street parking and crematorium and cemetery fees. This financial settlement will not only produce a huge council tax, but have a detrimental effect on Southend residents' quality of life. It is a very raw deal, and at the very least I ask the Minister to have a conversation with his right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire, so that he reconsiders refusing on three occasions to meet a delegation from Southend borough council.

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