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Wandsworth Council

3.30 pm

Tom Cox (Tooting) (Lab): With the Minister's agreement, I know that my hon. Friends the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) and for Putney (Mr. Colman) hope to catch your eye in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We represent constituencies in Wandsworth, and local organisations in each of our areas will be seriously affected by the reduction of their funding proposed by Wandsworth council. We know Wandsworth council and its policies only too well. It has only one objective: to keep its council tax as low as possible. Although some may welcome that, it deeply harms long-established local organisations that provide a service that is much needed and respected by local people in the communities of Wandsworth. We are talking about one of the richest local authorities in the country. If it truly valued the roles of these organisations, it would be considering not reducing their funding, but increasing it.

Early-day motion 761, which has been signed by more than 50 hon. Members, clearly explains our concerns as MPs for the borough, as well as what the organisations and the people of Wandsworth are saying. In proposing the funding cuts, Wandsworth council is clearly threatening these organisations' very existence. They are organisations that many hon. Members will have in their constituencies and whose value they will know well—citizens advice bureaux, cancer support centres, the Wandsworth bereavement service, the Parkinson's disease service, day centres for the elderly and luncheon clubs. All such organisations are the daily lifeblood of a community. If such groups no longer provide services to local people, who will take over from them? Most certainly, it will not be Wandsworth council. I sought this debate to highlight in the House the deep concerns of local organisations and people in Wandsworth.

I pay the warmest tribute to the local Wandsworth newspapers: the Wandsworth Borough News and the Wandsworth Guardian. For many weeks, they have given these issues a great deal of coverage. Their reporters have not sat in their offices waiting for someone to phone them, but visited the local organisations to which I referred to meet and talk to the people who run them, and the people of Wandsworth who use their services and most certainly want them to continue. Local people's views and concerns have very clearly been reported in the local press. In the Wandsworth Guardian on 12 February, Petra Griffiths, the cancer resource centre director, said:

How right she is. Do any of us think that a cancer centre that supports and gives advice to patients and their families is a low priority?

Gladys Whigham, who runs the local branch of the Parkinson's Disease Society, said that the proposed cut would leave it with only nine months' funding for a welfare visitor who gives advice and helps its 50 members with benefit claims. She said:

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That lady's comments amount to a statement of a clear case. People who need care are often retired people who cannot work because of illness. It is not acceptable to my parliamentary colleagues or to me that such people should be told, "If you want care or services, pay for them. What angers me and many people in Wandsworth is that that is happening in one of the richest local authorities in the country.

Mo Smith runs a luncheon club that is also under threat. She says that it has

All Members of the House will fully understand and agree with what she says. Peter Cardy of Macmillan Cancer Relief sums up the matter clearly:

That is the key to the issue—saving money. It does not matter who will be affected if council tax can be kept low and large sums can be built up in the reserves for elections. My hon. Friend the Minister will be fully aware of the very substantial funding that the Government give to Wandsworth year by year. The debate will clearly show him how Wandsworth council uses some of that funding not as he, I, my colleagues or the people of Wandsworth would expect, but to build up its reserves.

As early-day motion 761 states, there is a very urgent need for discussions with Wandsworth council about why, as one of the richest boroughs in the country, it is cutting funding to key local organisations. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister urgently to demand such a meeting.

3.39 pm

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Tom Cox) for securing the debate and providing me with the welcome chance to add a few words to his about the performance and practice of Wandsworth borough council. I appreciate that the Minister is not responsible for the council's policies. That is just as well, because if he were, I do not think that he would sleep easy in his bed. However, Wandsworth's recent actions must make him question its performance and practice. The authority was described only two years ago as excellent, but now, sadly, it is short-sighted and self-defeating.

The cutting of the grant to the cancer resource centre, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is particularly self-defeating, since it is recognised as a pioneering organisation in providing support and home visiting for cancer patients. I attended its 20th anniversary reception last year in the Commons, which was attended by the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) and the chairman of the all-party cancer group, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who gave enthusiastic

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tributes to the Wandsworth campaign as a prototype for local cancer groups. At a similar event attended by Wandsworth councillors, Conservatives lined up to say how much they admired the organisation, but they have now voted to withdraw its grant. The centre will have to close if the grant is withdrawn. It is used to pay for rent and key staff to run it, and there is no alternative way of paying the rent.

I am more concerned about the knock-on effect of withdrawing the grant, which will place a larger burden on the council's statutory responsibilities, costing it more than is saved by not making the grant. There will be more demands on social services and the national health service. The same applies to the cut in Wandsworth's bereavement service; it also does a fantastic job in the prevention field, which is reflected by many letters that I have received.

The council also tried to justify the closure of pensioners' luncheon clubs, saying that they are aimed at a younger and more able section of the older population. However, anyone who has visited the clubs will know that it is often such clubs that keep elderly people more active and mobile. I will read one paragraph from a letter that I received from a pensioner in my constituency:

That is the kind of organisation that will have to close.

Even more destructive is the decision not to passport £529,000 to Wandsworth's schools, which follows a refusal last year not to passport £1.7 million to the schools budget. It is not as if Wandsworth is hard done by. The Government gave it £227 million this year and rely on the council to match the increase in education funding. However, the Government fund about 84 per cent. of Wandsworth's spending, which is one of the highest percentages in the country, while the council refuses to pay its share of the schools budget.

The refusal to passport might be understandable if Wandsworth had the highest education spending, but it has the lowest spending per secondary pupil in inner London in the current year, and it will do so again in future. Its refusal to match the Government's investment in education is appalling. It is taking away from the schoolchildren of Wandsworth £500,000 this year and £2.2 million in all, which it was given to invest in their education.

Wandsworth used the excuse that those cuts were necessary because the Government threatened to use their powers to cap the council tax if the council tried to increase the tax above a certain amount. That excuse is now seen as disingenuous and misleading, because there was never any likelihood that the Government would use their powers to cap Wandsworth and, in any case, it emerged three days later that Wandsworth had no intention of increasing council tax by anything like the amount that would have risked its being capped. Indeed, the council announced a zero increase in its spending. It is total bunk for Wandsworth to try to blame the Government. The cuts are entirely the responsibility of

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the leadership of Wandsworth council, and they are not being carried out in any way at the behest of the Government.

More serious than that is the element of bad faith. On 1 January, Wandsworth promised in its indicative schools budget to passport the full amount to the schoolchildren of Wandsworth, with the proviso that it reserved the right to reconsider if material conditions changed. It then announced earlier this month that it would passport not the full amount, but only 93 per cent., and retain the remaining £500,000. However, it is not true that any material changes have occurred. The authority simply tried to mislead the Government into not using their powers under the Education Act 2002 and then changed its mind. That must have been in its mind the whole time, because it was the only party that knew what the council tax rise was likely to be.

I argue that the Government still have powers under the Education Act 2002 to force Wandsworth to passport the full amount. I know that it is after 14 January, but it is less than a fortnight since the announcement that the authority did not intend to passport the full amount. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to speak to his colleagues in other Departments, and especially the Department for Education and Skills, to remind them that they still have the legal power to use their right.

The future of schoolchildren in the London borough of Wandsworth is at stake. I do not criticise the schools, but I do criticise the council, which is vested with responsibility for education, for withholding money that was paid by the Government to be spent on the children of Wandsworth. The council is retaining that money for political reasons. The Government are beholden to use their powers to ensure that the money finds the recipients for whom it is intended.

3.46 pm

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Tom Cox) on securing the debate, and I agree with every word that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) said. I also welcome the Minister, who grew up in Battersea and went to school in Putney at Southfields school, Wandsworth, where he was head boy. The school was closed by the Conservatives and reopened under a Labour Government as St. Cecilia's, Wandsworth. I am pleased that my son is a pupil at that school.

Having started on that light note, I, too, wish to express my sadness at the loss of the luncheon club, headed by Mo Smith in Roehampton, and the Ashburton and Arndale luncheon clubs. Those clubs are a lifeline to many older people in the community and it is essential that Wandsworth continue to fund them.

My hon. Friends did not mention the cut of some £215,000 in the budget for the citizens advice bureaux, which led to the closure of the Putney CAB, a lifeline for my constituents who need legal advice. I support what has been said about those Wandsworth-wide groups, to which the constituents of all three hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have access. I am very proud of the cancer resource centre, which is a world centre, but that pride does not extend to Wandsworth council.

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Funding for the bereavement service is going, and so is funding of the local Parkinson's disease service, which will be a real loss. The council has very large reserves that could fund the groups, and it could restore tomorrow what is being cut if the Minister spoke to the leader of the authority and told him what was going on.

I echo the concern expressed about the shortfall in the schools budget; it was £1 million last year and it is £1 million this year. I understood that Wandsworth was the one council in London that was not passporting its money, but this afternoon I received a letter from Sir Jeremy Beecham stating that Wandsworth is the one council in the UK that is refusing to passport the money. That is an extraordinary situation, and as Sir Jeremy said, it completely undermines the concept of local authorities having a role in education funding.

Like my hon. Friends, I have long queues at my surgery of people who are concerned about what is happening in Wandsworth council. They are worried about housing repairs and about the diminishing level of social housing. The council has made no attempt to deal with the housing shortfall in the area, and that is something that the Minister should become involved in.

Wandsworth is very proud of its rank as an excellent council and it is important to take that on board. It is interesting to read what it says on its website about the corporate assessment:

We are talking about what the council will not do. On "Focus, the assessment says:

The council has

Might I suggest that Wandsworth has not lived up to the billing that the Audit Commission gave? I would support "CPA—The Way Forward, in which the commission said:

Services are slipping in Wandsworth.

The officers in Wandsworth are brilliant. They do all they can to keep services going. I asked one senior officer, who has since retired, why he remained at Wandsworth. He said, "If I left, the cuts would be deeper, the services would get worse. I look forward to seeing the Minister intervening where the services are slipping.

3.51 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Tom Cox) on securing this debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Putney (Mr. Colman) and for Battersea (Martin Linton) on their forthright support for the passionate contribution that my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting made on behalf of his constituents,

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the voluntary and community organisations in the borough and the schools whose the pupils and parents are so anxious about the problems that they face. I note that my hon. Friend's name is at the top of early-day motion 761, for which he has garnered wide support—

3.52 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.5 pm

On resuming—

Phil Hope : Before I was interrupted, I was saying that my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting had his name at the head of an early-day motion that describes his very substantial concerns. I see the signatures of 53 other hon. Members who support him, and my hon. Friends the Members for Putney and for Battersea have supported him today in expressing concern about the decisions that Wandsworth council has taken about its council tax. Having grown up and gone to school in the area, as my hon. Friend the Member for Putney reminded us, I am sad that today's debate on Wandsworth should be about difficulties and negativity.

On 5 February, Parliament approved the local government settlement for 2004–05—the next financial year—which provides a generous grant increase of 5.5 per cent. and an overall increase of 7.3 per cent. Since taking office, the Government have increased funding by 30 per cent. in real terms. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting noted at the beginning of the debate the Government's support for local government. That contrasts rather starkly with the 7 per cent. real-terms cut made over the last four years under the Conservative Government. As a former county councillor who had to deal with huge budget cuts as a result, I know how much local government has benefited from the past seven years of Labour Government.

In the recent grant settlement, we reduced the ring-fenced grant from more than 13.3 per cent. to about 11 per cent. of the total grant. That is part of our overall commitment to reverse the trend on the ring-fencing of grants to local authorities.

We have always said that there is no need for excessive council tax rises. I shall come to the Wandsworth point in a second. We said that, given the generous settlement for next year, we expected to see council tax increases in low single figures, and we are encouraged by the evidence that many councils have listened to our exhortations to lower their council tax increases. A general point is that we have targeted capping powers and we will use them as necessary. We will decide on capping principles when we have received and examined the final detailed budgets from all councils. We will not cap for the sake of it, but we will cap to prevent taxpayers being subjected to excessive rises.

I shall now focus on the funding and council tax increases in Wandsworth. In the financial year 2002–03, Wandsworth received a 4 per cent. increase in funding. In 2003–04, there was a 3.5 per cent. increase, and in

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2004–05, Wandsworth council will receive £227 million in grant—an increase of almost £9 million or 4.1 per cent.

Apart from the general grant funding, Wandsworth is receiving substantial further funding from the Government for 2004–05. That includes £12 million from the Department for Education and Skills, £5.7 million from the Department of Health and £400,000 of neighbourhood renewal funding. Wandsworth received £400,000 of e-government funding in 2002–03 and 2003–04, and it can expect further substantial support for e-government in 2004–05.

Now let us consider Wandsworth's council tax increases for the same period. In 2002–03—an election year—the borough had a council tax increase of minus 25 per cent. In 2003–04—after the election—it had an increase of 57 per cent., and for 2004–05, the increase is 0 per cent. I leave hon. Members to draw their own conclusions on Wandsworth's financial management, given that track record of council taxes, but I would like to draw my hon. Friends' attention to two contributions made to the debate from other quarters. They may have seen a letter sent by my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards to the leader of Wandsworth borough council about school funding and passporting into the schools budget. My hon. Friend said:

my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local and Regional Government—

I read that out in full because it demonstrates that the Government are not happy with a council that decides not to passport 100 per cent. of a grant to schools.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea asked about the legal powers to enforce passporting. Regrettably, we can act only when the council considers the proposed schools budget inadequate, and we must act within 14 days of the 31 December deadline. We have passed that deadline and are therefore unable to use the powers to which he referred.

I hope that my response has made the Government's position clear. I also draw Members' attention to a letter sent by Sir Jeremy Beecham, who is chairman of the Local Government Association, to the council leader. He also sent a copy to the Government and the media. He said:

That is the case, and we are deeply concerned.

Budgetary decisions, including on the funding of voluntary bodies, are a matter for individual local authorities, because of the nature of the democratic structures in this country. Therefore, any cuts that

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Wandsworth borough council makes in its grants to voluntary organisations in Wandsworth are a matter for that council. However, I point out that Wandsworth, like every other council, is accountable to its electorate for its spending decisions. I make that point—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Edward O'Hara: Order. We must now turn our attention to pigswill.

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