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Mr. Evans: My hon. Friend has gone through a list of pressures that have led to huge council tax increases over the past seven years, particularly in Lancashire. Does he agree that if the people of the northern regionsincluding the north-west, where the Ribble Valley constituency liesvote for regional government in the referendums, that will not only add huge increases to the council tax bills of everyone living in the north-west, but, thanks to the decision announced by the boundary committee yesterday, make local government far more remote from local people, not closer to them?
Mr. Hammond: That would make local government more remote from the people and it would cost the council tax payer. The Government are insisting on reorganising local government in any area that is foolish enough to choose an elected regional assembly on unitary lines. Cambridge university estimates that the cost of local government reorganisation alone would add £110 to a band D council tax bill, and that is before taking any account of any local precepting power that regional assemblies may be given under the regional assemblies Bill, which we have not yet seen.
All social services authorities face bed-blocking fines, for which some funding has been provided, and the associated bureaucracy, for which none has been provided. Hampshire county council has received £1.2 million from the Department of Health as a grant so that it can recycle it as fines to the local NHS acute hospitals, but it has had to take on an extra 28 people to manage the flow of paperwork and payments and to monitor the systeman extra council tax burden and a piece of absurd bureaucracy.
The landfill tax escalatorincreases in the landfill tax without any offsetting reductions elsewhereis rising to £18 a tonne in April next year and is destined eventually to get to £34 a tonne. It may raise the Treasury £600 million this year, but £360 million of that £600 million will be paid by local authorities, which are by far the largest disposers of waste. All those specific and explicit cost pressures come on top of the pernicious and substantial cost of grade inflation, to which authorities in low unemployment areas are routinely forced to succumb in order to recruit and retain the staff they need to continue to deliver local services.
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con):
I had not wanted to interrupt the long list of extra burdens that the Government are putting on local authorities, but is my hon. Friend aware that many of these initiatives are being introduced simultaneously? I give him a concrete example from my constituency: Broadland district
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council wrote to me the other day to say that the extra increases in recycling requirements and for wheelie bins, for example, mean that the market cannot cope, so, on average, if people can get hold of a wheelie bin, it costs £2 to £3 more, which, cumulatively, adds another £120,000 to £180,000. That is a practical example. There is a blizzard of these initiatives coming in, and local government is in despair.
Mr. Hammond: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have reached the end of my list of burdens causing cost pressures on existing services, but I have not yet started on the list of new initiatives that central Government are imposing on local authorities, including initiatives related to waste management.
As a result of the national cost pressures that I have outlined, as well as many others that we do not have time to go into, many authorities face the need to make above-inflation council tax increases, even before taking into account the burden imposed by the wasteful inspection and audit regime, the effect of passporting and the additional responsibilities being imposedyear in, year outon local government.
Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Gentleman is throwing figures around like confetti, but will he confirm that the key figure is this: the average increase under Conservative councils for the last six years is 8.9 per cent., which is larger than for all the other parties?
Mr. Hammond: I suspect that the key figure for most council tax payers is this: despite the fiddled funding and the new burdens, Conservative councils cost an average of £57 less under band D council tax[Interruption.] The Minister says no, but Conservative councils cost an average of £57 less under band D council tax than either Labour or Liberal Democrat-controlled authorities in England.
Some additional burdens on local government that I shall discuss in a moment represent genuine services delivered to the public, but the red tape and regulation of the Government's barrage of different inspection regimes are pure dead weight on the shoulders of local government. Local authorities are subject to best value performance indicators and plans, comprehensive performance assessment, examination by the Commission for Social Care Inspection, the Ofsted process, scrutiny by the benefit fraud inspectorate and the adult learning inspectorate, as well as inspection by something called the Office of Surveillance Commissioners.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates the annual direct cost of external inspection of local government functions to have been £600 million in 200001. It notes that that figure excludes indirect costslocal authority compliance, avoidance costs and
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opportunity costs, not to mention the negative impact of such a prescriptive regime on local initiative and staff morale.
Overall, the Local Government Information Unit estimates that those indirect costs added a further £400 million a year in 2002. That cost will have risen since, as comprehensive performance assessments have been rolled out to all tiers of local government, making the current cost of the Government's bureaucratic inspection regime well in excess of £1 billion a year. Early promises that high-performing councils would be subject to less inspection have not materialised; nor has the promised exemption from capping.
Guildford borough councila Conservative-run council rated excellent by its comprehensive performance assessmenthad to submit nearly 900 different files of paperwork to get the rating. For ease, it put them on CD-ROM. That amounts to 400 megabytes of information that had to be prepared and checked by council staff, all at the expense of local council tax payers, of whom, incidentally, I happen to be one.
A Local Government Association publication, "Improving the Quality of Life for Local Communities", contains an informative cameo relating to one district council employee's experience of the inspection regime. Let me give the House a flavour of it:
"During the autumn of 2003 we had a three week performance indicator audit . . .
Then came the supporting people inspection team, which spent a week inspecting procedures in housing and benefits . . . and a short visit from the DVLC inspection service . . .
This was swiftly followed by a best value inspection for street cleaning services . . .
Immediately after was a visit by the Surveillance Commission . . . Whilst all this was going on the district auditor was inspecting our final accounts arrangements . . . we were having to produce our IEG3 (implementing electronic government) statement to the government office, receiving feedback on our capital strategy and asset management strategy (which had to be submitted to the government officer earlier on in the year), and work on the submission of our Housing Investment Strategy and Business Plan which has to be submitted to the government office.
Oblivious to the pressure and demands on us, the government office were continuing to send out requests for informationwe had to fill in a resilience questionnaire . . . we were asked to submit a crime and disorder self assessment document, provide information illustrating local application of 'liveability' initiatives, just to mention a few of these requests . . .
The Benefit fraud inspectorate are coming tomorrow".
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