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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. We cannot have frequent conversational interjections from a sedentary position. If hon. Members wish to intervene, they should do so formally in the normal way.

Mr. Raynsford: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The grant increases for the three northern regions this year were 4.8 per cent. in the north-east, 5.2 per cent. in the north-west and 5 per cent. in Yorkshire and Humber. The grant increases in the four southern regions were 5.4 per cent. for London, 5.9 per cent. in the eastern region, 5.6 per cent. in the south-east and 5.5 per cent. in the south-west.
 
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That is more clear evidence that Tory propaganda is completely untrue.

The Tories pretend that they are in favour of low council tax but they have sat on their hands when the Government have taken action to cap excessive council tax increases. This was the party that introduced capping in the 1980s. It was the party that capped, capped and capped again when local authorities were starved of resources and facing grant cuts.

Now, despite the clear evidence that their Back Benchers want effective and tough action to be taken to stop unreasonable council tax increases, the Tory party is reluctant to say one way or the other where it stands on capping. No wonder Lord Tebbit is fed up. No wonder he has denounced it for its

I much prefer the more robust line that another absent Tory Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), used to take. He said:

I agree. Sadly, he too has been airbrushed out of the picture by the Tory party.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I concur with my right hon. Friend that there is no need for the excessive increases. I refer him to a parliamentary question that I asked the Deputy Prime Minister, which asked

From 1991 to 1997, it was £42 billion, £43 billion, £42 billion, £43 billion, £42 billion and £42 billion. However, from 1998 onwards, it was £42 billion, £44 billion, £47 billion, £49 billion, £50 billion and £53 billion—a 30 per cent. real-terms increase in funding from central Government to local government.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a good point.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): In case the Minister does not know—he would wish this to be said if it were one of his colleagues—my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) is in plaster following an accident. Perhaps all hon. Members would like to know that. It is important to set the record straight. Through no fault of his own, he cannot be here today.

Mr. Raynsford: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting that and I send my best wishes for a speedy recovery to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar. As I say, I enjoy his robust approach and will welcome his return to hear a rather more robust line from the Conservative party than the mealy-mouthed approach that it has taken towards capping.

The Opposition have no policy and no credibility. They have tried to forget their own lamentable record in office, and in the most opportunistic style, which is all too common in the regime of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), they have sought to reinvent themselves as the party of compassionate and caring localism.
 
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No one will be deceived. The party of the poll tax, of year-on-year cuts, of compulsory competitive tendering, of capital controls and of crude and universal capping, cannot miraculously transform itself by donning the sheep's clothing that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has unconvincingly tried to wrap himself in today. Their motion is inaccurate, insincere and frankly incredible. The House should reject it.

1.43 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I take the opportunity to send our best wishes to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). I hope that the pickled hon. Member is not plastered for too long.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) made a detailed speech, talking about the financial burdens that the Government have placed on local authorities. I agree with much of his analysis, but the Minister was right to say that the hon. Gentleman was suffering from amnesia. Whether that was deliberate or unwitting is difficult to tell, but the Tories' record on centralisation and burdening local government does not bear analysis. The Minister has done a good job in highlighting that record and how dreadful it was for all those involved in local government when the Tories were in power.

It has been an embarrassing day or two for the Conservatives and their local government team. First, we had the report and interview in The Times about whether the poll tax would be part of their policy. That has now been clarified. It no longer is, although it was in black and white that it was going to be considered. In the Financial Times today, their former local government spokesman, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), suggests that the Conservatives should advocate relocalisation of business rates, so some thinking seems to be going on in the Conservative party, but quite where it is leading we do not know. At the moment we have a vacuum in Conservative policy on local government finance. We know what the Conservatives are against, and we know they can make negative attacks on the Government and on the Liberal Democrats, but we do not know what they are in favour of.

When the Conservative leader, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), was asked by The Daily Telegraph what his position was on the council tax, he said that he was very worried. The journalist therefore asked what he was going to do and he said, "I don't know." That was in April 2003. We hoped that he would have a few lessons, do a policy review or something like that. After all, he was the Minister in the Conservative Government who brought in the poll tax and helped to bring in the council tax, so he has some expertise on local government finance. We thought that the Tories would come up with some policy.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): Perhaps my hon. Friend recalls that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was also responsible for bringing in water charges in their current form, which have added great misery to people
 
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in the south-west, who face huge rises not just in council tax this year, mostly in Conservative authorities, but in water charges.

Mr. Davey: It is not surprising that the Conservatives do not talk about their record in local government, because it is appalling. Now they make excuses for not putting before the electorate before the local elections on 10 June policies on council tax and local government finance. They say that they are waiting for the report of the balance of funding review. That is a derogation of their duty. Before a democratic process, local electors need to know what the Conservatives' position is.

Mr. Hammond: What is the position of the Government then?

Mr. Davey: At the moment we do not know, do we? The hon. Gentleman is right, but I do not think that that excuses him. It shows that both the Conservatives and the Labour party are undermining the democratic process by not being honest with the people of Britain.

We do have one bit of Conservative policy on local government finance. We heard the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer—it was debated earlier—say that he wants to reduce spending on local government by £2.5 billion. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, in exchanges with the Minister, tried to clarify that it was about reducing bureaucracy and waste, but the Conservatives have not told us in detail where that money will be saved. They have not said that it will come from reducing spending on education, social services, the environment protective cultural services grant or anything like that. All the voters know is that there will be a £2.5 billion cut. Whether that will be achieved through savings, or whether the balance will be picked up by increasing council tax by 10 per cent., we do not know. The Conservatives are abusing the electorate by not coming clean on that.

Mr. Hammond: For the record, as the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) has said that total non-NHS, non-schools departmental expenditure would be held constant for two years. He has said nothing specifically about the local government finance settlement. The hon. Gentleman is extrapolating.


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