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Mr. Wiggin: I am delighted to give the hon. Gentleman examples. I mentioned the extra cost to the education department resulting from sparsity of population; I think that it is an extra £6 million. We also have library standards, recycling targets, transfer of licensing responsibilities, benefit regulations, national care home standards and the implementation of electronic government, to name but a few of the examples that I have. I hope that that answers his question.
David Taylor: I am not sure that it does. To people in this Chamber and elsewhere, bureaucracy is an activity that exists for its own sake, and not because it is raising standards, providing new facilities or driving up quality. Such activities are not necessarily bureaucracy. Is that not merely a vacuous, hand-me-down phrase that is used when people want to have a go at either Governments or local authorities?
Mr. Wiggin: Whether the definition of bureaucracy suits the hon. Gentleman or the Government is not the issue. What we are seeing is a council, fire authority and police authority that are performing way better than the average, but are being cut and capped.
As I see it, the problem is that the Government have a fundamental belief that they should be targeting percentage increases instead of real financial increases. That results in a mismatch in constituencies such as mine. We can call it bureaucracy or haggle over the definition, but the fundamental problem that I and my constituents facenone of us wants to pay a penny more council tax than we have tois that in areas such as the one that I represent, local performance and the funding that the Government provide do not match up.
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As I said, the police authority would have to spend an extra £10 million to reach even the average level among the shire-type forces with which it would be compared. At one stage, I hoped that I would have to pay a lower council tax rate, as I live in my constituency. Unfortunately, however, the nature of the capping and the cuts that will have to be made means that they will be extremely damaging and that they will not deliver the financial saving that I had once hoped for.
I am deeply disappointed that the Government have taken this line with Herefordshire, West Mercia and the Hereford and Worcester fire authority. I urge the Minister to think very carefully about what he is going to do in terms of the safety and protection of my constituents, and I hope that he will revisit that decision.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I declare an interest in that my wife, who used to work for Devon county council, has been seconded to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and I understand that I should put that on the record. [Interruption.] I have not asked her whether she enjoys the work, but she has been in post for three weeks.
I am glad that the Minister for Local and Regional Government has returned to the Front Bench. After I intervened during his opening remarks, he said that he could not remember as far back as me, which should worry both him and us. I checked in "Dod's", and the Minister is eight years older than me, so I hope that his memory is not becoming shorter, although that might explain his comments about Labour policy.
The Minister keeps repeating the phrase "Groundhog Day" in debate. He last used it in a debate on local government finance, in which he stated that the Tories were returning to an issue that the Liberal Democrats had raised 10 days previously. However, we have become used to the Tories repeating our remarks from 10 years agothey catch up in the end.
In that debate, the Minister referred to the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), in which my hon. Friend made a clear case for local income tax, but he went on to say that Liberal Democrats
"are no better than snake oil salesmen peddling quack remedies".[Official Report, 17 May 2004; Vol. 421, c. 759.]
What is his problem with snake oil salesmen? What did a snake oil salesman do to him in the past that makes him dislike them so? What remedy did he purchase that did not workwe have only to look to see what it might have been? He should think of the snakes that the snake oil salesmen must kill.
I am glad to see extra Conservative Members in the Chamber for their Opposition day. [Hon. Members: "Where are the Liberals?"] It is their Opposition day, not ours. The debate is welcome, because we can revisit the issues, pressure the Government to provide answers that they did not give last week and test the Conservative party on its lack of policies on this subject.
The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) has a selective memory for council tax rates, and hon. Members have showered figures like confetti today. I did not originally intend to speak, so I have not gone to my local authority to obtain a wealth of figures with which to regale the House on the evil of the Government's settlement in Devon or Teignbridge.
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The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge did not answer my question about the average figure for council tax rises over six years. It is all well and good to pick one figure from last year and conclude that the Conservatives did quite well, but I am more interested in the overall figure covering a number of years. The Conservative party's track record over six years is not very good. The average increase in council tax in Conservative-run authorities is 8.9 per cent. per annum, which is greater than that under the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, the nationalists and the independents.
Mr. Wiggin: Will the hon. Gentleman address the important issue for my constituents, which is that their local authority has been capped? Until last year, the Liberal Democrats ran Herefordshire council, where council tax increased by 14.3 per cent. Despite that rise, the Liberal Democrats also managed completely to deplete the reserves, and a great deal of the funding that we have levied from council tax payers has been used to repay that depletion. The hon. Gentleman should not take his eye off the ball, and I hope that he bears in mind some of the terrible things that his party has done to councils.
Richard Younger-Ross: Cheap points scoring turns people off politics, which is one of the great tragedies of these debates. [Laughter.] Any hon. Member can stand up and criticise an authority run by another party by saying, "In such and such a case, that council hugely increased council tax."
The response to the point made by the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) is to examine Torbay, which the Liberal Democrats currently run and which is being cappedTorbay has a problem because the Tories used to run it. One can always counter such arguments, but it does not take us forward, and the overall trends are far more significant.
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): The hon. Gentleman was generous enough to inform the House about his connection, through his wife, with Devon county council, which the Liberal Democrats ran until the last county council elections. The Liberal Democrats completely depleted the county's resources, for which we are now paying. It is all very well to say that that is a cheap political point; it is also a factual point, as was that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin).
Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) mentions the depletion of resources, but what did the Conservative party do in Shepway? It not only emptied the cupboard but took out the shelves as well.
The hon. Member for East Devon and I have worked together on issues relating to Devon county council, which is currently run by not one party, but an amalgamation of four parties. The Devon example shows that parties can work together on funding and come up with a common case on why Government figures are wrong and on why the Minister must listen. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that
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Conservatives in Devon have worked with the Liberal Democrats, the Labour party and independents to come up with a common position. Cheap points scoring does not occur in Devon county council because the parties understand that they must work with each other.
Mr. Swire: That is the Liberal Democrat trick of pretending that nothing is political and that they are nicer than the mainstream parties. It is entirely correct that different parties currently work together in Devon; my point is that when the Liberal Democrats worked alone, they depleted the council's resources, which is why council tax had to go up so much last year.
Richard Younger-Ross: Last year, the Conservative leader of Devon county council, Margaret Channon, recommended an 18.2 per cent. increase. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for East Devon protests too muchhe attended the same briefings as me, and I understood that he supported his county council. The Liberal Democrats, the Labour party and independents supported the rise, which was fair because of the bad grant settlement.
Last year, the hon. Member for East Devon said that the increase in Devon was the Government's fault because of the grant settlement, but the Conservative party also says that the Government have been taking money from the south to give to the north. The Conservative party cannot have it both ways, because it is one thing or the other. [Interruption.] Last year's grant settlement in Devon was a scandal.
The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) made some pertinent points about what has happened in his local authority. I listened to him carefully and, although I do not know the details, he appears to have a strong case that Macclesfield has had a raw deal.
I hope that the Minister listened to what he said, but I have to say that when we pleaded the case for Devon last year, our words fell on deaf ears. Perhaps he has snake oil in them. The pensioners' protest started as a protest against East Devon council, which is run by the Conservatives and which imposed a sharp rise of 18.2 per cent. The greatest burden on local authorities is having to administer the council tax systema goliath of a machine that is not very effective at raising money.
The poor funding for Devon last year resulted partly from the basis on which grants are giventhat is, house value. I had thought that the hon. Member for East Devon accepted thatperhaps a selective memory is contagious in this Chamber. The problem in Devon is that although we have high property values, we have low incomes. It is a gross mistake to make assumptions about what people can afford on the basis of the value of their property. In effect, that suggests that a person has to move home to be able to afford their council tax. That is to be resisted, and it is one of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats have tried to put forward alternatives.
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