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Mr. Wiggin: Does not the hon. Gentleman think that the local income tax that he propounds will have the same effect? In areas such as his constituency, which may have an elderly population with an income that is
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generally much lower than average, people will still be forced to move house to avoid the local income tax that the hon. Gentleman's party wants to introduce.

Richard Younger-Ross: That is not the case at all. The grant would be calculated and rebalanced on the basis of the new local income tax, which would resolve the problem. The local income tax would only replace the funding that is already raised by the council tax. One of the reasons why pensioners were protesting in Devon is that they found that 11 per cent. of their income was being paid in council tax. If Conservative and Labour Members are happy that 11 per cent. of the income of an elderly couple should go towards council tax, that is fine: let them sell it to the country. I would argue that one of the reasons why people are signing up to our "Axe the Tax" petition is that they feel that that proportion is too high.

Mr. Swire: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Richard Younger-Ross: Let me finish the point; I have already given way several times. Although I was asked to extend my speech slightly, I might get some odd looks if I extended it too far.

Under a local income tax, the people who paid it—hon. Members should bear in mind that many pensioners would not have to—would pay only about 3.85 per cent. of their income towards it. As a result, some 70 per cent. of the population would be better off.

Mr. McLoughlin: Everyone will gain.

Richard Younger-Ross: No, I am not saying that. About 30 per cent. of the population would lose out. It is a fair tax, not merely a cheaper tax. Hon. Members here would lose out, the Minister would lose out, and I would lose out, but the average person would not lose out.

Mr. McLoughlin: When we had this debate a few weeks ago, the Minister pointed out that the proposal would take at least two years to take through the legislative process and up to seven years to implement. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that?

Richard Younger-Ross: No, I do not. As usual, the Minister was trying to present the worst-case scenario. He was very selective when he read out the data from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.

Mr. Swire rose—

Richard Younger-Ross: I have already given way more than enough, and I want to make some progress. I have two or three more points to make.

One of the most important aspects of council tax or any local tax is its transparency. The grant system is not transparent. I once heard it said that the Minister was about the only person who understands the maths involved in what he says. [Interruption.] I am not sure whether he is shaking his head or nodding. The present system is immensely complex, and many people do not understand it; consequently, they do not trust it or see it as being fair. Even if it were fair, people would not judge
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it to be such. I would argue that it is unfair because of the burden that it places on people on low incomes, especially the elderly.

Mr. Mole: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Richard Younger-Ross: For one last time, as I have not given way to a Labour Member.

Mr. Mole: I wanted to make a point about the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, but it has completely escaped me, so I shall come back to it later.

Richard Younger-Ross: I said earlier that memory loss is contagious—the hon. Gentleman demonstrates that it is extremely contagious and has spread to the other side of the Chamber.

Another concern that people have about local government is the ability of central Government to interfere. That is not a new phenomenon. I used to work in the architects' department of a local authority—Elmbridge in Esher. I lived in Weybridge and went to work in Esher. The local authority was inefficient and there were many problems. The Government of the time were forcing through reductions in funding that led not to improvements, but cuts, in services. During the 1980s, when my wife was allowed to be involved in politics, we ran campaigns together against those cuts.

In the 1990s—sadly, under the Labour Government for some of the time—there have been cuts in services in some areas because the funding formulae have not worked out. The Minister is looking at me quizzically. I shall give the example that I gave when I was a newly elected Member. The 15 local authorities in the south-west made a joint statement to the Minister saying that the funding for social services was inadequate—particularly for child care, which meant that they were having to transfer resources from elderly care to child care to cover their child protection work. That led to the underfunding of care home and elderly care services in the south-west.

Mr. Raynsford: Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that although there are undoubtedly real pressures on social services—no one denies that—the Government have made provision in this current spending review period for 6 per cent. real-terms growth in social services spending? That very large financial commitment is far different from what applied when the Conservative party was in government.

Richard Younger-Ross: I will give the Minister five out of 10 for that. I accept that there has been some funding, although at the time that I am describing the director of social services estimated that local authorities were underfunded by £8 billion, and the Government have come close to that figure. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that a further £1 billion would be required to maintain care home services.

As far as I am aware, that £1 billion has not been found. Consequently, there is still pressure on the care homes sector. The Minister nods in agreement with that.

Centralising tendencies continue to exist. I served on the Committee that considered the Fire and Rescue Services Bill where we made it clear that we believed that
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the Government displayed centralising tendencies on that. We therefore disagree with the statement that there are no centralising tendencies.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) made a point about a subject that we often forget when we make our calculations and consider the costs to elderly people, our taxpayers and local people in our communities—water charges. They used to be part of the rates but they were taken out of the rates and badly privatised by the Conservatives. The equalisation grants that existed were not reintroduced. Consequently, the south-west pays some of the highest water tax bills in the country, and even higher water tax bills are expected. Overall, that means that we face council tax rises and water charges that are above inflation. That is unacceptable.

3.21 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): This afternoon's debate has been interesting. I was tempted to agree with the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) who said that we should look forwards, not backwards. He did not convey that message to Labour Front Benchers. It was extraordinary to hear the Minister visiting the perceived sins of the father on the son, my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin). Perhaps it is a sign of the Government's desperation as we approach the local elections that he has to hit out not at Opposition Front Benchers but at their parents. That is a little below the belt.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) drew attention to the fact that not as many of our colleagues as there might be are participating in the debate. The reason is simple: they are all out campaigning throughout the country. They are saying that people should bear in mind what has happened in the past and compare the previous situation with the current position. They will spread the message from York to St. Ives and places further north, west, east and south that the Audit Commission's first report in 2002 graded 27 per cent. of Conservative councils excellent. Only 12 per cent. of Labour authorities made the grade and, alas, only 11 per cent. of Liberal Democrat-run authorities were in the same category. Perhaps that is not surprising.

To show that the results were no flash in the plan, the second comprehensive performance assessment, which the Audit Commission announced on 18 December 2003, published updated results for the 150 single-tier and county councils that the first report covered, and a familiar pattern emerged. Conservative-run councils had the highest overall service scores, averaging 3.3 out of 4, compared with 2.9 for Labour councils and, perhaps again unsurprisingly, 3 for Liberal Democrat councils. The Audit Commission found that Conservative councils were more likely to be ranked as excellent and least likely to be ranked as weak or poor. Today, my hon. Friends are relaying those facts with confidence and conviction on the doorstep.

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