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Mr. Raynsford rose—

Mr. Cameron: I will not give way, as I have only a minute left. As I was saying, it is nonsense to talk about average figures and much better to examine the band figures. Councils and council tax payers throughout the country have been let down by Labour. The 1997 Labour manifesto could not have been plainer when it stated:

How can Labour Members possibly claim to have fulfilled that pledge?

We have had more and more spending ring-fenced and determined by Whitehall, and more and more spending has been passported through—again, determined by Whitehall. Taxes, costs and charges have been increased by central Government. Extra bureaucracy has been piled on by central Government to such an extent that many councils now have several employees who just tick boxes and fill in forms insisted on by Whitehall. Extra liabilities are imposed by almost every Government Department.

Taxpayers and local councils desperately need a Government who will cut bureaucracy, which we will. They desperately need a Government who will not add extra burdens to local government without providing resources. Every year, the Government say the same thing—"It's a generous settlement"—but, every year, the same result occurs: an increase in council tax at three times the rate of inflation. Most of all, we need an honest and open way of assessing the costs, pressures, liabilities and burdens about which hon. Members spoke today. In the meantime, all voters have every right to lay the blame for high council taxes at the door of No. 10 Downing street, and on 10 June, they will have the chance to send the Government a message by voting for Conservative councillors and I for one hope that they will do so in large numbers.

3.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope): I apologise for not being present at the start of the debate. I was chairing a meeting of the balance of funding review, which has been debating—perhaps in slightly different detail—the intricacies of the future of the balance of local government funding. Interestingly, Professor Gerry Stoker, who was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), has contributed to those discussions.

We have had a short, yet helpful—at least from our point of view—debate on local government finance. It is the second such debate in the past seven days. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Kingston and
 
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Surbiton (Mr. Davey) suggests that that is because of the local elections, but unfortunately local elections seem to bring out the worst in the official Opposition and the minor parties.

Last week, the Liberal Democrats paraded their proposal for replacing the council tax with a local income tax. That would be an utter nightmare, and we comprehensively demolished the proposal last week. This week, the Tories have let slip their plans to reintroduce the poll tax.

Mrs. Spelman: The Minister was not here for the start of the debate, so for the complete avoidance of doubt and his benefit, may I express categorically that we are not considering bringing back the poll tax?

Phil Hope: That was an interesting intervention. I am holding a copy of The Times dated 25 May, which has the headline, "Tories seek answers in poll tax". It says:

It says that when the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) was asked whether

If there is to be a U-turn by the Conservatives today and another tomorrow, and if we see the usual muddle, confusion and complexity of Conservative party policy, I guess that the local electorate will be able to deal with that at the ballot box, as the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) invited them to do.

Mr. McLoughlin: The Minister talks about muddle and confusion. Does he recall the first time that the present Deputy Prime Minister came to the Dispatch Box to talk about local government finance? That was more than seven years ago, and he assured us that he would make local government finance easier to understand. Does the Minister believe that his right hon. Friend has succeeded?

Phil Hope: My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has increased local government finance by no less than 30 per cent. in real terms. However, enough of the muddle and confusion of the Conservative party, let us hear more about the Government's delivery to councils to fund local services.

It is quite entertaining to watch the Conservatives and Liberals trying to trade insults with each other, but the fact is that the Opposition motion is dreadful. It does not contain a single positive word about the future of local services or local government. It is a wholly negative diatribe—we have heard nothing more than that this afternoon—which contains no acknowledgment of the tremendous work that local government does, serving local communities, or of the real improvements in performance. Local authority staff, managers and elected representatives of all parties work hard to secure better services for local people, but that was completely ignored by Conservative Members.
 
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For this Opposition day debate, a grand total of two Conservative Back-Bench speakers bothered to turn up. A few more have gathered towards the end to lend moral support, but this—

Mr. Hammond: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Minister to criticise Opposition Members for not turning up for the debate, when he did not turn up for the first part of it?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I think that the hon. Gentleman is concerned more about putting that on the record than with eliciting from me a ruling on a point of order—which that was not.

Phil Hope: Thank you for that ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Conservative motion is disappointing, but the Liberal Democrats tried to amend it by offering three slogans to be added at the end. That does not say much for Liberal Democrat policy. The party seems to have simply walked away from the problem.

The Conservative motion is an entirely negative diatribe about local government, which does not acknowledge the achievements under this Government. The Liberal Democrats agree with it completely. I consider the sum total of Tory and Liberal Democrat attacks on local councils to be simply unacceptable.

A political party must offer the electorate a narrative about where it has been in the past, where it is now and where it is going in the future. The story that best matches the Conservative narrative is rather unseasonal just now. It is "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens—but in this version the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), stars as the Tories' very own Ebenezer Scrooge.

Three ghosts haunt the land of local government—the ghosts of Conservative past, of Conservative present, and of Conservative future. The most familiar is the ghost of Conservative past. I will say more of the poll tax later, but it was an appalling debacle. It caused VAT to be raised to 17.5 per cent. It was a very unfair system, and placed a greater burden of taxation on people. It led to real-terms cuts in grants to local councils over a number of years, most notably a 7 per cent. real-terms reduction in local authority grants over the final four years of the previous Government.

We must not forget, either, the impact that compulsory competitive tendering had on services. Crude and universal capping was introduced at that time, as were centralised controls on local council capital spending. I hesitate to mention certain measures introduced by the Tories in Westminster.

Under the Conservatives, crime doubled and police numbers fell. This Government inherited a backlog in council house repairs that amounted to £18 billion. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said today that he would make representations to the Government about improving council houses in his area, but perhaps he will explain why this Government inherited a backlog worth £18 million and council houses in such a poor state.

Many hon. Members used to be councillors, committee chairs or leaders of local authorities in those
 
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dark Tory years. They remember all too well the dreadful impact on their communities of the centralised and harsh regime imposed by the then Conservative Government. That regime damaged many of our poorest communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West was chair of housing in Leeds council at the time, and he told the House about his experience of having to sort out the mess. We know the impact that the past had on local communities.

Have the Opposition learned their lesson? The ghost of Conservative present suggests that they have not. Since 1997, the Conservatives have opposed all efforts at devolution. They opposed the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. They opposed devolution to London, and elected regional assemblies for the three northern English regions. They have opposed every Labour Budget, even though this Government have given a 30 per cent. real-terms increase in grants to local councils. They have voted against key areas of legislation to improve local services—in respect of education, housing, planning, policing, transport and child care—which right now are delivering better services for our communities.

The ghost of Conservative present means that Tory councils are putting up council tax this year by more than Labour councils. On a band D average, Tory councils are raising council tax this year by 5.4 per cent. The truth is that Tory councils cost people more.

The Conservatives have pressed the Government about the burdens being placed on local government, but it would help if hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench spoke to their colleagues on the Back Benches.

The private Member's Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) would provide that all regulatory impact assessments conducted by the Government should be externally audited. Can anyone imagine a more unnecessary, bureaucratic, duplicatory, cumbersome burden on local government than that Bill? That is evidence of the reality of what the Conservatives want, and it is in direct contradiction of their Front Benchers.

The Opposition may say that their job is to oppose—although they look rather foolish doing it—so let us look at the Tory alternative, the ghost of Conservative future.


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