Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): What does the hon. Gentleman suggest should happen to the supporting people budget?

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman raises a legitimate and predictable point, which goes to the very heart of the way in which local government is currently funded by the Government. We can no longer continue with a position whereby the Government want to direct from the centre all the sums that they want to deal out. According to the Government, the supporting people grant was never intended to meet the total amount of the services provided, although that was not clear from the beginning. What the Opposition want is a total end to these specific grants, allowing local authorities maximum discretion to deal with such problems. I know that a number of local authorities are not merely waiting to do so but have been prepared to put in a significant sum themselves.

Mr. Raynsford: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we have a commitment to reduce ring-fencing and that we have achieved a significant reduction this year? With regard to the supporting people programme, there was wide concern, not only in the local government sector but in the voluntary sector, that without a ring fence during the transitional phase in which the programme was introduced, there was a risk of leakage of funding away from some of the most vulnerable people in the country. That is the reason why there is a ring fence, but it is a temporary provision, and just as we have withdrawn other ring fences, it is our intention to reduce the ring fence on supporting people in due time, as and when the system has bedded in.

Mr. Pickles: That is an interesting contribution. I doubt whether there is any hon. Member in the House who does not have such schemes in their constituency. They are an example of the growing cost base of local government and of interaction between two of the most difficult issues—provision of services for children and for the elderly. In many ways, projects such as
2 Feb 2005 : Column 926
supporting people are the future for social services. With great respect to the Minister, he can talk about the amount of increase and what he is doing about grants, but the programme is an example of how the cost base of local authorities is completely out of kilter with the grant regime. It might be helpful for the Minister who responds to the debate to give us some indication of where the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is on the promise to local authorities to look at costs in relation to the retail prices index and tell us what progress has been made on devising that formula.

The Minister referred to the census. There is a lack of equality of treatment on population matters. The Office for National Statistics made, if we are honest, a bit of a horlicks of the last census. The way in which it moved literally millions of people around the country was like a virtual game of pass the parcel. It missed populations equivalent to major urban centres, while other areas had additional, but non-existent, people added to them. I suppose that it gives a new meaning to the expression "missing millions". After pressure from aggrieved local authorities and hon. Members, the ONS realised its mistake.

The situation was wholly the fault of the ONS—it was not the fault of a single council—yet councils must pick up the tab. It is unfair that local authorities have to pay, because as the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) robustly put it, the national statistician

Quite rightly, Manchester now has a true count of its citizens and receives an additional £7.8 million, but other places are less fortunate. Worcestershire loses £1 million, Norfolk loses nearly £500,000, South Yorkshire police lose nearly £1 million and, worst of all, Surrey loses £2.3 million. As the leader of Surrey county council recently put it to the Minister:

Mr. Kevan Jones: Because they can afford it.

Mr. Pickles: That remark by a Labour Member gets us to the heart of the distribution system, because it is all about penalising Tory authorities, regardless of whether that is right or wrong. When the Government make a mistake, where do they look for the money but Tory authorities? The distribution system should be based on something better than straightforward class hatred.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickles: Having spent a few moments berating the hon. Gentleman, of course I give way to him.

Mr. Hoyle: I did not make the comment, so the hon. Gentleman should withdraw that statement.

The hon. Gentleman says that there is a class war, but I do not think that that is the case. The Government are genuinely trying to ensure that there is a fair settlement throughout the country. Does he agree that there was a class war under the previous Government, when the
2 Feb 2005 : Column 927
likes of Westminster city council received much more help than all other authorities, and does he want to apologise for that now?

Mr. Pickles: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman wants to distance himself from his colleague who made the comment, and I welcome the fact that he is looking towards equality. However, it is only right for me to respond to such provocation from a Labour Member.

Going back to the census, a total of £26 million must be repaid by the counties. What is the justification for asking council tax payers to pick up the tab for central Government's blunder? Contrast that situation with the same Government's refusal to incorporate demographic details from the 2001 census in the final settlement.

The settlement is using data that are 14 years out of date—they were fresh when Baroness Thatcher was a Member of the House. The Government estimate that that costs counties £116 million, which is the equivalent of 2 per cent. on council tax bills. County authorities have been hit especially hard, as have unitary authorities, such as that covering Southend. I know that my two hon. Friends who represent that fine seaside town wish to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I look forward to their contributions with interest. Surely this must be the last year before the most up-to-date data are included. There seem to be two standards. The Government will use information if it will allow them to get money back from authorities, but if the information would mean that authorities would receive money, they do not use it.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): On the question of political bias, is the hon. Gentleman aware that Labour Derbyshire county council was treated appallingly under Mrs. Thatcher, but that it has just come out as the top performing authority in the comprehensive performance assessment? In contrast, Tory-controlled Amber Valley borough council received an increase that was eight times the size that its leader predicted when he asked me to lobby for more. The council has received on average a 5 per cent. increase each year during which the Conservatives have controlled it.

Mr. Pickles: As I said, we know that the formula is about rewarding the Government's friends and punishing their enemies. There were very few complaints about the impartiality of the grant distribution system. The great, lasting monument to the Minister and his hon. Friends is a complete distrust of the system, which an incoming Conservative Government will have to deal with.

Against that backdrop, on Monday the Government announced plans to introduce yet another structural reorganisation of local government. It is as if the Deputy Prime Minister sees local government as his own personal train set. Having done much to mess up the real railways, ruined our roads and dug up our countryside, he seems intent on destroying the one remaining, enduring institution within his grasp—local government. Cannot he take a hint? His desire for mayors has been rejected in countless referendums, and even when he gets one the electorate rarely pick a
2 Feb 2005 : Column 928
candidate of his choosing. The people of the north-east could not have been clearer in their message, yet he still insists on pulling local government out of the ground to check for growth in its roots.

When will this Government learn that what councils need now, more than anything, is a period of stability so that they can plan and provide for their residents free from the latest fad from the centre? The Government have to understand that localism cannot be enforced from the centre. For localism to flourish, the centre has to get out of the way, make a bonfire of regulations and restrictions, and allow councils to plan diversity and innovation in peace. The right hon. Gentleman might feel good about capping authorities, although the cost of sending out the bills is rather greater than the money saved, but council tax payers regard that as a rather hollow gesture.

Next Section IndexHome Page