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Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): I address the House tonight with the emotions of sadness and anger. I feel sad about what I have to say because, as the Minister will no doubt recall, I raised Southend's financial settlement in January last year, again on the Adjournment, and I very much regret that many of the points that I made then I will have to repeat this evening. I feel angry because there is a great sense of injustice about the way in which Southend residents believe that they have been treated over the local government financial settlement.
I want to draw the Minister's attention to two headlines in our local newspapers this week. The headline in the Southend Times is, "Who would want to take on this job?" It is talking not about the job of Prime Ministermy right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) is keen on that job, and I very much hope that he gets it after the general electionbut the job of leader of Southend council, for it continues: "Southend Council in search of new leader to take on the unenviable task". The headline in the Yellow Advertiser is, "Council leader resigns over population figures 'debacle'", followed by, "Forced out by row". Having seen the correspondence between the Minister and the present leader of Southend council, I hope that the Minister agrees that it is very sad that Councillor Howard Briggs has decided to resign as leader of the council in May.
We ask you & your Ministers to ensure that the accuracy of the ONS 2001 Census figures are checked immediately and that when the formula on which the local government finance settlement is based is reviewed later this year, the impact on Southend on Sea's finances is thoroughly examined and we are lifted from the grant floor, thereby enabling us to give the kiss of life to the town and thus the survival of its services."
Many organisations that represent the local community, including the Southend Association of Voluntary Services, Friends of the Palace Theatre, the Southend Carers Association, Growing Together, Trust Links and Southend Youth Council, to name a few, supported the scroll.
Since I have been Member of Parliament for Southend, West, the council has not been solely led by the Conservative party. From 1994 until 2000, it was run
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by the Liberal and Labour groups. I stress to the Under-Secretary that I am not responsible for running Southend councilno Member of Parliament is responsible for running a local authority. The councillors and the leaders do not phone the local Member and ask what they should do about a specific issuethat is not the job of a Member of Parliament. However, whatever the political complexion of the local authority, if the council feels hard done by, it is the Member of Parliament's job to raise the problems.
I get the impression that there has been a good relationship between the Conservative council and the Government. Indeed, the Conservative-led council would say that it had done everything that it could to support the various Government initiatives. However, the council now feels badly let down because of the census. I want to share with the Under-Secretary a few extracts of Councillor Howard Briggs's budget speech.
Councillor Howard Briggs was born in the town and is well known, but I do not think that he could be described as a professional politician. He was a popular and successful local dentist. Eventually, local people thought that he had a civic contribution to make and thus he became a councillor and genuinely believed in what he and others wanted to achieve for the town.
"In addition to such services as subsidies to theatres, community centres and bus routes lost this year we will next year be losing massive slices of the non-mandatory social care provided to our disadvantaged residents of all ages from the very old to the very young, further cultural facilities, much of the beneficial environment in which we live and much of our ability to respond to the needs and concerns not only of our residents but of the multiplicity of inspectorates which find ever increasing ways to help us spend money but bring nothing in the way of income to help us achieve our objectives."
"When I took over the leadership of this Council two years ago I knew that I was undertaking an enormous challenge . . . I believed that we could control Southend's destiny and make it a better place to live . . . two years ago I had not fully appreciated the disaster to come through the lack of revenue funding, mainly as a result of the census which had taken place in 2001 but the results of which were not published until 2003. This reduced our population from 176,000 in the 1991 census to 160,000 . . . We have not lost 10 per cent. of our population in ten years."
"our electoral register has increased, we have 178,000 patients on our doctors lists, our schools are almost full to capacity, our housing waiting lists longer than ever . . . we are trying to run a town of about 178,000 people with the money for 160,000 and the census has lost us an estimated £11£12 million in those two years."
On 14 February, Councillor Briggs and others met the registrar of the Office for National Statistics to try to resolve the issues. The ONS believed that the primary care trust and housing figures were insufficiently robust to be a factor in the calculation, although it accepted that there were disturbing variations in our figures that
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were not to be found anywhere else. The basis of its argument was that the 2001 census was accurate, and that the 1991 census and all the mid-year estimates since then must have been wrong. It was obviously unaware of the disastrous effects that its conclusions had had on the income stream in Southend and admitted that it might have handled the problem in a different manner had it known of them. It would have been possible for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to accept the figures and apply them to Southend over a period of years.
"a policy of keeping expenditure down to SSA (Standard Spending Assessment). This is the formula which the Labour government considers we should be spending to maintain our services when it does its calculations nationally and is the factor which controls the level of our Revenue Support Grant. This was followed up last year by its replacement known as FSS (Formula Spending Share) and we have kept to that."
"I have found this entire process extremely stressful . . . it is affecting my health. I did not join this Council or become its leader to supervise the destruction of our community . . . The warnings that I gave last year have come to fruition and I have now produced two budgets both of which are heading in the same downhill direction . . . I will not be standing for re-election as Leader of this Council".
I want to end with some thoughts for the Minister. People in Southend feel an enormous sense of injustice. Local residents feel unjustly treated in terms of the health service, education, law enforcement and the way in which asylum and immigration issues are handled. Most of all, they feel unjustly treated in terms of the financial settlement. I know that the Minister has heard many of these points before because I have initiated a number of Adjournment debates over the years, with mixed success. I fully understand the limits faced by Ministers, who have to take advice, in these circumstances, but I am asking the Minister tonight to hold out his hand to help Southend. We feel as though we have been kicked in the teeth. We had some terrible publicity recently from a BBC1 television programme entitled "Drunk and Dangerous", which did not show any of the participants in a good light.
Southend is full of hard-working, honest, genuine people who just want to make the most of their opportunities, whatever the Government of the day are. To say that we have a shortfall of this huge number of peoplenearly 20,000is just crazy. Every time I conduct a surgery, a number of asylum seekers come to see me with their problems and I do my very best to help them. They always show me letters telling them that they should not remain in the country, but they now have families. Of course, they never took part in the census, yet not one person was prosecuted in our town. How can we have 178,000 people registered for health care, when we are told that we have only 160,000 people in Southend? Over the past few weeks, I have tabled all sorts of questions that Ministers have answered honourably. All those questions indicate that Southend has many more than 160,000 people.
I want to end with this request. I ask the Minister to consider again how those census figures were handled and, if it is not too late, to try to reconsider the basis on
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which the financial settlement was made. I say genuinely to the Minister that I am prepared to ask all the residents of Southend to stay in their properties on one day and, if he has the time, perhaps he and I will go around all the properties and do a count. There is no way that the population has shrunk in Southend. Some of our big houses have been divided into flats. We have many more people living in Southend now than in 1991.
I am not here tonight to argue politics with the Minister. I am merely asking for justice in Southend and I ask him and his colleagues to do everything that they can to re-examine the census figures and make sure that justice is done for local residents.
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