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Mr. Betts: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has not refused me, but I want to be certain about where his party is coming from on this issue. Does he oppose the order because of a technical disagreement about the capping criteria, which he believes are wrong, or is the Conservative party now against any form of capping whatsoever?
Mr. Pickles: When I sat on the Government Benches, I made a robust defence of capping, as Hansard will show. I do not want to compare myself to the great English martyr Cranmer and pretend that making that speech was equivalent to putting my hand into the flame, but it is probable that a Conservative Government would retain capping as a reserve power. However, I am certain that we would not waste anyone's time targeting low-taxation and high-efficiency councils that are little more than minnows. I can give a clear commitment on that.
I shall offer a few examples. After the cost of re-billing is taken into account, the saving accruing from capping Aylesbury Vale amounts to 1p a week for each member of the local population. I had the opportunity to listen to the Minister of Communities and Local Government address the LGA conference at Harrogate, when he said that he wanted a partnership with local government. He claimed to have no desire to micro-manage local government, but this order represents micro-management of local government right down to a single penny. It is a very bad start for the right hon. Gentleman and an even worse one for the Minister.
Daventry charges the second lowest council tax in Northamptonshire. Its band D charge amounts to £125.65, which is some £20 lower than Labour-run Corby. Daventry is being capped and Corby is not. Daventry district council has lost out significantly on housing revenue subsidies, which the Government abolished. The process of building up its balances has caused the increase, 10 per cent. of which simply results
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from the change in housing revenue subsidies. If the figure for Aylesbury Vale is 1p a week per resident, what is it for Daventry? It is 2.5p, when rounded up.
Hambleton district council set a band D council tax of £68, which compares with £131.76 in Selby, next door; £159.86 in Richmondshire; £152.43 in Ryedale; £172.59 in Scarborough; and £177.72 in Harrogate. Even with this year's increase, the council tax set in Hambleton remains the lowest in the area and one of the lowest in the country. When the cost of re-billing is taken into account, the saving is thruppence a week. I know that the people of Yorkshire recognise value, but I suspect that thruppence a week tries their patience a little.
Huntingdonshire district council is rated as an excellent council under the CPA regime. Its council tax remains one the lowest in the country and, even after this year's increase, moves from being the second lowest in Cambridgeshire to the lowest. After the cost of re-billing is taken into account, the saving is tuppence a week. In Mid-Bedfordshire, after taking account of the same cost, the saving is reduced to thruppence a week.
As has been said, compared to other authorities in the area, North Dorset district council charges one of the lowest council taxes. East Dorset has set a band D council tax of £154.34. The figure for West Dorset is £110.70. Labour-controlled Weymouth and Portland has set a tax of a staggering £222.11. After the cost of re-billing is taken into account, the amount saved is 8p a week per resident.
Runnymede borough council set the lowest council tax in Surrey and is one of the lowest council tax charging authorities in the country. Let us compare those figures with Liberal Democrat-controlled Waverley borough council's band D council tax of £138.78. Lib-Lab run Woking has set a tax of £174.11; and the figure in independent-run Epsom and Ewell is £133.34. When Runnymede's "excellent" CPA rating is added to that, it is clear that Runnymede borough council is a low-taxing, high-delivery local authority. The cost of re-billing is 5p a week per resident.
The figures for South Cambridgeshire district council seem high, but they must be set against the fact that South Cambridgeshire has for years consistently charged a lot less than its neighbours. In 200405, South Cambridgeshire charged a band D council tax of £70. Other authorities in Cambridgeshire charged as follows: Cambridge city, £131.65; East Cambridgeshire district council, £149.00; and Fenland, £195.51. Even with the doubling of the council tax, South Cambridgeshire district council moved from being the lowest charging council tax authority in Cambridgeshire to the second lowest. After the cost of re-billing is taken into account, we are talking about a saving of 36p a week per resident.
After the whole process, most councillors in this country are Conservatives. We are the largest party in local government, and we produce the lowest figures. If people vote Labour, they are likely to pay £74 a year more tax at band D. If they vote Liberal Democrat, they are likely to pay £83 a year more.
The final bill on the doorstep for each of those capped authorities will be significantly lower than the price paid by council tax payers in the Prime Minister's constituency and considerably lower than in the Minister's constituency.
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The increase in those taxes is virtually indistinguishable from the figures for Sedgefield district council, South Tyneside council and Oldham council. There is something deeply wrong with the assessment. I suspect that, if we count up all the savings and the costs of the Minister's time, this debate and the order, the Minister, by his foolishness, has almost certainly cost the taxpayer of this country a far greater amount than he has saved. He should look discomfited. This is a disgrace. This dreadful decision sends out the worst kind of message to local government. It tells local government, "Do as you're told, or we'll have you."
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I want to make it clear from the beginning that, unfortunately, I will not be able to support the Government on this issue today, just as I was unable to do so last year. I am against capping in principleI always have been, and I suspect that I probably always will be, despite the arguments that my hon. Friends use today and that will probably be used at the end of the debate. Equally, I will not go into the Lobby with the Conservative party because its argument is about the technicalities of how capping has been used and which councils have been caught. That is not a fundamental opposition to capping. Indeed, many Conservative Members were responsible for much more draconian capping regimes when they were in government, which particularly hit authorities such as mine in Sheffield.
Mr. Betts: I appreciate the fact that the Liberal Democrats oppose capping in principle, but the main Opposition party clearly has a different reason for opposing the order on this occasion. I am stating my principles, and I shall abstain in any Division on the order as a result.
Fundamentally, I do not accept that there is any difference between Labour capping and Tory capping. I heard what my hon. Friend the Minister said earlier, but the universal criteria that have been laid down and applied to all councils are pretty crude. The criteria conflict with the commitments that we made before we came into government, and I will remind the House of them. It is probably appropriate that I quote the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend and colleague the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), whom Hansard records as saying:
"My answer to that is as simple as my answer to all questions about poll tax capping. It is our job to make democracy work better, not to abolish it."[Official Report, 12 July 1990; Vol. 176, c. 499.]
In 1997, when we came into government, we signed the European charter of local self-government, which gives councils rights to raise revenue locally. I accept that there are caveats: councils must work within statute and within the national economic policy in determining their spending. Again, I quote the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who told the House:
"The Labour party is wholly and unequivocally opposed to the capping of a council's budget. It is an abuse of central power, it demeans democracy, it undermines the right of local people to decide what services they are ready and will to pay for, it is in breach of one promise after another from the Conservative party, it serves no economic purpose, and it has not worked in its own terms."[Official Report, 9 June 1993; Vol. 226, c. 385.]
It is rather sad when parties in opposition become much stronger champions of local democracy than when in government. That applies in spades to the Conservative party, which is now revising what it is prepared to do in the name of local democracy in a way that is completely contrary to everything that it did when in government.
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