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Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am new to this House. I have been told that the new Minister, who is currently leaning backwards over the Front Bench, is a good guy, that he will be all right and that he can be relied on. [Interruption.] If he will be kind enough to listen, I should like to point out that I am really sorry that his predecessor left him in this mess. It seems that this good guythis "all right" guyhas little appetite for this measure. However, he will be able to improve and to deal with more important matters as time goes by. Sadly, the members of Daventry district council will be left with the residue of what is for them a quite disastrous measure, which will impact on council services for many years to come. I hope that when the Minister thinks of these matters in the future, he will take that into account.
Let us see what the Minister's predecessor actually did. On 23 March this year, just 43 days before the general election, the then Minister for Local and Regional Government made a statement to the House on council tax for the year 200506. He outlined the actions that the Government proposed to take in response to the authorities that had set what he described as "excessive budgets". The Minister thereafter named nine district councilsseven of which were Conservative controlled, with the Conservatives as the largest party in the remaining twoand gave them 21 days to tell him why they should not be capped. He added that he would
The then Minister for Local and Regional Government repeated that promise on three further occasions, during a speech that lasted, if we exclude the interjections, just 26 minutes. In other words, he made the promise virtually every five minutes. One might think that that was a pretty meaningful commitment, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Consequently, the question that comes to mind is whether the Government who made that promise have kept that promise.
Let us consider the evidence for just one councilDaventry district council, which is part of the county council that I happen to be proud to serve. If the promise was not kept for one council, it was simply not kept. Daventry district council responded as requested and made a case rather similar to that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) earlier today.
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First, Daventry's council tax level remained in the lowest 30 per cent. of all districts and boroughs in England, equating to a band D council tax of almost 20 per cent. less than that of nearby Corby, which, as the Minister well knows, is a Labour-controlled council. Secondly, the annual increase for Daventry residents amounted to just £13.12, or 25p a week. How the Minister must be delighted to be in charge of an order that deals with such important matters! Thirdly, the band D council tax level was £15.28 per annum below what the Government assumed that it should be and the total budget was £854,000 below the Government's estimation of what it should have been. Fourthly, the average increase of the aggregate council bill for the residents of Daventry district council area totalled just 4.3 per cent.well within the Government's proclaimed and stated objective of "an average increase" of less than 5 per cent.
Many would think that that is an enviable record and I hope that the Minister thinks that it is. The real clincher, however, relates to the Government's own decision to take housing grant subsidy away from the council. Indeed, £10 of the average annual increase of £13.12 was levied to compensate for the Government's decision, leaving just £3.12 per annum, or a 3.2 per cent. increase for all other council expenditures. Again, that is well in line with the Government's requirements and I suggest that most fair-minded people would think that that was a very creditable performance.
Most fair people would think that the council's specific status as a former negative housing subsidy authority should be well understood by the Government. Most would think that a council that consistently utilised the Government's negative subsidy transitional measures introduced in April 2001, which allowed for a phased and planned increase in council tax income to 200809 to compensate for the stepped loss in negative subsidy funding, would be fully understandable to the Government. They would think that the Government would listen to Daventry and understand its situation. They would expect the Government to act fairly in those circumstances and take Daventry off the capping list. Sadly, the Government did not do that.
Did the Government keep their promise to consider the information carefully and take all the factors into account? The evidence suggests that they did not. Based on the figures that I have given, Daventry's council tax levy would be welcomed by more than 70 per cent. of the people of this country. Its record as a financially well controlled council is among the best.
So why did the Government go ahead with their decision to cap once the full facts were made known? Daventry does not present a case for capping on any reasonable criteria. The only motive was the Government's wish to create political scapegoatsand preferably Conservative onesbefore the general election, in an attempt to show that they were tough on council tax increases, and tough on the causes of council tax increases. The Government are going ahead with this order because not to do so would give away their political game, and that would not spin very easily.
The truth is well documented, not least by the all-party local government association. It has stated that council taxes have risen almost solely because of the Government's actions, and especially those actions related to the continual shortfall in local government
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funding. That is the true cause of council tax increases, but the Government could not face up to that truth before a general election and had to find others to blame. They picked on local government, and Conservative-controlled local government at that.
The Government continually say that they want to give local government greater freedoms, but they persist in capping for their own political ends. That is unacceptable. Capping, at best, is a crude Government instrument. However, used in the way the Government have used it, it becomes a weapon of the bully and a device of the political charlatan. That does not make for good governmentin fact, the reverse is true.
I am proud to be a local county councillor, and I know how hard my colleagues work to provide good services for their citizens. Sadly, this measure demeans both them and their work. It demeans local government by trying to create the impression that it is inefficient and wasteful, and that it does not care about value for money. None of that is true. How does the Minister hope to encourage good local government when he treats some of the best local councils in such a disgraceful way?
Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and I share the same district council, Mid Bedfordshire, and he has already done an excellent job in fighting our corner. The House can imagine how I feel, as a new Member of Parliament, attempting to follow the experienced and knowledgeable defence that he presented.
It is important to highlight the excellent value that Conservative-controlled Mid Bedfordshire council provides for its council tax payers. It is efficient, well run, locally responsive and successful. It is a low-spending authority, with band D council tax bills well below the national averagethey are the 16th lowest in the country, and the lowest in Bedfordshire. Government inspectors who visited the council praised it for its robust financial planning and awarded it three marks out of four for financial prudence, but it appears that this Government choose to ignore their own inspectors when it is a matter of political convenience. Let me explain what I mean by "political convenience": there is not one Labour councillor on Mid Bedfordshire district council. That does not mean that the council has done anything other than attempt at all times to work with the Government and all their many impositions and directives, despite the fact that they have unnecessarily burdened the council both financially and in terms of morale.
The council, its political leadership and officers have always been committed to delivering genuine efficiency savings. For example, over the past three years, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire has said, the council has made savings worth approximately £2.4 million, ahead of the saving
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requirements expected by Gershon. The council has also identified further savings of £809,000 to be achieved in 2005, with additional targets included for future years. It is always sensitive to Government concerns. Only this year, it has used almost £500,000 of balances to cushion the increase in council tax.
Despite all that hard work and officially endorsed excellent management, Mid Bedfordshire council finds itself being treated like a reckless and irresponsible local authority. People might think that professional, well run Mid Bedfordshire council, commended by Government inspectors for its financial management, was the equivalent of the Labour-run Liverpool city council in the 1980s. The council is and always has been committed to securing value for money for local taxpayers and is actively delivering high-value and well-received services.
It is not just in prudent financial management that Mid Bedfordshire has proven its worth. There are many other areas where it is improving the quality of life for local people. It has taken environmental issues head on. For example, consistent with Government targets, its waste collection service has increased recycling from just 6 to 32 per cent. in just 18 months. How efficient is that? It has thereby reduced the amount of residual waste ending up as landfill. It is indeed an efficient council.
This is a practical statement of an efficient council, working in partnership with local residents to improve the environment and delivering on central Government targets. The council has worked hand in hand with the Government and has bent over backwards to satisfy the Government's whims and wishes in every way possible. As the Minister is aware, Mid Bedfordshire is recognised by the Government office for the east of England as a leading council. It has secured regional centre of excellence funding.
To cap a council that is recognised as a good one, that has set its council tax rate for band D at £102, that is in the bottom 10 per cent. of all taxing councils, that has the 16th lowest rate in the country and the lowest in the county, and whose real-terms increases equate to an increase of £1 a month or 23p a week per resident represents Government interference gone mad. It is an affront to democracy. It is demoralising and distressing to those who have been elected by the people to run the council and those who work for it. Why? Because of the capping injustice, the council must spend £85,000 to refund each resident just 14p a week. For that reason, I consider the Government's decision to cap Mid Bedfordshire district council wholly disproportionate, perverse and draconian. Whatever happened to common sense?
As a new Member of Parliament, I receive many letters and e-mails from constituents, as well as visits to my surgeries. To date, I have not received a single representation that expresses concern about having to pay an extra 23p a week. In fact, the Minister made a point of saying that he had a file brimful of letters. When we challenged him, he indicated that those letters were on the Bench. Can we see them? Can we see that file brimful of letters that you have had from people, complaining about this issue? Where are they from?
I should like to give Ministers the benefit of the doubt. I want to help you out. I do not think that you fully appreciate or recognise the context in which Mid Bedfordshire operates. We all know that you are a very
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busy Governmentin fact, there are far fewer of you today, which is probably why. You have a tendency to become bogged down by statistics. You have probably seen the percentage increase and think that it is high. We can forgive you this, as you obviously do not understand the historically low base from which the increase is being made. How can you on the Government Benches expect council officers to work and give you their all when they are rewarded in such a humiliating way?
As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire already stated, Tricia Turner, the council leader is no Derek Hatton. In fact, she and her councillors are the embodiment of professionalism and diligence. They are the foot soldiers of our society and the community. I beg you to reconsider, because your decision is far reaching and damaging.
Let me explain why the baseline is artificially low and why the Government have made a mistakea big mistake. In recent years, Mid Bedfordshire district council, like other councils, has been reducing its revenue balances by returning money to the taxpayer; by doing that, reserves have been kept to a financially acceptable minimum of £2 million. As soon as balances have been used once, they cannot be used again, the outcome being that council tax has been kept artificially low, with the council's costs not reflected in the amount that they have taxed. The council has been moving its council tax closer to the actual costs of delivering the range of services it provides, with the aim of bringing council tax and spending commitments into line by 2007. That makes Mid Bedfordshire a model council.
Perhaps he can explain what terminology he would use to describe a council being instructed by central Government to incur £85,000 in costs to return 14p a week to residents. That, Minister, is micro-management, and someone in such a senior position should understand that. Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, chairman of the LGA, has described the Government's capping proposals as "centralised stupidity". Now that is a man who knows his terminology. I imagine that hon. Members on both sides of the House are inclined to agree with himor perhaps not, given that all the councils being capped are Conservative, despite the fact that Conservative councils in England cost less and deliver better public services, charging £74 a year less on band D properties.
I should also mention that the eight capped authorities received a mere 12 per cent. increase in funding this year, whereas SedgefieldI wonder who the MP for that constituency isreceived a staggering 68 per cent. increase. As the Minister of Communities and Local Government said to the LGA:
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