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Greg Clark: My hon. Friend is right. My constituents are often bewildered to find that they cannot obtain places in Kent care homes and must move miles away to Hastings or the Medway towns, because the Kent homes are full of people being funded much more generously by London boroughs.
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There is a further paradox. Many people who move to Kent after retirement start off with a reasonable level of resources enabling them to look after themselves, but run through those resources as they get older, especially as care home costs increase. Because they have become resident in Kent, the Kent council tax payers end up footing the bill. A number of anomalies combine to produce a very unfair position.

The third factor that makes Kent a special case is the particular burden that we bear for the care of asylum seekers. It is appropriate that Kent, as the gateway to Europe and, in many respects, the rest of the world, should extend the warmest possible courtesies and welcome to those who come to our shores as refugees, and Kent county council has a record second to none for so doing, but that comes at a price. It is important that council tax payers who happen to be in Kent, which happens to be the gateway, are properly recompensed for that.

I am afraid that the system of obtaining what is only reasonable reimbursement of asylum costs from the Government has proved tortuous. It has taken hours of the time of Kent county council officers and cabinet members and resulted in less than satisfactory settlements that have ended up being compromises. For example, claims for 2003–04 have only recently been settled, and there is an outstanding bill of £4.5 million for 2004–05. That introduces, for a social services department that is one of the best in Britain, a damaging degree of instability. It is difficult to plan for excellent provision if it is unclear for what part, if any, the Government will pick up the bill. It is important that Kent county council should benefit from some certainty and stability in the funding of asylum costs.

The fourth area in which Kent has been relatively poorly treated is education. We have some of the best schools in the country and many of my constituents have moved to Kent because of the quality of its education. It is important for us to support our teachers and head teachers in their work. The Government's most recent regulations include a requirement for 10 per cent. of teachers' contact hours to be set aside for what is called PPA—planning, preparation and assessment. To be fair to the Government, some financial provision has been made across the country to allow for that. Kent, however, has fallen short of what is required yet again. We have received an average of 3 per cent. less funding for work force reform than the country at large. For an average-sized secondary school, that means a shortfall in funding of £100,000 a year. I know from talking to head teachers in my constituency that that is a huge sum, representing the cost of nearly three teachers. We all know how important it is to ensure that our children continue to be well educated.

Having spent time during the recess sitting in the back of classrooms and observing the work of teachers in my constituency, I saw first hand just what a strain it is for head teachers to have to arrange for these periods of preparation without the necessary resources to bring in cover or extra teachers. It has put heads and teachers in an invidious position, which should not be the case when the rest of the country has been treated more generously.

Finally, there is infrastructure. Many of my hon. Friends have experienced, and continue to experience, the pressures that growth can cause to the infrastructure in their constituencies. As it happens, Kent incorporates
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two of the Government's prime growth areas for residential development—the Thames Gateway and the area around Ashford. That places considerable burdens on the infrastructure. While it is true to say that some financial provision will eventually follow, Kent county councillors maintain that the Government have been niggling in the amount allocated and there is also the important issue of timing.

Eventually, the increased population will, of course, bring with it greater resources in the form of Government grants and council tax. If we are to proceed rationally, the infrastructure should be laid down in advance of people arriving in our county. Roads must be built before people need to use them and schools need to be opened before others are full. That means often running at below capacity as we build up towards higher capacity. The Government's funding allocation mechanisms compensate for population when it is there, but do not anticipate population movements. We are sure to find over the months and years ahead that schools and roads will be in the wrong place. That will occasion expenditure that will have to come from the county council's own resources, as it is not compensated for in the Government's funding formula.

So there are five specific, one might say technical reasons—none of them, I contend, are pungent party political reasons—why the settlement in Kent should be looked at carefully to ensure that it reflects these cost pressures. Sadly, that appears not to be happening. My hon. Friends will recall that when the last local government funding settlement was entered into, Kent was a big loser. Ultimately, Kent council tax payers lost £55 million. I am aware that a system of ceilings and floors will mitigate the effect of that settlement over time, but ultimately, it will cost every council tax payer in Kent in the region of £100 a year.

Because of the failure to update the socio-economic census data, which are now 15 years out of date, another £9 million has been added to Kent council tax payers' costs. It is estimated that the Government's latest proposals could result in a further relative loss of up to £33 million for Kent council tax payers. So, altogether, Kent is losing out by £100 million a year, compared with other parts of the country. For reasons that I have outlined, we have particular pressures relating to some of our most vulnerable people. This is not a situation that the Government should be proud of, and I hope that they will reflect further during this consultation period on whether it can be addressed.

It is not that Kent county council is profligate, wasteful or ineffective; quite the opposite. It is one of the United Kingdom's flagship councils. It has consistently achieved a comprehensive performance assessment rating of "excellent", and it has been especially commended for its financial prudence. It has gone beyond the Gershon targets in terms of savings made. In every respect, this is an excellent council. Over the years, its leadership has been responsible and has been prepared to engage in rational discussions with the Government. Indeed, Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart is one of the most respected local government figures in Britain today. [Interruption.] The Minister nods his assent. Sir Sandy's successor, Mr. Paul Carter, has a distinguished record in education. He knows at first hand the pressures that our schools face, and I am sure that he will continue that responsible record.
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Given that Kent county council is excellent, economical, effective, efficient and well led, it ought to be listened to when it makes—as our colleagues on it are doing—a reasonable and reasoned case to the Government. I am delighted to have had this opportunity to raise these issues with the Minister, and I hope that he will give them full consideration.

4.58 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) on securing a debate on a subject of incredible importance to Kent Members of Parliament. It has got to be wrong that one of the most beautiful counties in the country—a county that is the garden of England, and which has phenomenal natural resources and proximity to the capital city—should also host some of the highest levels of social deprivation not just in the south-east, but in the country. East Kent, Thanet and parts of Dover—I am sorry that the hon. Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser) is unable to be here this afternoon, but I am sure that he would agree with me—host levels of deprivation that people in the metropolis would probably find hard to grasp. Much of that deprivation has been imported. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells said, it is not the result of bad local government—quite the reverse. As he also said, Kent is a flagship council—it has been performing superbly since Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart took over what was indubitably a basket-case and turned it round. The economy of the county has, in the past dozen or so years, come on in leaps and bounds.

Nevertheless, what we face, and have faced continually in the 22 years for which I have been a Member of Parliament, is an influx of social problems. Throughout the 1980s, east Kent, and particularly Margate in my constituency, suffered from what became known as the dole-on-sea syndrome, as the unemployed from around the country and Ireland came to Thanet to live in seaside hotels and guesthouses, on the dole. As that problem was solved, what has been described as a wave of asylum seekers hit Kent. Dover and Thanet in particular have borne the brunt of that and of the social, cultural, educational and medical problems that arrived with people from some of the most deprived places in Europe and, indeed, the world. That has placed an enormous strain on the county.

In tandem with that, there has been an influx of retiring people, many from the east end of London—people who spent their honeymoons in Margate 30, 40 or even 50 years ago and wanted to retire to the dream of a seaside home. They are now living in genteel and, sometimes, less-than-genteel and rather sad poverty. In many cases, one partner in the relationship has died and the other is left on very strained resources. Those people, I have to say to the Minister, are the ones who end up running out of money and being supported, not by the east London boroughs, not by Tower Hamlets, not by Islington, but by Kent county council.

Kent is paying for the placements in retirement homes, but we have seen a diminution in the available care. Homes have closed in their dozens because there is not the funding in the east of the county to make them commercially viable—they are, after all, businesses. In
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the west and north of the county, homes have thrived, but not by making provision for the elderly of Kent. Those homes are, as my hon. Friend rightly says, accommodating clientele being paid for by the London boroughs at £1,600 a week in funding from central Government. The Minister has to be able to explain to us, the representatives of these constituents, why a granny in Kent is worth a third of a granny coming from Islington. That is what we are talking about. Central Government gives money to Islington, for example, and the council buys space in Kent because it cannot be bothered to make provision for its own elderly, and still pockets a healthy balance.

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