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The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): I congratulate the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) on securing the debate. I suspect that, like me, he believed that it would be a half-hour, end-of-day debate but it has turned into a full-blown, well informed discussion about Kent, its problems and successes, and its future. I therefore offer genuine congratulations to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that the political and news programmes in his part of the world are taking note, because it has been a good debate that will make good television and radio.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that I cannot respond to specific points about possible changes in the formula before the local government finance settlement that is due shortly. I assure him that I have listened to his arguments and taken a serious interest in the arguments that the district, county and unitary councils in his part of the world have presented. Indeed, Kent county council is part of our working party on the social services formula reviews. Some of his points have been covered by that and I hope that he will accept that assurance.
Let me begin with general policy and answer hon. Members' specific points afterwards. The title of the debate is "Local Government Funding (Kent)". Let me again put it on record that, whatever one says, the Government have increased local government funding in real terms by 33 per cent. I say that to remind hon. Members that we are debating the alleged or real problems of Kent in the context of a fast rising tide of funding.
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Points have been raised about the position of Tunbridge Wells and other parts of Kent. Kent is the garden of England, and it is a beautiful place. I have worked there and I know it and love it. However, when we talk about the way in which Kent has been treated, I would ask hon. Members to bear in mind that we are discussing this issue in the context of an increase in funding
I also want to point out that the last delegation that came to see me from a county was not from a Conservative county in the south-east of England but from Labour-led Lancashire, which also feels that it is being treated the worst. I am a fair person and I approach these matters in a non-partisan way. However, Lancashire has also received increases in its budget. Of course, hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised issues on behalf of their constituents, but can we please acknowledge that there has been an increase in funding, and that these problems are relative ones? If I were tempted to be partisan, I would point out that, in the four years up to 1997, there was a real-terms reduction in the grant to local government of 7 per cent. So, fair's fair. Last year was the eighth successive year in which the Government provided local government overall with an increase in total Government grant above inflation. And it was the third year in which we were able to guarantee increases for all local authorities at least in line with inflation.
Specific points have been raised about personal social services, and Conservative Members have been critical of the funding that is provided for local authorities' social services responsibilities. I do not deny the pressures on social services, but I want to put this in context. Spending on social services over the past 15 yearsagain, I am making a non-partisan pointhas doubled, at a time when gross domestic product per head has increased by 50 per cent. So we are meeting a new demand, and this is a more civilised country as a result.
Specifically on this Government's watch, we have provided some £11.5 billion this year for adult social services, which includes some £1.9 billion paid to councils as specific revenue grants. That includes the additional £100 million of non-recurrent funding to support existing older people's services, which was added to the access and systems capacity grant. Total funding for children's social services was £4.3 billion, an increase of 8 per cent. Some people would say that that is not enough, but it is a generous increase none the less.
Mr. Brazier: Does the Minister not accept that there is a staggering disparity between the position in Kent and the position in London and other local authorities in regard to the per capita funding for children in care? Does he accept Sir Sandy's figures or not?
Of course, hon. Members from all parts of the country make comparisons with other parts of the country that will show their area in a less favourable
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light. I could show the hon. Gentleman Conservative-led councils in London that would argue that their area cost adjustment is unfair, compared with that of Kent, given the costs that they face. I could also point out Labour-led local authorities that would make the same point that he has made. Of course there is a difference in the per capita funding. I do not have the exact figures at the moment, although I might come to them later, as they are somewhere in my very extensive briefing. I accept that there are differences in the figures, and the hon. Gentleman will have to be patient in regard to the forthcoming settlement. I would plead with him, however, to the effect that it is not a sound argument to say that he should have more because other people have more, if those other people are saying, with accuracy, that they have increased costs. I shall come to the point about dispersal from London in a moment.
Mr. Woolas: Of course, the 30 per cent. real-terms increase has not been distributed equally across all social services authorities, but all social services authorities have had increases. Let us acknowledge that. That is an average of 2.8 per cent. a year above inflation, and further increases are planned over the 2004 spending review period. In addition, investment in child care and early years will increase by more than three quarters of a billion pounds between 200405 and 200708.
Hon. Gentlemen have referred to the pressures facing police authorities. I must remind them, however, that we have provided substantial extra resources for policing: as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) pointed out, there have never been as many police officers in Kent. I acknowledge the real-world difficulties that the hon. Member for North Thanet pointed out, but Government support for police funding has increased by 39 per cent. since 2000.
The figures are unprecedented. On average, police formula grant has increased by nearly 4.8 per cent., including specific grants of £766 million in 200506. The specific grant increase in funding direct to police forces is more than 5 per cent. Specific grants enable us to target funds where they are particularly needed. The crime fighting fund, for example, has enabled us to secure record police officer numbers. No police force has received less than a 3.75 per cent. general grant increase this year. That is substantially above police pay increases and inflation, and above-floor increases range up to 6.8 per cent. Again, the points being made by hon. Gentlemen are relative, not absolute.
Greg Clark: The Minister has dismissed the idea that relative under-performances should be corrected. But what about the absolute failure to update the census figures and to take the most recent deprivation figures? Does that qualify as an argument of which the Minister is prepared to take account?
Again, the hon. Gentleman will have to be patient in respect of the future. The argument about
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population figures, however, has been put to me in the past three months by shire councils of all political parties, county councils of all political parties, and metropolitan authorities of all political parties, and they cannot all be right, can they? The hon. Gentleman made a cogent caseI say that genuinelyon behalf of his constituents. I do not want to score pointsactually, I do want to score pointsbut we are talking about a context of increasing resources and of problems being relative not absolute.
We have had some very interesting contributions. If I could have a bit of fun, because this is the end of a heavy parliamentary week, I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford for pointing out the parliamentary debate on 5 February 1997, when we had a Conservative Government and a Labour-Liberal county council. Conservative Members, some of whom are in the Chamber this evening, were blaming all the problems of people in Kent on the nasty, malicious, Labour-Liberal county council, and attributing all the good in Kent to Conservative Government policies. Now we have a situation in which Conservative Members are praising the Conservative-led Kent county councilI acknowledge that it has an excellent rating from the Audit Commissionand blaming all the problems on the Labour Government, as if in May 1997 all the issues in Kent were stood on their head. I could have some fun; indeed, I will.
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