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That this House recognises the international reputation for excellence of medical training in the UK; acknowledges the need to modernise medical careers to ensure all doctors are properly trained to nationally recognised standards, including a fairer and more transparent process for applying for specialist training; notes that Modernising Medical Careers (MMC) will deliver training to a consistently high standard which, combined with the expansion of the number of doctors, will provide high quality safe care by appropriate skilled medical staff; notes the wide consultation that took place on MMC and the strong support for the need to improve doctors training amongst doctors representatives including the medical royal colleges and the British Medical Association; welcomes the external review that is already being conducted into how MMC has worked to date and the changes made as a result; and supports the longer term review recently announced to ensure MMC works well in the future.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister and that there will be a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches in the debate. Will hon. Members who are not staying for the debate please leave the Chamber quickly and quietly?
That this House notes that council tax has soared by 92 per cent. across England since 1997, with even higher increases in Wales due to the Governments council tax revaluation; notes with concern proposals in the Chancellors town hall finances report for regular council tax revaluations, higher council tax bands and new taxes for the collection of household rubbish; observes that frontline services such as weekly rubbish collections, social services and libraries are under increasing pressure; and calls for local people to be given a greater say in the provision of local public services through democratically elected local government rather than unaccountable regional government.
Just over a month has passed since Sir Michael Lyons published his report on local government finance. In the absence of Government time to debate its contents and implications for local government, I am pleased that we have that opportunity today.
transformation in local government since 1997.
I put that down to the rise in the number of Conservative councillors from 4,550 in 1997 to 8,529 in 2007 and to the rise in the number of Conservative-controlled councils from just 24 in 1997 to 167 today. Had the amendment finished there, I would have been tempted to support it.
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): I note that the motion condemns changes to rubbish collections. However, no doubt the hon. Lady is aware that 61 Conservative-controlled councils have introduced fortnightly rubbish collections, presumably as a worthy attempt to increase recycling. Is she condemning them?
Mrs. Spelman: I will come to that subject. However, I should share with the hon. Lady the fact that, unfortunately, we need to be careful about the information that the Government publish on that subject. A parliamentary answer that I received listing the councils that had moved to fortnightly collections cited a number of councils that have not done that, including Kings Lynn and West Norfolk borough council and Ashford borough council, which have no plans to do so. She might like to talk to Government Departments about the accuracy of the information that they provide.
I commend Sir Michael for the tenacity and rigour with which he carried out the review. There are elements of the report with which we strongly disagree, which I shall come to shortly, but I shall start with those aspects that we welcome.
We welcome the recommendations for more transparency in the way in which Whitehall funds local government; that is something for which we have long been calling. Likewise, we have long supported giving communities the final say on the type of leadership structure that they have. It makes perfect sense to give local authorities greater involvement in health and well-beingindeed, some councils such as Kent county council already have that greater involvement.
The main focus of Sir Michaels work was the thorny issue of local government finance. One of the first things he did was dismiss local income tax as a viable alternative. For me, the most telling line in the report is the one in which he said that a local income tax
might mean substantial increases in tax for the working population.
He also set out why a local income tax would not necessarily be a fairer tax: it is because income is not always the sole determinant of wealth. Those are failings that Members of all parties have acknowledged, including the Liberal Democrats.
It is a symptom of how controversial local government finance has become that the Government tried so hard for so long to bury the report. The review took nearly three years, had a wage bill of more than £300,000 and was subject to numerous changes in remit, but the final indignity was that the Chancellor tried to bury its publication on the day of the Budget. He wanted to bury the report because he knew that it would confirm peoples worst fears about the tax-raising appetite of the Treasury.
Surely Ministers know that there is real, palpable fury out there about the level of the council tax. No matter what Ministers say publicly, they know that responsibility for a 92 per cent. rise lies firmly at the door of the Treasury. People who paid just £57 each month on a band D property in 1997 are now paying £110. Taxation in any form is never popular, but if council tax was a mild irritation in 1997, it has become a gaping sore today.
Mr. Ian Austin (Dudley, North) (Lab): One of the local authorities controlled by the hon. Ladys party is Dudley metropolitan borough council, which serves part of the area that I represent. Dudley council has received record resources under the Labour Government and this year its settlement is above the average for metropolitan authorities, yet it is still increasing the council tax by 5 per cent. while cutting services. It is closing swimming baths and cutting services for the elderly; it is even cutting school transport for special needs schoolchildren. Is that what the Conservatives mean when they talk about the proceeds of growth? Will she condemn the record of Dudley council, which is receiving record resources and cutting services?
Mrs. Spelman: It was hardly worth giving way for that rather lengthy intervention. If the hon. Gentleman waits, perhaps he will come to understand better just how many burdens have been placed on councils such as Dudley council and how shortfalls in NHS funding have put huge pressure on local councils. I shall address those points further later in my speech.
It defies belief that the Government thought that the 92 per cent. rise in council tax would go unnoticed.
Ironically, council tax is the most visible of all tax bills. It is not deducted automatically at the point of income or added automatically at the point of sale. It is worth noting that if council tax rises were commuted into income tax, it would be equivalent to a 4p rise.
We now know that there are plenty of people who are prepared not to pay, and plenty more who simply cannot pay. The only solution that the Government offer those who cannot pay is an application form for so-called benefits. The application form is 40 pages of intrusive questions that actively deter a proud generation of pensioners who find the term benefits an indignity. As Sir Michael Lyons himself says,
The term benefit has a particular resonance, which may prevent some people from taking up their entitlements.
Council tax benefit is still the most unclaimed benefit of all, with up to 2.2 million older people missing out on up to £1.4bn each year.
I am not cynical, but I do wonder whether it suits the Treasury to have such a low uptake. What a way to treat pensioners. Not only is the Chancellor complicit in the collapse of peoples pensions, but a third of the increase in the state pension is now clawed back by the Treasury through increased council tax, yet instead of finding ways of reducing the tax burden, the Government are considering recovering council tax after people have died. A typical pensioner drawn into that macabre pay later scheme could leave a debt of as much as £64,000 after 20 years.
Pensioners and people on fixed incomes are not the only ones suffering. Hard-working families all have to budget hard for a council tax bill that escalates every year. In fact, we are now so conditioned to accept inflation-busting rises that the Government congratulate themselves if rises of less than 5 per cent. are introduced.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Is the hon. Ladys main complaint that the Government have not changed the council tax benefit system sufficiently since her party introduced it at the beginning of the 1990s? If so, what specific proposals does she have to reform the council tax benefit system to remove all the problems that she is talking about?
Mrs. Spelman: I have been an MP for 10 years, and in all that time the hon. Gentlemans party has been in office. I have heard the Government say repeatedly that they want to improve council tax benefit and I have seen constant hand-wringing, yet I still see no real progress. The Age Concern figures confirm that. Sir Michael Lyons makes a good point: the very word benefit is off-putting. The hon. Gentlemans party, which is in government, commissioned that mighty report; it is for Government Ministers to answer the questions that he puts to me.
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