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Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): During our debate on the future of local government, I thought that it might be helpful to consider a warning from history, albeit recent history. My local authority changed hands from Labour to the Conservatives just a year ago. I have suggested why that might have happened: partly through a deliberate deception—saying one thing and doing another—and
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partly owing simply to the absence of information. I do not remember seeing anything at all in the Conservative manifesto, which I have re-read, about the £34 million in cuts that the council is introducing across the board over the next few years. There are a few salutary lessons to be learned by anyone who is thinking about voting Conservative on 3 May, so I will run through one or two of them.

The first thing that one gets is school closures of an especially perverse kind. Hurlingham and Chelsea school, which is a much loved and much improving school in Fulham, was told out of the blue last autumn that it would close. The council then set out to rubbish the school systematically by writing to prospective parents to tell them that they should not send their children there. The head teacher, who is a very mild-mannered man, wrote to the leader of the council last week to say:

Despite marches and hundreds of representations, the council persisted with the closure.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Slaughter: Not at the moment.

The fact that the council persisted with the closure meant that the matter had to go to the supposedly independent school organisation committee, but the council replaced members of that committee with people who they thought would vote in its favour. However, the council’s presentation to the committee was so lamentable that even the people whom it had deliberately put on to the committee could not vote for the proposal. As a result, the proposal should have gone to the independent adjudicator today, but yesterday the council withdrew its proposal for closure. Although it gave no reason for that whatsoever, the reason is clear: there was no basis for the closure except for the fact that the site was valuable and the council wished to sell it off for capital gain. Despite all the hurt and distress that has been caused to children, parents and teachers, the council has made no apology. It has instead said that it will set up an independent commission, which will be an ill-thought-out body with no remit, chaired by a Tory peeress.

Mr. Pickles: When I attended the annual meeting at which the council tax was set, I had the opportunity to speak to several Labour councillors, who blamed the hon. Gentleman for sowing the seed of these problems. Let me ask the hon. Gentleman a simple question: does he think that the Labour group was unwise to suggest that it would have delivered a lower council tax and cut the council budget deeper?

Mr. Slaughter: It is surprising that I know more about what was said at a meeting that I did not attend than the hon. Gentleman does about a meeting that he did attend. The only point that was being made is that it was not necessary to make £34 million-worth of cuts to front-line services in order to achieve a very small council tax cut; efficiency savings could have been made, instead. I can tell him that I do not meet anyone in the borough who does not think that they have had a raw deal.

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I visited the council’s website the other day, on which nine people had allegedly said that they supported the council tax cut. I queried that, because the letters looked rather staged, and I got this response from the borough’s chief executive:

the letter then names the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands). The letter continues:

So it appears that nobody supports the hon. Gentleman’s position in the borough, and I am not surprised.

To return to my brief, the second thing that happens under a Tory council is cuts to the voluntary sector. I have a separate Adjournment debate on that subject on Monday, so I will not dwell on it, but the thick end of £1 million is being cut from voluntary sector organisations, which include one of the best law centres in the country, organisations that support older people who are trying to get back into work, and organisations that provide for the single homeless. Opposition Members have supported many of those organisations in the past, and have sat on their management committees, but now the funding for all those groups is being cut by the Tory council.

Thirdly, I should mention social care. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who spoke for the Opposition, shed crocodile tears on that subject, and I have alluded to the increase in charging that the Conservatives in Hammersmith and Fulham had promised in their manifesto not to introduce. Hammersmith and Fulham Action on Disability, one of the voluntary organisations under threat, said:

Some 1,400 people described as having moderate care needs are at risk of losing all home care services because of the changing criteria. Kevin Caulfield, the chair of the coalition against charging, said:

The fourth result of a Conservative council is increased charging that far outweighs any cut in taxation. There has been a 25 per cent. increase in meals on wheels charges and there is a £6 charge for refuse sacks for recycling. The borough does not meet its recycling targets, but it will now charge people for the sacks that they need in order to recycle. When challenged on that, the council said that people had been misusing the sacks. They had been keeping them at home and not using them, and the charge was the solution to that problem. The council is looking to increase parking charges by 50 per cent., to £2.40 an hour. It has increased burial charges by 52 per cent. and it has even proposed to charge school governors for the police checks made on them.

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The fifth result of a Conservative council is an end to social housing programmes across the borough. There is also a change in housing allocation policies, and families are now being put into one-bedroom flats. As for those who happen to be made homeless, the council has even cut the grant that provides for the storage of people’s furniture while they are looking for another property, so that furniture has to go, and there is very little chance of getting it back. Sixthly, there are cuts relating to environmental policy. Almost £1 million has been cut from refuse and street cleaning services. I have mentioned recycling; today I received a letter from someone who had asked the council why they could not recycle their kitchen waste. The council’s response was that Government regulations meant that it could not take that waste. The person found that perplexing, as they live only 50 yd from Ealing, which does recycle kitchen waste, but I have already alluded to the honesty with which the local authority acts.

Seventhly, I notice that there is a reference to library services in the Opposition motion, but those services are not free from attack either. The mobile library and the housebound readers’ service have gone. The main reference library is being closed, and its specialist book collections are being dispersed and sold off. The council is also phasing out qualified librarians, because it does not think that it needs them at all.

Policing is the eighth thing that suffers. The previous Labour council invested in extra officers and safer neighbourhood teams. The Conservatives have promised—another promise—24/7 neighbourhood teams, but the first thing they have done is cut three additional officers, which represents a 25 per cent. cut, from Hammersmith Broadway, the ward with the highest crime in the borough, which was the scene of a tragic murder only a month ago.

I am not suggesting that all councils are like Hammersmith and Fulham, or that they are all quite as crackpot and doctrinaire in their behaviour. However, I make a plea to anyone who is thinking of voting for a Conservative council in May to heed the lessons of what the Conservatives do in office, rather than what they say they will do when they are trying to get into office. We have heard some erudite speeches about principles, but I suspect that when people go to vote on 3 May they will be most interested in whether their councils can provide reasonable taxation as well as the services that local communities demand. That is not being done—those services have been cynically cut in Hammersmith and Fulham—and it is a lesson that everyone should bear in mind.

9.21 pm

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): The other thing people get with a Conservative council is a council that is re-elected with a bigger majority every time, because people are happy with the services that it provides.

I want to focus on two issues: the raw deal that councils in East Sussex are getting under the Government’s funding formula, and the erosion of powers that has prevented local councils from being able to make decisions on some of the most important issues that affect the people who live within their
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boundaries. First, there is a deep imbalance in funding for councils. I am often told that money is taken from the south-east and is given to Labour’s marginal seats in the north, and there is clear evidence of that imbalance. We now have the facts. Of East Sussex councils, Wealden has the highest proportion of elderly people—certainly of the over-80s and over-85s—in the country, and that is partly why we have roughly the third lowest gross domestic product in the country. However, the grant per head that Wealden receives from the Government comes in at £54.03. The maximum level in the country is £133 per head, and even the average is £92 per head. If Wealden were funded at the average level for district councils, it would have a further £5.5 million a year that it could spend on local services or use to reduce council tax. It would increase its grant level by well over half.

Another way of looking at it is to consider the proportion of council spending that has to come from council tax. If we look at the country overall, the average is 46.1 per cent., but the lowest proportion is in Exeter, where it is 21.6 per cent.—I am not sure what Exeter has done to be so special, apart from being a marginal seat—but in Wealden, it is 63 per cent. That is why council tax has been driven up so much: my councils do not receive the same level of grant as other authorities.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con) rose—

Charles Hendry: I trust that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not give way, as I am keen that other colleagues should be able to make a contribution.

If we look at the overall picture in East Sussex, the figures become even starker. If councils in East Sussex were funded at the average levels for metropolitan boroughs across the country, the county would have a further £113 million a year to spend on vital local services or to reduce council tax. There is tremendous anger about the fact that we are getting a bad deal, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) is absolutely right that it is an issue that must be dealt with. The greatest frustration experienced by my local councillors stems from the fact that, every year, they are required to provide more services to the Government, but are not given the means of paying for them, so they have to find those funds from their own resources.

Secondly, the Government have increasingly eroded local councils’ ability to make decisions that they believe are right for local people. Housing was mentioned earlier, and it exemplifies the problem better than anything else. The current system is top-down. There is enormous anger in Wealden that hundreds of houses are imposed on us every year by people who do not know the geography of the area. That happens because of the way in which the process works. The anger is as much against the process as against the number of houses to be built.

First, the Department for Communities and Local Government decides in consultation with the deeply unloved regional assemblies how many houses there should be in each county council area. The county councils then require the district councils to build a certain number. If the district council refuses to build that number, the decisions will be made by Ministers
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and their officials in Whitehall. The only thing that local authorities have to do is decide where they will find space for those houses. They cannot decide how many houses there should be, what type of houses they should be or, in many cases, their location.

Even when local authorities say that there should not be more housing without investment in the infrastructure, they discover that they cannot get the funding for that. In Uckfield, for example, we have just one national health service dentist. We are facing the closure of the accident and emergency unit and the maternity unit at the hospital in Haywards Heath, which provides services to the town of Uckfield, yet we are still expected to build hundreds of houses in that town because of the formula.

What we need is a new approach whereby local councillors, elected directly by the people whom they serve, are able to make decisions on how many new houses there should be, where they should be built and what type. It is the Government who will not allow them to make those decisions, and who are forcing them to follow the existing procedures against their will.

I have deliberately kept my comments brief as I know that other colleagues wish to speak in the debate. In her opening comments the Secretary of State said that the Government should be judged on their results, not their rhetoric. We will indeed judge them on their results. They have fiddled the system of funding local authorities, which has made matters infinitely more difficult than they should be. They have undermined local decision-making, and they will be truly judged on 3 May.

9.26 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I, too, shall try to be brief. The House will note my interest as a member of the London assembly.

I shall deal with two issues. I was grateful to hear the observations of my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and I agree with every word. In particular, he touched on the issue which neither Lyons nor much of the debate has yet touched on—the need for us to consider the balance not just in funding, but in competencies, between central and local government.

Like my right hon. Friend, I have some knowledge of local government in France. The turnout figure is a point at issue, and that applies at local level as well. It is not insignificant that if one takes the average for all local authorities in the United Kingdom, 60 to 70 per cent. of total budgets come from central Government, whereas in France about 25 per cent. on average comes from central Government and about 45 per cent. is raised locally.

One thing that Lyons got right was to identify a weakness under our current arrangements whereby local authorities are unduly dependent on one single variable source of taxation in the council tax. It is right that there should be a significant element of property taxation in the portfolio, but having identified that, Lyons ducked the issue of what other areas of discretionary spend we could put in the local government armoury. That is my second point.

One of the great frustrations associated with local government is the difficulty of attracting people—

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Martin Horwood: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Robert Neill: Time is very short. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I make a little progress.

One of the reasons why people do not get involved in local government or vote at local council elections is the belief that local government has very little discretion. That has been made worse under the current financing regime by the extent of ring-fencing. The evidence demonstrates that about 50 per cent. of the funds that come from the centre to local government are ring-fenced. Back in 1997-98 that was 4.5 per cent. Steps could be taken immediately to reduce the amount of ring-fencing, in the same way as we should be reducing, as has already been said, the level of controls and the targets culture, which impose a considerable burden.

I would go further. I take the view, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon said, that the time has come when we should consider, with certain safeguards, returning the business rate to local authorities, not least because there is a need to encourage them to broaden their tax base. When I was a local councillor, there was almost some positive competition among London boroughs to encourage business to have more commercial development in the local authority because we gained benefit to our tax base. It would be healthy for us to look at that once again. In the same way, if we follow that localist path, perhaps we must accept that we should think again about capping.

Those are the big points that we need to look at, and a lot more work needs to be done on that. I come now to a specific point—

Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman said that Sir Michael Lyons did not suggest any alternatives, but he quite clearly did. At paragraph 7.239 he suggested that local income tax was a perfectly viable alternative.

Robert Neill: We all know what Sir Michael Lyons said on that. I note that the hon. Gentleman did not quote his own spokesman, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who said that double income earners, of whom there are a particularly large number in my constituency, will be worse off under that, and that people would start getting hit at about £30,000 plus per annum.

Stephen Pound: The hon. Gentleman has two incomes.

Robert Neill: I give the hon. Gentleman credit for a little more wit from the Labour Benches than we have had from those below the Gangway today. It does not make him right, but at least it is amusing.

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