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Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): This has been an interesting and important debate. The announcement of the local government finance settlement is an opportunity for Ministers to outline their plans for the future of local government funding. How much council tax people have to pay and, critically, how much money their council will get to enable it to provide local facilities and services are of huge relevance to many people's everyday lives. The debate has never been more important, given the current economic situation, but in spite of that the only reason we have had this debate today is that the Opposition have made time for it. We have used an Opposition day to force the Government to debate a fundamentally important topic for local communities across the country. Parliament is moving-we hope-towards more accountability and transparency. Ministers' attempts to stifle debate on the local government finance settlement fly in the face of that progress.
Today's debate showed starkly the choice that the British electorate face. They can have either councils that are accountable to them or councils that are accountable to Ministers in Whitehall, who think that local communities need to be spoon-fed with central Government diktat and priorities. We have heard that repeatedly in some interesting contributions to today's debate. I do not have time to mention all of them, but the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) talked about how her council is making the most of the powers that it has. I note that it is a Conservative council, but I am sure that she is working with it to help it to make the most of its opportunities.
We also heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who talked about how his drive for efficiencies when he was in office has, in many respects, set the tone for what can be achieved. He expressed real concern about the waste and incompetence that we have seen in recent years.
We never fail on these occasions to hear from the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter). I nearly renamed him the hon. Member for Shepherd's Bush, because Ealing and Acton never seem to get a look in. Residents in that area have an MP who does not talk about their council much. He did talk
about residents getting a bad deal from Hammersmith and Fulham council, but it must have been 10 times worse when his party was running the council.
We also heard an important contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) who sensitively and carefully pointed out the pressures on care budgets for the elderly, many arising from demographic changes that will be hard to deal with, however hard we try. He was right to raise his concerns about the cuts to the freedom pass, which enables many elderly people across London to remain independent in their day-to-day lives, which is critical.
In the speech we just heard, the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) rightly made the case for his constituents. That is an example of why having an oral statement rather than a written one is so important to Members' ability to do their job and represent their communities.
The bottom line is that, however Ministers dress it up, council tax has doubled under this Government and is set to rise further-way above the current rate of inflation. As we have heard, next year, residents in many parts of the country can expect rises of 3 per cent.-well above inflation-which will push up many people's council tax to £1,500 a year. In a recession on the scale of the present one, that is unaffordable for many people.
Why are councils under so much pressure? It is partly because they have extra burdens. A raft of initiatives has been pushed down on them by Ministers. So many initiatives have been inflicted on them that the proportion of individual, area and specific grants that are ring-fenced has risen from about 4 per cent. of the grant in 1997 to 15 per cent. now. Councils are less and less able to deliver flexible services for their residents. In fact, the Local Government Association worked out that if councils had more flexibility, they could save £900 million a year. That is surely worth having to reinvest in better local services. The bottom line is that we need our councils to set their priorities locally and deliver them locally, but they cannot do that under the current Government.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): What incentive does my hon. Friend believe there is for extremely efficient councils-for instance, West Sussex county council-that run their affairs extremely well, given that they get the lowest possible grant settlement?
Justine Greening: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We did not get much chance to discuss today the fact that debate on local government financing in this Chamber often focuses on how to divide up the pie, when it should be more about how we can help and encourage local councils to increase the amount of investment available to them locally. That is precisely why we have talked not only about our council tax freeze policy, under which we will work in partnership with local councils to help them to keep council tax down, but about how we will help councils willing to develop their communities through a council tax matching policy, which will help to alleviate residents' concerns about pressures on infrastructure when they develop housing in their areas, for example.
We will also encourage councils to develop local economies, jobs, businesses and extra facilities in their communities through business improvement grants. That means that we will incentivise councils' growing their business rates by allowing them to keep any increases above the inflationary rise set in Whitehall.
David Taylor: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can your advise the House on whether "Erskine May" has anything to say about Opposition spokespeople who refuse to take anything other than friendly interventions from their own side?
I was about to say that the other big cost pressure that many councils have had to put up with has been the huge cost and waste involved in inspections. The Lyons inquiry estimated that about £2 billion is spent on the monitoring process. We have to reduce that. That money should be going into improving local services and cutting council tax bills for residents. Instead, it is spent on exactly the wrong things: it is spent on councils reporting upwards and being accountable to Ministers, when the focus should be on being accountable to their own electorate.
The worst thing is that such burdens, ring-fencing and top-down scrutiny from Ministers in Whitehall who do not know the communities that they are dealing with are only set to grow. We have had a similar Opposition day debate before, and now we are talking about further financial pressures on local councils resulting from some of the Government's plans for taking care of the elderly. The situation is not tenable, which is why we want to set out a different vision for local government finance.
As I have said, we want to introduce incentives and to ensure that the formula is developed sensitively and that the Audit Commission can look at it to ensure that it is transparent and fair. We need to move on to a new chapter in local government finance where councils get the powers, flexibility and resources necessary to deliver what local communities, not just Ministers, want; where there are real incentives; and where councils and the communities that they represent can truly share the benefits. It is a clear choice, and the sooner the public get to make it at a general election, the better.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Barbara Follett): I wish that I could say that this had been an interesting and wide-ranging examination-[Hon. Members: "It says here."] No, it does not say that here. I wish that I could say that this had been an interesting and wide-ranging examination of the local government finance settlement, but it has not. With one or two honourable exceptions, on both sides of the House, this has been just the sort of blustering, grandstanding, smug, "We know better than you and just wait until our side gets in" kind of exchange that puts most normal people off politics and, frankly, puts me off listening to you all.
When I wrote to the hon. Members for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy)-I did write to them, on 12 November-I pointed out that there was going to be an oral statement. The last time there were very few Members in the
Chamber, and we regretted that there were so few. We would have liked to debate it, and you do get a chance to debate it in January, when you debate the financial settlement, so you have not lost the chance-
We in the Chamber should have known better, because we have wasted an opportunity this time. In his opening remarks, the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), conceded that the three-year settlement was a good thing. On that, if very little else, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agreed with him. He pointed out that this year, the last year of that three-year settlement, councils will get a 4 per cent. increase in funding, bringing the investment in local government to £76.3 billion in 2010-11.
The Liberal Democrat spokesperson, the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne, at least managed to get off the subject of who did or did not initiate this debate and why. For the record, let me point out again that the House will have a chance to debate the settlement for 2010-11 when it approves the finance report in January. I will certainly try to find out what happened to the letters. I have a copy here and will give everyone one later. I was sorry that the hon. Lady did not develop her party's ideas a little more clearly. She spent most of her time telling the other parties what they were doing wrong and hinting at what she might do right if the Liberal Democrats got into power.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) was quite a change: she was positive and proud. I really understood her pleasure in seeing her constituency develop in the way that it has. Like her, I have seen changes in my constituency, Stevenage. I am glad that she has found the prudential borrowing regime so helpful.
Despite remarks from the Opposition, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) has been a doughty campaigner for his constituency, including against the injustices that have come in under the Conservative council.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) made some thoughtful comments about the high proportion of elderly residents in Havering and the growing number of older people, with whom Governments of all types will most certainly have to deal in future, and deal with seriously. I hope that he will welcome the Government's engagement with the issue of future funding for adult social care, and also that he will get involved when his local authority makes representations to the consultation on the distribution of concessionary fares that is now being held by the Department for Transport.
The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) made some telling points about highways maintenance in Croydon. This is a problem across the country, and he will no doubt welcome the fact that we are keeping the formula under review, including the area cost adjustment, to which he referred, in relation to highways costs. Of course, Croydon and other London boroughs are welcome to put their evidence into the review being held by the Department for Transport, and I hope that they will do so.
I realise that I might have been impatient and immoderate at the beginning of my speech, but, as someone who cares deeply about this place and its reputation, I do not think that any of us did it any good today with the kind of debate that we indulged in. Local government finance is a highly technical and complex area that would benefit from a much more in-depth debate than the one we had here today. I regret that we have wasted our time in this way.
Mr. Redwood: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It seems to me that we should fill the time allocated for the debate. That statement from the Minister was a disgrace. If she is so critical of all the rest of us, she could at least have done the House the courtesy of giving us some information and offering a defence of a badly thought-through settlement that has been inadequately debated. Instead, she comes to the House, insults those of us who did participate in the debate, and gives us absolutely nothing in the way of argument, fact or consideration in the light of the many powerful points that have been made today. I hope that she will reflect on that and apologise-
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