Previous Section Index Home Page

16 Dec 2009 : Column 1041

Many hon. Members will be familiar with the f40 campaign, which I was part of as a councillor, long before I was elected as an MP. When the Government were first elected in 1997, the f40 campaign was promised that the problem of shire counties in particular being badly underfunded by the complex formula used to devise central Government funding would be resolved. In 2006, the Government finally revised the funding formula. From 2006, they said, "Yes, you should have more money"-you being the police authority, the fire service or the council-"but you can't have it, because of the floors and ceilings in operation." Derbyshire police, which is the fifth worst funded police force in the country and has hundreds fewer police officers than equivalent shire counties such as Nottinghamshire or Durham, therefore continues to suffer.

In 2008, the Government introduced an excellent national bus fare scheme, which is of great value in enhancing older people's lives, but they failed to fund it properly for around 30 of the 263 authorities that were involved. At first the Government just denied that there was a problem, although I am pleased to say that the meeting that I had this morning with the Transport Minister was much more positive than the one that I had last year with his predecessor. Last year the Government denied that there was a problem; this year they have accepted that there is one. They are proposing to give Chesterfield borough council and the other 30 authorities that have been badly hit their money for next year, from 1 April 2010, although that is not a guarantee, because other councils that were given too much money are complaining bitterly that they do not want that money taken away from them.

How do councils deal with that general situation, involving the police, the fire service, bus fares, council funding and so on, when 75 per cent. of funding for local authorities basically comes from the Government grant, not the local council tax? Most local voters simply do not understand that. How do local authorities deal with things when the direction on how to spend most of that money comes from central Government, rather than from local decision taking? Local voters just do not understand that. If the Government refuse to pay up, as they have in all the cases that I have mentioned, what can the local authority do?

In Surrey, where the police force was in the same situation with its funding, the decision was made to increase the council tax by more than the recommended level. There was a wide consultation with the public and businesses, who said, "Yes, we'd rather increase the council tax than have fewer police on the beat," and as a result a cap was introduced.

Derbyshire police force has gone down the same route, consulting widely and receiving overwhelming feedback from across Derbyshire saying, "Yes, we'd rather pay more council tax than cut our police force," which is already the fifth worst funded in the country. However, the Government have said, "No, you can't take that decision. We don't care what local people, local councils or the police force say in Derbyshire; we're going to underfund you. And, to rub your nose in it, we're going to cap you." That means that Derbyshire is facing the loss of front-line police officers next year, when it is already one of the lowest staffed forces in the country, albeit a very efficient one.

16 Dec 2009 : Column 1042

In the short term, the Government should solve the problem by providing the money that they say those councils should have for those services, but which they will not provide them with. In the longer term, but not after too long-this should happen as soon as the next general election is over-the next Government should reverse the whole system. We are so centralised that 90 per cent. of the taxation raised is taken to London and then handed out with strings attached. The Government in London try to micro-manage everything that councils do and everything that schools do, through Ofsted, league tables and the national curriculum.

That should be reversed, and it is not what happens in the rest of the western world. It does not happen anywhere else in Europe, apart from Malta, which is a small island and can be excused, nor does it happen in Canada, the USA or Australia. As with proportional representation, we are the odd ones out. So the rest of the world has got it wrong and we have got it right? I do not think so. The Government should change the system to the benefit of democracy in this country-and, for that matter, for more efficient local government.

The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) mentioned the Oneplace reports that are online. From the sounds of it, the report for Chesterfield was much more optimistic than the one for Leicester, but two things in it stood out. The first was that, in talking about the problems facing Chesterfield borough council, which was praised for its work on boosting the open-air market, attracting employers, bucking the recession to some extent and doing a grand job in all sorts of ways, the report pointed out-over and over, on the first five of the nine pages in the report-that the council faces a huge problem because of the underfunding of bus fares. Last year and this year, 11 per cent. of the council's budget was diverted not into anything to do with the borough council, but into paying for the Government's underfunded scheme. I hope that the Government will rectify that next year, but there is no mention at all of paying back the £3.5 million that has been taken away in the past two years, much to the detriment of Chesterfield services.

The report states:

Where indeed? The Government will not provide that money. They will not give back the rent, the right-to-buy money or the money that they have taken away from Chesterfield over the years to pay housing benefits and to build the Olympic infrastructure in London. They are not going to give any of that back, so where is the money to come from?

The council could go to an arm's-length management organisation, which is one of the Government's options, but the ALMOs are now being told that they cannot have any money either. The only option is complete privatisation, by handing housing over to the housing associations. As with nearly half the councils around the country, however, 70 per cent. of the people of Chesterfield have said no to privatisation. What is the council to do in the face of policies from a Government who say, "If you don't privatise and transfer out, we will effectively starve you out by taking money away from your council rents and not allowing you to maintain your stock in the way that the people of Chesterfield want"?

16 Dec 2009 : Column 1043
5.20 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I want to talk about several matters affecting my constituents on which there have been recent decisions, reviews or consultations. If I have time, I want to cover student funding, the outcome of the Walker review on water metering and charging, and capital funding for schools and housing.

Before I turn to those matters, however, I want to talk about Efford, the community in my constituency that I mentioned at Prime Minister's questions today. As I said then, that community has been strong and resilient in the face of six months of very distressing press coverage about the nursery worker who was given an indeterminate sentence yesterday for her horrible crimes against children at Little Ted's nursery in my constituency. Like most of my constituents, I am pleased that she was given an indeterminate sentence. The tariff for crimes of this nature simply does not deal with people's feelings of disgust, anger, loathing and incomprehension at such an unbelievable breach of trust, and such evil behaviour.

Every Member of the House faces the difficult job of explaining why judges and sentencing are independent of the role of MPs, and also distanced from the Government and Ministers. Democracy and the rule of law demand that that be so, and anyone who stops to think about it can see why that is the case. No one would want politicians to be able to interfere with sentencing. As a female colleague said to me earlier today, that would set us on the road to becoming a banana republic. In the context of what has happened in Efford, however, it is sometimes difficult to deal with people's deep-seated anger and the emotions that are aroused by these events, and it is not easy to explain the rather dry subject of the Sentencing Guidelines Council.

There is one thing that I can do, however. That is to commit myself to making it a top priority to ensure that the serious case review, which will produce its conclusions in the next month or two, learns lessons from this situation, for the sake not only of the 100 or more families in Efford who have suffered over the past six months, but of every parent in this country who wants to ensure that nursery care is of a high quality. The review has already been at work for several months, and its findings have been delayed to ensure that the views of the affected families could be taken into account. It was right to delay it, because serious case reviews benefit hugely if the experience of close family members are taken into account.

Efford is a strong and resilient community. It has at its heart the Heart of Efford Community Partnership, and I want to pay tribute in particular to its chair, Kath Hancock, who has done amazing work over the past six months in providing a link between the people of Efford and the public services.

The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) just mentioned the Oneplace assessment. In fact, Plymouth has received one of the few green flags handed out for the way in which it has handled several crises, this most recent crisis being one of them.

I am really pleased that there is to be a new primary school in Efford; no community could deserve it more. The two schools of Highfield and Plym View have come together as High View in one of the old premises while the new one is built. Last week I attended the nativity
16 Dec 2009 : Column 1044
play there, and I wish I could have bottled and taken away the energy and the confidence of those young children. They gave a very professional performance, many of them good enough to appear in musicals on the London stage; it was a real tonic to be able to share that with them. Incidentally, I was lobbied by a member of the school council about getting some funding to visit Parliament and see how it works. I hope that we can arrange that next year. It was also very good to be able to welcome the Thames Gardens and Horseshoe residents associations here in Parliament earlier this week.

I now want to deal with student fees. The Government promised that the current policy on tuition fees and funding would be reviewed after the first cohort of students studying under the system had graduated. That means now. The timing ensures that, far from anyone sneaking things through, this issue will be very much in the spotlight as we approach the next election. When the National Union of Students recently lobbied us, they presented me, and, I suspect, other Members with large student communities, with a copy of "Funding Our Future"-a blueprint with some really interesting ideas in it. I instinctively like the idea of having a trust, which they put forward, although I have a range of questions, particularly about the costings and whether the proposals will take into account the position of women, who seem to me to be better taken care of under the present arrangements than under the proposed new ones. I am open-minded about suggestions at this stage; I recently met some of my local university of Plymouth student union officers, and I hope to meet others to discuss the matter.

At the time when fees were introduced, I was interested in the graduate tax approach to dealing with student funding, and I am pleased that the Government review is wide and will, I hope, be able to look at the proposals being made. I would love to see stronger student representation on the review panel; the National Union of Students is making a case for that. There is a student representative, albeit not one in which it has total confidence, and I think that that representation could do with some strengthening.

I am pleased that there has been a 67.3 per cent. increase in the number of students going to university over the past 10 years-435 from my constituency this year, compared with 260 in 1997. It is an important debate to have, as we must continue to find a way to support and fund our higher education institutions. Although I am delighted that so many young people are now able to access higher education and have the qualifications to do so, we must also ensure that the higher education institutions have the funding that they need to maintain their high standards of tuition. The UK, of course, has-or at least, had until recently-23 of the world's top 100 universities. I attended a breakfast briefing, which discussed the challenges faced in some of the devolved areas where universities with a different set of student funding arrangements are struggling to keep up with the funding they need to maintain their position in the global league tables.

Similarly, we must ensure that other forms of student support are adequately funded and resourced, as highlighted by the recent problems with handling student finance applications. None of this comes cheaply, and it is important to remember that more public money is
16 Dec 2009 : Column 1045
spent on universities than on any other level of education, with some three quarters of the cost of higher education borne by the taxpayer. I am lobbied for better funding by representatives of pre-school, primary and secondary education as well as further education-and that is, of course, only the education sector.

I believe that the United Kingdom university system represents good value for money when our fees are compared with university fees internationally. Those of us who from time to time have American interns passing through our offices know that the costs in America are amazing compared with ours, although it goes without saying that I am not suggesting that we want the United Kingdom system to become like the American one. We should bear in mind that there has been a large increase in the number of students applying for part-time or shorter courses, and that those students may include people with families to look after.

Apart from climate change, perhaps our biggest challenge for the future is the skills race. We need to maintain our excellence in those fields. Fewer jobs will be manual or unskilled. If Britain is to remain competitive in the world economy, the development of a skilled and highly trained professional work force is key. For every five manual jobs today, there will be only one in 2020. Further education has a vital role to play in the development of vocational skills, along with renewed emphasis on apprenticeships and, of course, business funding.

I am pleased that the final report of the Walker review has at long last been published. I am also pleased that, having examined the economic, social and geographical circumstances of the South West Water area, the review team has concluded that current bills in the south-west relate to the poor state of the sewerage assets at the time of privatisation, and that 20 years ago-as many of us have said for a long time-the Conservative privatisation was badly botched. To address the root cause directly would need a specific one-off adjustment of £650 million, or annual transfers funded either by Government or by other water customers across the country. None of that will be easy to achieve. Anna Walker suggests that Ofwat would be best placed to consider the options for implementing either a one-off or another kind of adjustment, and advising Ministers accordingly.

Last week I met the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). I am pleased to say that he has wasted no time in asking Ofwat to investigate Anna Walker's proposals and report to him. He has been very helpful both to me and to other Members of Parliament from Devon and Cornwall-predominantly Liberal Democrats, but also my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck)-who have campaigned relentlessly throughout this and previous Parliaments.

The Government's recent decision to give the go-ahead for Plymouth to spend £78 million through the Building Schools for the Future programme on secondary schools and to upgrade ICT equipment has been very welcome. We were originally to receive it in five years' time, but I campaigned, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport-and we were pleased that our case was recognised following a visit from the Minister for Schools and Learners earlier this year.

16 Dec 2009 : Column 1046

The decision is a real boost for the whole community. Good schools not only shape the future of our children but help everyone in the locality, and the jobs involved in the building work will be very welcome too. This is exactly the sort of news that it is good to receive just before Christmas. Tamarside community college will have 50 to 70 per cent. new build, Lipson community college will have 20 to 50 per cent. new build, Stoke Damerel college in my constituency will have 100 per cent. new build, John Kitto community college will have 50 to 70 per cent. new build,, and Sir John Hunt community college will have a major ITC programme. All that is very welcome.

We heard today that the Minister for Housing had shortlisted the Redrow Vision housing scheme in Devonport for a Kickstart grant of just under £3 million. That comes after funding was agreed a few weeks ago for Kerr street in Devonport and Cargo in Millbay. That is a real tonic for jobs in the city. Although 50 per cent. of the funding must be paid back to the Government, developers will have the cash that they need to get sites up and running again. There will be a rigorous final check before the final go-ahead, but 22,500 houses will be built nationally as a result of this Labour Government's investment. We will continue to invest through the downturn, in order to secure both homes and jobs.

Within the last hour, we have learned of one final tonic: Plymouth has been chosen as one of the host cities in England's 2018 World cup bid. If the bid is successful, that will bring huge opportunities, not only by promoting the strong tourist attractions of our city, but in terms of jobs and getting young people involved in the sport of football. I hope Members on both sides of the House, and people throughout the country, will join me in hoping that England's bid to host that World cup is successful.

5.36 pm

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): May I begin by adding my tribute to those who have been killed or wounded on active service in Afghanistan? My thoughts and sympathies are especially with the families who for the first time this Christmas will miss their loved ones. I think in particular of the family of Lance Corporal Richard Brandon, whose funeral was on 2 October, and at which his partner and fiancée moved us all to tears with her amazingly composed and courageous tribute to that serving soldier.

Having said that, the main purpose of my contribution this afternoon is to ask the Deputy Leader of the House to convey my serious concerns about the future of and what is happening at a school in my constituency. Baxter college in Kidderminster has been labelled a national challenge school without considered justification, and with potentially dire consequences. A consultation on replacing the college with a national challenge trust school has recently ended and a decision is due before Christmas, which is why a message must urgently be got through to the Minister for Schools and Learners.

To my knowledge, the school has an impressive history. I visited it first as an MP in 2001, when it was called the Harry Cheshire high school, and I was appalled. The graffiti, the behaviour of the kids, the untidy classrooms and the rowdyism were all unacceptable. The local authority spotted what was going on and did several things to improve it. First, it changed its name. Richard Baxter was a cleric in the 1600s who spent much of his
16 Dec 2009 : Column 1047
time working in Kidderminster, and he was one of the earliest and most influential non-conformists-a very famous person, therefore, to lend his name to the school. The local authority also brought in an inspirational head teacher from elsewhere, who brought with him some expert teachers, and together the staff, the governors and the head have turned the school around. It is now a joy to walk around it: it is tidy, with no graffiti, and the behaviour is excellent. In the classes, there is an atmosphere of friendship, co-operation and learning.

On the filing cabinet in the headmaster's office are the following words:

Next Section Index Home Page