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John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op):
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate, and it is good to follow a well reasoned contribution from the hon. Member for Meon Valley
(George Hollingbery), in which he made a number of interesting efficiency suggestions. All local authorities throughout the country need to think about the efficiencies that they can fairly and equitably make, but this debate is not about whether local authorities need to make them. It is about the way in which the funding settlement will be distributed throughout the country, and the unfair way in which it will impact on some of the most needy areas in the country.
It is unfortunate that we remain in the dark at this late stage of the funding cycle. The Minister complains that people are speculating about the final outcome, but this debate is his opportunity to tell us definitively what will happen and to reassure the House that the scenarios that the special interest group of municipal authorities, among others, has modelled will not come to pass. I am afraid, however, that in the absence of any hard answers from the Ministers, SIGOMA's analysis is a good one that will continue to gain a great deal of currency.
Barbara Keeley: Was my hon. Friend as surprised as I was to hear that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) seems to have received from the Government reassurances that have been denied to the rest of us? I wonder whether the Minister is prepared to share the reassurances that he has given to that Member with other Members.
The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), who resumes his seat as I speak, gave an eloquent speech in which he took issue with a number of his Government's key policies, but he fell into the trap that even the Secretary of State has fallen into. The hon. Gentleman said, "Wouldn't it be outrageous if any local council were to cut the budget of the voluntary sector to try and balance the books?" I say to him and the Minister, however, that local authorities are looking at the dire situation they face and the appalling decisions they have to make, and from the feedback, I have they do not welcome Ministers telling them what they ought not to do.
Christopher Pincher: The hon. Gentleman says that local authorities are worried. Perhaps Barrow and Furness is worried, but a cabinet member on the borough council in Tamworth, which is not a rich place or wealthy borough, says:
"We have been planning for a long time to cope with the spending round. The previous government gave with one hand and then took twice as much back with the other. So local government is accustomed to saving money. I am confident the councils services will grow despite reduction in grants, partly thanks to the new homes onus, removal of ring fenced budgets and less red tape. It is a careful balancing act but not one that will lead to massive service cuts. It is business as usual in Tamworth."
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. Interventions are supposed to be short-I have said that a number of times-and if the hon. Gentleman reads a very long quotation on to the record he is going to tend to get cut off before he makes his final point.
John Woodcock: I was getting worried, but thankfully there was a question in the last six words of that diatribe. Of course, as hon. Members would expect, I shall go on to talk about the particular difficulties that Barrow borough council will face in the months and years ahead. No one is suggesting that pain will not be felt right across the country. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that, although every council knew that we were approaching difficult times for continued funding, local authorities have not been given enough time to plan for the front-loaded cut that it seems will be imposed on them. Such an approach will cut into areas that it would not have been necessary to cut if the process had been more spread out.
Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): On front loading, Sefton council is facing £38 million of cuts in year one, which will decrease to £16.7 million in year two and £3.8 million in year three. It has been a hung council for 24 years and local councillors of all parties are used to working closely together and resolving such problems. However, they are now finding it incredibly difficult to do so. I hope that the Secretary of State will take on board the challenges that such councils are facing as a result of front-loading.
John Woodcock: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. His remarks illustrate that, with the top slicing of the formula grant and if the cuts are front-loaded-the Minister is welcome to make the announcement about that today and end the speculation-it will pretty much guarantee that the most deprived areas of the country, which most rely on extra support, will bear the greatest burden of the cuts.
Simon Hughes: On the voluntary sector grant, if the hon. Gentleman looks at the record, he will see that I did not say that such a situation would be outrageous. I was simply asking councils to be careful not to turn all the heat on to the voluntary sector, rather than looking first at themselves.
John Woodcock: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I was actually paraphrasing the Secretary of State, who I believe said that local authorities would rue the day that they cut voluntary sector grants. I am sure that they will be delighted to hear how they should be balancing their books, given that the cuts are being front loaded so that a great proportion will fall in the next year.
According to the SIGOMA model, Barrow borough council, which covers the majority of my constituency, will receive a proportional cut in funding in the next financial year that will be exceeded by the cut in funding to only two other local authorities. Despite being in the top 30 most deprived council areas, according to the 2007 indices of multiple deprivation-and if the modelling is even close to accurate- Barrow borough council can expect to lose around 20% or up to 25% of its central Government funding next year. Relatively wealthier local authorities will have levels of cuts imposed that are far less than those that might be inflicted on Barrow borough council.
Although this is an Opposition day debate and many Labour Members have spoken with great passion about the huge damage that could be wrought on their
constituencies, Government Members should be clear that this is not simply a partisan issue. Councillors from all parties are concerned about the potential cuts. I hope that the Minister is aware of a letter from the Conservative leader of Barrow borough council-perhaps he will confirm whether he has received it-who I think has written to him or to the Secretary of State to express his concern at the disproportionate cuts that will hit Barrow severely if what is proposed is followed through next week.
Tom Blenkinsop: Conservative leaders in Barrow and in Stockton and an independent mayor in Middlesbrough all say that these cuts are disproportionately hurting the north compared with the south. Does my hon. Friend think that the Secretary of State would consider those people to be the cigar-chomping communists that he talked about in a recent article in Total Politics magazine?
John Woodcock: I am not sure who the Secretary of State would consider to be a cigar-smoking communist. However, my hon. Friend makes a good point. It is not solely Labour councillors or Labour MPs who are speaking up about this matter and it is not just the north of England saying to the south of England that the present funding arrangements need to continue. We are making the case for the broad approach taken by the previous Labour Government. They recognised that areas where deprivation, poverty, unemployment or economic isolation are entrenched need extra resources to improve their situation and to grow the private sector in a way that all hon. Members want to see.
Geographical isolation has always posed economic challenges for the area of Cumbria that I represent. That is never more so than in periods of recession or limited growth. Savage cuts in funding to the local authority at such a time can only exacerbate those challenges. A vicious cycle will be created because not only will jobs directly provided by the borough council disappear-taking with them the multiplier effect that they have within the local economy-but the prospect for investment that will attract new jobs and businesses to the area will also go. Over the past decade, local authority funding has worked well in partnership with funding from the regional development agency to stimulate growth in the Furness area. The situation has not been perfect and we have wanted some things to be more efficient. However, there has undoubtedly been a balance positive over the past 10 years, and there are grave concerns about that being cut.
The people of Barrow are watching anxiously. The Government have imposed added uncertainty on the region through their delay of the vote on the Trident replacement project, which will sustain many thousands of jobs in Barrow's shipyard for decades to come. Such a severe cut to funding will strike a real blow to economic confidence in the area.
However, this is not simply about Barrow or any one area. The matter is also about more than swingeing cuts to local government funding on its own; it is about whether we make the ideological leap into a funding model and into a public policy world where the funding of local areas is blind to the real needs within those areas. Such a simplistic approach may be superficially
attractive to some coalition Members, but they must know that the reality will be neither fair nor progressive. Such cuts will mean that the poorest areas of the country carry the greatest burden of cuts, while wealthier areas escape relatively unscathed.
There is still time for the Government to rethink such an approach. It cuts adrift the most economically vulnerable areas of Britain-Barrow is counted as one such area. These cuts would not only jeopardise economic growth in Barrow, but could lead to a situation where any recovery is geographically lopsided and passes by many of the most deprived areas of the country. If the Government want to prevent a situation in which one sector or one region overheats economically, they must think again on this.
I hope that they will listen to the strong calls that have been made in this House and by councillors of all parties across the country to think again about the settlement that they are about to impose-to think about its level, the way in which it is being front-loaded, and the fact that it seems disproportionately to hit some of the areas which, at this difficult time for the country, need our support the most.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I am grateful to have caught your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to contribute to this important debate. There have been many interesting contributions, on both sides of the House, in which Members have put the case for their particular councils and areas with some passion.
Before I came to this House, I served for 10 years as a city councillor. In fact, I was exactly one half of our group on the council-I doubled its size when I arrived. However, our lack of electoral success does not mean that we were not involved closely in running the local authority. Our council was originally run by Labour and then eventually became one with no overall control, so we were heavily involved in running it for several years.
We have heard some very thoughtful speeches today, particularly by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), who made some sensible and interesting points. In relation to burials, I can certainly relate to the issue that he raised about people on different sides of the same street, in some cases, paying different amounts. Anything that the Government can do to alleviate that would be greatly appreciated.
However, some of the speeches have been more about creating and enforcing divisions where they may not exist, and that has not been helpful to the debate. Neither has the scaremongering that has occurred in some cases, although that does not apply to the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who made a sensible contribution. That approach may get headlines in local papers, but it will not do anything to protect services, or do anything for the people who work in local government, many of whom are dedicated public servants.
Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab):
The hon. Gentleman referred to the contribution by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes); I, too, agreed with much of what he said. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if
the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark had started by saying that, during the election, his party agreed with the same deficit reduction policy as mine, his words might have been more plausible?
Andrew Percy: I am not sure how I am supposed to respond to that intervention, but I suspect that it has served its purpose. However, the hon. Gentleman's Front Benchers have told us absolutely nothing about what they intend to do. They cannot have a serious debate on any subject regarding public spending unless they come forward and say what they would do. All we know is that their plan is to protect local services. Is that still the case? If so, something else would have to be cut: is it to be schools or the health service? They have no credibility. It may get them a few cheap headlines, but it will do nothing to contribute to the debate about how we tackle the very serious deficit which this country faces.
Simon Hughes: It was unfair for the hon. Gentleman to be asked a question about what I said, so I had better give him the answer, which lies in something that he said earlier. He will know from his city council experience that when one is not running the show oneself, one has to work with others-by definition, one cannot get all one's own way. That is fairly obvious.
Andrew Percy: Absolutely. That is what we should be doing on an issue as important as this. We should all be working together on the whole way that local government is structured to try to change it for the better.
Lots of references have been made to going back to the 1980s, or to the 1970s and "Life on Mars", but some of the contributions have been like listening to "The Twilight Zone". In my 10 years serving as a councillor under the previous Labour Government, I seem to recall the picture not being quite as rosy as that painted by Labour Members. We have heard many comments about Conservative and Liberal councillors criticising this Government's settlement, although we do not know what it is yet. In my 10 years on the council, Labour, Liberal and Conservative councillors tended to criticise the settlement coming forward from any Government. That is the way of local government, largely because the formulae are so complex that there is always something that one is not happy with in any settlement.
When I was a local councillor, our authority went through a number of assessments, first, through the corporate governance inspection regime, and later through the comprehensive performance assessment regime. Labour Members cannot possibly be defending the millions of pounds that went into those schemes. I will explain what those schemes did to a city council such as Hull, which at the beginning of the Labour Administration had some of the most deprived communities in the country, and still had them 13 years later. If hon. Members want to carry out a value-for-money analysis of that, I will leave it to them to do so. The decisions that we were forced to take as a result of going through the CGI process cost our city council millions of pounds over those 10 years.
The council, which was Labour-run, was judged to be a failing council. There was some fair criticism, no doubt, but I do not know whether we needed the expensive regime process that came in to tell us that the authority was not necessarily being run as it should be. One of the most appalling recommendations that followed the CGI process was that we should appoint five corporate directors, but they were not to be employed on the same salary as our previous service area directors-no, we were to employ five corporate directors on salaries of £105,000.
Justin Tomlinson: Like my hon. Friend, I served for 10 years as a councillor. I fully echo his point, given the number of times that we were encouraged, following inspections, to spend huge sums of money on members of staff just to prove that we were heading in the right direction.
As I said, we were expected to pay our corporate directors a salary of £105,000, which most people in the city of Hull, and indeed across east Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire, can only dream of. Then, in time, we had to appoint a new chief executive. Needless to say, they were not appointed at the same salary as the previous chief executive-there was a massive salary increase that had a knock-on effect on other local authorities in our area, which judged themselves against how much the neighbouring authority was paying. If we cannot get people to work in local government on salaries lower than that of the Prime Minister, we are doing something badly wrong.
I also well remember the settlements that we used to get from the Labour Government-it was a case of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Nowhere was that more clear than in the best value process, which required us to measure 100 to 200 different things and report back to central Government. One of our best value performance indicators was to measure how many of our park benches had arms. I am sorry, but when I go drinking in the Dog and Duck, or in my real pub, the Percy Arms- [ Interruption . ] It is conveniently named. People do not come up to me and say, "Andrew, what we want you to do as a local authority is to measure how many park benches have arms." They want their council to be providing services-over the past couple of weeks, gritting, snow ploughing, and so on. They do not want it to be spending hundreds of thousands of pounds every year reporting back on such silly measures.
Andrew Percy: No, that is not what I said. I am saying that local authorities should be subjected to an awful lot less inspection, and that we certainly should not be running around paying people fat salaries to go measuring how many park benches have arms. If Labour Members are seriously suggesting that they want to maintain that system, I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman so that he can explain to my constituents why my local council should continue to do that.
We all understand that there has to be some measurement of public services, whether they are in schools, the health service or local authorities, but we have to consider the proportion of time, money and resources spent on that. Under the previous Government, it got out completely out of hand-some of it was well meant, but it had unintended consequences. It was alleged at that time that money was thrown at some councils, but it was not always thrown to provide better services; often it was spent on employing more people to sit behind desks and measure things that the public would, frankly, not consider to be a priority. That is what happened in my authority in relation to councillor training. We were suddenly told, following our CGI and CPA inspections, that we had to spend more taxpayers' money on training councillors to do the job that political parties should ensure that they can do before they stand for office. That is why I refused to undertake councillor training-perhaps that says a lot about me.
One of the most ridiculous things that was produced by our council-no doubt by somebody on a good salary-was a guide to professionally appropriate language for councillors. At great expense to the taxpayer, we were issued with a guide to tell us that we must not call women flower, duck or love. If that is considered a good use of taxpayers' money, I am afraid that I am in a different camp.
My other recollection from the past 10 years serving as a local councillor is that, although everything was fantastic and rosy, as we have heard from Labour Members, there were considerable hikes in council tax. The last time the Labour party ran Hull city council, it raised council tax by 10%. If that is evidence of good central Government funding to some of the poorest authorities, I do not know what planet I have been living on.
There is a sensible debate to be had about local government funding, but today's attempts to create division are unhelpful. The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness made the point that I was going to make.
Tom Blenkinsop: I thank my fellow travelling companion, on certain days, for giving way. Labour Members are not coming up with scare stories. My information comes from the independent mayor of Middlesbrough and the leader of the Tory council in Stockton. We have also heard the example of the leader of the Tory council in Barrow. Those people have legitimate fears about the Government proposals. Yet again, we hear Back Benchers saying that they are aware of the situation, while the Minister says that he does not know what figures or information we are talking about. That only perpetuates the fears. Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that?
Andrew Percy: One of the burdens of local leadership is to take the information that is provided and decide whether to perpetuate a possible myth that would cause hundreds or thousands of people to fear for their jobs or to disseminate the information differently.
Division has been created today by the image that many Tory shire authorities around the country are about to get a windfall and are doing very nicely, whereas everybody else faces cuts. No doubt there will be the slaying of the firstborn and all the other extreme language that we have come to expect from Labour Members. Such arguments are not helpful. I represent Goole and East Riding, which have some of the most deprived communities in England. East Riding suffers from being part of a larger authority that has very wealthy areas, with the consequence that its funding settlement has been among the worst in the country for the past decade. The council has tried incredibly hard over the years.
As the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness said, large rural authorities, as well as having considerable pockets of deprivation, face other challenges that are not taken into account. One of my two authorities is the largest unitary authority in the country. It is time that we looked at the structure of the grants system and made it take account of issues of rurality. For example, we know that rural poverty is hard to identify.
If the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) speaks, I am sure that he will talk more about our Labour local authority, which seems to take a different line on the spending cuts. I will allow others to conclude whether that is for political reasons, given that there are elections next year. However, my Conservative-run authority of East Riding has accepted that it will be tough. It has made decisions to prepare for that over the past two years, because it has known that it is coming. It knew what the Labour party was saying about 25% cuts-some of the biggest cuts in history-coming its way, so it started to make decisions accordingly. Even after the comprehensive spending review, one of my local councils said clearly:
"The programme involved a carefully planned reduction in expenditure in response to anticipated funding cuts."
The council had been planning for the cuts already. Any half-decent leader of a local authority should have had that in mind, not least because they should have seen the previous Government's plans. It is nonsense suddenly to pretend at this late juncture that it is all wicked and terrible, that nobody could have seen this coming, and that it would not have happened in the strange world that the Labour party currently seems to inhabit.
I have highlighted some of the waste and inefficiency that I saw as a local councillor. There are some very good people working in local authorities and providing services. The challenge for local authorities is to navel gaze, to look closely at what they are doing at the moment and to decide whether they can do that better. I give way one last time.
Justin Tomlinson: Does my hon. Friend agree that the decision to publish expenditure over £500 will allow a greater number of eyes to look over the information and identify much needed efficiency savings?
Andrew Percy: Of course I agree. That can be done relatively simply through programmes such as Oracle, which my former council spent millions of pounds investing in-perhaps investing should be in inverted commas.
Karl Turner: I am very grateful. I am tempted to agree with some of the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, but will he be kind enough to admit that when he was a councillor in my authority, I never heard him complaining about the grants that he received from my party in government?
Andrew Percy: The hon. Gentleman has obviously never been to a Hull city council meeting. Forgive me; after he was selected, he did come along. The first hour of most council meetings tends to be spent railing against whichever Government are in power and saying, "We haven't got enough money. Can we have some more please?" I was no exception. I spent 10 years saying, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could get a bit more?" The serious point is that, whenever we put forward an alternative budget, it was fully worked out and contained huge savings on such things as building rationalisation.
Andrew Percy: No, not cuts-building rationalisation. There appears to be an irregular verb: they make savings, we make cuts. Any hon. Member who believes that we can continue to fund local government at the same level as in the past couple of years is living in la-la land. Nobody with a serious agenda would suggest that.
I make one final plea to the Minister on the funding of fire authorities. I have the highest regard for the fire authority in Humberside. In the past couple of years, it has faced challenging times because of changes to legislation made by the previous Government. Although there is an acceptance that savings must be made in fire authorities, I urge the Minister to keep a close eye on them and to ensure that reductions impact on the front line as little as possible.
The message should go out to all councils that there are tough decisions to be made, but that they can be made in a way that protects front-line services if our local leaders are brave enough. Local councillors have the choice of whether to scaremonger and make political points in the run-up to next year's local elections, or, like my well run Conservative council of East Riding, to get their heads down, get on with it, make savings, but pledge to protect services.
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I remind hon. Members that some 13 Members still wish to contribute to this debate, and that the wind-ups are due to start at 9.30 pm? Out of courtesy to their colleagues, I therefore ask hon. Members to pay a little bit of attention to the clock and do the maths themselves, to ensure that everybody can speak, otherwise we will have to have a time limit.
Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op):
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this very important debate. I will echo many of the sentiments of
my hon. Friends and of many council leaders of all political persuasions up and down the country.
The speed, depth, spread and front-loading of the Government's cuts to local government funding are unfair and unjustifiable. The devastating impact that they will have on the most deprived communities in our country, including many in my constituency, demonstrates that the coalition's pledge to
"ensure fairness is at the heart"
The Government are using the deficit as an excuse to pursue their ideological aim of shrinking the state and destroying public services on which ordinary people rely. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), certainly got it right when he said in the House on 10 June:
"Those in greatest need ultimately bear the burden of paying off the debt".-[ Official Report, 10 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 450.]
In October's spending review, the Chancellor announced cuts to local council funding of £5.6 billion. Although that in itself might seem like a shocking figure to anyone listening to the debate, the biggest scandal of those cuts is in the detail. DCLG figures show that far from the cuts hitting all communities across the UK equally, some councils will not see cuts to their budgets. In fact, they will get an increase in funding.
Over the next four years, the worst-hit councils will be in some of the most deprived cities and communities in the country. Hastings, Burnley, Blackburn, Hull and Barrow, and Liverpool city council which covers my constituency, are all in the most deprived 10% of councils in the country, and those councils will have their funding cut by at least a quarter, some by as much as a third. That, as we learn from the figures available from the Library, is while two of the least deprived councils in the country, West Oxfordshire and South Cambridgeshire, will have an increase in funding of up to 37%.
It cannot be a coincidence that every single council forecast to see an increase in its funding of between 27% and 34% is Conservative-controlled-and that at a time when my constituents are learning that Liverpool city council estimates that the city will be hit with £1 billion of cuts over the next four years. I repeat that figure: £1 billion. It simply is not fair. That follows the 9% cut to our area-based grant that Liverpool sustained earlier this year, before the Budget-the largest of any core city across the UK.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) articulately outlined the raft of cuts that Liverpool will sustain, which are in the process of being instigated. The truth is that we are not all in this together. The Government have a plan for unfair cuts that will support areas where it is electorally beneficial and hit those where it is not.
The Chancellor would have us believe that after the Government have cut back the state, making thousands redundant, the private sector will be there to move in and clean up the mess. If only it were that simple. The Government underestimate the relationship between the public and private sector. Far from increasing private sector demand, cuts to local government will damage
small and medium-sized enterprises that rely on local authority contracts. Some £20 billion of the local government procurement market goes to SMEs, and the Federation of Small Businesses has stated that many small firms rely on public sector contracts for 50% to 60% of their turnover.
In addition, the cuts will reduce consumer demand. In some parts of Merseyside, 60% of the work force rely on the public sector for their income. For every £1 that a local government worker earns in Liverpool, they spend 70p in the local economy. When public sector wages are taken out of our local economy, we will see local businesses close, a spiralling welfare bill and public services under strain because of underfunding. It is bad economics and bad government. The Government are hitting the poorest hardest and tearing the fabric of our society. What this country desperately needs is jobs and growth, and what the Government have chosen to do will lead to misery and despair for people right across the UK, particularly my constituents.
Simon Hughes: I was perplexed when the hon. Lady said that the Library had stated what the outcome of the review was. I have just read the Library note again. She is entitled to her express her concerns, but she cannot suggest that the decisions have been made when we have not had the announcement yet. We have not even had the provisional announcement. Please will she just back off from all this shroud-waving stuff?
Robert Neill: I do not often intervene when time is short, but if the hon. Lady is competing to make the most cliché-ridden speech yet heard in the debate, she might at least have the decency to accept that she is citing figures that have no verification at the moment. She shames her argument by the cynical way in which she makes it.
Tom Blenkinsop: I do not think the Minister can question the integrity of my hon. Friend's speeches, given the bicephalous nature of the debate. Back Benchers are saying that we all knew the cuts were going to happen, and that it was all on the cards, but at the same time the Minister is saying that there are no figures to draw upon.
Luciana Berger: I conclude by saying that I urge the Government to think again and not to introduce these savage, front-loaded, unfair cuts that will have a disproportionate impact on the areas and communities that need the most help.
As other hon. Members have remarked, the debate comes at a crucial time for local government. Many local authorities have been preparing for these tough times because, as others have pointed out, if there had been a Labour Government there would probably have been cuts of about 20 to 25% in local government anyway. Responsible local government leaders and chief executive officers have been making plans over the past two years to deal with the overall fiscal situation that we face. In my previous capacity before coming to the House, as chief executive of Localis, the local government think-tank, I worked with a number of local authorities across the country that were already beginning to make strategic plans to cope with the situation. They knew that whatever the outcome of the general election, there would be significant service transformation.
I think we would all agree that the outcome of the comprehensive spending review is a tough settlement. As has been pointed out, we do not know the exact figures that the Minister will reveal next week, but we know they will be tough. However, the review also provides local government with a serious opportunity to consider how it can transform its services and improve its service delivery.
Some Opposition Members have touched on the hypothetical distribution of the spending cuts around the country and questioned their potential fairness. As the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) pointed out, the way in which the formula grant is calculated is very complicated, and we would all agree that for many years it has been thought to be completely lacking in transparency. I agree with him that there is an urgent need to reform how we calculate the distribution. In fact, in the last Parliament, the Communities and Local Government Committee recommended that the Government increase the transparency of the existing grant allocation process. I hope that will form part of the Government's review of local government finance, because more transparency in the allocation process is critical.
I represent a constituency that straddles two metropolitan authorities in the west midlands-Dudley and Sandwell-one of which is Conservative-controlled and the other is Labour-controlled. My central focus is to ensure fairness in the grant allocation process. However, there is a discrepancy between these two metropolitan authorities. Dudley metropolitan council receives £60 million less funding than Sandwell metropolitan authority. They have similar levels of population and deprivation, yet there is a £60 million discrepancy. I am not making a value judgment about either authority; I am simply saying that we need to get to a point where this grant allocation does not throw up such significant discrepancies, not just between metropolitan boroughs and the shires-that has been debated tonight-but between metropolitan authorities within particular regions.
Funding shortfalls were not the only legacy that Labour left the country. As my hon. Friends have argued, the previous Labour Government kept local government on a tight leash through centralised control and regional bureaucracy. The changes implemented
over the past 13 years have stifled innovation locally, and given local government and communities the feeling that they have limited control and ability to make decisions and effect change. Unaccountable quangos, such as the Standards Board for England, the regional development agencies, including Advantage West Midlands, and the regional spatial strategies, all contributed to this feeling, and I am pleased to say that they are all on the way out. Removing those unelected, unaccountable and unwanted regional structures and bodies is a first step in a vital development for a new era of local government.
James Morris: They will need to make clear arguments to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Communities and Local Government about why there should be a local enterprise partnership. However, local politicians should be arguing in favour of making applications to the regional growth fund because, even outside the LEPs, businesses, the voluntary sector and local authorities can make applications to the regional growth fund.
Local authorities will now be given back responsibility from central Government to start making real decisions about how they spend their money. As the Secretary of State said, the Government have freed up, or un-ring-fenced, grants worth £7 billion from 2011-12 onwards, which the Local Government Association described as
"an important move towards a simpler funding mechanism that will help councils do their job".
However, that should be only the beginning. There is huge scope for the introduction of other levels of financial innovation in local government. For example, hon. Members have talked about the potential productive use of tax increment financing. This lack of ring-fencing, this devolution of financial autonomy to local government, should be only the beginning. We also need a systemic reform of the services delivered and a re-evaluation of how local people can influence the way services are run. This transformation, with the coming presentation of the localism and decentralisation Bill, is at the heart of Government policy. A bottom-up approach to service provision is vital.
Graham Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a bottom-up process involves cost, and local authorities are worried now that such a process, which he has suggested, will double the pain following the cuts in the comprehensive spending review?
James Morris: Over the past 13 years, as I said, we have had centralised policy dictated from Whitehall. At a difficult time for local government, it is even more important that we invert that pyramid and have a bottom-up decision-making process in which local government can take more control of its decision making.
Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that top-down policies cost more than bottom-up ones? Under the previous Government, local authorities had more than 1,000 targets to report on, which cost my local authority £3 million a year.
The Government have asked local authorities and businesses to join forces in a bottom-up process, where they feel it appropriate, and through local enterprise partnerships, rather than top-down, regionally imposed structures. That will allow for economic development to be based on genuine local economic geographies, for investment to be tailored to local areas, and for LEPs, such as the one I have been advocating for the black country, to focus with laser precision on the particular issues affecting the 1 million people living in the black country.
That also illustrates that local authorities are capable of working together, often across political boundaries, to deliver services more proactively. In my region, Dudley, Sandwell, Wolverhampton and Walsall councils are demonstrating, by working together on shared services, such as information technology, trading standards, legal services and human resources, that we can save money and deliver better services for local people. That is happening across the country. For example, Hammersmith and Fulham, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea councils are implementing a substantial shared-services programme across education and other services.
Andrew Bingham: My councillors would not forgive me if I did not intervene at this point. I have mentioned High Peak borough council already, but with its shared services with Staffordshire Moorlands district council, we saved more than £1 million last year, and will save a further £1.27 million this year. That exemplifies my hon. Friend's point.
I have long been an advocate of place-based budgets, which were touched on at the beginning of the debate. To give the previous Government their due, they introduced the Total Place pilots. Regrettably, it took them12 years to come up with the idea, but it was a good one. The implementation of place-based budgeting can radically change how services are delivered by pooling funding from a wide range of public, private and third sector organisations to tackle specific issues. I welcome the fact that the Government have announced that initially 16 areas will focus on the broad theme of helping families with complex needs. That model will help to make the delivery of services cheaper and allow for an improved focus on the needs of specific communities and individual users. This model needs to be expanded to encapsulate further policy objectives in the medium term. The Local Government Association estimates that doing so could save £20 billion a year by the end of this Parliament.
There are examples up and down the country of local authorities taking up this strategic challenge. As the Minister remarked, the recent announcements on public health demonstrate new roles and potential funding streams for local authorities that are also very welcome. However, that is not the only way to improve service delivery. The Cabinet Office recently introduced a right to provide for employees of public sector organisations. What this will mean in practice is the extension of
mutuals and co-operatives in the provision of public services. The people at ground level often have a knowledge and understanding of the issues at hand, and they will now be able to start delivering services better. I am keen to see this model progressing in my constituency, and I can see the potential of mutuals in offering local services and youth services. The Government are also committed to providing local people with specific powers to improve their local area. These include devolving planning reform back to communities from unaccountable regional quangos, allowing local people to elect their own mayors and police commissioners, and extending the use of local referendums.
In summary, therefore, power is being handed back to local authorities, public sector workers and local people. Unlike what happened during the past 13 years, this will be real localism in practice, not the top-down centralisation that was passed down by the previous Labour Government. Such an approach can lead to a more personalised approach to the delivery of services, greater accountability and transparency and, crucially, given the economic mess, real savings, which the Local Government Association estimates could be as high as £20 billion over this Parliament. Local authorities need to see the current situation as an opportunity fundamentally to rethink how they deliver services, so that they can begin to do so more efficiently, more effectively and in the interests of the local people they serve.
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. There is still a large number of Members wishing to participate in the debate, so I am going to impose a time limit on Back-Bench speeches, to see whether we can manage to get everyone in. We still might not, and the time limit might need to be revised. I should like to inform each Member that there will be a nine-minute limit on each speech, and that will be reviewed if there are still a lot of Members waiting to speak.
Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): I am delighted to be able to take part in this important debate. I do so not only as the MP for St Helens North but as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the special interest group of municipal authorities. Several Members have referred to the SIGOMA document, and I would recommend reading it to anyone. I know that the Minister has already read it. I would also recommend that he read the document produced by the Alliance group entitled "Hard Times", which will nail some of the lies we have heard over the past few hours. I know that the Minister has read it, but I doubt whether the Secretary of State has done so.
Before I move on to my main points, may I say to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) that it will not wash if he tries to take no responsibility for the cuts that are heading his constituents' way? He said he did not want to see cuts in voluntary sector budgets, or in leisure and youth service budgets. He said that he did not want to sell the family silver or sell off any assets, but he is going to see cuts in all those areas because it will be impossible for his
council to make the cuts that are heading its way without doing many of the things he does not want to do.
When the Minister responded to an Adjournment debate recently, he got very excited. I notice that he has also got very excited today. May I suggest that he keeps cooler than he did in the previous debate, because a number of us are worried about his health, and we do not want anything to happen to him before he has the chance to sum up the debate?
I should like to touch on the background to the cuts, the fairness of the last round of cuts, and the question of who will be affected by the cuts heading their way. I should also like to address the key issue of what the Government need to do to prove their own message that we are "all in this together". I want to make it clear from the start that, like my own party, I accept the need for some cuts in public expenditure, and that local government had to make its contribution. There is no doubt that we had to reduce the deficit, and my party has been responsible for setting out how we would do that. The difference between us and the Government is the mix of tax increases and cuts. We also have a different view of the period over which the cuts packages should be spread. We would spread them over a much longer period than the Government propose, and we would not front-load them. We have heard a lot about front-loading today, and it has been suggested that the Secretary of State is going to review the position on that. The reason that most local authorities and communities are concerned is that the spending review made it quite clear that that is what the Government intend to do. I suspect that they are now trying to retreat from that position, knowing the implications of their proposals in their own areas as well is in ours.
My constituents accept that there has to be some pain and some cuts, but they do not like the fact that this same Government, while making dramatic cuts in public services, have allowed the banks to continue to pay massive bonuses to their staff and given the banks-the banks again!-a £1 billion tax cut. The Government have also now reneged on a promise to publish the details of those bankers who were being paid large bonuses. My constituents accept the need for cuts, but they do not think that the Government have been fair with them. They want to see a much fairer package of cuts and tax increases to address the plight we are in. My constituents-and, I suspect, those of the Minister-know who is at fault for the present financial crisis: it is not the previous Labour Government but the bankers, here and across the world, who turned the world economy upside down some months ago. It was only the straightforward action of the previous Labour Government that prevented the kind of recession that we saw under the last Tory Government.
What do my people want? They want a fair system of cuts. If there are to be cuts, they want to ensure that they are fair. They want to ensure that the most deprived communities and the most deprived people are protected, and that the cuts that have already been made in our communities are taken into account in any future round of cuts. They also want the cuts to be adjusted so that councils-not just ours but Liberal and Tory councils as well-will have the time to adjust their budgets. That means that we want to see more back-loading, rather than the front-loading that the Government are proposing.
It has been suggested that this is also about efficiency. The Secretary of State is quite good at putting out stories about the cost of plant pots in the Department for Communities and Local Government but, quite frankly, that is a smokescreen. These cuts will hit some of the most well run local authorities, including my own. My local authority, of which I was leader until I came into this place, is a five-star authority. It has excellent education and social services, and other council services. It has kept its council tax increases below the rate of inflation for the past 10 years, yet it faced massive cuts in its budget in May. It now faces cuts of up to £12.7 million in 2011-12, and £24 million worth of cuts in 2014-15. That nails the lie that it is only the wasteful councils that are being hit; some of the most efficient and effective are also being hit. My council will experience great difficulty because it is already efficient. Councils that are already efficient are going to have to cut services to the bone. Some of the comments from those on the Government Benches have suggested that their councils could make some savings, and I suspect that that is because they are very inefficient, compared with authorities such as my own.
I want to comment on the fairness of the proposals. I think that the Secretary of State has suggested that my contributions hark back to the 1970s and 1980s. The only good thing about being my age is that I have some experience of the previous Tory Government. I was the leader of the council when it lost £13 million and had to find a way of implementing that cut overnight.
I raised Westminster council with the Minister on last Tuesday's Adjournment. It has been in contact with and written to me because it is upset about some of the things I said; I will respond in due course. Under the system that was in force under the previous Tory Government, if St Helens had received the same level of grant as Westminster, we would have had no cuts whatever, we would have had to pay no council tax whatever and we would have had enough money left over to send every one of my constituents to Spain for a week. That shows the level of fiddling that went on under the previous Tory Government, so we will take no lectures from this Government about fiddling the system.
The Minister said that we were going to cut the neighbourhood renewal fund-that is not true, and Government Members know it. The only argument they have relates to the three-year review, but all the grant systems were for three years. That did not mean that we were going to do away with the fund; it meant that we would reassess local government spending over the next three years. I am prepared to blame my own party for not introducing the changes as quickly as it should have, which meant that millions of pounds from our authorities went to some of the richest areas, including Westminster and many others. We did not move fast enough-
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con):
Before I was elected to this House, I had the privilege to serve as a councillor in Croydon for 12 years, to be a cabinet member responsible for a number of different service areas, to work with senior council officers and to meet council staff who were delivering services on the front line. I completely understand their feeling that it is
deeply unfair that some of them are going to be asked to pay the price with their jobs of dealing with the mistakes made in our banking system and the mismanagement of the public finances by the previous Government.
I speak in opposition to the motion not because I think the concerns expressed by Labour Members are misplaced or phoney-Members have spoken with passion about this issue-but because they fail to recognise that the Government's approach is very similar to the one a Labour Government would have adopted. In opening, the shadow Secretary of State said that the coalition Government were going deeper and faster than a Labour Government would have gone. Let us take each of those assertions in turn.
The suggestion that we are going deeper is palpably untrue. Labour policy was to get rid of the structural deficit over two Parliaments; the coalition's policy is to get rid of it over one Parliament. There is no difference whatever about the size of the cuts; there can be no argument whatever about that.
As for speed, let us look at the previous Labour Government's policy, as set out in the pre-Budget report of 2009. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it meant reductions in non-protected Departments-the Labour Government were going to protect health, education and Sure Start-of 25%. If we look at what the coalition Government have delivered, because of the cuts in the welfare budget, some of which Labour Members perfectly reasonably wish to oppose, we see an aggregate 19% reduction in the non-protected departmental spend. In other words, the pace of change for cuts in non-protected Departments in this Parliament is slower under the coalition Government than it would have been under the plans of the previous Government.
The first two lines of the Opposition motion seek to make capital out of the fact that the reductions that local government is being asked to make are larger than those demanded of central Government. It is a nonsense for the Opposition to criticise us on that basis because Labour policy was to protect the NHS, the Department for International Development budget, the schools budget and the Sure Start budget. If they are to be protected, it is an obvious consequence that the average reduction across central Government is going to be lower than the reduction in local government, which the Labour Government had not chosen to protect.
I have been a Member for just over six months. During that time, I have had to support a number of measures that, in an ideal world, I would not support. Time and again I hear from Labour Members that they do not agree with our proposals: they do not agree on tuition fees; they do not agree on the mobility component for people in residential care who receive disability living allowance; they do not agree on local government funding; and they do not agree on cutting the teaching grant for universities. It is all very well for Labour Members to tell us all the things with which they do not agree, but that has no credibility unless alternatives are advanced. I have yet to hear from the Opposition one area where they believe that the coalition Government are not cutting enough. They have not told us that instead of reducing local government spending or teaching support for universities, alternative cuts can be made that the Opposition are prepared to announce. Until they come up with an alternative package, their objections have no credibility.
Tom Blenkinsop: One small but significant point relates to fiscal policy and taxation. This Government have made large promises about imposing greater levies on bankers and other such people, but they have quickly run away from them. Labour Members would look to have a far more stringent regime to hold those types of people to account.
Gavin Barwell: I note that the coalition Government introduced a levy on banking, which the previous Government did not. If the Opposition want to propose tax increases additional to those announced by the Chancellor, we should hear what they are and discuss them. That is a perfectly reasonable basis on which to debate.
The second main theme in the motion is fairness, which is a perfectly reasonable test. I would like to raise two issues. First, Labour Members have quoted figures, expressing the concern that the authorities most dependent on Government funding will face the most significant reductions in grant. Conservative Members have been concerned about some of the phraseology used, particularly about the implication that these decisions have all been made. They have not. There is certainly an issue that the Government need to look at, and I believe that the Secretary of State said that he was aware of it. If we just salami-slice the Government grant going to each council, that will have a differential impact on the spending power of local authorities around the country. In the interests of fairness, the Government need to address that problem. Labour Members, however, should not have given the impression that these things are all done and dusted; they are not. We have not yet had the statement, and the Minister is not in a position to give the assurances he has been asked to provide until that statement is made.
I would also like to look at the issue of fairness as it relates to the record of the previous Labour Government. I want to make a non-partisan point. People allege that money was shunted from the south to the north, or that under the Tory Government Westminster and Wandsworth were favoured. The reality is that the system is completely broke. If we look at the figures for unitary councils, the London boroughs and the metropolitan districts under the last five years of the Labour Government, we see that about 30 authorities-my authority was one of them-had a real-terms cut in funding of more than 2%. It is not all outer London boroughs, however; it is a completely random mix of authorities, including places such as Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Liverpool.
At the other end of the scale, we see that Blackpool received an increase of nearly 11%, Telford and the Wrekin 13.3%, Torbay 15.7%, Blackburn 16.7% and Rutland an incredible 25.8%. It is very difficult, I think, to discern a pattern between those authorities. I would like the shadow Minister to explain in her summing-up speech why Croydon gets a 3% real cut, but Rutland gets a 25% increase. [Interruption.] This happened under the Government of the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), so, with respect, the explanation should come from those who were responsible for the changes.
In applying the reductions, it is important that the Government take account of the authorities that have already seen a real-terms reduction in their funding, as opposed to those that saw a period of largesse under the previous Government. I happily acknowledge that local government as a whole did see real-terms growth in
funding under the previous Government, but that did not apply to all individual local authorities. It seems wholly unreasonable to impose the same reductions on authorities that have already had to make cuts in comparison with those that have seen significant increases in funding.
I reiterate the point made in the Local Government Association briefing, which many Members will have received. The same point about fees and charges was made by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). For a number of local authority services, the charges that local authorities are allowed to levy by statute do not cover the costs. One way for the Government to help local authorities is by giving them the freedom to increase some of those charges. None of our constituents will welcome paying higher fees, but they might well prefer that option to reductions in the vital public services on which they depend.
Let me pick up another point made by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark. He was very concerned about cuts in non-statutory services such as support for the voluntary sector and youth services. My local authority is having to consider those services. I hope the Minister will tell us that the Government will think again about what is statutory and what is non-statutory. Surely if we all now believe in localism and believe that local authorities are best placed to make choices, we should allow authorities much more flexibility in delivering services locally. If we do not, many of them will not be able to touch a large chunk of their spending because it is statutory, and the reductions will be concentrated in the voluntary sector.
"most likely it will come from a combination of reductions in the quality and/or quantity of public services provided and families being made directly worse off financially through cuts to welfare benefits and increases in tax. Efficiency savings alone will not be enough to fill the deficit."
Members on both sides of the House must stop pretending that all that can be done easily. Whoever is running the country-whichever party forms the Government-the job of deficit reduction will be painful. We should stop engaging in a feigned debate about whether it is ideologically based, because it would confront whoever was governing the country. We should focus on the changes that Government can make to support those in the front line who are having to make difficult decisions so that they can do the best job in protecting the vital public services on which all our constituents depend.
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): We have already heard from many of my hon. Friends about the impact of local government cuts on their constituents and local authority workers. Let me begin by paying tribute to those workers, who deliver services not in return for salaries of more than £100,000 or more than £25,000 a year, but in return for salaries of less than £15,000-and, in the case of the many who are women, less than £10,000 a year.
Let us be clear about the fact that, despite what the Government say, these cuts will affect care for the elderly and children. They will affect schools and education,
thus ensuring that our children do not have the best start in life. There will be safety reductions as funds for our fire brigades are devastated. There will be reductions in street cleaning, closures of swimming pools, art galleries and leisure centres. There will be cuts in the funds of voluntary organisations that support some of our most vulnerable people, cuts in the funds to support investment-including inward investment-in jobs, and cuts that will cause the gap in life expectancy between our most deprived and our most affluent areas to continue to widen, rather than continuing to close as it did under the Labour Government.
Let me say something about how the cuts will affect people in Teesside, and particularly in the borough of Stockton. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I served as a councillor on Stockton borough council. I know from direct experience that Stockton has an excellent local authority that provides first-class services for local residents. I have seen the successes that it has achieved. I have seen improvements in education and care for the elderly and the young, improvements in housing, the development of Sure Start Centres supporting not just vulnerable families but working families throughout the borough, and the development of the arts with the international riverside festival and our celebrated ARC arts centre. The council has a "can do, will do" approach, and it is worthy of its "council of the year" title. I am confident that it will work hard to minimise cuts in front-line services and redundancies, but given cuts of this scale, even the best local authorities will struggle.
I am told that 50,000 people working for local authorities throughout the country have already been told that they could lose their jobs. That number will inevitably rise to the half million predicted by the Government, although I know that they are now trying to talk that number down. The Teesside Evening Gazette reports today that no fewer than 900 employees of Redcar and Cleveland borough council-a relatively small authority-have been given notice that their jobs are at risk, just 20 days before Christmas. Of course, the people who rely most on council services tend to be those on lower incomes. Why, then, are councils such as Hartlepool, in Teesside, and South Tyneside facing cuts of between 25% and 29% when South Cambridgeshire and West Oxfordshire councils are receiving increases of up to 37%?
In March this year, the Chancellor told the News of the World that he would not balance the budget on the backs of the poor. Now that his party is in government, he persists with the mantra "We are all in this together". I do not think that many people, regardless of political persuasion, take that claim seriously.
"Our core aim is to hard-wire fairness back into national life."
I do not think that anyone working for a local authority who loses a job as a result of these cuts will think that there is anything fair about it, and the same applies to those who lose vital services.
Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): Even some of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues have told us during the debate that they accept the necessity for cuts. We have seen the figures in the Labour party's "pre-manifesto", which revealed their own plans for the non-protected Departments: cuts of about 25%. Why does the hon. Gentleman persist in claiming that it is only the Government parties who propose cuts?
Alex Cunningham: We accepted that there would be the cuts outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). However, we believe that cuts must be fair, and that cuts as deep and as fast as those proposed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats must be questioned.
I hope to secure a Westminster Hall debate in the new year about the impact of cuts on the voluntary sector, 32% of which relies on local authority funding. I know that many excellent third-sector organisations fear that the cuts will severely limit their work. Stockton is trying hard to protect our third sector, but will face real challenges. I should be interested to know how cutting funds for those organisations will do anything to further the big society programme on which the Prime Minister is so keen. The third sector is the big society in action, and exposing those groups to possible cuts seems incoherent given the emphasis on big society and localism.
Of course, we must not consider local authority cuts in isolation. PricewaterhouseCoopers forecasts that for every job lost in the public sector, another will be lost in the private sector. That means 1 million lost jobs. One industry that we know relies heavily on the public sector is the building industry, which has already lost out in Teesside as a result of the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme, as well as the scrapping of the new hospital to serve the North Tees and Hartlepool area. Spending by local authorities boosts the economy, and there is no doubt that the cuts will indirectly make life difficult for many local businesses.
Let me finally say something about the Cleveland fire service, which is critical to the safety of people in the area that I represent. I am told by the Fire Brigades Union that 68% of Cleveland's funding comes from a central Government grant. Given that that grant is set to fall by 25%, the chief fire officer is seriously concerned about the possibility that lives will be put at risk by the cuts. The seriousness of the situation is exacerbated by the fact that our local area has large numbers of high-risk COMAH- control of major accident hazards-sites owing to chemical and other manufacturing in the area. The Minister responsible for the fire service has already refused my request for him to visit Teesside and see the problem for himself. I have written asking him to meet local MPs across the political spectrum, as well as representatives from Cleveland fire authority, to discuss the issue here in Westminster, and I hope that I shall receive a positive response.
Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): Our residents across this country have been losing interest in local government for years. Turnout in local elections, and particularly local government by-elections, shows that many people are not interested. From speaking to residents, I have learned that the biggest reason for that is that over the past 10 years and more councillors have often, rightly, said that they cannot deal with a given issue because it is under central Government control.
It has already been said in our debate that the previous Government gave money but it always had strings attached. That was the problem. During the 11 years I spent as a councillor and council leader while a Labour Government were in office, my experience was never that we had plenty of money or that we could ever do things without strings attached. Every single time we looked at doing something for our residents, we had to go through some aspect of the tick-box culture. There had to be a consultation on a proposal, for instance, even if that proposal had been in the local election manifesto, or we had to do something differently to make sure that we kept one quango or another or the Audit Commission happy, because officers' views were often that if we did not do so, we would be punished somewhere else, with a different grant being cut or changed in a different area.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) that a key problem is the stranglehold that has been put on local government for years. I also agree that the fact that the previous Government held local government to ransom over their finances made it almost impossible for local councils to say that they were able to do very much directly for their local residents, even in areas where they were not struggling. That was because they were having to find money to cover bus passes, swimming pools or licensing. They were also then being handcuffed in respect of planning rules.
It has been a difficult time for local government and I understand why residents have started to switch off and disbelieve what they read in election manifestos. After all, under Government statutory requirements those in local government who were working to an election manifesto would probably still have to consult on any measures afterwards, so what was the point of the manifesto?
I hope that the ending of ring-fencing, the freeing up of local government and the localism Bill when it is introduced will result in councils being able to go back to concentrating on actually delivering for residents, instead of ticking these boxes, which are so often caught up with a financial string. If that happens, elections will actually matter again and people can believe that when they vote for a councillor and a party in a local election, that party can deliver on its manifesto. People will be able to expect to have local manifestos on which they can hold the party and council to account, rather than just always being fobbed off with, "We can't do that, we are restricted on this, or there's got to be consultation on that." That is a huge issue for local government. I sometimes think back to my time as a councillor and the amount of officer time that was spent on ticking these boxes and on putting bids together for money we may or may not get, depending on which box we tick.
I am talking about a whole range of funds across the board. We would have officers spending a huge amount of time on every single matter. That was even the case in respect of initiatives like the comprehensive performance assessment. The sums involved would be up to £250,000 a year. If we added up the amount of
officer time spent in that way, we would find that local government could save a huge amount of money. I know that from speaking to my local authority in Great Yarmouth. I am proud to be able to say that, when the announcements were made earlier in the summer, our managing director and councillors said, "We can deal with this." We were one of the hardest hit local authorities, but they felt they could deal with it. They are now, rightly, looking at how they might share services.
One of the problems we had with the previous Government was their approach. They had to have estimates-even for unitary government. We debated that topic in the Chamber just a couple of weeks ago. The argument was that there could be a couple of million pounds a year in savings from having unitary authorities for Norfolk and Exeter, but one of the problems in respect of Norfolk was that we would still keep the county council and all the councils we had, and just convert one city council to a unitary. I would, therefore, still dispute whether there would have been any saving in officer money and time from moving to unitary status. However, the previous Government wanted to do that in the belief there might be savings down the line, when in fact what we are now seeing in Norfolk is authorities coming together to look at how they can share services, both county with borough and district councils and district councils across each other.
We are considering some of the savings that have to be made and-as other Members have commented-the salaries earned by some people in senior management in local authorities. We should also consider sharing services and focusing on local accountability, with members representing their residents. It should not be based on where a person's office might be or whether they work in one, two or three authorities. They are there to deliver a service, not tick a box for Government. If we were to do that, we could start seeing huge savings across the board.
The key is getting back to what local authorities are for. I fully support the Government's position and will be voting against the motion because it harks back to the bad days of the past 10 or 15 years when Government held local government at arm's length but were then able to blame it for being unable to deliver because, as Labour Members have already mentioned, there were strings attached. Instead, we should set councils free and give them power not to be ring-fenced and to make their own decisions. That will make them more accountable-transparency is a huge part of this. People will then understand that their local authority is the authority responsible for specific areas, that it has the power to deliver and that it is accountable at an election, which is really what democracy is about. That would be a big step forward for local government.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab):
May I say to the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) that if he thinks that councillors had a bad time under the Labour Government, he really has not seen anything yet? I say that as someone who was a councillor between 1982 and 1998. I spent eight of those years in opposition and eight controlling the
council, with only two of those years under a Labour Government. I watched the poll tax come in and I watched what we had to do during those times, so I suggest that he has lived through a pretty easy time in local government. If he thinks that by not having to tick boxes constituents are going to come out to vote in local elections, he underestimates the need for all politicians, national and local, to engage with our electorate. I suggest that engagement with our electorate is the thing that matters.
Brandon Lewis: The point that I was making was that by not being focused on ticking boxes for central Government and quangos, councils can go back to focusing on delivering services for residents, and that is what matters.
Siobhain McDonagh: Perhaps now I should take the opportunity to explain to the House and the hon. Gentleman just why I am not sure that my local residents will feel exactly the same way. Most Members will not have heard of my local council-Merton. It is a quiet, low-profile London borough. It is not the poorest or the most exciting. It generally gets on with it, whether it is Labour or Conservative-run. It is a council that likes to sweep the streets, collect the rubbish and look after people as best it can. Its services are not perfect and could improve, but most of the time it does its best. I suggest that the same applies to most of the councils represented by hon. Members.
Merton council needs time to change and to get about sharing services, but that time does not exist if those spending figures are to be released next week. Next week, we will learn the figures and by 5 March my council has to say what its budget is for next year. If I know anything about local government, it is that huge reforms are not brought about in three months.
Merton council will have to make cuts of £24 million this year-that is for the cuts it anticipates and those it will have to make because of an expanding need for services, such as school places and care for the elderly. That is £24 million out of a budget of £150 million. The people on that council are not people who squeal and they are at a meeting tonight just trying to get on with it, but how will they do this? They have already identified £10 million of cuts this year, which is the largest figure ever at this point in a financial year for the next. They hope to get to a figure of £14 million by January, but the following £10 million will be really hard to find.
Siobhain McDonagh: I cannot give way, because I do not wish to take up too much time-I hope that is okay. The people on the council are finding that task hard, not because they do not want to do it and not because they do not want to bring about shared services, but because they cannot do it in the time available. As they seek to cut that last £10 million, the only opportunities left for them are to go for public services, for the voluntary sector, for the youth service-even though they do not want to do so-for personal care for elderly and disabled people and for the costs of special needs transport. That is because those areas are traditionally where councils have gone when they need to make cuts quickly. Those cuts will be devastating and what we are doing should not be about that.
I hope that the Minister will have taken that on board in any work he has been doing behind the scenes over the past few months with his fellow Ministers and will give councils such as mine time to bring about changes in their services. There is this idea that, somehow, boroughs all over the place will want to work with Merton council. I do not think it is Merton council's fault, but not too many want to come in for conversations about that. This year, the council will be combining with another council and one big department to save £2.5 million. We want to do more of that, rather than the terrible things that I have just suggested, but we do not have the time and the ability to do so. Councils simply do not have the capacity not only to run services but to do the sort of consultation and detailed legal work that is needed. Their only other recourse is to go out to private consultants and the cost of that is wrong and prohibitive at a time when every pound matters.
This year, Merton will share a head of legal and civic services with Richmond upon Thames council. I hope that that will be the stepping stone to more joint working over the coming years, but in an effort to make the cuts this year all our councillors will do things that we would rather they did not. Our constituents will ask us to defend them at the same time as our Labour groups and our Conservative groups will say to us, "Don't have a go at us. It's you lot who decided this."
We are going through a very difficult time and I plead with the Minister to give councils as much time as possible to reform their services, to consider how they can do things and to consider being ingenious. The idea that many of them have been doing nothing year in, year out and that they have not been making cuts already is completely not the case.
Let us consider adult social care. I do not know how other hon. Members feel, but I rage when I hear about the £2 billion fund because personal care is the biggest budget, outside the schools budget, that local authorities have to cut. That £2 billion is available because councils will be doing some pretty awful things, such as considering older people's eligibility for domiciliary care or to go into homes. That is what we are facing. If we have the opportunity, we need to stand back and give councils more time to reform and to do things differently. Otherwise, the choices are particularly painful-not for us, but for some of our most vulnerable constituents.
Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): It is an honour to follow such a thoughtful speech as that made by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). Before I came to the House, I spent some 24 years in local government-20 years as leader of my group, 10 years setting budgets and 10 years proposing opposition budgets. Throughout that time, I gained a great insight into how local government finance works and has worked over many years under different Administrations.
We should remember that in that context, local authorities have, over the past three years, faced 3.5% reductions, or efficiency savings, forced on them by the then Labour Government. In London, some 23 of the 32 local authorities have been on the floor of the settlements. For the past three years, therefore, they have always had below-inflation increases. If education is stripped from
those budgets, they show a real-terms reduction in funding in London over the past three years. Pretensions that local government saw its halcyon days under the Labour Government are, I am afraid, completely false. We need to put them properly in their place.
We must also consider the proposals made by the Labour Government at the time and what local authorities anticipated if Labour had won the general election. We know that they would have halved capital expenditure, and this Government are preserving capital expenditure and ensuring that there is investment for our future. That is critical for the whole ambit of local authorities and all public sector authorities.
We also must consider what local authorities now have to administer. The budget for which I was responsible in the London borough of Brent was some £1 billion, but we only had discretion over £250,000 of it. The rest was passed from central Government to the local services without any interference or control by the local authority whatsoever. We need to recognise those changes.
Graham Jones: Is that not precisely what is happening when the Government announce that they are ring-fencing education funding? Is that not just a repeat of what the hon. Gentleman has just described?
Bob Blackman: Clearly, the Government are removing artificial ring-fencing from local government expenditures. Local authorities up and down the country rightly complain about having been given money in very tightly constricted salvos that could be spent only on particular services in particular ways. Often, they could not spend it within the given time frame and so would lose it. That is ridiculous.
We need to look at how money can be saved. There is multiple handling of cases in local authorities. I know of social services cases in which the application for disabled facilities grants has gone through 17 pairs of hands before being approved. What nonsense. We have to streamline systems to ensure that, at most, one person reviews a case and another checks that it is correct. Applications should not go through 17 people.
We should have computer systems that capture data once. People who apply to a local authority for particular services frequently have to fill out a multitude of forms and the relevant information then has to be entered many times by various people in different areas.
Bob Blackman: No I am not. I am saying that when the weakest and most vulnerable people in society are asked to give information to local or national authorities, we can enter the data once, administer the benefits they are entitled to and make sure they get the proper benefits, rather than having the multiplicity of systems that grew up under the Labour Government.
We spend more than £1 billion on administering housing benefit, but why does every authority need a separate back-office organisation for that? Those contracts are administered by a small number of suppliers, so why not combine them, strip out some of the administrative overheads and remove duplication?
Heather Wheeler: We have done exactly that in South Derbyshire. We have got into a grouping with Northgate and we will be the east midlands hub, so if hon. Members want to save money and pay us to do their housing benefit, we will do it for them.
Clearly, we need smarter procurement in local government. It almost makes me spit when tenders for local government services come back with visibly inflated prices because they are for public, rather than private, services. Many of the tenders for public services that come back would not be accepted by any private service. We need to examine that carefully.
We also need to create an environment in which there is greater opportunity for mutualisation. One thing I did in local government was to create a local authority mutual insurance operation for London. It would have saved my authority and every authority that joined it £1 million a year, but it was deemed to be illegal so we could not operate it. I ask Government Front Benchers to change the position so that local authorities can come together to save money for local residents and also provide much better services.
We should consider what unused assets local authorities have. An awful lot of land could be sold in appropriate ways and the money could be used for appropriate reinvestment in the local area. We also need to consider local authority balances. Some authorities have sums of money sitting totally unused instead of benefiting the public, whereas other authorities have very small balances and will find the reductions much more painful. Many authorities need to examine their conscience and use those resources to benefit local people.
Everyone knew that the cuts were coming. Everyone knew that there needed to be a plan. In the authority on which I served before I came to the House, we had a plan to reduce our expenditure by £100 million over four years-that is, £25 million or 10% a year. If we could do it without a huge impact on public services, I do not believe there is any authority in the country that could not do it.
The borough that I have the privilege of representing now also have a plan to save some 10% of its expenditure per year, and the plan is ready to go, depending on the settlement. Clearly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) mentioned, there are wide disparities in the formula grant that authorities are given. That is the key issue that the Government must address to make the system fairer, more transparent and more open, so that we can all examine it and make sure that the right resources are going to the right authorities.
Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab):
This time last week, my constituency was the scene of violent protests about local government cuts. Town hall windows were smashed, four individuals were arrested and 15 police
officers were injured as Lewisham council met to consider budget cuts of £16 million. Although the violence was due to a small minority intent on making trouble, there is no doubt that my constituents are angry, and they are right to be.
Lewisham bore the brunt of public outrage about local government cuts last week. Sadly, the £16 million worth of savings agreed by the council is probably just the tip of the iceberg. In the next four years Lewisham expects to have to save somewhere in the region of £77 million, just under a third of its total revenue budget.
Joan Ruddock: Did my hon. Friend hear the Secretary of State suggest that Lewisham council should look to its £60 million worth of reserves to deal with the issue? She knows, as I do and as he does, that of those reserves, the majority is for capital spending. The general fund is simply 2.5% of total budget. Does she agree that it would be utterly irresponsible to spend emergency reserves and do nothing to deal with cuts of up to £70 million?
The demonstrations at Lewisham council last week did not take place because that is a Labour council intent upon slashing services or haemorrhaging staff. The demonstrations at Lewisham last week were a direct result of a Tory-Liberal Government determined to cripple councils the length and breadth of the country. I first learned about the riots last Monday when I was on my way home from Westminster. As I sat on the train, I could not help but reflect upon how unfair it was that former colleagues of mine were being blamed for the Government's decision to inflict cuts that go well beyond anything that is sensible or necessary, and well beyond anything that my party would have done, had we been in power.
As I sat on the train, I also realised that at the exact time that council employees in Lewisham were trying to hold back an angry mob, hon. Members in this Chamber were debating reform of the banking system. For me, the two are not separate issues. Local democracy is rightly accountable for the decisions that it takes, but surely we have to ask: where are the protests outside the plush offices of the bankers whose excessive risk taking plunged us all into this crisis in the first place? For that matter, where are the protests outside the office of the Secretary of State, whose failure to stand up for his Department has forced Lewisham council into its present position?
I am not for one minute suggesting that the violent protests in Lewisham should be replicated anywhere, but surely those responsible for the current financial state of local government should be made aware of the effects that their actions are having on communities throughout the country.
There's the rub: for me, the Government do not get it. They do not seem to get the fact that by heaping cuts on local authorities, they run the risk of putting thousands upon thousands of people out of work. Ministers do not seem to understand that draconian cuts to local government will simply take work away from private firms-the very firms that they are desperately trying to grow. Nor do Ministers seem to understand that the scale of the cuts could decimate voluntary and community organisations at the precise moment when they want them to do more. Most worryingly for me, there seems to be no acknowledgement that the size and speed of the cuts could force councils to dismantle the services on which the most vulnerable members of our society depend.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) spoke earlier about elderly care, on which I, too, would like to focus for a few minutes. I have been reprimanded by the Secretary of State in this Chamber before for daring to suggest that the supposedly extra money for adult social care announced in the comprehensive spending review would be wiped out by the cuts to local government. Well, let me tell the Minister today that there are many authorities that share my concern. In fact, a recent report by London Councils estimates that even with the "extra" £2 billion announced in the CSR, funding for adult social care will fall by £1.8 billion over the next four years. During my time as a councillor, the worst meetings that I had to attend were those at which we considered changing the eligibility criteria for care packages-the threshold of need that the elderly and those living with disabilities have to meet to get support. In the end, we did not raise the threshold in Lewisham, and I am pleased that we did not do so. It came down to a question of human dignity, and I was proud to be part of a Labour council that recognised that.
However, with the current scale of cuts facing local government and the demand for care increasing by the day, I cannot see how much longer councils will be able to maintain the level of support that they currently provide. If they do maintain current levels of care, other council services will have to take a big hit. They include libraries, leisure centres, recycling facilities and street sweeping-many of the things that people take for granted. Does the Minister realise that those are the sorts of impossible decisions that he is asking council leaders to take?
I accept that in many areas there may be ways of doing things differently-doing things more cheaply and doing them better-and that is precisely what good, forward-thinking councils have been doing over the past few years. My concern about the Government's approach to local government is that it seems to be based on a mistaken belief that councils are characterised by rampant profligacy, sky-high salaries, and hundreds and hundreds of non-jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth. My experience tells me that, year after year, many councils have been working hard to make themselves more efficient, the result being that there is
now simply not much fat left to trim. The way in which cuts are being disproportionately squeezed into next year-although we hope we might get some good news on that-will also make it harder for councils to take the sensible, long-term strategic decisions that are needed.
My concern about the scale of the cuts to local government is that it will limit the ability of councils to address some of the big issues of our time, and restrict the innovative work that some modern, progressive councils are already undertaking. Let us take climate change. Although new forms of electricity generation and more energy-efficient homes may help to reduce our carbon emissions, some of the really big differences will come about only by people changing their behaviour. That does not happen by magic, and although Ministers might be concerned that this smacks of the nanny state, I cannot help but think that it is local government that is best placed to assist communities in reducing their carbon footprints. However, that type of work is resource-intensive, and with resources so much scarcer, councils will have to stop doing other things if they want to continue such work.
In conclusion, I believe that the scale and speed of cuts to local government is part of a deliberate strategy by Ministers to shift the really difficult decisions on to someone else. It is an attempt to deflect attention away from themselves and on to council leaders up and down the country. To give Ministers their due, as a political strategy you cannot knock it, Mr Deputy Speaker, but as a strategy to reduce the country's deficit fairly and sensibly, it is nothing short of a disgrace.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. As we can see, six Members are still trying to catch my eye and there are 40 minutes left of this debate, so I am sure that hon. Members can do the mathematics. Perhaps they will want to be generous in order to ensure that everybody gets in, because the numbers are equal on both sides of the House.
Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I welcome in particular the speech by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), one of the few people who seems to have read the motion. Many hon. Members have tried to support or, indeed, argue against the scale of the cuts, but the guts of the motion are really about front loading and authorities' ability or inability to deal with that in the short term.
Scaremongering has been mentioned, but back in Bradford the council has been working on the figures, and the numbers on front loading are scary. Those are the figures we have been given, so it is a question not of scaremongering but of what we have been given to work on and are working to.
Members have traded stories and histories of their time on local councils. I had 26 years on my local council, 13 under the Tories and 13 under Labour, and with all due respect to my coalition partners, I can tell hon. Members which were the worst by a long way. I remember, back in the '80s, we had to raise £2.40 to spend £1 in Bradford and send £1.40 back to the
Treasury, and it did not get much worse than that, so I am not worried about the Liberal Democrats having only 57-or, soon, 58-Members, because two of us Liberals managed to stop Councillor Pickles slashing the education budget in the '80s, although unfortunately a by-election and the lord mayor's casting vote enabled him to do so the following year.
During the 13 years under Labour, additional funding went to the local authority and it was very welcome. Unfortunately, it was accompanied by obsessive control, bureaucracy, targets and the ring-fencing of funds, which would enable Ministers to issue press releases telling us how good they were and what they were doing for the people of Bradford. Building Schools for the Future was a colossal waste of public funds, and if we had been given only half that money to spend in our area on our priorities for schools, it would have been much better.
The cynical use of local services to win Government popularity reached shameful proportions with the free school meals handout and free swimming. It would have cost us 8 million quid to keep free school meals going the year after, and, although the shadow Secretary of State says that we did not turn that money down, how could we? That is how much it would have cost us to keep the service going, and it was pure political cynicism to make that offer leading up to a local election.
Similarly, the area-based grant and the working neighbourhoods fund were time- limited, and, although we got as much as we possibly could because we had things to do with the money, local education authorities invariably required that that short-term funding be added to the base. The position we were in meant we could stop the funding or add it to the base, but if we did not continue with it we would have been the villains of the piece, so invariably we did.
Year by year, the base grew and grew, and all the time we faced the relentless pressures of an ageing population, and all that that meant for increased social care, and the fastest growing school population in the country. In turn, there was budget creep: unsustainable budgets that got bigger and bigger. Between 2000 and 2008, private sector jobs declined by 7.5% and public sector jobs went up by 14%, and that could not be sustained.
Despite all that, over those 26 years the local authority survived. It got through, and it will get through this recession, too. The Secretary of State was absolutely right: we cannot rely on a salami approach any more. The truth is this-it is a secret, so please do not tell anybody else-of the £1.3 billion gross budget that we were spending, we had a furious argument every single year at budget time about a couple of a million quid. That was what was really going on, rather than dealing with the structural changes that were required in the authority.
As someone said earlier, necessity is the mother of invention. We are responding positively in Bradford, including the leader of the Labour group who, after six years of self-imposed exile, is actively working as the leader of the council with all the other groups because he understands the severity of the problems that we face. I give him great credit for that. But-and this is the big "but"-we cannot turn the tanker around in a short time. When we are faced with reducing £60 million on a net budget of £450 million, it is not about a planned, structural, cultural local authority change contributing to the deficit reduction programme; it is simply reckless, economic vandalism. That is what we face.
I do not know about other hon. Members, but I have detected a shift tonight on the subject of the front loading. I get a feeling that something has been said and there is something in the air. People might ask, "So why on earth are you making all these comments and raising these concerns?" I would say to them that that is what we have been given to work on and what the directors of finance across the country have been told, and they are acting on it. That is the point I am trying to make. We knew this was coming and we have been told how severe it will be, so we are now making decisions and cutting our budgets. The decisions we are making are not long-term, rational, objective assessments; it is simply panic. We are saving £1 million a month on the vacancy freeze. That is very welcome in terms of helping us with the budget, but it is arbitrary and has not been planned. Such an approach is salami slicing of the worst possible kind and it cannot go on because people will be affected by it.
We need to give local authorities time. They are rising to the challenge, but they need time to achieve what we are asking them to achieve, and we need to work with them. Despite what will happen later, if there were a free vote in the Chamber tonight, I think that the majority of hon. Members would support the motion. What has emerged from the various speeches is a recognition that local authorities need time. I hope that in the winding-up speeches tonight from the coalition side, we are given a very strong positive indication about all the concerns raised on front loading and that we are told it will be abandoned.
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Financial Interests. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) who praised my great friend Councillor Ian Greenwood, the leader of Bradford city council, for rolling up his sleeves to get on with the job. I recognise the great honesty of the contribution he has made tonight. In recognising that, the figures look-in his own words-a bit scary.
The cuts in local government spending announced by this Conservative-led Government are of unprecedented severity-27% in four years is a massive amount. As leader of North Lincolnshire council for six years, I inherited a council with the fourth highest council tax in the country. Through systematic and planned savings, the council's budget had been cut by many millions by the end of my term of office. Council tax at band D was the average for England, and the Audit Commission identified North Lincolnshire as a beacon council, so I know it is possible to reduce spending while developing services.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon), I recognise that innovation has been around for some time in local government. However, to do that creatively and effectively, budget reductions have to be systematic and planned. To cut budgets in a crisis is exactly the wrong thing to do. It leads to the wrong cuts, a lack of service continuity, and disastrous consequences for the organisation's finances and for the services it delivers. We need look no further than across the Irish sea to see how true that is.
The Education Committee recently interviewed two heads of children's services to see how it feels at the sharp end. In his opening question, the Chair asked
whether the funding reductions made sense. Matt Dunkley of East Sussex county council, the vice-president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, answered thus:
"I think we all understand the imperative of the deficit reduction. I think our fears are, managerially, how it is being handled by the Department and how the settlement is being broken down, in terms of the different funding streams that affect us. We are fearful that a combination of front-loading of the reductions into year 1, and the way in which the different funding streams on which we are reliant are being cut at different rates over the four years...could lead to some local authorities having to make very large reductions in the first year of the four years of the settlement. That could have a knock-on effect in terms of the amount of redundancies they'd have to fund, which might produce some unintended consequences".
"What I want to emphasise...is the front-loading issue. I think all of us have recognised the need to make significant reductions, but the important thing is that we essentially transform the way in which services are commissioned and delivered so you have a reasonable lead-in time. The impact of the front-loading, not just on our overall settlement but also on the grants that we have yet to know the detail of, means that we will have a very short time in which to make major decisions. That of immediate knee-jerk-obviously we'll do our best to avoid it-could result in those unintended consequences, which could undermine the work that we're doing in the future."
This is what the professional leaders on the front line are saying about how this Government are going about their business. They are not whingeing and whining-they are professionals. To use the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), they are getting on with the job. That is what professionals will always do, in my experience, when faced with some of the nonsense that we, the politicians, serve up from time to time. They will somehow make sense of the nonsense, and they will make it work, after a fashion. However, what they warn of we have a duty to listen to. They warn that these reckless cuts will lead to unintended consequences, which will impact on the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable. These reckless cuts will deliver the Prime Minister's broken society, not his big society.
"the unexpected severity of the cuts that will have to be made next year will put many councils in an unprecedented and difficult position."
We have heard how Conservative leaders and mayors in the north of England have echoed this in a chorus of concern. The chief executive of North Lincolnshire council agrees. Never before has the council in my area had to take an in-year cut in Government funding after it set its budget, as it had to do this year. The front loading of future cuts means a 10.4% reduction next year. Additional cuts to specific grants will exacerbate this further. It is small wonder that the council concludes thus:
"Revenue spending cuts in excess of £20 million over 4 years are on an unprecedented scale. There will be implications for all areas of council activity. While the council will try to manage as much of this as possible through efficiency measures, reductions in services and staffing levels are inevitable."
For all the Tory talk of localism and devolving power to local authorities, the Tories are cutting local budgets harder than national budgets. Town hall spending will
be cut almost three times more than that of Whitehall Departments-so much for localism. The cuts are front loaded so that the heaviest cuts fall in the first year, giving local councils almost no chance to plan where savings can be made. The cuts are too deep and too quick, putting front-line local services at risk. Many small businesses rely on contracts for local authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) pointed out, cuts in local government funding will result in fewer contracts for the private sector, meaning loss of jobs and a knock-on effect for the wider local economy. It is little wonder that PricewaterhouseCoopers forecasts that for every job lost in the public sector, another will be lost in the private sector.
This timely motion gives all Members of the House the opportunity to listen to the people, to pause and to do the right thing. By voting for the motion, we are voting for localism, for small business and for local people. I commend the motion to the House.
Given where the country finds itself financially, it would have been strange if local government had been immune to the tough choices that the coalition Government have been forced to take to cut the deficit and to get the country back on track. Decisions on local government spending are indeed tough, with a 7.5% cut in spending each year between now and 2014. However, as many colleagues have said, the cut may well be lower due to other revenue streams.
Although the impact is painful, the coalition has taken decisions to make it as fair as possible. Councils up and down the land will be supported in freezing council tax in 2011-12 through additional funding equivalent to the revenue from a 2.5% rise in council tax. That honours a coalition agreement promise to freeze council tax, even in the face of the worst debt crisis since the second world war. It is also an essential ingredient of the coalition's policy on fairness, because it helps the lower-paid and pensioners in particular, who have seen their council tax double since 1997. The average band D council tax bill is now nearly £1,500, which frankly beggars belief.
As with so many issues, we still do not have a clue how the Labour party would approach this difficult funding issue. It has to get over its denial about the financial problems that face this country. It continues simply to complain and scaremonger, yet it never tells us how it would deal with the problem, except to imply that somehow it would be able to do so without having to take any difficult decisions. More likely, it is not coming clean with us about the plans that we know it had, because it does not want to talk about them any longer. We are where we are because of years of overspending without a care in the world by the Labour party. Now the pain starts as we rebuild our finances. At least Government Members know what we have to do.
The most important reform that the coalition is introducing in local government is more localism. One way in which the Government are trying to alleviate the
difficult measures is to free funding from being overly ring-fenced. That will allow local councils to use their revenue with much more flexibility, so that they can meet local needs in the way that they know best.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): The debate has focused on two issues. Obviously, the cuts are the primary issue, but there is a secondary one. Does my hon. Friend agree that the opportunities that the coalition Government are giving local authorities to be imaginative and even radical in reforming their services and their approach to local government will pave the way for exciting, diversified and genuinely local authorities?
Angie Bray: I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. Of course, I agree that it is a great thing to get local authorities back to doing what they do best, which is to work closely with their local residents to ensure that they give them what they need.
As hon. Members have said, many local authorities across the country are considering how they can take out costs in their back rooms by working together to run services. My hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) mentioned Kensington and Chelsea borough council getting together with Westminster city council and Hammersmith and Fulham council to do just that. Those boroughs happen to make up my previous London assembly seat and they are all, I should add, Conservative-run. They are doing what local councils should be doing-making efficiency savings in bureaucracy where possible, rather than hitting front-line services.
My local, Labour-led council, Ealing, has been quick to announce plans for a range of cuts, including cutting day care centres, a child protection officer and more than 50% of park rangers. Enviro-crime officers are also to be cut, from 23 to 12, yet it is happy to find £3 million for new computers at the town hall and, quite disgracefully, it is to continue funding full-time trade union officials to the tune of £250,000 a year.
Tom Blenkinsop: Regarding non-statutory duties and youth services, about which we have heard from the hon. Members for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) and for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), would the hon. Lady like to condemn the Prime Minister, who is funding pilot schemes for big society youth projects in the summer with people who are not qualified in youth training?
The spending decisions that I mentioned are clearly not the priorities in which the people of Ealing are interested, and they really ought to be reconsidered. Unfortunately, I suspect that politics has played a large part in them. They were entirely avoidable, but the council hoped to make the coalition Government take the blame. I expect the public to be a little cleverer than that. They know, as we all know, that we are in a black financial hole because of the previous Labour Government, and my constituents will not be impressed by poor spending decisions that allow day care centres to be closed or park rangers to lose their jobs while full-time
trade union officials are kept in cushy jobs in which they do nothing to support the local community. I will oppose the motion.
Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, which is important because the subject affects my constituents particularly badly. I have enjoyed contributions from both sides of the House, and I particularly welcomed that of the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward). It reminded me of something that he said at the very beginning of the Parliament in a media interview: "It's not about who you do the deal with, but about the deal you do". I suspect that he is rather wondering what sort of a deal has been done now.
I also welcomed the contribution of the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) about waste in local government, particularly when he referred to bureaucracy and the rule book on appropriate language to be used by councillors to council officers. He failed to mention that the other half of the Tory group on his council was accused recently of referring to a council officer as a "wonk" and a "foreigner". Perhaps it would have been useful for him to have read that very rule book.
Andrew Percy: As my friend, colleague and near neighbour knows full well, the guide I referred to was for councillors in their dealings with the public. The corporate governance inspection recorded that it was Labour councillors who were bullying members of staff back in 2000.
Karl Turner: Of course, I disagree entirely. It was very recently that the leader of the Tory group was accused of the serious things I mentioned, and it would have been better had he read the rulebook.
As axes have fallen, local government has emerged as the indisputable loser from the Government's austerity measures. Town halls across the country will feel the squeeze tighter than Whitehall Departments as the Government cynically try to devolve responsibility for the choices they have made and the mess they are creating. On average, local authorities will experience a loss of funding to the tune of 27% over four years, compared with 11% for Whitehall Departments.
Before I move on to specific objections, I should first like to discredit the myth that that situation was inevitable. It was not. There was an alternative, which, coincidentally, was the opinion of the junior partner in the coalition Government. It had the support of numerous Liberal Democrats who are now members of the Cabinet, and the Deputy Prime Minister deemed it simple enough for his 8-year-old child to understand. Slower deficit reductions-half the level over four years-as supported by the Labour party, would have mitigated the effect of local government cuts and protected the most vulnerable in our constituencies.
Cuts this size and this fast cannot be absorbed through recruitment freezes, removing natural wastage or service-sharing. Make no mistake: these cuts will impact on services and jobs. Across the country, local councils have already begun shedding staff and pulling vital front-line services. Council leaders, whatever their political
persuasions, are trying to mitigate their political misfortunes, explaining that services will be hit and jobs lost, and even the Secretary of State admitted that by itself sharing services will not balance the books. Money allotted for highway improvement is being hit in Somerset, north Yorkshire and London, and support for battered women has been slashed in Buckinghamshire. Eligibility for social care is being tightened, £311 million of grants from the Department for Education have gone, and youth services are being put at severe risk.
In my constituency, residents have been hit particularly hard by cuts to the housing market renewal programme, affecting Hull's gateway housing regeneration scheme. The speed at which Government funding has been withdrawn has left many living in derelict houses, experiencing damp, flooding and an increase in theft. I have written to the Secretary of State to invite him to see the result of his policies, but not surprisingly he has yet to reply. It is perhaps no wonder that he has not afforded me the courtesy of replying to my invite. My constituents are left in real desperation. Cuts to these areas do not just end with a fall in service provision. They begin a vicious cycle of their own: as jobs are lost and unemployment increases, dole queues get longer and longer. The Local Government Association has already revised up its estimates of job losses to 140,000 this year and predicts costs associated with these redundancies could be as much as £2 billion. However, money provided by central Government to help with the cost of job cutting amounts to only £200 million.
I come to the crux of the motion. It is not just the depth of the cuts that is damaging, but the speed. The Government's desire to rush local authorities into making cuts now to make sure the damage is done well before the next election is a worrying and short-term decision based entirely on political objectives. The Secretary of State can scream from the rafters that the accusation of front-loading is fiction, but the evidence is firmly against him. The Local Government Association has estimated that the cuts will fall heaviest in the first year, with an 11% loss in 2011-12.
The Government may talk a good game, but they certainly do not play one. Let us consider, for example, the Secretary of State's vision for local authorities. He claimed that they should use cuts as an
"opportunity to completely rethink everything they are doing, creating a modern, flexible and innovative council."
That is certainly a laudable sentiment, but in practice he is forcing local government to make cuts almost immediately, allowing no time for planning or strategy. The opportunity that he speaks of will last for the blink of an eye.
As well as going too far, too fast, the cuts are unfair. Despite claims from Government Members that they would aim for fairness and that we are all in this together, the effect of these cuts is highly disproportionate, hitting the worse-off hardest. Even the Minister admitted:
"Those in greatest need ultimately bear the burden of paying off the debt".-[ Official Report, 10 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 450.]
Unfortunately, figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government bear that out. The councils worst hit over the four-year settlement, including my constituency, are among the 10% most deprived areas in the country.
This Government say one thing and do another. Measures involving jobs, services, front-loading and unfairness are all being undertaken using the language of localism. The Government are front-loading cuts in local services to ensure that, come the general election, the massacre will be over. They are making councils take responsibility for the cuts locally so that they do not have to account for their irresponsibility nationally. They are feathering their own nests while pillaging constituencies such as my own. This Government claim that we are "all in this together", so I ask the Secretary of State if he will please visit my constituency, along with housing Ministers, to see the carnage for themselves.
Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): I will be brief as I believe that one more Member wishes to speak in the next 10 minutes. I have had the privilege of being a High Peak borough councillor for 11 years, and I remember the first four years, when the council was under Labour control. Labour Members tend to wax lyrical about the past, but during those four years, when we were led to believe that money was plentiful, the Labour-controlled council managed to put the council tax up by 19% in a single year. The increase averaged more than 9% a year over four years.
In 2003, we had a strangely prescient situation in which a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition ran High Peak borough council, but even then we were squeezed by the Labour Government, with small settlements and extra duties. We were told to take on licensing, for example, but given no money to do it. We had to find that money ourselves. The hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), who is no longer in the Chamber, made an accusation about us shifting the blame for taxation on to local authorities. All I will say to that is: they should know, shouldn't they?
The council was then faced with comprehensive performance assessments, and I remember officers focusing on that week after week, month after month, and carrying out mock CPAs to get the necessary excellent rating in order to free us a little more from Government interference. That took their minds off delivering the services that we were there to deliver. It was ridiculous, and we need less of that. We still managed to set a low council tax, however, and in 2007 the Conservatives took control of the council.
Members who have been in the Chamber for most of the debate will have heard me describe our strategic alliance with Staffordshire Moorlands. We have achieved more than £2 million of savings, which can go to our residents, although many of those measures were opposed by the Labour group. The two councils now share environmental health, ground maintenance, property management, communications, human resources and finance-the list goes on. We have all heard of other councils sharing in this way, but we were one of the first to do it. I urge Members to come to High Peak borough council and learn from us how it was done. We might make a small charge, but they would be very welcome if they would like their councillors to learn about this.
In future, we need less Government control. We have seen the regional spatial strategies going, although there are some difficulties involving legal challenges and we
need to move that along faster. We have heard the Opposition say that they did not know what cuts were coming, despite their having announced them in their own pre-Budget report. Last year, however, the opposition councillors in High Peak questioned our medium-term financial strategy because we were not budgeting for deep enough cuts. So, on the one hand, the Opposition say that they do not know about the cuts but, on the other hand, they behave in completely the opposite manner.
The money that we are giving to local authorities now will be a lot freer, because there will be less ring-fencing, and freer money goes further. Ring-fenced money is harder to use, and it is not put into the right areas. Labour Members are in denial; they have been since May. Perhaps it was the sun that got to them, I do not know, but they would have been forced to make cuts and savings, had they won the election. Thankfully, they did not win it, and they have now resorted to nothing more than scaremongering.
Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): Given the short amount of time left, I shall raise just a few brief points. I want to mention the new homes bonus, a suggestion that could save money, the big society, and residualisation in east Lancashire, which is an important issue in my constituency. I also want briefly to touch on police community support officers.
My constituency is suffering some of the biggest cuts. We are facing 27% cuts across the board, but we are waiting for the actual figures. I am surprised that the Minister will not confirm those figures today. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts), who is no longer in his place, mentioned a report produced by the all-party parliamentary group on the special interest group of municipal authorities-SIGOMA. It stated that Hyndburn was ranked as the 40th most seriously hit area, facing between 30% and 38% cuts. These can have a cumulative effect, and similar examples have been raised by other Members today.
The new homes bonus is frequently used by Ministers as a method by which councils can run for financial sanctuary, but it will have no impact on constituencies such as mine, where there are some 2,500 empty properties. Netting off demolitions will hit hard any areas where there is an over-supply of housing. This policy is a bit like throwing a drowning man a medicine ball.
Let me make some suggestions. Conservative Members say that we have no suggestions, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), who is not in her place, suggested more flexible use of the business rates, which the Secretary of State touched on earlier. Let me give him another suggestion. If he stopped scratching his head and listened to me, he might learn a thing or two. Hyndburn council calculated that removing the 50% council tax discount on empty properties will raise £660,000-an enormous sum for a district authority. At the moment, this money is clawed back through the revenue support grant deduction. It needs to be looked at. It is interesting to note that The Independent on Sunday reported that the Liberal Democrats were looking at similar initiatives-discounts and removal-for second homes.
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