Local Government (Rate Support Grant)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th December 1968.

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Photo of Mr Edward Leadbitter Mr Edward Leadbitter , Hartlepools, The 12:00 am, 9th December 1968

I shall merely repeat what is said in the pamphlet. The hon. Gentleman must not pursue the idea that we are taking part in a T.V. interview in the House. I will not be subjected to a David Frost tactic. I shall quote again the words that came from the office of the Conservative Party: The abolition of most grants and all current loan sanction procedures would immeasurabley increase the freedom of local councils … I merely quote that as a matter of fact. It us up to hon. Members whether they like it or not.

The hon. Member for Worcester referred to the relief assistance for many hundreds of people throughout the country. He conveniently forgot to refer to the present rate relief, which brings considerable financial easement to large numbers of poor people whose incomes cannot be raised. We should be glad in present circumstances, when we are talking about increasing local government costs, that old people, married couples with an income of about £10 10s. a week and single people with incomes of under £10 a week are given considerable rate relief. I was told in answer to a Question that in the Northern Region such relief was benefiting many thousands of people by about £12 a head per annum. That is a considerable saving for people in the low income groups. Moreover, they receive the benefit of the 5d. a year addition which has been made as a contribution by grant to local authorities to assist the rates. Increasing the Government grant is helping the rates to the extent of 1s. 3d. in the pound for 1969 and 1s. 8d. in the pound for 1970.

Since it is reasonable that everybody in the country cannot be rich and the philosophy of any Government must be to seek to achieve a situation where nobody is poor, people on low incomes will welcome a grant from the Government of 1s. 3d. in the pound to assist with their rates, and they will also welcome 1s. 8d. in 1970.

It was convenient for the hon. Gentleman to produce a letter from the Daily Telegraph suggesting that rates would soar in comparison with the past few years. That is not the case, but it is quite usual for the Daily Telegraph to fly such kites before the estimates of local authorities have been determined about events which do not occur. I think that rate increases up and down the country will be far more moderate than the hon. Gentleman implied. His whole object was not to get down to details and facts but to create fear by making blind, sweeping, irrelevant statements. If it is true that the rate increases will be more moderate, is not a 1s. 3d. in the pound grant a considerable contribution to easing the position of many people living in the developing urban areas and conurbations, where increases in local government costs are possibly more marked?

I need not make a judgment on this, because the past year has shown that those who have received assistance as a result of the present Government's measures have been grateful. The improvement is vast compared to the rate relief introduced by the party opposite when they were in power. We are able to talk in terms of thousands who have benefited from our policy. When right hon. Members opposite were in office they could talk in terms only of hundreds who had benefited from their policy, and only meagrely at that.

It is all very well pursuing political argument in the House. We are all prone to do it. But we are entitled to ask some questions if the country is to get benefit from our debates. The local authorities are the largest spenders in the country. Is it right, therefore, that the Government should have requested them to modify their programmes in the light of the national crisis? Ont would have thought that such a request would have the fullest support on both sides of the House and that there would be no political argument about it.

We all have prestige projects which we would like to see carried out in our own constituencies. It want to see new baths, recreation centres and youth clubs and civic centres in my constituency. I believe that my townspeople deserve them. No doubt every hon. Member thinks that his constituents deserve them. But, as serious politicians, when we face the question of whether it is right for my right hon. Friend to ask for moderation in the rate of growth of expenditure—and we are not here talking of cuts—we must also ask whether we accept that the rate of growth of public expenditure is of vital importance to the economic health of the country. The answer is that we do.

Having said that, it is also appropriate to ask whether it is right that the Government should seek to take upon themselves a reasonable share of the percentage of the total expenditure in order that local authorities, within the limits laid down, can get on with their jobs. Again the answer is, "Yes". My right hon. Friend mentioned that the share for 1969 will be 56 per cent. and for 1970 57 per cent., an increase on the figures of 54 per cent. and 55 per cent., respectively, recorded in the two previous years.

Therefore, the divisions in the House on this subject do not appear to be so large after all. We agree that some control is reasonable and that the Government should exercise a proper control. The only area over which we find disagreement is in the question, "How much?" Perhaps the hon. Member for Worcester will brief one of his colleagues to give us certain answers. Would the Opposition give 58 per cent. in 1970 instead of 57 per cent.? Would they give 57 per cent. next year instead of 56 per cent.? We are entitled to know because what we are playing with is the taxpayers' money. The hon. Gentleman knows very well—