About 50 authorities have made written representations to the Department since the announcement of our proposals for the main elements of the settlement on 21 December.
Does the Secretary of State realise that in the history of local government he will have the privileged position of being Scrooge, without the last redeeming chapter? Does he not realise that throughout the country local authorities are at their wits' end to know how to provide services for people and how to carry out their manifesto promises—for example, the Greater London Council and Sheffield? Will he take note of that and see that enough money is given to those authorities to carry out their manifesto promises without bringing in a group of tame judges, such as the Official Solicitor, to impose surcharges on them and blackmail them into carrying, out his wishes?
—might feel that those who are at their wits' end are the ratepayers of Sheffield, who, in the last two years, have had to find the cash to pay a 45 per cent. and a 41 per cent. rate increase to help to finance a local authority that does not appear to recognise the depth of the recession and its effect on the private sector.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the rate support grant will always remain controversial while the Government provide such a large proportion of local government expenditure? In his present review of the rating system, will he endeavour to produce a system that ensures that local authorities raise a larger percentage of the money that they subsequently spend?
My hon. Friend will know that I am consulting widely about alternatives to and the reform of domestic rates. It is appropriate that I should wait until that consultation period is at an end before I express my views about the direction to which we should switch.
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to see a contrast between the rate increases in Labour and Conservative authorities, he has only to look at what is happening in the shire counties, where the largest rate increases are levied by authorities taken over by Labour last year.
Will my right hon. Friend try to move towards a system whereby the rate support grant is determined well in advance—a few months before the beginning of a council's financial year—to give it the chance to do more effective planning and allow people in the area to put forward their views on what balance of rates and services they want?
The Government, at the beginning of their period in office, stated the level of public expenditure that they expected. Therefore, it has been possible for local authorities to plan the reductions in services and expenditure that were necessary. However, it is not possible—I do not want to give the impression that it is—for the Government to reach decisions about the rate support grant until they have conducted their detailed public expenditure review every year. That must be relatively late in the day.