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As will become clear, the right hon. Gentleman gives it a rather longer lifespan than the one that I am about to propose. By the end of that play, the four people learn that they are in hell rather than Brighton and that they are doomed to continue their quarrels for eternity.
During these seemingly endless debases on rate support grant reports, the House might feel that we also are cursed by a malign fate in having to continue them for ever. It is undeniable—;it emerged again in the Secretary of State's speech today—;that the Government have created a form of hell for local authorities. Each year, councils ritually submit their budgets to the Department of the Environment. Each year they are equally ritually told that they are spending too much. Each year some of them are punished and then, as if none of those preceding events had occurred, the Secretary of State for the Environment of the day forces local authorities through the ceremonial process all over again.
Now, of course, there are differences. Each year the method of compiling the expenditure ceiling is changed and each year the method of assessing the penalty is changed. From time to time exemptions from penalty are inexplicably allowed and just as mysteriously withdrawn. Last year and the year before that, for example, local authorities that spent above their ceiling but below the grant-related expenditure assessments were exempted from penalty. There was never any logical justification for that. It was a political device to remove penalties from as many Tory local authorities as possible. This year, that exemption has been arbitrarily withdrawn for no better reason than it was introduced. It is a fact, however, that if the GREA amnesty was still in operation, 42 of the 153 authorities that are penalised in the 1983–84 settlement report would have benefited from that amnesty.
A Government change of mind is penalising 42 authorities which last year might have expected to escape. As it is, those 42 authorities have a justified sense of grievance—;but so have all of the 153 councils that are penalised in this supplementary report. All of them are being fined as overspenders, yet they are not overspending, for the simple reason that there are no overspenders. There are spending ceilings that have been arbitrarily laid down by the Secretary of State for the Environment and there are local authorities, which, for their own reasons, good in their eyes but possibly bad in the eyes of others, have decided that their budgets conform to criteria that are approved by their electors rather than by the Secretary of State for the Environment. That, in case it should strike Conservative Members as a novel notion, is what is known as local democracy.
The House wants to know what the future of local democracy is to be. On 6 July, the Secretary of State announced that he would publish a White Paper on the rating system towards the end of this month. There are only five more days in this month. Will the Secretary of State adhere to that commitment? He gave no sign in his speech that he would. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman is now telling the House that he deceived it. I shall quote what he said on 6 July:
I shall make it clear in the White Paper that we shall publish towards the end of this month that the proposals in it represent the Government's considered response".—;[Official Report, 6 July 1983; Vol. 45, c. 280.]
The Secretary of State now says that he is breaking his word. Is that correct?