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That was a daft intervention, as I shall demonstrate clearly in a moment. When the House voted to fine those local authorities on their budgets the authorities had already completed their spending. I warned the Government at the time what would happen, and named authorities which the Government were pointlessly penalising when it was already known that they had underspent, although their earlier budgets were above the expenditure ceilings. During that debate I mentioned Knowsley, which is a problem-ridden authority on Merseyside. The right hon. Gentleman took £1,577,000 from Knowsley last year. Today he is giving it back the entire £1,577,000, but not because Knowsley suddenly changed its ways after it heard that it was going to be fined. When the Government asked the House last December to take that money from Knowsley, I told the House that they would have to give it back at some future date, thus causing the authority enormous inconvenience in its cash flow in the meantime.
However, the Secretary of State has learned nothing from that episode, because today, as well as being asked in this report to return that money to Knowsley, we are being asked to start the nonsensical cycle all over again by taking a further £513,000 from Knowsley. If the Back-Bench sheep in the Conservative party do as they are told, no doubt in a year's time they will equally obediently vote to provide the required refund. No wonder some Tory local authorities are so sickened by the Government's antics that they simply get on with providing the services that they believe are appropriate, regardless of the Department's ceilings and penalties.
Tonight Conservative Members, including Devon's full complement of Tory Members, will vote to take £1,941,000 from that county. The action of the Government, and of the county's Tory Members, has been dismissed with contempt by Mr. Keith Taylor, the vice-chairman of Devon's finance and performance review committee. He says:
The cut has been taken into account and it will make no difference to the planned expenditure of our published budget … We planned it with our eyes open … Broadly, we said that if we did not spend the extra money, then the effect on services would be more severe than we reckoned was palatable." That is what Tory Devon says about the spending ceiling that the Secretary of State describes as realistic.
At about 7 o'clock this evening Warwickshire's Tory Members will vote to fine Warwickshire county council £562,000 for overspending. Today the Association of County Councils local government finance committee has on its agenda a submission to the Secretary of State entitled "Warwickshire's case against spending targets". The Tory-controlled council states:
The only way the County Council could hope to meet Government spending targets would be through drastic cuts in services … Warwickshire would have to reduce teacher numbers much faster than falling rolls; it would have to cut the amount spent per pupil on supplies and equipment rather than increase it; it would have to reduce personal social services and not be able to improve them; and it would have to think in terms of a smaller police force and not a larger one.
The cost of not doing this would be rate rises of between 30 per cent. and 40 per cent., almost wholly to pay the Government's grant penalties. Without that punitive action, Warwickshire would be able to maintain the standard of its services to the public, and still levy rate increases no higher than the general rate of inflation.
All Kent's Tory Members will no doubt walk through the Lobby this evening to take away £3,012,000 from that county. They will anger, but not perturb, Mr. Robert Neame, the chairman of the county council, who says:
We were well aware of the penalty provisions when we fixed our precept for the current year … However there is always the necessity to balance the needs of services against the precept increase and when the County Council struck that balance last February we were aware that we were exceeding by 1.9 per cent. the Government's spending target … Although the budget figure exceeds the spending target it is well below the Government's assessment of what the County Council needs to spend to provide an average level of services … We regret that Kent will be penalised but our first duty is to ensure the provision of essential services at a cost acceptable to the ratepayers.
Those are the words of responsible local government.
However, local government also has its quislings and collaborators. One of them is a gentleman named Mr. David Tweedie, a Tory councillor from Hammersmith and Fulham, who earlier this month wrote this toadying letter to The Times:
At a time of financial stringency it is more than ever necessary for central government to curb the extravagance of local authorities if local electors are unable to do so.