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Rate Support Grant (England)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:15 pm on 26th July 1983.

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Photo of Mr Anthony Grant Mr Anthony Grant , Cambridge South West 6:15 pm, 26th July 1983

We always enjoy the contributions of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), even when he quotes rather unhappily from Jean-Paul Sartre or, even more unfairly, gives examples. We could all do the latter. I could give examples at great length of the Greater London council, and the absurd antics upon which it spends money, which makes the example of Hammersmith and Fulham seem like a mildly puritanical tea party. I have some sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman's criticisms, but his strictures would carry more conviction if he had not been a member of a Government who failed to grapple with any of these problems and if he were not a member of a party that is notoriously the biggest and most irresponsible spender of public money that the country has ever known.

I do not wish to follow the right hon. Gentleman into particular points as this is, for me, a maiden speech, after a fashion. It is the first that I make as the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West. I do not ask the indulgence of the House in making my second maiden speech because there has been a lapse of 18 years since I first spoke in the House as the hon. Member for Harrow, Central. Making a second maiden is rather like the experience of Uncle Peregrine, the confirmed batchelor in Evelyn Waugh's novel, "Unconditional Surrender". He was asked whether he had ever been to bed with a woman, and said rather smugly, "Only twice"—;once when he was 20 and once when he was 45. When he was asked to tell his questioner about it, he said that it was the same woman.

The relevance of that observation is that, although my present and previous constituencies are different in many ways, they also have much in common. I am honoured and proud to represent a constituency that has agriculture as fine as that of anywhere else in Europe, and as many thriving small firms dealing in modern sophisticated goods and services as anywhere in this country.

It is agreeable that my new constituency is formed out of the constituencies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Pym) and my hon. Friends the Members for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) and for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James), all of whom are personal as well as hon. Friends and all of whom are Members whom I greatly admire. It is people rather than geography who make a constituency and, therefore, I find something else in common with my previous constituency, which leads me back to the subject of the debate.

Cambridgeshire has been badly treated by the rate support proposals. It is the same old story of putting councils that have been prudent and cost-conscious in the past on the same level as the spendthrift authorities. It was the same last year and the year before that in Harrow, where the authority suffered because it cut expenditure in the year on which the rate support grant was based, while loony London councils frittered away money like water on the party political nonsense about which we all know too well. There were tributes to Karl Marx festooning their boroughs and idiotic trips abroad on all sorts of strange causes. Yet they were dealt with on the same basis as responsible councils such as Harrow and Cambridgeshire, with which I now have the honour to be concerned.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that the irresponsible councils should be hammered, and hammered hard. That was the policy that we put before the electorate, and it is what the electorate expect us to do. Cambridgeshire has heeded the siren voices of Treasury Ministers of both parties and the voices of the IMF. The county council has cut staff, it has cut out bureaucracy, reduced the number of chief officers from 13 to nine and, I am particularly pleased to say, has privatised some of its services, much to the benefit of ratepayers. Only recently, it made a decision, which I support, to go out to contract for the cleaning of schools in the area, and that will save the hard-pressed ratepayers vast sums of money. I hope and believe that the council will proceed further along this road, following this fundamental feature of the Government's policy.

The actions of the Cambridgeshire county council have been wholly in accordance with Government thinking and philosophy, all of which was put before the electorate and endorsed at successive elections. However peculiar, strange animals breed inside the Department of the Environment, called "GRE" and "Regression analysis", which sound rather like the ugly sisters, and with whom hon. Members will be familiar. These animals have weird effects. Cambridgeshire, despite its financial responsibility and prudence, is to be penalised to the tune of £1·5 million in 1983–84. This is because the rate support grant is based upon historic rather than current data. It is especially ironic, as I understand it, that the base in this case is 1978–79, when Cambridgeshire was responding to the clamour of the then Labour Government, no doubt with the IMF breathing down their neck, to curb local government expenditure.

The test of eligibility for the rate support grant should be based on people's needs. I remind my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that in recent years East Anglia has had the fastest growing population in England and that Cambridgeshire has been the fastest growing part of East Anglia. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), who sits in silence on the Government Front Bench., will appreciate that the town of St. Neots, which I inherited from him, has been the fastest growing town in that area. The Secretary of State for the Environment had an opportunity to see the position when he went to St. Neots during the election campaign.

If Cambridgeshire is penalised or even put on the same footing as the more irresponsible authorities, that would provide vivid illustration of the fact that something is fundamentally wrong with the system. We all look forward eagerly to my right hon. Friend's White Paper on rate reform. It is a subject in which I have taken some interest and on which I spoke during the last Parliament. If we imposed a poll tax equivalent to the cost of a television licence and shifted teachers' salaries to the Exchequer, the rate support grant could be reduced and be far less significant. Local authorities would be more independent. During this short debate I cannot go into the whole subject of rate reform, but I give my right hon. Friend a sign of what I hope will be in his White Paper. Until the rate support grant is reduced, I ask my right hon. Friend to ensure that local authorities' good housekeeping is rewarded, not punished, and to bear Cambridgeshire in mind in this connection.

I support wholeheartedly the Government's policy to abolish the idiotic organisation called the GLC. I hope that the substantial savings that might accrue will benefit the more responsible authorities, such as Cambridgeshire.

I have great admiration for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and I wish him well in his new job. He is a man of great experience. He entered the House on the same day as I did. We were pleased to see him when he visited the constituency during the election campaign. He has experience as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I hoped that he might have been appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, but he has a responsible post. I rely on him to cut through the jungle of officialdom in the Department of the Environment, which has served us ill when allocating the rate support grant, and which, unless something is done, will do so again in future.

One of my right hon. Friend's predecessors, in a Labour Government, said "The party is over." It certainly is. My right hon. Friend should visit his wrath on the drunks still lying on the floor after the party and not on those diligent people who have already started to tidy up the mess.