Local Government (Scotland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:08 pm on 24th January 1985.

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Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden 6:08 pm, 24th January 1985

I accept that that is a factor — the Government are entitled to draw attention to that—but the Secretary of State will not cavil at the suggestion that there is a real crisis in the classroom and that the introduction of Munn and Dunning, the 16 to 18-year-old action plan, at a time when resources are becoming more and more inadequate, has complicated the business of educating the children and running the schools. The cuts proposed by the Secretary of State will make the position worse. In any event, if the right hon. Gentleman accepts —I do not see how he cannot—that we are in real terms £250 million short on a standstill budget as against last year, even if every authority in Scotland went down to guidelines, we would still have about £150 million less because we would be coming down only by the £101 million to which I referred a few moments ago.

We all recognise that district councils in particular are suffering because of the settlement. Their needs element has come down from £130 million to £94·5 million. This substantial cut has led to a substantial crisis for many smaller district councils. They will suffer massive reductions in rate support grant settlement. If the Secretary of State wants to look to his laurels and maintain his pose as the ratepayers' champion, which I think he is fond of assuming, he must think again about what he is doing to many district councils and local authorities generally. His record on rates is not happy, as he knows. He would say —I recognise his defence—that he has been struggling to do something about it, but the record is there.

Between 1978–79 and 1984–85, the annual domestic ratepayer's bill in Scotland has gone up from £132 to £326, an increase of 147 per cent. My contention is that one of the first and primary reasons has been the persistent and continuing cuts in the rate support grant settlement and other support given to local government. The cuts are being repeated and compounded in this order.

An important point which I am sure will be appreciated by many Conservative Back Benchers is that the Government have planned deliberately. I understand that the assumed rate contribution in district councils, on the basis that they meet their guidelines, is an increase of 34 per cent. and that for the regions the increase is 17 per cent. The Secretary of State is assuming that, if district councils meet their guidelines, the proportion of expenditure to be met from the rate contribution will increase by 34 per cent. Therefore, he is deliberately assuming a substantial increase or else the eating of the seed corn by a raid on what little is left at this stage in the balance of most local authorities.

The answer is that, even if councils do everything that the Secretary of State asks of them, many of them will be faced with a substantial rate increase. We can see that if we look around Scotland. Let us take north-east Fife. The leader of north-east Fife, who is, I think, a member of the Liberal party, was at the COSLA lobby on Tuesday. He told me, and I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of what he said, that the Tory budget last year was over guidelines. The Liberals, for reasons that may have seemed good to them, made cuts to get within the guidelines. This year they are budgeting to stay within the guidelines. That is what the Secretary of State has been seeking and no doubt they will get a gold star for effort. Their reward is that their rate support grant settlement this year has dropped by 49 per cent. and they are faced with a rates increase of 37 per cent.

Let us consider Nithsdale; I know that it is not a local authority that is liked by the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro). He told us recently that it was hellbent on confrontation and illegality. He has a point, because I understand that on budget it will be 8 per cent. over guidelines. Its rate increase will be 45 per cent. Even if it came down to guidelines it would still have a rate increase of 36 per cent. on the arithmetic unless it has something salted away in the chest. That can hardly be satisfactory.

What about Dumfries and Galloway, the region of the hon. Member for Dumfries? It has been within the guidelines from time immemorial, certainly for as long as there have been guidelines. Again, no doubt it will get brownie points for prudence from the Secretary of State. On 13 December he told the House: I … greatly appreciate the splendid efforts that various local authorities, including Dumfries and Galloway, have made".— [Official Report, 13 December, 1984; Vol 69, c. 1224.] His gratitude is not reciprocated, because Major Peter Fox appeared in an unlikely starring role earlier this month in the Daily Record, talking about a rate increase of 20 to 25 per cent.

COSLA has been making inquiries and information is available in the returns coming to it because everyone is in a position to finalise the figures. I am told that there is a deadline of 31 January for the statutory consultation process. Unless authorities raid balances—in some cases balances do not exist — and cut services below the guideline level, they will be faced with substantial rate increases. I shall not go into them in detail, but the figures for some authorities are dramatic.

Ettrick and Lauderdale is heading for a rate increase of 65 per cent. Eastwood, even if it comes down to guidelines — it is well above them — will have a 57 per cent. increase. Banff and Buchan—I am not surprised that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie) has hidden himself somewhere — has a possibility of a 70 per cent. increase. Angus has fixed an increase of 56 per cent. As the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) pointed out in an intervention, Gordon is contemplating an increase of 129 per cent. In the main, these are people who have come down to guidelines, or are on guidelines or below them, and who can avoid increases only if they can find cash from balances or if they cut substantially to get below the parsimonious and inadequate level of services which the guidelines allow.

The hon. Member for Dumfries said in the House the other day that talk of a rates increase of 30 to 40 per cent. was very much exaggerated; he is in for a nasty shock. These are not the problems of a small number of highly political councillors, as the Secretary of State tried to suggest, nor a matter of profligate, revolutionary cliques hijacking councils with unreasonable policies. I do not think Major Peter Fox would like to be described in that way. It is a case of ordinary, very often Tory, councillors being clobbered by Tory cuts. The people who will pay at the end of the day are the ratepayers whom the Conservative Government so arrogantly and so inaccurately claim to champion.

The average over Scotland will be nothing like as high as the figures that I have mentioned. I have been talking about small district councils and I would not like to give the impression that the average figure will be anything like the individual figures I have quoted. Obviously, the figures for the regions will be lower. District council rates are often quite low, as the rate poundages are low. However, there may be some shocks even among the big boys when their figures are measured against those which the Secretary of State has been claiming. I suspect, for example, that Tayside will not be in the right hon. Gentleman's good books when its rate is finally announced.

I am pretty sure that there will be an average rate well above that predicted by the right hon. Gentleman. That is because he has introduced an inadequate rate support grant settlement. He has placed many of his political friends and many local authorities in Scotland in a trap of his making.

His policies threaten the central services and in many areas they will send rates soaring. I challenge any Conservative Member representing any of the areas which I have mentioned to tell me that the figures that I have quoted are wrong or inaccurate. When we consider the impact on services, we see that the Government are guilty of a form of vandalism.

As I have said, the Secretary of State likes to pose as the ratepayers' friend. I believe that he has paid far too much attention to the words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The sad result of his almost total subservience is to be seen in the miserably inadequate statement that he has presented to the House.