Rate Support Grant (Wales)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:03 am on 20th January 1986.

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Photo of Mr Barry Jones Mr Barry Jones Shadow Secretary of State 12:03 am, 20th January 1986

The Secretary of State is very testy tonight. I hope to make a shorter speech than his. He has delivered his sixth local government budget, and again he has waved a big stick. It is bitter medicine for both the professional and elected local government leaders in Wales.

Last month, John Morgan of the Western Mail, wrote: Welsh Secretary Nicholas Edwards will today open the final chapter in his campaign to bring local government expenditure down to 1979 levels. That report exposes the unpleasant objectives of Ministers for Wales and local government. It is a matter of pride to the right hon. Gentleman that he has dragged expenditure down to 1979 levels in real terms, but we regard it as a failure by the Government to comprehend the huge demand made on local government services by hundreds of thousands of Welsh citizens.

We say that the Government are blind and deaf to the real needs of our truly beleaguered communities. It can also be argued that the policy that the Secretary of State has outlined today is unworkable. There has been a cut in grant in real terms. The latest calculation by the House of Commons research staff is that the overall cut in real terms between 1978–79 and 1986–87 is as high as 12·4 per cent. The right hon. Gentleman has robbed our local government system and taken away its independence.

In six years of office, the Government have presided over Welsh district councils increasing their budgeted spending by only 46 per cent. During the same period, the retail prices index rose by 74 per cent. Beside the widespread bitterness at this proposed settlement, there are two strong and justifiable criticisms. The first is that even local treasurers say that the settlement is too complex with many quirky consequences, and the second is that the settlement does not take account of pay awards well in excess of inflation.

I shall quote Mr. Morgan of the Western Mail again, this time from 20 January, when he wrote: With the growing feeling that the Welsh councils have been 'taken for a ride' has come a veiled threat from the Welsh authorities that they will not knuckle down indefinitely without positive action from the Welsh Office to offer even greater incentives for doing so … the question that is being asked behind closed doors is why should the Welsh cut back while the English continue to spend? Nothing that the right hon. Gentleman has said today will make Welsh local authorities change the view that Mr. Morgan so accurately chronicles. There is another criticism, which is encapsulated in an answer given to me on Monday 20 January. The Secretary of State replied: On 12 December 1985 there were 181,496 unemployed claimants in Wales. The corresponding figure in December 1979 was an estimated 78,476 and the increase between the two dates is 103,020 or 131·3 per cent. The right hon. Gentleman forgets too easily that mass unemployment puts huge pressure on the services provided by our councils, and the Government are not responding effectively to the social and economic emergency that is creating throughout Wales. The right hon. Gentleman has today ignored the crucial problems that bother local authority leaders of all parties in Wales when it comes to facing the problems that he is setting.

I should like to make a plea on behalf of my own county of Clwyd. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to receive a deputation from Clwyd urgently to try to head off a financial crisis. So serious is the matter that chief officers have met hon. Members who represent the county. I have confidence in the county's chief executive and the vice chairman, Mr. Elwyn Conway, a responsible county council leader who has left me in no doubt about the problems that the county faces. Clwyd does not want a rate rise of more than 10 per cent. Will the right hon. Gentleman respond sympathetically and urgently?

I shall quote from a letter that the county treasurer has sent to hon. Members, and I know that a letter was sent to the right hon. Gentleman. The treasurer writes: Clwyd will receive in 1986–87 a much worse grant settlement than in previous years and the basis of the Welsh settlement has been altered to Clwyd's specific disadvantage, and the legal and technical changes introduced by the Welsh Office will produce a situation where there is now every likelihood of a larger increase in the County precept. The problem for Clwyd is caused by technical changes in the Rate Support Grant allocation where the Government is assuming that Welsh County Councils will be spending about 5% more next year than in the current year and for this they have provided an average increase throughout Wales in block Grant of the order of 5%. This will represent"— this is the crunch for Clwyd— a Clwyd increase of only 1·8% and will mean the loss of Grant amounting to at least £2 million.

That is not the end of the tale. The county is trying to cope. There is widespread parental unease about the cuts in schooling provision. Many parents are sick with worry. I will detail in brief the cuts in the education service. They are not peculiar to Clwyd. There is reduced provision for nursery education, 47 teachers and 39 nursery assistants; a reduction in the education technology budget; deletion of secondary teachers required to maintain curriculum level; increased prices for school meals; delete the net cost of 60 teachers seconded for training; a cut in further education colleges; a reduction in ancillary staff; and a reduction in the number of primary teachers. That totals £1,130,000.

When we on the Opposition Benches hear public schoolboys telling us that, it is rather hard to take, because we know that more grants than ever before are being given to support private education in Wales. In reply to the charge that local authorities in Wales do not save as much as they should from falling school rolls and surplus places, it must be pointed out that in many cases, especially perhaps in rural areas, the local school is more than a school. The prospect of closing it, if not unthinkable, carries all sorts of social and community difficulties. The plan by the Secretary of State might be an economist's dream, but it is not what the community wants. The trouble with this rate support grant settlement is that it is not what our communities need and it is not what they deserve.

I have a brief point to make about Gwynedd and Clwyd and the police force. We all want to see the restoration of the policeman on the beat. Rural and community policing is declining, and elderly people are increasingly afraid of break-ins, muggings and harassment. The right hon. Gentleman knows and might even agree with that. I am seeking support from the right hon. Gentleman for the joint approach of the Clwyd and Gwynedd county councils to the Home Secretary. The chairmen of both councils believe strongly that rate borne increases in the police authority budget at a time when other local government services are being severely restricted and reduced, starkly illustrate the inadequacy of the resources made available to the two counties in the rate support grant.