Orders of the Day — Rate Support Grant (England)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:05 pm on 25th March 1987.

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Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment 4:05 pm, 25th March 1987

We are beginning to see the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the right hon. Gentleman's political character. Now he is apparently, on behalf of the Government taking credit for the increase in expenditure which for eight years they have been denouncing. He had better make up his mind on which side of the argument he really is. We know which side we are on. We are in favour of more investment in people, and in the services that are so essential to their economic and social well-being.

The Secretary of State mentioned Ealing. I am sorry that his hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) has disappeared. Does the right hon. Gentleman support the expenditure decisions of the now Labour-controlled Ealing council, which he was denigrating a few moments ago—the reintroduction of places for rising-fives in primary schools, the deals to acquire 600 new homes in the face of the housing crisis and the employment of extra home helps and extra staff to deal with the under-fives? The council is taking on much-needed local housing repair teams and recruiting 150 extra teachers. Does the right hon. Gentleman support those decisions? Does he support the extra expenditure about which he has been boasting in that context? What is the answer? It is that the right hon. Gentleman has not the guts to say that he does not support it. That is the reality of the Government's pathetic position.

The proximity of this debate to the Budget reminds us of the Government's continuing policy of switching the burdens of such services from the taxpayer to the ratepayer—a policy pursued relentlessly for eight years and accompanied all the time by the crocodile tears of Tory Members about the inevitable rates increases that have resulted. Today's debate is about the Government's determination to enforce more and more central control—more powers for Ministers who abuse them all too frequently, using them to prevent and to crush sensible and sensitive public investment in people, their families and community services wherever they can.

Yesterday's announcement about the widening health gap in our country should shame Conservative Members, especially those Ministers who have deliberately and massively reduced investment in housing and employment. It should especially shame those Ministers who have planned and organised a systematic withdrawal of cash from the inner cities, where some of the worst problems in Europe persist. The reality is that the cuts in rate support grant are more than 10 times the additional support under special measures given to the inner-city authorities that are most in need. That is the damage that the Government have done to the most deprived communities in our country.

Yesterday's attempt to suppress the report of the Health Education Council is typical of this shameless Government, who also tried to suppress the earlier report of Sir Douglas Black. The latest attempt to stifle debate contrasts embarrassingly with the weekend leaks of the Prime Minister's alleged concern for the plight of neglected inner-city areas, which is so much a legacy of eight years of Thatcherism. Those very conditions of bad housing, poor environment, inadequate social services and health care, poverty and unemployment, which has trebled under this Government, led to the widening health gap that is so damaging to individuals, families and the national wellbeing. It is the Government's failure adequately and responsibly to deal with those problems that we are debating today.

Even worse, those Conservative failures result from the deliberate intention of policy. They are no accident. In addition, we have seen how the volume of complicated, contradictory and inconsistent local government law—the force-feeding of the Tory right with statute after statute—has reduced any attempt at sensible planning of local government finance to a shambles. We are told that the Secretary of State has been reduced to impotent rage by the stupidities of the system which his colleagues have created and which he has inherited and supported consistently over the past eight years.

The journal Public Finance and Accountancy states: Local government is suffering from a surfeit of new legislation. Each successive piece of legislation seems to increase rather than reduce uncertainty". But still the Government plough on into the mire. Today, Parliament is asked to accept a report first announced by the right hon. Gentleman in 1986, when he published a consultation paper and wrote to all the Conservative councillors in the country recommending his proposals.

The Secretary of State published his first set of detailed proposals on block grant distribution on 3 October 1986. A further set of detailed proposals were published on 3 December, and another set on 13 January 1987. Following the decision on the Greenwich borough case, yet another set was published on 5 March. We understand that if the Secretary of State is successful in his appeal against the Greenwich decision a further set of proposals may be put forward for the coming financial year.

What, we wonder, is the purpose of the right hon. Gentleman's appeal? What is he hoping to achieve by trying to obtain a decision that will yet again cause confusion and uncertainty in local government finance, when budgets will already be fixed and rates will already have been set?

The changes in provisional block grant entitlements for some authorities alter substantially from one consultation paper to another. As the hon. Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) and his colleagues in Bromley know only too well to their cost, and as is known in the city of Birmingham and in other towns and cities up and down the country, fluctuations running into millions of pounds occur almost weekly—certainly monthly—as a result of the incompetence of the right hon. Gentleman and his policies.

Despite the uncertainty about block grant entitlements, county councils and other precepting authorities are required by law to make their precepts for 1987–88 not later than 10 March, before the report has even been approved by the House, and rating authorities are required to make their rates not later than 1 April. Local authorities no longer have any right to make a supplementary rate or precept if their income from grant or other sources falls short of that taken into account when those rates or precepts were set. That, ' again, is the fault of the Government. The combination of lateness and uncertainty about grant entitlements for the coming financial year makes it harder for local authorities to plan sensibly, and inadequate planning leads almost inevitably to poor financial administration.

Since July, the right hon. Gentleman has made five announcements affecting grants to councils, and during that time there have been four Acts affecting local government finance. And Ministers have the gall to criticise councils for inefficiency! The Government have demonstrated an unprecedented level of bungling incompetence, and they cannot escape responsibility for the mess.

In a damning editorial, Local Government Chronicle, under the heading Ridley in a Central Mess", says the position typifies the woeful mess the Environment Secretary has allowed and encouraged his senior civil servants to get him into". In addition to the legal shambles of the Government's own creation, there has been the political fiddling of the system to buy off the much-leaked Tory revolt. How ironic it is to see Tory Members who demanded those policies being attacked by their own colleagues in local government, and by their own local Tory associations, for the capricious failures of those same policies—failures described by the editor of Local Government Chronicle as mere financial gerrymandering without accuracy, and, in a classic line, as the "height of loony government". How right the editor is.

All that was too much for the staunchest of Conservatives in the borough of Bromley, who watched in bemused disbelief as their grant went up and up, only to plunge down again by £3 million this year following the Secretary of State's failure to deliver his promise to make good their loss of £3 million last year—that is £6 million in two years from the staunchest of true blue supporters. How angry they must all feel.