Derbyshire County Council

Petition – in the House of Commons at 10:42 pm on 8th March 1988.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin , West Derbyshire 11:02 pm, 8th March 1988

The debate is intended to draw attention to the extraordinary spending levels of Derbyshire county council. The county council has already responded in its usual hysterical way in a press release issued today, in which it accuses me of hiding behind parliamentary privilege. I wonder how I can be accused of hiding behind parliamentary privilege before anyone knows what I am going to say. The county council's response is strange but we in Derbyshire have become accustomed to strange responses. If the county council thinks that that is how it will gag us so that we do not expose what we regard as some of the most serious abuses of local government expenditure, it is mistaken It will have exactly the opposite effect.

The last time that I was fortunate enough to secure an Adjournment debate, it was on the future of Ecclesbourne sixth form school. Again, the county council was trying to destroy an excellent school of proven worth for the sake of following Socialist dogma. I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science refused the application and that the sixth form school has survived because of the efforts of a Conservative Government to ensure that good education is made available.

I believe in the role of local government, which has an important part to play in British democracy. Local government is there to provide services. The problem with so many Left-wing county councils is that they try to become not a provider of services but an alternative to the Government. We are not a federal but a unitary Parliament and power is devolved from the Government to local authorities.

The spending levels of Derbyshire county council have caused its ratepayers nothing but distress over a number of years. We are now left with the highest precept in England. It is a staggering 297·5p this year. That increase was announced last Friday.

The county council is saying that that is not its fault, but the fault of the Government. The Government's proposals towards the end of 1987 implied that if Derbyshire holds its current expenditure broadly constant in real terms, its grant will increase by £17 million—over 13 per cent.—to £149 million, the third highest increase of any shire county. That would be consistent with a very low increase in its precept—less than half of 1 per cent. That is on the assumption that Derbyshire will increase its total expenditure by 3·9 per cent. to £435 million, which will be over 5 per cent. more than—

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Vice-Chair, Labour Party

Why does not the hon. Gentleman give the House the facts? The Tory Government have robbed Derbyshire county council of £107 million in the last seven years and £20 million in this financial year. They have cut the rate support grant from 61 to 46 per cent. That is why the ratepayers in the hon. Gentleman's constituency have had to pay more money.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin , West Derbyshire

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I shall deal with his important point. However, let me continue.

The total expenditure will have increased by 3·9 per cent. to £435 million, which will be over 5 per cent. more than is needed to provide the standard level of local services—the grant-related expenditure assessment of £413 million. The GRE will increase by over 8 per cent. this year, reflecting the priority given by the Government to education and the police.

If Derbyshire county council was being treated unfairly by the Government, one would expect other county authorities to suffer in the same way. Therefore, I want to take a few minutes to compare Derbyshire with Staffordshire county council.

I had the privilege of serving on Staffordshire county council for some six years from 1981. The comparison between Staffordshire and Derbyshire is a good one. Staffordshire has a population of 1,021,000 and an area of 271,000 hectares. The population of Derbyshire is 916,000 and it has an area of 263,000 hectares. Both have a city within their county boundaries. Derbyshire has the city of Derby and Staffordshire has Stoke-on-Trent.

If the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is so interested in the subject, perhaps he should listen. Derbyshire county council's rate in 1981–82 was 111p, Staffordshire county council's rate in that year was 112·5p. Derbyshire county council's rate for 1988–89 is 297·5p and Staffordshire county council's rate for 1988–89 is only 215p. Derbyshire county council's rate has increased over that period by 168 per cent. while Staffordshire county council's rate increase has been 91 per cent. Inflation over that period has been 52 per cent.

If there is any logic in what the hon. Member for Bolsover said, one would think that those county authorities had been controlled by different parties, but both authorities are controlled and run by the Labour party. Is the hon. Member for Bolsover saying that somehow the Government have made specific legislation for Derbyshire county council? That is nonsense. The Government legislate for local government throughout the United Kingdom. They do not legislate only for Derbyshire county council. We need to get across to our constituents in Derbyshire the fact that the Government have treated county councils equally.

Why is it that we in Derbyshire have such a high level of rates? As we all know, education takes up the biggest percentage of the rates. As Derbyshire has a higher level of rates than Staffordshire, one would think that Derbyshire would be spending more than Staffordshire on education, but what are the facts? The latest figures available, the cash figures for 1985–86 from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, show that spending on a pupil in a primary school in Staffordshire is £815, and for a pupil in a secondary school it is £1,125. In Derbyshire, where the county council should be spending more, it is spending less—£780 on primary education and the same as Staffordshire on secondary education. However, the rates in Derbyshire are far higher.

Derbyshire county council, together with its usual propaganda, has tried to make the case that ratepayers in Derbyshire do not pay the highest rates. The latest leaflet it put out last week after the county rate meeting says that in Buckinghamshire people pay more. On properties with a rateable value of £150, with Buckinghamshire's county precept, a ratepayer would pay £341·55. In Derbyshire, on the rate precept for the coming year the cost would be £446·25. It is only Socialist logic that says people in Buckinghamshire are paying more rates than people in Derbyshire. It is quite disgraceful that we have the highest shire precept county rate. There is no good reason for it. It is higher by a substantial margin.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin , West Derbyshire

I have given way once already. This is only an Adjournment debate. If the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) wishes to apply for an Adjournment debate to put the case for Derbyshire county council, which I am sure his constituents would love him to do, he is entitled to do so.

The sooner the present rating system is changed, the better. It cannot happen soon enough for me or for my constituents. The important factor in the new system is accountability. I believe that Derbyshire county council is the highest and the most reckless spending county council in England. It is falling in line with some of the loony London boroughs with which we have to put up.

I want to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to what I believe is a blatant abuse of ratepayers' money to further the political ends of an election candidate. I understand that it is possible, under the county council's rules, to hold surgeries and that they can be charged to the county council. The level of £250 a year is allowed for that. Mr. David Bookbinder seems to have held quite a few of those surgeries. I understand that he has held 12. It is disgraceful that only four of them were held in the county division that he represents. The others were held in the parliamentary constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) where Mr. Bookbinder happened to be the prospective Labour party parliamentary candidate. That is a blatant abuse of ratepayers' money to further the political ends of one man. That abuse should be investigated by the Audit Commission. That kind of abuse is absolutely disgraceful. Despite Mr. Bookbinder holding all those surgeries, my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley achieved a most incredible election result. He secured a 9,500 majority in a seat which the Labour party expected to win. The House is better off with my hon. Friend's presence than it would have been with the presence of Mr. Bookbinder.

As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said last week, we could go on for ever and a day talking about some of the mad things being done by Derbyshire county council. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley wants to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I will be brief.

I want to refer to a leaflet produced by the county council and given to schoolchildren to take home to their parents. I have received a number of letters about the leaflet. Far from the county council's propaganda reaching parents, it has had the opposite effect. To illustrate my point I will quote from some of the letters that I have received. For example: I enclose a letter that my son aged 15 brought home from school yesterday. I am sure you will have read it like others and I would like to ask you the following questions: Are the county council within their rights to send political propaganda via pupil post in an unsealed manner? Another letter that I have received states: Frankly I was disgusted that my son aged 5 was used to further"—

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes , North East Derbyshire

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The subject of this Adjournment debate is the Government's monitoring of Derbyshire county council's spending levels. We have heard nothing yet about the Government's monitoring of those levels.

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Woodspring

I remind the House that the Adjournment debate is a very wide debate. I have heard nothing out of order so far.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin , West Derbyshire

I can well understand the embarrassment that Labour Members must feel as they try to defend the indefensible. The fact that Labour Members have tried to score cheap points instead of answering the points that I have put before my hon. Friend the Minister shows that they have no idea what to do about Derbyshire county council.

I will continue to read from some of the letters that I have received from parents in response to the leaflet sent out by the county council: Frankly I was disgusted that my son aged 5 was used to further the Socialist ends of the county council in bringing home this letter and leaflet both of which give a very biased view of the possible effects of the Government's proposed legislation. The sooner the legislation comes into force the sooner we shall be able to control Derbyshire county council.

Another letter states: Why was the letter delivered to me through my 7-year-old daughter bringing the letter and pamphlet home without the same even being put in an envelope? Was it intended that my daughter should read it? Was it intended as political indoctrination? Yet another letter stated: Our daughter returned from school today clutching among other circulars from her headmaster the enclosed piece of political propaganda. This method of delivery implies that the headmaster and school support this policy and it raises two important questions. Is it legal for the council to require a headmaster to distribute political propaganda to the school children in this way? We find that unacceptable. Is ratepayers' money being spent on the printing and distribution of such propaganda when it should be spent on books providing educational facilities for students and pupils in Derbyshire, who have to go through the state school system and who are being failed by the county council, not by the Government? A number of councils with precepts far lower than that of Derbyshire have already been rate-capped. It is high time the Government stood by the people of Derbyshire and considered rate-capping the county council.

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Woodspring

Order. Does the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) or the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) have the agreement of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) and the Minister to intervene?

Photo of Mr Philip Oppenheim Mr Philip Oppenheim , Amber Valley 11:21 pm, 8th March 1988

I welcome the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to the Opposition Front Bench—a most unusual position for him. I suggest that he does not get too comfortable there because he is unlikely to stay there for long. While we have the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for sport, I want to say that when I recently turned out on the right wing for Amber Valley rugby club's third XV to play Bolsover rugby club, I was surprised to find that Bolsover thought it wise to send its first XV to play our third team. Imagine my disappointment not to find the hon. Member for Bolsover playing on the left wing against me. I f he had played, the game would have been replete with possibilities and opportunities.

I know that the leader and members of the Derbyshire county council feel that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) and I have some sort of vendetta against the council, but I assure them that we have not. We believe that it is our duty to represent our constituents. I hope that the council leader will listen to what we say tonight, will carefully consider our arguments and will agree that his council may be wanting in some areas.

On many occasions, the leader of the county council has professed that he is a great friend of freedom of information. He spent a large sum of ratepayers' money fighting a case in the courts to establish whether the banned book "Spycatcher" could be stocked in county council libraries. So one would expect him to be more than ready to purvey information about his county council as freely as possible.

Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. Last year, against the specific advice of investment experts, Derbyshire county council decided to invest £305,000 of county council pension fund money in a newspaper called News on Sunday, which was a cause célèebre among Left-wing councils and trade unions, which thought it would be a Left-Wing flagship newspaper.

Needless to say, the newspaper quickly ran into difficulties and was the subject of a rescue bid by a northwestern estate agent by the name of Owen Oyston, who apparently bought a large share of the News on Sunday company, diluting the stake of the original investors, which were largely county council pension funds. I understand that in the process, Mr. Oyston, who is obviously a bright and assiduous business man, paid himself a consultancy fee of £4,000 a week for running the paper. So much for Socialist brotherhood.

The injection of cash kept the News on Sunday going until shortly after the election, when it ran into more embarrassing trouble. It appeared that the company concerned would have to go into liquidation and that all the money that the various pension funds had invested would be lost. But—surprise, surprise—Derbyshire county council managed to sell its stake back to Mr. Oyston for £400,000. What it did not say was that it had agreed to invest a further £400,000 of pension fund money in another of Mr. Oyston's ventures, with the possibility of another £2 million of pension fund money being invested by the council in another of his ventures called "Telemags".

I have written to the leader of the county council on several occasions to ask whether the repayment or £400,000 to the county council pension fund by Mr. Oyston was in any way linked with the council's commitment to invest another £400,000 of the pension' fund in another of Mr. Oyston's ventures plus a further £2 million that it has agreed to consider investing. Despite those letters and several reminders, the county council leader has steadfastly refused to give the information. So much for the great friend of freedom of speech.

In many other areas we have found that the wasteful council has been most unwilling to give information. In council-run libraries in my constituency the only national newspapers that are stocked are The Guardian and the Daily Mirror. I have written to the county councillor responsible, councillor Lennox, on no fewer than six occasions asking why a wider range of newspapers is not stocked. After the sixth letter the councillor wrote back and said that he did not seem to have received the previous five letters. I know how gullible the Opposition are and they can believe that excuse if they like, but my credulity was stretched by that reply.

There are many examples of waste by the county council and all too often it falls back on the spurious claim that the Government have cut rate support grant. All the figures demonstrate that, since the Labour party came to power in Derbyshire in 1981, far from cutting that grant, the Government have increased it substantially in excess of the rate of inflation. Indeed, that county council has been treated far more generously than many southern Tory-controlled councils. The claim that the Government have cut the rate support grant is total nonsense.

In common with most of my constituents, I believe that the improvement and proper management of our education system is essential to our recovery as an industrial nation. I wish to highlight one of many possible examples of what I consider to be political interference and mismanagement of state education by the county council. Recently it decided to close down a school in the neighbouring town of Ilkeston in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost). The council decided to use loopholes in the law to pack the shadow governing body of that school with as many of its supporters as possible. Four of the five parent governors from the previous board were appointed, but virtually all the remaining appointed governors were strong Labour party supporters. The county council was trying to pack that shadow governing body with as many of its political supporters as possible to ensure that its political will was imposed on that school against the obvious wishes of the parents and children concerned and against the best interests of the children and people of Derbyshire.

I have no vendetta against the county council. However, some of my constituents—retired miners—who live in small, terraced houses, ex-coal board houses and bungalows in areas such as Somercotes and Alfreton are paying between £500 and £700 in rates whereas in the next-door county of Staffordshire they would be paying between £300 and £400 only.

I appeal to the Derbyshire county councillors to be less profligate and less political in their spending and to consider, for once, the legitimate interests of the ratepayers and people whom they are meant to serve.

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East 11:28 pm, 8th March 1988

Before replying to the many interesting and important points raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) and for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim), I should like to tender the apologies of my ministerial colleagues who normally deal with local government finance matters for not being here this evening. Hon. Members will be aware that they are unavoidably detained elsewhere with the members of Standing Committee E in considering the provisions of the Local Government Finance Bill.

As the Leader of the House said last week, we have, sadly, reached the stage at which nothing done by Derbyshire county council causes much surprise, but what continues to grow unabated is our disappointment. Derbyshire is the sort of authority that would seek praise from its ratepayers for increasing its precept by a similar percentage to other authorities, but omit to point out—although its ratepayers probably need no reminding—that this was only because the county's precept was already the highest in the country.

Last week, and again this evening, attention has been drawn to what may be yet another example of this council abusing its publicity powers to peddle Socialist propaganda. It is wholly inappropriate to use public funds for such a purpose. It is even more disgraceful if the council has used schoolchildren to help distribute such material.

I am pleased to say that both Houses of Parliament have now approved measures in the Local Government Bill which, when enacted, will reinforce the statutory ban on party political propaganda at public expense. These measures will also ensure that local authorities must have regard to the practice which Parliament recommends in the field of publicity.

Returning to the main issue under consideration, under the rate support grant settlement for the coming year, which was debated and approved by the House before Christmas, the county council stood to receive about £17·5 million more grant than it does this year if it fixed its budget in line with our spending assumption. That spending assumption would have allowed the authority to keep its current expenditure roughly steady in real terms, and it made special allowance for the extra cost of teachers' pay arising from the pay agreement made last year.

The county was also fortunate in having an 8 per cent. increase in its spending needs assessment, arising largely from the priority that we gave through the settlement to extra spending on county level services such as the police and education. Hon. Members present who do not represent the Derbyshire area may be surprised at, and perhaps envious of, the fact that we calculated that the extra grant would have enabled the county to increase its precept by less than a penny.

However, my Department has just learnt that Derbyshire decided on Friday to increase its precept by 35·5p—or, as it might say, "only 13½ per cent."—and thereby retained the doubtful honour of having the highest county precept. In so doing, it has fixed a budget nearly £18 million above our spending assumption and thereby chosen to forgo nearly £7 million in block grant, adding £25 million in all to the amount financed from the rates.

I wonder how the county's publicity machine will decide to present such uncomfortable facts to local people this year. Even as the Minister with responsibility for sport, I should perhaps not risk the controversy that offering dietary advice can sometimes arouse, but I feel bound to say that a change to a hard fact diet in Derbyshire would do a lot to improve the health of local democracy.

There must be many people in Derbyshire who believe that the county has already gone too far and would like to see some direct action by the Government to redress the balance. Many may think, as my hon. Friend suggested, that rate-capping would be the most obvious course. Although the county has the highest precept in the country—and certainly very much higher than Camden's—that on its own is not enough to allow such exceptional action.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-eight minutes to Twelve o'clock.