My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope) wanted to reply to the debate, but, as the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) has been told, my hon. Friend was called away at short notice to Southampton. However, the reason is a happy one. His wife is expecting a baby, and it is arriving early, so it is right that he should be there.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Carlisle on securing the debate and on the vigorous way in which he has put the case for a higher spending assessment for Cumbria. This is not the first time that there have been consultations and discussions between Ministers from my Department and representatives from the county council about the SSA. On 6 December last year, a cross-party delegation from Cumbria county council met my hon. Friend the Member for Itchen and put to him many of the points that the hon. Member has raised again tonight. The council put its case clearly and identified a number of aspects of the SSA where it did not do as well as it thought it should. The fact that Cumbria was able to identify so specifically where it was not happy with the SSAs demonstrates that, at the very least, the new system is, as we had intended, much more understandable than the complex grant-related expenditure assessments that it replaces.
Ministers in my Department have met many other delegations, from local authorities throughout the country, about local authority grant settlement for this year. We have also received many written representations. Nearly every authority from which we heard put forward reasons why it should be treated as a special case and why some element of the SSAs was not appropriate to its circumstances. My righ hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment considered all these sometimes conflicting representations and laid before the House the distribution report which defines how SSAs are calculated. He said:
Excluding the parish councils, there are 426 local authorities in England, and the more deputations I have received concerning SSAs, the more I have realised that there are at least 424 special cases".—[Official Report, 18 January 1990; Vol. 165, c. 435.]
Drawing up a means to distribute standard spending assessments between the 426 authorities is a difficult task. My right hon. Friend has reached a basis that is fair and strikes the right balance between the differing points of view put to him.
The basis of the distribution is in no way arbitrary and does not seek to reward or penalise particular authorities. It is set out very clearly in the distribution report, approved by the House, which gives a formula for each of a number of service blocks. These formulae apply in exactly the same way to all authorities providing particular services. The information which feeds into the formula is derived from nationally available data sources, so that these data are provided on a consistent basis for all authorities.