Local Authorities (Spending Levels)

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24 March 1993.

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Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers , Wallsend 12:00, 24 March 1993

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to allow local authorities to determine their own spending levels.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Secretary of State for Environment

It is for each local authority to set its own budget, taking account of all appropriate considerations, including any provisional criteria for capping which have been announced.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers , Wallsend

That is a particularly disappointing reply, even from this Secretary of State. Is he aware that, because of the severe capping regime being forced on local government, about 35,000 jobs have been lost in local councils in just the past few weeks and that, as a result, there have been deep and damaging cuts in vital local services? Does the Secretary of State agree that if there is to be the renaissance of local government promised a few weeks ago by the Prime Minister, it must entail giving local people the freedom to determine the level of local services, instead of the present interference from Whitehall?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Secretary of State for Environment

I certainly do not accept that there have been the job losses to which the hon. Gentleman refers. He is referring to the estimates which we always hear at this time of year and which are rarely translated into practice. What clearly emerges from his question is that he and his hon. Friends are prepared to remove all constraints from local authority spending and to see it go through the roof. That is a message which we shall take to every home in the shire districts of England in the forthcoming county council election campaign.

Photo of Mr Robert Jones Mr Robert Jones , Hertfordshire West

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that councils that set budgets that are indifferent to the plight of those who have to pay the council tax towards those budgets are not providing good leadership for their areas? Is not it the brutal truth that the vast majority of the local authorities that come up against the capping criteria are Labour or Labour and Liberal authorities, which are indifferent to the people who live in their area?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Secretary of State for Environment

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The attitude that the Opposition take to this question is entirely typical of their lack of concern for those who have to pay the bills.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Environment)

Has not the Secretary of State seen the Audit Commission's draft report entitled "Passing the Bucks", which wholly damns his disreputable standard spending assessment system as being "neither simple…nor stable". It states that it does not provide a standard level of service, that SSAs are now being used for tasks"—such as capping—for which they were not originally designed", and that they are confusing accountability between central and local government. How can he justify a system which claims that the Prime Minister's Huntingdonshire is more deprived than Chester-le-Street and that Bournemouth is more deprived than Barnsley? Is not the only explanation for such perverse outcomes that he has gerrymandered the system to suit his party? Does not he understand that the credibility of the whole system can be restored only if grant allocation is taken from his partisan hands and given to art independent grant commission, reporting via the Select Committee to the House?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Secretary of State for Environment

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to rise to confess at last that all his dire predictions about the council tax had been mistaken, that his prophecies of doom and gloom about the council tax in the past few months had been without foundation and that he had been entirely wrong.

The hon. Gentleman knows very well that we are going to undertake a fundamental review of the SSA system in time for the next settlement. I invite him and his colleagues to make representations to us in the context of that review. We know from experience that there will be as wide a variety of views expressed by members of the Labour party about what should happen as there will be from any other source.

Photo of Mr Roger Knapman Mr Roger Knapman , Stroud

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that few councils want to spend more than their SSAs and that most council tax payers want to be protected from the ambitions of high-spending councils? Will he also bear in mind the fact that if Oxfordshire can be in the south-east for area cost adjustment purposes, Gloucestershire would like to be in the south-east for those purposes, too?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Secretary of State for Environment

I understand the concern that my hon. Friend expresses on behalf of Gloucestershire and I certainly agree that people want to be protected from high-charging councils and that Conservative councils, on the whole, do not wish to spend beyond their capping limits. However, I cannot extend my agreement with my hon. Friend to cover Labour-controlled councils. If given the chance, they would undoubtedly spend beyond their capping limits and would be encouraged to do so by the Labour party, with total disregard for the interests of the people who live in those areas.