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Orders of the Day — Local Government Finance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:50 pm on 1st February 1995.

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Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 5:50 pm, 1st February 1995

I understand that. We are not making a party political point because, as we understand it, all the members of Shropshire county council—Tory, Liberal and Labour alike—believe that the capping limit is too low to allow them to provide the services that they believe their people deserve.

If we can believe what we read, the Tory members of the county council have been making representations to the Secretary of State, presumably to the same effect—although I hope that they have been more successful than some others who have made representations. I have checked on what happened to the seven Tory-controlled councils—there are so few of them these days—which have made representations to the Secretary of State or to one of his Ministers. They include Solihull, about which the Secretary of State was looking so concerned. Solihull went to ask for more; it ended up with £51,000 less. Castle Point went and came out with less. Likewise Dartford, Ribble Valley, Rushmoor, Thanet, and above all Brent, which went and lost £500,000 as a result of its representations. And that is what happens to Tory councils.

Even more seriously, last year the fire service in South Yorkshire was so short of funds that it had to capitalise fire fighters' pension lump sums. In ordinary language, it took out a mortgage to find the money to pay the lump sums to fire fighters retiring from the service. The Government accepted that South Yorkshire was skint enough to have to do that. This year one might have expected the council to get a bit more from the Government to ease matters a little, but it got less: a cut of £1.4 million from a total budget of only £32 million. For the past two years, that fire brigade has not been able to afford new uniforms or new tyres for the fire engines. It needs to replace the fire engine tyres: worn tyres are not exactly a good idea.

The chief fire officer says that the authority cannot cope. I have to tell the Secretary of State—I had hoped that the Government machine would warn him of this—that the Home Office inspector has said that South Yorkshire cannot meet its minimum standards of fire cover on its current budget. So the people of South Yorkshire will have to pay more for less fire cover. I understand that the same applies on Merseyside, which has a £4.7 million shortfall. The authority fears that it will be in breach of its statutory duty.

While we are in South Yorkshire, let me mention Barnsley, which is apparently far less deprived than Runnymede and similar places. Over the past few years, Barnsley has lost 20 pits. In their desperate efforts to get the pit closure programme through the House, the Government promised to set up enterprise zones in the areas most deprived as a result of pit closures, yet they are so slovenly and useless that not one of those enterprise zones is yet in operation. The one in Barnsley certainly is not, and Barnsley has been capped on its standard spending assessment. It faces the prospect of having to close day centres for the mentally handicapped, for instance. Even if it can avoid that, it may have to withdraw one of those little, kindly forms of gentleness that make life better for people who are in a bad way. Until now, when people have gone to the centres for the mentally handicapped in Barnsley they have been given a little pay—£4 or £5 a week—to give them a bit of self-respect and spending money. Under this settlement, it seems likely that, even if the centre can be kept open, that little bit of self-respect will have to be withdrawn.