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Orders of the Day — Local Government Finance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:40 pm on 1st February 1995.

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Photo of Mr Gordon Oakes Mr Gordon Oakes , Halton 6:40 pm, 1st February 1995

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) will forgive me, I hope, if I do not follow all the points in his speech, although I wish to refer to some of them.

It was refreshing to hear a voice from local government talking about the motion, because in your absence, Madam Speaker, the debate became a shambles. I have attended many of these debates. It was no fault of your deputy, Madam Speaker. The fault lay in the fact that the Secretary of State quite deliberately allowed interventions over and over again from Conservative Members. I know that a Secretary of State or a Minister gives way to interventions, but not repeatedly like that.

I have taken these motions many times in the House. I have proposed them from the Front Bench. One allows a few interventions, but one does not base one's speech on interventions. One should try to explain to the House what the motion is about. That the Secretary of State signally failed to do by talking about street signs in Suffolk and lesbian centres in Camden, by criticising the fact that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) was not in the Chamber—all that sort of silly arguing. I wish that a video of the debate would be sent to every councillor, especially Conservative councillors, who, like us, are concerned with the community. They are caring people, just as Labour and Liberal councillors are caring people. They are colleagues of ours in a different sphere. To be treated in that way in what is probably the most important debate for local government was nothing but a disgrace.

The motion has been described as harsh. I would go further and say that it is intolerable, because local authorities will find not only that their services have diminished but that they will be unable to provide some services at all because of lack of money—not from malice, not from putting people in fear, but simply because they have run out of money for those particular services.

I am an honorary—I stress that word—vice-president of the Association of County Councils. It is opposed to the motion and finds it deplorable. I also represent a Cheshire constituency. I hasten to tell the Minister that it is not a Labour-controlled authority but an alliance between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and they oppose the motion because of its injustice.

Let us take two Departments in central Government—the Department for Education and the Department of Social Security. I understand that the figures for this year—limited though they are—are 4.1 per cent. for education and 3.7 per cent. for social services. The actual figure this October, with all the changes in police orders, and so on, is 0.5 per cent. for each of those services in local government. That shows the disgraceful discrepancy between the way in which central Government treat themselves and the way in which they treat what should be their partner—local government.

I have another criticism, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), whose intervention was on this subject. One reason why there are discrepancies between Cheshire, Derbyshire, Cleveland and Tyneside is that an area cost adjustment is built into the system. That adjustment is supposed to compensate for the fact that it is more expensive to pay staff in London and the south-east than in the rest of the country. That might have happened at one time, but I challenge that assumption now on national wage bargaining. Even if there is some truth in it, it does not excuse the enormous advantage that counties and boroughs in the south-east have over the rest of the country. There is no way in which that can be excused. I do not think that it is a coincidence that most of the Conservative seats in the country are in the south-east.

I wish briefly to look at one service, because the motion covers a vast subject—social services, to which the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar rightly referred. It is central Government and local government at the sharp end. It is where the Government come into contact with the most distressed people in our society: the old, the sick, especially the mentally sick, and children, right at the centre of their lives. As Members of Parliament, we all know that. We see it in our surgeries and we gladly pass on those cases to the county or borough social services department. Alas, when we do that in future, many of those services will not be able to be provided, because the departments will not have the money after the settlement.

The ACC estimated the cost of such social services. There is a shortfall in the amount that departments are to be given under the motion—I have the figures, but will not go into them, as that would waste time—of £261 million. The people who will suffer are the old, the sick and children in need of care.

A couple of years ago, Cheshire county council introduced a system of charging for care. Now, I understand, more than one third of councils are forced to charge for care. As a result of the settlement, I guarantee that the percentage of councils that are forced to do that will be 100 per cent., because there is a built-in system whereby 9 per cent. is assumed to come from charges. We are talking about the most vulnerable section of the community. It is likely to come from the poorest—those not with low means but, in many cases, no means. There is no way in which a caring—even an uncaring—county council can recover those sums.

What will that mean, then, in human terms? We have debated the figures—they are major figures—but it comes down to human terms. One of the few ideas that the Government had was to implement the community care scheme. Everybody agreed to it—the Association of County Councils and every shire county. It is a far more humane system. The national health service has benefited from it, quite rightly, because people are better off in the community. Previously, people were institutionalised, either long term in a hospital or in some other institution. The community care scheme should have been the Government's flagship, but the transfer from the NHS has not been followed up and matched by a fair transfer of finance among the authorities.

What is happening now? We see it in our streets. In the community, local authorities have the responsibility of care; they would willingly provide that care, but they do not have the money to do so. The Secretary of State may say that that is because of waste or inefficiency, but that is not what the Audit Commission says. It is not what his own inspectors say when they examine how the community carries out the schemes.

We must look at the subject in human terms, in terms, for example, of the people who suffer from schizophrenia. There have been some dreadful, tragic cases, for the person concerned and for his or her family, and sometimes the family of the victims. The money will not be available to provide the care needed.

We must think of special needs teachers. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) would have raised that matter had he not been upstairs in a Select Committee. We must think of children who need to be put in care as a result of sexual or other physical abuse: places will not be provided, as they were in the past. We must think of meals on wheels, and other services for elderly people. Those, too, will be cut.

Finally, we must think of the carers who save the country millions of pounds more than the revenue support grant, through the love and care that they devote to, for example, sufferers from Alzheimer's disease for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. At present, councils can provide places that allow those carers some respite, but they may not be able to do so in the future.

Many Conservative Members are as caring as Opposition Members. When they vote tonight, let them remember that.