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Orders of the Day — Local Government Finance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:50 pm on 1st February 1995.

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Photo of Mr Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls , Teignbridge 6:50 pm, 1st February 1995

I hope that the right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) will not be offended if I do not follow his speech. It was an excellent speech, although I could not agree with all of it, but I am constrained by the time limit.

The right hon. Gentleman's speech was a marked and welcome contrast to that of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), which was boorish, ignorant, graceless and thoroughly uninformed. At least it had the virtue of being entirely consistent with every other speech that I have ever heard the hon. Gentleman make, and we should also give him credit for coming here to make it: that is more than can be said for the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who has played a significant part in the misrepresentation of the current settlement. Despite the steps that he has taken to misrepresent what is going on in the west country, the right hon. Gentleman could not even come to the House today. I find that remarkable, and think that it should be noted.

It is in the nature of politics that politicians, whether they are Labour, Liberal or Conservative, seek to put the best possible construction on their actions. Sometimes, the public feel that that amounts to dishonesty; I do not think that it does. Obviously, any political party will try to set out its stall as well as it can. However, what has happened in Devon in recent weeks goes far beyond that. The Liberal administration there has not merely put the best possible gloss on its own policies and the worst possible gloss on those of the Conservative Government; it has engaged in a campaign of deceit, disinformation and downright lying. I have a fairly thick skin in political terms—I need to—but that campaign is so appalling that even I have been surprised at not only what the Liberals have done but at the extent to which, so far, they have got away with it.

What the Liberals have done in Devon, and the way in which they have presented the position, is wicked, because it obscures the debate. If the Government had produced a settlement for Devon that was not fair, the Liberals' behaviour and the fact that it can be rubbished so easily would actually make it harder to bring Ministers to account—if, indeed, they had to be brought to account.

We Members of Parliament make the mistake of thinking that, because we all understand—to a greater or lesser extent—the way in which local government is financed and the way in which it works, our constituents will understand it as well. Most of them do not. What parents know, certainly those in Devon, is that their children have only one opportunity of being educated. If the Conservatives sort out Devon's education service when they are returned to power there, it will not help someone who has already gone through the school system.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) used a phrase for which he was derided; he should not have been. Let me use the phrase again. What terrifies parents is that they do not know the minutiae of local government funding. They do not understand that a local education authority has certain functions to perform, and has discretion to set its own priorities; what they know is that they are being told by their councilors—their councillors would not lie to them, would they? Would they hell!—that there will be massive cuts in the classroom. Teachers will be made redundant, and parents are outraged about that.

Let me draw attention to one of the most unfortunate aspects of all this. If my hon. Friend the Minister cannot deal with it today, I put down a marker: I shall pursue the matter in correspondence. What the Liberals in the west country are saying has been given some credibility by the fact that local government officers are prepared to sign letters that are no more than the crudest party political propaganda. Those same officers are also prepared to speak on television programmes, doing the Liberals' dirty work for them. It is almost as though my hon. Friend the Minister had a tricky television interview coming up, and persuaded his departmental permanent secretary to do it for him.

We may wonder why professional council officers allow themselves to be traduced in that way. We can imagine the pressure that they must have felt themselves to be under, to allow their professional expertise to be employed and their cloak of apparent honesty to be thrown over the shoulders of the Liberals.

What are the Liberals up to? Any lie must be told in a big way. They have held briefings, and I have observed the results from telephone calls, letters and visits that I have received. People have been told that Devon county council will receive less money this year: that is the first thing that they have been told. Is that true? It is false. Last year, the police authority was maintained within the council, but it is now maintained separately. If we compare like with like, we find that there has been a 7.8 per cent. overall increase rather than a decrease.

Parents are being asked—in a sense, this is the chief criterion—whether Devon is performing better than the average, in an average way or worse than the average, and they find that it is performing far worse than the average. I have discovered from meetings that they have even been told that Devon is the worst-funded county in the United Kingdom. The truth is, however, that it has received the fifth largest standard spending assessment increase. As for educational SSA, it has received double the national average. At the mention of annual capital guidelines, parents' eyes will glaze over, but hon. Members understand the significance of those guidelines. They specify what local education authorities can spend. Devon does not receive as much as it used to and it never will, but it receives about half as much again as the national average.