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Orders of the Day — Local Government Finance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:48 pm on 1st February 1995.

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Photo of Mr Mark Robinson Mr Mark Robinson , Somerton and Frome 7:48 pm, 1st February 1995

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already provided the answer to that point, although I hope to develop it later.

Because of the way in which Somerset's local management formula works on schools, the budget will be very harsh if the county council persists in its course of action. That would be extremely disappointing for many people because Somerset county council has been doing very well in the education league and, over recent years, it has brought its pupil-teacher ratio up to the national average.

There is no doubt that this year's settlement is difficult, but we must ask whether Somerset county council's response is legitimate in those circumstances. Together with my Conservative colleagues in Somerset, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and my hon. Friends the Members for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), I have examined the county council's proposals. We agree that alternative strategies could he followed which would protect Somerset's education budget from the kind of unjustified pressure that will be placed on it if the Liberal Democrats have their way.

We are supported in our view by the very experienced Conservative leadership on the county council, including the well-respected former chairman of the education committee, Councillor Bea Roberts. As part of our scrutiny of the county council's budget, we uncovered underspending in this year's budget.

I suppose that we should not be surprised that, since the Liberal Democrats took control two years ago, meetings allowances and travelling expenses have escalated, as has already been pointed out. A recent Audit Commission report shows that the size of the council's legal staff is well above average and record sums have been spent on legal costs.

However, Somerset has had no difficulty finding the funds to protect its anti-hunting crusade. One moment it takes steps to remove travellers from its land at Podimore in my constituency and the next moment it invites them back to spend a month-long Christmas holiday there, to the fury of local landowners who have suffered damage and threats to their livestock.

We now have a tight settlement, but the council's so-called community initiatives, which involve the establishment of information points or offices in 13 Somerset towns, seem to be more important than protecting teachers' jobs. There is no question of cutting those initiatives.

Some of the things that I have mentioned may involve only small amounts of money, but they all add up. At no stage is there a suggestion that an audit of expenditure should take place to discover whether further savings can be found. We believe that such an audit should be carried out as a matter of urgency.

However, larger sums can also be identified. For example, the county's capital fund could produce over £2 million with some judicious postponement of planned projects until the funding improves. In addition, revenue balances could be utilised and, if I am not mistaken, those balances are net of cap. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that when he replies.

The county council has informed me that those balances amount to £9 million. However, I understand that the Department of the Environment estimated a substantial cash balance of £36.4 million on I April 1994. Can my hon. Friend the Minister confirm his Department's view of the state of Somerset's cash balances, given the different figures that are now being bandied about?

What is so typical of the Liberal Democrats is that they refuse point blank to discuss or consider any alternative ideas. I can only conclude that their strategy is to put party advantage first and children's education second. That is already clear. The weakness of the Liberal Democrats' argument is shown not just by the fact that the right hon. Member for Yeovil could not take part in what he regarded as a very important debate, but in the fact that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) would not give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater. The weakness of the argument can he exposed very easily and it is exposed by our very experienced county councillors who have drawn up their alternative budget.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already stated that the settlement proposes an increase in spending. However, local Liberal Democrat-inspired petitions talk about the "massive cut" in funding from central Government. How can an overall increase in SSA for Somerset of 1.4 per cent. compared to the overall county average of 0.6 per cent. be considered a massive cut? It is absolute nonsense.