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I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate and I make no apology for returning to a theme that I have pursued for the past four or five years—the continuing disgraceful treatment that the people of St. Helens receive from the Government in the annual revenue support grant settlements.
Local government finance is a difficult and complex subject, but it directly affects every man, woman and child in my constituency. When they receive neither justice nor fairness, they have a right to expect a Member of Parliament to speak out on their behalf in the Chamber. St. Helens has consistently been treated unfairly by the system, although, at the same time, the council has striven to improve the delivery of service to the public.
Staffing in St. Helens council has been reduced by 11 per cent. since 1992, and overall spending has been reduced by £13 million over the past two years, but the system continues to discriminate against the council. In 1995–96, the council faces further cuts of more than £7 million to avoid capping, but council tax payers face an increase of more than 14 per cent. due to losses in revenue support grant. It will be impossible for St. Helens to fund any increase in teachers' salaries in the coming months.
The Government frequently imply that, in some way, the problems of St. Helens are due to inefficiency on the part of the Labour council. Indeed, in an intervention, the Secretary of State hinted as much again tonight. Is St. Helens council inefficient'? It is not, according to the district auditor who, on several occasions in the past few years, has praised the council. Indeed, last year he gave it a glowing report.
The district auditor's report for 1993–94, which was produced in December, praised the council's work in relation to the implementation of the citizens charter, the quality of children's services, the financial management of schools within the borough, progress in implementing care in the community, and progress on issues that the district auditor raised in previous reports. He finished his comments by saying:
We are pleased to confirm that the Authority has made good progress towards implementing the recommendations made in these reports, consequently there are no issues we would wish to draw to members' attention.
The auditor's reports make it absolutely clear that St. Helens is a well-run, efficiently managed council. However, that cannot be said about the London borough of Westminster, whose previous auditor's report three years ago was a devastating exposé of maladministration and corruption, with senior councillors and officers threatened with a £21 million surcharge, which is still hanging over them. There have been no further auditor's reports on Westminster over the past couple of years, so God alone knows what the current position is. It is sufficient to draw attention to the front page of today's edition of The Guardian. It is revealed that, according to documents which have been leaked,
Thousands of people who bought council flats in the Conservative run city of Westminster have been given unlimited free repairs to their homes for life, under a deal revealed in a confidential report by the council's own auditors.
Incredibly, the Government do not accept that Westminster council is corrupt and inefficient. Indeed, Tory Members claims that the reasons for Westminster's low council tax are its efficiency and enterprise. I ask hon. Members to consider the reply to me by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment on 18 January. He said that the average council tax for a band D property in St. Helens
is £652 and for Westminster £245. If St. Helens were to spend at the same rate as Westminster relative to standard spending assessment, the band D council tax in St. Helens would be £224—even lower than in Westminster."—[Official Report, 18 January 1995; Vol. 252, c. 698.]
Even the Prime Minister, in reply to a question that I put to him on 3 May 1994, referred to
some of the reasons why Westminster is so efficient".—[Official Report, 3 May 1994; Vol. 242, c. 589.]
However, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, in answer to my supplementary question, said:
To describe St. Helens and Westminster as broadly similar authorities is ridiculous".—[Official Report,18 January 1995; Vol. 252, c. 698.]
I decided to investigate further the two metropolitan boroughs, Westminster and St. Helens, which have exactly the same statutory duties placed upon them by Her Majesty's Government. I used the citizens charter for the information, because it requires local authorities to publish their performance indicators. I discovered that 96 per cent. of housing repair jobs in St. Helens are completed within target times, whereas in Westminster the figure is 7 per cent. In St. Helens, 5 per cent. of tenants owe 13 weeks' rent or more, and in Westminster the figure is 10 per cent.
Management costs per dwelling per week in St. Helens are £4, and in Westminster they are £21. In St. Helens 14 per cent. of benefits claims are processed within 14 days, and in Westminster it is 66 per cent. In St. Helens, 92 per cent. of housing benefits claims are processed within 14 days, and in Westminster the figure is 76 per cent. The gross cost of administration per claimant in St. Helens is £64 and in Westminster it is £226. As for the council tax, the percentage of net yield collected in St. Helens is 100 per cent., and in Westminster it is 91 per cent. The net cost of collection per dwelling is £16 in St. Helens and £25 in Westminster.
No one could seriously dispute that, on that information, which has been supplied by the authorities themselves, St. Helens is far more efficient than Westminster.
On many occasions I have drawn attention to the huge differences between the Government's SSAs for St. Helens and those for Westminster in respect of education and social services. Tonight, because of the time constraints, I shall refer to only one example, and that is children in care. The SSA for St. Helens is £30,000 per child per annum. In Westminster, it is £50,000 per child per annum. It is nonsense that Westminster should receive £20,000 more per child.
Another interesting matter is highways and street lighting. Incredibly, the boroughs are rather similar. St. Helens has a greater length of roads, whereas Westminster has more traffic flow and more visitors. I do not know whether the Minister is aware of the effect of extra traffic and visitors in respect of maintenance costs. According to Her Majesty's Government, it is significant. The SSA per 1 km of road in St. Helens is £8,004, and in Westminster it is £28,895. Extra traffic can add considerably to maintenance costs, but surely not to the extent of £20,000 per 1 km of road.
How much strain do visitors to Westminster place on the council's finances? It is no less than £3.7 million. That shows just how much additional SSA is paid to Westminster in respect of highways and for "visitor nights".
St. Helens and Westminster serve similar populations. The resident population of St. Helens is more than 180,000, and that of Westminster is 189,000, but how much do those authorities need to spend on services such as leisure, libraries, parks, car parking and refuse collection? The amount that is allowed to St. Helens for those services is £27.2 million. The figure for Westminster is nearly £109 million.
I shall put the matter into perspective. When Westminster spends £1 on services, it is required to ask for only 3p from the—