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Orders of the Day — Local Government Finance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:20 pm on 1st February 1995.

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Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:20 pm, 1st February 1995

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give way because time is short.

The House will he interested to learn of a letter that the Secretary of State for Education wrote to one of her Cabinet colleagues. She said: If teachers' pay increases by 2-3 per cent., then there will be a loss of 7,000 to 10.000 teachers in England. I hope that the Minister will comment on that. The decision whether to fund the teachers' pay round properly is in the hands of the Government. It is up to them to decide whether local government should be properly reimbursed or whether they will take out that extra cost on every child in every school up and down the land. The children will face bigger classes and the educational consequences of that.

Let me deal with social services. The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) talked about his county council. Gloucestershire county council's care programme is £1 million in the red in the current financial year and is providing emergency care only to people at risk. John Standing, the Conservative group's spokesman, said that community care began as such a good idea but it is no good if we do not have the funding to carry out the ideas. That is a Conservative county councillor talking about what the Government have done to local government and community care.

In its recently published report entitled "Taking Stock: Progress on Community Care", the Audit Commission makes it clear that the community care system is under intense pressure. It states that it is underfunded, yet we know that the Government have de facto placed a freeze on the social services SSA for the coming year. In practical terms, that means a cut in funding for social services which, in turn, means cuts in services for the elderly and vulnerable. Those are the values of this Government—they are certainly the values that they have been pursuing for some years.

The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth has broken free from the constraints that once chained him and is now able to tell the truth. The implication of what he said was that there is a degree of hypocrisy among those sitting on the Conservative Front Bench, and it is not for me to disagree with him on this occasion. His was probably one of the better speeches that we heard from Conservative Members this evening.

Across the length and breadth of the land, county councils with social services responsibilities are saying that funding for the care in the community initiative is inadequate and that they cannot cope on the basis of the Government's settlement. It is no good the Minister saying that it is a good settlement when we know that his view is somewhat different—he recognised that the Treasury had managed to work one over on him and his colleagues.

It is important to get away from the idea that the debate is merely a competition in which Government supporters try to find Labour-run authorities to criticise and Labour Members are told that their own local authorities are nothing but incompetent. I shall refer to a number of local authorities where there has been all-party agreement on their approaches to central Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) said that an all-party delegation from Newcastle went to see the Minister to tell him that it was unacceptable that Newcastle had to cut its council tax and its services when the local populace wanted the services maintained. The Minister should respond to that point as we are told that capping is in the interests of local people.

The Minister should consider the borough of Havering, which sent a delegation to meet, I think, the Minister of State. The delegation was made up of members of all political parties on the council. They pointed out to him that it was invidious that the council had to make £17 million worth of cuts and, at the same time, increase the council tax by some 11 per cent. Perhaps the Minister can explain to Havering and the House why residents will have to pay more but get fewer services. Perhaps he can also explain why, despite the claim that the council was terribly inefficient while Labour was in charge, that Labour council was able to point out to him that it has cut about £30 million plus from the budget that it inherited from the previous Conservative authority. There has been no suggestion, even by the Conservatives, that it is a high-spending, loony left Labour council. It is a good, sound Labour council forced to cut services and increase the council tax because of the Government.

Let us consider Warwickshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) and at least one Conservative Member said that there was a threat of the loss of some 200 teachers' posts there. Again, it is no good the Conservatives saying that that is scaremongering; that is certainly not the view of people of stature in the community, and not that of politicians. Mr. Seamus Crowe, the head teacher of St. Francis primary school in Bedworth, told a county-wide meeting at Leamington on Friday last week: Our argument is not with the County Council, it is with the Government". Ordinary people involved in communities up and down the country are saying to the Minister, through us, that the Government have caused the problem and that it is for them to deal with it.

The Minister met an all-party delegation from Shropshire headed by a senior Conservative Member of Parliament and one of my colleagues. That delegation comprised councillors of all persuasions. They made the point to the Minister that Shropshire had been traditionally high spending on education under the Conservatives. That high spending had been maintained under Labour with the support of the Conservative group on the council.

Last night, the Conservative group on Shropshire council decided to support an attempt to go through the cap. I hope that the Minister will comment specifically on Shropshire, where his own colleagues in local government are saying that they think that the Government have got it wrong and that what the Government are doing is incompetent and ineffectual. I ask the Minister especially to note the comments of the leader and the deputy leader of the Conservative group. The leader said: Government needs to recognise the disaster it is heading for at the general election if it continues like this. The deputy leader said: The Government in London is remote from the impact of their decisions. I have to tell them they have got it wrong and we have got it right. Conservative local government is saying that the Conservative Government have got it wrong and that Conservatives in local government know better.