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I am sorry that my right hon. Friend is unable to visit shire hall in Gloucester, but my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. French)—my right hon. Friend's parliamentary private secretary—will confirm that primary schools in the county are having their budgets cut by an average of between 5 and 6 per cent., and in one case, by 10 per cent., despite an increase in the standard spending assessment permitted spending of 2.6 per cent. My right hon. Friend would also find that grant-maintained schools are being top-sliced by 20.73 per cent., compared with Wiltshire, where the figure is only 16 per cent. In those circumstances, do we not owe it to the pupils of Gloucestershire either to find a more direct and effective means of funding or, sadly, to relax the cap?
I rather think that shire hall will be coming to visit us in the next few weeks, because Gloucestershire is one of the counties which we have designated for capping. Gloucestershire must tell us by the end of the month whether it accepts the cap. No doubt it will wish to come and explain. When it does so, the information which my hon. Friend has given will be useful when we discuss the justification for the budget.
The Minister will be aware that Gloucestershire county councillors will be meeting on Monday to decide whether to appeal against the cap. Is he also aware that the budget that the council has set increases the council tax by nothing at all? It is a standstill council tax. Will he be open to persuasion by the councillors when they come to appeal to have the cap relaxed?
I hope that the county will set a budget at the cap that we have indicated. The council has the right to argue why it should be permitted to set a budget higher than the cap. When, and if, the nine local authorities involved come to argue their cases, we shall listen to what they have to say, and we shall ask some searching questions as well. At the end of the process, we shall decide whether to meet the budget that the councils have set, or whether we believe that a different figure would be appropriate.
Why does the Minister think that he and his Government colleagues have a monopoly on the wisdom? It is not simply Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled councils but Tory councils in Gloucestershire, Shropshire and other capped authorities which think that the Government have got it wrong. Why does not the Minister accept that the levels set for Gloucestershire and other counties are far too low to sustain decent services? The Government, not county councillors, should think again.
That doctrine is rather more dangerous in practice than it sounds in theory. The hon. Gentleman appears to be saying that local levels of taxation and local authority expenditure should be set entirely unilaterally by the authorities without the Government taking any view of what is a proper amount in the interests of the economy as a whole. That is a doctrine which even the Labour party would not wish to sustain if it ever came into office.
All Governments must take a view on the total volume of public expenditure. Local authorities contribute a quarter to that, and it is entirely proper that we should determine what we believe to be a sensible level for local authority expenditure while providing the means for authorities to argue why, in particular circumstances, they may need more or that their amount is incorrect. That is a process that we shall undertake over the next few weeks.