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Council Tax

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:01 pm on 15th June 1995.

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Photo of Jim Cousins Jim Cousins , Newcastle upon Tyne Central 6:01 pm, 15th June 1995

Having heard the lamentable and disgraceful speech by the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), I begin by paying tribute to the 78 elected councillors in Newcastle, the 250 directly elected school governors in the city and the tens of thousands of people like them across the country who are prepared to take on responsibilities every day. I find it shocking that some, although not all, Conservative Members have snarled about such people or even called them, as the hon. Gentleman did, "malignant nonentities", or complain because such people have put them on the spot. In fact, such men and women are the bedrock of our democracy and have to make difficult decisions every day in the performance of the duties that they carry out on behalf of local people.

I said that I wanted to pay tribute to the 78 elected councillors in Newcastle, but I want to go a mite further and pay tribute to the former leader of the Conservative group on the city council, who lost his seat in the recent local elections thanks to his own party. He was my opponent at the previous general election, so if anyone has reason to use the type of language used by the hon. Member for Teignbridge, it might be me. However, he has behaved absolutely honourably over the issue of capping. He could not be described as a malignant nonentity; he is a man of honour and should be respected.

The situation in Newcastle is wholly perverse, and no one can understand it. The Government told the city council that its needs were such that it ought to spend £2 million more, but the capping criteria mean that, unfortunately, the council is not allowed to spend £1 million of that money. Who can understand and explain that?

The new Labour leader of the city council said that surely everyone in the city could work together to come up with a more sensible proposition. All parties on the city council, all the school governors and the local evening newspaper came up with a contract for Newcastle, which consisted of a proposal that the Government want to vote down this evening.

The proposition would have put money back into the city's expenditure specifically for education and social services and would have prevented the loss of some day care provision. It would have meant 250 to 300 people receiving the vocational training that they will not receive if, as seems likely, the order is agreed. The proposal would have put money back into the schools budget and saved more than 100 jobs, 75 of them for teachers, and provided flexibility.

The Labour leader of the city council said that he would not go to the Government simply to ask for extra money, but would set out how it would be spent. He would go to the Government only if he could say that he had the support of the people of the city and all the political parties on the city council. He worked at it and he achieved that support by working out a package of proposals that would have done all that I described and cut the council tax by £43.

It is hard to imagine that any sensible Government could possibly have turned down a package that would have allowed to be spent the money that the Government said should be spent, which would have avoided some nasty cuts and, at the same time, would have cut the council tax by £43. That is the proposal that the Government have turned down.

How can anyone of any political party explain such a decision to a primary school which has a 70 per cent. turnover of kids each year and which is faced with the loss of teachers? How can anyone explain it to a secondary school in my constituency which has just had a bad report but which is experiencing great difficulties and faces the loss of 17 teachers? How can anyone explain the Government's decision to vote down a package of proposals which would have cut the council tax, increased various aspects of the city's spending and saved jobs and which had the support of all political parties locally and the school governors?

This year, 10 or 12 councils came back to the Government for a revision of their cap. That does not mean that there were not 100 councils that wanted to do the same, but only 10 or 12 had seen the necessary anxiety expressed in their communities, which meant that they were prepared to have a go, although they knew that they would not be listened to. That is why only 10 or 12 councils went back to the Government. All but two or three of them have been turned down.

This is a bad day, not only for the city of Newcastle but for democracy as a whole. It is not only capping that has to go, but the Government, who are prepared to enforce it in this way.