I am grateful to have secured today's Adjournment debate on revenue support grant for Kent county council. Such a debate is timely, and I welcome my parliamentary colleagues from across the county here today. Among those whom I welcome are my right hon. Friends the Members for South Thanet (Mr. Aitken) and for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley), and my hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman), for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), for Faversham (Sir R. Moate), for Dover (Mr. Shaw) and for Medway (Dame P. Fenner).
We also have a message of support from ministerial colleagues—the Secretary of State for the Home Department, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Sir P. Mayhew) and the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), who cannot be here today owing to ministerial duties.
No Government cuts have been forced on Kent county council's budget. That fact must be clearly identified as a thread that will run through the debate. Kent received a fair settlement in recent announcements on local government finance—Kent county council will receive a £22 million increase for the year 1997–98. That increase allows it to spend a massive £1,029 million and makes it one of the highest spending authorities in the country but, controlled by a Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition, it is imposing more severe service cuts than any other county in England while refusing to implement efficiency savings or embark on a restructuring programme, as it has been advised to do by professional financial commentators, Price Waterhouse.
The council's failure to acknowledge the fair Government settlement, and its failure to slim down bureaucracy, leads it, allows it and enables it to attack services for the most needy and most vulnerable people in our county. To exercise a different philosophy and different policies from the Conservative party is one thing, but to fail to take action in any one of the past four years to reduce bureaucracy and administration is incompetence. It is nothing less than a declaration of war by the county council majority on the people of Kent.
The socialist alliance at Maidstone cannot say that it did not see the problem coming. The problem was as evident to us as it was to the alliance: it was as clear as the appearance of a juggernaut on a straight country lane. If not negligent or incompetent, the behaviour of the Labour and Liberal Democrat members on Kent county council is wilful and malicious, and the people of Kent will have none of it.
I am listening carefully to what my hon. Friend says. Does he agree that the Liberal and Labour regime's adoption at county hall last autumn of the old highwayman's call to stand and deliver was most appropriate? Does he further agree that the county council was dishonest to pursue a campaign demanding an outrageous 10 per cent. increase in grant while knowing that it would receive only an inflation-rate increase, then to brand that increase as a cut? Does he agree that the behaviour is akin to Saddam Hussein's human shield in terms of using the elderly and vulnerable—those who use adult centres, the youth service, libraries, the fire service and the Kent music school—as a human shield to create as much mayhem as possible across the county?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is right, and he will know that Conservative representatives on the local education authority voted against cuts to Kent music school. That is on record and can be seen by those of our constituents who support the music school. I shall refer to other matters raised by my hon. Friend in a few minutes.
I take this opportunity to welcome into the Chamber my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department and my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe). The intellectual power on this side of the Chamber is increasing massively by the hour.
The political majority on Kent county council has signally failed to act responsibly. That is no surprise to Conservative members, as the political leadership of the council is clearly well beyond its second best.
I was asked by Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, the excellent leader of the Conservative group on Kent county council, to make something crystal clear. When the Conservative party retakes control of Kent county council on 1 May—and restores a political pattern that has served our county well for more than a century—the Conservative-controlled Kent county council will, first, reinstate any fire stations that have been closed; secondly, reverse any cuts in the adult education service; thirdly, reverse cuts in the youth service; fourthly, restore full library opening hours. Those are absolute commitments from the leader of our group on Kent county council.
I am heartened by the pledge my hon. Friend has just made on behalf of the Conservative members of Kent county council. The area that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) and I represent is about to become a unitary authority. That is a sign that the area is the largest conurbation in Kent and its most industrial part. It unwittingly contributed to the peace dividend when it lost its major employer in the dockyard in the early 1980s. Adult education is essential—I am sure that all hon. Members know that it is vital to have a centre where the young can go to develop their education and their skills, where those who took early redundancy from the dockyard can go to develop new skills and where our considerable elderly population can go for exciting recreational and educational facilities. I am sure that people of all political persuasions agree with that.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, whose record of service to our county is distinguished. Conservative Members would like to pay tribute to her for the battling way in which she has fought for her constituents, whom she has represented so well and over so many years. I should particularly like to pay tribute to her on her contribution to the future of the adult education service.
The commitment that has been given by the Kent county council Conservative leadership is so good that I must repeat it. We will reinstate any fire stations that are closed, reverse any cuts to the adult education service and to the youth service and—
It was sent to all Liberal Democrat members. The hereditary Member should keep her mouth shut and learn to listen.
I have a copy of the confidential memorandum sent to Liberal Democrat members which contains what is, for them, an honest statement. It states:
Nevertheless a large part of the budget pressures are as a result of our own policy decisions.
I shall not take long, because my hon. Friend has much to say. That interesting document, of which we have copies, also makes it clear that the current state of Kent's roads maintenance is due to the present regime's neglect. The council wants to spend money on other things, such as twinning with Hungary or trips for the councillor who represents Dover.
Exactly so—my hon. Friend anticipates a later part of my speech. The realism that suddenly swept through the Liberal Democrat group was a bursting of new flame. It recognised that it has, by its decisions, contributed to the present financial situation of Kent county council. Given that rare burst of political honesty, why are the Liberal Democrats so committed to cutting front-line services, instead of reducing bureaucracy and administration? Why are they frenetic in their desire to establish new committees, new forums and new talking shops, and why do they indulge in a wide range of non-core activities?
In an excellent article in Kent Today by Paul Francis, we are told that Kent county councillors are considering awarding themselves extra expenses to pay for babysitters. I am informed that the Labour co-chairman of the economic development sub-committee went on 14 trips overseas between 20 April 1994 and 6 to 7 June 1996. [HON. MEMBERS: "Name him."] I gather that his name is Mr. Prosser, and that he is the parliamentary Labour candidate for Dover.
What were those trips for? The answer that is usually given is that they were in pursuit of European Community grants. My geography was learned a long time ago, but as I recall, Philadelphia is not in the European Union and, at the time when the trips were made, neither was Hungary. Constituents who run voluntary organisations to help the handicapped tell me that they have lost £1,000 in grant, which was the only grant that they received from Kent county council. How can those trips be justified, when any one of them was worth at least £1,000 in grant to a voluntary organisation in my constituency?
I shall not give way.
The money for those trips—however important they may turn out to be—could have been given to voluntary organisations in Dartford, Swanscombe or any other community in Kent, and would have been warmly welcomed by voluntary workers and carers.
The main thrust of Kent's socialist coalition's argument is that the council faces a £79 million Government cut in funding. The House knows that Kent's funding was not cut; it received a 2 per cent. increase of £22 million. That is hardly a cut, yet the council comes up with the figure of £79 million as the amount that has allegedly been cut. How come? It is simply explained, though deceitful in origin.
The county council wants to spend an extra £101 million. It announced that it needs an extra £101 million to fund its wish list.
That may well be. The Government announced an increase of £22 million—which everyone recognises is a fair settlement—thus leaving Kent county council to claim a shortfall of £79 million. By black art spin-doctoring, it converted its wish list into Government cuts. How deceitful, dishonest and cruel.
I believe that my hon. Friend has done some research into what other counties propose for the forthcoming year. Can he name another county that has proposed such deep cuts as Kent is proposing?
On the evidence available to me, Kent's behaviour is worse, in that it has failed to cut bureaucracy and administration and to honour its commitment to maintaining front-line services.
Does my hon. Friend recall that, just two years ago, we had the spectacle of £4.5 million being taken out of the schools budget when some schools, such as my children's primary school in Kent, were short of chairs? In that very same year, the council spent £3.5 million on fixtures and fittings for education administration offices.
The list is endless. One of my favourite items of Kent county council expenditure is the £700,000 it spends each year on magazines and periodicals for the use of administrative officers.
I shall return to my point about the alleged £79 million cut. The House will appreciate that the council cannot cut what it never had: it was always speculation and deception. Kent county council's plan to spend 10 per cent. more flies in the face of political reality. No Government in the western world, local or national, are planning a 10 per cent. spending increase.
It is my perception that, of all the counties in the country, Kent has the largest percentage of grant-maintained schools—schools taken out of the local education authority. Can my hon. Friend assure me that county council administration has been cut pro rata to take account of that extraordinary devolution?
No, I cannot give my hon. Friend that assurance, because it is not there to give. The council has lost control of many services, but it has failed to cut bureaucracy. Administration has increased in the past four years, rather than reduced to reflect the position to which my hon. Friend referred.
In my constituency, we are faced with the prospect of the closure of fire stations, dramatic cuts in library services, cuts in desperately important youth services and a dramatic cut in adult education. Severe pain is being inflicted on the people who need those services, whereas administration is not being cut. The county council has lost control of administration of the police and further education colleges, and secondary schools administration has been reduced by 50 per cent. Why should my constituents be faced with cuts when no comparable effort has been made by the county council to cut bureaucracy and administration?
My hon. Friend makes his point eloquently, and he is right.
What I find most disconcerting about this sorry episode in the history of our county is the failure of the parties that control Kent's destiny to be honest. I dislike the deception that is being practised. In recent weeks, we have seen the use of the county's propaganda machine for party political purposes.
What the authority's officials are doing is quite wrong. I have a letter from a constituent: he is a resident of Dartford, to whom I wrote on 23 January. He says:
I am still confused as to why KCC has had to reduce its services to those who need and depend on them. On the evening of the 27 January 1997, I attended a meeting of a local charity. A Spokesperson from Social Services outlined how the cuts in KCC's budget will affect the many services used in the local area. Again Central Government is blamed! I informed the meeting that you had informed me that Central Government had not cut the funding to KCC but had given a 2.2 per cent. increase on the previous year. The Spokesperson told the meeting that this is not correct and the cuts that KCC had to make are as a direct result of Central Government spending targets.
Is it not a fact that the lie machine at county hall has been so misrepresenting the facts that Mr. Keith Ferrin, one of our Conservative colleagues on the county council, found it necessary to write to Conservative candidates and sitting Members to ask whether they could please try to explain to the press that the situation is actually a result of the county council's mismanagement rather than a Government cut—something that the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) will, I suspect, try to produce like a rabbit out of a hat later today? Is it not also a fact that the same team sought to rig the Kent Today opinion poll? Is not that yet another example of its members trying to rig the facts?
My experience as a long-serving Member of Parliament has shown me that the Labour party and the truth have long been strangers.
I am very grateful to Keith Ferrin, who is a well-respected member of the county council, for the information that every household's share of Kent county council's debt has risen by £216.89, to the massive sum of £762.83. We should get that message across.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his splendid recitation of the high economic crimes and misdemeanours that the Lib-Lab county council leadership have inflicted on the people of Kent.
My hon. Friend has mentioned borrowing. May I point out, as a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that there has been mismanagement not only by Lib-Lab councillors but by Lib-Lab financial alcoholics. They have increased Kent's borrowing by 40 per cent.—£140 million—up to a record-breaking £496 million. That means that a debt burden of £9 million or £10 million per year has been inflicted on the people of Kent in the form of extra interest charges.
Perhaps the most bitter drink of all in this financial alcoholism is the way in which salaries have risen. Is my hon. Friend aware that Kent's director of education, who is presiding over the unkindest and harshest cuts of all, is now drawing a salary of £99,000 a year? That is more than many permanent secretaries receive for much bigger responsibilities. Surely it is time to halt this wicked mismanagement at all levels.
My right hon. Friend has put his point effectively and well. That is the point of this debate. All Conservative Members are conscious of the massive disinformation campaign that has taken place by means of Kent county council's publicity and propaganda machine, aided and abetted—indeed pushed—by the Labour and Liberal Democrat leadership at county hall.
What I find so inexcusable is the use of fear in the campaign. Residents are told that their fire cover may not be guaranteed, and that retraining and adult education services may be curbed.
It is an indescribable insult to Medway residents that the list of proposed cuts includes two retained fire stations and another fairly large station in Stroud—three fire stations in one area. We are talking about the largest conurbation and, indeed, the largest industrial area in Kent, which is about to become a unitary authority. It is disgraceful to do that to three fire stations.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I am sure that she will waste no time in telling her constituents of the commitment given by the Conservative leadership in Maidstone. Indeed, the message that emerges from this debate is that those who wish to guarantee their services must vote Conservative on 1 May.
It was suggested at one stage that fire cover at Dartford fire station might be reduced by one pump, and that the retained fire station at Horton Kirby might disappear entirely, but those proposals have been withdrawn—for the time being. Given the huge development that is taking place in north Dartford, in the Thames gateway area, is it not extreme lunacy to speculate for a moment about reducing fire cover when the population is set to increase by thousands, and many millions of people will be coming into our county at Bluewater and Ebbsfleet—an interest that I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham?
This is lunacy of the knee-jerk kind, but it is not actually a knee jerk. Four years ago, when the county council passed into the hands of the evil empire. I predicted that, come the county elections, it would do precisely what it is doing now: attack the elderly, the young, the disabled, voluntary groups and those who enjoy cultural and leisure pursuits through our library services. Why? Because that is the only way in which the council can hang on to its administration at county hall—by the use of fear.
My hon. Friend is making his points about a matter on which we all feel strongly with characteristic understatement. Will he emphasise the extraordinary divide between Labour and Liberal politicians at local level, and the Opposition Front Bench? We have heard from the shadow Chancellor that no extra money from the centre will be provided in the form of revenue support grant. Indeed, if the Labour party phases out the area cost adjustment, as it proposes to do, Kent will have £10 million or £15 million a year less. Is there not a certain discrepancy here?
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That was exactly what I was waiting for. You will be aware that 10 Conservative Members representing Kent have either spoken or intervened in the debate, and you will have heard that denial of the right of a Labour Member to intervene. Would you say that that—
Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member—the hereditary Member—for North-West Durham; I have no desire to stop her from speaking. Would that I could. I believe that, when she is put in her coffin, she will still be talking when they nail the lid on.
During the past four years of socialist rule at Maidstone, there has been a ballooning of staff. Staff numbers have risen by more than 1,000. That is profligacy in the extreme, and takes no account of the auditor's recommendation that the council should restructure itself and redress the staffing imbalance to reflect the moving out of the county of the police service, further education colleges and the career service, and the fact that many primary and secondary schools are to become grant-maintained.
My hon. Friend rightly referred to the direct connection between the maintenance of good-quality services in Kent and the Conservatives' winning back control of the county council. Only yesterday, I received a copy of a letter from the chairman of the governors of the outstanding Judd grammar school in my constituency—one of many outstanding grammar schools in our county—to those who style themselves the "co-chairpersons" of the education committee.
The letter complains bitterly about the draconian cuts that the Labour and Liberal-controlled county council is seeking to impose on the school. In his letter, the chairman of the governors describes the cuts as "nothing less than scandalous" and "totally irresponsible." Does my hon. Friend agree that everyone in Kent with a child at a grammar school, and every person who has the prospect of having his child at a grammar school, knows that, as long as Kent county council remains in Labour and Liberal Democrat control, he can have no confidence in his child's future grammar school education?
I agree with my right hon. Friend and declare an interest, because my son is a pupil at the Judd school, as is the son of my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Gravesham. My right hon. Friend's point applies not just to grammar schools, but to high schools, the city technology colleges and all primary and secondary schools that become grant-maintained. They would lose all the freedoms that they currently enjoy as a result of Conservative legislation, because Labour and the Stalinists at county hall wish to take back into local authority control all the schools that dared, as a result of parental ballots, to go outside local education authority control.
My hon. Friend has spoken about the wasteful use of staff in Kent. At a recent constituency surgery, I met two parents and their disabled son. They were almost in tears because they were being asked by Kent county council to pay higher social services charges. The council plans to increase staffing in social services by 80 people, but it is hitting disabled people and their parents.
That is a wicked example of precisely what is taking place. I use the word "wicked" in the old sense and not in the fashionable modern sense. It is also unforgivable that senior county council officers—well-respected professional men and women—are being forced to act politically in the public domain because of the inadequacy and incompetence of the Lib-Lab regime at county hall.
In the past four years, there has been tremendous dereliction of duty. A left-wing, old Labour party has been trying to work alongside a weak Liberal Democrat party, and they want to be all things to all persons—I think that that is the politically correct way to say it. Instead, there is chaos, anarchy and incompetence. I might be accused of using strong words, but they express what my constituents feel.
The Opposition parties have misjudged the mood of Kent people, who better understand the problems and the debates than they are given allowance for. They know that the county council has pulled the roof upon its own head by failing to deal with the rising damp in the foundations. That is a lovely metaphor which I might use again in another speech. We are debating the future of our county. The present administration has lost police, further education colleges and the careers service, and many schools have become grant-maintained.
As I have said in the context of all the other services that I have mentioned, it is cruel and wicked to focus on people who are least able to defend themselves and who need essential services to preserve their quality of life. For us, that is unforgivable.
It is not just that such measures are wrong, but that there is a hopeless distortion of priorities. It is extraordinary that the council proposes to close some fire stations, not on the justification that fire cover can be reduced, but simply to save about £200,000 to £300,000. The saving is less than the council is spending on conferences for its officers and leaders at county hall. It is a muddled approach to administration. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a taste of what the country might get if a Labour Government were ever inflicted upon us?
My hon. Friend is right. If people want to see the Labour party and its minor allies, the Liberal Democrats, in action, and anticipate what they may be like in government if they get the chance—which they will not—they are welcome to come to Kent county council, where we shall give them individually guided tours around the philosophy of the present administration. In Kent, we see Lambeth below the Thames. It holds not to responsibility and decency and the application of services in the name of the people; rather to narrow, petty, political garnering of points. That could have been avoided, and in the name of the people whom we represent it must be avoided.
For some years, the Conservative group on Kent county council has pointed out the error of the ways of the present administration and offered ideas, programmes and solutions for restructuring and slimming bureaucracy in the light of the services that have left the county. Have those Conservative been listened to? No, they have been ignored, and the problem faced by the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties in Kent is now our problem—but there is a solution; the election of a majority of Conservative county council candidates across the county on 1 May. That will bring back responsibility, decency and honest application in the name of the people. That is why I felt it right to initiate this debate.
Kent has had 100 years of relative stability under the Conservatives. Incredibly, Kent survived one economic crisis after another under Labour Governments and services were maintained. In the past four years, as a result of a Labour-Liberal pact, there has been ever-increasing disaster and chaos. A budgeting system that needs an increase of £101 million has been based on a pie-in-the-sky figure. On expenditure of £1,000 million, Kent is demanding an increase of 10 per cent. What Government in Europe or what county council or shire council in this country plans an increase of that size? I have looked at the statistics, but I cannot find any shire county that is planning an increase in expenditure at the level that Kent county council under Labour-Liberal control claims to need.
Kent council has introduced a political budget and is trying to put the blame on the Government. Its priority is not to look after the disabled, those who need adult education or those who need the fire services, but to have a political budget in election year. I hope that it reaps the reward for that, which is to be thrown out of office on 1 May.
Under a Conservative Government, the council has had an increase of £22 million. It is interesting that all the councils of the Opposition spokesmen who are present for the debate have had less of an increase than Kent. The Opposition have shot themselves in the foot by offering spokesmen from areas that have had lower increases than Kent. Kent has had allocated to it one of the largest increases in resources of any county in the United Kingdom, but still the Lib-Lab coalition on the council has got itself into a mess and bleats its complaints.
The council needs to get going with some decent budgeting procedures. I say as an accountant that it could have used zero-based budgeting. It could have returned to core essentials and asked itself, "Do we need to spend at the current level on some services or could we increase our efficiency and look at overheads?" It dismissed zero-based budgeting.
It could have opted for priority-based budgeting by looking at priority expenditure. It could have examined the way in which it looks after the elderly and cares for those who need education and for disabled people, but it dismissed that. It went for an Alice-in-Wonderland budgeting system—a politically based system—instead of looking at the priorities, concerns and needs of real people. No wonder Price Waterhouse and Co., the independent auditor, has said that the county council must increase its efficiency, do better, get something out of the £20 million a year that it spends on information technology, and cut central overheads.
A constituent came to see me who works within the Kent county council orbit. That constituent, who obviously does not want his name to be mentioned, complained that, a few years back, when the county council was under Conservative control, he had only two tiers of management to go through before he could report to the director. Now he has five. That is what four years of Lib-Lab control have done. They have converted two tiers of management into five.
As my hon. Friend points out, it is incredible that, after all the new technology investment, Kent has failed to reduce its central overheads significantly. That is why I am delighted that we have had pledges from Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, the Conservative leader, that any cuts in libraries, adult education or the fire service will be reinstated and that efficiency savings will be found elsewhere in the budgetary system.
May I turn to something of great interest to me and to my constituents? Last Friday, I visited St. Margaret' s-at-Cliffe fire station. I am delighted that today there are seven retained firemen here from my constituency, who are concerned about the fire station's future. They are not full time, but give their services in their spare time. They have other jobs, but, in their spare time, they look after my constituents and people in the village where I live. I know that many colleagues have the same situation in their constituencies. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) has asked me to say that he would like to be associated with these comments, as two retained fire stations in his constituency are also threatened with closure.
It is a disgrace that the county council could contemplate cutting a fire service when the cost of individual retained fire stations is so minor in relation to the total budget. We are talking about individual fire stations that perhaps cost £40,000 a year and a total Kent budget of £1,000 million a year. It is simply not necessary to go for cuts in that sector.
Is there not something truly sad about the idea that these absurd cuts in the fire service should be proposed only a few weeks after the county council set up yet another expensive bureaucratic committee to consider public safety?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. There are far too many committees in Kent county council. There is far too much bureaucracy and far too much paperwork moving around, and there is not enough action or service delivery. That is what we are interested in as Conservatives: action, service delivery and increased efficiency. That is why there are threats of cuts in Kent's fire service. It is ludicrous.
With my hon. Friend's usual delicacy, he has refrained from commenting on the point made earlier about one county councillor—I have forgotten his name—who has made a large number of trips abroad. I cannot remember the precise number—[HON. MEMBERS: "Fourteen."] I cannot believe that one member could make 14 trips in such a short time, but is it not likely that even a small part of the expenditure on those trips—that, presumably, is just the tip of the iceberg—would keep all our fire stations open?
My hon. Friend makes a point. As that councillor is my Labour opponent, I am slightly embarrassed to have to refer to his 14 trips. My hon. Friend may feel that, in due course, the electorate in Dover and Deal will be interested in those 14 trips abroad, including to Hungary and Philadelphia in the United States of America, and in their relevance to the needs of Dover and of fire stations in our region.
When the channel tunnel fire occurred recently, people at St. Margaret's-at-Cliffe fire station had to give extra cover. I understand that London and Sussex fire services were on alert to give support if necessary. We have major transport operations in Kent and we must maintain the ability to have a retained fire service as well as a full-time fire service. Many arguments support the retention of the St. Margaret's-at-Cliffe fire station.
Is my hon. Friend aware that a letter that I have received from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration shows that the Government's local government settlement provides for
a £50 million or 4.2 per cent. increase in provision for the fire service"?
Against that background of an increase that is well in excess of inflation, is it not intolerable that the Liberal and Labour-controlled county council should be contemplating any reduction in fire service cover?
My right hon. Friend makes the valid point that, if anyone needs adult education in Kent, it is the Liberal-Labour county councillors, because they cannot tell when a positive figure—an increase in expenditure—is an increase and not a reduction. At public meetings, they cannot tell the truth—that an increase in expenditure is extra money that is available. They insist that it is a reduction. That shows the fraudulent nature of their mathematics, accounting and budgeting.
The St. Margaret's-at-Cliffe fire service is called out some 100 times a year. In a busy year, it has been called out 170 times. That is what Kent county council under Liberal-Labour control wants to take away from us in St. Margaret's-at-Cliffe and Dover: a service that is regularly used and regularly needed by the community, and an emergency back-up service for the wider Kent community. The service is necessary. It shows the hypocrisy of setting up safety committees, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has said, when they do nothing but talk and produce paper. What we are talking about is real action to save people's lives.
There is a clear message from the budgetary exercise that Kent county council is undertaking: the Labour and Liberal parties in Kent have done a repeat of the Labour-Liberal pact in the 1974 to 1979 period. They have brought Kent to the point of chaos, to the point where there are demonstrations at Maidstone and to a winter of discontent, just like there was under the Labour Government in 1978–79; but we have pledges from the Conservative group leader that, if the Conservatives are elected to control Kent county council on 1 May, those cuts will not take place. There is therefore a clear message: "Vote Conservative if you want services, a sensible council and sensible budgeting."
When I hear Conservative Members attacking Kent councillors for visiting countries, I am minded to say only that those Members should be careful because people in glasshouses should not throw stones. The people of Kent should know that the great majority of Members of Parliament for Kent, all of whom are Conservative, have on many occasions over the years been abroad at public expense, on travel paid for by the British taxpayer.
I rise on behalf of the many hundreds of thousands of people in Kent who are denied a Labour voice in the House of Commons. You will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that all 16 Members of Parliament for Kent are Conservative. The voice of Kent Labour has not been heard in the House of Commons for 18 years. Conservative misrepresentations in Kent's affairs have repeatedly gone unchallenged. Their endless stream of untruths, party propaganda and distortion of facts is a travesty of justice. [Interruption.] I seek your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In terms of its Members of Parliament, Kent is a one-party state—it has no Labour Members—in which there is no place for the truth.
It has become increasingly clear to my hon. Friends that there is a co-ordinated attempt by Kent Conservative Members of Parliament to orchestrate a campaign of disinformation in the media. Those same Members use the Chamber of the House of Commons to launch their—thus far unchallenged—attacks. Today, Parliament will hear the truth—the other side of the story: the counter-case. It is the story of a council valiantly striving to defend its ratepayers from cuts in public services. It is the story of a council desperately trying to avoid imposing hardship—
I am using notes for reasons of clinical accuracy. It is important that the people of Kent know the truth—as opposed to the statistics bandied about the Chamber for the past few years. My accurate figures were produced for me, at my request, by Kent county council. I asked for the figures so that I could use them in this debate.
Hon. Members from most other counties, including many Conservative Members, have in recent years spoken for the people they represent, and have even joined in deputations to Ministers. Not one of Kent's 16 Conservative Members of Parliament, however, has stood up for local services or represented the county authority.
I am afraid that I cannot give way. There have been 16 Conservative interventions in this debate. I am the first to put the other side of the argument.
Most Conservative Members from Kent have taken every opportunity to make cheap political capital out of the problems that the county council faces—problems that result from policies for which they themselves have voted in the House of Commons.
It is, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is of course entirely for you to judge whether, in the interests of clinical accuracy, the hon. Gentleman should read his speech; but it seems to me that reading a speech that makes assertions about things that, when the speech was written, could not have been known is stretching the rules rather far.
The Chair makes no comment on the contents of speeches—although this morning I have already had to stress that it is the occupant of the Chair who must be addressed. Meanwhile, I shall make my judgment as the speech progresses.
Two years ago, the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) tried to claim on local radio that Kent had received a spending increase of £26 million, when the real figure was £6 million. He did so by misrepresenting the money for community care that had been ring-fenced to cover responsibilities transferred from central Government—
This year on 23 January, at column 1077 of Hansard, the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) accused Kent county council of demanding a real-terms 10 per cent. increase just to stand still. He repeated his accusations during Prime Minister's Questions yesterday. In fact, the council has stated that it needed that sum in cash terms to meet its pay and price commitments and to finance extra commitments imposed on it by demography and new legislation.
Both those allegations reveal that neither hon. Member understands the interests—
The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) is technically in order, but it is a custom of the House, when an hon. Member refers to another by name, that the former should give way to the latter at a suitable point. I am sure that that custom will be observed this morning.
As I was saying, what both contributions reveal is that the intricacies of local government are not understood by the two hon. Members to whom I have referred. The more they protest, the more they demonstrate either their ignorance or perhaps their malevolence.
Let us examine the facts. Kent is effectively capped at 1 per cent. above standard spending assessment. That compares with the shire county average of 1.8 per cent., and with some counties that are capped at more than 5 per cent. Over the four years to 1997–98, Kent will have been allowed to increase its spending by only 8.7 per cent.—a figure that may surprise the House. That is far less than was needed to cover pay and price increases, let alone increased demand for services.
Between 1993–94 and 1997–98, Kent's capital financing costs—its debt charges—rose by £14 million, and its allocation of SSA for that element fell by £2 million, leaving a gap of £16 million. That is almost entirely attributable to capital projects, especially road projects embarked on by the former Conservative administration.
In 1997–98, the county council will face a superannuation payments bill of £3 million more than the bill three years ago. That will result from the decision of the former Conservative administration to cut its contribution, and from new Government regulations forcing higher contributions on the council.
Next year, the county council will have to spend £7.8 million more than SSA allocation to provide fire cover in line with Home Office standards. For the same period, its fire services SSA element will rise by £1.6 million. Despite savings of £500,000—the figure given earlier in the debate was wrong—involving the closure of some retained stations, the county council will need to increase spending by £2 million to cover pay and prices and service pressures. Those three items alone are costing the council a total of £37 million.
Representatives of the local authority have made representations on the three items to the Minister of State concerned. Perhaps today the Under-Secretary will give Kent some response to the representations which it has made and which I repeat here today. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Gravesham is trying to shout me down. For five years, we have heard the case put by Kent Tories. When, finally, a Labour Member finds a slot to raise these issues in the House, the Tories shout me down because they do not want the truth to come out.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on rattling the cage of Conservative Members from Kent. Facing defeat, rather like a hanging, concentrates the mind. They come here protesting their innocence, but they have presided over real cuts in services in Kent and throughout the south-east of England. I am the only Labour Member of Parliament outside Greater London representing a seat in the south-east: I represent 13 million people today.
I am not prepared to give way. The hon. Gentleman's party has had more than its share of the debate.
The £100 million figure to which several hon. Members have referred, and which has been much trumpeted in the press in Kent, has been portrayed by Conservative Members as the "demand" of the county council—but it is no such thing at all. The leaders of Kent county council are realists. They would not expect such a sum to be made available, especially from the Government—[Interruption.] Do I need to repeat that for the benefit of Conservative Members, in case they have had trouble hearing what I said?
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am very concerned about whether the relevant papers are available in the Vote Office showing that Kent has had the largest SSA increase of any shire county in the United Kingdom. It is important that those papers should be available in the Vote Office, so that Opposition Members can talk about the truth.
Let us return to the famous £100 million, which the hon. Member for Mid-Kent was on about yesterday. For Kent county council, that sum is an honest and, so far, unchallenged estimate of what would be required to protect all existing services, to meet inescapable financial commitments, to meet pay and price increases and to provide for demographic changes and the cost of new responsibilities placed on local authorities by central Government. That is the explanation for which Conservative Members have been waiting.
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that I have received figures from the co-chairperson of the social services committee in Kent, showing that extra statutory duties imposed on Kent—but not properly funded—by the Government amount to more than £4 million? That figure takes into account the extra costs incurred because of a 2.5 per cent. increase in the number of people aged over 75 and because of disabled access, asylum and criminal justice legislation, which have not been properly reflected in grant levels.
Those matters do not surprise me. What does surprise me is that, over the past few years, they have never been drawn to Parliament's attention by Conservative Members. At no stage have they raised those issues.
If there is one body that is unrealistic, it is the Government—who continually impose additional responsibilities on local authorities without providing funding, and then demand cuts. In the famous £100 million, Kent is simply flagging up, in plain language, the implications of Government cuts.
Briefly, Kent's £100 million estimate is composed of £40 million of financing pressures; a £25 million estimate of pay and price increases, which makes provision only for unavoidable price increases; £30 million for service pressures, which is led by demographic and legislative demand; and £5 million for redundancy costs forced on it by the financial settlement and by local government reorganisation. None of those costs is within the control of the county council. Most of the sum results from Government action and from decisions of the previous Conservative county council. To try to meet those pressures and remain within the £22 million capping limit increase, the county council is being forced to make extremely painful choices between services.
Initially, the council's policy and resources committee asked committees to consider savings of 10.7 per cent. in all budgets. To protect the most vulnerable, special educational needs were exempted, and increases made. Unfortunately, however, to balance the budget, that meant that extra cuts—more than 10.7 per cent.—were necessary in adult education and youth and community services.
Current figures are likely to be 1 per cent. for fire services and 9.5 per cent. for social services—[Interruption.] Those are matters of which Conservative Members should be aware. It may well be that, today, I bring them news from Kent. They have not been following developments in their own local authority.
The likely figures are 9.5 per cent. for social services and 7.2 per cent. for the non-delegated education budget. Those figures should enable the council to avoid closure of its adult education service, its youth and community service and its residential homes. They would also avoid reducing fire cover below minimum standards, although the budget will still require the closure of five retained fire stations and the removal of four retained engines from other stations. However, even that has been made possible only by not fully protecting school budgets from the effects of higher numbers and increased costs. Schools will face a real-terms reduction of 4 per cent.
Kent's services still face horrendous cuts, and all the councillors know it. However, they know who to blame: they blame the Government. Conservative Members from Kent try to pretend that the cuts are the fault of the county council, yet none of the pressures that the council faces is of its own making. They are the result of Government decisions or, in some cases, the legacy of Conservative control.
Many of the decisions stem from legislation pushed through Parliament by Conservative Whips. Kent's Conservative Members have never rebelled. They have always supported piling on the pressure. Those poodles have lain on their backs and obediently allowed their constituents to take the punishment meted out by an insensitive Government.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) would not wish to malign me. I am a Kent Member, and have been, with a very short break, since 1970. Would the hon. Gentleman care to repeat the point that Kent Members have never rebelled? Was he in the House when the Government of the day—
As you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it was not a point of order. It was also not an accepted intervention, or I would have produced material showing that, on many hundreds of occasions in recent years, the hon. Lady has obediently trooped into Conservative Lobbies to support legislation and financial measures that have damaged the interests of the people of Kent.
The hon. Gentleman and I are adding a Cumbrian element—from the other end of the country—to this debate, and are perhaps adding a degree of realism. Does he agree that it is unfortunate when the Government prevent a local authority from innovating? Are not community care direct payments a case in which local authorities have been prevented from extending benefits to those over 65? Has not the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) strongly advanced that case? I am sure that he would share the disappointment of Opposition Members that the Government have prevented such an excellent measure from being used by Kent council and others to provide benefits to over-65s.
I defer to the hon. Gentleman's knowledge in those matters, as he is an expert in many issues of community care. It may well be that some Conservative Members from Kent have on occasion raised those issues in the House; but the critical question is how they have voted when Parliament has allocated money for those types of expenditure. The truth is that the people of Kent are being taken for granted by those who are supposed to be representing their interests in Westminster.
Claims that Kent county council is inefficient and badly run—which we have heard before, from the hon. Member for Mid-Kent—are ludicrous. Price Waterhouse, the independent auditor whom the hon. Gentleman quoted, said exactly the opposite. It said in its report:
The truth is the County Council has reduced its management and administration costs by"—
hold your breath—
£23m … over 3 years and cut budgets of its central departments by 13.5 per cent. It is continuing such savings in 97/98 but these cannot cover the shortfall.
Local Conservatives say that no cuts are necessary, so why have they ducked Labour county councillors' challenge to submit an alternative budget? Perhaps the Minister will tell us why today.
Conservative Members of Parliament have attacked the county council for failing to increase education spending by the increase in the SSA. The House knows that the Government's claim to be providing extra money for education was a fraud. It was described in the Local Government Chronicle as a budget scam, because the resources were not made available.
In Kent, the education SSA increased by £20.4 million. If the whole SSA increase had been passported to education, the effect on other services would have been devastating. To meet its share of financing commitments, pay rises and unavoidable service pressures, the council would have had to make savings of 16 per cent. If social services had been exempted, cuts would have been 27 per cent., which would have meant the end of effective services in many areas.
Since taking over the administration of the council, the present controlling groups have increased resources for education, social services and other vital services by far more than the increases in the SSA. They have done so in spite of tight budgets and the appalling backlog of neglect that they inherited in, for example, school building repairs. Throughout this time, they have been subject to sniping attacks from Conservative Members who are more concerned with making cheap political capital than with defending the services on which their constituents depend.
While other local authorities have seen their Members of Parliament fighting for them, Kent has seen its Conservative Members of Parliament campaign against the county council and encourage the Government to inflict still harsher treatment on local services. It is interesting to note that these Members of Parliament never attacked the extravagance of the former Conservative administration in Kent—not a single Conservative Member uttered a word of protest when the former Conservative-controlled county council decided in 1991 to spend £7 million on the county hall. There was a wall of silence at Westminster. Perhaps we shall have an explanation of that when the Under-Secretary winds up the debate.
If Kent county council this year faces bigger cuts than some other authorities, it is for one reason alone—it refused to cut services and jobs last year as the Conservatives urged. The council used every resource at its disposal to protect public services for as long as possible, and it should be congratulated, not condemned I certainly congratulate it.
The people of Kent are not deceived by the propaganda campaign of their Conservative Members of Parliament In a recent telephone poll, readers of the Kent Messenger voted four to one on the statement that Kent's cuts were the fault of central Government. No amount of propaganda or misleading attacks on Labour and Liberal councillors for alleged extravagant spending can disguise the simple truth Conservative Members of Parliaments are prepared to use Kent county council as a political football to be kicked around the Chamber in a squalid attempt to pick up votes. As a Member of Parliament I have always rejected that approach—[Interruption.] Let me be tested by my words. I have always operated by the simple maxim that knocking one's local council is cheap and easy copy.
My constituency is in Cumbria. During my 17 years at Westminster, both my district and my county council have for periods been Conservative-controlled, but I have never attacked them at Westminster. For me, that is forbidden fruit, because they cannot answer back Sadly, that is not the practice in Kent.
I shall be brief. In many senses, this has been a rather sad debate Every authority faces difficult choices I know that none of the Conservatives here today was able to be present for Monday's debate, but everyone who spoke—including Ministers—acknowledged that this year's local government settlement is very tight. The Government acknowledge that the burden is being shifted on to local councils to the extent that they expect the average rise in council tax to be about 6 per cent. and that, in the next three years, some £4 billion is likely to be required from local government and the council tax.
It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman was not here for Monday's debate. Had he been here, he would have heard what we have to say on that. We recognise that this year's settlement is very difficult, but I pointed out on Monday that the level of public debt is completely out of control and that, as a consequence, the next Labour Government will not be able to promise more money to anyone. We did promise, and we shall continue to promise, a fairer distribution of the grant and a more open system for distributing the SSA.
Let us deal quickly with the SSA for education. Like many people, we are concerned to ensure that education is protected and that we give our children and young people the very best opportunities. What has been happening in Kent over the past six years? When the Conservatives were in charge of county hall in Kent in 1991–92, the council spent £53.2 million less than the SSA—that is £53.2 million less than the Government said was necessary for education. Last year, the present local authority spent £10 million more than the SSA allocation, or 0.9 per cent. above the SSA.
Rather than being spent on refurbishing county hall—Conservative Members were not bothered about that £7 million of expenditure—money has been used for front-line services, and it is because the authority tried to protect those services that there is a real problem this year. Obviously, Kent Conservative Members were not worried that the former Conservative administration in Kent was spending so many millions of pounds below the SSA, which is the Government's assessment of what is needed.
Although Kent's community care provision has been praised by both the county's health authorities, the Department of Health's figures show a 10 per cent. shortfall in community care funding for Kent. Should we not be debating those facts, rather than making political points as Conservative Members have done?
I wish that we had had a proper debate this morning about the problems facing Kent and the way forward. The tragedy is that not one suggestion has come from the Conservative group at county hall, other than merging the posts of the chief officers. That has been the Conservatives' only suggestion for budget cuts for next year. They have not produced figures on how to pay for retaining services without putting up council tax. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When I read the letter from the Conservative chairman of finance, I wondered whether we were back in the 1980s. It pledged no cuts in services—we have heard that today—and no increase in council tax. It is reminiscent of Lambeth and Liverpool in the early 1980s.
Ministers acknowledge that the settlement is difficult for all authorities. Difficult choices are being made. Those choices will have to affect central administration as well as front-line services, but such cuts will not be sufficient. The authority is already spending substantially above the standard spending assessment on the fire service. It is in difficulty because the Government do not acknowledge what hon. Members have said today about the needs of the fire service. The money needed to meet the commitments is not there. Incredibly difficult choices have to be made. It is our responsibility to work with all the councillors in Kent to ensure that they are able both to protect as much of the service provision as possible and to come within the spending limits.
Efficiency savings of £23 million a year have been made. The Government have admitted that the situation is difficult. It is difficult for Kent; it is difficult for all authorities. I wish that many more Members present today were prepared to get down to sorting out the problem instead of making desperate pleas to keep their marginal seats. As the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) knows, I visited his area last week and had discussions with councillors about the problems that they face. They are trying to address those problems honestly. I wish that that were true of some of Conservative Members.
I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) and every Conservative Member from Kent.
Interestingly, one or two strays from Lancashire and Cumbria have also been present.
An authority has to be really bad to get such a united reaction from the local Members of Parliament. Kent had 100 years of relative calm and stability under the Conservatives. It was a good authority, judging the quality of service by its outputs rather than, as the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) suggested, by the amount of other people's money spent on it. We should also recognise that this is a matter of private grief for the people of Kent. That is why hon. Members from Kent constituencies are here, pushing the point solidly.
I am astonished that the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) is here. He wished to speak on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, but could not because of the time. I remember some of his past statements on similar issues. Supporting the unsupportable behaviour of the Liberal Democrats in the Lib-Lab pact in Kent would contradict many of those statements.
The hon. Member for North-West Durham talked about finding a different method of distribution. One is tempted to suggest that it would be a distribution favouring friends rather than an objective approach. Independent experts accept that the standard spending assessment is an objective approach.
Including Westminster, although the hon. Lady does not seem to appreciate that.
It is worth noting that Kent's difficulties have been recognised. It has the highest standard spending assessment of all shire counties. Its SSA for 1997–98 is more than £1 billion. Admittedly, it also has one of the highest populations. Even so, its SSA per head is still the second highest of all shire counties. The overall SSA has increased by 2.2 per cent. on the 1996–97 figure. Within that, the education element has gone up by 3.5 per cent. and the fire service element by 5 per cent.—twice the rate of inflation.
The Lib-Lab pact councillors presented their case on a piece of paper last month to the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). Their technique was fascinating. They should learn from some of the contributors to today's debate about how to approach budgeting. The normal procedure for setting a budget is to look a year ahead. They are looking at the last minute.
On their piece of paper, they rolled forward everything that they had spent in 1996–97 and then added a long list of all the expenditure that they would like for the coming year. They compared the result with their provisional cap limit. The difference, they explained, was a shortfall. They then said that they wanted to list certain items as service cuts to meet their wish list or shortfall. Nowhere in any of the documents was there any mention of how priorities might be reordered. Nowhere was there mention of efficiency savings in a budget of more than £1 billion. They could not find savings in that—they could only produce a wish list.
It is not for me to tell Kent county council how to find savings, although I am tempted to do so on occasions, but it is worth reminding hon. Members that the Audit Commission has given it ample scope for considerable savings. The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours)—Workington is in Cumbria, 400 miles from Kent—mentioned the district auditor's comments. Every district auditor's report is a curate's egg, and the hon. Gentleman has been selective. The auditor has pointed out opportunities for savings. For example, it is possible for authorities to recognise the millions of pounds being wasted on maintaining surplus places in schools. Kent's record on that is far from perfect. In 1994–95, the most recent year for which audited figures are available, more than one fifth of the secondary school places in Kent were unfilled.
That might sound depressingly familiar. Kent's council tax payers have a right to expect a little more imagination from their elected representatives on the council. I was not allowed to interrupt when my hon. Friends from Kent were criticised and I must defend them, because they are well known for placing considerable pressure on the Government on behalf of the people of Kent. They are successful because they put a good case. That is shown by the size of the SSA, the amount of funding that has been provided, and the efforts made on the single regeneration budget and on some of the roads. They continually make their case to the Government through letters, questions, general meetings and specific meetings. Time and again, they have put the case for Kent, but they recognise that times are difficult, money is tight and savings need to be made. Conservative councillors have made it quite clear that they intend to do that.
Members on both sides of the House will agree that a 10 per cent. increase in Kent's budget is not the only solution. It is high time that some people involved in Kent local government learned to face up to their responsibilities. There is a saying that under Labour it will all end in tears. That may happen if we allow Kent to remain under Labour control.