Oral Answers to Questions — Local Government Finance

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17 February 1998.

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset 12:00, 17 February 1998

When he last met the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to discuss the financing of local government in Scotland. [28070]

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset

In the light of his letter to the president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities of 30 November, in which he announced that he was making a real-terms reduction in the amount of money available to local authorities, will the Secretary of State explain why he thinks the convention has not made more fuss?

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Secretary of State, Scottish Office

I think that COSLA was probably relieved—[Laughter.] Let me explain. The increase in cash terms is 3.4 per cent. COSLA had expected the plans that had already been announced to be implemented if there had been no change of Government. That would have meant a cash increase of only 1 per cent. It is a difficult settlement that faces councils with hard choices but it is infinitely better than what was threatened if, by misfortune, the Tories had been returned to power.

Photo of Mr John Maxton Mr John Maxton Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity, while considering local government finance, to make it clear to Scottish National party-controlled Perth and Kinross council that charging pupils who have to stay in hostels while attending secondary school £300 a year is an unacceptable breach of the right of every school child in Scotland to a free education? Will he note that that council also charges the highest musical instrument fees of any local authority in Scotland?

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Secretary of State, Scottish Office

That is a matter for the council, which is controlled by the SNP. It is not for me to direct on such matters. The authority must choose its priorities within the spending limit that has been set. Difficult problems face all local authorities. Perhaps the difficulties in its own back yard will remind the SNP of the difficulties of councils in other areas.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party, Perth

Does the Secretary of State agree that the local authority budget cuts that are threatening the closure of organisations such as rape crisis centres are insupportable? Will he join me in supporting the Big Issue campaign against such closures?

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Secretary of State, Scottish Office

There has been some movement in the urban programme. We are particularly concentrating on priority partnership areas as part of the social exclusion strategy, which I am sure the hon. Lady supports. I recognise that there are difficulties. It is important to concentrate on our priorities. We have to ensure that the projects that continue to receive funding are important and serve the public interest. Rape crisis centres and the women's aid organisations have a good, positive record that I am sure will be borne in mind.

Photo of Mr Malcolm Savidge Mr Malcolm Savidge Labour, Aberdeen North

Will the Secretary of State consider the special financial difficulties of cities such as Aberdeen where services are extensively used by non-residents? Will he consider both immediate problems and longer-term solutions, such as reviewing the distribution formula?

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Secretary of State, Scottish Office

We are always willing to listen to representations. I pay tribute to the co-operation that we have had from COSLA and individual authorities in managing the random changes and impact that would otherwise have resulted from variations in, for example, grant-aided expenditure for social work. That co-operation has been enormously useful. The distribution formula is always altered by agreement. It is a complex, long-term project and I cannot offer my hon. Friend instant changes, but I understand the problem.

Photo of Mr Archy Kirkwood Mr Archy Kirkwood Chair, Social Security Committee, Chair, Social Security Committee

When the Secretary of State meets COSLA, will he pay particular attention to the representations that will be made by local authorities that cover landward areas about the impact of transportation costs on their budgets next year? Is he aware that, next year, school transport will cost my local authority, Scottish Borders—not a big authority—more than £2 million? Will he assure the House that he will use his considerable influence with his Treasury colleagues to ensure that there will not be excessive increases this year in excise duty on fuel?

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Secretary of State, Scottish Office

I am quite sure that my colleagues at the Treasury are familiar with those representations. They will also be familiar with the many commitments given by the Liberal Democrats to cut CO2 emissions and to pursue policies to bring that about. Very often, politics is a matter of difficult choices. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be mindful of the fact that we have made announcements about petrol prices in terms of our general approach to increases above the rate of inflation.