Council Tax (Derbyshire)

Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 10:25 pm on 16th June 1998.

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Photo of Hilary Armstrong Hilary Armstrong Minister of State (Local Government and Housing), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (Local Government) 10:25 pm, 16th June 1998

I beg to move, That the draft Council Tax Limitation (Derbyshire County Council) (Maximum Amount) Order 1998, which was laid before this House on 8th June, be approved.

It will be useful if I set out how we hope to reinvigorate local government and what our future approach to capping will be. This year marks a watershed in our approach to local government finance, as it will be the last year of crude and universal capping. We are making changes because we believe that the current system has the balance between central Government and local government wrong. The turnout figures in the local elections in May underline the need for change. Under the current arrangements, local accountability is simply not strong enough, and the use of central Government's powers is disproportionate to achieving their objectives.

Our plans are a key to the future decisions of councils such as Derbyshire and reflect our desire to develop strong, effective and accountable local government. That is essential, because local government is responsible for so many of our most important services, such as schools, transport and care of the elderly. It is also essential to our aim to work with local government to lay the foundations for stable economic growth and to improve people's quality of life.

Many hon. Members will know that we have published a series of consultation papers aimed at establishing modern, accountable local government based on simple and stable finance systems that reflect the leadership role of councils and their partnerships with local communities. Our proposals include replacing crude and universal capping; making it easier for people to understand the link between their council's spending decisions and the council tax bills that they receive; giving people a greater say in local decisions; and helping councils to act more strategically and corporately, and to achieve better value for money. Detailed proposals on those matters will be published in a White Paper in the summer.

Although we are determined to improve local accountability, central Government still have an interest in the level of local government spending, because local authorities are responsible for a significant proportion of overall public spending and deliver a number of key services.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

We are discussing Derbyshire local government. Would the Minister have supported the previous Government in capping at the lowest level ever, as she is proposing, or will she come to that in her speech?

Photo of Hilary Armstrong Hilary Armstrong Minister of State (Local Government and Housing), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (Local Government)

I shall explain why the Government have made these decisions.

The Government will retain a reserved power to control excessive increases in local council spending. However, with a more accountable system of local government in place, we hope that reserved powers to intervene in local budgetary decisions will be used rarely, if at all.

We are committed to a fair distribution of Government grant to local authorities. This year's settlement was a start in achieving that goal. It is better in cash terms than many authorities expected based on last year's plans. We have allowed a 3.8 per cent. increase in provision for local government revenue spending nationally, which is double what the previous Government planned.

The amount available for local authorities includes an additional £835 million for education nationally, which has been fully funded by matching grant to authorities. That shows our commitment to improving standards. We have been able to increase resources for social services nationally by £447 million, which is almost £100 million more than was envisaged by the previous Government. We have also provided an extra £70 million for children's services, which is the first substantial increase for three years.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

If the hon. Lady has given extra resources—figures supplied by the Library show that an extra £1 million was provided for education in Derbyshire schools—why is she proposing to take away £1 million?

Photo of Hilary Armstrong Hilary Armstrong Minister of State (Local Government and Housing), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (Local Government)

The hon. Gentleman has got his figures confused. I am dealing with the local government settlement, whereas he is referring to education money under the new deal, which is for capital spending outside the local government settlement. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not understand that.

The capping principles for 1998-99 allowed all authorities budgeting up to 12.5 per cent. above their standard spending assessment to passport the increases for all non-police service blocks in the spending assessments. If an authority's SSA increased by more than its class permitted increase, its cap reflected that greater amount—so the money could be spent.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. We are discussing Derbyshire. The hon. Lady is entitled to a lead-in, but she must restrict her comments to the issue of Derbyshire.

Photo of Hilary Armstrong Hilary Armstrong Minister of State (Local Government and Housing), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (Local Government)

I am aware of that, which is why I have been hesitant about taking interventions. I know that you want me to deal with the Derbyshire issue, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, it is important to put the Derbyshire decision in context.

It is the first time that increases in highway maintenance, other services and capital financing blocks have been passported. Those were important changes in the capping regime, and they gave greater discretion to local authorities.

In the past seven years of crude and universal capping, 49 authorities exceeded their caps. This year, only one authority—Derbyshire—has set a budget above its capping limit. As a result, when we announced our decision on the capping principles on 7 April, we designated Derbyshire for council tax capping. It challenged its cap—as the legislation allows it to do—and proposed that it should be permitted to budget at the level that it originally set.

In reaching a view on the final capping limit for Derbyshire, we had to take account of its specific circumstances. We have considered those carefully, and I have met a delegation from Derbyshire to hear its case in detail. I am sure that, during this debate, we shall hear of the efficiencies that Derbyshire has achieved. It is extremely important that authorities pursue efficiency gains, as that will help and enable them to provide the best services at lowest cost.

Capping is about whether the cap proposed for that authority is reasonable, achievable and appropriate. The fact that an authority claims to be efficient is not, of itself, a justification for it to take a larger slice of the cake of general Government expenditure. The demands of individual authorities must be examined in the context of the demands of all authorities, and those of the economy as a whole. That is why I felt it appropriate to explain the background of the debate.

Derbyshire county council has set a budget of nearly £473 million, £3.9 million above its proposed cap. As I said, I met members of the council, and a number of Derbyshire Members of Parliament, so that they could explain their reasons. Among the Members of Parliament was my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). I am delighted to hear that he is now out of hospital. I pay tribute to his diligent attention to the needs of his constituents, and to the fact that he has put their case so strongly. Several of my other hon. Friends have been to see me, and have also pursued the interests of their constituents with incredible diligence.

The Deputy Prime Minister and I have carefully considered all the relevant information available to us, and have decided that we should permit Derbyshire to increase its budget relative to its provisional cap by £2.9 million, rather than the full £3.9 million proposed by the authority. There are a number of factors which I believe make Derbyshire a special case, and which therefore warrant the increase.

Derbyshire has had the eighth smallest capping increase of any county in 1998–99, at 3.1 per cent.—compared with the average of 3.7 per cent. Since 1989–90, it has had a smaller cumulative increase in its cap than any other county. The increase in Derbyshire's education standard spending assessment represents nearly all its total capping head room. In short, if it passported all its increase in education SSA through to schools, it would have only a 0.25 per cent. increase for all other services. Derbyshire has no significant reserves with which to support its budget.

I stress that it is the combination of those factors, rather than any one in isolation, that makes Derbyshire's position unique. We decided against allowing the county to increase its budget against its provisional cap by the full amount of its actual budget. Among other things, its budget is above SSA by more than the county average. That suggests that there is scope for the council, within existing resources, to give more to education by reordering its priorities. The overall effect should be to allow Derbyshire to passport the full increase in its education SSA, and to increase its take-up of the education standards fund. We have carefully considered the points raised by Derbyshire in the capping process to ensure that the cap that we have proposed is reasonable, appropriate and achievable.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

Will the Minister tell us when she first learned that the estimated cost of rebilling had gone down from £550,000 to £320,000? When was her Department first made aware of that?

Photo of Hilary Armstrong Hilary Armstrong Minister of State (Local Government and Housing), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (Local Government)

I do not know when the Department was first made aware of it, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman to let him know.

I have highlighted the particular combination of factors that, in our view, make Derbyshire a special case this year. We believe that those factors justify this treatment. However, it is clear to the Government that Derbyshire now needs to take more determined steps to address its budget. Over the coming months, we expect it to put in place a firm medium-term strategy to manage its finances in a way that will avoid excessive council tax increases in the future. That will clearly mean making some tough decisions to reorder priorities, as well as setting challenging targets for efficiency gains. The county will need to do more to manage its expenditure from year to year if its council tax payers are not to face unreasonable increases. Were that the case, the Government would step in to limit increases in budgets that were, in their view, excessive. We will also want to consider whether to use our powers to treat authorities that were designated in the preceding year differently from other authorities within the same class.

More generally, the Government will continue to take a rigorous approach to all sectors of public spending, including local authority expenditure. It will be essential that local authorities also take a responsible approach to their spending budgets. Next year, the Secretary of State will have in reserve powers to limit council tax within the current legislation. He will not hesitate to use those powers where he believes that authorities have set excessive budgets.

If the order is approved, we shall serve a statutory notice on Derbyshire formally setting its cap. It will have 21 days to reduce its budget in line with its cap and to set a lower precept. That will lead to the issue of new lower council tax bills by the Derbyshire billing authorities. I commend the order to the House.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon 10:40 pm, 16th June 1998

I am sure that we would all wish to join the Minister in wishing the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) a rapid recovery.

It was with some nostalgia that I listened to those marvellous words "reasonable", "appropriate" and "achievable", having used them so often and knowing that they have a ritualistic character in this debate; they save the Minister from judicial challenge at a later stage. I was interested that she began with a debate on the six, I think, Green Papers on local government as, up to now, we have been denied a debate on those in the House, despite their enormous importance. Not one was introduced by a statement in the House, but I hope that her words are in earnest of the good intention to give us a proper opportunity in Government time to debate crucial proposals affecting local government. I note simply that the largest Green Paper was on ethical behaviour in local government, which was six times the size of the paper on capital finance and a future financing system.

The Minister gave the particular reasons why she thought that Derbyshire is a special case, but, with all due respect to her, those were mechanical reasons that flow from her decisions on standard spending assessments; there was nothing unusual about them. Had she taken different decisions on SSAs and made different changes to them, that would have affected Derbyshire's position. It is not an exceptional condition. It flows automatically from the decisions that she has taken.

Of course, I do not ideologically object to capping; that would be somewhat curious as I have, as it were, been there and got the tee-shirt for doing it myself. The arguments about public expenditure are real enough. The chapter on it in the relevant Green Paper has a familiar ring. Indeed, I suspect that I frequently said the same words. Even in the little document that is snappily called "A Plain English Guide to the Local Government Finance Settlement", under the heading "Capping" we find the words: Local government spending is part of the total of general Government expenditure, so the Government need to limit how much local authorities spend.

Local authorities will be interested in the Minister's words. The last few pages of her speech were devoted to a fairly fearsome warning about how the Government intend to apply capping if local governments do not behave according to her definition. Of course, she would use the legislation that the previous Government put in place to do that because capping is not a duty; it is facultative. The legislation remains on the statute book. The Government have the option simply of not applying it—of not setting capping criteria—but, of course, if they really wished to send a signal to local government that they want to get away from the old system, they would repeal our legislation. They clearly do not intend to do so.

Therefore, when Labour says that it will end crude and universal capping, one wonders where the sophisticated and particular capping will arise. When the Minister talks about the cap relating to excessive spending, we wonder whether this is excessive spending. Is £1 million in a budget of £471.7 million an excessive increase? It seems curious for the people of Derbyshire to be told that there are particular circumstances—with which I do not agree, but which she has adumbrated—and that this is peculiar to Derbyshire.

Derbyshire is now permitted to spend £2.9 million over the budget that Ministers initially thought was necessary for it to meet its statutory obligations. However, its budget is being capped to prevent a mere £1 million of £471 million of expenditure. In other words, if my calculations are correct—I was never in the Treasury, so I may be corrected on them—its budget will be cut by 0.21 per cent., which is the smallest amount that has ever been caught by a cap.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) said, a couple of months ago, Derbyshire received an extra £1.1 million to reduce class sizes. Although of course that was part of the education budget, and of course it was capital, verily it is said that "the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away".

So what happens now? There will be rebilling, which is done by the districts—which, initially, send out the bills. I am told that, by some mysterious alchemy, the cost of rebilling will be reduced from £500,000 to £300,000. That £300,000 would have paid many teachers' salaries, and paid for many local authority activities, school meals and many other things that are probably regarded as important by the people of Derbyshire. Nevertheless, there will be a bonus: local people will have money handed back to them. Undoubtedly, they will rejoice mightily at that bonus.

The county of Derbyshire has many band A properties. According to my research, 66 per cent. of properties in Bolsover are band A, as are 56.7 per cent. of properties in Chesterfield, 43.7 per cent. in North-East Derbyshire and 40.4 per cent. in Amber Valley. Even in the Derbyshire dales—which I suppose must be regarded as the most propertied part of Derbyshire, as it has the fewest properties at the bottom end—bands A to C still account comfortably for more than 50 per cent. of properties. It is therefore worth asking quite what will be the big bonus that is handed back.

My calculations—on which, again, I stand to be corrected—show that the consequence of the Government's action for band A property holders in Bolsover—where, we have agreed, two thirds of property holders hold band A properties—will be the great bonus of a £2.87 rebate. I have been told that that sum will buy an inexpensive packet of 20 cigarettes. In the House of Commons Bar, one can buy two pints of beer for that sum—but, as we all know, beer is relatively cheap in the House of Commons Bar.

The objective of all that paraphernalia and rigamarole—£300,000 or £500,000 will be spent on rebilling—is to rebate £2.87 to the citizens of Bolsover, Chesterfield and the other districts. That is the cost of financial probity, and the reward for the Government's actions.

The capping order is not the important issue. The Government could have changed the system—they have been in power now for well over a year. Although they have made perhaps only one local authority settlement in their own right, they are now on their second settlement. The Government have had control of the standard spending assessment system. Local government is almost universally under Labour control, and, for the moment, the Local Government Association does not say boo to a goose. Ministers could have altered the system, but they have stayed with it.

In the future, we will have the "brand new system". However, anyone who reads the Government's documents on the matter will wonder where the new dawn is, and when it will arrive. We have heard that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has rejected the idea of changing the definitions of public expenditure. Now we have old-fashioned rigorous capping, although I suspect that it is only a gesture, as Ministers could not allow anyone to get away with it completely. The cap is the iron Chancellor's little gesture towards local government, warning it about what might come. He is perhaps thinking, "Gosh, £1 million off Derbyshire's budget of £471 million won't half make them wonder. That will really get them bothered."

The cap is only a precursor of what is to come. The Minister for Local Government and Housing talked about the new system which we will be getting, and about getting away from all that terrible old capping problem and entering a new world. If one reads about what that new world will comprise, it quickly becomes clear that it will not include repatriation of business rates, as that would of course have implications for public expenditure.

Nor will it include giving everyone—lock, stock and barrel—the power to raise taxation locally, as that, too, would have implications for public expenditure.

There has been an awful lot of talk about, "Let's have annual elections. No one can sleep easily in their beds at night, or feel that they have had a good run at delivering what local people perhaps want them to deliver."

The Labour Government still deeply distrust local government. They believe fundamentally that they must keep control in their own hands. What we are asked to consider tonight is merely an aperitif, an amuse-gueule before the feast that is to come—the feast of continued Government control.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley 10:49 pm, 16th June 1998

I am rather confused by the previous contribution, as I was by the remarks and questions of the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), who I understand is summing up tonight, since the announcement was made last week. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us whether the Opposition are now saying that the Government have not given enough to Derbyshire. If they are, why were they previously arguing that Derbyshire should not ask for anything more? That is the question that the Opposition now need to answer.

Does the hon. Member for West Derbyshire support the potential loss of 440 jobs—including those of 70 teachers—the closure of homes, and the threatened closure of the Lea centre in his constituency? If he does not, does he support the Government's allowing us to get off the horrible hook on which we found ourselves? Perhaps he will also tell us what proposals his Conservative colleagues on Derbyshire county council had to enable the council to operate within its budget within the cap, without causing the horrendous consequences for education and other services that we have been seeking to avoid.

During business questions last week, the interesting suggestion was made that the Members of Parliament for Derbyshire would not welcome this debate. I have to say that that is completely wrong, just as the current Conservative Tory Member of Parliament with a Derbyshire constituency and our Conservative predecessors who lost their seats were wrong to denigrate the county over the years and to encourage the Conservative Government to do us down and act against the interests of their constituents.

We welcome the chance to be positive tonight, as we have spent some time in doom and gloom. We have a beautiful county, and the county council has undertaken many excellent initiatives, in spite of the difficulties and in spite of the denigration that it faced.

I apologise to those hon. Members who have had to stay late tonight and who might not have wanted to do so. We might owe them an explanation. I also apologise to Ministers who have had to spend a long time talking to us and considering the arguments. We are grateful that they have listened to us with care and have gone some considerable way to meeting our concerns.

Reference was made to the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for North—East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) is not here. We are sorry that he is not here, but a recent question of his summarises one of the problems. He asked what percentage of UK taxpayers pay the higher rate of taxation. The answer is that, overall, 8.1 per cent. of UK taxpayers do, whereas only 5 per cent. of Derbyshire's taxpayers are in the higher tax bracket. In Hertfordshire, the figure is 15.2 per cent., or three times higher, yet Hertfordshire gets central Government grants that allow it to spend £76 more per head on its residents than Derbyshire can. That goes to the heart of the problem that we face.

Considered since 1989, Derbyshire's capped spending is now 18 per cent. less than the average for all counties, and its increase was more than 6 per cent. below the next lowest increase. There have been cuts of £200 million in its budgets, and 4,500 employees have lost their jobs over that period. That has led to an annual cost of £4.2 million in redundancy and retirement payments. Our pupil-teacher ratio has declined from being one of the best in the country to being one of the worst. The same has happened to our home help ratios.

I was interested to read in The Times Educational Supplement a couple of weeks ago about the threat to school music services. Those discretionary services went in Derbyshire in 1991. We have been left with no reserves, so we are in a unique position.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

I shall not give way. Many hon. Members wish to speak, and I am keen to make progress.

Over that period, Tory Members have gloated, as we saw in the debate on local government finances. There were many good changes in that settlement, but the changes that have started to redress some of the unfairness in the local government system did not help us in Derbyshire. We faced difficult cuts that would have been impossible to meet.

Some positive schemes were under threat as a result of the budget that we were set. The head teacher of one school in my constituency who lobbied us came from Hampshire. If he had still been there, he would have had £300,000 more for his school and fewer statemented children. The Employment Sub-Committee, of which I am a member, is looking at pathways to work for women. We shall say that education and training are as important as child care in enabling lone parents, for example, to make the jump from welfare to work. Peverel house in Codnor has 130 women on computer and keyboard skills courses that will enable them to get back to work. It also has other facilities, including nursery facilities and youth facilities, used in the evenings by 80 young people a week. It was under threat of closure. We hope that that will be reversed.

My Select Committee is also responsible for investigating the new deal. I have been told by the new deal adviser at Heanor job centre, which is in a pathfinder area, that many people with basic skills problems are still presenting themselves. One of the nearby secondary schools has an excellent literacy and numeracy programme, for which it has gained national plaudits. I found it heartening to see a 13-year-old who had had difficulties with reading being able to read the announcement about the award and talk about it. That was thanks to the special programme. Such programmes are vital if we are to make advances.

In some cases, parts of the Government's programme would have been jeopardised by the cuts that Derbyshire is facing. The Government have recognised our class size problem and given us a substantial sum to cut infant class sizes. Last January, 13,000 infants in Derbyshire were in school classes of more than 30. From next January, we shall have only 1,000. That is thanks to the first stage of the Government's recognition of our problems. If we had not been allowed the extra money, we would have added teachers to help five to seven-year-olds, but taken them away for seven to 11-year-olds, which would have been nonsense.

Derbyshire is an efficient authority. Council staff use 20 per cent. less than the county council average. We spend £23 per pupil on education and central support services for schools, which is 30 per cent. below the county council average.

We needed the additioal money to put ourselves on a proper footing for the future. We can go forward to make our arguments in the review of local government finance to ensure that we do not get into the same position again. The council can address the issues in conjunction with the review.

Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Conservative, Mole Valley

When the hon. Lady talks about extra money, does she mean the £2.9 million or the £3.9 million that she campaigned for?

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

We are grateful for the £2.9 million. We hope to be able to access some of the other money.

I am sure that the hon. Member for West Derbyshire will talk about rebilling. We should remember that he voted for that ridiculous system. We are landed with Tory legislation. I did not vote for it and neither did my hon. Friends the Members for Erewash (Liz Blackman), for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) and for High Peak (Mr. Levitt), but our predecessors did and they lost their seats. We would prefer not to have such legislation, but we do.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

The hon. Gentleman will have a chance to reply. He voted for a £1 million rebilling charge in 1990. That will cost £1 per household.

Will the hon. Gentleman name a single school in his constituency that does not welcome Derbyshire's decision to go through the cap? Let him name a single school that does not welcome the Government's decision. I recently met the chairman of education on Derbyshire county council, who told me that he would happily visit such a school or talk to any parents in west Derbyshire who do not welcome the decision. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's answers will tell us whether the residents of Derbyshire agree that the Government and the county council have done the right thing.

Does the hon. Member for West Derbyshire support the loss of 440 jobs, the loss of 70 teachers, the closure of centres? Are the Opposition saying that the Government should have spent more or that the county council should not have asked for anything? I am very confused about their position and would welcome some clarification. If they are opposing the order, is it because we have not been given enough or because we have been given something?

In Derbyshire, we are grateful that Ministers have listened to our arguments. Obviously, we are disappointed that we did not get the full amount. Although there are still difficult decisions to take, the settlement fends off the worse of the disasters and gives us a base on which to build. The Government have recognised our case in providing money for reducing infant class sizes and for school buildings. They have recognised our case in allowing us to go through the cap. We can now talk about how to get a fair settlement for the future, which will resolve the problems and not leave Derbyshire lagging behind other authorities in such a difficult position.

Parents and others in the county know whom to blame for the difficulties that the county council has had over the years. They now know whom to thank for the recent decisions and the ability to enter into discussions in future. Although I am disappointed that Derbyshire did not receive the full amount, I shall happily support the Government in the Lobby.

11 pm

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I associate the Liberal Democrats with the best wishes that have been sent to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). We look forward to his return.

It is extremely regrettable that we must discuss the capping of Derbyshire county council's revenue budget. The fact that we are shows how far this Labour Government are prepared to go to implement a Conservative agenda; how much they are prepared to say one thing in opposition and do exactly the opposite in power.

In opposition, the Labour party consistently opposed capping of local authority budgets. In 1993, the then hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said: The Labour party is wholly and unequivocally opposed to the capping of a council's budget. It is an abuse of central power, it demeans democracy, it undermines the right of local people to decide what services they are ready and willing to pay for … it serves no economic purpose, and it has not worked in its own terms."—[Official Report, 9 June 1993; Vol. 226, c. 385.] I could not put the arguments against capping more eloquently.

In 1995, a Labour party policy statement on local government said: The present capping arrangements suggest that some civil servants or Minister in Whitehall knows better than local people and local councillors about the depth, degree and urgency of the needs of each and every local community and its capacity to pay for what it needs. This can't be right in principle or practice. Just two years later, we find ourselves with a Government formed by the Labour party which, in its election manifesto, said: Although crude and universal council tax capping should go, we will retain reserve powers to control excessive council tax rises". In office, they implement exactly the crude and universal capping that they promised to end.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the chance to intervene—unlike the Minister, who would not. Like you, I share the sentiment that an overwhelming majority in the House support the views exposed by the then hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). What do you think—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Member has been in the House long enough to know whom to address.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I apologise. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) is as curious as I am to find out what impediment stood in the way of the large Government majority doing something about the unfortunate capping regime.

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I am sure that the Minister, who is a believer in open government, will comprehensively answer that later.

I find it even more regrettable that the Government are imposing a cap on Derbyshire's budget only two weeks after the end of their consultation on reform of local government finance.

In the Green Paper, "Modernising Local Government—improving local financial accountability", the Government state that modernising local government is dependent on radically changing the relationship between councils and their communities and between councils and the Government. They suggest that one way to achieve that is to enhance local accountability, and reduce central government's involvement in local tax and spending decisions. Can the Minister explain how she thinks that she is achieving that by interfering in Derbyshire's tax and spending decisions?

Even those of us who remain opposed to capping might have understood the Government's action if Derbyshire had set a budget £10 million or £20 million above cap, but it was set only £3.9 million above cap, and the Government appear to have agreed that £2.9 million of that was needed. We are here tonight because the Government cannot allow Derbyshire county council an extra £1 million, less than 0.25 per cent. of Derbyshire's total revenue budget. If that is not central Government prescription and control run riot, I do not know what is. It is also regrettable that the Government think that spending an extra £1 million on public services is unacceptable when they have just announced £3.6 million for spin doctors in Whitehall—a strange sense of priorities by any standard.

The Liberal Democrat group on Derbyshire county council did not support the controlling Labour group's decision to set a budget above cap. It agrees that capping, crude or sophisticated, should go but believes that there were ways in which the council could have achieved savings and stayed in budget. It has no wish to inflict the cost of rebilling on council tax payers. Out of the £2.9 million gained by Derbyshire, £320,000 will have to be spent on rebilling every household. One could argue that the council is still £2.5 million better off so perhaps it is worth it. If that gamble had not paid off, the council would have had to cut services even further and the local community would have suffered.

The case that Derbyshire county council made in arguing for extra Government grants tells an all-too-familiar story in local government. Over the past nine years in Derbyshire, central Government have reduced the council's revenue budget by £214 million. Service closures include the school music service, the only local home for disabled people, a toy library and five homes for the elderly. Discretionary and clothing grants were abolished in 1996. Those cuts will hurt the most vulnerable, reinforce deprivation and perpetuate social exclusion.

Liberal Democrats have spent many years campaigning against the incompetence and inefficiency of Labour-run councils and we have no wish to become apologists for them. However, the fact that Derbyshire requested only an extra £3.9 million, of which the Government concede that it needs £2.9 million, suggests that there may be a case. We intend to vote against the imposition of a cap on Derbyshire's budget because capping is an abuse of central power, demeans democracy and undermines the right of local people to decide what services they are willing to pay for.

In 2001, the people of Derbyshire will be able to pass judgment on the track record of their council. They could choose to pass a vote of no confidence in the council because of higher spending or to endorse its decision to fight for more money for its communities. More likely, most voters will not vote at all, confused about who is really responsible for spending decisions and concerned that, however they vote, central Government will set priorities and dictate community needs. People will not bother to make the detour to the polling booth on local election day. The Local Government Association recently conducted a MORI poll that showed that more than one third of people do not believe that voting in local elections makes a difference to local taxes or services. Will the Minister admit that her actions reinforce that view?

I hope that this is the last time that we are called to the Chamber to debate the capping of a local authority's budget. We should like the Minister's assurance that that is the case. The Government cannot continue their practice of promoting democratic renewal while constantly interfering in local spending decisions without rightly being accused of hypocrisy.

The Government have promised to provide greater freedoms for "well behaved" councils in their local government Bill. Perhaps the Minister can tell the House when we might expect to see that Bill. If they really believe in local democracy, they should give councils the freedom to raise taxes and to work with local communities to agree local service and spending priorities. If the local government Bill offers only more sophisticated versions of central Government control of local councils, the House will know that the promise of democratic renewal was all spin and no substance.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 11:09 pm, 16th June 1998

We have just heard from the representative of the Liberal Democrat party, the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), about the plight of my constituents, and it is a strange tale that he has told. When the controlling Labour group in Derbyshire decided, with my support and that of other Derbyshire Labour Members, to go through the cap because we felt that the county had been treated unfairly, what did the little band of Liberal Democrats on the council do? The Liberal Democrat representative has now informed us that they did not have the guts to challenge the Government to try to get more money.

Now that, through our efforts, we have an extra £2.9 million for the Derbyshire ratepayers, for more schools and all the other services, the hon. Gentleman has the cheek to come here and say that the Liberal Democrats are now complaining that that is not enough—although they did not want any more money in the first place. I like to challenge the Tories about hypocrisy, but that takes some beating.

It is not as if the Liberal Democrats do not usually find a way of saying, "Raise taxes." That is their usual ploy, but the Liberal Democrats in Derbyshire did not have the guts to say it, so we need no lectures from their Members of Parliament.

When the whole saga began, many years ago, we had the awesome experience of seeing a Tory Government come to the House with their revenue support grant settlement and Tory Members of Parliament from Derbyshire stand up in the Chamber and demand that the Minister should not give Derbyshire too much money. In all my years of experience, I had never before heard Members of Parliament saying, "Don't give us money for our schools and our kids, or for our welfare services." Yet the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and his colleagues who represented Amber Valley and South Derbyshire at the time all used to jump up and condemn Derbyshire for asking for too much money. Today, however, the Tories are coming along to say the opposite.

On one such occasion I wanted to put Derbyshire county council's case in an Adjournment debate, to explain how the Tories had robbed it of £214 million—actually it was a bit less than that at the time, because they still had a few more years left in which to take away even more money. I thought that it was high time that someone put the county's case, which was a good one.

I got my Adjournment debate, and stood up to speak—I was on the Opposition Benches in those days—but I had got only one sentence out of my mouth before a Derbyshire Tory Member, who later became Government Deputy Chief Whip, demanded to intervene and stop the debate on a point of order. A Member gets only a quarter of an hour or 20 minutes to speak in an Adjournment debate anyway, but all that I managed was another couple of sentences before the Derbyshire Tories raised several more points of order. I still carried on, but I was not getting very far.

The Tories talk about wrecking things in the House of Commons, but what happened then was that one of the Tories called, "I spy Strangers," and called a Division in the middle of my Adjournment debate. It took them 20 minutes to vote and my whole debate was lost—and now they have the cheek to talk about democracy. All that I was trying to do—

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

No, sit down, I have not got time. Other people want to speak.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

Does the hon. Gentleman not want to hear the truth?

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was in the House when that took place—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. We cannot have two Members on their feet at the same time. Mr. Skinner.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was in the House when that took place. He is one of those little Liberal Democrats; I do not know where he was at the time.

The Tories talk about democracy, but that night they destroyed my opportunity to put the case for Derbyshire. The case has persisted ever since. Then, we get a Labour Government: we demand more money from the settlement, we meet the various Ministers and Derbyshire county council sets a rate £3.9 million above the original settlement. I wanted £3.9 million and I made that clear to all the Ministers I met, but 1 have to take into account what my constituents are saying, and every single one—teachers and all the rest—has made it clear to me that half a loaf is better than no bread at all.

I have also had assurances from the county council that there will be no compulsory redundancies, which I had feared. I remember last year, when Somerset and Oxford were complaining about rate capping. I know that the reason for their complaints was that they knew that they would have to sack people if the cap went through, but that is not the case with Derbyshire. I have had assurances from the county council leadership and others, who have explained to me precisely how they have managed to find a little extra money here and there—I shall not go into the whys and wherefores—to enable them to manage the budget and to make it up to about £3.9 million.

I have to take into account the fact that, if I am a general complaining about what the Labour Government are doing, I have to have an army behind me in Bolsover, Amber Valley and West Derbyshire in order to be able to demand of the Government, "What are you going to do about it?" However, I have to tell hon. Members that what the people are telling me is that £2.9 million is not as much as they wanted, but it is the first time in the history of Derbyshire county council since 1981 that it has finished up with more money than was promised in the first place. They are telling me that, in 1981 under the Tories, in 1982 and on and on down the years, they failed to get the money, so I have to say that the settlement being debated tonight is not as good as I wanted, but it is better than a poke in the eye with a big stick. With a little shuffling of the pack, we shall be able to manage to run the budget.

To my hon. Friend the Minister I say, this is only part of the settlement—the rest has to come later. We have lost £214 million in the past 12 years under the Tories. We are having a job keeping our heads above water, which is one of the reasons why the council went through the cap. I say to my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench and to the Treasury Ministers who are not here tonight, but who are the most important people in these matters: I know that there is to be a three-year settlement, but the next time there is a settlement I do not want to have to go through the galling experience of having meeting after meeting with Ministers to get the additional money. I do not welcome the fact that we are here tonight. I want a better settlement for Derbyshire next time.

I hope that because, at long last, we are weaning ourselves away from the Tory spending plans and because the next Budget will be the most important in this Parliament, the Derbyshire settlement will take account of the fact that the Tories closed every single pit in the whole county. That has reduced our ability to find work for people and reduced the spending power of people in Derbyshire. The whole area was devastated by those pit closures, and we cannot afford to sustain the results of that for much longer. The social fabric is breaking down in every town and village in the county, and the only way to put that right is to make sure that, next time, we get sufficient money to repair the social fabric and to start to provide employment again. The county council can play a role in that, which is why the next rate settlement will be important, not only for the other parts of the country that have suffered from this year's settlement, but for Derbyshire.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 11:18 pm, 16th June 1998

I wonder whether the House would have imagined the comments by the Minister for Local Government and Housing being made if the previous Government had proposed so narrow a cap in such circumstances. It is wrong in the House to talk about hypocrisy—

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

No, I shall not because I have only a very short time to speak. The hon. Lady did not answer the question that I directly asked her because she was unable to do so. She was not able to come to the real point, which is that this is the narrowest cap that we have had, and it is not a cap that she, in opposition

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

No, I have only four minutes in which to speak, so that the hon. Lady may have time to sum up the debate.

The Minister did not get on to the Derbyshire settlement until she had told us a great deal about what could happen and should happen, but would not happen now. Are the Government in power or not? They have been in power for over a year. They could perfectly well have changed the system if they did not like it. Not only have they not changed it; they have introduced a cap that would not have been introduced under any previous Government. The Minister therefore wanted to avoid the question of the cap on Derbyshire for as long as she could, which is why we heard a lot of generalities before she got on to the question of Derbyshire. Indeed, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, had to intervene to tell her that it was time that she got back to the question of Derbyshire. You were being polite—she had not started to talk about Derbyshire at that point.

I exculpate the Minister for her speech, having heard that of the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber). I hope that every person in Amber Valley reads that speech, because it was an example of what happens when a Government remove all independence from their Back Benchers. I cannot remember a single occasion on which I introduced a capping measure and a Member of Parliament for an area that I was capping made so toadying a speech. I used to get—to use a special word—hell from my colleagues when I introduced such capping measures. The hon. Lady takes the biscuit. I hope that people in every single home in her constituency read her speech—indeed, if I can manage it, I shall arrange that—because she will never win that seat again.

It is remarkable and sad that the hon. Lady did not mention that we are having this debate only because of the Opposition's pressure on the Government. The Government wanted to have a private word upstairs. The hon. Lady would not then have had a chance to reveal herself to the House and the public as being totally uninterested in what happens in Derbyshire and deeply interested in what might happen to her in the future.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Government wanted not only to take the matter in Committee, but to pack that Committee with hon. Members who have no connection whatever with Derbyshire, and that when it was suggested that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) should be added to that Committee, the Government resisted the idea?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I am aware of that, which is why I could not understand the speech by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). Can the House imagine the speech that the hon. Gentleman would have made if this had been a Conservative capping proposal? Can one imagine how he would have torn it apart? His rant would hardly have stopped by now. He would have said that to have so small a cap was intolerable; to have insisted that the money be spent not on schoolteachers but on demanding new bills was unacceptable, and that he and his friends in Derbyshire knew that this was a Tory plot. But did we hear a word of that?

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

No; I will not.

The Minister would not have allowed me to get away with it, and I will not allow her to get away with it. I asked her a direct question—whether she would have supported my proposal of such a capping measure. She did not answer—because she would have opposed it root and branch. She would have voted against it, and it is a disgrace that she asks the House to vote for it, and an even greater disgrace that she had to be dragged to the House to discuss it at all. She wanted to get away with a little speech in a little Committee, packed with little Back Benchers who would not raise a voice against her. She is frightened of the House, as she has shown once again, because she cannot make her case and has not made her case—she deserves to be voted against.

Photo of Mark Todd Mark Todd Labour, South Derbyshire 11:24 pm, 16th June 1998

We have just heard a speech that hardly mentioned the capping order in question, and instead focused on abusing the Minister. I give the order a qualified welcome, because I oppose capping on principle; I have never supported it, and I find considerable difficulty in accepting its application this time around.

Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said, two thirds of a loaf—as, roughly, it is—is rather better than none. I acknowledge that Ministers have done their best to respond to concerns of hon. Members, and of contingents from Derbyshire, pressing the county's case. It will be a test of the county's ingenuity to implement, within the budget, the full effect of the standard spending assessment increase given to the education service in Derbyshire. Nevertheless, I am confident, because of the record of Derbyshire county council, that it will achieve that. It has shown originality and innovation in much worse circumstances, and I believe that it can respond to the challenge.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

Is my hon. Friend aware that £2.9 million is being given to Derbyshire in the context of £1.16 million under the standard spending assessment to address class size, £1,000 per school for books, money for capital spending in education and so on? That would never have existed under the Conservatives.

Photo of Mark Todd Mark Todd Labour, South Derbyshire

Indeed. Since the general election, there has been considerable Government largesse for Derbyshire, and that is welcome as a small step in redressing the legacy of 18 years of Conservative government. Tory malice toward Derbyshire was effectively admitted by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) in the previous debate on this subject, and it was conceded by the Deputy Prime Minister in responding to that debate.

Evidence of consistent attempts to find ways to tinker with the SSA to achieve a lower settlement for Derbyshire is obvious to all concerned. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover has drawn out one implication of that—that this is a first stage in responding to Derbyshire's concerns. It is a welcome first stage, which I shall support in the Lobby tonight, but it means, together with the Minister's strictures, which I accept, that the county must settle for managing within its budget this year and looking for ways of finding economies, which is always a duty on a local authority. It will also be a duty of that local authority to present, with hon. Members, a coherent argument for new ways of looking at the mechanism that provides resources to local government. It is clear to me that Derbyshire has faced settlements that are inappropriate in comparison with those for the leafy suburbs of the south-east—an imbalance that we should do our best to redress in future.

Without the extra space within the cap, libraries and a family support unit would have been closed. I was fortunate enough to spend most of last week in my constituency, when I visited, among other places, a family support unit. It provided detailed help for individual young people who were estranged from their family, and tried to support them through the education process in the worst circumstances. If one of those units closed, the young people would never be able to advance their education and might be in jeopardy. Such are the terrible choices that would be faced by the county.

I also spent time visiting youth centres across my constituency. Again, there would have been massive cuts in the youth service across Derbyshire to stay within the original cap. That service provides critical support for young people in our community, to keep them out of trouble and to provide them with pathways into education. Such services would have been lost, too.

There is much to celebrate in our record. The Audit Commission showed that Derbyshire's record in helping elderly people to stay in their own homes was second to none. That is one further steer on how the standard spending assessment should be reconsidered. I do not believe that that goal of the county, which is well met, is properly recognised in the current spending assessment.

Just think what we could do as a county with a proper and fair settlement that would bear comparison with the settlements of some of the authorities represented by Opposition Members. My optimistic message for the future is that Derbyshire can beat the rest with a fair deal, and we shall continue to fight for it, but tonight we shall support the order.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons) 11:30 pm, 16th June 1998

I begin by wishing the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) a speedy recovery. Although I have disagreed with him on many occasions, I respect the fact that he always had the best interests of Derbyshire at heart when he spoke in the Chamber.

It is refreshing to hear Labour Members say how much they wanted this debate to take place. Only last week, for the first time ever, the Government were trying to get a capping motion through in Committee. Never before has a capping order been taken in Committee.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

I wish that the hon. Lady would check. There have been several occasions on which only one authority has been capped. She comes to the House badly briefed if that is what she thinks.

Every previous capping order has been taken on the Floor of the House. If the Government are so proud of what they are doing, why was the first question on the matter tabled by a Sunderland Member, and why was a question about the final decision tabled by a Kent Member? Are no Derbyshire Labour Members ever in the Chamber? Are they always in their constituency?

We have heard the excuses from the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), who said that he was in his constituency last week, so he was not available to table the questions. Sometimes it is not necessary to be physically present in the House to table questions. Hon. Members can table written questions.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

What about the other six Derbyshire Members?

We are here to discuss the Government's proposals. It is worth quoting from the Labour party manifesto, which states: We will retain reserve powers to control excessive council tax rises. I assume that the Government regarded what Derbyshire wanted to do as an excessive council tax rise. If Derbyshire Members support the Government tonight, they will be confirming that.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

The hon. Lady says no, but how can she vote for the cap? The Government are introducing the cap because they believe that it is an excessive council tax rise. If they did not believe that, they would not try to cap Derbyshire county council. Perhaps Labour has some new logic. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) made clear, capping is a power of the Secretary of State, not a duty. The Government have assumed that duty.

The Government initially proposed to cap Derbyshire by £3.9 million. They have now changed their mind and will cap Derbyshire by £1 million, allowing it break through its cap by £2.9 million. I am wholly critical of the cynical way in which the Government are dealing with this issue. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon said, in order to stop Derbyshire spending £1 million out of a £470 million budget, the Government propose to reduce Derbyshire's spending by 0.21 per cent. That is what the Government are considering capping; that is an excessive council rise in new Labour speak. Let every council be aware of that for next year.

The cap will cost Derbyshire council tax payers some £320,000 according to the latest estimates. The first estimate submitted was £550,000. The Minister could not confirm when the Department was told that the figure had changed; I am surprised that no note has come from the Box. The figure that the county council has in its papers for tomorrow is £550,000. That would be sufficient to build extra classrooms at St John's school in Belper, which is grossly overcrowded, or it could go some way towards building a new school in Belper, which is desperately needed. It could be used to fund a study of the Ashbourne bypass or possibly to build a new primary school in Tansley.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

I shall give way in a moment. Yesterday a group of parents from Wirksworth Church infants school delivered a petition to No. 10 Downing street protesting that the school is threatened with the loss of a teacher. That £320,000 could have paid for a teacher for the next 20 years.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that all the serious underfunding issues that he has listed have emerged in the past 12 months? Do they not relate to the period when the previous Government capped Derbyshire to the tune of £214 million over several years? Is he saying that he would have allowed Derbyshire to break through the cap completely to the level that it had planned?

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

I shall come to that point shortly. I want to address the whole issue of capping in Derbyshire.

In its publicity, which it releases at regular intervals, the county council says that rebilling is the fault of the previous Government. This capping decision is the fault of this Government. It was said that we did not change the law. That is correct, but the Government do not have to use it. I reiterate that it is a power of the Secretary of the State, not a duty. The county council is being capped for only 0.21 per cent.—the smallest cap ever introduced.

The last time we debated capping in the House, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and the right hon. Members for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) and for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and, I suppose, the Minister—although I have not checked the record—voted against the cap. That made a difference of £112 to the average household. We were talking then of a reduction for each person of about £56 and, therefore, an average reduction for households of £112. This cap will make a difference, on average, for the vast majority of households, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon said, of £2.87. In Amber Valley, 40 per cent of houses are in band A, as are 19 per cent. in High Peak and 30.9 per cent. in South Derbyshire. Those are facts in terms of reductions in those council areas. The proposed cap does not stand up to justification.

The way in which the Government wanted to take the matter through Committee was deplorable. It was clear that not one Labour Member representing a Derbyshire constituency would be a member of the Committee. None of them would have the chance.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

I would have been able to speak.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman says that he would have been able to speak, but he would not have been able to vote. Of what were the Government afraid?

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

The argument was so persuasive.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I wonder whether my hon. Friend will tell me what the Government would have been afraid of, given that when we heard Derbyshire Labour Members speak they supported the Government. They damned their county and supported the Government. Why did not the Government herd them in?

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

I have to say—[Interruption.] It seems that the Minister is in favour of reforming the House of Commons. The Government are not content with reforming the other place; they want also to reform the House. Will their reform of this place mean depriving constituency Members of their votes? That is exactly what they tried to do last week. Is that what the Minister means by reforming the House of Commons? We shall watch these matters with interest.

The simple fact is that the motion is of the Government's making. There will be huge extra billing and all the Minister can do is laugh. That sums up the Government.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

No. I have given way to the hon. Gentleman already.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I shall intervene extremely briefly. I find it extraordinary that a Conservative Member from Derbyshire, rather than a majority of Derbyshire Members on the Labour Benches, should have to speak in support of the council tax payers of Derbyshire. Why does my hon. Friend have to be doing this rather than Labour Members, who should be opposing their Government?

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

Labour Members will have to answer for themselves.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

No. I have given way to the hon. Gentleman already. I want to deal with the points that he has made and other points. I know that the Minister wants time to respond to the debate. Therefore, I would like to make some progress.

It is a simple fact that £320,000 will be incurred in rebilling. That is about 32 per cent. of the sum by which the council is being ordered to reduce its expenditure. That would not have been so bad, but just a few weeks before the local elections we had an announcement from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment giving Derbyshire just over £1 million—the county rather than the city, which received a similar amount—yet we are discussing an order which would require the county council to reduce its expenditure by £1 million. That will cost £320,000 in rebilling. That money could be used—[Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that I have said that five times. I might say it six or seven times, because we regard the £320,000 as a gross waste of public money resulting from a decision made by the Government.

The simple fact is that—[Interruption.] If the Minister for London and Construction wants to speak, I am sure that he will be able to catch your eye in due course, Mr. Deputy Speaker. He should let hon. Members make their speeches, because he gets the chance to make his speeches. I realise that he is part of the bootleg tendency of the Government, unlike the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who reminded me of Boxer in "Animal Farm"—stick with it all the way, it is sure to get better. Even if the tune changes dramatically, he can be relied on to change his tune according to the music that is being played from the Government Front Bench. He was one of the people who refused to support a capping order of £112, but tonight he will support a capping order that will benefit most of his constituents to the tune of £2.87.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. The Tories and the Liberal Democrats on the county council refused to ask for more money from the Labour Government. The Labour people on the county council said, "Dennis, will you try to get more money from the Government?" We put in for £3.9 million and we have got £2.9 million. I said to the county council, "What do you think about that?" The council said, "It's not a bad deal—accept it."

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

Excuses, excuses, excuses—the hon. Gentleman will support a proposal which will give £2.87 to 66 per cent. of households in his constituency. I have respect for the hon. Gentleman, but if he supports the Government he will be agreeing with them that the original budget set by the county council was excessive, because that is where council tax capping comes into being. That is what we are discussing—the Government's decision that the budget is excessive. [Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that I am over my time. I am conscious of the time, but I have been interrupted a number of times and eight of the first 15 minutes of her speech did not relate to Derbyshire. We should have had a statement, rather than some of the—[Interruption.] The Minister should just calm down.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The Chair will determine the equity of the debate.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but before the Minister was brought to order by the Chair to address the motion, she did not speak about Derbyshire for eight of the first 15 minutes of her speech. In 18 years of Conservative government, Derbyshire county council was capped once. It will he capped once in one year of the new Labour Government—they have matched our record. At the general election, Labour Members representing Derbyshire constituencies and Labour candidates were not going around saying, "In one year, we will cap the county council as often as the Tories did in 18 years." That is why I shall not support the motion.

Photo of Hilary Armstrong Hilary Armstrong Minister of State (Local Government and Housing), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (Local Government) 11:48 pm, 16th June 1998

We have had an interesting debate, but we do not know why the Opposition have taken their position—we still do not know their view on the budget for Derbyshire. The speech of the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) was something like a leadership bid—we know that the Tories are in trouble on their leader—and he certainly talked a great deal.

I must say to Conservative Members that we now know why debates after 10 pm frequently do not do the House any good. Debates are often conducted in a rabble-rousing manner. That characterises the Opposition this evening.

I shall answer some of the questions raised in the debate, even though the Opposition refused to answer any of the questions put to them. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) is clearly missing the job. Indeed, he writes so many articles about what I am up to I can hardly keep up with them. He said that Derbyshire's predicament arose from decisions that we had made. That is not so. I made it clear that one of the critical elements was the previous Administration's decision to reduce Derbyshire's increases year after year. That had a cumulative effect and it led to the position that we are in now. That problem was caused by the Conservative Government, not by us.

We are used to hearing the speeches of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), but he has clearly never read any of them. He showed us how he got into such trouble as Secretary of State. I hate to tell him this, but he got his facts wrong. The previous Administration capped eight authorities at less than £1 million—two of them were capped at £0.5 million.

The hon. Member for West Derbyshire exhibited the mentality that we have seen among the pathetic hooligans in France this week. [Interruption.] Being macho is all, and Conservative Members are at it again. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman took four minutes more than the allocated time. He accused me of being frightened of debating with hon. Members. I am not frightened: I want the opportunity to do so. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal and the hon. Member for West Derbyshire exhibited the behaviour and the mentality that bring this country into disrepute. They should grow up and learn how to debate effectively.

Labour Members did not use macho arguments, but dealt with the problems faced by schools, by folk who need community care and by others. They were prepared to discuss those issues, but no Conservative Member said a word about the people of Derbyshire and the problems that they face. We have had no apology from Conservative Members for the way in which they tried to sort out Derbyshire. The hon. Member for West Derbyshire has admitted that the previous Government focused on Derbyshire. We are having to deal with the problems that they created. We cannot resolve all of them in one year.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not realise that a manifesto covers five years, not one year. We shall be held to account at the end of five years.

The Liberal Democrats do not understand the concept of accountability. It means that people in the locality feel that it is worth while getting involved. Current and past local elections have shown that that is not happening, which is why we must change the relationship between central and local government. We must ensure that many more local people feel that the council is accountable to them.

We have had—as they say—an interesting debate. I believe that the Derbyshire Members who are concerned about the future of the county have made the case for it, but recognise the real problems that we face because of the way in which the previous Government dealt with public finances. I therefore do not hesitate to ask hon. Members to behave responsibly and to vote with the Government.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Community Documents)?:

The House divided: Ayes 214, Noes 152.

Division No. 307][11.55 pm
AYES
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)Darvill, Keith
Ainger, NickDavies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Donohoe, Brian H
Alexander, DouglasDoran, Frank
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)Dowd, Jim
Armstrong, Ms HilaryDrew, David
Atherton, Ms CandyDunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Barron, KevinEdwards, Huw
Bayley, HughEllman, Mrs Louise
Beard, NigelFitzpatrick, Jim
Bennett, Andrew FFitzsimons, Lorna
Best, HaroldFlynn, Paul
Blackman, LizFollett, Barbara
Borrow, DavidFoster, Michael J (Worcester)
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)Fyfe, Maria
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)Galloway, George
Browne, DesmondGapes, Mike
Burden, RichardGardiner, Barry
Burgon, ColinGeorge, Bruce (Walsall S)
Butler, Mrs ChristineGerrard, Neil
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)Gibson, Dr Ian
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)Godsiff, Roger
Canavan, DennisGoggins, Paul
Cann, JamieGordon, Mrs Eileen
Casale, RogerGrant, Bernie
Caton, MartinGriffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)Grogan, John
Chaytor, DavidHall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Chisholm, MalcolmHanson, David
Clark, Paul (Gillingham)Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)Healey, John
Clelland, DavidHenderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Coaker, VernonHepburn, Stephen
Coffey, Ms AnnHeppell, John
Coleman, IainHesford, Stephen
Colman, TonyHewitt, Ms Patricia
Connarty, MichaelHill, Keith
Corbett, RobinHoey, Kate
Cousins, JimHome Robertson, John
Cox, TomHope, Phil
Cranston, RossHopkins, Kelvin
Cryer, John (Hornchurch)Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Cummings, JohnHowarth, George (Knowsley N)
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)Hoyle, Lindsay
Dalyell, TamHughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Humble, Mrs JoanPickthall, Colin
Hurst, AlanPike, Peter L
Hutton, JohnPlaskitt, James
Iddon, Dr BrianPond, Chris
Jamieson, DavidPope, Greg
Jenkins, BrianPound, Stephen
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Johnson, Miss MelaniePrentice, Gordon (Pendle)
(Welwyn Hatfield)Primarolo, Dawn
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)Prosser, Gwyn
Jones, Helen (Warrington N)Radice, Giles
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)Raynsford, Nick
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Kaufman, Rt Hon GeraldRobinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Keeble, Ms SallyRooney, Terry
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)Roy, Frank
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)Ruddock, Ms Joan
Kilfoyle, PeterRussell, Ms Christine (Chester)
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)Savidge, Malcolm
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)Sawford, Phil
Kingham, Ms TessSedgemore, Brian
Ladyman, Dr StephenSheerman, Barry
Lawerence, Ms JackieSimpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Leslie, ChristopherSkinner, Dennis
Levitt, TomSmith, Angela (Basildon)
Linton, MartinSmith, John (Glamorgan)
Lock, DavidSmith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
McAllion, JohnSnape, Peter
McAvoy, ThomasSoley, Clive
McCafferty, Ms ChrisSouthworth, Ms Helen
McDonnell, JohnSquire, Ms Rachel
McFall, JohnStarkey, Dr Phyllis
McGuire, Mrs AnneStewart, David (Inverness E)
McIsaac, ShonaStewart, Ian (Eccles)
McKenna, Mrs RosemaryStinchcombe, Paul
McNamara, KevinStott, Roger
McNulty, TonyStringer, Graham
MacShane, DenisStuart, Ms Gisela
Mactaggart, FionaTaylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
McWalter, TonyTaylor, David (NW Leics)
McWilliam, JohnTimms, Stephen
Mahon, Mrs AliceTipping, Paddy
Mallaber, JudyTodd, Mark
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)Touhig, Don
Marshall, David (Shettleston)Truswell, Paul
Marshall-Andrews, RobertTurner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Maxton, JohnTurner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Merron, GillianTwigg, Derek (Halton)
Michael, AlunTwigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)Walley, Ms Joan
Milburn, AlanWard, Ms Claire
Miller, AndrewWareing, Robert N
Mitchell, AustinWatts, David
Moffatt, LauraWhitehead, Dr Alan
Moonie, Dr LewisWicks, Malcolm
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Mudie, GeorgeWinnick, David
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Norris, DanWoolas, Phil
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
O'Hara, EddieWright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
O'Neill, MartinTellers for the Ayes:
Pearson, IanMr. Clive Betts and
Perham, Ms LindaMr. Graham Allen.
NOES
Allan, RichardBercow, John
Amess, DavidBeresford, Sir Paul
Ancram, Rt Hon MichaelBlunt, Crispin
Arbuthnot, JamesBody, Sir Richard
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)Boswell, Tim
Baker, NormanBrady, Graham
Baldry, TonyBrazier, Julian
Ballard, JackieBrooke, Rt Hon Peter
Beith, Rt Hon A JBrowning, Mrs Angela
Roy, Frank Ruddock, Ms Joan
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)Lidington, David
Burnett, JohnLilley, Rt Hon Peter
Burns, SimonLoughton, Tim
Butterfill, JohnLuff, Peter
Cable, Dr VincentMacKay, Andrew
Cash, WilliamMaclean, Rt Hon David
Chapman, Sir SydneyMcLoughlin, Patrick
(Chipping Barnet)Malins, Humfrey
Chope, ChristopherMaples, John
Clappison, JamesMates, Michael
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington)Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Clifton-Brown, GeoffreyMawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Collins, TimMay, Mrs Theresa
Cormack, Sir PatrickMoore, Michael
Cran, JamesMoss, Malcolm
Curry, Rt Hon DavidNicholls, Patrick
Davey, Edward (Kingston)Norman, Archie
Day, StephenOaten, Mark
Duncan, AlanOttaway, Richard
Duncan Smith, IainPage, Richard
Evans, NigelPaice, James
Faber, DavidPaterson, Owen
Fabricant, MichaelPickles, Eric
Fallon, MichaelPrior, David
Fearn, RonnieRandall, John
Flight, HowardRendel, David
Forth, Rt Hon EricRobathan, Andrew
Fox, Dr LiamRobertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Fraser, ChristopherRoe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Gale, RogerRowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Garnier, EdwardRuffley, David
George, Andrew (St Ives)Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Gibb, NickSanders, Adrian
Gill, ChristopherSayeed, Jonathan
Gillan, Mrs CherylShephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Goodlad, Rt Hon Sir AlastairShepherd, Richard
Garrie, DonaldSimpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Gray, JamesSmith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Green, DamianSoames, Nicholas
Greenway, JohnSpicer, Sir Michael
Grieve, DominicSpring, Richard
Gummer, Rt Hon JohnStreeter, Gary
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir ArchieStunell, Andrew
Hammond, PhilipSwayne, Desmond
Hancock, MikeTapsell, Sir Peter
Harvey, NickTaylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Hawkins, NickTaylor, John M (Solihull)
Hayes, JohnTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Heald, OliverTonge, Dr Jenny
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon DavidTrend, Michael
Horam, JohnTyler, Paul
Howard, Rt Hon MichaelTyrie, Andrew
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)Wallace, James
Hughes, Sirnon (Southwark N)Wardle, Charles
Hunter, AndrewWaterson, Nigel
Jenkin, BernardWebb, Steve
Johnson Smith,Wells, Bowen
Rt Hon Sir GeoffreyWhittingdale, John
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Keetch, PaulWilletts, David
Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)Willis, Phil
Key, RobertWinterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Kirkbride, Miss JulieWoodward, Shaun
Laing, Mrs EleanorYeo, Tim
Lait, Mrs JacquiYoung, Rt Hon Sir George
Lansley, Andrew
Leigh, EdwardTellers for the Noes:
Letwin, OliverSir David Madel and
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)Mrs. Caroline Spelman.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,That the draft Council Tax Limitation (Derbyshire County Council) (Maximum Amount) Order 1998, which was laid before this House on 8th June, be approved.