Local Government Funding

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 4:00 pm on 28th March 2018.

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Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 4:00 pm, 28th March 2018

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has intervened, because I was expecting him to do so. I was a former group leader at COSLA, so I have been watching for a number of years the Scottish Government manage to put money into local authorities in a way that could not be done down here. In fact, in the last debate on local government that I took part in in this Chamber, Tory MPs were talking about their councils having to hand back the keys to Treasury Ministers such were the cuts. Actually, one of the biggest challenges in Scotland is dealing with the private finance initiative legacy left by Labour in terms of the additional interest costs on all these different items that continue to drain local authority resources.

I want to turn to Highland Council, because it is on my own patch and I speak from experience. Highland Council’s resource budget for our services such as schools, roads and housing rose to almost £450 million for the coming year—an increase of over 2% compared with last year. While the Scottish Government protect local authority budgets, the UK Government leave them paying the price for the austerity agenda.

Highland Council is a good example of the impact of universal credit on local authority budgets. As many Members will know, the constituency of Inverness was a pilot area. We went through the live service and then full service roll-out in June 2016. Local agencies, the council and I have been voicing concern about these issues since 2013, and the measures introduced do not even scratch the surface of the process failings of universal credit. Our local authorities are paying the price now, and right hon. and hon. Members in this Chamber who go through full service roll-out will see the effect on their own local authorities.

Let me reflect on the cost to Highland Council of the impact of rent arrears. Average rent arrears for somebody on universal credit are now £840. Average rent arrears for somebody not on universal credit are £250. The effect of that is that in July 2016 rent arrears were £1.6 million. In March 2017, that figure rose to £2.2 million, and then in December 2017, it rose to £2.7 million, racking up the costs for local authorities, which are having to implement and deal with the effects of universal credit. This will have an effect on services as it starts to drain their budgets.

The extra resources needed for administering the change to universal credit are running into hundreds of thousands of pounds—money that is coming out of the council budget. The welfare support team do amazing work, but they are flat out with demand. Housing officers are also flat out with demand, as more people face housing crises. Some 29% of landlords already say that they have evicted because of universal credit rent arrears. People are becoming homeless, so the local authority has a duty to house them. It is a vicious cycle of costs for the local authority. The increased demand then affects other agencies such as Citizens Advice.

The impact on poverty is also very harsh. One in four children in Scotland is growing up in poverty as a result of this Government’s austerity regime. As household incomes are pushed, people find themselves relying more and more on local authority services. Highland Council, especially its welfare support team, has done incredible work in the face of the most trying difficulties.

The SNP Government are committed to mitigating Tory austerity wherever they can. Since 2013, the Scottish Government have spent more than £100 million a year to protect people from the worst aspects of Tory welfare cuts. We are fully mitigating the bedroom tax in Scotland, and we have pledged to abolish the tax completely when we have the powers to do so.