Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

Part of Department for Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 4:51 pm on 2nd July 2019.

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds 4:51 pm, 2nd July 2019

I am grateful for the opportunity to catch your eye in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I pay tribute to Layla Moran, who is a highly valued member of the Public Accounts Committee, of which I have the honour to be deputy Chair. It is clear from her speech that she is extremely knowledgeable about this area, particularly about education, on which she is the Liberal Democrat spokesman.

I also pay tribute to other Members who have helped to secure this really important debate. The reason it is so important is that local authorities are by far the largest devolved form of government in England. They deliver a range of vital services, such as education, planning and social services. The money devoted to local government, and therefore to the effectiveness of these services, is vital to the people of this country, which is why, for the first time in 27 years in this place, I wanted to speak in an estimates debate, but particularly in this one on the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

It is a disaster for the people covered by a local authority area when it runs out of money and centrally appointed commissioners are brought in to oversee the finances, as we have seen in Northamptonshire County Council. We need to look very carefully at the role of section 15 officers, who have issued more than 114 notices of loss of financial control since 2010-11. We particularly need to encourage the Government to be intrusive in their inspection of local audits, because it is possible to spot where a local authority is beginning to get into trouble far sooner than was done with Northamptonshire, thereby possibly avoiding bringing in the local commissioners.

As the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon said, the finances of local government are fairly parlous at the moment—resources fell by 34% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2017-18. Paragraph 12 on page 9 of the National Audit Office report states tellingly that overspending and the use of resources were not fully financially sustainable over the medium term. I encourage my colleagues on the Front Bench to look very carefully at this whole matter.

Local government is now facing a funding gap of £3.1 billion by 2019-20, which is estimated to rise to a staggering £8 billion by 2024-25, according to the NAO. Local government spending is being stretched significantly as we face the demand for services way outstretching available funding. This year, for example, Gloucestershire County Council has had to raise its council tax in every district to make £21 million of savings to deal with the financial pressure. To simply keep up with the county’s demand for services, council tax payers now need to provide nearly £295 million.

Children’s social services are a particular worry in the county and across many education authorities. It is the No. 1 financial pressure on Gloucestershire’s 2019-20 budget, as the authority will spend an additional £16.3 million on the most vulnerable children and young people in the county. Ofsted made a monitoring visit to Gloucestershire’s children’s social services in April—its sixth monitoring visit since our local authority was judged to be inadequate in March 2017. It is promising to see that progress has been made. However, that progress was deemed to be slow, and we cannot continue to fail to provide good enough social services for our most vulnerable children and young people.

Throughout the country, 42% of children’s social services are rated good and we spend some £8.8 billion on them, but 91% of local authorities have overspent in this area and we need to understand why. We had the education debate yesterday, and although there is a record amount of money in education overall—rising from £41 billion in 2017-18 to £43.5 billion in 2019-2020—the problem is with distribution. That is the case for my local authority, and I suspect that some of my colleagues on both sides of the House who are in the f40 group would agree that the distribution of money is critical. For example, an authority such as Hackney is getting £6,500 per secondary place, yet some schools in Gloucestershire are below the fair funding amount of £4,800 per secondary place.