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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:24 pm on 16th March 2020.

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Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 5:24 pm, 16th March 2020

What a great pleasure it is to follow the maiden speech of Antony Higginbotham. I congratulate him on that. He touched on the historical context of his predecessors and the tragedy of one of his predecessors losing his life at the Somme, but he also gave us a sense of Burnley—not only the urban area, but the area that stretches out on to the hills and up on to Cliviger. That is not far, Mr Deputy Speaker, from your constituency, and it is a beautiful part of the Lancashire hills. I congratulate him on his maiden speech and welcome him to this place.

My hon. Friend Jack Dromey talked about his time prior to his service in this House as deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union and then Unite. What he did not mention was that at that point, he was my boss, and I always try to follow what he suggests. He was urging us at this time of national and international crisis not to be too political in this House, so I will do as my former boss suggests and try to take some of the criticism out of the Budget.

In a sense, this was two Budgets. There was the Budget that would have been given in normal circumstances, but then there are the emergency resolutions and the emergency provisions that were brought in to tackle the coronavirus crisis. Opposition Members welcome those provisions, as my hon. Friend Justin Madders indicated earlier, and we will work with the Government on that. One concern that we have within this context is that after 10 years of cuts to public services that are already pared to the bone and running basically on the good will of public sector workers, public services will be under particular strain.

I want to mention a couple of areas in the short time available to me. The first is social care, and I was concerned that there was no provision in the Budget for additional social care money. Furthermore, there were no answers to the social care crisis that we are facing and have been facing for a good while. As the cost of social care rises, the chronic lack of central Government funding is pushing families to breaking point.

Unpaid carers are on the frontline of the social care crisis, taking care of family or friends who would not cope without their daily and sometimes hourly support. By cutting the amount of cash provided to councils, the Government are gambling on the good will of carers, friends and families to plug the numerous holes in our deficient and sometimes ineffective social care system. The situation is unsustainable, causing stress and in some cases mental health problems for carers due to the physical and emotional exhaustion of their caring role. Social care is getting more expensive. Children’s needs are complex, with some costing £4,000 a week. Families cannot face those costs, nor can local authorities.

My second subject is particularly relevant to Chester and is the status of heritage cities. Chester prides itself on its rich Roman history. Walking along the Roman walls—when they have not collapsed—or through the historical city centre is an experience that attracts around 8 million visitors annually to my city and my constituency. When Cestrians come together to celebrate and protect our heritage, great things happen. The recent reopening of Chester castle after seven years of closure is a huge step forward. I am delighted that visitors will be able to visit the top of the Agricola tower and see the city skyline this summer, current crisis permitting. Assets such as the Roman walls, Dee house and the Old Dee bridge form a part of English history and must be preserved for future generations, yet the Government have taken the rug from underneath local authorities, causing great difficulty, particularly for heritage cities such as Chester and York.

Chester does not receive any special funding to maintain crucial heritage assets. For example, the only support the council gets to maintain the Roman walls is taken from the local transport budget or its own asset recovery. A limited amount is provided by Historic England, but not a penny is allocated directly from Government. That means that Cheshire West and Chester Council, our local authority, is being forced to choose between protecting our ancient city and providing basic services for the people who live within the walls.

Communities should have the opportunity to celebrate their culture and history, but funding has been so deeply eroded that historic sites will not be able to be maintained. We cannot run a modern society on the cheap. The cuts have consequences, and if I have a major broad-brush criticism of the Government, it is that money is taken away from local authorities, which then have to put up council tax to pay for the deficits. When those local authorities put up council tax, they are blamed for it and have to take the political hit for something that is not their fault. Ministers talk about an increase in spending power for local authorities, but that increase is almost entirely as a result of council tax going up, and the political criticism is then given to local authorities.

It is not just Labour councils that are suffering; Conservative Members know that the cuts are making the lives of their constituents worse too. With less cash, fewer services and limited support, every single council in the UK is struggling. I urge Ministers to address the question of social care, which is dragging councils down by millions, so that at least some equity in funding can be returned to the local authorities that deliver so many vital local services.