I wish to speak in favour of the motion.
These have been testing times for local authorities in West Yorkshire. Just today, the “Cities Outlook 2021” report has revealed that the economic impact of covid has meant that levelling up will now be four times harder than pre-covid. As Gordon Brown said today, the virus has a political dynamic: it cruelly exposes our weaknesses, with higher deaths among the lowest paid and an unfair economic impact on women and black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. This hit to our community wellbeing is, of course, on top of all the other too-familiar tales of council budget cuts and job losses.
The Government’s encouragement, saying that they would do whatever it takes, has now turned into a £2.6 billion funding gap. The LGA tells us that cuts have totalled £15 billion for councils in England. That is devastating, given the fact that between 2011 and 2018 the number of looked-after children grew by 11%. The number of people over 65 in need is up by 14% and the number of those unintentionally homeless is up by 35%. These are real people, their lives brutally changed beyond recognition through no fault of their own.
West Yorkshire councils have stepped up and made sure that food and medicine gets to those who are shielding; kept essential services, such as refuse collection and housing maintenance going; provided laptops to disadvantaged students; and worked flat out to get financial support to as many businesses as possible. They decided not to wait for the Government to fund free school meals and took in-house the feeding of hungry children across West Yorkshire. More importantly, they have used local knowledge to transform the failed and chaotic test and trace project into one that actually delivers results.
All that has been done against a background of income cuts. For example, for Leeds City Council, underlying funding from business rates is down 5%. Council tax payments are down, with people ineligible to pay as they are out of work, forcing the council to fill a £25 million black hole from reserves to avoid bankruptcy. Of course, the Government will say that that is why it is important to give councils the chance to raise council tax to pay for extra costs, but hard-working, low-paid families should not be picking up the bill for austerity and the pandemic. There are higher food costs, higher energy bills and the extra costs of home-schooling, which is why we absolutely must retain the £20 uplift to universal credit and why we cannot add yet another extra financial burden on to family expenses, especially when millions have already been excluded from meaningful support.
In this landscape, do the Government really want to increase household bills by £93? Not only is that a poor reward for those who have sacrificed so much, but it is economically illiterate. Shops and businesses need people to go out and buy goods and services, not tighten their belts. I know the Minister will list the financial packages available, but I urge him to do the right thing.