Local Government Finance (England)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:29 pm on 10th February 2021.

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Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset 5:29 pm, 10th February 2021

I apologise unreservedly to you for that, Mr Deputy Speaker. That was a very stupid faux pas that I made, and I apologise to you and the House for that piece of stupidity.

I would like to bring to the House’s attention some of the problems we are facing here. As all colleagues have done, I thank so many of my local council workers for the remarkable job that they have done. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is fully aware that Somerset County Council is still misusing covid funds and its money. I have raised this matter publicly in the House, including at Prime Minister’s questions today, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is aware of it. It pains me yet again to tell the Secretary of State that his Department has misled the Prime Minister, and I find that very hard to say.

The leader of Somerset County Council wrote to the Prime Minister, hoping to refute my criticism. The Prime Minister checked back with the Ministry and the Secretary of State and was told that Somerset always gives any information that is required. The sad truth, however, is that the Ministry did not even ask for details. It simply does not add up to look at the total spending from every council without having a clue how the grants are used.

Somerset County Council has the most appalling reputation for financial management. It has applied to the Secretary of State to become a new unitary authority. Those plans are fiercely opposed by all four districts, which have acted impeccably throughout, giving up-to-date information and dealing with grants superbly. A large majority of the elected councillors throughout the area, regardless of party, have said that to have the county running everything is not a workable solution.

Today at Prime Minister’s questions, I asked the Prime Minister to reiterate that the people of Somerset need a proper referendum. I think I got the clear impression that he was very sympathetic, so I was horrified to learn that the Ministry intends to use an online survey instead. I had a look at Citizen Space, as it is called. Anybody from anywhere can fill in a Citizen Space survey; there is no verification. Someone could log in, dare I say it, from Beijing or Moscow. It is wide open to abuse.

I say bluntly that where finance or anything else is concerned, that is not good enough, and Somerset should not have to put up with such shoddy behaviour. The people want a referendum, because they need to be asked what they want their money to be spent on. The districts, towns and parishes want a referendum. I ask the Secretary of State not to force on a county something that it does not want.

Local government is set to have elections on 6 May, and to postpone them in Somerset would look absurd and shoddy. The Cabinet Office has already included Somerset on the election list. It is up to the Secretary of State to sort this out. I hope that he does not put a spanner in the works, because Somerset ultimately needs to be put back together. I have said time and again that the county needs to be rebuilt. The system that we have at the moment will not work, because unfortunately the county does not care and does not listen to what the local people want. That has been proven time and again. The Secretary of State needs to have a conversation with the Members of Parliament and with the parishes, rather than just finding some clever way to get around it, because the situation is not acceptable.

I have been through the same thing once already with Taunton Deane, where the Government went from completely controlling the council to having two councillors left. People are not fooled. They understand money, they understand abuse of power and they understand when people are not doing what they want them to do. I say this to the Secretary of State: this is a chance to step up to the mark and to be listened to. He should listen to the people and not just presume that he can put in a civil servant, who will talk to the fire brigade based in Exeter, the police based in Bristol and then say, “Well, we will talk to others as we so wish.” The local enterprise partnership and its chief executive officer are based in Exeter. The chairman is a very well-known man and does a great job. At the end of the day, I worry enormously about what is going on with this entire situation, so I ask the Secretary of State to please think again when it comes to the funding of local government.