My Lords, first, I remind noble Lords of my registered interests. One of them was referred to earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, who is not in his seat, as I am chairman of the Local Government Association, but I need to remind Members that it is a cross-party group, and the only reason I am the chairman is that we are the largest group in it, and we have more councillors and control more councils than any other political party in this country. I should also apologise before I start, because I have sat through nearly three and a half hours of debate and for the majority of it have been really pleased that Members in this House are not members of the Treasury and not responsible for the Budget. No doubt, by the time I sit down, your Lordships will be equally glad that I am not a member of the Treasury or responsible for the Budget.
I want to be a little critical of the Government for missing out housing, which is the biggest item on the agenda but was not mentioned in the Budget. We should be encouraging councils to build more council homes. If the Government’s intention is to do large-scale system-build, the only way of doing that is through the state getting back into housing, and at some point, somebody in the Treasury will have to realise that. I also regret that the Budget did not take the opportunity to reverse the retrospective changes to the new homes bonus. That was counterproductive.
On the upside, the £2 billion is the biggest single lump of money going into adult social care for years, and we should not downplay that. The Local Government Association asked for £1.3 billion this year, and we got £1 billion. That is not the same as we asked for, but I have a sneaking feeling that we might have been asking for a little more than we actually needed, and that the Government have probably given us a little less than we needed, if I am being truthful about it. The reality with adult social care is that the Treasury could not print enough money for us to do the best job possible. This country’s fiscal system does not allow us to do what we would all in our hearts want to do, which is to make sure that our most vulnerable people do not go into hospital when they do not need to, because that costs us money and gives them a poorer quality of life.
I should also mention business rates. Local government loves the changes to the businesses rates: £300 million of relief to be handed out at a local level and our being able to choose which of the businesses that benefit our community the most are most deserving of the relief. That is another good move. I also like the £1,000 for pubs—I just wish somebody would let me take all the cheques round in South Holland, where I am the council leader, and hand them out personally to the businesses, but perhaps that is not going to be the way the system works.
However, now I start to be critical—of both sides. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said we need to do revaluations for council tax. We have just seen what happens when we do them for business rates. Do we want to drive every single citizen in the country through that level of pain again—for no real gain, because it is only redistributive and fiscally neutral? I cannot see the point of doing it. I cannot see why the Government did it with business rates and I certainly would not want us to do it with domestic taxation. A noble friend on this side talked about increasing fuel duty. I look after a very rural community, and if you increase fuel duty around there, you are impacting on people’s ability to have a decent quality of life. Just because people drive a lot, it does not mean they earn a lot. Fuel duty is the wrong way to increase revenue. If we are sure that we need to take more money off the population, it needs to be through proper taxation and not through stealth taxation.
Another downside of that is that we would end up increasing the cost of all the goods we buy and sell, because all of that travels by roads. Councils would have to pay more for their refuse collection and school transport, hospitals would have to pay more for hospital transport, and the police would have to pay more to go and catch criminals. Fuel taxation is not the way to do this, unless—if the Minister could take this back to the Treasury, I would really appreciate it—you let all state vehicles run on red diesel, on which there is no duty. Rural councils would do a much better job if they did not have to pay tax over to the Government on the fuel they use. You can do it if you run a tractor, and I do not understand why you cannot if you run a dustcart.
I want to sit down on a happy note. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, right at the beginning of the debate, made one of the best suggestions I have heard in here, which is to allow girls on free school meals access to free sanitary products. If there is a way of exploring that, I would welcome it, and I hope my noble friend the Minister can at least ask whether it is feasible.