HC Deb 04 November 1987 vol 121 cc918-9
3. Mr. Harris

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has for encouraging local councils to curb overspending.

Mr. Howard

Under the present rate support grant system, grant pressures and rate and precept limitation will continue to encourage local authorities to restrain spending. The community charge will bring the full pressure of local accountability to bear on spending decisions.

Mr. Harris

In order to improve efficiency, will my hon. and learned Friend encourage local authorities, on a voluntary basis, to implement the contracting provisions of the Local Government Bill now before the House before it becomes law?

Mr. Howard

Yes. The Audit Commission has identified more than £400 million of savings a year that can be achieved in the short term without waiting for the provisions of the Local Government Bill.

Mr. Pike

Does the Minister realise that, far from overspending, local authorities are at present unable to meet the needs of their local communities and the demands of the ratepayers who elect them? Is it not time that the Government changed direction and allowed local authorities to meet the needs of the community rather than continually having to cut back?

Mr. Howard

The savings identified by the Audit Commission offer those local authorities a ready means of meeting their electors' needs.

Mr. Baldry

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the best ways of curbing over-spending, would be to introduce the community charge speedily to make local authorities accountable once again to those who provide much of the money that they spend?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why we are pressing on with our proposals.

Dr. Cunningham

What does the Minister have to say to the Conservative councillors controlling the London borough of Barnet, which includes the Prime Minister's constituency, who have rejected the Government's proposals to introduce a poll tax? Is not one of the fundamental reasons why increasing numbers of Conservative councillors are rejecting these proposals that, among other things, the Government intend to take powers that will allow them retrospectively to alter council's budgets and levels of income? What can be the purpose of standing for democratic election at local level if Ministers have the power retrospectively to change the finances, budgets and planning of every local authority in the country?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman is not right about the attitude of Conservative councillors to our community charge proposals. On the subject of community charge capping, the fact of the matter is that, regrettably, even when the community charge is in force, some councils —I hope very few—controlled by the Labour party may still engage in irresponsible behaviour and spending. It would be an abdication of responsibility for the Government not to have a reserve capping power at their disposal.

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