HC Deb 30 April 1996 vol 276 cc1054-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Knapman.]

11.28 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

The debate tonight is about local government finance, but in particular it is about the Labour and Liberal coalition on Basildon district council disgracefully wasting local council tax payers' money and, even more seriously, about the irresponsibility of Labour and Liberal-controlled Essex county council.

I am sure that the House can understand how angry I am at the visit of the Labour leader to my constituency yesterday. There is a time-honoured convention that when an hon. Member visits another constituency, its Member of Parliament is extended the courtesy of being sent a note to advise him of the visit. I received no such note from the Labour leader. I understand that another Labour Member was also there, but he did not send me a note either. Last week, a Labour Front-Bench education spokesman was in my constituency. Again, I received no note. I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to draw that discourtesy to the attention of Madam Speaker. It is disgraceful that the Leader of the Opposition failed to observe a time-honoured tradition.

I am delighted that so many of my hon. Friends are present, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) and my hon. Friends the Members for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), for Castle Point (Dr. Spink), for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) and for Romford (Sir M. Neubert). Their attendance shows the importance that Essex Members of Parliament attach to the issue.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Has my hon. Friend noted the absence from the Labour Benches of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay)?

Mr. Amess

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point as I am advised that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) was the Labour Member who visited my constituency yesterday together with rent-a-mob; yet he could not take the trouble to turn up for this debate.

The Labour leader was in my constituency supposedly as a boost to the local government elections. He was quoted in a newspaper today commenting on myself: Basildon is an interesting place in which to have our local election campaign since it is the seat of a Conservative MP who has now decided to go elsewhere. I think that what that indicates is that the degree to which Essex man and Essex woman is coming over to today's Labour Party. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister visited my constituency two years ago, I did not telephone people asking them to greet him. My right hon. Friend came to visit the hospital without my gathering any crowds for him. I have received reports of the scenes in my constituency yesterday. Labour Members gathered together groups of Labour activists to surround the Labour leader. Even worse, known socialist activists were going up to the right hon. Gentleman on camera and in front of local newspaper reporters, pretending that they had been lifelong Conservatives but would vote Labour in the next election. The House deplores that sort of manipulation of the media. The Labour leader was supposed to be addressing—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. The hon. Gentleman has had a real old go. Perhaps he will return to the subject of the debate.

Mr. Amess

The Labour leader was supposed to be addressing the revenue support grant settlement in my constituency, but he did not do so because Labour activists do not want to fight the election on local issues. If they did, they would stand condemned. One has only to consider the disgraceful irresponsibility of Labour and Liberal-controlled Basildon district council. It is only a year since those two parties jumped into bed together. After just 12 months, Basildon district council's finances are in a complete mess. The council has increased expenditure by rebuilding its empire of area management and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay knows, has taken on 100 extra staff. It has refused to reduce its budget by £500,000 to cut out some of the unnecessary expenditure. It has spent almost all—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will be interested in this—the council's reserves once again, which three years of Conservative management had built up. In 1996–97, it is using up £3.6 million from the general reserves, to leave an estimated £300,000 by 31 March 1997. On top of that, it is also using £505,000 from the direct service organisation reserve fund.

Mrs. Gorman

Is it not the case that when the Conservative party took over Basildon council a couple of years ago the council had massive debts of about £20 million and that the Conservative administration, in a period of two years, not only got to grips with that but was able to reduce the council tax for the first time in living memory by £45 in the first year?

Mr. Amess

My hon. Friend is entirely right. What has happened is a disgrace. For three years our wonderful Conservative district councillors worked hard to restore pride in Basildon district, which consists of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend. When the Conservatives took over from Labour in 1992, as my hon. Friend pointed out, we were faced with the problem of Labour having been capped in seven out of eight years. Labour set an illegal budget of £27 million. Council balances were virtually zero. We were faced with the problems of having to reduce expenditure to produce a legal budget.

In terms of the revenue support grant settlement, the Government have been very generous to Basildon district council. It is a disgrace, when one reads the rubbish that is being put through people's doors at the moment, that Labour and Liberal activists are trying to claim credit for things that have been given to them by the very generous RSG settlement set by the Government. All the good things that are happening in Basildon district council—I am delighted to see another Essex colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Sproat)—are entirely the responsibility of the previous Conservative-controlled council and have nothing to do with the present council.

I put this point to my hon. Friend the Minister when we considered the RSG settlement. Local residents need to know why the present chief executive of Basildon district council replaced the previous one. What money from the RSG settlement was spent on that exercise? More serious, what happened to the previous chief executive? Why was there a change? Why have officers who were sacked been reinstated?

What about the money that has been given to refurbish housing estates? It is all thanks to the Government. It has nothing whatever to do with the local district council.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon)

Before my hon. Friend leaves Basildon district council's record, is he aware that this year, once again, Maldon district council—the only Conservative-controlled council in Essex—will be setting the lowest council tax in Essex, while Basildon is setting the second highest, second only to Harlow? Does that not send a message to every voter in Thursday's local elections?

Mr. Amess

My hon. Friend is right to point out the effect that his council has had in using its RSG settlement compared with that of Basildon district council and Essex county council. Essex county council is run by the Labour and Liberal associations. Both those parties tell us that they are caring parties. I have to tell the House that what they have done to residents throughout Essex is absolutely wicked.

Let us take the fire service. Never before have we experienced cuts such as those that have been made in the past year. More than £1 million has been cut from the service, despite the generous revenue support grant settlement. We cannot even recruit any extra firemen this year. That has affected all the constituencies in Essex. It is a disgrace that Labour and Liberal activists are going around with petitions—not condemning their own county councillors, but attempting to blame Essex. While all that is going on, Essex county council is sitting on more than £125 million. That is disgraceful.

This year's library budget has been cut by £1 million, and as a result no new books can be purchased in Essex this year. That is a cruel thing to do to our schoolchildren, and a cruel thing to do to our senior citizens, who depend very much on the library service. And it is all a result of the failure of the Labour and Liberal parties on Essex county council to react favourably to the generous revenue support grant settlement.

Furthermore, the education budget has been cut by £3.5 million. All Essex Members know what has gone on in the past year. First, Labour and Liberal councillors did not take advantage of the voucher system for nurseries. We could have had a pilot scheme in Essex and all our constituents could have taken advantage of it, but for doctrinaire reasons and reasons of political correctness those councillors opted out.

Then there are the magnificent grammar schools and the magnificent selective system that we have throughout Essex. What have Labour and Liberal county councillors voted to do? They have voted to withdraw the transport facilities of which many of our less well-off constituents have taken advantage. I call that cruel. They have also conducted a wicked, pernicious campaign against grant-maintained schools. In Southend, West, for instance, we have the largest primary school in Essex— Westborough school, which has nearly 700 pupils. That school has been penalised in terms of its budget settlement, just because it is grant-maintained.

Essex county council stands condemned in many other respects. The highways and transport budget has been cut by £1.3 million, there are no more grants for rubbish skips in rural areas, and there have been cuts in money delegated to district councils and in public transport grants. Furthermore, social services have been cut by £4.5 million. That includes an underspend of £2 million in the current year. But the council claims that it is underfunded, and still wants to spend £35,000 a year on a public relations person.

I am sick to death of the way the Government have been blamed unfairly for everything and anything. Someone who stands for a district council seat, is elected and ends up controlling affairs should accept responsibility for his actions. Labour and Liberal-controlled Basildon district council is responsible for the financial mess in which my constituents, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay, now find themselves.

People who stand in a council election, are elected and then discover that they are in control of Essex county council—which is now run by the Labour and Liberal parties—must accept full responsibility for their actions. Those parties have cruelly cut budgets that there was no reason to cut, and all our constituents are suffering as a result of their failure to draw on their huge reserves. There is a world of difference between a local authority drawing on huge reserves and what we find in Basildon, Southend and other local authorities, where there are very small reserves.

Mr. Whittingdale

Is my hon. Friend aware that while Essex county council has been imposing the savage cuts that he has described, a Labour county councillor has run up travel expenses of £33,000? Is that not outrageous? Does it not give a sense of the priorities that Labour party members attach to expenditure—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) has tried very hard to stick to the subject of the revenue support grant settlement for Basildon district council and Essex county council, so I hope that he will contain his remarks.

Mr. Amess

I will certainly not be drawn. I merely say that I know that my hon. Friend represents a large constituency, but I did not realise that it was so large that one could run up £33,000 in travel expenses. That is quite remarkable.

I have been castigated by the Opposition for all manner of reasons following our success in the 1992 general election. My smile has been referred to. The only reason why I smiled on 9 April 1992 was that the media had been told by the Labour party to gather to watch me lose my seat. At least I knew what I was smiling about. Labour politicians go round blandly smiling at cameras all the time yet do not tell us what their policies are. I have been able to give the House an example of what the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats do when they are given power.

My Labour opponent and my Liberal opponent, who is a county councillor, have never stopped blubbing since I defeated them in the general election. They need to defend the revenue support grant settlement. I notice that the leader of the Labour party on Basildon district council has said: The interests of Basildon have never been completely served by Essex County Council because county councillors come mainly from the north of the county and do not understand our district. Goodness—and the county is run by the Labour and Liberal parties. The Labour candidate in the new part-Basildon, part-Thurrock constituency is a Labour county councillor. What is going on is ridiculous.

A historic moment occurred on Saturday. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford will draw some solace from what happened. The borough of Havering castigated the decision of my family and me concerning the education of my children, which is important to the RSG settlement. The Liberal deputy mayor of Havering council has since announced that he has left the Liberals and joined the Conservative party, and is advising all sensible Liberals to vote Conservative in the election on 2 May. I hope that not only all sensible Liberals but all sensible Labour party activists will vote Conservative on 2 May.

11.49 pm
Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. My tolerance knows no bounds, but if the hon. Gentleman is hoping to catch my eye, I hope that he is going to tell us something about the revenue support grant concerning Basildon district council and Essex county council.

Dr. Spink

I am grateful for your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am pleased to be able to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess), who covered the major issues on Essex county council's application of the revenue support grant in Basildon with great passion and great force of argument.

I want to cover the impact of Essex county council's application of the RSG on my constituents in Castle Point. I believe that Labour and Liberal councillors are failing to serve the people of Essex as well as Conservative councillors would in the use of RSG. For instance, they have made cuts of £4,000 in the flood warning system, which might not seem a lot of money, but to people who live on Canvey island it is a significant factor. Labour and Liberal councillors have made cuts of more than £1 million in the fire service, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon. Those cuts were not forced on them by the Government. The councillors made the cuts by their own decision. It is disgraceful that they should make such cuts, particularly in view of the massive reserves that they are sitting on. They do not seek to defend the people of Essex properly.

The Labour council fails to serve the elderly people of Essex through the social services committee. The funding for that committee through the R SG has been increased since 1992 from £84 million to £194 million—more than double. Yet the level of care for people in the community, particularly the elderly, appears to my constituents to be declining. They do not know quite why that should be, but I can tell them why it is: it is because the Labour and Liberal councillors misapply the funds that they are given by the Government. They do not use the funds in a proper manner. They follow politically correct schemes.

They waste money. They send children away on foreign holidays when those children are caught thieving or breaking the law in other ways.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon explained how Labour and Liberal councillors were attacking our schools and schoolchildren. Let me explain how they are attacking children in my constituency. In Hadleigh they are trying to remove the school playing field from the children simply because that school became grant-maintained, presumably so that they can sell off the field and get more money to help reduce their RSG.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise a few small points. They are points that bear heavily on my constituents, who will make the decision to throw out the county council in the elections in 1997 and to return a Conservative administration.

11.51 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess). I always enjoy the opportunity to hear him rightfully hammering the Labour and Liberal parties in Essex, and particularly in Basildon. This evening is quite an event, because we have here my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) and my hon. Friends the Members for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale), for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), for Castle Point (Dr. Spink), for Harwich (Mr. Sproat) and for Romford (Sir M. Neubert).

One Essex Member who is always so conspicuous is conspicuous by his absence this evening—the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). His absence is unusual, and probably significant. He could not stand the fire that would be poured upon him. It is his colleagues who are making such a mess, having recently taken over in Basildon, and stringing along with the Liberals in Essex.

My hon. Friends are right. It is a classic example of what happens when the Liberal and Labour parties take over local authorities. The wish list comes out. They indulge in spendthrift activities. They seem to judge quality by the amount of other people's money they can spend.

We accept—the point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon—that Basildon has needs. Out of the 274 district councils, it ranks 50th. Its standard spending assessment is £16.5 million. Its budgeted spending is 45.8 per cent. above SSA. That is staggering. I believe it is irresponsible. Basildon under Conservative control managed to produce much better services at much reduced cost. Local councillors need to face some very awkward questions. They obviously have not done so.

One example that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon touched on was staffing. According to the figures that I picked up, the staffing in Basildon is 21 per cent. above the family average. That is amazing. To try to fund some of that expenditure, it has virtually no reserves. In fact, on my figures, it has no reserves. It will be interesting to see what the auditor has to say if that is the position.

I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend an answer on the musical chairs among the chief executives. It makes an interesting story, and one wonders whether there are cupboards full of them which the council pulls out and puts back in again at the appropriate moment.

The point was made in the debate that Maldon, a Conservative authority close by, faces the same difficulties and receives less SSA and RSG, yet manages to provide services to a high quality and at a lower cost to the local people.

I turn now to Essex county council. Again, there is staggering incompetence. It ranks ninth out of the 35 equivalent authorities. It has huge reserves. Despite that, and the fact that its RSG has gone up by 4.7 per cent., giving it another £32.141 million of central taxpayers' money, it has still managed to put a staggering load on local people by increasing their council tax bills.

The point has been made time and again that the Government recognise the importance of education. Essex county council's standard spending assessment for education went up by 4.9 per cent., but the Labour council has different wish lists. I understand that it has shifted some of that money elsewhere and not spent it on education. That was explained to us. Bearing it in mind that some hon. Members here are school governors in the region or parents with pupils, that is recognised in the House as an appalling move. At the very moment when all hon. Members are saying that we need an improvement in education, Essex county council shifts the money elsewhere.

Like every other Labour authority, Essex county council has had its wish list. If it cannot fulfil it, it calls it cuts. That is straight fraud. We want local authorities to recognise the importance of having a tight economy. We need to have public expenditure down and the quality of services up. Twenty-five per cent. of public expenditure is by local authorities. They must do their part, and it is obvious that the Labour party in Basildon and the Labour and Liberal parties in Essex are failing to do that.

There is a simple supermarket-type motto: we need more services, we need better services, but at less cost. I hope that, on Thursday, voters in Essex and in Basildon will recognise that at last, and throw these clowns out.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Twelve midnight.