HC Deb 19 February 1996 vol 272 cc2-4
2. Mr. Martyn Jones

To ask the Secretary of State for Wales how many representations he has had from local authorities in Wales concerning the level of revenue support grant proposed for the new unitary authorities. [14157]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. William Hague)

Several. My proposals for the 1996–97 local government revenue settlement were approved by the House on 8 February.

Mr. Jones

Is the Secretary of State aware that the figures of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy show that the Clwyd county council area has lost roughly 400 teachers in the past three years and that, in that time, the number of pupils has increased by 700? That must mean larger class sizes. The level of revenue support grant means that the new unitary authorities in Clwyd are expected to fund teachers' pay by efficiency savings. That has to mean another cut and fewer teachers. What does the Secretary of State want to say to parents of my area, whose children will be taught in even bigger classes from April?

Mr. Hague

Central Government support for local government spending is £864 per head in Wales, which is £132 per head higher than in England. When local authorities complain about that settlement, council tax payers and parents should ask themselves, "Is every penny spent by the council spent wisely?" and, "Are all the things that local government spends money on necessary?" It is the right settlement and a generous one. It was approved by the House by a majority of 72 votes on 8 February and the hon. Gentleman did not even vote against it.

Mr. Nigel Evans

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if the Opposition think that the revenue support grant is insufficient, the onus is on them to say how much it ought to be and where they would get the money from?

Mr. Hague

Yes. There has been a notable silence from the Opposition Front Bench on that subject. They have been unable to say whether they think that the local government settlement should be higher, lower, a bit higher or a lot higher and they refused to say so throughout our debate on the subject two weeks ago. It is time that they came clean about their policy, instead of pretending to the voters that they would spend more but wanting to say in the House that they would not spend more at all.

Mr. Alex Carlile

When considering the representations, how will the Secretary of State deal with the shortfall of more than £500,000 in the education budget in Powys caused by the decision of 200 to 300 16-year-olds to return to school rather than go to the local further education college? Will he ensure that the money that would have followed them to the college follows them back to their schools, so that they really have a choice about where to be educated?

Mr. Hague

I do not think that it is possible to adjust budgets for local government and for the Further Education Funding Council on the basis of decisions made in each area. It is up to local authorities to manage the resources that are available to them, to use them as efficiently as possible and to serve the interests of their local residents as best as they can.

Dr. Spink

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that council tax levels in Wales are 40 per cent. lower than they are in England, which represents a very good deal for the people of Wales? Notwithstanding that fact, does he agree that education in Wales is in good heart and in good condition, which we should welcome, and that we should be congratulating teachers in Wales rather than decrying their efforts?

Mr. Hague

My hon. Friend is right that council tax levels in Wales are substantially lower than those in England. As he said, in recent years there have been marked improvements in education in Wales, as last week's report of our chief inspector of schools demonstrated. There is further work to be done, and the Government have a wide-ranging programme of initiatives to continue to raise standards in education in the coming years.

Mr. Win Griffiths

Will the Secretary of State confirm that his own parliamentary answers show that revenue support grant has been reduced as a proportion of local government spending? Will he further confirm—again from statistics issued by his office—that local education authorities have reduced their administrative costs, despite which class sizes have increased, and that, under this year's settlement, central Government support for local government will reduce, as a result of which most local authorities in Wales expect to make cuts of approximately 3 per cent. in their education budgets, let alone in any of their other budgets? Why will not the Secretary of State do something positive to provide the resources to help teachers and local authorities, who are doing a good job against all the odds—and in spite of the Government?

Mr. Hague

The figures show that, in the current year, the Government will provide 88.6 per cent. of local government total standard spending whereas in the coming year they will provide 87.8 per cent., which is a change of 0.8 per cent. If the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues object to that, it is incumbent on them to say what they think the percentage should be. I hand it to the hon. Gentleman because, in the debate 11 days ago, when the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Jones), asked him whether he would spend more on education, alone among Labour Front Benchers, he said, "Yes." We now wait to hear from him how much that amount would be.