HC Deb 19 February 1997 vol 290 cc860-81

11 am

Mr. Richard Spring (Bury St. Edmunds)

Four Suffolk Members of Parliament applied to introduce this important debate. On behalf of all of us, I express my gratitude to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing the debate to be initiated. Around me are my hon. Friends the Members for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) for Central Suffolk (Mr. Lord) and for Waveney (Mr. Porter). I particularly welcome the Secretary of State for the Environment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who will reply to the debate.

In the past 20 years, Suffolk has changed more than most counties, helped by increased trade with the continent of Europe. The population has grown appreciably, and so has the county's accessibility and prosperity. There has been a long-standing willingness for individuals of different political persuasions in local government to work together. The people of Suffolk have every expectation and every right to demand that their parliamentary and local government representatives work together on issues of importance to the county.

That viewpoint held sway until May 1993, when a Labour administration, with Liberal Democrat help, took control of county hall. Since then, the council has not only been the most incompetently led in the history of Suffolk, but has had as its hallmarks distortion, propaganda and arrogance, which have brought shame to the good name of Suffolk and have regrettably turned the administration into a laughing stock in Westminster and Whitehall.

I shall give the House a flavour of that by quoting an exchange of correspondence that I had with the leader of the council, Chris Mole. In a parliamentary written answer of 21 February 1995, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), on behalf of the Department for Education, said that local education authority expenditure on administration in Suffolk was 5 per cent., compared with a national figure of 4.5 per cent. The figure was well above that of any of the surrounding counties: 4.2 per cent. for Norfolk; 3.9 per cent. for Essex; and 3.7 per cent. for Cambridgeshire.

When challenged on that, Councillor Mole aggressively informed me that I was wrong and that, in my figure, I had included the cost of inspectors, education welfare officers, educational psychologists, special needs staff and many others. However, my view was confirmed by my hon. Friend the Minister in a letter on 19 April 1995. Sadly, but typically, no comment or apology was received from Councillor Mole.

Councillor Mole wrote to me: Dear Mr. Spring Your incredulity at my factual responses to your misleading electioneering is only matched by my concern at your ignorance of the work of Suffolk County Council. He helpfully continued: You may not have bothered to check your source, or you may believe that those staff fall into your pejorative definition of `bureaucrats'. He was, of course, wrong. The mind-boggling arrogance of the council leader was brought out when he further wrote: Your reference to reductions in 'educational bureaucracy' making up for the shortfall in school's reserves reveals such a gross misunderstanding of the local management and financing of schools that I would prefer to assist you with a personal tutorial". That offensive offer was the nearest we have come to a serious offer from the county council of dialogue on financing or other matters.

The blunt truth is that the incoming Labour-Liberal administration made a clear, cynical decision to cut off all constructive contact with Suffolk's Conservative Members of Parliament and to use taxpayers' money to pursue, with an avalanche of press releases, a wholly unjustified vendetta against central Government and Suffolk's parliamentary representatives. The past four years have been a disgrace and a parody of fair and effective local government. By deliberate intent, fear and alarm has been spread among the residents of our county.

What are the facts? Has Suffolk been starved of Government resources? Has Suffolk been shortchanged by the taxpayer? Has the revenue support grant been cut? Not at all. As the House of Commons Library has confirmed, since 1992–93, Suffolk's overall standard spending assessment has risen by 11.7 per cent.—one third higher than the national figure.

I fully accept that local government, like central Government, has been required to show restraint. We cannot bequeath to our children an unsustainable debt burden. One has only to look across the channel to see what is happening to economies and employment prospects there. However, that is no basis for the propaganda outpourings from county hall and the distortions in the revenue support grant.

I shall give the House a flavour of what I mean. A banner headline in the Ipswich Evening Star of 25 January 1995 read, "Cuts Cuts Cuts". The article began: Hundreds of jobs throughout Suffolk are under threat as officials struggle to come to terms with Government cash cuts. On 10 February, the Evening Star reported Councillor Duncan Macpherson, chairman of the county council education committee, speaking of teaching job losses, bigger class sizes and woefully inadequate money from central Government. That was a foretaste of what was to come.

On 14 February, a headline elsewhere read "Time to strike back at cuts". The article said: and what it means is that many of our most important services could be pared to the bone in 1995. On 22 February, we had a headline "Jobs at risk as cuts bite", with Councillor Chris Mole talking about the comprehensive emasculation of local authorities inflicted by the Tories and alleging that 110 teachers' jobs were to go. None of that was worth the paper that it was written on.

The council produced a so-called information document entitled, "The Government's Funding Failure: Suffolk Schools and Suffolk Children. Their Bleak Future". It catalogued a sort of educational Armageddon, concluding with the sentence: A good education is at risk. Never mind that, in every year since 1979, schools' budgets have grown in real terms. Do not let the truth get in the way of the argument.

I shall not disguise the real anxieties of parents, teachers and governors in response to this. We have all had constituents in our surgeries in a state of shock, fearing—as was the intention—that schools would close, teachers would be sacked and their children's education would suffer as services in the county imploded. The propaganda barrage continued unabated throughout the year.

What happened in practice? In the local government settlement of 1995–96, the county council received no cut in resourcing, but an increase of 3.5 per cent. Most crucially, however, the education SSA for 1995–96 was upped by 5.7 per cent. —£11.7 million. That was two and a half times the rate of inflation and nearly 20 per cent. more than the average SSA increase for English county councils.

I fully accept that, historically, Suffolk county council has spent above its education SSA. However, it is incomprehensible that the council spent only £8 million of the £11 million increase in its 1995–96 settlement. It chose to spend the money elsewhere. No proper or rational explanation has been forthcoming for that decision. As we have discovered, no matter what taxpayer-supported settlement is provided for Suffolk, it is branded as "inadequate". That has become a mantra.

By September 1996, the flagrantly disingenuous county council was at it again. Headlines screamed about cuts of £18 million. Shockingly, the county council invited school head teachers to prepare for a 5 per cent. cut in their budgets. Understandably, they were aghast. In west Suffolk, 134 teachers and head teachers publicly sent a fax of protest to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. The accompanying newspaper headlines were cataclysmic. Hook, line and sinker, the stream of misinformation had been taken on board.

My hon. Friends and I repeatedly asked how the council had reached the figure of £18 million. We pressed for information, but not one shred of concrete evidence was produced. The figure was a total travesty. With exactly the same information, no other county council had been reckless enough to make such ludicrous projections.

Inevitably, bad news grabs the headlines. The barrage of mendacity continued, as reflected in the headline in the East Anglian Daily Times of 7 November 1996— Tax warning on education cash". The county council was spreading fear like a forest fire. Later in November, we had the local government settlement. Did we get £18 million worth of cuts? Surprise, surprise, we did not. We saw an increased settlement of just under £10 million. What happened to the projected education cut of £10.9 million? The education SSA was increased by 4.2 per cent., or nearly £9 million.

How many trees were uselessly felled? How much airtime was wasted by the county council? Its shroud waving was once again been exposed for all to see. As the East Anglian Daily Times summed up in its leader on 28 November 1996: Suffolk appears to have been one of the very few councils to have jumped in with both feet and prematurely warned of cuts in jobs and services on the basis of what seems to have been pure guesswork from preliminary figures being bandied around in Whitehall. The editorial concluded: Politics can be a messy business. If this time next year there is still a Labour/Liberal Democrat controlled Suffolk County Council and a Tory Government, the Council Leaders would do well not to cry wolf for a third time. The public and their own staff will not stand for it again. What has the county council done with the increased education SSA of £9 million? The shocking truth is that the council has decided to spend only £5 million. In addition to the £11 million in school reserves, the general LEA reserve fund is estimated at £5 million from 1 April 1997. There is also approximately £2 million of earmarked balances. Some £5 million that the Government intended for education in Suffolk has not been spent to that purpose.

As the chairman of the council's education committee has confirmed to me, whatever the SSA is, he and his council are so party politically prejudiced that they would describe it as totally inadequate. That is despite the fact that his party has explicitly accepted our levels of departmental spending within the overall Government control total, and no more is on offer. What a compliment to the Chancellor's good housekeeping.

During the past few appalling years of constant griping about funding, we have all been implicitly expected to hark back to some golden era of education in Suffolk. The truth could not be more different. In 1979, under Labour, the Suffolk pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools was 1:23.7—it is now 1:21.7. Similarly, the pupil-teacher ratio for secondary schools has improved from 1:18.1 to 1:16.4. The dramatic improvement in funding for education in Suffolk is fully illustrated by the rise in spending by two thirds per pupil, at both primary and secondary level, in real terms since the last Labour Government. That has been a huge commitment to our county by the taxpayer.

Mr. David Porter (Waveney)

Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of education, will he consider the damage that has been done to parents' confidence in schools by the county council campaign? In my constituency, parents have received threatening letters from the LEA that say that, unless their children take their nursery vouchers to local authority schools, they will not be guaranteed places in the primary schools of their choice. Is that not another example of what my hon. Friend is talking about?

Mr. Spring

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that valid point, and I hope to elaborate on it when I reach the subject of the handling of nursery vouchers by the county council. He is right to say that the fear and anxiety aroused by the council about nursery vouchers has undermined parents' confidence in the education of their children. That is an absolute disgrace.

One of the county council's most bizarre extravagances is its anti-poverty strategy. All my right hon. and hon. Friends in Suffolk, including myself, have done voluntary work and are completely committed to helping those in genuine need. If that is what the council's anti-poverty strategy is about, we would applaud it. It is not. It is a wheeze to spend taxpayers' money to curry electoral favour with certain groups and to create a new bureaucratic empire.

Suffolk's unemployment level is 5.4 per cent. That is below the national average, and less then half the European Union average. It is one of the lowest anywhere in the industrialised world. Such has been the pace of job creation in Suffolk in the past four years that we have seen a dramatic fall of 40 per cent. in unemployment. By any proper measurement of need—school meals, income support and other indices of deprivation—Suffolk is a quietly prosperous place. How does the county council define poverty? Incredibly, anybody who lives in a household that has less than half the national average household income is defined as living in poverty. That gives new meaning to the adage that the poor will always be with us. If household incomes were to soar or fall sharply, the number in poverty would change in tandem by that definition. The council does not provide any absolute definition of need or consumption: its definition is useless.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer)

My hon. Friend is not being entirely fair to Suffolk county council when he says that it has provided no absolute definition of poverty. It has provided a definition of poverty, and two of the criteria were lack of access to piped gas and not being connected to a mains sewer. I have neither of those, so I must be included in the council's definition of poverty.

Mr. Spring

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that point. He illustrates the fact that the council's definition is based on urban areas. Suffolk is a predominantly rural county, where the county council has not the faintest idea about how thousands of its residents in rural areas live. That sums up the whole urban orientation of that council.

How is the money spent in Suffolk? It is spent on esoteric items such as a low-calorie cookbook and a sewing circle in Ipswich. A council that is supposedly starved of resources somehow spends £60,000 on a bus providing information, not books, on how libraries work, the revenue cost of which is £20,000 per annum. Yet I cannot get a footpath built in a rural village in my constituency, despite the fact that lives are under threat. It is a disgraceful misordering of priorities and the sort of politically correct nonsense characteristic of Labour inner-city authorities. It will change the circumstances of no one in real need but will simply provide a beanfeast for the county council press office and for councillors and officers attending conferences and workshops at taxpayers' expense.

The reason why education and the anti-poverty campaign are interconnected is both noteworthy and disturbing. Parents of young pre-school children in Suffolk may be forgiven for believing that the provision of taxpayer-funded nursery school facilities is based on a reasonably rational basis of need. In Suffolk, it is not. Children get their new nursery school place only if they happen to live in an area where the county council has deemed that such a school is warranted under its anti-poverty strategy.

What would happen if that principle were applied across education in the county? Would a new classroom, a new gymnasium or an extra teacher be made available only if, in its wisdom, the county council decided that socio-economic needs were the prime determinant? That is precisely the mumbo-jumbo that has destroyed the quality of education in places like Islington, Hackney and Lambeth, which drives parents to educate their children in entirely different areas.

We all welcome nursery provision, which the nursery voucher scheme will soon liberate. However, the enormous expansion of nursery schools initiated by Suffolk county council has put unreasonable pressure on existing school budgets and the funding of teachers' salaries. Before the last county council elections, the previous council sought to increase the number of new nursery schools by three a year. In the past four years, by contrast, both capital and running costs have soared, with seven new primary units this year.

The council cannot have it both ways. It is unacceptable to decline to spend the additional education SSA increases, yet shout for more; it is only fair to existing schools in Suffolk to have a proper balance in nursery provision. Through their budgets, existing schools are paying for that decision. My hon. Friends and the public will draw their own conclusions as to how the anti-poverty criteria have produced a clearly demonstrable bias in favour of nursery provision being located in Labour-controlled areas of the county.

So here we have it: forecasts of teacher sackings; cuts, cuts, cuts; and a massive increase in council tax. My hon. Friends will know that that particular scaremongering should be seen against a projected increase in Suffolk county council tax of only 4.1 per cent. So much for the gigantic increases in bills, that the county council told us we would face in April.

Mr. Michael Lord (Central Suffolk)

My hon. Friend has dealt in detail with how parents and teachers have been frightened by the ridiculous proposition of severe cuts. Is there any evidence that the county council now appreciates that it was wrong? More importantly, has it taken steps to admit, to the people it so frightened, that it was wrong?

Mr. Spring

I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised that point. The best we had was what I imagine passed for an apology from the leader of the council, who said that the £18 million cut scaremongering campaign was a worst-case scenario.

Throughout all those events, something has obviously not been quite right—the propaganda barrage has been so totally over the top. In large measure, it has been about the terrible dissensions within the Labour party at county hall, and the uncritical passivity of the Liberal Democrats. We are witnessing the outbreak of a form of municipal fratricide between the leader of the council and the chairman of the education committee, like two aging comics fighting it out for top billing in the end-of-the-pier show. For what Councillors Mole and Macpherson want is to secure the crown of leading the Labour group after 1 May—some crown, some group! They will clearly do and say anything, no matter how distorted or misleading, to establish their macho credibility, and all of Suffolk pays the price for their mutual animosity and ambition. If the matter were not so serious, it would be laughable.

Suffolk county council has ill served the people of our county. Enough is enough. I hope that it is the final curtain call: goodbye and good riddance.

11.24 am
Mr. Jamie Cann (Ipswich)

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker and to the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Spring) for arriving late and missing the start of the debate. I did not intend to do so, and no discourtesy was meant.

I shall now tackle the points made by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds. First and crucially, the hon. Gentleman alleged that, under its Labour-Liberal Democrat leadership, Suffolk county council provoked anxieties and fears unnecessarily over the past year or so about the necessity for budget cuts for 1997–98. I should point out that all that the council did, as it has done in previous years and as it did when it was Conservative-controlled before 1994—indeed, as the council has always done since its inception in 1974—was to take the Government's forecast figures in the Red Book and apply them to its finances.

The leader of the council checked with the Secretary of State that the figures were the ones on which any responsible council must base its plans. They showed a 5 per cent. cut in the sum that the county council could spend in the coming year.

Mr. Gummer

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cann


During the year, I have protested about those figures, the county council has protested about what those figures mean, and all the committees have examined what a 5 per cent. cut would mean to the services that they deliver. Ultimately—goodness knows why—the Government decided not to continue with the figures that they had originally forecast. It was probably because of the publicity that the county council gave to how the cuts would affect services, because people such as me lobbied heavily in favour of the services in Suffolk, and because organisations, teachers, governors and head teachers throughout Suffolk lobbied and organised—

Mr. Gummer

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cann

No, I shall not give way. I have only about 10 minutes and there is plenty of time for the Secretary of State to do his bit later.

We all fought to ensure that the Government figures would be changed, and they were. The only people in Suffolk who did not fight for Suffolk, for the county council, for the budget and for our services, were the five Conservative Members who represent Suffolk constituencies. The only time that they mention Suffolk is to have a go at Suffolk county council. The Secretary of State can snigger if he wishes; we in Suffolk are used to that.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds criticised Suffolk county council for its education service. Is he not aware that Suffolk is one of the few counties—indeed, I suspect, the only county in the country—not to have suffered even one opt-out school? I know that the Secretary of State knows that, because he has protested about it often enough.

Does the hon. Gentleman not know that there are more teachers and fewer administrators in Suffolk schools now than there were when Suffolk was Conservative-controlled in 1993? Clearly not. Is he aware that under local management of schools, Suffolk is one of the highest payers out to schools, because it is one of the authorities that keeps the least money in central education administration? Is he not proud of that record? He should be. Schools, parents and governors trust that council, which gives out more money to schools than any other authority. Why is the hon. Gentleman not proud of it? Why does he criticise it?

Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that, since 1994, when Labour took control—and the Liberal Democrats, too; I apologise to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) for not mentioning them—the money that the Government give to Suffolk county council has been reduced by 3 per cent. in real terms, whereas between 1990 and 1994, when it was Conservative-controlled, the sum given was increased by 12 per cent.? What a strange set of figures.

Does the hon. Gentleman not know that £39 million, in real terms, has been taken from Suffolk over the past four years? He certainly has not protested about it. Of that sum, £12 million has been made up by efficiency savings within the council, but the rest has had to be found by making economies in its services.

Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that, during that period class sizes have increased in our primary schools, and that elements of the fire service have had to be cut? Was he not here three years ago when I stood in the Chamber arguing about the police budget in Suffolk, and managed to get £3 million put quietly back the following year? He could not even be bothered to turn up, and neither could the Secretary of State.

The hon. Gentleman should be careful what he says about anti-poverty strategies. I know that the Government keep altering the way in which we count unemployment. The last I heard, they had altered it 29 times since 1979—and every time they do, the figure goes down. That is strange enough, but there is one statistic that the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds really ought to understand.

I do not know exactly where in Suffolk the hon. Gentleman lives, but in my constituency, and I suspect in those of Conservative Suffolk Members too, one in five households have no income other than benefit. The Government can alter the figures, cheat and make headline announcements about unemployment being 1.8 million, but the fact is that in one in five households of working age in my constituency, nobody has a job.

If people live somewhere nice and leafy in a little village, they can try to pretend that that is not happening, but it is. Fear and anxiety live out there. They are not promoted by the county council; they are out there among our people, along with the lack of a feel-good factor. Over the past 18 years, that is what the Government have reduced this country to: insecurity, anxiety and fear.

That fear is not fear of the county council, of Ipswich council or, I suspect, of the local council in Bury St. Edmunds. Fear and insecurity are promoted by the Government as a matter of policy.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds talked about transport. However, the county council's transport strategy was agreed by the Department of Transport, and with the Government office for the eastern region and the transport people in Bedford. The policy being carried out is the policy that the Government told the county council to carry out.

The hon. Gentleman said that Suffolk county council was run by people from urban areas who do not understand rural areas. However, only 16 of about 60 councillors are from Ipswich—and I think that there are four from Bury St. Edmunds. There is a great swathe of people from the constituency of the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), although they are usually either Liberal or Labour, because there is hardly a Tory left. They all represent rural seats. Duncan MacPherson represents a rural seat. [Interruption.] Well, it is rural to me.

Suffolk is a rural county, so the people elected to the council come predominantly from rural areas. The fact that they are not all Tories now is another matter, and that is what Conservative Members should be concerned about, rather than criticising the council.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about building, I can tell him that two nurseries are being built in Ipswich, one for the Britannia area and one for Sprites. Those nurseries are badly needed, and they will open in September. Well done, Suffolk county council. I have long held the view that the rural areas of Suffolk have been subsidised by the urban areas. Through his activities in the health service, the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds has tried to keep that subsidy going. I do not blame him for favouring his own constituency, but I know what he is up to.

For the first time in its history, Suffolk is now being run in the interests of the whole county, rather than in those of Conservative Members' constituencies. The hon. Gentleman will not know that in my constituency three primary schools that were built in 1935 as 10-year temporary structures are still being used as schools today. That is shameful, and it is one of the problems that the Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled council is trying to put right.

Unfortunately, the Secretary of State—who, as I can see, is not interested in what I am saying—did not feel able to grant our capital challenge bid, which would have enabled the council to go ahead with a new school.

Four hon. Members applied for this Adjournment debate, but it was the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds who was successful. That was right, because he has been the most voluble critic of the county council. Yet he talks to us about dialogue. When Suffolk county council was Tory, I, as the Member for Ipswich, did not criticise the council in the press.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

There was no need to.

Mr. Cann

I did not criticise it because there was dialogue. I went and talked to the council. That does not mean that I talked to the people who chaired the committees, because it was clear that they did what the officers told them to. That was always true of Suffolk under Tory rule. I used to speak to the chief officers, so there was a dialogue and I, as the local Member of Parliament, could get things done in connection with Suffolk county council.

In contrast, for the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds, the idea of dialogue is to slag off the county council on the front page of the East Anglian Daily Times, and then expect things to change. Is that dialogue? When the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is fired, the hon. Gentleman ought to be promoted into his place, because clearly he has the same diplomatic skills.

Yesterday, the council's transport committee met. It contains Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative members, and one independent from Long Melford. We still have independents in Suffolk. The independent stood up and moved a vote of no confidence in the five Tory Members of Parliament for Suffolk. One of the Tories walked out of the room rather than vote against the motion, and the committee passed it by 16 votes to eight. My case rests.

11.39 am
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I listened in vain for any syllable of condemnation, or even of apology, from the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) for the appalling record of Suffolk county council, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Spring) outlined. In 15 minutes, the hon. Gentleman demonstrated clearly to the House and, I hope, to the voters of Ipswich. how completely unfit he is to represent those voters here in Parliament.

I dare say that we shall find the same absence of condemnation when the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) speaks. I hope that she will clarify Labour's position on spending commitments. We have heard on many occasions from Suffolk county council that it needs to spend more. As far as I could tell from what the hon. Member for Ipswich said, he endorses those claims; but we know from the shadow Chancellor that no more money will be spent next year or the year after in the event that a Labour Government are elected.

I hope that, when the hon. Member for North-West Durham speaks, she will make it clear whether she endorses the view of the Suffolk county council Labour leader or that of the shadow Chancellor. That is a vital question for the House and for the voters of Suffolk, but it is also important in terms of what happens outside Suffolk, because what we have seen in Suffolk in the past four years an example of what Labour administration means in practice. It is not only an example: it is a salutary warning.

The council was elected in 1993, and is therefore what people would describe as a new Labour administration. Like many others, it is a new Labour administration that is slavishly propped up by the Liberal Democrat party. Once again, the Liberal Democrats in Suffolk have demonstrated beyond any possible doubt that a vote for the Liberal Democrat party anywhere in Suffolk has precisely the same effect as a vote for the Labour party—a message that I am sure the voters have taken on board.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds on securing the debate, and on his excellent and wide-ranging speech. His speech had only one shortcoming: he dealt far too gently and kindly with Suffolk county council: and his language had that moderation for which he has become famous in the county during the past few months, while he has so effectively exposed exactly what has been happening at county hall.

I entirely endorse everything that my hon. Friend said about education and especially about the appalling way in which Labour and its Liberal Democrat allies have, for entirely party political ends, played on the anxieties and fears of thousands of parents and children, and quite a number of teachers and staff, in my constituency.

I want to touch on three simple themes: first, how new Labour in Suffolk still means the old loony left in practice; secondly, how new Labour in Suffolk equals new sleaze, as the county council ruthlessly deprives rural areas of resources and pours huge subsidies into the Labour urban strongholds; and thirdly, how new Labour in Suffolk equals incompetence on a new and breathtaking scale.

The debate is about the revenue support grant for Suffolk county council. The Labour party's thesis throughout has been that money is tight. Labour would have us believe that teachers' jobs are at risk, that social services for vulnerable families are about to be cut and that the fire service will be virtually closed down.

Against that background of shroud waving and alleged lack of resources, let me ask a few questions. Which council has decided in the past four years to employ a full-time equal opportunities officer? Which council thinks that its staff should have extra time off during working hours to carry out trade union duties? Which council has a full-time Unison trade union official? Which council believes that the best way in which to tackle poverty is to pay councillors to attend extra meetings to discuss the anti-poverty strategy? Which council insists on using its own employees for maintenance work and refuses to give outside contractors a fair chance to compete? Which council uses council tax payers' money to fund the appointment of someone called a "black sexual health project worker"? Is it Islington, Lambeth, Southwark, or perhaps Liverpool in the 1980s? No, it is Suffolk county council under a Labour and Liberal Democrat administration; the same council that claims that the resources given to it by central Government are so grossly inadequate.

Will the hon. Member for North-West Durham confirm that each of the points that I have mentioned represents the priorities of new Labour throughout the country, or will she for the first time issue a ringing condemnation from the House of what her party is doing to the people of Suffolk?

The tragedy is that Suffolk is under a political leadership that is so ruthless, doctrinaire and dogmatic that the councillors' attitudes are even starting to affect the officers. In a Suffolk county council education department publication, printed and circulated at council tax payers' expense, a Suffolk county council official—not an elected councillor, but an official—described the Government as some manic stage manager who keeps changing the set and the scripts. That officer went on to describe the local government review as "nonsense" and attacked privatisation as the cause of fragmentation at all levels of government". My voters in South Suffolk who enjoy cheaper gas, a better telephone service and all the other improvements that privatisation has brought about, might think that it was worth a bit of "fragmentation". The council has so persuaded its senior officers to respond to its political agenda that they are using official publications, circulated at council tax payers' expense, to spout party political propaganda.

My second theme is the new Labour sleaze. Over the past three and a half years, Suffolk county council has systematically set out to starve rural areas of resources in order to reward its political allies in the towns with ever more expensive new toys. I reiterate that the county council's policies had the full and complete endorsement of the Liberal Democrat party in that matter.

The thrust of the council's transport policy is based on that systematic discrimination against villages and the countryside; spending on roads in rural areas is cut so that the budget can be switched to pay for schemes in the towns. The budget for the footpaths that were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds has almost completely disappeared.

Perhaps the council believes that, if a Labour Government are elected, Parliament will immediately approve a statutory right to roam, and that, when everyone has a legal right to blunder across fields and gardens, through hedges and over ditches, footpaths will no longer be needed at all. I think that it is more likely that, as the council's committee chairmen ride around in their cars and claim their travel allowances, they simply do not recognise or even think about the crucial importance of footpaths in a county such as Suffolk.

Mr. Gummer

And bull bars.

Mr. Yeo

My right hon. Friend makes an important point, to which we would return if there were time.

It is not only transport policy that discriminates against the rural areas: charges have been introduced for school transport for over-16-year-olds, which is not a problem for residents in the middle of Ipswich but, my goodness, is a big issue in the rural heartlands where traditional Suffolk families are brought up.

My third and final theme is the sheer incompetence of Suffolk county council. It is not surprising, perhaps, that a council as doctrinaire as this—with such a highly political agenda—should also be incompetent, because such councils nearly always are. But it is worth emphasising just how taxpayers' money is being thrown away. Charitably, I shall select an example of when a project was chosen in a rural area—in Brantham, a small village in my constituency that is close to my home in East Bergholt.

The village was the site of a bizarre traffic experiment, introduced at a cost of £36,000, whereby the road was subject to barriers. They created a dangerous traffic flow, and near-misses and minor accidents became an almost daily occurrence. Pollution increased dramatically as cars slowed down, and my constituents could not get in and out of their driveways. The experiment was an unmitigated disaster from the day it was introduced, and everyone except the county council recognised it. The council did not recognise it because, with its typically arrogant disregard for public opinion and the merits of argument, it refused even to come and see the system in operation. A further £5,000 was wasted tinkering with the scheme, and finally—after almost two years—it was abandoned. The cost of removal amounted to a further £10,000, so over £50,000 in total was involved.

Suffolk county council has become a byword for incompetence, sleaze and political dogma. On 1 May, the voters of Suffolk will have a chance to put an end to all that. Also on 1 May, the voters of Britain will have a chance to avoid imposing the same fate on the whole country.

11.50 am
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

I am grateful for the chance to take part in today's debate. You will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that, unfortunately, there are no Liberal Democrat Members representing Suffolk yet, but it was quite clear from the anti-Liberal Democrat remarks of the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) that he at least expects his seat to fall to us next time round. That is the most likely result of the forthcoming general election in that constituency.

I wish to start by referring to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Spring), including his declaration that he wished dialogue to take place between himself and the county council. He flashed before the House this morning a headline from his local paper, and among my papers this morning is a headline that says: Tory MPs declare war on council". If the hon. Gentleman feels that that is the right way to start a dialogue, his electors may have a different idea.

Mr. Spring

The hon. Gentleman completely misses the point. There has been no dialogue for four years, and we—as Suffolk Members of Parliament—have had to put up with that. To criticise Suffolk Members a matter of weeks before the county council elections for rightly reacting with anger to what has gone on reflects an attitude of mind that is wholly inappropriate, and shows the hon. Gentleman's complete lack of understanding of the circumstances in Suffolk.

Mr. Rendel

That in no way answers the point I was making, which is that the hon. Gentleman's approach was no way to start dialogue. He mentioned, as did the hon. Member for South Suffolk, that there had been "scaremongering" by the county council. It is worth drawing the House's attention to three points. First, before the planning figures for what might happen to the council tax this year were produced by the county council, all the figures on which the council based its assumptions were checked with the Secretary of State and agreed by him. Secondly, the local auditors, Coopers and Lybrand, confirmed in a management letter that working out what the costs might be was a prudent and sensible way to plan the local council budget.

Mr. Lord

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is an enormous difference between paid officers doing their homework behind the scenes and looking at the various permutations that may exist, depending on the money that the council receives, and whipping up a huge amount of emotion and terrifying the whole education establishment of Suffolk?

Mr. Rendel

That intervention illustrates once again the way in which Conservatives like to plan—in back rooms, behind the scenes and without consulting the public. What a terrible way to perform. What a dereliction of their duty that they should try to hide from the public what might happen. They are trying not to give the public any right to take part in discussions about the future. It is absurd that they should try to plan in that way without involving the public, and it is quite the wrong way to act in government—whether it be at central or local level.

The third, and perhaps most telling, point—which concerns the so-called "scaremongering"—was that Conservative members of the council agreed with what was happening and that it was a prudent way to plan. Those members thought that this was the right way to look at what might happen to the budget in the year ahead. Are Conservative Members saying that their party colleagues on the county council were—to quote the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds—"crying wolf" and "scaremongering"? Conservative members of the council agreed to the plan.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds was not pleased that some of his local papers were turning against the Conservatives, which shows that the papers have been forced to conclude that what the county council was saying had a lot of sense behind it. All I can say is that, if he is worried about his local papers turning against the Conservatives for once, he should try being a Liberal Democrat. We know what it is like to have Tory-supporting newspapers saying the most awful nonsense about us, time after time. If he is worried that a Conservative-run paper—as I have no doubt it is—in his area has suddenly found that the truth is so clear that it has to complain about what is happening to local people under a Conservative Government, he should experience what is happening elsewhere.

I have one point of agreement with Conservative Members. It is true that Labour is promising no more, and shame on it for that. It is also true that, although Conservative party members may not want more money for local government, they do want—they have, as I have said before in the House, made it their official policy—the cap to be lifted. They are right, and it is to the shame of this Government that they have not gone along with their own members' requirement in the motion that was passed by the Conservative party conference.

I wish to refer to the council's efficiency, or lack of it. Since the new administration took over in Suffolk three or four years ago, there have been no less than £40 million-worth of cuts. Some of those, sadly and inevitably, have been real cuts in services, but a large proportion have been efficiency savings. There always will be some efficiency savings that any large organisation can make, year on year, and that has been done effectively by this administration.

If Conservative Members are now saying that the present county council is inefficient, how much more inefficient must the previous Conservative administration have been before those £40 million-worth of cuts were made? The Conservatives controlled Suffolk for more than 100 years, yet at the end of that period the new Liberal and Labour administration has been able to make massive efficiency savings over the short four years that it has been in power. I am delighted that Conservative Members are saying that the new administration is still inefficient, in so far as that must mean that they condemn out of hand the previous Conservative administration, which was rightly thrown out of office four years ago.

You may remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker—no one else does—that on the Order Paper the debate is entitled, "Revenue support grant for Suffolk county council". Conservative Members have barely mentioned the revenue support grant for the county council, for which the Government are responsible. They have been interested only in how the county council behaves and whether its policies are efficient and sensible. That is not the Government's responsibility. I do not know how the Secretary of State can be expected to reply on behalf of the county council. Had Conservative Members remarked on the revenue support grant, he could have replied because that is what he is responsible for, but he cannot be expected to reply on behalf of the county council.

The only time that the revenue support grant was mentioned was when the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds said how good it was and how well Suffolk and his constituents had done compared to other parts of the country. It is clear from his figures that his constituents have not done well compared with real cost increases. That was an interesting change from the way in which Tory Members have hitherto spoken in the House about the settlements in their areas.

Mr. Yeo

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for an hon. Member from another part of the country, who as far as I know has not previously shown any interest in Suffolk, to take up so much time in the debate that my hon. Friends who represent Suffolk and who requested the debate will be denied the opportunity to speak?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is in order; otherwise, it would have been ruled out of order.

Mr. Rendel

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds certainly said that the revenue support grant for Suffolk was good for his electorate. I should have thought that his electorate would have felt that their interests were best represented by their Members of Parliament coming to the House to fight for more Government money for Suffolk. That is what Members of Parliament for Suffolk, or at least those on the Conservative Benches, have so far failed to do.

If I lived in Suffolk and heard the debate today, with Conservative Members of Parliament for Suffolk failing to request a penny more from the Government in this debate and saying that, in spite of the £40 million in cuts in the past four years, the Government were doing well by Suffolk, I would make sure that I did not vote Tory at the next general election.

12.1 pm

Mr. Michael Lord (Central Suffolk)

It is clear from the speech of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) that he does not understand Suffolk. There is no doubt that Conservative Members of Parliament for Suffolk make out the strongest possible case for their constituents and their county. They just do not do so in the ridiculous, high-profile and propagandist way that the present administration is doing. The hon. Gentleman talks about cuts. As far as I am concerned, cuts mean that one does not get next year what one thought one ought to get. The general public tend to feel that cuts mean that they will not get next year what they got this, which is completely untrue—pick a figure, and if one does not get the figure one wants, it is described as a cut.

I shall be as brief as possible as this is a short debate. I am delighted that we have had this debate, but I speak almost more in sorrow than in anger. I am sorry about the way in which the relationship between Suffolk county council, the House and Conservative Members of Parliament representing Suffolk has deteriorated in recent years.

Central Government have always allocated budgets to local government. It has to be that way. The Chancellor has to be in control. One never knows what might happen to the national economy, and that has always been so. In the past, local authorities accepted the money that they were given—some years they got more and some years less—and got on with it. That was until Liverpool city council started to do ridiculous things a few years ago, and the Greater London council followed suit.

Sadly, that tendency seems to have spread and, since the Liberal and Labour administration took over in Suffolk, it also seems to have spread to our county, doing great damage to the county, to its standing here and in Whitehall, and certainly to the relationship with Conservative Members of Parliament, which had been good. I want that relationship to be repaired if possible, but I fear that it will not happen under the present administration.

I must make two points. The first is the way in which the education budget was treated this year. Despite what the hon. Member for Newbury, who speaks for the Liberal party, and the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) say, there is no doubt that a massive, unfair and grotesque campaign was mounted about the state of education this year. Primarily, it has had nothing to do with the amount of funding that Suffolk has received, but much more to do with pure propaganda on behalf of the councillors who are in charge.

Recently, I attended a meeting of teachers, parents and governors in Stowmarket. I went to talk to them about education and I thought that they would want to talk about the performance of our Suffolk schools, of streaming, selection, opting out or not opting out, of class sizes and of the drugs problem in Suffolk, which sadly is growing. I thought that they would want to discuss those things, but not a bit of it—all they wanted to talk about was more money, more money, more money. We all know that they are not going to get more money, whoever is in central Government. The Labour party will not give them more and that is for sure. I wanted to talk to them, not about money but about all the other issues involved. They did not want to talk about those, and I was surprised.

What saddened me most was the way in which a large number of the people in the audience seemed to have bought the story being sold by the chairman of the education committee. He was present at the meeting, slumped in his seat for three quarters of it, until he finally made his presence known and delivered a ridiculous party political broadcast on behalf of his party as the audience's eyes glazed over. What a farce, and how unfair.

Like all hon. Members, I try to keep in touch with my constituents, with their problems and with education. To go to such a meeting and to hear nothing other than, "Yah! Boo! Give us more money," was appalling. In fairness to the audience, it was because they had been so deceived by the administration and made so anxious about what might happen that they felt that that was the way to go about things. As we all know, the truth has proved different.

Obviously, everyone wants more money for every possible department. We understand that. We have problems with our hospitals in Suffolk and we want more money spent on roads—social services no doubt want more money. It is someone's responsibility to carve up that cake and it has to be done centrally in the House. It will be done that way whoever is the Chancellor of the Exchequer and whichever party is in power. If local government cannot behave more sensibly when it is given a fair distribution, we are on the rocky road to all sorts of problems.

My second point is on the balance between spending in rural and in urban areas. A quarter of Ipswich is in my constituency—I share the town with the hon. Member for Ipswich. We have a park-and-ride scheme along the Norwich road, and bus lanes have been put in to establish the scheme. An enormous sum is being spent on it—money that could be spent more sensibly in other parts of Ipswich or in rural areas. The scheme will prove a complete white elephant. A bus lane already goes right the way down the Norwich road, but I rarely see buses in it. All it has done is produce queues of cars.

At the Suffolk county council transport committee meeting yesterday, someone told me that it is not a park-and-ride scheme at all, but just a bus lane. That is news to me and to the Secretary of State for Transport. I suspect that it is also news to Ipswich borough council, because it thought that it was on the way to a park-and-ride scheme. I think that the county council has discovered that there will not be enough money for the park, so we are just going to get the ride. There are massive queues of people in cars because of the bus lanes. Those bus lanes are there so that people can leave their cars and get on the buses, but they have nowhere to leave their cars.

What a ridiculous scheme, and what a huge waste of money. Does that not sum up the incompetence of the county council, the difference between rural and urban projects and the fact that the council is incapable of getting its priorities right and looking after the interests of the people whose money it is spending?

As I am conscious that time is short, I will bring my remarks to a close simply by saying that I sincerely believe, with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Spring), that the county council's performance has deteriorated hugely in the past few years. More important, its understanding of how to behave and communicate and of the relationship between it and the House has gone badly wrong. I believe that that will change only when we change the administration. I hope very much that on I May we will get this lot out and a Conservative administration back in county hall, so that we can get back to common sense and a decent deal for the people of Suffolk.

12.9 pm

Mr. David Porter (Waveney)

We have heard much about the county as a whole, but parts of Waveney in north Suffolk are different. Suffolk is a big and varied county. There is a Suffolk identity but there are distinctly different areas in Waveney that need to be highlighted.

For many years, we were covered by Norfolk, not Suffolk, ambulances. We are still part of the Norfolk and Waveney training and enterprise council. Most of my constituents listen to BBC Radio Norfolk rather than to Radio Suffolk. Most people go to the Norfolk, show, few to the Suffolk show. We often look to Norfolk but we are proud to be part of Suffolk. That is why I share some of the concern of my hon. Friends about how the county council has behaved in the past four years.

There is a remoteness about Ipswich and events there that alienates people in my part of Suffolk. There is a feeling that big brother knows best. That is illustrated graphically by the traffic exhibition in Bungay, which is as far as one can get in Suffolk from Ipswich. To solve a heavy lorry problem in Bungay, the county council proposed to route several hundred heavy goods vehicles a day through the villages of Flixton and Homersfield on a minor road. It was only after an outcry from the villagers that it reluctantly agreed to public consultation and an exhibition. That shows that big brother knows best unless people make a fuss and fight back.

We have spent much time talking about education—rightly, because it uses a lot of the taxpayers' money that the county council spends. I use the county's education in a big way; I have four children, all in local authority schools. It was as a parent that I first became alarmed by the circulars from schools, heads and, in some cases, governors. Later, my constituents alerted me as their Member of Parliament to the threats and scares about the alleged budget cuts. If the authors of the circulars had waited, they could have campaigned on the facts.

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) said that the county council had always campaigned like that, regardless of who was in control. The difference is that, this time, heads and some school governors were publicly behind the campaign. It was that which alarmed parents. They believe their head teachers in the same way that patients believe doctors before they will believe the facts given by the Government.

Some years ago, when the scaremongering campaign started, I asked the Government what were the reserves in school funds in Suffolk. Suffolk had the fifth highest in the country. It is facts we need, not scaremongering, but that has been a hallmark of the county. That authority has urbanised the entire county council, placed kerbstones in most rural areas, and put a blanket 30 mph speed limit in villages. While 30 mph may be right for some villages, the blanket approach is wrong. Big brother knows best.

Finally, why does the county council think that it can run all the social services homes in Suffolk much better than the private sector, when the costings clearly show that the private sector delivers the best service? The administration of the county council has been a disaster; the sooner it goes, the better.

12.13 pm
Ms Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham)

I shall be brief because the Secretary of State wants to speak. As it is his county, he wants to make a substantial contribution. I want to be fair and allow him to do so.

However, fairness has not been prevalent in the debate, and that has saddened me. It is our role to recognise that local government is the legitimate tier of government for education, social services and so on. Inevitably and rightly, local government is much closer to local ambitions and anxieties than we are. It has a job to do. It is our job to question and challenge, but we must recognise that councils are elected to do a job, and that we should support them in doing it.

I was concerned about the ignorance of some Conservative Members of where local government finance has gone in recent years. No Conservative Member—I say this particularly to the hon. Member for Central Suffolk (Mr. Lord)—mentioned the change in local government following the incredible mess left by the poll tax. That led to 80 per cent. of local government spending being determined by central Government. It hasnow led the Secretary of State to acknowledge that that is a ridiculous way to fund local government.

For the past two years, the Government have signalled that they wish to begin to put more of the burden on local council tax payers. That is why they made it clear in the Red Book after the Budget that, over the next three years, local government will be expected to raise an additional £4 billion to meet the requirements that the Government identify for local government spending.

It is no good hon. Members ranting about how local government sets its priorities. We allow it little latitude in setting them, as the hon. Member for Central Suffolk said. Most priorities are set in the House by the Secretary of State and approved by the House.

The debate on education has been interesting. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Spring) wanted it both ways, but that is all right. I wondered whether he was really saying that the local authority should not prioritise or expand nursery education. I hope that he can reassure his constituents that he supports high-quality nursery education. All the evidence shows that that is the best way to ensure that children get the best start in education. The impact of nursery vouchers on the ability of local education authorities to ensure that all children get the opportunity of high-quality nursery education will in many counties be severe. It is no wonder that they are making sure that local people understand the importance of using nursery vouchers in local nursery classes.

I was asked some questions by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo). I, too, represent a largely rural constituency with limited urban occupation, so I have some knowledge of the problem of identifying how most effectively to support people in rural areas. He asked about our spending plans. I am sorry that he has not attended previous debates in which I have made clear our position on local government spending. If we win the next general election, we shall be left with levels of Government debt unprecedented since the war.

Given that, and given increasing pressure on inflation, we do not say that what the Government spend is adequate. We say that we are not prepared to put additional burdens on the British taxpayer. The tax burden on the ordinary British family is 3 per cent. higher than it was in 1979 as a result of the Government's incompetence. Therefore, we cannot expand the amount that we can do.

Other hon. Members have noted that all the county's transport policies are policies approved and supported by the Government. This year, Suffolk county council will spend £8 million more than the Government say that it should spend on education, yet Conservative Members complain. Over the past four years, Suffolk has spent £50 million more than the Government have said that it should. This year, education is the only service that is being protected; every other service is having to be cut to meet the limit.

It is up to all of us to ensure that local people receive the best services available. We must trust local government to decide its priorities. Local councils will be put to the test this year, just as we will, and the people of Suffolk will decide which party they want to guard their interests.

12.19 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer)

The most important way in which local authorities and Members of Parliament can work is together. I have always believed in that, and in the past I have been able to participate, with colleagues from other political parties, in discussions with the Government of the time on the issues affecting Suffolk.

I was surprised at the beginning of the new Labour-Liberal coalition when Suffolk county council told me that, in future, political bosses, not officials, would respond to all letters. I was told that I would not receive replies to letters on behalf of constituents, who would be contacted by the local authority. The Member of Parliament who had raised the case would ultimately receive a copy of letters that had been written to constituents. The council began to behave like any other county council only after I pointed out to it very firmly that its behaviour would have to be raised with the authorities of the House of Commons as being entirely inappropriate. That was a bad beginning for the relationship between Members of Parliament and the county council.

I can therefore excuse the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) for not understanding that the situation in Suffolk was different from that in any other council that I know. The council started with the intention of having no dialogue with Members of Parliament, which perhaps explains why I have received no request from it to bring its officials and members from all parties to lobby the Government, as other councils do. I have not received a request from the council to talk to its members. I have not received any requests from the county council except requests that were so party political that it was difficult to take them seriously.

I understand why the motion has been tabled today. It is not just a general criticism of a party structure with which my hon. Friends disagree, but a particular criticism of a specific county council which has behaved in an entirely unSuffolk-like way. It never happened with previous administrations, which always sought to act on an all-party basis over matters affecting the county. I was lucky enough to be able to work in that way, even with people who, as candidates, had fought me in previous elections.

The education standard spending assessment increase in Suffolk has been significant, as has the overall increase.

Mr. Cann

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) is in a strange position: he is the Secretary of State and, as such, I thought that he would respond to the debate. But he is also a Suffolk Member of Parliament. Are you quite clear about which role he is currently playing?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

I do not take responsibility for what an hon. Member says, whether he is a Secretary of State or the humblest of Back Benchers. All I am concerned about is whether the contribution is relevant to the subject in hand.

Mr. Gummer

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Last year, Suffolk had an education SSA increase of 4.1 per cent., which compares with the shire county average of 3.5 per cent. It received more than the average; it did so in the context of an official Opposition party which says that it would not increase the amount of money available were it ever to gain power. Suffolk county council has therefore received significantly more of an agreed amount of money than its neighbours and significantly more than the average, which contrasts with a county-wide determination to have a 5 per cent. cut.

When I, as Secretary of State—

Mr. Cann

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer

No. The hon. Gentleman did not give way and I shall not give way.

When I, as Secretary of State, saw the situation, I told the county council that it could not possibly know what sort of settlement would be made, because I had not decided on it; I was still discussing it. When Opposition Members suggest that I agreed the county council figures, that is precisely the opposite of the truth. I told the county council directly and without question that no decisions about the figures had been made. The county council still insisted that there would be 5 per cent. cuts.

The results showed—as the council knew perfectly well that they would—an improvement in its position owing to the Government's determination to protect the education budget. Having said how desperate the cuts would be for education, the county council did not rush to spend the money on education in the previous year. It did not do so, although it was able to spend significant sums—above £10 million, and well up on what it had expected. It did not spend the money on education, but took some of it for other things.

I am surprised that my hon. Friends did not mention the proliferation of large placards throughout the constituency that have suburbanised the area. Every village has a large notice that not only states its name, but has yellow backing and three white bars. Many of the placards have the word "village" on them in case people do not realise that it is a village. All the placards were paid for out of the money—more than £2 million. The money did not need to be spent in that way; our schools could have done with it.

This is an urbanising county. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) said that the chairman of the county council's education committee came from a country constituency. In fact, he represents the almost entirely built-up area of Stowmarket. The hon. Gentleman's knowledge of the county is the same as the Labour party's knowledge of county life—that is the problem that we face in the county of Suffolk.

The comments of the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) on nursery education were scandalous. She evidently supports the county council's policy of threatening parents and saying that, if they choose to use their vouchers anywhere other than in the county council's nursery schools, they will be less likely to be able to send their children to the primary schools of their choice. Such bribery is unacceptable in a free society.

The incompetence of Suffolk county council can be clearly shown. In June 1996, Suffolk employed 21.3 staff per thousand of its population, compared with a shire county average of 19.3. The figure for Lincolnshire, a similar council, is 16.6 and for Norfolk, 19.3. Even Berkshire does better than Suffolk, with 21.3 staff per thousand of its population.

Opposition Members talk about a competent council administration. The fact of the matter is that the county council has suffered from the continuous internal strife between the chairman of the county council education committee and the leader of the council, and that is why there cannot be a common view among hon. Members on both sides of the House to bring to Ministers the concerns of Suffolk—there is not even a common view within the Labour party. The two of them fight like cat and dog and appear at all meetings together so as to ensure that neither says what he has promised not to say.

That makes Suffolk the one county that cannot be properly represented to Government—there is not the necessary dialogue. The dialogue was broken when the present administration came into power. I am sorry that we have had to have this debate, because I want to work with the county council and am prepared to do so under any administration—but it has to be prepared to work with me.