HC Deb 04 March 1997 vol 291 cc701-3
8. Ms Hodge

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to introduce changes to the formulae for the standard spending assessments. [17009]

9. Ms Corston

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he intends to begin discussions of standard spending assessments for 1998–99 with representatives of local government. [17010]

11. Sir Paul Beresford

The 1997–98 formula is set, and discussions on the 1998–99 formula will commence later this year.

Ms Hodge

Can the Minister explain how he and his Department can preside over a scheme that adjudges Westminster the fourth most deprived place in the country, while Barnsley, which has had 18 pit closures, lies 326th? Will he confirm that the way in which the deprivation indicators interact with the overseas visitors allowance means that more than one in 10 of the visitors who go to the Ritz or the Hilton are considered by the Government to be in overcrowded conditions, and therefore attract extra grant for Westminster? Is that not a tremendous funding fiddle for the few—the very few—Conservative-controlled councils?

Sir Paul Beresford

I am not as au fait with the Ritz as the hon. Lady obviously is. She has been involved in local government for many years, so she should know better than to come up with such gobbledegook. If the 1997–98 needs assessment for Westminster, in comparison with Liverpool, had been treated as Labour treated the 1979–80 assessment, Westminster's SSA would be £25 million more than it is; in other words, under those terms, Labour would have given each man, woman and child in Westminster £126 more.

Ms Corston

Will the Minister admit that, far from there being new money for education next year, many local education authorities will face a cash cut in central Government funding? Bristol city council will have to cut its spending by £4 million next year, leading to staff cuts and larger classes. Will the Minister admit that it is Government policy to hike up the council tax, so that ordinary families pay more and get less, and that blaming it on Labour councils simply will not work?

Sir Paul Beresford

The hon. Lady's local authority is becoming a unitary authority and the Labour councillors, while talking about cuts, are planning a party to celebrate. They are raising their own pay by up to 66 per cent. and building a new £1 million council building. I understand that it is to be quite a delicate building, with turrets that have been described as reminiscent of a French chateau. Perhaps the councillors should get their act together and concentrate on providing opportunities for the people whom they should be serving.

Mr. Atkins

Does my hon. Friend accept that settlements for many areas, and especially Lancashire, have been more than generous for items such as education, largely as the result of pressure from Conservative Members of Parliament, in the face of opposition from incompetent county councils? Where does he think that the money that is being asked for by leaders of Lancashire county council will come from, when the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition have said on the record that there will be no more money for local government?

Sir Paul Beresford

I congratulate my right hon. Friend who, along with other Conservative Members from the area, not only pressed the Government for money but encouraged local authorities to try to produce better value for money. That is the action that authorities must take now.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Will my hon. Friend accept that the most objectionable feature of the formula for most people is that it cannot be easily understood? Does he accept that the doctrine of the Trinity is a kindergarten subject compared with local government finance? Can he offer any hope of enlightenment in the future?

Sir Paul Beresford

Perhaps I should offer to take my hon. Friend by the hand and give him a little guidance before we set the standard spending assessments for next year.

Mr. Dobson

Why will not the Government accept that what is needed is a fairer system than the present one, which so featherbeds Tory Westminster that millionaires in Mayfair pay less council tax than more than 7 million council taxpayers in other parts of the country>—including, for example, in Coventry, where everyone with a house worth more than £40,000 pays more than a Mayfair millionaire? Do not Ministers realise that the present system is indefensible, which is why the incoming Labour Government will change it root and branch?

Sir Paul Beresford

That sounds like a doctrine of gerrymandering. The hon. Gentleman is talking about changing the system root and branch. He does not accept that it has been worked out carefully or that it is accepted by experts—but then he does not accept experts. He also fails to accept the meaning of the word "efficiency". If, in terms of its SSA, Camden were as efficient in 1996–97 as Westminster, his local residents would save £420.34. Harlow residents would get £48.73 back, Islington residents would get £520.04 back and Barking residents would get £293.06 back. I fail to see any understanding of the word "efficiency" on the part of the hon. Gentleman.