HC Deb 29 April 2003 vol 404 cc154-266
Mr. Speaker

We now come to the main business. I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

12.37 pm
David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I beg to move,

That this House expresses its deep concern at the collapse of community services in Britain and the adverse effect on social inclusion, neighbourhood renewal, regional prosperity, and the quality of community life; condemns the policies of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which have resulted in the unfair distribution of local authority grant, causing divisive regional disparities, and centralised decision-making and services; regrets that the only solution the Government has to these problems is an expensive unnecessary additional layer of regional government; further condemns the Government's failure to improve local health care provision by tackling the necessary reform of NHS services; deplores the absence of policies to protect rural communities from the effects of the deep recession in farming; and recognises the Government's total failure to protect community services, resulting in a crisis in school funding, an increase in violent crime, a deteriorating transport system, and a threat to important local services including community pharmacies, sub-post offices and residential care homes. I am sorry that the Deputy Prime Minister cannot be with us for today's debate. He has had a close family bereavement, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences and sympathy to him and his family.

We have called this debate today in response to a real and growing threat across this country: the breakdown of our local communities. One reason why I regret the absence of the Deputy Prime Minister is that this debate, on the destruction of community life in this country, is not confined to local government. The failure and breakdown of our local communities is being accelerated by the attitude, strategy and tactics of the whole Government: a Government who are convinced that they know how to run people's lives better than they themselves do; a Government who think that communities should fit the model that they prescribe; a Government of red tape, initiatives and bureaucracy, of deceits, gimmicks and hype. Above all, they are a Government who do not trust people, and who do not trust communities to go their own way and live their own lives.

This is, in short, a story about the way central Government deal with local councils and local institutions. The Government tell them what to do, and then blame them when things go wrong. They dictate how they can spend their money, and then blame them for raising taxes. The result is all too familiar; indeed, it is the story of this Government. People pay more and more. That has led to a breakdown of trust between local people and local politicians, but the blame often lies not at the local level, but here in Westminster; more often than not in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

A community should be a place where people feel at home, safe and secure; a place where they feel in control of their own lives and have a sense of belonging. A community can be any size and it does not matter whether it has a rural or urban character. However, in our inner cities, the suburbs and the countryside today, any sense of belonging has been replaced by a sense of helplessness and frustration, alienation and anger. Much of that is a direct result of the Government's policies.

Let us examine one of the biggest problems facing communities throughout the country: crime. Communities break down when local people lose control of their streets, when the elderly and vulnerable are unable to walk outside at night for fear of being attacked, when vandalism and graffiti go unchallenged and destroy local environments, and when the fear of crime has a crippling effect on people's lives. The Government are losing the war on crime.

Jim Knight (South Dorset)

Given that crime is decreasing, when the right hon. Gentleman talks about the crippling effect of the fear of crime, is he not guilty of stoking up the fear of crime and creating the crippling effect?

David Davis

Let us start with the fiction favoured by the Government—that crime is going down. The crime figures about which the hon. Gentleman talks are based on the crime survey, which, as he should know, does not include much drugs crime or crime against youths; the so-called victimless crimes. All those crimes are omitted. As a result, the figures underestimate the level of crime. If the hon. Gentleman wants a test of the real index of crime, he should go and talk to people in his constituency and find out whether they believe that crime is going down.

Last year, 97 per cent. of communities in England and Wales saw an increase in some forms of crime. Violent crime is up by 28 per cent. Worse still, gun crime has risen by 80 per cent. since 1997; it is worse in the inner cities, but not only there. New figures reveal that many people in communities throughout Britain today are more likely to be mugged than residents of the Bronx in New York. Unbelievably, that is true in Lambeth, Hackney, Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham, Reading, Salford, Leeds, Middlesbrough and many other areas. However, far from getting a grip on the problem, the Government are leaving many communities to suffer alone.

The Government promised that local communities would be able to deal with disruptive young people by imposing new all-encompassing antisocial behaviour orders. As only the present Government can, they then made those orders so complicated and bureaucratic that few have been imposed at all. We were promised 20,000 antisocial behaviour orders by now, but we have not had even 1,000. Yet that is a success in comparison with child curfew orders, of which we have seen none at all; not one.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as the Rowntree Charitable Trust pointed out, people are in so much despair about the detection of crime that they no longer bother to report it? That is one of the reasons why crime appears to be going down.

David Davis

My hon. Friend is right. Another reason is that fewer police officers are on the streets today to fight crime. Across the country, local police stations are closing to the public. As the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) should know, here in London a decision has been taken to close Hampstead police station outside office hours. Clearly, criminals in Hampstead only ply their trade from nine to five.

The Government are also doing away with local justice; 96 local magistrates courts have closed since 1997 and more closures are in the pipeline. Justice moves further and further from local people. Remote justice is poor justice, but that is the justice that more and more people are being given. As a result, more serious crimes are not only committed, but go unpunished. The proportion of crimes solved has fallen every year since 1998. Across the country, communities are suffering because decent, hard-working people are being oppressed by a lawless minority. That is the result of failure not by our police, but by politicians.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood)

Before the right hon. Gentleman moves away from policing, I draw his attention to the example of Blackpool, where the Tower project is in operation. Police forces from all over the country are coming to have a look at what is happening there. The police are working with the health service, doctors and voluntary organisations to address the needs of drug abusers. That has achieved a substantial reduction in crime. Blackpool is an example of a town where the community does exist and where people work together. The multiplicity of agencies working together has led to a huge reduction in crime.

David Davis

That was an interesting mini-speech; almost an advert for the hon. Lady's local council. Sadly, of course, Blackpool has many other problems, but I want to return to the questions of crime and of police on the streets, which the hon. Lady did not mention. Until we have more police officers on the streets fighting crime—with the burden of form filling removed from their shoulders—and until we have true neighbourhood policing in this country, we will never be able to reclaim our communities for the honest citizen. That is what we are committed to; an extra 40,000 police officers on our streets. That is a real and necessary commitment that we will meet and which this Government will not.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore)

Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in welcoming the increase of more than 300 officers in the South Wales force since 1997, and the fact that six officers in Maesteg are funded under the Communities First scheme? Will he also welcome the opening of the Maesteg police station, and of a substation in Ogmore Vale? All that has happened in the past few years. Will he join me in congratulating the South Wales force?

David Davis

I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing that to my attention. I shall return to the question of local police funding in a few moments, and he will hear what I have to say on the matter then. However, so much for policing for the moment. How many other local services are under threat? Those services include local care homes, railway branch lines, community pharmacies and, of course, the post office network. In recent weeks, my postbag—like the postbags of many other Opposition Members—has been filled with letters of concern about closures of local post offices. Across the country, hundreds of smaller post offices are threatened with closure because of the Government's decision to force people to have their benefit payments paid into their bank accounts.

However, in the face of opposition from local people across the country, the Government have refused to help. When post offices close, communities lose not just a postal counter, but the hub of the community. Opposition Members will continue to fight to keep post offices open, without the Government's help.

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on the fact that, during his party's period in office, 3,500 post offices closed?

David Davis

I am more impressed by the size of the Minister's folder than by the dimensions of his comment. Let us put the matter exactly in context. In every year of the previous Parliament, the Government closed more post offices—548—than at any time in the Parliament before that, under the Conservative Government, when the figure was 100. The Minister's figures are nonsense.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Will my right hon. Friend now reflect on the fact that the post offices that closed under the previous Conservative Government were mainly the result of demographics as people's shopping habits changed? They did not close because the Conservative Government deliberately withdrew the means of funding for the payment of benefits, as the Labour Government have done.

David Davis

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Post offices are closing entirely because of the Government's actions and their unwillingness to deal with the consequences of those actions. The Government's heavy-handed actions are not confined to post offices.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the case of the post office in Flimwell in my constituency? The postmistress was robbed twice in the past month. The Post Office is holding her responsible for half of the money taken in the more recent robbery. It has issued an ultimatum to the Cutmores, who run the office, to hand back more than £1,000. The way that they are being treated is obscene, and the people in Flimwell are certain that there is a hidden Labour agenda to close the rural post office network.

David Davis

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the treatment of one of his constituents. It is a serious point, and Labour Members should take it seriously. He also raises a point to which the Minister may wish to reply. At his last Question Time, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister about the behaviour of the Post Office and whether it was true that it had an incentive programme for its management to close more post offices. Surprisingly, he did not know, but he told me that he would write to me. Then he told me that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry would write to me, but nor did she know the answer. Then the Post Office sent me an answer full of such Orwellian, managerial gobbledegook that I can assume only that the answer was yes. May we have a proper answer today? Does the Post Office plan to close as many post offices as it can?

I shall move on from that heavy-handed consequence of the Government's policy to the next one. Many of Britain's communities have relied for years on the willingness of local people to offer their services to help their neighbours and fellow residents. The Government are actively discouraging that. Sometimes it happens on a small scale. In Eastbourne, for example, a or he that operated alongside the local swimming pool has closed because Government regulations have pushed costs up so far that it is no longer economic to run it. But the same applies in the draconian register of interests imposed on parish councillors, which has discouraged people across the country from undertaking an historic and important role. In one ward in Hambleton in Yorkshire, not far from my constituency, none of the parish councils has a full quota of candidates, and two do not have even the quorum necessary to form a council. I asked why that was so, and the answer was the heavy-handed and expensive new code of conduct and all its procedures. As a councillor from Herefordshire put it: "Parish councillors have done a superb job for nothing over the years. Now they simply won't come forward." The Government have produced a major solution to a minor problem, and it is driving good people away from involvement in their communities.

Community services are in decline and community involvement is being discouraged. All that is leading to the destruction of community life in both town and country. Let us consider the countryside. The farming industry on which we all rely is in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s. In England alone, nearly 70,000 jobs have been lost from the farming sector since the Government came to power. Yet their only solution—their policy priority—was to focus on destroying another piece of the countryside's way of life by banning hunting. That is their answer.

In our towns and cities, any semblance of community life is being destroyed. Take Britain's second city, Birmingham.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty)

indicated dissent.

David Davis

The Minister says I should take it; perhaps we will.

After 19 years of Labour control, Birmingham is failing on housing, failing on social care for children, and failing on care for the elderly. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis)—a Labour Member—said that the elderly deserve better from that Labour council. By any test, Labour in Birmingham has failed.

Tony Cunningham (Workington)

Might the right hon. Gentleman be interested in the following snippet from Susan Axford, a Conservative candidate, who said: This is in spite of massive additional government grants to councils such as Birmingham."?

David Davis

I rest my case.

The Deputy Prime Minister has shown that he has no proposals to counter the problems. Instead, his sustainable communities plan—unsustainable communities plan, as it is more properly called—proposes 200,000 houses in four new dormitory towns in the south-east. What have the Government done to provide support for those new communities? There is not enough transport, not enough health care and, we discover today, not even enough water. The Government literally cannot run a bath, let alone a policy.

Meanwhile, the Deputy Prime Minister wants to knock down vast areas of empty housing in the north, not least in his home town of Hull. His plan is to bulldoze the north and concrete over the south, and it does nothing to address the root cause of the problems that we face.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

The Minister for School Standards is sitting on the Government Front Bench, but my right hon. Friend has not mentioned the impact on areas that face substantial new housing of the funding crisis that is forcing many local schools to make teachers redundant. How will schools find places for people moving into the areas affected by the house building?

David Davis

That will clearly be a problem in the areas to which the communities plan applies, but it is a problem elsewhere, too, and I shall return to it.

Let me talk first about the Government's latest piece of financial gerrymandering. They have rigged the local government funding formula to reward badly run Labour councils with more money—the very point made for me by the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham).

Tony Cunningham

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

David Davis

I think that it would be a kindness not to.

Tony Cunningham


David Davis

The hon. Gentleman had his chance.

Mr. Raynsford

As the right hon. Gentleman claims that the Government have rigged the grant system to reward inefficient Labour councils, will he tell us whether his local authority of the East Riding of Yorkshire is an inefficient Labour council, as it has received an increase in grant of more than 8 per cent. this year?

David Davis

It is in no overall control, I am sorry to say, but that may change. Since the Minister mentions my area, I shall ask him for an answer. Why do schools up and down the country face deficits between £100,000 and £240,000 because of the Government's settlement? Those words are not mine, but those of a leading headmaster in East Riding.

The Minister should answer another point, too. We have had the recent comprehensive performance assessments of councils. Leaving aside the corporation of London, which I accept differs from the rest, I note that five of the best-rated councils received the lowest settlement while one received the highest. Of the worst councils, five received the highest settlement, and one the lowest. Perhaps the Minister would explain how he rewards virtue under his new gerrymandered system. That system transfers £60 from every Conservative council tax payer to every Labour council tax payer in the country. It is greatly to the credit of Conservative councils that, in spite of that increase, the average Conservative council still manages to deliver better services for lower tax than those provided by councils controlled by any other party.

Michael Fabricant

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there ought to be greater transparency? Is he aware, for example, that Lichfield district council raised its council tax by only 3 per cent., while the Labour-controlled Staffordshire county council increased council tax by 18 per cent.? Because district councils collect the council tax, there is sometimes confusion. How can we make it clear that Conservative councils put council tax up by less than others but deliver more?

David Davis

My hon. Friend makes a good point on the general question of transparency. I predict that the Minister for Local Government and the Regions will tell us that everyone received an increase above inflation. That would be appropriate if the requirements on councils were the same every year and if they faced the same level of costs years on year, but that is precisely what is not happening.

The British public will understand only too well. They know that the blame for the 60 per cent. average English council tax rise since 1997 lies squarely with the Labour Government. All councils are forced to meet more and more Government targets, and to fund more and more Government projects from their own pockets. They take on more responsibilities and costs, from recycling fridges to implementing dozens of inspection regimes. Employer contributions to the local government pension scheme have increased by £300 million as a direct result of the £5 billion a year pension tax that the Government introduced early in the last Parliament.

It seems that £300 million is a recurring figure: it is also the cost to local authorities of the Chancellor's decision to raise employers' national insurance contributions. Good councils are being forced to push up council tax locally because the Government refuse to be honest about what they are doing. By palming extra responsibilities and costs on to local councils without giving them the resources, the Government seek to blame local councils for their tax increases, but local people know the truth.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Does my right hon. Friend recall, from his recent visit to Eastbourne, the palpable anger of people there who face a 38 per cent. rise in the local council element of council tax, which is the fourth highest in the country? My constituents suffer from Labour meanness nationally and Liberal Democrat incompetence locally.

David Davis

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am sorry that only two Liberal Democrat Members are in the Chamber to pay attention to it. If there were more of them, they might learn a lesson.

The issue involves not only direct local authority funding, but associated matters. For example, let us consider what has happened to the police precept. This relates to the question put by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). Over the past six years, the average English shire authority has been forced to push up the precept by an amazing 127 per cent. In my area, which is also the Deputy Prime Minister's area, the precept has been forced up by nearly 150 per cent. since the Government came into office. While the Government like to say that they are increasing the number of police officers—albeit by only 3 per cent.—it is local police authorities that are actually doing it and local people shoulder the cost. Again, the Government are using local authorities as their covert tax collectors.

Nowhere is that more evident than in recent stories about the crisis in school funding that has developed over the past few weeks. Teachers and teaching unions have warned of job losses throughout the United Kingdom. In some counties, redundancy notices have already gone out.

The crisis is replicated across the country. In Plymouth, up to half the schools may be forced to set illegal budgets next year in an attempt to dig themselves out of the hole into which the Government put them. Heads have already warned that up to 100 teachers and 200 assistants face the axe in September. Pupils in secondary, primary and special schools may have to be sent home because of that situation.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Cambridgeshire county council, which is Conservative controlled, is very pleased with its education funding allocation? It is one of the authorities that has benefited enormously from the redistribution of funding, which is a much fairer system than the previous one.

David Davis

I am happy to hear that, but it is sad for the rest of the country. The issue is not confined to a single area. I referred to Plymouth, and earlier I mentioned my county, where there are good schools that have strong traditions and perform well but face possible redundancies as a result of shortfalls of between £100,000 and £240,000. That arises entirely from the Government's funding arrangements.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

My right hon. Friend may want to contrast the situation in Cambridgeshire with that in Oxfordshire, where the average deficit for each secondary school is £114,000. Some schools have deficits of £250,000. One head teacher wrote to tell me: "I have been a teacher for 27 years…in all my years of experience I have never known such a critical situation in school budgets." Does not the responsibility for that lie squarely with the Treasury Bench?

David Davis

My hon. Friend is entirely right. We have seen the unfortunate spectacle of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills attempting to persuade people that the funding shortage in local schools is nothing to do with the Government—the point made by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell)—but everything to do with local councils. It is like watching the Iraqi Information Minister putting on one of his more spectacular performances—and about as convincing.

Even the people closest to the Government do not believe them. One of the Government's special advisers, Fiona Millar, says that her child's school faces cuts because, first, the Government have changed the way that they allocate money to councils. Secondly, there has been a significant increase in the contribution that schools have to pay to national insurance contributions. Thirdly, there has been a significant increase in schools' contributions to the teachers' pensions fund, and fourthly, there has been a significant reduction in the grant that the school receives from the school standards fund. There we have it: at least one of the Government's special advisers is being straight with us. The fact is that councillors, teachers and governors know the truth, and so do pupils and parents.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in at least one local education authority, 160 more teachers are employed than in 1998? That local education authority is the East Riding of Yorkshire council—in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency.

David Davis

No doubt that is why a leading spokesman for the area's head teachers said that the Government settlement was the worst that he had ever seen.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

David Davis

No, I must make some progress.

People are paying more, but the money is being frittered away in the waste and bureaucracy created by the Government. The money is not getting to the pupils who need it most—yet one more example of people working hard but being taxed harder. People are paying more and more but they are getting less and less in return.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

It is nice to know how good things are in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but does my right hon. Friend realise that, in Essex, the Government are giving away less with one hand than they are taking away with the other through national insurance increases and other costs that they have imposed. There will be teacher shortages in Essex during the next year. In my constituency, almost every primary school—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) is shouting statistics. They do not matter. Next year, children in my constituency will not have enough teachers to teach them. That is a fact and it is the Government's fault.

David Davis

My hon. Friend is right. The sad thing about those statistics is that such figures have tragic implications for the lives of young children and their education. The damage done will be impossible to recover.

The result is that people feel disenchanted with politics and fed up with their local councils. People no longer think that local councils can make a difference to their lives because they are merely branch offices of central Government. The Government are presiding over the slow death of local government. The very institutions that could help to define a community are being broken down.

If we are to reverse the breakdown of our communities across Britain we must—and we will—reverse the destruction of local government. We must recognise that things are often done best when they are done locally. We need to push power down to local people and communities, allow them to take their own decisions and encourage them to be different. We must sweep away the red tape and bureaucracy that restrict local people, and empower local communities to improve their quality of life. That is the Conservative approach.

The death of local government under the Labour Administration is no accident, but a direct result of Labour's age-old belief in centralism. Nowhere is that displayed more clearly than in the Government's commitment to regional assemblies—a proposal to rip the last vestiges of life from our local communities. Masquerading as decentralisation, it is in fact precisely the opposite.

We still do not know what their powers will be because the Government will not tell us. We know that they will require abolition of county councils and the restructuring of district councils. We know that they will erase from our national life the shire counties, which are one of the oldest surviving tiers of self-government in western Europe, predating the Domesday Book. We know that they will cost £2 billion to establish and a further £300 million a year to run. People will pay more and get less. That money could pay for 30 new hospitals, 400 new schools, 6,000 more policemen or 12,000 extra teachers. Regional government will not deliver one more teacher, nurse or policeman but only take power away from the people.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

David Davis


With this policy, we can conclude only that the Government have given up on Britain's communities, and are simply prepared to manage their decline. Our proposals to re-energise local government will aim to sweep away the plethora of national targets, directives and all the other barriers to diversity at local level, allowing local government to work better and be more responsive to local communities and to the people whom they serve. We will push power down to pupils and parents and give them a way out of failing schools. We will extend opportunities for people to buy their own homes and reinvest the money in reviving quality social housing. We will encourage local charities and voluntary groups to play a greater part in community life.

That is a recipe for reinvigorating Britain's communities, and it shows the clear difference of approach between the Government and the Opposition.

They believe in centralisation; we believe in local action. They believe in trusting officials; we believe in trusting the people. They believe in regions; we believe in real communities. We need to rebuild and support those communities and put our trust in the sense of ordinary people, and we will give them back the power to control their own lives.

1.11 pm
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

"commends the Government's policies on community services and applauds its commitment to neighbourhood renewal, social inclusion and the quality of urban and rural community life through the protection and enhancement of key local services; further applauds the Government's achievements of a stable economy, improved economic prosperity and social justice, increased community services investment, reduced crime and safer communities; welcomes this year's increased funding for education of over £2.6 billion, 11.6% extra, and more than £250 million greater than pressures; notes that since 1997–98 spending per pupil has risen in real terms every year compared with a 4% real terms cut between 1992–93 and 1997–98; further welcomes the Government's NHS and social services modernisation to devolve power and resources locally to Primary Care Trusts and to end delayed discharges from hospital; notes that between 2003–04 and 2005–06 social care funding will grow in real terms by 6% per annum on average, building on the improvements already made to community services through the 20% real terms increase since 1997; welcomes this year's fairer funding of local government, producing, for the first time ever, an above inflation grant increase for every local authority and region in England, with a 25% real terms increase in grant since 1997, compared with a 7% cut under the last 4 years of the last Conservative government; notes that Conservative councils have imposed on average 16.2% increase in council tax; and condemns the cynical opportunism of trying to blame the Government for irresponsible tax increases by Conservative councils. May I start by thanking the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) for this remarks about my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister's bereavement? On behalf of my right hon. Friend, I extend his apologies to the House for not being able to join us today.

We have just heard a speech that is sadly all too typical of today's Conservative party: a litany of misinformed rhetoric, remorselessly negative in tone, which undermines public services and demoralises the many dedicated people who deliver our public services in Britain. It was also a speech with two gaping holes. The first was the lack of any reference to the state of public and community services when the Conservative party was in power. Indeed, that was a period that could be characterised, in the words of the motion, by the collapse of community services…and the adverse effect on social inclusion, neighbourhood renewal, regional prosperity and the quality of community life". Of course, we heard nothing about the scourge of mass unemployment in those years, and the disastrous neglect and run down of public services. Surely we all remember the mantra "private good, public bad". Of course, we heard nothing about the devastating recessions—not one but two—and mass repossessions, which destroyed communities, lives and hope. That was the reality of the Conservative party's last period in power, of which, of course, we heard nothing from the right hon. Gentleman.

If today's Tory party has no memory, let alone a sense of shame for its lamentable record in office, it also has no confidence in the future. The second gaping hole in the right hon. Gentleman's speech was the lack of any commitment to future funding of public services in Britain: hardly surprising given the Conservatives' pledge to cut 20 per cent. from public service spending. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Oh, yes. They are clearly too embarrassed to admit the implications of that.

That fatal combination—the lack of any sense of history combined with—

Gregory Barker

Does the Minister think that there is not one penny of waste to be cut out of the public services? Is he totally complacent?

Mr. Raynsford

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, he will hear a great deal of what we are doing to improve efficiency, to drive up standards and to ensure that we get real value for money. A 20 per cent. cut across the board in public services, however, to which the Conservative party has pledged, is a recipe for the decimation of our services, which will damage communities all over the country.

Chris Grayling

I have always judged the right hon. Gentleman to be a man of principle, so I cannot understand why he is putting to the House something that he must know is not true.

Mr. Raynsford

All that I am doing is repeating the pledge given by the Leader of the Opposition, who made it perfectly clear, towards the end of last year, that the shadow Cabinet were looking to make 20 per cent. savings out of public expenditure. That was a public commitment. I am happy if Conservative Members wish to denounce their party leader, but it was a commitment that he gave.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

The Minister should know—I am not accusing him of lying—that he is spinning a Labour lie; there is not a single shred of truth in it. What is true, however, is that his Government have stolen £13.4 million from Worcestershire county council in the name of resource equalisation. That theft alone of £13.4 million has forced the county council to put up the council tax by more than the rate of inflation.

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman is wrong on both counts. The Leader of the Opposition made it perfectly clear in a statement just before Christmas that the shadow Cabinet were looking for 20 per cent. savings in public spending. Conservative Members may wish to denounce that, and may be embarrassed by it—I would not be surprised if they were—but that was what was stated. If those pledges were put into practice—

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

Read it out.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not shout across the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Raynsford

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Raynsford

I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter).

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Minister has had an opportunity to read the "Reading Banner" produced by Reading Labour party. If so, he would be able to pray in aid the following quote: We are looking at the target of 20 per cent. savings across the board in government spending. Who said that? The leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), did so on the BBC's "The World At One" on 30 December last year.

Mr. Raynsford

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was about to quote The Daily Telegraph of 31 December, which contains exactly the same pledge: The shadow Cabinet are looking at the target of 20 per cent. savings across the board in Government spending". That was what the Leader of the Opposition went on the record to say.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe)


Mrs. Laing


Mr. Bercow


Mr. Raynsford

I shall give way once more to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).

Mr. Bercow

Given the litany of public service woes that were so eloquently described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) and the fact that the vast majority of people identify principally with their parish, town, district or county, but not with the amorphous concept of a region, why does the right hon. Gentleman wish to create a nationwide network of regional assemblies on the absurd principle that our main problem in this country is that we are somehow under-governed?

Mr. Raynsford

I was very pleased to give way to the hon. Gentleman, and I am only sorry that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden was not willing to offer him a similar courtesy in the course of his speech. Our regional policy is one of extending choice—those regions that want to elect regional assemblies will be able to do so. Unlike the Tory party, we do not have preconceptions. It said that it was opposed to devolution in Scotland, then denied that and changed its mind. It said that it was opposed to devolution in Wales, and then changed its mind. It said that it was opposed to the people of London having the opportunity of an elected city-wide authority, but it has now changed its mind. I give the hon. Gentleman a forecast: the Tory party's opposition to elected regional assemblies in England will crumble in just the same way when the people of certain regions-I do not pretend all regions in England demonstrate that they want to have an elected regional assembly. We are giving the people that choice.

By contrast, when the Tory party made changes when it was in power, it abolished counties. We have heard great sentimental rhetoric from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden about the historic counties, but the Tory party abolished counties without any opportunity for the people of Berkshire, for example, to have a say as to whether their county would disappear. It abolished other counties all over the country with people having no say whatever. We are giving people a choice.

The fatal combination—the lack of any sense of history combined with the lack of any confidence in the future—speaks volumes about today's Tory party. It is caught in a limbo of powerlessness and irresponsibility. Like hopeless shades in Dante's "Inferno", Tory Members are left with no ambition other than to score a few cheap points in the vain hope that, one day, they might inherit the poisoned chalice of the party leadership.

Since 1997, the Government have been working to repair the damaged communities and public services that we inherited.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Raynsford

I give way to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham).

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned damaged communities, but has he looked at the case of St. Edmund's community primary school in my constituency where the very hard-working and loyal headmaster has just resigned? He said: The Government has let us down. This is the worst settlement in living memory. I've had enough because the Government is undermining public services. Nick Butt has just resigned from a big community primary school in my constituency. Is that not a disaster?

Mr. Raynsford

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman about funding for Norfolk. When his party was in power— [Interruption.] Let me tell him the facts. When his party was in power, Norfolk county council, which is responsible for education in his part of the country, received an average increase in grant of 2 per cent. per annum in the last three years of the last Conservative Government. The average grant that Norfolk county council has received in the last three years is 5.7 per cent. Will he go back and tell the person whom he has quoted that the figures demonstrate that this cannot be the worst settlement that Norfolk has ever received, because it is almost three times the level that was given when the hon. Gentleman's party was in control?

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

I am grateful for the Minister giving way while he is on the subject of cuts in schools budgets. Can he explain why, this morning, Dame Jean Else, the head of Whalley Range high school in Manchester, threatened to resign rather than sack 20 of her 165 staff, because she is facing a budget shortfall of £600,000 as a result of what the Government are doing?

Mr. Raynsford

Manchester has received, on average, over the past three years an increase in grant of 4.9 per cent.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Raynsford

Let me encourage Conservative Members to contain themselves. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot allow hon. Members to shout across the Chamber.

Mr. Raynsford

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I understand the frustration of Conservative Members. They do not like hearing the truth. However, when their party was last in power, Manchester city council did not get the 2 per cent. increase in grant that Norfolk got. It got no increase at all. That demonstrates how the Tory party let down education authorities all over the country.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

When the Minister reads out the increases in settlement for each local authority, will he at the same time read out the increasing costs for each local authority in terms of employer national insurance contributions, pensions and salary costs that his Government have caused through their centralised policies?

Mr. Raynsford

I am very happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that we have increased funding by £3.8 billion overall for local government. The increase for education is £2.6 billion and that is a good £250 million more than the combined impact of all the additional pressures to which he has referred. Additional money is going in, and we are well aware that, in individual areas, there are difficulties. This year has been one in which there have been many changes. As he will know, there have been changes to the overall grant-giving formula and changes to try to reduce ring-fencing—a point that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden made in his speech. I am pleased to say that we are reducing ring-fencing but, as a result of that, the standards fund, which is a ring-fenced fund, has now been rolled into the general formula for standard spending share. That change inevitably produces distributional consequences and, at the moment, we are seeing some of the consequences together with issues that have been well debated.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Raynsford

Will hon. Members contain themselves, as I am trying to give a serious answer to a serious question? All the changes result in different impacts in different areas. That becomes even clearer when it comes to individual schools. It is precisely for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards have been doing a great deal of work with us to try to ascertain precisely the position in every local authority. My right hon. Friend will make a statement after the local government elections to help move things forward and to ensure that the difficulties where they exist—we accept that there are some areas where there are difficulties—are properly addressed in a sensible and rational way and not with the rhetoric and sweeping blanket condemnations that are unrealistic and unworthy of a party that did not adequately fund education in its years in power.

David Davis

The Minister is not answering a very good point. Why does he not undertake to publish the cost pressures on all the schools in the country? These are the predictable national insurance costs, pension costs and the costs that result from the change to the pay structure. They are perfectly calculable and every school has calculated them for itself. Why does he not do that for every authority in the country so that we can see the results? The issue that we are talking about affects not just one or two schools, but hundreds of schools and it is doing serious harm. He owes it to the public to tell them the truth on this matter.

Mr. Raynsford

There is an interesting contradiction between the thesis that the right hon. Gentleman put forward in his speech as to why Government were not letting individual communities get on with it and his wish, in an extraordinary Stalinist vision, to have us publish the figures that would detail every cost pressure for every school in the country. He will know that all the factors that I have described—the factors relating to increased pay, increased pension provision and the increased national insurance plus the changes from ring-fenced to general grant and factors such as changes in the school roll—have differential impacts in different schools. It is right that local education authorities, which are better placed to gauge the position, should discuss the matter with their schools. Government, of course, have an interest, and that is why I said that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards are doing work to ensure that we are better informed about where there are pressures. They have already made significant contributions to help those authorities facing pressures. The extra money that is being given in London and to schools facing particular pressures is all part of that positive response.

Rob Marris

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the biggest single factor putting pressure on education budgets is the 5.15 per cent. increase in employers' pension contributions that has been necessitated to clean up the mess that this Government inherited from the 1990s when local authorities were allowed local control and some teachers who should have gone through competency procedures and possibly been sacked were given ill-health early retirements or redundancy retirements with enhanced pensions from the age of 50 upwards? That local control left the teachers pension agency in a huge hole financially and central Government have had to step in this year to sort out the problem.

Mr. Raynsford

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely correct and fair point about the significant impact of teachers pension provision. That is one of the key pressures that I identified.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster)


Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)


Mr. Raynsford

I should now like to make some progress.

We have been clear that repairing the damage that we inherited in 1997 required both investment and reform, and we have been determined to deliver both. Across the swathe of public services, we have committed unprecedented levels of increased investment. Although the Tory party was able to achieve only a 3.1 per cent. annual growth rate on health, we have delivered increases of 6.3 per cent. over the past three years. From this April, we will increase investment by 7.5 per cent. a year for the next five years. That is not just the largest increase in funding that the national health service has ever received. By 2007–08, it will take the proportion of gross domestic product spent on health to 9.4 per cent., which is well above the European average.

Similarly, we have increased spending on education from 4.7 per cent. of GDP in 1997 to 5.3 per cent. Investment will increase further to 5.6 per cent. by 2005–06, which is once again above the European average. Real-terms funding per pupil has risen by more than £670 since 1997, and it will be more than £1,000 higher than when we came to power by 2005–06.

Increased funding also means that there are more skilled people to deliver our key public services. Compared with 1997, we now have nearly 40,000 more nurses, 5,000 more hospital consultants, 1,000 more general practitioners and 20,000 more teachers. An additional 4,000 police officers have been employed in the past 12 months alone, which is the largest 12-month increase in police numbers for 25 years. It was typical of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden to focus on the closure of an individual police station in London and to ignore the fact that police numbers in London have increased by thousands due to our additional investment.

Additional investment has delivered new and improved schools and hospitals: no fewer than 64 major hospital developments, 121 new primary schools and 50 new secondary schools. It has made possible huge inroads into the massive backlog of sub-standard housing that we inherited from the Tory party. We have reduced the number of non-decent homes in the social sector by 700,000 since 1996, and we are on target to eliminate all such housing by 2010.

Of course, our policies are all about improving people's quality of life, whether they live in rural or urban areas. That is why we are so keen to continue to make progress on educational attainment. The proportion of 15-year-olds gaining five or more grades A to C at GCSE went up from 45 per cent. in 1997 to 51.5 per cent. in 2002. It is why we are so keen on shorter waiting times for hospital appointments. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday: every single waiting time and waiting list national indicator is more positive than in 1997. It is why we are keen to reduce crime. The British crime survey showed a 28 per cent. reduction in overall crime between 1997 and 2002. It is why we are keen to improve transport services, such as bus services for rural communities. There are more than 1,900 new and enhanced rural bus services, many of which serve communities that previously had no service at all.

The Government are committed to public services and believe in them. We are committed to increased funding and reform to ensure that the public get high-quality services delivered cost-effectively, and nowhere is that more evident than in respect of local government.

As in other areas, we have substantially increased Government funding. It has increased by 25 per cent. in real terms since we took office whereas there was a real-terms reduction of 7 per cent. in the last four years of the previous Conservative Government. However, not only additional funding is required. Increased investment must deliver an improvement to the quality of local services. That is why we introduced the comprehensive performance assessment for local councils. I am pleased to say that the first results, which were announced at the end of last year, demonstrate strong performance throughout local government, including examples of outstanding achievements.

To raise standards of service and to empower local authorities to deliver effectively for their communities, we are extending freedoms and flexibilities and devolving power. Last November, we announced a substantial package of freedoms for all authorities. Measures include: ring-fencing on revenue to fall to 10 per cent. by 2005–06; 60 per cent. of capital resources to be un-ring-fenced in 2003–04; up to a 75 per cent. reduction in the number of plans required of local authorities; the removal of 84 consent regimes, many of which dated back to the previous Conservative Government; more power to charge for discretionary services; more opportunities for local councils to trade; and more discretion on the use of civil penalties. We have an even more radical package on top of that for the very best authorities that achieve an "excellent" rating in the CPA.

Mr. Goodman

On the subject of local government settlements, will the right hon. Gentleman promise the House that he will hold an urgent meeting with Fiona Millar, a chairman of governors in London, who has complained about the fact that the local government settlement has moved money from the south-east to the north? If he does not know where to find her, I advise him to look in 10 Downing street, where she works as personal assistant to the Prime Minister's wife.

Mr. Raynsford

I am little surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not been paying attention to the needs of his constituency. He will know that Buckinghamshire county council is one of the southern Conservative councils that did extraordinarily well out of the settlement because it received a 6.4 per cent. funding increase. He and his colleagues continue to peddle the myth that money is being transferred to the north despite the fact that many Conservative councils in the south of England are doing very well indeed. He would do rather better to acknowledge what is happening in his area.

The Local Government Bill, which is currently in another place, will deliver many of those freedoms and create a new framework for capital finance. We are sweeping away the long-standing requirement that was put in place by the previous Government to require Government consent for all borrowing. In its place, we are establishing a prudential regime under which local authorities will have greater freedom to raise finance to buy, build and improve all kinds of property and infrastructure. The only constraint is the proper requirement that they must have the means to service the debt.

Labour councils are fully committed to that agenda. They deliver high-quality services cost-effectively. By contrast, we have seen the nasty face of the Tory party again this year in local government as Tory councils have imposed unreasonable council tax increases on their long-suffering residents. Wandsworth borough council, which is so often held up as an exemplar by the Tory party, has the unenviable record of imposing the highest percentage council tax increase of any council in England this year. It increased its council tax by 57.3 per cent. after cutting it by 25 per cent. last year, which—surprise, surprise—happened to be an election year. That was pretty transparent.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Raynsford

Of course I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman. He has a good connection with Wandsworth council and I hope that he will deplore the unreasonable council tax increase.

Sir Paul Beresford

One of the Minister's annual mistakes is to consider percentages rather than bills on the doorstep. The bills landing on the doorsteps of Wandsworth are the second lowest in the country and the council's services, by the standards of the Government and the local people, are among the best.

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman makes a brave effort to conceal the fact that Wandsworth borough council has simply been up to a bit of crude electioneering by cutting the council tax in an election year and whacking it up the next year.

In case anyone should suggest that big increases in council tax this year are a result of a bad local government settlement, I remind the House that this year, for the first time ever, every authority in England received an above inflation increase, which never happened when the Conservatives were in power. Councils that complain that they got increases of only 3 or 4 per cent. this year should remember what happened in the years before 1997 when they often received no increase at all. In any case, it is simply not true that there is a direct correlation between large council tax increases and small grant rises.

For example, let us consider six neighbouring authorities in the west midlands: Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull and Wolverhampton. Opposition Members will understand why I do not mention Walsall metropolitan borough council. The authority has special difficulties and there has been an attempt to tackle its problems. Although it is technically controlled by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, I shall not bring it into the argument. The other six authorities all benefited from grant increases of just more than 8 per cent. this year, but their council tax increases vary greatly. Tory-controlled Solihull's council tax has increased by 10.5 per cent., which is almost double that of the other authorities. Those authorities just happen to be controlled by Labour—is that a coincidence?

There is a similar story in the south-west. Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol City, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire unitary authorities have similar responsibilities and received similar grant increases of between 7.5 and 8.5 per cent—so much for that nonsense that authorities in the south did not receive decent grant increases.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Raynsford

Hon. Members should wait and hear what I have to say. Tory North Somerset has chosen to increase its council tax by 15.4 per cent., compared with increases of less than half that set by the other three councils in the area—Bath and North East Somerset, which is under no overall control; Bristol, which is Labour-controlled; and South Gloucestershire, which is under Liberal Democrat control. The Conservative council alone pushed up its council tax by disproportionate amounts. The conclusion is clear—Tory councils cost people more. Look at the average council tax this year. In Tory authorities, it is £1,008; in Liberal Democrat councils, it is £934; in Labour authorities, it is £818. This year, council tax increases in Tory authorities are 16.1 per cent.; in Liberal Democrat councils, 10.5 per cent.; and in Labour councils, 10.7 per cent. That tells a story—Tory councils cost people more.

It is clear that today's motion smacks of desperation on the part of the Opposition—desperation to score a few points in advance of Thursday's elections. But the facts tell a different story of recovery from the bleak inheritance left by the Conservatives in 1997. They tell a story of progress, not just this year but over the past six years, and they reveal a clear path for progress in the future. Of course, there are still huge challenges and a need to do much more, but, unlike the Opposition, we in government are proud of our past and present and are confident of our future. They, by contrast, live for today's press conference, afraid to face up to their past misdeeds or admit their plans for future felonies. They have no credible prospects. I can empathise with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden and perhaps even feel a little sorry for him. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Well, perhaps that is going a little too far, but I do know what he and his colleagues are going through. I know what it is like to endure years of fruitless opposition only to see yet more years of it stretched out in front of you. Reading the Opposition motion I was struck by the utter futility of its language and its mindless, ill-informed and badly argued irrelevance, curiously reminiscent of the far-left Trotskyist reaches of the early 1980s Labour party. Today's motion will go the same way as all the motions of those years, except that these days the paper that it is written on stands a better chance of being recycled and put to constructive use.

Opposition is a tricky old business—I should know, I did enough of it. Many say that it is not healthy for democracy to tolerate an incompetent Opposition for any significant length of time, let alone six years. Of course that is right, but worse still would be to allow the incompetent Tory Opposition to become another incompetent Tory Government. The British people paid a big enough price last time around. The Opposition wanted the debate to offer a wide-reaching showcase for their policies in advance of Thursday's elections, but in their motion they have merely highlighted their deplorable past, their incompetent present and their lack of confidence in the future. The motion invites the contempt of the House. The Tories have nothing to offer, and no one believes that they can form a Government in the foreseeable future. As the House will surely reject this Tory motion later this evening, so the electorate will reject this unprincipled and opportunist Tory party on Thursday.

1.43 pm
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I extend our condolences to the Deputy Prime Minister. Taking up the Minister's final remarks, I agree that the Conservative motion could have been tabled by Opposition parties active in the 1980s and 1990s. There is a lot of truth in it—there are problems in our communities up and down the country, and Conservatives are right to point them out. However, the problem for the Conservatives is that they caused many Of those difficulties when they were in government. The problem for the Government is that they are copying many Conservative policies and are not addressing those difficulties. In their bare-faced cheek in tabling the motion, the Conservatives demonstrate that they want completely to reinvent history. They talk about centralisation in the motion, but one must remember what Conservative Governments succeeded in doing to local government financial settlements—rate-capping, ring-fencing, compulsory competitive tendering, the uniform business rate, standard spending assessments, credit approvals in the borrowing regime, supplementary credit approvals and, of course, the poll tax. That plethora of measures introduced by the Tory party centralised the way in which local councils are funded and caused many problems that the Government have not yet addressed.

In other areas, the Conservatives were the first people to start the centralisation that, regrettably, has continued in recent years. It was the Conservative party that introduced national targets in education, and it is interesting that their spokesman is beginning to row hack on that. I listened to the speech of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), but failed to detect a constructive alternative to, for example, council tax, an issue to which I shall return later. It was interesting to hear what the shadow Chancellor would do about that tax. He was asked in an interview in The Daily Telegraph on 9 April what the Conservatives would do about the council tax, and said: we would change the system when we come back to office". The interviewer asked what exactly would the Conservatives do, to which the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) replied, "I don't know." The truth is that even after six years in opposition the Conservative party do not have an alternative to the local government financial system that the Labour party has put into operation. I shall explain my alternative later in my speech.

The purpose of this debate is, quite rightly, to hold the Government to account for the way in which they are managing public service policy. I welcome both the debate and many aspects of the Conservative motion. It is right that we should focus in particular on education. I am glad that the Minister for School Standards is in the Chamber, because there is concern throughout the country about the effects of the Government's policy on education, particularly the impact of this year's local government financial settlement on schools. Interestingly, today the Office for National Statistics published new figures that show that the number of teachers in England is falling.

So when the Minister for Local Government and the Regions told the House about an increase in new teachers he was not telling the full story. There is a difference between what Ministers are telling the House and what the Office for National Statistics is telling the public, because they count teachers in different ways. Ministers say that even if someone is not qualified but works in the classroom they are a teacher. On that basis, the Government could include almost anyone in the classroom in their definition of teachers. We should therefore be debating the definition of teachers used by the Office for National Statistics, as it includes only qualified teachers. I am surprised that the Government are peddling the line that the number of teachers is increasing when the ONS has shown today that it is going down.

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband)

On a point of information, although there is a category of qualified teachers, other teachers are counted, including teachers from foreign countries with qualifications equivalent to English qualifications.

Mr. Davey

I am grateful to the Minister, but that is not the whole story, as I think he knows. The Government include some unqualified teachers in the definition that they are using and I hope that they will make that clear later.

I had an interesting exchange with the Minister for Local Government and the Regions about whether the new money that all local authorities are getting is helping schools. We see the other side of the equation in our constituencies. The Minister always talks about the extra money, but never about the extra costs, which are severe. It is important that he admit that. I do not necessarily think that he should conduct a school-by-school analysis of the extra cost, but it is important for democratic debate that we have more information on those huge costs, details of which I shall give later.

Mr. Cameron

The hon. Gentleman is getting to the nub of the argument and has highlighted a great mystery. On the one hand, the Government are talking about massive increases in education spending, but on the other hand, all our schools are facing a crisis. Does not the Government amendment provide a clue to where the money has gone, as it talks about £2.6 billion or 11.6 per cent. extra for education, but then talks about more than £250 million greater than pressures"? The Government clearly know what those pressures are and could publish them. Is it not the case that £250 million is not an 11 per cent. increase but is more like a 1 per cent. increase? That is the answer to the great conundrum.

Mr. Davey

The hon. Gentleman is right. We must see those figures in order to judge the Government's performance. We in the House are not very good at analysing budgets. I am concerned about the lack of financial scrutiny in the House. On this occasion, we must demand to see the figures. The underlying causes of the cost pressures are many. The national insurance increases and the pension transfers alone are adding an extra 5 per cent. to most school budgets.

Mrs. Browning

The hon. Gentleman speaks of the national insurance being an extra pressure. Did not his party support the Government when the House voted on the increase in national insurance? Did he not go through the calculations before he voted for it, to see what it would mean for the public sector?

Mr. Davey

The hon. Lady is right: we wanted more money in the health service. The fact that the Conservatives voted against that rise in national insurance means that they are proposing cuts to the health service. They complain about the Government accusing them of 20 per cent. cuts, but the fact that they voted against that tax rise, which is funding more money for our health service, proves that they want to cut public services across the board.

My point about how the national insurance rise relates to today's debate on the local government finance settlement and schools is that the Government should have taken that into their calculations for the local government financial settlement. There are rising costs—as I said, 5 per cent. to most school budgets. Schools also have to meet the extra salary costs. An increase in salaries was important, because there were problems of teacher recruitment and retention in areas such as mine. No one denies that many of our teachers deserved an increase in their wages. I assume that that is common ground across the House. The Government knew about that cost pressure when they made the settlement, and they knew that it had to be paid for. They say that there were above-inflation increases for every local authority, but they knew beforehand that there would be above-inflation increases in costs. They are looking at just one side of the ledger.

The Minister may be on fair ground when he says that the standards fund money for education has been rolled into the general pot, but the problem is that that has been lost on the way down from Whitehall to local communities. Calculations that I have seen suggest that £400 million has been lost in that way. That is effectively another cost pressure. On top of that, there was the rather unsatisfactory reform of the local government grant, which has produced some winners, but a great many losers. When those losers have to face all the extra costs, we see the problem.

A further problem in the education debate, which has not been mentioned today, is the underfunding of sixth forms. There was only a 3 per cent. rise in the budget for learning and skills councils. In order to meet the extra cost pressures, which are way above 3 per cent. in sixth forms, schools must take money from elsewhere or cut sixth form teaching. The Government's settlement failed to address the problem.

We have felt this in my local authority, Kingston upon Thames. We were one of the 12 authorities whose increase in total grant was less than the increase in the education formula spending share that the Government said we should be giving to schools, so we have had real problems. With the indulgence of the Chair, I shall read out one or two comments that I received from teachers in my constituency who are trying to grapple with the problem at the coalface.

Helen Goodall, who is the head teacher at St. Philip's, a special school in Chessington, writes: I am struggling to come to terms with a deficit of about £145,000. For a small special school this is, of course, extremely damaging and will have long term implications. I have already informed my staff that all professional development, inclusion activities with mainstream schools, educational visits, equipment and resources etc. will be absolutely minimal. It looks as if I will have to cut staff by two teaching assistants and two teachers. For a special school with such a good reputation as St. Philip's … the severe cuts in provision will have a very damaging effect on my children and the LEA will have to send more children out of borough at high costs. That shows the effect on a special school.

Susan Pavlis, the head teacher of St. Andrew's and St. Mark's Church of England junior school in Surbiton, writes to me: Along with my colleagues in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames I must express my concern over the level of funding that we have received for the financial year 2003–04. Compounded with the drop in Standards Fund we, like the majority of schools in the borough, are facing the prospect of cutting our staff at a time when we need to be increasing the pupil/teacher ratio in order to comply with the ever increasing demands made on us … So often we are dismissed as a leafy suburb with no real problems—I am sure you understand that this is far from reality in many of our schools. That is the problem that head teachers are facing throughout my constituency. Judging from comments from other right hon. and hon. Members, the same is true across the country.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

My hon. Friend's point must be underlined. Rural areas like mine in Cornwall and those of my colleagues in Devon are facing the same problem. I challenge any hon. Member in any part of the country, whatever the political composition of the LEA, not to agree that letters are coming in from heads and governing bodies on the same lines as those received by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Davey

My hon. Friend is right. When the Minister for School Standards replies to the debate, I wonder whether he will tell the House how many letters have been written to the Department. I bet it has been inundated with letters of complaint from head teachers and school governors around the country.

In our earlier exchange, the Minister for Local Government and the Regions said that there would be a statement in the House about how the Department for Education and Skills would deal with the matter. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. Could he clarify the Government's intentions? We want to know how they will address the matter and when they propose to tell the House how they intend to address it.

Mr. Raynsford

As I said earlier, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has made it clear that he intends to make a statement about his analysis and understanding of the current position as soon as the local govt purdah period is over. That will be on Friday. It is in everyone's interest that that statement should be public at the earliest opportunity, rather than waiting for the House to return on Monday, but I have no doubt that the issue can be debated in the House at a future date.

Mr. Davey

I am sure that other right hon. and hon. Members share my concern that that information will not be given to the House. The Minister may be right to say that it needs to be given early, but that only shows the magnitude of the crisis. If the Government must make the announcement on Friday because it cannot wait till Monday, they are admitting that there is a huge crisis in the funding of our schools. Why do not Ministers make the statement now? I am sure that the Conservative party and our party will agree to suspend local election purdah, as we agree that there is a crisis.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

The Minister appears to have a diary problem. Of course, the House will not sit on Friday, and it is bad enough that the statement will not be made when the House is sitting, but we will not be able to debate it on Monday, because Monday is a bank holiday.

Mr. Davey

The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. I assume the Minister meant that we would debate the matter on Tuesday. Can he confirm, for the benefit of all Members, that an oral statement will be made to the House? Ministers shrug their shoulders as though it were an unimportant issue about which hon. Members were not concerned. Surely the debate today shows that it is important and that hon. Members want to debate it at the earliest opportunity.

If the Minister for Local Government and the Regions is saying from the Treasury Bench that it is impossible to drop the rules on local election purdah before Thursday—he nods in assent—we must ensure that there is time on Tuesday to debate this key issue. Why are Ministers afraid to come to the House next Tuesday to debate a matter that affects every school throughout the country? Ministers seem unperturbed, as though they owe no duty to the House. They ought to learn how important the issue is.

There are other community services that are being let clown by the Government. I have been surprised at the massive public reaction to the proposal from the Office of Fair Trading with respect to community pharmacies. I was worried when the report was published, but I was astonished to receive letters and petitions from my constituents, demonstrating how damaging the proposal would be to far more people than I had imagined. The liberalisation of the market proposed by the OFT could be extremely damaging to the front line of the national health service. If the Government eventually adopt the recommendations and some of our local pharmacies close down as a result, pressure will be placed on GPs and accident and emergency units throughout the country and will be damaging for the rest of the health service. The OFT seems to have misunderstood the role that community pharmacies play in our health service by saving GPs' time and providing medical advice, sometimes out of GP surgery hours.

I am concerned about access for the elderly to such services. I was interested to read a briefing from Help the Aged, which noted that 7 million pensioners do not have cars. It is the pensioner population that is worried about the issue, as I have noticed in my constituency, as pensioners realise that they will not be able to access pharmacy services by going to the out-of-town supermarkets, because the transport will not be available.

The figures underlying the services that the community pharmacies deliver are revealing. Some 33 per cent. of the prescriptions collected by people aged 70 or above are collected on foot. That means that pharmacies are needed in the local communities. The only analysis that I have seen of what will happen if the OFT recommendations are implemented suggests that local pharmacies will be closed down and that the big supermarkets will move in. That would be a disaster for our elderly population and it is another example of the Government attacking community-based services.

The other significant example is the Post Office. We heard a lot about the Post Office from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden. The Minister was right to remind him of the Conservative record, but the Government cannot have any confidence on that basis. The Minister will know that, under the urban reinvention programme, 3,000 post offices have been targeted for closure. By this autumn, the first 1,000 will have been closed. We can then look forward to another two years in which urban post offices will close in large numbers. That comes on top of the rural post office closure programme, which is ongoing. In my constituency, we have already seen two closures and three more are under consultation. I suspect that the process will continue.

I also believe that the Post Office will take a different approach in the next round of closures. I suspect that it is becoming worried about the individual campaigns that spark up in local areas and that, in the next round, Post Office managers will come to each constituency or borough and decide to close a number of post offices en masse. I give that warning to hon. Members for free. We should be worried about the secret plans of the Post Office for short, sharp attacks on services in our communities. We know how devastating such an approach can be.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury)

The hon. Gentleman is hypothesising about the future plans of the Post Office, but does he agree that he needs to give us the evidence on which he is basing his assertion? Many people in our communities might be deeply worried about the threat to their post offices that he seems to be imagining.

Mr. Davey

I have been trying to fight some of the post office closures in my constituency, which has involved me in many discussions with senior Post Office managers in which I have tried to change their minds and make them understand the local services that post offices deliver. It is clear from their attitude that they are getting fed up with individual campaigns, and I think that they will return and deal with closures en masse. Those of us who are elected to represent our areas should be very worried about the effect on important community services.

It is not only in respect of those services that the Labour party has had a dreadful record. There are also serious problems in social services. In particular, in residential care homes, 64,000 care beds have been lost since Labour came to power. Even if the Government meet their targets on increasing the number of beds in the NHS, that will still not make up the gap. The Labour Government's spending proposals still mean that there will be fewer hospital and care home beds than under the Conservative Government. [Interruption.]

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I hear it said from the Labour Benches that people are being looked after in their own homes. Perhaps Labour Members would be interested to know that Department of Health figures show that, in the past six years, the number of people being cared for in their own homes has decreased by 25 per cent., so significantly more than 125,000 fewer people are now being cared for in their homes. Does that not demonstrate that the Labour party's approach to prevention is resulting in people no longer getting the care because of the tightening of eligibility criteria and the increase in charging for services, which are denying access to those services to too many people?

Mr. Davey

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has done an awful lot of work to expose some of those problems. The Government have taken a chaotic approach to managing the care homes sector, in which many homes have been lost without any plan or way of replacing that care in people's own homes or by other methods. Interestingly, the Royal College of Nursing has taken up that cause in its conference this week. It has identified the link between the health service and the impact on hospitals and the need for more care home beds for the elderly, and it is concerned that the Government need to act.

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Since the advent of the so-called fairer charging policy and the Government's refusal to fund its implementation, is he aware that thousands and indeed tens of thousands of people throughout the country who can in no sense be described as rich or prosperous are, as a consequence of Government neglect, facing 200, 300 and 400 per cent. increases in costs for the services on which they desperately rely?

Mr. Davey

The hon. Gentleman is right. Many elderly people cannot afford care and are becoming increasingly reliant on their families. If they do not have families, they are relying on neighbours, and if they do not have friendly neighbours, they are going without basic care.

The final point on which I wish to focus with regard to Labour's record is not mentioned in the Conservative motion, which is why the Liberal Democrats tabled an amendment, although I know that it has not been selected. We wanted to point out the problem that exists in respect of council tax. I was surprised that the motion did not mention council tax, which is one of the big issues that I am hearing about on the doorstep when I travel around the country listening to people in the communities. People are very worried about the impact of council tax. Perhaps Conservative Members did not want to mention it because Conservative Administrations have increased it by an average of 16. 2 per cent.—the highest average increase made by any of the political parties.

None the less, we are seeing the highest ever increases in council tax, which is the most unfair tax in Britain today. We have an unfair tax system in which the poorest 20 per cent. pay a greater proportion of their income in tax than the richest 20 per cent. One sees that the council tax is the worst example of a tax when one analyses its progressivity. Pensioners in particular are hit by it, so it is time we got to grips with the issue. If we are to renew our community services and devolve more power to local government, however we want that to be done—whether through district councils, county councils or regional assemblies—we will have to give lower tiers of government a tax that can bear the burden of raising money locally. That has to be a fair tax. I do not believe that we can raise that money through the council tax, as it is proving so painful.

We must replace the council tax. The Liberal Democrats believe that we should consider how many countries around the world have tackled the problem. In many countries, there is not such a fierce debate about local taxation and Governments have managed to devolve power successfully. Many different types of countries have introduced such a policy. Anglo-Saxon countries—Canada, America and Australia—use local income tax, as well as continental countries. Such countries manage to make the tax work efficiently and ensure that it is administratively cheap to operate. Above all, however, it is fair and can bear the weight of the devolution of more power.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton)

The hon. Gentleman says that a local income tax is a fair tax, but can he explain to the House how it would be fair to require a council such as West Somerset district council, which has only 30,000 residents, to have its own tax inspectors? Is he not really telling us about a hidden agenda for regionalisation?

Mr. Davey

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. There would be no need for his authority to have tax inspectors, which shows how much he does not understand the policy. He should talk to the Conservatives who are operating in local government. For example, he should talk to Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, a very senior Conservative local government politician. He and his colleagues in Kent are coming round to the argument and recently supported a motion in Kent county council in favour of considering the introduction of local income tax.

Rob Marris

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davey

No, I shall not.

The time has come for such a policy. That is why we are saying that every vote for the Liberal Democrats in the local elections on Thursday 1 May is a vote to abolish the council tax and replace it with a fair tax.

2.9 pm

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

It is a pleasure to follow the Front Benchers in this debate. I am disappointed that the shadow Deputy Prime Minister—I think that that is the title in which the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) glories—failed to take my intervention. It was most churlish of him and I assure Opposition Members that I shall return his generosity, should they seek to interrupt this short and, I hope, not too contentious contribution.

One of the more gut-wrenching and nauseous statements that came from the shadow Deputy Prime Minister and would-be Leader of the Opposition was that the Conservative party is against the centralisation of power and the erosion of local democracy. The Minister, who has been well briefed on the issue by hon. Members from Berkshire, eloquently cited the way in which the previous Conservative Government, without consultation or reference to anyone else, abolished the county of Berkshire. It is important to put on the record that we think that that was a good thing—not because they did not consult anybody, but because we now have a coherent system of unitary government. The boundaries need to be dealt with, but that can be done elsewhere.

I wanted to ask the shadow Deputy Prime Minister—perhaps his junior colleague can address this in his speech—whether he could explain to the House how policies such as the poll tax and rate-capping enhanced local democracy or empowered local government. I was a local government leader throughout a fair bit of the duration of the last Conservative Government, and I remember everything that they did to help us to empower our local communities. This country has never seen a Government who were more centralising, more dictatorial or more frightened of the ballot box. They were so frightened of the ballot box and of the judgment of the people—I am not a London Member, but I am sure that London Members will forgive me for praying this argument in aid—that, rather than take on the Greater London Council themselves, they had to use legislation to abolish it because they were not capable of delivering on the streets and in the election booths.

I have looked at the wording of the Opposition motion, which I would describe as a "mum and rotten apple pie" motion. I could be cynical and suggest that it has some interrelationship with the local elections of I May. [HON. MEMBERS: "Surely not"] If one tenth of the intemperate—to use the Minister's term—words used in the motion are true, who will vote Labour on 1 May? Perhaps I should be worried in my swing, marginal constituency that the Opposition might just have a case. I therefore propose to market test the contentions in the motion. I hope that that is not new Labour-speak. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is."] Oh, good Lord. Nevertheless, I intend to market test the contention that the impact of Government policies on community services has been bad for local communities. It is worth looking at how extreme is the language used in the motion. It refers to the collapse of community services in Britain and the adverse effect on social inclusion, neighbourhood renewal, regional prosperity". Try telling that to people in the Thames valley. It further condemns the Government's failure to improve local health care provision". It recognises the Government's total failure"— not even partial failure. That is the language of the Militant Tendency. Many Labour Members have spent a lot of time fighting that kind of extremism, and we now find it raising its ugly head on the Conservative Benches. Most worrying is the reference to a

total failure to protect community services, resulting in a crisis in school funding". That is pretty strong stuff. How can we test it? Such deterioration in the quality of public services cannot have happened over the past 12 months—it must obviously be a process of decline that started on 2 May 1997.

Mr. Brady

indicated assent.

Mr. Salter

I see that the shadow Minister—I assure him that he will only ever remain a shadow Minister—agrees with that proposition. To test it, let me take as an example my constituency of the town of Reading. I am a great believer in talking about what I know, unlike some hon. Members.

Rob Marris

Steady on.

Mr. Salter

I was not of course referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), whose football team is doing nearly as well as mine.

I have a great affinity for the democratic process, so I thought that I should assess the performance of Labour councils in Reading from 2 May 1997 until the present day.

Mr. Raynsford

indicated assent.

Mr. Salter

The Minister is nodding; that is a good start.

Then we shall see whether the contentions articulated in the Opposition motion have had any effect at the ballot box. Reading is an ideal indicator seat, because the Conservatives need to win the two Reading constituencies to form a Government. Moreover, it is a town with a tradition of turning mid-term against the party in government. I shall start the test with a bit of recent political history. We had a Conservative council from 1983 to 1986—for three years. That was at the height of Mrs. Thatcher's power, post-Falklands and post-the first real Conservative landslide. We had a brief period of Labour control in the early 1970s, but primarily the town has for a long time had hung councils. It is a swing constituency with swing councils. In 1983, the Conservatives swept to power with 44.9 per cent. of the vote, while the Labour party got 29 per cent. In 1986, the shine was starting to go off the Conservatives, and the town turned away from them. After seven years of Conservative government, they received 32.8 per cent. of the poll at the local elections, and Labour received 36.4 per cent.

In 1990, the triumph of the poll tax—we all remember those happy days—meant that it was pretty grim for the Tories. I accept that that was not a typical year: I do not want to be unfair to the Conservatives. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, go on."] It is difficult to be heckled by one's own side, but I shall plough on regardless. The Tory vote in Reading plummeted to 29.4 per cent. of the poll, and the Labour vote was 49 per cent. That was clearly just a blip. The Conservatives said sorry, and we got the council tax. I must say that Conservative Members have some cheek criticising the council tax regime, which I recall that they introduced in an awful hurry. The poll tax cost them a Prime Minister—although unfortunately we got another few years of Conservative government—but they put that particular wrong right.

So in 1990, the result was 29.4 per cent. to the Conservatives and 49 per cent to Labour. By 1994, there was a different style of Conservatism that was not quite as vicious and unpleasant as it was under Margaret Thatcher. I seem to remember that in that year my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was elected as leader of the Labour party. What happened to the Conservative vote? Oh dear: it was 26.5 per cent.—down another 3 per cent. on the poll tax era. There had been no boundary changes. The Labour vote dropped a little to 46 per cent.

Let us now look at the trends in Reading following the most recent set of elections in 2001, after some four years of a Labour Government, and we start to see the electorate turning against a Government who, according to Conservative Members, have delivered such appalling services. Where is the Conservative vote in Reading in 2001? Remember that it was 29.4 per cent. in the poll tax era. In 2001, it was 26.5 per cent. They are flatlining—bouncing along the electoral gutter—while the Labour vote remains strong at 48.4 per cent. In the 13 years since the poll tax, the Conservative party has made absolutely no progress in one of the biggest swing seats and swing areas in the country. The public are not stupid, and they tend to cast a verdict on the performance and quality of local services at the ballot box. Certainly in my town, in that swing constituency, the public have made their voice known year after year. The message to Conservative Members is loud and clear: they are not fit to run a Government and they are not fit to run a council.

We should ask why things are so grim for the Conservatives in the Thames valley, because if they cannot win there, they will have problems winning in the country as a whole. Perhaps they are useless and pathetically organised. Indeed, that is undoubtedly true; they are appalling in my neck of the woods, and they know how bad they are. Perhaps Labour is good for Reading. That is also true. To quote the Reading Banner—a publication that deserves to be more widely read since I write it: We're better off with Labour in Reading. How could that be? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we have almost zero unemployment, thanks to the management of our economy. An end to the years of boom and bust and the creation of a strong and stable economy may have helped.

Rob Marris

Perhaps it is the football team.

Mr. Salter

Indeed; but the Labour party does not yet control the football team.

Perhaps we are better off with Labour because we have the lowest interest and mortgage rates for 40 to 50 years or because the average homeowner in Reading is £5,000 to £8,000 a year better off than they were under the Conservatives, when we had 15 per cent. interest rates and 2,000 homes being repossessed. In those days, there was hardly a street in my constituency without a boarded-up house.

Perhaps all the factors that I mentioned play a part. However, it may be that the motion's claims have no connection with reality and are entirely false. Let us consider what councils are supposed to be, as that forms the crux of the motion. Council leadership is not simply about managerial competence, although of course that is important. If the litter is not picked up, the grass is not cut and the core basic services are not provided, the right to do some of the more exciting things that can go with local government is forfeit. However, too much local government in this country is pedestrian.

Success in Reading is down to the Government's economic policies and a group of people in my town who run the council and the local party and have a clear vision for their town and community. They have the guts and determination to provide a vision for a 21st century community, not from election to election, but in five, 10 and 25 years. We built the fabulous new Madejski stadium on council land in partnership with the council. That is the reason for the football team's success: it now attracts the crowds to pay the wage bills and have the class of players that we need to get out of the first division. That partnership between local business and the Labour-controlled council happened long before new Labour was invented.

The council had the vision to create the £250 million Oracle shopping and leisure complex. It is an award-winning complex, which has made Reading a regional hub in the south-east. My right hon. Friend the Minister has visited it and it is a credit to the town. The Tories laughed at both projects and said that they would not happen. Labour vision and faith delivered for our local communities; that is why local communities will deliver for Labour at the ballot box.

Of course there have been funding problems—there are always such problems. There is never enough finance to go round. When I think back to 1991 and rate capping, I wonder how we kept core services going in the town, because Reading was viciously capped. I presume that that was done to pay for council tax bonuses in Westminster and Wandsworth, with their fiddled systems. I asked the borough treasurer to dig out a few figures for me because I know that Conservative Members love hearing about sums of public money that are spent on public services.

The list is by no means complete, but I shall share it with hon. Members. The Whitley private finance initiative had £59 million to regenerate public housing—council, not flogged-off housing—in one of the most deprived parts of my constituency. The sum of £5 million was allocated for key workers. I must say that that is a drop in the ocean compared with the genuine challenges that local authorities in high-cost housing areas face. Some of the discussion that took place in the parliamentary Labour party about rejigging local government finance failed to acknowledge the sheer cost of running public services in high-cost housing areas. It is lucky that the Minister recognised the problem, which is by no means confined to the south-east. At least the Government have taken a step in the right direction.

In 2003–04, Housing Corporation funding for Reading has received a boost of approximately £18.7 million. That is a record amount of money, which means more affordable homes for people in need. It is not enough, but it is a good start.

It is a shame that the Minister for School Standards is not present, because I intended to say some nice things about him. The boost to capital financing in my town—I am sure that it is replicated elsewhere—has meant £5 million extra for the major comprehensive school at Prospect in west Reading, and £1.9 million for a key junior school and to consolidate two excellent primary schools on a single site in Tilehurst, about 200 yd from my house. A further £3.5 million is due to be spent in Coley Park, which is a swing ward in a swing constituency, but the education need is genuine and the money is greatly welcomed.

I have been especially impressed by the way in which the Minister for School Standards has been prepared to respond positively to the needs of head teachers in primary and secondary schools in the challenging, difficult and partly deprived areas in south Reading. Schools there have come together as a cluster and attracted an additional £1.5 million to deal with kids from low-aspiration and difficult families. That has enhanced the added value that 21st-century teaching can bring to kids from backgrounds where learning or books are not especially encouraged.

Huw Irranca-Davies

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Salter

I am more than happy to take a polite intervention.

Huw Irranca-Davies

I should like to suggest the possibility of twinning. The motion mentions Britain, so perhaps we could twin Reading and Ogmore. I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend welcomes the additional £100 million of capital funding for regenerating our Victorian schools throughout Wales, including Ogmore. Three schools in our constituency have benefited from it, in addition to the 6 per cent. real-terms increase in education funding in Wales.

Mr. Salter

The only twinning between Reading and Ogmore of which I know happened when I telephone canvassed for my hon. Friend. I am sure that my humble efforts made little difference to his massive majority, but I am pleased that the largesse that the good people of Reading are experiencing is shared in Ogmore. One day. my hon. Friend must show me where it is.

Let us consider families, because politics is supposed to be about making things better for ordinary people, those whom we represent. Perhaps one of the most welcome, if not the largest, Government funding scheme is the sure start project. In my constituency, the £3 million allocated is making a genuine difference to people who have to cope with difficult circumstances, for example, lone parents, many of whom are trying to bring up three or four kids and possibly leaving abusive relationships. The funding gives people a vision and opportunity to which every human being is entitled. People are entitled to an opportunity to improve the quality of their lives, to train and retrain, and not to spend the rest of their lives on benefit, at the beck and call of whichever Government decide to give them however many pounds in however many weeks.

Tony Cunningham

When I opened a sure start project about three weeks ago in Flimby in my constituency, one of the leaders said "I've never known any Government invest so much in families." Does my hon. Friend share that experience?

Mr. Salter

I intended to speak about the new tax credits later, but I know that several other hon. Members want to speak and I shall therefore take the opportunity to mention them in passing and to say that I shall not judge the Government's success on their performance at the ballot box—the state of the Conservative party means that any surprises at the next general election are unlikely. I shall judge the true Labourness of the Government on what they do for ordinary families, who struggle with the challenges of modern life. That goes for many Labour Members. I say to the Minister in all comradeship that sure start is a great start, but much remains to be done.

We have also seen regeneration. Contrary to popular mythology, the Thames valley—Reading and Slough in particular—suffers from run-down communities and areas that need significant additional capital. The market cannot supply the answer to everything. We have received some £14 million—probably peanuts compared to the sums received by some towns and cities—in the single regeneration budget over the past six years. That money has regenerated the Oxford road area in my constituency and the Newtown area of east Reading, where I used to be a councillor. The drugs action teams have received £3.8 million.

I could go on and on reading out figures, but I shall just say this: these figures represent real cash and real improvements. They are making a difference to real people and real lives. None of this would have happened under a Conservative Government. Most of the budget heads that I have read out did not even exist under the Conservative Government. The Conservatives are supposed to rise to the challenge of being an alternative Government. Have they got alternative schemes to sure start? Have they heck! All that they want to do is to cut public expenditure by 20 per cent., as we heard earlier. No wonder they are flatlining in the polls, not just in Reading but nationally. No wonder they are not yet ready for government. The problem for the Conservative party is that it has not yet found its Neil Kinnock. It has not yet found the person who is going to lead it from the trough of despair in opposition to the verge of government, never mind into government. They are so many miles away from achieving power that it is unbelievable.

I shall move on to policing. I find it incredible that the Conservatives seek to make political capital out of the issues of crime and policing when they themselves have such a sorry story to tell. Under the Tories, crime doubled and police numbers fell. Let us have a little look at police numbers in the Thames valley. We have been awarded additional funding from the crime fighting fund for an extra 325 new police recruits, and nearly 200 of them are now in place. Notwithstanding the very real problems of recruitment and retention that we have in the Thames valley, as of today we still have more than 100 more police officers than we had in March 1997 when the Tories left office.

An additional £2,000 pay supplement has been awarded to police officers in parts of the Thames valley. Why was that necessary? Yes, it was in part to compensate for the haemorrhage of officers to the Metropolitan police force as a result of officers in the Met receiving a £6,000 pay supplement, but let us make no mistake: the rot set in under the previous Conservative Government with the implementation of the Sheehy recommendations. Those hon. Members who do not know about Sheehy need to cast their minds back to 1994, when Sheehy recommended the abolition of the police housing allowance. According to the Police Federation—and to me—that is when the rot set in. That is why, when we find two police officers on the streets of my town and of Slough, one of whom was recruited before 1994 and one after that date, there will be a £4,000 pay differential between them. What an absurd situation! That is something that my party is putting right.

I shall move to a conclusion now, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because the Whips are twitching and other Members want to speak, but I cannot let this contribution finish without some discussion of electoral tactics. We are all grown-up politicians in this place, and we recognise that these occasions are little more than bits of political knockabout in advance of the May elections. However, there are issues that are far more serious than political point scoring. I am talking about the use of the race card. Appealing to the worst instincts of the human race is an easy way to grub around for a few votes, but in the long term, those who give in to that temptation are playing a dangerous game.

I refer in particular to the Conservative party in Harwich, and I pay tribute to the stance taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Henderson) in challenging the use of race to gain political advantage and to stir up community hatred. Frankly, the leaflet being distributed through the letterboxes in the borough of Tendring—part of the constituency of Harwich—is more extreme than anything that I have seen from the British National party. It states: The Conservative Party will scrap asylum completely. Oh, will it? No, it will not. That is not its policy at all. In fact, when challenged on this issue, the Conservative party confirmed that that was not its policy and gave the lamest of excuses. When the comments in that leaflet were put to Conservative central office, a spokesman clarified the party's full policy by saying that it intended to replace the current system with a system of national quotas, and suggested that lack of space on the leaflet was the reason that it had been unable to explain its policy as a whole.

One of the most nauseating aspects of these elections is the fielding of 219 candidates—a record number—from the neo-Nazi British National party, and, believe me, this is only a warm-up for the 2004 election. There are many decent people on the Conservative Benches, and I say this to them. You have all heard the speech about being the nasty party. I have spent a lot of time looking at the cross-voting between one party and another. Your vote is collapsing in working-class areas, and it is collapsing in favour of the BNP. You will rue the day—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot talk about my votes at all.

Mr. Salter

I take your rebuke, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The fact is that many Conservative votes are collapsing to the BNP. Since the election of five BNP councillors, we are starting to see changes in the political map of Britain. The performance of those councillors has been absolutely pitiful. In Burnley, they fail to turn up to budget meetings. They do not understand the process of government. They might be very good at getting elected by playing on people's fears and damaging race relations. They might also be very good, as they were the other week, at mobilising support for a bunch of football hooligans to go rampaging round the streets of Halifax ripping leaflets out of the hands of members of opposition parties. They might also be very good at mobilising thugs to cause the violence that we saw at the England versus Turkey game, but they are a cancer at the heart of British politics.

I hope that we can have civilised elections on Thursday about public services. Yes, the national situation will impact on them, but I hope that we can treat each other and people from different races, creeds and cultures with respect, and not grub around for a few sordid votes in the ballot box by seeking to demonise any part of this country. This is a squalid motion before the House today, tabled by a squalid party that has nothing to offer the people of this country, either locally or nationally. My canvass returns for Labour in Reading are good. They are solid, and if they are replicated throughout the country, it will be a bad night for the Conservative party on Thursday, which, delightfully, will trigger a leadership challenge that we shall all enjoy.

2.37 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), my almost near-neighbour. I endorse part of what he said in his speech, particularly his hope that these elections will be fought responsibly and that no political party will do anything to exacerbate race relations. I want to return, in my brief remarks, to a point that he made about housing.

The hon. Gentleman should not, however, be allowed to get away with everything that he said, particularly the bit at the beginning when he traced the history of the Labour party's vote in Reading and, later, when he expressed the hope that the party would do well on Thursday. In my constituency, just a stone's throw from his, we shall never know how the Labour party will do on 1 May, because in huge swaths of North-West Hampshire, it is not putting up any candidates. In fact. the only party contesting every ward in the constituency is the Conservative party. So this vision of the Labour party sweeping all before it in the Thames valley is rather a selective view, as we have grown to expect from the hon. Member for Reading, West. We have a great affection for him, but we always have to discount some of his more hyperbolic remarks.

Jim Knight

I have listened to what the right hon. Gentleman said about the Labour party in his area. Does he not share my astonishment that, in Labour's most marginal constituency—namely my own, in South Dorset—out of the 12 seats up for election on Thursday in the borough of Weymouth and Portland, the Conservatives could find candidates for only five?

Sir George Young

The hon. Gentleman should not play that game without some caution, because I suspect that we can all find wards in our constituencies in which the Labour party is not putting up candidates; in some cases, wards that it used to hold within recent memory.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon)


Sir George Young

I suspect that my hon. Friend is about to provide just such an example.

Mr. Djanogly

I am. My right hon. Friend may wish to know that the Conservative party nationally is putting up over 1,000 more candidates than Labour across the whole country.

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend puts it far more succinctly than I could. He has issued a warning to Labour Members not to play the game of arguing which party is putting up the most candidates.

I want to make a brief contribution and to focus on the subject of affordable housing, which was touched on by the hon. Member for Reading, West. Community services are provided by people who need to live near their place of work. If there is one issue in my constituency that commands almost universal agreement, it is the need for more affordable housing. We depend on such housing for the delivery of key public services. Without housing, posts remain unfilled.

Housing in my constituency is expensive. The average house price in Test Valley in September last year was £212,774. Although many of my constituents are prosperous and can afford to buy, many are not, and 87 per cent. of concealed households in Test Valley cannot access open market housing. The annual income needed by new households to access the cheapest properties in Andover is £30,000, which is way over what people can earn, especially at the beginning of their careers. People in the public sector and subject to national pay bargaining face particular problems if the supplements, such as those for the police, do not reflect the extra cost of servicing a mortgage in Hampshire.

The motion refers to the switching of local authority grant, and I want to focus on local authority social housing grant, a subject familiar to the Minister for Local Government and the Regions. When my party was in office, we began a number of initiatives to tackle the problem of affordable housing, one of which was to use the planning system to generate more affordable homes. I am glad that that approach is being pursued. We also promoted the policy of large-scale voluntary transfer, which had as its by-product the generation of a capital receipt that could be invested in affordable housing. The Labour party resisted that policy at the time, but I am happy to say that it has subsequently taken it to its bosom.

Like many other local authorities, Test Valley transferred its housing stock to a housing association after a ballot of its tenants, which took place in March 2000. There were three reasons why the council and its tenants opted for that route: first, to improve the conditions of the local authority stock, as the resources available from the Government were inadequate for that purpose; secondly, to peg rent increases below the level required by Government; thirdly, and crucially, to provide more affordable homes. Using local authority social housing grant, the council planned to provide 100 new affordable homes in each of the six to seven years following transfer, as against the 30 or so that they were achieving before transfer.

Jim Knight

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young

No, I have already given way.

In fact, the council has been able to do better. That was going fine until, suddenly, at the beginning of this year the Government decided to abolish local authority social housing grant with effect from 1 April. I asked why and, in a letter to me, the Minister for Housing and Planning said: LASHG was an unfair funding mechanism that did not allocate funds to areas of greatest need, consistently under-spent nationally, and gave unfair advantage to debt-free local authorities. Test Valley borough council is not debt-free, it has never under-spent its local authority social housing grant and it certainly has an enormous need for affordable housing; ask the teachers, nurses and policemen. Although there may have been some imperfections in the regime, the Government have lived with it for six years. To abolish it at a few weeks' notice, with a less than perfect substitute, is bad government and bad news for those in housing need who provide key public services.

As a result of those rule changes, Test Valley cannot now proceed with its planned programme, which is now grinding to a halt. Without going into the details, it is important to understand how the system works. When Test Valley transferred its housing stock, it got a capital receipt of some £21 million. It has spent some £10 million to £12 million of that, giving grant to housing associations to build affordable homes. It has reclaimed the grant from the Housing Corporation and used that to pay off debt. The capital receipt is used to build affordable housing, and the impact on the revenue account is broadly neutral.

The Government have suddenly and unilaterally changed the rules; the rules, incidentally, on which the tenants voted for transfer, which the council recommended to the tenants. In a nutshell, the Government have said that the grant will no longer be repaid, with a clear impact on local authority cash flow. Test Valley had hoped that the transitional arrangements would be of some benefit; now we have the detail, we know that that is not the case. It is a with-debt authority, and it will benefit only from revenue relief drawn from a capped £11 million set nationally. If it gets that, it will only be in year one. If not, it will have to find the money from its own resources. It has already set its budget for this year and cannot take such risks with the revenue account. Therefore, the schemes for affordable homes that had been planned in my constituency will either be lost or placed on hold.

The Government said that local authority social housing grant was under-spent, but this policy change will result in less being spent on affordable housing in my constituency. For every million pounds that the council now spends on the regime, it will lose some £50,000 of investment income. The council will be able sustain the programme only by cutting back on other services or putting up the council tax. This change comes from a Government who have the nerve to accuse my party of slashing public investment by 20 per cent. In Test Valley, they have halved the planned programme of affordable housing. Yes, they have exempted the receipts from right-to-buy sales from receipt pooling, but 75 per cent. of that is frozen and has to be set against debt.

Unless the Government's view is that the need for affordable housing in North-West Hampshire has suddenly dried up, they should reconsider what they have done. They may not resurrect the regime that they have abolished, but they could enable Test Valley and other local authorities—even Reading—to do what they, the tenants, the council tax payers, those on the waiting list and those in key public services all believed they would be able to do. It would also enable the council to hit the Government's own target on getting families out of bed and breakfast. If the Government did that, we could make progress in housing the people who provide the key community services that we are debating today.

2.46 pm
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

I should like to explain how Government services have benefited my constituents, and I shall begin by talking about crime. As we know, crime doubled under the Conservative Government. The figures for Cambridgeshire showed that crime more than doubled in my area. Since the present Government came to power, there have been many reforms, including extra police officers. In some parts of Cambridge, the number of community beat officers has doubled.

A particular ward in my constituency with which I am familiar—East Chesterton—has a high proportion of deprived families and social housing. It has had a good community beat officer for some years, PC Banfi. He has been joined by a new, young police officer, PC Nick Percival. I want to sing their praises because they are doing an excellent job. Last summer, that ward suffered from a bout of youth unrest. Some of the children being a nuisance were as young as eight. The children got together in a crowd, went around together, lit fires, broke windows and committed other acts of petty vandalism that made life extremely uncomfortable for residents.

That happened when the police in Cambridgeshire were stretched because of the tragedy at Soham. Although they did their best to keep an eye on what was going on in East Chesterton, it was pretty difficult. PC Nick Percival was appointed last October and has had a huge impact on the ward by getting to know the children. He stands outside the school and knows most of the children by name. He is well placed to pick up any problems almost before they occur.

The police have done an excellent job in getting to grips with the youth unrest. It is not just a matter of punishing the children who are misbehaving, but of getting other people, parents and schools to take responsibility, involving the housing authority and the social services and encouraging the collaborative efforts of all the community agencies.

That, I think, is one of the differences that this Labour Government have made. It is not just a question of putting in extra money or getting extra police officers on the beat, although those things are very important. There is a huge collaborative effort to ensure that all agencies work together and can tackle problems when they arise. I am very impressed by the new youth offending team in Cambridgeshire, which has just had its first birthday.

Mr. Djanogly

If the Government are being so good about giving money to the Cambridgeshire police, why did the police precept have to rise by some 20 per cent. this year, and why did Huntingdonshire district council have to appoint 21 community support officers, using district funds, to make up for our current lack of police officers?

Mrs. Campbell

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman's council saw the need for community support officers. They are important, and in a moment I shall talk about those in Cambridgeshire. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, however, the chairman of the police authority is one of his Conservative—council—colleagues, and I think he is better placed to answer the charge that the council tax rise is excessive. I agree with that charge; I think the police should have been able to manage with an increase of less than 20 per cent. in funding from local people.

The changes that the Government have made to the operation of police services are making an enormous difference. The youth offending team is trying to make young people recognise what they are doing to the victims of their crimes. It is ensuring that those young people have records of good behaviour, which they can keep, and that they come to terms with the effects of their activities on those against whom they have offended. It is difficult to perceive any changes in the short term as a result of such reforms, but I am convinced, as is the team, that in the long term there will be a huge change in the number of people who have criminal records and who engage in criminal activities.

The Government have also made more funds available for closed-circuit television. Like most of my constituents, I believe that CCTV can make an enormous difference to an area, and can clean up some of the crime hotspots. Unfortunately, Cambridge currently has a Liberal Democrat council. CCTV is not Liberal Democrat policy, or at least it does not appear to be locally. Last year, the Cambridge Liberal Democrats underspent the CCTV budget by £40,000, putting the money into rewiring of the Guildhall's electrical system. Perhaps they forgot to budget for the rewiring, but that was not a good use of money intended for CCTV.

Mr. Waterson

In a sense, I agree. When CCTV was first proposed on Eastbourne borough council, the Liberal Democrats voted against it. Listening to them nowadays, one would think that they had thought of it in the first place.

Mrs. Campbell

It is interesting to hear that from the hon. Gentleman. It is certainly our impression in Cambridge that the Liberal Democrats would do anything to avoid CCTV.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)


Hon. Members


Tom Brake

I merely wish to invite the hon. Lady to visit my constituency. There is extensive CCTV throughout the Liberal Democrat-controlled borough of Sutton.

Mrs. Campbell

That typifies the Liberal Democrat approach, which is to say one thing in one constituency and another in a different one.

Owing to pressures from Labour councillors, there is now some change of heart in the Liberal Democrat council. In the Petersfield ward, where I live, Labour councillors have lobbied hard for the introduction of CCTV in the Mill road area of Cambridge—partly because there are many people begging, there is a lot of crime, and drugs are sold in the streets. It is felt that CCTV would help immensely. Having refused initially, the Liberal Democrats changed their minds, saying that they would recommend the pursuing of a CCTV scheme in Mill road as soon as funds permitted.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats has said more than once, however, that if it is not in the budget, it is not policy. It was not in the budget, so we had to assume that, despite what the Liberal Democrats were saying, it was not policy. For the moment, therefore, the funds do not permit such expenditure, and the recommendations for additional CCTV agreed by councillors and reported extensively in the local paper are no more than pipe dreams. At least, that was the case until the local election campaign, when the Liberal Democrats decided that they could find the money after all. They had to be pushed into that by Labour councillors who were working hard for their own wards.

Dr. Murrison

The Liberal Democrats could learn from a great deal of what the hon. Lady has said. Does she, like me, regret that only one Liberal Democrat has been present for much of the debate to hear her words of wisdom?

Mrs. Campbell

I am indeed sorry that more Liberal Democrats are not present to hear about their failings in Cambridge. I hope that my speech will be widely reported in the local press, so that Liberal Democrats in Cambridge, at least, will know what I am saying about them.

Like many of my colleagues, I have spent a good deal of time over the past few weeks knocking on doors and talking to local people about their problems, and about the forthcoming local elections. One issue that affects local people markedly is antisocial behaviour, and I am delighted that the Government are introducing laws to tackle vandalism, noisy neighbours, drug dealers and intimidation. All those problems affect the quality of people's lives fundamentally, especially on some of our social housing estates where such problems are legion. In terms of crime in Cambridge, things have improved, but there is still a long way to go.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden)

The hon. Lady paints a glossy picture of life in Cambridge. Can she confirm that, according to the latest Home Office figures, in one year robbery in the city increased by 41 per cent., the number of sexual offences increased by 26 per cent., theft from vehicles increased by 23 per cent. and burglary increased by 10 per cent.? Is that really such an improvement?

Mrs. Campbell

Those figures must relate to a time when the Conservatives were in office. Burglary is, in fact, down by 41 per cent. That is an amazing achievement compared with what happened when the hon. Gentleman's party was in power: during that period the crime rate more than doubled in Cambridgeshire.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Campbell

No, I will not give way again. I have been very generous, and I am about to turn to a different subject, education funding.

Cambridgeshire was fortunate enough to receive one of the highest education increases in the country. Let me again look back to what happened under a Conservative Government. Between 1992 and 1997, education funding per student fell in real terms year on year. That caused great pain in Cambridgeshire.

It is also worth considering why Cambridgeshire did so badly in the past. We have to go back to 1990-91, when the previous system of local government funding was introduced. The first problem was that Cambridgeshire was not recognised as a high-cost area, because it was lumped together with Norfolk and Suffolk for accountancy purposes. The other problem was that our historical spending was quite low, as we were unfortunate enough to have a Conservative-controlled county council in 1990. It believed that the best way to run the council was to cut spending and council tax as much as possible, so we started off from a very low historical spending base. That, of course, was reflected in the old formula, so I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the changes made to the funding formula.

I was sorry to hear the comments of some of my colleagues. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble)—she is no longer in her place—said that she now realises that all her constituency's money has perhaps gone to Cambridgeshire. However, we in Cambridgeshire have suffered from large class sizes and desperate underfunding. We have had to make pleas to parents to fund books and equipment for our schools, and I am sure that that will continue, but at last we can begin to offer Cambridgeshire children the same standard of education that is being offered in other parts of the country. I believe that the current system is much fairer. I am also pleased to say that the firm hand of the Minister for School Standards has been obvious, through his efforts to ensure that this time, Cambridgeshire children actually benefit from the funding increases provided by this Government. That has been extremely important. I am looking forward to a continuation of the marked improvement in education in my constituency under the new funding regime.

I want to move on to housing, which is also a critical issue in my constituency.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)


Mrs. Campbell

People may not appreciate this—the hon. Gentleman may indeed find it fascinating—but the council is landlord of approximately 8,200 properties in the city of Cambridge. Registered social landlords hold some 3,000 properties, a fact that surprises people. Cambridge is considered an affluent place. It has a very nice tourist centre and beautiful surroundings, and its social housing aspect is often missed. It is certainly missed by visitors to the city, and even by those lucky enough to spend three years at a prestigious university in my constituency.

The social housing market accounts for 25 per cent. of the homes in Cambridge, but the two main housing issues that the city faces are the lack of affordable homes—as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said, that is a real problem for people on low or average incomes—and the number of people sleeping rough.

The Audit Commission recently carried out a survey in Cambridge. It came up with a one-star rating for the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council, which is not very good. It did say some good things about properties in council control. For example, it stated: Properties are generally in good condition and the Council will meet the decent homes standard by 2005, apart from the heating which will occur by 2003. One reason why properties are generally in good condition is that Cambridge was fortunate enough to have a Labour-controlled council for 20 years before 2000. That is why properties are in good condition and of a high standard. However, the future is a little bleak, in that the Audit Commission is not convinced that Cambridge will be able to improve its housing standards. It states:

Too many properties are without a valid gas certificate … Tenant complaints received via telephone calls are not recorded in line with the Council's procedure … There are low levels of post inspections … Void turnaround times are not so good … There are high numbers of emergency and urgent repairs … Non urgent repairs, particularly fencing, take a long time to complete. None of that is news to those of my constituents who live in council houses in Cambridge. When I knock on their doors, they say, "The council won't repair my fence—it's been in this condition for at least 18 months." The Audit Commission report also makes the following points: The service does not demonstrate value for money". There is No compensation scheme for tenants where appointments are not kept … Inconsistent and unclear repair categories; and … The provision of information in minority community languages is lacking. All that is being said of a housing authority that was one of the top 25 authorities in the country when under Labour control. The depths to which we have sunk under a Liberal Democrat administration are appalling.

Cambridgeshire has been fortunate in benefiting from the Government's starter home initiative. The county council, the police authority and the health authority made a joint application to that initiative, which has enabled many people—good public servants on low wages—to afford their first council house. Those who have benefited are teachers, nurses, police officers and so on, but those who have not are refuse collectors and other manual staff working for the city council. They have not benefited because the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council did not get round to applying for any money under this scheme.

Jim Knight


Mrs. Campbell

It was scandalous, because there is a huge need for this scheme in the city.

In their time, the Liberal Democrats have presided over a doubling of the number of unfit homes in the private sector. There is a huge amount of private sector housing in Cambridge, much of which is let to students. It is not let to students at Cambridge university, who generally have their own, very nice accommodation, but to students at Anglia polytechnic university and other educational institutions in the city. I should like much better controls over private sector housing. The tenancy deposit scheme offers some hope of a better deal for the people who have to use private sector housing, and I hope that my colleagues will see fit to introduce a mandatory scheme in the forthcoming housing legislation.

What else have the Liberal Democrats failed to do? Their one-star rating out of a possible three from the Audit Commission for standards in council house maintenance and repair is not exactly a shining light. In addition—this is an important point—£6 million of tenants' money is languishing in the council's rent account. The money is there to do the repairs, but the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council seems incapable of spending it, at least, that is the most charitable interpretation that I can come up with. The least charitable is that the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Cambridge is hoping to fight Cambridge as a parliamentary candidate at the next election, and is storing the money as a general election fund to spend in that year. Another example is their publicly acknowledged failure to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping in the city, despite substantial Government funding. It is one of only two authorities that failed to reach the Government targets on homelessness and rough sleeping.

The way in which funds are allocated by the city council makes a huge difference to some of my more deprived constituents. Average investment for environmental improvements in each Cambridge ward has been about £54,000—the result of dividing the total amount by the number of wards. However, two of the more affluent wards—Trumpington and Market—have received £150,000 and £240,000 respectively. Houses are expensive in those wards and there is little council housing. The areas are generally inhabited by wealthy, middle-class voters in my constituency and in that of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). At the other end of the scale, three of the most deprived wards—Arbury, Coleridge and Romsey—have received £4,800, £5,500 and £3,500 respectively. That shows a blatant disregard for common justice. When it comes to local council spending, one would expect more to be invested in less deprived wards than in the affluent ones, but that is not the case in Cambridge and it adds to the difficulties of some of my constituents.

I should also like to describe what happened in King Hedges ward, which includes Buchan street neighbourhood centre. That terrific centre, which is used by community and youth groups, elderly people, mother and toddler groups and all sorts of people was earmarked—not for closure, because the Liberal Democrats do not like to talk about that—but for use by another health authority organisation so that it would no longer be available to local people and the Liberal Democrats would not have to pay for a warden. That proposal caused a huge outcry, resulting in demonstrations and lobbying from local residents.

It was finally decided that enough could be found in the budget to keep the Buchan street centre going for another six months or so. However, no money was available for the remaining six months, so the council dipped into the pockets of East Chesterton, another deprived ward in my constituency, and took away £20,000 that was going to be spent on a community worker for the ward and gave it to the centre. Of course the centre is delighted to have kept its warden, but what a way to run a council. It smacks of sheer incompetence, which we do not want.

I should like to finish by talking about the council tax in Cambridge. Under Labour, council tax levels were stable up to 2000. Only in 1998 did the Labour-controlled administration impose an increase—an inflation-only increase. In 1997, 1999 and 2000 there were zero increases in Cambridge city, but this year the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council proposes an 8 per cent. rise. One would have thought that, with an increase last year and a more substantial one this year, citizen survey satisfaction ratings would be shooting through the roof, but we have in fact seen a 10 per cent. fall in satisfaction in the first two years of Liberal Democrat rule. Not only are council tax increases going through the roof, but satisfaction levels are steadily declining.

I should like to finish there—[Interruption.] I am pleased that Conservative Members are so enthusiastic about the end of my speech. They will have enjoyed some of my attacks against the Liberal Democrats, despite their current protestations. The Government have achieved much for my constituents in Cambridge. I am only sorry that the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council and, to a lesser extent, the Conservative-controlled county council cannot match our performance.

3.15 pm
Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

One of the nice things about following that half-hour perambulation through Cambridge was finding one area of distinct agreement—a general dislike of Liberal councils. Until I moved to Surrey, I was not particularly aware of the duplicity of Liberal Democrats, but in my local council, which is under no overall control, the Liberals campaigned for more expenditure at every turn, but when the council tax rise came along, they voted against it on the grounds that it was too high. When we added up the amounts that the council would have had to add to the council tax for Mole Valley to take account of the Liberal Democrat suggested spending, it would have added another 19 or 20 per cent. to the bill. Of course, the Liberal Democrats ducked that at every turn.

I was fascinated by the speech of the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) who referred to the success of his local authority. I am sorry that he is not present; if I keep talking for a few minutes, he might be back. In referring to his Labour council's success in Reading, he made the fatal mistake of mentioning Labour's favourite Conservative authority, which next month—the day after tomorrow—will celebrate 25 years of Conservative control. We should bear in mind that it started by taking over from Labour in an area considered by Labour—I notice some nodding by an ex-member of Wandsworth council, the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac)—to be one of its natural areas. The Conservatives managed to change that by being individual, forthright, straightforward and clear with local people, and by providing decent services, irrespective of the amount of grant, which was always low, given by whatever Government. It also managed—this year is an exception—to have the lowest council tax in the country. I believe that it set zero poll tax for two years and before that it set the lowest rates.

The response of businesses in the community as the economy lifted was positive—the local council was supported and economic activity increased. Interestingly, the Liberal Democrats were wiped out. Now, for example, the Putney constituency has only Conservative councillors.

Jim Knight

I am listening to what the hon. Gentleman says about Wandsworth with great interest. For my information, will he say by how much the Tories in Wandsworth are putting up the council tax this year?

Sir Paul Beresford

They are putting it up by an amount that makes it the second-lowest council tax in the country on the doorstep, which is where it counts. Interestingly, only Westminster is lower, and that has been hard hit too.

Today's Opposition motion is very broad. As I went through it, I thought that I could outdo the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) and talk for considerably longer than I had previously intended. However, I shall resist that temptation.

The Government have done severe damage in the south-east. That damage is accumulating, and it is being compounded. It appears to derive from the Government's determination to impose centralised control in all sorts of areas, and at all sorts of levels. As the motion indicates, the damage is broad in the southeast. The Home Office has damaged Surrey police, the Department of Health has damaged health and social services, the Department for Education and Skills has hit Surrey schools, the Department for Transport has hit public transport, and there is also the wee blight that is the threat of Gatwick airport expansion and the threat posed by Central railway. The Department of Trade and Industry is hurting the villages in my constituency. Those, including the Minister, who have spoken on community pharmacies may recognise that many of them in the south-east are to be found in villages. They are as important as rural post offices, which are also being hurt.

However, the Deputy Prime Minister and his henchmen are the ones who are causing the most damage in the south-east. The amount of interference in local issues is quite staggering. I presume that an element of ignorance is involved and we can return to that, but some of the interference is purely political.

The most obvious example of that political interference is the new formula for local government grant distribution. The Government have been soundly criticised by the local government Select Committee about this method—hammered might be the best description, if it is not an understatement—but they have charged on. The damage that will be caused will be exacerbated next year in the south-east, as presumably the Government will progressively lower the floor levels.

For Surrey county council, the grant under the new formula this year is about £39 million less than what it could have expected under the previous formula. As the Select Committee pointed out, the indicators for that assessment were subjective. The Minister used a slightly different phrase, but in essence he was saying the same thing. He selected the indicators himself, and that explains the shift in funding. The Labour leader of Bury council, when he set his community charge, said that the relatively low rise in his area was because the residents of the south-east we re paying to support people in Bury and elsewhere. The Minister's response, as we have heard today, was that the increase was above inflation for all councils. That is fine, but there was no acknowledgement from the Minister of the hugely increased burdens placed on local authorities, or of the central direction of local expenditure. In Surrey, that is especially evident in education and social services.

However, on a lower level, Mole Valley district council is a little Surrey district council, and it is struggling this year because of extra costs. The increase in national insurance contributions will amount to another £40,000. The extra cost of running the new imposed welfare system is £110,000. There are other increases, which others have touched on today, such as the national pay increases of 4 per cent. However, if my arithmetic is right, the two extra costs that I have detailed total £150,000. The Mole Valley increase in grant was £107,000. Local people will foot the bill. This is a geographic stealth tax, designed to allow the Minister to move the money to the urban areas in the north.

The interference does not stop there. The Deputy Prime Minister is already interfering in planning. He wishes to pack every new building site with lots of little boxes, so every Surrey planning authority, if it follows local electors' wishes, can expect to be subjected to multiple call-ins, consequential delays, and a lack of development.

The Deputy Prime Minister has imposed huge numbers of dwelling requirements on Surrey. Recently, went with the leader of Surrey county council to discuss the matter with the Minister for Housing and Planning in another place, Lord Rooker. We asked the Minister how he arrived at the figures. The method that he used was taken apart. The Minister turned to the official who was accompanying him, but he shrugged his shoulders and said that he could not explain. I asked the Minister, bearing in mind the plans for other areas in the south-east, whether he could review the numbers. His response was, "No, John wants them." That is the logic: the Deputy Prime Minister wants to treat Surrey just like Hull.

There is an impending Bill on planning, to which a sensible approach was adopted in Wales. However, the Deputy Prime Minister's control freakery strikes again when one crosses the border into England. There is monitoring and checks at every stage, and call-ins and delays abound. Again, the Select Committee shredded the draft Bill, but still it blundered on.

Even wee areas that one would imagine to be beneath such detail suffer from the same interference. The Government are backing, and heavily pushing, the High Hedges Bill. I accept that something has to be done about the relatively few cases in which people are forced, because of disputes with neighbours, to live under towering hedges. However, the Bill reveals the Government's obsession with detail and interference and their lack of understanding of rural matters. It is an urban Bill. I ask every hon. Member with a rural constituency to look at the Bill. Any hedge claimed to be high will be measured by council officials. Their findings will be taken to a committee, and then there will be appeals and re-appeals, and further appeals to the committee. In the end, in many cases, council tax payers will have to pay. A hedge is defined as high if it reaches 2 m. The two councils in my area have pointed out that that is hardly tall, and that a high hedge in a rural area is one of 3 m or 4 m.

Why had the Department not thought further about the matter? We need an answer. I am afraid that the Department's inability to see rural problems is a classic example of the problems with this Government. This Labour Government want to dictate. For example, they have imposed auditing systems on local authorities. The disadvantages are great, in terms of the systems' expense. They have no advantage in terms of value for money. When the best-value system was initiated, the total increase in many local authorities' grant for that year barely covered the extra costs incurred by the armies of best-value auditors.

On Thursday, local electors will choose local councils in the belief that they will make decisions on their behalf on local issues. They are not choosing the Deputy Prime Minister as a stand-in for their local people. If they could do that, I suspect that the Deputy Prime Minister's popularity would be shown to be at a record low. We need the Government to stand back, and to recognise that local people elect local councillors to run local councils. The Government should leave them alone and get out of their pockets. They should reduce regulation and red tape, and let local government govern locally again.

3.27 pm
Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan)

I shall begin by recounting some of my experiences as a councillor in Wigan. Although I was a councillor for more than the 18 years the previous Conservative Government lasted, I was nevertheless a councillor for all those 18 years of Conservative rule. Because it is clear that the Opposition suffer from selective amnesia, I remind the House of some of the things that that Government introduced. For example, capping was one of the worst things to be introduced in terms of the reduction in local authorities' ability to serve their communities. I remember cuts each year of the order of £7 million, £9 million and £10 million. We tried to protect education in our borough, and that meant cutting other areas of expenditure. The quality of our parks and streets declined. People saw that, but we kept our education going. In education at that time, we were beset by leaking roofs in our classrooms, classes of more than 35 pupils and outside toilets. Then there was compulsory competitive tendering, under which every council had almost to do the same at each individual point all the way down the line, as in the French education system. It was the most bureaucratic system ever devised.

In housing, rents were raised every year by much more than inflation. Those in work were driven out by the rent rises, and that resulted in sink estates, benefit dependency and falling standards in council houses. Nor was that restricted to public housing. In the private sector, the inner ring of housing built before the first world war that surrounds many of our towns and cities declined as older people were unable to put in money of their own and housing renewal area grants were taken away.

In our hospitals, there was no investment, closure of wards, the loss of beds, doctors and nurses, and growing waiting lists. Our communities, particularly the mining communities of the north, were ripped apart by politically motivated opposition to a strike. The coal industry was destroyed for purely political reasons. We had no help for those communities from the Conservative Government, and there was no help until the Labour Government introduced the coalfield communities fund.

Compare all that to what we have now. In Wigan, £58 million is available for our arm's length management association—ALMO—to improve housing. We hope for another £79 million, and I do not expect the Minister to give me a nod on that now, but I am sure that he will hear my plea and come up with the money in due course. That £140 million investment in housing will not just bring up the standard of our council housing, but provide additional services ensuring that we solve neighbourhood problems, which do exist. Those services will be able to deal with the environment of the houses, not just stopping at the fence or gate but going beyond to ensure that our estates look decent. It will also help to create active tenants and residents associations, which are vital to the regeneration of estates and which need support from the housing department and the local authority.

We are not putting money only into the public sector. The area where I live, Gidlow housing renewal area, is benefiting from investment of £6 million. It is the type of area I mentioned earlier, built before the first world war and home to lots of older people, formerly incapable because of their low incomes of keeping the houses in decent repair, but now able to do so because of that money.

Mr. Bercow

A few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman referred in passing to health. Given that, on Ministers' own admission, the huge increase in expenditure on and employment in the national health service has not been matched by a commensurate rise in the level of clinical activity, but that the Government claim to be committed to reforms, can the hon. Gentleman identify, from among all the reforms in the health service that the Government are implementing, just three?

Mr. Turner

I shall come later to health if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, and may answer his point. I want now to concentrate on where I am going on housing and our communities.

On the Gidlow housing renewal area, we are talking not just about renewal, but about making sure that community and local associations are built up and supported so that we have a proper community as well as decent housing. There are huge areas of deprivation in my constituency and the wider borough. We must look after them, and the neighbourhood renewal fund and coalfield communities fund are helping those areas on the basis of the nature of the communities. The results of all that investment are better tenants and residents associations, and more of them. We have better housing and better communities.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) said earlier, many more people are in work now, which is hugely important. People in the community are enabled to put something back into the community instead of living in benefits dependency.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) asked about health. There have been huge improvements in health. The refurbishment of accident and emergency units was one of the first improvements, and Wigan borough has a new walk-in centre in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham). There is a new clinic in Pemberton after investment of more than £1 million, and the Thomas Linacre out-patient centre in our town centre. Some £25 million has been invested in a new maternity unit, which is being built at this moment.

We have a £30 million LIFT—local improvement finance trust—programme, which will provide a community resource that involves primary care trusts, GPs and physiotherapists to ensure that needs are met without putting all the pressure on the NHS. The hon. Member for Buckingham asked me to name three improvements. The LIFT programme is certainly one of them; it will ensure that GPs have proper health centres and will have a dramatic effect on the ability of the health service to address people's needs.

Tony Cunningham

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. You have talked about hospitals, but do you agree—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must use correct parliamentary language.

Tony Cunningham

My apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Does my hon. Friend agree that, although schemes such as sure start and the health action zones have been of benefit, one of the greatest benefits for health is the tremendously low unemployment in our constituencies?

Mr. Turner

My hon. Friend is right. That is another knock-on effect of having an extra 1.5 million people in work. They not only contribute to the economy but, because they are taken out of poverty, their health is better and the education of their children is better. The whole community benefits

It is purely coincidental that today the Greater Manchester strategic health authority issued a leaflet giving its results for last year. It states that no patient waited more than 12 months for in-patient or day-case treatment, compared with 1,600 a year ago; no patient waited more than 21 weeks for their first out-patient appointment, compared with 2,800 a year ago; and that the number of patients waiting more than 13 weeks for an out-patient appointment had been reduced by 49 per cent., or more than 5,000—2,200 better than the target. Investment and reform are providing the results that we all want.

Chris Grayling

As the hon. Gentleman is talking about health, I was going to point out that there are great concerns about health matters, such as obesity. However, he was making a point about waiting lists. Earlier, in Health questions, I pointed out that the 48-hour waiting time target for GP appointments could be met only by moving the goalposts. There are too many examples of the creative adjustment of waiting times. How can we have confidence in the figures that the hon. Gentleman has just given us when there are so many examples of fiddling the figures?

Mr. Turner

I am amazed that Conservative Members are talking about waiting lists. Their cuts in the health service created the whole waiting list problem in the first place. I shall move on, as other Members want to speak.

Our local authority always spent more than our standard spending assessment on education and that is still the case. Other councils did not do that, however, so because the Department for Education and Skills has rightly insisted on passporting to ensure that the money it provides is spent on education, they are now experiencing pressure. That is a problem that they will have to resolve.

Wigan has benefited tremendously from the £6 billion that the Government have put into education nationally. Our schools no longer have leaking roofs and outside toilets. Children no longer have to worry that the asbestos roof in their school canteen may be contaminating their food. No child aged between five and seven is in a class of more than 30.

There has been plenty of investment. Standish community high school is benefiting from investment of £1 million in new sporting facilities that will be used by the community.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest impacts on poor communities has been the effect of sure start? About 400,000 children benefit from 522 sure start centres, half a dozen of which are in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend find it ironic that the Conservatives talk about investment in education when their own document, which I have here, proposes not merely freezing funding for sure start but scrapping sure start altogether?

Mr. Turner

That is an outrageous proposal. There is no sure start scheme in my constituency, but I have visited such schemes elsewhere and seen the benefits that they bring, and I am trying to ensure that we set one up in my constituency. The benefits are manifest, especially in areas that suffer extreme deprivation.

The result of all that investment has been an increase in standards. Reading, writing and numeracy results have all improved. Results are better all round. Kingsdown high school in my constituency and Rose Bridge high school in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney)—two schools that were failing—have improved standards by 400 per cent. over the years because of investment and support from the LEA. As a result of that increased education funding, we have been able to release funds that had previously been required to maintain standards and put them into other areas. Mesnes park in the heart of my constituency, which had been allowed to drift into near dereliction because of the lack of funding, is now booming—a wonderful example of what can and should be a facility for the whole community.

Wigan is an excellent council, as the Audit Commission decided in its comprehensive performance assessment. It provides good services effectively and efficiently. The Tory plans would strip us of £29 million—a 20 per cent. cut in our funding. The health authority would be stripped of £44 million. That would devastate our services—

Chris Grayling


Mr. Turner

I am sorry, but it is not nonsense. You have heard the quotations from your leader. Maybe he is not your leader any more; maybe we have missed something. Maybe you are advancing—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must remember the point that I just made to the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham). He should use the correct parliamentary language.

Mr. Turner

I apologise. Mr. Deputy Speaker. Unfortunately, I was provoked by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) from a sedentary position.

Mr. Bercow

If I may provoke the hon. Gentleman again, given that the public service agreement targets on literacy and numeracy have been missed in both of the last two years, and that the PSA target on truancy was first missed and then scrapped, does he agree that in the name of honesty in government, Ministers should ensure that as much publicity is given to failed PSA targets as to the establishment of the targets in the first place?

Mr. Turner

I am sure that, in his reply, the Minister will make sure that the hon. Gentleman is made aware that we have just been noted as providing a world-class service. That proves how important targets are, and those targets should be high enough that occasionally they will be missed. It is important to try to achieve them, however, to provide a world-class service, and to continue to improve year on year. The kind of cuts that the Conservative party proposes would devastate services, particularly for the poorest in our communities who most rely on those services, and would destroy communities.

Tony Cunningham

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Turner

If I may, I shall conclude my remarks. In Wigan, we have the JJB stadium, another magnificent stadium that has been provided through a joint venture between the private sector and the local authority. It is host to Wigan Athletic football club, which will take its place in the first division next season as champions, and is also host to Wigan Warriors, the most famous rugby club in the world. There are many differences between those two sports, but one of the more subtle ones is that in football one can score own goals, and in rugby one cannot. The Conservative party, with its motion today, has been playing football: it has scored lots of own goals. Those own goals include reminding us about its capping, its cuts, its bureaucracy of compulsory competitive tendering, and particularly its proposed cuts of 20 per cent. across the board. The score is 4-0 to us, and we have not even started trying yet. I am happy to go into the Lobby tonight and make sure that we make it 6-0 by supporting the Prime Minister's amendment and defeating the motion.

3.43 pm
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, even though, at times, it has sounded like a prolonged last-minute leaflet in the local elections. I can only assume from the numbers of Members on both sides of the House who are present—other than the Liberals, of course—that this is a refuge from having to deliver those leaflets—[Laughter.] I did not think that it was that funny.

We are very lucky in my constituency of Eastbourne because every year, without fail, we have elections of one sort or another. I know that every year the electorate get very excited by the prospect as May gets nearer.

The big issue this year has been the phenomenal increase in council tax—23.6 per cent. overall, taking into account the county and the police, but a staggering 38 per cent. increase in the borough council's share of that. I shall return to that point later but, as I made clear in an intervention, the 38 per cent. increase is down to the Liberal Democrats who have been running the council recently. They have also managed to combine that increase in the council tax with cuts in local services.

Sadly, the Liberal Democrats have spent a lot of their energy in recent months indulging in the blame game. They have tried to blame everyone but themselves for what has happened. As I shall develop in argument in a moment, some blame is certainly to be attached to the Deputy Prime Minister, but they have tried to blame the previous Conservative administration, the county council and the Government. They even tried to blame me on one occasion. Apart from the tooth fairy, almost everyone has been brought into the frame in terms of blame.

This debate is more important than just the local elections on Thursday because of the points made about local democracy and accountability. We all know the turnouts that we can probably expect on Thursday, although I am willing to venture that it will be rather higher in my constituency than it might otherwise have been simply because of the palpable anger one meets on the doorsteps from people faced with such an increase in the council tax. Many people face real problems finding the extra money. The lack of accountability and transparency in local government finance picks away at the fabric of local communities. That is the context in which the debate should take place. Tempting though it is, we should not focus too much on the short-term issue of what is happening later this week in many parts of the country.

Many other things that the Government have done pick away at that fabric. In my area, the south-east, we are being required to find room for another 200,000 or more new houses when we already have problems with full schools, full roads, the water supply and so on. I recently took to No. 10 Downing street a petition with more than 8,000 signatures on the possible closure of post offices. More recently, I presented a petition on community pharmacies with nearly 4,000 signatures from my constituency. Parts of the fabric of local communities are steadily being picked away as we speak.

I am beginning to receive letters from head teachers in my constituency who have realised that the sums simply do not add up and that they cannot produce a balanced budget for the coming year. Whenever I ask my constituents' opinion, I find that their overwhelming concern is antisocial and criminal behaviour in their community. It produces a fear of going out at night and of their property being burgled or vandalised. The lack of police officers contributes enormously to that. People pay an enormous amount for local services, but they see those services shrink and disappear and their local community undermined.

I cannot believe that there can be any serious debate about the fact that the entire settlement has been skewed to send money to the Deputy Prime Minister's friends in the north and to strip funding from the south. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy shows in its research that, in relation to band D properties, the increase in Government grant to local authorities in the north this year has been between £208 and £244, while the increase for the south has been between £135 and £183. There is thus a substantial funding gap.

What does all that mean for East Sussex, in particular? East Sussex has received the second lowest annual grant increase of all the county councils in the country. At 3.7 per cent., it compares with average increases of 6.4 per cent. in the north and 7.1 per cent. in the midlands. On a like-for-like basis, the county council's grant has increased by £10 million, which represents only 2.4 per cent. of the budget, but its costs—many of them imposed by central Government decisions—have risen by £40 million, leaving a £30 million shortfall. Owing to the gearing effect with which we are all gloomily familiar when considering council tax, a 1 per cent. increase in council spending equates to a 2.8 per cent. increase in the council tax.

The Tories took over control of the county council again only last year, but they immediately made savings of £8 million. The council tax increased by 4.9 per cent., which was the lowest increase levied by any county council in the country. They effectively cleaned house by clearing up problems with social services, education and other services. However, funding changes mean that the council has had to prepare a standstill budget for 2003–04. It has still allocated additional money for education, which is, in part, to replace the standards fund grant that the Government have withdrawn, as we have heard, and it is investing a further £3.6 million in social services.

That is happening despite the fact that, contrary to appearances, East Sussex is one of the poorest areas in the country. It also has one of the highest proportions of elderly people; for example my constituency has the fourth highest concentration of over-85s in the country. The massive burden of the enormous increase in council tax is falling on those elderly and vulnerable people who might be reliant on a state pension. The state pension has increased by just less than 3 per cent., yet those people face a 38 per cent. increase in the borough element of the council tax. That is simply unsustainable. Only a couple of weeks ago, the Government slipped out figures that show that up to 30 per cent. of people who are entitled to help with their council tax do not claim it, which shows the size of the problem.

Jim Knight

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying about Eastbourne, especially the proportion of his constituents who are aged over 85s. I trust that he issued a press release to welcome the extra £100 that over-85s received from the Budget.

Mr. Waterson

That is a bit rich coming from a Government Member, because the Chancellor has given with one hand and the Deputy Prime Minister has promptly taken away with another. There is real distress among many of my elderly constituents, who have contacted me since they realised the extent to which their council tax was increasing. Some are not quite eligible for council tax benefit, some are unaware of what they can claim, some will not claim out of a sense of pride—we have all encountered that in our constituency work—and others are simply daunted by the forms that they must fill in.

However, there is a comparator: next-door Tory-run Wealden district council, which saw the problems comings. It has had to contend with similar problems of withdrawn Government grants, but through diligent and prudent housekeeping it has managed to keep its increase down to 5 per cent. Contrast that with the 38 per cent. increase in Liberal Democrat-run Eastbourne borough council.

Mr. Hendry

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, although disappointed that he seems to be delivering most of my speech for me. Does he agree that the small council tax increase in Wealden has not been achieved by delivering poor services? Much of the work in the authority has been recognised and has received awards, especially the scheme that recycles 48 per cent. of household waste and is the most effective recycling scheme in the county.

Mr. Waterson

I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour says. The introduction of a recycling scheme was one of the excuses that the Liberals in Eastbourne put forward for the large increase, although it came very late in the day and the detail of the scheme is nothing like as admirable as that of the scheme that Tory-run Wealden has operated for a long time.

Mr. Edward Davey

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Liberal Democrats took over Eastbourne council last year?

Mr. Waterson

I think that I said that during the early part of my speech. It is a tribute to the Liberals' ineptitude that they have taken such a short time to reduce the council's finances to their current state. They inherited a perfectly sound budget from the Conservative administration and had a year in which to see what was coming. Unlike members of Wealden district council next door, they failed to cut their coat according to the cloth available. That is the charge that I continue to make against them We are left with a situation in which vulnerable and elderly people have to fund very large increases for no improvement in services and, in some cases, for reduced services.

I leave the Minister with this final thought. There has been much sabre-rattling recently in the newspapers about capping. Do hon. Members remember the leaks that revealed how the Deputy Prime Minister was so furious with non-Labour councils increasing council tax that he was seriously considering capping them? We have heard little about that in recent days. Will the Minister confirm whether any of the councils will be capped?

Mr. Tyler

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Waterson

No, I must conclude.

The powers still exist to cap councils, but perhaps even the Deputy Prime Minister does not have the brass neck to do that because he had much to do with creating the problems in the first place.

3.55 pm
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). He may not be aware of this, but at one time I would have been a constituent of his when I lived in the Seaside area of his constituency. I look forward to reminiscing with him and sharing my recollections of the region.

I shall be a little parochial. No one has mentioned this, but the motion refers to Britain, of which Wales is still a constituent part.

Shona Mclsaac (Cleethorpes)

Long may it stay that way.

Huw Irranca-Davies

Many Labour Members certainly want it to stay that way. I suspect that some Opposition Members—who are, no doubt, out campaigning hard today—do not share that sentiment and would like to cut along Offa's dyke and send us away.

Anyone perusing the Opposition motion could be excused for being a little confused. As we wade through the morass of mixed matters masquerading as a coherent motion, it is easy to sink into the gloopy mess and wonder what on earth it is all about. However, I managed to decipher the confusion of issues and recognised a shorthand version of the motion. Underneath the 170 words lies a simple plea from the Conservatives: "Please vote for us in the elections on Thursday." Conservative Members cannot actually say that—it would be too crude, too unparliamentary—but the subtext is clear. "We beg you to vote for us and everything will be so much better." But that ignores the historical reality of the years of Conservative mismanagement and misrule.

What is the real picture? The Conservatives would have the public believe that local government gets less under Labour, but the facts reveal a totally different conclusion. Local authority grants have increased by 25 per cent. in real terms since 1997. If we rewind to the four years running up to 1997, real-terms funding of local government fell by 7 per cent. Those are the simple bald facts; 1997 was a watershed, but what was so significant about it to cause such a turnaround in the financial fortunes of local government? Of course it is when Labour came to power, after 18 years of Tory attacks on local government, and started to set things right.

It is easy to forget such important events and what went on before, but if we forget the past, we live to regret the future. Do we really want 20 per cent. cuts across the board in Government spending, as whispered by the Leader of the Opposition? That is often disputed by the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues, who claim that he said no such thing, but I recall his Christmas and new year message in The Daily Telegraph on 31 December in which he stated: They are looking at the target of 20 per cent. savings across the board in government spending. That cannot be misinterpreted. It is as clear as day.

The longhand version of the motion refers to: the collapse of community services in Britain and the adverse effect on social inclusion, neighbourhood renewal, regional prosperity, and the quality of community life". When I read that propagandist nonsense, I was tempted to laugh, but inside I was crying at its bare-faced cheek in mentioning the collapse of communities. There were 3 million unemployed, with whole communities tossed to one side throughout south Wales. People were encouraged to sign on or take disability benefit. My neighbours were urged not to be so firmly rooted in their communities and were told, "Get up and get on your bike and find work". Those were the days of real community cohesion when the Government were serious about maintaining the fabric of society. Those were the days when the Tories were the party of the vulnerable. They created the vulnerable but now, in a very different context, they are themselves the party of the vulnerable.

In the motion, the Conservatives present themselves as the defenders of our communities. While I am not quite moved to laugh, I can see the joke. The English writer and humorist A.P. Herbert once remarked: There is no reason why a joke should not be appreciated more than once. Imagine how little good music there would be if, for example, a conductor refused to play Beethoven's 5th Symphony on the grounds that his audience might have heard it before". So it was a Tory joke; they would like us to hear about those years of anguish and despair again. However, I urge the Conservatives to excuse the electorate of south Wales if they choose to ignore it the second time around. We split our sides the first time we experienced the joke; a second time could prove fatal.

I shall list some of the ways in which Labour is rebuilding communities and community services. Objective 1 funding in Wales is something that the nationalists and Conservatives both said we would not, or could not, deliver. Well, we have done so. To date, £441 million has been spent, creating and safeguarding up to 6,000 jobs in Wales. By 2006, £1.2 billion of additional money will have come into Wales. I shall flesh that out, as big figures do not make a lot of sense to people on the ground; they do, however, when they result in people getting employment and real jobs.

In Maesteg, the biggest town in my constituency, director Gary Evans of G.E. Carpenter employs 14 full-time workers and 20 subcontracted carpenters. An opportunity has arisen to purchase and lease a new unit to expand the business and take on more people. To raise the extra funding, Mr. Evans needed a business plan, which was put together by Business in Focus, the local enterprise agency, with the support of a business planning grant from the economic development unit in the council, which levered in objective 1 money. That example is repeated time and time again across my constituency and the whole of south Wales. We were told that we would never deliver objective 1 funding because we did not have the political will. Well, we did. We had the ability to persuade the European Union to give money to the areas where it was most needed.

I ask the House to excuse my mention of another example that plays on my Italian family connections. Ferrari's coffee roasters is a company that invested in putting roasting production lines into its own premises so that it could supply the best coffee around to Italian cafés throughout Wales. I will recommend to the Select Committee on Catering that we have that coffee here.

The Communities First projects are another area in which Labour is pragmatically rebuilding the cohesion of our communities and getting to the heart of the most deprived communities, including some in my constituency. For example, £360,000 has been allocated for community development work in Bettws, Caerau, Llangeinor, Lewistown and Pantyrawel, which is literally down the road from where I live. For the first time in a generation, communities that had the stuffing knocked out of them are now starting to build from the bottom up, and local people are taking responsibility for turning round their communities; the only way in which that can be done properly. Again, Labour money from the National Assembly for Wales and the Government settlement, far above the Barnett formula, has enabled communities to do that.

Turning to community safety and policing, we have heard much criticism today about police numbers, and contradictory figures have been given. The simple fact is that in the South Wales police area—whatever criticisms may have been made—there are nearly 300 more police officers on the ground.

Indeed, I ask the Minister to accept a correction to the Home Office figures, which wrongly purported to show that, in the past 12 months, for the first time since 1997, the number of police officers in Wales had gone down. I know that the South Wales police chief constable has been in touch with the Government to correct those figures. I have the accurate figures, which show that, in the year to March, the number had gone up from 3,161 to 3,243. In every year since 1997, there have been more police officers in the South Wales area. They struggle to train the new recruits. When I go out with them on a Friday night to see how they are doing, the problem is the number of new recruits trained through the Aberkennfig training station and coming on board with the veterans. That is the challenge, not a lack of police.

Having sat on the Committee that considered the Police Reform Act 2002, I was disappointed to find that the South Wales police had not applied to be one of the first authorities to take on community support or community safety officers. Advanced as my community safety partnership is in Bridgend county borough council, the South Wales police had not seen fit to apply. However, it is applying this time round. I was glad to hear the reassurances from the Front Bench yesterday that most of those who missed out on the first tranche of funding, which was 100 per cent. funding for CSOs, will benefit from the new tranche of funding. I look forward to seeing those officers on the streets of my communities; thickening the blue line, as the chief constable of South Wales, Anthony Burden, has described it. He does not see the scheme as detrimental to the police force, but as something that will strengthen our community safety.

There has been much talk of sub-post offices today. Ogmore comprises three former mining valleys, and people from outside are surprised to find that we are increasingly a rural or semi-rural community. Out of 63 post offices in my constituency, 60 are rural post offices. I am particularly pleased by the Government's determination that, until 2006, there will no avoidable closures of rural post offices. I can give my constituents that certainty.

I share concerns about the modernisation of the Post Office and about turning post offices around, but that job should have been started a long time ago. The present Government are the first to tackle the question of the future of our post office network and how we develop a thriving network of post offices. The job should have been done 10, 15 or 20 years ago. We are now tackling it. In addition, there is a £2 million fund for community post office initiatives to drive forward that modernisation agenda, and £210 million for the urban reinvention programme. Furthermore, there are to be no closures in deprived communities. That contrasts starkly with the black picture conveyed by the Opposition motion and by Opposition Members today.

Community social and economic regeneration has been mentioned by Government Members. I echo the sentiment that one of the biggest factors in regenerating our communities is getting people into jobs and putting bread into their mouths. There has been a 75 per cent. reduction in youth unemployment in my constituency since 1997. That bears no resemblance to the remarks of Opposition Members. There has been a 74 per cent. reduction in long-term entrenched unemployment. Where is that reflected in the Opposition's motion?

I will make an admission to the House. Despite all the achievements that I have listed—I could go on and on—we have not got it all right. If we had, we could pack our bags and head home now. We will not do that. For the first time during my speech, I see some smiles of satisfaction from those on the Opposition Benches. We have not totally eradicated poverty, but we have gone a long way towards doing so with our reforms. Through child tax credits and working tax credits, we are targeting the money to those who most need it.

We have not completed housing renewal in every constituency across the land, but in Bridgend, for example, more than 80 per cent. voted in favour of stock transfer; putting the ownership and management of local housing into the hands of local people so that they can take it forward for their children and grandchildren. We are already seeing the benefits. That never happened previously, as local authorities never had the money. It is this Government who are rutting in place the mechanisms and structure to enable local authorities to move forward on housing.

We have not transformed every single school into a shining new edifice, but for the first time in many generations, the Labour-led Welsh Assembly has made the funding available and is working hand in hand with local councils to take our children out of Victorian piles and put them into modern, friendly and encouraging new schools, such as the brand new primary school in Ogmore vale, which has been welcomed by parents, teachers, governors and, most importantly, the pupils themselves.

Other examples include the soon-to-be built comprehensive school in Maesteg and the refurbishment of the existing English language comprehensive to allow a new Welsh medium comprehensive to be established for the first time ever in the Llynfi valley. A Labour authority is working with a Labour-led Welsh Assembly Government and using funding passed down by the Chancellor to make things better for people where it matters; in communities. That bears no relation whatever to the motion.

We have not yet given every community the confidence to contribute fully to the regeneration of its own patch but, for the first time in a generation, we have the tools and funding to do so. Instead of turning our backs on our communities and saying that the job was too difficult. Labour Members always had confidence in them. We come from and live in these communities. We talk with the people and we have always had faith that, given the opportunity, we had the ability, energy and drive to turn communities around.

There has been a hard lesson to unlearn; for 18 years, Opposition Members were complicit in grinding down the confidence of people in those very communities. It is not fanciful to say that there has been a blossoming of community activity and activism in the past few years. People up and down the Llynfi, Garw and Ogmore valleys are taking control of their futures again. With a little help from their Labour friends, they are striving to regenerate the communities, and succeeding.

That is not without peril. Success in getting funding for many of those new projects is easier to find than success in respect of core funding. I raise that issue with the Minister as I have done with my counterparts in the Welsh Assembly Government. In some areas, especially Communities First areas, it takes time to develop a sense of ownership and empowerment—that horrible word — among tenants, residents and volunteers and tangible results are less quick to appear. However, the process is working.

We have not completely solved transport problems, particularly in more remote areas where bus services or adjacent local authority transport fails to reach the parts that private transport reaches, or at least fails to do so at the times when people need to get to work. None the less, what a difference a few years make. Free local bus transport is now available to the elderly throughout Wales. We hear of people who leap on to a bus to Bridgend, take the next bus from Bridgend to Neath, travel from Neath to Aberystwyth and so on, and spend the summer traversing the whole of Wales. All credit to such people if they want to spend their time doing that.

In addition, the Welsh Assembly is consulting on extending such access to rail transport. I make a special plea for the Maesteg branch line, another case in point in considering the denuding of local services that we are accused of causing. The Maesteg branch line was kept open by the Labour local authority. Despite the negative and depressing tone of the motion, one thing for which the Welsh Assembly is constantly praised is its willingness to listen to the people whom it represents with regard to housing, transport, community safety and all aspects of local services.

I began by saying that the motion could be rewritten in shorthand as a plea from the Opposition, saying, "Please support us and forget what we did before; we are all much better now." However, it would be more convincing if it also said, "Please forgive us for our excesses, for what we visited on you over 18 years and for the legacy of those years, which will take so much time to repair." The motion does not say that; it does not say sorry because that is the hardest word to say. Sorry is the only word that the people of Wales want to hear from the Conservatives. [HON. MEMBERS: "Or goodbye] They have already virtually said goodbye in Wales. Were it not for proportional representation, that would be another story. If it would make it easier for them, they can say it in Welsh; "mae'n ddrwg gen i." That is what people want to hear.

If the newly rebranded party of the vulnerable and of community cohesion wants people to believe in it and in the substance of the motion, the denial has to stop. The first part of any treatment on the road to recovery is to admit that one has a problem; then one can move on. The motion shows a failure to recognise the problem. Conservative Members are in denial. No one can help them or save them unless they recognise that, in any debate on community services, social exclusion, neighbourhood renewal, regional prosperity or quality of life, they must first admit their historic failures. They will feel all the better for it. I suggest this to the Conservative Front-Bench team; say sorry and move on. The people of Wales are listening for your response.

4.15 Pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

I first tell the Minister that Essex people do not want to be regionalised. They are a proud people who identify closely and warmly with their local communities. They are proud to live in Essex, which is a wonderful, diverse and beautiful county with an excellent cricket team. There is no better place in Essex than Castle Point, which has the historic Hadleigh castle overlooking the magnificent Thames estuary; the Benfleet conservation area, with its 9th-century St. Mary's church; excellent ancient pubs, including the Anchor, the Half Crown and the Hoy and Helmet; Canvey island, with its wonderful, friendly people, its Dutch cottage, its heritage centre, its sea-front of such wonderful potential, its village community, and, of course, Canvey Island football team, which has had another excellent year; and Thundersley, with its woods and magnificent and valuable wildlife.

Yet those are all put at risk by this Labour Government and their policies, under which things have gone very wrong. Those policies will force the building of thousands of extra houses on our green and pleasant land, with no promise of infrastructure to support them and take the burden off our roads, schools and sewage treatment plants, and no investment in public transport or youth facilities to help to get our young people off the streets and into alternative suitable activities. Labour policies will destroy our green belt and threaten our wildlife and environment.

Labour policies threaten us with unwanted and unnecessary airport capacity in the south-east—an expansion of airport capacity that will destroy local communities. The Cliffe option now seems to be more unlikely after our Conservative-led battle against it, but it remains on the books. I ask the Minister to say a word about that to relieve local people of the burden of that threat.

Labour policies lead to the unfair distribution of lottery community funding. For instance, the eastern area of England has more than 1 million people living in poverty, many more than in the north-west, yet the north-west receives massively more financial support—it gets £8.11 per head compared with only £4.70 per head in the eastern region. The Community Fund must address that inequity.

Labour policies threaten our chemists. The Government have failed to reject the Office of Fair Trading's recommendation on removing entry controls. Labour does not seem to understand the importance of chemists in our local communities. Pharmacies are part of the very fabric of those communities — none more so than Bharat Patel's new chemist's and doctor's surgery in Benfleet, which I shall help to open on Friday. Community-based chemists can do even more to relieve the burden of general practitioners, and the Government should regulate to enable them to do that and take on a greater share of providing local primary health-care services. Chemists are not simply retailers and it is time that the Government accepted that.

Labour policies have forced council tax rises of 44 per cent. over the past four years on people in my constituency and leave us unable to fund our local schools' staffing budgets, putting education in crisis. Castle Point has excellent schools, which deserve much better than they get from the Government. Education has gone terribly wrong in the past two years.

The Government amendment states that the House welcomes this year's increased funding for education of over £2.6 billion, 11.6 per cent. extra, and more than £250 million greater than pressures". That reveals what has happened. The amendment openly states that the increase above pressures is only £250 million for the total education budget. That represents a mere 1 per cent., not the 11.6 per cent. that the Government claim to schools that they have put into education this year. Yet again, the Government have failed to deliver on a most important issue. They have failed our children, the governors, the teachers, the parents and our communities on education, as on so many other matters.

Labour policies that force council tax rises in Castle Point mean that the people have to pay some £400 a year more than they should. The council tax in Castle Point is £400 a year higher per average house than in neighbouring Southend. Yet Southend managed to provide much better services than Castle Point, where the local council cannot even keep the streets clean and safe. People experience genuine difficulties in finding the extra money that they need to pay their council tax bills. I shall encourage them to vote out the Labour administration and vote in a sound Conservative administration on Thursday.

Castle Point's Labour-controlled council has been found to be failing, not by me but by the Government, who nominated it as a failing council, especially on the key provision of social housing. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made an excellent speech that covered housing and I shall therefore not repeat the points on that subject Labour councillors in Castle Point refuse even to meet my residents who need their help on housing. They refuse to answer their phone calls or letters. Those letters are from vulnerable constituents who need help and advice.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Bob Spink

No, I shall not give way to Labour Members because they have been filibustering all afternoon.

Labour councillors in Castle Point may well reflect on their cruel attitude to vulnerable people at the election on Thursday. Conservatives would improve the organisation of social housing in Castle Point and provide more units to help the people who so much need it.

We have already heard that Labour policies will lead to the closure of 3,000 post offices and will not allow vulnerable people to make use of the universal bank account that would enable them to pay their bills through direct debit. Such denial stops vulnerable people from being able to take advantage of the discounts that they could get on their utility bills through using direct debit. That is another cruel attitude of a cruel and failing Government.

The Government do not care for the environment, our wildlife or our communities. They certainly do not care for vulnerable people. They have presided over the breakdown of local communities, where people must pay more but get less. The Government, like Labour councillors, should be shown the door as soon as possible.

4.24 pm
Jim Knight (South Dorset)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), even though I disagreed with virtually every word that he had to say. It is an even greater pleasure to speak against the main motion and for the amendment tabled in the name of the Prime Minister. I welcome this debate on the impact of Government policies on community services, because it gives me a fine opportunity to inform the House of their impact on my constituency. I remind the House that it is the most marginal Labour constituency and that it decides the fate of the Tory leadership. I have a poster in my office from the Dorset Evening Echo from the day of the last general election, which reads: Labour gains South Dorset—Hague quits". I would assume that, were we to hang on to South Dorset next time, the current leader—if he is still in his post at the time—would have to do the same.

South Dorset is a seat with an 'urban and rural mix, with about 75 per cent. of its population in the borough of Weymouth and Portland and about 25 per cent. in the remaining rural area. As I mentioned in an intervention, the Conservatives see fit to contest only five out of 12 seats in the borough. Indeed, they do not care enough about the island of Portland to contest any of the wards there.

To illustrate the impact of Government policies on community services, I would like to start my brief tour of my constituency in Swanage. It is a town of about 10,000 people on the coast of the Isle of Purbeck. Many people will have visited it on geography field trips in their youth. It has gained from a new day surgery unit at the cottage hospital and a new science block at Swanage middle school, and, despite Dorset constabulary having more police officers than ever before, it has also gained from having neighbourhood wardens. I went out on patrol with the wardens last month and saw for myself the effect that they are having on providing reassurance against what the Opposition spokesman described as the crippling effect of the fear of crime. The level of crime in Swanage is not very high at all— in fact, Dorset is the fourth safest place to live in the country— but the fear of crime is real, and the neighbourhood wardens in Swanage are doing a fantastic job in reassuring the public.

I move from Swanage to Weymouth via the village of Church Knowle. I visited it just the other day and met the chairman and the clerk of the parish council there. They told me that, out of the 150 homes in the parish, only three remain as social housing. They decried the effect of the right to buy introduced by the Tories, and I have no doubt that they would be equally opposed to the effect of the Tory policy—about which we have heard nothing today—of extending the right to buy to housing association tenants. Those three homes that remain in Church Knowle are all housing association homes, and, under that Conservative policy, they would go the same way, contributing to the 13 per cent. second home ownership in that ward that represents a stark contrast to the level of social housing there. We need to see those figures turned around.

Mr. Tyler

I completely concur with the point that the hon. Gentleman is making about the right to buy, from which my constituency of North Cornwall has suffered grievously. That Conservative policy resulted in a large amount of our housing going not just out of the local affordable housing stock but into second homes in the long term. Does he agree that, if we are to prevent the further attrition and haemorrhaging of social housing, this must now be tackled as a serious issue, along with the issue of second homes?

Jim Knight

Yes, I agree with that. There are some parts of the country—and certainly parts of Dorset, such as the Purbeck area—in which it is difficult to find sizeable pockets of land on which it is appropriate to build new units of housing. In those areas, if not in others, we should certainly seriously consider ending the right to buy for council tenants. The transfer of the ownership of the social housing under Purbeck district council's control is likely to go ahead in the next year, in which case that would become academic, so long as we did not have a return to a Conservative Government who would extend the right to buy to housing association tenants.

I shall move on from Church Knowle, via the world heritage coast, which received its designation from UNESCO in December 2001.

Mr. Cameron


Jim Knight

I am very happy to give way on the issue of the world heritage coast.

Mr. Cameron

I would like the hon. Gentleman to clarify the point about ending the right to buy for existing council tenants. Is he saying that he would like it ended for existing council tenants completely, or would he just like an end to the discounts? Would he actually take away the right of someone to buy their own council home?

Jim Knight

We should seriously consider ensuring that all capital receipts are reinvested in social housing, and ending the discount and possibly the right to buy in certain areas. We should not end the right to buy across the board, but only in areas where there is an acute shortage of affordable housing and a shortage of appropriate land on which to build such new housing.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is looking after the UNESCO world heritage coast designation. We are confident that we can develop that with the Department and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the maximum benefit of our tourism industry, which is the main employer in my constituency.

We could stop off at Stoborough village, where the school has for years been campaigning for a hall, and in the past couple of months its new school hall has been opened. On to Wool and Bovington, where we have mini sure start programmes. Sure start is a phenomenon not just in urban areas. In the rural area of Wool and Bovington we have seen the great benefit of building the capacity within communities to help themselves and to bring up their youngest children in a positive way. It is the most disadvantaged rural area in my constituency.

We could go via Crossways, which is finally getting a new school. The population of 3,000 have been campaigning for years to have a school in their area so that their children do not have to be bussed all the way to Owermoigne. Thanks to a decision by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, that community is to get its new school.

We then find ourselves in Weymouth, whose acute health service is delivered by the West Dorset General Hospitals NHS Trust. More than 95 per cent. of in-patients, and 85 per cent. of out-patients are seen within six months. Those are the best results in the country. Weymouth college now has a new site with new buildings thanks to the multi-million pound Government grant that was made before the last general election.

All the schools in my constituency have had some benefit from the Government. Just last week, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills visited my constituency and I arranged for head teachers to meet him. We talked about the problems, and there is no doubt that problems remain with which we still have to deal. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who referred to all the great work that has been done and all the challenges that we still face.

Those head teachers talked about the great benefit of initiatives such as the national grid for learning, which has resulted in the roll-out of information technology in our classrooms. Just over five years ago, they were struggling to get the cash together to buy one Acorn computer, whereas now they have classrooms full of personal computers. We have the new block at All Saints school and the new sports hall at Budmouth technology college. I could go on. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Henderson) reminds me to mention class sizes, which for five, six and seven-year-olds have gone below 30.

Chris Grayling

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this year almost 100 teacher redundancies have been proposed in Bournemouth, Poole and the rest of Dorset as a result of the funding crisis affecting schools. How does he square that with the rosy picture that he has just painted?

Jim Knight

When those head teachers met the Secretary of State for Education and Skills last week, they did not talk about any teacher redundancies. There was no prospect of teacher redundancies that they wanted to discuss. We talked about the fact that Dorset local education authority has £3 million that has still not been allocated for this year. There is a problem of lack of communication between the LEA and schools, and perhaps between the Department and the LEA. Once people understand the full picture, much of the scaremongering from the Conservative party will be answered and the threat of redundancies will vanish, and it will be yet another Tory myth in the run-up to the local elections.

Mr. Goodman

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Jim Knight

No, I have given way enough for the time being. If I have a little more time, I will give way later, but I have been asked to keep my comments brief. I want to talk about the new CCTV system that I saw operating in Weymouth town centre. It is being used to reduce antisocial behaviour as people spill out of the pubs and clubs on Friday and Saturday nights. I accompanied the Dorset police a few weeks ago between 1 am and 3 am on a Saturday morning to witness such behaviour. They told me that they would be on top of the crime problem in our area were it not for heroin and alcohol abuse. I am glad to note that the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill will come down hard on such things as crack houses. I am a member of the Standing Committee considering the Licensing Bill, and indeed I would be there now if I did not have to address the House instead. What a shame.

On Portland, we are benefiting from sure start as part of the Weymouth scheme, in the Underhill ward. It enables parents to give young people a much better start. A new hospital is being built on Portland. In Royal Manor we see the benefits of summer schools, improving standards among the poorest-performing pupils. That school has just gained arts status, and is due to gain a new theatre. I could go on and on about the tangible benefits in my constituency, but many others wish to entertain us with their own stories of the Government's successful impact on our community services.

Not everything is perfect. Many Members will know that I am not delighted with the new local government settlement. There is, I think, a problem with the formula: Dorset, for instance, has the same average wage level as County Durham, but roughly the same house prices as the neighbouring counties of Wiltshire and Devon. That anomaly has not been addressed.

I must ask what things would be like if the Tories were back. The Tories closed the naval base on Portland, dealing the biggest blow to my area for a generation. Only last month, by virtue of their control of both Purbeck district council and Dorset county council, they cut the last public transport left in Swanage: after 6 pm it is impossible to go anywhere on public transport. It is impossible to go to Wareham, for example. The town has been cut off from the secondary school and all its after-school activities; it has been deprived of access to democracy, in that it is not possible to attend council meetings in Wareham; it has been cut off from the leisure centre. Those have been the actions of Tory councils in my area, and I dread to think what would happen there if the Tories were allowed to return to government and cut funding by 20 per cent.

The effects would be catastrophic. Class sizes would be above 30 again, the number of neighbourhood wardens would be cut, there would be further increases in car parking and harbour charges, there would be more cuts in bus services, housing association homes would be sold through the Tories' disastrous right-to-buy policy, waiting times would amount to over a year again, and we would see a return to double-figure unemployment as the public sector—the largest employer in my constituency—reverted to the decline that it enjoyed under the last Tory Government.

This Labour Government's record speaks for itself in my community. Under the Tories, the record would be a disaster. I urge the House to vote against the motion, and for the amendment.

4.37 pm
Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden)

It seems to be almost obligatory in this debate to begin by saying how pleased one is to follow whoever has just spoken, even if one disagrees with everything that that person said. I am happy to follow the tradition. Bizarrely, the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) was the only Labour Member who did not say he would speak briefly and the only one who did. I suppose we have learnt that we should be wary of Labour Members who say they will be brief.

I am glad that the motion is so wide-ranging, because it provides an effective summary of what is going wrong in communities throughout the country. The Minister, however, treated us to an extraordinary speech. I realise that it was not written for him, but for the Deputy Prime Minister: we know that because it Featured short words and simple sentences, and the Minister is a very clever man. As the Minister is aware, I have had a high regard for him for many years, since the days when we used to discuss housing matters. I think he was probably one of the best- qualified people ever to enter his current job. I hope that I am not ruining his career by talking about him in this way. The most extraordinary aspect of his speech, however, was its demonstration of the extent to which the Government are entering a state of denial. It spoke of a world that simply does not exist out there.

Ministers are starting to believe what they want to believe. They are going to places and listening to people who will tell them what they want to hear. They are no longer living in this country as it actually exists. The reality that I am finding is that the people working in our public services—be it in local government, education, the health service, policing or the fire service—are more demoralised than I have ever known them to be. Although some teachers will say that they recognise that more money is being put into education, they are so frustrated by the form-filling and bureaucracy, and by their belief that this Government are simply not taking account of their concerns and their anxiety about public services going wrong, that an increasing number are talking about leaving the profession.

Many of us are spending a lot of time on doorsteps at the moment, and the main issue that is emerging is the council tax. People's real concern is not just the level of increase; many do not see how they can pay the council tax at all. I do not know how to explain to a pensioner whose pension is going up by 2 per cent. plus a little bit that they will have to face an 18 per cent. increase in their council tax. In East Sussex, the level of belief that this is the responsibility of the council, rather than the Government, is negligible. People on doorstep after doorstep are saying that they know that this is happening because the Government are transferring resources from East Sussex and the south-east to the midlands and the north. They see that decision as one example among others taken by a Government who have turned their back on the south-east and the home counties, and who are happy to let those people down.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

The council tax is also a problem in my constituency. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the real problem is the gearing of the council tax system, which replaced the old poll tax? As a result, councils are left in the unfortunate position of having to make these increases, or of having to cut the essential services that we are debating today.

Mr. Hendry

Gearing undoubtedly plays a major part: if we lose 1 per cent. of Government funding, the council tax has to go up by nearly 3 per cent. to compensate. But the fundamental problem for East Sussex is that we are £30 million short this year as a result of the extra responsibilities that councils are required to carry out. The amount of money that the Government have provided simply does not make up for that shortfall. That is the biggest reason why we face these difficulties.

Ministers have shown a breathtaking complacency in respect of this issue. Perhaps they simply do not recognise the implications of the decisions that they have taken. Even though it may be too late to think again for this year, I hope that, as a result of speeches such as this, of articles in local newspaper—they are often written by the editors, and not just by people with a particular political perspective—and of petitions such as the one that I shall present this week, which includes the names of more than 1,000 of my constituents who are desperately worried about the council tax, Ministers will be prepared to think again for next year.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North)

Can the hon. Gentleman explain to me why council tax levels in areas such as his own are often less than those in some of the most deprived areas—areas that he believes the Government have transferred resources to?

Mr. Hendry

What one finds is that Conservative councils cost people less. What we need to do is to compare band D houses, rather than follow the Minister's spurious argument, and consider average properties. In inner-city areas, which are Labour-run, the average property is in a lower council tax band, so the argument is spurious. On comparing band D with band D, we find that Conservative councils cost people less than Labour ones, and Labour councils cost people less than Liberal Democrat ones. So the solution for those who want a lower council tax, in spite of this year's appalling settlement, is to have a Conservative-controlled local authority.

We in East Sussex have the third lowest gross domestic product in the country. When Labour Members hear that, they often laugh because they find it implausible, and many people say, "East Sussex must be full of rich people because the houses are expensive". However, the reality is that many of them bought their homes 20 or 30 years ago, when prices were much lower.

They own houses of significant value, but they do not necessarily have high incomes. And there are huge problems for people seeking to buy a home in the community in which they have grown up, and for those who need to move to a particular community because their work requires them to be there.

This year's Government funding formula for the council tax simply does not take account of the degree of social need in East Sussex, or even of the higher cost of delivering services. Delivering the same services in my constituency as those in the constituency of the hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) means that people have to be paid more, because their mortgages are higher and the cost of living is higher. To take just one example, the south-east has to pay more for a residential care home worker than in other parts of the country because the cost of living is that much higher, but the council tax formula does not take account of that need. I plead with the Minister to review the system again this year so that we can have a fairer system next year.

The only good fortune for my constituents in East Sussex is that they do not live in Eastbourne. Wealden has had a 5 per cent. increase in council tax, but in Eastbourne, after just one year of Liberal Democrat control and virtually no new services to show for it, council tax is going up by 38 per cent.

Mr. Edward Davey

Can the hon. Gentleman explain why it is the Government's fault in one district council area and the local council's fault in another?

Mr. Hendry

Because the formula for both Eastbourne and Wealden is the same. Conservative-controlled Wealden managed to introduce a council tax increase of 5.1 per cent. and Liberal Democrat-controlled Eastbourne introduced an increase of 38 per cent. It does not take a mathematician to work out where the blame lies because both councils received the same treatment from the Government.

The Government have neglected the south-east not just in respect of council tax. Another example is housing. The current system is crazy because it allows the Deputy Prime Minister, who has never even tried to squeeze his Jaguar down the narrow lanes of East Sussex, to decide how many new houses we will be obliged by law to build in the region. That decision filters down from the region, through the counties to the districts. We simply cannot accommodate the additional number of houses required of us in Wealden without massive damage to our infrastructure.

A town such as Uckfield is to have 500 new houses built, which will change the nature of the town for ever. The only access to the development is by a road in a residential area that is already over-used and overcrowded. Furthermore, no additional primary school is being proposed for that particular development, even though many of the other primary schools are full. No more additional health services are proposed, although doctors' waiting lists are already at capacity. The train service is one of the worst in the country —Uckfield is only 45 minutes from London, but it takes an hour and a half by train. Judged in terms of travelling times, Uckfield is further away from London than Doncaster or Bristol. Despite the appalling lack of investment in our infrastructure, we are being forced to accept the building of many more houses.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) about the need for additional low-cost housing. I mentioned earlier the urgent problems faced by people moving into the area and those who want to stay in the area where they grew up. That is particularly difficult for people working in education, health, the police and the fire service. Many people simply cannot afford to live near the places where they work, but in the case of the fire service, they clearly have to. Firefighters in my area often live in small flats in the town centre, often above shops, whereas in many other parts of the country they can live much more comfortably on their higher salaries. Although we need additional affordable housing, we certainly do not need thousands and thousands of five-bedroom executive houses. From now on, however, the local authority will be unable to determine what sort of houses should be built. Once again, we are on the receiving end of the Government's damaging decisions.

We should make better use of housing stock that is already available and make greater use of empty properties and of properties where a single elderly person, often on income support, cannot afford to cover the cost of living expenses. We should help them to live in greater comfort by subdividing their homes and providing them with an income. While making better use of existing housing stock, we should at the same time encourage greater regeneration of the north and the midlands, so that it becomes natural for people to look for work in those areas.

Shona McIsaac

What does the hon. Gentleman mean when he talks about subdividing pensioners' homes? Would it be done in the private or the public sector? Chucking grannies out of their homes to subdivide them does not sound much like a popular caring policy.

Mr. Hendry

I shall give the hon. Lady a very clear example. A while ago, I visited an old lady in her 80s, who has since died. She had no mortgage on the home in which she lived for more than 50 years, since she got married. She could not afford to heat her home. She lived on income support, and had no income other than her state pension and additional benefits. She was living in severe hardship.

To me, it made much more sense for a housing association to work in conjunction with that elderly lady to enable her to live in a downstairs flat in her property, and to turn the upstairs into a self-contained flat. A suitable tenant—that is, not someone playing the drums until 3 o'clock in the morning—would have enabled her to continue to live in her family home. She would have derived an income from the person upstairs and been able therefore to live in much greater comfort. With a bit of forward planning and joined-up thinking by the Government, the cost of the scheme could have been regained from the lady's estate when she died.

We are not forcing people out of their homes. We are enabling people to live with greater dignity in their homes in a more appropriate way than is possible for many at the moment.

Shona McIsaac

I am intrigued by the idea, as I still do not see how it can assist elderly people. Of course, it is possible for people with large houses worth a lot of money on which the mortgage has been paid off to benefit from existing financial schemes. Such schemes realise equity and capital from properties to enable people to live in more comfort. However, I am very concerned that the hon. Gentleman says that the Government should be involved in that. It still sounds to me as though the hon. Gentleman would force elderly people in large properties out of their homes.

Mr. Hendry

I suggest that the hon. Lady speak to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies). He has been nodding in agreement with me and saying, "Hear, hear." When the hon. Lady looks at the matter in more detail and reads about it in Hansard, it will become clear that no compulsion is involved in what I have described. It is a way to make greater use of existing housing stock without building on greenfield sites. It will also enable many people living in severe hardship to live in greater comfort in their own homes.

The third matter on which I want to touch is the crisis in farming and in our rural communities in general. For too long, the Government have turned a blind eye to the plight of the farming community and to the knock-on effects being felt in rural communities. The Government seem incapable of making even key decisions that affect the farming community. For example, a new regime covering the disposal of carcases from farms comes into force on Thursday, but farmers have yet to be told how the system is going to work. There is no way for the new scheme to be operational in the two days remaining, and farmers are extraordinarily worried about how it will operate.

Increasingly, farms in my constituency are closing down, and the knock-on effects on other elements in the community are evident, with post offices, shops, village garages and pubs all closing. The whole fabric of rural communities is being undermined by the Government. There has also been a rise in rural crime, and people feel that their fears about crime are not being addressed. Home Office figures show that police numbers in Sussex are at last rising above the level inherited by this Government six years ago, and it has taken the Government six years to get them up to that level. However, the growing population in Sussex means that there has been a dramatic drop in the ratio between police and population.

In 1997, when the Conservative Government left office, there was one police officer for every 474 members of the public. In 2002, there was one officer for every 510 members of the public. That shows that police coverage is getting worse all the time.

In so many areas, Government policies are diminishing and worsening community life. The Government have shown that they are turning their back on the south-east and the home counties. They do not truly care about the problems that people in those areas face. The Government's policies hit all parts of the country, but nowhere worse than the south-east.

We are finding now that people who were willing to give the Government a fair wind and a second chance at the last election now feel betrayed and let down. That is turning into real anger towards the Government. One used to find people who said, "I voted Labour in '97 and I'll vote for them again at the next election." However, it is much harder now to find people who admit to voting Labour, because they feel so betrayed, on so many fronts.

I welcome the Opposition motion today. I hope that Labour Members will not merely sweep aside the concerns that it expresses, and that they will listen to what is said about them. I hope that they will begin to act on them, rather than just pretending—as is not the case—that the world that they see is the only world that exists.

4.54 pm
Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry), and, as he noted, I sympathise with his points about more efficient use of limited housing resources, releasing equity and enabling people to continue in their own homes.

When I tried to intervene on the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) regarding the fairness of funding formulae, he failed to let me let him know that his grant settlement reached the ceiling of 12.5 per cent. and that I do not understand why he had such a massive problem with that when my settlement in Croydon was on the floor, at 3.5 per cent.

Two separate debates are occurring. One is about global funding and the other about distributional impacts. On global funding, the Government have clearly been enormously generous over the years and local government investment has gone up by about 25 per cent. in real terms since 1997. In Croydon, for example, schools funding has been increased by more than 30 per cent., which translates into 550 extra teachers and teaching assistants. The Chancellor mentioned in the Budget that we can look forward to an extra £15 billion for education, £1 billion for housing and £5 billion for transport by 2006, as well as an extra £40 billion for health by 2008. There will be £61 billion extra overall for public services by 2006. We must all recognise that, globally, more money is being invested. Anyone who compares that with the 20 per cent. cut idea will see that there is no choice to be made: it is Labour all the way. Only last year, Croydon had an extra 227 nurses and 76 police officers as well as the teachers and teaching assistants that I have mentioned.

That said, this year's formula has been controversial. From the perspective of Croydon and London, I am aware of commentaries by such people as Professor Robert Elliot of Aberdeen university and Professor Andrew Oswald of Warwick university who have focused on the fact that costs are higher in London and the south-east. The cost of housing is 80 per cent. higher in London. Private sector wages are about 40 per cent. higher in London— more specifically, they are 50 per cent. higher in inner London and 25 per cent. higher in outer London. In cases of competition between the private and public sectors for workers, it is obvious that if the private sector pays the market rate and the public sector does not, there will be a recruitment problem in the public sector.

In the specific case of teachers in outer London, there is a mark-up of £2,043, or 11 per cent. That is not completely unreasonable, but as that teacher becomes a middle-ranking and then a head teacher, the cash amount—it is not a percentage—becomes a smaller and smaller proportion. Young teachers come to Croydon to train, but when they want a family and a family home, they move away, and they do not come back. The only way to recruit, say, a deputy head teacher in London is to employ a teacher already in London. People do not leave London, then come back. That raises issues of quality. What has happened is that we have, imaginatively, brought in more foreign students from Australia, New Zealand and other places to fill places.

Mr. Watts

My hon. Friend says that there has been some change in council grants this year, and that is undoubtedly so. Does he accept that south-east councils have historically enjoyed higher rates of grant than those in, for example, the north-west, and that they have, as a consequence, had much lower council tax? This year's settlement only moves us back to a fairer system.

Geraint Davies

No, I do not accept that. When economists consider the actual costs of delivering services in the south and the north, they find that the number of public service recruits is much higher in the north. If we consider the wages of standardised private and public workers in the south, we find that the private sector worker gets paid much more. In the north, the public sector worker is paid more.

Council tax comparisons are usually based on a standardised band D household, but in fact the valuation differences between south and north mean that there are many more band D houses in the south. People in the south and in London are paying more per head than people in the north, and there is a migration of funds to the north.

Mr. Watts

Will my hon. Friend accept that the failure to revalue properties has meant that there has been a drift of resources from the north to the south?

Geraint Davies

No. I have forgotten the latest figures, but certainly more than 10 billion is moving in the other direction.

Chris Grayling


Geraint Davies

I shall not give way again, especially as I know that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me, and that would be outrageous.

Unfortunately, for various reasons to do with supply and demand, housing costs in London have been subject to wider movement than those in north, while the opposite is true of the formulae. There are always questions about methodology when we debate such issues. Does one use housing? Does one use wages? How should one use wages?

In London, there is great wage disparity between the 11 boroughs with a floor of 3.5 per cent. and the seven with a floor of 8 per cent. The reason for the differential is that areas of London with higher than average public and private wages are clustered together and receive more, while those where public and private wages are lower than average receive less. The cost of employing a teacher, a dustbin-person or any other public servant is broadly the same throughout London, and does not reflect the private sector pay differentials that are necessary in different parts of the city. That is the driving force for the big disparities that cause specific problems in London.

On the pay differences between London and the regions, it is worth pointing out that a 40 per cent. increase for firefighters sounds—and is—wholly unreasonable. However, it is not completely ridiculous for firefighters in London, although it might be if they were based in Cardiff—where I come from. If everyone were given a 16 per cent. increase, it might not be enough for a London person, yet it would be more than was needed elsewhere. That is why I was pleased that, to encourage full employment in all regions, the Chancellor mentioned the need for a sensible balance between public and private sector pay and conditions. I look forward to the continuation of that debate.

When people are asked about their own experience of education, hospitals and so on, they say that it is marvellous and that it is improving under Labour. However, when they read the papers, they think that their experience must be exceptional because things are not always as rosy elsewhere. The reason for that is that journalists live in London where there are special pressures on the health service—due partly to immigration and partly to cost—and on the education and transport systems. Although it is difficult, we need to get the balance right.

The interventions from my hon. Friend show that such matters are controversial. However, the answer is to listen to what people say and to respond. There are distributional issues both within London and between London and other regions, and we need to reflect those dynamics.

I am glad about the extra resources that have been provided in Croydon over many years. They have given us more police officers, more nurses, more teachers and rising standards. I appreciate the fact that the Government have responded to the short-term budgetary problems in Croydon schools, which were partly brought about by the exceptional increases in the cost of superannuation. I am pleased that the Government have taken those problems seriously and have provided an extra £1.3 million for education. The local council has just announced an extra £500,000.

There are still issues. We need to be reassured that next year will be the same as last year and that we shall continue to make progress on the standards of excellence that we have grown used to since the election of a Labour council in Croydon— a council that I was proud to lead at one point. With that, I conclude my speech.

5.4 pm

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon)

Of the many promises that Labour has failed to deliver since coming to power, one of the most important was its pledge to deliver joined-up government. The creation of the Deputy Prime Minister's super-Department was more symbolic of that aspiration than any other Department, just as he became symbolic of its failure when his Department was subsequently dismantled. His new Department has continued to fail in much the same manner, and the people of my county of Cambridgeshire know only too well about the failure of joined-up government.

It is the Deputy Prime Minister's Department that has forced the Cambridgeshire sub-region to build 4,500 new houses in Cambridgeshire, each year, every year, for the next 15 years—some 67,500 houses in total. That is a massive increase in an area where the local infrastructure is already massively overstretched: in some areas, almost to bursting point. We know that ours is one of the fastest-growing regions with one of the fastest-growing business sectors in the country. We also appreciate and are acting on the need to build more affordable housing, although in that regard I now understand that the Government have just threatened to scrap their grants for affordable housing.

What we note, however, is the lack of joined-up thinking in the process directed from Whitehall. Is the house-building diktat coming out of Whitehall being matched by proportionate increases in funding for Cambridgeshire's local schools, many of which are short of hundreds of thousands of pounds this year, for our police, for our transport infrastructure, for our social services, for our flood defences, for our rural support schemes and for our suffering local post offices, several of which have closed in my constituency in recent months? Of course not. Why? It is because the Government are simply not delivering.

In view of that failure, I am sure that my constituents would not be surprised to hear that the Select Committee recently reported a loss of coherence between transport, planning, housing, regeneration and environment policy". Why has the Department failed to co-ordinate and cooperate properly with other Departments? Does it not realise that mass house building on flood plains in my constituency, which is the flattest part of the country, without co-ordinating with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to build up flood defences, is bound to increase the misery of thousands of my constituents who spend six months a year, every year, in daily fear of being deluged? Flood defences are very expensive, so perhaps the lack of joined-up thinking is related to the real cost of doing things properly.

Furthermore, we continue to see people moving to houses in southern areas such as mine from perfectly good habitable homes in the north. The Government are allowing the bulldozing of thousands of homes in the north, as they simultaneously command the concreting over of thousands of acres in the south, despite house prices remaining significantly lower in the north than in London and the south-east. That may say something for this Government's acceptance of people's desire to move to attractive, high-employment areas in the south, but it says little for their idea of joined-up thinking or effective regional policy. The fact remains that the north-south divide under Labour, because of Labour, is growing.

I now hear that even more homes are being planned for our green fields in the Cambridge-Stansted region at a time when the planning application for my constituency's largest brownfield development site, Alconbury airfield, has lain on the Deputy Prime Minister's desk for well over a year as he prevaricates about what to do with it. One use could be as an airport, which would be bigger than Luton's. Again, the consultation processes show a massive lack of joined-up thinking. The south-east regional airport study consultation document contains no thought as to the transport implications, no thought as to the housing implications, no thought as to the town planning implications for my constituency, and no thought for the pollution, particularly the noise pollution—let me add that the consultation document does not even give figures for noise pollution, and although the development would involve three quarters night-flying from the airport, noise at night is not even mentioned. When one sees all that, one has to wonder: does Labour not care or is it incompetent? I currently think: a mixture of both.

What do people in the south get as thanks for their relative success? The answer is: massive increases in council tax charges as a result of the Government's fiddled local government finance settlement, with 60 per cent. increases since 1997 and a shift of funding to the metropolitan boroughs to subsidise the failure of high-taxing, low-achieving Labour and Liberal councils. Conservatives have known for years that our councils charge lower rates and produce better results, and the recent Audit Commission report proves it.

Rather than investing in a better future for the north of this country through general taxation, the Government seem to believe that punishing southerners through swingeing council tax increases is the best way forward. It is not, and I suggest to them that they look to solve the problems of the north rather than pulling down the south.

Perhaps one of the most damaging impacts of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has been the erosion of local democracy and the proposals to introduce regional assemblies via the backdoor. Of the 552,655 residents of Cambridgeshire, only 48 responded to the public consultation on the issue—a response of less than 0.01 per cent.—and, presumably, not all of them were in favour of the proposal. I understand that that is broadly representative of the national figure of 5,500 responses out of 60 million people. For Labour then to claim that there is a public desire for regional assemblies is absolute nonsense. Should we not be surprised that this Government, who have so ably ensured that we do not have joined-up government, are trying to ensure that we do not have a joined-up Britain as well?

When the Deputy Prime Minister has a go at joined-up government, he gets it completely wrong. A series of centrally imposed Whitehall regional initiatives have utterly failed and, even according to the departmental Select Committee, they may have contributed to the tensions between communities in the north of England that resulted in the disturbances in 2001 in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham". [Interruption.] It is a Labour-dominated Select Committee. When will the Government realise that what the country needs is not Whitehall-imposed nanny projects, but freedom to choose at a local level?

The Government want to do away with local choice and local government. Parish councils, which are so influential in my constituency, have been attacked relentlessly by this Government. The barmy new code of conduct and a host of other new regulations have led to more than 20 parish councillors resigning in my constituency alone.

Shona McIsaac

The hon. Gentleman says that he is concerned about local democracy and accountability, but can he tell us how many parish councils there are in his constituency and how recently they actually held elections? In my constituency, most parish councils simply co-opt.

Mr. Djanogly

The vast majority of parish councils in my constituency hold elections, but I can tell the hon. Lady an unfortunate fact. This year, they are holding fewer elections because fewer people have come forward. Parish councillors are not only resigning, but the Government's policies have caused people not to want to join parish councils. I remind her that parish councillors are unpaid volunteers. They do very much hard work on behalf of their local communities and not on behalf of Whitehall. That is probably why the Government are persecuting them.

Conservatives prefer to trust local people to run their local affairs. I am confident that the electorate will realise that over the next few days.

5.14 pm
Tony Cunningham (Workington)

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) was brief and I shall be brief too, because I realise that many Members wish to speak.

The motion covers a host of issues. I am sure that, if yesterday's edition of The Guardian had been produced two or three days earlier, the motion would have included the words "My cat died under a Labour Government." Just about everything else is in it.

I want to talk about some of the issues that have been raised with me on the doorstep because, like many hon. Members, I have been knocking on doors and talking to people. Education is obviously a high priority, and we must accept that there are worries, issues and pressures. I taught for 17 years and I can say openly that many teachers want a period of stability, as do I. When I visited a local primary school recently, its headmistress told me that up until five or six years ago her only extra resources were sets of felt-tip pens in clear envelopes. She took me around the school's new computers and the nursery that had been built and said, "We have eight teachers, but now we also have nine classroom assistants." That is making a huge difference to education.

I have talked to the head teachers of my local secondary schools and only a couple of weeks ago I was guest speaker at a secondary school in my constituency. The head teachers tell me that, as a result of the Government's literacy and numeracy initiatives, the quality of year 7 pupils is higher than they have ever known. Specialist schools in Cockermouth, Keswick, Workington and Maryport have huge amounts of resources: new classrooms, nurseries and libraries—I could go on and on. However, I have heard one criticism: someone rang my office about a new all-weather sports development complaining that they could not use it at all because it had been booked up from the beginning to the end of the day. I think that that represents a huge success.

I listened to Conservative Members and they are absolutely right that there is a lot of unhappiness about council tax rises. I have knocked on doors and talked to pensioners in Cumbria, and they are unhappy. Cumbria county council received a huge 9 per cent. increase to its Government grant, yet it put up its council tax by about 12 per cent. One thing really sticks in the throats of my constituents: the council's chief executive and senior officers gave themselves a 23 per cent. pay increase. I was also amazed that they spent £3 million on consultants to tell them what they should do, although they had just received a 23 per cent. pay increase. What sort of council is that? Hon. Members might be surprised to hear that it is Conservative controlled, but that is only because a few Liberal Democrats sit in coalition with the Conservatives. Voters will not forgive the Liberal Democrats because they campaigned during the last election saying, "Vote for us; we are the radical alternative to Labour." Within three days, they were in coalition with the Conservatives, yet they expect people to vote for them.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

I am interested to hear that comment. Would my hon. Friend be surprised to hear that when Liberal Democrat activists campaign in what would otherwise be Tory areas in the east midlands, their line is, "Vote for us; we are the reactionary alternative to the Tories"?

Tony Cunningham

That comes as no surprise to me, because wherever Liberal Democrats are, they knock on doors and ask, "What do you want?" Whatever answer they hear, they say that they can provide it. When people get to know Liberal Democrat-run councils, they realise that the opposite is true.

There is no doubt that there is a fear of crime, although that was not helped by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) going on about the problems associated with it. I tell him that Cumbria has the lowest crime rate in the United Kingdom. We have more police officers than ever, and a new pilot scheme in Workington that pays special constables to patrol the streets is working well. That has resulted in an extra 80 hours of police time on the streets of Workington, which the electorate greatly appreciate.

One matter that I have raised before has destroyed communities and continues to do so: unemployment. It is not mentioned in the motion, but in the 1980s and 1990s unemployment destroyed more communities in mining and steel areas than anything else. In my constituency, the unemployment rate is 3.8 per cent, the lowest that it has ever been. Workington is a small town with a population of fewer than 30,000. Since 1997, we have had a brand new bypass, two brand new roundabouts, a brand new police station, a brand new further education college, a brand new town centre and, in the next few weeks, a brand new hospital is about to be built. That is not bad For a small town with fewer than 30,000 people. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Dale Campbell-Savours got it all."] I pay tribute to my predecessor, who did a fantastic job.

Thanks to a recent announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister, west Cumbria has an urban regeneration company, which is marvellous news.

However, when we talk about communities we are not just talking about jobs. People think that it is about jobs and the amount of money that goes into the economy, but when people do not have a job and have to move out of an area, they take more than their money and skills with them. Many of those made unemployed were parish councillors, members of rotary or sporting clubs, or active in charity work. They made a difference to their communities but, as a result of unemployment, they are no longer able to do so.

We still have communities in west Cumbria, and we are proud of that. I recently launched three parish plans for Bridekirk, Gilcrux and Broughton in my constituency. There was a consultation, and more than 80 per cent. of people in those villages responded by contributing to the village plan in which they are interested and want to be involved. The First Responders, a first aid group, was launched in many small villages in west Cumbria. Its members are the first on the scene of an accident, even before the paramedics. People are helping others in their community by working at carnivals and lots of other events. There are therefore still real communities in my constituency.

One thing comes across loud and clear when I knock on people's doors. They say that there are still issues and problems. but they genuinely believe that things are improving in education, health, crime and everything else. However, there is a clear message on the doorstep: God forbid that we should ever return to the desperately dark days of Tory government.

5.22 pm
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury)

I have listened with great interest to the contributions of right hon. and hon. Members this afternoon. I was particularly interested in the contributions of the hon. Members for South Dorset (Jim Knight), for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and for Workington (Tony Cunningham), who painted a picture of life in this country which, after weeks of knocking on doors during the election campaign, bears little resemblance to the situation on the ground in west Wiltshire.

One of our chief concerns in west Wiltshire is the threatened imminent closure of Trowbridge magistrates court. Most hon. Members would agree that one of the chief concerns of people whom we have canvassed is the fear of crime. Recently, a police officer told me that it is difficult to get witnesses and, indeed, perpetrators of crime to turn up at court at all. It the courthouse moves several miles to Chippenham, there will be no chance whatever of their doing so. I am sure that most hon. Members agree that it is important that justice is seen to be dispensed locally and in a local context. It is a matter of great regret that the Government are intent on moving our magistrates courts to vast justice factories in larger urban centres. That is causing a great deal of concern to local people and is degrading the standard of justice that we can dispense locally.

David Taylor

I declare an interest as a member of the Magistrates' Association. Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House of the closure rate for magistrates courts in the 18 years between 1979 and 1997? I should add, however, that I do not dissent from his main points.

Dr. Murrison

To be honest, I am not particularly interested in history. Like my constituents, I am interested in what is happening now and what we can do to make sure that we retain the notion of local justice. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares that concern, and I hope that he will apply pressure to those on his Front Bench to make sure that we retain our smaller local magistrates courts. In west Wiltshire we hope to retain a system of local justice that has served local people well for many years and has greatly helped to ensure that people remain safe locally. I hope that in the weeks ahead, as Ministers consider the future of Trowbridge magistrates court, they will bear that in mind and accept the appeal made by Conservative-controlled Wiltshire county council against the decision of Wiltshire magistrates court committee.

Many hon. Members have mentioned post offices today. Without doubt, the shift to direct payment in post offices threatens the viability of many of them, including several in my constituency. In Westminster Hall in March, the then Minister said: The move to direct payment provides a more secure and efficient method of payment that will make life easier for people."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 27 March 2003; Vol. 402, c. 155WH.] This week's announcements in the press about the progress of the new tax credits system do not fill me with confidence about that.

One of the problems that have arisen in recent months with the introduction of the direct payment method has been the information given to our constituents. Many hon. Members will remember the leaflets that the Post Office produced to advertise the three new options available for the payment of benefits. I remember that in the first of those leaflets, it was only on page 10 that there was any recognition of the fact that people could continue to get their benefits from the post office. I admit—I try to be fair when I can—that more recent iterations of the literature have promoted the post office option to page 3 or 4, so that is progress. It is important that we recognise that many people who would like to draw their benefits directly from post office counters are among the more vulnerable in society and need to have the various options explained to them clearly and concisely.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a recognition of the magnitude of the problem that early-day motion 572 now has 314 signatures from all parts of the House, making the point that the information needs to be improved and that there should be a level playing field?

Dr. Murrison

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that important point. I am also gratified to note that the early-day motion attracted cross-party support. That is an acknowledgement of the importance of the matter to our constituents.

Ministers have made it clear that they believe that the Post Office card account will not be the best option for many people, yet they appear to be steering people away from it. If they recognise that it may not be the best option for some people, they need to be explicit about which people it would not benefit. I should be grateful if the Minister could comment on that. If the Government recognise that there is a group of people for whom the change may not be suitable, they should target them and recommend to them, or at least bring to their attention, the continued availability of services through post offices.

The Government's consultation exercise on the future of the Post Office appears to have ignored special interest groups. I was particularly distressed to find that the thoughts of the Royal National Institute of the Blind's sensory design services group seem not to have been taken adequately into account in the Government's proposals. In particular, the RNIB is concerned about the PIN pad that the Government want installed in post offices, and the implications of that for people with eyesight difficulties. There is also very little evidence that the Government have adequately taken into account the interests of wheelchair users and those whose manual dexterity is not very good, and even those who might have difficulty remembering a PIN. I would probably count myself in the latter category.

Some 40 per cent. of sub-postmasters' incomes comes from the payment of benefits, but footfall is more important to the continued viability of these marginal businesses. On 11 April, in answer to a written question to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions asking what assessment he had made of the potential financial effects on post offices of the reduction in footfall that the changes would bring, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), said: The Department has made no such assessment."—[Official Report, 11 April 2003; Vol. 403, c. 468W.] That was a telling remark; perhaps it means that the Government are basing their proposals on insufficient information. I hope very much that the Minister has now corrected that error and made a proper assessment of the exact financial implications for postmasters of the change that his Government wish to drive through.

Linked with post offices is the plight of the newspaper distribution industry. Many hon. Members will have in their constituencies post offices that are closely aligned with newsagents. In many small communities, newspapers are sold alongside post office services. I am therefore somewhat concerned—I am sure that my concern is shared across the House—about the cartels that appear to be operating in relation to the distribution of newspapers. The issue has been the subject of a campaign by the National Federation of Retail Newsagents and I have been lobbied hard by newsagents in my constituency. Newsagents are a vital part of communities, especially in small towns and rural areas, and we must do everything that we can to ensure their continued viability.

I should like to make a few brief remarks about community pharmacies. On 9 April, I presented to the House a petition on community pharmacies with more than 1,600 signatures. which brought to a total of 2,800 the number of signatures that have been garnered in Westbury in protest against the recommendations of the Office of Fair Trading. More recently, the Wiltshire local pharmaceutical committee has written to me about the OFT report. It very wisely pointed out that medicines are not commodities to be purchased at the lowest possible cost and that, in buying a medicine from a community pharmacist, one is also buying a valuable service. I have no confidence that the OFT recommendations would do anything to enhance the service that is provided to our constituents.

There has been something of a delay in the publication of the Government's response to the OFT report. We now expect an interim report in June and a definitive report by the summer. Given the obvious concern about the report throughout the country, I hope that the Government will bring that assessment forward and delay no further their definitive comment about how they envisage that the OFT recommendations will progress. In particular. I draw to Ministers' attention the fact that the devolved Assemblies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have on this occasion had the very good sense to turn down the OFT recommendations. I hope very much that Ministers will bear that in mind and I trust that they have consulted colleagues in the devolved Assemblies to find out how they have designed their services and how those might best be prosecuted in this country in future.

Every cloud has a silver lining, so we must ask who benefits from the demise of post offices, small newsagents and high street chemists. The answer is that some of the big out-of-town retail outlets will benefit. These are the so-called sheds, some of whose proprietors, stars of the weekend rich list, have been financially obliging to new Labour. There, perhaps, is our silver lining.

5.34 pm
Ms Christine Russell (City of Chester)

I have listened with increasing incredulity to the statements made by Opposition Members, because the picture of our public services that they port ray bears no relation whatsoever to the reality of what is happening in our local communities, where decades of long-term under-investment are being reversed.

During the 18 years. of Conservative rule, to which many of my hon. Friends referred, I served as a local councillor, a magistrate, a school governor and a member of the community health council, and worked in the voluntary sector. Therefore I have a pretty good insight into what went on, which was the systematic dismantling, undermining and fragmentation of all our public services. Not only that, but central Government were providing a completely inadequate level of funding for local government and local councils.

I particularly want to focus on the NHS; significantly, very few Conservative Members mentioned it, although it features in their motion. In 1996, my local hospital, the Countess of Chester hospital, was failing and very near bankruptcy. Every winter there was a beds crisis with wards being closed, and waiting lists for fairly basic operations, such as hip and knee operations, ran to many years. After six years of a Labour Government, the Countess of Chester is a high-performing, three-star hospital. That has not happened by accident; it is a result of the policies of the Labour Government.

I want to run through some of the effects that our policies are having on patient care at the Countess of Chester hospital. Newly diagnosed cancer patients are seen within days. Heart patients are immediately referred to the cardio-thoracic centre in Liverpool, where waiting times for heart operations have halved. The waiting list for non-urgent operations is now under 12 months for everyone. Recently, a fantastic multimillion pound day-case surgery unit was opened; the first significant investment at that hospital for 25 years. But that is not all. The maternity unit and the accident and emergency unit have been upgraded, there is a new breast cancer care unit and a new eye centre, and, very shortly, there will be a wonderful new out-patients department. Next door, a new mental health unit is to open. That is important. I worked with people with mental health problems before I was elected. For decades, mental health services have been the Cinderella health service, but in Chester, as in many other parts of the country, in-patients will leave their Victorian asylums and move into purpose-built modern buildings.

The other issue that I want to mention is staffing. Labour Members have shown a lot of honesty today, because we have accepted that there are still real problems in the NHS. Capacity is one such problem. That is partly due to the legacy of under-investment and short-term planning by Conservative Governments, whose policies reduced the number of beds and cut the number of student nurses. I want to tell hon. Members that the situation is improving.

At the Countess of Chester hospital, matrons are back on the wards and staff numbers are increasing at the rate of 4 per cent. or 5 per cent. a year. Last year, the increase was 9 per cent. across the board, applying to nurses, doctors, scientists and all other essential NHS staff. Investment of £1 million in the education centre at the Countess will provide in-house training facilities, and a new school of nursing and midwifery is about to open next door at Chester college. I know that you will be interested in that, Madam Deputy Speaker, given your background.

All the welcome investment in education and training is accompanied by new equipment, buildings and IT systems that will put our national health service on a sustainable footing for the long term. There is no point in pretending that we can provide a first-class health service on the cheap. That cannot be done. One cannot improve patient care, treat more patients or cut waiting times without substantial investment. Our Government are doing that.

Let us briefly consider education. I remember the 1980s, when I was a school governor and my kids were at school. Fewer than one in three children had a nursery place. Nowadays, every three and four-year-old in the country has a free nursery place.

There is a sure start scheme in my constituency. Those schemes are making a huge contribution to fulfilling the Government's pledge to end child poverty in Britain by 2020. On a big estate in Chester, that wonderful initiative means that health workers and early-years educationalists are working together to improve the life chances of children from disadvantaged families.

Several hon. Members have pointed out that all five, six and seven-year-olds are now taught in classes of fewer than 30 pupils. When my son was at school, in the early 1980s, there were infant classes of more than 40. I remember the physical state of school buildings; the leaking roofs, the peeling paint and the decrepit portakabins. I have examined the statistics and, in 1997, approximately £650 million was spent throughout the country on upgrading, improving and repairing our school buildings. The figure this year will be £5 billion. That is the difference that a Labour Government make; a fivefold increase.

Let me compare and contrast my two local councils; the Conservative-controlled county council and the jointly administered Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled city council. This year, Cheshire county council was given one of the best shire county settlements; an unprecedented increase in grant of almost 8 per cent. However, it required a concerted campaign by teachers and parents to persuade that Conservative administration to passport all the additional resources to Cheshire schools. Of course, it has not passported the full amount. I believe that £1 million is being retained at County hall.

The motion refers to community cohesion. If the Conservative administration at County hall in Cheshire cared about community cohesion, it would not axe the grants to community action projects throughout the county. These include the Blacon project in my constituency, which has done a tremendous job of tackling social exclusion on that estate.

Listening has been mentioned often in the debate. Cheshire county council is not interested in listening to what the public think. It has abolished the public budget consultation meetings. Members have talked about their opposition to regional assemblies, which is fair enough, but I must ask them whether Cheshire county council is right to waste taxpayers' money by diverting front-line officers from their jobs to work on a campaign to thwart the right of the people to have a regional assembly for the north-west if they so wish.

In comparison, Chester city council has consulted the people and listened to them. The city council has said that its priority is a cleaner, safer, greener Chester, and that is exactly what it is getting. Home Office funding has delivered a citywide CCTV scheme to improve community safety.

Mr. Heald

In the consultation that the city council carried out, did anybody mention that they wanted a regional assembly?

Ms Russell

I have not analysed the consultation. I shall get back to the hon. Gentleman on that.

People said that they wanted improvements in community safety and that is exactly what is happening. There is CCTV coverage throughout the city centre and mobile cameras will improve safety on all the estates. Chester has a fine and improving record on recycling, and this year we shall see an increase in the green recycling scheme, under which garden waste is collected from people's doorsteps. The programme to upgrade recreation and children's play areas has also been stepped up. The cost of all those improvements will cost the council tax payers of Chester 10p a week on their council tax bill.

The Opposition motion before us today is a recipe for cuts in the NHS and in our vital public services, and I hope that when the vote is taken in an hour and a quarter, Members will support the Government's amendment.

5.47 pm
Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe)

The hon. Member for City of Chester (Ms Russell) said a few moments ago that she had listened to the debate with great interest. I am sure that listening to debates is an experience that she is used to. because I believe that this is in fact her first speech in the Chamber since the 2001 election.

Ms Russell

indicated dissent.

Mr. Goodman

She shakes her head, and I should be happy to give way if she wished to correct me on that point. I believe, however, that this is her first speech since the election and I presume that we can expect another one in 2005, which will presumably be after the next general election. I want to say to her and to other Labour Members in all seriousness that, if she had been ill during the course of this Parliament—as Members on both sides of the House have been—I could understand her silence. If she has not, she is providing her constituents with a very poor service. I hope that the voters of City of Chester—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. The hon. Gentleman should address his remarks to the motion and the amendment before the House.

Mr. Goodman

I should be very happy to do that, and to turn my attention to the speech that the Minister made earlier. He referred to the grant provided by Buckinghamshire county council. He said, quite correctly, that that grant increase was about 6 per cent. and, again quite correctly, that it was well above the rate of inflation. What he failed to point out, however. represents an important aspect of this debate. I shall quote David Shakespeare, the leader of Buckinghamshire county council, who said: Buckinghamshire's 6.2 per cent. increase in grant…is indeed a well above inflation increase. However, the Government's own assessment of our Council's spending requirement …in order to cover inflation, new responsibilities placed on the County by Government and demographic changes is an 8.3 per cent. increase, not 6.2 per cent. He goes on: Your officials further need to understand that the resource equalisation factor incorporated into the Government's new grant distribution has taken away £11.2m of grant from Buckinghamshire, which automatically adds a 7.5 per cent. increase to the council tax to replace this loss. That is the full picture of what is happening to funding in Buckinghamshire county council.

There is a great weakness in the Government's case. Councils in the south-east are experiencing problems. The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) ably made some of these points, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). It is clear that the problems in our communities to which the motion refers and the shifting of Government resources from the south-east to the north are intimately connected.

This morning, I was fortunate enough to secure a debate on school funding, at which not a single Labour Back Bencher was present. If the Government want to know the consequences of this shift of money from the south-east to the north, they should be fully aware of the facts that have been laid out by David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

Huw Irranca-Davies

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Goodman

I should be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, whose loquacious although sometimes wandering speech I very much enjoyed.

Huw Irranca-Davies

I promise not to wander too much. The hon. Gentleman has twice referred to the absence of hon. Members from particular debates. In my contribution, I studiously avoided referring to the absence of nationalist Members or any Opposition Member representing Wales because I felt that that would not be worthy of me.

Mr. Goodman

I am glad to have given the hon. Gentleman a chance to display his sensitivities to the House. I should now like to refer to what David Hart said about the school funding crisis, which is no laughing matter. He said that 70 redundancy notices have already gone out in Essex, and that more are likely in Devon, Gloucestershire and Bournemouth; between 50 and 55 according to "This is Dorset". I thought that I heard the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) dismiss talk of redundancies among teachers in Dorset as Tory propaganda, but that is not the case according to "This is Dorset". David Hart added to the list Poole, Torbay, Plymouth and Barnet. It is clear that this shift of money from the south-east to the north is already causing acute problems.

These problems are not merely short term. The Government are storing up considerable long-term problems for the south-east. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne said, the idea that the southeast is leafy, prosperous and green in its entirety is completely mistaken. Constituencies such as mine contain pockets of serious deprivation, social exclusion and poverty. My worry about the Government's policies and the shift of resources from the south-east to the north is that it will make life worse in those pockets of deprivation.

On the Government's own index of deprivation covering more than 8,000 wards in Britain, Marsh and Micklefield ward in my constituency stands at 2,659, Oakridge and Tinkers Wood at 2,178, and Booker and Castlefield at 1,669. When the figures are broken down, the index of deprivation for education puts Booker and Castlefield at 886 in the top 1,000, and at 1,006—just outside the top 1,000—for child poverty. On the index for housing, Cressex and Frogmoor ward stands at 929, Green Hill and Totteridge at 772, Bowerdean and Daws Hill at 573 and Oakridge and Tinkers Wood at 256; it is almost among the 200 most deprived wards in the country.

If Labour Members are tempted to believe that there are no pockets of deprivation in the south-east, they should think again and revise the view, which is sometimes put about, that the south-east is private sector-rich and public sector-poor. We shall have to see how private sector-rich the south-east remains after the Chancellor's tax rises, especially his national insurance increase, work their way through.

What particularly worries my constituents who work in the public sector or depend on the public sector in the south-east—the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) put this very well—is the effect of house prices on public sector workers' ability to live and work in such constituencies. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) spoke ably about the problems of housing in the south-east, and I want to develop some of the points that he made. We know that the Government's solution is a continuation of the cycle, involving the building of more houses in the area, thus encouraging more demand for housing places, which will in turn encourage further the population drift from north to south. That is the Government's way of doing business; it certainly is not our way.

Let me tentatively explore another possible solution, which would help my constituents greatly. London weighting should be looked at again. Public sector workers in my constituency—teachers, firefighters, health service workers and, above all, members of the police force—tell me that other public sector workers who have lived and worked in my constituency, and constituencies like it, have been dragged into London by the sheer volume of London weighting. I am told that that has caused, in particular, a drift of male teachers into London.

When I visited firefighters in High Wycombe recently they made the same point; believe me, although the strike continues, they are by no means Tory voters. They said that the terms offered to their London colleagues were more attractive than their own. When I last spoke to the division commander of the Chiltern Vale police force in High Wycombe, he told me that he had lost 10 officers to other forces since last April, that they were attracted in particular by the considerable pay in the Met and that the experienced ones tended to go.

Mr. Edward Davey

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Goodman

I am sorry, but I want to leave time for my hon. Friends.

I am worried not about the possibility that Ministers do not care, but about the complacency and backward looking, as described by Conservative speeches today, with regard to the problems faced by those of us in the south-east in constituencies such as mine. I believe that those problems will only get worse if Ministers continue to transfer resources as they are doing now.

5.57 pm
Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough)

I am afraid that some of my hon. Friends have scoffed at the Tories for calling today's debate. I consider that unfortunate: I think that it is an encouraging sign. For many years, councils thought that the Tories had abandoned local government completely, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) is present. When I was deputy leader of Barnsley council in the mid-to-late 1980s, just as many Tory as Labour councillors were members of that august body, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. We were neck and neck: one year Labour would be in control, the next it would be the Tories. Now the Tories have been wiped out in local government, which is entirely due to the policies that they implemented throughout 18 years of misrule. The main reason the Tories were wiped out during those 18 years can be summed up in two small words: poll tax. What was the slogan that they used? It was something like, "The duke will pay the same as the dustman."

In May of the 1989-90 financial year, when I was deputy leader of Barnsley council, we went out to the electorate to raise Barnsley's first-ever poll tax—£329 per head. We went to the electorate in May, and we fought and won all 22 of the council seats that were up for election, on a poll tax of £329 per person. What did the then Government do? They capped us, making us reduce our poll tax from £329 to £270 per person. We had the backing of the people of Barnsley, and ever since then we have been trying to catch up in terms of local government finance. That is one reason why the Tories are now in disarray on local government issues.

To compound the felony, between 1990 and 1996, a further £50 million of grant aid was wiped out in respect of council services in Barnsley. A similar sum was wiped out in respect of the other council that I represented, Doncaster metropolitan borough council. I found it a touch hypocritical of the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford)—I am glad that he is now back in his place—as a former local government Minister, to say that we ought to employ a light touch and leave local government to get on with its own business. That principle did not apply when the Conservatives were in power.

As I have said, since we came to power local authorities have been playing catch-up from the Tory years, despite the fact that local government funding has increased by 25 per cent. in real terms, and that, for the first time ever, every local authority in this country has received an above-inflation settlement to help councils to deliver high-quality services. As a result, some council tax increases are still above inflation, and we will all agree that the sooner this catch-up ends, the better.

I want to deal briefly with education spending, which, as an ex-teacher, is an issue close to my heart. Labour stood at the last general election on a platform of improving hospitals and schools, and that is exactly what the Government are getting on with. By 2005-06, education funding per pupil will have increased by £1,000 since 1997. That equates approximately to an extra 20,000 teachers and an extra 80,000 support staff. To anyone who says that Labour is not making a difference in our schools, I put forward a simple case study, but first, I should like to give some background on my constituency, as certain Members have done on theirs.

My constituency has the lowest gross domestic product per capita in Britain, at 62 per cent. of the European average. It also has the highest level of disability, with one in three households containing at least one disabled person—a direct legacy of the mining industry that Barnsley and Doncaster are famous for. It goes without saying that it is an objective 1 area. However, three years ago, Willowgarth high school in Grimethorpe—on whose board of governors I am proud to have served since 1979—became part of the Barnsley education action zone. The zone takes in a secondary school pyramid, consisting of Willowgarth, in my constituency; Priory high school in Lundwood, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley); and Elmhurst school in Worsbrough, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham).

Since Willowgarth high school became part of the education action zone, its success rate in achieving five GCSE passes has risen. Three years ago, the figure was an admittedly lowly 16 per cent.; now, it is 35 per cent. In three years, its success rate has more than doubled as a direct consequence of education action zone funding. In fact, in terms of its success rate for five GCSE passes, Willowgarth had never ranked higher than 10th out of the 12 secondary schools in Barnsley. Now it is fifth, and stands at about the authority average. That is a reflection of the Government's excellent work in education. When I spoke to the head teacher, Roger Beswick, last week, he informed me that he anticipates record GCSE results once again this year. I would also like to recommend—I know that the Minister for School Standards is present—Willowgarth high school's bid for special school status next year. Wombwell high school in my constituency is also seeking special status.

I admit that not everything in the garden is rosy and that schools certainly face funding pressures, particularly as a result of increases in national insurance contributions and teachers' superannuation. The loss of standard fund resources is also significant and has impacted severely on deprived areas such as my own, but Labour is still making a big difference to such communities.

Mr. Watts

My hon. Friend has demonstrated how deprived Barnsley council is. Is he amazed that, despite all the efforts made and contrary to the complaints of Conservative Members, Barnsley still receives far less funding than most local authorities in the south-east? Is it not ironic that Conservative Members complain about funding in their areas when deprived areas such as Barnsley still receive far fewer resources?

Jeff Ennis

I thank my hon. Friend for his point, but I do not want to get embroiled in arguments about the north-south divide. As far as I am concerned, the Labour party has, unlike the Conservative party, always been a one-nation party, so talk about a north-south divide does not add to the debate.

We had to make staff redundant during the Tory years, just as some Conservative councils have to consider doing now. I am not going to say that it is payback time. It is not. What is important in the end is the level of services provided for every person in the country. My key point is that those services should be resourced on a fair and equitable basis. That is what the Government are trying to do.

Conservative Members have delighted in the fact—perhaps someone can explain why—that they have more candidates standing in the local elections than the Labour party. I do not understand how that contributes to the debate. In local democratic elections, it is a pointless exercise to run paper candidates, but that is precisely what the majority of Conservative candidates are. We can see a classic example in my neighbouring ward of Cudworth, an old mining area in Barnsley. The Conservative party candidate standing there comes from Millhouse Green in the leafy suburbs of Derbyshire on the other side of Sheffield—about 30 miles away from the ward. If elected, she would have no affinity with the ward. If someone stands as a candidate in a local government election, they should be willing to represent the people that they have put themselves forward to represent.

This important debate appears in the Order Paper as the "Impact of Government policies on community services". The Government are having a positive impact on many community services and I am sure that that will be recognised by the electorate in this Thursday's local government and regional assembly elections.

6.9 pm

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton)

I was not present for the first couple of hours of the debate because I was taking evidence as a member of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. I will be brief to help my colleagues who also want to speak.

The seat of Taunton, as hon. Members will know, is in the bucolic county of Somerset, whose county council is hard done by in a number of respects. We do not benefit, unlike Hampshire and Wiltshire recently, from the area cost adjustment. We are a high-employment area, but we get penalised as a result, because we do not get any extra grants. At the same time, we are also a very low-wage economy. Somerset is not a wealthy county, nor a very poor one, but we are taxed as if we had the spare cash.

That can best be expressed in terms of education. Somerset local education authority receives the eighth lowest level of funding in the country for secondary pupils, but the number of pupils for which it has to cater grows by more than 3 per cent. each year. Like other hon. Members, I have received complaints from schools that they are being subjected to budget cuts. Even so, Somerset county council has not needed to put up council tax as much as it has. I am afraid to say that it still overspends on administration and procurement.

Somerset is a rural county, and we have our own problems, which cannot be solved by instituting a regional government in the area. That would be no solution whatsoever, for reasons that are obvious in my part of the country. Local councils would lose power, and the regional capital—which would not be Taunton, the present home of the local district and county councils—would—prevail. Introducing artificial boundaries for oversized regional assemblies could seem logical only to the eyes of a Whitehall planner. The new plans that the Government seem to be promoting would only create a messy structure for the UK, with county councils left in some areas, and none in others.

We in Somerset have many years' experience of the disadvantages that an artificial construct can bring. It is therefore no surprise that we are disappointed with the Government's proposals to promote regional assemblies. I speak in particular about the way that the Avon and Somerset police force has spent our money. In the last year, there has been an increase in the precept of 34 per cent. Even so, the West Somerset division, which comprises Taunton, Bridgwater and Minehead, will get only 10 more police officers in addition to the current force of 350 officers. That is a paltry increase. My constituents want an effective system of neighbourhood policing to reclaim our streets for the honest citizen.

The problem goes beyond our streets: it extends to rural areas as well. It is unacceptable that the response times to 999 calls in large parts of my constituency can be as high as 45 minutes. It appears that the police can sometimes take up to 90 minutes to turn up when youths are causing a nuisance to local residents. We pay for the policing in Somerset, yet the money seems to be spent in Bristol.

We also have another, rather perverse, problem. In the next few months, Taunton and Bridgwater are likely to receive asylum seekers. I do not have a problem with asylum seekers coming to Taunton, and certainly not to Bridgwater—

Mr. Gareth Thomas (Harrow, West)


Mr. Flook

The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) says, "But …" from his sedentary position behind the Minister, and he is right: a very large "but" exists. We in Somerset are a low-wage, high-employment economy. That is especially true in Taunton. That means that every house and every household is taken up already. There are no—or very few—houses free for rent. The Government are asking the people of Taunton to take extra people into the area, assuming that there are empty properties to rent where none exist. There are more than 1,500 people on the housing lists in Taunton.

Clearsprings Ltd. is the company that won the contract from the National Asylum Support Service. What will it do? It will force up the price of rental properties, to the further detriment of local people who are struggling to get onto the housing market.

That is a very sensitive issue. I have asked the Government repeatedly for more and more accurate information, and I have asked them to be more open. All I can discover is that the asylum seekers could go anywhere into the urban wards of Bridgwater, some seven miles away. I have also asked about which wards in Taunton the asylum seekers could go to, expecting the answer to be the urban wards there. However, I discovered that asylum seekers could be placed in every single rural ward.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Flook

I will not.

Rural areas are unsuitable, and rents are expensive in Taunton. The taxpayer will subsidise asylum seekers and pay more than is necessary to house them. That is a fairly recent development, and one that is highly indicative of the way in which policies right across government adversely affect my constituents and the whole of Somerset. What is worse, we are having to pay through the nose for that shoddy treatment.

6.15 pm
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

I have three brief points to make.

First, I do not want to rehearse all the arguments about the situation facing our local schools, but redundancies will not be the only practical consequence of the present funding crisis, of which the Minister is well aware. I have had contact with secondary schools in my constituency that are making up to 10 teachers redundant as a result of the funding issues that have arisen this year, but the further consequence will be, as one head teacher graphically put it to me, that he will have to reduce by one the number of lessons each pupil has each week. That means that one fewer subject will be taught. That is the reality of what will happen if our schools are left high and dry, short-staffed and underfunded, as is happening across the country this year.

I do not purport to understand exactly where the money has gone, but the Minister is well aware that it has disappeared into the system. Will he redouble his efforts? Schools such as St. Andrew's, a beacon school in my constituency, will make teachers redundant. In spite of what Labour Members have said, redundancy notices will go out. I urge the Minister to act as quickly as he can. The way of the teaching profession is that notice must be issued a term in advance of the teacher's leaving. Decisions may already have been taken by the time the Government find a solution to the problem. I urge extremely rapid action on the Minister.

Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) discussed the impact on communities just outside London of the disparity in pay between metropolitan London and the surrounding areas. Disparities apply across the public services. In education, there is a classic example in my constituency of the anomaly that arises when London weighting falls off a cliff at the end of London. My view has always been that regional allowances in the south-east should decline gently the further one moves from central London, rather than simply stopping at the London boundary.

Sparrow Farm junior school in my constituency stands in the street that marks the boundary with London, and it is a Surrey school. Teachers there receive £2,800 a year less than their counterparts at a primary school a few hundred yards further into Surrey that happens, although it is deeper in my constituency than its neighbour, to be controlled by the London borough of Sutton. The two schools share a playing field, but teachers at one school are paid nearly £3,000 a year more than teachers at the other. Such distortion exists all around the London boundary. Ministers must address it as they review pay structures in the years ahead.

In addition to teaching, there is an impact on policing. In my constituency, police officers are paid £6,000 a year less than those across the border in London. The result is that the most experienced police officers in my area—those who have the greatest knowledge of local troublemakers and trouble spots—are not full-time officers, but special constables, who are the only ones who stay around for a long period. Most experienced officers—virtually all of them—have gone across the border to London to earn £6,000 more a year. Those anomalies must stop.

Mr. Edward Davey

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Grayling

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not because some of my hon. Friends want a chance to speak.

My third point is about "community pharmacies", two of the most critical words in the motion so far as the future of local communities around the country is concerned. Community pharmacies have not been much talked of this afternoon, but they are extremely important. Over recent weeks and months, hon. Members on both sides have signed early-day motions and spoken in Westminster Hall and in the House in the wake of the Office of Fair Trading report on pharmacies, which, if fully implemented by the Government, would lead to the closure of hundreds of local pharmacies that many people, particularly older people, depend on for crucial local medical services within the national health service.

Where do we stand today? The Minister for School Standards has the ear of No. 10 and he will know that the signs for community pharmacies remain distinctly worrying. The Government have made some pronouncements on the OFT report; the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that she does not intend fully to deregulate the market. However, we are aware that, behind the scenes, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury are keen for full implementation of the OFT report.

If that happens, there is no doubt that local pharmacies will disappear. The reality is that we are not dealing with an environment where new entrants to the marketplace, such as supermarkets opening pharmacies, will lead to an expansion of choice and the market. We are talking about a fixed cake. NHS prescription spending is not an ever-expanding market that can be changed by new entrants or by innovation from the supermarkets. If we allow unfettered entry to the pharmacy market, all we shall do is to move pieces of the cake from one place to another.

The vast majority of people would probably prefer to get their prescriptions from a supermarket pharmacy when they do their shopping on Saturday mornings. It may be more convenient for them; it would be more convenient for people such as me and my family. The people who would lose will be the elderly, who get their weekly prescription at their local pharmacy, or young mothers with children who do not have access to a car during weekdays. If their local pharmacy disappears, an important part of their local health service will disappear, too. An important focal point for local communities will disappear.

The community pharmacy is an essential part of local health care. It is also an essential part of the local parade of shops, whether in a village or an urban area. If the Government take away the community pharmacy, they will rip the heart from those local centres and do real damage to local communities.

Over the next two months, the Government have to take what may be a difficult decision. They need to make a proper response to the OFT report and to set a clear path forward for community pharmacies and for the whole pharmacy sector. If they get that wrong, they will rip the heart from communities throughout the country. They will reduce health care choice for the elderly and for those who do not have easy access to transport. They will do real damage to a community service that remains fundamental to the strength and vibrancy of our local way of life.

The Government must not take steps that undermine local pharmacies or jeopardise their future. In the summer, when they report on the future for local pharmacies, it is my sincere hope, as well as the wish of Members on both sides of the House, that they will not take steps that lead to the closure of local pharmacies.

6.22 pm
Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

It is a delight to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). I agree with every word of his speech.

I want to talk specifically about the education funding mystery. On one hand, we have a large increase—£2.6Billion—in education funding this year, which is an 11 per cent. increase, yet on the other, in my constituency and many others, schools face a real funding crisis. I shall quote from The Oxford Times; it is not the Daily Mail, but an award-winning local newspaper—a quality broadsheet. It states that after record spending on education, the Government has somehow contrived to deliver the worst crisis in Oxfordshire schools for years". I am delighted that the Minister for School Standards is in his place. I shall give him the figures. All but three of the 34 secondary schools in Oxfordshire are budgeting for a significant deficit. Some deficits are as high as £250,000 and the average is £114,000. The total deficit is £4 million.

The Government amendment gives us a clue about the mystery. As my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) observed, although it refers to an funding increase of £2.6 billion, it revealingly states that only £250 million is greater than the pressures within the system. That is an increase of 1 per cent. rather than 11 per cent. It might be a good idea for the Government not to over-egg; they should not boast too much about spending increases that are not real.

Schools in my constituency have improved—I will give the Government that—and teachers are struggling to do a good job. However, I want to give the House some examples of the funding situation that they face. Woodgreen, a secondary school in Witney, points out that it has a budget shortfall of more than £150,000. The chairman of governors, Reg Taylor, said to me in an email: We are confident that the shortfall has occurred solely due to external factors, primarily the impact of government policies. Even more telling is a letter that I have received from the head teacher of Charlbury primary school, who says: I have been a teacher for 27 years in various phases of education … In all my years of experience I have never known such a critical situation in school budgets. Discussion with colleagues in Oxfordshire suggests that a large number of schools will have no alternative but to make redundancies and submit deficit budgets to the LEA. The head teacher of another school, William Fletcher primary school, in Yarnton, has written to the Minister, and I am sure that the letter will be on his desk when he gets back to the Department tonight: Dear Mr Miliband … In this school, to balance the budget I will have to lose two teachers and teach full-time, or have two junior classes of 45 pupils each. What do you suggest I do? The same head teacher wrote to me to say that the school's situation is not unique, that it had contacted other schools, that all reported huge losses in revenue, and that those that can break even will do so only by using large carry-forwards: in Oxfordshire, apparently, all schools are living above their means.

The Government's response seems to be that local education authorities are holding back money from schools: the Education Secretary mentioned £500 million. It is hard to see how they are holding back £500 million if the true increase is just £250 million, but I will leave that to one side. What is also questionable is how they are allowed to hold it back when the Chancellor promised, in that famous article in The Sun, that public services would not get a penny more until they were reformed properly so that money would really go to schools and hospitals. That has simply not happened.

What we must do is look at the pressures that schools face. We will then be able to see why the increase in funding has left many schools, in many of our constituencies, in crisis. Oxfordshire county council has said to me in a letter that the individual schools budget is up by 10.5 per cent., which sounds incredibly promising and appears to be a real increase until we look at the breakdown: £6 million for the teachers pension fund, £1 million to cover the national insurance contributions increase imposed by the Government—[Interruption.] As the Government imposed that, the Minister might listen to what he is doing to schools in Oxfordshire rather than just chat to his colleagues on the Front Bench. It also comprises £5.4 million to make up for inflation, including teachers pay and local government pay awards, and a £1.2 million increase for pupil numbers. The letter, which started off by talking about the 10.5 per cent. individual schools budget increase, concludes:

These increases ensure that there is a standstill position for schools. In Oxfordshire, therefore, the increase is not 11 per cent. or 10 per cent.; it is a standstill position. Those responsible for education say that there has simply not been a hold-back by the local education authority. As we know. a standstill for all schools means that some schools will be subject to cuts. Rod Walker, the head teacher at Henry Box school, a very successful secondary school in Witney, has said that secondary schools, particularly those with sixth forms, have not received sufficient funding to meet the full increase in teacher salary costs, and that some schools are exploring the possibility of redundancies. He believes that it will be impossible to implement voluntary redundancies for the start of the new academic year in September, which means compulsory redundancies in schools. Up to now, when I have talked to secondary heads in Oxfordshire, they have always said that their problems are recruiting and retaining teachers in such areas where housing costs are high. It is a tragedy that those same schools, which have had such trouble recruiting and retaining teachers, will now have to sack them because the money provided by the Government has simply not been sufficient.

I end with three pleas to the Minister, if he could concentrate for the last minute. First, will he look again at the situation in Oxfordshire, where there is a £4 million shortfall? All of the schools that have written to me say from the bottom of their heart that they have a real problem. Education, education, education cannot be delivered with cuts, cuts, cuts. Will the Minister entertain a delegation from west Oxfordshire of primary and secondary school teachers to talk to him and see what can be done?

My second plea to the Minister is to stop making unrealistic claims about what extra spending means. In many ways, it suits us if the Government do that, because the people will hear those claims and think either that the money is being thrown at the public services and wasted or that the Government are deliberately misleading them. I rather suspect that the truth is somewhere in the middle, but it would be much better for the Government to give a realistic assessment of how much they are increasing spending by instead of providing huge numbers that are wrong.

My final point is that, if the Government are worried about local education authorities holding back money in the longer term, they should look again at some of the ideas that we came up with in the 1980s and 1990s for grant-maintained schools or free schools and try to give more money directly to schools. If their concern is that LEAs are holding on to the money, they should set the schools free and give them more money directly. When I asked a head teacher in my constituency what the best education funding system would be, he said, "It is very simple. You now have the national curriculum, so you know what I am teaching. You have testing, so you can see what everyone is learning. You inspect my schools regularly, which I am delighted with. I publish my results. With all that, if anything is going to go wrong, you will find out soon enough. Please give me the money and let me get on with the job." There was more wisdom from that head teacher than anything we have heard from those on the Government Front Bench.

6.30 pm
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for 'Witney (Mr. Cameron), especially on that last note.

We have had a wide-ranging debate and heard a litany of problems that are causing real worry and difficulty for communities throughout the country. Taken together, it begins to look like the hallmark of a Government who have taken their eye off the ball of domestic policy. Too much tax, too much regulation, too much centralisation and too much bureaucracy are leading to a funding crisis in our schools, the closure of police stations and courts and threats to community pharmacies and to post offices, urban as well as rural.

We have heard the nonsense of regional assemblies and of the danger of the destruction of the county councils that are much loved across the country. We have heard about the failure of the Government's housing policy, a criticism that has been backed up today by the publication of the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It describes the Deputy Prime Minister's plan for 200,000 new homes across the south-east as being a £20 billion scheme that is of "questionable" benefit and that gives no thought to providing new communities with schools, hospitals and transport. Again, that is an indication of the way in which the Government fail to understand what really makes our communities tick and the reason why so many problems have been caused.

We have heard from Labour Members about massive amounts of spending. We have no quibbles with that; we know that is happening because we are paying the taxes. We have heard about massive urban sprawls and, at the same time, no sustainable communities.

At the outset of the debate, the Minister for Local Government and the Regions set out a long list of additional expenditure. What he missed was the fact that that makes our case for us most eloquently. The problem that we face is precisely that the Government are very good at taxing and at spending, but are not able to achieve results or avoid the waste and bureaucracy that means that so much taxpayers' money goes straight down the drain.

Mr. Tom Harris

Conservative Members have made several complaints about the financial problems suffered by local authorities, so does the hon. Gentleman agree that now would be a good time for the Conservatives finally to state whether a local government settlement under a Conservative Government would be less than. the same as or more than this settlement?

Mr. Brady

The hon. Gentleman needs to understand that the Government are burdening local government with extra taxes, extra regulations and extra costs. That is what is causing the problems in local government finance. That is why people are perplexed. They are paying more taxes nationally and locally but, at the same time, they are seeing cuts and problems and difficulties in their communities.

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions also employed bogus figures for comparisons of council tax, using the average rather than the more valid band D comparison. He also made a spurious attack on the splendid Solihull council, which offers, as he well knows, by far the best value of the metropolitan authorities in that part of the country.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) spoke of the importance of affordable housing and the difficulties caused by the halving of the programme of affordable housing in Test valley, which is directly attributable to the Government's policies. My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) spoke about Liberal Democrat duplicity in Surrey and the outstanding record of Conservative-controlled Wandsworth borough council over many years. The extra burden that is being loaded on to Mole Valley is causing real problems for his constituents.

Such problems featured in the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) who told us how the Government have skewed the financial settlement against his constituents in East Sussex. That also affects my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) who spoke cogently about the world of denial that is inhabited by Ministers. They do not seem to appreciate the realities that face the people whom we represent or to understand the terrible worry experienced by pensioners whose incomes rise by 3 per cent. but who face council tax rises of 18 per cent., which my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden described.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) talked about the failure of joined-up government and the massive lack of demand for regional assemblies in his region. That was underlined by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Ms Russell) who, during a rare contribution in the Chamber, made it clear that there is no demand for regional government in Chester either.

The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) made a lengthy yet enjoyable contribution in which he spoke about job losses in his constituency during the 1980s. However, he neglected to notice or mention, as did the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham), that manufacturing jobs are currently being lost in this country at a rate that is faster than at any time since 1981, which is a real problem for communities throughout the country.

Huw Irranca-Davies

I briefly note the favourable forecast for manufacturing, especially for Wales. Does the hon. Gentleman share my regret that the only mentions of Wales during the whole debate have been in my contribution and his response? Has his party forgotten about Wales?

Mr. Brady

That was a savage attack on the hon. Gentleman's numerous colleagues who represent Welsh constituencies and have not taken the opportunity to speak up for their areas.

The hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) made a memorable contribution in which he called for his constituents who live in council houses to be deprived of the right to buy. They will have noted that as we approach the local elections.

An important issue came up in my constituency this weekend that is a clear indication of what is wrong with the Government's policies and their failure to deliver on what they say that they will do. Representatives of my local stroke association visited me and told me that the Trafford dysphasia support group is about to suffer a 40 per cent. cut in funding from the local primary care trust. We are paying massive amounts more through local and national taxes but we are getting less in return. My specific example shows how that is undermining precisely those voluntary and charitable activities that we should encourage in communities throughout the country.

I know that the Minister for School Standards would be disappointed if I did not turn my attention to schools. The funding crisis of the Government's making is the grossest betrayal of everything that they stood for in 1997 when they promised that "education, education, education" would be their three priorities. The reality is that throughout the country our children are coming home from school with letters from heads and governors in their satchels warning of massive cash shortfalls—[HON. MEMBERS: "Satchels?"] Apparently some hon.

Members do not provide their children with the appropriate equipment in which to carry their school books, although I am pleased to say that Conservative Members do.

The letters warn of massive cash shortfalls, cuts and redundancies. In Essex, we know that 70 redundancy notices had been issued by the end of March. Up to 90 teachers and teaching assistants face the sack in Bournemouth and Poole. Ten teachers face redundancy in south-west Bedfordshire alone. The situation is worse in London and the south-east. Schools in Barnet are suffering shortfalls of up to £450.,000 for the next year. One head in Barnet recently told me:

It's breaking my heart. We run a good school here, but we are struggling to find every penny. Since then, in anger and frustration, more and more schools have spoken out. St. Marylebone school in London, which might have to shed six teachers, is asking parents to pay £100 each to avert a crisis, as reported in the Evening Standard on 14 April.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith)

It must be true if it is in the Evening Standard.

Mr. Brady

I suggest that the hon. Lady contacts the school to discover whether it has been reduced to asking parents to fund it. I think she will find that it is an accurate report.

Paul O'Shea, the headmaster of Christ's college in Barnet, was reported as saying that his school was £450,000 short of what he needed for a standstill budget. He said:

I have never known it as bad as this. The Government is in denial, saying that there is nothing wrong with the formula. There must be something wrong". That concern was picked up by the Westminster head teachers consultative committee, which wrote to me to say: We. the Headteachers of all Westminster schools wish to make it clear that we will be unable to provide the effective full-time education for pupils with the funds allocated in the financial year 2003/4. Consequently the targets set in the recent target setting round will no longer be valid and standards will inevitably suffer. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney made it clear that the average deficit in his constituency and across Oxfordshire is £114,000 for secondary schools. He quoted a head teacher as saying that it was the worst funding settlement that he had ever known in his career.

Who is to blame for the problems that face our schools?

Mr. Tom Harris

Look behind you.

Mr. Brady

The hon. Gentleman would be wise to look behind him. He was possibly close to Ms Fiona Millar in a previous incarnation, as was the Minister for School Standards, because she is the partner of the real Deputy Prime Minister. She has made it clear why the funding crisis is afflicting our schools. She wrote from Gospel Oak primary school:

Why has this happened? … The Government has changed the way that it allocates block grants to councils and has moved money from the south east to the north. Camden has been one of the authorities that has done least well out of this change … There has been a significant increase in the contribution that employers … have to pay to national insurance contributions … There has been a significant increase in schools' contributions to the teachers' pensions fund … There has been a significant reduction in grant paid to schools called the Schools Standard Fund. The blame is laid directly at the Government's door. The Minister knows that he is trying to defend the indefensible.

So one would think that hon. Members would be justified in thinking that Downing street and the Department for Education and Skills know the cause of the problem, but that is not the case: either they blame the media, as they tried to do on the Channel 5 news yesterday when they suggested that it is a media invention and there is no real problem, or they pass the buck to local authorities. But are they so clear about that when councils, such as Trafford, where my constituency is located, or Manchester, are Labour run? In Trafford, Mr. Tarun Kapur, the head of Ashton-on-Mersey school, has highlighted a shortfall of between £60,000 and £80,000. Who should the voters blame for that—Labour Trafford or the Labour Government? I hope that the Minister answers that.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brady

No, I do not have time.

There is even worse news in Manchester. We heard Dame Jean Else, the head of Whalley Range high school for girls, on GMTV this morning. That is an excellent school which, of course, was the school of the former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris). That head teacher threatened to resign rather than accept the £600,000 shortfall that her school faces. She said:

I am faced with having to lose some of my incredibly valuable staff and cut aspects of the curriculum and I really feel it will defeat the object and I am not prepared to do that. Dame Jean faces losing 20 of the 165 staff at her excellent school in Manchester. There is no point in honouring the achievement of a head like that in 2001 and then slashing the budgets a couple of years later. Labour was happy to take the credit for the success of Whalley Range high school, which it held out as a flagship when it did well, and it must now accept responsibility for the financial crisis that is affecting it.

We have heard today about threats to post offices and local pharmacies, increasing levels of violent crime and, above all, increased tax, which has gone up locally by 60 per cent. since 1997 and has risen nationally as well. There is stagnation and decline in the provision of our public services. Our constituents are not just bewildered by the fact that higher taxes are accompanied by cuts in services and teacher redundancies—they are angry as well. On Thursday, voters will have an opportunity to deliver a judgment on Labour's record of taxing more and delivering less. What the Minister must do now is demonstrate that he really understands the anger and frustration felt by people across the country.

6.45 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband)

This debate has illuminated clear differences between the parties about local and national policy. There is a clear choice—to build on progress by supporting the amendment or turn the clock back by backing the motion.

For the benefit of hon. Members who have not attended the whole debate, I want to pick out some highlights. I enjoyed the contributions of my hon. Friend the. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies), the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), my hon. Friends the Members for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), for City of Chester (Ms Russell) and for Workington (Tony Cunningham), the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis). However I want to pick out three contributions in particular. I hope that Members on both sides of the House agree that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made a thought-provoking and thoughtful speech. I think that he and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions know more about local government and housing finance than anyone else in the country, and I believe that they will have an interesting debate about the points that he made. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) took us down the Maesteg branch line to remind us that there is no greater danger to community than unemployment, no greater misery than poverty pay, no greater fear than having your community written off, and no greater hypocrisy than Conservative tears for broken communities.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) deserves mention too. He put at the centre of his speech the fate of Hampstead police station, and made a £2 billion commitment to 40,000 more police officers—not, I hasten to add, all at Hampstead police station. I am sure that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) was sitting behind him when he made that extraordinary £2 billion commitment, although he is not in the Chamber at the moment. The hon. Gentleman still has the reflexes of a shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury—he flinched when the right hon. Gentleman mentioned £2 billion.

Let me say at the outset that I take seriously the representations made to hon. Members on both sides of the House by professionals in our hospitals, schools and police services including, notably, the letters from teachers and head teachers to which there has been reference. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills will write to all local authorities on Friday about money as yet unallocated to schools and will urge them to meet schools to discuss the allocation process, not just in Oxfordshire or Epsom and Ewell but all over the country. Whatever our differences in the House, I hope that there is no difference in our respect for the people who work in our public services. The Government have a duty to meet their concerns and respond to their queries; the House has a duty to stand up for their achievements.

Mr. Edward Davey

Can the Minister tell the House why that money is unallocated? When head teachers and governing bodies are trying to set their budgets for next year, why is that money not there so that they can plan for it? Why is it coming at the last minute?

Mr. Miliband

Money is not coming at the last minute. Announcements were made in the usual way in December, and local authorities still have, we estimate, about £500 million on the returns that they submitted to us. It is early in the financial year, but before any schools start making decisions about the financial prospects for this year it is important that they are aware of all the money that is coming to them, which is why we are saying that every local education authority should sit down with every school in difficulty to ensure that they get the money.

The House has a duty to stand up for the achievements of public servants, but it is noteworthy that today there is not a word of praise in the Conservative motion or from their spokesman about higher standards in schools; not a word about shorter waiting in the health service; not a word about the 27 per cent. reduction in crime according to the British crime survey since 1997. The Opposition talk about betrayal, but theirs is the betrayal of hard work and successful efforts. Rather than running down public servants they should be applauding them. More staff, who are better trained and properly supported, are delivering results across the country. In the health service, there are 300,000 operations a year. Waiting times and waiting lists are falling; every patient is seen and treated in accident and emergency within four hours; serious cancer cases are seen and treated within two weeks; every trust is using booked admissions, and waiting times for heart operations have been halved; and 19 new hospitals are on the way. That is a record of progress, and a record to be proud of.

Chris Grayling

Last week I spoke to a consultant who told me that, simply to meet the Government's targets, staff had been forced at the end of the four-hour waiting time to admit patients to hospital who would otherwise have been sent home an hour later How can that be right?

Mr. Miliband

I am sorry. I thought the hon. Gentleman would congratulate the Government on the £560 per pupil increase in funding for education in Epsom and Ewell since 1997. I am happy to pass on to the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), the case to which he refers. I am proud of the work that has gone into reorganising accident and emergency services to deliver a better service

On our streets, burglary is down 41 per cent., car crime is down 34 per cent., street crime is down 16 per cent. in the first six months of the street crime initiative, and the chance of being a victim of crime is at its lowest for 20 years

We have heard a great deal about schools today, but we have heard nothing about the change from a country which, five years ago, was 42nd in the world education league when the Opposition were in charge. Now, results for primary school children are the third best in the world—a record of progress and a record to be proud of. The chief inspector of schools says that standards of teaching have never been higher. He says that standards of teacher trainees have never been higher

In maths, our 15-year-olds are the fifth best in the world, in English the eighth best, and in science the fourth best. The number of schools in special measures has been halved, and the percentage of pupils reaching level 5 at age 11 has doubled. That is a record to be proud of, and it has been achieved not just by investment, but by reforms that the Opposition have consistently opposed.

The literacy hour proposed by the Government was opposed by the Conservatives. Sure start, which was mentioned by several hon. Members, was opposed by the Conservatives. Even the reduction in class sizes was opposed by them. Excellence in cities, which is now delivering improvement at GCSE at twice the national average, was dismissed by the Conservatives. Performance pay for teachers was opposed, as was reform of the school work force. We propose, they oppose, and standards rise. And what happens? Do the Opposition apologise? [HoN. MEMBERS: "No."] Do they learn? [HON. MEMBERS: " No."] They complain and run down public services. That is the real betrayal in this country.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk)

The Minister is reeling off statistics with which I think he intends to impress people. Has it occurred to him that since this is England, eighth in English in the world is not very impressive?

Mr. Miliband

It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman should intervene on that. The English are tested for their performance in English, the Italians are tested for their performance in Italian and the French for their performance in French, so he should not knock the performance of the 15-year-olds who are doing well in international tests.

The Government's record since 1997 is of rising investment in community services.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Perhaps the Minister could explain to the House why the funding crisis in schools and the missing £500 million, which he tells us he is looking for, have taken so long to become apparent to the Government. Bearing in mind the fact that the Government are usually happy to blame any body for their problems, why is the Secretary of State waiting till Friday to tell us the answers to the missing £500 million?

Mr. Miliband

I can give the hon. Gentleman a clear answer to that. Imagine the row if we had broken the law, broken the purdah and published politically sensitive material before the local elections. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The House must settle down.

Mr. Miliband

The Government's investment is evident in every community in the country. There is a record number of police, over 131,000, up more than 4,000 in one year. There are 10,000 more doctors, 50,000—[Interruption.] The Opposition say they do not believe it, but it is evident in every constituency in the country. They never visit their hospitals. If they went and visited, they would see the difference.

It is significant that the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills could not manage to be present for any of the debate this afternoon. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is the Secretary of State?"] He is standing, listening carefully. Unlike the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), I have a Secretary of State who is willing to be present and back me up for my speech.

Mr. Brady

The Minister's remarks would have more effect if he had been present for more of the debate than he was. He was here for only about half the debate. While he is on his feet, can he explain to us why he thinks Dame Jean Else has threatened to resign as the head of one of the most successful schools in Manchester?

Mr. Miliband

I am afraid that I have absolutely no idea why Dame Jean Else has threatened to resign. What I say to the hon. Gentleman and have said already to Dame Jean Else is that we are committed to sitting down with her and ensuring that the substantial increases in funding that she has had in the past five years continue.

Mr. Cameron

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Miliband

I have taken enough interventions

It is noteworthy that while the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), who will not show his face here, was in charge of education in the No. 10 policy unit, education funding per pupil fell by £120. In schools in 1997, the average pupil had £2,810 spent on them—£120 Less than in 1992. Since 1997, the facts have been clear. There has been an average rise per primary pupil of £740 in real terms; an average rise per secondary pupil of £640; and a rise in capital investment, in head teachers' pay and in teachers' pay. As promised, there has been more investment in our schools

Today, I can report new facts to the House about investment—new facts published by the Office for National Statistics today but which no one has referred to. They are year-on-year statistics. Full-time teacher numbers are up 4,300 on last year. The manifesto pledge of 2001 has been met, met early and met now. Supply teacher numbers are down 2,600 this year. The teacher vacancy rate is down 25 per cent. in a year. It is down 35 per cent. in Yorkshire and Humber, 44 per cent. in the east midlands, 18 per cent. in the north-west and 13 per cent. in the south-east. It is down to below 1 per cent. across the country. Support staff numbers are up by 8,300, the number of teaching assistants by 15,000 and the number of lab technicians by 1,400. That is a record of progress and it is a record to be proud of.

We are the first to say that there is more progress to be made in our public services. They are complex. The challenges are large and we do not pretend that everything is right. Some 1.5 million more people are in work, but there are 1 million more to go. We are committed to that. Some 1 million children have been taken out of poverty, but there are 3 million more to serve. There are record education results, but some children are still unfulfilled.

We are committed to that agenda, but now is not the time to turn the clock back. That is the choice: to build on the reform of investment or rip away that platform of investment and have not more doctors, but fewer; not more police, but fewer; not more teachers and support staff, but fewer. The Conservatives' last education manifesto said that they would match Labour spending pound for pound on education and health. Let us search for that manifesto now; it has even been removed from their website, as they are so ashamed of that commitment. However, the Leader of the Opposition has a new policy—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Survival."] Indeed, he has two new policies, one of which is to survive. He referred to a target of

20 per cent. savings across the board in government spending and said: We are beginning to come up with figures". We are waiting for those figures. Cuts of 20 per cent. across the board would cut, on average, about 12 teachers in every secondary school and about 300 staff in each LEA. [Interruption.] Opposition Members do not like hearing about it because they cannot explain it—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker


Mr. Miliband

They do not like hearing about it—

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to

Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 139, Noes 327.

Division No. 173] [6:58 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Bottomley, rh Virginia (SW Surrey)
Amess, David
Ancram, rh Michael Brady, Graham
Arbuthnot, rh James Brazier, Julian
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Browning, Mrs Angela
Bacon, Richard Burnside, David
Baldry, Tony Butterfill, John
Barker, Gregory Cameron, David
Baron, John (Billericay) Cash, William
Bellingham, Henry Chope, Christopher
Bercow, John Clappison, James
Beresford, Sir Paul Clarke, rh Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
Boswell, Tim Collins, Tim
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Conway, Derek
Cormack, Sir Patrick Maude, rh Francis
Cran, James (Beverley) May, Mrs Theresa
Curry, rh David Mercer, Patrick
Davies, Quentin (Grantham & Stamford) Mitchell, Andrew (Sutton Coldfield)
Davis, rh David (Haltemprice & Howden) Moss, Malcolm
Murrison, Dr. Andrew
Djanogly, Jonathan Norman, Archie
Dorrell, rh Stephen O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Duncan, Alan (Rutland) Osborne, George (Tatton)
Duncan Smith, rh Iain Ottaway, Richard
Evans, Nigel Page, Richard
Fabricant, Michael Paice, James
Fallon, Michael Paterson, Owen
Field, Mark (Cities of London & Westminster) Pickles, Eric
Portillo, rh Michael
Flight, Howard Prisk, Mark (Hertford)
Flook, Adrian Randall, John
Forth, rh Eric Redwood, rh John
Fox, Dr. Liam Robathan, Andrew
Francois, Mark Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Gale, Roger (N Thanet) Roe, Mrs Marion
Garnier, Edward Rosindell, Andrew
Gibb, Nick (Bognor Regis) Ruffley, David
Goodman, Paul Selous, Andrew
Gray, James (N Wilts) Shepherd, Richard
Grayling, Chris Simmonds, Mark
Green, Damian (Ashford) Smyth, Rev. Martin (Belfast S)
Greenway, John Soames, Nicholas
Grieve, Dominic Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Gummer, rh John Spicer, Sir Michael
Hammond, Philip Spink, Bob (Castle Point)
Hawkins, Nick Spring, Richard
Hayes, John (S Holland) Stanley, rh Sir John
Heald, Oliver Streeter, Gary
Heathcoat-Amory, rh David Swayne, Desmond
Hendry, Charles Swire, Hugo (E Devon)
Horam, John (Orpington) Tapsell, Sir Peter
Howard, rh Michael Taylor, John (Solihull)
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Taylor, Sir Teddy
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Tredinnick, David
Jenkin, Bernard Turner, Andrew (Isle of Wight)
Key, Robert (Salisbury) Tyrie, Andrew
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Viggers, Peter
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Walter, Robert
Lansley, Andrew Waterson, Nigel
Leigh, Edward Watkinson, Angela
Letwin, rh Oliver Whittingdale, John
Lewis, Dr. Julian (New Forest E) Widdecombe, rh Miss Ann
Liddell-Grainger, Ian Wiggin, Bill
Lidington, David Willetts, David
Lilley, rh Peter Wilshire, David
Loughton, Tim Winterton, Ann (Congleton)
Luff, Peter (M-Worcs) Winterton, Sir Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Mclsaac Miss Anne
Mackay, rh Andrew Young, rh Sir George
Maclean, rh David
McLoughlin, Patrick Tellers for the Ayes:
Maples, John Mr. Mark Hoban and
Mates, Michael Mr. Robert Syms
Abbott, Ms Diane Banks, Tony
Adams, Irene (Paisley N) Barnes, Harry
Ainger, Nick Barron, rh Kevin
Ainsworth, Bob (Cov'try NE) Battle, John
Alexander, Douglas Bayley, Hugh
Allan, Richard Beard, Nigel
Allen, Graham Beith, rh A. J.
Anderson, rh Donald (Swansea E) Bell, Stuart
Armstrong, rh Ms Hilary Benn, Hilary
Atherton, Ms Candy Bennett, Andrew
Atkins, Charlotte Benton, Joe (Bootle)
Austin, John Berry, Roger
Bailey, Adrian Betts, Clive
Baird, Vera Blackman, Liz
Blears, Ms Hazel Fisher, Mark
Blizzard, Bob Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna
Boateng, rh Paul Flint, Caroline
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Foster, rh Derek
Bradshaw, Ben Foster, Don (Bath)
Brake, Tom (Carshalton) Foster, Michael (Worcester)
Breed, Colin Foulkes, rh George
Brown, rh Nicholas (Newcastle E Wallsend) Francis, Dr. Hywel
Gapes, Mike (Ilford S)
Bryant, Chris Gardiner, Barry
Buck, Ms Karen George, Andrew (St. Ives)
Burnham, Andy George, rh Bruce (WalsallS)
Burstow, Paul Gerrard, Neil
Byers, rh Stephen Gibson, Dr. Ian
Cairns, David Gidley, Sandra
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Gilroy, Linda
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Godsiff, Roger
Campbell, rh Menzies (NEFife) Goggins, Paul
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Casale, Roger Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Caton, Martin Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Challen, Colin Hamilton, David (Midlothian)
Chaytor, David Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Chidgey, David Hancock, Mike
Clark, Mrs Helen (Peterborough) Hanson, David
Clarke, rh Charles (Norwich S) Harris, Tom (Glasgow Cathcart)
Clarke, rh Tom (Coatbridge & Chryston) Harvey, Nick
Havard, Dai (Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Clelland, David Heath, David
Clwyd, Ann (Cynon V) Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Coaker, Vernon Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Coffey, Ms Ann Hendrick, Mark
Coleman, Iain Hepburn, Stephen
Colman, Tony Heppell, John
Connarty, Michael Hermon, Lady
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Hesford, Stephen
Cooper, Yvette Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Corbyn, Jeremy Hinchliffe, David
Cousins, Jim Hodge, Margaret
Cranston, Ross Hoey, Kate (Vauxhall)
Crausby, David Hood, Jimmy (Clydesdale)
Cruddas, Jon Hope, Phil (Corby)
Cryer, Ann (Keighley) Hopkins, Kelvin
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Howarth, rh Alan (Newport E)
Cummings, John Howarth, George (Knowsley N & Sefton E)
Cunningham, rh Dr. Jack (Copeland)
Howells, Dr. Kim
Cunningham, Jim (Coventry S) Hughes, Beverley (Stretford & Urmston)
Cunningham, Tony (Workington)
Dalyell, Tarn Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Darling, rh Alistair Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Humble, Mrs Joan
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Hurst, Alan (Braintree)
David, Wayne Hutton, rh John
Davidson, Ian Iddon, Dr. Brian
Davies, rh Denzil (Uanelli) Illsley, Eric
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Irranca-Davies, Huw
Dawson, Hilton Jackson, Glenda (Hampstead & Highgate)
Dean, Mrs Janet
Denham, rh John Jamieson, David
Dhanda, Parmjit Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Dismore, Andrew
Dobbin, Jim (Heywood) Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Dobson, rh Frank Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Donohoe, Brian H. Jones, Ksvan (N Durham)
Doran, Frank Jones, Lynne (Selly Oak)
Dowd, Jim (Lewisham W) Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Drew, David (Stroud) Joyce, Eric (Falkirk W)
Drown, Ms Julia Kaufman, rh Gerald
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Keeble, Ms Sally
Edwards, Huw Keen, Alan (Feltham)
Efford, Clive Keen, Ann (Brentford)
Ellman, Mrs Louise Keetch, Paul
Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley E) Kelly, Ruth (Botton W)
Field, rh Frank (Birkenhead) Kemp, Fraser
Kennedy, rh Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness) Primarolo, rh Dawn
Prosser, Gwyn
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Purchase, Ken
Khabra, Piara S. Purnell, James
Kidney, David Quin, rh Joyce
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green & Bow) Quinn, Lawrie
Rammell, Bill
Kirkwood, Sir Archy Rapson, Syd (Portsmouth N)
Knight, Jim (S Dorset) Raynsford, rh Nick
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen Reed, Andy (Loughborough)
Lammy, David Reid, rh Dr. John (Hamilton N & Bellshill)
Laws, David (Yeovil)
Laxton, Bob (Derby N) Robertson, John (Glasgow Anniesland)
Lazarowicz, Mark
Lepper, David Robinson, Geoffrey (Coventry NW)
Leslie, Christopher
Levitt, Tom (High Peak) Roche, Mrs Barbara
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Ruane, Chris
Lewis, Terry (Worsley) Ruddock, Joan
Linton, Martin Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Love, Andrew Russell, Ms Christine (City of Chester)
McAvoy, Thomas
McCabe, Stephen Ryan, Joan (Enfield N)
McCafferty, Chris Salter, Martin
McCartney, rh Ian Sanders, Adrian
McDonagh, Siobhain Savidge, Malcolm
McicDougall, John Sawford, Phil
McIsaac, Shona Sedgemore, Brian
McKechin, Ann Sheerman, Barry
MoKenna, Rosemary Sheridan, Jim
Mackinlay, Andrew Shipley, Ms Debra
McNulty, Tony Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Mactaggart, Fiona Singh, Marsha
Mandelson, rh Peter Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Mann, John (Bassetlaw) Smith, rh Chris (Islington S & Finsbury)
Marris, Rob (Wolverh'ton SW)
Meirsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Marshall, David (Glasgow Shettleston) Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Soley, Clive
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Southworth, Helen
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Spellar, rh John
Meacher, rh Michael Squire, Rachel
Merron, Gillian Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Michael, rh Alun Steinberg, Gerry
Milburn, rh Alan Stevenson, George
Miliband, David Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Miller, Andrew Stinchcombe, Paul
Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby) Stoate, Dr. Howard
Moffatt, Laura Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Mole, Chris Stringer, Graham
Morris, rh Estelle Sutcliffe, Gerry
Mudie, George Tami, Mark (Alyn)
Mullin, Chris Taylor, rh Ann (Dewsbury)
Munn, Ms Meg Taylor, Dari (Stockton S)
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Naysmith, Dr. Doug Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Norris, Dan (Wansdyke) Taylor, Dr. Richard (Wyre F)
Oaten, Mark (Winchester) Thomas, Gareth (Harrow W)
O'ESrien, Bill (Normanton) Tipping, Paddy
Olner, Bill Todd, Mark (S Derbyshire)
Owen, Albert Tonge, Dr. Jenny
Palmer, Dr. Nick Touhig, Don (Islwyn)
Pearson, Ian Trickett, Jon
Perham, Linda Truswell, Paul
Picking, Anne Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Pickthall, Colin Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton Kemptown)
Pike, Peter (Burnley)
Plaskitt, James Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Pollard, Kerry Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Pond, Chris (Gravesham) Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Pope, Greg (Hyndburn) Tyler, Paul (N Cornwall)
Pound, Stephen Tynan, Bill (Hamilton S)
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Vaz, Keith (Leicester E)
Walley, Ms Joan
Price, Adam (E Carmarthen & Dinefwr) Ward, Claire
Wareing, Robert N.
Watts, David Wray, James (Glasgow Baillieston)
White, Brian
Whitehead, Dr Alan Wright, Anthony D. (Gt Yarmouth)
Willis, Phil
Wills, Michael Wright, David (Telford)
Winnick, David Wright, Tony (Cannock) Wyatt, Derek
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Tellers for the Noes:
Woolas, Phil Jim Fitzpatrick and
Worthington, Tony Mr. Ivor Caplin

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No.31 (Questions on amendments):—

The House divided: Ayes 298, Noes 162.

Division No. 174] [7:14 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Connarty, Michael
Adams, Irene (Paisley N) Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Ainger, Nick Cooper, Yvette
Ainsworth, Bob (Cov'try NE) Corbyn, Jeremy
Alexander, Douglas Cousins, Jim
Allen, Graham Cranston, Ross
Anderson, rh Donald (Swansea E) Crausby, David
Armstrong, rh Ms Hilary Cruddas, Jon
Atherton, Ms Candy Cryer, Ann (Keighley)
Atkins, Charlotte Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Austin, John Cummings, John
Bailey, Adrian Cunningham, rh Dr. Jack (Copeland)
Baird, Vera
Banks, Tony Cunningham, Jim (Coventry S)
Barnes, Harry Cunningham, Tony (Workington)
Barron, rh Kevin Dalyell, Tarn
Battle, John Darling, rh Alistair
Bayley, Hugh Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Beard, Nigel David, Wayne
Bell, Stuart Davidson, Ian
Benn, Hilary Davies, rh Denzil (Llanelli)
Bennett, Andrew Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Benton, Joe (Bootle) Dawson, Hilton
Berry, Roger Dean, Mrs Janet
Betts, Clive Denham, rh John
Blackman, Liz Dhanda, Parmjit
Blears, Ms Hazel Dismore, Andrew
Blizzard, Bob Dobbin, Jim (Heywood)
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Dobson, rh Frank
Bradshaw, Ben Donohoe, Brian H.
Brown, rh Nicholas (Newcastle E Wallsend) Doran, Frank
Dowd, Jim (Lewisham W)
Bryant, Chris Drew, David (Stroud)
Buck, Ms Karen Drown, Ms Julia
Burnham, Andy Edwards, Huw
Byers, rh Stephen Efford, Clive
Cairns, David Ellman, Mrs Louise
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley E)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Fisher, Mark
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna
Casale, Roger Flint, Caroline
Caton, Martin Follett, Barbara
Challen, Colin Foster, rh Derek
Chaytor, David Foster, Michael (Worcester)
Clark, Mrs Helen (Peterborough) Foulkes, rh George
Clarke, rh Charles (Norwich S) Francis, Dr. Hywel
Clarke, rh Tom (Coatbridge & Chryston) Gapes, Mike (llford S)
Gardiner, Barry
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) George, rh Bruce (Walsall S)
Clelland, David Gerrard, Neil
Clwyd, Ann (Cynon V) Gibson, Dr. Ian
Coaker, Vernon Gilroy, Linda
Coffey, Ms Ann Godsiff, Roger
Coleman, Iain Goggins, Paul
Colman, Tony Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) McKenna, Rosemary
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) Mackinlay, Andrew
Hamilton, David (Midlothian) McNulty, Tony
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Mactaggart, Fiona
Hanson, David Mandelson, rh Peter
Harris, Tom (Glasgow Cathcart) Mann, John (Bassetlaw)
Havard, Dai (Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) Marris, Rob (Wolverh'ton SW)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Marshall, David (Glasgow Shettleston)
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Hendrick, Mark Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Hepburn, Stephen Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Heppell, John Meacher, rh Michael
Hermon, Lady Merron, Gillian
Hesford, Stephen Michael, rh Alun
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Milburn, rh Alan
Hinchliffe, David Miliband, David
Hodge, Margaret Miller, Andrew
Hoey, Kate (Vauxhall) Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Hood, Jimmy (Clydesdale) Moffatt, Laura
Hope, Phil (Corby) Mole, Chris
Hopkins, Kelvin Morris, rh Estelle
Howarth, rh Alan (Newport E) Mudie, George
Howarth, George (Knowsley N & Sefton E) Mullin, Chris
Munn, Ms Meg
Howells, Dr. Kim Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Hughes, Beverley (Stretford & Urmston) Naysmith, Dr. Doug
Norris, Dan (Wansdyke)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Humble, Mrs Joan O'Hara, Edward
Hurst, Alan (Braintree) Olner, Bill
Hutton, rh John Owen, Albert
Iddon, Dr. Brian Palmer, Dr. Nick
Illsley, Eric Pearson, Ian
Irranca-Davies, Huw Perham, Linda
Jackson, Glenda (Hampslead & Highgate) Picking, Anne
Pickthall, Colin
Jamieson, David Pike, Peter (Burnley)
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield) Plaskitt, James
Pollard, Kerry
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Pond, Chris (Gravesham)
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Pope, Greg (Hyndburn)
Jones, Kevan (N Durham) Pound, Stephen
Jones, Lynne (Selly Oak) Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Joyce, Eric (Falkirk W) Primarolo, rh Dawn
Kaufman, rh Gerald Prosser, Gwyn
Keeble, Ms Sally Purchase, Ken
Keen, Alan (Feltham) Purnell, James
Keen, Ann (Brentford) Quin, rh Joyce
Kelly, Ruth (Bolton W) Quinn, Lawrie
Kemp, Fraser Rammell, Bill
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Rapson, Syd (Portsmouth N)
Khabra, Piara S. Raynsford, rh Nick
Kidney, David Reed, Andy (Loughborough)
Knight, Jim (S Dorset) Robertson, John (Glasgow Anniesland)
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Lammy, David Robinson, Geoffrey (Coventry NW)
Laxton, Bob (Derby N)
Lazarowicz, Mark Roche, Mrs Barbara
Lepper, David Rooney, Terry
Leslie, Christopher Ruane, Chris
Levitt, Tom (High Peak) Ruddock, Joan
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Russell, Ms Christine (City of Chester)
Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Linton, Martin Ryan, Joan (Enfield N)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Salter, Martin
Love, Andrew Savidge, Malcolm
McAvoy, Thomas Sawford, Phil
McCabe, Stephen Sedgemore, Brian
McCafferty, Chris Sheerman, Barry
McCartney, rh Ian Sheridan, Jim
McDonagh, Siobhain Shipley, Ms Debra
MacDougall, John Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
McIsaac, Shona Singh, Marsha
McKechin, Ann Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Smith, rh Chris (Islington S & Finsbury) Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton Kemptown)
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Soley, Clive Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Southworth, Helen Tynan, Bill (Hamilton S)
Spellar, rh John Vaz, Keith (Leicester E)
Squire, Rachel Ward, Claire
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis Wareing, Robert N.
Steinberg, Gerry Watts, David
Stevenson, George White, Brian
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Stinchcombe, Paul Wills, Michael
Stoate, Dr. Howard Winnick, David
Strang, rh Dr. Gavin Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Stringer, Graham
Sutcliffe, Gerry Woolas, Phil
Tami, Mark (Alyn) Worthington, Tony
Taylor, rh Ann (Dewsbury) Wray, James (Glasgow Baillieston)
Taylor, Dari (Stockton S)
Taylor, David (NW Leics) Wright, Anthony D. (Gt Yarmouth)
Taylor, Dr. Richard (Wyre F)
Thomas, Gareth (Harrow W) Wright, David (Telford)
Tipping, Paddy Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Todd, Mark (S Derbyshire) Wyatt, Derek
Touhig, Don (Islwyn)
Trickett, Jon Tellers for the Ayes:
Truswell, Paul Jim Fitzpatrick and
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE) Mr. Ivor Caplin
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Duncan, Alan (Rutland)
Allan, Richard Duncan Smith, rh Iain
Amess, David Evans, Nigel
Ancram, rh Michael Fabricant, Michael
Arbuthnot, rh James Fallon, Michael
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Field, Mark (Cities of London & Westminster)
Bacon, Richard
Baldry, Tony Flight, Howard
Barker, Gregory Flook, Adrian
Baron, John (Billericay) Forth, rh Eric
Berth, rh A. J. Foster, Don (Bath)
Bellingham, Henry Fox, Dr. Liam
Bercow, John Francois, Mark
Beresford, Sir Paul Gale, Roger (N Thanet)
Boswell, Tim Garnier, Edward
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) George, Andrew (St. Ives)
Bottomley, rh Virginia (SW Surrey) Gibb, Nick (Bognor Regis)
Gidley, Sandra
Brady, Graham Goodman, Paul
Brazier, Julian Gray, James (N Wilts)
Breed, Colin Grayling, Chris
Browning, Mrs Angela Green, Damian (Ashford)
Bruce, Malcolm Greenway, John
Burnside, David Grieve, Dominic
Burstow, Paul Gummer, rh John
Butterfill, John Hammond, Philip
Cameron, David Hancock, Mike
Campbell, rh Menzies (NE Fife) Harvey, Nick
Cash, William Hawkins, Nick
Chidgey, David Hayes, John (S Holland)
Chope, Christopher Heald, Oliver
Clappison, James Heath, David
Clarke, rh Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Heathcoat-Amory, rh David
Collins, Tim Hendry, Charles
Conway, Derek Horam, John (Orpington)
Cormack, Sir Patrick Howard, rh Michael
Cran, James (Beverley) Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Curry, rh David Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Davies, Quentin (Grantham & Stamford) Jenkin, Eiernard
Keetch, Paul
Davis, rh David (Haltemprice & Howden) Kennedy, rh Charles (Ross Skye S Inverness)
Djanogly, Jonathan Key, Robert (Salisbury)
Dorrell, rh Stephen Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Kirkwood, Sir Archy Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Lansley, Andrew Sanders, Adrian
Laws, David (Yeovil) Selous, Andrew
Leigh, Edward Shepherd, Richard
Lewis, Dr. Julian (New Forest E) Simmonds, Mark
Liddell-Grainger, Ian Smyth, Rev. Martin (Belfast S)
Lidington, David Soames, Nicholas
Lilley, rh Peter Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Loughton, Tim Spicer, Sir Michael
Luff Peter (M-Worcs) Spink, Bob (Castle Point)
Mcintosh, Miss Anne Spring, Richard
Mackay, rh Andrew Stanley, rh Sir John
Maclean, rh David Streeter, Gary
McLoughlin, Patrick Swayne, Desmond
Maples, John Swire, Hugo (E Devon)
Maude, rh Francis Tapsell, Sir Peter
May, Mrs Theresa Taylor, John (Solihull)
Mercer, Patrick Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Mitchell, Andrew (Sutton Coldfield) Taylor, Sir Teddy
Tonge, Dr. Jenny
Moss, Malcolm Tredinnick, David
Murrison, Dr. Andrew Turner, Andrew (Isle of Wight)
Norman, Archie Tyler, Paul (N Cornwall)
Oaten, Mark (Winchester) Tyrie, Andrew
O'ESrien, Stephen (Eddisbury) Viggers, Peter
Osborne, George (Tatton) Walter, Robert
Ottaway, Richard Waterson, Nigel
Page, Richard Watkinson, Angela
Paice, James Whittingdale, John
Paterson, Owen Widdecombe, rh Miss Ann
Pickles, Eric Wiggin, Bill
Poitillo, rh Michael Willetts, David
Price, Adam (E Carmarthen & Dinefwr) Willis, Phil
Wilshire, David
Prisk, Mark (Hertford) Winterton, Ann (Congleton)
Randall, John Winterton, Sir Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Redwood, rh John
Robathan, Andrew Young, rh Sir George
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Roe, Mrs Marion Tellers for the Noes:
Roisindell, Andrew Mr. Mark Hoban and
Ruffley, David Mr. Robert Syms

Question accordingly agreed to.

MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House commends the Government's policies on community services and applauds its commitment to neighbourhood renewal, social inclusion and the quality of urban and rural community life through the protection and enhancement of key local services; further applauds the Government's achievements of a stable economy, improved economic prosperity and social justice, increased community services investment, reduced crime and safer communities; welcomes this year's increased funding for education of over £2.6 billion, 11.6% extra, and more than £250 million greater than pressures; notes that since 1997–98 spending per pupil has risen in real terms every year compared with a 4% real terms cut between 1992–93 and 1997–98; further welcomes the Government's NHS and social services modernisation to devolve power and resources locally to Primary Care Trusts and to end delayed discharges from hospital; notes that between 2003–04 and 2005–06 social care funding will grow in real terms by 6% per annum on average, building on the improvements already made to community services through the 20% real terms increase since 1997; welcomes this year's fairer funding of local government, producing, for the first time ever, an above inflation grant increase for every local authority and region in England, with a 25% real terms increase in grant since 1997, compared with a 7% cut under the last 4 years of the last Conservative government; notes that Conservative councils have imposed on average 16.2% increase in council tax; and condemns the cynical opportunism of trying to blame the Government for irresponsible tax increases by Conservative councils.

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