HL Deb 19 April 1990 vol 518 cc108-12

3.24 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

What criteria were used to select the local authorities whose community charges are to be capped.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Hesketh)

My Lords, the principles adopted for the designation of authorities in England for charge capping were as follows. An authority's budget was judged to be excessive if it exceeded its standard spending assessment or SSA by at least 12-5 per cent. and by at least £75 per adult. But an authority was desigriated for capping only where its overspend per adult above the 12-5 per cent. £75 limit of excessiveness was at least £26 per adult.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister not aware that to any fair minded person those criteria seem very strange when some Labour authorities are spending considerably less than some Conservative authorities which are levying considerably higher charges than they are? When speaking on the charge capping in another place the Secretary of State indicated that he had no doubt that there would be a further parade of bleeding stumps pleading with him on this matter. Is the Minister aware that one of the bleeding stumps that has emerged is the Secretary of State's own constituency, where small businesses are now up in arms because of the serious effect that the present financial arrangements will have on them? Can we therefore look forward to the Secretary of State finding other criteria to get him off the hook in his own constituency?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State looked carefully at producing what he felt was a suitable level of capping. I should have thought that 12.5 per cent. and £75 per adult are straightforward figures rather than convenient ones. If the noble Lord wishes to put down a Question on the uniform business rate, which I believe he was referring to with regard to my right honourable friend, I shall be more than happy to answer it when I see it on the Order Paper.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many families, particularly large families, will find themselves in extremely difficult financial circumstances, whether the boroughs in which they live are capped or not? Have the Government anything in mind to help these families who will be in difficult financial circumstances when the poll tax gets under way? Will some help be provided at least to alleviate their suffering?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the Government are well aware; that different circumstances exist in different boroughs. That is why we have the system of SSAs. Your Lordships may be interested to know that the Government's contribution in Lambeth, for example, is £1,358 per adult per annum compared with £485 in the borough of Bromley.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Barnsley is being charge capped and expects to face a cut of £10 million? Why is that? Is he not aware that Barnsley is an area of high unemployment and consequently many people are on social security and live in poverty and distress? Therefore the social needs in that area are great. A cut of £10 million will mean more distress and will be seen as a punishment to that community. On what basis does the Secretary of State for the Environment consider a cut of £10 million to be "reasonable and appropriate", as he stated in a letter to the local authority in Barnsley?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I should repeat to the noble Lord the reply that I have already given which showed that the range in the amount of money involved in an SSA is considerable. I refer again to the figure of £485 and to a figure as high as £1,358. The figure in Barnsley was £142 million. It dropped to £132 million because Barnsley was one of the 21 authorities which came within the criteria set by my right honourable friend.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, as Reading, Maidenhead and Wokingham in the Tory-controlled county council of Berkshire are all levying more than £450 per adult in poll tax, why has Berkshire not been charge capped?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the simple fact is that the critiera were set on a similar basis to those which existed before under the former grant related expenditure scheme. We think that we have set the criteria at a fair level. They apply equally to all authorities. Berkshire did not fall into the category that other authorities did.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

Does the Minister not think that it is for the people to decide whether they are paying too much rather than the Government? In May people will be able to tell councils whether they consider they are paying too much by not voting for them.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, it is a fact that people had no chance to make any statement at the ballot box with regard to the first setting of the community charge.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Minister was very wise to gabble his first Answer to my noble friend Lord Dean because he knows that it was incomprehensible. That is evidenced by the fact that no one from his Benches has sought to join in. Are there not three much simpler ways in which the Government could have gone about poll tax capping if they insist on doing so? They could have done it on the basis of increased spending, but that would have resulted in Berkshire being poll tax capped and not Brent; they could have based it on the increased bill for any individual, but that would have resulted in Dartford and Leominister being poll tax capped but not Haringey; or they could have done it on the absolute level of the poll tax, but that would have resulted in Windsor and Maidenhead being capped and not Calderdale. Is it not evident that the Government are searching for difficult and complicated formulae in order to avoid simple justice?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the noble Lord always produces seductive arguments. I could equally reply to him that we could have decided not to exclude overspending by the Inner London Education Authority, but that would have affected many Labour authorities which would have been capped had we not done so.

Lord Elton

My Lords, is it not the case that the Government's present system recognises the fact that different authorities have both different requirements and different resource bases? Is that not what my noble friend has said to members of the Opposition who persist in talking about absolute terms which bear no relation to the circumstances on the ground?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, it is true that occasionally, if I do not look at my brief I find myself beginning to believe that all authorities are assessed on the same basis. Then when I look back at my brief I am reminded that there are huge and generous concessions to take account of local difficulties.

Lord Ross of Newport

My Lords, will the Minister reconsider his actions after the outcome of the elections next month? Is it not up to the public to decide whether they want additional services, and if they are prepared to pay for them they should vote for them at the ballot box?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, that is why we introduced the community charge.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, will the noble Lord either confirm or deny that the average overspending by Conservative-controlled councils in this country is 31 per cent. and yet not one of them has suffered poll tax capping? Is that just a coincidence?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, a number of percentages have been bandied about in the very large number of questions which I have answered from this Dispatch Box over the past few months. My right honourable friend chose a figure which was broadly similar, on an assessment basis, to that under the old system. The fact that the authorities concerned are not Conservative-controlled has nothing to do with the fact that the 21 authorities meet the criteria.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, the noble Lord has not answered my question. Will he confirm or deny that the average spending above the government standard by Conservative-controlled councils is 31 per cent.?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the figure which I can confirm is that the higher rates charged by authorities across the nation would have resulted in a domestic rate increase of some 30 per cent. That is why a large number of people who have not paid rates before have been surprised by the level of local authority expenditure.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, the Minister has not answered my question. Will he confirm or deny the figure that I gave?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the Government's assessment was based on local authority expenditure and not on political considerations. That is why I do not have an answer to the noble Lord's question.

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