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Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the increased investment to which I referred in responding to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins). There has been a substantial increase in police numbers, and those numbers are not affected by our proposal this year. We are not proposing to cap Cumbria police authority this year; we are proposing a nomination. We will obviously listen to representations, and I shall take on board my hon. Friend's request for an all-party delegation to put forward whatever concerns it wishes to express on behalf of Cumbria police authority. When we have received the representations and considered any points that are put to us, we will reach final decisions, but I can assure him that this is not a universal cap, because it is proposed only to nominate Cumbria police authority, and not to designate it, so there would be no reduction in this year's budget.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I shall try to call every hon. Member who has been standing, but I hope that forthcoming contributions will be briefer than those that we have heard on behalf of Cumbria. That would be extremely helpful.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): When I was in local government, I always thought that capping was both a crude and a crass way of controlling local government finance. My position has not changed, unlike that of the Minister, whose statement reinforces the reasons why. Durham fire authority has worked responsibly over the past 12 months with ODPM officials to strip out £1.3 million from the budget. As the authority is only 1.6 per cent. over the cap, why did that discussion and work not continue? Having been added to the list, Durham could face re-billing, which would cost £700,000 and do nothing to improve fire safety or good relations between local government and Whitehall in Durham.
Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend may have misunderstood the statement, as there is no question of Durham fire authority being required to re-bill. We are not proposing to designate Durham fire authority; we are simply proposing to nominate it. That indicates that we will either set a maximum budget for 200506, or make a notional budget for 200405 and take that into account when considering next year's budget and council tax increases. There is no question of re-billing in the current year.
My hon. Friend referred to the work that we have been doing with Durham, along with other fire authorities, to help to modernise the fire service, improve the service that is delivered to local people and save lives. We will go on doing that, but it is not possible to have individual discussions with individual authorities when dealing with an issue about using capping powers that must be applied across the board in a fair and impartial way to all authorities, according to set principles. That is what we have done.
Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con):
I congratulate the Minister on capping Torbay, a third of which is in my
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constituency. Does he agree that the Torbay Liberals have been cocking a snook at the Government by increasing council tax by more than five times the rate of inflation and promising £100 cashback to every council tax payer if they got into office? Is he aware that, rather than cutting out waste, the Torbay Liberal Democrats favour surveys on tombstones, which they say it is their statutory duty to carry out on health and safety grounds, but have closed the loos in Torbay because they say that it is not their statutory duty to maintain them? What can he do to prevent Torbay council, which is facing capping, from causing council tax payers further inconvenience?
Mr. Raynsford: I cannot say that I will visit Torbay to see the local facilities, but Torbay council should operate prudently and cautiously. It received a generous 6.9 per cent. grant increase from the Government this year, and the proposed 9.9 per cent. council tax increase is excessive. This is not, however, the first time that it has made large council tax increases, because it also made them when it was under Conservative control.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): On balance, I welcome the Minister's comments about Hereford and Worcester fire authority and West Mercia constabulary, but I am not sure whether the Labour chairman of the fire authority will see it that way. Does he understand that the consequences could be serious, because those authorities can no longer impose the Chancellor's stealth tax to make up the gap between what the Government expect them to provide and what they can provide under the rigged funding formula, which monstrously discriminates against Herefordshire and Worcestershire?
Mr. Raynsford: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments. He will recognise that we are trying to proceed in a measured, cautious and responsible way to ensure that authorities budget prudently. However, the figures show that the Government have given substantial additional grant to all authorities: for the past two years, every authority in England has received an above-inflation grant increase, which did not happen when the Conservative party was in power.
Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): Will the Minister urgently meet the local authority in Nottingham to discuss his capping proposals? The city is affected by a degree of consternation, because, prior to the authority's inclusion in The Sunday Times lists this week, there had been no indication either at a national level or through the Government office for the region that the budget in any way fell foul of Government guidelines on capping. If the cap is a result of a misunderstanding about the apportionment of costs previously attributable to the fire authority, will the Minister discuss the matter with the local authority and the three local Members of Parliament, which will hopefully resolve the confusion and disagreement on an amicable and constructive basis?
We will certainly listen to representations from Nottingham, as with any other authority, but the local authority should not be confused. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime
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Minister, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), and I repeatedly said in this House that we expected authorities to budget prudently this year, and that we would use our council tax powers if authorities did not do so.
In mid to late-February, an evening paper in Nottingham carried an article speculating whether the council tax increase would actually be much higher than that suggested by the authority. Because the authority's figures implied that the increase would be low, we did not to invite it in for a meeting. The evening paper carried a comment from an ODPM spokesperson, who said that if Nottingham proceeded with its 7.8 per cent. increase, which was the figure quoted at that time, it would be in the danger zone for capping, so the evidence that Nottingham would be open to capping if it did not moderate its budget is clear. However, I am happy to receive representations from Nottingham, and I hear my hon. Friend's request for a delegation.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): As the only hon. Member from Herefordshire who is present in the Chamber, I tell the Minister that the people of Herefordshire will be triply affected by today's announcements that Herefordshire council is being capped, that the fire authority is being capped and that the police authority is being nominated. Is he aware of the attitude of the leader of Herefordshire council, who tries to blame almost everybody else for the council tax rise? The council blames the Government, the previous Administration and the police and fire authority. Indeed, the deputy leader of the council blames me for the cap because I wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister about my constituents. Will the Minister tell the House that the only people who are to blame for today's announcement are the Conservative and independent leaders of Herefordshire council? Will he assure the council and my constituents that projects that we have worked for in Herefordshire for a very long time, such as flood defence for the city of Hereford and the Rotherwas relief road, will not be affected by our council's poor management, and that the Government will listen on the campaigns that we have worked so hard for?
Mr. Raynsford: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and note that his tone is rather different from that of his Front Benchers. He did not describe as "absurd" our approach to Herefordshire council, West Mercia police authority or Hereford and Worcester fire authority. Herefordshire council received an excellent 7.5 per cent. grant increase, and, given those circumstances, it is difficult to understand why it is trying to proceed with a very large council tax increase. We will obviously listen to representations from Herefordshire council and other interested parties, but the Government's action is a measured response to unreasonable pressure, which will cause considerable hardship and anger among council tax payers in the hon. Gentleman's county if it is not dealt with.
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