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Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab):
Members of Parliament from Nottingham, including my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell), who sits on the Front Bench, are surprised by the announcement. The excellent and
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improving Nottingham City council has worked closely with the Government to tackle chronic problems with education and law and order. The surprise stems from the fact that we had no letter of warning, unlike other authorities, and that we were not called in to meet Ministers or officials, unlike other authorities.
We cannot make policy on the back of what may or may not appear in the local paper. We were assured by departmental officials at the Government office for the region level that we were on course for a reasonable settlement. I hope that the Minister will concede that there has been a communications breakdown, to put it charitably, and that he will reinforce the point, which he has already expressed, that he will meet the leader of the council and the chief executive to allow Nottingham to do what it wants to do and come into compliance immediately.
Mr. Raynsford: I agree with my hon. Friend's final view, but I must say that our position was not based on newspaper reportsit was based on the figures in the council's own press releases of 3 March and 9 March, both of which referred to a 4.5 per cent. increase in council tax. If he is saying that the ODPM should have invited in the authority for a warning meeting, all I can say is that we would have done so if the authority had produced the figures. We did not receive any figures, even via the Government office for the region, indicating that a warning meeting was necessary; instead, the evidence suggested that the council was considering a much lower increase.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): Understandably, today's announcement has caused considerable concern in Essex. In the conclusion to his statement, the Minister said, "We will listen carefully to the cases put forward by the authorities that I have named." May I take him entirely at his word? Is he prepared to accept a delegation, including the chief fire officer, from the Essex combined fire authorityI would also like to be involvedso that we can put our case to him in person? He knows that the situation is complex and that there are a number of nuances, not least the fact that, in this one-off situation, the fire authority has had to establish a sizeable reserve for a service that deals with a county containing more than 1.5 million people. Will he listen to us and allow us to put our case to him face to face, because we would be grateful?
Mr. Raynsford: I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I have said to all hon. Members who have made similar requests, that we will certainly listen carefully to any representations, and I will certainly consider his request to receive a delegation. He knows that the process must be completed within 21 days because of the statutory obligation. I do not want to fail to consider everyone simply because it is not possible to programme all meetings into that period, but I will do my best.
Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab):
Is my right hon. Friend aware that law and order is one of my constituents' biggest concerns? My local police authority has caused some problems, which were
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recently highlighted in a critical inspection report. Will he therefore carefully examine the information from Northamptonshire police on how grant decisions have impacted disproportionately on it? Will he also consider next year's position and examine the particular service difficulty problems, so that my constituents experience both reasonable council tax bills and a steady improvement in policing that is consistent with the Government's increased investment?
Mr. Raynsford: I hear my hon. Friend's comments. She is right that concerns have been expressed about Northamptonshire police authority, and my colleagues in the Home Office drew my attention to them. We will do all that we can to help the police authority improve its performance and meet the needs and expectations of the people whom it is there to serve. It has received a large budget increasethe third highest for a police authority in the countryand under the principles that I set out, it is not possible to exempt it. My hon. Friend knows that we do not propose to cap it this year, and simply propose to nominate it. I hope that that gives her some comfort, and we will certainly listen to representations from her and anyone else affected by its work.
Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): It will come as a great disappointment to people in my constituency that he has not capped Warwickshire county council and Warwickshire police authority. The county council precept has risen by 6.5 per cent. this year on top of 8 per cent. last year and 12 per cent. the year before; and the police authority precept has gone up by 8 per cent. this year on top of 15 per cent. last year and 20 per cent. the year before. People simply cannot afford those inflation-busting increases. Surely, those authorities are either setting responsible budgets, in which case the Government are not giving them enough grant, or setting irresponsible budgets, in which case the Government should cap them.
Mr. Raynsford: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I wish that he would speak more often to his Front-Bench colleagues, who take a rather different view on capping. We looked carefully at all relevant authorities, including Warwickshire county council and Warwickshire police authority. The hon. Gentleman will have heard the principles that I set out, and he will know that neither the county council nor the police authority fell within those criteria. We want all authorities to budget prudentlythat is the message that the Deputy Prime Minister and I have given repeatedly in this House, and which I gave again todayand we expect them to look very carefully at reducing even further the increases that they have made in the current year. The capping principles are measured and are designed, unlike the old capping regime, not to penalise crudely all authorities. Neither Warwickshire council nor Warwickshire police authority came under those measures this year, but they should certainly keep a close watch on their budgets.
Phil Sawford (Kettering) (Lab):
Is my right hon. Friend aware that Northamptonshire is currently funded below the formula funding level and that as a result it has a shortfall of some £2.2 million? To bridge
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that funding gap, the police authority has introduced a precept that is perhaps higher than it otherwise would have wished. In those circumstances, does my right hon. Friend believe it reasonable or fair to penalise the police authority?
Mr. Raynsford: We are not penalising the police authority, but nominating it because its budget increase was the third highest of any in the country and involved a significant increase in the precept imposed on council taxpayers. I have to say to my hon. Friend that the record shows that Northamptonshire police authority has received above-inflation grant increases in each of the past two years. Funding will continue to go into Northamptonshire. We want to work with the police authority to meet the needs of its people and to provide the high-quality service that they expect.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Surely today's statement represents a failure of Government policy with regard to fire authorities. After all, the Minister was advised by fire authorities that trouble would be caused by the modernisation process and transitions to combined authorities. Under his proposals, 20 per cent. of fire authorities are to be capped. When he talks to those authorities, will he ensure that fire safety comes first, not his accountant's slide rule? As for what he said to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), I think that he is suffering from selective memory and using selective statistics. This is clearly a case of selective authorities.
Mr. Raynsford: I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, who served on the Committee that considered the Fire and Rescue Services Bill earlier this year, that the Government are absolutely committed to saving lives and to reducing the number of deaths, and we have put in place many measures to help to improve the efficiency of fire authorities all over the country. That is compatible, as the Bain report said, with making significant efficiency savings, for which there is considerable scope. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman and his party have not been more assiduous in looking for ways in which rather outdated and expensive practices can be reformed to ensure that fire authorities provide a high-quality service that saves lives and meets the needs of their communities. That is what we are committed to doing, and nothing in today's statement is incompatible with it. All that we are doing, unlike the hon. Gentleman's party, is protecting council tax payers from unreasonable rises in council tax.
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