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Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): The Government promised to bring in proposals for reform of the local government superannuation pension scheme by 1 March. What has happened to those proposals, and does the Minister accept that what he has been saying is far too complacent? Collectively, local authorities have record levels of debt and unsustainable pension schemes. There is tremendous resentment among ordinary council tax payers that they have to contribute four or five times as much to the pensions of chief executives on more than £100,000 a year than the chief executives themselves contribute.
John Healey: I shall write to the hon. Gentleman, who has been reading too many lurid and badly based articles about local government pension schemes. First, there is a legislative and regulatory constraint on local government pension fund deficits being passed on to council tax payers. Secondly, from the beginning of the current financial year, starting last year, the reforms I have put in place in the local government pension scheme mean that employees are paying more and employersin other words, taxpayerscontributions are capped. Beyond that, it is not right to use private sector pension scheme formulae as a comparison with the position of local government pension schemes. They are regulated differently and use different financial accounting methods. It is like trying to compare apples and pears.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Among the 86 authorities whose council tax increase has been between 4.5 and 5 per cent. this year is Slough, despite its having an excellent Labour council. The reason is that Slough has more people than was estimated by the Office for National Statistics. I am deeply concerned that we shall continue to be bumping at the top level of council tax increases, because on the basis of the three-year settlement, Government grant will not be able to meet the needs of Sloughs growing population. Can my right hon. Friend offer any comfort to my local council tax payers and my local council that they will have the services they need, properly funded, in future years?
John Healey: The short answer to my hon. Friend is yes. Partly prompted by the case that she has made so assiduously in recent years, we now have a very detailed programme to improve population and migration statistics. We will make sure that those improvements take place, so that for the next spending review period, any decisions on local government funding, or other public sector funding that draws on those statistics, can be based on the improved population and migration statistics. She is right about the quality of her Labour council, which has a new leader, Rob Anderson. I visited the area several weeks ago to see for myself the innovation, the new services, and the serious way in which the council is going about not just managing the financial pressures that it is under, but making sure that it can improve services for people right across Slough.
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con):
The Minister will be aware from discussions that he has had with leaders of one of my local authorities and with me that what is excessive in percentage terms is not always excessive in cash terms. North Dorset district council continues to be one of the lowest taxing authorities for band D in the country, with a band D council tax of
just over £100. I wonder whether the Minister could help a small local authority in my area with a very low band D council tax next year, by having a discussion, or asking his officials to have a discussion, with the councils officials, so that we do not end up playing roulette with council tax bills, and so that the council is aware of the parameters within which it should be working?
John Healey: I think that I can help in two ways. First, I can help by setting out, as I have done already, the funding that the hon. Gentlemans council, and other councils, can expect from central Government for the full three years of this settlement period. That will mean that they know where they stand, and can plan and manage for that period. Secondly, I point out that the regional improvement efficiency partnerships are in place. They are led by local government experts and specialists in the field. They have the sort of expertise from which his council may well benefit, as it prepares to manage its services this year and plan ahead for next year. I will ensure that the regional partnership gets in touch with his chief executive and offers what help it can, as the council looks ahead to next year. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make representations to me about the funding for his council in the third year of the three-year settlement, I will of course see him at the appropriate time.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): May I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister how much I welcome the extra £3 billion for local authorities this year, but could he provide us with a little more information? Will he list for this House the total reserves held by every local authority, work out what percentage those reserves are of their annual net budget, and present that information in a league table?
John Healey: We do not, at present, collect that information council by council, but we publish annually the reserves that local councils have in total. The last figures that we published put the figure at almost £14 billion. That is clearly part of the financial calculation and budget planning undertaken by all local councils. Particularly during this period of economic pressure, it makes sense for councils to look hard at the level of their reserves. Having sufficient reserves is necessary if there is to be prudential management, but the high level of reserves held by some councils might, in this period of pressure, be put to good use to maintain services and to keep council tax pressures down.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Many councillors and tax payers in Cambridgeshire and many other areas will listen with astonishment to the Minister bragging about an increase of 4.2 per cent. in central Government funding when they see that the figure for their council is closer to just 1 per cent. Is it any surprise that they will naturally conclude that many other authorities must be getting considerably more than 4.2 per cent.? They will not be surprised to hear the Minister say that Labour councils are levying a lower average tax rise, because it is quite clear that the Government look after their own. Counties such as Cambridgeshire, where Labour has no representation, get no money.
The hon. Gentleman has been around long enough to understand that we have a formula, which we consult on and debate in this House, for
distributing funding to local councils. It applies equally across the country. He will also be aware that this Government introduced a system of floors. Without it, some of the councils that he may have in mind would, by rights, get less than they do. That floor is funded by taking the money off the rises for other authorities. He asks whether the residents of Cambridgeshire are aware of that; I ask him whether they are aware that his party plans, if it gets into power, to slash grants to local councils by £240 million from next month. That would, at a stroke, put an extra 1 per cent. on their council tax.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I note that in his inquiries about a possible capping of authorities, my right hon. Friend is including both the budget and the council tax levied by those authorities. Does he accept, however, that over a period of time, the axis of what people pay in council tax is increasingly becoming divorced from the measure of the band D council tax payment? Is he therefore looking at measures to provide, in future years, a more accurate depiction of what may be excessive council tax increases? As far as capping is concerned, does he accept that if the Opposition had their waythey want to freeze council tax for a period, and would apparently never change the basis on which council tax is valued or chargedcouncil tax would be centralised to such an extent that local authorities would not even have the choice of whether to levy a low council tax or a high council tax?
John Healey: My hon. Friend is right, in that what we have heard from the Conservative party is a con. It is a con in two ways. First, it is a con to suggest that it will be a freeze for all councils, as has been promised, because the freeze will apply only to those that join the scheme. Secondly, it is a con to suggest that somehow that will give more power and decisions to the local area, because the constraints will still be set at the centre. He asked me whether I am considering seriously some of the principles of council tax. I know that he follows the subject, and is a source of fresh policy thinking almost without compare in this House. I am seriously considering a set of suggestions, and am looking very carefully at the ideas that he has submitted. I have a good deal of interest in them, and look forward to discussing them with him.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Earlier this afternoon, the Minister said that any extra costs imposed on local councils by Government Departments would be reimbursed. Does that mean that local authorities in Norfolk will be reimbursed for the cost of responding to his Departments discredited, deeply unpopular and incompetently handled LGR?
John Healey: For the benefit of the House, LGR is local government reorganisation. Members should not make the mistake of accepting the hon. Gentlemans description of the way in which it is being handled. The short answer to his question is no, because from the outset of the process, we made it clear that if local authorities were going to play a part, they should cover the costs. We also made it clear that those costs should not be excessive. Clearly, councils that choose to use the legal process to try to influence the policy process should account for those costs to local residents. Finally, the important LGR process started with proposals that we received from councils, including councils within his area
John Healey: Including councils within his area, the county of Norfolk. We will bring the process to a conclusion as soon as we can, because there are important questions at stake concerning the future of local governance and local services for people in his county.
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has had to make a tough and difficult statement today, and I recognise, as I am sure that he does, that local government is a difficult beast to wrestle with. The Conservative spokesman mentioned a council tax freeze in Scotland; that has not come about without significant pain, and cuts in services, right across the country. The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party advocate a local income tax. I am sure that my right hon. Friend does not need me to tell him that those proposals lie in a bin in Holyrood.
John Healey: I have to concede to the House that I do not know a great deal about council tax in Scotland; I have my hands full looking after council tax in England. However, I note the points that my hon. Friend makes, including the fact that what was advocated by the Administration there has been put on ice, and is not, despite being a manifesto undertaking, likely to be put into practice.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Will the Minister kindly look into what can be done to help several hundred of my constituents in the estates of Cepen Park North and Cepen Park South in north Chippenham, just on the outskirts of Calne? Through no fault of their own, they have been moved into Chippenham and Calne town councils respectively, which means that their council tax has increased not by 3 or 4 per cent. but by 17 and 20 per cent. this year, causing outrageous pain to quite a large number of people. Perhaps they had to move into those town councils, but would it not be possible to phase in that increase over a number of years? No one in the local authorities or town councils is saying that that would be illegal, so the Government could allow it to happen.
John Healey: I will look into the electoral ward arrangements raised by the hon. Gentleman. The bigger picture in Wiltshire is of a new council that will be up and running from next week. It will make massive savings for the people of Wiltshire, and we will see over the coming months the advantage of having one level of local councils, rather than two, because that will give stronger leadership to his county, as well as better services to his residents.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Would the Minister like to conclude his statement by congratulating Councillor John Bailey and all the councillors at Wellingborough on the zero council tax increase this year? However, would he help with a serious matter relating to a local hotel that has been in existence for at least 16 years with no capital changes? Unfortunately, this year, it is paying £3,646 in council tax, but next year, it has been asked to pay £6,135I understand that that has something to do with the removal of transitional relief. In a time of recession, that is a major problem for the hotel.
John Healey: The hon. Gentleman is not talking about council taxhe is talking about business rates. He would have done better to have been in the Chamber yesterday, rather than today, when we debated that. I will write to him and explain how the business rate system works.
That this House has considered the matter of defence in the UK.
Tragically, we begin another defence debate against the backdrop of further loss of life in our armed forces. Two weeks ago, the 152nd member of the forces died in Afghanistan, taking the total fatalities there and in Iraq to 331. Closer to home, two lives have been appallingly lost on our own streets, with the murder of Sappers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey in Northern Ireland on 7 March. I cannot imagine that they envisaged being gunned down in cold blood at their base as they bought a final pizza before deploying to Afghanistan. Our thoughts and deepest condolences are with the families of these brave people and with those rebuilding their lives after serious wounds. Those who sacrifice most are quite rightly at the centre of the agenda and of media coverage, but the armed forces do not view themselves as victims. They stand for far more than that: honour; duty; sacrifice; commitment. Oft mocked as unfashionable, but they are surely qualities to which the whole of society should aspire. It is a privilege from a personal point of view to work with these extraordinary people.
I would like to focus this afternoons debate on the essential relationship between the armed forces and society and the role that Government must play in that. Every day, the men and women of our armed forces are asked to do incredibly difficult things on our behalf in some of the most dangerous countries in the world. Tragically, some of them pay the ultimate price. It is therefore our duty to ensure that the balance between what they do for us and what we do for them in return is correct. We must look carefully at the interdependence that exists between the armed forces, the society from which they recruit and to which they ultimately return, and the Government who require so much of them.
When we think about what the military do for us today, the overwhelming image is of soldiers, sailors and airmen bravely fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Those operations have a direct bearing on the safety of our streets back here in the UK. Our people are defeating terrorism there to stop it coming here. Similarly, they will soon complete a magnificent job in southern Iraq, leaving Basra transformed from how they found it six years ago. Quite rightly, we regularly debate operations overseas in this House, and I want to use todays theme of defence in the UK to spotlight the activities and the wider role that the armed forces play in the fabric of our society.
Operationally, it is worth reminding ourselves that the Royal Navy has provided a continuous independent nuclear deterrent at sea since 1969. That is the ultimate guarantee of our national security, and it involves a submarine under the sea, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I drifted on to the conservativehome website the other day, as I do from time to time, and I looked at the debate there. That is part of the democratic process, and I accept that parties have to have these debates, but it would be enormously helpful to the people who provide that service to our nation if Opposition Members clarifiedthey can do so now, if they wish, or in their speechestheir support or otherwise for that continued provision.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I am terribly disappointed. For a moment, I thought that the Minister was going to say that he had read my long essay on the vital need for the nuclear deterrent, which appears on the conservativehome website. I am terribly disappointed that he appears to have overlooked it.
Mr. Ainsworth: I have read the hon. Gentlemans contribution to that debate but, equally, I read what others say. There is a difficulty for Opposition Members, is there not? On the one hand, they are committed to a bigger Armyor are they? Clarification would be most welcome. On the other hand, I think they are committedor are they?to no increases in defence spending and, indeed, no promise to maintain the current level of defence spending. That is the Opposition positionnot that of the hon. Gentleman, who is always careful about these things, but it is certainly the position of his hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor. The gap has to be filled somehow. The question of where the cuts would be made is an intriguing one.
Mr. Ainsworth: We do that, and we will continue to do that, and I am here in order to do that. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman that there is a duty on Her Majestys Opposition. Opposition Members have made statements that are clearly out of line with one anotherthere are commitments to increase defence spending in one way, but no explanation of how that would be paid for in another area, as would be inevitableso I invite them now, or when they make their speeches, to enlighten the House as to where the cuts might fall to pay for the commitments that they desire to make.
The Royal Air Force continues to ensure round-the-clock air defence. I saw some of the Typhoon aircraft and crews that do that when I visited RAF Coningsby late last year. Those quick-reaction aircraft are ready to launch and intercept any aircraft approaching the United Kingdom that might pose a threat, which is not a task or responsibility to be underestimated.
The House will know of the niche capabilities, such as explosive ordnance disposal operators and search-and-rescue crews, who continue to carry out acts of supreme bravery and professionalism in support of the emergency services. More widely, I wonder where we would have been in the aftermath of the floods in 2007, or the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, without military support. The armed forces helped save the day on each of those occasions. All this is possible because we have flexible forces, fit for purpose and with an indomitable spirit at their core.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The Minister will be aware that the safety deadline for upgrades to the Nimrod fleet is 31 March, five days away. Can he update the House on how many aircraft have had both sets of improvements made, on the hot air ducts and the fuel seals? On how many Nimrod aircraft will both of those improvements have been completed by the deadline?
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