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Patsy Calton (Cheadle): I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell). It is rare to hear such a human and humane speech in this place. His modesty was most pleasing and his reflective speech, which was delivered with humour, was very welcome.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this debate. As may be expected, Liberal Democrat Members support the speedy ratification of the treaty of Nice. Without its reforms, it is difficult to see
I have the honour to represent the constituency of Cheadle, where I have lived and brought up my family for the past 27 years. It is in the nature of things that I have replaced Mr. Stephen Day, my predecessor, who represented the area for 14 years. I did not always agree with him, but I found him to be pleasant and civilised on the occasions we met. I know that he worked for his constituents, especially with regard to the Barlow Clowes collapse. They have told me how much they appreciated the compensation that they gained.
The Cheadle constituency is not quite the same in terms of area or population as it once was when my late friend Dr. Michael Winstanley was its representative. However, what he said about the constituency in his maiden speech in 1966 is just as true today:
Cheadle is a beautiful constituency throughout the year, with tree-lined roads and excellent parks. Bruntwood park holds the prestigious green flag award. Bramall Hall is one of the foremost tourist attractions of the north-west and, indeed, of the country. My constituency has riverside and country walks with views over the Peak district.
Perhaps just as important, we have a wealth of voluntary organisations and faith groups that all contribute to the well-being of the area. I expect that the recent census will demonstrate a significant increase in the ethnic and faith minority population. It is important for us to recognise and meet their wish to play a full part in the life of the wider community.
Nowadays, Cheadle is a constituency that is overburdened with road traffic and suffering from a lack of regular, reliable public transport. It has the questionable distinction of having had a third of a road built by 1995the central section of the Manchester airport eastern link road. However, the road failed to link the developing Manchester airport with anything. Indeed, the third of the MAELR that has been built serves simply to funnel in traffic through the villages of the constituency, with Woodford, Bramhall and Heald Green being particularly badly affected. They have traffic levels above those that normally trigger a determination in marginal constituencies to build bypasses.
My constituents and I eagerly awaited the detailed proposals of the south-east Manchester multi-modal studySEMMMS. I understand that it will tell us that the planners of 70 years ago were correct in their assumption that the entire road network needed to be built. The developing Manchester airport has no good transport links to the south-east, and my constituency suffers from car and freight traffic accessing the airport and the motorway network. My constituents' problems are compounded by the lack of regular or, in some parts, any good quality public transport. This is particularly hard on low-income families, those living in rural areas and an increasingly elderly population.
My predecessor brought to the attention of the House the plight of the people of Chesters Croft, a small, idyllic hamlet made up of permanent mobile homes. At the public inquiry into the MAELR 10 years ago, those concerned were led to believe that they would be compensated for noise nuisance in a comparable way to other home owners. Over the past 10 years, there has been an abortive change in the law but still no compensation for my increasingly elderly constituents. They have a moral right to have their case considered and dealt with expeditiously. They believe that they may be forced to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Unfairness is the theme of my speech. Cheadle is one of the three and a half constituencies that make up the local government area of Stockport metropolitan borough council. My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), with whom I share a boundary, is also a councillor in Stockport. Until recently, I was the deputy leader of Stockport council and its chair of social services.
The problem that I wish to speak of is the unfairness of the Government grant and European funding system. A number of metropolitan authorities are in the same position. Every pensioner, every school child and every person on a low income in my constituency is affected every day by the blunt instrument of European and local government finance and the even blunter instrument that is the council tax.
Stockport is the lowest spending metropolitan borough per head and yet we have a gap of £23 million between standard spending assessment levels and what we must spend to keep our education and social services spending near the average. Students at the Kingsway school in my constituency have funding of almost £1,000 a head less than students who attend a school with a similar catchment area that is located little more than a mile away in a neighbouring authority area. It is possible that the school where I am a governor, Bramhall high school, which has an excellent academic record, has the lowest per pupil spend in the country, despite the fact that a significant number of its students come from very low-income families.
On the assumption that house prices in Stockport have increased at roughly the same rate as those in the region as a whole, Stockport's grant loss since 1990 has been estimated as 16.8 per cent., or some £4.5 million. That loss has occurred because there has been no revaluation. Data losses have amounted to £4 million this year, including £1 million on the area cost adjustment. In terms of that adjustment, it must be right for areas that have to pay salaries that are above the norm to be compensated, but such compensation should be based on actual and not finger-in-the-air costs.
The waste disposal levy applied in Greater Manchester is apportioned on the council tax base and not in respect of tonnage. To put it crudely, the more that my constituents recycle while Manchester fails to do so, the more that they pay. Many of them are avid recyclers, so I am sure that they are happy that they are doing the right thing by the planet, but I am equally certain that they would be furious to know that they are paying more than they should, to make up for the less environmentally friendly habits of neighbouring authorities in Greater Manchester.
Stockport metropolitan borough council is on a crusade to improve its services. It wishes to demonstrate that it can meet challenging improvement targets. The interests of consumers and citizens are at the heart of its vision to put people first, but the unfairness in the system of allocating grants from central Government and from Europe is making it extremely difficult to deliver the improvements. To put it bluntly, the grant is too low and the council tax is too high in my constituency. The averages of whole wards and boroughs that are used in formulae for national and European funding do not recognise extremes of wealth or poverty.
The level of need that is acknowledged by social services in my constituency and in Stockport metropolitan borough as a whole far exceeds the funding allocated under the Government formula. Our schools produce excellent results on a shoestring. The majority of my constituents already pay more in income taxes than people in most other places. It should not be necessary for people on low incomes to pay extra for their council tax because Government and European grant aid is unfairly distributed. Those on low incomes should be remembered first by a Government who put social inclusion high on their agenda.
I am grateful to the House for its attention. The Liberal Democrats do not regard the agreements reached at Nice as perfect or as the final word on the reform of European Union structures or policies. There is an agenda for reform in Europe which Britain can lead. We believe that the Government have a duty to galvanise debate among the citizens of the country.
Peter Hain: I welcome the hon. Member for Cheadle (Patsy Calton) to the House. I am certain that she will be a formidable fighter for Cheadle. I remember from my youth that the area has a long Liberal tradition. One of the Members of Parliament for Cheadle to whom she referred, Dr. Michael Winstanley, was extremely well known. I am sure that it is a great honour for her to follow in his footsteps and in those of the other predecessors whom she mentioned. She spoke about the unfairness and blunt instruments of European Union and local authority finance. I might add that those matters are not entirely the responsibility of a Foreign Office Minister, but I am nevertheless sure that the Government will take note of her concerns and seek to redress them as she continues to speak for her constituents.
I hope that you, Sir Michael, will not mind if I express condolences to those on the Opposition Front Bench who, to a man and woman, backed the losing candidate in the Conservative leadership election, with the right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) coming top, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) second, and the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) third. Long may the saga continue.