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Local Authorities (Expenditure)

Volume 973: debated on Wednesday 14 November 1979

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10.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he satisfied with the economies made by local government service since 3 May.

I am assured by the local authority associations that the vast majority of authorities are co-operating with my request for reductions in expenditure in 1979–80. I welcome this assurance.

Is the Secretary of State aware that local authority directors of social services have said that it is mere wishful thinking to believe that any more savings can be made from good housekeeping. Does not that sum up the Government's policy?

I am aware that whenever one undergoes rounds of public expenditure constraints everyone involved overstates his case.

In the interests of encouraging local authorities to effect further economies, will my right hon. Friend consider what advice he will give to local authorities to preclude the setting up of more quangos, one of which is being proposed by the West Midland county council?

I have made it clear that I think that one of the most effective ways of achieving the economies that I require is to keep a tight control over the number of people recruited to local government.

Is the Secretary of State aware that one of the groups hardest hit by the Government's economies is that of young families with one wage-earner receiving a wage just above supplementary benefit level? That group will he hit hard by these economies, including the loss of free school meals, yet it has received no benefit from the cuts in income tax, and so on. Is not that group of young families among the hardest hit by the Government's policies?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to see what happens when the decisions are implemented, not when they are widely canvassed as options in advance. He should remember that we are looking for 1½ per cent. less spending this year than last year, and a further 1 per cent. less next year. That is hardly what one could call a ravaging of the Welfare State.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the campaign that is being indulged in by Lambeth council and others against the Government's cuts, and that taxpayers' and ratepayers' money is being used to produce newspapers in order to call people on to the streets to demonstrate against the policies of a recently elected Government? Would he care to comment on that?

I am aware of the campaign, headed by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), which has given rise to certain claims by a handful of authorities. So far as I understand it, they work on the assumption that the local authorities of all other hon. Members should suffer so that they, this handful, should have more.

Bearing in mind the Secretary of State's assertions that vast amounts of money will be saved by abolishing quangos, will he tell the House how much it will cost to set up the urban development corporations in London Docklands and the Liverpool dockland? Does he agree that it is irresponsible of local authorities to embark upon grandiose schemes when, at the same time, basic services are being cut? What action does the right hon. Gentleman intend to take against his own local authority, which is spending £5 million on new council offices at Crowmarsh in Oxfordshire?

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is asking me to involve myself in every decision of every local authority. I have no more intention of doing that with my own local authority than I have with the hon. Gentleman's.

On previous Wednesdays the right hon. Gentleman has said that he intends to involve himself in individual decisions of individual local authorities to prevent those that are spending too much from doing so. Where do we stand? Are we to have his promise fulfilled, or is he running away?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman has misunderstood me. I am interested in constraining the overall levels of expenditure, not in telling local government how it should achieve those levels.

11.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is proposing a new system under which precise guidelines will be given to each local authority as to the acceptable expenditure for each of its various activities.

Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to deny categorically the contents of the report in the Financial Times on Monday 29 October, which suggested that he would introduce a unitary system of grants to local authorities, lay down how much they could spend on each of their services and set out how much they should raise by way of rates to finance them?

On Friday I shall be holding the statutory annual consultations with local government on all sorts of matters that are relevant to this year's and next year's financial provision and the structure of rate support grant. If the House will bear with me, I think that it is right not to anticipate that statement.

Although my right hon. Friend is quite rightly resisting the temptation to lay down precise guidelines, will he, nevertheless, encourage the local authority assocations to produce comparative figures of cost per unit, for whatever service is provided, so that the public can judge which authorities give value for money and which do not?

I have announced my intention to take powers in the Local Government Bill that is shortly to be introduced to achieve precisely that purpose.

Will the Secretary of State explain to the House how he can produce such comparisons of input without showing the comparisons of output?

I believe that it will be possible to deal with a whole range of statistics on both sides of the equation. I shall have wide-ranging consultations, in which I am sure that all hon. Members will want to take part, on precisely which statistics are to be called for. One thing that I shall certainly call for is the publication of manpower figures for each authority so that everybody locally can understand whether his authority is taking on more people or constraining its manpower ceilings.