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Community Services

Volume 404: debated on Tuesday 29 April 2003

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We now come to the main business. I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

12.37 pm

I beg to move,

That this House expresses its deep concern at the collapse of community services in Britain and the adverse effect on social inclusion, neighbourhood renewal, regional prosperity, and the quality of community life; condemns the policies of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which have resulted in the unfair distribution of local authority grant, causing divisive regional disparities, and centralised decision-making and services; regrets that the only solution the Government has to these problems is an expensive unnecessary additional layer of regional government; further condemns the Government's failure to improve local health care provision by tackling the necessary reform of NHS services; deplores the absence of policies to protect rural communities from the effects of the deep recession in farming; and recognises the Government's total failure to protect community services, resulting in a crisis in school funding, an increase in violent crime, a deteriorating transport system, and a threat to important local services including community pharmacies, sub-post offices and residential care homes.
I am sorry that the Deputy Prime Minister cannot be with us for today's debate. He has had a close family bereavement, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences and sympathy to him and his family.

We have called this debate today in response to a real and growing threat across this country: the breakdown of our local communities. One reason why I regret the absence of the Deputy Prime Minister is that this debate, on the destruction of community life in this country, is not confined to local government. The failure and breakdown of our local communities is being accelerated by the attitude, strategy and tactics of the whole Government: a Government who are convinced that they know how to run people's lives better than they themselves do; a Government who think that communities should fit the model that they prescribe; a Government of red tape, initiatives and bureaucracy, of deceits, gimmicks and hype. Above all, they are a Government who do not trust people, and who do not trust communities to go their own way and live their own lives.

This is, in short, a story about the way central Government deal with local councils and local institutions. The Government tell them what to do, and then blame them when things go wrong. They dictate how they can spend their money, and then blame them for raising taxes. The result is all too familiar; indeed, it is the story of this Government. People pay more and more. That has led to a breakdown of trust between local people and local politicians, but the blame often lies not at the local level, but here in Westminster; more often than not in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

A community should be a place where people feel at home, safe and secure; a place where they feel in control of their own lives and have a sense of belonging. A community can be any size and it does not matter whether it has a rural or urban character. However, in our inner cities, the suburbs and the countryside today, any sense of belonging has been replaced by a sense of helplessness and frustration, alienation and anger. Much of that is a direct result of the Government's policies.

Let us examine one of the biggest problems facing communities throughout the country: crime. Communities break down when local people lose control of their streets, when the elderly and vulnerable are unable to walk outside at night for fear of being attacked, when vandalism and graffiti go unchallenged and destroy local environments, and when the fear of crime has a crippling effect on people's lives. The Government are losing the war on crime.

Given that crime is decreasing, when the right hon. Gentleman talks about the crippling effect of the fear of crime, is he not guilty of stoking up the fear of crime and creating the crippling effect?

Let us start with the fiction favoured by the Government—that crime is going down. The crime figures about which the hon. Gentleman talks are based on the crime survey, which, as he should know, does not include much drugs crime or crime against youths; the so-called victimless crimes. All those crimes are omitted. As a result, the figures underestimate the level of crime. If the hon. Gentleman wants a test of the real index of crime, he should go and talk to people in his constituency and find out whether they believe that crime is going down.

Last year, 97 per cent. of communities in England and Wales saw an increase in some forms of crime. Violent crime is up by 28 per cent. Worse still, gun crime has risen by 80 per cent. since 1997; it is worse in the inner cities, but not only there. New figures reveal that many people in communities throughout Britain today are more likely to be mugged than residents of the Bronx in New York. Unbelievably, that is true in Lambeth, Hackney, Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham, Reading, Salford, Leeds, Middlesbrough and many other areas. However, far from getting a grip on the problem, the Government are leaving many communities to suffer alone.

The Government promised that local communities would be able to deal with disruptive young people by imposing new all-encompassing antisocial behaviour orders. As only the present Government can, they then made those orders so complicated and bureaucratic that few have been imposed at all. We were promised 20,000 antisocial behaviour orders by now, but we have not had even 1,000. Yet that is a success in comparison with child curfew orders, of which we have seen none at all; not one.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as the Rowntree Charitable Trust pointed out, people are in so much despair about the detection of crime that they no longer bother to report it? That is one of the reasons why crime appears to be going down.

My hon. Friend is right. Another reason is that fewer police officers are on the streets today to fight crime. Across the country, local police stations are closing to the public. As the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) should know, here in London a decision has been taken to close Hampstead police station outside office hours. Clearly, criminals in Hampstead only ply their trade from nine to five.

The Government are also doing away with local justice; 96 local magistrates courts have closed since 1997 and more closures are in the pipeline. Justice moves further and further from local people. Remote justice is poor justice, but that is the justice that more and more people are being given. As a result, more serious crimes are not only committed, but go unpunished. The proportion of crimes solved has fallen every year since 1998. Across the country, communities are suffering because decent, hard-working people are being oppressed by a lawless minority. That is the result of failure not by our police, but by politicians.

Before the right hon. Gentleman moves away from policing, I draw his attention to the example of Blackpool, where the Tower project is in operation. Police forces from all over the country are coming to have a look at what is happening there. The police are working with the health service, doctors and voluntary organisations to address the needs of drug abusers. That has achieved a substantial reduction in crime. Blackpool is an example of a town where the community does exist and where people work together. The multiplicity of agencies working together has led to a huge reduction in crime.

That was an interesting mini-speech; almost an advert for the hon. Lady's local council. Sadly, of course, Blackpool has many other problems, but I want to return to the questions of crime and of police on the streets, which the hon. Lady did not mention. Until we have more police officers on the streets fighting crime—with the burden of form filling removed from their shoulders—and until we have true neighbourhood policing in this country, we will never be able to reclaim our communities for the honest citizen. That is what we are committed to; an extra 40,000 police officers on our streets. That is a real and necessary commitment that we will meet and which this Government will not.

Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in welcoming the increase of more than 300 officers in the South Wales force since 1997, and the fact that six officers in Maesteg are funded under the Communities First scheme? Will he also welcome the opening of the Maesteg police station, and of a substation in Ogmore Vale? All that has happened in the past few years. Will he join me in congratulating the South Wales force?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing that to my attention. I shall return to the question of local police funding in a few moments, and he will hear what I have to say on the matter then. However, so much for policing for the moment. How many other local services are under threat? Those services include local care homes, railway branch lines, community pharmacies and, of course, the post office network. In recent weeks, my postbag—like the postbags of many other Opposition Members—has been filled with letters of concern about closures of local post offices. Across the country, hundreds of smaller post offices are threatened with closure because of the Government's decision to force people to have their benefit payments paid into their bank accounts.

However, in the face of opposition from local people across the country, the Government have refused to help. When post offices close, communities lose not just a postal counter, but the hub of the community. Opposition Members will continue to fight to keep post offices open, without the Government's help.

Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on the fact that, during his party's period in office, 3,500 post offices closed?

I am more impressed by the size of the Minister's folder than by the dimensions of his comment. Let us put the matter exactly in context. In every year of the previous Parliament, the Government closed more post offices—548—than at any time in the Parliament before that, under the Conservative Government, when the figure was 100. The Minister's figures are nonsense.

Will my right hon. Friend now reflect on the fact that the post offices that closed under the previous Conservative Government were mainly the result of demographics as people's shopping habits changed? They did not close because the Conservative Government deliberately withdrew the means of funding for the payment of benefits, as the Labour Government have done.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Post offices are closing entirely because of the Government's actions and their unwillingness to deal with the consequences of those actions. The Government's heavy-handed actions are not confined to post offices.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the case of the post office in Flimwell in my constituency? The postmistress was robbed twice in the past month. The Post Office is holding her responsible for half of the money taken in the more recent robbery. It has issued an ultimatum to the Cutmores, who run the office, to hand back more than £1,000. The way that they are being treated is obscene, and the people in Flimwell are certain that there is a hidden Labour agenda to close the rural post office network.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the treatment of one of his constituents. It is a serious point, and Labour Members should take it seriously. He also raises a point to which the Minister may wish to reply. At his last Question Time, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister about the behaviour of the Post Office and whether it was true that it had an incentive programme for its management to close more post offices. Surprisingly, he did not know, but he told me that he would write to me. Then he told me that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry would write to me, but nor did she know the answer. Then the Post Office sent me an answer full of such Orwellian, managerial gobbledegook that I can assume only that the answer was yes. May we have a proper answer today? Does the Post Office plan to close as many post offices as it can?

I shall move on from that heavy-handed consequence of the Government's policy to the next one. Many of Britain's communities have relied for years on the willingness of local people to offer their services to help their neighbours and fellow residents. The Government are actively discouraging that. Sometimes it happens on a small scale. In Eastbourne, for example, a or he that operated alongside the local swimming pool has closed because Government regulations have pushed costs up so far that it is no longer economic to run it. But the same applies in the draconian register of interests imposed on parish councillors, which has discouraged people across the country from undertaking an historic and important role. In one ward in Hambleton in Yorkshire, not far from my constituency, none of the parish councils has a full quota of candidates, and two do not have even the quorum necessary to form a council. I asked why that was so, and the answer was the heavy-handed and expensive new code of conduct and all its procedures. As a councillor from Herefordshire put it:
"Parish councillors have done a superb job for nothing over the years. Now they simply won't come forward."
The Government have produced a major solution to a minor problem, and it is driving good people away from involvement in their communities.

Community services are in decline and community involvement is being discouraged. All that is leading to the destruction of community life in both town and country. Let us consider the countryside. The farming industry on which we all rely is in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s. In England alone, nearly 70,000 jobs have been lost from the farming sector since the Government came to power. Yet their only solution—their policy priority—was to focus on destroying another piece of the countryside's way of life by banning hunting. That is their answer.

In our towns and cities, any semblance of community life is being destroyed. Take Britain's second city, Birmingham.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Mr. Tony McNulty)

indicated dissent.

The Minister says I should take it; perhaps we will.

After 19 years of Labour control, Birmingham is failing on housing, failing on social care for children, and failing on care for the elderly. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis)—a Labour Member—said that the elderly deserve better from that Labour council. By any test, Labour in Birmingham has failed.

Might the right hon. Gentleman be interested in the following snippet from Susan Axford, a Conservative candidate, who said:

"This is in spite of massive additional government grants to councils such as Birmingham."?

I rest my case.

The Deputy Prime Minister has shown that he has no proposals to counter the problems. Instead, his sustainable communities plan—unsustainable communities plan, as it is more properly called—proposes 200,000 houses in four new dormitory towns in the south-east. What have the Government done to provide support for those new communities? There is not enough transport, not enough health care and, we discover today, not even enough water. The Government literally cannot run a bath, let alone a policy.

Meanwhile, the Deputy Prime Minister wants to knock down vast areas of empty housing in the north, not least in his home town of Hull. His plan is to bulldoze the north and concrete over the south, and it does nothing to address the root cause of the problems that we face.

The Minister for School Standards is sitting on the Government Front Bench, but my right hon. Friend has not mentioned the impact on areas that face substantial new housing of the funding crisis that is forcing many local schools to make teachers redundant. How will schools find places for people moving into the areas affected by the house building?

That will clearly be a problem in the areas to which the communities plan applies, but it is a problem elsewhere, too, and I shall return to it.

Let me talk first about the Government's latest piece of financial gerrymandering. They have rigged the local government funding formula to reward badly run Labour councils with more money—the very point made for me by the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham).

As the right hon. Gentleman claims that the Government have rigged the grant system to reward inefficient Labour councils, will he tell us whether his local authority of the East Riding of Yorkshire is an inefficient Labour council, as it has received an increase in grant of more than 8 per cent. this year?

It is in no overall control, I am sorry to say, but that may change. Since the Minister mentions my area, I shall ask him for an answer. Why do schools up and down the country face deficits between £100,000 and £240,000 because of the Government's settlement? Those words are not mine, but those of a leading headmaster in East Riding.

The Minister should answer another point, too. We have had the recent comprehensive performance assessments of councils. Leaving aside the corporation of London, which I accept differs from the rest, I note that five of the best-rated councils received the lowest settlement while one received the highest. Of the worst councils, five received the highest settlement, and one the lowest. Perhaps the Minister would explain how he rewards virtue under his new gerrymandered system. That system transfers £60 from every Conservative council tax payer to every Labour council tax payer in the country. It is greatly to the credit of Conservative councils that, in spite of that increase, the average Conservative council still manages to deliver better services for lower tax than those provided by councils controlled by any other party.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there ought to be greater transparency? Is he aware, for example, that Lichfield district council raised its council tax by only 3 per cent., while the Labour-controlled Staffordshire county council increased council tax by 18 per cent.? Because district councils collect the council tax, there is sometimes confusion. How can we make it clear that Conservative councils put council tax up by less than others but deliver more?

My hon. Friend makes a good point on the general question of transparency. I predict that the Minister for Local Government and the Regions will tell us that everyone received an increase above inflation. That would be appropriate if the requirements on councils were the same every year and if they faced the same level of costs years on year, but that is precisely what is not happening.

The British public will understand only too well. They know that the blame for the 60 per cent. average English council tax rise since 1997 lies squarely with the Labour Government. All councils are forced to meet more and more Government targets, and to fund more and more Government projects from their own pockets. They take on more responsibilities and costs, from recycling fridges to implementing dozens of inspection regimes. Employer contributions to the local government pension scheme have increased by £300 million as a direct result of the £5 billion a year pension tax that the Government introduced early in the last Parliament.

It seems that £300 million is a recurring figure: it is also the cost to local authorities of the Chancellor's decision to raise employers' national insurance contributions. Good councils are being forced to push up council tax locally because the Government refuse to be honest about what they are doing. By palming extra responsibilities and costs on to local councils without giving them the resources, the Government seek to blame local councils for their tax increases, but local people know the truth.

Does my right hon. Friend recall, from his recent visit to Eastbourne, the palpable anger of people there who face a 38 per cent. rise in the local council element of council tax, which is the fourth highest in the country? My constituents suffer from Labour meanness nationally and Liberal Democrat incompetence locally.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am sorry that only two Liberal Democrat Members are in the Chamber to pay attention to it. If there were more of them, they might learn a lesson.

The issue involves not only direct local authority funding, but associated matters. For example, let us consider what has happened to the police precept. This relates to the question put by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). Over the past six years, the average English shire authority has been forced to push up the precept by an amazing 127 per cent. In my area, which is also the Deputy Prime Minister's area, the precept has been forced up by nearly 150 per cent. since the Government came into office. While the Government like to say that they are increasing the number of police officers—albeit by only 3 per cent.—it is local police authorities that are actually doing it and local people shoulder the cost. Again, the Government are using local authorities as their covert tax collectors.

Nowhere is that more evident than in recent stories about the crisis in school funding that has developed over the past few weeks. Teachers and teaching unions have warned of job losses throughout the United Kingdom. In some counties, redundancy notices have already gone out.

The crisis is replicated across the country. In Plymouth, up to half the schools may be forced to set illegal budgets next year in an attempt to dig themselves out of the hole into which the Government put them. Heads have already warned that up to 100 teachers and 200 assistants face the axe in September. Pupils in secondary, primary and special schools may have to be sent home because of that situation.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Cambridgeshire county council, which is Conservative controlled, is very pleased with its education funding allocation? It is one of the authorities that has benefited enormously from the redistribution of funding, which is a much fairer system than the previous one.

I am happy to hear that, but it is sad for the rest of the country. The issue is not confined to a single area. I referred to Plymouth, and earlier I mentioned my county, where there are good schools that have strong traditions and perform well but face possible redundancies as a result of shortfalls of between £100,000 and £240,000. That arises entirely from the Government's funding arrangements.

My right hon. Friend may want to contrast the situation in Cambridgeshire with that in Oxfordshire, where the average deficit for each secondary school is £114,000. Some schools have deficits of £250,000. One head teacher wrote to tell me:

"I have been a teacher for 27 years…in all my years of experience I have never known such a critical situation in school budgets."
Does not the responsibility for that lie squarely with the Treasury Bench?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. We have seen the unfortunate spectacle of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills attempting to persuade people that the funding shortage in local schools is nothing to do with the Government—the point made by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell)—but everything to do with local councils. It is like watching the Iraqi Information Minister putting on one of his more spectacular performances—and about as convincing.

Even the people closest to the Government do not believe them. One of the Government's special advisers, Fiona Millar, says that her child's school faces cuts because, first, the Government have changed the way that they allocate money to councils. Secondly, there has been a significant increase in the contribution that schools have to pay to national insurance contributions. Thirdly, there has been a significant increase in schools' contributions to the teachers' pensions fund, and fourthly, there has been a significant reduction in the grant that the school receives from the school standards fund. There we have it: at least one of the Government's special advisers is being straight with us. The fact is that councillors, teachers and governors know the truth, and so do pupils and parents.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in at least one local education authority, 160 more teachers are employed than in 1998? That local education authority is the East Riding of Yorkshire council—in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency.

No doubt that is why a leading spokesman for the area's head teachers said that the Government settlement was the worst that he had ever seen.

No, I must make some progress.

People are paying more, but the money is being frittered away in the waste and bureaucracy created by the Government. The money is not getting to the pupils who need it most—yet one more example of people working hard but being taxed harder. People are paying more and more but they are getting less and less in return.

It is nice to know how good things are in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but does my right hon. Friend realise that, in Essex, the Government are giving away less with one hand than they are taking away with the other through national insurance increases and other costs that they have imposed. There will be teacher shortages in Essex during the next year. In my constituency, almost every primary school—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) is shouting statistics. They do not matter. Next year, children in my constituency will not have enough teachers to teach them. That is a fact and it is the Government's fault.

My hon. Friend is right. The sad thing about those statistics is that such figures have tragic implications for the lives of young children and their education. The damage done will be impossible to recover.

The result is that people feel disenchanted with politics and fed up with their local councils. People no longer think that local councils can make a difference to their lives because they are merely branch offices of central Government. The Government are presiding over the slow death of local government. The very institutions that could help to define a community are being broken down.

If we are to reverse the breakdown of our communities across Britain we must—and we will—reverse the destruction of local government. We must recognise that things are often done best when they are done locally. We need to push power down to local people and communities, allow them to take their own decisions and encourage them to be different. We must sweep away the red tape and bureaucracy that restrict local people, and empower local communities to improve their quality of life. That is the Conservative approach.

The death of local government under the Labour Administration is no accident, but a direct result of Labour's age-old belief in centralism. Nowhere is that displayed more clearly than in the Government's commitment to regional assemblies—a proposal to rip the last vestiges of life from our local communities. Masquerading as decentralisation, it is in fact precisely the opposite.

We still do not know what their powers will be because the Government will not tell us. We know that they will require abolition of county councils and the restructuring of district councils. We know that they will erase from our national life the shire counties, which are one of the oldest surviving tiers of self-government in western Europe, predating the Domesday Book. We know that they will cost £2 billion to establish and a further £300 million a year to run. People will pay more and get less. That money could pay for 30 new hospitals, 400 new schools, 6,000 more policemen or 12,000 extra teachers. Regional government will not deliver one more teacher, nurse or policeman but only take power away from the people.

No.

With this policy, we can conclude only that the Government have given up on Britain's communities, and are simply prepared to manage their decline. Our proposals to re-energise local government will aim to sweep away the plethora of national targets, directives and all the other barriers to diversity at local level, allowing local government to work better and be more responsive to local communities and to the people whom they serve. We will push power down to pupils and parents and give them a way out of failing schools. We will extend opportunities for people to buy their own homes and reinvest the money in reviving quality social housing. We will encourage local charities and voluntary groups to play a greater part in community life.

That is a recipe for reinvigorating Britain's communities, and it shows the clear difference of approach between the Government and the Opposition.

They believe in centralisation; we believe in local action. They believe in trusting officials; we believe in trusting the people. They believe in regions; we believe in real communities. We need to rebuild and support those communities and put our trust in the sense of ordinary people, and we will give them back the power to control their own lives.

1.11 pm

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

"commends the Government's policies on community services and applauds its commitment to neighbourhood renewal, social inclusion and the quality of urban and rural community life through the protection and enhancement of key local services; further applauds the Government's achievements of a stable economy, improved economic prosperity and social justice, increased community services investment, reduced crime and safer communities; welcomes this year's increased funding for education of over £2.6 billion, 11.6% extra, and more than £250 million greater than pressures; notes that since 1997–98 spending per pupil has risen in real terms every year compared with a 4% real terms cut between 1992–93 and 1997–98; further welcomes the Government's NHS and social services modernisation to devolve power and resources locally to Primary Care Trusts and to end delayed discharges from hospital; notes that between 2003–04 and 2005–06 social care funding will grow in real terms by 6% per annum on average, building on the improvements already made to community services through the 20% real terms increase since 1997; welcomes this year's fairer funding of local government, producing, for the first time ever, an above inflation grant increase for every local authority and region in England, with a 25% real terms increase in grant since 1997, compared with a 7% cut under the last 4 years of the last Conservative government; notes that Conservative councils have imposed on average 16.2% increase in council tax; and condemns the cynical opportunism of trying to blame the Government for irresponsible tax increases by Conservative councils."
May I start by thanking the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) for this remarks about my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister's bereavement? On behalf of my right hon. Friend, I extend his apologies to the House for not being able to join us today.

We have just heard a speech that is sadly all too typical of today's Conservative party: a litany of misinformed rhetoric, remorselessly negative in tone, which undermines public services and demoralises the many dedicated people who deliver our public services in Britain. It was also a speech with two gaping holes. The first was the lack of any reference to the state of public and community services when the Conservative party was in power. Indeed, that was a period that could be characterised, in the words of the motion, by
"the collapse of community services…and the adverse effect on social inclusion, neighbourhood renewal, regional prosperity and the quality of community life".
Of course, we heard nothing about the scourge of mass unemployment in those years, and the disastrous neglect and run down of public services. Surely we all remember the mantra "private good, public bad". Of course, we heard nothing about the devastating recessions—not one but two—and mass repossessions, which destroyed communities, lives and hope. That was the reality of the Conservative party's last period in power, of which, of course, we heard nothing from the right hon. Gentleman.

If today's Tory party has no memory, let alone a sense of shame for its lamentable record in office, it also has no confidence in the future. The second gaping hole in the right hon. Gentleman's speech was the lack of any commitment to future funding of public services in Britain: hardly surprising given the Conservatives' pledge to cut 20 per cent. from public service spending. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Oh, yes. They are clearly too embarrassed to admit the implications of that.

That fatal combination—the lack of any sense of history combined with—

Does the Minister think that there is not one penny of waste to be cut out of the public services? Is he totally complacent?

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, he will hear a great deal of what we are doing to improve efficiency, to drive up standards and to ensure that we get real value for money. A 20 per cent. cut across the board in public services, however, to which the Conservative party has pledged, is a recipe for the decimation of our services, which will damage communities all over the country.

I have always judged the right hon. Gentleman to be a man of principle, so I cannot understand why he is putting to the House something that he must know is not true.

All that I am doing is repeating the pledge given by the Leader of the Opposition, who made it perfectly clear, towards the end of last year, that the shadow Cabinet were looking to make 20 per cent. savings out of public expenditure. That was a public commitment. I am happy if Conservative Members wish to denounce their party leader, but it was a commitment that he gave.

The Minister should know—I am not accusing him of lying—that he is spinning a Labour lie; there is not a single shred of truth in it. What is true, however, is that his Government have stolen £13.4 million from Worcestershire county council in the name of resource equalisation. That theft alone of £13.4 million has forced the county council to put up the council tax by more than the rate of inflation.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong on both counts. The Leader of the Opposition made it perfectly clear in a statement just before Christmas that the shadow Cabinet were looking for 20 per cent. savings in public spending. Conservative Members may wish to denounce that, and may be embarrassed by it—I would not be surprised if they were—but that was what was stated. If those pledges were put into practice—

Several hon. Members rose—

I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter).

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Minister has had an opportunity to read the "Reading Banner" produced by Reading Labour party. If so, he would be able to pray in aid the following quote:

"We are looking at the target of 20 per cent. savings across the board in government spending."
Who said that? The leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), did so on the BBC's "The World At One" on 30 December last year.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was about to quote The Daily Telegraph of 31 December, which contains exactly the same pledge:

"The shadow Cabinet are looking at the target of 20 per cent. savings across the board in Government spending".
That was what the Leader of the Opposition went on the record to say.

I shall give way once more to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).

Given the litany of public service woes that were so eloquently described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) and the fact that the vast majority of people identify principally with their parish, town, district or county, but not with the amorphous concept of a region, why does the right hon. Gentleman wish to create a nationwide network of regional assemblies on the absurd principle that our main problem in this country is that we are somehow under-governed?

I was very pleased to give way to the hon. Gentleman, and I am only sorry that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden was not willing to offer him a similar courtesy in the course of his speech. Our regional policy is one of extending choice—those regions that want to elect regional assemblies will be able to do so. Unlike the Tory party, we do not have preconceptions. It said that it was opposed to devolution in Scotland, then denied that and changed its mind. It said that it was opposed to devolution in Wales, and then changed its mind. It said that it was opposed to the people of London having the opportunity of an elected city-wide authority, but it has now changed its mind. I give the hon. Gentleman a forecast: the Tory party's opposition to elected regional assemblies in England will crumble in just the same way when the people of certain regions-I do not pretend all regions in England demonstrate that they want to have an elected regional assembly. We are giving the people that choice.

By contrast, when the Tory party made changes when it was in power, it abolished counties. We have heard great sentimental rhetoric from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden about the historic counties, but the Tory party abolished counties without any opportunity for the people of Berkshire, for example, to have a say as to whether their county would disappear. It abolished other counties all over the country with people having no say whatever. We are giving people a choice.

The fatal combination—the lack of any sense of history combined with the lack of any confidence in the future—speaks volumes about today's Tory party. It is caught in a limbo of powerlessness and irresponsibility. Like hopeless shades in Dante's "Inferno", Tory Members are left with no ambition other than to score a few cheap points in the vain hope that, one day, they might inherit the poisoned chalice of the party leadership.

Since 1997, the Government have been working to repair the damaged communities and public services that we inherited.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned damaged communities, but has he looked at the case of St. Edmund's community primary school in my constituency where the very hard-working and loyal headmaster has just resigned? He said:

"The Government has let us down. This is the worst settlement in living memory. I've had enough because the Government is undermining public services."
Nick Butt has just resigned from a big community primary school in my constituency. Is that not a disaster?

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman about funding for Norfolk. When his party was in power— [Interruption.] Let me tell him the facts. When his party was in power, Norfolk county council, which is responsible for education in his part of the country, received an average increase in grant of 2 per cent. per annum in the last three years of the last Conservative Government. The average grant that Norfolk county council has received in the last three years is 5.7 per cent. Will he go back and tell the person whom he has quoted that the figures demonstrate that this cannot be the worst settlement that Norfolk has ever received, because it is almost three times the level that was given when the hon. Gentleman's party was in control?

I am grateful for the Minister giving way while he is on the subject of cuts in schools budgets. Can he explain why, this morning, Dame Jean Else, the head of Whalley Range high school in Manchester, threatened to resign rather than sack 20 of her 165 staff, because she is facing a budget shortfall of £600,000 as a result of what the Government are doing?

Manchester has received, on average, over the past three years an increase in grant of 4.9 per cent.

Let me encourage Conservative Members to contain themselves. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I understand the frustration of Conservative Members. They do not like hearing the truth. However, when their party was last in power, Manchester city council did not get the 2 per cent. increase in grant that Norfolk got. It got no increase at all. That demonstrates how the Tory party let down education authorities all over the country.

When the Minister reads out the increases in settlement for each local authority, will he at the same time read out the increasing costs for each local authority in terms of employer national insurance contributions, pensions and salary costs that his Government have caused through their centralised policies?

I am very happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that we have increased funding by £3.8 billion overall for local government. The increase for education is £2.6 billion and that is a good £250 million more than the combined impact of all the additional pressures to which he has referred. Additional money is going in, and we are well aware that, in individual areas, there are difficulties. This year has been one in which there have been many changes. As he will know, there have been changes to the overall grant-giving formula and changes to try to reduce ring-fencing—a point that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden made in his speech. I am pleased to say that we are reducing ring-fencing but, as a result of that, the standards fund, which is a ring-fenced fund, has now been rolled into the general formula for standard spending share. That change inevitably produces distributional consequences and, at the moment, we are seeing some of the consequences together with issues that have been well debated.

Will hon. Members contain themselves, as I am trying to give a serious answer to a serious question? All the changes result in different impacts in different areas. That becomes even clearer when it comes to individual schools. It is precisely for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards have been doing a great deal of work with us to try to ascertain precisely the position in every local authority. My right hon. Friend will make a statement after the local government elections to help move things forward and to ensure that the difficulties where they exist—we accept that there are some areas where there are difficulties—are properly addressed in a sensible and rational way and not with the rhetoric and sweeping blanket condemnations that are unrealistic and unworthy of a party that did not adequately fund education in its years in power.

The Minister is not answering a very good point. Why does he not undertake to publish the cost pressures on all the schools in the country? These are the predictable national insurance costs, pension costs and the costs that result from the change to the pay structure. They are perfectly calculable and every school has calculated them for itself. Why does he not do that for every authority in the country so that we can see the results? The issue that we are talking about affects not just one or two schools, but hundreds of schools and it is doing serious harm. He owes it to the public to tell them the truth on this matter.

There is an interesting contradiction between the thesis that the right hon. Gentleman put forward in his speech as to why Government were not letting individual communities get on with it and his wish, in an extraordinary Stalinist vision, to have us publish the figures that would detail every cost pressure for every school in the country. He will know that all the factors that I have described—the factors relating to increased pay, increased pension provision and the increased national insurance plus the changes from ring-fenced to general grant and factors such as changes in the school roll—have differential impacts in different schools. It is right that local education authorities, which are better placed to gauge the position, should discuss the matter with their schools. Government, of course, have an interest, and that is why I said that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards are doing work to ensure that we are better informed about where there are pressures. They have already made significant contributions to help those authorities facing pressures. The extra money that is being given in London and to schools facing particular pressures is all part of that positive response.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the biggest single factor putting pressure on education budgets is the 5.15 per cent. increase in employers' pension contributions that has been necessitated to clean up the mess that this Government inherited from the 1990s when local authorities were allowed local control and some teachers who should have gone through competency procedures and possibly been sacked were given ill-health early retirements or redundancy retirements with enhanced pensions from the age of 50 upwards? That local control left the teachers pension agency in a huge hole financially and central Government have had to step in this year to sort out the problem.

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely correct and fair point about the significant impact of teachers pension provision. That is one of the key pressures that I identified.

I should now like to make some progress.

We have been clear that repairing the damage that we inherited in 1997 required both investment and reform, and we have been determined to deliver both. Across the swathe of public services, we have committed unprecedented levels of increased investment. Although the Tory party was able to achieve only a 3.1 per cent. annual growth rate on health, we have delivered increases of 6.3 per cent. over the past three years. From this April, we will increase investment by 7.5 per cent. a year for the next five years. That is not just the largest increase in funding that the national health service has ever received. By 2007–08, it will take the proportion of gross domestic product spent on health to 9.4 per cent., which is well above the European average.

Similarly, we have increased spending on education from 4.7 per cent. of GDP in 1997 to 5.3 per cent. Investment will increase further to 5.6 per cent. by 2005–06, which is once again above the European average. Real-terms funding per pupil has risen by more than £670 since 1997, and it will be more than £1,000 higher than when we came to power by 2005–06.

Increased funding also means that there are more skilled people to deliver our key public services. Compared with 1997, we now have nearly 40,000 more nurses, 5,000 more hospital consultants, 1,000 more general practitioners and 20,000 more teachers. An additional 4,000 police officers have been employed in the past 12 months alone, which is the largest 12-month increase in police numbers for 25 years. It was typical of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden to focus on the closure of an individual police station in London and to ignore the fact that police numbers in London have increased by thousands due to our additional investment.

Additional investment has delivered new and improved schools and hospitals: no fewer than 64 major hospital developments, 121 new primary schools and 50 new secondary schools. It has made possible huge inroads into the massive backlog of sub-standard housing that we inherited from the Tory party. We have reduced the number of non-decent homes in the social sector by 700,000 since 1996, and we are on target to eliminate all such housing by 2010.

Of course, our policies are all about improving people's quality of life, whether they live in rural or urban areas. That is why we are so keen to continue to make progress on educational attainment. The proportion of 15-year-olds gaining five or more grades A to C at GCSE went up from 45 per cent. in 1997 to 51.5 per cent. in 2002. It is why we are so keen on shorter waiting times for hospital appointments. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday:
"every single waiting time and waiting list national indicator is more positive than in 1997."
It is why we are keen to reduce crime. The British crime survey showed a 28 per cent. reduction in overall crime between 1997 and 2002. It is why we are keen to improve transport services, such as bus services for rural communities. There are more than 1,900 new and enhanced rural bus services, many of which serve communities that previously had no service at all.

The Government are committed to public services and believe in them. We are committed to increased funding and reform to ensure that the public get high-quality services delivered cost-effectively, and nowhere is that more evident than in respect of local government.

As in other areas, we have substantially increased Government funding. It has increased by 25 per cent. in real terms since we took office whereas there was a real-terms reduction of 7 per cent. in the last four years of the previous Conservative Government. However, not only additional funding is required. Increased investment must deliver an improvement to the quality of local services. That is why we introduced the comprehensive performance assessment for local councils. I am pleased to say that the first results, which were announced at the end of last year, demonstrate strong performance throughout local government, including examples of outstanding achievements.

To raise standards of service and to empower local authorities to deliver effectively for their communities, we are extending freedoms and flexibilities and devolving power. Last November, we announced a substantial package of freedoms for all authorities. Measures include: ring-fencing on revenue to fall to 10 per cent. by 2005–06; 60 per cent. of capital resources to be un-ring-fenced in 2003–04; up to a 75 per cent. reduction in the number of plans required of local authorities; the removal of 84 consent regimes, many of which dated back to the previous Conservative Government; more power to charge for discretionary services; more opportunities for local councils to trade; and more discretion on the use of civil penalties. We have an even more radical package on top of that for the very best authorities that achieve an "excellent" rating in the CPA.

On the subject of local government settlements, will the right hon. Gentleman promise the House that he will hold an urgent meeting with Fiona Millar, a chairman of governors in London, who has complained about the fact that the local government settlement has moved money from the south-east to the north? If he does not know where to find her, I advise him to look in 10 Downing street, where she works as personal assistant to the Prime Minister's wife.

I am little surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not been paying attention to the needs of his constituency. He will know that Buckinghamshire county council is one of the southern Conservative councils that did extraordinarily well out of the settlement because it received a 6.4 per cent. funding increase. He and his colleagues continue to peddle the myth that money is being transferred to the north despite the fact that many Conservative councils in the south of England are doing very well indeed. He would do rather better to acknowledge what is happening in his area.

The Local Government Bill, which is currently in another place, will deliver many of those freedoms and create a new framework for capital finance. We are sweeping away the long-standing requirement that was put in place by the previous Government to require Government consent for all borrowing. In its place, we are establishing a prudential regime under which local authorities will have greater freedom to raise finance to buy, build and improve all kinds of property and infrastructure. The only constraint is the proper requirement that they must have the means to service the debt.

Labour councils are fully committed to that agenda. They deliver high-quality services cost-effectively. By contrast, we have seen the nasty face of the Tory party again this year in local government as Tory councils have imposed unreasonable council tax increases on their long-suffering residents. Wandsworth borough council, which is so often held up as an exemplar by the Tory party, has the unenviable record of imposing the highest percentage council tax increase of any council in England this year. It increased its council tax by 57.3 per cent. after cutting it by 25 per cent. last year, which—surprise, surprise—happened to be an election year. That was pretty transparent.

Of course I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman. He has a good connection with Wandsworth council and I hope that he will deplore the unreasonable council tax increase.

One of the Minister's annual mistakes is to consider percentages rather than bills on the doorstep. The bills landing on the doorsteps of Wandsworth are the second lowest in the country and the council's services, by the standards of the Government and the local people, are among the best.

The hon. Gentleman makes a brave effort to conceal the fact that Wandsworth borough council has simply been up to a bit of crude electioneering by cutting the council tax in an election year and whacking it up the next year.

In case anyone should suggest that big increases in council tax this year are a result of a bad local government settlement, I remind the House that this year, for the first time ever, every authority in England received an above inflation increase, which never happened when the Conservatives were in power. Councils that complain that they got increases of only 3 or 4 per cent. this year should remember what happened in the years before 1997 when they often received no increase at all. In any case, it is simply not true that there is a direct correlation between large council tax increases and small grant rises.

For example, let us consider six neighbouring authorities in the west midlands: Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull and Wolverhampton. Opposition Members will understand why I do not mention Walsall metropolitan borough council. The authority has special difficulties and there has been an attempt to tackle its problems. Although it is technically controlled by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, I shall not bring it into the argument. The other six authorities all benefited from grant increases of just more than 8 per cent. this year, but their council tax increases vary greatly. Tory-controlled Solihull's council tax has increased by 10.5 per cent., which is almost double that of the other authorities. Those authorities just happen to be controlled by Labour—is that a coincidence?

There is a similar story in the south-west. Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol City, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire unitary authorities have similar responsibilities and received similar grant increases of between 7.5 and 8.5 per cent—so much for that nonsense that authorities in the south did not receive decent grant increases.

Hon. Members should wait and hear what I have to say. Tory North Somerset has chosen to increase its council tax by 15.4 per cent., compared with increases of less than half that set by the other three councils in the area—Bath and North East Somerset, which is under no overall control; Bristol, which is Labour-controlled; and South Gloucestershire, which is under Liberal Democrat control. The Conservative council alone pushed up its council tax by disproportionate amounts. The conclusion is clear—Tory councils cost people more. Look at the average council tax this year. In Tory authorities, it is £1,008; in Liberal Democrat councils, it is £934; in Labour authorities, it is £818. This year, council tax increases in Tory authorities are 16.1 per cent.; in Liberal Democrat councils, 10.5 per cent.; and in Labour councils, 10.7 per cent. That tells a story—Tory councils cost people more.

It is clear that today's motion smacks of desperation on the part of the Opposition—desperation to score a few points in advance of Thursday's elections. But the facts tell a different story of recovery from the bleak inheritance left by the Conservatives in 1997. They tell a story of progress, not just this year but over the past six years, and they reveal a clear path for progress in the future. Of course, there are still huge challenges and a need to do much more, but, unlike the Opposition, we in government are proud of our past and present and are confident of our future. They, by contrast, live for today's press conference, afraid to face up to their past misdeeds or admit their plans for future felonies. They have no credible prospects. I can empathise with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden and perhaps even feel a little sorry for him. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Well, perhaps that is going a little too far, but I do know what he and his colleagues are going through. I know what it is like to endure years of fruitless opposition only to see yet more years of it stretched out in front of you. Reading the Opposition motion I was struck by the utter futility of its language and its mindless, ill-informed and badly argued irrelevance, curiously reminiscent of the far-left Trotskyist reaches of the early 1980s Labour party. Today's motion will go the same way as all the motions of those years, except that these days the paper that it is written on stands a better chance of being recycled and put to constructive use.

Opposition is a tricky old business—I should know, I did enough of it. Many say that it is not healthy for democracy to tolerate an incompetent Opposition for any significant length of time, let alone six years. Of course that is right, but worse still would be to allow the incompetent Tory Opposition to become another incompetent Tory Government. The British people paid a big enough price last time around. The Opposition wanted the debate to offer a wide-reaching showcase for their policies in advance of Thursday's elections, but in their motion they have merely highlighted their deplorable past, their incompetent present and their lack of confidence in the future. The motion invites the contempt of the House. The Tories have nothing to offer, and no one believes that they can form a Government in the foreseeable future. As the House will surely reject this Tory motion later this evening, so the electorate will reject this unprincipled and opportunist Tory party on Thursday.

1.43 pm

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I extend our condolences to the Deputy Prime Minister. Taking up the Minister's final remarks, I agree that the Conservative motion could have been tabled by Opposition parties active in the 1980s and 1990s. There is a lot of truth in it—there are problems in our communities up and down the country, and Conservatives are right to point them out. However, the problem for the Conservatives is that they caused many Of those difficulties when they were in government. The problem for the Government is that they are copying many Conservative policies and are not addressing those difficulties. In their bare-faced cheek in tabling the motion, the Conservatives demonstrate that they want completely to reinvent history. They talk about centralisation in the motion, but one must remember what Conservative Governments succeeded in doing to local government financial settlements—rate-capping, ring-fencing, compulsory competitive tendering, the uniform business rate, standard spending assessments, credit approvals in the borrowing regime, supplementary credit approvals and, of course, the poll tax. That plethora of measures introduced by the Tory party centralised the way in which local councils are funded and caused many problems that the Government have not yet addressed.

In other areas, the Conservatives were the first people to start the centralisation that, regrettably, has continued in recent years. It was the Conservative party that introduced national targets in education, and it is interesting that their spokesman is beginning to row hack on that. I listened to the speech of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), but failed to detect a constructive alternative to, for example, council tax, an issue to which I shall return later. It was interesting to hear what the shadow Chancellor would do about that tax. He was asked in an interview in The Daily Telegraph on 9 April what the Conservatives would do about the council tax, and said:
"we would change the system when we come back to office".
The interviewer asked what exactly would the Conservatives do, to which the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) replied, "I don't know." The truth is that even after six years in opposition the Conservative party do not have an alternative to the local government financial system that the Labour party has put into operation. I shall explain my alternative later in my speech.

The purpose of this debate is, quite rightly, to hold the Government to account for the way in which they are managing public service policy. I welcome both the debate and many aspects of the Conservative motion. It is right that we should focus in particular on education. I am glad that the Minister for School Standards is in the Chamber, because there is concern throughout the country about the effects of the Government's policy on education, particularly the impact of this year's local government financial settlement on schools. Interestingly, today the Office for National Statistics published new figures that show that the number of teachers in England is falling.

So when the Minister for Local Government and the Regions told the House about an increase in new teachers he was not telling the full story. There is a difference between what Ministers are telling the House and what the Office for National Statistics is telling the public, because they count teachers in different ways. Ministers say that even if someone is not qualified but works in the classroom they are a teacher. On that basis, the Government could include almost anyone in the classroom in their definition of teachers. We should therefore be debating the definition of teachers used by the Office for National Statistics, as it includes only qualified teachers. I am surprised that the Government are peddling the line that the number of teachers is increasing when the ONS has shown today that it is going down.

On a point of information, although there is a category of qualified teachers, other teachers are counted, including teachers from foreign countries with qualifications equivalent to English qualifications.

I am grateful to the Minister, but that is not the whole story, as I think he knows. The Government include some unqualified teachers in the definition that they are using and I hope that they will make that clear later.

I had an interesting exchange with the Minister for Local Government and the Regions about whether the new money that all local authorities are getting is helping schools. We see the other side of the equation in our constituencies. The Minister always talks about the extra money, but never about the extra costs, which are severe. It is important that he admit that. I do not necessarily think that he should conduct a school-by-school analysis of the extra cost, but it is important for democratic debate that we have more information on those huge costs, details of which I shall give later.

The hon. Gentleman is getting to the nub of the argument and has highlighted a great mystery. On the one hand, the Government are talking about massive increases in education spending, but on the other hand, all our schools are facing a crisis. Does not the Government amendment provide a clue to where the money has gone, as it talks about £2.6 billion or 11.6 per cent. extra for education, but then talks about

"more than £250 million greater than pressures"?
The Government clearly know what those pressures are and could publish them. Is it not the case that £250 million is not an 11 per cent. increase but is more like a 1 per cent. increase? That is the answer to the great conundrum.

The hon. Gentleman is right. We must see those figures in order to judge the Government's performance. We in the House are not very good at analysing budgets. I am concerned about the lack of financial scrutiny in the House. On this occasion, we must demand to see the figures. The underlying causes of the cost pressures are many. The national insurance increases and the pension transfers alone are adding an extra 5 per cent. to most school budgets.

The hon. Gentleman speaks of the national insurance being an extra pressure. Did not his party support the Government when the House voted on the increase in national insurance? Did he not go through the calculations before he voted for it, to see what it would mean for the public sector?

The hon. Lady is right: we wanted more money in the health service. The fact that the Conservatives voted against that rise in national insurance means that they are proposing cuts to the health service. They complain about the Government accusing them of 20 per cent. cuts, but the fact that they voted against that tax rise, which is funding more money for our health service, proves that they want to cut public services across the board.

My point about how the national insurance rise relates to today's debate on the local government finance settlement and schools is that the Government should have taken that into their calculations for the local government financial settlement. There are rising costs—as I said, 5 per cent. to most school budgets. Schools also have to meet the extra salary costs. An increase in salaries was important, because there were problems of teacher recruitment and retention in areas such as mine. No one denies that many of our teachers deserved an increase in their wages. I assume that that is common ground across the House. The Government knew about that cost pressure when they made the settlement, and they knew that it had to be paid for. They say that there were above-inflation increases for every local authority, but they knew beforehand that there would be above-inflation increases in costs. They are looking at just one side of the ledger.

The Minister may be on fair ground when he says that the standards fund money for education has been rolled into the general pot, but the problem is that that has been lost on the way down from Whitehall to local communities. Calculations that I have seen suggest that £400 million has been lost in that way. That is effectively another cost pressure. On top of that, there was the rather unsatisfactory reform of the local government grant, which has produced some winners, but a great many losers. When those losers have to face all the extra costs, we see the problem.

A further problem in the education debate, which has not been mentioned today, is the underfunding of sixth forms. There was only a 3 per cent. rise in the budget for learning and skills councils. In order to meet the extra cost pressures, which are way above 3 per cent. in sixth forms, schools must take money from elsewhere or cut sixth form teaching. The Government's settlement failed to address the problem.

We have felt this in my local authority, Kingston upon Thames. We were one of the 12 authorities whose increase in total grant was less than the increase in the education formula spending share that the Government said we should be giving to schools, so we have had real problems. With the indulgence of the Chair, I shall read out one or two comments that I received from teachers in my constituency who are trying to grapple with the problem at the coalface.

Helen Goodall, who is the head teacher at St. Philip's, a special school in Chessington, writes:
"I am struggling to come to terms with a deficit of about £145,000. For a small special school this is, of course, extremely damaging and will have long term implications.
I have already informed my staff that all professional development, inclusion activities with mainstream schools, educational visits, equipment and resources etc. will be absolutely minimal. It looks as if I will have to cut staff by two teaching assistants and two teachers.
For a special school with such a good reputation as St. Philip's … the severe cuts in provision will have a very damaging effect on my children and the LEA will have to send more children out of borough at high costs."
That shows the effect on a special school.

Susan Pavlis, the head teacher of St. Andrew's and St. Mark's Church of England junior school in Surbiton, writes to me:
"Along with my colleagues in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames I must express my concern over the level of funding that we have received for the financial year 2003–04.
Compounded with the drop in Standards Fund we, like the majority of schools in the borough, are facing the prospect of cutting our staff at a time when we need to be increasing the pupil/teacher ratio in order to comply with the ever increasing demands made on us … So often we are dismissed as a leafy suburb with no real problems—I am sure you understand that this is far from reality in many of our schools."
That is the problem that head teachers are facing throughout my constituency. Judging from comments from other right hon. and hon. Members, the same is true across the country.

My hon. Friend's point must be underlined. Rural areas like mine in Cornwall and those of my colleagues in Devon are facing the same problem. I challenge any hon. Member in any part of the country, whatever the political composition of the LEA, not to agree that letters are coming in from heads and governing bodies on the same lines as those received by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend is right. When the Minister for School Standards replies to the debate, I wonder whether he will tell the House how many letters have been written to the Department. I bet it has been inundated with letters of complaint from head teachers and school governors around the country.

In our earlier exchange, the Minister for Local Government and the Regions said that there would be a statement in the House about how the Department for Education and Skills would deal with the matter. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. Could he clarify the Government's intentions? We want to know how they will address the matter and when they propose to tell the House how they intend to address it.

As I said earlier, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has made it clear that he intends to make a statement about his analysis and understanding of the current position as soon as the local govt purdah period is over. That will be on Friday. It is in everyone's interest that that statement should be public at the earliest opportunity, rather than waiting for the House to return on Monday, but I have no doubt that the issue can be debated in the House at a future date.

I am sure that other right hon. and hon. Members share my concern that that information will not be given to the House. The Minister may be right to say that it needs to be given early, but that only shows the magnitude of the crisis. If the Government must make the announcement on Friday because it cannot wait till Monday, they are admitting that there is a huge crisis in the funding of our schools. Why do not Ministers make the statement now? I am sure that the Conservative party and our party will agree to suspend local election purdah, as we agree that there is a crisis.

The Minister appears to have a diary problem. Of course, the House will not sit on Friday, and it is bad enough that the statement will not be made when the House is sitting, but we will not be able to debate it on Monday, because Monday is a bank holiday.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. I assume the Minister meant that we would debate the matter on Tuesday. Can he confirm, for the benefit of all Members, that an oral statement will be made to the House? Ministers shrug their shoulders as though it were an unimportant issue about which hon. Members were not concerned. Surely the debate today shows that it is important and that hon. Members want to debate it at the earliest opportunity.

If the Minister for Local Government and the Regions is saying from the Treasury Bench that it is impossible to drop the rules on local election purdah before Thursday—he nods in assent—we must ensure that there is time on Tuesday to debate this key issue. Why are Ministers afraid to come to the House next Tuesday to debate a matter that affects every school throughout the country? Ministers seem unperturbed, as though they owe no duty to the House. They ought to learn how important the issue is.

There are other community services that are being let clown by the Government. I have been surprised at the massive public reaction to the proposal from the Office of Fair Trading with respect to community pharmacies. I was worried when the report was published, but I was astonished to receive letters and petitions from my constituents, demonstrating how damaging the proposal would be to far more people than I had imagined. The liberalisation of the market proposed by the OFT could be extremely damaging to the front line of the national health service. If the Government eventually adopt the recommendations and some of our local pharmacies close down as a result, pressure will be placed on GPs and accident and emergency units throughout the country and will be damaging for the rest of the health service. The OFT seems to have misunderstood the role that community pharmacies play in our health service by saving GPs' time and providing medical advice, sometimes out of GP surgery hours.

I am concerned about access for the elderly to such services. I was interested to read a briefing from Help the Aged, which noted that 7 million pensioners do not have cars. It is the pensioner population that is worried about the issue, as I have noticed in my constituency, as pensioners realise that they will not be able to access pharmacy services by going to the out-of-town supermarkets, because the transport will not be available.

The figures underlying the services that the community pharmacies deliver are revealing. Some 33 per cent. of the prescriptions collected by people aged 70 or above are collected on foot. That means that pharmacies are needed in the local communities. The only analysis that I have seen of what will happen if the OFT recommendations are implemented suggests that local pharmacies will be closed down and that the big supermarkets will move in. That would be a disaster for our elderly population and it is another example of the Government attacking community-based services.

The other significant example is the Post Office. We heard a lot about the Post Office from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden. The Minister was right to remind him of the Conservative record, but the Government cannot have any confidence on that basis. The Minister will know that, under the urban reinvention programme, 3,000 post offices have been targeted for closure. By this autumn, the first 1,000 will have been closed. We can then look forward to another two years in which urban post offices will close in large numbers. That comes on top of the rural post office closure programme, which is ongoing. In my constituency, we have already seen two closures and three more are under consultation. I suspect that the process will continue.

I also believe that the Post Office will take a different approach in the next round of closures. I suspect that it is becoming worried about the individual campaigns that spark up in local areas and that, in the next round, Post Office managers will come to each constituency or borough and decide to close a number of post offices en masse. I give that warning to hon. Members for free. We should be worried about the secret plans of the Post Office for short, sharp attacks on services in our communities. We know how devastating such an approach can be.

The hon. Gentleman is hypothesising about the future plans of the Post Office, but does he agree that he needs to give us the evidence on which he is basing his assertion? Many people in our communities might be deeply worried about the threat to their post offices that he seems to be imagining.

I have been trying to fight some of the post office closures in my constituency, which has involved me in many discussions with senior Post Office managers in which I have tried to change their minds and make them understand the local services that post offices deliver. It is clear from their attitude that they are getting fed up with individual campaigns, and I think that they will return and deal with closures en masse. Those of us who are elected to represent our areas should be very worried about the effect on important community services.

It is not only in respect of those services that the Labour party has had a dreadful record. There are also serious problems in social services. In particular, in residential care homes, 64,000 care beds have been lost since Labour came to power. Even if the Government meet their targets on increasing the number of beds in the NHS, that will still not make up the gap. The Labour Government's spending proposals still mean that there will be fewer hospital and care home beds than under the Conservative Government. [Interruption.]

I hear it said from the Labour Benches that people are being looked after in their own homes. Perhaps Labour Members would be interested to know that Department of Health figures show that, in the past six years, the number of people being cared for in their own homes has decreased by 25 per cent., so significantly more than 125,000 fewer people are now being cared for in their homes. Does that not demonstrate that the Labour party's approach to prevention is resulting in people no longer getting the care because of the tightening of eligibility criteria and the increase in charging for services, which are denying access to those services to too many people?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has done an awful lot of work to expose some of those problems. The Government have taken a chaotic approach to managing the care homes sector, in which many homes have been lost without any plan or way of replacing that care in people's own homes or by other methods. Interestingly, the Royal College of Nursing has taken up that cause in its conference this week. It has identified the link between the health service and the impact on hospitals and the need for more care home beds for the elderly, and it is concerned that the Government need to act.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Since the advent of the so-called fairer charging policy and the Government's refusal to fund its implementation, is he aware that thousands and indeed tens of thousands of people throughout the country who can in no sense be described as rich or prosperous are, as a consequence of Government neglect, facing 200, 300 and 400 per cent. increases in costs for the services on which they desperately rely?

The hon. Gentleman is right. Many elderly people cannot afford care and are becoming increasingly reliant on their families. If they do not have families, they are relying on neighbours, and if they do not have friendly neighbours, they are going without basic care.

The final point on which I wish to focus with regard to Labour's record is not mentioned in the Conservative motion, which is why the Liberal Democrats tabled an amendment, although I know that it has not been selected. We wanted to point out the problem that exists in respect of council tax. I was surprised that the motion did not mention council tax, which is one of the big issues that I am hearing about on the doorstep when I travel around the country listening to people in the communities. People are very worried about the impact of council tax. Perhaps Conservative Members did not want to mention it because Conservative Administrations have increased it by an average of 16. 2 per cent.—the highest average increase made by any of the political parties.

None the less, we are seeing the highest ever increases in council tax, which is the most unfair tax in Britain today. We have an unfair tax system in which the poorest 20 per cent. pay a greater proportion of their income in tax than the richest 20 per cent. One sees that the council tax is the worst example of a tax when one analyses its progressivity. Pensioners in particular are hit by it, so it is time we got to grips with the issue. If we are to renew our community services and devolve more power to local government, however we want that to be done—whether through district councils, county councils or regional assemblies—we will have to give lower tiers of government a tax that can bear the burden of raising money locally. That has to be a fair tax. I do not believe that we can raise that money through the council tax, as it is proving so painful.

We must replace the council tax. The Liberal Democrats believe that we should consider how many countries around the world have tackled the problem. In many countries, there is not such a fierce debate about local taxation and Governments have managed to devolve power successfully. Many different types of countries have introduced such a policy. Anglo-Saxon countries—Canada, America and Australia—use local income tax, as well as continental countries. Such countries manage to make the tax work efficiently and ensure that it is administratively cheap to operate. Above all, however, it is fair and can bear the weight of the devolution of more power.

The hon. Gentleman says that a local income tax is a fair tax, but can he explain to the House how it would be fair to require a council such as West Somerset district council, which has only 30,000 residents, to have its own tax inspectors? Is he not really telling us about a hidden agenda for regionalisation?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. There would be no need for his authority to have tax inspectors, which shows how much he does not understand the policy. He should talk to the Conservatives who are operating in local government. For example, he should talk to Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, a very senior Conservative local government politician. He and his colleagues in Kent are coming round to the argument and recently supported a motion in Kent county council in favour of considering the introduction of local income tax.

No, I shall not.

The time has come for such a policy. That is why we are saying that every vote for the Liberal Democrats in the local elections on Thursday 1 May is a vote to abolish the council tax and replace it with a fair tax.

2.9 pm

It is a pleasure to follow the Front Benchers in this debate. I am disappointed that the shadow Deputy Prime Minister—I think that that is the title in which the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) glories—failed to take my intervention. It was most churlish of him and I assure Opposition Members that I shall return his generosity, should they seek to interrupt this short and, I hope, not too contentious contribution.

One of the more gut-wrenching and nauseous statements that came from the shadow Deputy Prime Minister and would-be Leader of the Opposition was that the Conservative party is against the centralisation of power and the erosion of local democracy. The Minister, who has been well briefed on the issue by hon. Members from Berkshire, eloquently cited the way in which the previous Conservative Government, without consultation or reference to anyone else, abolished the county of Berkshire. It is important to put on the record that we think that that was a good thing—not because they did not consult anybody, but because we now have a coherent system of unitary government. The boundaries need to be dealt with, but that can be done elsewhere.

I wanted to ask the shadow Deputy Prime Minister—perhaps his junior colleague can address this in his speech—whether he could explain to the House how policies such as the poll tax and rate-capping enhanced local democracy or empowered local government. I was a local government leader throughout a fair bit of the duration of the last Conservative Government, and I remember everything that they did to help us to empower our local communities. This country has never seen a Government who were more centralising, more dictatorial or more frightened of the ballot box. They were so frightened of the ballot box and of the judgment of the people—I am not a London Member, but I am sure that London Members will forgive me for praying this argument in aid—that, rather than take on the Greater London Council themselves, they had to use legislation to abolish it because they were not capable of delivering on the streets and in the election booths.

I have looked at the wording of the Opposition motion, which I would describe as a "mum and rotten apple pie" motion. I could be cynical and suggest that it has some interrelationship with the local elections of I May. [HON. MEMBERS: "Surely not"] If one tenth of the intemperate—to use the Minister's term—words used in the motion are true, who will vote Labour on 1 May? Perhaps I should be worried in my swing, marginal constituency that the Opposition might just have a case. I therefore propose to market test the contentions in the motion. I hope that that is not new Labour-speak. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is."] Oh, good Lord. Nevertheless, I intend to market test the contention that the impact of Government policies on community services has been bad for local communities. It is worth looking at how extreme is the language used in the motion. It refers to
"the collapse of community services in Britain and the adverse effect on social inclusion, neighbourhood renewal, regional prosperity".
Try telling that to people in the Thames valley. It
"further condemns the Government's failure to improve local health care provision".
It
"recognises the Government's total failure"—
not even partial failure. That is the language of the Militant Tendency. Many Labour Members have spent a lot of time fighting that kind of extremism, and we now find it raising its ugly head on the Conservative Benches. Most worrying is the reference to a

"total failure to protect community services, resulting in a crisis in school funding".
That is pretty strong stuff. How can we test it? Such deterioration in the quality of public services cannot have happened over the past 12 months—it must obviously be a process of decline that started on 2 May 1997.

I see that the shadow Minister—I assure him that he will only ever remain a shadow Minister—agrees with that proposition. To test it, let me take as an example my constituency of the town of Reading. I am a great believer in talking about what I know, unlike some hon. Members.

I was not of course referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), whose football team is doing nearly as well as mine.

I have a great affinity for the democratic process, so I thought that I should assess the performance of Labour councils in Reading from 2 May 1997 until the present day.

The Minister is nodding; that is a good start.

Then we shall see whether the contentions articulated in the Opposition motion have had any effect at the ballot box. Reading is an ideal indicator seat, because the Conservatives need to win the two Reading constituencies to form a Government. Moreover, it is a town with a tradition of turning mid-term against the party in government. I shall start the test with a bit of recent political history. We had a Conservative council from 1983 to 1986—for three years. That was at the height of Mrs. Thatcher's power, post-Falklands and post-the first real Conservative landslide. We had a brief period of Labour control in the early 1970s, but primarily the town has for a long time had hung councils. It is a swing constituency with swing councils. In 1983, the Conservatives swept to power with 44.9 per cent. of the vote, while the Labour party got 29 per cent. In 1986, the shine was starting to go off the Conservatives, and the town turned away from them. After seven years of Conservative government, they received 32.8 per cent. of the poll at the local elections, and Labour received 36.4 per cent.

In 1990, the triumph of the poll tax—we all remember those happy days—meant that it was pretty grim for the Tories. I accept that that was not a typical year: I do not want to be unfair to the Conservatives. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, go on."] It is difficult to be heckled by one's own side, but I shall plough on regardless. The Tory vote in Reading plummeted to 29.4 per cent. of the poll, and the Labour vote was 49 per cent. That was clearly just a blip. The Conservatives said sorry, and we got the council tax. I must say that Conservative Members have some cheek criticising the council tax regime, which I recall that they introduced in an awful hurry. The poll tax cost them a Prime Minister—although unfortunately we got another few years of Conservative government—but they put that particular wrong right.

So in 1990, the result was 29.4 per cent. to the Conservatives and 49 per cent to Labour. By 1994, there was a different style of Conservatism that was not quite as vicious and unpleasant as it was under Margaret Thatcher. I seem to remember that in that year my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was elected as leader of the Labour party. What happened to the Conservative vote? Oh dear: it was 26.5 per cent.—down another 3 per cent. on the poll tax era. There had been no boundary changes. The Labour vote dropped a little to 46 per cent.

Let us now look at the trends in Reading following the most recent set of elections in 2001, after some four years of a Labour Government, and we start to see the electorate turning against a Government who, according to Conservative Members, have delivered such appalling services. Where is the Conservative vote in Reading in 2001? Remember that it was 29.4 per cent. in the poll tax era. In 2001, it was 26.5 per cent. They are flatlining—bouncing along the electoral gutter—while the Labour vote remains strong at 48.4 per cent. In the 13 years since the poll tax, the Conservative party has made absolutely no progress in one of the biggest swing seats and swing areas in the country. The public are not stupid, and they tend to cast a verdict on the performance and quality of local services at the ballot box. Certainly in my town, in that swing constituency, the public have made their voice known year after year. The message to Conservative Members is loud and clear: they are not fit to run a Government and they are not fit to run a council.

We should ask why things are so grim for the Conservatives in the Thames valley, because if they cannot win there, they will have problems winning in the country as a whole. Perhaps they are useless and pathetically organised. Indeed, that is undoubtedly true; they are appalling in my neck of the woods, and they know how bad they are. Perhaps Labour is good for Reading. That is also true. To quote the Reading Banner—a publication that deserves to be more widely read since I write it:
"We're better off with Labour in Reading."
How could that be? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we have almost zero unemployment, thanks to the management of our economy. An end to the years of boom and bust and the creation of a strong and stable economy may have helped.

Indeed; but the Labour party does not yet control the football team.

Perhaps we are better off with Labour because we have the lowest interest and mortgage rates for 40 to 50 years or because the average homeowner in Reading is £5,000 to £8,000 a year better off than they were under the Conservatives, when we had 15 per cent. interest rates and 2,000 homes being repossessed. In those days, there was hardly a street in my constituency without a boarded-up house.

Perhaps all the factors that I mentioned play a part. However, it may be that the motion's claims have no connection with reality and are entirely false. Let us consider what councils are supposed to be, as that forms the crux of the motion. Council leadership is not simply about managerial competence, although of course that is important. If the litter is not picked up, the grass is not cut and the core basic services are not provided, the right to do some of the more exciting things that can go with local government is forfeit. However, too much local government in this country is pedestrian.

Success in Reading is down to the Government's economic policies and a group of people in my town who run the council and the local party and have a clear vision for their town and community. They have the guts and determination to provide a vision for a 21st century community, not from election to election, but in five, 10 and 25 years. We built the fabulous new Madejski stadium on council land in partnership with the council. That is the reason for the football team's success: it now attracts the crowds to pay the wage bills and have the class of players that we need to get out of the first division. That partnership between local business and the Labour-controlled council happened long before new Labour was invented.

The council had the vision to create the £250 million Oracle shopping and leisure complex. It is an award-winning complex, which has made Reading a regional hub in the south-east. My right hon. Friend the Minister has visited it and it is a credit to the town. The Tories laughed at both projects and said that they would not happen. Labour vision and faith delivered for our local communities; that is why local communities will deliver for Labour at the ballot box.

Of course there have been funding problems—there are always such problems. There is never enough finance to go round. When I think back to 1991 and rate capping, I wonder how we kept core services going in the town, because Reading was viciously capped. I presume that that was done to pay for council tax bonuses in Westminster and Wandsworth, with their fiddled systems. I asked the borough treasurer to dig out a few figures for me because I know that Conservative Members love hearing about sums of public money that are spent on public services.

The list is by no means complete, but I shall share it with hon. Members. The Whitley private finance initiative had £59 million to regenerate public housing—council, not flogged-off housing—in one of the most deprived parts of my constituency. The sum of £5 million was allocated for key workers. I must say that that is a drop in the ocean compared with the genuine challenges that local authorities in high-cost housing areas face. Some of the discussion that took place in the parliamentary Labour party about rejigging local government finance failed to acknowledge the sheer cost of running public services in high-cost housing areas. It is lucky that the Minister recognised the problem, which is by no means confined to the south-east. At least the Government have taken a step in the right direction.

In 2003–04, Housing Corporation funding for Reading has received a boost of approximately £18.7 million. That is a record amount of money, which means more affordable homes for people in need. It is not enough, but it is a good start.

It is a shame that the Minister for School Standards is not present, because I intended to say some nice things about him. The boost to capital financing in my town—I am sure that it is replicated elsewhere—has meant £5 million extra for the major comprehensive school at Prospect in west Reading, and £1.9 million for a key junior school and to consolidate two excellent primary schools on a single site in Tilehurst, about 200 yd from my house. A further £3.5 million is due to be spent in Coley Park, which is a swing ward in a swing constituency, but the education need is genuine and the money is greatly welcomed.

I have been especially impressed by the way in which the Minister for School Standards has been prepared to respond positively to the needs of head teachers in primary and secondary schools in the challenging, difficult and partly deprived areas in south Reading. Schools there have come together as a cluster and attracted an additional £1.5 million to deal with kids from low-aspiration and difficult families. That has enhanced the added value that 21st-century teaching can bring to kids from backgrounds where learning or books are not especially encouraged.

I should like to suggest the possibility of twinning. The motion mentions Britain, so perhaps we could twin Reading and Ogmore. I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend welcomes the additional £100 million of capital funding for regenerating our Victorian schools throughout Wales, including Ogmore. Three schools in our constituency have benefited from it, in addition to the 6 per cent. real-terms increase in education funding in Wales.

The only twinning between Reading and Ogmore of which I know happened when I telephone canvassed for my hon. Friend. I am sure that my humble efforts made little difference to his massive majority, but I am pleased that the largesse that the good people of Reading are experiencing is shared in Ogmore. One day. my hon. Friend must show me where it is.

Let us consider families, because politics is supposed to be about making things better for ordinary people, those whom we represent. Perhaps one of the most welcome, if not the largest, Government funding scheme is the sure start project. In my constituency, the £3 million allocated is making a genuine difference to people who have to cope with difficult circumstances, for example, lone parents, many of whom are trying to bring up three or four kids and possibly leaving abusive relationships. The funding gives people a vision and opportunity to which every human being is entitled. People are entitled to an opportunity to improve the quality of their lives, to train and retrain, and not to spend the rest of their lives on benefit, at the beck and call of whichever Government decide to give them however many pounds in however many weeks.

When I opened a sure start project about three weeks ago in Flimby in my constituency, one of the leaders said "I've never known any Government invest so much in families." Does my hon. Friend share that experience?

I intended to speak about the new tax credits later, but I know that several other hon. Members want to speak and I shall therefore take the opportunity to mention them in passing and to say that I shall not judge the Government's success on their performance at the ballot box—the state of the Conservative party means that any surprises at the next general election are unlikely. I shall judge the true Labourness of the Government on what they do for ordinary families, who struggle with the challenges of modern life. That goes for many Labour Members. I say to the Minister in all comradeship that sure start is a great start, but much remains to be done.

We have also seen regeneration. Contrary to popular mythology, the Thames valley—Reading and Slough in particular—suffers from run-down communities and areas that need significant additional capital. The market cannot supply the answer to everything. We have received some £14 million—probably peanuts compared to the sums received by some towns and cities—in the single regeneration budget over the past six years. That money has regenerated the Oxford road area in my constituency and the Newtown area of east Reading, where I used to be a councillor. The drugs action teams have received £3.8 million.

I could go on and on reading out figures, but I shall just say this: these figures represent real cash and real improvements. They are making a difference to real people and real lives. None of this would have happened under a Conservative Government. Most of the budget heads that I have read out did not even exist under the Conservative Government. The Conservatives are supposed to rise to the challenge of being an alternative Government. Have they got alternative schemes to sure start? Have they heck! All that they want to do is to cut public expenditure by 20 per cent., as we heard earlier. No wonder they are flatlining in the polls, not just in Reading but nationally. No wonder they are not yet ready for government. The problem for the Conservative party is that it has not yet found its Neil Kinnock. It has not yet found the person who is going to lead it from the trough of despair in opposition to the verge of government, never mind into government. They are so many miles away from achieving power that it is unbelievable.

I shall move on to policing. I find it incredible that the Conservatives seek to make political capital out of the issues of crime and policing when they themselves have such a sorry story to tell. Under the Tories, crime doubled and police numbers fell. Let us have a little look at police numbers in the Thames valley. We have been awarded additional funding from the crime fighting fund for an extra 325 new police recruits, and nearly 200 of them are now in place. Notwithstanding the very real problems of recruitment and retention that we have in the Thames valley, as of today we still have more than 100 more police officers than we had in March 1997 when the Tories left office.

An additional £2,000 pay supplement has been awarded to police officers in parts of the Thames valley. Why was that necessary? Yes, it was in part to compensate for the haemorrhage of officers to the Metropolitan police force as a result of officers in the Met receiving a £6,000 pay supplement, but let us make no mistake: the rot set in under the previous Conservative Government with the implementation of the Sheehy recommendations. Those hon. Members who do not know about Sheehy need to cast their minds back to 1994, when Sheehy recommended the abolition of the police housing allowance. According to the Police Federation—and to me—that is when the rot set in. That is why, when we find two police officers on the streets of my town and of Slough, one of whom was recruited before 1994 and one after that date, there will be a £4,000 pay differential between them. What an absurd situation! That is something that my party is putting right.

I shall move to a conclusion now, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because the Whips are twitching and other Members want to speak, but I cannot let this contribution finish without some discussion of electoral tactics. We are all grown-up politicians in this place, and we recognise that these occasions are little more than bits of political knockabout in advance of the May elections. However, there are issues that are far more serious than political point scoring. I am talking about the use of the race card. Appealing to the worst instincts of the human race is an easy way to grub around for a few votes, but in the long term, those who give in to that temptation are playing a dangerous game.

I refer in particular to the Conservative party in Harwich, and I pay tribute to the stance taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Henderson) in challenging the use of race to gain political advantage and to stir up community hatred. Frankly, the leaflet being distributed through the letterboxes in the borough of Tendring—part of the constituency of Harwich—is more extreme than anything that I have seen from the British National party. It states:
"The Conservative Party will scrap asylum completely."
Oh, will it? No, it will not. That is not its policy at all. In fact, when challenged on this issue, the Conservative party confirmed that that was not its policy and gave the lamest of excuses. When the comments in that leaflet were put to Conservative central office, a spokesman clarified the party's full policy by saying that it intended to replace the current system with a system of national quotas, and suggested that lack of space on the leaflet was the reason that it had been unable to explain its policy as a whole.

One of the most nauseating aspects of these elections is the fielding of 219 candidates—a record number—from the neo-Nazi British National party, and, believe me, this is only a warm-up for the 2004 election. There are many decent people on the Conservative Benches, and I say this to them. You have all heard the speech about being the nasty party. I have spent a lot of time looking at the cross-voting between one party and another. Your vote is collapsing in working-class areas, and it is collapsing in favour of the BNP. You will rue the day—

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot talk about my votes at all.

I take your rebuke, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The fact is that many Conservative votes are collapsing to the BNP. Since the election of five BNP councillors, we are starting to see changes in the political map of Britain. The performance of those councillors has been absolutely pitiful. In Burnley, they fail to turn up to budget meetings. They do not understand the process of government. They might be very good at getting elected by playing on people's fears and damaging race relations. They might also be very good, as they were the other week, at mobilising support for a bunch of football hooligans to go rampaging round the streets of Halifax ripping leaflets out of the hands of members of opposition parties. They might also be very good at mobilising thugs to cause the violence that we saw at the England versus Turkey game, but they are a cancer at the heart of British politics.

I hope that we can have civilised elections on Thursday about public services. Yes, the national situation will impact on them, but I hope that we can treat each other and people from different races, creeds and cultures with respect, and not grub around for a few sordid votes in the ballot box by seeking to demonise any part of this country. This is a squalid motion before the House today, tabled by a squalid party that has nothing to offer the people of this country, either locally or nationally. My canvass returns for Labour in Reading are good. They are solid, and if they are replicated throughout the country, it will be a bad night for the Conservative party on Thursday, which, delightfully, will trigger a leadership challenge that we shall all enjoy.

2.37 pm

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), my almost near-neighbour. I endorse part of what he said in his speech, particularly his hope that these elections will be fought responsibly and that no political party will do anything to exacerbate race relations. I want to return, in my brief remarks, to a point that he made about housing.

The hon. Gentleman should not, however, be allowed to get away with everything that he said, particularly the bit at the beginning when he traced the history of the Labour party's vote in Reading and, later, when he expressed the hope that the party would do well on Thursday. In my constituency, just a stone's throw from his, we shall never know how the Labour party will do on 1 May, because in huge swaths of North-West Hampshire, it is not putting up any candidates. In fact. the only party contesting every ward in the constituency is the Conservative party. So this vision of the Labour party sweeping all before it in the Thames valley is rather a selective view, as we have grown to expect from the hon. Member for Reading, West. We have a great affection for him, but we always have to discount some of his more hyperbolic remarks.

I have listened to what the right hon. Gentleman said about the Labour party in his area. Does he not share my astonishment that, in Labour's most marginal constituency—namely my own, in South Dorset—out of the 12 seats up for election on Thursday in the borough of Weymouth and Portland, the Conservatives could find candidates for only five?

The hon. Gentleman should not play that game without some caution, because I suspect that we can all find wards in our constituencies in which the Labour party is not putting up candidates; in some cases, wards that it used to hold within recent memory.

I suspect that my hon. Friend is about to provide just such an example.

I am. My right hon. Friend may wish to know that the Conservative party nationally is putting up over 1,000 more candidates than Labour across the whole country.

My hon. Friend puts it far more succinctly than I could. He has issued a warning to Labour Members not to play the game of arguing which party is putting up the most candidates.

I want to make a brief contribution and to focus on the subject of affordable housing, which was touched on by the hon. Member for Reading, West. Community services are provided by people who need to live near their place of work. If there is one issue in my constituency that commands almost universal agreement, it is the need for more affordable housing. We depend on such housing for the delivery of key public services. Without housing, posts remain unfilled.

Housing in my constituency is expensive. The average house price in Test Valley in September last year was £212,774. Although many of my constituents are prosperous and can afford to buy, many are not, and 87 per cent. of concealed households in Test Valley cannot access open market housing. The annual income needed by new households to access the cheapest properties in Andover is £30,000, which is way over what people can earn, especially at the beginning of their careers. People in the public sector and subject to national pay bargaining face particular problems if the supplements, such as those for the police, do not reflect the extra cost of servicing a mortgage in Hampshire.

The motion refers to the switching of local authority grant, and I want to focus on local authority social housing grant, a subject familiar to the Minister for Local Government and the Regions. When my party was in office, we began a number of initiatives to tackle the problem of affordable housing, one of which was to use the planning system to generate more affordable homes. I am glad that that approach is being pursued. We also promoted the policy of large-scale voluntary transfer, which had as its by-product the generation of a capital receipt that could be invested in affordable housing. The Labour party resisted that policy at the time, but I am happy to say that it has subsequently taken it to its bosom.

Like many other local authorities, Test Valley transferred its housing stock to a housing association after a ballot of its tenants, which took place in March 2000. There were three reasons why the council and its tenants opted for that route: first, to improve the conditions of the local authority stock, as the resources available from the Government were inadequate for that purpose; secondly, to peg rent increases below the level required by Government; thirdly, and crucially, to provide more affordable homes. Using local authority social housing grant, the council planned to provide 100 new affordable homes in each of the six to seven years following transfer, as against the 30 or so that they were achieving before transfer.

No, I have already given way.

In fact, the council has been able to do better. That was going fine until, suddenly, at the beginning of this year the Government decided to abolish local authority social housing grant with effect from 1 April. I asked why and, in a letter to me, the Minister for Housing and Planning said:
"LASHG was an unfair funding mechanism that did not allocate funds to areas of greatest need, consistently under-spent nationally, and gave unfair advantage to debt-free local authorities."
Test Valley borough council is not debt-free, it has never under-spent its local authority social housing grant and it certainly has an enormous need for affordable housing; ask the teachers, nurses and policemen. Although there may have been some imperfections in the regime, the Government have lived with it for six years. To abolish it at a few weeks' notice, with a less than perfect substitute, is bad government and bad news for those in housing need who provide key public services.

As a result of those rule changes, Test Valley cannot now proceed with its planned programme, which is now grinding to a halt. Without going into the details, it is important to understand how the system works. When Test Valley transferred its housing stock, it got a capital receipt of some £21 million. It has spent some £10 million to £12 million of that, giving grant to housing associations to build affordable homes. It has reclaimed the grant from the Housing Corporation and used that to pay off debt. The capital receipt is used to build affordable housing, and the impact on the revenue account is broadly neutral.

The Government have suddenly and unilaterally changed the rules; the rules, incidentally, on which the tenants voted for transfer, which the council recommended to the tenants. In a nutshell, the Government have said that the grant will no longer be repaid, with a clear impact on local authority cash flow. Test Valley had hoped that the transitional arrangements would be of some benefit; now we have the detail, we know that that is not the case. It is a with-debt authority, and it will benefit only from revenue relief drawn from a capped £11 million set nationally. If it gets that, it will only be in year one. If not, it will have to find the money from its own resources. It has already set its budget for this year and cannot take such risks with the revenue account. Therefore, the schemes for affordable homes that had been planned in my constituency will either be lost or placed on hold.

The Government said that local authority social housing grant was under-spent, but this policy change will result in less being spent on affordable housing in my constituency. For every million pounds that the council now spends on the regime, it will lose some £50,000 of investment income. The council will be able sustain the programme only by cutting back on other services or putting up the council tax. This change comes from a Government who have the nerve to accuse my party of slashing public investment by 20 per cent. In Test Valley, they have halved the planned programme of affordable housing. Yes, they have exempted the receipts from right-to-buy sales from receipt pooling, but 75 per cent. of that is frozen and has to be set against debt.

Unless the Government's view is that the need for affordable housing in North-West Hampshire has suddenly dried up, they should reconsider what they have done. They may not resurrect the regime that they have abolished, but they could enable Test Valley and other local authorities—even Reading—to do what they, the tenants, the council tax payers, those on the waiting list and those in key public services all believed they would be able to do. It would also enable the council to hit the Government's own target on getting families out of bed and breakfast. If the Government did that, we could make progress in housing the people who provide the key community services that we are debating today.

2.46 pm

I should like to explain how Government services have benefited my constituents, and I shall begin by talking about crime. As we know, crime doubled under the Conservative Government. The figures for Cambridgeshire showed that crime more than doubled in my area. Since the present Government came to power, there have been many reforms, including extra police officers. In some parts of Cambridge, the number of community beat officers has doubled.

A particular ward in my constituency with which I am familiar—East Chesterton—has a high proportion of deprived families and social housing. It has had a good community beat officer for some years, PC Banfi. He has been joined by a new, young police officer, PC Nick Percival. I want to sing their praises because they are doing an excellent job. Last summer, that ward suffered from a bout of youth unrest. Some of the children being a nuisance were as young as eight. The children got together in a crowd, went around together, lit fires, broke windows and committed other acts of petty vandalism that made life extremely uncomfortable for residents.

That happened when the police in Cambridgeshire were stretched because of the tragedy at Soham. Although they did their best to keep an eye on what was going on in East Chesterton, it was pretty difficult. PC Nick Percival was appointed last October and has had a huge impact on the ward by getting to know the children. He stands outside the school and knows most of the children by name. He is well placed to pick up any problems almost before they occur.

The police have done an excellent job in getting to grips with the youth unrest. It is not just a matter of punishing the children who are misbehaving, but of getting other people, parents and schools to take responsibility, involving the housing authority and the social services and encouraging the collaborative efforts of all the community agencies.

That, I think, is one of the differences that this Labour Government have made. It is not just a question of putting in extra money or getting extra police officers on the beat, although those things are very important. There is a huge collaborative effort to ensure that all agencies work together and can tackle problems when they arise. I am very impressed by the new youth offending team in Cambridgeshire, which has just had its first birthday.

If the Government are being so good about giving money to the Cambridgeshire police, why did the police precept have to rise by some 20 per cent. this year, and why did Huntingdonshire district council have to appoint 21 community support officers, using district funds, to make up for our current lack of police officers?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman's council saw the need for community support officers. They are important, and in a moment I shall talk about those in Cambridgeshire. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, however, the chairman of the police authority is one of his Conservative—council—colleagues, and I think he is better placed to answer the charge that the council tax rise is excessive. I agree with that charge; I think the police should have been able to manage with an increase of less than 20 per cent. in funding from local people.

The changes that the Government have made to the operation of police services are making an enormous difference. The youth offending team is trying to make young people recognise what they are doing to the victims of their crimes. It is ensuring that those young people have records of good behaviour, which they can keep, and that they come to terms with the effects of their activities on those against whom they have offended. It is difficult to perceive any changes in the short term as a result of such reforms, but I am convinced, as is the team, that in the long term there will be a huge change in the number of people who have criminal records and who engage in criminal activities.

The Government have also made more funds available for closed-circuit television. Like most of my constituents, I believe that CCTV can make an enormous difference to an area, and can clean up some of the crime hotspots. Unfortunately, Cambridge currently has a Liberal Democrat council. CCTV is not Liberal Democrat policy, or at least it does not appear to be locally. Last year, the Cambridge Liberal Democrats underspent the CCTV budget by £40,000, putting the money into rewiring of the Guildhall's electrical system. Perhaps they forgot to budget for the rewiring, but that was not a good use of money intended for CCTV.

In a sense, I agree. When CCTV was first proposed on Eastbourne borough council, the Liberal Democrats voted against it. Listening to them nowadays, one would think that they had thought of it in the first place.

It is interesting to hear that from the hon. Gentleman. It is certainly our impression in Cambridge that the Liberal Democrats would do anything to avoid CCTV.

I merely wish to invite the hon. Lady to visit my constituency. There is extensive CCTV throughout the Liberal Democrat-controlled borough of Sutton.

That typifies the Liberal Democrat approach, which is to say one thing in one constituency and another in a different one.

Owing to pressures from Labour councillors, there is now some change of heart in the Liberal Democrat council. In the Petersfield ward, where I live, Labour councillors have lobbied hard for the introduction of CCTV in the Mill road area of Cambridge—partly because there are many people begging, there is a lot of crime, and drugs are sold in the streets. It is felt that CCTV would help immensely. Having refused initially, the Liberal Democrats changed their minds, saying that they would recommend the pursuing of a CCTV scheme in Mill road as soon as funds permitted.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats has said more than once, however, that if it is not in the budget, it is not policy. It was not in the budget, so we had to assume that, despite what the Liberal Democrats were saying, it was not policy. For the moment, therefore, the funds do not permit such expenditure, and the recommendations for additional CCTV agreed by councillors and reported extensively in the local paper are no more than pipe dreams. At least, that was the case until the local election campaign, when the Liberal Democrats decided that they could find the money after all. They had to be pushed into that by Labour councillors who were working hard for their own wards.

The Liberal Democrats could learn from a great deal of what the hon. Lady has said. Does she, like me, regret that only one Liberal Democrat has been present for much of the debate to hear her words of wisdom?

I am indeed sorry that more Liberal Democrats are not present to hear about their failings in Cambridge. I hope that my speech will be widely reported in the local press, so that Liberal Democrats in Cambridge, at least, will know what I am saying about them.

Like many of my colleagues, I have spent a good deal of time over the past few weeks knocking on doors and talking to local people about their problems, and about the forthcoming local elections. One issue that affects local people markedly is antisocial behaviour, and I am delighted that the Government are introducing laws to tackle vandalism, noisy neighbours, drug dealers and intimidation. All those problems affect the quality of people's lives fundamentally, especially on some of our social housing estates where such problems are legion. In terms of crime in Cambridge, things have improved, but there is still a long way to go.

The hon. Lady paints a glossy picture of life in Cambridge. Can she confirm that, according to the latest Home Office figures, in one year robbery in the city increased by 41 per cent., the number of sexual offences increased by 26 per cent., theft from vehicles increased by 23 per cent. and burglary increased by 10 per cent.? Is that really such an improvement?

Those figures must relate to a time when the Conservatives were in office. Burglary is, in fact, down by 41 per cent. That is an amazing achievement compared with what happened when the hon. Gentleman's party was in power: during that period the crime rate more than doubled in Cambridgeshire.

No, I will not give way again. I have been very generous, and I am about to turn to a different subject, education funding.

Cambridgeshire was fortunate enough to receive one of the highest education increases in the country. Let me again look back to what happened under a Conservative Government. Between 1992 and 1997, education funding per student fell in real terms year on year. That caused great pain in Cambridgeshire.

It is also worth considering why Cambridgeshire did so badly in the past. We have to go back to 1990-91, when the previous system of local government funding was introduced. The first problem was that Cambridgeshire was not recognised as a high-cost area, because it was lumped together with Norfolk and Suffolk for accountancy purposes. The other problem was that our historical spending was quite low, as we were unfortunate enough to have a Conservative-controlled county council in 1990. It believed that the best way to run the council was to cut spending and council tax as much as possible, so we started off from a very low historical spending base. That, of course, was reflected in the old formula, so I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the changes made to the funding formula.

I was sorry to hear the comments of some of my colleagues. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble)—she is no longer in her place—said that she now realises that all her constituency's money has perhaps gone to Cambridgeshire. However, we in Cambridgeshire have suffered from large class sizes and desperate underfunding. We have had to make pleas to parents to fund books and equipment for our schools, and I am sure that that will continue, but at last we can begin to offer Cambridgeshire children the same standard of education that is being offered in other parts of the country. I believe that the current system is much fairer. I am also pleased to say that the firm hand of the Minister for School Standards has been obvious, through his efforts to ensure that this time, Cambridgeshire children actually benefit from the funding increases provided by this Government. That has been extremely important. I am looking forward to a continuation of the marked improvement in education in my constituency under the new funding regime.

I want to move on to housing, which is also a critical issue in my constituency.

People may not appreciate this—the hon. Gentleman may indeed find it fascinating—but the council is landlord of approximately 8,200 properties in the city of Cambridge. Registered social landlords hold some 3,000 properties, a fact that surprises people. Cambridge is considered an affluent place. It has a very nice tourist centre and beautiful surroundings, and its social housing aspect is often missed. It is certainly missed by visitors to the city, and even by those lucky enough to spend three years at a prestigious university in my constituency.

The social housing market accounts for 25 per cent. of the homes in Cambridge, but the two main housing issues that the city faces are the lack of affordable homes—as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said, that is a real problem for people on low or average incomes—and the number of people sleeping rough.

The Audit Commission recently carried out a survey in Cambridge. It came up with a one-star rating for the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council, which is not very good. It did say some good things about properties in council control. For example, it stated:
"Properties are generally in good condition and the Council will meet the decent homes standard by 2005, apart from the heating which will occur by 2003."
One reason why properties are generally in good condition is that Cambridge was fortunate enough to have a Labour-controlled council for 20 years before 2000. That is why properties are in good condition and of a high standard. However, the future is a little bleak, in that the Audit Commission is not convinced that Cambridge will be able to improve its housing standards. It states:

"Too many properties are without a valid gas certificate … Tenant complaints received via telephone calls are not recorded in line with the Council's procedure … There are low levels of post inspections … Void turnaround times are not so good … There are high numbers of emergency and urgent repairs … Non urgent repairs, particularly fencing, take a long time to complete."
None of that is news to those of my constituents who live in council houses in Cambridge. When I knock on their doors, they say, "The council won't repair my fence—it's been in this condition for at least 18 months." The Audit Commission report also makes the following points:
"The service does not demonstrate value for money".
There is
"No compensation scheme for tenants where appointments are not kept … Inconsistent and unclear repair categories; and … The provision of information in minority community languages"
is lacking. All that is being said of a housing authority that was one of the top 25 authorities in the country when under Labour control. The depths to which we have sunk under a Liberal Democrat administration are appalling.

Cambridgeshire has been fortunate in benefiting from the Government's starter home initiative. The county council, the police authority and the health authority made a joint application to that initiative, which has enabled many people—good public servants on low wages—to afford their first council house. Those who have benefited are teachers, nurses, police officers and so on, but those who have not are refuse collectors and other manual staff working for the city council. They have not benefited because the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council did not get round to applying for any money under this scheme.

It was scandalous, because there is a huge need for this scheme in the city.

In their time, the Liberal Democrats have presided over a doubling of the number of unfit homes in the private sector. There is a huge amount of private sector housing in Cambridge, much of which is let to students. It is not let to students at Cambridge university, who generally have their own, very nice accommodation, but to students at Anglia polytechnic university and other educational institutions in the city. I should like much better controls over private sector housing. The tenancy deposit scheme offers some hope of a better deal for the people who have to use private sector housing, and I hope that my colleagues will see fit to introduce a mandatory scheme in the forthcoming housing legislation.

What else have the Liberal Democrats failed to do? Their one-star rating out of a possible three from the Audit Commission for standards in council house maintenance and repair is not exactly a shining light. In addition—this is an important point—£6 million of tenants' money is languishing in the council's rent account. The money is there to do the repairs, but the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council seems incapable of spending it, at least, that is the most charitable interpretation that I can come up with. The least charitable is that the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Cambridge is hoping to fight Cambridge as a parliamentary candidate at the next election, and is storing the money as a general election fund to spend in that year. Another example is their publicly acknowledged failure to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping in the city, despite substantial Government funding. It is one of only two authorities that failed to reach the Government targets on homelessness and rough sleeping.

The way in which funds are allocated by the city council makes a huge difference to some of my more deprived constituents. Average investment for environmental improvements in each Cambridge ward has been about £54,000—the result of dividing the total amount by the number of wards. However, two of the more affluent wards—Trumpington and Market—have received £150,000 and £240,000 respectively. Houses are expensive in those wards and there is little council housing. The areas are generally inhabited by wealthy, middle-class voters in my constituency and in that of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). At the other end of the scale, three of the most deprived wards—Arbury, Coleridge and Romsey—have received £4,800, £5,500 and £3,500 respectively. That shows a blatant disregard for common justice. When it comes to local council spending, one would expect more to be invested in less deprived wards than in the affluent ones, but that is not the case in Cambridge and it adds to the difficulties of some of my constituents.

I should also like to describe what happened in King Hedges ward, which includes Buchan street neighbourhood centre. That terrific centre, which is used by community and youth groups, elderly people, mother and toddler groups and all sorts of people was earmarked—not for closure, because the Liberal Democrats do not like to talk about that—but for use by another health authority organisation so that it would no longer be available to local people and the Liberal Democrats would not have to pay for a warden. That proposal caused a huge outcry, resulting in demonstrations and lobbying from local residents.

It was finally decided that enough could be found in the budget to keep the Buchan street centre going for another six months or so. However, no money was available for the remaining six months, so the council dipped into the pockets of East Chesterton, another deprived ward in my constituency, and took away £20,000 that was going to be spent on a community worker for the ward and gave it to the centre. Of course the centre is delighted to have kept its warden, but what a way to run a council. It smacks of sheer incompetence, which we do not want.

I should like to finish by talking about the council tax in Cambridge. Under Labour, council tax levels were stable up to 2000. Only in 1998 did the Labour-controlled administration impose an increase—an inflation-only increase. In 1997, 1999 and 2000 there were zero increases in Cambridge city, but this year the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council proposes an 8 per cent. rise. One would have thought that, with an increase last year and a more substantial one this year, citizen survey satisfaction ratings would be shooting through the roof, but we have in fact seen a 10 per cent. fall in satisfaction in the first two years of Liberal Democrat rule. Not only are council tax increases going through the roof, but satisfaction levels are steadily declining.

I should like to finish there—[Interruption.] I am pleased that Conservative Members are so enthusiastic about the end of my speech. They will have enjoyed some of my attacks against the Liberal Democrats, despite their current protestations. The Government have achieved much for my constituents in Cambridge. I am only sorry that the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council and, to a lesser extent, the Conservative-controlled county council cannot match our performance.

3.15 pm

One of the nice things about following that half-hour perambulation through Cambridge was finding one area of distinct agreement—a general dislike of Liberal councils. Until I moved to Surrey, I was not particularly aware of the duplicity of Liberal Democrats, but in my local council, which is under no overall control, the Liberals campaigned for more expenditure at every turn, but when the council tax rise came along, they voted against it on the grounds that it was too high. When we added up the amounts that the council would have had to add to the council tax for Mole Valley to take account of the Liberal Democrat suggested spending, it would have added another 19 or 20 per cent. to the bill. Of course, the Liberal Democrats ducked that at every turn.

I was fascinated by the speech of the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) who referred to the success of his local authority. I am sorry that he is not present; if I keep talking for a few minutes, he might be back. In referring to his Labour council's success in Reading, he made the fatal mistake of mentioning Labour's favourite Conservative authority, which next month—the day after tomorrow—will celebrate 25 years of Conservative control. We should bear in mind that it started by taking over from Labour in an area considered by Labour—I notice some nodding by an ex-member of Wandsworth council, the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac)—to be one of its natural areas. The Conservatives managed to change that by being individual, forthright, straightforward and clear with local people, and by providing decent services, irrespective of the amount of grant, which was always low, given by whatever Government. It also managed—this year is an exception—to have the lowest council tax in the country. I believe that it set zero poll tax for two years and before that it set the lowest rates.

The response of businesses in the community as the economy lifted was positive—the local council was supported and economic activity increased. Interestingly, the Liberal Democrats were wiped out. Now, for example, the Putney constituency has only Conservative councillors.

I am listening to what the hon. Gentleman says about Wandsworth with great interest. For my information, will he say by how much the Tories in Wandsworth are putting up the council tax this year?

They are putting it up by an amount that makes it the second-lowest council tax in the country on the doorstep, which is where it counts. Interestingly, only Westminster is lower, and that has been hard hit too.

Today's Opposition motion is very broad. As I went through it, I thought that I could outdo the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) and talk for considerably longer than I had previously intended. However, I shall resist that temptation.

The Government have done severe damage in the south-east. That damage is accumulating, and it is being compounded. It appears to derive from the Government's determination to impose centralised control in all sorts of areas, and at all sorts of levels. As the motion indicates, the damage is broad in the southeast. The Home Office has damaged Surrey police, the Department of Health has damaged health and social services, the Department for Education and Skills has hit Surrey schools, the Department for Transport has hit public transport, and there is also the wee blight that is the threat of Gatwick airport expansion and the threat posed by Central railway. The Department of Trade and Industry is hurting the villages in my constituency. Those, including the Minister, who have spoken on community pharmacies may recognise that many of them in the south-east are to be found in villages. They are as important as rural post offices, which are also being hurt.

However, the Deputy Prime Minister and his henchmen are the ones who are causing the most damage in the south-east. The amount of interference in local issues is quite staggering. I presume that an element of ignorance is involved and we can return to that, but some of the interference is purely political.

The most obvious example of that political interference is the new formula for local government grant distribution. The Government have been soundly criticised by the local government Select Committee about this method—hammered might be the best description, if it is not an understatement—but they have charged on. The damage that will be caused will be exacerbated next year in the south-east, as presumably the Government will progressively lower the floor levels.

For Surrey county council, the grant under the new formula this year is about £39 million less than what it could have expected under the previous formula. As the Select Committee pointed out, the indicators for that assessment were subjective. The Minister used a slightly different phrase, but in essence he was saying the same thing. He selected the indicators himself, and that explains the shift in funding. The Labour leader of Bury council, when he set his community charge, said that the relatively low rise in his area was because the residents of the south-east we re paying to support people in Bury and elsewhere. The Minister's response, as we have heard today, was that the increase was above inflation for all councils. That is fine, but there was no acknowledgement from the Minister of the hugely increased burdens placed on local authorities, or of the central direction of local expenditure. In Surrey, that is especially evident in education and social services.

However, on a lower level, Mole Valley district council is a little Surrey district council, and it is struggling this year because of extra costs. The increase in national insurance contributions will amount to another £40,000. The extra cost of running the new imposed welfare system is £110,000. There are other increases, which others have touched on today, such as the national pay increases of 4 per cent. However, if my arithmetic is right, the two extra costs that I have detailed total £150,000. The Mole Valley increase in grant was £107,000. Local people will foot the bill. This is a geographic stealth tax, designed to allow the Minister to move the money to the urban areas in the north.

The interference does not stop there. The Deputy Prime Minister is already interfering in planning. He wishes to pack every new building site with lots of little boxes, so every Surrey planning authority, if it follows local electors' wishes, can expect to be subjected to multiple call-ins, consequential delays, and a lack of development.

The Deputy Prime Minister has imposed huge numbers of dwelling requirements on Surrey. Recently, went with the leader of Surrey county council to discuss the matter with the Minister for Housing and Planning in another place, Lord Rooker. We asked the Minister how he arrived at the figures. The method that he used was taken apart. The Minister turned to the official who was accompanying him, but he shrugged his shoulders and said that he could not explain. I asked the Minister, bearing in mind the plans for other areas in the south-east, whether he could review the numbers. His response was, "No, John wants them." That is the logic: the Deputy Prime Minister wants to treat Surrey just like Hull.

There is an impending Bill on planning, to which a sensible approach was adopted in Wales. However, the Deputy Prime Minister's control freakery strikes again when one crosses the border into England. There is monitoring and checks at every stage, and call-ins and delays abound. Again, the Select Committee shredded the draft Bill, but still it blundered on.

Even wee areas that one would imagine to be beneath such detail suffer from the same interference. The Government are backing, and heavily pushing, the High Hedges Bill. I accept that something has to be done about the relatively few cases in which people are forced, because of disputes with neighbours, to live under towering hedges. However, the Bill reveals the Government's obsession with detail and interference and their lack of understanding of rural matters. It is an urban Bill. I ask every hon. Member with a rural constituency to look at the Bill. Any hedge claimed to be high will be measured by council officials. Their findings will be taken to a committee, and then there will be appeals and re-appeals, and further appeals to the committee. In the end, in many cases, council tax payers will have to pay. A hedge is defined as high if it reaches 2 m. The two councils in my area have pointed out that that is hardly tall, and that a high hedge in a rural area is one of 3 m or 4 m.

Why had the Department not thought further about the matter? We need an answer. I am afraid that the Department's inability to see rural problems is a classic example of the problems with this Government. This Labour Government want to dictate. For example, they have imposed auditing systems on local authorities. The disadvantages are great, in terms of the systems' expense. They have no advantage in terms of value for money. When the best-value system was initiated, the total increase in many local authorities' grant for that year barely covered the extra costs incurred by the armies of best-value auditors.

On Thursday, local electors will choose local councils in the belief that they will make decisions on their behalf on local issues. They are not choosing the Deputy Prime Minister as a stand-in for their local people. If they could do that, I suspect that the Deputy Prime Minister's popularity would be shown to be at a record low. We need the Government to stand back, and to recognise that local people elect local councillors to run local councils. The Government should leave them alone and get out of their pockets. They should reduce regulation and red tape, and let local government govern locally again.

3.27 pm

I shall begin by recounting some of my experiences as a councillor in Wigan. Although I was a councillor for more than the 18 years the previous Conservative Government lasted, I was nevertheless a councillor for all those 18 years of Conservative rule. Because it is clear that the Opposition suffer from selective amnesia, I remind the House of some of the things that that Government introduced. For example, capping was one of the worst things to be introduced in terms of the reduction in local authorities' ability to serve their communities. I remember cuts each year of the order of £7 million, £9 million and £10 million. We tried to protect education in our borough, and that meant cutting other areas of expenditure. The quality of our parks and streets declined. People saw that, but we kept our education going. In education at that time, we were beset by leaking roofs in our classrooms, classes of more than 35 pupils and outside toilets. Then there was compulsory competitive tendering, under which every council had almost to do the same at each individual point all the way down the line, as in the French education system. It was the most bureaucratic system ever devised.

In housing, rents were raised every year by much more than inflation. Those in work were driven out by the rent rises, and that resulted in sink estates, benefit dependency and falling standards in council houses. Nor was that restricted to public housing. In the private sector, the inner ring of housing built before the first world war that surrounds many of our towns and cities declined as older people were unable to put in money of their own and housing renewal area grants were taken away.

In our hospitals, there was no investment, closure of wards, the loss of beds, doctors and nurses, and growing waiting lists. Our communities, particularly the mining communities of the north, were ripped apart by politically motivated opposition to a strike. The coal industry was destroyed for purely political reasons. We had no help for those communities from the Conservative Government, and there was no help until the Labour Government introduced the coalfield communities fund.

Compare all that to what we have now. In Wigan, £58 million is available for our arm's length management association—ALMO—to improve housing. We hope for another £79 million, and I do not expect the Minister to give me a nod on that now, but I am sure that he will hear my plea and come up with the money in due course. That £140 million investment in housing will not just bring up the standard of our council housing, but provide additional services ensuring that we solve neighbourhood problems, which do exist. Those services will be able to deal with the environment of the houses, not just stopping at the fence or gate but going beyond to ensure that our estates look decent. It will also help to create active tenants and residents associations, which are vital to the regeneration of estates and which need support from the housing department and the local authority.

We are not putting money only into the public sector. The area where I live, Gidlow housing renewal area, is benefiting from investment of £6 million. It is the type of area I mentioned earlier, built before the first world war and home to lots of older people, formerly incapable because of their low incomes of keeping the houses in decent repair, but now able to do so because of that money.

A few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman referred in passing to health. Given that, on Ministers' own admission, the huge increase in expenditure on and employment in the national health service has not been matched by a commensurate rise in the level of clinical activity, but that the Government claim to be committed to reforms, can the hon. Gentleman identify, from among all the reforms in the health service that the Government are implementing, just three?

I shall come later to health if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, and may answer his point. I want now to concentrate on where I am going on housing and our communities.

On the Gidlow housing renewal area, we are talking not just about renewal, but about making sure that community and local associations are built up and supported so that we have a proper community as well as decent housing. There are huge areas of deprivation in my constituency and the wider borough. We must look after them, and the neighbourhood renewal fund and coalfield communities fund are helping those areas on the basis of the nature of the communities. The results of all that investment are better tenants and residents associations, and more of them. We have better housing and better communities.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) said earlier, many more people are in work now, which is hugely important. People in the community are enabled to put something back into the community instead of living in benefits dependency.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) asked about health. There have been huge improvements in health. The refurbishment of accident and emergency units was one of the first improvements, and Wigan borough has a new walk-in centre in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham). There is a new clinic in Pemberton after investment of more than £1 million, and the Thomas Linacre out-patient centre in our town centre. Some £25 million has been invested in a new maternity unit, which is being built at this moment.

We have a £30 million LIFT—local improvement finance trust—programme, which will provide a community resource that involves primary care trusts, GPs and physiotherapists to ensure that needs are met without putting all the pressure on the NHS. The hon. Member for Buckingham asked me to name three improvements. The LIFT programme is certainly one of them; it will ensure that GPs have proper health centres and will have a dramatic effect on the ability of the health service to address people's needs.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. You have talked about hospitals, but do you agree—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman must use correct parliamentary language.

My apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Does my hon. Friend agree that, although schemes such as sure start and the health action zones have been of benefit, one of the greatest benefits for health is the tremendously low unemployment in our constituencies?

My hon. Friend is right. That is another knock-on effect of having an extra 1.5 million people in work. They not only contribute to the economy but, because they are taken out of poverty, their health is better and the education of their children is better. The whole community benefits

It is purely coincidental that today the Greater Manchester strategic health authority issued a leaflet giving its results for last year. It states that no patient waited more than 12 months for in-patient or day-case treatment, compared with 1,600 a year ago; no patient waited more than 21 weeks for their first out-patient appointment, compared with 2,800 a year ago; and that the number of patients waiting more than 13 weeks for an out-patient appointment had been reduced by 49 per cent., or more than 5,000—2,200 better than the target. Investment and reform are providing the results that we all want.

As the hon. Gentleman is talking about health, I was going to point out that there are great concerns about health matters, such as obesity. However, he was making a point about waiting lists. Earlier, in Health questions, I pointed out that the 48-hour waiting time target for GP appointments could be met only by moving the goalposts. There are too many examples of the creative adjustment of waiting times. How can we have confidence in the figures that the hon. Gentleman has just given us when there are so many examples of fiddling the figures?

I am amazed that Conservative Members are talking about waiting lists. Their cuts in the health service created the whole waiting list problem in the first place. I shall move on, as other Members want to speak.

Our local authority always spent more than our standard spending assessment on education and that is still the case. Other councils did not do that, however, so because the Department for Education and Skills has rightly insisted on passporting to ensure that the money it provides is spent on education, they are now experiencing pressure. That is a problem that they will have to resolve.

Wigan has benefited tremendously from the £6 billion that the Government have put into education nationally. Our schools no longer have leaking roofs and outside toilets. Children no longer have to worry that the asbestos roof in their school canteen may be contaminating their food. No child aged between five and seven is in a class of more than 30.

There has been plenty of investment. Standish community high school is benefiting from investment of £1 million in new sporting facilities that will be used by the community.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest impacts on poor communities has been the effect of sure start? About 400,000 children benefit from 522 sure start centres, half a dozen of which are in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend find it ironic that the Conservatives talk about investment in education when their own document, which I have here, proposes not merely freezing funding for sure start but scrapping sure start altogether?

That is an outrageous proposal. There is no sure start scheme in my constituency, but I have visited such schemes elsewhere and seen the benefits that they bring, and I am trying to ensure that we set one up in my constituency. The benefits are manifest, especially in areas that suffer extreme deprivation.

The result of all that investment has been an increase in standards. Reading, writing and numeracy results have all improved. Results are better all round. Kingsdown high school in my constituency and Rose Bridge high school in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney)—two schools that were failing—have improved standards by 400 per cent. over the years because of investment and support from the LEA. As a result of that increased education funding, we have been able to release funds that had previously been required to maintain standards and put them into other areas. Mesnes park in the heart of my constituency, which had been allowed to drift into near dereliction because of the lack of funding, is now booming—a wonderful example of what can and should be a facility for the whole community.

Wigan is an excellent council, as the Audit Commission decided in its comprehensive performance assessment. It provides good services effectively and efficiently. The Tory plans would strip us of £29 million—a 20 per cent. cut in our funding. The health authority would be stripped of £44 million. That would devastate our services—

I am sorry, but it is not nonsense. You have heard the quotations from your leader. Maybe he is not your leader any more; maybe we have missed something. Maybe you are advancing—

Order. The hon. Gentleman must remember the point that I just made to the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham). He should use the correct parliamentary language.

I apologise. Mr. Deputy Speaker. Unfortunately, I was provoked by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) from a sedentary position.

If I may provoke the hon. Gentleman again, given that the public service agreement targets on literacy and numeracy have been missed in both of the last two years, and that the PSA target on truancy was first missed and then scrapped, does he agree that in the name of honesty in government, Ministers should ensure that as much publicity is given to failed PSA targets as to the establishment of the targets in the first place?

I am sure that, in his reply, the Minister will make sure that the hon. Gentleman is made aware that we have just been noted as providing a world-class service. That proves how important targets are, and those targets should be high enough that occasionally they will be missed. It is important to try to achieve them, however, to provide a world-class service, and to continue to improve year on year. The kind of cuts that the Conservative party proposes would devastate services, particularly for the poorest in our communities who most rely on those services, and would destroy communities.

If I may, I shall conclude my remarks. In Wigan, we have the JJB stadium, another magnificent stadium that has been provided through a joint venture between the private sector and the local authority. It is host to Wigan Athletic football club, which will take its place in the first division next season as champions, and is also host to Wigan Warriors, the most famous rugby club in the world. There are many differences between those two sports, but one of the more subtle ones is that in football one can score own goals, and in rugby one cannot. The Conservative party, with its motion today, has been playing football: it has scored lots of own goals. Those own goals include reminding us about its capping, its cuts, its bureaucracy of compulsory competitive tendering, and particularly its proposed cuts of 20 per cent. across the board. The score is 4-0 to us, and we have not even started trying yet. I am happy to go into the Lobby tonight and make sure that we make it 6-0 by supporting the Prime Minister's amendment and defeating the motion.

3.43 pm

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, even though, at times, it has sounded like a prolonged last-minute leaflet in the local elections. I can only assume from the numbers of Members on both sides of the House who are present—other than the Liberals, of course—that this is a refuge from having to deliver those leaflets—[Laughter.] I did not think that it was that funny.

We are very lucky in my constituency of Eastbourne because every year, without fail, we have elections of one sort or another. I know that every year the electorate get very excited by the prospect as May gets nearer.

The big issue this year has been the phenomenal increase in council tax—23.6 per cent. overall, taking into account the county and the police, but a staggering 38 per cent. increase in the borough council's share of that. I shall return to that point later but, as I made clear in an intervention, the 38 per cent. increase is down to the Liberal Democrats who have been running the council recently. They have also managed to combine that increase in the council tax with cuts in local services.

Sadly, the Liberal Democrats have spent a lot of their energy in recent months indulging in the blame game. They have tried to blame everyone but themselves for what has happened. As I shall develop in argument in a moment, some blame is certainly to be attached to the Deputy Prime Minister, but they have tried to blame the previous Conservative administration, the county council and the Government. They even tried to blame me on one occasion. Apart from the tooth fairy, almost everyone has been brought into the frame in terms of blame.

This debate is more important than just the local elections on Thursday because of the points made about local democracy and accountability. We all know the turnouts that we can probably expect on Thursday, although I am willing to venture that it will be rather higher in my constituency than it might otherwise have been simply because of the palpable anger one meets on the doorsteps from people faced with such an increase in the council tax. Many people face real problems finding the extra money. The lack of accountability and transparency in local government finance picks away at the fabric of local communities. That is the context in which the debate should take place. Tempting though it is, we should not focus too much on the short-term issue of what is happening later this week in many parts of the country.

Many other things that the Government have done pick away at that fabric. In my area, the south-east, we are being required to find room for another 200,000 or more new houses when we already have problems with full schools, full roads, the water supply and so on. I recently took to No. 10 Downing street a petition with more than 8,000 signatures on the possible closure of post offices. More recently, I presented a petition on community pharmacies with nearly 4,000 signatures from my constituency. Parts of the fabric of local communities are steadily being picked away as we speak.

I am beginning to receive letters from head teachers in my constituency who have realised that the sums simply do not add up and that they cannot produce a balanced budget for the coming year. Whenever I ask my constituents' opinion, I find that their overwhelming concern is antisocial and criminal behaviour in their community. It produces a fear of going out at night and of their property being burgled or vandalised. The lack of police officers contributes enormously to that. People pay an enormous amount for local services, but they see those services shrink and disappear and their local community undermined.

I cannot believe that there can be any serious debate about the fact that the entire settlement has been skewed to send money to the Deputy Prime Minister's friends in the north and to strip funding from the south. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy shows in its research that, in relation to band D properties, the increase in Government grant to local authorities in the north this year has been between £208 and £244, while the increase for the south has been between £135 and £183. There is thus a substantial funding gap.

What does all that mean for East Sussex, in particular? East Sussex has received the second lowest annual grant increase of all the county councils in the country. At 3.7 per cent., it compares with average increases of 6.4 per cent. in the north and 7.1 per cent. in the midlands. On a like-for-like basis, the county council's grant has increased by £10 million, which represents only 2.4 per cent. of the budget, but its costs—many of them imposed by central Government decisions—have risen by £40 million, leaving a £30 million shortfall. Owing to the gearing effect with which we are all gloomily familiar when considering council tax, a 1 per cent. increase in council spending equates to a 2.8 per cent. increase in the council tax.

The Tories took over control of the county council again only last year, but they immediately made savings of £8 million. The council tax increased by 4.9 per cent., which was the lowest increase levied by any county council in the country. They effectively cleaned house by clearing up problems with social services, education and other services. However, funding changes mean that the council has had to prepare a standstill budget for 2003–04. It has still allocated additional money for education, which is, in part, to replace the standards fund grant that the Government have withdrawn, as we have heard, and it is investing a further £3.6 million in social services.

That is happening despite the fact that, contrary to appearances, East Sussex is one of the poorest areas in the country. It also has one of the highest proportions of elderly people; for example my constituency has the fourth highest concentration of over-85s in the country. The massive burden of the enormous increase in council tax is falling on those elderly and vulnerable people who might be reliant on a state pension. The state pension has increased by just less than 3 per cent., yet those people face a 38 per cent. increase in the borough element of the council tax. That is simply unsustainable. Only a couple of weeks ago, the Government slipped out figures that show that up to 30 per cent. of people who are entitled to help with their council tax do not claim it, which shows the size of the problem.

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying about Eastbourne, especially the proportion of his constituents who are aged over 85s. I trust that he issued a press release to welcome the extra £100 that over-85s received from the Budget.

That is a bit rich coming from a Government Member, because the Chancellor has given with one hand and the Deputy Prime Minister has promptly taken away with another. There is real distress among many of my elderly constituents, who have contacted me since they realised the extent to which their council tax was increasing. Some are not quite eligible for council tax benefit, some are unaware of what they can claim, some will not claim out of a sense of pride—we have all encountered that in our constituency work—and others are simply daunted by the forms that they must fill in.

However, there is a comparator: next-door Tory-run Wealden district council, which saw the problems comings. It has had to contend with similar problems of withdrawn Government grants, but through diligent and prudent housekeeping it has managed to keep its increase down to 5 per cent. Contrast that with the 38 per cent. increase in Liberal Democrat-run Eastbourne borough council.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, although disappointed that he seems to be delivering most of my speech for me. Does he agree that the small council tax increase in Wealden has not been achieved by delivering poor services? Much of the work in the authority has been recognised and has received awards, especially the scheme that recycles 48 per cent. of household waste and is the most effective recycling scheme in the county.

I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour says. The introduction of a recycling scheme was one of the excuses that the Liberals in Eastbourne put forward for the large increase, although it came very late in the day and the detail of the scheme is nothing like as admirable as that of the scheme that Tory-run Wealden has operated for a long time.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Liberal Democrats took over Eastbourne council last year?

I think that I said that during the early part of my speech. It is a tribute to the Liberals' ineptitude that they have taken such a short time to reduce the council's finances to their current state. They inherited a perfectly sound budget from the Conservative administration and had a year in which to see what was coming. Unlike members of Wealden district council next door, they failed to cut their coat according to the cloth available. That is the charge that I continue to make against them We are left with a situation in which vulnerable and elderly people have to fund very large increases for no improvement in services and, in some cases, for reduced services.

I leave the Minister with this final thought. There has been much sabre-rattling recently in the newspapers about capping. Do hon. Members remember the leaks that revealed how the Deputy Prime Minister was so furious with non-Labour councils increasing council tax that he was seriously considering capping them? We have heard little about that in recent days. Will the Minister confirm whether any of the councils will be capped?

No, I must conclude.

The powers still exist to cap councils, but perhaps even the Deputy Prime Minister does not have the brass neck to do that because he had much to do with creating the problems in the first place.

3.55 pm

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). He may not be aware of this, but at one time I would have been a constituent of his when I lived in the Seaside area of his constituency. I look forward to reminiscing with him and sharing my recollections of the region.

I shall be a little parochial. No one has mentioned this, but the motion refers to Britain, of which Wales is still a constituent part.

Many Labour Members certainly want it to stay that way. I suspect that some Opposition Members—who are, no doubt, out campaigning hard today—do not share that sentiment and would like to cut along Offa's dyke and send us away.

Anyone perusing the Opposition motion could be excused for being a little confused. As we wade through the morass of mixed matters masquerading as a coherent motion, it is easy to sink into the gloopy mess and wonder what on earth it is all about. However, I managed to decipher the confusion of issues and recognised a shorthand version of the motion. Underneath the 170 words lies a simple plea from the Conservatives: "Please vote for us in the elections on Thursday." Conservative Members cannot actually say that—it would be too crude, too unparliamentary—but the subtext is clear. "We beg you to vote for us and everything will be so much better." But that ignores the historical reality of the years of Conservative mismanagement and misrule.

What is the real picture? The Conservatives would have the public believe that local government gets less under Labour, but the facts reveal a totally different conclusion. Local authority grants have increased by 25 per cent. in real terms since 1997. If we rewind to the four years running up to 1997, real-terms funding of local government fell by 7 per cent. Those are the simple bald facts; 1997 was a watershed, but what was so significant about it to cause such a turnaround in the financial fortunes of local government? Of course it is when Labour came to power, after 18 years of Tory attacks on local government, and started to set things right.

It is easy to forget such important events and what went on before, but if we forget the past, we live to regret the future. Do we really want 20 per cent. cuts across the board in Government spending, as whispered by the Leader of the Opposition? That is often disputed by the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues, who claim that he said no such thing, but I recall his Christmas and new year message in The Daily Telegraph on 31 December in which he stated:
"They are looking at the target of 20 per cent. savings across the board in government spending."
That cannot be misinterpreted. It is as clear as day.

The longhand version of the motion refers to:
"the collapse of community services in Britain and the adverse effect on social inclusion, neighbourhood renewal, regional prosperity, and the quality of community life".
When I read that propagandist nonsense, I was tempted to laugh, but inside I was crying at its bare-faced cheek in mentioning the collapse of communities. There were 3 million unemployed, with whole communities tossed to one side throughout south Wales. People were encouraged to sign on or take disability benefit. My neighbours were urged not to be so firmly rooted in their communities and were told, "Get up and get on your bike and find work". Those were the days of real community cohesion when the Government were serious about maintaining the fabric of society. Those were the days when the Tories were the party of the vulnerable. They created the vulnerable but now, in a very different context, they are themselves the party of the vulnerable.

In the motion, the Conservatives present themselves as the defenders of our communities. While I am not quite moved to laugh, I can see the joke. The English writer and humorist A.P. Herbert once remarked:
"There is no reason why a joke should not be appreciated more than once. Imagine how little good music there would be if, for example, a conductor refused to play Beethoven's 5th Symphony on the grounds that his audience might have heard it before".
So it was a Tory joke; they would like us to hear about those years of anguish and despair again. However, I urge the Conservatives to excuse the electorate of south Wales if they choose to ignore it the second time around. We split our sides the first time we experienced the joke; a second time could prove fatal.

I shall list some of the ways in which Labour is rebuilding communities and community services. Objective 1 funding in Wales is something that the nationalists and Conservatives both said we would not, or could not, deliver. Well, we have done so. To date, £441 million has been spent, creating and safeguarding up to 6,000 jobs in Wales. By 2006, £1.2 billion of additional money will have come into Wales. I shall flesh that out, as big figures do not make a lot of sense to people on the ground; they do, however, when they result in people getting employment and real jobs.

In Maesteg, the biggest town in my constituency, director Gary Evans of G.E. Carpenter employs 14 full-time workers and 20 subcontracted carpenters. An opportunity has arisen to purchase and lease a new unit to expand the business and take on more people. To raise the extra funding, Mr. Evans needed a business plan, which was put together by Business in Focus, the local enterprise agency, with the support of a business planning grant from the economic development unit in the council, which levered in objective 1 money. That example is repeated time and time again across my constituency and the whole of south Wales. We were told that we would never deliver objective 1 funding because we did not have the political will. Well, we did. We had the ability to persuade the European Union to give money to the areas where it was most needed.

I ask the House to excuse my mention of another example that plays on my Italian family connections. Ferrari's coffee roasters is a company that invested in putting roasting production lines into its own premises so that it could supply the best coffee around to Italian cafés throughout Wales. I will recommend to the Select Committee on Catering that we have that coffee here.

The Communities First projects are another area in which Labour is pragmatically rebuilding the cohesion of our communities and getting to the heart of the most deprived communities, including some in my constituency. For example, £360,000 has been allocated for community development work in Bettws, Caerau, Llangeinor, Lewistown and Pantyrawel, which is literally down the road from where I live. For the first time in a generation, communities that had the stuffing knocked out of them are now starting to build from the bottom up, and local people are taking responsibility for turning round their communities; the only way in which that can be done properly. Again, Labour money from the National Assembly for Wales and the Government settlement, far above the Barnett formula, has enabled communities to do that.

Turning to community safety and policing, we have heard much criticism today about police numbers, and contradictory figures have been given. The simple fact is that in the South Wales police area—whatever criticisms may have been made—there are nearly 300 more police officers on the ground.

Indeed, I ask the Minister to accept a correction to the Home Office figures, which wrongly purported to show that, in the past 12 months, for the first time since 1997, the number of police officers in Wales had gone down. I know that the South Wales police chief constable has been in touch with the Government to correct those figures. I have the accurate figures, which show that, in the year to March, the number had gone up from 3,161 to 3,243. In every year since 1997, there have been more police officers in the South Wales area. They struggle to train the new recruits. When I go out with them on a Friday night to see how they are doing, the problem is the number of new recruits trained through the Aberkennfig training station and coming on board with the veterans. That is the challenge, not a lack of police.

Having sat on the Committee that considered the Police Reform Act 2002, I was disappointed to find that the South Wales police had not applied to be one of the first authorities to take on community support or community safety officers. Advanced as my community safety partnership is in Bridgend county borough council, the South Wales police had not seen fit to apply. However, it is applying this time round. I was glad to hear the reassurances from the Front Bench yesterday that most of those who missed out on the first tranche of funding, which was 100 per cent. funding for CSOs, will benefit from the new tranche of funding. I look forward to seeing those officers on the streets of my communities; thickening the blue line, as the chief constable of South Wales, Anthony Burden, has described it. He does not see the scheme as detrimental to the police force, but as something that will strengthen our community safety.

There has been much talk of sub-post offices today. Ogmore comprises three former mining valleys, and people from outside are surprised to find that we are increasingly a rural or semi-rural community. Out of 63 post offices in my constituency, 60 are rural post offices. I am particularly pleased by the Government's determination that, until 2006, there will no avoidable closures of rural post offices. I can give my constituents that certainty.

I share concerns about the modernisation of the Post Office and about turning post offices around, but that job should have been started a long time ago. The present Government are the first to tackle the question of the future of our post office network and how we develop a thriving network of post offices. The job should have been done 10, 15 or 20 years ago. We are now tackling it. In addition, there is a £2 million fund for community post office initiatives to drive forward that modernisation agenda, and £210 million for the urban reinvention programme. Furthermore, there are to be no closures in deprived communities. That contrasts starkly with the black picture conveyed by the Opposition motion and by Opposition Members today.

Community social and economic regeneration has been mentioned by Government Members. I echo the sentiment that one of the biggest factors in regenerating our communities is getting people into jobs and putting bread into their mouths. There has been a 75 per cent. reduction in youth unemployment in my constituency since 1997. That bears no resemblance to the remarks of Opposition Members. There has been a 74 per cent. reduction in long-term entrenched unemployment. Where is that reflected in the Opposition's motion?

I will make an admission to the House. Despite all the achievements that I have listed—I could go on and on—we have not got it all right. If we had, we could pack our bags and head home now. We will not do that. For the first time during my speech, I see some smiles of satisfaction from those on the Opposition Benches. We have not totally eradicated poverty, but we have gone a long way towards doing so with our reforms. Through child tax credits and working tax credits, we are targeting the money to those who most need it.

We have not completed housing renewal in every constituency across the land, but in Bridgend, for example, more than 80 per cent. voted in favour of stock transfer; putting the ownership and management of local housing into the hands of local people so that they can take it forward for their children and grandchildren. We are already seeing the benefits. That never happened previously, as local authorities never had the money. It is this Government who are rutting in place the mechanisms and structure to enable local authorities to move forward on housing.

We have not transformed every single school into a shining new edifice, but for the first time in many generations, the Labour-led Welsh Assembly has made the funding available and is working hand in hand with local councils to take our children out of Victorian piles and put them into modern, friendly and encouraging new schools, such as the brand new primary school in Ogmore vale, which has been welcomed by parents, teachers, governors and, most importantly, the pupils themselves.

Other examples include the soon-to-be built comprehensive school in Maesteg and the refurbishment of the existing English language comprehensive to allow a new Welsh medium comprehensive to be established for the first time ever in the Llynfi valley. A Labour authority is working with a Labour-led Welsh Assembly Government and using funding passed down by the Chancellor to make things better for people where it matters; in communities. That bears no relation whatever to the motion.

We have not yet given every community the confidence to contribute fully to the regeneration of its own patch but, for the first time in a generation, we have the tools and funding to do so. Instead of turning our backs on our communities and saying that the job was too difficult. Labour Members always had confidence in them. We come from and live in these communities. We talk with the people and we have always had faith that, given the opportunity, we had the ability, energy and drive to turn communities around.

There has been a hard lesson to unlearn; for 18 years, Opposition Members were complicit in grinding down the confidence of people in those very communities. It is not fanciful to say that there has been a blossoming of community activity and activism in the past few years. People up and down the Llynfi, Garw and Ogmore valleys are taking control of their futures again. With a little help from their Labour friends, they are striving to regenerate the communities, and succeeding.

That is not without peril. Success in getting funding for many of those new projects is easier to find than success in respect of core funding. I raise that issue with the Minister as I have done with my counterparts in the Welsh Assembly Government. In some areas, especially Communities First areas, it takes time to develop a sense of ownership and empowerment—that horrible word — among tenants, residents and volunteers and tangible results are less quick to appear. However, the process is working.

We have not completely solved transport problems, particularly in more remote areas where bus services or adjacent local authority transport fails to reach the parts that private transport reaches, or at least fails to do so at the times when people need to get to work. None the less, what a difference a few years make. Free local bus transport is now available to the elderly throughout Wales. We hear of people who leap on to a bus to Bridgend, take the next bus from Bridgend to Neath, travel from Neath to Aberystwyth and so on, and spend the summer traversing the whole of Wales. All credit to such people if they want to spend their time doing that.

In addition, the Welsh Assembly is consulting on extending such access to rail transport. I make a special plea for the Maesteg branch line, another case in point in considering the denuding of local services that we are accused of causing. The Maesteg branch line was kept open by the Labour local authority. Despite the negative and depressing tone of the motion, one thing for which the Welsh Assembly is constantly praised is its willingness to listen to the people whom it represents with regard to housing, transport, community safety and all aspects of local services.

I began by saying that the motion could be rewritten in shorthand as a plea from the Opposition, saying, "Please support us and forget what we did before; we are all much better now." However, it would be more convincing if it also said, "Please forgive us for our excesses, for what we visited on you over 18 years and for the legacy of those years, which will take so much time to repair." The motion does not say that; it does not say sorry because that is the hardest word to say. Sorry is the only word that the people of Wales want to hear from the Conservatives. [HON. MEMBERS: "Or goodbye] They have already virtually said goodbye in Wales. Were it not for proportional representation, that would be another story. If it would make it easier for them, they can say it in Welsh; "mae'n ddrwg gen i." That is what people want to hear.

If the newly rebranded party of the vulnerable and of community cohesion wants people to believe in it and in the substance of the motion, the denial has to stop. The first part of any treatment on the road to recovery is to admit that one has a problem; then one can move on. The motion shows a failure to recognise the problem. Conservative Members are in denial. No one can help them or save them unless they recognise that, in any debate on community services, social exclusion, neighbourhood renewal, regional prosperity or quality of life, they must first admit their historic failures. They will feel all the better for it. I suggest this to the Conservative Front-Bench team; say sorry and move on. The people of Wales are listening for your response.

4.15 Pm

I first tell the Minister that Essex people do not want to be regionalised. They are a proud people who identify closely and warmly with their local communities. They are proud to live in Essex, which is a wonderful, diverse and beautiful county with an excellent cricket team. There is no better place in Essex than Castle Point, which has the historic Hadleigh castle overlooking the magnificent Thames estuary; the Benfleet conservation area, with its 9th-century St. Mary's church; excellent ancient pubs, including the Anchor, the Half Crown and the Hoy and Helmet; Canvey island, with its wonderful, friendly people, its Dutch cottage, its heritage centre, its sea-front of such wonderful potential, its village community, and, of course, Canvey Island football team, which has had another excellent year; and Thundersley, with its woods and magnificent and valuable wildlife.

Yet those are all put at risk by this Labour Government and their policies, under which things have gone very wrong. Those policies will force the building of thousands of extra houses on our green and pleasant land, with no promise of infrastructure to support them and take the burden off our roads, schools and sewage treatment plants, and no investment in public transport or youth facilities to help to get our young people off the streets and into alternative suitable activities. Labour policies will destroy our green belt and threaten our wildlife and environment.

Labour policies threaten us with unwanted and unnecessary airport capacity in the south-east—an expansion of airport capacity that will destroy local communities. The Cliffe option now seems to be more unlikely after our Conservative-led battle against it, but it remains on the books. I ask the Minister to say a word about that to relieve local people of the burden of that threat.

Labour policies lead to the unfair distribution of lottery community funding. For instance, the eastern area of England has more than 1 million people living in poverty, many more than in the north-west, yet the north-west receives massively more financial support—it gets £8.11 per head compared with only £4.70 per head in the eastern region. The Community Fund must address that inequity.

Labour policies threaten our chemists. The Government have failed to reject the Office of Fair Trading's recommendation on removing entry controls. Labour does not seem to understand the importance of chemists in our local communities. Pharmacies are part of the very fabric of those communities — none more so than Bharat Patel's new chemist's and doctor's surgery in Benfleet, which I shall help to open on Friday. Community-based chemists can do even more to relieve the burden of general practitioners, and the Government should regulate to enable them to do that and take on a greater share of providing local primary health-care services. Chemists are not simply retailers and it is time that the Government accepted that.

Labour policies have forced council tax rises of 44 per cent. over the past four years on people in my constituency and leave us unable to fund our local schools' staffing budgets, putting education in crisis. Castle Point has excellent schools, which deserve much better than they get from the Government. Education has gone terribly wrong in the past two years.

The Government amendment states that the House
"welcomes this year's increased funding for education of over £2.6 billion, 11.6 per cent. extra, and more than £250 million greater than pressures".
That reveals what has happened. The amendment openly states that the increase above pressures is only £250 million for the total education budget. That represents a mere 1 per cent., not the 11.6 per cent. that the Government claim to schools that they have put into education this year. Yet again, the Government have failed to deliver on a most important issue. They have failed our children, the governors, the teachers, the parents and our communities on education, as on so many other matters.

Labour policies that force council tax rises in Castle Point mean that the people have to pay some £400 a year more than they should. The council tax in Castle Point is £400 a year higher per average house than in neighbouring Southend. Yet Southend managed to provide much better services than Castle Point, where the local council cannot even keep the streets clean and safe. People experience genuine difficulties in finding the extra money that they need to pay their council tax bills. I shall encourage them to vote out the Labour administration and vote in a sound Conservative administration on Thursday.

Castle Point's Labour-controlled council has been found to be failing, not by me but by the Government, who nominated it as a failing council, especially on the key provision of social housing. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made an excellent speech that covered housing and I shall therefore not repeat the points on that subject Labour councillors in Castle Point refuse even to meet my residents who need their help on housing. They refuse to answer their phone calls or letters. Those letters are from vulnerable constituents who need help and advice.

No, I shall not give way to Labour Members because they have been filibustering all afternoon.

Labour councillors in Castle Point may well reflect on their cruel attitude to vulnerable people at the election on Thursday. Conservatives would improve the organisation of social housing in Castle Point and provide more units to help the people who so much need it.

We have already heard that Labour policies will lead to the closure of 3,000 post offices and will not allow vulnerable people to make use of the universal bank account that would enable them to pay their bills through direct debit. Such denial stops vulnerable people from being able to take advantage of the discounts that they could get on their utility bills through using direct debit. That is another cruel attitude of a cruel and failing Government.

The Government do not care for the environment, our wildlife or our communities. They certainly do not care for vulnerable people. They have presided over the breakdown of local communities, where people must pay more but get less. The Government, like Labour councillors, should be shown the door as soon as possible.

4.24 pm

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), even though I disagreed with virtually every word that he had to say. It is an even greater pleasure to speak against the main motion and for the amendment tabled in the name of the Prime Minister. I welcome this debate on the impact of Government policies on community services, because it gives me a fine opportunity to inform the House of their impact on my constituency. I remind the House that it is the most marginal Labour constituency and that it decides the fate of the Tory leadership. I have a poster in my office from the Dorset Evening Echo from the day of the last general election, which reads:

"Labour gains South Dorset—Hague quits".
I would assume that, were we to hang on to South Dorset next time, the current leader—if he is still in his post at the time—would have to do the same.

South Dorset is a seat with an 'urban and rural mix, with about 75 per cent. of its population in the borough of Weymouth and Portland and about 25 per cent. in the remaining rural area. As I mentioned in an intervention, the Conservatives see fit to contest only five out of 12 seats in the borough. Indeed, they do not care enough about the island of Portland to contest any of the wards there.

To illustrate the impact of Government policies on community services, I would like to start my brief tour of my constituency in Swanage. It is a town of about 10,000 people on the coast of the Isle of Purbeck. Many people will have visited it on geography field trips in their youth. It has gained from a new day surgery unit at the cottage hospital and a new science block at Swanage middle school, and, despite Dorset constabulary having more police officers than ever before, it has also gained from having neighbourhood wardens. I went out on patrol with the wardens last month and saw for myself the effect that they are having on providing reassurance against what the Opposition spokesman described as the crippling effect of the fear of crime. The level of crime in Swanage is not very high at all— in fact, Dorset is the fourth safest place to live in the country— but the fear of crime is real, and the neighbourhood wardens in Swanage are doing a fantastic job in reassuring the public.

I move from Swanage to Weymouth via the village of Church Knowle. I visited it just the other day and met the chairman and the clerk of the parish council there. They told me that, out of the 150 homes in the parish, only three remain as social housing. They decried the effect of the right to buy introduced by the Tories, and I have no doubt that they would be equally opposed to the effect of the Tory policy—about which we have heard nothing today—of extending the right to buy to housing association tenants. Those three homes that remain in Church Knowle are all housing association homes, and, under that Conservative policy, they would go the same way, contributing to the 13 per cent. second home ownership in that ward that represents a stark contrast to the level of social housing there. We need to see those figures turned around.

I completely concur with the point that the hon. Gentleman is making about the right to buy, from which my constituency of North Cornwall has suffered grievously. That Conservative policy resulted in a large amount of our housing going not just out of the local affordable housing stock but into second homes in the long term. Does he agree that, if we are to prevent the further attrition and haemorrhaging of social housing, this must now be tackled as a serious issue, along with the issue of second homes?

Yes, I agree with that. There are some parts of the country—and certainly parts of Dorset, such as the Purbeck area—in which it is difficult to find sizeable pockets of land on which it is appropriate to build new units of housing. In those areas, if not in others, we should certainly seriously consider ending the right to buy for council tenants. The transfer of the ownership of the social housing under Purbeck district council's control is likely to go ahead in the next year, in which case that would become academic, so long as we did not have a return to a Conservative Government who would extend the right to buy to housing association tenants.

I shall move on from Church Knowle, via the world heritage coast, which received its designation from UNESCO in December 2001.

I would like the hon. Gentleman to clarify the point about ending the right to buy for existing council tenants. Is he saying that he would like it ended for existing council tenants completely, or would he just like an end to the discounts? Would he actually take away the right of someone to buy their own council home?

We should seriously consider ensuring that all capital receipts are reinvested in social housing, and ending the discount and possibly the right to buy in certain areas. We should not end the right to buy across the board, but only in areas where there is an acute shortage of affordable housing and a shortage of appropriate land on which to build such new housing.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is looking after the UNESCO world heritage coast designation. We are confident that we can develop that with the Department and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the maximum benefit of our tourism industry, which is the main employer in my constituency.

We could stop off at Stoborough village, where the school has for years been campaigning for a hall, and in the past couple of months its new school hall has been opened. On to Wool and Bovington, where we have mini sure start programmes. Sure start is a phenomenon not just in urban areas. In the rural area of Wool and Bovington we have seen the great benefit of building the capacity within communities to help themselves and to bring up their youngest children in a positive way. It is the most disadvantaged rural area in my constituency.

We could go via Crossways, which is finally getting a new school. The population of 3,000 have been campaigning for years to have a school in their area so that their children do not have to be bussed all the way to Owermoigne. Thanks to a decision by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, that community is to get its new school.

We then find ourselves in Weymouth, whose acute health service is delivered by the West Dorset General Hospitals NHS Trust. More than 95 per cent. of in-patients, and 85 per cent. of out-patients are seen within six months. Those are the best results in the country. Weymouth college now has a new site with new buildings thanks to the multi-million pound Government grant that was made before the last general election.

All the schools in my constituency have had some benefit from the Government. Just last week, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills visited my constituency and I arranged for head teachers to meet him. We talked about the problems, and there is no doubt that problems remain with which we still have to deal. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who referred to all the great work that has been done and all the challenges that we still face.

Those head teachers talked about the great benefit of initiatives such as the national grid for learning, which has resulted in the roll-out of information technology in our classrooms. Just over five years ago, they were struggling to get the cash together to buy one Acorn computer, whereas now they have classrooms full of personal computers. We have the new block at All Saints school and the new sports hall at Budmouth technology college. I could go on. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Henderson) reminds me to mention class sizes, which for five, six and