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Council Tax

Volume 521: debated on Monday 17 January 2011

8. What support his Department is giving to local authorities to minimise increases in council tax. (33552)

The Government are making an extra £650 million per annum available over the next four years to help principal local authorities in England to freeze their council tax in 2011-12, and will take action against excessive increases. The Localism Bill provides for local referendums on excessive council tax rises in future years.

At a time when so many household bills are rising, will the Minister join me in sending congratulations to Wychavon district council and Malvern Hills district council, which have worked so hard to share services and to keep council tax rises down for local residents?

My hon. Friend is right. In the past week or so since the finance settlement, I have had a procession of council leaders coming to see me, usually with their chief executives, to plead that they have no money left. One came this morning, and notably brought the chief executive who is being paid £180,000. I pay tribute to those local authorities that have taken the necessary steps and are therefore able to take advantage of the council tax freeze.

The elderly, vulnerable and least well-off constituents of mine in Dover and Deal and I am sure across the country will welcome the Government’s efforts to freeze council tax. May we have an assurance from Ministers that we will never again return to the dark days of the past, when council tax doubled under the previous Labour Administration?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that between 1997 and last year council tax rose by 109%, so the elderly, the frail, the most vulnerable and those with fixed incomes had absolutely no defence against what was happening when the current Opposition were in government. I am very proud to say that £650 million is being made available for this important priority: a 0% rise.

What can be done to stop local authorities withdrawing services, such as libraries and lavatories, and expecting town and parish councils to take them over, thereby increasing the local precept? People will not benefit from the Government’s support to protect them from council tax bills rising if the local precept rises instead.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Unless an authority has already merged its human resources, legal services and planning departments and cut the chief executive pay that Opposition Members are so keen to defend, there is no excuse for trying to charge more for those services, or indeed, as my hon. Friend points out, for trying to shove them off on to, perhaps, parish councils.

Since Bolsover district council has managed to hold its council tax steady for a few years, and since none of its executives get the kind of sums that have been referred to, will the Minister repay the compliment by allowing it to deal with the 108 prefabricated buildings that have been there since the end of the second world war? The council needs to replace them and pensioners need new accommodation, so will he get the show on the road?

The hon. Gentleman knows, because he has raised this issue with me before in the House, that the decent homes programme continues, and last week’s settlement, on top of the spending review, makes it very clear that £2.2 billion is available for decent homes—which, I understand, subsequent to our previous exchange in the House, his council is in line for.[Official Report, 27 January 2011, Vol. 522, c. 4MC.]

In a flight of fantasy and a moment of mental dysfunctionality, the Secretary of State and the Minister have proclaimed again and again that there is no need for front-line services to be cut if salaries are reduced, services are shared and there is greater efficiency. What will the Minister say to the Liberal Democrat-controlled Sheffield city council when, in cutting £70 million, it devastates services and decimates jobs in my city?

It is very important to get out to all local authorities across the country the message that the most vulnerable people should be protected in this spending settlement. That is an important point, because one of the principal ways in which vulnerable people are protected is through the Supporting People programme. Its budget has been pretty much kept intact. I will send out the message from the Dispatch Box now that the reduction in Supporting People is just 2.7% per annum, so there is no reason for local authorities to use that as an excuse to cut services to vulnerable people.

The Minister must accept that, far from supporting local authorities, the unprecedented cuts that his Government are inflicting will lead to diminished services, massive job losses and lower economic growth in the private sector. Will he at least concede that in the context of these massive cuts and the abolition of area-based grants, the £650 million that he is offering to freeze council tax is nothing more than a gimmick? Can he tell the House how he justifies sacrificing the country’s most deprived communities to indulge the Secretary of State’s penchant for attention-grabbing publicity stunts?

That was an interesting pre-written question, which seems to have ignored what we have established from the Dispatch Box today: that £650 million will lead to a 0% council tax rise in virtually every authority in the country. Although the hon. Gentleman says that that is of no consequence at all, I can tell him that for the pensioners in my constituency, his constituency and in those of my hon. Friends it will matter a great deal.