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Autumn Statement (Coventry)

Volume 573: debated on Tuesday 7 January 2014

This is one of the few times I have had the honour of serving under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I will start by looking at the background to why I asked for this debate.

The Chancellor said he would eliminate the deficit by 2015, but we heard yesterday that he is going to have to make a further £25 billion of cuts. At the same time, the Government have presided over a cost of living crisis that is affecting ordinary families right across Coventry. Families are on average £1,600 a year worse off. The purchasing power of their wages is down by 5%. Energy prices have rocketed, adding £300 a year to the average family bill. Train fares have increased by up to 6% and bus fares have increased by 2.5%.

Food prices have also increased. The bedroom tax has penalised many in the social housing sector, while rents in the private sector are at an all time high. The benefit cap is also making life difficult for children in Coventry, in particular those in care—the Government are making things harder for around 287 children who have already had a tough start in life.

All that has culminated in large numbers of people relying on food banks across the city, with 67 families receiving food vouchers from the Coventry citizens advice bureau in November alone. Nationally, Citizens Advice expects to allocate over 100,000 vouchers this year.

Cuts could mean that pensioner benefits, such as the winter fuel allowance, could be cut back. As a result of spending cuts, other pensioner benefits are also at risk. Centro, the west midlands transport agency, has to cut £14 million from its budget over the next two years, which will mean reducing pensioner benefits to the statutory minimum.

Benefits for the disabled are also at risk in the transport budget, with Centro having to consult on removing up to a third of ring-and-ride services. Many of my constituents are also facing long delays in receiving their benefits and problems with Atos, which seems to be forcing ill and vulnerable people off benefits and back to work.

Since the Government came to power, the cost of child care has gone up by 30% while wages have been cut by 5%. Moving on to the situation regarding women, tax adjustments made last year raised £14 billion, of which women contributed £11 billion. Given the £11 billion in tax that was inflicted on women and the cost of child care, women are hardest hit by this Government. More women than ever before are on low wages. More women than ever before cannot get a job. More women than ever before are bearing the brunt of cost of living increases.

I turn to the settlement for Coventry. Core funding has been cut by £45 million since 2010. Coventry will face a further £19 million funding cut in 2014-15, which is a 10.6% cut. In 2015-16, the provisional settlement indicates that Coventry will face a 15.2% cut. Government figures regarding Coventry’s spending power do not make sense as they ignore inflation and include funding from council tax and new burdens placed on the council. The council tax base is being eroded; council tax has not increased as a result of the freeze grant, which is storing up problems for the future.

I turn to the impact on children’s services and education. There will be a significant impact on youth services and social care services to support education and the well-being of children, and schools’ basic need grant has been reduced to zero. That may be a mistake by the Government that needs clarifying urgently, because it puts in jeopardy plans to expand our local schools. If what I have said is correct, plans to expand primary schools to meet the demographic changes will have to be cancelled.

In our casework and surgeries, we are all seeing the effects of what my hon. Friend is outlining. If we couple that huge increase in need, which is apparent to Members of Parliament and is impacting on the services provided by the local authority, with the deep cuts that have taken place and will continue to take place, is there not a substantial magnifying effect of the gap between needs and the ability to provide for those needs?

I totally agree with my right hon. Friend. I come back to something that Nicholas Ridley said many years ago—about 25 years ago. He foresaw a time when local councillors would meet once a year and give contracts out to the private sector. If we look at the strategy of this Government and of previous Conservative Governments, we see that they have slowly but surely taken powers away from local authorities. They do so in a number of ways, in particular by slowly but surely cutting budgets and forcing services out to the private sector, and yet the private sector does not always know best.

Also, we have a big issue regarding pensioners, in particular caring for them, that started under the previous Conservative Government and the matter has never been resolved, as far as I can remember. We are still debating changes that should have happened 25 years ago. Instead, 25 years ago local authorities were forced to hand over—or sell, if people want to put it that way—old people’s homes to the private sector. Five or seven years down the road, however, after the private sector had made a profit, the homes closed down. That, too, created a shortage of beds, but more importantly it forced the prices up for care for elderly people.

The whole strategy can be seen. I have always said that this Government think in generations: what the previous Conservative Government leave off, the next Conservative Government pick up. At the end of the day, in local government we will have only one or two little services, while the rest is in the private sector. Mr Ridley’s prophecy is becoming true.

I move on to the impact. Support for Age UK and other local charities will reduce by 22%; there are significant reductions to housing-related support; the housing-with-care scheme in Coventry at Jack Ball house and George Rowley house has ceased; a range of day centres and the in-house, short-term home support service have closed; and charities will no longer get the business rate support that they once had, even though that is meant to be something to do with the Prime Minister’s big society.

If we cut the public sector—the social sector, in particular—we can hand things over to the private sector, or the voluntary sector, but if we hand it over to the voluntary sector, the Government inflict cuts on the voluntary sector. It is an endless cycle of viciousness. If the Government want to get some credibility in local government—even Conservative councils are concerned about what the Government are doing—they need to get a grip and have a good look at what they are doing.

Finally, there is the impact on benefits, such as the local welfare provision grant, which will also end this month—£1.4 million for Coventry, providing emergency funding to those in direct need.

Many of my constituents in places such as Binley Woods, Bulkington and Brinklow see Coventry as their major city, so what happens in Coventry is important to them. I notice, however, that the hon. Gentleman is not merely restricting himself to the autumn statement; he is having a rather broadsided blast at lots of things that the Government are doing. Does he agree, however, that the steps the Chancellor took in the autumn statement to reduce the burden of business rates on small businesses is beneficial to the prosperity of Coventry, as was the freezing of fuel duty, which means that fuel is now 20p less than it would have been had Labour been in power? Are those things not beneficial to his constituents and mine?

I expected the hon. Gentleman to come in on that. That should have been done three and a half years ago, and not left until now. He mentioned that I have had a wide-ranging debate on a lot of subjects, but the Government have had three or four Budgets since coming to power, and each one has had an effect on the areas that I have outlined.

As I said, the Government have to look seriously at the burdens that they are inflicting on local government and, more importantly, on the public. Up to 1,000 more jobs in Coventry, or 1,800 over the past three or four years, will go as a result of the Government’s so-called rebalancing of the economy.

I am pleased, Mr Crausby, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing the debate, and I thank Mr Speaker for allowing this important local debate on the impact on Coventry of the autumn statement.

My hon. Friend covered well and succinctly the overall impact of the autumn statement on the country as a whole. We have at last had some small growth, which is very welcome, with a continued reasonable increase in employment, but there is no point in trying to kid ourselves that we are anywhere near where we said we would want to be. Furthermore, the Government should not kid themselves that they are anywhere near where they want to be on the deficit, because the deficit has not been tackled to anything like the extent that they said with such confidence that it would be when they took office in 2010. As a result, we are still facing the cuts, an increasing level of cuts, that we are discussing this afternoon.

Coventry, which is anything but one of the richest cities, has suffered a massive collapse. All Members who know the west midlands or live near there will recall that in the first period of the Thatcher Government up to 1983, we lost something in the order of 30% of our manufacturing capacity—certainly more than that in Coventry—and the city has never really recovered. Whether that was necessary is not for today’s debate, but the hangovers and the legacy are still with us, meaning that Coventry is quite simply not a rich city and cannot bear the level of cuts being imposed on it.

Since 2010-11, we have lost £45 million from the core support to Coventry, which is 20% over about three years. I have heard it said by various business men, in the House and in particular elsewhere, that 10% of any company’s budget can be cut and it will survive quite well. Frankly, I have done that myself—it can be done. I have never heard any sensible business man say, however, that that should be done for three or four years running and then tried for another two years at an even higher level of cut than 10%. I have certainly never attempted to do that myself. It simply cannot be done, but the figures show that in effect that is what the Government are trying to do.

The figures given by my hon. Friend bear repeating, I am sorry to say. In 2014-15 we face a 10.6% cut, and in 2015-16 a 15.2% cut. I am well aware that that is not the entire income of the company, if we want to regard the local authority as a company. Nevertheless, that is a substantial and continuing sustained cut to its core budget, from which it has to deliver the key services.

Put together, the cuts from 2010 through to 2016 in Coventry, I think, come out as something in the order of a 65% cut in the core budget—making allowance for inflation and all the other things that the Government do not necessarily allow for in their figures. I do not invite the Minister to bandy her figures against ours—we all know that local government finance is an extremely complicated and tiresome matter, which can be twisted in any way and used to prove almost any argument—because that would not be helpful.

Instead, I ask the Minister to address two questions asked by my hon. Friend, to see whether we can get clear answers. I think that she has passed a message back to the officials about one of them, which—to quote from a note received from the local council—is:

“Coventry’s capital allocation for Schools Basic Need has, without prior explanation, been reduced to zero for 2015/16”.

That is surely a mistake. The council cannot believe it. How will it maintain its school buildings? The worst thing a school can do is neglect its buildings. I remember that when we took office in 1997, schools had buckets underneath the holes in their roofs where the rain was coming in. Difficult though it was, the first thing we did was to release £1 billion from the tax on utilities’ excess profits to deal with that situation. It costs a lot more in the long run to deal with such situations in that way. What I read out must be a mistake; I am sure that the Minister will be able to reassure us on that point.

The other specific point put to us by the Coventry local authority, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South also referred, is that the local welfare provision grant will end from 2015-16. That is worth £1.4 million to Coventry. That is not a lot of money, but it is a line in the budget until 2015-16. There has been a line in our budget for local welfare for as long as I can remember.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) referred to what we are seeing in our surgeries. People turn up destitute: they have nowhere else to go or to look. A constituent came to my surgery with two young children and asked, “What am I going to do?” I said that we had to release some funds from what I think we call the hardship fund—that is the vernacular for it. That fund, too, has disappeared as a line in the budget. I would like the Minister to note that.

Now, if a line in a budget disappears, we can bet our bottom dollar that the money for that line in the budget has disappeared as well. We had a temporary holding reply from the Government—I do not think that is good enough—on this matter, which says that the money is still there, but is simply in the whole total rather than being identified separately. Nobody is going to buy that—if a line has disappeared, the money has disappeared. We are facing a 16% cut in the year. It is simply not possible to believe that that money is still there. The money comes from core funding, and has gone down by 16%, yet we are being asked to believe that the money is still there. It is not.

Those are the two fundamental errors in the settlement that we are discussing this afternoon, and we need a reply on each. There are many other problems in Coventry, of course, that are very sad. The hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) spoke of the small amount of help on business rates: every help is welcome, especially from this Government, and so we welcome the measure. But then one thinks of what could be done for small businesses. We could get rid of national insurance for new small businesses, or get rid of NI for businesses taking on new employees. There are so many imaginative measures that could grasp the attention of small businesses—particularly in the west midlands, where we have not done so well and could do so much more. But none of that was in the local government settlement in the autumn, and we did not imagine that it would be.

I ask for three things. The level of cuts should be re-examined; they are simply unmanageable in their present form. They cannot happen. They are just too big. Will the Minister also please answer the two specific points I raised, if possible this afternoon? If not, will she answer them in writing as soon as she is able to?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this debate, and the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) on his speech. I shall try to address the points hon. Members have raised. Although I appreciate that this is not always the style of the House, it would have been helpful if an indication of specific questions had been given in advance, so that I could have come with specific answers. If I do not answer the specific points raised by the Member for Coventry North West, I shall write to him with further information.

I should say that the subject for this afternoon’s debate was the effect on Coventry of the autumn statement. The points that have been raised are partial and do not fairly reflect the impact on the city of Coventry and the surrounding areas of Warwickshire of the Chancellor’s autumn statement. Hon. Members have focused on local authority funding as the main reason for the debate, but the whole point was that local government funding was excluded from the autumn statement and 2013 Budget reductions to help local authorities to freeze their council tax for 2014-15 and 2015-16. In fact, it is central Government Departments that are going to have to make further spending reductions as a result of the autumn statement, not local government.

The hon. Member for Coventry South started by talking about a cost of living crisis. The best way to deal with the fall in living standards is to deal with the economic crisis left to us by the previous Government. The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head, but he cannot possibly ignore the fact that the economy at the end of last year was 7% smaller than in 2008. That will have an impact on every household budget and every business in this country. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made enormous progress, as heralded in 2010, in putting our economy back on track. That should be welcomed by all hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I do not know whether the hon. Lady was in the House when the Chancellor was the shadow Chancellor and used to tell us that there was too much red tape. The actual economic crisis was worldwide and started in America with Lehman Brothers. She should not rewrite history.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. There was certainly an issue with the banks that had to be bailed out. I was not in the House when that happened; his colleague, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), made the decision to do so—rightly, in my opinion—but the point is this: from the early 2000s, the then Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), was running a deficit budget, which means that a huge gap now needs to be plugged. The previous Government consistently spent more than they raised, which means that the achievement of this Government in cutting the deficit by a third—indeed, the Office for Budget Responsibility is forecasting that the deficit will be halved by next year—is an enormous one and should be welcomed by all people in this country.

If I could take us all back to the situation in Coventry—we could argue indefinitely about local finance and about the Government’s economic policy—I wanted to raise one other point, and apologise to the Minister for not having mentioned it before. I will write to her about, and hope that she will take note of, another issue arising directly from the cuts in Coventry, concerning the Meriden Street Housing Co-operative, which is facing cuts of 60%—a figure she will recall. I promised to raise that matter today, and I look forward to her reply.

I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s letter. Either I shall answer or I shall ensure that a colleague in the Department for Communities and Local Government answers if the issue is more within its remit than within the Treasury’s. He is right: today’s debate is about Coventry. When I was handed the brief I was amazed and impressed—although I should not be, as I am an east midlands Member of Parliament and Coventry is in the west midlands—at the amount of investment that both the Government and the private sector are making in Coventry. I will come on to the city deal that was announced recently, but I am also impressed by the number of new jobs that have been created in Coventry. Only yesterday, I was reading an article in the Coventry Telegraph about a software company, Phocas, which is choosing to locate its global headquarters in Coventry, bringing jobs with it. That should be welcomed and I am sorry that the hon. Member for Coventry South chose not to make a single mention of job creation or of companies choosing to locate in the midlands, a part of the country that I would agree is a fantastic place for companies to locate.

I will leave aside statistics on the autumn statement, and will talk about ensuring fairness. The hon. Gentleman failed to mention the rise in the personal allowance that came into force last April, and the further rise that will come into force this year: from this April people will be able to earn up to £10,000 without paying any income tax. If he thinks that that is not making a difference to the pockets of hard-working families in Coventry, he is very much mistaken. I can tell him from my constituency casework that it is very much making a difference to the hard-working families in Loughborough and the east midlands.

The autumn statement delivered an average saving of £50 in household bills. It will maintain support for the poorest families and provide new home owners with incentives worth up to £1,000 to undertake energy efficiency measures. That package of support will also help more than 2.3 million households in the west midlands with the costs of their electricity bills. We are freezing fuel duty for the remainder of this Parliament, saving motorists in Coventry £11 every time they fill up their tanks.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

I will be brief because we expect further Divisions, but I want to finish the points that I was making, particularly in relation to council funding. The hon. Member for Coventry North West talked about not trading figures, but as he referred to some figures in the debate, I will tell him that, for Coventry city council in 2013-14, the spending power per household —per dwelling—will be £2,323, which is £107 more than the England average of £2,216. In relation to welfare payments, I think he was referring to the discretionary housing payment, which residents can apply for in relation to the spare room subsidy. My figures show that in the first six months of the scheme, Coventry city council allocated only 20% of that budget to households that had asked for help, so I hope he asks the city council why some of the funding remains unspent.

We have the cabinet member responsible for the city council’s finance here in the room, so he will be making a note of that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much indeed. Let me finish with some good news, which I did feel was lacking from his speech.

We have already talked, thanks to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), about the announcements in the Chancellor’s autumn statement on business rates, which will benefit 174,000 properties in the west midlands. Thirty-seven per cent. of properties will see their business rates either frozen or falling, which is extremely welcome news. We are making it cheaper for businesses in Coventry to employ young people by abolishing employer national insurance contributions for under-21-year-olds. That will help 123,000 people in the west midlands under the age of 21.

I mentioned the good news announced yesterday that the software firm Phocas is to move its global headquarters to Coventry. Its work force will increase by one quarter. In China, Geely, which had recently acquired the London Taxi Company, announced that it was to quadruple its work force, creating 500 jobs in Coventry. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, food manufacturer Mission Foods has announced 50 new jobs as part of an expansion of its factory in Coventry. I understand that the hon. Gentleman used to work for Rolls-Royce. He will know the extremely good news about the success of that company. I am pleased to say that the east midlands, through the facility in Derby, shares that success.

On 12 December, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced the agreement of a bespoke city deal for Coventry and Warwickshire. I know that that is the result of an enormous amount of hard work by Warwickshire Members of Parliament, including my hon. Friends the Members for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) and for Rugby. The city deal recognises the fact that the west midlands and Coventry and Warwickshire are a key engine of growth for the United Kingdom. Part of that success is the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector, including the automotive sector, but further growth in that sector is being impeded by a series of barriers, including insufficient business support advice, access to finance and the non-availability of individuals with appropriate skills. The city deal rightly seeks to tackle those key barriers.

The Coventry and Warwickshire local enterprise partnership predicts that the deal will include the delivery of more than 15,000 jobs in the wider economy, of which 8,800 will be in the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector. A range of innovative business support programmes will support further growth in the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector and a new flagship clearing house centre, where key business support agencies are co-located in one building.

Over the years, the local MPs have pushed for a lot of the companies that she has mentioned—for example, Jaguar Land Rover—in the midlands and particularly in Coventry. A city deal would push for that as much as anyone else, so we are not totally negative. We have played a part in some of the things the Minister has outlined.

I am very glad to end the debate in a spirit of positivity. I thank the hon. Gentleman. He is quite right. All hon. Members, from both sides of the House, come together to support their local areas. That is why I felt that his speech missed the importance of the west midlands and the successes that are being achieved there. I am sure that neither he nor any MP would want to talk down their constituency or city. I am pleased to see that, as we approach the end of the debate, we are getting there.

Before I finish, let me talk about education funding, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Coventry North West. I have just been handed some figures, which show that Coventry’s capital allocation for 2014 to 2017 is £6.25 million. That is funding for new school places. In relation to the pupil premium, the extra in 2013-14 is £13 million and in 2014-15 it is £17 million. I will write with more detail to both hon. Gentlemen who referred to the figures, but I wanted to get that on the record.

I thank the hon. Member for Coventry South for organising the debate, for bringing this matter to the attention of the House and for enabling me to highlight some of the positive impacts that the autumn statement has had on Coventry, the west midlands and the United Kingdom.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.