It is up to individual local authorities to secure value for money in their spending decisions and to set a balanced budget. They have a legal duty to deliver continuous improvement and to combine that with economy, efficiency and effectiveness. Local auditors scrutinise their accounts, and my Department has ensured that all council spending over £500 is published so that local voters and anyone else can check that their council is spending its money wisely.
I welcome the Minister’s comments. With regard to value for money, will he investigate the circumstances in which Swale Borough Council’s cabinet recently gave £1 million to a company called Quinn Estates to allow the council to take back control of car parks in Sittingbourne that it already owned, and for which it was not legally obliged to pay a single penny? In addition, will he join me in condemning Swale’s cabinet for slapping a gagging order on councillors, threatening them with legal action if they dare to expose this shabby deal for council tax payers in my constituency?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. As I have said, local authorities are independent of central Government and responsible for their own decisions. He has raised serious concerns about Swale Council and of course, if he has evidence of financial irregularities, he should report it to the external auditors in the first instance. He may also wish to consider reporting it to the National Audit Office, and I would be happy to meet him to discuss the matter further.
Time and time again, it has been proven that local government has the most efficient public services, yet the largest pressures facing local government are in adult social care and children’s services. Despite that, those services will still be cut. Blackburn has growing demand and limited resources. The Minister may announce huge amounts of money but in reality that will not even cover the unmet demand or the rise in the national living wage. Sticking plasters will not fix the problem. Will the Minister please tell us what he is going to do to end this crisis?
I will later today present our finance settlement, which the hon. Lady can vote for if she really thinks that there is not more money going to local authorities. There will be a 4.4% real-terms rise, a £1 billion social care grant, and a further £500 million that can be accessed, and the rise in council tax will be the lowest since 2016.
Does the Minister agree that, with the enhanced spending power that local authorities are about to get, they should prioritise care for disabled children? The needs of such children are becoming more complex, and we want to do more as a society to support them, so that should be reflected in the decisions of local government.
Of course, it is for local authorities to decide their individual local priorities, but my right hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that the real-terms increase in core spending power for councils up and down the country means that money can be invested in the services that local authorities need the most.
The Minister said that councils are responsible for their own decisions. He is right on one level, but many local authorities are increasingly over-exposing themselves to certain commercial sectors—the Public Accounts Committee has examined this in depth—putting at risk council tax payers and the fabric of local government in their areas. He will know that some councils are at risk right now, so what is his Department doing to ensure that we are protecting council tax payers where local government is not doing so well?
The hon. Lady raises a serious point about the effectiveness of some types of spending. We are working with the Treasury to review the Public Works Loan Board rates and flexibilities that local authorities have, and we will ensure that we keep her updated in due course on the progress of that review.