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Barnett Formula

Volume 750: debated on Tuesday 17 December 2013

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the Barnett Formula in the light of the Local Government Association’s recommendation that it be replaced with a new needs-based funding model.

My Lords, I first declare my vice-presidency of the Local Government Association, and I thank noble Lords taking part in this debate for their contributions.

I have asked to discuss the Barnett formula today for three reasons: first, because the debate that will take place over the next few months prior to the referendum on Scottish independence in September will cause the Barnett formula to be under close public scrutiny; secondly, because of the rising demand across England for devolved powers from Whitehall similar to those available to the devolved Administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and thirdly, because public spending cuts in England are making people in England question why the Barnett formula exists. That is of course a question that the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, has himself asked many times. Indeed, it is unclear why it has been left alone for a generation, why it is so out of date and why it allocates more money to the devolved Administrations per capita than it does to England.

The Barnett formula was devised as a temporary measure to resolve problems over the funding allocations between England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales ahead of the 1979 referendum on Scottish devolution. Many things have changed since the formula was created. As the Local Government Association chairman, Sir Merrick Cockell, said recently, it is “a historic relic”. He is right, because it has locked inequalities into its system of distribution. The consequence is that in terms of identifiable public spending by country and region, all three of the devolved Administrations have higher public spending per head of population than that of any English region, including London. The Office for National Statistics says that in 2011-12, Scotland received £10,088 per head, Wales £9,740, Northern Ireland £10,623 and England just £8,491; those are the latest available figures. It is very hard to justify England doing so relatively badly, not least because of the claim, sometimes correct, that public services in Scotland are better than in England. There is a rising tide of opinion in England that tax revenue is being raised in England but is then diverted from England to be spent in Scotland on higher standards of public services. However, that is not entirely true: the tax raised in England is actually raised in London. Furthermore, if the formula did not exist and if Scotland was independent, tax revenues from oil would broadly make up for the loss because 90% of the oil would be in Scottish waters.

A Select Committee of this House reviewed the Barnett formula in 2009. It pointed out that the formula was used to allocate over half the total public expenditure in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It also pointed out that although the annual increment in funds is made on the basis of recent population figures, the baseline, accumulated over the past 30 years, does not reflect today’s population in the devolved Administrations. It is therefore out of date and takes no account of the relative needs of any of the devolved Administrations. The Select Committee recommended a UK funding commission—which seems to me to be an extremely good idea—that would identify a small number of need indicators and oversee the transition to a new system of block grant made over between three and seven years. It has not happened, of course, but I would submit that it cannot be delayed for long.

I turn now to the rising demand for devolved powers in England. The recent London Finance Commission report, Raising the Capital, results from London’s boroughs and regional government looking closely at the issues of taxation and finance in the wider south-east region with a view to considering a Barnett formula-style settlement for the capital. That is welcome, except for one thing. I am increasingly aware of a rising tide of opinion in London that it should keep more of the taxes it raises. The implications of this are potentially very serious for the rest of the UK, which is why we need to think very hard, as a United Kingdom, about where taxes are raised and from whom, about what levels of public spending should apply in each part of the UK, and about a system in which need is the basis for distribution.

This debate now goes further than just London. The Core Cities Group, representing Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield, is calling for a suite of fiscal reforms for England’s larger cities. The aim is the devolution of property tax revenue streams, including council tax, stamp duty, land tax and business rates, with the ability to reform those taxes while retaining prudential rules for borrowing similar to recent changes in Scotland through the Scotland Act and as now proposed for Wales. The aim would be to generate funding to stimulate economic growth according to local needs, allowing cities to raise sustained investment for vital infrastructure projects. These proposals would be cost-neutral at the point of devolution, with no additional money being sought from the national pot beyond that which the core cities already receive, along with the ability to raise new local taxes. Such reforms would give practical effect to the ambition of the coalition Government to promote “radical devolution”. Together, the English core cities and London represent more than half of the UK economy and almost half the population, but they control only around 5% of the taxes raised in their areas. Empowered cities could join up public services and reduce dependency on London, which takes me to the current state of local government finances in England.

Last week’s Autumn Statement exempted local government from the further reductions that were applied to Whitehall departments. These measures are welcome. However, some council services are in serious difficulty, particularly because those councils more dependent on central grant cannot raise large sums through council tax and other fees and charges. Central grants for local government are to be cut by 43% by 2015-16, and there will be a funding gap of more than £15 billion by the end of the decade if things go on as they are. That takes me to the issue of fairness.

The way the Barnett formula is calculated is widely acknowledged to give more to Scotland and Northern Ireland compared with their relative needs, and less to England and Wales than their relative needs would justify, by more than £4 billion a year. This is unsustainable. Governments have consistently said over many years that they will not review the Barnett formula and, in the case of this Government, not until the public finances are stabilised. I understand the Government’s predicament. I do not argue that Scotland should necessarily get less because I believe in a funding system based upon a needs assessment, but I do argue that Wales and the constituent parts of England should be treated equally and empowered to create more of their own tax income.

As an example, Birmingham has called for a single funding pot at the city region level for local authority spending, health, and for expenditure by the Department for Work and Pensions. Savings are there to be made by reducing duplication. If the referendum next September in Scotland is in favour of independence the Barnett formula will be abolished. If there is a no vote there will inevitably be a debate about yet further devolution beyond the Scotland Act, and I personally would welcome that. When that debate happens there will be a rising demand for the fiscal and political devolution offered to Scotland also to be available in England, with a system of allocation based on needs. Now is the time to act and to set up the UK funding commission proposed by the Select Committee of your Lordships’ House four years ago. We should create a place-based system of finance in England. This could be based on the governance that has developed locally—combined authorities, health and well-being boards, joint committees, local enterprise partnerships and so on. We should give local government and their partner organisations the power to allow individual areas to shape public services and investment, and to incentivise local growth by devolving powers on taxes and spending to suit local needs beyond the 50% permitted from growth in business rates.

In conclusion, it is important that we are not divisive. We should learn from the wealth of evidence on this issue and have a mature discussion as a United Kingdom on how devolution can drive growth and a bigger local tax base, as well as on how resources can be allocated more fairly on the basis of need. In the mean time, as we await the local government settlement tomorrow, it will not be enough for the Government yet again to push this issue into the long grass.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Shipley for introducing this topic and for giving us such interesting views on a new form of local government that certainly contains many elements.

As he said, it is of course most understandable that devolved Administrations and local government are all looking harder at the way funding from central government is divided up. All are facing much-reduced budgets and the actual cuts relate considerably to the application of the Barnett formula. Until the last election the Scottish Government revelled in the fact that their block grant increased by two and a quarter times to nearly £29 billion. The two years of the current Administration has seen this cut so far by £589 million. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 29 June, in Hansard at col. 306, seemed to estimate that the block grant in the current year would be only £26 billion. Perhaps the Minister can tell the Committee if this is still the figure that would apply.

Similar cuts are of course being felt across all Administrations. As my noble friend Lord Shipley was saying, there have been many calls for a needs-based approach to be used in a new calculation—to the extent that many in the public now think that this occurs under the Barnett formula; but of course this is not true. There is some evidence that it was considered in the early days under what was known as the Goschen formula, which was replaced in 1979. The arguments will have been used by Scottish Secretaries of State and others to obtain funding, but the approach has not been part of the Barnett formula.

The needs-based approach was certainly central to the recommendations of the report referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, which your Lordships’ committee produced in July 2009 and which was firmly rejected by the Government. It now appears that the issue has been taken up by the more recent Holtham commission. It would be interesting to know whether its needs-based formula was the same as that put forward by your Lordships’ report, but this development has meant that people are now beginning to put figures on the disparities that it has thrown up, and local government is taking much greater interest.

Of course, there is a great deal of rethinking going on, both in administration and on the financial front. The Scottish Government are having to juggle three scenarios: the cuts to their previous budget envisaged by the Chancellor using Barnett; their own proposals for a totally independent country, where we are not in the least clear as to what funding will be available under a great many headings; and the wholly new settlement promised by the implementation of Part 3 of the Scotland Act 2012, where the Scottish Government will be raising half the taxation required for their domestic budget. Of course, this will still be governed by the overall size of the estimate of what is due under the block grant.

Given the complications that all this envisages, it is quite easily understood that there is not much sympathy from that quarter for any further adjustments. If the Minister cannot give a positive response to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, perhaps parties should think about whether this is something that should be in their election manifestos.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for initiating this debate, and his succinct address.

Were he alive, Lord Roberts of Conwy would be here today. As a long-standing ministerial and opposition opponent of his, I think that his contribution to Wales’s public life was magnificent. He was more than ever loyal to Wales’s local government units, and his journey from the Methodist manse of Ynys Môn to high rank here in your Lordships’ House is a fine essay in giving good public service. Wyn Roberts built more roads than the Romans ever did, and he built schools and hospitals. He was a fine man.

As I see it, the background to the Barnett formula was the consequence of three beleaguered Administrations of which I was a member, led first by Prime Minister Harold Wilson and then by Prime Minister James Callaghan. The latter Administration was sustained by a Lib-Lab pact of a kind. In those crisis years, as he was addressing the complex algebra of local government finance, the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, knew that the IMF was kicking in the doors of the Treasury, that the British manufacturing smokestacks were falling down by the day, that the OPEC nations had trebled—indeed, quadrupled—the price of oil, and that a fearful inflation was raging, some 27% year-on-year in 1975. That also triggered off what is now called in shorthand trade union militancy.

I will give the following brief vision of how the noble Lord coped as Chief Secretary. You would find him in the Members’ Dining Room in another place with his great friend, the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, and he coped by opening a half-bottle of House of Commons champagne. He then went back to the Treasury that little bit better in his morale. It was from these fires in British governance that the Barnett formula arose, as it were, metaphorically so, from the political loins of the noble Lord, Lord Barnett. My one observation is to be careful for what you wish if you are a Welshman in governance, particularly in Wales. Whatever the outcome of the Scottish constitutional debate, Barnett will come to the fore in all our deliberations and arguably shall be in the manifestos of the great political parties. That is for certain.

My caution is this. Roughly speaking, per head of the population in England the sum of money per citizen is exceeded in Scotland by £1,400; and in my own country, Wales, by some £800. I have spent only 43 years here in Westminster, and I am concerned that when Whitehall mandarins have their monthly meetings they may be tempted to consider how they may be able to get rid of the responsibility as it affects the Celtic fringes. I therefore feel that before one advances one should know precisely what the outcome is. That is what the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, always did; he was an accountant by profession. I offer again the sight of the noble Lord quaffing his half-bottle of Commons champagne before going back to address problems of great crisis.

Like my noble friend Lord Shipley, I believe that the Barnett formula is fundamentally unfair and I will relate this to adult social care. As we have heard, this is an out-of-date formula for allocating resources across the UK.

The Local Government Association estimates that allocating funding on a needs-based formula would potentially increase public spending in England by £4.1 billion. This would make a huge difference to services currently stretched to their limit. There would be a decrease in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Government figures already show Scotland as overfunded. In a recent report, the Treasury said that since 1998,

“public spending per person in Scotland has been around 10 per cent higher than the UK”.

In the current climate, this is simply unsustainable.

This unfairness is understood by most people in England. In 2012, the Future of England survey indicated that 52% of those surveyed felt that Scotland received more than its fair share of funding; this was up from 24% in 2002. What implications does this have for the adult social care system, which in England is underfunded? Over the past three years, budgets have reduced by 20%. There is a growing gap between the demand for social care and the resources invested in it. The Government are not providing councils with enough funding to deliver the care people need. An additional £400 million a year is needed to maintain the same level of service, excluding inflation.

In Somerset, a secondary school which covers an area of 600 square miles transports children to and from their homes, an expensive and large logistical exercise. Delivering dignified and appropriate care to their elderly relatives in the same area is much more challenging when often the assessment is for only 20 minutes of care and the drive to the next client is 30 minutes away. The solution is to reshape local health and social care systems and invest in community-based services. These will alleviate pressure on the acute sector. The Government have acknowledged this with the Care Bill and duties on councils to provide or arrange services that prevent, delay or reduce needs.

Reforms require proper resourcing. If the funding arrangements across the UK were fairer, more could be invested in the English social care system and preventive community care services, with reduced spending on expensive A&E acute services. People will rightly see the current distribution as unfair and look at comparisons in local services received north and south of the border. The English and Scottish social care systems are different. There is different legislation, and there are different entitlements and progress on integrating health and social care. Scotland is the only part of the United Kingdom to introduce free personal care where the full costs are covered by the state. In England, the plan is to cap costs. That is a major difference. In effect, English taxpayers, through the Barnett formula, are subsidising a level of care to which they themselves do not have access.

I am pleased that we have had the opportunity today to debate this issue and I agree with my noble friend Lord Shipley that it is right that the Barnett arrangements, agreed as a temporary measure in 1979, should be reviewed. Very few people consider 34 years as temporary. To question Barnett is not to question the future of Scotland in our union. Instead, this debate is about the question of basic fairness across the UK. I therefore call on the Government to set out their plans for making a constitutional settlement fair for all.

My Lords, I also declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, of which I am a former chairman, and I want to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for initiating this important debate. I strongly support the recommendation made by the Local Government Association that the Barnett formula should be scrapped, and I call on the Treasury to start evaluating the alternatives. As we have heard, figures from the United Kingdom Government highlight that Scotland is overfunded. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, has made the case as to why the formula is unfair and I support his call for the return of the £4 billion to England that he referred to so strongly. This is imperative at a time when money is desperately needed for all public services, including for adult social care which we have heard about so ably from the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell.

Basic fairness is not just about the money, important as that is. It is also about devolution from Whitehall to local government in England. This will give people a greater say in their public services and a more meaningful reason to vote in local elections. Recent polling by Ipsos MORI showed that 79% of people trust their council, whereas only 11% trust central Government. English councils are delivering for their communities and the Barnett formula should reflect that.

I would now like to turn very briefly to how the Government can deliver devolution across the United Kingdom in a way that is fair to England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. As we have heard already in today’s debate, Her Majesty’s Government need to ensure that money is distributed fairly across the four countries. Having reformed the Barnett formula, HM Government should aim to implement the informative recommendations made in the document produced by the Local Government Association entitled Rewiring Public Services. They would make sure that the benefits of devolution are felt across England, and this could be achieved by, first, adopting five-year funding settlements for local government across the lifetime of a parliament. Progress towards this goal was made in the Autumn Statement, which announced that local public services will get the same long-term indicative financial statements as central Government.

Secondly, money should be shared more fairly around England by taking financial distribution out of the hands of Ministers and replacing it with an agreement across English local government. Thirdly, local government should be given wider revenue-raising powers, and fourthly, we should develop a market in municipal bonds that gives local government access to alternative forms of finance.

Local government in England is currently dealing with unprecedented reductions to its funding. Core funding will have been cut by 43% across the lifetime of this Parliament. There is, as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, has said, a projected £15 billion funding gap by 2019-20 that councils must close in order to meet their legal responsibility to balance the books. The size of the challenge is so great that tinkering at the margins will not be enough. Without radical change in the way funding is distributed across the UK, we risk a situation where services in England that the public care deeply about will start to fail. Bold, imaginative action and political leadership are required to restore financial stability. It is time for a fairer deal for England and English councils.

In his reply, I would like the Minister to address the point that if any reform—which he may or may not agree to—is to be worth while, the work on structuring it has to begin now. Elections are coming along and it is most unlikely that people will put forward radical solutions before an election. If you wait until after the election takes place, you are five years from the next, and action has got to be a very early priority for the next Government.

Other noble Lords have explained how this money is needed and I will not spend time talking about that. The previous speech indicated that bold action is necessary, but bold action rarely comes very late on in a Parliament, so I do not expect it to happen immediately. However, I do expect a real attempt—cross-party agreement would be achievable—at a proper in-depth examination of the issues which have been revealed. I do not know how such a thing can be set up or how independent it can be but I urge the Minister to really look forward and give us some hope that things are going to get better. Everybody knows that local government services in many places are on the point of breakdown. As these cuts continue for the next two years, it is going to get very serious indeed, and politicians, at the next election or immediately afterwards, have to come up with some convincing formula about how this is going to be tackled.

It is no good talking about how the Barnett formula has served us well—that is really a lot of nonsense. It was a short-term measure set up to get through a difficult election period. However, that does not mean there is any justification for letting this hang on—it is time for new and radical thought, into which local government has a really good input. I commend that to the Minister and would like to hear in his reply what he intends to do about it.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for facilitating this debate. I identified with many of the points that he made. I also join the noble Lord, Lord Jones, in his comments about the late Wyn Roberts, whom we all miss very much.

I am glad this opportunity has arisen to comment on the LGA’s submission on the Barnett formula in the context of the Autumn Statement. There is only time to make a few benchmark points today, but it is worth noting that the LGA is working on alternative funding proposals, which will be published, I believe, next summer. I welcome that, although I hope they will consult both the WLGA and the devolved Government in Wales in taking that forward. The implication is that there should be mechanisms for distributing resources according to need within England as well as within the UK.

Noble Lords will be aware of the grave dissatisfaction that has existed in Wales for many years with regard to the inequity of the Barnett formula. The report of the Select Committee on the Barnett Formula in the House of Lords in the 2008-09 Session,

“concluded that the Barnett Formula should no longer be used to determine annual increases in the block grant for the United Kingdom’s devolved administrations”.

It added the pertinent comment:

“The Barnett Formula also takes no account of the relative needs of any of the devolved administrations”.

The Holtham commission, which investigated these matters in Wales, produced two assessments. The first, on the basis of the formula used within England to distribute resources, estimated that Wales was underfunded in 2010-11 by some £300 million. The second independent assessment identified a £400 million shortfall. The Silk commission, which reported on possible changes to the financial powers of the National Assembly, agreed with Holtham in its analysis. The Holtham commission set out, as an alternative to the Barnett formula, parameters for a needs-based formula which included the number of children, the number of older people, ethnicity, income poverty, prevalence of ill health and sparsity of population.

The conclusions of the House of Lords Select Committee to which I referred spelt out as parameters the age structure of the population, low income, ill health and disability, and economic weakness. To that extent, the House of Lords Select Committee, the Holtham report and the Silk commission were moving in the same direction. The LGA in its paper recognised the significance of looking at,

“the total identifiable public spending”,

and states:

“Scotland is overfunded by £4.4 bn”,

although this appears to be on the basis of Scotland’s fiscal and macroeconomic position, not on the basis of any detailed analysis of Scotland’s needs, which seems perverse.

Of course, if Scotland votes for independence it will fund the entirety of its services from taxation raised by the Scottish Government. Independence, to that extent, would bring to an end any feeling, rightly or wrongly, that Scotland is being overfunded at the expense of England. Perhaps Scottish independence will solve the problem that is bugging some colleagues here today. I do not suppose that they would support a yes vote, however.

Whereas the LGA in its paper purports to represent councils in England and Wales, it pitches its arguments solely in the context of England. It opens with the words:

“English communities are being short-changed by as much as £4.1 billion a year”.

It makes no reference in its text to the fact that Wales also is being underfunded on that basis and, presumably on the LGA’s own logic, should be receiving £300 million or £400 million a year more to put this right. Here I must note that the WLGA, which represents Welsh local authorities, while supporting the LGA’s call for a needs-based formula, has said that it,

“certainly cannot support the idea of decimating Scottish local government expenditure to achieve this, or having the entirety of any redistribution of funding to be spent solely in England on social care”.

Is the decimation of Scottish local government the alternative that Scotland faces if it votes no next September?

In conclusion, I very much support the thrust of the LGA’s approach, although the details need much further consideration. I hope, however, that all UK parties will make a pledge in their manifestos for the 2015 election to introduce a needs-based formula for distribution of resources.

From the study that the noble Lord has made, perhaps I may ask him whether the shortfall that the LGA was talking about is based purely on equality of distribution, or took into account the Holtham needs-based formula.

The table that was published, which I do not have time to go into in detail, referred to, “Identifiable public sector expenditure”, which is a different concept from that which is attributed by Barnett and needs analysis in its own right.

My Lords, I note that the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, asked that political parties include a needs-based formula in their manifestos. I somehow suspect that they will not be on the front pages or among the first six pledges—or three or however many pledges we choose—because this is one of those subjects that has become all too difficult, which is why this temporary situation has lasted for three decades. It certainly needs to be changed but, having said that, what is the difference that such a change would make in England? It would be an extra 4%, which I am sure would be very much welcomed by local authorities but is not a big difference. It is rather an obscure issue for the electorate, which does not make it any less important, but most people would probably interpret it as something to do with the financing of one of the more obscure London boroughs, rather than attribute it to one of our noble colleagues here.

I should like to move on and ask: what should really be done if the situation gets a little more difficult? A needs-based formula would certainly be better. I am slightly sceptical about an independent commission but the European Union manages rather objectively to distribute structural funds, so it may be that this sort of thing can happen even within a political environment. Two areas are even more important than this, one of which is the rural/urban divide that, unfortunately, my Government have so far not been able to mend much, if at all, during their period in office. I remind noble Lords that rural areas pay higher tax bills, get some 52% less in government grants, and have fewer public services because they are more difficult to deliver there. That is one of the fundamental areas, which, if we keep a similar form of local government finance to what we have now, needs to be fixed very quickly and thoroughly.

The other area that has been mentioned by other noble Lords, which is equally if not more important, is that we need to do something far more basic than changing the Barnett formula: we need to increase substantially the taxation that is raised locally. Rather than mess around with the Barnett formula, we need to start to implement a much greater degree of localism. Clearly, we have got rid of a lot of ring-fencing over the past few years. We have got rid of capping, although we have replaced that with other ways of restraining local expenditure. We have taken away barriers stopping local authorities from raising revenues in all sorts of ways. I welcome that, which came from one of the Government’s early initiatives under localism. However, over the medium term we need to move financing from 5% towards 20%, and hopefully in the longer term far higher, so that we have much more local accountability and democracy, and better local decision-making. Within Europe we are the most centralised state as far as taxation is concerned, certainly among the major states. That needs to change. We need to change the rural/urban divide. If we can do all that, then I would support my noble friend Lord Shipley in changing the Barnett formula as well.

My Lords, I will speak briefly in the gap.

I was a member of the Select Committee which recommended moving from the Barnett formula to needs assessment. However, the first thing we learnt from the evidence was that the Barnett formula is extremely simple to operate, which was a bonus for the Treasury, which knew immediately how much was to be allocated to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

We learnt from the evidence that England and Scotland are pretty similar in terms of needs, while Wales has a disproportionate number of ill people and Northern Ireland a disproportionate number of young people. We also learnt, as I sincerely believe, that Wales misses out under the current arithmetic of the Barnett formula. In Scotland the Barnett formula is seen as a bribe to stay.

A more valid reason, and in my view the only possible justification, for the £1,600 per person additional spend in Scotland is that the tax take from Scotland does not include the oil and gas revenues, because these are allocated to the slightly fictitious area called the United Kingdom continental shelf, not to Scotland.

Ultimately, any perceived proposed reduction in the Barnett formula is a gift to the yes campaign and the possibility of Scotland becoming a better democracy. It was a great disappointment that there was no White Paper from the no campaign, one with a title something like “The Better Governance of Scotland”.

I understand that the three major parties still have no idea what they would like to deliver for Scotland; they need to work that out. They all talk about more devolution, but I wonder how much more can be devolved before eating into what I call the four pillars of reservation: microeconomics and taxation, the welfare system, foreign policy, and defence. The solution for a better United Kingdom is never going to be described in the party election manifestos, so there is more work to be done on this.

Noble Lords should not read anything into the fact that I am speaking from this side of the Committee—I have always done so since the Grand Committee came into effect. We were allowed to sit anywhere, and I like to see the whites of the Minister’s eyes.

My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken, I place on record my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for initiating this Question for Short Debate in the light of the Local Government Association’s recommendation that the Barnett formula is replaced with a new needs-based funding model.

The Barnett formula is often discussed in your Lordships’ House and I hope that, in his response to the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, will give us a bit more information than we were able to get in an exchange at Question Time, and address some of the points I am going to make about the funding of local government in England and Wales. Like all noble Lords, I am aware that the formula which bears the name of my noble friend Lord Barnett was devised when he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury and has been used for more than 30 years to allocate more than half of total public expenditure in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Barnett formula has been criticised on a number of grounds. It has been argued, among other things, that, because of its focus on population, it fails to recognise higher levels of poverty. In this debate it is useful to look at what has happened to local government in England and Wales in recent years, and in particular since 2010. We have a picture of local government that has been described by the Prime Minister as,

“officially the most efficient part of the public sector”.

However, his Government have made bigger and earlier cuts to local government than to any other part of the public sector. Their actions have been criticised right across local government and real inequalities and unfairness have crept into the system. I still find it shocking, when I look at the figures, to see that they highlight the West Oxfordshire District Council, the local authority that covers the Prime Minister’s constituency, which is ranked in the multiple indices of deprivation at 316—with one being the most deprived and 325 being the least deprived—and which is actually getting an increase of 3.1% in its spending power. Meanwhile, other local authorities such as Hastings on the south coast and Burnley in the north-west, which are ranked 19th and 11th respectively in the same indices, are facing the maximum cut in their spending power in 2013-14, which equates to a reduction of 8.8%. I agree very much with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, regarding the difficulties in which some local authorities find themselves.

It is also shocking to note that the 10 most deprived local authorities in England will lose six times the amount of spending power per head of the population when compared with the 10 least deprived local authorities by 2014-15, when compared with 2010-11. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, also referred to the calls for further devolution of powers and fiscal reforms in England. I very much agree with his comments about the core cities.

Will the noble Lord, Lord Newby, address in his response the points that the Local Government Association is calling for, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, referred, including five-year funding settlements across the public sector to give more certainty to local government? That is a sensible idea. Will he also address the point about the distribution of funds in England being taken out of the hands of Ministers and replaced with an agreement across English local government? The current arrangements are opaque and, as with the figures I highlighted earlier, people struggle to understand them and how they are arrived at. They just demonstrate unfairness in the process—a process which disadvantages people living in our most deprived areas and communities. I very much agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, that the devolution of further power to local government in England is a good thing. Like her, I have also noted the MORI polling which shows that 79% of people trust their local council, whereas only 11% trust central government. I shall not comment further on that; I leave it there.

This debate has to address the issues around spending in our most deprived communities. How do we ensure that no matter whether you are living in a deprived part of Glasgow, a deprived mining village in south Wales or on a council estate in Southwark, central, devolved and local government provide the funding that helps you improve the situation in which you and your community find yourselves, whether through the provision of better housing, better schools, the means to get the skills and training you need to get a job to provide for your family, or to look after yourself in your old age as your needs change?

The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, made a number of important points to which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Newby, will respond. I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for initiating this debate and look forward to the response of the noble Lord, Lord Newby.

My Lords, this is an important subject and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for giving us the opportunity to debate it this afternoon, and for all the contributions that have been made.

For what is essentially a mathematical equation, the Barnett formula retains the capacity to generate considerable passion and debate, as we have demonstrated today. Clearly, noble Lords are aware of the formula’s origins in the late 1970s. The Government of the day decided at the time of the devolution Acts in 1998 to retain the block grant and Barnett formula arrangements for determining the budgets of the devolved Administrations. The noble Lord, Lord Jones, gave us some gory details of the state of the British economy at the time but also of the extremely civilised way in which the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, grappled with them. I am sorry that there is only water on offer to the Committee this afternoon.

Successive Governments have taken the view that while the Barnett formula may not be perfect, a persuasive case has yet to be put that an obvious alternative exists that would simultaneously satisfy the devolved Administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and all the other bodies competing for funding from the Government—not least Whitehall departments and local authorities. While it clearly is not perfect, the Barnett formula has proven to be a relatively transparent, durable, robust and fair method of calculating changes in budgets for the devolved Administrations since devolution. It operates at a high level, based on population shares and changes to spending by comparable UK departments. Despite a considerable element of transparency, once you look into it in any detail, it does feature certain aspects of the Schleswig-Holstein problem and at the margin gets extremely complicated.

Since today’s debate was prompted by the Local Government Association’s concerns about the formula, I stress that the Government understand the concerns of English local authorities. That is why in the Autumn Statement we recognised concerns about the administration of the new homes bonus by giving that back directly to local authorities, exempted local authorities from any further reductions in annual revenue budgets to assist them in freezing council tax in 2014-15 and 2015-16, and made additional funding available to support housing and other infrastructure development.

I will make a number of general comments now and come back to some of the specific comments under the headings England, Scotland and Wales respectively. The Government are reluctant to join those who call for a rapid demolition of the funding architecture for the devolved Administrations but we recognise that there is a range of valid views on alternatives. Changes to the devolution settlements already legislated for in relation to Scotland and in prospect for Wales are increasing the levels of accountability and flexibility the devolved Administrations will have in future over their own fiscal position.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

My Lords, as I was saying, changes to the devolution settlements already legislated for in relation to Scotland, and in prospect for Wales, are increasing the levels of accountability and flexibility the devolved Administrations there will have in future over their own fiscal position. That has been warmly welcomed in both those parts of the United Kingdom. Similarly, in England, the Government have already initiated an historic shift of power to local areas by removing ring-fences from £7 billion of local government funding and giving councils the ability to retain 50% of the business rates they collect; I will come back to that in a moment.

At least one other noble Lord has referred to the House of Lords Select Committee in 2009, which concluded that, despite some shortcomings,

“the advantages of the Barnett Formula—simplicity, stability and the absence of ring-fencing—are important and should be maintained whatever the future methods of allocating funds to the devolved administrations”.

While we recognise the concerns expressed about the formula, as made clear in our programme for Government, this Government’s priorities remain that we deal with the deficit, bring debt down, and build on the growth we are beginning to see demonstrated right across the UK. There are therefore no plans to review the formula in this Parliament.

I move on to the English, Scottish and Welsh contributions to the debate in turn. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, made a powerful argument for more devolution within England and greater autonomy for the core cities, and London in particular. I have considerable sympathy with that. I was very much involved in plans for regional government during the previous Administration. My preference would have been to have powerful regions as counterpoints to, to a certain extent, Scotland and Wales. However, that vision of how we might manage affairs in England rather crumbled to dust.

It is interesting to note how the core cities have stepped up to the plate and are coming up with a number of innovative proposals, to some of which the noble Lord referred, to enable greater devolution to them. However, the problem with the core cities approach to devolution goes to the point made by my noble friend Lord Teverson, which is that they have the mass and momentum to take devolution forward, but if you are not careful, that will leave a lot of the rest of the country behind. It is difficult to see how to get some kind of uniformity of approach if the cities themselves take a huge leading role.

I agree completely with the need to develop further the place-based approach to financing local government. Although this may be a little pessimistic, it is one of the relatively rare innovations in public policy which I think has been an unambiguous success. I hope very much that we press on with it because not only does it give the flexibility that enables considerable efficiencies to be driven forward, it also gives local authorities a greater sense of their own destiny, which is important if they are to flourish in the medium term.

As part of his argument, the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, discussed the inequality in per head allocations between England and the devolved Administrations. There are, of course, very considerable differences between the regions of England. As he knows, the north-east has higher public spending per head than, for example, does Wales. There are obvious reasons for that, but it is worth pointing out that England differs considerably in the level of expenditure per head that it enjoys at the moment.

My noble friend Lady Bakewell was one of a number of noble Lords to set out the straightforward English case for a review of the formula as proposed by the LGA. I understand absolutely why she feels so strongly about it. She talked particularly about adult social care. As she will be aware, the Government are making enough funding available to ensure that local authorities do not need to reduce the level of social care services that they are providing through to 2015-16, and the range of reforms we are introducing are all aimed at allowing local authorities to do more in order to deliver better outcomes, including the new £3.8 billion health and social care integration pool. That is another example of taking an integrated approach rather than a silo-based one which, whatever is done with the Barnett formula, is very important.

My noble friend Lord Bradshaw enjoined the Government to start working on how we might replace the Barnett formula and suggested that we might adopt a cross-party attempt to do so. I suspect that that would be quite tricky between now and the next election, and I think that the most he can realistically hope for is a clear statement in each of the manifestos on how the parties plan to deal with this issue in the next Parliament.

The noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, pointed out the extent to which the Government are moving towards at least some of the LGA proposals, not least in terms of long-term indicative financial statements. That is a very welcome move, particularly because it has taken so long to do it. We are sometimes pretty reticent about claiming progress when we make it, but that is something which local authorities have been asking for for a long time, and there is real movement.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, as I have mentioned, talked about the rural/urban divide. He basically said that we should not get too obsessed by Barnett, but should worry about the whole raft of issues. I have a lot of sympathy with him on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, made a point about the funding in West Oxfordshire. The only thing I would say about funding for any local authority area is that, if the Barnett formula has elements of the Schleswig-Holstein problem, local government funding allocations in England are vastly more complicated than Schleswig-Holstein ever was. Despite there being allegedly objective formulae for determining that, I have always found it difficult to get from the formulae to the actual results; no doubt that is my inability.

The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, asked us to confirm a number of figures in relation to Scotland. I believe that they are correct, but if I am wrong I will write to him. He asked whether the Scottish Government’s current block grant absorbed the cuts. The cuts to devolved Administration budgets have tended to be proportionately smaller than those to Whitehall departments, but that is due to the comparability factor built into Barnett: specifically, the protection to English health and school budgets.

The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, discussed the challenges in Wales in this area, and talked not least about the Holtham commission, which was an extremely thorough piece of work and demonstrated one approach to an alternative needs-based formula to Barnett. Clearly, it is not absolutely straightforward to get from where we are now to a needs-based approach which everybody agrees is the optimal way forward, but I pay tribute to the Holtham commission for its work.

Finally, on the complications of making comparisons, several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, referred to the public expenditure statistical analysis figures on per capita expenditure. It is worth clarifying that these are not simply devolved Administration budgets. They include some bits of UK-wide expenditure, not least welfare. One must take that into account when looking at the comparability.

I know that I will not have been able to completely satisfy my noble friend Lord Shipley and other noble Lords, but I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that we are alive to the issues and are moving towards greater place-based delivery for England, which will help local authorities deal with the challenges that they face. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Shipley for initiating the debate.

My Lords, in response to the point about the funding formulas in West Oxfordshire, I agree that it is very complicated stuff. Is there anything that the Minister or his department could provide to Members so that we may understand it further? If we have debates saying that this council got this and that council got that, it makes it more complicated. Some of the figures seem very unfair. If we understood how it was funded and more of what was behind that, maybe we would see a different picture.

My Lords, there is to be a Statement before the Commons rises for Christmas about the funding for the next financial year, which will give the noble Lord’s colleagues in the other place, if not necessarily here, the chance to ask a lot of detailed questions about that. Perhaps it is a subject for another debate in your Lordships’ House.

Committee adjourned at 6.59 pm.