HC Deb 23 June 1976 vol 913 cc1573-5
2. Mr. Arthur Jones

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he next expects to meet members of the local authority associations.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Peter Shore)

On 2nd July.

Mr. Jones

Why did the right hon. Gentleman see only representatives from Socialist-controlled authorities at Transport House on 13th June about the possible overspending of about £400 million in the current financial year? What sanctions does the right hon. Gentleman propose against a local authority such as Haringey, which, it is reported, is likely to defy Government policy?

Mr. Shore

As to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I made very clear the Government's general concern about the potential overspend when I met the consultative council, which consists of representatives of all the local authorities, regardless of political party. I met my own local government councillors because they happened in any event to be attending a conference in London that week, and I wished to have the opportunity of meeting them and talking to them. They are a thoroughly reasonable and responsible group of local government leaders.

While the hon. Gentleman's last point is a problem, I wish to wait until we have received the result of the further exercises and the financial returns on 16th July.

Mr. Cant

How does my right hon. Friend hope to get over the very difficult problem in relation to the rate support grant, whereby thrifty authorities such as Staffordshire County Council and Stoke District Council will be discriminated against in this context?

Mr. Shore

I am aware of the great difficulties in dealing with problems of overspend. Should the overspend be confirmed, the problem as my hon. Friend puts it is that of treating fairly and justly different authorities. But the nature of the relationship between central and local government is such that it is extremely difficult, without changing the whole nature of that relationship, to do other than to accord rather rough justice.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Will the Secretary of State explain what he means by saying that certain local authorities are his? Did he not meet the authorities as Secretary of State? Are not all local authorities his clear responsibility? Surely he should not discriminate between one group and another. If some authorities defy the Government's request for economies and get away with it, does he agree that it will be difficult for other authorities to comply?

Mr. Shore

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman, in his slightly prolonged introduction to his supplementary question, was extending a careful invitation to me to address the Conservative Party local government representatives. If he was, I shall consider the matter with care. I shall not dismiss the idea. [Interruption.] I shall tell him why. It is because the evidence that I have of overspend is not confined to authorities under Labour control; it is a widespread tendency that is to be observed in councils throughout the land.

The hon. Gentleman's second question concerned some councils that may defy the Government. I am aware that some councils—this comes as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about local circumstances—have greater difficulties than others.

Mr. Ron Thomas

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of his hon. Friends are concerned about the cuts in local authority expenditure? We believe that they will hit those least able to look after themselves or help themselves. As an ex-member of a local authority, I was never quite clear what sort of statistical indicator the Government use to determine whether there has been an increase in real terms. Many of us who have sat on local authorities have found that there has been no increase in real terms. Those who have suggested to the working people that we represent that the party is over should realise that the pubs have not even opened for the party to begin.

Mr. Shore

As regards my hon. Friend's last point, I cannot be asked to comment on particular choices of words. I accept that statistical indicators are extremely important. One of the things that have struck me as an incoming Secretary of State for the Environment is, in a sense, the relative paucity of information that comes to central Government from local government. In the circular that I addressed to all authorities I carefully made the point that in our view there was almost certainly an element of genuine uncertainty in the figures which, with the best endeavours, CIPFA and the Department of the Environment had jointly obtained, and which were presented to the consultative council in May.

I understand the local authorities concern, and their difficulties, but I must correct my hon. Friend on one matter. My circular does not ask local authorities to make cuts; it asks them to live up to the figures that they themselves agreed were right and appropriate in December 1975.

Mr. Raison

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) asked a serious question, which deserved a serious answer. In view of the existing overspending and the increasing signs of further public expenditure cuts, will the right hon. Gentleman now consider giving further advice to local authorities about which services they must curtail?

Mr. Shore

I am interested to note the hon. Gentleman's approach to the problem of the relationship between national Government and local government in this difficult matter. I hope that in the context of the Layfield Report the whole House will be thinking very hard about what the right relationship should be, but I am not prepared at present to add anything to the circular that I have issued. I am not prepared to say anything before I have received the results of the additional information for which I have asked.