HC Deb 24 April 1985 vol 77 cc880-5 3.45 pm
Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision for local government services in Avon. I move this motion on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks), whose parliamentary duties make it impossible for him to do so

It is a pleasure to move this motion because I did national service in the RAF in what is now part of the county of Avon, and because the area has strong and historic links with Birmingham and the west midlands through their shared background in manufacturing industry. Both areas have benefited from the genius of Isambard Brunel, the pioneering engineer of whom we have such sore need today.

The Bill seeks to bring the Government to book for the damage that they have inflicted on the county of Avon. This destructive Government's general policies on local government are bad enough alongside their belief that the faceless men and women in Whitehall know better than elected local councillors, but the Government's rate support grant policies have also hit Avon hard. Since 1980 no less than £81 million has been stolen in RSG from Avon by the Government. That is bad enough in terms of services which matter vitally to many families, including the lowest paid and the poorer families among the 930,000 people of Avon. But that is not all. In 1975–76, 36p in every pound of council spending was met by local ratepayers, with the other 64p coming more fairly from central taxes. Ten years on, in 1985–86, ratepayers have to pay 72p in every pound, central taxes only 28p. The Government have stolen local money to spend more nationally. The burden has been deliberately switched from taxpayer to Avon ratepayer under an unfair system which the Prime Minister promised to abolish and has not. The blame for the burden of rates rests four-square with this Government

In 1974, Avon county was conjured up by the then Tory Government out of Bristol and parts of Somerset and Gloucestershire. It had no administrative centre on which to build and its creation had more to do with expected political advantage than anything else. The new area was expected to repair years of Tory neglect in the rural areas to bring services up to those earlier achieved in Bristol. To a large extent Bristol was expected to pick up most of the bill.

Labour-led since 1981, Avon has done much to try to improve services, with declining support from the Government and, indeed, financial harassment. With assistance from bodies such as the Avon Co-operative Development Agency and the Avon Enterprise Board, new hi-tech industry has been attracted into the county from the nearest end of silicon valley around Swindon. Now, 98 out of every 100 children entitled to three years of infant education are getting it. That is no mere statistic, because education missed before the age of five, or, for that matter, at any other time, is education lost for good. Sixteen new nursery classes have been opened by the county council and the pupil-teacher ratio has been reduced in both primary and secondary schools to give better attention to pupils' needs

There are 1,000 more elderly and handicapped people who now have home helps and extra places in residential homes. Small workshops have been built and financial help has been given from the £2 million economic development fund to help to create and expand jobs and business. Bus services have been improved and fares kept down—so much so that there are more passengers

All this energy under the leadership of Councillor Andy Pott contrasts with the record and threat of the Conservatives. All that they want are cuts, poorer services and higher charges — the same old dismal recipe by direction of "Her Mistress's Voice"

The Liberals are as bad. As late as June of last year they wanted a 2p in the pound cut across the hoard, irrespective of what that would do to schoolchildren, the elderly and the handicapped

The Bill requires the Secretary of State to report on the damage done to Avon through successive cuts in rate support grant and to propose ways in which this can be reversed, in order better to meet the known needs of the people of Avon

I pray in aid as well the report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, which includes extracts from the report of the Audit Commission for Local Authorities in England and Wales, published yesterday, when it makes the point: Some authorities are receiving less grant than their circumstances might warrant; and, by the same token, some are receiving more. The difference for a large city could easily amount to +£15 million in grant every year. The report continues with a message for the Government: Local authorities' expenditure targets different from the GRE (revised) should be abolished as soon as practically possible, thus removing some of the perverse incentives in the present system. It then adds, and this is the justification for the Bill: Local market forces (i.e. the local electorate) should eventually determine the level of local expenditure—provided that local accountability can be suitably strengthened

3.51 pm
Mr. Jack Aspinwall (Wansdyke)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Does the hon. Member wish to oppose the motion?

Mr. Aspinwall

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker

I seek to oppose the Bill because, once again, the House has been faced with nothing more than a publicity stunt. It is all part of a scheme to try to enhance the chances of Labour in the county council elections on 2 May

Avon has been targeted because Labour can see that it will lose its overall majority, which is just two. In a sense this attention is welcome, because it shows a great respect for the view that Avon county council will again become Conservative on 2 May

There has been a long-running campaign, of which the Bill is part, and the other day it even included a visit from the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock). It was ironical that when he was delivering meals on wheels the first recipient was a Conservative voter. I understand that today we have a visit from the Opposition Front Bench spokesman on education. I wonder whether that attention will still be given after 2 May

The use of propaganda has become widespread in Avon. We have a fine example of an unbiased free newspaper, "Avon Report", delivered to every home, full of photographs of Labour members, at a gross cost of £210,000 to the ratepayers, while that excellent local paper, the Western Daily Press, is banned from local branches of libraries. Even the county's logo is copied on Labour party literature. Arrangements are being made to open long-standing projects during the three weeks in the run-up to the election, for propaganda purposes

How can the Bill be introduced when the Labour leaders of Avon county council know full well that since 1981 the rates have increased by 71 per cent., the second highest of the shire counties in the country? During the same period earnings have risen by 30 per cent. and prices by 25 per cent

There have been many fine examples of senseless overspending, such as a welfare rights campaign costing £200,000, a Sheffield-based local government campaign unit, £5,000, and CND, £900. Those are just a few examples

Unemployment is a serious worry, particularly for young people, and many prospective employers have been frightened away — with a consequent loss of job prospects—by high rate charges and uncertainty. The Bristol chamber of commerce, representing many employers in Avon, has said that ratepayers face either a significant rate rise in 1986–87 or a sudden unplanned cut in services. That information came from recent rate consultation meetings with Avon county council

Much of the problem has arisen because of the administration's policy, regardless of the means of the ratepayers to foot the bill. The county plans to spend £349 million in 1985–86. That cost has been reduced by the so-called financing adjustments, but it is still £10 million over the Government target. That overspending attracts a grant penalty of £28 million, payable to central Government. Many of the financing adjustments cannot be repeated next year, and similar overspending would entail a much increased penalty

The rate increase for 1985–86 of 6.5 per cent. is acceptable. Members of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce warned that in 1986–87 the rise in rates could be at a level not known in recent years if there was no change in policy. Such high rates would mean less money for industry and commerce to spend on investment and jobs. That is the view of a responsible, non-political body —the Bristol chamber of commerce—and many others.

Avon citizens are entitled to good services and a well-run and caring administration at a price that can be afforded. That will be achieved when, again, we have a Conservative administration in the county of Avon. Therefore, I ask the House to reject the motion

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and Nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):

The House divided: Ayes 95, Noes 166.

Division No. 194] [3.55 pm
Ashdown, Paddy Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Clarke, Thomas
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.)
Beith, A. J. Concannon, Rt Hon J. D.
Benn, Tony Cook, Frank (Stockton North)
Blair, Anthony Corbett, Robin
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Corbyn, Jeremy
Bray, Dr Jeremy Cowans, Harry
Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith) Craigen, J. M.
Bruce, Malcolm Cunningham, Dr John
Campbell-Savours, Dale Dixon, Donald
Canavan, Dennis Dormand, Jack
Dubs, Alfred Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Eadie, Alex Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Eastham, Ken Nellist, David
Evans, John (St. Helens N) O'Neill,Martin
Ewing, Harry Owen, Rt Hon Dr David
Forrester, John Park, George
Foulkes, George Patchett, Terry
Fraser, J. (Norwood) Pavitt, Laurie
Freud, Clement Penhaligon, David
Godman, Dr Norman Pike, Peter
Gould, Bryan Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Hamilton, James (M'well N) Radice, Giles
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) Richardson, Ms Jo
Harman, Ms Harriet Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Robertson, George
Heffer, Eric S. Rooker, J. W.
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Sedgemore, Brian
Hoyle, Douglas Sheerman, Batty
Hughes, Roy (Newport East) Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Johnston, Russell Skinner, Dennis
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)
Kennedy, Charles Soley, Clive
Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil Spearing, Nigel
Kirkwood, Archy Steel, Rt Hon David
Lambie, David Strang, Gavin
Lamond, James Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Tinn, James
Loyden, Edward Torney, Tom
McDonald, Dr Oonagh Wainwright, R
McKay, Allen (Penistone) Wallace, James
McKelvey, William Welsh, Michael
McNamara, Kevin Winnick, David
Madden, Max Wrigglesworth, lan
Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Mason, Rt Hon Roy Tellers for the Ayes:
Maynard, Miss Joan Mr. Frank Haynes and
Meadowcroft, Michael Mr. John McWilliam.
Mikardo, Ian
Adley, Robert Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Cash, William
Amess, David Chope, Christopher
Arnold, Tom Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Ashby, David Cockeram, Eric
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Conway, Derek
Baldry, Tony Coombs, Simon
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Cope, John
Best, Keith Currie, Mrs Edwina
Biffen, Rt Hon John Dickens, Geoffrey
Blackburn, John Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter du Cann, Rt Hon Sir Edward
Boscawen, Hon Robert Durant, Tony
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)
Boyson, Dr Rhodes Eggar, Tim
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Evennett, David
Brooke, Hon Peter Fallon, Michael
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Farr, Sir John
Browne, John Favell, Anthony
Bruinvels, Peter Fenner, Mrs Peggy
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A. Fletcher, Alexander
Budgen, Nick Fookes, Miss Janet
Butcher, John Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Forth, Eric
Fox, Marcus Needham, Richard
Fraser, Peter (Angus East) Nelson, Anthony
Fry, Peter Neubert, Michael
Galley, Roy Nicholls, Patrick
Garel-Jones, Tristan Nicholson, J.
Goodlad, Alastair Norris, Steven
Gorst, John Ottaway, Richard
Gow, Ian Page, Sir John (Harrow W)
Gower, Sir Raymond Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Greenway, Harry Parris, Matthew
Grylls, Michael Pawsey, James
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Pollock, Alexander
Hargreaves, Kenneth Portillo, Michael
Harris, David Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
Haselhurst, Alan Powley, John
Hayhoe, Barney Price, Sir David
Heddle, John Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Renton, Tim
Hind, Kenneth Rifkind, Malcolm
Hirst, Michael Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Holt, Richard Rost, Peter
Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A) Ryder, Richard
Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk) Sackville, Hon Thomas
Hunt, David (Wirral) Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Silvester, Fred
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Skeet, T. H. H.
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith Soames, Hon Nicholas
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Speller, Tony
Kershaw, Sir Anthony Spence, John
Key, Robert Stanbrook, Ivor
King, Roger (B'ham N'field) Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
King, Rt Hon Tom Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Knowles, Michael Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Knox, David Stewart, Ian (N Hertf'dshire)
Lamont, Norman Stradling Thomas, J.
Lang, Ian Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Latham, Michael Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Lawler, Geoffrey Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Lee, John (Pendle) Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd) Thornton, Malcolm
Lightbown, David Townend, John (Bridlington)
Lilley, Peter Tracey, Richard
Lloyd, Ian (Havant) Viggers, Peter
Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham) Waddington, David
McCurley, Mrs Anna Wakeham, Rt Hon John
MacGregor, John Waldegrave, Hon William
MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire) Walden, George
MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute) Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Madel, David Walters, Dennis
Major, John Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Malone, Gerald Watts, John
Maples, John Whitfield, John
Marlow, Antony Wood, Timothy
Mather, Carol Yeo, Tim
Mellor, David Young, Sir George (Acton)
Mills, lain (Meriden)
Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon) Tellers for the Noes:
Montgomery, Sir Fergus Mr. Jack Aspinwall and
Neale, Gerrard Mr. Rob Hayward.

Question accordingly negatived