A little extract from Hansard which gives hope to our Councillors:
John Pugh (Southport) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts).
It would be churlish not to welcome the new money announced—it is welcome and needed—but I want to make a few brief observations. It is indisputable that during the attack on the deficit local government has been hit first and hardest, as it often is by all Governments—because local government is not us. We set the budget and they, the councillors, have to make the cuts. In fact, however, it is the only public service budget that has to reach a black line every year, no matter what we throw at it—and we have thrown an awful lot at it, which makes things tough and constrained.
It is widely admitted, however, that in very difficult circumstances local government has coped quite admirably—somehow—but in varied ways and with greater or lesser difficulty. If the NAO is to be believed, the Government do not realise how much that has varied and cannot be sure that local government can continue to cope in the future. The hon. Member for Sheffield South East made that point very effectively. We cannot be sure that local government is sustainable in its current form, particularly because no party is offering it any kind of reprieve, so far as I can see.
It is indisputable—I would not disagree with the hon. Gentleman—that by and large the metropolitan and urban areas have lost most in proportional and real terms. We can, as the Government do, call that fair, because they had the most per capita in the first place—and they still have—or unfair because they have the greatest need. We can stand in argument either way, and most of our argument concerns just that point.
I personally regard a 40% overall reduction in the DCLG’s account during this Parliament as too severe to be well managed and as unnecessarily damaging. I say that as a supporter of the Government’s deficit reduction ambitions. I have voted unflinchingly so far on most financial issues. On this occasion, however, one thing sticks in the craw—the dishonesty and disingenuousness of the presentation of the facts.
It was bad enough when we had the sophistry of spending power replacing the clear grant support figures in hard cash terms. When we started to include money actually in the NHS budget in council spending power—and then went on to deny double counting—the truth started to recede for me. It was very depressing. As the hon. Member for Sheffield South East has explained, the last straw came last week when I and other members of the Communities and Local Government Committee, some of whom are present, saw the permanent secretary and head of the civil service, Bob Kerslake, attempting to describe double counting as something else. It was
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almost comical—there were contortions that could have appeared in a TV sketch for “Yes Minister”. It was a genuinely class act of a civil servant defending the indefensible. I urge hon. Members to try to download it or find it on Parliament Live, where they will see it is a work of considerable ingenuity!
My point is simple. To make cuts and defend them is honest and tough; to make cuts and disguise them is, as I think most would accept, cowardly and weak; but to make cuts and deny them and absurdly twist language to do so is dishonest and dangerous.