MPs clash over council tax at community questions

April 22, 2009 at 11:07 am 1 comment

by Kate Appleby

Apologies, or lack thereof, became the general theme in the Commons yesterday afternoon as John Howell, Conservative MP for Henley, opened Oral Questions to the Secretary of State for Community and Local Government, Hazel Blears.

Mr Howell began by asking how much band D council tax has increased in Henley in (a) absolute and (b) percentage terms since 1997–98.

Hazel Blears responded to this question by apologising to the House for “inadvertently disclosing some information” earlier that morning, just a few minutes before it was contained in a written ministerial statement to the House.

This apology was followed by a statement from the Secretary of State that “the average band D council tax, including parish precepts, in south Oxfordshire—Henley—has increased by £830, or 129 per cent., since 1997–98. In England as a whole, the increases in the same period are £726 and 106 per cent.”

In response to this, Mr Howell demanded an apology from the Secretary of State “for the pressure that she has put on council tax by the below-inflation grant settlements given to my district and county councils, by the unfunded additional burdens that she has put on to them, and by the pressure on the funding of core services through the way she is dealing with ring-fenced grants.”

Having apparently satisfied her daily apology allowance, Hazel Blears flatly refused to show any remorse, responding that she was “quite astounded” by Mr Howell’s demand in many ways. She said:

“I am sure that he will know that under this Government there has been a 39 per cent. real-terms increase in grants to local government, whereas under his party’s Government there was a 7 per cent. real-terms cut in the last four years.

“He knows that in this current period there is almost an extra £9 billion for local authorities across this country to continue to provide support and help to their communities.”

David Taylor, Labour/Co-operative MP for North-West Leicestershire, supported this opinion and claimed that innumeracy must be prerequisites of being selected by a Conservative association.

“The Secretary of State mentioned the figures for England—an approximate doubling that is an average of 6 per cent. over the 12-year period.

“Is it not the case that during the period before we came into office, when council tax was still operating in the last days of the Conservative Government, the average annual increase was very much the same, at 6 per cent.?”

Hazel Blears thanked Mr Taylor for his “pertinent” observations, adding:

“Local authorities have to be aware of the costs of council tax to their residents, absolutely rightly, but they also provide a whole range of really important services, whether in adult social care, education, or recycling and the environment. This Government have enabled local authorities to continue to provide those services.”

The Secretary of State emphasised her point by adding:

“It is still the case that in local authority terms, Labour costs the taxpayer £204 less than Tory councils”.

This statement proved unpopular with Conservative MP, Robert Neill, who demanded a further apology from Ms Blears “for her persistent habit of quoting figures and comparisons in terms of average council tax, given that that methodology has been dismissed by the Library as inappropriate and has been described by the respected academic, Professor Tony Travers, as “not respectable”. He asked that the Minister instead provide “like-to-like comparisons of band D, which show that Conservative councils invariably cost less.”

Hazel Blears again dismissed an apology as necessary, declaring:

“What people are really bothered about is what they pay. Labour certainly does cost people less.”

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