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By Jonathan Isaby
Yesterday at questions to Eric Pickles and his team of ministers from the Department of Communities and Local Government, a number of Tory MPs took the opportunity to highlight how their local Conservative-run councils are coping with the financial squeeze. Doubtless their local papers will be encouraged to cite the praise heaped upon them by the ministers.
Here's a sample:
Peter Bone (Wellingborough): Northamptonshire county council, East Northamptonshire district council and Wellingborough borough council have all frozen their council tax this year and they are all Conservative controlled. Is it not the case that Conservative councils cost you less and deliver more?
Eric Pickles: What a wonderful slogan. I wonder who first thought of it. [Interruption.] It is indeed mine and what it says has proved to be the case. There is a really strange thing about this whole process. If we match up councils authority by authority, we see that Liberal Democrat and Conservative authorities are protecting the front line, but under Labour authorities the front line is the first one to go, the voluntary sector is the first one to go and the most swingeing cuts are the first thing to happen. It is time that the right hon. Member for Don Valley [Caroline Flint] accepted some responsibility for that.
Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham): Will the Minister join me in congratulating Hammersmith and Fulham council, which, in four years of Conservative control, has reduced its staff by a third, from 4,087 to 2,787, with almost no redundancies? It has cut the communications staff by half and reduced the human resources headcount from 100 to 47, all at a time when its services are rated among the highest in the country.
Bob Neill: Hammersmith and Fulham is an exemplar of how councils with imagination and political courage can deal with the matter. My hon. Friend is right to point out that it has done so-without any significant redundancy-by deleting needless posts.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating and recognising the Vale of Glamorgan council, which is one of two authorities in Wales that have chosen to publish all invoices in excess of £500? The other authority is another Conservative-led council, Newport city council. What influence can my right hon. Friend bring to bear on the Welsh Local Government Minister to force Labour-run and independent-run authorities across Wales to follow their lead and do the same?
Eric Pickles: I am sure my hon. Friend has done more than enough to demonstrate to the people of Wales the desirability of transparency. It is gratifying that every local authority, with the exception of Labour-controlled Nottingham, now trusts the local population with that vital information.
Mel Stride (Central Devon): Conservative-controlled Devon county council has reduced chief executive pay and slimmed down middle and senior management, and it will reduce back-office expenditure by £14 million in 2011-12. Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending its efficiency savings? Does he agree that responsible councils should take such actions in order to protect front-line services?
Eric Pickles: I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating that council. He lays out a valuable lesson. One thing we are discovering in those authorities that are cutting libraries, Sure Start and all front-line services is that none of them has attempted any of the things that his local council has so excellently done.
Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Conservative-run East Sussex county council, which, after a disappointing grant from the Department for Education, has stepped in with £12 million of capital that it had not planned to give to ensure that the St Leonards academy is rebuilt to provide better education in Hastings?
Eric Pickles: I am always glad to congratulate my hon. Friend's council and have no hesitation in doing so today.
Later, in reply to a complaint from Labour MP Mary Glindon about cuts to the voluntary sector in her local council, the minister Greg Clark delivered a roll call of Tory councils that are dealing with the situation without such cuts:
"I am grateful for the hon. Lady's question. I hope that she recognises that different councils are doing things in different ways. With a maximum cut of 8.8%, there is no reason for any council disproportionately to cut the voluntary sector. I hope that she will look at the examples of positive councils such as Reading, Thurrock, Lancaster, Ipswich, Watford, Stafford, Rugby, Redditch, Crawley and Wolverhampton – 10 councils that are either maintaining or increasing their support to the voluntary sector at this time. She should look at them, and go back to her constituency and talk to her councillors."