The local government minister has accused “badly run Labour councils” of targeting the vulnerable after the opposition party’s MPs claimed the government was acting like ‘headless chickens’ and designing transition funding to aid Conservative councils.
Brandon Lewis (Con) made the comments as he was challenged by Labour MPs about the timing and size of the £100m transition funding made available to authorities to design schemes which protect the poor.
Communities and local government questions in Parliament on Monday was the first time MPs had been able to discuss the transition funding since it was announced in the very final legislative stages of the Local Government Finance Act.
Mr Lewis said the funding was necessary “because so many Labour councils, such as Manchester and [others] have decided to take forward schemes that hit the most vulnerable”. He added: “It is a shame that too many Labour councils are trying to affect the most vulnerable. This government are doing what they can to protect them from badly run Labour councils.”
Labour MPs were critical of the last-minute nature of the announcement, with shadow local government minister Helen Jones describing the situation as a “shambles”. She added: “This is an emergency relief scheme for Tory council candidates”. Jenny Chapman (Lab) accused minsters of acting like “headless chickens”.
Mr Lewis was asked if he would extend the 31 January deadline for councils to design schemes, but he did not acknowledge the request for more time. Instead he repeated previous ministerial advice that councils would have to decide for themselves whether they would need to consult again on schemes changed to meet the funding criteria.
In a separate exchange, communities secretary Eric Pickles was questioned about his opposition to Lord Heseltine’s call for unitary government.
As well as questions from a number of Labour MPs, North Wiltshire’s Conservative MP James Gray told Mr Pickles “it was the last Conservative government who introduced unitary authorities in the first place” and reported that Wiltshire’s unitary had saved “an enormous amount of money, keeping the council tax frozen, and getting rid of large layers of bureaucracy in the process”.
Mr Pickles said he was not against small authorities working together and merging back and office functions, “what I am opposed to is the imposition on local authorities, from the centre, of costly reorganisations”.
However, Torbay MP Adrian Sanders (Lib Dem) asked the secretary of state to reconsider his opposition in order to reorganise smaller unitary authorities into larger units because smaller units “experience real difficulties when demands are placed on them”. Mr Sanders gave the example of one child requiring 24 hour care which could “throw the entire budget out”.
Mr Pickles said Mr Sanders, by setting out how past top-down reorganisations had created unitaries which were too small, “makes my point far more eloquently than I could”.