Watchdog called in as Ministers ‘refuse’ to reveal scale of cuts

Sheffield MP Clive Betts.
Sheffield MP Clive Betts.
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A formal complaint has been made at Westminster about the refusal of senior Ministers to come clean about the scale of the funding cuts handed out to local councils across the country.

Clive Betts, the MP for Sheffield South East and chair of the Commons Local Government Committee, has asked the UK Statistics Authority to intervene in a bitter row over the extent to which town halls are being hammered by the Coalition’s austerity drive.

The past three-and-a-half years have seen councils hit with the biggest spending cuts in generations, with well over £1bn cut from the budgets of Yorkshire’s 22 councils alone since 2010. Libraries, leisure centres and care homes have closed in their droves, while rural bus services, and social care have all been severely cut back.

Town halls are braced for yet more swingeing cuts over the coming years as the Government continues to slash spending – yet Ministers claim this will amount to no more than 2.3 per cent of their budgets.

Mr Betts, whose committee is charged with holding Whitehall to account over its local government policy, said Ministers have repeatedly failed to explain how this much-derided figure has been calculated.

“This 2.3 per cent cut claim was first made by George Osborne in June, then repeated by the Prime Minister in October,” Mr Betts said. “The claim was widely decried by every informed body.

“Despite repeated questions to HM Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), there has been a determined refusal to answer the simple question about how such a claim was calculated.”

Local government finance is a notoriously complex issue, with councils being handed funding through a variety of grants on top of the money they raise through fees, charges and council tax.

But the picture has grown murkier still since DCLG suddenly stopped releasing figures for the amount each council’s grant will be cut each year – instead publishing its own assessment of what it claims is their annual ‘spending power’ per head of population.

This ‘spending power’ figure is refuted by councils, who say it offers only a partial reflection of the cuts they are forced to make.

“There is a consistent refusal to provide honest and robust comparative data about local government funding,” Mr Betts said.

Appearing before the committee last month, DCLG Minister Brandon Lewis defended the Government’s figures and promised to write to Mr Betts setting out how they have been calculated.

But like the PM and the Chancellor, he has so far failed to do so.

“David Cameron and other Ministers have had every opportunity to set the record straight,” Mr Betts said.

“I have reviewed all the statements made by Ministers. It appears there have been breaches of the relevant codes relating to statistical data. I have now made a formal complaint to (UK Statistics Authority chair) Sir Andrew Dilnot, requesting he investigate.”

Sir Andrew has proven an outspoken chair of the authority since it was set up in 2008, publicly admonishing senior figures on several occasions for releasing misleading statistics.

But a Government spokesman insisted last night that all the data is already available on its website.

“Government published a ‘local authority spending figure’ of 2.3 per cent in autumn that was an approximation of the total amount of funding available to councils in 2015-16,” he said.

“The ‘spending power’ figure is based on councils’ own figures and takes account of new burdens, such as health and social care. Full workings for this calculation have been published on the website.”