The phrase “burying bad news” is synonymous with Labour’s approach to news management and that was exemplified this morning by the decision of Labour Ministers to slip out the local government settlement in the form of a written statement rather than an oral statement on the floor of the House.
I am furious about this. Far from being an arcane procedural point, it is hugely significant because it denies MPs the right to question Ministers about how much taxpayers’ money is being granted to their constituents. Given the level of public interest in council tax a written statement simply doesn’t suffice.
The damage of the Government’s decision to make it a written statement is twofold.
Firstly, in terms of local of the settlement itself, it goes to the heart of how much council tax people are paying – and that is quite a hot topic! Since Labour came to power council tax has more than doubled and in many cases, all people have seen for it is a cut in frontline services like bin collections.
As a consequence of today’s statement, the average Band D council tax bill will be close to £1,500 from April, taking bills to £120 a month. Pensioners in particular have suffered as a result of Labour’s repeated hikes in council tax, they have seen a third of the increase in the state pension snatched back in council tax rises. For Ministers to deny MPs the opportunity to raise council tax issues on the floor of the House is a disgrace to our democracy.
I suspect Labour are running scared as the level of anger about council tax is acute, and despite our requests Ministers have refused to follow our lead and pledge to offer a council tax freeze across England, as presently happens in Scotland.
But, secondly, this issue is bigger than the subject of council tax. Parliament desperately needs to rebuild its reputation after the past year and restore people’s confidence. Decisions like this to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny will do exactly the opposite. People would rightly expect their local MP to be able to challenge Ministers of the local finance settlement, but by ruling it out Labour will only have stoked up cynicism about our political system.
For those reasons I have just raised a Point of Order on the matter in the House of Commons today and I will now be submitting written parliamentary questions to elicit the information Members are entitled to.