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Question to PM: ‘Was County Council Offered Sweetheart Deal to Call Off Referendum’

Published on: 8 Feb, 2017
Updated on: 10 Feb, 2017

Surrey County Council’s about turn on the proposed 15% council tax rise made Prime Minister’s question time in the House of Commons today (February 8).

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader of the opposition, revealed text messages he claimed had been sent from SCC leader David Hodge to someone within the Department of Communities and Local Government indicating a deal had been reached between the council and the government, which resulted in the referendum being called off.

Mr Corbyn repeatedly asked if the “sweetheart” deal that SCC had been offered was on offer to all local authorities, but Prime Minister Theresa May said that same deal: “…to raise the 3% precept and put that funding into the provision of social care” applied across the board.

Guildford MP Anne Milton, and deputy chief whip, watched the debate from her usual standing position for PMQs, beside the speaker’s chair.

A transcript of the parliamentary exchange follows:

Jeremy Corbyn asking question about the SCC referendum.

Jeremy Corbyn: “The crisis is so bad that until yesterday… David Hodge the Conservative leader of Surrey County Council planned to hold a referendum for a 15% increase in council tax and at the last minute it was called off. Can the prime-minister tell the house whether or not a special deal was done for Surrey?”

Prime Minister: “The decision on whether or not to hold the referendum in Surrey is entirely a matter for the local authority in Surrey… but the Rt Hon Gentleman has raised the issue of social care which we’ve exchanged on across this despatch box before and as I’ve said before we do need to find a long-term sustainable solution for social care in this country, so I recognise the short-term pressures, that’s why we have enabled local authorities to put more money into social care, we have provided more money, over the next two years, over £9 million more will be available for social care. But we also need to look at why good practice is spread across the whole of the country we can look at places like Barnsley, North Tyneside, St Helens, Rutland… towards the end of last year there were virtually no delayed discharges attributable to social care in those councils. But we also need to look long term and that’s why the Cabinet Office is driving a review with the relevant departments to find a sustainable solution which the Labour party ducked for far too long.

Jeremy Corbyn: “…My question was whether there had been a special deal done for Surrey. The leader said they had had many conversations with the government. We know they have because I’ve been leaked copies of texts sent by the Tory leader David Hodge intended for somebody called “Nick” who works for ministers in the department of Communities and Local Government. And these texts read: ‘I’m advised that DCLG officials have been working on a solution and that you will be contacting me to agree a memorandum of understanding. Will the government now publish the memorandum of understanding and while they’re about it, will all councils be offered the same deal?”

Theresa May responding at Prime Minister’s uestion time today.

Prime Minister: “What we have given all councils is the opportunity to raise the 3% precept on the council tax, that to go into social care. He talks about ‘understanding’ what the Labour party fails to understand … As I say, all councils have the opportunity to raise the 3% precept and put that funding into the provision of social care. What the Labour party fails to understand is that this is not just a question of looking at money, it is a question of looking at spreading best practice and finding a sustainable solution.  And I have to say to him if we look at social care provision across the entire country the last thing social care providers need is another one of Labour’s bouncing cheques.”

Jeremy Corbyn: “Mr Speaker I wonder if it is anything to do with the fact that the Chancellor and the Health Secretary both represent Surrey constituencies. But Mr Speaker there was a second text from Surrey County Council leader to ‘Nick’ and in the second text it says: ‘The numbers you indicated are the numbers that I understand are acceptable for me to accept and call off the ‘R’.’ Now I’ve been reading a bit of John le Carre and apparently R means referendum. It’s very subtle all this. He goes on to say in his text to Nick: ‘If it is possible for that info to be sent to myself I can then revert back soonest. Really want to kill this off.’ So how much did the government offer to Surrey to kill this off and is the same sweetheart deal on offer to every council facing the social care crisis created by her government?”

Prime Minister: “I’ve made clear to the Rt Hon gentleman what has been made available to every council which is the ability to raise the premium. And I have to say to him… he comes to the despatch box making all sorts of claims yet again what we get from Labour are alternative facts what they really need is an alternative leader.”

Jeremy Corbyn: My question was, what deal had been offered to Surrey that got them to call of a referendum and will the same deal be offered to every other council going through a social care crisis..? Will she finally come clean and give local authorities the funding they need to operate social care properly so that our elderly and vulnerable people can be treated with the support and dignity that they deserve in a civilised society.”

Prime Minister: “The deal that is on offer to all councils is the one that I have already set out. But let me just be clear with the Rt Hon gentleman because as ever he stands up and asks for more spending, more money, more funding, what he always fails to recognise is that we can only spend money on social care and the National Health Service if you have a strong economy to create the wealth that you need. There is a fundamental difference between us when I talk about half a trillion pounds that’s the money we’ll be spending on the NHS this parliament. When labour talks about half a trillion pounds it’s the money they want to borrow.”

David Hodge and Theresa May canvassing together in the 2013 local elections.

David Hodge, the Conservative Surrey County Council leader who is claimed to have sent the controversial texts said: “Surrey’s decision not to proceed with a 15% council tax increase was ours alone and there has been no deal between Surrey County Council and the Government. However, I am confident that the Government now understands the real pressures in adult social care and the need for a lasting solution.”

Hazel Watson the Lib Dem leader of the oppsition at Kingstomn responded: “The text messages sent by the Leader of the Council, referred to in PMQs today, mention “numbers”, “proposals” and “killing off the R [referendum]” – but none of this information was shared with Surrey County Councillors at our budget meeting yesterday.

Cllr Hazel Watson.

“We need to know the precise details of what Surrey has been offered. The culture of secrecy that the Conservatives thrive upon at County Hall must end now. I am calling for the full release to county councillors of any deal agreed between the Leader of the Council and the government. We are facing £93 million of cuts and a £30 million black hole in the next financial year – it is the Leader of the Council’s job to tell us where the money will come from to avoid these damaging cuts. Why can’t he come clean with councillors and Surrey residents and tell us the facts?”

A web-based Twitter feed called Guido Fawkes has published what is claimed to be a copy of the texts referred to by Jeremy Corbyn. Please click here to view.

The leak of the text messages, according to the BBC’s Daily Politics, seems to have occurred because David Hodge sent the original text message to the wrong recipient Nick Forbes, a Labour politician at the Local Government Association (LGA), rather than Nick Burkitt or Nick King who work at the DCLG. David Hodge is a vice-chairman of the LGA.

Appearing on the Daily Politics show, which was covering PM’s Questions, Labour’s Andy McDonald, MP for Middlesbrough, reacting to claims that the negotiations between SCC and the government had been “routine” said: “I am gobsmacked. Are you telling us that this happens on a routine basis, that dodgy deals are done, that if you are on a Tory council and you just threaten a referendum you get what you want?

“Somebody’s got to resign over this. This is an absolute disgrace. There are people up and down the country suffering these cuts and if you press the button with your Tory mates you get a good deal. It is an absolute outrage and this is going to run and run and people had better lance this build and quick or we will see  all these documents published right from the off. We want to see all of them fully disclosed.”

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test One Response to Question to PM: ‘Was County Council Offered Sweetheart Deal to Call Off Referendum’

  1. Wayne Smith Reply

    February 8, 2017 at 4:52 pm

    Dear oh dear. Hapless Cllr. Hodge may as well resign now.

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