UK Politics

Jeremy Corbyn: Leaked texts reveal Surrey 'sweetheart deal' on tax

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Media captionJeremy Corbyn reads out leaked texts about funding for Surrey County Council

Jeremy Corbyn has accused ministers of agreeing a "sweetheart deal" to ensure a Tory-controlled council dropped plans to raise council tax by up to 15%.

In PMQs, Labour's leader read out what he said were leaked messages showing Surrey council's leader negotiating with the government to call off a referendum on the rise.

On Tuesday, Surrey County Council restricted the increase to 4.99%, so a referendum was no longer needed.

It said "no deal" had been offered.

Downing Street said all conversations between the government and Surrey had been "entirely appropriate" and there was no "sweetheart deal".

Later, the government said Surrey had asked to take part in the pilot of a new business rates scheme.

The proposed 15% rise was mooted by Surrey Council to cover what it said were shortfalls in funding to cover the rising costs of social care.

But plans for a referendum - which are triggered if a local authority proposes a council tax rise of 5% or more - were dropped during a full council meeting on Tuesday. Councillors will now consider an alternative budget.

BBC assistant political editor Norman Smith said the prospect of such a sharp increase by a Conservative council had "set alarm bells ringing" in the government, which feared it would hit the "just about managing" group the prime minister has vowed to protect.

Image copyright Labour Party
Image caption Labour released screenshots of the text exchange

In the Commons Mr Corbyn said he had seen leaked text messages intended for a Department for Communities and Local Government official called "Nick" from the leader of Surrey County Council, David Hodge.

Mr Corbyn said: "These texts read, 'I'm advised that DCLG officials have been working on a solution and you will be contacting me to agree a memorandum of understanding.'"

He asked: "Will the government now publish this memorandum of understanding and, while they're about it, will all councils be offered the same deal?"

Noting that Chancellor Philip Hammond and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt are both Surrey MPs, Mr Corbyn said: "But there was a second text from the Surrey County Council leader to Nick - and in the second text it says, 'The numbers you indicated are the numbers 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 added: "He goes on to say in his text to Nick 'If it is possible 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 Surrey to kill this off and is the same sweetheart deal on offer to every council facing the social care crisis created by this government?"

Deal or no deal?

BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg

The council, and ministers, denied there had been any stitch-up.

But hours later the government admitted they had agreed, in theory, that Surrey Council could, like several others, try out keeping all of the business rates they raised from 2018, which could plug the gaps in funding in future.

That change is due to be in force across England by 2020. Technically therefore, Surrey Council has not been offered any additional funding. But the prospect of more flexibility over their own income in future could help fill the council's coffers and seems to have eased some of their concerns.

But as a solution to easing the pressure on social care across the country now, the idea could fall far short.

Read more from Laura

Councillor Hodge told the BBC: "There is no deal with government, there never was. End of story."

The prime minister said: "The deal that is on offer to all councils is the one that I have already set out."

She added: "He stands up and constantly asks for more spending, more money, more funding. What he fails to recognise is that you can only spend money on the NHS and social care if you have a strong economy to deliver the wealth that we need."

Mrs May also said of Mr Corbyn: "He comes to the despatch box making all sorts of claims. Yet again what we get from Labour is alternative facts; what they really need is an alternative leader."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Authorities are required to hold a referendum for council tax increases of 5% or more

In a statement issued after Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Hodge 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."

Councils have been allowed to implement a 3% tax increase solely for social care over the next two years to plug the funding gap in this area. That is on top of a discretionary general increase of 2%, making a total of 5% before a referendum is needed.

The Department for Communities and Local Government said: "The government is not proposing extra funding to Surrey County Council that is not otherwise provided or offered to other councils."

It said Surrey had asked to be part of a pilot scheme under which it could keep all of the business rates raised across its area, adding that other councils could also apply to take part.

Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson said he was "seeking urgent clarification" about whether Surrey had been "bought off" by the government, adding that cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Birmingham had been hit "far harder" by funding cuts.

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