Jeremy Corbyn alleges Surrey ‘sweetheart deal’ on tax

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

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has accused ministers of agreeing a “sweetheart deal” to ensure a Conservative-controlled council dropped plans to raise council tax by up to 15%.

On Monday, Surrey County Council restricted the increase, to help fund growing social care costs, to 4.99% – meaning no referendum will be needed.

Mr Corbyn asked at Prime Minister’s Questions “how much” had been offered.

Theresa May said all councils faced the same rules on raising taxes.

Surrey council’s leader said “no deal” had been reached with ministers and the prime minister’s official spokesperson said all conversations between the government and Surrey had been “entirely appropriate” and there was no “sweetheart deal”.

Plans for a referendum – which kicks in on proposed council tax rises of 5% and above – were dropped during a full meeting of Surrey County Council on Tuesday. Councillors will now consider an alternative budget.

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.

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Authorities are required to hold a referendum for council tax increases above of 5% or higher

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?”

‘Alternative facts’

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.”

In a statement issued after the Prime Minister’s Questions dispute, 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% 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.

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