§ 11.22 a.m.
§ Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)
I beg to move,That this House deplores the utter contempt manifested by the Government for the established principles of freedom for local government and its failure to provide the financial facilities necessary for a dynamic approach to resolve the innumerable problems affecting local government; and calls upon the Government to resign so that the economic, financial and democratic interests of the country may be properly pursued by a Labour Government.In drafting the Motion, I thought it right to examine a work of fiction which was produced by the modern Grimm, the Prime Minister, which was entitled "A Better Tomorrow." Some hon. Members on the other side of the House, in the halcyon days of the initial deception, were very proud of this. Today, it must be a rather horrendous nightmare for them. But it is very relevant to this debate. I shall refer to some of the passages, with particular reference to local government. One of the most momentous passages was this:We will redress the balance and increase the independence of local authorities.I suppose that that was one of the promises which the Minister of Agriculture would say was not to be taken seriously. But, in the light of events, which hon. Member opposite could sustain that case today, and, if he tried, who would believe him?
Another very interesting passage in "A 'Bitter' Tomorrow" was this:In secondary education we will maintain the existing rights of local education authorities to decide what is best for their area.I shall say a little about that in due course. But what is interesting about those reflections or professions that were put over with such conviction, no doubt, in June, 1970, is that they bear no reality to the events which have occurred. I am an extremely charitable man. After a reasonable period of time has elapsed, I believe that previous convictions should be expunged from the record, but it is a little early when it comes to previous convictions expressed by this document "A Better Tomorrow" as recently as June, 1970.
No one could reasonably have objected if the Conservative Party had abandoned 940 their promise about interference with local authorities if they had decided to deal with reluctant and recalcitrant local authorities when it came to implementing, for example, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act; but they have been tremendously slothful about that. Who would have objected if the Government had insisted that local authorities should provide telephones for the housebound, instead of, for example, the Richmond local authority standing by completely idly and having the most impoverished record in the whole of London, whereas the much poorer local authority of Hackney has installed 300 telephones for those unfortunate people?
Who would have objected if the Government had insisted that local authorities should implement—some of them are avoiding this—the requirements to provide Part III accommodation for the homeless. According to Richmond, for example, homelessness hardly exists, so Richmond does not provide Part III accommodation. Richmond is running out on its legal and moral responsibilities.
Who would have objected if the Government had directly intervened to say that 4,000 acres of land in London used by the Army today could be freed for housing? Alderman Lou Sherman, speaking at the recent conference of the London Regional Council of the Labour Party, said that if in fact the Government found it so easy to withdraw their bases east of Suez it is a little surprising that they cannot get out of their barracks west of Shoreditch. This is a serious matter when one has regard to the appalling land shortage in inner London.
Who would have objected if the Government had decided to intervene to deal with those local authorities in outer London who selfishly and cruelly refuse to release land for the housing of those thousands of people who are incarcerated in slum and miserable property in inner London? Local authorities are callous as that certainly ought to have Government action taken against them.
I mentioned Richmond in relation to all those other matters, and Richmond is, perhaps, in many respects, one of the worst of the local authorities in outer London. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham (Mr. Russell Kerr), knows 941 about that because he lives there. It is an interesting reflection on Richmond that it is to spend £40,000 on setting up a public relations department. There is every reason for it to do that, with that sort of record to be hidden. No doubt an excellent public relations department will be able to do that.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)
Despite that particular expenditure my hon. Friend has mentioned, Richmond charges 12 shillings for a copy of the council minutes, which are almost unintelligible. Perhaps they make take directions in that respect, first.
§ Mr. Davis
If they are unintelligible, they cannot be worth 12 shillings. My hon. Friend is right. Having seen some of the minutes of the Richmond local authority, I would not think that they were worth a penny, even an old penny.
Who would have objected if the Government had acted against the wanton indifference of a local authority, such as the Greater London Council, in dealing with its administrative responsibilities? For example, between April, 1970, and April, 1971, this great housing authority acquired only 99 acres in the administration of its housing responsibilities. That hardly indicates any real desire to deal with the most tremendous problem that affects inner and, indeed, outer London. It is not as though there is insufficient room for action, because hon. Members on both sides of the House, particularly my hon. Friends, have all too many examples of this failure of the Greater London Council to deal with the appalling problems which face the people of London.
I give one or two examples of this from my constituency. There is an estate administered by the G.L.C. in Darnley Road, Hackney, and the families living there were moved from slums which were also G.L.C. properties in nearby Paragon Road. The slum properties were filthy, miserable and structurally defective and not even the worst Rachmanite private landlord would have been allowed to get away with this. The tenants were moved to Darnley Road only after the G.L.C. were pushed by the Labour local authority and prodded incessantly by me. The properties in Darnley Road have very nice exteriors and rotten decayed interiors. Their staircases are collapsing, 942 the skylights are leaking and a bedroom in one house has its own personal cascading fountain.
A headline in the Hackney Gazette of 3rd March quoting one of the tenants described it as:Like the house that Jack builtHomerton tenants aren't amused".They are forced to live in these indescribable conditions and to pay £8 a week for the privilege of doing so. The Hackney Borough Council has had to take the almost unprecedented step of serving statutory notices on the G.L.C. to remedy these appalling structural defects.
Trowbridge Estate, a new estate in Hackney Wick housing 2,000 tenants, has no shops because after eighteen months the G.L.C. has failed or refused to let them. It has denuded the area of any other shops. The tenants, many of whom are pensioners and mothers with small children have to walk a tremendously long way to the nearest shopping centre. The chairman of the tenants association said:They are taking everything away and putting nothing backThis is happening not only in Hackney. I am sure my hon. Friends can recount innumerable instances all over London. The estate has been deprived of transport by the direct action of the G.L.C. in concert with the London Transport Executive. It has been deprived of decent amenities and of facilities for the kids and even of the most elementary concern on the part of the G.L.C. It is small wonder these people are frustrated and angry and that they are constantly saying that they intend to withhold rent in spite of advice that this is not perhaps the most suitable form of protest.
This massive indifference is not confined to the public sector. It is reflected in the attitude the G.L.C. displays towards private occupiers who live in the areas blighted by new motorways. The East Cross Route is being constructed in my constituency and private owner-occupiers who live within yards of it are being seriously affected by the pile driving, the incessant noise and the dirt which for months has been going on for seven days a week.
The G.L.C. exhibits no concern and refuses to re-house, saying that the premises are not structurally defective 943 even though it is apparent to the naked eye that they are. This is a total abandonment of responsibility. It was not the fault of the tenants that the G.L.C. decided that the road would be constructed there. The story goes on. There is a refusal to provide effective caretakers and deal with vandalism on the estates, particularly the older estates.
A headline in the Hackney Advertiser on 3rd March says:G.L.C. refuse to employ security patrols. Vandals terrify tenants.This is happening on the Kingsmead Estate.
But I must be fair to the G.L.C. because there are occasions when it takes action. In the same issue of the Hackney Advertiser we were told about a visit to an estate in Shadwell by Sir Desmond Plummer, leader of the G.L.C. On that occasion there was a massive clean-up which the tenants thought was very nice but wondered how long it would last. They are absolutely right to wonder. When the leader of the G.L.C. goes to these areas remedial action is taken but it is forgotten the day after.
§ Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)
Is the hon. Member criticising the G.L.C. for exercising its powers or is he saying that it should not have freedom to make its own decisions in these matters?
§ Mr. Davis
I am saying there is a strong and overwhelming case for Government interference in cases where an authority like the Greater London Council not only misbehaves but wilfully refuses to exercise the authority vested in it. It is the Government's case that there should be no interference, and I am coming to show how that case—
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)
I was listening with great interest to the hon. Member when he was speaking about the road building conditions which affect everyone when main roads are being built. Perhaps he could explain what his Government did to give power to local authorities to deal with this sort of problem.
§ Mr. Heseltine rose—
§ Mr. Davis
I will not give way again. I want to go on to develop another point. All this is a proper field for Government intervention particularly in the case of a local authority which is as arrogant, grasping and despotic as the greater London Council and which has dishonoured its moral and legal duties.
In the light of the promises in "A Better Tomorrow" about non-interference it seems very strange that the Government should introduce certain provisions of the Housing Finance Bill, particularly Clauses 93 to 95. These pulsate with libertarian concepts such as the introduction of a housing commissioner to deal with defaulting local authorities, fines of up to £400 on councillors, and the reduction or suspension of subsidies unless rents are raised for non-compliance with the Bill.
This, presumably, is the handing back of responsibility to local authorities. But what is it all in aid of? Is it to build new homes? Not an extra home is contemplated. Is it to ensure that local authorities behave as good landlords? There is not a word in the Housing Finance Bill or in speeches by hon. Members opposite about that aspect of the matter. The object is to force local authorities to double their rents and to do the Government's dirty work for them. We know that in London rents which are now £3.50 will rise to £7.45 plus rates by 1976. We find it a little difficult to obtain this information from the Government, but it was revealed in an internal memorandum.
The Minister for Housing and Construction was castigating my hon. Friend the Member for Salford East (Mr. Frank Allaun) about the way in which the memorandum came into his possession. All sort of epithets were thrown about. 945 The right hon. Gentleman was so busy talking about the "dishonesty" of my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East that he apparently had no time to deal with the facts. But the facts are now clearly revealed. By 1976 rents all over the country will be virtually doubled. In the South-East, present rents of £3.13 will rise to £6.49; in East Anglia they will rise from £2.16 to £5.72; and in the North-West from £2.23 to £4.66. So it goes on all over the country.
It is exactly what my hon. Friend and others on this side were saying about the provisions of the Housing Finance Bill. The House heard denial after denial, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say "silence", from right hon. and hon. Members who sit on the Treasury Bench from time to time. What is clear is that the misdemeanours of the Minister for Housing and Construction, within the field for which he is responsible, would make Horatio Bottomley look like a veritable saint. As we saw the other day, when he is caught out he behaves like an ill-tempered bookie's runner caught welshing on the customers. His behaviour did nothing to enhance his reputation.
All this reveals, despite the Government's denial, that they have persisted, as they did in Opposition, in carrying out a vendetta against council tenants and council building. This is reflected in the Bill and mirrors the statement made by the Secretary of State for the Environment when he addressed the Urban Research Bureau Housing Conference in June, 1969, when he said:I hope that Conservative councils will take care to resist the temptation to go on building council housing for all sorts of seemingly good purposes…They have certainly applied that maxim. He went on:New Conservative housing chairmen have a great tendency to prove to the Socialists that they can provide even more council houses than their predecessors…—[Interruption.] That was not true, as my hon. Friend says. The right hon. Gentleman also said:The stock of 30 per cent. of housing now in local authority hands is far too high with the levels of wages…. I hope that under the next Conservative Government there will be a shift in the other direction.By George, he was right!
§ Mr. Davis
All this has been recognised by the London Boroughs Association and even by the Conservative-dominated Association of Municipal Corporations.
We have a remarkable paradox. The Conservatives profess non-interference, yet they are assuming Draconian powers. At the same time they are withdrawing general subsidies from council housing while allowing those buying their own homes on mortgage to benefit from an Exchequer subsidy in the form of tax relief, so that the main beneficiaries are those with the highest incomes buying the dearest properties. I do not for a moment object to subsidy being given to those in need buying their own properties, but it is nonsensical that people buying properties of £40,000 and £50,000 can obtain the generous tax reliefs now available. It is hardly equitable.
So the problems of the stress areas of housing, of which my constituency and borough is one, persist. Young families are homeless, the waiting lists are swollen, and people continue to live in misery and squalor. To those people the shambling sophistry of the Government about enabling people to help themselves by buying a house is ridiculous. Most of my constituents do not have incomes high enough to enable them to obtain a mortgage, and others are increasingly forced out of the rocketing property market. The sales of local authority properties in areas like mine would be an affront to the homeless and those badly house. I am glad to say that my local authority will not sell its council properties.
It is obvious that the system of fair rents will create a process of escalation of rents affecting not only the public sector but also the private sector. The chairman of the Octavia Hill Housing Association, Mr. Jonathan Ouvry, summed it up very well when he said that he agreed that the existing complicated system of subsidies should be abolished, but that the cure is worse than the disease. A report of his complaints said:every tenant must beg for a means-tested dole from the local authority, 'euphemistically labelled a rent debate'; old people will be forced to spend their savings to pay 947 their 'fair rent' before they can claim the full amount of social security benefit; the withdrawal of existing subsidies will create a deficit too great to be met by any but the older and most substantial housing associations, which will in turn be forced to charge fair rents in order to meet the deficit on redevelopment schemes; and the Bill furthers social inequality. At present (the tenant) is in the position of a second-class citizen and the new Bill will degrade him to third-class.This is a massive indictment borne out by the debates in the Committee considering that Bill. I am delighted that most Labour local authorities in the London area have said they will not increase the rents by 50p next month. They are absolutely right.
I turn to education. I have already referred to that remarkable passage in "A Better Tomorrow":In secondary education…We will maintain the existing rights of local education authorities to decide what is best for their area.Gilbert in "H.M.S. Pinafore" said:Things are seldom what they seemSkimmed milk masquerades as cream.Perhaps that is not the best quotation to use in current circumstances.
§ Mr. Davis
Indeed, he was.
Let us see how the Secretary of Slate for Education and Science has extended local autonomy. One of her first acts was the Education (Milk) Act, generally recognised, except by most Conservative Members, as one of the meanest Acts even that educational Medusa could put on the Statute Book. It will be recalled that anybody who looked at Medusa was changed into stone. That seems to have been the unhappy experience of local authorities in dealing with the right hon. Lady. It is a happy thought that Medusa proved to be mortal, unlike the other Gorgons. If it had not been for the Inner London Education Authority and Labour local authorities in the London area, using their powers under the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act, 1963, inner London children would have felt the searing effects of that Act. But if local authorities outside London resist the proposals they will be surcharged. That is always the devastating remedy of the Government.
948 The right hon. Lady has directly interfered by cutting out a vast number of secondary school projects. A first stage building is vitally needed at Clapton Park school in my constituency—my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. S. C. Silkin) has a similar and perhaps even more serious problem in his constituency—but the right hon. Lady is totally unyielding. She should realise that it is sometimes very pleasant to yield, and she would do much better to do so.
There have been devastating reductions in the building programme. The programme for 1972–73, in which the Inner London Education Authority requested £7,600,000 for major building design, has sustained cuts by the right hon. Lady of about £4,400,000. She has allowed 23 primary school projects to go through, but everything else has been cut out. Only one scheme for a special school has been allowed.
The minor works programme has suffered even worse cuts. It has been reduced by 56 per cent, for 1973–74 compared with the current year. It is the lowest figure since 1954. In effect it will bring the whole programme of minor works to a complete halt for that period.
There have been cuts in the urban aid programme for youth services from £72,000 to £7,000. Six further education programmes including four concerned with improving race relations—surely one of the most important matters affecting inner London—have been rejected. Happily, the I.L.E.A., a compassionate and wise authority, will finance these projects out of its own resources. Yet, while all this is going on, the right hon. Lady decides on re-distributing £2 million in favour of parents with children at direct grant schools. That is her order of priorities.
I turn next to the question of unemployment. It is often thought that in London we are insulated from the worst of the problem of unemployment affecting the rest of the country. It is not true. In my borough, there has been a 41 per cent, increase in unemployment since 1971. What did "A Better Tomorrow "say about that?…we are not prepared to tolerate the human waste and suffering that accompany persistent unemployment, dereliction and decline.949 Can any hon. Member opposite look with pride at the Government's employment record?
I have tried to highlight some of the areas where the Government have totally failed in their responsibilities towards local government. I realise that there are many more. I am sure that the indictment will be taken up by my hon. Friends. In my view, it is perhaps in housing that the heart of the indictment lies. We need a radically different approach. We need massive aid to help local authorities in stress areas to acquire more properties and not erode their stock; this would be a recognition that private landlordism in Hackney and similar areas has completely failed, has completely broken down, and cannot possibly be the answer, even with relatively generous help from the Government, to the misery which affects so many of my constituents. I believe that it is essential that the Government should impose a duty on the outer London boroughs to assist in alleviating the problems of the inner London boroughs by the provision of more land. The Government should also ensure that local authorities maintain an interest in their tenants—something which the G.L.C. has shown conclusively that it does not do.
§ Mr. William Molloy (Ealing, North)
I agree that there should be endeavour to house people in any part of London where there is land and to try to relieve the burden on inner London. Is my hon. Friend aware, however, that Conservatives in Ealing strongly objected to people from Barking coming to live in Ealing under the re-housing scheme of the G.L.C.?
§ Mr. Davis
This, of course, indicates the great prejudice of Conservatives in Ealing. But it also happens in Bromley, for example, and it happened in Wembley when the Conservatives were in control. As I have indicated, it also happens in Richmond.
I believe it is essential that much higher standards of maintenance of their estates should be imposed on local authorities and that if they refuse to do it the Government should take action. There should be much more profound consultation with tenants—for example, they should not have to walk miles to pay their rent. In large estates at least, there should be rent collection centres.
950 In stress areas, it is essential to stop the sale of local authority houses, which causes the existing housing stock to dwindle. We must give in the private sector the tenants of furnished accommodation the same protection as the tenants of unfurnished accommodation. We must stress that which hon. Members opposite constantly deny—that housing must be treated as a social service and not as an area for vast profit-making.
In all these activities, the Government have interfered where it has been wrong to interfere and have failed to interfere where they should have done. They have watched idle, lazy and callous local authorities avoid their obligations, but have jumped in to penalise compassionate councillors. I believe that the Government have been wrong in all this and that they cannot succeed in the field of local government, because they have rejected the instruments which could provide success. They have allowed dogma to masquerade as principle. They have failed and they ought to go.
§ 11.56 a.m.
§ Mr. Edward Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)
The hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) has made a most interesting speech but, having read the Motion and expecting that we were due for a profound debate on the rights and freedoms of local authorities, I was surprised by what he said. Instead of bringing forward a logical argument about the extent to which local authorities should be free, independent, or subject to Government control, he simply put forward a well-worn argument that in his opinion local authorities should be free to do what he thinks is right. He is, of course, a Socialist, and a Left-wing one at that. He believes, "They should be free to do what I think they should do but not free to do what I think they should not do."
The hon. Gentleman said that local authorities should be forced—he did not say by whom—to have rent offices in suitable places for tenants to pay their rents. It appears that it is not the local authority which should decide that but the Government. He said that the local authority should be forced to have adequate maintenance of housing schemes. Again, it seems that the Government are the people who should make 951 the decision. He said that local authorities should not be free to sell council houses but, on the other hand, should be entirely free to charge what rents they wished. In all the subjects he covered he did not present a logical argument, but simply the argument of someone saying, "I want local authorities to do what I want them to do and they must not be allowed to do what I think is wrong."
Apart from being illogical, some of the arguments were—no doubt unintentionally—a bit hypocritical-sounding to those who have sat in this House under the Labour Government as well as this Government. Let us take the example of education. The hon. Gentleman criticised the Government for their policy on secondary reorganisation. Considered in the light of what the Motion says aboutestablished principles of freedom for local government".what he said sounded very strange. He will surely remember that the last Government brought in Circular 10/65 under which local authorities throughout England and Wales—there was a similar circular for Scotland—were to be forced to change all secondary schools into comprehensive schools, whether or not they thought it was right or in the best interests of the children.
§ Mr. Eric Deakins (Walthamstow, West)
That circular laid down guidelines. No action could be taken under it to compel a local authority to do what it did not want to do. The proof of the pudding was in the eating, because five years later, at the 1970 General Election, a number of local authorities had paid no attention to the circular.
§ Mr. Taylor
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The circular is not binding, but we had an example when the previous Government tried to make it binding. It did not force local authorities to do this, but it was a prelude to legislation to which the Labour Government were committed. Does the hon. Gentleman accept what we all understood, that the previous Government had plans to introduce legislation forcing local authorities to introduce comprehensive education!
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
If the hon. Gentleman takes 952 the view that education authorities should be given freedom will he desist from putting pressure upon the Government to force the Glasgow municipal authority to abandon its programme of the comprehensivisation of schools?
§ Mr. Taylor
I will come to that in a moment. The hon. Member for Hackney, Central, has called for freedom, but his own Government were not prepared to accord that. Does he think it right that local authorities should be free to have selective education if they wish? That is the crunch question. That is what our Government introduced when they came into power. One of their first actions was to introduce a circular saying that subject to certain safeguards local authorities should be free to go for comprehensive education or selective education, or a mixture of both.
The important safeguards are that first the schemes should be educationally sound and, secondly, that there should be full and adequate consultation with parents and local authorities. If the hon. Gentleman feels that this has not been carried forward honourably by the Government I would remind him that up to November, 1971, under this Government the Minister had rejected only 27 out of 2,889 proposals for changes in schools. That shows that we are prepared to give freedom to local authorities subject to those safeguards.
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) mentioned the problem in Glasgow. The local authority there has brought in plans after wholly inadequate consultation with parents and teachers. One headmaster has had no consultation and the parents know little about the problems except what they have read in the newspapers. This is an attempt to rush through comprehensivisation in Glasgow in some cases affecting schools which have existed for hundreds of years, before local government reorganisation. The result will be that children in the second year of their secondary education will be torn away from their existing schools and transferred to others. The hon. Gentleman must admit that this is not educationally sound, and in those circumstances I am pressing my right hon. Friends to reject this proposal. The hon. Gentleman has to make up his mind. 953 Does he want local authorities to be free to plan their education?
I turn now to the decision on milk, which the hon. Member referred to as being a scandalous decision. He said that it was outrageous to take milk from children aged between 7 and 11. As he knows, the previous Government obliged local authorities not to provide milk to all children in secondary schools. They took away entirely the freedom of local authorities.
§ Mr. Raphael Tuck (Watford)
Assuming for the moment that it was inadvisable for the Labour Government to do what he says they did, is he suggesting that a second wrong makes a right?
§ Mr. Taylor
Certainly not. We have first of all to decide whether it is wrong. The hon. Gentleman has shown a good deal of independence and honesty in these matters, which is not terribly representative of all members of his party. It is entirely wrong for someone who supported the action of the previous Government to say that we are taking away freedom from local authorities.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)
The hon. Gentleman must be aware of a great difference. I disagreed on both occasions with taking milk away from our schoolchildren, but on the first occasion it was part of a £900 million taxation package to deal with a disastrous economic situation left by the previous Conservative Government. When this Government did it they boasted about the biggest tax give-away ever to the well-off.
§ Mr. Taylor
The hon. Gentleman is trying to say that it is all right for the Labour Party to take away milk from children because their finances were in a shambles, but because ours are sound we should not do so. Let us consider the merits of the Motion. I say that it is blatant hypocrisy to say that it is wrong to take away free milk when the previous Government did exactly the same thing for secondary school children and made no provision for those who needed the milk on medical grounds. We are talking of 12- and 13-year-olds. This Government have made provision for children who need it.
The hon. Member for Hackney, Central said that it was an outrage that the 954 Government had given £2 million in England to direct grant schools so that they could stabilise or limit the increase in their fees. What kind of society does he want? I know precisely what he wants, and what other hon Members—like the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland—want and are trying to force on Scotland. They are trying to take away freedom of choice from everyone except the wealthy.
§ Mr. Maclennan
The hon. Gentleman refers to wishes of the majority, but is he aware that the majority of people in Glasgow have voted for a local authority that was pledged to introduce comprehensivisation?
§ Mr. Taylor
If the hon. Gentleman thinks that this was the issue on which the existing majority party was elected in Glasgow he should visit Glasgow. I would not like to teach him the problems of Caithness and he should not try to teach me the problems of Glasgow.
Is this what the hon. Member for Hackney, Central really wants—the freedom of the wealthy to send their children to the Etons and Harrows of this world, yet no freedom of choice for the vast majority of people who want to preserve some freedom of choice? It would be a tragedy if we were to have this and the direct grant schools had to put up their fees.
The hon. Member quoted housing as being an example of the Government's interference with local authority freedom. He referred to the fair rents scheme for local authority houses. Hon. Gentlemen have sometimes accused us of not doing much about housing problems. About half of my constituents live in council houses and a good proportion live in privately rented houses. Some of my constituents, and many fair-minded people, wonder at the hypocrisy of the party opposite. It introduced the fair rents scheme for private tenants and in Scotland introduced a Bill whereby every private rented house, controlled or otherwise, which got a qualification certificate from the local authority would have to pay a fair rent. It appears to say that it is all right for private tenants to pay fair rents but outrageous for local authority tenants to do so.
I find it difficult to understand that the Labour Party should say that one 955 group of people fortunate enough to obtain a local authority house should pay one level of rent whereas others in privately rented houses should pay another level.
§ Mr. Reginald Freeson (Willesden, East)
I would agree with the hon. Gentleman if he were stating the facts as they are, or were. The position under the 1965 Rent Act to which he is referring is that restraining machinery was established by virtue of the fair rents procedure and landlords were not permitted to go above certain rent levels which had been reached independently by rent officers or rent assessment committees. The position now is quite different, although the same label is being used. Local authorities are being compelled to push up their rents. In any case, in Scotland fair rents are not being introduced under the present Bill. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain why it is all right to have true rents in Scotland, which are lower, and fair rents in England and Wales?
§ Mr. Taylor
I do not entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's assessment. He said that the 1965 Act was introduced as a restraining influence. As a direct result of the 1968 Act many houses which were controlled could be brought within regulation, admittely in stages. In Scotland, exactly the same happened with the 1969 Act. I can take the hon. Gentleman to at least 60 of my constituents in houses with controlled rents who, as a direct result of Labour policies, after the giving of a qualification certificate by the local authority had their rents put up to fair rents.
§ Mr. Freeson
With respect, the hon. Gentleman is confusing two Acts of Parliament. He is confusing the Rent Act with the 1969 Act dealing with improvements, which laid down that if sub-standard controlled properties were improved to certain basic levels a certificate could be issued, after which such properties could become subject to the fair rents procedure. He is confusing that Act with the original Rent Act.
§ Mr. Taylor
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Act he will find that there is no question of forcing improvements. 956 A certificate had to be obtained to bring a controlled house up to the basic amenities, and without one penny being spent on improvements that house could be taken out of control. I challenge him to say that it is otherwise. Many of my constituents have been affected by the 1969 Act applying to Scotland which provided that houses which could be given a certificate by the local authority would be taken out of control. The hon. Gentleman must be well aware that thousands of tenants in Scotland, and in England and Wales, have had their existing controlled houses brought out of control into regulation as a direct result of the Labour Government's legislation.
§ Mr. Freeson
The hon. Gentleman is still confusing the Rent Act of 1965 with the 1968 and 1969 Acts. A minority of properties may already have been improved and allowed to go to regulated rents, but the main provisions of the 1969 Housing Act was to require landlords to obtain a certificate that they had undertaken certain basic improvements before they could get higher rents. The Bill at present before Parliament will allow landlords merely to declare their intention to do such works as a condition for getting higher rents. A very different position arises under this Government from the position that arose under the Labour Government.
§ Mr. Taylor
The hon. Gentleman refers to a minority of houses being brought within regulation. He will be astonished at the number of houses which have been brought directly out of control into regulation without one penny being spent on improvements as a direct result of legislation brought forward by his Government. There are a great many in my constituency.
§ Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)
Would the hon. Gentleman like to give his assessment of the global figure?
§ Mr. Taylor
I can give the figure for Scotland, which I think would not greatly interest the right hon. Gentleman. I do not have the figures for England, but I know from my colleagues that the number is very high. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will put down a Question today for answer on Tuesday, and I will do the same.
§ Mr. Taylor
Yes, more than 8,000 houses have been directly affected by this procedure since the 1969 Act. That is a substantial number, and a lot more are going through. I come back to the argument that according to the previous Government fair rents were fair rents for private tenants but not for local authority tenants.
There is a further hypocrisy in Scotland. We have not only local authority houses and private rented houses but houses provided by the Scottish Special Housing Association which are directly owned through the S.S.H.A. by the Government, built by the Government and financially controlled by the Government. In my constituency there are local authority houses provided by Glasgow Corporation and Government council houses owned by the S.S.H.A. It is strange that hon. Gentlemen opposite should say that it is an outrage for the Government to interfere with the level of council rents when the Labour Government forced up rents in their own council houses, so that people living on either side of one street in my constituency in houses which were similar in every respect were paying different rents as a result of Labour Government policies.
Right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite must explain what they think freedom should apply to. Should there be freedom for private tenants? Should there be freedom for council tenants? If there is not to be comparable freedom, where is the justice in saying that private tenants should not only pay their own fair rents but pay a substantial proportion of the rent of every council tenant through the rate subsidy?
The hon. Member for Hackney, Central said that local authorities should have freedom in financial matters. He complained about the Government's educational programmes. He must know that under any Government each local authority puts forward a scheme to the Government which is substantially in excess of what the authority hopes to get. In Scotland—and I am sure that my hon. Friends will confirm that the same applies in England—the amount of capital expenditure approved for school building 958 projects has increased enormously. The hon. Gentleman will perhaps have noticed that when the Labour Government was in power the rate of increase in the rate support grant was halved, from 6 per cent. per annum to 3 per cent. per annum.
§ Mr. Clinton Davis
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Government's programme contains no secondary school building, and that the repairs and renovation programme is completely denuded.
§ Mr. Taylor
I cannot accept that. I know the detailed figures for Scotland. Since this Government have come to power the amount of cash allowed for local authority educational programmes has been substantially increased. I had the pleasure of being a junior Minister in the Government and, with my right hon. Friend, I approved substantial increases in the capital expenditure of local authorities.
Capital expenditure is money which local authorities have to borrow. It is revenue—the rate support grant—that matters. I hope that the hon. Gentleman who is complaining that the Government have been unfair to local authorities will ask them whether they were happy when the Labour Government halved the rate of increase in the rate support grant from 6 per cent. to 3 per cent.?
This is an interesting debate on the rights and freedoms of local authorities and the extent to which they should be independent of Government control, the extent to which the Government have the right to determine major policies, and the extent to which local authorities should just administer. There is probably scope for argument here and scope for improvement, particularly after local government reform. I hope that in Scotland there will be further scope, not just to move towards regionalisation but towards a Scottish Assembly proposals which my Government are committed in this Parliament.
It is entirely wrong for any Government, instead of adopting a consistent policy of saying where they believe the lines are, in justice and equity, to tell local authorities that they can do only what the Government want them to do and not what they do not want them to do. That is neither a logical nor meaningful argument. Local authorities have 959 benefited greatly from the increased expenditure provided by the Government and the increased freedom that has been made available to them.
§ 12.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)
We are all extremely fond of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor). We know that he opposes the Government on so many of their major policies, and that occasionally he has to come to the House and obliged the Whips by trumping up something on a thin day to prove to them that he is still on their side.
It was, I thought, a little churlish of him not to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) on introducing his Motion. I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend on this and also on the fact that he has deliberately delayed his departure on a parliamentary delegation so as to be present in the House this morning.
My hon. Friend began appositely by quoting the Conservative Manifesto which was issued at the last General Election, and its terms are extremely relevant to the Motion. He did not quote all of it, but kindly left a bit for me. I should like to quote from paragraph 2, on page 25, of "A Better Tomorrow":The Independence of local authorities has been seriously eroded by Labour Ministers. On many issues, particularly in education and housing they have deliberately overridden the views of elected councillors. We think it wrong that the balance of power between central and local government should have been distorted, and we will redress the balance and increase the independence of local authorities".Therefore the Prime Minister in his manifesto, which he personally signed, attacked the Labour Government for overriding the views of elected councillors on education and housing. He would have been advised to have left these matters very much alone.
My hon. Friend has referred to the Housing Finance Bill which is now going through the House of Commons. Housing in a constituency like mine, which is one of the major stress areas in the country, is perhaps one of the most personalised and localised subjects for council administration. Yet, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, Clauses 93 to 95 of that Bill will mean that the Government will override the wishes of the elected councillors, and in Manchester 960 the result last May was a landslide victory of endorsement for the policies of the Labour Council.
The Government are putting their hands in the tills of local councils. Following the innocuous programme on "Man Alive" the other night, the Minister of Housing Construction got into a tantrum. He should be grateful that "Wanted" notices for him have not been posted outside every police station in the country.
On education the Conservative Manifesto said that the Labour Government haddeliberately overridden the views of elected councillors".Although the Labour Party in Manchester last May won a massive victory on a promise to provide free school milk, when they brought in their plan, the Government stamped on it. The Labour Party then brought in a modified plan, which included the provision of milk and hot drinks for children on payment, but at the same time allowing children eligible for free school dinners to have free drinks. The right hon. Lady the gorgon of Finchley came down and forbade Manchester Council to provide free hot drinks for children, whom it was recognised were poor enough to merit free school dinners. That was the amount of interference by the right hon. Lady and her Government with the City of Manchester. Now the Manchester Council has introduced a pioneering scheme to provide hot drinks for children in schools at the rate of a penny a day. I hope that the Minister will not find some way of interfering with that.
It is not simply in these two specific fields that the Secretary of State and the Government have interfered. The Department of the Environment has gravely impaired the ability of local authorities to provide services required in their areas. This has been enshrined in two circulars, Circular 2/70 and Circular 66/71 which relate to the whole question of Government assistance to local authorities.
There is a grim joke incorporated in Circular 2/70 since it refers to a special category called "Locally determined schemes". These are schemes which, as a result of Government interference in local government, are least likely to be 961 determined locally. The situation has been emphasised in the report of the Chairman of the Finance Committee of Manchester City Council, in the four-year budget which he presented to the Council. The result of the introduction of the locally determined sector has been severely to restrict the expenditure on such schemes. The way in which the finance is organised for these schemes is such that the amount available is cut down.
§ Mr. Michael Heseltine rose—
§ Mr. Kaufman
I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment when I have finished this passage of my speech. As far as can be ascertained, the locally-determined pool of expenditure for 1971–72 is roughly equivalent to the amount of expenditure which the Government would have allowed under the old procedure, but when measured against the need of local authorities for capital expenditure the size of the pool is not only restrictive but deflationary.
The formula for the distribution of the pool has not been able to take account of current needs for expenditure but has been based on past expenditure. This means that the formula takes no account of special needs in a local authority's capital expenditure programme. Therefore, there is the supreme paradox that local authorities which wish to get through schemes on their locally-determined list, but do not have the money available have to get their schemes put on the key sector list, which requires specific approval by the Minister.
Local determination is such a fraud that it means that the schemes which the councils want but which have little opportunity of coming to fruition, have to be taken by local authorities to the Minister with the plea "May we have a key sector scheme?". The situation in Manchester is that the basic allocation in the locally-determined sector in 1971–72 amounted to £6,300,000. In 1972–73 the allocation has been reduced to £4,030,000. Therefore, in the Government's "newspeak" locally-determined schemes means in practice that there will be fewer locally-determined schemes. I now give way to the Minister.
§ Mr. Heseltine
Since the hon. Gentleman has now given me the figures for 962 which I was about to ask, I will leave it at that. I am grateful to him for the information.
§ Mr. Kaufman
The locally-determined schemes for Manchester are down by a third and yet the need in Manchester is a crying one. Manchester is a city with an inner centre which has great social needs. This centre is spread out as though a stone had been dropped into a pool, and the ripples are widening out. My own constituency is one area in which a great deal needs to be done.
§ Mr. Deakins
Would my hon. Friend not agree that all large urban conurbations—London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow—have these pressing social problems which are becoming worse because in these times of rapid inflation, local authorities cannot spend the amount of money that is necssary even to cope with the present size of the problem? Will he not agree that the Government by cutting back on expenditure are making sure that the problems will grow even worse and will make it even more difficult for the local authorities to do anything about the situation?
§ Mr. Kaufman
I agree completely with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Deakins), and I shall deal with that argument in more detail later in my speech. Although my hon. Friend cites these other areas, he may not recognise the needs of Manchester. In terms of housing need, my own constituency is one of the 20 worst in the entire country. That is the situation that my constituents face. They face a lack of amenities of all kinds. Happily, we have a large number of children. We have a great many families with young children. But providing areas for children to play in is an uphill fight, which is why we get the terrible situation where children play on the grass verges of the Mancunian Way and inevitably children are killed in road accidents. We have managed to get some play areas for them.
But as Councillor Anthony Goldstone of the Ardwick ward has pointed out, in a ward which is one of those of greatest need in my constituency there are three schools where, because money is not sufficiently available in the minor works programme, it has not been possible to 963 finish off the playing-fields. I refer to St. Clement's, St. Aloysius and Ross Place schools. We have terribly derelict sites left by the Conservatives during their four years of neglect of the city. They are left for the Labour Council to deal with, and the limited "Operation Eyesore" grant will go nowhere to deal with the problem.
We have many other needs. We have a need for libraries. The Conservative council closed down libraries in Manchester. Elderly constituents of mine want them very much. The Labour council wants to build libraries in two areas in my constituency, for example, at Longsight and West Gorton. The Longsight library, in an area where a big new estate is being built, cannot be started before 1974, and the West Gorton one cannot be started before 1975. The position is the same with health centres. We cannot begin the proposed centre in Longsight before 1973. Then we need recreation centres. Longsight's cannot begin before 1974. Longsight cannot have its swimming pool before 1974, nor can Claremont Road. There are proposals for parks and playgrounds at Grey Street and Longsight which cannot be started.
In the face of all this, my constituents have been thunderstruck by the news of a 29p increase in the household rate, but Manchester is still not to have recreation grounds, playing fields, swimming pools and libraries, which are luxuries. In the context of the housing and school needs of Manchester, that is true, but it is a sad reflection on the policies that this Government have inculcated into the country that in the inner parts of our major cities the elementary provisions of playing fields, libraries, swimming pools and so on must be regarded as luxuries which cannot be afforded immediately even when the council has had to introduce the kind of rate increase that Manchester Corporation has been forced to introduce.
These amenities are essential if the City of Manchester is to remain a civilised one and if it is to continue its long tradition of contributing to the country's civilisation. After all, what Manchester thinks today, the rest of the country thinks tomorrow—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Certainly that is so—
§ Mr. Kaufman
The fact that today's attendance is made up largely of hon. Members representing London constituencies with their own rows to hoe is neither here nor there. I have the privilege to speak for Manchester, and I speak on behalf of those of my hon. Friends who represent Manchester constituencies. Hon. Members opposite who represent Manchester constituencies are never here to speak. They did not even take part in our recent debate on unemployment.
The situation was summed up very well in last night's Manchester Evening News, which said:But how else, except by spending money, can the corporation hope to arrest the decline of the city? The spending should not be in question, only the method of financing it. Manchester needs an injection of additional money. Treasury, please note.That is an independent newspaper pointing out that the situation in Manchester is such that we must have major expenditure if the city is to live and make its contribution to the country's civilisation in the future, as it has in the past.
We in this country have been saved so far from the kind of situation which we see in the cities of North America. But we cannot be saved very much longer unless the Government are ready to allocate resources towards the regeneration of our major cities. At the moment, our cities are on the verge of disaster. The Government must reverse their policies if our major cities are not to meet the fate of American cities.
Again and again the Government talk about law and order. They did it during the General Election. They did it after the coal miners' strike. They use it as a gimmick. Their gimmick will become a nightmare which we shall have to live with if something is not done to help our major cities. The Government must provide the money that our cities need. One way of prodding them into doing it is to carry this Motion.
§ 12.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)
This Motion is a sad misuse of parliamentary time. It is simply an exercise in party propaganda. It is almost totally devoid of merit, and a waste of our 965 time compared with the Motions which follow it on the Order Paper, which are moderately expressed and concern important and serious subjects which deserve proper consideration and public discussion. That cannot be said of the terms of this Motion or of the way in which it has been moved.
I deplore the way in which some hon. Members use their privileges and opportunities to pursue the party game when the true interests of Britain are being ignored—
§ Mr. Stanbrook
It may be a matter of priorities, but when, under the guise of a Motion that ostensibly calls attention to some real problems of local government, hon. Members go in for purely party tactics and make purely debating points, I suggest that it is a complete waste of those opportunities.
§ Mr. Stanbrook
I do not propose to give way for some time, so the hon. and learned Gentleman might as well get used to the idea.
The language of the Motion would condemn the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) as a hypocrite if he meant it, but it is clear from what he said that he did not mean it. Ft appears that his objection is that a Conservative Government ask local authorities to do certain things of which the hon. Gentleman does not approve—
§ Mr. Stanbrook
—but the hon. Gentleman is not willing to concede that a great many of them are matters of which a Labour Government would approve.
The hon. Gentleman could hardly have been more insincere in what he said about freedom for local councils. We are becoming accustomed to his exaggerated language and to the insults that he uses so freely. We remember what he recently said about my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. The hon. Gentleman's language makes him someone whom any open-minded and reasonable observer 966 would regard as being completely incapable of expressing a fair judgment about anything. Having gained, through no merit of his own, the honour and privilege of moving this Motion, to what does he draw our attention? He refers to what he callsthe utter contempt manifested by the Government for the established principles of freedom for local government"—[Interruption.]Hon. Members opposite merely confirm what I have said. They are not here to discuss the Motion sensibly. They are here to whip up the party game, oblivious to the merits of the Motion. How silly can they get? How can they serve the public if they carry on like this and make stupid and inane comments? If there were any shred of concern for the subject of the Motion, hon. Gentlemen opposite would acknowledge that all local government must be exercised within the limits properly set by central Government, and that in the last resort, whatever the political colour of local or central Government, it is for central Government, in matters demanding a national approach to any problem, to set the overriding standards to which all authority, local or central, should subscribe.
I suggest that that is a perfectly proper proposition which hon. Members on both sides of the House, if only they will give serious consideration to problems of this kind, should acknowledge. For that reason, I do not wish to go into the ding-dong debating warfare about what they did, what we did, and how certain things were done by one Government which are or are not emulated by the other. Allowing for the sincerity of hon. Members on both sides, as I believe we should, we must acknowledge that overriding national standards are the responsibility of central Government. It is not a matter of the colour of party politics. We know that the Labour Government were not reluctant to interfere with the law and the rights of local authorities when they were pursuing their own national policies.
§ Mr. Stanbrook
That is not being party-political. Quite properly, they were entrusted with the power of determining national standards—so, under our democratic system, they had power to enforce 967 those standards. There is nothing party-political about that kind of approach.
However, the hon. Member for Hackney, Central, in moving his Motion, apparently opposed the Greater London Council—a democratically-elected local authority—because they had exercised their power in relation to a London borough in a way of which he did not approve. Hon. Gentlemen opposite cannot have it both ways; they either trust local councils to exercise their powers in a way that the majority of their members approve or they just do not believe in a democratic system.
§ Mr. Hamling
Will the hon. Gentleman refer to what his Leader said at the Election, complaining about the Labour Government's interfering with local authorities?
§ Mr. Stanbrook
That is a typical example of what I mean by the sort of ding-dong battle that goes on—that because the then Government have done one thing it follows that their successors should or should not subscribe to whatever was said at the time. The whole thing is gobbledygook. The public just do not understand. They wonder why we do not spend our time seriously debating matters of this kind. Hon. Gentlemen opposite do not do themselves justice by making inane comments.
It is proper for central Government to want to establish standards appropriate to national issues. I speak not for the Conservative Government in this context; I hope that I am speaking as a responsible Member of this House. I suggest that all this hoo-ha about whether there was interference by the previous Government or whether there is interference by this Government is of no consequence compared with the merits of the issues themselves.
Examples are available on both sides. No doubt the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) can provide plenty, and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor) has provided plenty. That is why I decline to enter into that game. Many examples are available, but we waste time by going on proliferating them. We do no service to the cause of freedom for local authorities—to the cause of their having independence from 968 unreasonable Government interference—by adopting partisan positions in these matters.
Naturally we all want to see the maximum power of decision over local issues given into the hands of locally elected bodies. However, society is never static. Because of the inevitable growth of State power there are few spheres of activity nowadays in which the State does not play an important part. The Labour Party was as much responsible for that as any other, and perhaps played an even greater part then we did in the tendency of the State to play an increasing rôle not only in matters of local services but in the private lives of citizens. We must all accept that. However, there are real problems here which deserve serious and objective consideration.
The autonomy of local councils is but a factor to be weighed in the balance when it is desirable to impose a certain uniformity of policy. I ask myself what are the bounds of the desirable freedom of action for local councils? I ask myself that question in, I hope, a non-partisan way. Can they wholly encompass subjects in which local councils are merely the agents of central Government? The answer is, obviously not. Local participation, in the sense of participation at the lowest level, in implementing central Government policies is desirable. It can never be conclusive. No local authority can reasonably expect to have a free hand with the taxpayers' money. Yet the scope for raising wholly local revenue for local objects is naturally limited.
§ Mr. Deakins
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although local authorities should not have a free hand with the taxpayers' money they should have considerable freedom to deal with ratepayers' money and that, therefore, the school milk issue should be looked at in this light?
§ Mr. Stanbrook
I am grateful for that intervention, because it helps me to pursue this argument. After all, ratepayers' money is locally raised and is not always devoted to purely local objects. Indeed, in many cases revenues derived from the rates are used in aid of what turns out to be a national public service. So the question is: to what extent can local authorities, responsible for administering services provided by 969 rate revenue, be held to have control, influence or guidance over the administration of those services? It is a big problem which we ought sensibly, seriously, moderately and in a non-partisan spirit to discuss on the Floor of the House.
§ Mr. John D. Grant (Islington, East)
In a non-partisan spirit. The hon. Gentleman no doubt heard my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) refer to the Bromley Borough Council and the question of housing land in Outer and Inner London and the record of that council—a matter on which I have recently expressed views, about which the hon. Gentleman will know. As his constituency lies within that borough, may I ask him to deal with that matter in the course of his remarks, because it is an important matter on which we would appreciate his views?
§ Mr. Stanbrook
I had not intended to refer to that matter. This is a little trap into which the hon. Gentleman has invited me to venture. However, as it is a constituency point—and clearly the hon. Gentleman knows that I am aware of the problem—I will deal with it. When dealing with the allocation of land one must take into account the desirability of making land available for the purpose of housing not only to those elsewhere who are in particularly urgent need and have no space for more housing, but those who are more immediately concerned, and the general interests of the country as a whole. I gather that the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. John D. Grant) has recently said that the Bromley local authority should make available for council housing purposes the open spaces, within its own area, so as to rehouse the overspill population from Inner London. If he is saying that, he is saying that the London borough of Bromley should be over-ridden in its desire to make that land available for other purposes, and primarily to people who wish to buy their own homes for private housing. I believe that that is the foundation of the thinking of that council.
That is an honest difference of view, and it stems from the fact that the hon. Member is a Socialist and fundamentally believes in State direction, having established what is desirable; while I am a Conservative and believe fundamentally 970 that, so far as possible, individuals—including individual firms and councils-should be allowed to control their own affairs.
§ Mr. Freeson
Surely the hon. Member is aware that his own Minister—a Conservative Minister has taken precisely the same line on this as my hon. Friend, who is a Socialist. Belatedly perhaps, he has also urged time and again, as the previous Labour Government did and as we are still doing, that the Outer London boroughs like Bromley should make land available to rehouse people from the congested areas. The question of tenures is another matter, and is only a matter of detail. Whether the land is to be used by housing associations, municipal tenants or for owner occupation is a detail. The important question is whether the land should be used to rehouse people from the Inner London area, thus freeing land in those areas to be used to make them more attractive places in which to live. That is the Government's policy as well.
§ Mr. Stanbrook
The hon. Member is pursuing the tendency that I deplored at the beginning of my speech. The London borough of Bromley is entitled to say that it wishes the land to be developed for the purposes and in the interests of the people that it represents. If it does not believe that it should provide for the council housing needs of the people of central London, it is entitled to say so. Only a Socialist would say that it must be compelled—
§ Mr. Stanbrook
No. I am debating the merits of the issue. If this council believes—I believe that it is right in saying this—that that land should be available for occupation by private purchasers, it should be allowed to make it so available. If people from Inner London wish to buy houses in Bromley good luck to them—[Interruption.] I wish that the hon. Member for Willesden, East would not keep interrupting from a sedentary position and pursuing this narrow partisan warfare.
To get back to the merits of the issue, the scope for local authority freedom in itself is necessarily limited. So one comes to that part of the Motion which refers 971 to finance. It deals with the alleged failure of the Government…to provide the facilities necessary for a dynamic approach to resolve the innumerable problems affecting local government".That is a very good example of Socialist gobbledygook.
The question with local government finance is where it is to come from. If it comes from the State, is not the State entitled to an overriding say in how it should be spent? Of is it suggested that local authorities should have it for their own unfettered use? Of course there are problems concerning the financing of local services. The present rating system is a most unsound, inequitable and unjust method of raising local revenue. It hits householders, irrespective of their means, their age and the size of their families, and it exempts a large proportion of the people who use and benefit from local services.
This problem is worthy of study, not in the narrow partisan spirit adopted by some hon. Members opposite but in a spirit of finding some equitable means of not only raising revenue locally but distributing the burden of that form of taxation evenly and reasonably.
There are problems involved in the increasing scale of certain technical services which, if they must be provided must be provided efficiently. The result today, unfortunately, is a dangerous tendency for wholly nominated, non-elected bodies to control important public services. I refer to the hospital services and to the projected regional water authorities—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I hope that hon. Members opposite will appreciate that I am trying to approach this whole question in a non-partisan spirit. Those authorities have varying degrees of local participation. They are not elected—certainly not democratically elected. This is a real problem because of the technical complexity of the questions involved and the apparent desirability that these matters should be dealt with by experts and not by the part-time laymen who are members of local authorities.
For the same reason, there are problems in the increasing size of local authorities. They have to be enlarged to control those expanding services—hence 972 the development in London of the London boroughs and the local government reorganisation now under consideration. The danger is that authorities of this size are becoming too remote, and councillors, because they are part-time laymen and therefore too dependant on official advice, are also in danger of losing contact with their constituents, because there are too many of them.
These are the real inhibitions on the freedom of local government when considered from the democratic aspect. These are the sort of problems which the hon. Member for Hackney, Central should have been discussing. Unfortunately, in his miserable vendetta against the Government, this Motion, calling attention to the problems of local government, is merely an excuse to vent his spleen—I am sorry that he is not here, but that is not my fault—just another opportunity for him to record yet more worthless, dogmatic, ill-informed and bigoted diatribes in the pages of Hansard. The hon. Member would not know a reasonable cause if he saw one.
The progress of this country is handicapped by the obsession of some party politicians with their own little needling petty complaints about each other. I will not suggest from whom most of these complaints come—
§ Mr. Stanbrook
Rubbish. Watch my eyes.
Let us by all means increase local participation in the policy, control and administration of public services. We can all agree on that, but we will get on much faster if we abandon the horrible and malevolent attitude towards each other, which is displayed in Motions of this kind.
§ 1.0 p.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) said that he would make a non-partisan speech. As an example of a partisan speech, it was excellent.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and colleague the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) for making a telling and timely indictment of the Government's lack of achievement at this 973 stage in their life. Perhaps I am being partisan in acquainting the House with the fact that in one of the Hackney wards last night there was given an indication of what the public think of the Government's policies, for a Labour candidate was returned with an overwhelming majority. Does the Prime Minister consider that to have been an endorsement of his policies?
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central raised a number of vital problems which the hon. Member for Orpington described as petty complaints. He spoke of a miserable vendetta. I suggest that he sits down for a quiet hour tomorrow with the Official Report of his speech and itemises the various complaints that have been made. He will soon see that far from being petty, they are extremely important and go to support our indictment of the Government.
Without going into all the difficulties in my part of London, one is surely entitled to comment on certain vital issues that must be faced. For example, unemployment in Hackney, of which my constituency is a part, was running at a small figure throughout the years of Labour Government and even before then. It has now increased under the Conservatives by over 40 per cent.
Our housing list is one of the largest in the country, despite the housing achievement of the Labour council. No local authority could have a better record over the years, save for the brief period when a Conservative council was in power. Housing and unemployment are only two of the factors.
The hon. Member for Orpington spoke rather philosophically when dealing with the whole issue of the freedom of councils.
§ Mr. Molloy
I agree with my hon. and learned Friend that the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) was claiming to be non-partisan. When the Conservatives gained some remarkable victories in the local authority elections they deliberately ran down public housing so as to allow their colleagues in the House of Commons to criticise the former Labour Government for not building sufficient council houses. How disgraceful can one be in conducting an argument?
§ Mr. Weitzman
I agree with my hon. Friend, though I shall not pursue that partisan point. I wish to deal with the facts. It is extraordinary that when hon. Gentlemen opposite need an excuse with which to mitigate the Government's deficiencies, they inevitably say, "Look what the Labour Government did". I wish they would do that. We have nothing to regret.
The Motion says in part:this House deplores the utter contempt manifested by the Government for the established principles of freedom for local government and its failure to provide the financial facilities necessary for a dynamic approach to resolve the innumerble problems affecting local government".Local authorities, having been elected by the people, should be given as much freedom as possible. In other words, they should receive as little interference as possible from the central Government. After all, what a local authority achieves depends in large measure on the support it gets from the central Government, particularly from the point of view of finance, and it is in this context that I have a number of matters to raise.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central has said enough about what the Government are doing by way of the Housing Finance Bill to show how they are interfering with the housing programmes of local authorities. In the light of that, how could the hon. Member for Orpington say that my hon. Friend's remarks were not relevant to the present situation? My hon. Friend's comments were an absolute condemnation of the Government's action in regard to local authorities.
§ Mr. Stanbrook
I made such an accusation because the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) did not concentrate on the real problems of local government but used the Motion as an excuse for attacking the Government's policies overall.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I repeat that the hon. Gentleman must spend a quiet hour tomorrow reading the Official Report of his speech. He will then see how wrong he was in most of what he said.
I wish to concentrate on the way in which we can condemn the Government for their attitude in failing to implement the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, 1970. Although this subject 975 has been raised before, I make no apology for raising it now because it concerns one of the most important problems with which we are faced, and that is the need to look after the chronically sick and disabled.
It was under the Labour Government that this Private Member's Measure was passed, with the support of hon. Members in all parts of the House. I speak from personal knowledge when I say that every Minister concerned with the Measure leaned over backwards to see that its provisions were practicable and that the promoter was given every assistance. Because of the intervention of the General Election at that time it looked as if the Measure would not become law, but the Labour Government took special steps to see that it would be enacted.
Section 1 of that Act is extremely important. It is designed to create a register—a record—of chronically sick and disabled people and to ensure—this is a mandatory obligation—that the local authority makes them aware of the services that are available to them.
What has been done to implement that Section? Time and again we have sought information on this issue but we have not received any, the simple reason being that the Government have failed to a considerable extent to assist local authorities to carry out what we all regard as a provision of enormous importance. We have been told that such information as could be given to us would not be accurate and would not provide the statistics we want.
May we at least be given what information there is about the number of chronically sick and disabled people in the local authorities and the steps that are being taken to register them and see that the details of all available services are brought to their attention?
Under Section 2 of the Act an instruction is given to local authorities to see that certain social services are provided. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central referred to Richmond. I do not know how many telephones for this category of people have been provided there, but in my constituency we have provided at least 300, and this provision has been made under Section 2 976 of the Act. A whole host of other services come into play under this legislation.
What has been done about that? I have asked on several occasions why the Minister did not go on television or radio, or through the Press, to do what he could to acquaint chronically sick and disabled persons with what they were entitled to under the Act and what the duties of local authorities were. I have asked questions and made speeches, but I have had no answer. Yet when there was some small thing about giving pensions to elderly persons, a very necessary but much smaller thing, the Minister went on television and told the public the noble thing he was doing. Why did he not do that in this respect?
On housing, there is a duty laid on the Department of the Environment to vet, as it were, plans for housing specially provided for the needs of the chronically sick and disabled. What has been done about that?
§ Mr. Freeson
It goes further than that. As my hon. and learned Friend will know, it lays down that local authorities should be required, by the Department of the Environment, in most circumstances, in the submission of any housing schemes, to include provision for the disabled. So it went a good deal further than just vetting schemes put to the Department by local authorities.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has raised an important point. I had something to do with the drafting of that Act. This provision was very difficult to draw, regarding the requirement about the plans that were being drawn up providing for the needs of the disabled. The Department, of which my hon. Friend was then in charge, very kindly looked into it and drafted the provision, and helped in every possible way. What has been done about that?
When we last debated the matter the Minister told us about schemes that were being put forward and money that was being provided. He prided himself on the help that had been given. But the help that has been given touches only the fringe of the problem of the needs of the chronically sick and disabled. The hon. Member for Orpington will not accuse me of being partisan. I am pressing the needs of the chronically sick and disabled. I 977 am not pursuing a vendetta of any kind. I am emphasising this fact as much as possible.
§ Mr. Stanbrook rose—
§ Mr. Weitzman
May I finish my point? It is for the Government to see that local authorities deal with these matters. Independence of the local authorities—certainly. Assistance from the Government—essential. A local authority cannot possibly carry out these things unless it has the assistance, financial and otherwise, of the Government.
§ Mr. Ernle Money (Ipswich)
The hon. and learned Gentleman knows that this is a subject in which I, also, take a particular interest. If he speaks to any of the national organisations involved with the care of the disabled, he will find, I think, a feeling that the greatest step forward on behalf of the disabled has been taken by the work of the inter-party committees, and that it is on that basis that most work has been done. He will also find a great deal of tribute from those organisations to the non-partisan and genuinely sympathetic spirit with which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services has acted since he has held that office.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I am in touch with most of the organisations and I know the work that they do. I know that they would be the first to say that something has been done by the Government, but certainly nothing like enough. The fringe of the problem has just been touched; that is about all. What I am pressing today, in a non-partisan way, is that the Government ought to act to a greater extent on this problem.
The Motion condemns the Government. I merely quote this matter, as an example of where the Government are failing in their duty. It is a material and important example of real failure on the part of the Government. If the debate serves any useful purpose, it will be in focussing attention on the needs that still raise and what has still to be done.
I hope that the Minister will give us some assurance that the debate will not be just an idle exercise but one which will result in something concrete being done.
§ 1.15 p.m.
§ Sir Frederic Bennett (Torquay)
Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), I have not the slightest objection to a good old barney across the Floor. All I insist upon, in return, is that we should be allowed to hit back equally as hard as those who have attacked us. I intend to make no pleas for non-partisanship. Indeed, when I saw on the Order Paper the name of the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis), who opened the debate, I should have had to be naïve not to expect that the debate would be controversial. Any suggestion that it would be non-partisan and statesmanlike is wandering into the realms of fantasy, as the Motion is in the name of the hon. Member.
§ Mr. John Silkin
Can the hon. Gentleman tell me of any statesman in history who has been non-partisan?
§ Sir F. Bennett
We have gone far enough outside the Motion without my wandering any further into the realms of history. Perhaps the fact that the right hon. Gentleman and I are not more successful than we might otherwise be could be because we are not sufficiently statesmanlike, or, perhaps, are too much so. I shall leave him to work that out.
I am tempted to comment on a number of statements made by preceding speakers of the party opposite, especially about housing. Anyone would think that the conditions which obtain in many parts of the country today—deplorable as they are—all suddenly came into being 18 months ago, in June, 1970. If the conditions of housing in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hackney, Central—or any other constituency—are bad, the suggestion that the reason for it is contained in the words of the Motion is arrant nonsense.
I come to what the Motion is about. I attended with the intention of taking part in a debate on it. The first sentence on the Order Paper says:To call attention to the extent of freedom of action of local government.I should have thought that that was harmless in itself, because it does not seem to commit itself to the desire for greater or lesser freedom. But the Motion moves on to suggest that what is involved is 979 that its mover wants more freedom for local government. The next sentence says:That this House deplores the utter contempt manifested by the Government for the established principles of freedom for local government.I am not dodging any part of the Motion. I shall come to the rest of it. Almost all the remarks from the Opposition today have been urging a greater degree of central control over local government. We have heard an exchange of views between both sides about a situation in Bromley of which I know nothing. But if there were to be a remedy, from the point of view of those who criticised my hon. Friend it would be that the central Government would have to exercise considerably more control, and not the position as it is put in the Motion. That is beyond dispute.
Another of the criticisms made by the hon. Member for Hackney, Central, who went into a very extensive diatribe about the actions of the G.L.C., was that central Government—if his speech meant anything in this context—should interfere and either make the G.L.C. do a number of things or prevent it from doing things. Yet unless I have failed to understand its whole purpose, however, his Motion argues that local authorities, of which the G.L.C. is one, should be given greater freedom from central control.
The hon. Member's whole argument was that the wicked G.L.C. should be brought into line by central Government, and he was thereby most successful in speaking against his own Motion. Every argument that he used was for the increased power of central Government to interfere. Over the years I have found among all hon. Members, Ministers included, the belief that local authorities ought to have more freedom when they think that freedom will be exercised in a way which is acceptable to their own political thinking. The moment this does not happen we hear demands that local authorities should be subject to more control and more guidance. That demonstrates the central weakness in the arguments that have been made by hon. Members opposite. In attacking the present situation on housing or anything else they are saying that they want to be able to exercise more control and that is 980 precisely the opposite to what is contained in the Motion.
§ Mr. Molloy
The Motion means that local authorities have certain responsibilities and that they should have the freedom to carry out those responsibilities. But intertwined with them is a certain amount of essential Government assistance, and that assistance is not forthcoming. Their freedom to get on with the job is therefore inhibited.
§ Sir F. Bennett
That may be a marvellous Motion to put down for debate next Friday, but it is not what this Motion says. If the hon. Member wants to frame another Motion he is entirely at liberty to do so. This Motion says that the Conservative Government are interfering with the freedom of action of local authorities by exercising too much control, and every argument so far has been that they should exercise even more control. I am only stating the obvious.
I do not intend to play tit-for-tat about what the Labour Government did or did not do when in office, because that would take up too much time. But it has been argued that the Government are interfering with local authorities on the question of school milk because, with certain exceptions for reasons of health, they are not allowing the issue of free school milk. Whatever the merits of that argument, it does not come very well from Labour Members when their party, when in government, cancelled the issue of free milk to secondary schools and prevented councils not only from thereafter paying for the milk out of the rates but from supplying milk even on payment. It is a strange constitutional argument to adduce that what is acceptable from the age of 11 to 14 is wrong when applied to children aged between 7 and 11.
§ Mr. Freeson
It is perfectly true that when the Labour Government withdrew its support for milk supplies in secondary schools under the previous Administration they did not specifically empower local authorities to sell milk, as has been done in the Government's Bill. But the powers already existed for school authorities, if they wished, to sell milk and provide vending machines for such purposes in secondary schools.
§ Sir F. Bennett
The hon. Member has still missed the point, which is that the 981 Labour Government prohibited the issue of free milk in secondary schools. Hon. Members opposite apparently believe that it is constitutionally acceptable to do that for children between 11 and 14 but is wrong for children between 7 and 11. The hon. Member has just admitted that local authorities were prevented from issuing free milk to secondary schools.
§ Mr. Freeson
I said that the Government withdrew its cash support but did not interfere with local authorities who wished to supply milk on payment.
§ Sir F. Bennett
But it did prevent them from issuing it free, which is what the clam our has been about. When the Conservatives act in this way towards one age group of schoolchildren it is called a gross constitutional interference with local authorities, but when it is applied to another age group by the Socialists it is not. Hon. Members cannot have it both ways, unless they work out a constitution according to age groups attending schools, which is a difficult theory to pursue.
When the Conservatives came into office there existed about 1,000 controls which could be exercised by central Government over local authorities. Previous Labour governments made not the slightest attempt to overhaul or dismantle them. We have already abolished 100 of them which we felt were unnecessarily irksome, and it is said that a further 300 will shortly be removed. It may be that we are wrong to do this. It may be that central Government will lose too much control, but that is not what the Motion says. The Motion says that we are exercising far too much control, and yet we are in the process of removing nearly 50 per cent. of the 1,000 or so direct controls. We have already gone a long way to meet the wishes of the hon. Member for Hackney, Central, as printed, but not expressed by him, in his speech.
§ Mr. Deakins rose—
§ Sir F. Bennett
I have given way enough. All my points are perfectly clear and absolutely unarguable. They explain exactly the situation which exists, and I do not intend to be diverted again. The Motion says that the Government fail 982to provide the financial facilities necessary for a dynamic approach".If, in a Motion, an hon. Member refers to these matters of finance he should mention them when moving the Motion. I listened carefully, but I do not think that the hon. Member for Hackney, Central mentioned what he meant by that. Did he mean that local authorities should be entitled to collect local income tax or to collect a sales tax, or that they should be able to extract much bigger block grants? It is difficult to ask the hon. Member what he meant, because after this passionate believer in freedom for local authorities has made his speech he has now left the Chamber. The mover of a Motion has a particular responsibility, because he is putting forward something for the consideration of the House. It is a pity, if he believes so firmly in the terms of his Motion, that he should not have remained to hear comments by other hon. Members about his speech.
I have dealt with two aspects of the Motion and I am left with the third, which calls upon the Government to resign. That is net a very original thought on a Friday morning and after 20 years in the House of Commons one does not need to wrap a wet towel around one's head to contemplate the suggestion. It is not an original idea, and if that is the best that the hon. Member can do to finish off his Motion it is time he discussed these matters with his Front Bench. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) is laughing, but he and I have called out "Resign" frequently, according to which of our parties has been in office—and we have never needed a Motion on a Friday morning to enable us to do it. When I read the Motion I was absolutely astonished, in terms of general constitutional theory, to find a prominent left-wing Socialist advancing the theory that local authorities should be given much more freedom. I thought the whole concept of Socialism, if carried to its logical conclusion, required the imposition of a greater degree of central State control. I can remember a former distinguished Labour Minister hitting the Dispatch Box and announcing the coming of the first Labour Government to Westminster after the last war with:We are the masters now.983 A few years later we were cold with great firmness by a senior Labour Minister "The man in Whitehall knows best". That does not sound much like devolution to me. Like the Bourbons, they forget nothing and learn nothing.
When he came to power the present Leader of the Opposition said that his concept of the future government of Britain was that No. 10, Downing Street would be the power house of the country. That is a laudable phrase from the point of view of central Government, but it does not sound much like going back to the free local politics of the parish pump.
I am sorry to have to say this in the absence of the hon. Member for Hackney, Central, but although I do not mind all the controversy that we have here it is a great pity when he makes personal attacks directly or by innuendoes about people. I have never indulged previously in that kind of thing. But to use terms like "Medusa" and "bookie's tout" about members of the Government is not only not particularly dignified, but going too far. The hon. Gentleman should look in the mirror sometimes, both spiritually and visually. He will find that he is widely regarded as one of the nastiest pieces of work in the House.
§ 1.31 p.m.
§ Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) on moving the Motion. I note what the hon. Member for Torquay (Sir F. Bennett) has said. Perhaps I may explain that my hon. Friend is supposed to be on a parliamentary delegation to Chile but has deliberately delayed his departure, even though the other members have gone.
§ Sir F. Bennett
I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree that I would not have said what I did if the hon. Gentleman had made that point. But it is normal to make the reason clear if one is going to leave the House.
§ Mr. Silkin
That is a fair point. I thought that the hon. Gentleman would be fair enough to understand the reason.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central and, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ard- 984 wick (Mr. Kaufman) started by discussing the Conservative Manifesto for the last General Election, "A Better Tomorrow", quoting those passages that refer to local government and unemployment. It is only fair to point out that that manifesto was not written with the prospect of victory; it was a blueprint for opposition. To judge the present Conservative Government by that manifesto would be a little unfair. The Minister of Agriculture has already told us that certain elements in it were not meant to be taken seriously. I cannot help feeling that the only sophisticated politician who took it seriously was President Pompidou, particularly the reference to the whole-hearted consent of the British people.
When he very eloquently moved his Motion, my hon. Friend spent most of his time talking about housing. One hon. Member said that he doubted whether that had anything to do with the Motion, or had more than a tenuous connection. But housing is the main function of most local authorities. It is vital in local government, and therefore my hon. Friend was right to mention it. He mentioned the question of the control from Whitehall by virtue of the Housing Finance Bill, the fact that local authorities were not allowed to charge the sort of rents they would like to charge, because central Government was imposing on them an obligation to charge a maximum. That seems to me a fair point in the context of what my hon. Friend was saying. We can argue—we have argued for many hours in Committee and will argue on the Floor of the House—the merits or demerits of the Government's scheme, but no one can pretend that it is not an interference by central Government with the freedom of local authorities to act as they think fit.
My hon. Friend also referred to the land shortage. At first sight we might say that this has nothing to do with the freedom of local authorities, but it has, because if the main task of most local authorities is to provide good housing for the people, they must have the land on which to build the houses. Therefore, Government policy to that extent rightly comes into the argument.
I have always felt it a little odd that the first manifestation of a Conservative 985 Government from the Department of the Environment was when the Secretary of State marched into the House on 20th July, 1970, and announced the end of the Land Commission. [An Hon. Member: "Hear, hear."] The hon. Gentleman agrees, of course, but the aim of that decision was not to produce land for local authorities but to take land away from them. The right hon. Gentleman has followed it up in the circular to local authorities telling them to disgorge land. They cannot provide housing if they do not have the land to build the houses on. Here again is an example of central Government interfering with the main tasks of local government.
We are a compassionate party, and always have been. Therefore, perhaps the less said about the achievements of the Secretary of State for Education and Science, the better. But the first thing she did was to provide an example of instant central government at a time when the Prime Minister had said that the Conservatives had decreed an end to instant government. That was in her circular on comprehensive eucation. We can argue the toss about who was right or wrong on the question of depriving schoolchildren of milk. If I am asked my view, I would say that both Governments were wrong. But there was a great deal more excuse for a Labour Government at a time of financial stringency than for a Conservative Government bent on expansion.
But that is not the argument. What we are saying is that the action of central Government took away freedom from the local authorities. We cannot argue about that; it is a fact. There were large parts of the speech of the hon. Member for Torquay that I both understood and fully agreed with. But, for all that he may say that we should examine the Motion in a vacuum, it is no argument to say when talking about the freedom of local government, "At some period in the past your Government was just as bad." That goes away from the Motion, which is always concerned with the period at which one is speaking. This was an example of central Government interfering with the freedom of local government. Another example was the prohibition against the replacement of old secondary schools, a very clear intervention by central Government to prevent 986 local government doing what it would like to do.
My hon. Friend eloquently referred to the roads-against-homes argument and chided the Government with having done nothing. At that stage the Undersecretary intervened to say, "That's all very well, but why did the Labour Government do nothing?" That is not an argument, because we are talking about the present position.
I was assisted by the acute memory of my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson). I have looked up Hansard of 28th October, 1970, where I find that there was an exchange between him and the Secretary of State. Talking about this very subject, the right hon. Gentleman said:As previous governments know, it is a complicated and tricky subject, but I hope to conclude the review as quickly as possible.That is 18 months ago. My hon. Friend intervened at that point to say:…surely the right hon. Gentleman must know that the report was completed very soon before the General Election on 18th June. The report is before him. Why does he not propose to take action and announce it today?The Secretary of State replied:…I must tell him that I thought it was highly unsatisfactory and that I am carrying out a far wider review."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th October, 1970; Vol. 805, c. 202.]The Secretary of State is perfectly entitled to think that a report of the Labour Government is unsatisfactory. This is one of the partisan but not unstatesman-like—if the hon. Member for Torquay will forgive me—reactions that we can have in this House. It is perfectly fair. But the hon. Gentleman is not entitled to complain that nothing had been done. The Government could have accepted and acted on that report. My hon. Friend proved this point very well.
The hon. Member for Torquay made another point worth considering. This is what I call the "mythology of the 1,000 controls". It is a very good slogan and 1,000 is a good number, because it would not be as effective if the number were 843, for example. But the truth is—and I think I carry the Under-Secretary of State with me—that at least 50 per cent. of these controls are controls which the Government theoretically had or have but have not exercised for years. To say that the Government are sweeping these 987 controls away is merely to say, therefore, that they are sweeping away little things which had existed but which no one had used or intended to use for years.
§ Sir F. Bennett
If that argument were true, it would be difficult for the right hon. Gentleman simultaneously and fairly to defend why, if they were so unnecessary, they were not swept away years ago.
§ Mr. Silkin
The answer is that they were on the desk to be swept away by a succession of Governments—the present Government, the Labour Government and the previous Conservative Government. Again—we are being very fair to one another—as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there are numerous anomalies in the law which bit by bit we are beginning to sweep away—that is the purpose of the Law Commission. But, of course, such anomalies existed for years and years. Some of them were quite extraordinary—for example, ordeal by battle continued to be lawful until 1829, but I think it was only used once in 800 years.
My hon. Friend made the most of a very big and important case. What he did not deal with, because of the time, and because he fairly said that he would leave it to others to develop, was the wider aspect of local government. The Motion is widely drawn, and rightly so. If we are really concerned with freedom for local government, we must see it in the light of what is going on at the moment. We must see it in the light of a Conservative Government and what that Government are doing.
The Government are at the moment reorganising local government. If they really believe in freedom for local government, they have a spendid opportunity to see that it is exercised. But the more we go into this question, the more we find that the Government's attitude to local government is to put the emphasis on local and on government but not on the democratic purpose behind local government. Local government is nothing unless democratic, and it is precisely this on which we part issue with the Government in their main ideas of local government reorganisation.
For example, the Local Government Bill contains 251 Clauses and not one of them mentions anything to do with the 988 admission of the Press. We say that if one is to have real freedom in local government the Press should be admitted to council meetings, and committee meetings as well. I regard this as vital. Indeed, I would go further and say there is no reason why, subject obviously to space, in certain cases, the public should not be admitted to attend committee meetings. We have the system in the House of Commons. The public and the Press attend not only our major debates in the House but Committees, either of the whole House or upstairs. This should be the basis for an active local democracy and of freedom for local government. Without it, the light is away from the discussions which go on in councils. So, if we are agreed on both sides that what we want is freedom in local government, I hope that today the hon. Gentleman will announce that the Government agree that Press and public should be admitted to committee meetings of councils.
§ Sir F. Bennett
One can take that case too far, however, although I agree with the right hon. Gentleman in principle. Unlike our own Committees, local government committees are often concerned with matters of detailed planning and consents, for example. Difficult situations could arise leading to corruption and people taking advantage of what they had heard.
§ Mr. Silkin
I fully accept that, but after all, if we wish we can "spy strangers" and go into secret session if there is something very important that we need to discuss in private.
Secondly, where boundaries are drawn up by the Government, other than by the Boundary Commission, they should be in accordance with the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of those areas. One must not, as was done recently in Glamorgan, go right against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of those concerned. In Glamorgan, most of the local authorities have established that they would prefer to have two counties. The Government propose to institute three. This sort of thing is clearly against the principle of freedom of local government. I am entitled to make this comment because the original idea of the Labour Government was that there should be only one county in Glamorgan and this idea was 989 unpopular as well, it seems to me that if the people themselves say that two is the right figure, then two it should be.
The third process which can give us freedom and independence in local government is the freedom to criticise and to grumble. The best way in which this can be achieved is by the establishment of community or neighbourhood councils at a small local level, free of control from higher up local authorities, which would otherwise be in a position to nominate them. People should be free to act as a kind of statutory pressure group, as it were, in their own area, because in that way local issues can more properly be ventilated and the local voice clearly heard. I would not argue that, at that sort of level, they should have any great powers—none at all perhaps—but they should be entitled to tell the community at large what their views are.
The final basis for giving freedom to local authorities would be the establishment of regional councils directly elected—that is to say, councils larger than our present county councils but nevertheless of sufficient size to have evolving up to them certain of the tasks now given to local authorities but not given to them to the fullest extent, and devolving down to them from central Government a number of those functions of central Government which are more easily and readily done on a regional basis—for example, questions concerning gas and electricity, hospitals, national parks, water, and so on. Such a basis would give a greater degree of freedom to local government. It is that which we are discussing.
There are two essential factors in considering this sort of system. The first is that of finance. Local authorities should be free from the fear that they have not enough finance to do what a local authority properly may do. This is an important subject to which we will no doubt return later when we consider how local government finance may evolve in 1972. Secondly, any sort of freedom that may be given to local authorities becomes entirely nugatory as long as local authorities are elected on the small proportion of votes that is now the case.
In my own constituency, at our last borough council elections my party swept the board in the highest poll known for years—a 30 per cent. poll. This sort 990 of thing does not smell to me of democracy, of local government as it should be. I do not fear as some hon. Members do the clash of party interest in local elections. On the contrary, I think it can be stimulating and that stimulation is perhaps what is much more needed in local government today. If we can get the finance and the interest, and if we can alter our basis of approach to local authorities, we can have one of the best local government systems in the world. Potentially it is just that, but it is still incomplete. It is in that spirit that I commend this Motion and call upon the House to support it.
§ 1.53 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)
All of us in looking at the Motion tabled by the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) had some doubts at an early stage about what shape the debate was likely to take. There appeared to be an opportunity for an immensely wide-ranging debate. That has turned out to be the case. The hon. Member got his argument slightly twisted. It seemed that he was seeking to have the best of both worlds—perhaps not altogether unexpected in someone speaking from the benches opposite. What he was really arguing was that there should be much greater freedom for local authorities to get on with certain jobs, and then he argued from specific cases that it was a crying shame that the national Government did not intervene more often to be sure that local authorities got on with certain jobs.
The overwhelming impression with which the House was left was that local government and the erudite approach which one would expect from the right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin) have very little to do with the main purpose of the debate. It is the forthcoming local elections which were in the mind of the hon. Gentleman—
§ Mr. Heseltine
I say at once that I accept the apology of the hon. Member for Hackney, Central for having to leave the debate early. In the general atmosphere of impending local government elections it is highly desirable that 991 Opposition parties should take any opportunity available to ventilate issues that they think might be used to discredit the Government.
§ Mr. John Silkin
The hon. Gentleman did not hear the point made a moment ago by my hon. Friend. The point is that the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) is a London Member, obviously, and London has no elections.
§ Mr. Heseltine
I accept that, but there are endless opportunities for specific points to have general application. If it is possible to lambast the Conservative authorities in London the argument must be that Conservative authorities generally have the same deficiencies. I would not want to fall into the trap of accepting that there is any truth in that suggestion.
I interrupted the hon. Member on the issue of the road programme. If this is an area of neglect then the neglect is the fault of the last Government and not this one. We have been studying this matter with great care for a long time, but we did not find that the work had been sufficiently carefully prepared for us when we came into power. These problems existed for the six years of the last Government, and if no changes were made then it is not due to our lack of activity; the fault must be laid at the door of the last Government.
It is not realistic to try to argue in this way. That is true of all the hon. Member's comments. He spoke of the introduction of a fixed standard of maintenance for houses, nationally imposed. That was to conform with his concept of more freedom for local authorities! Within the framework of the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman there is a problem which every national Government is bound to face.
As the local government system in partnership with the national Government system administers virtually all the policies of any national Government it is inevitable that the moment a national Government create a new set of standards or objectives they will cut across the interface with local authorities. There is no way round.
Every Government has done it. I remember being involved in the conflict over passenger transport in the 1968 Act, 992 introduced by the last Government. I took the view that that was an interference with local authority activities. There was a proposal to establish in the four main conurbations of the country specifically—but anywhere later, if it seemed proper—passenger transport authorities whereby the local authority undertakings were transferred to a body which had a chairman who had to be approved by central Government. There was undoubtedly a diminution in the responsibility of those local authorities owning the transferred undertaking.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Land Commission. When we came into power, for reasons which seemed totally good to us then—and they still do—we decided to abolish the Land Commission. It had been introduced for one reason, because it was felt by the Labour Government that local authorities were not capable of doing the job. In our judgment they are. There was a conflict between many counties and the Commission which in our judgment would have been accentuated as time went on.
§ Mr. Molloy
If we are to deal with this matter seriously, can the hon. Gentleman tell us what function local government can indulge in which is not sanctioned somewhere by Parliament, or at any rate from this House? It is ridiculous to say that any Government restrict the freedom of local government without acknowledging at the same time that local government depends for its freedom on the House of Commons.
§ Mr. Heseltine
The hon. Gentleman has done my job for me. I almost feel that I could sit down. This is where the nonsenses of the Motion are revealed. We are being asked to deplore:the utter contempt manifested by the Government for the established principles of freedom for local government.When it comes down to it, these things are difficult to define. Everyone knows that there is a close relationship between national and local government and every national Government will seek at certain times to impose national policies which may or may not be acceptable to local government. To say that there has been some dramatic change in emphasis because this Government has been elected does not bear credible examination.
§ Mr. Kaufman
The hon. Gentleman is being extremely reasonable, but will he explain how a Government which in their election manifesto specifically said that directly elected councillors must be allowed to pursue their own policies on housing and education can impose on those directly elected councillors housing and education policies which they do not want?
§ Mr. Heseltine
The hon. Gentleman says that the councillors do not want them, but a large number of councils do want them. We are back with the conflict between national and local priorities. Every Government must make their own stand on where the borderline is between total local freedom and national freedom for the priorities. The borderline is not capable of black and white definition, and no Government should ever try to define it. National and local government priorities change and new policies emerge to deal with new problems. Problems which it might be thought essential to deal with on a local scale will later be seen to need national initiatives. It is impossible to draw a hard and fast definition.
I do not believe that the House could wish to accept the Motion, except on the mischief-making basis on which the hon. Member for Hackney, Central moved it. I fully understand what it is all about. It is a good old knock-about for a Friday afternoon for the benefit of the national Press and to ginger up constituencies to make people feel that party politics still have a place in our lives. We know what it is all about, and we like it, but I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman's speech was a serious contribution to the principles and philosophies of local and national Government.
I will try to make a serious contribution on some of the points which have been raised. I will start with school milk. We all know that the right hon. Member for Deptford is one of the fairest men in the House—to spare his blushes I do not look at him, but it is true. He stands at the Box and says that in his personal judgment the decision of the previous Labour Government to remove the freedom of local authorities to supply school milk in secondary schools was wrong in the same way that the decision of this 994 Government to exend the restriction is wrong.
§ Mr. John Silkin
With respect, I was dealing with the decision itself. It was deliberately not talking about whether freedom of action was removed. I do not believe that under the Labour Government's decision—with which I do not agree—local authorities were precluded from selling milk to children, which is the point that was made in the debate.
§ Mr. Heseltine
It is the view that such freedom was removed. I do not know whether there was a legal loophole, but the decision certainly had that effect.
I cannot understand how the House of Commons can seriously be asked to believe that there is a moral distinction between actions which were taken by the Labour Government and the actions taken by the Conservative Government. The actions taken by the Labour Government were for reasons which had to do with the financial climate at the time. The actions were taken by this Government because we wished to undertake a massive extension of the educational programme and this was one way of raising the finance for it—a very small part of it. I cannot see any difference in the moral principles involved. It cannot be suggested that there has been a great intrusion into the freedom of local authorities.
The Housing Finance Bill is a Bill of great complexity which has taken the attention of the Standing Committee for a considerable time. I do not want to get involved in the detailed technical applications of the Bill for reasons which will be obvious. I find it difficult to understand why the Labour Government, having realised the dilemma of the tenant and having introduced rent review procedure in the public sector, failed to do anything to help the tenant in the private sector who is suffering real hardship. How can the Opposition believe that the Bill is such a vicious piece of intrusion into the affairs of local authorities?
As the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) said, there are real difficulties in the urban areas. I go along with much of his general approach to the urban crisis which is developing not only in Great Britain but throughout the Western World, although it is not on such a large scale as it is in North 995 America. I fully accept all the anxieties he has mentioned. But I cannot understand why he thinks that the Government's proposals to make up for the failure of the Labour Government to deal with the private tenant and to introduce a national rebate available to every tenant in need should be sacrificed to preserve the mythical freedom of local authorities. Nor can I understand, why the Government's proposal for providing 75 per cent. of the money for slum clearance projects in the areas which the hon. Member for Ardwick tells us are critical, should be subordinated to the mythical concept of the freedom of local government.
The Bill has the over-riding purpose of bringing a greater degree of freedom to tenants by introducing a rent rebate scheme as of right on a national scale for tenants who need help. It is also designed to concentrate the nation's resources in this crisis to which the hon. Member referred, which should be of concern to us all. The Bill will come to be seen as a most radical and long overdue revision of housing legislation, and the outcry now being waged on a totally misleading basis by the Opposition will be seen to be as contemptible as in my view it is. The outcry is injecting a sense of fear and apprehension against the Bill on a totally ill-informed basis. It deals with a problem which the Labour Government knew to be a problem and which they reviewed and did nothing about.
§ Mr. Molloy
Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davies) about the official document which gave a warning of massive increases in rent? Does he not agree that the Housing Finance Bill will not build a single garden shed, let alone a house?
§ Mr. Heseltine
The hon. Member who acquired that document got hold of a working document which was used in the Department in early discussions and which has long since become of only historical significance and has been superseded by new calculations and assessments which have to be made continually. No one has ever suggested that there will not be some rent increases under the 996 Housing Finance Bill. Why do not hon. Gentlemen opposite who are campaigning against the Bill go round the country saying that although there will be some increases for some people who can afford them, the Bill provides opportunities for rents to come down? Why do not they say that for all tenants as of right there will be a rent rebate scheme operated locally? Why do these aspects never feature in the propaganda of hon. Gentlemen opposite? There is only one explanation, and that is that they are deliberately determined to frighten people into ill-informed opposition to the Bill.
§ Mr. Deakins
The hon. Gentleman is wrong in what he says about the propaganda from this side of the House. In the famous double-page centre spread of the Labour Weekly it was stressed that there would be a national rent rebate scheme. It was also pointed out that after allowing for that rent rebate scheme and on the assumption that 100 per cent. of the people would take advantage of it, there would still be rent rises for the vast majority of council tenants.
§ Mr. Heseltine
I am grateful to the hon. Member for pointing out that in some recherché publication of the Labour Party, whose circulation is measured in hundreds rather than thousands, an element of integrity is being introduced. This is a step forward and we must be grateful for it. The right hon. Member for Deptford is now offering me a copy. If I accept it its circulation will leap by massive proportions, and it would increase even further if I passed it on to my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development. Perhaps a whisper of this new-found integrity might be allowed to find its way into the national Press or even on to the television programmes about which we hear so much.
§ Mr. Kaufman
The hon. Gentleman says that we are trying to frighten people by telling them that rents are to go up by this or that sum, as outlined in a document whose bona fides the hon. Gentleman suggests are not very great. To allay any anxieties, will he categorically deny that the average council house rent in the North-West will rise to £4.66 by 1976?
§ Mr. Heseltine
I would be much more concerned to look at the ability of tenants 997 to pay in the light of the rent rebates scheme that is being introduced. That is the operative thing. I would be much more concerned to see how much extra resources will be available to deal with slums in a district. That is the crucial question. Everybody is able to say "We want more". The hon. Member for Ardwick said that the needs of Manchester were not being considered. Almost every Member in this House could instance needs and complain that there are not the resources to meet them. There are never enough resources, otherwise politicians would not have to come to this House to establish the language of priorities, to use a phrase which has often been employed in this House. This is the purpose of politics. We must look to see what re-allocations of scarce resources are necessary.
Within the framework of the Housing Finance Bill we have laid the basis for one of the proudest claims of any Government, and that is the claim made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that in a decade there need be no slums left in this country. If that is not worth fighting for, then I do not know what is the purpose of politics. I believe the process of misrepresentation by hon. Members opposite in seeking to denigrate the provisions of the Housing Finance Bill will blow back in their faces.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
If hon. Members opposite are right in saying that there will have to be a large number of rent increases—which I do not believe—and that there will be only a modest number of rent reductions, would that not indicate that the level of incomes of the average of tenants coming within the fair rents system under the Bill would be higher than anticipated by hon. Members on both sides of the House?
§ Mr. Heseltine
That is an interesting point and my hon. Friend obviously has a deep knowledge of the workings of the Housing Finance Bill.
My hon. Friend's comment enables me to move on to another example of the contradictions which have been evident in this debate. One of the early decisions in a circular issued by the present Government was to give local authorities in large urban areas freedom to sell their council houses. This is in conformity with 998 the idea of the extension of freedom for local authority activities. But hon. Members opposite appear to be against that concept for reasons which no doubt they justify in terms of national priorities. They have spoken about reduction in housing stock. I have never in this context heard of proposals for houses to be knocked down. This is a proposal to transfer ownership. It is to enable tenants, who have been permanently condemned by hon. Members opposite to be tenants, to be given the opportunity to acquire an asset. This is a highly desirable social purpose. Hon. Members on both sides pay lip service to the concept of a property owning democracy. But when in the furtherance of our convictions we take steps to give freedom back to local authorities—freedom which was removed by the Labour Government—we are criticised by the Opposition for doing so. I do not understand why tenants of local authority houses should be denied the opportunity to become owners of their properties. I would dearly love somebody opposite to stand up and give me coherent reasons why this should not be so.
§ Mr. Clinton Davis
Does the hon. Gentleman not see that there is a real problem in distressed areas? Does he not appreciate that when people live in a mixed development of flats and houses, it is undesirable for houses to be sold under those conditions. Is not one of the great advantages of a council continuing to own property that there is then some flexible control and people can move in and out?
§ Mr. Heseltine
One of the purposes of the Housing Finance Bill, which is being so viciously opposed by the Labour Party, is to concentrate resources in order to eliminate problems in stress areas. The right way to do that is not by depriving council tenants in Labour-controlled areas of the right to own their own properties, the properties will remain there and in many cases people will acquire them and will continue to live there as owners. The thing to be remembered is that by becoming owners they are acquiring a stake in the community and can share in the advantages which this involves. But it is apparent that hon. Members opposite wish to deprive them of this opportunity.
There are a number of classic examples by which we have given back freedom 999 to local authorities, for example, by abolishing the Land Commission. Furthermore, quite recently in Standing Committee we removed many of the constrictions placed by the Labour Government on passenger transport authorities. There again we have restored freedom. This is surely in conformity with the view that central government should give freedom to local government.
§ Mr. Deakins
Will the hon. Gentleman not agree that, whatever other freedoms the Government may have given to local authorities, they have removed one freedom which local authorities have enjoyed for as long a period as they have been providing houses in the local interest? I refer to discretion to fix their own rents subject only to those rents being reasonable.
§ Mr. Heseltine
I hope that I am not being asked to say that central government should not keep a careful eye on any deterioration in housing standards and should not continue to take initiatives in the stress areas where it is surely legitimate for central government to intervene. No one would doubt those priorities.
§ Mr. Heseltine
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that one can always swap quotations taken out of the generalisations of a manifesto and applying them to a specific case to indicate that priorities are wrong. If the hon. Gentleman would like to produce the Tory Party Manifesto for 1970 and the Labour Party Manifestos for 1964 and 1966 and go through with me promise by promise, we would then see which of the two parties can claim to have a better record in implementing their promises. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the record of the Tories is almost 100 per cent. There has been an extraordinary fulfilment of our promises.
§ Mr. Heseltine
Hon. Gentlemen opposite should not continue on the lines of 1000 pursuing the contrast between what they promised in their Election Manifesto and what they in their turn performed when in government and the things promised by us and what we have actually performed in government. The Tory record is extremely good.
Reference has been made to the basic dilemma which local authorities owe in terms of their statutory existence to decisions in this House and structures which we have established. This must be the case since we here are the ultimate Parliament. It must be the responsibility of this House to ensure that the framework within which local government operates is as modern as possible and that within that framework the new local authorities can be given an increasing degree of power to get on with the jobs for which they are uniquely qualified.
The right hon. Member for Deptford referred to the Local Government Bill whose proceedings in Standing Committee have just been concluded. We may have our disputes on whether the present Government's proposals are those which the Labour Government would have introduced, though I imagine they would be different.
The reorganisation which we are now undertaking is the only comprehensive examination of this matter since the end of Victoria's reign. Therefore our main purpose is to establish a set of authorities which will be more attuned and structured to modern purposes and more able to carry the devolution of responsibility that we have in mind. Even if one has doubts about the structure that we propose, there can be no doubt that the new opportunities which will flow from our reorganisation are substantial.
The first one comes immediately from the opportunity to review the 1,000 powers. I am not suggesting that anyone taking them power by power and putting them under a microscope would consider that they were all major statutory intrusions into the activities of local government. A large number of them are relatively small in nature. But sitting down with a list of powers with the determination to take each one and repeal it if possible adds to the psychological momentum of giving back powers to and increasing the powers of local authorities.
1001 The next aspect of the work is the whole question of the financial reform of local government. We have published a Green Paper. We shall discuss it when we have completed the consultative period, and the Government will come to conclusions about the opportunities available. There are difficulties in any redeployment of decision making to local government. The more power that there is in the hands of local government, the greater will be the temptation for Members of Parliament to say that the standards of these free authorities are such that they are intolerable. There is bound to be continual pressure on central Government to maintain consistent national policies and standards below which local authorities are not permitted to go in crucial areas with their decision-making process.
Since coming to power, this Government have already moved in their decisions on the financing of local authorities, giving back to local authorities more decision-making within the budgets that they themselves are entitled to spend. The hon. Member for Ardwick raised this general question but then moved on to more specific questions of Manchester's rate support grant. Dealing with the general question first, under Circular 2/70 it was the purpose of the Government to create the concept of a key sector and a locally determined sector within local government. The locally determined sector meant that on certain aspects of financial decision making, local authorities were free to make their own decisions. There was no question of cutting the money available. Indeed, in total, more money was available.
However, the moment that one gives freedom, one gives responsibility. It will always be argued by local authorities that they have not enough money to do all that they want to do. None of us ever has enough money to do all that we want to do. But, given that one is trying to give freedom to local authorities, it is right to let them decide where resources are available. The national Government will always have to fix ceilings. We have fixed higher ceilings and, within those higher ceilings, it must be of advantage for local government to have more power in this way.
1002 There is always the danger that Members of Parliament will say that because local authorities have made their allocations, there is not enough money to build an extra swimming pool or library. But that is the price of responsibility, and it is not enough for people to come back to central Government and say that the allocation should be doubled. No Government are in a position to do that.
§ Mr. Spearing
Will the hon. Gentleman say why the London Borough of Ealing, which wishes to replace outworn primary and secondary schools, cannot spend some of its own money to do so, not using a penny of Government funds? Why does the Secretary of State for Education, in association with the Treasury, stop the authority from doing that very necessary work?
§ Mr. Heseltine
There are certain areas within the key sector which are not available for the discretion of the sort about which the hon. Gentleman talks at local authority level. There is an allocation of national resources. Everyone realises that the level being allocated to education is going up rapidly, though more to primary than to secondary education. But that is because the emphasis in the past had been the other way round. We were committed to switching the emphasis to primary schools, and we have done so.
This Government have given a much wider discretion to local authorities in the locally determined sector to decide their own priorities. In certain areas, however, central Government retain to themselves the decisions about levels of expenditure and the sanctioning of schemes.
On the specific point about the rate support grant situation in Manchester the reason why there has been this confusion is that the publication of the population census figures has indicated that the population of Manchester is lower than had been assumed. As population is one of the key factors in deciding the allocation of money, if it turns out that the estimates are higher than reality, there is a need to make adjustments.
A supplementary allocation of £1.6 million has been made to Manchester from the large projects loans pool, and 1003 in Circular 66/71 which announced the changes in the allocations for 1972–73 my right hon. Friend said that he was willing to consider applications for additional allocations from authorities who were receiving considerably less than they might reasonably have expected from the locally determined capital sector on the basis of the 1971–72 formula. Manchester has not taken up that offer. It might be helpful if the hon. Gentleman discussed the matter with his authority. If he does so and comes back to the Department, we shall consider any representations that he makes.
The hon. Member for Ardwick referred to the stress areas and the need to take urban problems seriously. It is a satisfying and exciting aspect of Government that we have been able to move forward and intend to move forward even faster in helping local authorities with these very difficult urban problems. There is no suggestion that we have reached the end of the road. However, there is no doubt that with such schemes as the home improvement schemes, Operation Eyesore, derelict land schemes, improvement grants, and the special infrastructure grants, we have given local authorities a great extra release of resources with which to try and improve areas which bear the scars of the industrial revolution. All parties will want to play their part in supporting those initiatives. But this Government have increased levels of expenditure and brought a new ingenuity to the grants available in these important areas. This is a new freedom for local authorities. They have been given the ability to get on quickly with the job of clearing up the areas for which they are responsible.
§ Mr. Kaufman
It is no good the hon. Gentleman saying that Manchester has such a freedom. His Department excluded Manchester from its latest housing legislation. However much I bombard the hon. Gentleman's colleagues with pleas to include us so that we can do something about home improvements on the basis of the extra 50 per cent. grant received by other authorities which do not need it, we continue to be ignored.
§ Mr. Heseltine
The hon. Gentleman knows that if one has a regional problem, there are certain criteria which all Gov- 1004 ernments have to follow in concentrating resources in areas with special unemployment difficulties. The hon. Gentlemen's Government did the same when they were faced with similar difficulties.
It is always the problem that people come back and say that they are on the wrong side of the net. Wherever we draw the line, some people are bound to feel that they are on the wrong side. Knowing Manchester as I do, I am sorry that it is, as the hon. Member for Ardwick believes, on the wrong side. If we are to put resources into areas of greatest need, we have to draw the line somewhere. I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that.
The whole House understands that we cannot draw hard and fast lines about levels of freedom for local authorities which will be meaningful in every case in every contingency. We want to see that, having taken decisions on national policies, those policies give local authorities two particular freedoms: first, the freedom to know that the central Government will provide the most up-to-date machinery within which local government can operate, which the Government are doing in their reorganisation; and, secondly, where national policies are being implemented, to give local authorities the opportunity to carry them out without detailed supervision by central Government. That, again, is very much in conformity with the policies which we are carrying out.
§ Mr. John Silkin
In the well-worn phrase, "Before the hon. Gentleman sits down"—I raised a four-point programme, which I should not expect him to deal with at this moment. However, one point of importance concerns the admission of the Press and public to council committee meetings if we really are to have freedom in local authorities. I should like the hon. Gentleman to deal with that point.
§ Mr. Heseltine
There is a good case for encouraging local authorities to open their proceedings to the public on as wide a basis as possible. However, it is felt—I think that the right hon. Gentleman would find it difficult to counter the argument—that there must be many occasions when local authorities are discussing matters which could be acutely embarrassing if they were to be 1005 available for public examination, particularly staff appointments, and so on. Therefore, they must have freedom to make their own decisions. It would be difficult to define in legislation the occasions on which they could or could not close their galleries to the public. The Government's view is that there is a good argument for using every possible pressure, short of statutory enforcement, to encourage local authorities to look at the matter as favourably as the right hon. Gentleman is requesting.
In the management reorganisation that is now under way, there is an opportunity for the steering group set up by local authorities to consider the relationships between the new authorities and the public. I hope that that steering group and its working party will look at the whole question of the relationship between local authorities and their electors. The right hon. Gentleman has raised an important point, and many other important points have been raised. I hope, therefore, that the steering group in its report, which will be published and widely distributed, will deal with these aspects of the new authorities.
§ 2.33 p.m.
§ Mr. John D. Grant (Islington, East)
The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) and the Under-Secretary both sought to suggest that they would make somewhat non-partisan speeches, but they went on to do the reverse. I shall make no such advance apology. I shall make a party political speech. I shall be thoroughly partisan and refer to the Motion in the spirit in which my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) so ably moved it.
The Motion is wide ranging, with particular implications for increased freedom for local government which the Tory Election Manifesto promised. The Motion goes much wider, and talks about thedemocratic interests of the country".I share my hon. Friend's view that local government does not necessarily know best. Anyone who has had dealings with recalcitrant and retrograde Tory-controlled local authorities will accept that view. There are times when the firm grip of central Government is necessary and must be used to advantage to protect the under-dog, whether that under-dog be in a minority or a majority.
1006 The hon. Member for Orpington and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney. Central mentioned the housing situation in the London borough of Bromley. I also raised that matter with the hon. Member for Orpington. I am glad that he spelled out the fact that there is a clear division on party lines on the subject of the way in which we treat building land in Outer London. I am also glad that the hon. Gentleman did not try to defend the London borough of Bromley because, in trying to do so, he would have been defending the indefensible.
The word "freedom", which the Conservative Party tends to use so often, has become the most abused word of all in its vocabulary—never more so since its return to office in June, 1970. What has happened since shows the sheer hypocrisy which surrounds the Government's use of that word.
The easiest way to deal with the Motion, in the widest possible terms, is to look at the way in which various Ministers are interpreting the word "freedom" to suit their own purposes.
I take, first, the Secretary of State for Education and Science. We have heard a certain amount about her activities today. Her first action on taking office was to interfere with the progress towards comprehensive education at local level by the withdrawal of Circular 10/65. The right hon. Lady is still at it, by interfering in the activities particularly of Worcestershire in this respect. Shen then went on to use every possible means to prevent local authorities providing free school milk in primary schools, regardless of the fact that many of them were anxious and, indeed, willing to pay. So much for the Tory Election pledge, to which my hon. Friend has referred, but which bears repetition,We will maintain the existing rights of local education authorities to decide what is best for their area.I now move on to the Home Secretary. He has continued unabashed in what I believe to be the quite disastrous policy of internment without trial in Northern Ireland. If he had been seeking to achieve freedom from fear, there may have been some justification for it. But nothing of the kind has happened. The terror has got steadily worse. We are now told that this long awaited political initiative from the Government in that 1007 respect has had to be shelved, due largely, it seems, to pressure from back bench Members opposite. On top of that, we have the situation of the Special Branch raiding people's homes in this country. There is a thin dividing line between licence and liberty. However, it seems disgraceful that the Home Secretary should not tell the House the reason for this. This is an infringement—
§ Mr. Money
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. While not wishing to infringe the hon. Gentleman's right to make what speech he chooses, may I point out that there are a number of right hon. and hon. Members who are anxious to address the House on the question of local government, which was the subject chosen by the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis). It seems that the very wide ranging terms of the hon. Gentleman's speech, which is now going on to subjects which have been debated at length in the House, is unfair in not giving hon. Members the opportunity to address themselves to the subject of the Motion.
§ Mr. Grant
I refer the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money) to the final part of the Motion whichcalls upon the Government to resign so that the economic, financial and democratic interests of the country may be properly pursued by a Labour Government".I think that everbody on this side of the House recognises that the Motion is drawn in the widest possible terms so that we may have a wide ranging debate going far beyond the question of local government.
§ Mr. Dykes
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not want to question why you did not reply to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money). However, I think that it is right for the House to consider whether what the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. John D. Grant) has so far said is out of order in the context of the Motion. May we have some guidance from you?
§ Mr. Ronald Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Surely my hon. 1008 Friend is not out of order, because the last part of the Motion, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, talks aboutthe economic, financial and democratic interests of the country",and we are also asking the Government to resign. Surely Northern Ireland is a province, and a province is a matter of local government. I do not understand the hon. Gentleman's point, anyway.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's interpretation is quite correct. The Motion refers to local government as we understand local government and not to a special kind of much greater local government, such as the Government of Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman would be wise to keep to the lines along which the debate has been continuing successfully to the present time.
§ Mr. Grant
I am astonished at those objections. I do not see how I can be out of order in referring to the democratic interests of the country and dealing with these wider issues. Unless you rule me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish to continue to make my speech as I had intended. If I am ruled out of order I shall abide by your ruling, but unless you are doing so I feel that this is not at odds with the spirit of the Motion.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I can safely rule the hon. Member out of order, I think. That would be the wisest thing. Otherwise, he might deal with local government in Belfast, which I imagine is more the concern of Stormont than of this House. One cannot say that anything which is to do with Northern Ireland and the Stormont Parliament is anything to do with local government. To put his mind at rest, I rule accordingly.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown
Further to that point of order. The Motion refers to the democratic issues of the country being properly pursued. We are talking about internment, and the Government's failure to take action. Therefore, surely my hon. Friend should be allowed to address himself to that part of the Motion.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
With great respect, the hon. Member is not right. All these topics can appropriately be debated on Monday, but this afternoon we should keep to local government in 1009 the sense that the majority of hon. Members who have been here all day understand it. It is better that the hon. Member should know that: I am sure that he will abide by it.
§ Mr. Grant
Further to that point of order. I fail to see how anyone in the House can seriously believe that the Motion calling on the Government to resign is calling on them to resign because of their actions in regard to local government alone. If I am ruled out of order, I shall not continue with this speech, because that makes a farce of the whole debate. I do not believe that the Motion is drafted in these terms. This is most unfair treatment.
§ 2.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Tom Boardman (Leicester, South-West)
The speech of the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. John D. Grant) added no clarity to the confusion in my mind since his hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) opened the debate. I was left in doubt, as were my hon. Friends, about whether he was calling for greater or less freedom for local government. The right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin) in a philosophically interesting speech, opened up the argument in the way in which I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman intended—dealing with the way in which local government powers might be increased and questions of the rôle of local government against central Government.
But the hon. Member used the Motion as a platform for attack on the Government and the Government's action and for putting forward arguments which his party have put forward wrongly to the country on matters such as school milk, the Housing Finance Bill and the like. I make no complaint of that, although one of my hon. Friends did, because these matters can best be raised here, where they can be answered.
What is unfortunate is the way in which the distortions of the effect of the Housing Finance Bill and other measures have been put about in the country, although I am relieved to know from the hon. Member that the Labour Weekly has now repented and told the story more correctly. My hon. Friend dealt with this admirably.
1010 I remember similar distortions at this time of year, prior to local government elections. In the spring of 1970, for example, a Labour Minister came to my constituency and with great publicity attacked the Conservative-controlled Leicester City Council for its failure to build more council houses. It was only a few days later that we were able to get the correct story published—that the cut-back by the council had been on the direct instructions of the Minister himself, who had required it to do this so that the limited resources available could be deployed more effectively elsewhere. That story illustrates the lack of freedom of local government created by hon. Members opposite when they were in office and the unfortunate distortion of the facts conveniently close to local government elections.
The hon. Member for Hackney, Central, quoted selectively from "A Better Tomorrow". I believe that I would be in order if I quoted far more widely from that excellent document. As has been pointed out, we can claim that the majority of that programme for a Parliament has already been achieved within the first two years—
§ Mr. John D. Grant
On a point of order. Is it in order for the hon. Member to refer to a programme for a Parliament and a number of promises which have been fulfilled, in view of the fact that I was ruled out of order when I wanted to range freely?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
So long as he refers in general to the terms of the Motion and to local government here, the hon. Gentleman is quite in order.
§ Mr. Boardman
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall not wander far, although the document which was quoted by the hon. Member would, if I kept in order, provide an interesting afternoon's reading to conclude this debate. The first line says:We will reduce taxation. We will simplify the tax system.Both of those things have been well and effectively done and will continue to be done. It is more important to concentrate on those parts of the document which have a direct bearing on local government, because it is the freedom of local government which is the essence of this debate.
1011 I am sorry that the hon. Member for Hackney, Central, confined himself to two areas only which are emotive areas at present. He might have done justice to the way in which local government has responded to the Government's initiative in such matters as care for the mentally handicapped—on which there was an excellent White Paper—and the way in which many local authorities have been doing so much and making good progress. Tribute rather than criticism was surely in order here.
The hon. Member dealt primarily with housing and education. He attacked the fair rents system, which he said was not appropriate to the public sector. He refrained from expressing any view as to the fairness of that system for the private sector. I do not know whether he claims that his party was wrong to have introduced the concept of fair rents in the private sector. If he believes that they were right, why does he distinguish between that and the public sector?
§ Mr. Clinton Davis
The distinction to be drawn between the private and public sectors is that in the private sector it has been conceded that the landlord should get a reasonable return—whether or not that is right in certain areas is a matter for speculation—whereas in the public sector a totally different conception arises. The public sector is not there to provide local authorities with profits. As for the private sector and fair rents, I think the scheme has not worked as well as it might have done. There are many defects, but I do not have time to go into them.
§ Mr. Boardman
I am still not certain on which side the hon. Gentleman has come down. He is correct to say that in the private sector the fair rents system has not worked as completely as some of us would have wished. That is why so many improvements are contained in the Bill which is now in Committee upstairs, not least the rebate which is to be paid to tenants in the private sector.
It is clear that hon. Gentlemen opposite want to divide the nation into two classes, those who are tenants of council estates and those who are tenants elsewhere. They wish to provide that one class of citizen shall subsidise the rent of 1012 another, the subsidy being dependent not on ability to pay but on where the person lives. The hon. Member for Hackney, Central cannot deny that under the system which his hon. Friends left and which we inherited many tenants in private houses were, in one way or another, contributing towards a subsidy enjoyed by council tenants with very much higher incomes.
§ Mr. John Silkin
Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that the overwhelming majority of council tenants by taxation subsidise the purchasers of private houses, who get tax benefits as a result of their mortgages?
§ Mr. Boardman
I do not accept the idea of equating tax relief with a subsidy paid by someone else. That is a completely misconceived argument, and I will not delay the House by developing the matter. Suffice to say that I do not accept the doctrine which the right hon. Gentleman expounds.
Hon. Members on both sides have seen examples in their constituencies of what happened under the system which the Labour Government left to us, with elderly people, paying rents in private accommodation, being very much worse off than those living on council estates, many of them with higher incomes. That system also meant that private properties were falling into disrepair. The Minister dealt effectively with this issue.
I come to the divisive point about the sale of council houses. Hon. Gentlemen opposite wish to perpetuate two classes, those who live in council—one might call them "tied"—estates and those who live elsewhere. They want a community living on an estate in which nobody owns his own house.
I have in my constituency more council houses than any hon. Member on this side of the House and more than most hon. Gentlemen opposite. I find it difficult to understand how hon. Gentlemen opposite can believe that by withholding consent to sell council houses they will benefit the housing stock or provide the way and pattern of living which those who live in council houses desire.
I have always found a deep desire on the part of council tenants to know that, if not tomorrow, then ultimately they will be able to buy their own homes. 1013 Many of them do not wish to move from the areas in which they are living and in which they have friends and families. They want to remain in those areas, but to own their own homes there.
The result of not enabling them to buy their own homes does not mean that extra houses become available. It simply means that the tenant who wants to buy but who has only the option of moving out and buying elsewhere will normally reject that because of his wish to stay in the area in which he lives. He will remain unwilling to spend money which he would otherwise have spent on improving the house if he knew he would have an opportunity to buy it.
§ Mr. S. C. Silkin
Is the hon. Gentleman putting forward the view, which is expressed in a Bill which one of his hon. Friends has introduced, that local authorities should be compelled to sell their houses to their tenants? If so, would he apply the same principle to private landlords?
§ Mr. Boardman
Every encouragement should be given to local authorities to effect sales. It is right that a local authority should, in its own interest, take this view, but I do not consider that we need a statutory provision to force it to do so. The commonsense and natural wish of the local authority will be the desire to create in council estates a mixed community; some owners, some tenants.
Council tenants should be enabled to buy eventually. Many of them who may not wish to buy today may buy later, rather than move away from their neighbourhood and friends, for in time most of them will want to achieve most men's ambition to become their own home owners.
§ Mr. Deakins rose—
§ Mr. Boardman
I have given way enough already.
The hon. Member for Hackney, Central did not pay tribute to the work that has been done under the Government's policy for the clearance of slums. I have seen remarkable progress made under this policy in the City of Leicester. Derelict areas in this and many other parts of the country are being swept away and a new vitality is being created.
Improvement grants are proving extremely effective and many houses 1014 which, under the previous policy, were tending to become derelict and which would eventually have become slums, are, under the new subsidy system and the actions of Conservative councils, being revitalised and turned into attractive homes with a long life ahead of them. This restoration of areas is vital and local authorities now have an opportunity, with the schemes and subsidies that are available, to help create a new environment for those who live in these areas.
The Minister dealt effectively with the question of education and with the points that were raised in connection with milk and school meals. Some cities, particularly those with large populations and immigrant problems, were faced two years ago with primary school conditions which were far below any reasonable standard. Thanks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, resources are being concentrated on the primary schools and these efforts should be applauded by hon. Members in all parts of the House. It is quite consistent with everything said in our election manifesto. I was interested that the hon. Member for Hackney, Central did not refer to many promises and pledges in that manifesto relative to education, each one of which I should have thought that he would have applauded and would have found that we were well on the way to achieving, particularly the one in which hon. Gentlemen opposite believed but which they were unable to fulfil, the raising of the school-leaving age.
It is a pity that the Motion has not given rise to a more interesting debate about the degree of freedom given to local authorities, rather than to the narrow points put forward by the hon. Member followed by many of his hon. Friends.
The Motion is misconceived. It was presented without the usual clarity that the hon. Member employs. It certainly does less than justice to the admirable achievements of most local authorities. It should be opposed.
§ 3.0 p.m.
§ Mr. William Molloy (Ealing, North)
The hon. Member for Leicester, South-West (Mr. Tom Boardman) quoted from the Tory Manifesto. He said that the Government have now been able to bring 1015 about a lot of tax relief for people who did not get it before. The Government have done that very well. There were literally millions who were paying tax under a wicked Labour Government but who do not have to do so under a Tory Government. The reason is that they are on the dole. They are out of work. That is not a good economic basis for our nation's future.
The Under-Secretary made a very brave defence. He had a formidable case to answer. We referred to him the fact that there was a departmental document which said that rents would be substantially increased within the next couple of years. What a twist on the inflationary spiral. But how did the Under-Secretary cover that point? He said that it was all right because it shows how much more money people will be earning. If the Secretary of State for Employment and the Prime Minister had been present they would have had a fit, because the Government are saying that they will introduce legislation to stop wicked people asking for wage increases to pay the extra rents that the Housing Finance Bill will impose on them.
The hon. Member for Leicester, South-West does not believe that anything like that is divisive. On the basis of his speech and that of the Under-Secretary, the House would be failing in its duty if it did not, as the Motion says, deplorethe utter contempt manifested by the Government for the established principles of freedom for local government and its failure to provide the financial facilities necessary for a dynamic approach to resolve the innumerable problems affecting local government.The Motions continues, rightly, to provide the answer—that the Government should resign.
The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) seemed to be opposed to political debate. He wants everything to be on a non-party basis. I do not see him in the Chamber. Is he on his way to the Soviet Union? How ridiculous can hon. Members become? Surely we believe that there should be debates, not only across the Chamber, but also, in a free, healthy society, inter-party debates, and disagreements. I am pleased to say that although a few years ago I could say with some justification that there were only two places in Britain where there was total unanimity—that was in the 1016 Tory Party and in the graveyard—since then there has been a healthy change, with discussion, argument and so on.
It was remiss of the Minister not to have acknowledged one fundamental fact about the Motion and local government. British local government is much older than national parliamentary government. It is the basis upon which our constitution has grown. In parenthesis, I compliment all those Labour, Tory and Liberal councillors who do so much to oil the machinery of democratic government in Britain and who get very little reward for it, and very often only a great deal of abuse.
It behoves us from time to time to acknowledge that often the sins of the House of Commons are visited on the local authorities. This has been happening in the last 12 months. The Under-secretary could not understand that no one wants the freedom to starve or to live in a dirty, stinking slum, or the freedom to send his children to a broken-down school. Let us do away with all this nonsense about these wonderful freedoms. People want their legitimate demands met in a healthy society. The Government have failed to provide the tools to enable the local authorities to do the job that this House has given them. The House tells them what to do and then is a little shy in providing the means to carry it out. That is what we mean in the Motion when we say that local authorities do not have the freedom to carry out their work and their responsibilities.
In this increasingly complicated society no one has yet thought out what ought to be done. Local authorities are severely attacked when they have to impose rates to implement the will and desire of the House and to make their areas even better places in which to live. The British public can be very fickle.
We are all proud of our National Health Service. We are proud that we no longer say to the sick and injured, "Before you can be given medicament or have the services of a nurse, doctor or surgeon you must say how much money you have in the bank". We have rejected the vulgar American concept. Yet when we say that all this must be paid for the wonderful spirit of Dr. Jekyll is taken over by the hideous Mr. Hyde. I can give an example of 1017 where this is happening probably to Conservative controlled councils as well as those under Labour control. This week I asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he would speak on television or radio or issue a statement deploring those local authorities who have not endeavoured to carry out their obligations under the wonderful Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act.
Some local authorities are doing their level best to carry out their responsibilities under the Act to the chronically sick and those who are gravely disabled. There is emotion, pity and compassion for those confined to wheelchairs and the sick bed, but when people are told they must dip into their pocket to help there seems to be hesitation. Many local authorities, of which Ealing is one, are doing their level best to meet the requirements of the Act. Ealing has courageously laid out a programme but to implement it the council knows it will need extra money and it will put up the rates. Of course, there are objections and outcries. I have seen pictures in my local newspaper of people who have objected to the rate increase.
The great Press of this country could have done a better service if it had exhibited pictures of broken children, people suffering from muscular dystrophy, people who are committed to a sickbed and will probably remain there for the rest of their lives. If the Press published pictures of those who are chronically sick, disabled and disfigured and then told the public, "This is what you will pay an extra couple of bob for", I am sure there would be a proper response. I am sure that ultimately we shall have that response.
§ Mr. Money
In fairness to the Press it should be said that helpful publicity has been given by the Press this week. The Chairmobile that many hon. Members saw yesterday is widely reported in the whole Press today. It is now providing an enormous blessing for the disabled, and a challenge to local authorities and the Government.
§ Mr. Molloy
I do not dispute that, but the point I was trying to make was that it is wrong for local radio stations or newspapers to headline the increase in rates without saying what that increase 1018 is for, when some of them have applauded the sentiments of the Act.
The Under-Secretary also mentioned housing. There is a certain amount of hypocrisy about this subject. When it suits their purpose, Conservative Members talk about the good family and the home being the basis of our good society. When we agree with them but say that we shall go beyond their theory and put into practice what a good home means—a decent home, a place that a person can be proud to return to after a day's work—there is an argument. Conservative Members cannot dispute that 35 per cent. to 40 per cent. of our fellow-citizens have reasonably decent council homes today because of the existence of Labour councils that have done their best to implement the first Housing Act introduced by a Labour Government, which permitted them to construct council houses. That alone justifies the existence of the Labour Party. That is why I agree with the Motion that the Government should go.
Conservative Members should study what is happening as the result of what they are doing. There is glib talk about the unemployed. They should have a chat with a family who are buying a bedroom suite, who have bought new carpets, who want to have the house done up, and who are putting away a couple of bob a week to go on holiday, and then suddenly are out of work. They cannot talk to those involved in terms of percentages, saying that it is only 8 per cent. or 9 per cent. who are unemployed. To the family concerned it is 100 per cent.
§ Mr. Michael Heseltine
Presumably the hon. Gentleman agrees with the Fabian report last week which says that the doubling of the rate of male unemployment was the greatest disservice the Labour Government did to the low-paid.
§ Mr. Molloy
I do not dispute that. But if the Labour Government had a certain amount of unemployment I cannot understand why the hon. Gentleman should intervene to tell me, "We have done even better." There is much more unemployment under the present Government than there ever was under the Labour Government.
§ Mr. Michael Heseltine
I intervened merely to demonstrate that we have a 1019 national problem and that unemployment is bad under all Governments. It is not a virtue under the hon. Gentleman's Government and something to be sneered at under the present Government.
§ Mr. Molloy
No one is sneering at anything yet. I was coming to the point at which I was going to sneer. I hope the hon. Gentleman will tell the Prime Minister that he is Prime Minister today because he hoodwinked the nation when he said that he would cut prices at a stroke and reduce unemployment.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)
Order. We have strayed a long way from the Motion already. I hope that yet another subject will not be introduced.
§ Mr. Molloy
With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I read the Motion to see whether I am out of order? If I am, I will of course abide by your ruling. Perhaps you will tell me in which way—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I think I was anticipating requiring to give the hon. Gentleman a warning. I hope that it will not be necessary.
§ Mr. Molloy
With respect. I was going to point out that the Motion further…calls upon the Government to resign"—a very admirable thing to do—so that the economic, financial and democratic interests of the country may be properly pursued by a Labour Government.I am in support of that view. But I would not be prepared to support a Labour Government if they were not prepared in turn rapidly to reduce the unemployment which this Government have created.
On both sides of the House we acknowledge that the good home is the basis of the good society. But if one believes that, one must build more homes. In my constituency there are 6,000 people on the local housing register. The Government's Housing Finance Bill will not put one brick on top of another in providing new homes. It will not even build a garden shed. It is a detestable and divisive Measure. It will make council tenants pay more, and according to the Government this means that the poor old age pensioners will be able to get a 1020 few shillings more—in reality in order to pay the extra rents which their landlords will put upon them and the rest of the low income group. The truth is that the pensioners are not going to get anything. What money they do get out of this exercise they will have to hand over to the private landlords. They should form a union, registered or unregistered, to see that they are not so wilfully used by the Government in order to get money out of working-class council houses which in turn can be handed over to faceless landlords.
The last big housing Measure we had from a Tory Government was the Housing Act, 1957. From it came one of the most disgusting terms in the English language—"Rachmanism". We know the toll of suicides which that produced. I speak with knowledge of this subject. I have been nearly a decade a Member of Parliament. Before that, for over a decade, I was in local government and was proud to be leader of Fulham Borough Council.
It was most rewarding to be able to knock down filthy slums and build decent homes. Then suddenly we were right up against it. The Tory Government introduced their obnoxious Act and we saw people put out on to the street. Under Toryism in the late 1950s, we saw ordinary, decent British families being evicted and put on the street, and being reduced to the ignoble and degrading status of being nothing more than refugees in their own land. We want to do away with that. We believe that this should not be, and this is why we are opposed to the Housing Finance Bill, for it makes no genuine contribution to solving the housing problem.
§ Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Chigwell)
Reverting to 1972, rather than 1956, can the hon. Gentleman tell us, after his strictures on the present Government's housing finance policy, whether he was opposed to the Labour Government's fair-rents policy? Was he in favour of it or against it? The present Government's housing rents policy is in direct descent from the fair rents policy of the Labour Government.
§ Mr. Molloy
To begin with, I welcome the hon. Member for Chigwell (Mr. Biggs-Davison) to the House. We have not had the pleasure of seeing him here 1021 so far today. He is quite wrong in trying to compare the two policies. They are totally different. I do not want to impose upon the time of the House. I will give way to anyone who has been here all day, but once is enough for the hon. Gentleman. I have treated him very liberally.
From my experience in the London borough of Ealing I know that both Conservative and Labour councils have devoted a vast amount of their time to trying to organise education there. I did not believe in the way the Conservative councillors were doing it but I pay tribute to the fact that they gave up so much of their time, just as much as the present council.
If I were to mention names then the present chairman of the London borough of Ealing Education Committee, Councillor Michael Elliott, has done a job of work which has been more than full time. This is acknowledged even by his Conservative opponents. I know that he has been attending meetings every day, including weekends, explaining his policies and difficulties. I express my appreciation of his magnificent work, irrespective of whether I agree with all of the plans.
When, under a Labour Government, the London borough of Ealing had to deal with comprehensive education plans the then Tory Council said that the Government would not give it enough money to build the new comprehensive schools that were needed. I said at the time that if we had to wait for perfect conditions before making a move no move would ever be made. Now we have a Conservative Government, and the former Tory council in Ealing said that such a Government would have provided these new schools. This week I asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she would be prepared to give more money to do this, and she gave the same reply as her Labour predecessor, "There is not enough money in the kitty, and they will have to do the best they can." Irrespective of which party is in Government it is about time that Governments had a hard look at the prospects of providing the wherewithal to carry out the things that this House required them to do.
§ Mr. Spearing
I come from the same borough as my hon. Friend. Would he not agree that one of the great difficulties with Ealing education is that whereas the London borough of Ealing can and does spend a little more on sick and disabled people, quite properly, the Government will not let it spend more of its own money in providing school extensions to ease the present reorganisation. Perhaps my hon. Friend noticed that the Under-Secretary did not deny that.
§ Mr. Molloy
That is so and it justifies our Motion. In the Ealing, North part of the borough people's lives are being greviously affected by what I consider to be the vulgar and appalling behaviour of some industrialists. The situation has become intolerable in the Birkbeck area of my constituency, where residents in their hundreds have had meetings with local councillors to try to get the Glynwed company to stop racking and shaking down their houses, upsetting their normal lives. There is little that I can do as a Member of Parliament. The burden falls on the councillors, who have insufficient authority to be able to right the wrongs complained of by their constituents.
The same situation arose in Perivale when Conservative councillors were approached by many constituents, as Labour councillors are now being approached, to eradicate nuisances created by Signbrite. The local authority took the firm to court, and won, as it did with the other firm, but both firms are still behaving exactly as they did before. The legal department of the town hall explained to councillors how difficult it was to do anything about it, but the legal department does not have to face the angry citizens. I ask the hon. Gentleman to grant local authorities more power to eradicate nuisances.
When we talk about the freedom of local authorities we are talking about their freedom to make a contribution to a good society. By cutting down local authority finances and thieving their authority, as the Housing Finance Bill proposes, we are not enhancing the status of local government, and in the end local government will not attract ordinary people to serve their fellow citizens by becoming councillors. I ask the Government to take the Motion seriously, be- 1023 cause it is justified in the name of local authorities and of those men and women who contribute so much in public service to the community.
§ 3.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Ernle Money (Ipswich)
When the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) speaks on bail, legal aid and the liberty of the subject, he commands the respect and attention of the House and I frequently find myself listening to his views with considerable sympathy. When hon. Members read the Motion dealing with the relationship between central Government and local authorities they expect to have an interesting debate but, instead, we have had a series of warm-up speeches for the local elections which are to be fought principally for the London boroughs. When one considers all the party platitudes that have been uttered one can only suppose that this is a desperate attempt by the hon. Gentleman to throw his hat into the leadership stakes in his unhappy and deeply divided party.
§ Mr. Clinton Davis
The only leadership to which I have ever aspired was to become Prime Minister of the Hampstead Parliament, which I succeeded in doing. There are no elections in the London area this year.
§ Mr. Money
I accept what the hon. Gentleman said. The pressure being built up is outside London. I hope that the smile will come off the face of the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) because all we get from him is the occasional "Ah!" uttered even more loudly than is within the capability of some of my hon. Friends on this side of the House. I hope he will reflect that that in itself does not affect the sheer grotty dreariness of the sort of endless platitudes which we have been hearing from some of his hon. Friends for electoral advantage in the local elections.
The hon. Member for Hackney, Central asked the House to look back at what the Labour Government did for local government. I have had the opportunity of looking back at what the Labour Government did for Ipswich, and I remember a long period of total intertia ranging from 3rd February, 1965 until 19th June, 1969, during which the Labour Government demonstrated that they were unable to 1024 come to any sort of conclusion about the future development of the county borough of Ipswich. This has led to almost every local government problem which we face in the county borough today.
It was as a result of that period of four-and-a-half years, following the failure of the Labour Administration to take any first steps, that so many of our problems arose. I am happy to see that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is now approaching those problems with such vigour. Since he has been present in the Chamber throughout the whole of this debate, I should like to take this opportunity of congratulating him on the fact that within a very short period we shall be seeing the results of the transportation study, an exercise which was funked by the Labour Government.
I turn to some general topics which are of concern to many constituents. They are rightly concerned with the rise in house prices. In Ipswich undoubtedly the main reason for that is the matter to which I have already referred namely, the failure of the Labour Government to provide any sort of opportunity during a lengthy period for reasonable development of amenities and other services.
There are two particular matters which the Government—a Government who have already done so much in terms of local government reform—could look at in the broadest terms. One is the question of planning permission. I hope that the Government will now look at the period of renewal of planning permission and will take the view that, if planning permission has not been taken up within a period of 12 or at the most 18 months, there is a good case for saying that it should lapse.
The second relates to the subject of rating. Like most hon. Members who sit for urban constituencies, I receive a vast number of letters about the applicability of rates, and more and more they relate to the subject of the rate system itself. I would ask the Government whether the time is not approaching when a Royal Commission could be appointed to examine the whole question of rating and whether, as it stands, the burden is falling on the wrong shoulders. I wonder whether many people, particularly elderly owners of property, should continue to be asked to subsidise those who 1025 are receiving a great amount of value from the rates without paying any contribution at all. Has not the time come when we should look at the possibility of a local government tax rather than a system based on property alone?
There are three other specific topics with which I want to deal. I hope very much within the next few months that the Government will restore to local authorities the opportunity to create a situation which will make a great deal of difference to the construction industry. I refer, of course, to the position about getting rid of fixed price contracts. This system has caused a great deal of concern and uncertainty to the whole industry and, both in terms of public works and housing, its abandonment make a great deal of difference.
We have heard a great deal today about the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, sometimes in the interesting terms in which it was dealt with by the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy), sometimes in rather more broad terms of party abuse which one can only regret deeply in the light of the way in which the House has always worked together on the subject. I believe very strongly that everything that has been built up effectively in implementing that Act has been achieved by all-party support on a non-partisan basis. I pay tribute, as has been paid so often in this House, to the hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) and his colleagues. I very much hope therefore that nothing will happen to affect that general support and that the time will not come when at any stage we adopt a different approach to the question of trying to assist those who have every right to call on Members of Parliament on both sides of the House for their unfettered assistance.
I turn finally to one broad topic concerning the future of local government. I hope that it will be possible for the Government to give an increasing general lead to local authorities, especially when we get our new larger authorities, about the way in which the rate is dealt with. Social services is one such subject. But there are two others which have tended to become the Cinderellas of local government, not because local authorities, be 1026 they Conservative or Socialist, have any lack of sympathy with these matters, but simply because they come low in the list of priorities of any authority with heavy demands for health and education facilities. I refer to the arts and the provision of sporting facilities. Today, now that we have the regional arts associations and the National Sports Council, I hope that there will be opportunities for local authorities to fulfil their important rôle in providing facilities of this sort so that one no longer has the unhappy position where, if one lives in a particular part of the country, one has admirable sporting or cultural facilities, whereas only a few miles away or in the neighbouring county the facilities are nothing like up to standard.
We live in an age when there is a tremendous chance to develop local government into a really effective system which will make a great difference to the lives of many of our constituents. I hope that we shall go into this in a constructive fashion, and not in the sort of knock about fashion that we have experienced in Ipswich recently where, if a party knows that it has no national issues on which to fight, it raises bogus local government issues in order to gain what political advantage it can at local elections.
§ 3.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)
It is a little arrogant of the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money) to refer to my hon. Friends in the way that he did. They have raised matters of great interest to local government, and I regret the ruling of the Chair which barred my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. John D. Grant) from raising other matters which he felt should be raised in the democratic interests of the country.
The hon. Member for Ipswich has not addressed himself to the substance of the Motion. We are talking about the freedom of local government, and the Housing Finance Bill is a classic example of the complete withdrawal of that freedom. I could understand the argument advanced by hon. Gentlemen opposite—and the Minister lent his support to it—that it is only hon. Members on this side of the House who take the view that that Bill represents an attack on 1027 local government if all the local government associations shared the views of hon. Gentlemen opposite, but they do not. The Association of Municipal Corporations, which is Tory-controlled, went on record only a week ago as deploring the attitude of the Government in interfering with the freedom of local government. Hon. Gentlemen opposite are therefore indulging in double talk by pretending that it is only my hon. Friends who are raising these matters.
Hon. Gentlemen opposite should not indulge in political bantering. Sir Frank Marshall of Leeds is angry with the Government because of their policy of intervening in local government, and I know of no Conservative-controlled local authority which does not support that view. They all believe that what the Government are proposing is an unwarrantable interference in their affairs, and what hon. Gentlemen opposite should realise is that they are holding firm to the view that they took in 1968. Their representatives are honourable men.
When the Government of the day intervened and stopped the G.L.C. from raising rents by 35s. and insisted that rents should be increased by a maximum of 10s. only, with an average of 7s. 6d., those Tory-controlled local authorities objected. They said that they should have the right to impose what rent increases they thought right, and it was then up to local people to turn them out of office at the next election if they did not agree with that policy.
Those Conservative authorities take the same view today. They believe that the Government's action represent an unwarrantable interference in their activities. In 1968, what was proposed was a temporary issue, renewable by the House. Indeed, it ceased to operate on 31st December, 1971. What was imposed in 1968 was imposed for a limited period only, and was introduced by the Government in an attempt to keep prices stable. The Labour Government, being honest in their intentions, said that they believed that if they wanted to keep wages stable they ought to keep prices stable, too, and in order to achieve that they would not permit wage increases above a certain norm. That policy was understood.
1028 The statement by the present Secretary of State for Employment is illuminating. In 1968 he said:One of the hallmarks of freedom is surely the right of people to determine their earnings without State intervention or direction."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st May, 1968; Vol. 765, c. 318.]He argued that it was wrong to intervene in any dispute about wages; that a person should have the right to argue for as much of a salary increase as he could get.
We are now faced with the Government adopting a dishonest attitude. The Secretary of State for Employment has set a norm of 7½ per cent. to 8 per cent., but he will not publish that officially. It is, however, known to public corporations that they must make no settlement in excess of that figure, and we know that the Government indulged in brinkmanship with the miners.
In 1968, the right hon. Gentleman said that people should be permitted to increase their wages to whatever extent they could. Now the Conservative view is that people cannot have an increase of more than 8 per cent., and to enforce that the Government are prepared to indulge in confrontation and unemployment at a record level of 1½million. The Government are prepared to accept that in order to prove that people cannot get what they want, they must keep increases to 8 per cent.
§ Mr. Brown
If the hallmark of freedom is for every person in negotiations to go for what he can get, that is not the same as the Government are now doing, which is to make certain that 8 per cent. is the top level. They have laid down a norm. They are forcing the public corporations to keep to 8 per cent. We can argue and hedge around it, but that is the attempt which they are making.
§ Mr. Brown
It is no use the hon. Gentleman's saying "No". If he looks, he will find that that is what they are 1029 doing. It is this double talk which makes people angry.
That is what we have on the Housing Finance Bill. We have had this allusion to the 1965 Act and the argument regrettably so often put by the Minister—I can understand it coming from some of his hon. Friends, but he should know better—about the Rent Act, 1965. I asked the Secretary of State if he would put into the Housing Finance Bill the same rights and privileges for council tenants that are contained in the 1965 Act for private tenants. He said that he would not. He is therefore deliberately drawing a distinction between the two issues on fair rents.
Under the 1965 Act the private tenant can argue about his rent. He can discuss it, first, with his landlord. From there, if he is dissatisfied, he can go to the rent officer and discuss it with him. If he is again dissatisfied, he can discuss it with the assessment committee. On all three occasions he is entitled to take with him his legal and property advisers or anybody else to argue his case for him.
There is nothing like that in the Housing Finance Bill. Not only is there nothing like that in the Bill, but it is the deliberate policy of the Government to make certain that there is nothing like that in it. It was only at a late stage in the day that they decided to put in a small provision that, within one month of the date of publication of a provisional assessment, the tenant may put his objection in writing to the local authority.
If we need secret documents from which to quote I can quickly turn to the earlier documents. They are not secret now. They are historical, so we can all quote from them. It was only as a result of great pressure by my right hon. and hon. Friends that the Government allowed tenants at least to put their objections in writing. However, in order that there should be nothing like the 1965 Act, they have made sure that that is all the local authority can receive. Tenants are not allowed to discuss or raise any matters of fact. They cannot go along with their adviors. Therefore, it is merely a paper exercise to pretend that the tenant can challenge the authority on its assessment. When it comes to the scrutiny committee, that is another matter.
§ Mr. Brown
I was just observing that the hon. Gentleman has not been here. [Interruption.] I trust that hon. Members opposite are not taking over the Chamber just yet. They have a propensity for dictatorship, but that is not what they are supposed to be doing now. The hon. Gentleman arrived only in the last five minutes. Where he has been is for him to justify. I have been here, trying to take part in this debate.
Under the Housing Finance Bill, tenants are allowed no rights and the local authority has no freedom on the rent issue. When the council has determined the rent it can go to a rent scrutiny committee. These committees will not act in the same way as the previous rent assessment committees. They will be faceless bodies of placemen picked by the Minister—and knowing the present Minister, one can be sure that there will be friends of his on the committees. The tenants will not be able to see the landlord and the landlord will not be able to see the committee. As a result, freedom to have their say will be taken from the tenant and the local authority. The committees will be responsible to no one but the Minister himself. It is a gross distortion to claim that this arrangement resembles the provisions of the 1965 Act. These are not fair rents but economic rents, and the Government should be big enough to admit it.
When the Housing Finance Bill was brought in, no local authority could believe that a Government would introduce legislation such as that contained in Clauses 93, 94 and 95. To argue that if a local authority tried to work as it wanted, it would be subject to the superimposition of a housing commissioner is an absolute disgrace and cannot be equated with the 1968 Act, under which we stop local authorities raising rents too high. It is a deliberate attempt to interfere with local authority freedom.
§ Mr. Clark rose—
§ Mr. Brown
I do not want the hon. Member's observations. If he can quote an Act equivalent to Clauses 93, 94 and 95 of the Housing Finance Bill I will readily give way to him. If he thinks first, he will see that there is no such Act.
Because of growing resentment, I am told that the Department is now thinking of asking all housing managers of borough councils which say that they cannot implement this legislation to be designated housing commissioners. If that rumour is true, it is an absolute disgrace. It is the most dastardly thing of all to try to suborn the present officers of local authorities to make them into officers of the Department of the Environment.
The Housing Finance Bill is bad. The only possible excuse for it is the fact that from time immemorial the Tory Party has been engaged in council tenant bashing. [Hon. Members: "Shame."] Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) I have had many years' experience of these activities of hon. Gentlemen opposite.
§ Mr. William Clark rose—
§ Mr. Brown
No I will not. If the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends had had experience of trying to produce homes for the people under, for example, the Tory Act of 1957, which reduced subsidies to zero, I might wish to allow them to intervene in my speech. If the hon. Gentleman had had such experience he would understand some of the problems that we have been and are facing in trying to produce homes for people in the public sector.
1032 Under the Housing Finance Bill hon. Gentlemen opposite are moving away from subsidies by a different route. The 1957 Act was designed to withdraw subsidies, and it succeeded in doing so. Because of the troubles that ensued, hon. Gentlemen opposite have produced the Housing Finance Bill which, they believe, by making council tenants pay through the nose, will result in subsidies being withdrawn in just the same way.
There is no secret about this. The figures have been produced by the Department. Hon. Gentlemen opposite know that within two or three years a large number of local authorities will have surpluses on their housing revenue accounts. To ensure that this happens, hon. Gentlemen opposite have even been gerrymandering with housing revenue accounts. Only reckonable expenditure will be used, but what is reckonable expenditure? The Minister has said that it will mean what he wants it to mean when he wants it to mean something. But nobody knows what he means and the Minister will not tell us. Thus, the smaller he can make the reckonable expenditure the sooner the Exchequer will start grabbing back the money.
Hon. Gentlemen opposite must think that the people of this country are a lot of idiots if they really believe that they can go on describing the Housing Finance Bill as good and just and that we are misrepresenting the aims of the Measure. At meetings I attend throughout the country I am prepared to speak on any and every aspect of the Bill. For example, I have seen a leaflet on rent rebates which says, in effect, "Anybody giving incorrect information will be subject to five years' imprisonment under the Theft Act, 1968."
That is a marvellous testimony to the dictatorial attitude of this Tory Government. It is clear that hon. Gentlemen opposite desire to reduce the freedom of local authorities, and I hope that the Motion will be approved overwhelmingly.
§ 3.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
Only a few seconds remain for me to make a brief comment on the remarks of the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Fins-bury (Mr. Ronald Brown). It was difficult to follow the extraordinarily absurd, 1033 dishonest, perverse and downright distorted arguments which the hon. Gentleman tried to adduce.
He knows full well, from what is said during his tours through the country—presumably they interrupt the process of building with his own hands—that the Housing Finance Bill will result in a substantial and considerable reduction in rent levels for a large number of council-house tenants.
I am thinking particularly in this context of special cases like old-age pensioners who, in my constituency and throughout the country, will welcome those reductions when they have an opportunity to benefit from them. It is for that reason that I welcome the legislation now going through the House. In so far as the Housing Finance Bill is presumably subsumed under the extra ordinary Motion—
§ It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
§ Mr. Dick Leonard (Romford)
On a point of order. Mr. Deputy Speaker, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) accused my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Ronald Brown) of being dishonest to the House. Is that not an unparliamentary expression and should it not be withdrawn?