HC Deb 21 February 1985 vol 73 cc1323-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Garel-Jones.]

11.45 pm
Mr. Terry Fields (Liverpool, Broadgreen)

The purpose of this debate is to cut through the smokescreen of distortions that give the impression that Liverpool city council is responsible for present circumstances in Liverpool. We must consider the background.

I was born in a dock area before the war. My father was a docker, so I feel qualified to speak on some of the matters on which I hope to enlarge. I remember, as a young person, seeing around the pier head, the goree piazza and the Strand, shackled to the wall, bolts where slaves were tied up in the lucrative trade in human misery. The docks epitomise what is wrong in Liverpool — lack of investment of the profits created by Liverpool people. It is all very well for the Secretary of State for the Environment to talk about us whingeing and whining about our lot, but we are hard working people.

During the war and the national dock labour scheme from 1947 to 1964, my father used to stand in the pen with other dockers like a choice animal, waiting to be picked out for work. My father was proud, and characteristic of the spirit of people in Liverpool. We had dignity and got through decades of struggle. I have never known anything other than bad housing, high unemployment and lack of opportunity for Liverpool people. However, we have learnt lessons. One is that the ravages of the system to which we belong bleeds working people. Indeed, it is responsible for their death.

In 1965, the docks employed 13,589 people. That industry today employs 2,086 — a reduction of more than 80 per cent. There have been corresponding job losses in associated industries and services. There has been no let-up in the de-industrialisation of Liverpool. Between 1971 and 1981 the city lost 90,000, or one quarter, of its jobs. Manufacturing jobs have declined by nearly 40 per cent. and blue collar jobs by 30 per cent. Between 1979 and July 1983, 33,220 redundancies were notified by firms in Liverpool. The catalogue of job losses is endless.

Since 1979, the city has lost one third of its manufacturing jobs and half of the jobs in the city's largest industries—food, drink and tobacco. Between 1975 and 1982, the city council shed 4,400 jobs through natural wastage. The council is now the largest employer on Merseyside, providing socially useful jobs for 31,000 people. It employs one third of all public sector workers in the city. I have a list of 23 industries in which jobs have been lost. They include vehicles, metal goods, coal and petroleum, chemicals, electrical goods, leather goods, clothing and timber.

The latest figure of unemployment on Merseyside—100,000 — is an obscenity when it represents decent people who are eager to work. When they are provided with jobs by the council, they show that they can work.

Housing in Liverpool is believed to be among the worst and yet the most expensive in Europe. There are 22,000 people on the council's waiting list for houses. Urgent repairs are needed to 20,000 council houses. Liverpool has the highest percentage of old, privately rented houses in the country, with the exception of London. Its housing investment allocation has declined, in real terms, from £47 million in 1980 to £28 million in 1984–85. But the real decline in its housing investment allocation is highlighted by the fact that the city's allocation in 1980 was half that which it received in 1974. Since 1980 Liverpool has lost £63 million in housing subsidy. In 1980 the Government contributed £20 million to the city's housing services. In 1984 if fell to £5.5 million. The catalogue of crimes against the people of Liverpool goes on and on.

When the Labour party took control in Liverpool in 1983 we found that it was not only the public sector that had been decimated. The 10 years of decline in Liverpool under the Tories and the Liberals resulted in the axing of 1,000 local authority jobs, with vacancies in the council's establishment being left unfilled, the abolition of the direct labour organisation and the privatisation of certain services which resulted in job losses. This happened at a time when more, not fewer, jobs were needed in Liverpool. The rates increases since 1979 were used to compensate for Tory cuts in grants. None of that money was used for improvements in Liverpool. Liverpool city council could provide no cushion.

We have come a long way during the 20 months that the Labour party has been in power in Liverpool. We are proud of our achievements. At a time when unemployment is rising nationally, this is no mean feat. The 1983 general election which brought so many Conservative Members to this House has to be set against the Labour victory in Liverpool. It was the Labour party's first victory in Liverpool for 10 or 15 years. That landslide victory was continued in the local authority elections in 1984. Five out of the six Members of Parliament for Liverpool represent the Labour party. For the first time in 120 years there is not one Tory Member of Parliament for Liverpool. It indicates the trust of the people of Liverpool in the Labour party, both nationally and locally. It is proof that a socialist programme is not a liability at either national or local elections, as our opponents would have us believe.

What is even more important is that it has highlighted the political awareness of the people of Liverpool as a result of the experience of having the city run by Liberals and Tories, of having a Tory Government in power and the defections to the Social Democratic party. The turnround in the fortunes of the Labour party has been an inspiration to the city council and to workers in the Labour movement, both nationally and internationally. An opinion poll commissioned by Liverpool University showed that 73 per cent. of Labour voters, 62 per cent. of Liberal voters and even 48 per cent. of Conservative voters felt that the Government were largely to blame for Liverpool's problems.

During the last 20 months Liverpool city council has created 1,000 jobs. It has also prevented 1,000 job losses which had been inherited. It has also boosted employment in the private sector. By 1988, 17,000 jobs will have been created by the council's house-building programme and by its provision of sports facilities. There are 136 apprentices, and 100 sixteen-year-olds are on YTS schemes. Their wages have been topped up to £52 a week and they are guaranteed a job at the end of their training. We are introducing a minimum wage of £100 for local authority workers and a 35 hour week. During the last year 1,057 new houses have been built, and a further 1,211 are to be built in 1984–85. We have provided additional nursery accommodation and reorganised education in order to ensure that every child in Liverpool is provided with the best education that is available.

What is surprising is that with only 30,000 council houses estimated to be built in England and Wales in 1985, over 2,000 of these will be built in Liverpool—that is, one in 15. It is a testimony to the work that the Liverpool city council is doing and will continue to do, despite the opposition of the Government.

We are in a crisis in Liverpool at the moment; we face a financial crisis that is worse than last year's crisis. To balance the books we would require 6,000 redundancies or 220 per cent. rate rises. That is because of the 10 years of Tory and Liberal rule. The Government target of spending is totally unrealistic. The Government impose penalties for spending on essential services, and there is a totally inadequate rate support grant. The Government have reneged on their agreements of last July, when the Secretary of State, having toured the city's black spots, said: I have never seen housing conditions the like of those I have seen today. Yet our resources for housing have been cut by 34 per cent.

This year the Tories have set us an arbitrary spending target of £220 million, yet we need to spend £270 million just to defend existing jobs and services. There will have to be a 220 per cent. rate rise or 6,000 jobs will go. Last year the Secretary of State said that it would be impossible to run the city with less than £245 million. With inflation, that would give us this year £255 million. But to maintain that we would have to put up the rates and every time the rates go up money goes off the rate support grant, creating an impossible gap for us to fill.

Since 1979 the Government have withdrawn £320 million from the city in rate support grant, housing improvement programme allocation, housing subsidy, and education grant. What we are saying in Liverpool is that we want that money back; it is as simple as that.

We have shown that our policies are working. Continually the Government chide the Labour Opposition with the question, "What did you do when you were in power?" In Liverpool we are creating jobs, we are building houses, we are building schools, and we are giving a high quality of education to people. In all those respects the Government are doing the opposite. We ask the Government to give us credit for having achieved success in creating jobs and for our services in housing and education. The cost of sacking 6,000 men would be felt by the Government in unemployment pay and lost taxes.

In the Liverpool city centre, 170 of the 680 stores have already shut, more "Closed" signs are going up and, with the rate increases forecast by the Government, more jobs will go in the Liverpool area. In addition to that, we are being threatened by the Government.

The Secretary of State visited Liverpool in 1984. He gave pledges. In a letter to the leader of the Liverpool city council he said: I can give you an assurance that I will do my very best to ensure your allocations in Liverpool next year under the housing investment programme and the urban programme. Taken together, they will enable the council to make positive progress in dealing with the city's severe needs. He said that in Liverpool. He came down to London, reneged on his commitment and denied that he had ever made those statements, and he accuses us in Liverpool of violence. In Liverpool there is a concerted campaign, which includes violence to undermine the council. We say to the Liberals that they must share the responsibility, because they have not been prepared to denounce the violence or to dissociate themselves from those who are perpetrating it.

Having spoken about what he was going to do in Liverpool, the Secretary of State's latest pronouncement, reported in The Times of 19 February, is an indication that he has firm backing from the Cabinet to take direct action if the Liverpool administration is breaking down. We are well used to threats from the Minister, but this is the second time that the Cabinet have discussed the situation in Liverpool. The first time was in 1981, after the Toxteth riots, when the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), said that it took a riot to make the Cabinet take the problems of Liverpool seriously. Given the background and history that we have gone through in Liverpool, is that the only language that the Government understand when talking about the problems of places such as Liverpool?

Perhaps the Secretary of State is envisaging a Molesworth type raid in Liverpool. Perhaps he envisages dressing up in his predecessor's combat jacket. If he comes in the still of the night we shall be ready for him, whenever he comes. Why is he making attacks on us? Why has he launched the so-called investigation into town hall corruption and listed Liverpool as one of the places to be investigated?

Why was that announcement made? Why is he using the Local Government, Planning and Land Act, with threats of commissioners against us? We believe that this is a pre-emptive strike against the Liverpool city council and the Liverpool people. We also saw at the time he made that statement an announcement of concessions to four other local authorities which had been threatened with rate support grant cuts.

We have the support of the people of Liverpool, the trade unions and the people on the estates. We have seen the hypocrisy of this Government in this respect. But Liverpool exemplifies, perhaps in advance of other parts of the country, the processes which are taking place in this country today. The elected representatives of Liverpool will not let the people down. They have been let down too often in the past and they deserve better. We are not going to dirty our hands doing the Tories' butchery of jobs and services in an already ravaged Liverpool. As far as the Government's threats are concerned, it will not be dented shields they will have to deal with, because our shields were forged in preparation for the heat of struggle last year and those preparations are going ahead. The Government thought that we would go into battle then. To quote Mrs. Thatcher's soul mate, "You ain't seen nothing yet". Liverpool's people will not be crushed by this or any other Government.

12.1 am

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) on initiating this debate at this late hour. I have deliberately stayed behind to support him. I do not want to repeat the points he has already made because these have been put on record many times in the last couple of years. In fact, during the past six days three hon. Members from Liverpool have raised these matters. Last Friday my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) had the Adjournment debate on the future of the port of Liverpool. Then I raised the question of the Isle of Man-Liverpool crossing, and Monday of this week I made a Standing Order No. 10 application on the proposed loss of 300 jobs at Guinness, Liverpool. Tonight my hon. Friend has raised the general question of Liverpool.

We are fighting as Labour Members of Parliament for our constituents, our city and our area, and we shall continue to do so. The level of unemployment in Liverpool is merciless and indefensible. My hon. Friend said that more than 90,000 jobs had gone in the last few years. In fact, this Government have hit the jackpot because, with the loss of jobs in Cammell Laird and the Guinness company we have seen over 100,000 jobs go since this Government took office.

I am the Member for Riverside, which has the highest level of male unemployment in the United Kingdom—nearly 40 per cent. across the board. I warned in the late 1970s and the early 1980s about the problems arising in Toxteth and the grave danger of riots and disturbances on our streets. Unfortunately the warning was ignored and I say now that there will be trouble on our streets again unless the Government take action to reduce the massive level of unemployment. I believe that, as my hon. Friend said, this Government have seen nothing compared with what they will see if they allow mass unemployment to continue in city areas. Therefore, I hope that the Minister can give us some hope that we shall see a decrease in this terrible loss of jobs.

12.4 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. William Waldegrave)

There was a rather telling slip in one of the things that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) said — that opponents regard a full-blooded Socialist programme as an election loser. His opponents on the Government Benches do not regard such a programme as an election loser; they regard it as wrong. The opponents of the hon. Member for Broadgreen are perhaps on the Front Bench on his own side of the House. It was an interesting slip because it showed how little the purpose of the hon. Member's speech was to debate with the Government.

The Government do not deny or dispute the long-term decline and the problems of Liverpool, or those of any other of the older industrial cities of this country. Those cities are no different from the older industrial cities in many other parts of Europe. I was in Bremen recently. We do not often associate declining industrial cities with Germany, but there is 20 per cent. unemployment in Bremen. There is a whole list of cities in Europe whose industries were based in the industrial past and which face the same sort of problems as Liverpool faces.

The debate between the hon. Gentleman and the Government, as opposed to that between himself and the Opposition Front Bench, is about the best response to the problems that are faced by Liverpool. Is the best approach to try to brand the city, through the city council, as one that is famous for municipal irresponsibility, for conflict and for delighting in the prospect of conflict, as we have heard from the hon. Gentleman? Is that the best way to help Liverpool in future? The answer—it comes with a resounding no from the Government—is that that is the worst way of trying to help Liverpool.

The Government have spent massive resources on Merseyside and Liverpool since they came to power. Over £1 billion a year has been spent by the Government on Merseyside since 1981–82, if all Government programmes are taken into account. If all Government programmes are considered, well over £400 million has been spent in Liverpool this year.

Let us consider housing. The very problems which are so real in Liverpool—the hon. Member has described them and no one will dispute his description—stem from the policies and mistakes, which are now being repeated. The construction of huge municipal housing estates in inhuman styles with no basis for real communities created the problems that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues draw to our attention. They go back over many years.

Mr. Parry

To pre-war years.

Mr. Waldegrave

As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry) says, many of the problems may stem from pre-war years. Many of them have come from the great post-war municipal housing boom. The hon. Member for Broadgreen proposes to compound the mistakes of past years by pouring more municipal money into the city in exactly the same way. Why is it that the new Labour city council, since its election, has rejected all the imaginative schemes involving private capital, cooperatives and the ingredients that we have seen so successfully applied in Stockbridge village, Minster court and elsewhere? Those are forward-looking and imaginative schemes, which hold out some hope of finding a way forward. They do not involve a programme that merely redoubles the municipal housing of the past. The policies that the hon. Gentleman is trying to repeat were those that caused many of the problems with which he is allegedly trying to deal.

The Government said last year that within the constraints that would be placed upon them—I refer to the next sentence of the letter of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, which the hon. Member for Broadgreen did not quote the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to provide a reasonable urban aid programme and a reasonable allocation for Liverpool would have to come within the general contraints on public expenditure. Within those constraints my right hon. Friend has provided an allocation for 1985–86 for the inner city partnership on Merseyside as a whole of about £24.1 million. Bids for 1985–86 are still being considered but it is likely that Liverpool city council's share will be about the same as last year, about £20 million. Giving the constraints that lie on the Government, that is not a bad record. There are many other cities that are aware of the resources that are being poured into Liverpool and they wonder whether it is worth while. The hon. Gentleman is seeking to spend not his money or Liverpool's money. It behoves him to remember that the money that he wants to spend comes from taxpayers and ratepayers elsewhere in the country.

There has been a wide range of other Government expenditures. I have mentioned some from my own Department but it is worth remembering that there is a huge range of others. The Department of Health and Social Security will spend about £127 million this year on hospital and community health services. The Department of Trade and Industry will spend about £24 million on grants and expenditure on industrial investment. The Manpower Services Commission will spend £42 million.

It is not a lack of Government resources that lies at the heart of Liverpool's problems. The difficulties go back to far deeper structural problems. A problem that has been added unnecessarily to the structural problems is the attitude of the city council. Its policies are almost designed to drive away private investment and to produce conflict and despair.

The hon. Member for Broadgreen referred wrongly to the Secretary of State making threats against Liverpool; he verged upon extraordinary language. What the Secretary of State did recently was merely to remind Liverpool city council, as it needs to be reminded from time to time, of the law on capital allocations. The city council originally spoke of extravagant proposes incapable of being financed. I have information from meetings today that it has drawn back from a programme that could not have been financed and is saying that its programme for this year will be met within the legal allocation. If that is so, it is much to be welcomed, and I hope that it will be matched by a drawing back from any illegality in regard to the setting of the budget. Nothing could be more designed to damage the provision of jobs and investment in Liverpool than the city council taking the city through a whole charade of conflict over the budget such as we had last year.

I think the House had assumed that it heard all it needed to hear on the problems of Liverpool's budget last summer. It might have been assumed that the city council would have learned a lesson from last year's experience. I hope that I am proven to be wrong but it seems that those assumptions could be wrong. We are dealing with a council that does not respect the normal traditions of responsible local government. The council persists in claiming, as the hon. Member for Broadgreen claimed, that Liverpool has lost rate support grant on the assumption that the grant should be fixed for all time at the level of 1979–80. That is plainly nonsense. The suggestion that the city council has been harshly treated is scarcely borne out by the 1985–86 rate support grant settlement. The council's target, at £222 million, is a 2.3 per cent. increase on its 1984–85 adjusted budget. Some authorities have been asked for a 1.5 per cent. cut. The council's grant-related expenditure has risen by £19 million, or 9.6 per cent., to £217 million. This is the third highest GRE for any metropolitan district. The block grant that the council would receive for spending at target has increased by £3 million, or 2.5 per cent., to £118 million. So, if the council operates responsible financial policies, it can draw very substantial support from the taxpayer.

Nevertheless, the council is again threatening not to make a proper rate. I cannot stress too strongly that the consequences for Liverpool will be far worse if the council does that rather than accepts its proper statutory responsibilities. If no rate is made, who will provide the services on which so many depend? Who will pay the council staff? Even if, as last year, the council eventually sees the folly of its threat, the people of Liverpool will have suffered further months of needless anxiety and the reputation of the city will have suffered a further knock.

Let me make the Government's position clear. We do not deny the gravity of Liverpool's problems, but these must be tackled by responsible and legal action rooted in the real world—

Mr. Parry


Mr. Waldegrave

I am not giving way. As the hon. Gentleman will see, I have very little time left.

As I was saying, the problems must be tackled by action rooted in the real world and not in some fantasy world of political rhetoric, where money is alleged to grow on trees and where the law is to be set aside if it suits the council to do so.

The hon. Member for Broadgreen referred to violence. If one wanted to use this great debating Chamber as a way of reaching people and saying a few things to damage Liverpool, one should make the predictions of violence that the hon. Gentleman made tonight. We know, and he knows, that the enormous majority of people in Liverpool would repudiate such attitudes. It is the raising of such scares and the scarcely concealed glee with which the hon. Gentleman spoke of conflict that do such damage to Liverpool.

I have every confidence that the people of Liverpool will have more sense. If they do, they will have done much more for their future than will the overheated and rather trivialising rhetoric we have heard from the hon. Member for Broadgreen.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fifteen minutes past midnight.