§ Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)
I beg to move,That this House continues to recognise the importance of local government as a vital part of the British democratic system.The face of local government in Britain is changing drastically, as a duck from Haringey called Quackers can testify. She was banned from her 22nd appearance at Gerry Cottle's circus because Haringey borough council considered that that was a clear breach of its ban on performing animals. That is an example of the ridiculous things that go on in local government. The old understandings that used to exist between local authorities and central Government are disappearing in many parts of the country. The consensus that used to exist is disappearing quickly. In many places, a conflict exists, cultivated by Labour councillors, between the mandate of central Government and that of local authorities.
Many local councillors see their role as challenging the role of central Government. In many areas, civic pride and community spirit have given way to groups of Left-wing Labour councillors—Trotskyists, Militants and their sympathisers—who see local authorities as mini-Soviets or power bases from which to attack the other political parties and central Government—especially when there is a Conservative Government.
But we must look back at the developments that have taken place in local government. It has been used by extreme Left-wing groups as a method of gaining power. The steps are simple. They enter the Labour party and select an area where it is strong in votes and weak in organisation. The old traditional local party is taken over by activists of a Left-wing persuasion and, slowly but surely, the old traditional Labour councillors are removed from their seats and replaced by Labour councillors who call themselves the broad Left but who are really of a Marxist persuasion. Once in control of the local authority, they propose to put their policies into operation. Once they have done that, they move on, as many Opposition Members can testify, to remove the sitting Member of Parliament, if he is of moderate persuasion, and replace him with a more broad Left candidate by way of deselection.
According to a recent poll, 70 per cent. of the current Labour candidates in the general election would withdraw from NATO and 59 per cent. of the same group do not wish to sell any council houses, despite the U-turn on that policy by the Opposition Front Bench. That is what could happen if a Labour Government got in after the next general election, which I very much doubt.
Unfortunately, the old Labour party of Gaitskell, Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan has disappeared in many parts of the country. It is dead, and after the general election the majority of Labour Members of Parliament will be of the broad Left persuasion. Conservative Members must make the public aware of the massive change that has taken place at local and at national level. The public have not realised that the change has taken place. In local government elections, they vote for the Labour label that they have supported throughout their lives, but in many areas that label has been hijacked by Left-wing activists who have very little in common with the Labour Members of the House who followed Attlee and Wilson.
§ Mr. Hind
Not at the moment.
I turn not only for support but for strong evidence to Mr. Brian Walden, who is a former Labour Member of Parliament. Writing in The Sunday Times of 16 November, he said:But however many layers of cosmetic are applied to Labour's public face, there is no hiding the fact that the overwhelming majority of its workers are socialists.In local government, for "workers" we should read "councillors". Mr. Walden continued:Most voters have better things to do with their lives than study the intricacies of political ideology. To them a Socialist is someone whose leg they pull in the canteen or the pub. That is why the Labour party is still a contender for power.The point that we should take most on board is Mr. Walden's final comment:If the public understood what most members of the Labour party actually believe then Labour would have no earthly chance of ever winning a general election.Applying that to the present position in local government, it is fair to say that if most local government voters and ratepayers understood what the modern-day Labour activist believes, he would have no chance of representing them on the local council.
For the purpose of this debate, I shall be honest about the Labour party, as was Mr. Walden in his article. In future, I shall not refer to the Labour party or to Labour councillors. I shall call them Socialist councillors—their true colours—because they are Marxists in ethos and we should recognise them as such.
We must look for the evidence to support that theory. What do those Socialist councillors do when they get hold of local authorities? The first thing that they do is to try to obtain political control of the police force. Conservative Members completely oppose giving to local authorities operational or political control over police forces.
§ Mr. Hind
I shall finish this point first.
The first major change is to set up expensive police units financed from ratepayers' pockets to monitor the behaviour of the police force and to form an active channel through to the Police Complaints Authority. Many of them produce expensive, glossy, anti-police magazines which are sold or given away, again at ratepayers' expense. Many Socialist councillors regard the police as the lackeys of the capitalist state and therefore as a legitimate target for attack. They do not support the police or the development of law and order.
The first such committee that emerged was the GLC police committee. It produced an anti-police video which it circulated to London schools. Its activities were supported by the Inner London education authority, which does not wish police officers even to enter schools to talk to the children.
§ Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
Order. The hon. Gentleman must realise that he has used an unparliamentary phrase. I ask him to withdraw it and to rephrase his remarks.
§ Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich)
Does my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) have any knowledge of Kingsdale school in my constituency, which has occasionally refused admission to the police although it has known that crimes may have been committed?
§ Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Labour majority in the London borough of Haringey does not allow the police to enter schools to discuss matters with children and to explain their role in trying to preserve law and order? Is he aware that Bernie Grant described the Blackwater Farm riots as an occasion upon which the police had received "a bloody good hiding"?
Is my hon. Friend aware that the council has set up a research unit to investigate whether Sir Kenneth Newman has ever made what it considers to be racist remarks? Does he know that the council has a police committee to monitor the activities of the police and that it refuses to take part in the police community liaison committee, which represents some residents' organisations? Does that catalogue of events show a pro or anti-police stance by Haringey Labour party?
§ Mr. Hind
No, I shall not give way.
For evidence of that, we need only consider the publications produced by some London councils. A publication of Lambeth council's police committee contains a cartoon showing a policeman beating the head of a citizen, which is entitled,policeman suddenly remembering human awareness training.As the policeman beats the citizen, he says:Oh—and have a nice day, sir!Labour-controlled London boroughs have combined to produce a leaflet entitled "How to make a complaint against the police". It contains a cartoon showing a citizen lying flat on the floor with a policeman's boot on his head. The citizen is scribbling "PC 37" on the ground and the captain reads:Note the identity of the police officer.1185 The trend has extended to Nottingham, where Forest ward Labour party produced a leaflet advertising a police liaison committee meeting. The poster showed a police officer holding a youth in an armlock and the caption saying:Come on sonny, let's go and consult.It has been argued that Labour councils do not have an anti-police bias, but Manchester city council produced an anti-police magazine called "Police Watch" at a cost of more than £200,000. The council has also distributed to children 1,500 cartoon guides on police power. They contain a specific warning to resist threats from police officers. This is a council that is charging £53 to neighbourhood watch schemes that want to put signs advertising their existence on lamp posts in the areas where they operate.
§ Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)
My hon. Friend has started to catalogue the parts of the country where anti-police activities are endemic. I do not want him to overlook Cleveland, where the chief constable had to take six months leave of absence having been harassed by the police authority virtually into a nervous breakdown.
§ Mr. Hind
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) referred to Haringey. The chairman of that council's direct labour organisation, Councillor Knowles, following a demonstration of workers at Haringey against the comments of Mr. Bernie Grant that the police got a "bloody good hiding" at the Broadwater Farm riots, demanded the names of those workers who had taken part in the protest march in support of the police. That is another clear example of the attitudes of some of these Labour councillors against the police.
We must regret that Councillor Bernie Grant has now been selected as a candidate for this honourable House. If he is elected, it will be at the expense of the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson). That would prove to the House my earlier point that deselection is a way of getting rid of a sitting candidate and bringing in one of a more broad Left persuasion, more pliable and in agreement with the new trend.
§ Mr. Dubs
Just to set the record straight, I would point out that a week ago today London Labour Members of Parliament had a meeting at New Scotland Yard with Sir Kenneth Newman and a number of his senior police officers. We discussed the efforts being made by the police to recruit black members to the police force. The police told us how they were getting the active co-operation of a number of local authorities where they had specific campaigns earlier this year, including Haringey council.
§ Mr. Hind
I am pleased to hear that. It is a move in the right direction and I hope that the hon. Member will be able to persuade many local authorities to abandon their anti-police stance.
Lambeth has spent £44,800 on extra staff for its police unit to deal with complaints. Councillor Linda Belos, the leader of Lambeth council, said:The people of Brixton only want peace. But I think that the police are bent on war.Lord Scarman, a man for whom most of us have great respect, particularly in regard to his comments about Brixton, said of the Labour Administration's community policy consultative committee: 1186One gets the feeling that until they get local government control of the police, they will have no truck with consultation.I was surprised by what the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) said, and I hope that he will be able to hammer some sense into those authorities. Among those councils there is a movement actively to undermine the police because they wish to take over operational control of the police. That must be prevented at all costs.
I do not wish to go through all the numerous examples of the behaviour of Socialist councils, and Lambeth can be used as a typical example. The lesbian and gay working party there has said that it will not take part in neighbourhood watch schemes as it regards them as divisive in the community and says that they can be used to spy on lesbians and gays. Such a ridiculous obsession with the police and their activities and opposition to any moves within the community that are positive crime prevention measures show that the councils must think again and realise that the way that they are going will not be tolerated or accepted by the public.
§ Mr. Hind
No, I must press on.
Many of these councils have set out deliberately to challenge the authority of the Government in the financing of their activities. They constantly plead a shortage of resources and bleat to the press and their Members of Parliament while they spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on police committees.
Those of us who come from seats in the north of England know that high rates and high unemployment go hand in hand. High rates are the mother and father of unemployment. I have recently come back from the Socialist-controlled Knowsley local authority, where I met couples living in ordinary, modern semi-detached houses with three bedrooms and a through lounge who were having to pay £900 in payable rates. Is it a surprise that, because of those high rates, industry has been driven out of places such as Knowsley and parts of the north-west? We know that industry pays the same in corporation tax as in rates, when taken as a global figure. This factor has to be taken into consideration when it comes to the location of a factory or the creation of new jobs.
One of the best examples of a challenge to Government from such local authorities has to be Liverpool, a local authority that is right on my doorstep and with whose activities I am familiar. In 1985, it deliberately chose to set a budget that would bankrupt the city and make 31,000 people unemployed. I would happily give way to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) on this point, because he went up there to persuade that local authority to drop its ridiculous plans, but failed. That shows that many of these local authorities do not take the slightest bit of notice of the Front Bench of the main Opposition party, and if any members of these councils became Members of Parliament they would not take any notice of the Front Bench either. There would be constant confrontation to carry out genuine Socialist policies.
Liverpool council set a budget of £255 million on an income of £227 million. To create a crisis, it deliberately refused either to make any savings or take advantage of available Government moneys. In particular, thousands of pounds available under the community refurbishment scheme for three schemes in an area about which there had been complaints about the quality of council houses were 1187 not taken up. The council also did not take £1 million of urban programme location grant given to it by central Government under the inner-city partnership scheme. Despite its so-called housing crisis, it refused money for the Eldonian housing association that would have built 143 houses, in spite of complaints from the local community. I am pleased to say that my hon. Friend the Minister aided the community and the houses have since been built.
That position was condemned at the time as an artificial creation. Archbishop Warlock and Bishop David Shepherd condemned the activities of the Labour council in Liverpool in The Times on 1 October 1985 as "a deliberately manufactured crisis". The Liverpool Echo, in its editorial, said:Let's have no illusions about who is responsible for dragging the city into this disastrous situation—all the blame lies with the Labour council, particularly its militant leaders and militant allies in the Unions.We know that the Militant Tendency has control of the Liverpool council. But they are not the people whom we worry about. The people whom we worry about are those who do not join Militant but who are its sympathisers and friends—the Trotskyist sympathisers who vote with Militant on commitees, who sit with Militant members on Labour party committees and who vote into office such people as the chairmen of local council committees and Labour party officers in constituencies.
At the root of the problem, as has been pointed out by the Liverpool Echo in its editorial, are the unions. Do not let us have any illusions. In Liverpool that means the Transport and General Workers Union, operating from its headquarters in Islington, which provides the resources and the back-up in the constituencies to those Militant and Trotskyist sympathisers, who are the root cause of many of the problems that Liverpool is facing. The former Member for Knowsley, North, Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk, wrote in his book that he was aware that his removal was planned from the headquarters of the TGWU in Liverpool. It was the activists from that union who were behind his removal. They are working on the docks. As long as such people have control of the unions in Liverpool and the council, they will continue as they have been doing to drive jobs and industry out of Liverpool. The people of Liverpool must realise that as long as they have high rates and the trouble that such people bring, they will not get new industries. They will never attack the problems of Liverpool such as unemployment and there will never be an improvement in that part of the north-west region.
Mr. Hatton has now been removed from his post as deputy leader of the Labour group in Liverpool. But has he been thrown out of the Labour party? Has he been removed from his seat? No. He has been thrown out of the Labour party nationally, but Labour councillors in Liverpool still sit with him round the table, still vote with him and still recognise him. In his place they have Mr. Tony Byrne having removed Mr. Atkinson as the leader of their group. Mr. Tony Byrne is a Trotskyist sympathiser who has gone along on the coattails of Militant for years, along with Mr. Mulhearn and half a dozen others whom the Labour party has decided, for forensic reasons and for the sake of appearances, must be thrown out of the Labour party.
1188 Those of us who live and work in the north-west know that until the Labour party starts throwing out thousands, it will never be able to rectify the problems in places such as Liverpool. There are 47 councillors, a number of whom have been thrown out of the Labour party in Liverpool, who are awaiting appeals on orders for disqualification. If the process is dragged out long enough and if the Labour party got into power, it would be able to pay the fines of such people as it is mandated to do by its party conference and restore them to their positions of power and influence in our town halls—positions which have led to much of the disaster that we are seeing in the London boroughs and in places such as Liverpool, Sheffield, Leicester and other authorities.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's eloquent flow, but as the appeal of the 47 councillors is still pending, is not the matter sub judice and should not the hon. Gentleman be careful what he says?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
If what the hon. Gentleman tells me is correct, and it appears that it may be, the case is sub judice and the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) must not refer to it.
§ Mr. Hind
I am much obliged, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was going to say no more about it other than to refer to the fact that the appeals are awaiting a hearing.
Much closer than Liverpool to the heart of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) are the tactics that have been adopted in the London boroughs. Many hon. Members will be familiar with the story headlined "London's going broke" in The London Evening Standard on 2 December. It arises from the report of Mr. John Banham, the controller of the Audit Commission, last week that London was facing the same problem of collapsing services as New York had faced. He identified three sources of trouble. Those policies are actively being pursued by the Socialist councillors who control those authorities. He referred particularly to Brent, Lambeth, Islington, Haringey and Southwark as being the main guilty parties. The three main causes of that potential collapse were, first, the recalcitrant public sector unions, secondly, political appointments, and, thirdly, creative accounting.
The recalcitrant public sector unions usually take the form of the direct labour organisations which are often more expensive than local private contractors. Bristol recently gave a contract to its direct labour organisation although a private contractor was £60,000 cheaper. We have seen the threat of the cancellation of the contract for the private collection of rubbish in Ealing, a cancellation which the Conservative group on that council calculated would cost ratepayers an extra £1 million.
Haringey's direct labour organisation was closed by the Secretary of State for the Environment, having lost £5.5 million in three years. The direct labour organisation in Newham lost £3.3 million between 1982 and 1985 and was also ordered to be closed by the Secretary of State. Hackney lost £5.7 million on its direct labour organisation between 1983 and 1985 and that direct labour organisation was described by the Public Auditor as having poor production among the work force. No wonder the Government encourage private contractors because we get 1189 better value for money. But no Socialist councillor can tell the unions in the direct labour organisations that the council must go outside for its contractual obligations.
Political appointments were the second point. I do not want to go through the catalogue. Hon. Members will have their own. Basically, there is a creation of jobs for the boys among those local authorities. To keep them in gainful employment, local Labour councillors on other authorities are being given jobs on those local authorities. But they are also known to be people who are sound in doctrine and who will pursue the policies of the current Socialist controlling group.
When the chief executive's job in Hackney was advertised, it was said that the applicant must have at least a broad sympathy with the council's objectives and commitment to the implementation of its policies. That means, in code, that the council was looking for a Socialist who would support its policies.
§ Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)
I am sure that what my hon. Friend says is right. It is confirmed by the fact that in Ealing every job applicant has his application looked at by councillors and carefully vetted. We know that they are looking for political affiliation and the rest.
Is my hon. Friend aware also that in Ealing representatives of the anti-sexist and anti-racist unit, who have no interviewing qualifications, sit in during interviews to watch those who are trained in personnel selection interviewing candidates for positions and observe the body language of applicants? If they are not satisfied with it, they reject the applicant for the appointment. This is blatant politicking of a serious nature.
§ Mr. Hind
I am obliged to my hon. Friend.
Thirdly, the controller of the Audit Commission drew attention to creative accounting. This means that money is borrowed for the purchase of assets and is used for current expenditure. The money will have to be paid back, which means that our children and grandchildren will have an albatross around their necks. A typical example is the £30 million that the Liverpool council borrowed from a Japanese bank. Islington has borrowed £74 million and the controller has pointed to £600 million of deferred payments that are awaiting repayment by the London boroughs.
§ Mr. Gerald Bowden
Is my hon. Friend aware that earlier this year the leader of Islington council said:This is a high-risk strategy"—that is, creative accounting—because not only does it depend on a change of Government but it also depends on a commitment by the Labour Front Bench to bail us out when they return to power.
§ Mr. Hind
I take my hon. Friend's point. All this deferred and creative accounting is based upon a future Labour Government bailing out the councils, but that may never happen. In that event, the public will have to bail them out.
We must consider the competence of some councils as reflected in their decisions and the money that they spend. These are the councils that complain that they are provided with insufficient resources. Islington, Southwark, Brent and Manchester have all invested £250,000 of their employees' pension fund in supporting the Left-wing newspaper that is called "News on Sunday".
§ Mr. Hind
I apologise to my hon. Friend for not including Ealing. Propaganda and campaigns are items of major expenditure for the councils to which I am referring. Islington spends £500,000 a year in this way. In 1985–86, Lambeth spent £760,000. Southwark, which must be one of the classic examples of abuse among local councils, spent £2,000 on a grant towards ground barriers and a stage and public address system for a "Tories Out" march.
There is a major failure to collect rents and to organise finances properly. There are rent arrears of £5.6 million in Haringey. In Islington, the arrears amount to £6 million. The figure is £5 million in Manchester. Southwark is the "best" of all with £24 million of uncollected rent arrears.
§ Mr. Hind
No, I am not giving way.
Councillor Matthews said:Many have been there for two to three years. It's their home. We've had such bad control over the housing stock, large numbers of empty properties—people are driven to squat.That is a quotation from London Labour Briefing.
Lambeth has 64,000 unprocessed housing benefit claims, and 923 of them are over three years old. What has the council done? It has increased its staff, yet local authorities are complaining about a lack of resources. The Manchester council has increased its staff by 2,000 since 1984. One of the greatest increases in budget spending lies in councillors' allowances. That happens once Left-wing councils come to power.
Councils resist the right to buy council houses by every means open to them. Sheffield levies an amenity charge of £20 on those who want to buy their own council houses. Islington has sold only 716 council houses. It has only one officer to handle the paperwork, and at the time that I prepared my speech that post was not filled. If anyone wants to buy a council house in Islington, he will not have much chance of proceeding with the purchase.
Councils spend money on campaigns against the Government. Sheffield spent £334,000 on opposing rate capping. Lancashire spent £75,000 in campaigning against the Government's proposals for bus operations. Are these campaigns the responsibility of local authorities?
The Government, because of the major changes that have taken place——
§ Mr. Hind
No, I will not give way. I have given way enough already. The hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to contribute to the debate in due course.
1191 Faced with the developing and widespread irresponsibility of local councillors, the Government have been forced to act. Rate capping has saved vast sums for voters and ratepayers in areas that are controlled by the Labour party. There has been a need to tighten local government financing, especially through the development of privatisation. There is much sense in the community charge proposals that are contained in the Green Paper and I fully support them. If they do only one thing, they will make everyone who is a ratepayer, even including those who are unemployed, realise the value of the money that is spent by the local authority. Even those in receipt of housing benefit who are unemployed will have to contribute a small amount through the community charge. That will focus the mind and individuals will realise that changes have taken place.
If anyone is complaining about the method of calculation, it must be remembered that nearly half of local authority moneys comes from central Government in the form of rate support grant. That is means-tested by way of income tax, and industry contributes to it. We all walk the streets, however, and send our children to school, and most of us use public parks, for example, and it is only right that we should all contribute to a community charge.
The removal of the industrial rate will give some of the beleaguered areas in the north-west that are controlled by Labour councils an opportunity to revitalise themselves and to introduce new jobs and industries. I hope that the Minister will consider enabling areas of high unemployment to pay a lower industrial charge, as opposed to having one uniform rate throughout the country. That would help to stimulate the areas in which unemployment is high. Perhaps we shall see an M62 corridor, with Manchester international airport at the end of it, as well as the M4 corridor.
A number of other policies are pursued by the councils to which I have referred. There is the ending of protocol. We have seen the abolition of mayors in Bristol, Manchester, and Liverpool. We see active support for nuclear disarmament and the pursuit of nuclear-free zones. Manchester is paying £95,000 for five staff to run a nuclear-free zone unit. It spent £500,000 on nuclear-free Europe propaganda. Half a million pounds would buy a great many school books and improved facilities for the disabled and the elderly, but those considerations were secondary to the policy of nuclear disarmament. The same comments can be made about Labour councils throughout the country where Socialist councillors are in control.
There are councils which support Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, including Haringey and Hackney, where there have been violent scenes. Support for Sinn Fein has been forthcoming from Camden. Local councils have been addressed by Sinn Fein councillors.
In education we see tampering and indoctrination on every front. Haringey has introduced peace studies and political studies. Many local authorities push the racial divisions within our community, including ILEA. The racialism industry has developed. A classic example is provided by Councillor Morgan of Lambeth. On 31 October 1986, he was quoted in the South London Press as sayingIf you're not black, a woman or gay, you don't get a look in on this council.1192 He was censured by his colleagues and sent on a racism awareness course.
The Minister knows about Brent council with its 177 race commissars proposed for its schools and the trouble that Miss McGoldrick is having in holding on to her job as head teacher of a primary school, despite being hounded by Socialist councillors. Recently, the education director in Brent resigned, and said:The politicians won't let us get on with the job—although I'm anti-racist I couldn't discuss issues without being misrepresented.There are 15 vacant head teacher posts because Socialist councillors are interfering in the education of our children. Attempts have been made by Newham, Haringey, and Ealing councils to remove heterosexist and sexist material from school libraries. Those attempts are costing vast amounts.
§ Mr. Hind
The hon. Gentleman may protest, but I foresee that Shakespeare has no chance in Ealing libraries if he is to be read by pupils. I am sure that someone will find heterosexist material in his plays. There are advertisements for schoolteachers, particularly in Ealing, "irrespective of sexual orientation." Do we want gays teaching our primary school and junior school children?
§ Mr. Hind
I have great sympathy for those people. They have difficulties. They must discipline themselves. I warn the House that parents throughout the country will be anxious about their children being taught by teachers of gay orientation, who are deliberately encouraged to come into our schools. We are entitled to worry about that.
§ Mr. Hind
No, I shall not give way.
Vast amounts of money are being spent by Haringey, Leicester, Manchester, Sheffield, Hackney, Islington, Camden and Ealing in their promotion of gay rights, policies and groups. They are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds. The test of the virility of a Socialist council is its policies on Nicaragua, El Salvador and South Africa. They are renaming parks and roads after Nelson Mandela and happily twinning with cities in Nicaragua.
The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), the Labour Front Bench spokesman on these matters, recently described these Socialist councillors as "Fewer than 0.1 per cent." of Labour councillors throughout the country. I found out how many local councillors there are. There are about 9,000 in the country. Is this figure of 0.1 per cent., nine out of Lambeth, nine out of Brent, or nine out of the 86 in Manchester, nine out of the 53 in Hackney, nine out of the 48 in Lancashire, nine out of the 57 in Knowsley, nine out of the 60 in Newham, nine out of the 42 in Haringey, or nine out of the 29 in Nottingham? I have mentioned only 400, and I have not even started. I am only scratching the surface. If we scratch the surface, what do we find? More are coming up. The problems of the Labour party are many.
1193 I shall terminate my remarks by saying—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hooray."] I obviously have got through to Labour Members. The public must think about the change in orientation of these Socialist councillors. Do they honestly think that 26 Labour Members would leave the party and go out into the political wilderness to start a party of their own if they could not recognise the problems that arose in their midst? They must realise that some hon. Members who were members of the Labour party joined the Conservative party because they too could see the way that things were going.
The changes in local government—the smashing of consensus—need to be exposed. The cosmetics must be removed from the faces of these Socialist councillors so that the public can see them in their true light. Only then will the surgeon's knife be applied. The only way it can be applied is by cutting out this cancer from our community. The only people who can do that are those in the electorate. It is up to Conservative Members to show them what the situation is.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
The start of the debate has been disgraceful. It should have been constructive, informative and worth while. [HON. MEMBERS: "It was informative."] It was so informative that the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) mentioned only nine of the 400 councils in this country. He ran a broad brush across all councils and their councillors.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. The majority of local authorities are run by dedicated people who look after the interests of their communities. Does the hon. Gentleman condemn those nine councils for the way in which they behave, or does he say that they should be regarded in the same way as the other councils?
§ Mr. McKay
I certainly will not condemn those councils, because I do not know sufficient about Brent or Haringey. Those who serve on those authorities will answer for them. I shall answer for the others. I shall answer for the north, the midlands and places such as that—the places that I know and the people I have known over 20 years. They have been taken to task in a manner that they certainly do not deserve.
§ Mr. McKay
Some of my hon. Friends would know those councils better than I do and no doubt they will participate in the debate.
The hon. Member for Lancashire, West spoke about mandates. What is wrong with a local council having a mandate from its people? What is wrong with a council trying to carry out that mandate? That is all that they have done each and every year. Every four or five years we go 1194 for a fresh mandate. One third of the council on which I served goes for a mandate each year. Unlike us, local councillors put themselves before the local electorate each year. That is what local government is all about. It is not about central control of local government. Local government must have a measure of freedom, because it is at the grass roots of politics. The Government have said many times that they will put out broad outlines within which industry and trade unions can work. They should put out broad outlines for local government to work within and let them get on with the job.
The start of the debate has done nothing to help the situation. Some councillors have been called Left-wingers, Militants and Trotskyites. I know one or two, but there are certainly many more people who could not be described like that. The hon. Gentleman used the word "Socialist". I am proud to be a Socialist. My father and grandfather were Socialists. The hon. Gentleman may describe me as a Militant or a Trotskyite but that would be far from the truth.
I deplore the fact that the hon. Gentleman, in starting the debate, very much underrated the thinking of the public. What God-given right have hon. Members to think that they know more than the people whom the decisions of the House affect? What God-given right have we to say to the people, "We know better than you"? We do not know better in relation to local elections. Hon. Members must not underestimate and underrate the local electorate, because they are very aware of what is happening in this place. I am a great believer in the persuasive power of the ballot box, where people vote for what they want.
There has been much debate on the sale of council houses, and my view on that is known. I have never wanted to support the sale of council houses, but the Government decided on that course and my local council reluctantly decided that that was the law and that it would abide by the law and sell council houses. When a Labour Government are returned to office, I believe that that policy will be followed. I hope that the Labour Government, unlike this Government, will provide local government with the resources to make up for the loss of the council houses that it has had to sell. The Government's policy is causing problems. The sad thing is that old people's accommodation is also involved. That is a retrograde step.
We have heard a lot about the police. I come from a mining area, so I knew all about the police and their methods during the strike. The police have been criticised. If the hon. Member for Lancashire, West were to talk to the chief superintendent in my area, he would hear a view that differs from the one that he put in respect of local councils.
The hon. Gentleman referred to neighbourhood watch schemes. At the request of the chief superintendent in my area, neighbourhood watch schemes were set up because we thought that they would help the police. The police went along with the idea that a neighbourhood watch scheme should be advertised, not by a bill in the window, because often that is asking for a brick through the window, but by a notice on a lamppost. When hon. Members criticise neighbourhood watch schemes they should be careful, because the police encouraged their setting up.
Central Government are seeking to control local government by fiscal means. Year after year they have reduced the grant to local government. Rates have been 1195 increased for, in the main, two reasons. One reason is the decrease in grants from central Government to local government as a result of direct Government policy, but that is the business of central Government. That is fair enough, because, if that is what central Government want to do—whatever their political persuasion—that is their right. If they believe that that policy is right, they should go ahead, but they should not then penalise local authorities by saying that they cannot raise rates in other ways. That policy has caused some local authorities to use means which they probably would not have used in normal circumstances to raise sufficient finance to carry on local services.
The Minister knows that it is a two-edged sword. We went to see him, so he knows my views. For a brief few years, South Yorkshire county council supported its industrial estates. The people paid for those estates through their rates, irrespective of where they lived or worked. Now the Government have the brass neck to put those estates out to tender for sale on the private market. To add insult to injury, the Government have suggested to the local authorities that they can buy back those estates if they want to, but the local authorities already own them. They have paid for them. Why are central Government taking it upon themselves to confiscate the industrial estates of South Yorkshire county council and put them on the open market with the proviso that local government can buy back that for which it has already paid? As I have said to the Minister and to my local authority, if the Government follow that policy, I shall stand on a soap box in every part of my constituency and say what is happening to the rates that ratepayers have already paid. The four local authorities concerned agreed among themselves that the fairest and most equitable system for ratepayers would be to divide the estates rather than let central Government sell them through the residuary body.
§ Mr. Gerald Bowden
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would like to cast his eyes southward to London, where there are two similar boroughs, Lambeth and Wandsworth. The rates in one borough are almost twice as high, if not higher, than in the other. Wandsworth has succeeded in keeping its rates low and providing good and adequate services. Lambeth has increased rates to exorbitant levels, driving out residents and businesses and providing inferior services.
§ Mr. McKay
The hon. Gentleman will find, if he looks at the grant from central Government, that the amount that each authority receives is reflected in the differences in rates. Central Government's reduction in grant is one of the main reasons for increased rates.
Another reason for the increase in rates is that industry has suffered tremendously during the Conservative party's period in government. There are about 17,000 bankruptcies in industry a year. That means that those businesses no longer pay rates. The two main causes of increasing rates are the decrease in central Government grant to local government and the reduction in industrial rates. This means that there are fewer people to share the rates burden. I have described it as the rates "burden" because it is a local tax, and no one likes paying taxes, whatever they are.
Reference has been made to the allowance paid to councillors. That allowance should be investigated, 1196 because it in no way compensates a councillor for the time and work that he puts into council work. It does not pay him for lack of promotion in his other work. One reason why I was able to attend day-time meetings was that it was accepted that I would not be promoted at work. Lack of promotion affects the family because it is reflected in one's pension.
Yes, there are some occasions on which people wear the yellow jersey, but hon. Members should not treat every Labour councillor alike. They sacrifice a lot, and for what? They do so to look after their local authority and provide for industry in the local authority area because central Government have failed to do so. My local authority area includes perhaps the highest proportion in the country of elderly people and children in care. It has one of the highest rates of bronchitis, emphysema and injury in the country. The burden falls on the local authority because of the lack of funds from central Government.
The hon. Member for Lancashire, West should consider the case of rent arrears. It is easy to say that people do not pay rent, because there are a few people who will get on the bandwagon. We all know Tom, Dick and Harry, but they should not be the examples of the hundreds of people who are really in need. Part of the reason for rent arrears may be late payments from the DHSS.
I should like to refer briefly to the future of local government regarding rates at 20 per cent. The Government should re-examine that position, because they have got it wrong. The Government's thinking behind this is to encourage ratepayers to question local authority spending by forcing them to pay for the provision of services. That is poppycock. The Government's scheme will not work because the public have never taken that attitude and never will. The electorate vote for their councillors on the basis of the services that they provide, not on the amount of money that they need to pay for them. Hundreds of thousands of people cannot afford to pay such increased rates. The increases will penalise the disabled, the ill and those who are unable to look after themselves and for whom a local authority has a remit to care.
I hope that the remainder of the debate will concentrate on the worth of local authorities and the relationship between Government and local authorities. I hope that we can consider how we can best help local authorities to carry out their objectives, and how we can bring local and central Government together and overcome the divide that has been created since 1979. Local government is worth while and necessary. Its councillors are worthy people and we should not castigate them, as has happened during the debate.
§ Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) on his fortune in the ballot, on his choice of subject and on the way in which he delivered his speech.
It was interesting to note the expression on the faces of some Opposition Members as my hon. Friend recounted a catalogue of activities. It is clear that some Opposition Members simply do not know what is happening in the name of the Labour party. In my brief remarks this morning, I want to attempt to weld together two separate perceptions of local government. The first is the top down approach, based on five years' experience as a Minister at 1197 the Department of the Environment during times of turbulence in the relationship between central and local government, and a fairly active involvement with individual local authorities in the inner cities and local authority associations.
The second perception is more of a bottom up approach, based on six months' experience of a new style Labour council in my constituency. This new council has achieved as many new members for the Conservative party as were achieved through years of knocking on doors by myself. It encapsulates all that is wrong with local government today.
I must make it clear at the outset that I am a believer in local government. I spent six years as a local councillor and made a modest contribution. I favour a society where decisions are decentralised; where local priorities and regional differences can be reflected; and in a society where parliamentary democracy, through elected Members of Parliament, is reinforced, but not challenged, by a local democracy through local councillors. I reject vigorously the alternative which is a centralised society with a monolithic approach to local services run from Whitehall.
My criticisms of local government are not intended to discredit it. I wish to identify what has gone wrong so that we can rehabilitate and reinforce its position. The only people who gain by a refusal to accept that something is wrong with local government are those who, for whatever reason, have an interest in its continued decline.
The continued decline in local government has been taking place for 10 years, with responsibility being removed from local government and placed with central Government. Both Labour and Conservatives have done that and for good reasons. Neither the GLC nor Merseyside county council—both large strategic bodies with access to huge resources—satisfactorily tackled the regeneration of their dockland areas. There was terrible bickering in London between the local authorities involved. Quite rightly, central Government stepped in and set up an urban development corporation. What has happened since then in London has totally justified that decision.
Central Government removed responsibilities from local government and that process is continuing with the establishment of four more UDCs and, again, I support that decision. More recently, the DOE set up an urban housing renewal unit. It was not satisfied, quite rightly, with the approach that some local authorities were making towards their less popular estates. The Department made it clear that if local authorities wanted access to the new money—£50 million this year and happily £75 million next year—they would have to adjust their approach, bring in the private sector where that made sense and reinforce local management. That approach was bitterly resisted by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities as further centralisation. However, the local authorities have beaten a path to the unit's door and it is working very successfully.
§ Sir George Young
I will give way shortly to the hon. Gentleman.
The extra money that we have made available for the inner cities has not been made available directly to the local authorities for them to spend as they want through the RSG. It has been channelled through the urban 1198 programme, through partnership and the rest. Ministers have retained a tight control of the money. That is a sensible decision and many of the more exciting projects in the inner cities are not those funded by the main programmes of local authorities, but those funded under the inner city partnerships. There is, however, an erosion of local government responsibility.
We have also seen fresh initiatives in the inner cities, such as the city action teams and the task forces. Again, there is fairly tight ministerial control to ensure good value for money. Many councils are no longer free to set their own rates. Quite rightly, we have introduced rate capping and Parliament has exercised its traditional role of protecting the citizen from the unreasonable demands of local barons. There are similar examples in other areas. There is intervention on teachers' salaries and again in transport. I support all those decisions, and I introduced some of them myself when I was a Minister. My point is that there has been a progressive erosion of responsibility from local government to central Government.
I do not expect Opposition Members to carry on nodding at my comments when I say that I believe this is due either to the failures or bloody-mindedness of some local authorities. They have provoked central Government into action. There has been no sinister conspiracy by the Government to remove local government powers. As I made clear earlier, that is not the kind of approach that I or my colleagues wish to see. However, the Government have been pushed into that role because of the actions of some local authorities.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
Many Opposition Members regret that the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) is not making his speech from the Government Front Bench, and he probably shares that view. Does he admit that it is easy to make extravagant claims for the progress made by the London Docklands Development Corporation because such bodies do not have to apply any of the normal rules of local authorities, specifically with regard to planning? The hon. Gentleman is well aware that no local authority could have proposed the building of Canary Wharf without the Secretary of State holding an inquiry.
§ Sir George Young
We debated that matter on several occasions when I replied from the Front Bench. The GLC was a planning authority, as were the boroughs. They had access to tremendous resources, yet very little happened. I have total confidence in the response that my hon. Friend the Minister will make to the debate.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
Does my hon. Friend agree that the GLC and the then five London boroughs involved spent 15 years disagreeing between themselves about the development of the docklands, each wanting the development that would produce the rateable value and none wanting open spaces? It was only the creation of the UDC that brought that tragic position to an end.
§ Sir George Young
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. As I said a few moments ago, I believe that what has happened in the docklands justified the Government's decision. If we had left the decision with the local authorities, nothing would have happened.
Over the past 10 years things have gone wrong in the relationship between central and local government. I have already touched on one area where responsibility has come 1199 up to Government. There is general agreement that the financial regime for local government has been less than satisfactory. The Government's financial plans have been consistently dogged by local authority overspending.
In relation to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West, the present financial regime for local authorities has been commented upon dramatically by John Banham. I would like to remind the House of what Mr. Banham said recently:'We ought to remember that what reduced New York to the point of chaos less than a decade ago was the combination of recalcitrant public sector unions, politicised appointments, insensitive policing and, worst of all, creative accounting. New York got to the stage of, in effect, borrowing to pay its teachers' salaries.'We sit here thinking it can't happen here. I have to tell you that it is happening here—today.'Mr. Banham went on to list a number of authorities withnegotiated deferred purchase arrangements of well over £600 million.He concluded:We are heading exactly down the road blazed ingloriously by New York. At the end of it is this so-called creative accounting, which means loading on the future generations the cost of taking decisions today.There is some instability with the regime for local government finance.
The difficult relationships I mentioned earlier have caused many problems in the House with the consequent legislative programme. It is no coincidence that the longest sitting since the war, from 2.30 pm on Tuesday 22 May 1984 to 10.43 pm on Wednesday 23 May, was on a local government Bill. The biggest difficulties the Government have had with another place have been on local government legislation, especially the abolition of the GLC. The House has had a rich diet of local government legislation, some of it tastefully presented by myself, but much of it closing in previous legislation loopholes which had been ingeniously opened up by the local authorities.
Another problem has been litigation. I do not think that those of my colleagues whom my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has appointed as Secretary of State for the Environment have been people who have little regard for the law. They have all been highly civilised, law-abiding citizens. However, it is a fact that no one has been taken to court more often in the Government than the holder of that post. That is because of a regrettable growth in the tendency by local government to take matters to the court to try to embarrass, delay and seek propaganda. In most cases the Department of the Environment or the Government have won. However, such action has to be paid for by the ratepayer or the taxpayer and it cannot be right that so much time and energy is dissipated while elected representatives at two levels slog it out in the courts. It did not use to happen and I hope that we can find a way to stop it happening again.
There has also been growing litigation by bodies outside Government. For example, the Audit Commission is quite rightly pursuing through the courts a number of claims of breach of duty by some councillors.
The final ingredient I want to inject at this stage is what I call public disenchantment—the Thamesmead factor. One of the loose ends of the GLC was Thamesmead, the new town built on the outskirts of London by the GLC. When the citizens of Thamesmead were given an option of setting up a private trust under the chairmanship of 1200 Clive Thornton with no financial security at all, or a public trust with the local authority standing behind it and run by the councils, they opted, after an interesting and full debate, for the private alternative.
Although the main services such as social services, education and housing are all provided by local government, if one looks at the turn-out for the local elections it is low. Therefore, on top of the problems we have had here there is also the disenchantment of electors. We have a system of local government that has taken a disproportionate amount of time in the House to get on the statute book and which I understand still needs amendment. It is a system which has led increasingly to challenges in the courts, which apparently allows local authorities to steam towards bankruptcy, which has led to the erosion of responsibility from local government, which has not helped the Government's financial objectives, and which I believe is not that popular with the public. That is my analysis.
Why has it happened and what can we do about it? The second theme of my speech is Ealing council. As with the first part of my speech, I made it quite clear that I believe in local government. In this part of my speech I want to make it clear that my disapproval of Ealing council and others is shared by Opposition Members. The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) have made it clear to a number of Labour councils who have mortaged their future that they cannot look to a future Labour Government to bail them out. I commend wholeheartedly that disapproval of financial irresponsibility. The Labour party has pursued with vigour its own colleagues on Liverpool city council. The leader of the Labour party addressed the parliamentary Labour party on 19 November. He criticised thesensationalism attached to the actions of a few councils.He went on to say:It simply proves yet again that the greatest enemy of radicalism is zelotry.Incidentally, zealotry was spelt incorrectly.
The hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench have tried to intervene with their colleagues on Brent council to prevent the harassment of Mrs. McGoldrick, a good and popular headmistress who simply wants to go on teaching. They have tried to get those decisions reversed and they have failed. The suggestion that the proposition that the activities of Left-wing councils are helping to destabilise the system is a myth put out by Central Office does not stand up. It is a proposition readily subscribed to by responsible Opposition Members.
In Ealing until recently we had a Conservative council for eight years. It was a good council. Of course, we have also had a Conservative Government for seven years, so the memories of Labour were somewhat remote in Ealing and, last May, the electors of Ealing thought they would give the Labour party a whirl. That is a decision that I think they bitterly regret. If that election was re-run next Thursday the Labour party would lose. It came to power with the votes, amongst others, of the Leader of the Opposition and his wife. Over three weeks ago I wrote to the Leader of the Opposition. I think that it is worth quoting what I said:I have to tell you that a number of Labour voters have been embarrassed, disappointed and upset by many of the actions which the Labour Party in Ealing Town hall have taken. Further, when I am asked by potential Labour voters in my constituency what a Labour Government might be like, 1201 I have to tell them that they should only look at Ealing Council to get a full taste of what is, I hope, a very remote possibility…I must put to you a direct question; do you support what is now being done in the name of the Labour Party at Ealing Town Hall, or not? In particular, I wonder if you would be good enough to let me know whether you endorse the four following steps taken by the Council.1. Do you agree that school children in Ealing should be taught that a homosexual lifestyle is as 'equally valid' as a heterosexual one?2. Do you agree that Sinn Fein councillors should have been invited to Ealing Town Hall to meet the Labour group?3. Do you support the flying of the SWAPO flag over Ealing Town Hall? If you were in power, would we see it flying over Government Departments?
§ Sir George Young
I hope that the hon. Gentleman's remark from a sedentary position goes on the record.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
I do not in any way want it to be said from a sedentary position. I hope that when the Labour Government are elected we will do something about getting South Africa out of Namibia and we will be flying the SWAPO flag—[Interruption.]
§ Sir George Young
I have no doubt that Hansard will correctly insert the original intervention of the hon. Gentleman which was in response to a slightly different proposition from that he mentioned when he stood up to intervene. The hon. Gentleman interrupted my interrogation of the leader of the Labour party. My next question was:4. The Chairman of the Planning and Economic Development Committee has forecast that the implementation of Labour's local election manifesto will increase the rates by over 100 per cent. Would you welcome such an increase? Your answers to these questions will enable voters in Ealing to judge whether or not Ealing Council is indeed a mirror image of what a Labour Government might be… If the opinion polls are right it looks as if you may be paying rates in Ealing for quite a long time.
§ Sir George Young
I put that letter on the board when Parliament opened on 12 November. It is now over three weeks later and I have had no answer from the Leader of the Opposition. I have had an acknowledgment from his executive officer, Mr. Richard Clements. He said:I am very sorry about the delay in responding to your letter.He sent me the text of the PLP speech I referred to earlier. He said:As you know Mr. Kinnock is in the United States. I will ask him on his return if he wishes to reply in more detail to your letter.The Ealing Gazette rings me up every day to ask whether the Leader of the Opposition has replied to my questions. The acknowledgment I have had is conspicuous in not answering any of the questions. We really want to know whether what is being done in the name of the Labour party in Ealing is a foretaste of what a Labour Government would do. Are the councillors, two of whom are prospective candidates, standard bearers for the new Labour party, or are they some sort of freak like some uncle or the black sheep of the family to whom one does not refer in front of the childen? We are entitled to answers and I shall go on asking until we get them.
§ Mr. Greenway
My hon. Friend is a most distinguished Member of Parliament, well respected throughout the borough of Ealing and beyond. Many people in Ealing would like to know whether the leader of the Labour party 1202 supports clause 1.4.4 of the council education committee's discussion document on equality, which states that children should be taught that homosexuality and lesbianism are lifestyles quite as valid as heterosexuality and whether he supports the council's placing on school notice boards of the telephone numbers of Lesbian Line and Gay Alliance inviting children to consult those bodies. Should not the leader of the Labour party also say whether he agrees with the chairman of the education committee that every school should have a teacher responsible for sexual equality of that kind, which is apparently more important than learning maths and English?
§ Sir George Young
It should not be the function of a local education committee to seek to impose its perception of homosexuality—in this case, a minority one—on schoolchildren. The leader of the parents' action group in Ealing has said:We are not anti-homosexual, but we don't want rubbish about alternative lifestyles crammed down innocent children's throats.That sums up the approach.
I could have asked the Leader of the Opposition many other questions. For instance, does he support the banning of The Sun and The Times from public libraries in Ealing? As an Ealing ratepayer, I shall have to pay part of the costs of the court action taken by the council against legal advice. Does the right hon. Gentleman support the council's refusal to advertise for teachers in The Times Educational Supplement? For all I know, Glenys may have got one of her teaching jobs through the TES. Does he support the leasing of the Great Western centre in Ealing at a cost of £3.1 million per year to accommodate the hundreds of new bureaucrats recruited since May mainly to service new committees tangential to the main responsibilities of local government? The council is spending £142,000 per year on a new press unit. I am told that its first publication, which comes out today, consists basically of anti-Government propaganda at the ratepayers' expense.
As well as being dogmatic, the council is inefficient. I understand that it has stopped making returns to the Department of the Environment on progress with the planning applications and that only 20 per cent. of applications are processed within the statutory eight weeks. The council is £8.7 million over budget and eating into money earmarked for teachers' salary increases. Voluntary organisations have been told that they are more likely to obtain funds if they actively recruit gays and lesbians. That news was greeted with alarm by Ealing football club.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) has referred to the quality of sex education in schools, which has been roundly condemned by the Council of Churches in Ealing and has deeply upset the Asian community.
§ Mr. Greenway
Is my hon. Friend aware that six ladies in my constituency, who have been in a club formation for more than 20 years and who are all at least 85 years old, have been asked what provision they make for gays and lesbians in their outfit as a qualification for grant? They, too, are very offended.
§ Sir George Young
The council is not only upsetting Tory voters—in a sense, one expects it to do that—but it is upsetting Labour voters as well. I suspect that that is 1203 why Labour Members of Parliament view the goings on with such deep concern. Ealing council has borrowed £100 million on a deferred purchase scheme. Perhaps the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) will tell us whether he supports that and what encouragement he intends to give to Ealing council if he is ever in government. The town clerk was dismissed seven months ago, shortly after the election, and there is unlikely to be a new one until next April. The council also has plans to name streets and public buildings after South African detainees. If buildings are to be named after people, there are hundreds of respectable public citizens in Ealing more deserving of that honour.
§ Sir George Young
I draw the line at that, but there are plenty of good people in Ealing who deserve to have buildings named after them before that honour is afforded to controversial South African detainees.
There are three Members of Parliament for Ealing. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North and I have criticised the council with some vigour, but the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell)—I informed the hon. Gentleman that I intended to refer to him—has been conspicuously silent, rather than defending or even commenting on the more controversial decisions of his colleagues. Given last week's 8 per cent. swing in the by-election in Brent, which has been Conservative since May, I can well understand why the hon. Gentleman feels uneasy.
§ Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)
I, too, have been in correspondence with the Leader of the Opposition asking whether he intends to take any action against my prospective parliamentary opponent in Camden—Mr. Turner, a former leader of the council—who voted to ask Sinn Fein to address not merely the Labour group, but Camden borough council. I have had two evasive acknowledgments from the right hon. Gentleman's office, but nothing more.
§ Sir George Young
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman's office has adequate resources to cope with correspondence from Members of Parliament. When I was a Minister and the Leader of the Opposition wrote asking for a new car, I responded very quickly. I cannot understand why similar courtesies are not extended to me by the right hon. Gentleman.
§ Sir George Young
No. I have been generous in giving way and I must bring my remarks to a conclusion.
§ Mr. Straw
We are all entertained by the hon. Gentleman's speech, but can he put his hand on his heart and say that whenever he received a letter from an Opposition Member he always responded promptly and exactly to the questions asked? My recollection is that his replies were evasive and took a long time coming.
§ Sir George Young
I am deeply offended by that allegation. I believe that one of my failings as a Minister was that I always gave direct answers, even when they were not welcomed by my colleagues.
I do not wish to spoil a good case by oversimplifying the issue and implying that all the problems in local 1204 government are due to the activities of councils. Nevertheless, I believe that that is the single largest cause of some of the problems that I mentioned when I outlined the difficulties in relationships. We have a problem and we know one of the main reasons for it, but what are we to do about it? If I had all the answers I should probably be replying to the debate rather than merely participating in it, but I leave that onerous task in the capable hands of my parliamentary neighbour the Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson).
§ Sir George Young
It follows from my argument that the problems are not structural but political, so the solution does not lie in structural changes such as bringing back the GLC, which I believe would make matters far worse, redistributing functions as between county and district councils, changing the boundaries or bringing back smaller units of local government, however popular that might be. Nor do I think that any magic formula for allocating resources from taxpayer to ratepayer will solve the problems. However the rate support grant system operates, it will be popular with some and unpopular with others. Nor am I yet convinced that the community charge will radically alter the turnout or voting patterns in local elections, although I very much hope that I shall be proved wrong about that.
I do not believe that the system itself is fundamentally flawed. One can spend a great deal of time tinkering with the engine when the problem is the driver. If the problem is political, there is unlikely to be any soluton in the next 12 months, when attitudes will polarise and local government will become more hostile to central Government, but when my party has won the next general election it may like to consider convening a meeting of all local authority association leaders to ask them whether they want the next five years to be like the past five and, if so, whether they appreciate the implications of that for local government. Confronted with that, there may be some modus vivendi that recognises the legitimate political differences between the local authorities and central Government but avoids the litigation and the counter-productivity of endless Bills in this House. That might not work, but the alternative is an erosion of local government and a further consolidation of central Government, which is something I would bitterly regret. I hope that every possible step will be taken to avoid that.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
I welcome the opportunity of this debate and the way in which the words in the motion for today's debate have been framed by the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind). It is good to have the opportunity to call attention to local government and I believe that, at the end of the debate, we will have learned some worthwhile lessons about how we can, in the words in the motion, continue torecognise the importance of local government as a vital part of the British democratic system.I want to address my remarks substantially to democracy and local government. Before I do so, I wish to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) who, for the past five years, was greatly respected as Under-Secretary of State for the Environment 1205 —[Interruption]—well, generally greatly respected. I regret the error of judgment during the last Government reshuffle when he was not given promotion, but was sent to the Back Benches to speak about Ealing.
While the hon. Gentleman for Ealing, Acton was discussing correspondence with the Labour party, the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), from a sedentary position, said that he was still awaiting a reply to a letter he had sent to the Labour leader a year ago. Obviously the problem does not only afflict opponents of the Labour party.
§ Mr. Hughes
I also congratulate on their appointment to the Government Front Bench in the Environment team the hon. Members for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) and for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope), who is not present at the moment. This is the first local government debate since their appointment.
I shall not today devote my comments principally to Government policy, subject to two important preliminary points to which I hope the Minister will respond. First, I hope that we can soon have a full debate on the Widdicombe report. There has been some Government unease that the report, commissioned by the Government, did not come up with all the answers that the Government would have most liked, and some Labour unease that it did not come up with all the answers that the Labour party would have liked. Probably it produced more answers that my colleagues and I liked. There should be a full debate on the report in Government time. The report raised important issues and a debate would help the formulation of policy for whoever is in government after the next election.
Secondly, I hope that the Government will consider soon signing and ratifying the European Charter of Local Self-Government. That Council of Europe charter was agreed in October 1985. It provides that local government should have a democratic and constitutional position—the other half, as it were, of the central-local government balance. It would be good for Britain's credibility as well as democracy if we joined the majority of our partners in the European Community and other countries in the Council of Europe and subscribed to it soon.
As a last introductory point, I welcome the answer that was given yesterday by the Under-Secretary of State to his hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Mr. Wood) that we shall see increased powers for the Ombudsman in the legislation to come this year. That will help to alleviate some of the frustrations of people who, having had maladministration at local authority level, then go to a group of people who have the best intentions in the world and try to do a good job, but often are prevented by law from delivering a quick, prompt and effective remedy.
As I said a moment ago quietly to the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs), I wish to follow much of the theme of the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton concerning the dangers if the Labour party does not recognise the cancer in its own party in local government—dangers in local government which, if transferred to this place, would make central Government a far more totalitarian regime than Britain has ever seen. I mean that in all seriousness and I shall give very good examples from post-May experience.
My first warning to the Labour party is that if it relies on a system of local government finance where the bulk 1206 of the local government revenue comes from central Government, it will always be dependent on Government decisions. That is bad for the financial independence of local government. When the Labour party eventually makes up its mind, I hope that it will support a local government finance system that gives power to local authorities to raise substantial revenue and to spend it. Local government should not be so dependent on central Government decisions.
Secondly, the Labour party must heed the warnings given by its own Front Bench that local government cannot be run on the basis that one day some future godparent Government will bail out local authorities from the mistakes that they have made. It is not acceptable that bad, foolish decisions with ratepayers' money made over the years should be put right later in a sort of buying-off operation for those councils which have acted improperly. There has been extravagant waste of money, and that should be totally unacceptable to any central Government.
Many people in the Labour party are committed to local government and have given a lifetime's service to it—for example, the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay). Many of his colleagues and many Labour authorities have done and do a very good job. But there are others who are perniciously, misleadingly and anti-democratically corrupting local government every day.
The first way in which the Labour party and the Government could make life much better for local government—if they were only brave enough to adopt it without any presumption—is a system of fair elections at local level. I will not argue that case at length today, but it is the shortest way in terms of legislative change—one short piece of legislation would result in many of the extremists disappearing at a stroke.
§ Mr. Straw
I was listening with care to the hon. Gentleman's speech until he got to that point. One of the many difficulties that I have with proportional representation is the suggestion that it would end extremism. Will the hon. Gentleman explain to me, just this once, how it was that Hitler came to power through a system of proportional representation?
§ Mr. Hughes
We cannot now have a great debate about that, but Hitler came to power not least because, once he gained a foothold, he distorted information systems and acted anti-democratically. That is just the sort of warning I am trying to give the hon. Member for Black burn to prevent him and his party——
§ Mr. Hughes
No, I must get on.
I and members of other parties are not alone in our worries about the Labour party. The Fabian Society pamphlet No. 511 of May this year, under the title "Managing Local Socialism" by Alan Alexander—it is a good pamphlet—gives a strong warning:There is a strong case, however, for the Labour Party preparing and publishing a code of conduct which would supplement and clarify the existing Standing Orders for Labour groups. For there is a degree of public disquiet about the way in which some Labour-controlled authorities are being run. No doubt some of that concern is synthetic… But there are also genuine reasons to fear that in their zeal to implement socialist policies some local politicians may sometimes give crucial democratic values and processes short shrift.1207 Among the many recommendations of the Widdicombe report, three recommendations,—Nos. 2, 8 and 24 in the chapter on the decision-making process—are worthy of the Minister's attention. The first recommendation is that the composition of committees and sub-committees should reflect, as it does here, the balance of people in the local authorities. That does not happen in many local authorities, in which committee balance is distorted to give a ridiculous imbalance in favour of the already majority group.
Secondly, it recommends that standing orders and local conventions are adapted to make sure that there is appropriate time for minority party business, as there is here. Thirdly, it recommends that party groups be prevented from influencing local authorities in the future in the way they often do now, particularly in Labour-controlled authorities.
§ Mr. Gerald Bowden
What about the attitude of Southwark borough council? It has 70 per cent. of the representation and the opposition have 30 per cent. membership of the council, yet the ruling party will give only 10 per cent. of committee places to the opposition.
§ Mr. Hughes
That is a matter about which I have written to the leader of the Labour party. It will not surprise the House to know that several months ago I had from him a short holding reply in which he said that it was not his responsibility and that he had referred the matter to Labour party headquarters. However, I have received no reply since.
Until May 1986, the balance in the last administration was 54 to 10. Committee places were shared out according to that balance. Since May, when the Labour party lost a substantial number of seats to my Liberal colleagues and to my brother, who is a Social Democrat—for which I forgive him—the balance has been 44 to 20. Immediately the Labour party distorted the balance on all committees. On most committees there are now no more than two opposition members. On the housing committee there are about four opposition members on a committee of over 30 councillors. That means that the Labour party is afraid not just of people but of argument. It is not even allowing the opposition to be there to put forward their arguments.
That is completely unacceptable and I hope that the message reaches Walworth road that unless the leader of Southwark council is told to do something about it, we shall go on hammering at this manipulation in order to embarrass the Labour party. Southwark is not the only authority where that has happened. Many other authorities have behaved in similar ways.
There are other examples. Legal advice is sought and then ignored by majority Labour groups. In my borough, legal advice was sought on whether a planning agreement should continue to be resisted for the rebuilding of Shakespeare's Globe theatre. The later legal settlement of the court case has cost Southwark £7 million in legal costs, costs which the ratepayers have to find. There is no way of retrieving that sum of money. The advice was that the battle should never have been fought.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton referred to another apposite example. Through a failure to advertise in The Times Educational Supplement, the number of applications for teaching posts in Hounslow has, I am told, gone down 1208 by about 75 per cent. We desperately need good teacher applicants for teaching posts in London. The Inner London education authority, like Hounslow, is desperately short of good applicants. However, they will not be found if all the advertisements are put into in-house party newspapers instead of into newspapers that are read more widely.
I hope that the district auditor in London, Mr. Skinner——
§ Mr. Hughes
No, I should not think he is.
I hope that we shall soon have a decision from the district auditor in London about the delayed rate setting last year by Labour authorities, which resulted in the wasting of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Nine meetings were necessary in Southwark before the authority did what it could have done after the first meeting. That is throwing money away and behaving improperly over money that is not theirs to waste.
In another respect and increasingly, Labour local government copies what central Government do. Before they appoint people to management committees, or appoint them to office on similar outside bodies, they ask whether they belong to their party, and unless they receive a positive answer they do not appoint them. It does not happen, as was the case in Greenwich—just when appointments are made to external bodies. When Labour discovered that my colleagues in Greenwich would have the right to make some appointments, Labour filled up those posts. It also happens on voluntary bodies. The health of the voluntary sector requires non-party and cross-party support.
Also, there are permanent campaigns of disinformation. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) and I served on the Standing Committee that examined the last Bill on local government. My hon. Friend then gave an example of a local authority newspaper in his constituency of Leeds, West. It chooses exactly those areas that are in the Leeds, West constituency and it is clearly aimed at propagating the views of the local council.
I had a major success the other day. I believe for the first time, my picture appeared in my local authority newspaper. It seems almost impossible for any Opposition point of view to appear in my local authority newspaper. My photograph appeared, together with a copy of a letter that I had written to the Prime Minister complaining about the Government's attitude to the National Health Service. It was a perfectly proper complaint. However, it is increasingly rare for pluralist argument to be accepted by many Labour local authority newspapers.
Furthermore, week after week advertisements appear in Labour Weekly for which local authorities must pay thousands of pounds. Presumably Labour Weekly would not stay afloat without them. They are not just advertisements about jobs. The advertisements also say how wonderful the local employment initiative is in Labour authority X or Y. That kind of abuse of ratepayers' money has gone too far.
There are many other examples. In Brent, the ward boundaries need to be reviewed, but the local 1209 administration has resisted such a review. I hope that the Minister will be able to do something about it. I agree with Widdicombe that local authorities should be able to have a few political appointees. They should be appointed in direct proportion to the parties in the local administration. I gather that there are 13 political appointees in Brent but that the opposition have none. In Ealing there are about 20–18 for the Labour group, one for the Conservative group and one seventh of one for my three alliance colleagues.
We must return to a system under which there is fair treatment of the representatives of the different political groupings on local authority administrations. If we do not, the disenchantment—again I use the word of the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton—will continue. People will feel that, unless they are in the caucus or inner circle, their views will not be taken into account. I have made the point about committee places being distorted in Southwark.
The social services in Southwark have been in crisis for four years, largely because many key decisions have been taken by the council industrial relations emergency sub-committee, which consisted only of councillors from the majority group. At crucial times it sent out the officers and kept in union leaders. It made the decisions and then called in the senior officers and said, "This is what we have decided." Against this background, a major inquiry is still taking place—which is being conducted impartially, I am grateful to say—into the affairs of Nye Bevan lodge.
There is perversion of voluntary bodies. There was a welfare rights campaign, which I support, that organised a protest outside the DHSS office in Wedge house, Blackfriars road, in my constituency. I was not notified of that protest, but my two Labour parliamentary neighbours were notified about it. However, I heard about the protest and I turned up, much to the embarrassment of all the voluntary agencies, including the citizens advice bureau, which, to its shame, helped to organise this party political campaign. That is not the way for the voluntary sector to campaign or to win support.
On two occasions in Southwark, Militant has been supported out of ratepayers' funds. It was supported through the youth trade union rights campaign, which is disavowed by the national Labour leadership.
I hope that the Labour group will deal ferociously with the fact that senior members of the council—a chairman of a committee and a councillor in Browning ward in my constituency—managed to abuse council waiting lists in order to move from their home to somebody else's home, by means of mutual exchange, in the full knowledge that that other person was never going to move into the councillors' home, thereby overtaking thousands of people who are desperate for decent housing. That is unacceptable. It demeans local government. Those two councillors should be told that they have to wait in the queue, like anybody else.
My complaint is not only about London authorities, although London contains some of the most anti-democratic and non-democratic authorities. In Manchester, committee places were not allocated to opposition members. Eventually, having received protests, the Labour majority group insisted on deciding which of the opposition members they would nominate. That is a new development.
For months, until they were threatened with a court case, Labour councillors in Kirklees would not allow opposition representation on joint boards. The hon. 1210 Member for Ealing, Acton will remember that he was a party to piloting the legislation about joint board representation, which requires that joint boards reflect political proportions. It was only when court action was threatened that there was a change.
For years, there has been effective one-party control in Doncaster, where the Labour party has a substantial majority, and in six years the Liberal councillor has not been on one committee. That is unacceptable. In Wakefield, Labour apparently says to opposition councillors that they can be members of the committees only if they agree with Labour's aims and objectives. Local government cannot be run like a one-party state. What is sauce for the goose at the moment could be sauce for the gander if the political tables are reversed: that is the danger.
§ Mr. Hughes
I remember Eastbourne. That was a democratic debate, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman is talking about the local authority.
§ Mr. Hughes
I am happy to say that there have been very few criticisms in the local government press about administrations run by my colleagues. I would say equally strong things to them if there were such criticisms. Perversion of proper democratic procedures is unacceptable from wherever it comes.
Although the Government realise that there are valid reasons for complaint about such authorities, I hope that they appreciate that their view, like mine, is somewhat biased because we are in the middle of what is probably the worst region of local government manipulation. Many local authorities do not suffer from that recent, unfortunate and developing tradition. I hope that the Labour party will not only agree that this is unacceptable, but will do something about it. Its spokesmen on local government and the environment, the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), and his deputy, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), are critical of the situation, but so far we have had a lot of words, a bit of action in Liverpool, and very little action anywhere else.
I hope that that warning is accepted by us all, because if we do not deal with problems of this sort, and especially if the Labour party does not put its house in order, then this place will see, I presume, the same sort of distortion of the government system as we see in many town halls. You will become increasingly powerless, Mr. Speaker. Committees will become increasingly biased in favour of the Labour party, there will be secret meetings, and when people who have not been invited turn up the meeting will be adjourned to a secret place.
If that sort of thing is not acceptable here, it should not be acceptable to the representatives of local government in town halls. The sooner the Labour party realises that and puts its house in order the better, because it is doing a gross disservice to local government.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)
I should like to join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) on bringing into the public arena for debate anxieties which many of us 1211 have increasingly felt about the way in which local government has been drifting, especially in parts of Greater London. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which he carefully researched the material for his speech and brought to the public attention many disturbing features of what is happening in certain London boroughs.
I share with the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) the fact of many years' service in local government. During those years I acquired a great respect for my opponents. I disagreed with them on almost everything, but I realised that they were dedicated and had the interests of the community at heart. All those people whom I worked with and against, and respected, have, one by one, despite years of service to their local communities, been demoted. They have been removed from chairs of committees or de-selected as candidates, or even driven from the party to which they had dedicated lives of service.
They have been replaced by people whom it is fashionable to term the loony Left. I do not look upon those people as the loony Left. They are not loony. Most of them are highly intelligent and articulate. Nor do I believe that they belong to the Left, because they seem to derive more of their philosophy from anarchism than they do from socialism.
From my observation of what is happening in the London borough of Haringey, it seems that those people are determined to destabilise society. That has been replicated in the London boroughs in which they have gained control. They are seeking to do that in three ways. I shall enlarge on those. First, they seek to undermine family values. Secondly, they want to destroy respect for the forces of law and order. Thirdly, they wish to create financial instability in the areas in which they have gained control. Each of those methods, singularly and combined, is an attempt to destabilise society in those areas.
The House will recall that on the Report stage of the Education Bill I said that the parents' rights group had tried to present a petition to the council saying that they did not wish their children to be taught that homosexual activity was as normal as heterosexual activity. That proposal was made in the Haringey Labour group. I described how the parents' rights group was vilified, abused, intimidated and prevented from presenting its petition. Since that date, there has come into my hands a document headed, "London Borough of Haringey, Majority Group Leader: Bernie Grant, Secretary: Diana Minns, Majority Group Meeting—16 October 1986".
Appended to that document are the minutes of a meeting of the officers of Haringey Labour party that took place a few months earlier. Interestingly, this document, an agenda for the group meeting, is addressed to more people outside the group than are within the group. They are liaison delegates and group observers. When that meeting takes a vote, where do the councillors stand? They are clearly told what their policy will be by people who are not elected to the council.
The item that I wish to draw to the attention of the House is that it was reported that a letter was received requesting that the council meet the parents' rights group. Further down, without saying that the request had been received, it was agreed that a deputation from the Haringey Labour campaign for lesbian and gay rights should be accepted at the same meeting. Can one wonder 1212 that a riot ensued and that there were enough people there to bully the parents and stop them from presenting their petition to the council? It was clearly a plot to prevent these local residents from expressing their anxiety to their local representatives.
It does not stop there. As I said during the Report stage of the Education Bill, there is evidence that it is made clear to council employees that their jobs are on the line if they do not support every aspect of council policy. Headmasters were told that they could not consult and meet the parents' rights group, and when that group complained it was told, "We are employed by Haringey council and we have to look to our jobs." With that degree of political interference with the professional employees of the council, it is not surprising that the chief officers have resigned one by one. They obtained early retirement, some of them at reduced pay.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
They are well-known locally, and the hon. Gentleman, who used to be one of the motivators in the Haringey group, knows very well who they are.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
No, I shall not give way.
Another minute entitled "Chief Officer appointments" states:The Deputy Leader reported on representations from NALGO about Hay-MSL.That is a group of consultants who have been engaged to advise the council on the recruitment of staff. He reportedon the poor response rate to date; and that he had cancelled the proposed weekend.Haringey has difficulty in recruiting new people who are high enough in their professions to take on the jobs of chief officers of the council because of its reputation throughout the local government world of interference in how professionals carry out their work and try to run the borough correctly.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
I am reluctant to use the privilege of this House to refer to people personally who may be seeking employment elsewhere. It is well known locally that that is the position.
§ Mr. Hind
Perhaps my hon. Friend will confirm that four days after the Labour party took office in Ealing borough council the town clerk, Mr. Collins, was asked to stand down. At the time, the Labour leader said that he felt that Mr. Collins could better serve,a smaller, less politically radical and progressive authority.That is a direct quotation from the Daily Telegraph of 5 July 1986.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
I cannot speak of what is happening in Ealing. I have enough problems following what is happening in the London borough of Haringey.
During the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West I intervened to mention the attitude of the Labour majority on Haringey council to the police. I do not wish to repeat what I said. I will simply draw attention to other matters in the minutes of the majority group which have come to my attention.
The House will recall that during the Broadwater Farm riots PC Blakelock was brutally murdered in the course of 1213 his duty as he went to help firemen who were under assault from a mob. It was thought fitting to erect a memorial to that police officer, who had died in the course of his duty and who was a well-respected and well-known beat officer in Muswell Hill, which is part of my constituency. However, on the occasion of the riot he was ordered down to Broadwater Farm in Tottenham.
The Police Memorial Trust proposed erecting a memorial to PC Blakelock. The minutes of the Haringey Labour group read:Reported that, since discussion at Leader's conference on 18 July, it had become very clear that the Police Memorial Trust would proceed with a memorial to P.C. Blakelock whatever the council did.It is clear that the council did not wish to see a fitting memorial erected to that gallant police officer who was murdered in the course of his duty. The minutes continue——
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
When I have concluded, the hon. Gentleman may intervene. The minutes continue:Accordingly the Council had decided to proceed with a separate and very different memorial to Mrs. Jarrett on 17 October.Mrs. Jarrett was the unfortunate lady whose death during a police search of her house triggered the riots on Broadwater Farm. The coroner found that she had died of a heart attack. She had a very grievous heart condition. So what happened? To detract from the occasion of the unveiling of the memorial to PC Blakelock, the council arranged another ceremony for Mrs. Jarrett to take place on the same day. Surely that could not have had any other objective than to increase and exacerbate the divisions that existed within the local community over those tragic events.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
I have not yet finished on this matter. The Leader of the Opposition attended the unveiling of the Blakelock memorial. He made a fitting speech which negated all that the Haringey Labour party was trying to say to the local public, but on the same day he attended, with Bernie Grant, the Jarrett ceremony.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
So what? I can tell the hon. Gentleman that nothing has caused greater offence among the people in my constituency than that hypocrisy of the leader of the Labour party. If he thought that that would do him any good, he was gravely mistaken.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We all heard the hon. Gentleman's comment.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. If the hon. Gentleman was accusing the Leader of the Opposition of hypocrisy, that is an unparliamentary phrase and I must ask him to withdraw it.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
If I inadvertently used an unparliamentary phrase, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of course I withdraw it. Nevertheless, I am trying to underline the fact that the actions of the Leader of the Opposition in my constituency have caused the deepest resentment. I know that he received letters from constituents, because they have copied them to me.
§ Mr. Straw
We would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would answer two questions. First, what conceivable 1214 evidence did he have for suggesting that the council was opposed to the erection of the memorial to PC Blakelock? I understand that it supported the ceremony marking that memorial and that it was attended by the deputy mayor.
Secondly, I fail to understand the hon. Gentleman's point when he referred to the attendance of the Leader of the Opposition at the unveiling of the memorial to Cynthia Jarrett. The Leader of the Opposition attended the memorial service for an innocent policeman who was murdered, and attended the memorial service for the death of an innocent black woman. Why is the latter objectionable?
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
The mayor of Haringey did not attend. Only the deputy mayor attended the ceremony. No other Labour councillor went. The council had no choice but to send a token representative, because the leader of the Labour party was unveiling the memorial, but the councillors made it clear from their attitude—the minute also made it clear—that the ceremony would proceed,whatever the council did.The economic policies of Haringey council must end in the local authority going bankrupt. That has been made clear, as was said several times during the debate, by John Banham of the Audit Commission. He said that, by a system of "creative accountancy"—borrowing now on low interest terms money that will be repaid later on high interest terms—the local authority would force itself into bankruptcy. The council has become notorious for its overspending and for the fact that the Government were obliged to rate-cap it.
It is clear from the protests on the Opposition Benches that Labour Members do not like what I have said. However, the facts are well known to my constituents, who want me to bring those matters to the attention of the public at large. They are desperately worried about what is happening to their locality. Only a handful of Labour Members would be prepared to say that they support all the policies of the Haringey Labour party. Indeed, from time to time, hon. Members who represent constituencies in the north-east, the north-west and the midlands say that the Labour-controlled London boroughs are the biggest millstone round their necks. So they are. I do not always agree with the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), but he was right to say that the Labour party must watch itself and must be careful about the people whom it has admitted into its midst, because sooner or later they will destroy the Labour party.
§ Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)
It is clear that the debate was inspired by Tory Members for reasons of electoral advantage. For some time now, Conservative Members have tried to smear some local authorities purely for political advantage. When the Government run out of other arguments, they look for new ways to attack the Labour party.
Underlying at least some of the speeches of Conservative Members was contempt for the electorate. The hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind), in his long catalogue of descriptions of local authorities, none of which was anywhere near his constituency, implied that the electors could not be trusted to make up their minds about the people who act for them in their town halls and that therefore he had to tell the electors what was good for them because they were too stupid to know otherwise. But 1215 the people are not fools. They have a pretty good sense of what happens in their town halls and they make up their minds accordingly. The elections last May were a sign in many areas that the electors completely understand their local authorities.
§ Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)
My hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) talked at great length about Knowsley and Liverpool, which are alongside his constituency. I presume that when the hon. Gentleman talks about good sense he means the good sense of the electors in Wandsworth, who continue to return a Conservative administration.
§ Mr. Dubs
I shall deal with Wandsworth in a moment. It is one of the main reasons why I am speaking today.
Several hon. Members alleged that Labour-controlled local authorities are trying to achieve political control over the police. But Conservative Members are politicians and are in the business of trying to continue their political control of the country. In London, the Home Secretary is in charge of the police. He is the police authority, but I have not heard Conservative Members criticise him for exercising political control over the police in London. It ill behoves politicians to criticise somebody who wants to have political control.
In a democratic society, it is legitimate for local authorities to be critical of policing in their areas. Democracy is about people having their say and about institutions, whether local or national, being responsive to the wishes of the people. The difficulty is that, because there is no democratic system of accountability over the police, some local authorities have had to set up their own rather informal structures to allow for some democratic element in the criticism or praise of the way in which the police operate. I have both praised and criticised the police, depending on what they have done.
It is no bad thing to have such informal structures, because some of the criticisms of the police have led to changes in policing methods and approaches that have benefited local people. Nobody who believes in democracy should say that the police should be the one body above criticism. Nobody should be above criticism if people feel that there are honest and fair criticisms to be made.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
My hon. Friend mentioned the position of the Home Secretary, who is in charge of the Metropolitan police. We all know that the Home Secretary is totally non-political. What about the City of London, which, as a local authority, has its own police force?
§ Mr. Dubs
Yes, I accept that, but the question is what sort of powers those police authorities have. Democracy is not about token structures of power but about giving elected people real power. Our criticism of the lack of accountability of the police applies particularly to London 1216 but also to some of the other police authorities, because they do not have power comparable to that which local authorities have over their services.
My local borough is the Conservative-controlled borough of Wandsworth. Its police consultative committee, on which I sit with Labour and Conservative councillors and other people, recently held a conference, inspired by Peter Hain, on the subject of violence against women. It was a useful conference, attended by the senior Scotland Yard woman police officer, other police officers and other people. It debated a matter of major concern to the community, but not one Conservative councillor bothered to attend. If the Conservative party is so concerned about law and order and such matters, why, on such an occasion, did none of its councillors bother to interest themselves in a major issue affecting local people?
§ Sir Geoffrey Finsberg
Does the hon. Gentleman really expect anybody to imagine that a conference under the chairmanship of Mr. Hain could, in any way, be called independent? If it were an independent conference, somebody neutral, like the vicar, would have been found to chair it.
§ Mr. Dubs
Not at all. Mr. Hain is a member of the Wandsworth police consultative committee and as such suggested that there should be such a conference. He produced one of the important documents before the conference, which was chaired by the person who is the chair of the Wandsworth police consultative committee. If it was the wicked event that the hon. Gentleman suggests, why did the police attend and send such a senior police officer? The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong, so perhaps he should not intervene in the debate.
There has been a great deal of talk about the 120 or so section 11 posts in Brent. Conservative Members have been a bit quiet about that recently, although not long ago they talked about it loudly. The truth is that, when Brent council was under Conservative control two or three years ago, it put forward a proposal to initiate a number of posts with section 11 funding. That proposal was taken up by the incoming Labour council. It is the same scheme. The Labour council had the support of the Department of Education and Science and the Home Office and that is how the scheme proceeded. But to listen to some Conservative Members and some Conservative newspapers one would think that this was a wicked Left-wing Labour plot, which is not so. Anybody who has looked at the facts must know that.
§ The Minister for Local Government (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)
As the hon. Gentleman's point affects my area, may I deal with it now rather than later? That scheme was drawn up to provide 178 teachers inside schools to help the large ethnic minority in Brent. A question has now arisen over the change in the method of appointment and to whom the teachers are responsible. On what criteria are the new appointments being made and are they responsible to the head of the school or to somebody outside—so that every school has someone who is responsible not to the school but to a race relations officer in the borough?
§ Mr. Dubs
I am interested that the hon. Gentleman should make that point. I had a similar discussion with the chair and deputy chair of the Brent education committee. It is not a major point of substance, when initially there was a major attack on the principle of the scheme, now to say that there is discussion about the nature of the way in which those people are being appointed and the precise accountability as between the education authority and the heads of individual schools. That question may be reasonable, but it does not make the scheme such an outrageous attack on education in Brent as it has been portrayed by Conservatives in the House and outside over recent months. That is the real point at issue.
Let me deal now with Wandsworth council. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope), the Under-Secretary of State, has left the Chamber, because he had a connection with Wandsworth council some years ago. Wandsworth council is Conservative by 31 councillors to 30, although at the elections in May there were more Labour than Conservative votes. It was a great disappointment to many of us and the majority of people in Wandsworth that there was no change in the control of Wandsworth council.
I happen to know Wandsworth council as my constituency is in that area, so I can at least speak with the familiarity with goes with having studied what Wandsworth council has been up to over recent years.
Wandsworth council has had a policy to sell off virtually every council property that it is able to sell. Some have been sold to sitting tenants, and I do not object to that. But many have been sold to people who are not sitting tenants, to people who may not be high on the waiting list or to people who may not be on the housing waiting list at all. That sales policy has represented a major attack on opportunities for decent housing for many people in my area.
I have a leaflet put out by Wandsworth council some time ago. On the back page there is a heading which says:Well, you wouldn't want to be the last tenant on the estate, would you?That phrase represents a cheap and unpleasant attack on council tenants because it implies that they are somehow not equivalent or equal in status to other people living in their area. It is an attempt to browbeat and coerce tenants into trying to buy their council properties if they can afford to do so—many of them cannot—and there is the implication that it is not desirable to be a council tenant.
Three years ago, Wandsworth council, as part of its sales policy, sent a letter to people living in the Broomwood area of my constituency. It referred to the council wishing to encourage tenants to buy their properties. The letter read:I sincerely hope that you will make the right choice and accept this offer.That letter was sent in November 1983.
In February 1984, the council wrote to tenants in the same area. The letter referred to the estate needing some improvements, then stated:Before carrying out major improvement works it is necessary to arrange rehousing for all tenants in occupation.That was an attempt to persuade tenants to buy. When they did not buy following the 1983 letter, they were pushed into moving out. Wandsworth council had to climb down because there was a great wave of protest throughout my constituency.
1218 Shortly before the most recent local elections at the beginning of the year, the Putney Labour party, in the constituency which adjoins mine but within Wandsworth borough, issued a leaflet headed "Goodbye to Security: Wandsworth tenants beware". The leaflet was about the then Housing and Planning Bill, the right of tenants to stay in their homes, and whether they would be pressurised to move out.
On 26 March, Councillor Gaffney, the chairman of the housing policy committee, wrote a letter to all tenants in council-owned property in the borough. The letter, on Wandsworth council paper, refuted some of the arguments set out in the Putney Labour party leaflet. I am not concerned with the merits or demerits of the arguments that are advanced on these pieces of paper. I am concerned that a Conservative-controlled local authority, a few weeks before a critical local council election, sought to refute a Labour party publicity leaflet, which had been paid for by the Labour party and distributed by it, by a letter which was financed and distributed by the council at the ratepayers' expense.
Conservative Members who talk about politics on the rates, for example, should put their own house in order and address themselves to what one local authority has been doing. I regard the letter from Wandsworth council as an abuse. I think that it might have been more than an abuse. It may be that the letter should be the subject of further investigation. Perhaps it is being investigated, but I am not certain about that. I regard it as an abuse and an example of something which should not happen. If the Minister cares to comment on it, I shall be interested to hear what he has to say.
A number of the blocks of flats in Wandsworth contained asbestos and, quite rightly, the council removed it because it recognised that it was dangerous to the residents. At the same time, it has removed the residents. Instead of the blocks of flats being made available again to council tenants and those on the waiting list, they have been sold to private developers.
I have a sales leaflet about the development of what used to be called Jaycourt in Battersea Park road. It is now called Park South Development. The prices of two-bedroom flats go up to £120,000, which seems pretty expensive. The prices range from £88,000 to £120,000 for two-bedroom flats, which means that many of those who are badly housed in Wandsworth have no chance of moving into these properties. I am not saying that they are all that expensive and I accept that some of Wandsworth council's sales take place at low prices—of course, Wandsworth council's rents are now so high that there is not that much difference between rents and mortgage repayments. Nevertheless, there is an attempt to deride council tenants and to pressure them into buying, at the expense of other badly housed people who are on the waiting list.
§ Mr. Eric Deakins (Walthamstow)
Will my hon. Friend say something about Wandsworth council's policy on the problem of homelessness and homeless families? As he said, it not only makes worse the position of people on the waiting list, but it makes it more difficult for Wandsworth council and other councils, if they have the same policy, to house families, except in inadequate and unhealthy bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Surely that is a point to be taken into account.
§ Mr. Dubs
Some of the problem hangs on whether Wandsworth council deems a family or a woman with a child to be intentionally or unintentionally homeless. The definition is used to try to make as many people intentionally homeless as possible, and an ever-increasing number of individuals in Wandsworth are becoming homeless. They are being put into bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
I have met a number of women with young children in such bed-and-breakfast accommodation. They are desperate. They may have to spend as long as a year there. There may be no cooking facilities in their accommodation, and, somehow or other, they must cope with young children in conditions such as that. It makes them desperate. They must serve that period in bed-and-breakfast accommodation before the council will move them into the next stage of homeless family accommodation.
One woman had poor cooking facilities. She used to cook for her baby in a friend's flat in Battersea. The hotel in which she was staying was some distance away. Therefore, because she did not spend much time in the hotel, the council was told that she was no longer there. When her chance came to move into the next stage of homeless family accommodation, she was told that she had to go back to the bottom of the list and start again; she had not served her time. I challenge that, and I hope I do so successfully. Some of the things that are going on under the heading "This is how we deal with homeless families" are appalling and disgraceful.
§ Mr. Gerald Bowden
The hon. Gentleman alluded to the high capital prices of properties for sale in Wandsworth. Has he compared similar accommodation in Lambeth and in Southwark? He will find that there is an appreciable difference. Prices in Wandsworth are higher. Estate agents will tell the hon. Gentleman that the reason is that people are prepared to pay higher capital values because the rates are lower.
§ Mr. Dubs
I addressed that point a few moments ago. I shall stop giving way if such interventions occur. Yes, the rates in Wandsworth are lower. Rate levels have been assisted by the Government, who were generous to Wandsworth council in last year's rate support grant settlement just before the local election. Nevertheless, prices are high. Estate agents call parts of my constituency "south Chelsea". It is not just a matter of rates, it is a matter of proximity to central London. Locations are good. It is a matter of Wandsworth council desperately trying to reduce the number of people in council properties.
Another issue involves service charges. A leaflet circulated by Wandsworth council states:Flat owners will also be asked to pay a small annual service charge.That sounds fine on the strength of it. Some people have just about managed to afford to buy—sitting tenants—and now they have to pay this small service charge. The difficulty is that the small service charge escalates. On one estate in my area, there was a £900 addition to the service charge because of improvements to lifts. I get angry letters from some of my constituency on the East Hill estate, who bought when the service charges were a couple of hundred pounds or so. They are now in the region of £1,000. They consider that their money is stretched and that they cannot 1220 afford to pay extra service charges. They were not aware that that was another aspect of buying their council property.
I am happy about the idea that people should own their own properties. I am happy about the idea that there should be owner occupiers and that those who are not well-off need help. But I am not happy about a local authority that turns its back callously on people who are badly housed, who cannot afford to buy their own properties and who are treated as second-class citizens both in the way in which the council describes them and in terms of their basic rights. That is not the way local authorities should treat people. I argue that those attitudes of Wandsworth council to local people—those who are most vulnerable and the least well-off—is a thousand times worse than anything that Conservative Members have attributed to Labour local authorities.
§ Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)
I should like to tell a straight story about Manchester. I do not need to embellish it. I shall simply tell it as it happened and the facts will speak for themselves.
I take the House back to May 1984, when the Liberal party joined the Conservative party and about 27 Labour councillors to save the subject then on the agenda—whether the city should retain its lord mayor. After that vote was over, the Liberal party proceeded to abstain. As a result, from that date, all the main council committees have been dominated by a new brand of Labour councillor.
We listened to a good speech by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay). The hon. Gentleman represents a tradition in the Labour party and in local government which we all respect and with which we have all worked for many years, but which is now dying in some main cities.
The Sunday Times of about a year ago described that May 1984 event in the words of the then leader of the Labour group. The article stated:Eleven years ago, Labour's veteran northwest regional organiser, Paul Carmody, was so concerned about the young 'far left' in Manchester city Labour party that he called together a group of senior councillors to warn them: 'You are being infiltrated by Militants and other groups.'The council leadership, dominated by Norman Morris…decided to do nothingMorris, leader of the council from 1974 to 1982, now admits his mistake…'My mistake was in thinking these were the loony left, instead of realising that they were the conspiratorial left. I should have listened to Carmody.'It is interesting that when such statements are made the decent Members of the Labour party fall into two categories—the shufflers and the grimacers. There are the grimacers, who do not believe it, or do not wish to do so, and the shufflers, who know perfectly well that it is true and are very uncomfortable about the idea. We are talking about not simply a political philosophy but a mental attitude. These people bring into local government an attitude of mind that is dictatorial and exclusive of all other views. We contest that.
We argued earlier about the reasons why a particular chief officer in Haringey resigned. In Manchester there is no such problem. Shortly after the change of leadership on the Labour council, no fewer than five chief officers departed. Some were discreet, some went in the fullness of time; but from two of them we know precisely what they 1221 felt. The director of recreation fell out with the new leaders. He admits that his retirement was made under duress, quoting sadly:What gave me most hurt was when these politicians were heard plotting my downfall in a city centre pub.The head of the housing department, Mr. Goodhead, also reluctantly accepted retirement. It is doubtful whether we have had a better swap. Although I have had arguments with Mr. Goodhead, his successor, a 37-year-old American, is still to this day living in a council house, although I understand that he has now found a property in the face of public condemnation. Labour councillors who were not happy with the changes have gone the way of all flesh and many have left.
It is not simply in selecting people that we find this lack of independent view. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) referred to the fact that in many councils—and Manchester was mentioned in this respect—there is a tendencey and, indeed, a policy to withdraw decision taking to sub-committees on which other parties are not represented. In the curious case of Manchester, it was suggested that opposition members should be those who were nominated by the dominant party.
Some people may think that it is trivial, but there have been considerable changes in the kinds of materials allowed in libraries and schools. We know that Manchester Labour party, in conjunction with other Labour parties, is refusing to have any truck with News International, but this month has extended its ban to the Christian World Foundation, which has been placing its literature in libraries now for more than six years and 76 editions with only one complaint. It has now been forced out. There is a growing intolerance and withdrawal to smaller and smaller groups of people making decisions. Opposition Members are aware of what is happening.
The matters which attracted headlines after May 1984, taken one by one, were portrayed as being of relatively small significance. There have been changes in city insignia, changes in respect to the lord mayor, a refusal to hold a VE-day parade for old soldiers of the city, removal of the Queen's portrait, abolition of the police band and a decision this year to have Nelson Mandela on Christmas cards. Taken one by one these may be regarded as of no significance, but there is a cumulative effect in the city. The traditions of the place and the things with which people have become associated have been gradually undermined and changed. Collectively, these changes are not trivial. They are removing the signposts that people need in their daily and city lives.
Many of the charges since May 1984 have concentrated on waste. I only mention that in passing because it is not my main condemnation, but it is true to say that there have been massive expenditures on all kinds of propaganda. I do not want to go into the details, but I must emphasise that it is divisive in character. If the question was raised in the House whether to run a campaign about welfare or a magazine about the police to be delivered through every door, theoretically the decision could be correct. However, in practice there are strident discordant publications seeking to divide one group from another. In total, in Manchester I am concerned with about £3 million which, when compared with the total budget, is small. However, it is marginal money. Much of the budget is committed for very large expenditures about which nothing can be done. 1222 So, if we spend £118,000 on a new gay centre, that is money taken straight off the top which could have been spent elsewhere.
Waste is not the most terrible condemnation of the city. The most serious point is that the whole nature and tone of city life has been completely changed in a way that has produced discord and division.
For many years there was a belief that, although within the political battle there was an argument of one kind or another, nevertheless there was a united feeling about the city. It is a city with many different ethnic groups, but that has always produced a sort of mosaic from which one could see a glorious picture. We do not have that now. We have one group set against another. Even in the trade unions within the city council there is discord. The latest absurdity in which the council was requesting people to embrace AIDS victims has now produced discord within the unions and has had to be withdrawn. Wherever the city council treads it brings discord. Its whole purpose is to set one group against another.
I was deeply distressed, because I know him well, to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs). He is an intelligent and sensitive man and, in many ways, he is also well versed in the techniques of advertising and communication. I wonder, when he talks about police monitoring and police propaganda, whether he has seen two magazines published quarterly by Manchester city council called "Police Watch".
§ Mr. Silvester
I shall give way in a moment, when the hon. Gentleman can answer the question that I am asking.
The producers of the publications are very skilful; they are not idiots. They will stay well within the law and know how far they can go. If one was a nit-picking lawyer, it would be difficult to make a case against them. One could say that the publications are expressing the argument put by the hon. Member for Battersea about making the police force more accountable. However, the hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do the cumulative effect of page after page devoted to alleged misdeeds by the police. Where are the stories that he tells me praise the police? He said that that was happening. That is not here. It is blatant and deliberate undermining of the police position, and every quarter it goes to every household in the city of Manchester.
§ Mr. Dubs
I have not seen the publications to which the hon. Gentleman is referring. My argument was simply that it is not right to say that the police should not be criticised at all. In a democracy we have that right. It may well be that sometimes the arguments are too strong and sometimes they are not strong enough. I was simply saying that it should not be said, as some Conservative Members are saying, that the police should never be criticised. There should be fair criticism and praise wherever it is appropriate.
§ Mr. Silvester
I do not think that my hon. Friends have suggested that the police should never be criticised. I think that most of us have done it at some time or another, and indeed we will have done it in the context of people we know quite well who we think may not have been treated well by the police. However, that is not what we are talking about. The council is an institution. We are talking about institutional criticism of the police, paid for out of the rates 1223 by a local authority which does not have police duties. Its sole purpose—the hon. Member for Battersea knows it if he looks at the publications—is to set the public on the track of believing that the police are behaving badly. That will pay a sad dividend, as will many of the other things.
There was a reference to voluntary groups in the minutes of the council. It was talking about using voluntary groups in aid of the political campaign run by the campaign unit of Manchester. It said:Officers are requested to look at the possibilities of using the range of non-statutory organisations which the Council sponsors as an outlet to advertise the campaign…Approval is given for grants to non-statutory and voluntary organisations to produce campaign material.Many voluntary groups take that very badly. The misuse of what is a widespread and much approved of organisation of voluntary institutions of various kinds for political purposes is very bad and very damaging.
There are three reasons why the situation in Manchester is as it is. First, there is the widespread use of the argument that it is all someone else's fault. I shall not go into the subject of the rate support grant, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) said, there is no doubt that the present structure allows local authorities to cop out and blame other people for all the ills when that is not true. I will give three examples.
There are 5,000 empty council properties in Manchester. The council says that it does not have the money to look after them, but last year it was £1 million underspent on a budget of £11 million for doing up the houses. It is said that education has been disrupted as a result of arguments with the Government, but the Poundswick case is well known. The city council refused to support local teachers and governors in their activities against unruly children. It is perhaps less well known that the headmaster of one Manchester school resigned because of the council's lack of support in the pursuit of discipline in schools.
I am amused to hear that the council is now also trying to blame the Government for the buses. The Manchester buses are still owned collectively by the councils of Greater Manchester, with the city council as the lead authority. They allowed so many people to take redundancy that they were 20 per cent. short of drivers on the first day. It was also a local decision to change all the routes on one day and to put new drivers on every route. It is not surprising that chaos resulted. The ability to blame someone else is at the root of the problem.
Secondly, the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone talked about local support. I give him fair warning. People vote according to old loyalties. They remember times past, as I do, which in the case of Manchester means since May 1984. That is not a long time. My criticisms are not mine alone. They are to be heard in the street, in the pubs and on council estates. People are insulted by the councils' activities and support is slipping away. It takes time, but revenge will come and those currently in power will be swept out. That is our only hope. I do not wish to see local government destroyed, but little by little people from outside the cities are being forced to take a hand in the interests of the people living there.
Thirdly, there is the weakness of the Labour party at the centre. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) 1224 has a reputation for doing battle on this, but it is wrong to suggest, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton seemed to suggest, that the conflict of interest between local government and central Government is the only problem. There is also the use of local government as a centre of power by people who wish to make radical changes in the way in which the Labour party behaves. The hon. Member for Blackburn knows as well as I do that that is so. Those in power in Manchester came to office after five references to the national executive committee of the Labour party. On each occasion the national executive backed off from supporting the local leadership, and I believe that on the last occasion no fewer than nine members of the national executive failed to turn up.
The hon. Member for Blackburn knows this, because it has landed on his desk before, but I return to it because it is so important. Manchester is one of the authorities which have done a deal with a Swiss bank. A loan of £100 million has been taken out through Phillips and Drew. The debt involves no payments for three years and then falls to be repaid, with interest, over a period of seven years beginning next summer. From then on the local authority will begin to pay back that loan and our children will also pay for that loan.
The hon. Member for Blackburn is in an impossible position, because he is not the only one involved. The shadow Home Secretary is a Member of Parliament for a constituency within the city of Manchester and he does not condemn them. The Council is behaving in such a way because it believes that, in the end, a Labour Government will bail it out even though the hon. Member for Blackburn says that it will not. Other Members of the Labour party Front Bench are still unable to condemn and throw out the people and the policies that have led to this impossible position. We simply must have a Labour party which will take a stronger view on these matters.
I have listened to this debate and there is some ambivalence. There is a willingness to wound but not to strike—or kill—or whatever the phrase may be.
Many people come as close as to say that they do not like this situation because it is damaging Labour interests, but it is doing more than that. It is ruining some great cities and some great local authorities. The Labour party simply must act because, at this stage, it is the most powerful engine for change to make sure that the people whom their friends elect in these local authorities are not those who will pursue policies of this kind. It is up to the Labour party.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
I hope that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) will excuse me if I do not follow his speech, which concerns the problems of Manchester. I have no great knowledge of the local government affairs of Manchester and would prefer to leave it to the electorate of Manchester. If some of the things that the hon. Member has said are true, it will be up to the people of Manchester to decide at the ballot box. That is what local democracy is all about.
The motion moved by the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) will find accord on both sides of the House. We all agree that local government isa vital part of the British democratic system".It is a feature of any current debate on local government, if one can grace them with that description, that they end 1225 up in a general slanging match, with Members exchanging their prejudices from one side of the House to the other. That has become a feature of local government debates in this Chamber because of the gross interference by central Government in the affairs of local authorities.
In such debates on local government, the usual crowd of hon. Members take part. Many of the Members, perhaps most, who are present today have had local government experience. I have had 16 years experience as an elected local councillor on the borough council of Lambeth and as a member of the Greater London council. I wish to pay tribute to all those who serve in local government, from whichever party they happen to come. One knows the amount of dedication and self-sacrifice involved in being a local councillor.
What is extremely distressing to me—I must say this before I embark on perhaps the more tempestuous passages of my speech—is the way in which local government has become a butt in this House and in the press—an excuse for prejudice and bigotry to run amok. That is bad for local government and, in the sense that local government is so involved in democracy, bad for democracy as well.
We have had a series of speeches from Conservative Members which bordered on the disgraceful. I had to spend my time laughing, because that was all that I could do. Some of the contributions were awful. They consisted of a long string of innuendos, half-truths and downright newspaper lies. I am not accusing Conservative Members of lying. However, they have repeated what I consider, and what from personal experience in many cases I know, to be newspaper lies.
Since 1979, this Government have done their utmost to undermine local government. During the run-up to the general election in 1979, in a political broadcast the Conservative party said that it intended to take Whitehall off the backs of the town halls. However, since 1979 the Conservative Government have completely broken that promise. I shall give three specific cases.
There has been increasing intervention by Parliament in the day-to-day affairs of town halls and county halls. I do not know what the score is, but there have been 14 or 15 local government Bills. This place has become like a huge town hall. It has become bogged down more and more in what ought to be the day-to-day affairs of democratically elected local councils. If we do not agree with what they do—sometimes we do not agree even with our own side—let the people decide in local elections what to do about their local councils.
§ Mr. Corbyn
Does my hon. Friend recall that earlier this year, in less than an hour and a half, the House decided the budget for the Inner London education authority, thus negating a year of discussion within ILEA at departmental level, director level and authority level? In an ill-informed, bad-tempered and short debate, the House of Commons decided what the education budget should be for the largest education authority in Europe.
§ Mr. Banks
Yes, I remember it well. Also I remember the ridiculous debate that we had on London Regional Transport's level of fares and services when setting its subsidy for the year. These matters were far better debated when they were in the hands of democratically elected local councils. That is their job. Parliament is supposed to be looking after the nation's wealth, or lack of it, as a whole. 1226 It should not allow itself to become bogged down in the day-to-day affairs of a number of councils just because the Government do not like what they are doing.
I am amazed by the obsession of Conservative Members with the various anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-discrimination policies that have been pursued by certain local councils. If a local council tries to do something about discrimination against gays and lesbians, why is there such an enormous reaction on the Conservative Benches? Do Conservative Members believe that we should do nothing to try to end discrimination against gays and lesbians?
It is the height of hypocrisy for the House as a whole to make a great fuss about this, as though every hon. Member was a macho heterosexual and as though some hon. Members had never experienced the prejudice and bigotry that exists against gays and lesbians. Only one hon. Member, whom I believe we all applaud, has felt strong enough to say that he is gay. I believe that he has gained the respect of us all. Until more hon. Members feel sufficiently confident to say that, the prejudice, bigotry and discrimination against gays and lesbians will continue.
It is no use Conservative Members thinking that this is an outrage against civilisation. It is a fact. Millions of our fellow citizens are gay or lesbians, and it is right that they should be able to play a full and an outgoing part in society. Some local authorities may have been a little hamfisted in the way that they have tried to end discrimination, but at least they have tried, and are trying, and, frankly, they deserve a damn sight more sympathy from hon. Members, whether they happen to be straight or gay, than they receive now. I ask hon. Members to bear that in mind the next time they join in all the muckraking rubbish that we read in such newspapers as The Sun, the Daily Express and the Daily Mail, when local councils are trying to end discrimination against significant numbers of our citizens.
I should like to return to my other point because it exemplifies the degree of interference by central Government in local government affairs. It is that, every year since 1979, there has been a cut in the rate support grant.
I am glad that the Minister is back in his place. I came with representatives of my council and my two Labour colleagues from Newham to talk about a partial re-determination for Newham. The Minister and his officials met us and he was cordial and gracious. I hope that he will be sympathetic to our case. We do not like going cap in hand to see any Minister, least of all a Tory Minister, to ask for things to be done for the borough, but we represent the interests of the people of Newham and if necessary I will sit down with the devil to try to get some money out of this Government. I have met other Ministers and I shall carry on doing that because that is what the people of Newham expect from their representatives.
The situation in Newham is serious. I should like to give the House a brief synopsis of our problems. We have the highest level of urban deprivation in Britain. We have the greatest need of all 96 education authorities in England and the second highest projected population increase in London. We have the second highest birth rate and extra service pressures arising from the London dockland development. Newham has the worst housing conditions in London. We have inadequate recognition in the 1227 provision of central Government resources through the GREA capital allocations and, unfortunately, we do not have partnership status.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) knows how often I have asked him as quietly, as gently and as persuasively as I could to give us partnership status, but, although he is always courteous, he has always refused.
Lastly, because of Government restrictions based on the erroneous view that Newham is outer London, we have inadequate local expenditure already. For expenditure comparisons in terms of the map of Greater London, Newham is in outer London but, of course, we have all the problems of an inner-city borough.
In the Ridley Mark 3 fiddling-with-the-books rate support grant proposal, I notice to my horror that Newham is about to lose a further £6 million in block grant entitlements. I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that Newham is the only borough in London in this latest Mark 3 proposal that will suffer a reduction in the block grant entitlement. It has gone down by £5.9 million. It is not surprising that there is so much cynicism in local government when there is so much cynicism by central Government in the manipulation of the block grant.
We all know what is going on. We know that the Secretary of State for the Environment is facing a lot of problems from the Tory shires. Many Government Members are jumping up and saying, "Hang on, we have followed Government policies to the letter and now we are to be penalised. You must not do that because we might lose our seats." That concentrates the mind of every Minister, every politician, because every hon. Member worries about losing his seat at the next election. Of course the Opposition think about seats too, but we are thinking only about winning more.
We have nothing to be ashamed of in Newham. We have 60 Labour councillors out of 60 in that borough, which shows how confident the people in Newham are about the quality of the representation that they receive in the town hall and in Parliament. We do not go around bragging that we have a one-party state, because there are responsibilities in having 60 seats out of 60 on the council, three Labour seats out of three in this Parliament and two European Parliament seats out of two. With representation like that there is only one way to go, but we do not want to move at all; we want to remain static like that for many years.
According to the Department of the Environment's own indices, Newham is the second most deprived local authority area in Britain. Why, under this mark 3 proposal, are we about to lose another £6 million, while Tory boroughs like Barnet, Bromley and Merton will get more? Barnet will get an extra £2.5 million, Bromley £2 million and Merton £1.5 million. Richmond on Thames is a Liberal borough, but no doubt the Tories have an eye on it. It will get an extra £1 million. Those are the affluent, prosperous boroughs of London. They will receive more money when Newham has money taken away from it.
The Minister knows that that is unfair and wrong. While the system allows manipulative Ministers to continue to move it around to their own advantage, what credibility has this system of local government finance? Members complain about cynicism and such things as forward funding, deferred payments and creative accountancy. They should look to their Government for 1228 having caused local authorities to take those actions to try to mute the worst excesses of expenditure cuts and continued attacks on local government services.
We have heard the new Secretary of State for the Environment—since 1983 there have been quite a few Secretaries of State for the Environment—say that he does not approve of or like the system of local government finance devised by his Government. At present, and perhaps for a few months more, it is in the hands of this Government to try to sort it out. I hope that when the Minister thinks about the Newham delegation, which he said was one of the most courteous that he had ever received, he will remember the problems in Newham, because he also said that he would come to our borough and examine the problems for himself.
The worst case of central Government interference in the affairs of local government during the past two Conservative Governments has been the abolition of the Greater London council and the metropolitan county councils. That is still the most undemocratic measure that has been passed by this, the most undemocratic and politically intolerant Government this century. The Conservative party spends much time talking about democracy, but I do not honestly believe that it believes in democracy. When it saw local authorities opposing the political line of central Government, it moved against them.
We all know why the Greater London council was abolished. It was nothing to do with local government efficiency. Anyone can see that from the mess that now exists in London. Eighty successor bodies have followed from the GLC. It was a piece of straightforward political malice, because that is the major motivating force in the mind of the Prime Minister. She did not like political opposition, so she did what all intolerant people do—she removed it by the abolition of the Greater London council.
This intolerance of democracy within the Conservative party worries me because of what may happen in the future when we have a Labour Government committed to Socialist policies. Conservative Members will accuse me of making alarmist or grotesque comments, but I am absolutely convinced that the Conservative party would not hesitate to inspire a military coup in Britain to thwart the Socialist policies of a Labour Government. If they saw the capitalist system under threat, they would stop at nothing to remove a Labour Government.
§ Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)
Is my hon. Friend aware that, having abolished Merseyside county council, the Government left no democratically elected body able to take over the Liverpool garden festival site? The Government insisted that a private company take it over. That company ran for a year and then went into liquidation, leaving £4 million worth of debts. Mr. Anton, who ran that company, still lives in a luxurious Georgian house fringing Regent's Park in London. Is it not interesting to contrast that with what is happening to the councillors in Liverpool and elsewhere who have been surcharged and disqualified?
§ Mr. Banks
It is indeed. I notice that the Prime Minister will soon be living in a neo-Georgian bunker in Dulwich. She obviously has a similar taste for such high living.
My hon. Friend is right. Whatever Conservative Members think about Liverpool, Manchester, Brent or 1229 Haringey, those councillors are not corrupt. They do not have their hands in the till. Whether their policies are right or wrong, the Government penalise them. Just think of all the mistakes made by Ministers of both Governments. Budgets have gone out of control, but none of them is surcharged. When the former Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), got it wrong, all that he did was to say to the House, "The courts have found me wrong, so let us have some retrospective legislation." Local authorities cannot do that. If they get it wrong, or the auditors and the courts think that they have got it wrong, councillors must pay with their political careers and, ultimately, with their personal effects. Anyone who thinks that it is easy to be a local councillor in an inner-city area does not know the half of it.
§ Mr. Greg Knight
Is that not a bogus point? Did not those councillors deliberately act against the legal advice given to them? That is why they were surcharged. They did not act innocently and mistakenly, as the hon. Gentleman is trying to imply. They went against legal advice.
§ Mr. Banks
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in his place earlier when, on a point of order, I said that, since the Liverpool case was sub judice, it might be wrong for hon. Members to pursue it. I shall not fall into that trap, but shall talk about the matter obliquely.
If local councillors pursue a policy because they believe that it is in the interests of their ratepayers and their communities, whatever legal advice is given to them, the only sanction that should be imposed against them is the sanction of the ballot box. We should not resort to the sanction of the law courts. We cannot sort out local government problems by going to court. Courts are not there to consider the problems of an area; they are there only to rule on matters of law. I repeat that I would defend local councillors who defied the law if they considered that the law was passed by a Government whose aims were entirely malicious. That is true of much of the law on the statute book.
I also wish to mention the role of the media generally in joining the Conservative party and Ministers in attacking Labour councils, especially those in the London boroughs of Brent, Lambeth and Haringey. We are witnessing attempts to stir up bigotry, fear and prejudice based on ignorance of the truth. In that campaign, the Conservative party is ably supported by newspapers such as The Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and The Sun. If Julius Streicher or Josef Goebbels were alive, they would undoubtedly be journalists on The Sun, although I doubt whether they could teach that Fascist comic anything.
I understand that The Times has employed a team of three full-time journalists to work up stories exclusively about the boroughs of Brent, Lambeth and Haringey. If they cannot find stories, they will make them up, and the stories will be reported with embellishment by Conservative Members. I suspect that there is much collusion between journalists on those newspapers and Tory central office. Between now and the election, and during the election campaign, a central plank of the Conservative platform will be an attack on the councillors of Brent, Lambeth and Haringey. Conservative Members will refer, insultingly, to those councils being in the control of the loony Left. I remind Conservative Members that the 1230 leaders of Lambeth and Brent councils are women and that the leaders of all three councils are black. I warn Conservative Members to be careful. They are stirring up a rich mixture of prejudice and bigotry by selecting those three councils. I ask them to think cautiously and judiciously before they launch further attacks on those councils. They should not be surprised to find that if they descend to the level of the sewer some of the muck will stick to them.
This debate had a great deal of potential, but while this Government are here there will be no meeting of the minds on what we should do about local government. There is no agreement and no consensus. It is no good Conservative Members saying that they remember when Labour councils were different from the ones that we now have. I remember when Conservative Governments were different. The one feeds off the other. The more central Government interfere in the affairs of local government, the more extremist the policies pursued by the Conservative Government, the more they attack local jobs and services, the more there will be a reaction from Labour councillors determined to defend local democracy, jobs and services in their area. We shall continue to support them.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. I can see at least six hon. Members still seeking to take part in the debate. With a little more economy in speech making, we might get them all in.
§ 1.1 pm
§ Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)
I compliment the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), who is a remarkably good constituency Member of Parliament, although not quite as good as his predecessor. However, how dare he make such statements! I shall go on attacking the foolish policies of councils irrespective of whether the leaders are black, white, Jewish, disabled, gay or lesbian. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that I should not do so, I suggest that he learns again what English democracy is about. I shall be talking about Camden, but I do not have any idea of the religious or sexual leanings of the leader of the council.
As the hon. Gentleman said, this is a different sort of debate on local government from the one that we would have had 20 or 25 years ago. In those days the Labour party was sensible when controlling authorities, and when Conservative-controlled local authorities had to deal with legislation passed by Labour Governments they did not refuse to operate the law.
§ Sir Geoffrey Finsberg
Mr. Deputy Speaker has appealed for brevity, and anyway I am not prepared to give way to an hon. Gentleman who has been in the Chamber for only 45 minutes.
A major fault of local authorities, basically Labour-controlled ones, is that they are hoping to be the 155th or 156th member of the United Nations. There is no part in local government for debates on Cuba, Chile, South Africa or anywhere else. That is not the responsibility of local authorities. The public know this and are beginning to wake up and realise that they are being taken for a ride.
I shall make a few points about what is happening in a typical London Labour borough, that of Camden. It 1231 seems incapable of carrying out proper street cleansing, but is not prepared to put this service out to tender. Instead, the chairman of the appropriate committee gives excuses that there is sickness, or productivity problems. If the task was being carried out by a private firm, it would provide the extra manpower or it would lose the contract or have money deducted from the fee that it is being paid. However, there is no sanction against an in-house work force that is not doing its job properly.
I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) say that he approves of home ownership. It is notable that Camden is among the 11 worst authorities in Britain for the operation of the right-to-buy system. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is keeping that under review. When we passed the legislation, we thought that some Labour councils might try to defy or bend the law. One of them—Norwich—took us to court and it lost. I hope that if my right hon Friend decides to take over the administration of the right to buy in the London borough of Camden, it will not try to waste ratepayers' money on going to court.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) talked about the politicisation of chief officers. It is now a clear fact that if the curriculum vitae of a candidate for office says that he is a member of the local Labour party, he is the one whom the Labour caucus has decided in advance it will appoint. That is happening all over the country, and it is monstrous. When I was leader of a council, I would not have looked at a man who put down that he was a member of the local Conservative party. It is the job of a local authority officer, like a civil servant, to be non-political, as it used to be for chairmen and mayors of authorities. One should not be able to know the politics of a person in that sort of public office.
Ratepayers' money is being spent wildly on advertising, which in many cases is inaccurate. Only today I heard of a campaign being run by Camden on homelessness. It has managed to persuade an organisation called the Community Services Unit that the Government are responsible, and that unit has written to me saying that there should be an immediate supply of funds to start to create homes, instead of massive cuts in housing budgets. That would be all right if the London borough of Camden did not have hundreds of dwellings which have been empty for more than a year which it refuses to let to people on its waiting lists who are prepared to do them up, and when it has plenty of money to spend because it has underspent its housing allocations by over £5 million in the past two years. Yet it prefers to keep such properties empty and to start phoney campaigns. So let us have no more of that sort of thing.
Then there are the politicians who ponce on the ratepayer—those who act as political advisers to a local authority and do nothing except give advice to the local councillors at the ratepayers' expense. In many cases, they are councillors in other boroughs. That is an evil which I hope will not long be tolerated by the Government.
It is a farce to talk of rate consultation. The legislation that we passed saying that before the rate is fixed there must be consultation with business interests is meaningless in many parts of Britain. I shall be seeing my hon. Friend the Minister with a deputation from the commercial ratepayers of Camden so that they can try to explain to 1232 him why he or his predecessors have been bamboozled by officials into thinking that nothing can be done to strengthen the consultation process.
Local councils have deliberately flouted the advice of their legal advisers and have refused to stock Murdoch newspapers. I hope that they will now be dealt with by the district auditor, surcharged and made to pay. I do not see why the ratepayers should have to meet the legal costs of such an action. That is utterly wrong. If anyone should pay, it is the councillors, who clearly knew what they were doing and took that decision for political ends.
Creative accountancy is a system of local government finance which no self-respecting local authority officer would contemplate if it were not for the instructions given to him by his political masters. The Government were late in closing that loophole. The figures are astronomical and Governments will have an enormous headache in the next 10 years in trying to find ways of meeting them. In spite of all that is being done to close the loophole, other ways are being found to go on increasing that sort of expenditure in utterly wrong ways.
Then there is the problem of accountability. Of course, those who do not pay rates are not interested in value for money. In many Inner London boroughs, fewer than 40 per cent. of the voters pay rates. That means that there is no purpose in trying to say to them that there should be value for money. That is why I look forward to the swift introduction of a community charge so that everyone will have to pay something towards the rates. When that happens it will be realised that not everyone gets something for nothing, which at present is the principle upon which many operate.
The time may have come for legislation to be introduced to prevent local authorities from starting political legal cases. Perhaps there should be a reference to the Audit Commission judicial body to decide whether there is a legal case—not a political one—on which ratepayers' money may be spent. I would support that approach, although I would not have thought hitherto that such a form of legal action would be commenced. That was in the days when local government was run properly.
In contrast to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), I think that the time may have come to examine further the structure of local government in Greater London. I do not see why the people of Wembley, Hampstead or Streatham, or those in many other areas, should have their rights and interests grossly overridden by authorities which do not have the slightest interest in their particular needs. The interesting feature is that the demand for this change is coming from the citizens, the inhabitants of these areas, and not from the politicians. I hope that the Government will begin to consider what can be done.
Those who have contested parliamentary seats for many years have been talking about the danger of a Communist takeover. We have been talking of reds under the beds, but many people have taken no notice. We see, however, the advances that have been made by those who are Communists in all but name. The people can see what happens in Labour-controlled authorities such as Camden, Ealing, Islington, Haringey and Brent. When we paint the picture, I believe that people will realise what would happen if they were to vote Labour at the next general election. One of our great allies, besides the Leader of the Opposition and his defence policy, is the policy of 1233 Left-wing Labour councils. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government replies he will find more examples that we can use to show the public the real mess in which Londoners are finding themselves.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
The motion states that we should continueto recognise the importance of local government as a vital part of the British democratic system.In moving the motion, the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) attacked every form of democratic local government in the United Kingdom. This is part of a systematic attack on local government orchestrated by the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in his capacity as chairman of the Tory party, in the run-up to the general election. His happily trained parrots sit around him and regurgitate the same sort of nonsense that is collected by the thought police at Tory central office.
We should be debating the record of the Tory Government since 1979 on local democracy. Since 1979, there has been a continuing process of curtailing the powers of local government, of centralising power around the Secretary of State for the Environment and of attacking local authorities that attempt to do anything to meet the needs of their communities or to redress the many imbalances inherent in our society.
Since 1979 we have seen cuts in the rate support grant. These were followed by the implied threat to individual borough councils that, if they tried to raise their rates to compensate for the loss of RSG, further controls would be introduced. Then the penalty clauses were introduced, which were followed by punitive penalty clauses. At that stage rate-capping legislation was introduced completely to control the funding of local authorities. At the same time, the Greater London council and the metropolitan councils were abolished as part of the process of destroying all opposition to the Government at local levels.
If Conservative Members were councillors in a rate-capped authority, what would they do? If they were faced with borrowing money to continue a capital building programme that keeps people employed and helps to meet some housing needs and maintain crucial social and recreational services, would they quite happily vote to cut, close and destroy local government community services that have been built up over generations? I imagine they probably would.
A comparison of the record of Conservative councils over the last few years with those of Labour councils that have attempted to maintain services will show exactly what the people have in store for them where they elect Tory councils. Since this debate is taking place on the eve of a general election campaign, what is in store for the rest of the country if the Conservative Government are re-elected?
I have had considerable experience of local government. I was a councillor in Haringey for the nine years from 1974 to 1983, and also an organiser and negotiator for the National Union of Public Employees. I dealt with a large number of local authorities and attempted to do something about the wages and conditions of manual workers in local government in particular.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) made an extraordinary speech about the 1234 position that the London borough of Haringey finds itself in—or, perhaps more important, the position that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green finds himself in. He ought to be aware—I am sure he is—that, in the local elections in May of this year, for the first time on the new boundaries, there was a Labour majority within the Hornsey and Wood Green constituency. Presumably, he considers that, if he descends to the gutter and throws around enough muck, he might manage to hold on to his seat at the next general election. That is all that he tried to do.
The hon. Member has never attempted to understand what Haringey council is trying to do in respect of its policy of positive images of gay and lesbian people or its attempt to put itself within the law by the provision of sites for travellers under the Caravan Sites Act 1968. When I was the chairman of the planning committee in Haringey, we attempted to set up sites for travellers. We were attacked by the very same hon. Gentleman for attempting to put ourselves within the law. His remarks about the London borough of Haringey and its lack of respect for law and order come ill from someone who attacks the council for attempting to put itself within the law.
Over the past four years, there has been a systematic media attack on individual local authorities. It was the turn of Camden, the turn of Lambeth, particularly during the period when Councillor Knight was the leader of Lambeth borough council, and now it is the turn of Haringey council. Day after day, Haringey has been crawled over by journalists from the Murdoch empire, searching for dirt and salacious gossip. Journalists have been camping around the gardens of the houses in which Labour councillors live, following them home at night, endlessly phoning them, and going to the schools that their children attend to ask what they do, in exactly the same way that they attacked councillors in Islington after the 1982 elections.
The Minister knows Islington well. He was the head teacher of a school there for a number of years. Does he approve of the media attacks that are taking place on local government, on the principle of local government or on the lives of individual councillors? It is up to him to condemn what the media are doing to individual councillors throughout London.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green—I am sorry he is not here to listen to this, but no doubt he can read Hansard—went on to criticise the behaviour, as he put it, of the local council in Haringey and its so-called intolerance. I ask him to tell us which part of the Haringey Conservative group he supports. Does he support the Muswell Hill moderates, as they call themselves—the old wets of the Tory party, who have served him so faithfully for many years—or does he support the Tottenham skinhead clique that is led by Peter Murphy? That clique has disrupted council meetings, shouted down visiting speakers at council meetings and thrown things around the council chamber. [Interruption.] It is not funny. What I am saying about the behaviour of Councillor Peter Murphy in the council chamber in Tottenham is true. I shall give some examples of what he has done.
On 20 October, he attempted to disrupt the council meeting while Councillor Grant was speaking. Councillor Pat Salim who represents the West Green ward in the borough of Haringey, decided, presumably because of her racial prejudices, to throw sugar cubes continually at the 1235 leader of the council, Bernie Grant, while he was speaking. She was eventually removed from that meeting. A number of Conservative councillors took their shoes off and banged them on the desks to prevent guest speakers being heard. Do Conservative Members condone that behaviour? Is that the behaviour that they support? Do they support the intimidatory Fascist tactics used by those people?
On 23 October, after the travellers' sites joint panel meeting, which Councillor Peter Murphy regularly attends, attempting to raise endless points or to disrupt or prevent the panel's work, the councillor decided to take matters further. This is where these actions go beyond the life of the political work in a borough and become personally obnoxious and dangerous. He decided to visit late at night—well past 11 o'clock—the home of the chair of the housing committee, Councillor Diana Minns, who lives alone with her five-year-old son. He demanded to be admitted to her house and, when she reasonably and respectfully refused, abused her through the letter box before driving off into the night. We need to know where the Conservative party stands on the issue of the behaviour of Councillor Peter Murphy and many others.
There has been a series of newspaper stories on the actions that Haringey council is supposed to have taken. I have a summary of some of them. The Sun on 5 November 1985 ran the headline,Barmey Bernie is going coffee potty".The story said that the council hadordered its workers to show solidarity with Nicaragua by drinking the Marxist country's grotty coffee.No such order had been given. All that happened is that some coffee had been bought and it was available in the council's canteens if people chose to drink it. The Mail on Sunday on 2 March 1986, under the headlineThe racist bin liner is blacked",ran the storyBlack bin liners have been banned by Haringey Council because they are racially offensive.There was absolutely no truth in that. Those bin liners have been used by Haringey council because they are the cheapest available. The summary goes on and on about the various actions that Haringey council is supposed to have taken. The Daily Mail on 9 October this year ran the headline, "Baa Baa Green Sheep." The story stated:The Council has banned the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep and insisted it be replaced with Baa Baa Green Sheep.That had never been discussed or proposed in the council. Despite The Daily Mail reporters crawling over every playgroup in the borough to find evidence of that, none could be found. That is what intimidation is.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
My hon. Friend is giving perfect examples of what I mentioned in my speech, which is that newspapers such as The Daily Mail and The Sun just tell dirty, downright lies, which are repeated—no doubt innocently—by Conservative Members. My hon. Friend would obviously be interested to know that The Daily Mail put someone into county hall who told us, before he was quickly removed, that his express instruction from his editor was to go in to county hall and do the dirt on the GLC.
§ Mr. Corbyn
I thank my hon. Friend. What he experienced during his time on the Greater London 1236 council is exactly what councillors are now experiencing in different parts of the country. The concept of democracy in this country is called into question when we have media which are controlled by so few people who make a great deal of money from lowering standards to the extent shown by the Murdoch empire.
We should not spend all our time discussing the Conservaive attacks on Haringey council. We should recall the fact that the Government have, through their agents at head office, started a smear campaign against a whole series of local authorities. They have chosen one authority after another. Haringey happens to be in the front line today. Islington may be in the front line tomorrow and Newham the day after that, as a marauding band of gutter journalists wander around the country looking for rubbish and lies to print about Labour councils.
It is important that we recognise what lies behind the smear campaign run by the Government and the newspapers against local government. They are trying to hide what the Tory and Liberal councils are up to. A number of Tory councils are not building houses and are selling off wholesale complete estates. They are causing the destruction of people's lives by privatisation, the sacking of school cleaners, school meals workers, home helps and others. That is the destruction of local government that is happening, presumably with the approval of Ministers and Conservative Members.
The question of political appointments has troubled Tory Members a great deal. I do not know if Conservative Members are aware that the leader of Harrow council, Councillor Don Abbott, has announced his intention to appoint a personal adviser at a salary of £15,000 a year. I trust that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) is aware of what is happening and will write to Councillor Abbott and condemn him for his actions. Councillor Abbott is quoted as saying:I would not care to have someone from Militant Tendency working for me.Presumably that will be a political appointment, to ensure that whoever is appointed as personal adviser is of the same political persuasion as the leader of the council.
Behind all these matters there is the very serious issue of privatisation in local government. I should like to quote from the Secretary of State for the Environment and refer to remarks that he made to the Selsdon group on 3 October 1986. He seems to be a very dissatisfied man, and he is not happy with the amount of privatisation that is going on:There are local authorities in America that contract every activity out, even police and fire services. Folk memory has it that there is even one authority which meets once a year to award the contracts, has lunch and goes away again for another year.Is that what the Government want to achieve?
§ Mr. Skinner
On the subject of contracts, and as some of us will not be able to speak in the debate because of the lack of time and the long speeches that have been made, would my hon. Friend note the fact that it is not just Tory Councillors that are engaged in corruption in local authorities?
I have before me a statement regarding Eastbourne borough council, which is Liberal-controlled. A planning application has been put forward to resurrect what is known as the Eastbourne marina. Many millions of pounds will be made if that project goes forward. As a 1237 result of the opposition, I have been provided with material that shows that the Liberal-controlled Eastbourne council earlier this year appointed a senior officer to work two days a week, a man called Mr. Maurice Howells. He is working on behalf of Tarmac and Enterprise Zones Ltd., in league with the Chatsworth Trustees, the developers for the Eastbourne marina. The Liberal council has appointed a senior officer to work two days a week who, on the other days of the week, is working for the company that has made the planning application to change the whole nature of Eastbourne. That is a scandal that should be investigated and I hope that the Minister will examine the matter very closely.
§ Mr. Corbyn
The House owes a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) for raising that important matter. No doubt in the 30 minutes before he speaks the Minister will have a chance to consult his officials and announce that there will be an inquiry into what is going on in Eastbourne.
I shall draw the attention of the House to some of the problems that have occurred because of the privatisation of services in a number of Conservative-controlled councils. I recently visited Buckinghamshire and took part in rallies and demonstrations opposing the privatisation of the school meals service. Sadly, that service has now been destroyed. Instead, the children who get free school meals—there are still some who are able to get them—are given a polythene bag once a day with a couple of sandwiches and an apple in it. That is their lunch. The other children who can afford to pay for their meals queue up and get them in the normal way. The children getting free school meals are singled out for particularly disgusting treatment. In the schools covered by Berkshire county council, where this year the Christmas lunch will be the normal Christmas lunch for those children who pay for their school meals, the children on free school meals will be given bangers and mash at a separate table. That is the sort of policy being pursued by Tory councils.
In the case where services have been privatised, the record of contract failures is legion. The contract failures in the school cleaning service in Cambridgeshire have led to an enormous number of complaints. The contract failures in Wandsworth have been recorded previously in the House.
Wandsworth is continually being compared with Lambeth. We have all seen the boring picture of the street which allegedly—I am sure it does—divides Lambeth from Wandsworth. There are a few things we should know about the difference in the record of those two councils. Average rents have been raised by 30 per cent. in Lambeth and 87 per cent. in Wandsworth. From £12.50 in both boroughs, rents have gone up to £16.50 in Lambeth and £22.50 in Wandsworth at 1985 prices. That means that Wandsworth's rents now come close to the private sector average rent for London.
Since 1979, Lambeth has contructed 4,610 new homes. Wandsworth has built 60 sheltered homes for the elderly and sold one in five of the council dwellings. It is hardly surprising that the housing waiting list is so enormously long in Wandsworth. One could also compare the services to the elderly and all the other things that are important about local government and one would then see why the comparison ought to be made in the way of comparing the 1238 defence of services and so on. For all that, the Lambeth councillors were taken to court, thrown out of office and surcharged and they will be denied public office in the same way as the Poplar councillors were thrown out in 1921 and the Clay Cross councillors in 1973.
I hope that we will return again to debates on local government, because it is important. It is important that there should be democratic rights locally and local accountability and that the problems of areas are dealt with locally, not by the House because the House is not capable of dealing with those. While we have a financial straitjacket on local government and a legal straitjacket on the ability of local councillors to take decisions, those things will not be possible. This debate is important. It is a shame that it has been introduced by the clones of the chairman of the Tory party, who seem to have been repeating all his worst utterances throughout the day.
§ Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)
I ask hon. Members and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to listen very carefully, because in the interests of brevity I shall say this only once. Bristol city council covers half my constituency. Before May, very few people would have believed that what is now happening in Bristol could have happened. The women's committee that we now have in Bristol is an active body. It consists of six Labour and three Conservative councillors. The three Conservative councillors are all female. There are no alliance councillors, in spite of the fact that the alliance has several female members on the city council. The six Labour councillors consist of five females and one male. The male has been put on the committee to maintain the majority, but has been sworn to silence. Is that really representing the interests of women in Bristol?
The first leaflet issued by the committee depicts a large number of women in different areas of society. Amazingly, more than two thirds of them are non-white. Bristol is a multiracial society in which 5 or 6 per cent. of the population are non-white, and I welcome those people to the city, to which they make a major contribution. Nevertheless, it is scarcely representative of the city to depict a proportion of more than two thirds.
The women's committee is costing the city a great deal of money. It is spending £25,000 on a women's resource and trade union centre, and £50,000 on a construction training scheme for women. I have not seen many women brickies or carpenters, so if the scheme is not providing additional female labour for the construction industry the money could perhaps be better spent. That is certainly the view of the vast majority of citizens of Bristol.
§ Mr. Hayward
In the St. George West ward by-election yesterday the Labour party obtained the lowest vote ever, lamentably failing to win the ward from the Liberals, so local citizens are taking note of what the city council is doing and are turning away from the Labour party.
The money being spent on ludicrous schemes such as the women's construction training scheme could be spent on other, better schemes. At a recent meeting in Fishponds, the women's committee was approached by local parents asking for a nursery, which would cost much less than the money being spent on the women's committee. So far, the parents have not received a reply. 1239 Only three weeks ago, the city council voted to remove the £10,000 grant for the children's festival. Several thousand children take part in that festival. That is surely preferable to expenditure on minority interests of very little benefit.
Finally, operation and delivery took place in St. Paul's on 11 October. The Labour councillor for Ashley ward, which covers St. Paul's, has announced that he intends to resign at the next election. The prime contender to replace him is a gentleman called Mr. Kuomba Balogan. When the assistant chief constable had a stroke, Mr. Balogan expressed the wish that he should die. Mr. Balogan has also recently been found guilty of assault on the police during the riots. He received a suspended sentence of three months. Appeals are being pursued with the direct intention that he should be the next Labour candidate in Ashley ward. Surely no self-respecting party could support a candidate convicted of assault on the police—
§ Mr. Jack Straw
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If an appeal against the conviction is pending, surely the matter is sub judice. How can it lie in the mouth of the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) to speculate on the reasons for the appeal, which may well have been entered on the ground that the defendant objected to the conviction?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. If an appeal against conviction is pending, the matter is sub judice from the point of view of our proceedings. I hope that the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) will respect that.
§ Mr. Hayward
I will respect your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should tell the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), however, that I was referring to speculation that has appeared at great length in the Bristol Evening Post.
§ Mr. Hayward
I understand that time is short, so I shall bring my comments to a close. I should have liked to refer to many other matters, such as the banning of the Gloucestershire Regiment and council policy in relation to the urban programme, but in the interests of brevity I shall not do so.
§ Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)
We are grateful to the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) at least for devoting today's debate to local government. The motion, if not his speech, deserves our support. The hon. Gentleman is not in his place for my reply to this debate, although all of us share his confidence in the imminence of a Labour Government, about which he spoke at great length. Indeed, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) described the Labour party as a powerful engine for change.
Local government plays a central part in the lives of us all. It empties our bins, cleans our streets, cares for our elderly relatives and educates our children. Local government pioneered the services which have done so much to improve the quality of life in the past 100 years. Pure water, gas, electricity, public transport, hospitals, and public housing were all services begun by local councils. Council housing transformed the lives of millions of families and provided an escape from the terrors of private 1240 landlords. Today local authorities employ over 2.25 million people and spend over £26 billion each year, which accounts for about 7 per cent. of our total gross domestic product.
Local authorities also play a crucial role in our democracy. Some 24,000 people of all political per-suasions, or none, make great personal sacrifices to work voluntarily for local communities. Within a plural democracy like ours, local councils provide people and their communities with the means of speaking against the Government. It is no accident that, under dictatorships, autonomous local councils are the first to be replaced by gauleiters and commissars under centralised control.
Because of the central importance of local government to the quality of life and the running of our democratic system, it needs to be treated with care by this House and by the Government. I regret to say that many of the speeches from Conservative Members today started in the gutter and finished in the sewer. Conservative Members seem to forget, all too readily, that democracy is not about according rights to those with whom one agrees, but it is about according rights to those with whom one disagrees.
All of us have a right, as citizens, to question the individual decisions of local councils, but if we care about justice and democracy we do not have the right to question the legitimacy of freely elected councils to make decisions and to be accountable for those decisions to their local electorates. It is not right wantonly to denigrate and abuse some individual councillor, usually on the basis of inadequate evidence, and often on the basis of no evidence.
I regret that the hon. Member for Lancashire, West, who initiated this debate, is not in his place for this reply.
§ Mr. Straw
I have no idea. Unlike the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), who presented his apologies through the Minister for not being here, the hon. Member for Lancashire, West has done no such thing.
The opening speech of the hon. Member for Lancashire, West, which proved that he could read a Conservative central office brief, was a tissue of innuendoes and half truths. In the course of his speech he said that the Inner London education authority does not allow police into ILEA schools. It was a claim made in the tradition of Dr. Goebbels, who believed that if one repeated an untruth often enough some people would come to believe it. The hon. Gentleman's claim is not true.
It is true that the Inner London Teachers Association—which is a branch of the National Union of Teachers, but which does not enjoy the support of the NUT nationally—at one stage objected to the presence of police in some ILEA schools. To disprove the claim that somehow Labour authorities are always in the pockets of individual trade unions branches—I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Lancashire, West has now arrived—I wish to make it clear that ILEA has not had a policy of banning police from its schools. There is no school within the authority which does not allow police into the schools in any circumstances
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that six months ago Commander Larry Roach of the Metropolitan police wrote on behalf of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis formally apologising to ILEA and admitting that the information that they thought they had about ILEA policy was entirely wrong.
1241 One of the problems that Conservative Members face is that they know nothing about our public education system because they do not use it. I said earlier that my children are in ILEA schools. I have sat through school assemblies during which we have been entertained and informed by members of the local police. It is untrue—and the hon. Member for Lancashire, West needs to apologise to ILEA for repeating the untruth—that ILEA does not allow the police into schools.
Conservative Members have also expressed concern about the fact that some Labour councils want to ensure that those with gay or lesbian tendencies are treated fairly. However, they are treading a very dangerous road. It is notorious that a number of Conservative Members of Parliament, some of whom are in high places in the Conservative party hierarchy, have homosexual tendencies. They deserve the same tolerance as Labour councillors are trying to ensure for gay and lesbian people in their communities. Conservative Members ought to put up or shut up. If they say that it is wrong for homosexuals to teach in schools, are they also saying that it is wrong for homosexuals to seek the leadership of this country, or to seek prominent positions in the Conservative party and in this House?
The first cry of Conservatives in their pursuit of local government is about rates and votes. The outcome of free elections by means of a secret ballot is challenged on the basis that many voters do not pay full rates. We shall hear this argument again and again as justification for the poll tax. It is a most insiduous and sinister argument, and it needs to be nailed. Of course some families do not pay rates. Their incomes are so low that they cannot afford to do so, as Parliament itself has decided. Are we now to be told that an income qualification is to be reintroduced as a voting qualification? Is the whole of the struggle in the 19th century for universal suffrage to be cast aside, a struggle in which the "one nation" Disraeli Conservatives played an honourable role? Many of the same families, because they are poor, do not pay income tax, either. Are they to be denied a vote in national elections? If not, what is this argument about? The number of households that pay income tax is little different from the number of households that pay rates.
This argument is insiduous and sinister. It is also entirely bogus. Almost the same proportion of voters paid no rates in the late 1970s as in 1982. In those years, the Conservatives did well in local elections. I do not recall that on those occasions they sought to qualify their victory claims by referring to the inadequacy of the local franchise.
§ Mr. Skinner
Would my hon. Friend care to look at the facts relating to those who have managed to build a £500,000 house at Dulwich? If a poll tax were to be introduced at around £300 or £400, which is the kind of figure that is being mentioned for everyone, it would mean that the Prime Minister would be saving herself several thousand pounds a year in rates. However, some of those to whom my hon. Friend has referred—for example, the people of Derbyshire—have just been hammered by the Government, who have removed another £22 million, which will mean a 10 per cent. increase in the rates. Do not such comparisons show that this Government are about lining their own pockets, while attacking those who are below the poverty line?
§ Mr. Straw
My hon. Friend is right. The advantage to the Prime Minister, if her rates were cut in that way, would be reflected in a further increase in the capital value of her home, so she would benefit twice over—as would the rich across the whole of the land, if the poll tax were introduced.
The real reason for the claims that have been made is very simple. It is that across the country the Conservative party has lost the support of the electorate in council election after council election. The Conservative party has never been weaker in our town halls. Today it controls only one metropolitan district out of 36, 10 shire counties out of 39 and 10 London boroughs. The modern Conservative party is psychologically incapable of coping with defeat, so it searches for scapegoats, and now it seeks to vent its wrath upon the ratepayers.
One of the problems that local government generally has had to face over the last seven years has been the massive cuts in rate support grant. We see crocodile tears being shed over the level that rates have reached, especially in inner city areas. It is no wonder that they have reached those levels, because the rate support grant has been cut by almost £18 thousand million since 1979 and that has led to a trebling of the average domestic rate bill. That is well above the increase in general inflation, and well above the increase in the expenditure of those local authorities. That overall cut in the rate support grant obscures an even greater loss of resources to the areas which need them most, the inner city areas and the shire counties, such as Derbyshire and Lancashire, which are also trying to cope with major levels of unemployment and social deprivation.
The Government's refusal to acknowledge the problems of local authorities is made worse by the now blatant political manipulation, verging upon corruption, of the rate support grant system practised by the present Secretary of State. We had the occasional difference of emphasis with the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) and his successor the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker), but at least by their own lights they cared about local government and local government democracy. The same cannot be said of the present Secretary of State, who has shown a contempt and hatred for local government never before experienced from a Secretary of State.
On Wednesday we saw the results of a crude political exercise in which the Secretary of State sought to bend the rules in favour of a number of shire counties in which there are hon. Members desperate to retain their seats. In a deceptive statement to the House, the right hon. Gentleman claimed that the rules had been changed because of new data. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris) smiles in a knowing way when I suggest that there was some deception. If we look at the Secretary of State's own tables, we see that the effect of the new data, such as it is, is minimal compared to the effect of explicit political decisions on safety nets and capping arrangements. That is why Cleveland has lost £10 million, Derbyshire £22 million and Birmingham £30 million.
In this debate we have heard a lot about the police, and Government Members have said that they are worried about the police. Will those hon. Members join us in the Lobby? Will the hon. Member for Lancashire, West join us in the Lobby and vote against this rate support grant proposal, which would cut the Merseyside police budget and the grant from central Government by £6 million? 1243 Will he vote for it? Will the hon. Member for Withington, who says that he is worried about the anti-police bias of Manchester city council, vote against the £2.5 million cut in the Greater Manchester police budget and the grant from central Government?
We will soon see on which side Government Members stand on the question of the police. We will see whether they back their prejudice with votes on behalf of the police, or votes in favour of cutting the police budget. By how much will the police force in Merseyside be cut when £6 million of grant is taken away? Will there also be force reductions in Manchester when £2.5 million is taken away? A great many policemen on the beat will go because of those cuts, and Conservative Members who are so prejudiced against local government will be to blame.
The manipulation is there to be seen. Hertfordshire will gain £6.3 million, and Surrey will gain £8 million. I know some poor people in Surrey, and I hope that they will get some of that £8 million, but the chances are that it will be used simply to cut the rates. Oxfordshire will gain £2.5 million, and Hampshire £4 million. In this debate there have been many attacks upon Labour-controlled councils. In a democratic party, a phrase which Government hon. Members do not entirely understand, it is not the job of the national leadership to endorse every action of local councils. That is a matter for those councils, for which they must be accountable to their electors.
If the stories that we have heard today were true, or even if a tenth of them were true, it is improbable, to say the least, that any of those councillors, who obviously have a direct line to the devil, could ever have been elected as the secretary of a tiddledywinks club, even when there were no other applicants, but they were elected last May, just six months ago, on a clear policy, because the Labour party cannot be accused of developing its policy in secret. We develop our policy in public, the manifestos were there, and people voted for us in larger numbers than for many years.
The hon. Member for Withington is not here to hear the reply to the debate. He told us a sad tale of the loss of support for the Labour party in Manchester. I am glad that he feels for us, but I must place on record the fact that, since 1983, in elections in Manchester support for the Labour party has increased. In the hon. Gentleman's constituency, Labour has councillors in every ward except Didsbury. Manchester used to be a Conservative stronghold. I say to Conservative Members, "Have confidence in the electors." Why are Conservative Members spending the entire day bad-mouthing Labour councillors when, if ordinary people considered that they were that bad, they would be swept out of office tomorrow?
We have not heard much about the true record of Labour councils. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) and others for rebutting some of the claims that have been made about councils in London. Yes, on the whole, Labour councils spend more than Conservative councils. We make no pretence about that. That is one of the differences between the parties, but we are as concerned, if not more concerned, about true efficiency, because we have a commitment to public expenditure and public service, not a desire to undermine it.
1244 We hear abuse and vilification of Southwark, but when, in all that abuse and vilification, will the Minister acknowledge some of the other things that it has done, and some of the major and minor things that it has introduced? The jobs and industry committee has a training scheme for repairing microcomputers. Associated Newspapers was attracted to Surrey docks. That can hardly be called a politically biased decision.
§ Mr. Straw
I understand that Southwark played a part in that. A Black enterprise scheme was set up, and a business advice service was established. A loan guarantee scheme was introduced to assist local firms. A council campaign for home workers was launched. Good recreational facilities, which my family and I sometimes have the privilege of using, were provided. Many good things occur in these boroughs, yet all the time they are the subject of vilification and abuse.
It is a mark of the extraordinary bias of the press that many of the excesses of Conservative authorities receive no attention whatsoever and those of Liberal authorities remarkably little. I ask Ministers whether they approve of the way in which the Conservative-alliance coalition cut school transport in Bedfordshire by £80,000 causing major disruption to the pattern of schoolchildren's journeys, and cut 100 secondary school teachers. Do Ministers approve of the fact that Conservative councillors in Blackpool spent £200,000 junketing on the rates? As we have been told about the need for recognition of and respect for minorities, which I entirely applaud, does the Minister approve of the fact that, in Enfield, guillotines are imposed on discussion? No deputations of any sort are allowed.
§ Mr. Corbyn
Is my hon. Friend also aware that in the neighbouring borough of Barnet the most extraordinary set of standing orders apply? They are designed to prevent Labour members of the council, because of the size of their group, from taking almost any part in full council meetings, and even to curtail their ability to raise matters in committee meetings. Does he think that the Secretary of State should launch an investigation into what is happening there?
§ Mr. Straw
We need national guidelines on the way in which minorities are treated. For example, the way in which Enfield behaves compares very unfavourably with the way in which Islington allows facilities for minorities. We have had complaints about the circumstances in which Haringey allowed a deputation. What about Enfield? I understand that it does not allow any deputations. Does the Minister approve of what has been happening in Merton, where the council is trying to close a school in such extreme circumstances that a Conservative councillor has been attacked by other Conservatives for having only dollar signs in his eyes?
Does the Minister approve of the record in Shropshire? Until two years ago, when the Conservatives lost office, roads were disintegrating and there were no local authority leisure services, such as indoor pools. We have heard much about Wandsworth council, for which the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment used to be responsible. Its private auditors, Deloitte Haskins and Sells, rapped the council's sales policy, yet the councillors dismissed the auditors' criticism. What does the Minister 1245 say about the cavalier way in which Wandsworth council has treated an auditors' report? Or is it different when Conservative authorities are criticised? What about Buckinghamshire, where the school meals service for 90,000 children will be scrapped and 1,500 school dinner ladies will be fired?
When will we hear about what has been happening in Westminster? Will the Government take action in respect of the £10 million which has been lost because Westminster city council failed to charge business traders, or will Conservative Members remain silent about this clear abuse and loss of ratepayers' money? What about the £50.000 which Westminster city council proposes to spend on a glass screen to separate the unwashed public from the council? We do not even have a glass screen in this Chamber. Does the Minister approve of that proposal by a Conservative-controlled council, especially when there has been no record of violence at council meetings? The Minister remains silent. It is all right if it is done by a Conservative council, regardless of the abuse of ratepayers' money or the lack of respect shown for the wishes of voters.
In Berkshire, the nursery programme was torn up. What about the record of Kensington and Chelsea council? In an unprecedented ruling, it told a Bangladeshi family of six, who were legally resident in Britain, that their home was legally in Sylhet, Bangladesh, not in Britain, and that they could not be rehoused because they came to this country and made themselves intentionally homeless. The husband of that family has lived in England since 1964 and has every right to settle here. What is the Conservative party's view on that? What is the view of the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office—the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott), who is the great Left-wing conscience of the Conservative party—especially since the legal requirement on councils to house the homeless is contained in the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, which he sponsored through the House? We want answers to those questions.
Finally, I draw to the attention of the House the remarks of Mrs. Una Goldie Gardner, who is a Conservative county councillor in East Sussex and the former chairman of the East Sussex further education sub-committee. We have heard today about Labour councillors who have said some silly things—indeed, worse things than that lady said—but does the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) think that it was reasonable for Mrs. Una Goldie Gardner to have said that the parents of the murdered Brighton schoolgirls should bear some blame for their children's fate? Is that the face of the modern Conservative party? Should she have said that those parents in anguish should bear some blame for their children's fate, knowing nothing whatever of the circumstances of the case? If those words had been used by a Labour councillor, we would not have heard the end of it.
§ Mr. Straw
Yes, she resigned. So what? She resigned as chairman of the further education sub-committee, but she is still a Conservative. She is still a member of the Conservative party, and I know of no Conservative Member or Minister who has said a word against that woman. If the same words had been said by a Labour councillor in the same circumstances, we would never have 1246 heard the end of it in one newspaper after another, but at least the leadership of the Labour party would have had the guts to stand up and condemn it.
We have not had time to talk about the real corruption in local government, the corruption that will be institutionalised when the privatisation Bill goes through and we shall see in some detail the financial connection between Conservative Members
§ Mr. Straw
Oh, yes. We know the link between private cleaning contractors and the Conservative party receiving funds. Local government deserves much better than it is getting from the Government. Local government is central to the lives of our people and we want to hear from the Minister what good he will do for local government, not what bad.
§ 2.5 pm
§ The Minister for Local Government (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)
I agree with the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) that local government is vital to our society. It is always nice to find something in a speech with which one can agree. I also share his satisfaction that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) has had the opportunity to introduce this debate, which has allowed hon. Members on both sides of the House to put forward their views. I shall pick up two or three points made in the debate, show where we are going and then finish with another point.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) referred to the Widdicombe committee's report. In essence it was set up because the conventions within which local government was working were breaking down, and it was time to see whether we could repair the structure so that, although there will continue to be differences between parties, they can still work together for the good of their areas. We are still consulting and receiving observations, and later we shall think about them and make our views public.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
Will the Minister use his influence on the Leader of the House to arrange for a debate early in the new year?
§ Dr. Boyson
I noted what the hon. Gentleman said, and I am sure that he can put his view on Thursday, and ask his party whether it wishes to use its time for a debate. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House must decide the priorities, but once we have finished the consultations I would welcome a debate on the Widdicombe report, as I am sure others will.
Reference has been made to the ombudsman. We have had a local government Bill every year and I am sure that we shall be meeting one another again not just on the Floor of the House but in Committee. Technical amendments can be discussed upstairs.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) referred to the delegation that he brought to see me. I agree that it was courteous and to the point, and firmly but fairly put its point of view. He referred to the reduction in grant for Newham after the second consultation. However, there is no point in having consultations if one does not do anything about them. If we had not done something, everyone would have said that the consultations were farcical. We consulted and did something. Some people are pleased and some are not. 1247 However, although Newham has lost money compared to the previous assessment, it will still have £26 million more this year than it had last year if it increases spending by 5.25 per cent. That seems fairly fair.
We are not just switching money from Labour-controlled authorities to Conservative-controlled authorities. Birmingham, Cleveland and Derbyshire are all Labour-controlled authorities but are still getting huge sums of money. I imagine that if it were totted up, it would be seen that more increased funding is going to Labour-controlled authorities than Conservative-controlled authorities. For example, the metropolitan districts have gained. As the hon. Member for Newham, North-West knows, all that we can do is change the formula, which works its way through. Limiting gains at one end and losses at the other was all that was done—the formula was not changed.
There is pressure to change the rating system. We have published a Green Paper on that and have promised to legislate. On Tuesday we shall be debating local government in Sotland. We have never said that the legislation for Scotland will be identical with that for England and Wales, but since it will have a bearing on it, no doubt those hon. Members who are here today will take an interest in that. It would be wise to do so, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West will take a similar view.
The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) talked about the way in which the present rating system is unfair to individuals. A person living in one house may have to pay the same rates as his neighbour, although there may be six people in that house with six times as many incomes and the consequent increase in the use of services.
I am told that, with the development of housing benefit, in Lambeth and Liverpool only one in five of those who vote pay rates. There have been revolutions and we have said that there should be no taxation without representation. But these days we have representation without taxation. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Blackburn must listen. I am not saying that such people should not be represented. I listened to the hon. Gentleman, although I cannot answer the 377 questions that he asked me—even more than the Arabian nights—but I shall think about them in great depth when I read them. In those boroughs four out of five people who vote are deciding how to spend other people's money.
§ Dr. Boyson
It is true. I shall not go through the primitive mathematics of that with the hon. Gentleman. I know how honourable the hon. Gentleman is, as are all hon. Members. The purists and the most self-sacrificing individuals in the country always gather inside the House of Commons. Four out of five people may be voting for a swimming pool at the bottom of their garden knowing that the fifth has to pay. I am not suggesting that that would happen, but if a person has to pay, it makes him think.
§ Dr. Boyson
I shall not give way, because I have a lot to get through. We shall undoubtedly have other debates and I shall look forward to them. I knew the hon. 1248 Gentleman when he led the National Union of Students. I was involved in teaching at that time and we met regularly. I am delighted that we shall be meeting regularly again.
One accepts that if people have no income, they cannot pay but they must be topped up so that they have some responsibility for what they are voting for.
These days, businesses in Britain are sited not for geographical reasons but according to the rating system.
§ Dr. Boyson
The hon. Gentleman says, "Rubbish." [Interruption.] I am sorry—he did not. He is much nicer than that. He said, "No," in the most charming fashion. I withdraw any attack upon him. However, that is what businesses do and I must find some of them and introduce them to him. He is a seeker after truth and we must assist him to see clearly that the price of the end product of a business which employs a lot of labour and needs much space is affected by the rating system. We have said that there should be a universal business rate that should not be increased beyond the rate of inflation. Business men will then know what they can do in the future.
Creative accountancy has been talked about by many hon. Members. It was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), who has a long experience of local government, for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) and for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester), in whose constituency I shall be speaking shortly. I shall be taking enlightenment to Manchester. That could change the whole political scene. This weekend may be the end of a Labour-controlled Manchester. I should give warning to the Opposition that I shall be returning to the county of my birth this weekend.
§ Dr. Boyson
I was an early supporter of Blackburn Rovers. I failed the 11-plus because of Blackburn Rovers. I left the examination early so that I could see the beginning of the match. I do not hold that against the hon. Gentleman. I am not vindictive towards him or society.
§ Dr. Boyson
It is always dangerous to give way. I have to say, even with my ingenuity, that I shall have to return to that in act 1, scene II. I shall now hurry on with my speech.
I should explain that I read The Guardian. I find it useful to be aware of what Labour Members read. Only a fortnight ago it brought to public attention the fact that creative accountancy has led to the borrowing of about £2 billion. Creative accountancy is rather like using an Access card, because it means that a bill has to be met at a much later stage. With creative accountancy, the bill comes years later and not at the end of the month. I believe that Sheffield has borrowed £125 million. For the first three years it will not have to pay anything, and then it will have to pay £25 million over five years. This is mortgaging the future. If the borrowing is taken far enough, we shall be living on our children, and that does not strike me as an 1249 honourable approach. I am sure that it worries the hon. Member for Blackburn as much as it does Conservative Members. The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) has said that there is no blank cheque, no easy money and no pork barrel. He has told the Labour party that it cannot expect a future Labour Government, should the British people be so ill-advised as to elect one, to pick up the bill for creative accountancy.
Many of my hon. Friends have referred to the hard Left. I do not call it the loony Left; it is not like the village idiot whom we tap on the back. Within the Labour party is a core which is acting in a way that is damaging the party, and ultimately the country. I have been provided with a copy of London Labour Briefing, which contains an article headed "Kick out Cunningham". I hate having to refer to it, because I am sure that it will hurt feelings throughout the Chamber. It has been written by the chair of the policy committee of the Greater London Labour party, Nadine Finch, and Steve Cowan, who is a parliamentary candidate for Orpington and the ILEA member for Westminster, North. The article says that it was written by those two people in a personal capacity. That is very nice! Presumably they could act likewise in a political capacity and then say "Bring Back Cunningham" the following day.
We are worried for the Labour party, which I am sure is as worried as we are. In some areas the hard Left has taken over, and it cannot be dismissed as being only 0.1 per cent. of 1 per cent. Its strength is much greater than that and it probably accounts for 13 per cent. of the electorate. I shall be prepared on another occasion to go through a list. Unfortunately, I do not have time to do so now. Whether it touches on the Honours List or on Labour Members is another matter, but the hard Left spends as if there were no tomorrow and all appointments are politicised. There are 13 political advisers at Brent, including one for the chief whip. I do not know what his adviser does for him. Perhaps he brings him a dictionary from time to time, or his adding machine. I do not know why he needs a political adviser. The director of education at Brent resigned and said that the politicians would not let him and his staff get on with the job.
There are advertisements offering jobs in Labour Weekly. That may be an honourable publication, but it is read normally only by those of a certain hue. If the same advertisements were to appear in Conservative central office's "Newsline" that would be fair enough, but that is not the position. Brent is employing a Council Communications officer—I believe that there is a similar organisation in Grays Inn road—and I understand that his response to a letter was as follows:We have shown Basildon council how to put 10 per cent. on the Labour vote.That is the sort of thing that worries us. There is a process of politicisation that assumes that Labour control will remain for ever. This is accompanied by a wish to implement an irreversible shift in the areas which have been taken over. The hard Left runs its own foreign policy as a mini-soviet. Manchester has spent about £500,000 on nuclear-free Europe proposals. The armed forces were banned from the council-organised Manchester show while homosexual and lesbian stalls were allowed. We know about the Haringey coffee from Nicaragua.
§ Dr. Boyson
if it is untrue, I withdraw it. In that case we shall continue to drink the coffee. When I go to Haringey, I shall have another cup. This week, I read that Camden council is considering building its own non-nuclear electricity generating station. What will we get next?
In so far as many of these people may be Trotskyites, it is not unnatural that they want to destroy locality and family religion. In translation the word is "cement". One then destroys the cement of society and rebuilds. Lambeth council has banned the word "family" from council literature, while it runs 20 heterosexism awareness training courses. I do not know whether those courses are to recognise the other sex or not to recognise it by wearing dark glasses, but 20 courses are being run.
As has already been said, in Ealing one teacher in each school is taking out sexist or heterosexual materials. The sum of £139,000 has been put to one side to replace them. Brent council had a free gay and lesbian evening at Harlesden library this week. Nottingham council has introduced exclusive swimming sessions for homosexuals. I do not want anybody to be persecuted but there is a normality that most people recognise—that is, the family.
I cannot answer for everybody. My hon. Friends have been fair in everything that they said. The family is the normal unit. To have anything else is anti-life and the end of life. We have to accept that. I do not want anyone to be persecuted, but children are being brought up with the presumption that the family is not the normal way of life. That is what I am concerned about. Why some of these authorities have gone for the madness that they have, irritating ordinary Labour voters, just as much as they irritate everybody else, seems silly in the extreme. The last thing we need is extremism, or what the leader of the Labour party has called zealotry.
I shall briefly refer to the Maureen McGoldrick case, about which I have never before spoken in the House and on which the leader of the Labour party, the hon. Member for Copeland, the Opposition spokesman for education, the Brent North Labour party and the Sudbury ward, have tried to get Brent council to see sense. New Society has called it the Salem witch trial of Maureen McGoldrick. It has been brought against the wishes of the leader of the Labour party and other people. In the High Court, as we all know, the Master of the Rolls, said:I cannot believe the local authority would proceed with a disciplinary hearing.The person concerned is a fine, fair teacher. I have never heard a word said against her in all the time that I have been there. She lives in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). The school is in my constituency. Sixty per cent. of the pupils of that school are coloured immigrants, the parents of whom practically unanimously support the strike. The Guardian leader states:It ought to be an outrageously implausible slur to claim that anti-racism in schools is nothing more than a cover for left wing witchhunting. Recent events in Brent (and elsewhere) though suggest it is no less outrageously true".As I said, New Society called it the Salem witch trial of Maureen McGoldrick. It is like an Eastern European or Russian show trial. I shall say why I think it is being done. I do not think that Labour Members, if they are honest with themselves and with me, will have a different opinion. There is more. A council sub-committee recommended that the behaviour of some of the governors and parents 1251 at Miss McGoldrick's school should be investigated. Not only have they achieved the near-destruction of Maureen McGoldrick, but what that woman has gone through is something which I would not wish on my worst enemy—I trust that one will never have to hold oneself together and endure pressure that she has been under.
She was supported by the governors. As I know, the chairman is from an ethnic minority and is high up in the NUT in her area. The parents called a meeting in support. We have seen the figures on television. Now the governors are to be investigated. They obviously are a threat to the council because they supported Maureen McGoldrick. She has not been the sacrificial lamb that the council intended. The leader of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers says—again I have the quotes and I shall give them to any hon. Member—that "a climate of fear" hangs over Brent teachers. That is what is intended so as to ensure that no one else speaks out. It is a repressive totalitarian approach, which allows no alternative view.
This week I read that Brent head teachers and teachers were not to be allowed to speak to the press. The Inner London education authority employed me for about 13 years. I battled with it many times but I was never stopped from speaking to the press about my views, which often did not agree with ILEA's. In fairness to ILEA, I must put that on the record. This is what freedom is about.
In January, Brent will be short of 150 teachers and 12 heads. The number of resignations this year has been twice the number two years ago. I do not want to exaggerate.
§ Dr. Boyson
I shall give way, as long as the hon. Gentleman does not speak for more than 10 seconds. I hope that he does not speak again about Blackburn Rovers.
§ Mr. Straw
No, this is a serious point. The Minister has referred to my hon. Friends' remarks. May I make it clear that Labour Members regard what has happened in Brent as unequivocally indefensible? We have communicated that view to the councillors concerned in Brent. I hope that the Minister will respond to the points we are making which are also a serious criticism of some Conservative councils.
§ Dr. Boyson
I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comment, but, quite honestly, I do not think that they are parallel points. I should like to know if there is any maladministration in any way under a Conservative authority. I believe fundamentally in the rule of law. I believe that what has happened is serious. The electorate obviously agrees, because there was an 8.82 per cent. swing—a heck of a swing—in the by-election a week last 1252 Thursday in my constituency. I believe that that occurred because of what is happening in Brent. I do not believe that the hon. Member for Blackburn or any other Labour Member likes that. This is the tip of an iceberg of the certain takeover of the Labour party which will threaten practically every Labour Member, including the hon. Members for Blackburn and for Battersea (Mr. Dubs), for whom I have the highest regard.
There is one area in Brent that was settled largely by Jews who came in the 1930s as refugees from Germany. This week, one of them said to me—it was a terrible thing to have to say—"We came to this country because we feared the knock on the door in the night." I am worried about whether in Brent we are seeing the beginning of the knock on the door. It may spread.
§ Dr. Boyson
The hon. Gentleman was not there. That is the fear, and people should heed the warnings. I know that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me on this point. It is important that it should never spread. If Labour Members dismiss all the comments of my hon. Friends as just political propaganda, they are being very short-sighted in thinking of the future of the Labour party and of this country.
I should like to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West, so that, having given us the opportunity of debating this matter, he can, if not pronounce a long amen, bring the debate to a close.
§ Mr. Hind
I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government. I thank all my hon. Friends who have taken part in the debate. It has emphasised the importance of local government, which is a central part of our organisation of government. Democracy is its most important part. I thank those hon. Members who have given up time in their constituencies to take part in the debate.
Conservative Members have raised matters of great concern to us. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) used the words, "If 10 per cent. of what hon. Members say was true". After the debate, I shall happily give him documents containing details of the cases that have been brought to my attention so that he can look into them. The details are true. I am sure that we shall be happy to put right and deal with any of the hon. Gentleman's complaints about Conservative councils.
I have been pleased to have the opportunity to raise this matter. I thank all those hon. Members who took part in the debate.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House continues to recognise the importance of local government as a vital part of the British democratic system.