HC Deb 27 March 1986 vol 94 cc1100-8

12.5 pm

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

In just under three hours' time, I shall be taking the chair at county hall for the last full meeting of the Greater London council. At midnight on 31 March the GLC will cease to exist and 97 years of continuous Londonwide government will be at an end. It will be a historic moment in the often turbulent history of London local government. I seek to draw the attention of the House to the events that are due to take place across the water in the full and confident expectation that the abolition of the GLC will prove to be merely a temporary aberration.

I remind the House that it was the Prime Minister who insisted on the GLC being abolished. The right hon. Lady did so because, in my opinion, she is wholly ignorant of local government. She is brimful of prejudice and utterly vindictive. The Prime Minister's image of the GLC between 1981 and 1983 was that created by Fleet street. The image was bizarre, extreme and without foundation. However, it successfully inflamed the Prime Minister's already well developed sense of bigotry. With her eyes on what she thought was party political gain, she wrote into the Tory party manifesto the commitment to abolish the GLC. We have that on the very best authority within the Conservative party.

Naturally, the Government attempted subsequently to dress up the Prime Minister's diktat with spurious claims about taking local government closer to the people. The truth of the matter came, however, from the lips of the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and chairman of the Tory party. On 14 March 1984, the right hon. Gentleman said: The Labour Party is the party of division. In its present form, it represents a threat to the democratic values and institutions on which our Parliamentary system is based. The GLC is typical of this new, modern, divisive version of socialism. It must be defeated. So we shall abolish the GLC. Such a statement should send a shiver down the spines of those who believe in justice and democracy. It reveals that the Conservative party is now in the hands of louts and that Britain's Government is being run by people who have nothing but contempt for democracy.

The abolition of the GLC has nothing to do with efficiency in local government. Of the 2,000 or so submissions received by the Government in response to their original proposals that were outlined in the White Paper entitled "Streamlining the Cities", not one from an independent or authoritative source was in support of GLC abolition. So embarrassed were Ministers by the overwhelmingly hostile reaction to their proposals that they refused to give details of the submissions or to lodge them in the Library. Indeed, the House was denied a debate on the White Paper. It soon became clear that the Prime Minister and her colleagues were not going to allow facts to get in the way of their prejudices. Repeated requests from Members for some assessment of costs or savings arising from abolition were met with blank refusals after initial estimates, clearly plucked from the air by confused and panicky Ministers, were quickly proved to be absurd.

I should like to place on record how delighted I am that the Government's estimate of 5,000 redundancies in London arising out of the abolition of the GLC has been proved wrong. We now estimate that there will be a net increase in public sector jobs as a result of abolition, which merely demonstrates the efficient way that the GLC's current services are being staffed.

I have sat through hundreds of hours of debate in the House in various places on the abolition of the GLC, and, partial though I am—I am prepared to confess that—I can honestly say that I have never heard the Government win one of the arguments. Indeed, some of the worst maulings inflicted upon Ministers have come from senior Members on the Benches behind them.

Abolition of the GLC has undoubtedly done great damage to the electoral fortunes of the Conservative party in London, and naturally I welcome that. Indeed, the latest opinion polls published yesterday put Labour a clear 15 per cent. ahead of the Tories in London. However, far more importantly, abolition has done great damage to the image of Parliament. It has demonstrated that rational arguments, natural justice and public opinion are of no consequence whatever when faced by a brutal and arrogant Government with an overwhelming majority. As right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have said on a number of occasions, abolition was a classic example of the elective dictatorship at work.

To have major changes in the structures of local government predicated on the political vindictiveness of the Prime Minister is bad enough, but then to have parliamentary sovereignty used to abolish an election and to destroy a whole area of local democracy is constitutionally outrageous.

The abolition of the GLC will leave London in a confused mess. Naturally, we shall muddle through—somehow we always do. But Parliament has been forced to expend enormous time and energy on a measure which is wholly irrelevant to the great problems facing the nation and our capital city. If only the Prime Minister hated London's unemployment and inner-city poverty as much as she hated county hall, perhaps London would not now be the city of despair that it has become to so many of our citizens.

After 31 March, London's local government will present a confused and haphazard pattern, botched together to try to make sense of abolition. Ministers said that abolition would streamline local government and remove unnecessary services, but an examination will quickly show that virtually all the council's present powers and services will remain. But instead of them being administered by one democratically elected and accountable body, they are being passed on to no fewer than 69 successor bodies—boroughs, joint boards, quangos and Government Departments.

I shall specify one quango, the London Residuary Body, truly the quango of all quangos, set up by a Government who once said that their policy was to abolish them. The LRB has a true-blue Tory as its chairman on a cool £50,000 a year salary. Appointed board members are paid the equivalent of £6,000 a year for one day's work a week—very nice work if you can get it. But, of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you cannot, unless you are a personal friend of a Secretary of State or a loyal supporter of the Tory party, and I accuse you of neither of those faults.

I remind hon. Members that Ken Livingstone, who was democratically elected, received the princely sum of £7,000 a year in allowances and expenses to run far more services than the LRB is receiving. However, in its recent budget the LRB announced a budget of something just short of two thirds of the GLC's budget. It is supposed to wind itself up in five years, but with all the additional tasks that it has now been given there is no chance of that happening. Indeed, litigation is still outstanding from the 1964 reorganisation of London's local government, so with 10,000 GLC properties to dispose of, what chance has the LRB got of tidying all that up in five years? However, that is an academic argument because, after the Labour party wins the next general election, the LRB will be sent packing.

While I am sending messages to the LRB, let me remind it that should county hall be sold as a hotel or supermarket—I unveiled our latest GLC blue plaque outside county hall only an hour or so ago—the next Labour Government will take it back for London. That is a firm commitment given by the shadow spokesman for the Environment.

London, of course, will survive the abolition of the GLC: we all know that. But many services will be less efficiently run, and many groups of people and organisations will be badly hit when the GLC goes. I shall highlight just a few.

The arts in London will suffer greatly, right the way through from the great centres to the smallest of the touring companies, because the GLC has been a magnificent funder of the arts. We estimate that the shortfall in arts funding in London will run to about £10 million next year. At the moment, the Law Lords are deliberating on further legal points about the GLC's forward funding. If we lose that case, the arts in London will lose another £4.6 million because that has been built into the forward package; and that does not include the black arts centre at the Roundhouse.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the tax concessions in the Budget for charitable bodies, including arts bodies, and the new proposal by which each person can deduct £100 a year from his salary and receive tax relief in order to benefit charities in the arts will give tremendous benefits to the arts, including those in the Greater London area?

Mr. Banks

Of course I know of the proposals. We had a debate not long ago on business sponsorship of the arts when we raised the matter of tax concessions. I welcome them. Who would not? Anyone who is interested in the arts would welcome them But the hon. Gentleman is deceiving himself if he thinks that that will in any way substitute for the loss of funding that the arts in London and throughout the metropolitan area will suffer as a result of the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties. It will not do, but time will tell, and we can come back to that later.

The immediate areas in London which will suffer will be the ethnic and community arts where the GLC has funded art forms and groups that have long been ignored. Those are the areas for which it is most difficult to get business sponsorship and private donations.

With Easter weekend upon us, it is well worth remembering all the GLC-funded festivals in our parks—the Easter parade, Thamesday, South Bank weekend, the May Day festivals, the London horse show and children's days. All those now have question marks against their future. Parks that were being developed, such as Burgess and Mile End, can never now be completed without a Londonwide body. The future running of the Royal Festival hall gives me great concern, with 160 of our present staff there facing unemployment. The open foyer policy has been widely acclaimed, but how long will the Arts Council retain it in view of the fact that the South Bank board has already decided that it will change the GLC's South Bank literature centre—Bookspace—back into a restaurant? That does not seem like the South Bank board approaching in a serious way the problem of making the arts more accessible.

I shall be monitoring developments closely on the South Bank, and, again, I look forward to the return of the Royal Festival hall to a democratically elected council for London—a repossession already promised by the shadow spokesman for the arts.

Speaking, for a moment, as chairman of the GLC, I wish to record my personal satisfaction with the enormous progress made by the council in advancing the interests of London's women. The same is true in respect of our policies to combat racism and the discrimination still suffered by those Londoners with disabilities, by gays, lesbians and the elderly. It is right that the GLC should have funded groups concerned with the welfare of gays and lesbians, but so vile and reactionary are the majority of Fleet street journalists that the average Londoner could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that that was all that the GLC ever did.

The whole miserable saga may have concerned about 50 so-called controversial groups, but there were literally hundreds of other voluntary organisations over which there has never been any disagreement. The GLC's budget for the voluntary sector rose from £1 million in 1981 to £82 million in this, our final year. It is in this crucial area of caring and of social welfare for Londoners that the greatest damage could be done after abolition.

The Government's proposals for substitute funding are puny and wholly inadequate. Yet even at this stage the GLC is trying to stave off disaster in the voluntary sector. Today we have paid into court more than £30 million for funding the voluntary sector, should we win the case in the other place. If we lose, the money will go to the London Residuary Body for distribution to the London boroughs. Of course, the LRB will say that the abolition of the GLC is producing results and saving money. But the money currently being distributed to the boroughs comes from selling off assets and dismantling the balances accumulated. Once that money has gone, there will be no more, and then the real cost of abolition will become apparent.

The cost in terms of service efficiency will become apparent far more quickly than that. For example, in its waste disposal and recycling services, the GLC led the world in terms of efficiency and technology. The new proposals for London, whereby the GLC's unitary scheme is broken up into a series of groupings and authorities, has dumbfounded all those involved in waste disposal. The desirability of retaining a Londonwide waste disposal authority was self-evident, but so set were the Government against admitting the need for any strategic functions that they rejected it out of hand. What a bunch of petty and unimaginative little people now run this Government. The boroughs are already disagreeing among themselves over waste disposal, and the costs of waste disposal in London are set to soar through increased staffing and the loss of economies of scale. It is a pathetic shambles, and Ministers know it to be so.

I shall now deal with transport, because we can already see the impact of abolition as London Transport was taken away from the democratic control of the GLC and handed over to yet another quango in 1984. Since then, bus services have been reduced, fares have been dramatically increased, and many jobs have been lost. The GLC's diala-ride, taxicard and concessionary fares are superb facilities, the future of which cannot now be totally guaranteed as boroughs and the London Regional Transport increase charges or simply run down the services provided.

I have no doubt, for example, that the GLC's lorry ban will be terminated by the Secretary of State for Transport at the earliest opportunity. The fragmentation of bus lanes, cycle lanes and traffic schemes will effectively mean the end of most of those environmentally desirable innovations.

I have merely detailed a few of the areas where abolition of the GLC will have a marked effect on London. There are many more, such as planning, housing, industry, employment, scientific and technical services, and computer and information technology. Valuable services and expertise that have been built up over many years will be lost. All this is being done not because of any assessment of the needs of London and its citizens but because of petty party political spite on the part of the Prime Minister and her Government.

An opinion poll published yesterday shows that 81 per cent. of Londoners think that it is important to have a single body in the capital city for providing and co-ordinating services, and that no less than 94 per cent. of them believe that it is important for such a single body to be democratically elected. When I lower the GLC flag at county hall at midnight on 31 March, London will become the only capital city in Europe to be without a citywide government. Such a situation cannot continue for very long.

Apparently, even most Tories in London believe that a strategic authority for London will be re-established, and the Labour leadership has already committed itself to creating such an authority soon after the next general election. What we are about to witness is a mere break of service in London government for a year or so. For my part, I will continue to keep the name of the GLC before the House in every way open to me. I can assure the House that I have boundless energy and total commitment for such a campaign. Immediately after the Easter recess, I shall seek leave to introduce a Bill to establish a London-wide authority, based on the conclusions of the GLC's research and consultation project. I have that document with me, and copies are being sent to all London Members of Parliament.

The GLC's abolition will haunt this Government through the coming Fulham by-election, the London borough council elections and right through to the general election. I still maintain that abolition will prove to be the single biggest error of political judgment on the part of this Government, and I for one will take every opportunity to help rub their faces in it. I will never forgive or forget those who, for reasons of spite or political preferment, have caused so much misery to loyal GLC employees and have created so much confusion and uncertainty for London's local government. But time will allow us to settle all these scores, and revenge will be very sweet indeed.

12.25 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Richard Tracey)

rose— —

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Minister responsible for sport to reply to this debate when the Secretary of State for the Environment clearly has responsibility for this monstrous act of abolition of the GLC?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

That is not a matter for me.

Mr. Tracey

I am glad to hear that after more than 200 hours of debate on the subject of the GLC's abolition, and with the benefit of answers from my colleagues to innumerable parliamentary questions, the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), the chairman of the GLC, has at last changed his tune. A year ago, he and his colleagues claimed that abolition simply could not be put into effect by 1 April 1986. In the Standing Committee debate on 18 December 1984, he even went so far as to say: Our point is that it is impossible to achieve such an objective by that date".—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 18 December 1984; c. 13.] With a mere 100 hours to go, I think that I can safely predict that the hon. Gentleman will be proved conclusively wrong.

Of course, total conversion would be too much to hope for. Although the hon. Gentleman no longer claims that abolition cannot be achieved, he is still prophesying chaos and disaster, as is his custom. He simply cannot believe that the excellent London borough councils are capable of taking on their new responsibilities without the GLC to tell them where they are going wrong. Let me remind the House that those authorities—the London borough councils and the Common Council—are already the major providers of services in London. As we said in the White Paper entitled "Streamlining the Cities", the case for change rests on the fact that in the metropolitan areas, the boroughs and district councils are the primary local government units. They are responsible for the majority of local spending. They are big enough to have full responsibility for most local services; at the same time they meet the need for an authority to be accessible to the local community".

Mr. Corbyn

Will the Minister give way on that point?

Mr. Tracey

These facts have not changed. Despite all the GLC's expensive publicity—and my goodness it has been expensive—the GLC has had full responsibility for only a very limited range of services. Indeed, the only change since the White Paper has been the establishment of London Regional Transport, which has further reduced the GLC's areas of responsibility. Of course, that has not stopped it spending ratepayers' money, searching for a role, or continuing the conflict and uncertainty which abolition is designed to eliminate by removing this unnecessary tier of local government.

It is not only the conflict and uncertainty to which we can now wave goodbye. We expect the removal of the unnecessary tier both to improve the structure of local government and to lead to savings in manpower and expenditure. The size of the savings will, of course, depend on the decisions of the successors to the GLC and the metropolitan county councils. Eighteen months ago we estimated that administrative savings could, after transitional costs, amount to £100 million a year or some 7,000 posts in London and the metropolitan county councils together. Indeed, there are already signs that they could be of the right order. The allowances for redundancy payments which the residuary bodies are making in their budgets total close to 7,000, and I understand that NALGO has a similar estimate.

Yesterday, The London Standard blazoned the headline "Job cuts fiasco", but that was belied by the article beneath it. Depending on which bit of it one wants to believe, there will be 2,300 redundancies in London, or 2,775.

It is of course important not to confuse initial redundancy figures with posts saved. Staff have been leaving the GLC and metropolitan county councils for jobs elsewhere, and some jobs in the residuary bodies will disappear later in the year. Further, we always expected that the numbers made compulsorily redundant would be much smaller. I am glad to say that this seems likely to be the case. But savings in actual posts of £100 million annually recurring is not exactly chicken feed, even by Labour county hall standards.

Moreover, ratepayers are already seeing the benefit of the changes to come. In London there are widespread and significant reductions in rates and a number of borough councils have acknowledged that the abolition of the GLC is one of the factors that has made the reductions possible.

It would of course, be surprising if the hon. Member for Newham, North-West, in his partisan way, had anything good to say about the prospect of reduced burdens falling on both commercial and domestic ratepayers. He does not believe that the borough councils can be more efficient than the GLC. I must, however, emphasise that the figures that I have quoted are for administrative savings alone. We have always said that policy savings resulting from decisions taken by authorities closer to the communities that they serve will be in addition to the savings from rationalisation alone, even though it is still too soon to estimate what these will be.

We have also made it clear that references to policy savings should not be taken to imply wholesale cuts in services. There has been scaremongering talk, for example, of reductions in the fire brigade. But my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made it absolutely clear that no fire stations can be closed or fire appliances withdrawn without his express approval. He simply would not give that consent if it meant that the level of fire cover would fall below the nationally recommended standard.

There is absolutely no reason why the transfer of functions should mean any decline in service standards, nor need it lead to the abandonment of useful London-wide facilities. The London boroughs have, for example, carefully considered the future of a number of these and have decided to set up a scheme for Londonwide research and intelligence under section 88 of the 1985 Act. They have also decided arrangements to continue the work of the scientific branch, to set up a voluntary scheme for concessionary fares and to continue the taxicard scheme.

Hardly surprisingly, the majority did not see a need to continue the GLC's women's equality unit in its present form or the GLC's police committee support unit—an iniquitous organisation—but then the GLC has never had any responsibility for the police and we always expected the successor authorities to look critically at the services which they inherit to ensure efficiency and economy in the interest of all Londoners. They have shown that they are perfectly capable of taking decisions in the interests of London as a whole.

In addition to the facilities that I have already mentioned, the boroughs' co-ordinating committee has agreed to set up a scheme under section 48 for collective grants to voluntary bodies serving wider areas. This scheme, based on Richmond, has a budget of £27 million for 1986–87.

Throughout the debates on abolition, much play has been made of its consequences for the voluntary sector in London in particular. We said from the outset that it was not our intention to damage worthwhile voluntary projects through abolition; and we have provided a package of measures to support that intention.

Apart from providing in the Act for the section 48 scheme, for collective funding, we have ensured through the rate support grant settlement that the boroughs have access to all the resources that would have been available to the GLC and have been able to take account of the geographical distribution of £35 million of GLC grants to local voluntary bodies. We have also added to the successors' resources. We have offered transitional grant of £40 million over four years on projects previously supported by the GLC and MCCs. The amount of grant allocated to the boroughs for 1986–87 is over £12 million. I therefore believe that the Government have honourably fulfilled the assurances which we gave the voluntary sector during the abolition debate.

I do not, of course, claim that there are not some voluntary bodies still uncertain about their future—although the boroughs' decision to provide temporary funding through the Richmond scheme will have provided a welcome relief to many. Nor am I claiming that all GLC-funded groups will receive the same or even any support from the successor authorities. But that is a decision for them. While we have given the successors the resources the GLC and MCCs would have had—and more—we are not in the business of dictating their priorities, nor indeed the speed at which they reach their decisions.

As we said from the outset, abolition is all about local decisions being arrived at locally and democratically and I think that the London boroughs have shown through their Richmond scheme that they are well able to rise to the challenge. Despite the hon. Member's predictions of chaos and widespread disaster, I think that the worries about successor authorities failing to provide substantial funding can now be discarded and that once the dust has settled we will see the voluntary sector continuing to flourish.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the arts. I can predict a much less gloomy future than has been claimed. Once again, we have stuck to our undertaking to provide the resources that the GLC and MCCs would have had, and we have gone further in providing £43 million in additional central funding, including £25 million to the Arts Council for the performing arts. Here, too, the successor authorities are showing that they are well up to the task. Westminster city council has, for example, offered grants approaching £3 million, including £2.2 million to the English National Opera and the London Festival Ballet, while the Arts Council has established the South Bank board to run the whole arts complex. I am fully confident that the South Bank will flourish under its management.

Opposition Members may claim that the new South Bank board is only one of a whole host of new bodies that we have had to establish to take on the GLC's responsibilities, but even that claim does not stand up to close examination. The Arts Council is hardly a new organisation, nor is the Thames water authority which will be taking over land drainage and flood protection which are already water authority functions outside London. The Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission and the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, which will also be taking on new responsibilities, were not born out of the Local Government Act 1985. What we have are the new ILEA, the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority and the London waste regulation and disposal authorities—hardly a host, even counting the London residuary body, which is of course a purely temporary organisation needed to wind up the affairs of the GLC.

I do not say that winding up the GLC and the MCCs will be easy. It will be more difficult perhaps than it should have been because of the obstructive behaviour which persisted far too long and was encouraged by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West. I am sure that he will be devoting his considerable energies to publicising any and every little thing that he believes does not go smoothly. But the problems will be transitional and will be resolved. What remains will be a streamlined structure with the borough councils taking their proper place in London's local government. They will show that they do not need the GLC, and their ratepayers will reap the benefits.

In a very short time people will be asking what all the fuss was about. Indeed, even now, after all their initial fervour, all that the Opposition can manage in the final week of Parliament is a half-hour Adjournment debate initiated by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West. That just shows that the GLC is going out, not with a bang, but with a whine and a whinge and a contribution from the most political chairman of the GLC that we have ever seen.