HC Deb 28 February 1992 vol 204 cc1289-98 1.54 pm
Mr. Ken Hargreaves (Hyndburn)

I beg to move, That this House welcomes the successful effect that Government policies have had in the North West since 1979; draws attention to problems in the region which need to be addressed; and urges the Government to consider ways of so doing. Unfortunately, unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, for which debates are held in Government time, the only opportunity that the House has to discuss the north-west comes when an hon. Member is successful in the ballot for private Members' motions.

In 1979, the picture of the north-west in the minds of most people was of an area where workers were constantly on strike, where local government was dominated by left-wing extremists, where the old industries that had made the country prosperous were declining and where the industrial scene was full of restrictive practices and overmanning. That was not necessarily an accurate picture of the north-west, but it was the image from which it suffered. I am pleased that my success in the ballot gives me the opportunity to consider—somewhat more briefly than I had expected—the successful effect that Government policies have had in the region since 1979 and the problems that need still to be addressed.

The north-west consists of the counties of Cumbria, Lancashire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Cheshire. The region has a population of 6.9 million 1 per cent. fewer than in 1981. Between 1981 and 1989, there was 15.7 per cent. growth in the number of people aged 75 or over. Some 18.1 per cent. of people are pensioners and 20 per cent. are under 16.

A glance at the football league tables shows Manchester United at the top of division 1, Blackburn Rovers at the top of division 2 and Burnley at the top of division 4. Even I would not claim that Government policies are responsible for that, but it is success in sport, especially by Liverpool and Manchester in football and the Lancashire county team in cricket, for which the region is rightly famous and of which people throughout the country are rightly aware. They are equally aware of the name of Accrington Stanley, whose tie I wear this afternoon, although not necessarily for the same reasons.

It is enormously good news for the north-west that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has announced that the Government are to provide full backing for Manchester's bid for the Olympics in the year 2000. As Sir Arthur Gold, chairman of the British Olympic Association, said, "It is the most heartening announcement that British sport has heard since 1948." The £55 million offered by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will pump-prime the essential investment necessary for Manchester to make a successful bid. A successful outcome to that bid would be of enormous importance to the north-west. The gains would be the north-west's largest-ever inward investment, providing 5,000 permanent jobs, and the boost that a successful bid would give to the north-west would carry the region forward for many years. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for his announcement on Wednesday and for his assurance that the bid presentation will have Government support from the highest level.

In 1989, for the first time ever, more than £1 billion was spent in the north-west by tourists. Even that amount will be increased substantially if the Olympic games are held in Manchester. Albert dock in Manchester which, thanks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, is now the second largest tourist attraction in Britain, with 5 million visitors a year, may well become the country's No. I attraction. The pride and confidence that Manchester enjoyed in the 19th century are emerging again today. Manchester's bid gives the north-west a new opportunity to lead the way.

There are equally successful stories to be told about other aspects of life in the north-west, but we seldom get the opportunity to do so and many people in the country—perhaps many in the House—will believe that another north-west success, "Coronation Street", is an accurate reflection of life in the north-west. Although it is my very favourite television programme, I have to say thankfully that life in the north-west has rather more to offer than "Coronation Street" implies.

When I was a child, a large proportion of my immediate family, friends and neighbours were employed in the cotton industry. Recession in the industry, hit everybody in the area hard, as we found to our cost. There were no massive redundancy payments for cotton workers who lost their jobs. Thankfully, the north-west is now more diversified and there is no doubt that Government policies have ensured that the north-west is in better shape to withstand this recession than it was in previous ones.

A recent survey in the North-West Business Insider concluded that the top 10 companies in the north-west were a varied and balanced portfolio with a healthy preponderance of technologically advanced companies, belying stock images of the region as the home of sunset industries. That is a welcome development from the position that was faced in the past. The north-west is second only to the south-east in terms of regional output. Gross domestic product was £44 billion in 1990, accounting for 10 per cent. of the United Kingdom total. The region takes second place in the United Kingdom in terms of manufacturing, which in 1989 was worth £12 billion, 13 per cent. of the United Kingdom total. That is a tribute to workers and management in the north-west.

In 1989, there were 17,000 manufacturing units in the region, an increase of 23 per cent. on the 1979 figure. The region's business stock grew by 18.6 per cent. between 1979 and 1990. There were 152,100 registered businesses at the end of 1990. In October 1991, the North-West Business Insider stated: For the first time in decades the region has a manufacturing sector capable of growth. In helping that growth to come about, we are fortunate to have the Agency for Investment into North-West England, INWARD, which is supported by the Department of Trade and Industry to the tune of £990,000 this year. INWARD has secured about 4,000 jobs and nearly £200 million of investment in the north-west. Last year, it encouraged 27 companies to locate in the region, compared with 16 in 1990. The last financial year was the best ever for inward investment, with direct investment of £39.71 million creating or safeguarding 1,070 jobs.

In 1990–91, about £450 million was invested in the north-west by overseas companies, creating 3,000 jobs and safeguarding another 8,000. Between 1980 and 1991, inward investment created more than 14,000 jobs. That was a massive vote of confidence in the north-west. It is good that some of the world's top performers—Pirelli, Siemens, Kellogg and Nabisco, along with German and Japanese banks—are showing their confidence by investing millions in the region.

I do not seek to pretend that there is not an unemployment problem and that there are not business failures. Unfortunately, there are both, and I regret the problems that they cause to those involved. I am trying to show, however, that it is far from all doom and gloom in the north-west. Occasionally, we should concentrate on the region's successes and not its failures. All too often we dwell on the bad news and fail to react to the good news.

The north-west has not escaped the effect of the worldwide recession. That would be impossible. It is pleasing, however, and worthy of note that it has not been affected as severely as other parts of the United Kingdom. Thankfully, unemployment in the region as a whole fell between June 1987 and January 1992. Confidence has remained high. A survey of manufacturing industry's intentions show that 43 per cent. of companies plan to increase capital expenditure this year. It appears that 65 per cent. said that the recession had affected capital expenditure plans only slightly or not at all. That is a far cry from the recessions that I remember when I was young. There can be no doubt that the Government's policies and initiatives have played a large part in bringing about this change.

Sixty three per cent. of the region's work force are in assisted areas. There are two city action teams in Manchester/Salford and Liverpool. There are three DTI task forces and 14 training and enterprise councils, one of the most successful of which is East Lancashire TEC, which covers my constituency. ELTEC had a budget for 1991–92 of £17.5 million and 205 local firms are members of it. There are 3.500 young people on youth training schemes, 1,200 people receiving employment training and 500 on the enterprise allowance scheme.

There are four enterprise zones, which have resulted in an increase in employment of 21,500 since they were designated. The east Lancashire zone has been especially successful despite the lack of enthusiasm of the Labour party in Hyndburn and the scorn that it poured on the idea when the zone was established.

I shall deal briefly with national health service provision in the north-west. There are three regional health authorities—Northern. North Western and Mersey. I welcome the fact that in North Western, which covers my constituency, and Mersey spending increased by 73 per cent. between 1982 and 1990–11 per cent. ahead of inflation. Last year, £1.3 billion was spent in North Western and £753.6 million in Mersey.

It sometimes appears to be forgotten that the health service is for the benefit of patients. As someone who has benefited enormously from it, I welcome the fact that in 1990, 546,818 in-patients were treated in the north-west region. That is a substantial increase over the number of patients treated 10 years earlier. There was a similar large increase in the Mersey region, where 280,000 in-patients were treated. Day cases have increased dramatically in both regions—in the north-west region they are up by a staggering 73 per cent., to 139,987.

Those may seem merely cold figures, but they represent people relieved of pain and suffering. They are living proof that we have a fine health service, despite the Labour party's continued attempts to denigrate it. Such attempts do nothing for morale in the national health service and are unacceptable, coming from a party which when in government underpaid nurses and stopped capital spending on hospitals. Fortunately, we have reversed that trend, and in the north-west region 62 building schemes, each costing more than £1 million, have been completed since 1979. Capital spending for 1991–92 was £108.4 million.

Shortage of time prevents me from speaking about the maternity unit at Accrington Victoria hospital and housing problems in Hyndburn. However, I wish to draw attention to two further problems.

The first is the proposed reorganisation of local government—a matter on which different areas within the north-west region will no doubt have different views, some irreconcilable. That is not so in north-east Lancashire, where views on what we would like to emerge from the reorganisation proposals are almost unanimous. Local authorities there are working together to press the local government commission for unitary authorities based on the existing districts.

I support that proposal, safe in the knowledge that it is what my constituents want. The borough council carried out a survey of the electors, asking them what they wanted from local government, and the result was overwhelming suport for a unitary authority based on Hyndburn. The council also consulted all the companies in Hyndburn with more than 20 employees. Of those, 84 per cent. wanted a unitary authority based on the district rather than on the county.

I welcome the response of the people of Hyndburn and the responsible attitude exhibted by all the Lancashire local authorities to local government reorganisation proposals. When those proposals were announced, I was convinced that history would repeat itself and that I would find myself fighting off a bid for Hyndburn to be taken over by Blackburn, just as I did when I was chairman of Oswaldwhistle urban district council in 1969–70, and led a campaign against being taken over by Blackburn. We did not want that then and we do not want it now. I am thankful that the leader of Blackburn council does not want it, either, but the commission may seek to impose it, and I wish to warn against that.

As a lifelong resident of east Lancashire, I know how strong are the ties that bind local communities together. We are fiercely proud of our history and civic traditions, and of our contribution to the well-being of the north-west, and of the nation. That contribution was made first through the cotton industry, which I have mentioned, and more recently through the multitude of small businesses that have grown up since the demise of cotton.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities stresses that the Local Government Bill aims to ensure that the new structure of local government in the north-west and elsewhere reflects the identities and interests of local communities. Only local people can be aware of what those identities and interests are. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) said in the Committee on the Local Government Bill, Members of Parliament should be careful about telling areas of the country that they do not represent and do not know well what form of local government is good for them. The commission needs to be warned, therefore, that any proposals to merge Hyndburn with any of our neighbours by drawing circles on the map will be greeted with outrage.

Local government has the potential either dramatically to improve or fatally to hinder the development of local spirit and pride. We must take the right decisions on reorganisation, and one of those must be to listen to and to accept the views of local people.

Finally, I want to refer to the problem that arises most frequently in my surgeries and in correspondence—concessionary television licences for pensioners. It is hardly surprising that that problem arises so frequently, given the percentage of old people in the north-west.

For many old people, television is their major form of entertainment. As old age comes, it is more difficult for people to get out and about and television becomes an important link with the world outside. It helps pensioners to feel less lonely and less cut off and isolated in their own homes. Television and radio—and especially television—are a vital part of a pensioner's life.

People of pensionable age, perhaps more than any other group, understand that there is no such thing as something for nothing and that previous attempts to provide a free television licence to pensioners would have meant a large rise in the licence fee for all non-pensioner households. I do not believe that they wanted that to happen. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of unhappiness about the present concessionary system.

The concessionary scheme has existed for 20 years. It was intended to benefit pensioners and disabled people living in residential homes and comparable sheltered housing by local authorities and housing associations. However, changes were made in the regulations in 1988 following the Kirklees judgment. The new regulations more clearly define the type of sheltered accommodation that would qualify in future.

The regulations came into force on 19 May 1988 and under them the qualifying accommodation had to form a group of at least four dwellings within a common and exclusive boundary to be served by a full-time or resident warden so that the accommodation could be seen to form a cohesive self-contained unit with staff at hand, just like a residential home.

The anomalies that arise from the concessionary system cause difficulties, confusion and even ill feeling. I accept that when the scheme had to be changed as a result of the Kirklees judgment the Government could have withdrawn the benefits of the scheme from those who ceased to qualify under the new regulations. They felt that that would be unfair and included provision in the 1988 regulations that preserved the right to existing beneficiaries for their lifetimes, provided that they continue to live in accommodation that qualifies under the old regulations.

Consequently, in some schemes, residents continue to enjoy the benefit of a concessionary licence even though the scheme no longer qualifies, while people who move into such schemes cannot now obtain concessions unless they have reserved rights. Therefore, neighbours in the same non-qualifying scheme may sometimes be treated differently, with existing beneficiaries enjoying a concession which newcomers cannot enjoy, even if they are older and poorer.

The whole situation is confusing for pensioners, who had great difficulty understanding the fairness of the original scheme, let alone the present situation. The present situation is unfair and it cannot be defended any longer. We should seriously consider introducing a concessionary scheme that gives equal benefit to all pensioners and is easily understood and seen to be fair. The present situation is not understood and it is not fair: £5 for some pensioners and £78 for the people next door. In Lancashire terms, that is plain daft.

The situation could be made more fair by allowing all pensioner households to pay a £5 licence or at least have a rebate of 50 per cent. on the cost of the present television licence. The loss of revenue to the BBC could be compensated for by allowing advertising on Radio 1, Radio 2 and, if necessary at some hours of the day, on BBC1.

Advertisements leap out at us when we watch sports programmes on television. Players wear shirts on which there are company names. The names of products and firms are thrust at us on advertising hoardings at sports grounds. We may as well go the whole way and allow advertising during certain periods and use the proceeds to get rid of the present anomalies in the concessionary scheme once and for all. I welcome the view of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that the Government should set up an inquiry into the future of the BBC after the general election. I hope that the concessionary licence scheme will form part of that inquiry.

The past 12 years have been important, not just for the north-west. People in very different societies have had to accept that the nation's fortunes are made from their own individual efforts. In the north-west we have responded: there is more self-employment and more small businesses, and that reflects a new awareness of the need to compete. The emphasis of Government policy has been on the role of individuals to try harder to compete more effectively. There is now a different attitude in the north-west, even in areas which, in the past, gave the region a bad name. There is an attitude of partnership between local business, local authorities, educationists and Government who are working together better than ever before. That is vital if we are to solve our present unemployment problems and the ones that will follow from the peace dividend in an area in which the defence industry has played such an important role.

I am optimistic about the future of the north-west and the quality of life that we enjoy—provided that we return a Conservative Government at the general election. I was born in the north-west, and I have lived all my life there. I know the people. They are the kindest and most caring people in the country. During my time in the House, I have always tried to put their interests first, even at the expense of sometimes voting against my own party. So much do I care for the people whom I represent that if my party, during a recession, introduced a minimum wage, higher taxes and higher national insurance contributions, I would refuse to stand for election at the coming general election. The Labour party's policies will decimate jobs and do untold damage in the north-west. They will hit hardest the very people whom it wants to help. During a recession, such policies are nonsense, and the people of the north-west will say so in no uncertain terms at the general election.

2.15 pm
Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

I repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) said about the new attitude in the north-west toward competitiveness and the idea that the market for products in our part of the country exists beyond these shores. I commend my hon. Friend for all that he has done for industries in the north-west—knowing, as he does, so much about them.

It is striking that, in the past few years, although we have had an unfortunate recession in this country, there is no doubt that it has been less pronounced in the north-west because people in my region are rather more cautious. As a result, there is a lower incidence of debt even in respect of mortgages and business lending. That will do much for the region when the recovery comes. We can use a much stronger equity base in order to take advantage of increased demands for products made in my region.

There are undoubted problems, however. My hon. Friend mentioned the defence industries. It is useful to point out that, although we have a peace dividend, we still need to keep our defences strong. The Labour party and Liberal Democrats have failed time and again to make that point. We need a strong aviation industry based on civilian and military products. We in the north-east are dependent on military products. The Government's policy of maintaining a strong defence, rather than the huge cuts proposed by the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, will result in a larger aviation industry in the north-west, as opposed to what would happen under a Labour Government, whether or not supported by the Liberal Democrats.

The other industry on which the north-west depends heavily is nuclear power. The Labour party and the Liberal Democrats want to phase out nuclear power, but 120,000 jobs in the north-west depend on nuclear power. Without that industry, jobs would be devastated, and there would be a spill-over effect on smaller contractors, retailers and people who depend on that inflow of funds into our region.

The Government's balanced policy on nuclear power and other forms of energy generation shows that we support the north-west. The Opposition would damage the north-west not only by the minimum wage but by their attitude to the two most important industries in our region —aviation and nuclear power. They want to damage the region's opportunities to move forward and take advantage of European and world markets for our products.

2.19 pm
Mr. Henry McLeish (Fife, Central)

I fully understand the anxieties of the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) as he looks forward to the next six weeks because if, as seems likely, the election is held on 9 April, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will have to defend an economic record in the north-west which, I am afraid, bears no relation to what the hon. Gentleman said.

Let us examine 13 years of Conservative government in the north-west and some key indicators that most parties would agree measure the competence and performance of any Government. First, between June 1979 and December 1991 unemployment in the north-west increased by 153,200. Outwith the south-east and Greater London, that is the biggest increase in unemployment of any region.

The other side of the coin is the change in employment. Outwith the west midlands, the north-west has lost 199,000 jobs. That is a staggering figure and directly confronts talk about the success of the Government economic policies during three periods of office. The disastrous trade figures announced yesterday show the change in manufacturing employment. In looking optimistically to the future, we look to the west midlands, the south-west, Scotland and the north-west, which we hope will play a major role in the regeneration of the British economy.

Sadly, between June 1979 and December 1991 the north-west lost 361,000 manufacturing jobs. That is not a small but a substantial haemorrhage of jobs at a time when not only the hon. Member for Hyndburn but Ministers have been making extravagant claims about the Government's employment record. If there is one statistic that reinforces the current crisis in manufacturing it is the one that relates to skills. Between March 1981 and March 1990 the north-west lost 11,300 apprentices. There has been a slump in jobs, a dramatic slump in manufacturing jobs, and the back of the apprenticeship programme in the north-west has been broken. That did not happen in the early part of the 1980s during the first or second Tory recession, but in the dip that we are now experiencing.

A job loss document that we produced this week shows that in the north-west 6,400 jobs have been lost in the first five weeks of 1992, the year of the single market and of major challenges throughout the world. We face threats from the Japanese and the strength of the Germans despite what the Primne Minister says, and Pacific rim countries are investing in skills and becoming commanding economies.

The statistic on which I shall finish is a statement on the Government's appalling record United Kingdom-wide, and certainly in the north-west. In January 1979, 62,300 18 to 24-year-olds were unemployed in the north-west. In January 1992, the figure was 103,253—an increase of 66 per cent. in the number of young people who are unemployed, after two recessions and a supposedly economic miracle. The sad state of affairs is shown graphically in yesterday's trade figures.

I cannot help the hon. Member for Hyndburn in his efforts to be re-elected in a few weeks' time. I sincerely hope that when the electors in the north-west go to the polls they will look at the claims being made by candidates and Ministers and will measure the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of 12 dismal and depressing years of Government economic policy. We hope that on 10 April in the north-west, and in the United Kingdom, we shall have a chance to start rebuilding the British economy.

2.24 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Edward Leigh)

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) and for Wyre (Mr. Mans) for the eloquent way in which they have dealt with how the north-west economy is progressing satisfactorily under this Government. For the sake of the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish), I will put the debate in context.

In both employment and output terms, the north-west is second only to the south-east in size, having a gross domestic product of £47 billion—equivalent to 10.1 per cent. of GDP. Some 2.4 million people are employed in the region, representing 10.9 per cent. of the national total, and of those nearly 661,000 are employed in manufacturing. The latter figure is significant. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said, the region's manufacturing provides 27 per cent. of employment, compared with a national figure of 23 per cent. That share and its long history are why the north-west feels particularly strongly about manufacturing industry, and I understand the reasons for that.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn recognised, there have been problems in the decline of the traditional industries, such as textiles, coal and steel, and to a lesser extent the ports. That decline is part of the natural life cycle of industries and sectors within industries. Governments cannot interfere with the natural order of such things.

I recognise that it is extremely painful for those involved in declining industries, and I know that the decline has cost many jobs. Between 1965—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will note that date—and 1989, around 400,000 jobs or 55 per cent. had gone from the manufacturing industries in the region. That is part of the steady decline that we have seen in the north-west, as throughout Europe. The once dominant textile industry, for example, which will be close to my hon. Friend's heart, is a typical example of what has happened in the north-west. Textiles now face low-cost competition from areas abroad, so we have had the multi-fibre arrangement, which is part of the general agreement on tariffs and trade, to ease the process.

We have also seen diversification of the north-west economy. With such diversification there is strength. The sectors represented range from engineering, the food industry, chemicals, the defence industries, and motor vehicles to the traditional industries to which I have referred.

The services sector provides the region with the largest body of service industry employment of any region outside the south-east. Important banking, finance, insurance and business services are provided in the region, which combine to make Manchester and Liverpool major centres of commerce, transport and education.

Despite its past decline, Liverpool remains an important port. Its performance since the abolition of the national dock labour scheme has been most encouraging. Manchester has more than 60 domestic, merchant and international banks represented there, as well as the northern stock exchange—a different picture from that presented by the hon. Gentleman. Elsewhere in the region there are important ancillary activities, including the Barclaycard centre in Liverpool and, in Chester, the headquarters of North West Securities and St. Michael Financial Services. That diversity now helps the region to ride the business cycle much better than it would have done with an over-dependence on larger, old-established industries.

It is no good the hon. Gentleman coming to the House today with the usual speech that we have heard many times from the Opposition Front Bench. The Opposition never give their answer. There was not a word in the hon. Gentleman's speech about their agenda, their plans or their policies—just the usual slogans, platitudes and criticisms. That is not surprising; the debate on manufacturing that we have had so often in the past few months has become wholly predictable.

The House need look only at the speeches of the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) to see that. I have done an analysis of his speeches. In June he made a speech on manufacturing. It amounted to 57 paragraphs in Hansard. How many of those, do my hon. Friends think, describe his policies? Was it 20? Was it 25? [HON. MEMBERS: "1\10."] WaS it 30? [HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] Any advance on 30? [HoN. MEMBERS: "No."] It was less than 30. To be precise it was just one.

What about the hon. Gentleman's next speech on manufacturing which was in October? Surely he could do better. Surely his own personal policy relevation growth rate would be—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. This is all very entertaining, but it seems to be of little relevance to the motion before the House.

Mr. Leigh

This is very relevant to the north-west, which is what the debate is about. We want to know what the Opposition policy means for manufacturing in the north-west. Of 51 paragraphs in Hansard, only one lonely paragraph was about Labour's policy. It was about Labour's small business scheme.

What a shame it is that the Labour party, time and again, failed to explain its policies. When Labour recently called a great conference on industry, it was going to explain its policies. Labour invited no fewer than 1,000 industralists to that conference—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should read the motion. He may then realise that his remarks are not very relevant.

Mr. Leigh

They are very relevant. Those industralists want to know what Labour's policies would mean to manufacturing in the north-west. Some 1,000 were invited and only 12 accepted the invitation. Manufacturers in the north-west, as in other regions, know that Labour's policies would be disastrous for manufacturing in the north-west. Let us consider Labour's minimum wage policy, its high tax policy—

It being half past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.