Inner City Areas

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:50 pm on 9th March 1982.

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Photo of Mr David Alton Mr David Alton , Liverpool Edge Hill 9:50 pm, 9th March 1982

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) has raised these matters and given us the opportunity for this debate. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Scotland Exchange (Mr. Parry) also tried last week to obtain such a debate. I wish that we had known in advance—although this was not, of course, possible—that this amount of time would have been available. If we had known I am sure that more hon. Members representing Liverpool would have participated. The debate is long overdue and much needed.

There are many issues on which I should like to touch. The first concerns the initiative begun last year by the Secretary of State for the Environment in the wake of the Liverpool riots. The hon. Member for Scotland Exchange has talked about the Prime Minister's visit. Some people in Liverpool say that it took a riot to bring the Prime Minister to the city. It is a tragedy that people should take such a view. I hope that the Prime Minister, if she reads this debate in Hansard, will be prepared to come to Liverpool again. Last year, before the riots, other Liverpool Members and myself appealed to her to come to the city. She said "No". I then asked her if she would be prepared to meet Church leaders, political leaders and trade union leaders here in London. Again she said "No". Her reply was to the effect that she did not see such delegations herself.

Then there was a riot and she came. But she has not been back since. The Secretary of State, when he comes to Liverpool, stays at the Atlantic Tower Hotel in the centre of the city. From those Olympian heights he said that he did not know that conditions such as those in Liverpool existed anywhere in the United Kingdom. It is my view that he should have done, but I welcome his conversion. It was tragic that the Conservative Party conference later that year turned down his proposals, as did the Cabinet, when he called for limited reflation and talked of the need for a job creation programme in Liverpool and the reform of local government and particularly the abolition of the profligate Merseyside county council.

When the right hon. Gentleman came to Liverpool and saw what was wrong he encouraged private business men to come into the city. He gave them a Cooks' tour of the city. Since then, there has been no evidence of any major investment by private enterprise. That forces me to believe that we should beware Greeks bearing gifts. The Secretary of State may have come with good will. However, since his visit all that we have received is £22 million for a garden centre in Toxteth. That is totally irrelevant. He has completely missed the point. We have been told that part of the Tate Gallery will be moved to Liverpool. The sum of £50,000 was spent on sending 25 business men to the United States. Any local authority that had taken such action would have been blacklisted and would no doubt have had its rate support grant reduced for frittering away ratepayers' money. Other than that, the Secretary of State seems to have done little.

It was particularly significant that, at the end of his first week in Liverpool, the right hon. Gentleman returned home for a birthday party for his daughter. I do not object to that, but I read in the newspaper that it cost over £20,000. That indicates the difference between the lifestyle of the Secretary of State and that of the people of Liverpool. It would have been far better if the right hon. Gentleman had stayed in the city and lived in the heart of one of the inner city constituencies to see for himself the problems on the ground. The right hon. Gentleman would have found that one of the biggest problems on people's minds is unemployment—the fear that one will lose one's job and join the 55,000 already out of work and the fear that in constituencies where 45 per cent. or more of people are already out of work there will be no possibility of getting a job.

The fact has to be faced that Liverpool is becoming almost a Carthage, a city that is dying through lack of investment and the closure of major companies on Merseyside. There is no point in talking about projects such as homesteading and building on derelict land while such major inner city problems as hard core unemployment continue to exist. Sometimes, it is true, Merseyside can be its own worst enemy. Militancy is one of the problems in industry. I welcome therefore one part of the Budget—the Chancellor's agreement to extend profit-sharing schemes, initiated over the last two years. I hope that more profit-sharing and a greater degree of workers having a say in the running of their firms will bring more harmony to the work place on Merseyside. One thing is certain. There is no better work force anywhere in the country than Merseyside people when motivated properly.

Workers and industrialists in Liverpool seek a secure place in which to operate their businesses and to live. One crime is now committed every four minutes. In January alone, there was a 56 per cent. increase in burglaries. A home is broken into and a car is stolen every 20 minutes. Everybody knows that it is dangerous to go out on the streets in broad daylight, let alone at night. I should like to see 1,000 more community policemen on the Merseyside beat and the reopening of neighbourhood police stations. It was crazy that a new headquarters was built in Canning Place, where no one lives, while small police stations were closed down all over Liverpool. Have we not learnt the lesson that bigger is not necessarily better? Have we not learnt that small neighbourhood police stations and policemen on the beat—men who are not alienated from the public—is the way to go about maintaining law and order?

Equally, it must be said that it does not help Merseyside when groups take to the streets trying to undermine good law and order. It was a matter of some sadness that the hon. Member for Warrington (Mr. Hoyle) and other members of Labour's national executive visited Liverpool and led a procession through the streets, after 700 policemen had ended up in my local hospital following the Toxteth disturbances. It did nothing for good police-public relations to have a coffin carried through the streets of Liverpool with a severed pig's head on top of it. It brought great discredit to the people who organised that procession and it was against the interests of the good running and administration of the city of Liverpool.

Liverpool is also a city in which people want to be able to bring up their children. Considering the appalling record of many of the schools, which do not produce a single O or A-level pass and have no chance of sending youngsters into higher or further education, it is about time that the Department of Education and Science got down to working out with the local authority an acceptable reorganisation plan. Two have been turned down so far—one by the last Labour Government and the other by this Conservative Government. The sword of Damocles hanging over local schools is one of the worst possible things for morale and is a reason why our education system is in a state of crisis. We must resolve the problems of depopulation in schools and the crisis of confidence in our education system.

We must also reconsider the so-called "comprehensive" system in Liverpool. We have replaced the system of passing an exam through ability by something even worse—the ability to pay. These days, if one can afford to buy a house in the leafy suburbs, one can send one's child to the neighbourhood school. However, if one lives in downtown Liverpool, one's child is often relegated to a third-division status school which has no chance of producing O and A-level passes. The sooner we get rid of the clapped out dogma, when referring to educational standards, the better.

It is a scandal that council tenants in Liverpool pay up to £30 a week for two and three-bedroom houses. Many face rent increases above the Chancellor's recommended £2·50 a week. They simply cannot afford to meet continued rent increases for lower and lower levels of repair and maintenance. They live sometimes in the most rotten and ugly surroundings. If one places people in such surroundings, one should not be surprised when they end up doing ugly things.

I turn now to housing action areas and the rundown of derelict houses. There are 1 million homes in Britain without inside toilets, running hot water or bathrooms. The renovation of such homes is not helped when housing funds are reduced. Nor does it help local authorities to tackle those problems when their funds are cut. Surely we require a major injection of funds.

We shall be building fewer homes this year than at any time since the First World War. That is a scandal, especially when there are 350,000 building workers in the dole queue. What economic sense does it make to have to pay unemployed people £4,500 each per year? That is the cost in unemployment benefit, social security and the loss of tax that they would otherwise be paying. While there are all those homes that need inside sanitation, running hot water and bathrooms it makes no economic or social sense to leave them unimproved.

On homelessness, the Crypt night shelter in Liverpool is well-known to the hon. Member for Scotland Exchange. It is a place where many vagrants and homeless people arrive each night, because they cannot get a roof over their heads. The Under-Secretary has a special interest in homelessness, and he will be aware of the report that was issued yesterday by his Department. It showed that the position of homeless people was getting worse, nowhere more so than in Liverpool. People are being turned away from the night shelter in the Crypt because it does not have enough spaces and because there is not sufficient accommodation in hostels in Liverpool for dealing with homeless people. It is a matter to which the Government will have to pay attention.