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London

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:20 pm on 1st July 1983.

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Photo of Mr John Cartwright Mr John Cartwright , Woolwich 12:20 pm, 1st July 1983

I hope that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) will forgive me if I refer back briefly to the speech of the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Berry). I welcomed his gracious comments about our previous London colleagues, Ron Brown and Ted Graham. I have happy memories of serving on Committees and taking part in debates which the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate and Ted Graham jointly whipped. They were efficiently and effectively conducted, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's part in that operation. I am sorry that he has been returned to the Back Benches somewhat precipitately, but there will be compensations for him and one is the opportunity to take part in London debates. Given his great interest in London matters, I am sure that he will seize those opportunities.

Like other hon. Members, I thought that the glaring omission from the Minister's speech about the abolition of the Greater London council was any mention of what was to be put in the place of the GLC. Like the right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson), I think that we are in a rather odd situation when the Conservative party, which created the GLC, is now hell-bent on destroying it and the Labour party, which opposed its introduction, is now apparently fighting to the last ditch to retain it. The right hon. Gentleman said that he had remained consistent all the way through as being in favour of the GLC. I have been equally consistent, but, on the other side, never persuaded that there was a case for that sort of two-tier government in Greater London.

I have always believed that the best sort of local government is the one-tier all-purpose authority. It may not be possible in all cases, but there is a tremendous amount to be said for it. In London we ought to be aiming at a one-tier local government system with a movement towards an elected regional system bringing under democratic control the tier of regional government already existing. One of the problems of the GLC has been that as powers have gone back to the boroughs in my view, rightly—there has not been a proper role left for the GLC. It has been neither a genuine piece of local government nor an effective piece of regional government.

The question will be what sort of machinery the Government propose, especially to pick up those problems which are wider than the existing GLC area. The problems of strategic planning, of transport and so on which do not stop at the GLC boundary will need some effective answer. We shall watch with interest and care the Government's proposals in that regard.

The difficulty for any London Member coming to this debate is the multiplicity of topics from which to choose. There is the desperately serious problem of unemployment in London, especially in inner London. There is the serious and growing problem of housing. There is the difficulty of transport. The latter is an appealing subject for a south-east London Member who represents the forgotten corner of the city. It is especially appealing to me since my constituency is threatened by the destruction of the east London river crossing.

Despite those competing attractions, I want briefly to concentrate on one or two bread-and-butter issues affecting my constituents and typical of the problems faced by Londoners. The first is the National Health Service. In recent years London has suffered from the so-called RAWP formula — the Resource Allocation Working Party. It is an approach aimed at equalising standards of Health Service provision in all parts of the country.

The problem in inner London is that we have been RAWP-ed twice. The Greater London regional health authorities have their allocations reduced because they cover London. When they allocate that reduced allocation, usually they reduce what is available for inner London and concentrate resources on the well-known deprived areas such as Hastings and Tunbridge Wells. We now face, not just a standstill in health care provision in Greater London, but real cuts. Ten inner London health authorities face cuts in the current year in real terms of more than £1 million. Currently, 25 hospitals face closure. In London there is a £27 million cut in Health Service investment.

It is argued sometimes that falling populations make reductions of that kind acceptable. I do not take that view. Inner London, especially, suffers from a growing elderly population, and we know that there is a growing demand for health care. All of us who have had the sad experience of trying to explain to constituents why they cannot get an elderly parent into a geriatric bed understand the need for a greater provision of such services in inner London.

We see the phasing out of small local hospitals to which people relate and which they understand and like. They are being replaced by large hospitals which often are badly sited and inaccessible and where there are long waits for attention. I cite two examples from my own constituency. St. Nicholas hospital in Plumstead was threatened with closure in 1975. It was reprieved, following a major public campaign, by the then Secretary of State in May 1978. He decided that St. Nicholas hospital should be turned into a community hospital providing a range of bread-and-butter services for the people of the district. I said to him at the time that trusting that hospital to a health authority that had always wanted to close it was like trusting Red Riding Hood to the wolf. But that is what he did, and my prophecy turned out to be correct. St. Nicholas hospital has been starved of resources ever since and is now again on the closure list.

The second example is the British hospital for mothers and babies, a maternity hospital. The previous Secretary of State accepted the closure case in May 1978—once, he said, alternative facilities were available. The alternative facilities are being provided at Greenwich district hospital and Queen Mary's hospital, Sidcup. They are inaccessible to people in my constituency. But even after that extra provision is made available there is still a shortfall of maternity beds in the London borough of Greenwich. Despite an all-party approach to the Minister, he declines to reopen the issue. Again, we have a well-respected, well-supported and popular maternity hospital in the centre of the area being closed, with people forced to seek their maternity arrangements wherever they can find them in other less accessible positions.

The employment aspect of Health Service cuts should not be overlooked. Taking the three closures currently proposed in my borough, they will mean the loss of 812 jobs. Redeployment opportunities come to only 150, and most of those are for nurses. Over London as a whole, hospital closures could account for about 4,000 lost jobs. In my view, that is a major problem.

I accept the need to use resources sensibly. My criticism of the RAWP approach is that it is being used in an unthinking, scientific way, not looking at the situation on the ground and not recognising that many of our communities in inner London are already deprived and will suffer greatly if there are further hospital closures. The policy must be applied much more flexibly, especially in inner London.

My second point concerns the problem of caravan dwellers, sometimes called gipsies, who are more appropriately called travellers. They are a major problem in parts of inner London, as Greater London has a large proportion of travellers. There is a long history of difficulty with them in many parts of London, especially in my area at Plumstead, Abbey Wood and Thamesmead. Their caravan sites are set up on private sites, and road verges. They cause major problems for local residents as a result of dirt, noise pollution, metal breaking, dogs, horses and many other environmental problems which that type of unauthorised caravan site produces.

The normal problem is the legal one of getting the caravan dwellers to move on. It is a slow process, but it usually works, and they are moved on, often only a few hundred yards down the road. In my constituency, they are simply moved across the boundary into the borough of Bexley and the procedure starts all over again.

We now have an extra problem, in that the GLC has changed its policy. We are now told that the GLC regards travellers as an ethnic minority and that they will therefore be moved on only when they are proved to be causing a nuisance. I have never known a case when they have not been proved to be causing a nuisance, but we now have the problem of the GLC having to consult all of its committees on each case before it is persuaded that a nuisance exists and the caravans should be moved on. That is extremely unfair to council tenants, who are usually those who suffer such problems in my area. They pay substantial rents and rates and often have to put up with that type of nuisance for months on end. Greenwich council has done its bit under the Caravan Sites Act 1968 by providing a site for 54 caravans. There is a good case for much stronger powers to enable councils to move travellers on from areas which have already met their needs.

The Department of the Environment produced a consultation paper on the needs of long-distance and regional travellers as long ago as February 1982. Comments had to be received by June 1982, but, as far as I can discover, since then the Department has simply analysed and considered the comments. There is no evidence of action. I strongly urge the Minister to tackle the problem, as it is necessary to provide more sites in Greater London. That might entail the provision of Government resources to provide such sites. It would also entail giving stronger powers to councils to move on unauthorised travellers when they cause difficulties. I do not accept that we can continue to blunder on, wasting large sums of money on legal actions and clearing up the mess that travellers have left behind and accepting the impact that they have on our constituents' quality of life.

My third point concerns petty crime and break-ins. They are a major problem in many inner London constituencies, especially mine. There is now a major problem with break-ins on council estates. Especially at risk are the elderly, who find a break-in particularly traumatic. Even if no violence is involved, they fear it. I was attracted by the campaign which the Home Office and the police mounted earlier this year in an attempt to persuade people that simple precautions such as installing window locks could prevent many break-ins. The Home Office tells me that the simple step of installing window locks might cost only £25 per house. The problem is that the people who are most at risk are elderly pensioners, for example, who receive supplementary benefit and cannot get any help for the cost of the type of security that the Government recommend.

I took this issue up with the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security who, in April, told me: I am sorry to say that security locks are not an item for which single payments can be made and it is not our intention to include them in our provisions in the future … we will only make single payments for items which are necessary for day-to-day living. I contend that for many people who are at risk of break-ins, sensible security in their homes constitutes an elementary part of day-to-day living. Anyone who has tried to live on supplementary benefit knows only too well that it covers only the bare essentials and that there is no surplus to buy such things as security locks.

The Government appear to be saying that those who are most at risk are to be left without even basic protection such as is recommended by the Home Office and the police for other people. That is utterly unacceptable and I strongly urge the Minister to consider that problem and to be more sensible and understanding of those on supplementary benefit who need that elementary protection.

I echo what the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) said about the attitude that successive Governments have tended to take towards the GLC. There is a tendency to regard London as having every street paved with gold. That arises from examining overall London statistics. All hon. Members who represent inner London constituencies know that we have areas of deprivation that are as bad as anything else in the country. The quality of life of many of our constituents in inner London is declining. If we are to tackle the problems, London Members must be extremely vigorous in raising these matters and in fighting on behalf of their constituents. I hope that this is only the first of many debates on London in this Parliament.