Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:34 pm on 1st July 1983.

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Photo of John Maples John Maples , Lewisham West 12:34 pm, 1st July 1983

It is a special pleasure to make my maiden speech during a debate on London. My constituency is in one of the inner London boroughs, and my constituents identify much more with London than they do with Lewisham. I do not know why my constituency is called Lewisham, West, because it does not contain any of Lewisham but is made up of Forest Hill, Sydenham and Catford. They are suburban areas on the border of inner and outer London, consisting largely of pleasant, tree-lined streets with a mixture of owner-occupied housing and newer council estates. It has little industry and is almost entirely residential. From the top of Forest Hill, my constituents look down on almost all of London, but I am happy to say that they still look up to Westminster.

Lewisham, West has been represented in the House by Henry Brooke, Henry Price, Jimmy Dickens and, more recently, by my hon. Friends the present Members for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). Until a few weeks ago it was ably represented by Christopher Price, who is well-known and liked in the constituency where he worked extremely hard and gained considerable respect from his political opponents. He also made a great contribution to the House both as a private Member and as Chairman of the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts. Although I gained much respect for him before and during the election campaign, we differ on almost every political subject—even on his recent crusade to have the Elgin marbles returned to Greece and/or to Miss Mercouri. My view on the Elgin marbles is like that of the California senator who, when asked his opinion of American sovereignty over the Panama canal, said, "I think we stole it fair and square and we ought to keep it." Christopher Price will be genuinely missed in the constituency and by many people here. I hope that the Welsh succession in the Labour party will be maintained and that it will reward the good Welsh name of Price with a safe Welsh seat so that I need not fight him again.

My constituency shares most of the common problems of London. It experiences some problems, such as housing, transport, unemployment and crime, directly. It experiences others indirectly by being part of a borough that contains areas of real urban decay and social deprivation.

One problem that is shared by almost every London constituency is rates. Rates in Lewisham have trebled since 1979 from £250 for a typical small house to about £800 this year. The rates in my constituency are 50 per cent. higher than in the neighbouring borough. Business rates have been similarly affected, with the result of driving out businesses and jobs to neighbouring areas. The current level of rates, and the enormous and regular annual increases, are unacceptable to my constituents and should be unacceptable to the House. We must bring about the changes necessary to stop, and perhaps even to reverse, the trend.

The whole subject of rate reform is complex, and the alternatives present problems that may be far greater than in the present system. I am an advocate not of a local income tax or a local sales tax, but of extensive reform of local government finance and of the rating system. Local government must be made more efficient in its use of resources, because there are massive inefficiencies in many areas of local administration. For example, in Lewisham it costs £250 a week to keep a child in care. It cannot be beyond the bounds of human ingenuity to devise a way of doing it for less.

Too often public services are administered, not managed. Executive effort is devoted to making and following rules and to keeping the wheels turning, but we need active and imaginative management. My local council employs 7,000 people and has a budget of about £100 million a year. That is big business, and it deserves to be managed as such. Management education and training would help, as far more would the setting of proper objectives and performance criteria. We should, when necessary, bring in managers from outside local administration, but, however we do it, the quality and the approach of management have to be improved.

In pursuit of a more efficient use of resources, ceilings must be placed on councils' expenditure, particularly councils, such as my own, which have deliberately set out to defy spending targets. Lewisham council has increased its spending — the part for which it is directly responsible—by 10 per cent. in real terms this year. That is 10 per cent. after inflation. It has resulted directly in a 25 per cent. rate rise. It is simply not justified, and a straightforward reform could make it illegal.

Further, a stop should be put immediately to the arrogant milking of ratepayers that seems to go on in an orchestrated effort at political posturing by other local authorities. Why should London's ratepayers finance that junior people's republic on the other side of Westminster bridge? Why should they have to pay for gay art alliances, celebrating Karl Marx, undermining the police, and for giving so-called free food and accommodation to political demonstrators? Fortunately for Britain, it does not have too many such councils, but, unfortunately for my constituents, they suffer from two of them.

The argument that local democracy gives such councils a mandate is nonsense. The few people who know what the GLC is in this city would welcome its demise, and those who do not know what it is would welcome the reduction in their rates bills. Local authorities' areas of competence should be clearly defined, and spending outside those areas of competence should be made illegal.

We all know the history of rates, how they came to be imposed, and the ease and cheapness of their collection, but their unfairness is well known, as is the fact that their incidence bears no relation whatever to the ability to pay. In my constituency the typical rates bill of £800 on a fairly small house could fall on a family consisting of one wage earner with three or four dependants, or it could go to a household with three wage earners and no dependants. That is manifestly unfair.

I should like to suggest two simple changes in the system. The first is the introduction of a poll tax of about £25 per year on everybody over 18 who was neither unemployed nor living on supplementary benefit. The second relates to the way in which rates are collected. It should be fairly simple to arrange that the size of a rates bill is directly related to the number of adults living in a household, so that the anomaly of one person paying the same as five or six is removed. Those are two fairly simple reforms that would have the effect of giving much greater fairness to the rating system.

Recognition must be given, in the way that the block grant system is operated, to the special problems of London. The Inner London Education Authority may, as I think, be inefficient, but London faces special educational problems which are not encountered in rural areas and shire counties. Lewisham council may, as I have argued, be inefficient, but there are calls on its social services which are particular to certain inner London boroughs and which again do not occur in areas such as Sussex or Hampshire.

The Government are pledged to reforms. I hope that they will follow some of the lines that I have suggested —restrictions on the legality of certain types of spending, curbs on real increases in spending, reform of the rating system, and a sympathetic use of the block grant. The incidence and level of rates in my constituency are grossly unfair. It is extremely important that our pledges to do something about the rating system should be redeemed in a manner which will lead directly to lower rates bills for Londoners.