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During this debate we see the continuation of the argument that the Government have put forward during the past four years— that high rates are the responsibility of profligate local authorities. The reality is that the Government have spent the past four years penalising local authorities, taking money away from them, making their job harder, leaving them with the problems created by the Government's economic policies, forcing them to put up rates to maintain services, and then running a local propaganda campaign against Labour-controlled authorities for increasing the rates. Today we see a continuation of the Government's attack on local government. The amount cut from local authority support in London is astronomical. During those four years Islington lost between £25 million and £30 million and the problems facing the people of that borough multiplied.
We also see an attack on the constitutional position of local government. The Government continually say that local authorities are wasteful and spend too much money on services. Yet at the same time they claim that local authorities are independent and have freedom of action. Clearly they have not.
I was elected to the local authority in Haringey, first, in 1974 and then in 1978. The Labour party put forward a manifesto in the 1978 election based on the law then pertaining and upon the finance likely to be available from central Government under the rate support grant system. The manifesto was accepted and supported by the people, and the council was duly elected. Because central Government changed the rules over the following four years, the democracy that elects councillors is regarded as cheaper and second-rate compared with the democracy that elects Members to this House. The Government are saying that they hold in contempt those who have been elected in local government elections. The Government imagine that they can ride roughshod over the attempts of local authority members to provide services for the people whom they represent.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said, the reality is that the services that can be provided and the decisions that local authorities can make are controlled by central Government.
My experience of local authorities' rate-making decisions is not as described by the Government. All boroughs face horrendous problems—;multiple homelessness; people being forced into bed and breakfast accommodation because the local authority cannot provide decent housing; waiting lists for home helps; nursery provision; legitimate demands for support for more nurseries; support for a multi-ethnic community; and support for the unemployed. Most of those problems have been created by central Government.
In contrast, central Government lecture local government about not spending too much money on such people. That is the most disgraceful aspect. Ultimately, the decisions made in this place on the policies put forward by the Government mean that old people, who after a lifetime's work are perhaps confined to their homes and in desperate need of home helps, are charged for or, even worse, denied home help. Disabled people are denied the grants and assistance that they should have.
One can see the difference between the attitude taken by inner London predominantly Labour-controlled authorities that do their best to provide services for those people who are worst off and that taken by outer London boroughs that do the opposite and try to toe the Government's line by cutting services at their behest.
The north Tottenham-north Wood Green area is on the border between the boroughs of Haringey and Enfield. The borough of Enfield has been Conservative-controlled since 1968. People leave the borough of Enfield daily to go to Haringey because they know that they can obtain a cheap lunch at an old people's luncheon club there. Such lunches are not provided by the Tory-controlled borough of Enfield. A similar story is repeated all over the country. Mean Tory-controlled local authorities do not provide the services that the elderly deserve. I am sure that many of my hon. Friends could recount similar experiences.
The principle of central Government control of local government is put forward continually. We are repeatedly lectured that local government is wasteful and tries to provide unrealistic, expensive services.
I ask the House to consider the way in which local authorities' housing policies are treated by central Government. I wish that the homeless could organise themselves, turn up at this place and tell Members what it is like to live in bed and breakfast accommodation and to queue at housing action centres week after week knowing that, because of cuts in the amount available for building from central Government and in the rate support grant, no house will be available.
If a local authority wishes to provide housing for its homeless people, central Government will decide the cost and design of the properties that borough and district councils propose to build. Central Government reject those plans if they think that they are too expensive. There is then an endless toing and froing for months and months until some agreement is reached. As a result, the local authority is allowed to build the houses that it wants, usually of an inferior standard, with smaller rooms, smaller windows that are not double glazed, less insulation and smaller gardens. As central Government's attititude to a borough's building policy is so mean, social problems begin to increase. People are put into houses that are too small for them, and they pay more through vast heating bills, because of inadequate insulation.
If we are to have genuine democracy, we must give local government freedom of action to respond to, and meet, the needs of its local community rather than have it dictated to by a bunch of bureaucrats in Whitehall, whose spokesperson on the Government Bench cannot even be bothered to stay to listen to the debate.
The other great lie that is continually peddled about local authorities is that somehow they can be made more efficient by privatising the services. If Conservative Members had any knowledge whatever of the way in which local government is run, or if they talked to those who try to administer it, they would not preach the gospel of privatisation. If the House rises early enough tonight, I invite Conservative Members to take a bus to Wandsworth, to knock on the doors of any 20 houses and to ask the people what they think of the refuse collection service in that borough. If there is more time, they should go to Southend and ask the people there what they think about their refuse collection service. If those people complain about the service, they are referred to the private contractor who says, "It has nothing to do with me." He rejects the complaint, because he is much too busy making money.
The reality of the privatisation of local government services is not that the ratepayer gets a more efficient service or that the public purse is better off, but that jobs are cut, people are made redundant, and there is less control over the way the services are delivered.
Westminster city council recently decided that it would be cheaper if it privatised the cleaning of its town halls. Women workers who have given years of service, doing what in many cases was unpleasant work late at night or early in the morning, were told that they were surplus to requirements and that a private cleaning company would be brought in.— [HON. MEMBERS: "Quite right, too."] Conservative Members should get in touch with their friends on Westminster city council and ask why they could not even be bothered to meet the 25 women, some of whom have given 30 years' service and more, who were dismissed via a duplicated letter. That is the attitude of many councils to privatisation.
The Westminster city council claimed that by sacking a large number of town hall cleaners the ratepayers would be better off. Those people, instead of doing a useful job, were made redundant and forced to go through the indignity of queueing up week in, week out, for a measly pittance handed out by the state—;a charge on central Government funds. Therefore, unemployment was deliberately created and the profits handed over to a private enterprise cleaning firm. That story is repeated throughout local government.
When the Government preach the gospel of privatisation, in reality they are preaching an end to democratic control of local government and the handing over of vast profits to private cleaning companies that are accountable to no one. By doing so, they force workers, who had previously fought for and obtained satisfactory conditions, to accept worse conditions because the alternative is the horror of the dole queue. That is part of the attack on local government trade unionism and is an attempt by the Government to depress the living standards and wages of people employed in the public sector.
If a survey were taken of those in local government who must provide the street sweeping, refuse collection, gardening and other services, they would say that we were mad to dismantle a satisfactory system of democratic control and instead to bring in a private enterprise firm that was accountable to no one. Such a policy merely allows large profits to be made out of local government.
The Government have waged this insidious war of attrition on local government for the past four years. Instead of taking account of need and asking local authorities, "What are the needs and problems of the people whom you represent?", they are saying "We know better. We shall decide how much to spend, and halfway through the year we might decide to cut the amount of money available." As a result, the local authority is placed in a terrible position. It may be forced to sack workers or to reduce services halfway through the year. That removes a basic form of local democracy.
These reports are yet another nail in the coffin of local government, as is the attack against the metropolitan authorities and the GLC. We should be talking about genuine local democracy so that from one year to another local authorities have some idea of how much money they will get instead of taking away this right to control and provide local services and imposing on them a series of quangos.
The Minister's predecessor was supposed to be hunting the quangos. Instead, the Government seem to be trying to destroy the metropolitan authorities and the GLC by imposing self-appointed bodies—;presumably with the approval of Conservative Members—;that will administer local government and take away the democratic control that has been fought for over many years.
Even some Conservative Members must now feel that their authorities have on occasions been treated badly by central Government. I hope that they and my hon. Friends will look on these reports as the start of a major constitutional shift by destroying local democracy and handing greater power to central Government. By the end of this Parliament, if it runs its full term— which I sincerely hope it will not— we shall have not local government but a Minister supposedly responsible for local government. In the same way as the French education Minister used to decide local education policy, he will decide every iota of local authority expenditure.
Conservative Members may paddle a populist canoe for a while and argue that rate increases are the fault of local authorities for trying to provide services, but, come the cuts, people will begin to realise the truth. They will see through the lies that they have been told and will turn rapidly against the Government.