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I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech. Maiden speeches can be something of an ordeal, for deliverer and listener alike. My own nervousness was hardly helped when one of my well-meaning constituents sent me a newspaper cutting quoting a former Member, not known for his reticence, as saying that he was almost unconscious with nerves when first called by Mr. Speaker.
I represent the new constituency of Hyndburn, which came into being through boundary changes. In effect, it is the former constituency of Accrington, to which has been added the township of Great Harwood and the village of Altham, previously part of the Clitheroe constituency.
I should first like to pay a geniune and sincere tribute to my friend, opponent and predecessor, Arthur Davidson, who represented Accrington. He was a Member cif the House for 17 years and those who served with him will agree that he had the respect of all parts of the House. He was a hard-working and conscientious Member and very popular with his constituents, many of whom have cause to be grateful to him for intervening successfully on their behalf when they had a problem. He served us well.
When my constituency's election result was eventually declared, having been the last in the country, I said that although I was delighted to be the first Conservative for 40 years to represent Accrington, I would rather have beaten anyone than Arthur Davidson. It was particularly hard for him to be beaten so narrowly after so many recounts. I had hoped that the Dissolution Honours List would have included his name, so that victor and vanquished could have been together at Westminster. However, it was not to be, and I wish him well in whatever he intends to do. I thank him for the service that he gave the people of Accrington.
The other part of my new constituency was represented by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Waddington), now Minister of State, Home Office. If I discharge my duties to his former constituents as well as he did I shall not go far wrong. I am most grateful to him for his kindness to me in recent weeks.
To be elected to the House is always a great honour. To be elected by the people among whom one has lived all one's life and who consequently know one's faults and failings is an even greater honour, but one which makes one feel humble and anxious to justify the confidence shown in one. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) said in his maiden speech,
It is a fortunate man who can represent his home town."—[Official Report, 19 July 1983; Vol. 46, c. 244.]
Hyndburn is as typical a Lancashire industrial constituency as any to be found. Its history bears witness to the creative skills of Lancashire. The spinning jenny,
which revolutionised the textile industry, was invented in my home town of Oswaldtwistle by James Hargreaves in 1764. I share his name, but not his blood— nor, I regret, his inventive genius. I understand that he died a pauper. After last week's debate, that may be the only thing that I shall eventually have in common with him.
We must never forget that this country prospered through the skills and hard work of the people in the textile industry and other industries. There is more than a little truth in the old slogan that Britain's bread hangs by Lancashire's thread. When those skills brought a further revolution in the cotton industry, Hyndburn and the surrounding areas were rewarded with more than their fair share of unemployment.
Hyndburn covers an area of 28 square miles and with a population of 79,000 it is the most densely populated area in north-east Lancashire. However, we have good provision of public parks and open spaces. The constituency is overlooked by the Pennines to the south and east and is on the edge of the forest of Bowland to the north. Among our most recent claims to fame is that the Accrington art gallery has one of the world's finest collections of Tiffany glass.
The Hyndburn work force is 37,000 and is renowned for its craftmanship, loyalty and excellent industrial relations, but it has been badly hit by unemployment, which is currently running at more than 15 per cent. Although we no longer depend so heavily on cotton because we have diversified, manufacturing industry still dominates the working life of the area and goods ranging from greetings cards to billiard tables and aerospace components are produced.
Hyndburn has severe problems—;many not of its own making— of high unemployment, large areas of dereliction, poor housing and hospital and rail services under threat. Given the opportunity, its people work hard for low wages. We are proud and independent people who would far rather give help than receive it, but we desperately need help now.
I supported the Government's decision in 1979 to withdraw assisted area status because our unemployment rate was just over 4 per cent. and it seemed sensible that if Government aid was to be given at all it should be concentrated on the areas of greatest need. Unemployment in my constituency is now more than 15 per cent., so it has become such an area. Not only has our submission for assisted area status been rejected, although neighbouring Rossendale has been granted development area status, but our application for designation under the provisions of the Inner Urban Areas Act 1978 has also been turned down. Neighbouring Blackburn has been upgraded from a designated district to a programme authority while Burnley has become a designated district. My constituency is therefore surrounded on all sides by local authorities which have been identified as areas of need and to which some form of Government aid has been given. That has increased and accentuated the economic decline of Hyndburn.
The borough council, of which I am a member, has always tried to keep its expenditure under control and was reducing spending of its own volition before cuts were imposed by central Government as we believe it to be in our ratepayers' interests to do so, not least because people on low wages cannot afford high rates. When central Government subsequently asked for cuts, we made those as well, only to be penalised further because other authorities overspent. We were therefore pleased when the Conservative Government departed from the old and foolish system whereby the more a local authority spent the more grant it received, at the expense of more prudent authorities.
The grant-related expenditure assessment seeks to establish an absolute level or yardstick by which comparisons can be made. I realise the enormous difficulties in the GREA exercise and in ensuring that the indicators, used accurately, reflect the costs and needs of each authority. I argue, however, that the GRE indicators heavily under-represent the needs of my constituency. The E7 and C19 housing indicators are of particular concern. If a local authority's expenditure is considerably above the GRE level, that implies that the authority is a relatively high spending authority or that the GRE formula does not accurately reflect the needs of that authority.
The selection and weighting of indicators in the GRE system for shire districts has been heavily influenced by regression analysis of past expenditure by local authorities. Therefore, there is a danger that authorities with needs which are untypical of previously high-spending authorities may have their needs underrepresented. I submit that the needs of Hyndburn and other urbanised north-east Lancashire authorities are not adequately reflected in GREAs. That is the main reason why five such authorities have expenditure guidances more than 15 per cent. above their GREAs.
I was therefore particularly pleased when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that there was an element of rough justice in GRE. I agree with him, and my constituents are feeling the effects. Unemployment rates have only marginal importance in determining GRE, but high unemployment leads to significantly increased local government expenditure requirements.
The transport GRE fails to take account of the different needs of transport spending authorities within a county and whether the authority runs its own bus services. Because Hyndburn previously had one of the few profitable bus undertakings— it now makes a loss— its spending relevant to its GRE and its expenditure target has been seriously affected.
The system of GRE is an improvement on previous methods, but it is far from perfect. The failings of the system cause severe problems for many authorities. As my local authority is worried about the effects of high rates on its ratepayers, the present rate support grant system means that many of its traditional activities have been severely constrained and new initiatives with revenue implications have been virtually stopped. It is particularly ironic that the GRE system should discriminate against Hyndburn, as 80 per cent. of the houses are owner-occupied and especially as the GRE system never stopped Hyndburn aiding needy owner-occupiers.
I am grateful to the Government for following policies which have reduced inflation and interest rates, which play a significant part in the level of rates. I believe that the Government have a right and a responsibility to determine the overall level of public expenditure. I regret that what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to as the customs and conventions which govern the relationship between local and central Government have broken down. That, more than anything else, has caused my local authority's present difficulties.
I am glad to see from the report that the Secretary of State has considered the representations made by local authorities under section 8(4) of the Local Government Finance Act. I hope that he will seriously consider reviewing the GRE indicators so that authorities which set out deliberately to ignore the Government's policies are penalised and councils which genuinely seek to co-operate and are proved to have been reasonable will not suffer financially or from the humiliation of being classed with the Greater London Council as overspenders.
It comes as a shock to a council which in the years since reorganisation invariably had rates increases below the average suddenly to find itself classed as an overspender. Any system which requires a council to provide rock and roll on the rates, as we read in yesterday's newspapers, while another council is desperately trying to maintain essential services clearly needs to be examined and improved.