Orders of the Day — Local Government and Transport

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:41 pm on 7th November 1984.

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Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle 5:41 pm, 7th November 1984

I agree with some of the remarks made by Conservative Members. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground), who put his case sincerely and obviously spoke from great knowledge of local government, especially in the London area. I agreed with most of what he said.

I should like to refer specifically to two sentences in the Gracious Speech. The first is: Legislation will be introduced for the better protection of food and the environment. I should like some undertakings from Ministers in respect of what that means. Secondly, I should like to refer to the words Other measures will be laid before you. That has a most ominous ring, and I should like some guidance on it.

Before referring to those two aspects of the Gracious Speech, I should like to make some observations on other issues that have been raised in the debate. The Secretary of State for the Environment referred to the privatisation of refuse collection. If he had given way to me I would have asked him to congratulate the Conservative-controlled Sefton metropolitan district council on going back on its original proposal to privatise its refuse collection. It received the lowest quotation from Grandmet, so it visited the London borough of Wandsworth to see the refuse collection service — or lack of service—provided there by Grandmet. Much is made of adhering to the law, but the council found the refuse collectors in Wandsworth breaking the law. They left vehicles with their engines running and unattended because that was the only way that they could collect the refuse according to the tender that they had submitted. The Conservative council in Sefton worked out that it would need not dustmen but supermen to collect the refuse if it accepted that tender, so it rightly rejected it, because the direct works system in that local authority, which has been considered Right-wing up to now, was considered to be effective and efficient. I should like to congratulate Sefton council even if the Secretary of State is not here to do so.

There is an argument about local government suddenly becoming so different in character—becoming political and spending money unwisely — that it justifies rate capping, central control and the abolition of councils that are behaving in that wicked manner. That argument is absolute nonsense. I have been in politics since I was 15 or 16. I was in local government and chaired the housing committee in the city of Manchester. I saw the city when it was Conservative-controlled. I saw the city of Liverpool when the Liberal-Tory alliance controlled it. There has always been politics in local government. There have always been political decisions and political propaganda campaigns run by local authorities.

The Secretary of State talks about councils spending money frivolously. When I first entered local government, local authority after local authority—Tory or Labour-controlled—spent fortunes on conferences, receptions, junkets and all sorts of things. I remember Tony Crosland's famous speech when he said, "The party's over." It was made at Manchester town hall while he was tucking into an eight-course meal, and there were about 400 people there. All that has gone now. It is said that so-called Left-wing Labour councils spend money frivolously, but they have cut out all that nonsense in most cases. They are not wasting the ratepayers' money in such a way, although Conservative councils still do just that. Therefore, if the Government get down to that level and argue in support of massive proposals such as the abolition of the metropolitan counties and the GLC, we can reply in kind.

With regard to breaking the law, the great tragedy is that the Government are putting law-abiding citizens, many of whom have dedicated their lives to serving their fellow men and women, in a position in which they either break the statute law that requires services to be provided or defy the rate capping legislation. They are in a "Catch 22" situation.

When Liverpool city council was run by the Liberals and the Tories, they broke the law. They kept illegal lists of handicapped and disabled people who were waiting for telephones and adaptations. All that was illegal. Of course, present Ministers did not intervene. It was a Labour law that was being broken — the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act.

John Hamilton, the leader of Liverpool city council, a retired school teacher and justice of the peace, has never broken the law in his life, but now, because he wants to defend services to the elderly and the disabled and to protect education for children, he is being branded as a criminal by the laws that the Government are passing. What a state we are getting in, with central control of local authorities and legislation that forces the people in society who want to protect those in most need to face the dilemma of breaking the law. At the same time, unemployment is rising and it seems that lawlessness is not being dealt with effectively in the streets of Liverpool and Bootle, my constituency. Hard drug-taking seems to be increasing, which is a serious problem, yet we are told that the real criminals are people who want to defend services for those in greatest need. That is the society that the Government are creating.

In the Queen's Speech there is a suggestion that there will be legislation to protect the environment. Together with my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), I hope that there will be legislation to deal with the problem of acid rain. The Select Committee on the Environment has reported. We have not yet had the Government's response and a date has not been announced for a debate on that response and on the report itself.

I hope that the Government will change their attitude towards action on that issue and will not continue to mouth propaganda that seems to come from the Central Electricity Generating Board. The Select Committee's report shows that the weight of evidence is overwhelming. Emissions of sulphur from power stations and of nitrogen oxide from motor cars, power stations and industry are causing damage to rivers, lakes and forests not only in Scandinavia and West Germany but in this country. There have been reductions in sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions in this country over the past few years, but we are still one of the biggest emitters in Europe, if not the biggest emitter, except for the Soviet Union.

If we wait for the conclusive proof which the CEGB—and, up to now, the Government—have said they want before they will take action, it may be too late. The damage done to lakes and forests in Scandinavia and to forests in West Germany should warn us that the cumulative build-up of emissions of sulphur and nitrogen will damage our environment. Damage is already being done, and the process will accelerate. We do not have the conclusive proof that the CEGB demands, but we have evidence similar to that which existed when we first began to realise that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer. Even if the evidence is not scientifically conclusive, it is overwhelming. Action must be taken and I hope that the Government will take it.

I believe that the CEGB figures are on the high side. The board suggests an increase of 10 to 15 per cent in electricity charges over 10 years to retrofit all fossil fuel power stations. That means an increase of a maximum of 1 to 1·5 per cent. a year to save our environment, when electricity charges have risen by over 50 per cent. in the past four years. One must look at the problem in perspective. We must save British lakes, rivers and forests before they are damaged as the European and Scandinavian forests have been.

I am worried about the phrase Other measures will be laid before you. At the Conservative party conference this year the Minister for Housing and Construction announced that new legislation was planned for the private rented housing sector. There is no mention of such legislation in the Queen's Speech. Is it included in the phrase "other measures" or has the idea been dropped? I fear that legislation by a Conservative Government in the private rented sector would involve an attempt to undermine even further the security of tenants who rent from private landlords, and another attempt to bolster the private rented sector.

Those who receive the worst treatment in housing terms are those who rent from private landlords. We do not need legislation to weaken the security and the rights of private tenants in an attempt to revitalise the private rented sector, which will inevitably die anyway. We need legislation to provide more security, to get rid of bogus holiday lets, to deal with the bed and breakfast hotel scandals and to end the use of licences to avoid giving security to those who rent from a private landlord. The worst housing conditions are concentrated in the private rented sector. There are severe problems of disrepair. There is much harassment, many illegal evictions, and rents are high. If any legislation is in view, I hope that it will be designed to protect the tenant rather than further to undermine his position. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the promise made to the party conference has been dropped or whether there is to be another attack on those in the greatest housing need.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland has said, the Secretary of State for the Environment failed to make any mention of the housing crisis which is developing apace. By the time of the next election, we shall be facing a housing crisis of 1945 proportions. The issue of the sale of council houses will have disappeard as a vote winner for the Conservatives or a vote loser for us—if that is what it was. One cannot oppose what has already been done and, in any case, with the lengthening waiting lists and other problems, the housing crisis will make housing a priority issue in the next general election. That can only benefit the Labour party, and make plain the need for the policies that we will suggest to deal with it.