Will the Secretary of State at least meet elected Members of Parliament to discuss this critical position and consider meeting council leaders? Meantime, will he ask the district auditor to withdraw the letter that has been sent to councillors who are defending jobs, services and rates in Liverpool? The right hon. Gentleman knows that the previous Tory-Liberal coalition left Liverpool city council in a mess, because he saw that for himself. Is it not a disgrace that councillors could be banned from office or gaoled for carrying out their pledges to their citizens?
The district auditor is completely independent of central Government, which has been the case since the office was first established 150 years ago. I therefore have no power to control him in the performance of his duties. However, it is a complete fallacy to imagine that the problems which now beset Liverpool city council are all the making of its predecessors. The present councillors were given time last year to put their house in order, but they failed utterly to do anything about it. On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I shall be ready to meet Members of Parliament from Liverpool who would like to discuss the matter.
Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to remind the people of Liverpool that they are heavily dependent on the charity of taxpayers in other areas, and that many of those hard-working people resent their money being poured down the bottomless hole which the leaders of Liverpool city council seem determined to create?
The Government certainly think it right to give substantial help to Merseyside in general and Liverpool in particular. We look to Liverpool city council to do more to help itself. Why does collecting the refuse in Liverpool cost the council double the number of rounds as, and 25 per cent. more staff than, in Birmingham, which is twice the size of Liverpool? That is an example of the woeful inefficiency of Liverpool city council.
Will the Secretary of State repudiate what his hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) said? The people of Liverpool or elsewhere do not receive charity from anyone. [Interruption.] Although many of the problems were caused by the previous administration in Liverpool, the basic problem is that the rate support grant was cut drastically by the Government over several years, and this year the housing investment programme for Liverpool was cut. On that basis, is it not clear that a reversal of policy is needed? As the Government are already intending to go in that direction, why not start now?
If the Liverpool city council was prepared to tailor its budget so that it could live within its target, it could have rate support grant this year of £118 million. If it succeeded in living within its target, it could manage its services with a very modest rate rise.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the disastrous policies of the current Liverpool city council serve only to make things worse in that sad city by deterring any potential employer from moving there? Will he say why people in south Derbyshire should have to fork out a ton of money to keep that council afloat on the Mersey when the money could be far better spent on our own ratepayers and taxpayers?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that members of the Liverpool city council will recognise, from what has been said from the Conservative Benches, that Parliament's patience is running very short. It is high time that they set about putting their house in order instead of continually standing with their hands outstretched, asking for more money.
Is it not the case that, by budgeting for £100 million above the income that the council will receive this year, the trouble has been brought on the heads of the councillors because they have practised policies of self-immolation? Will the Secretary of State give the House an assurance the he will not send a commissioner to Liverpool—he would be seen as the Prime Minister's henchman — but will instead allow the law to run its natural course? Will he also give assurances to council employees, who are worried about what will happen to them when the money runs out?
The employees of the council, including the members of NALGO and of the teachers' unions, have already made their anxieties extremely plain to the ruling majority on the Liverpool city council. The law will take its course as the district auditors' proceedings go through the normal process. I have no power whatever to send in commissioners. I hope that the Liverpool city council will take the steps that still remain within its powers to set its affairs in order.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the people of Liverpool are trying to put their affairs in order? They have 17 priority housing areas. He has seen the housing problems on Merseyside, and will see them again during his visit next Friday. He refuses to acknowledge the real needs of the people of Merseyside and prefers instead to dissipate taxpayers' money on international garden festivals and Tate galleries for the north, which, while desirable, are not first priorities for the people of Liverpool.
The hon. Gentleman has been less than fair to those who successfully carried through Britain's first international garden festival. Nothing did more to lift the spirits of the people of Liverpool than that festival last year. They demanded that it should be opened again this year, and it has been. That in no way excuses the failure of the Liverpool city council to use the time that it was given last year to put its house in order, to seek to get more efficient services and better value for money, and so live within its income. It is because the council has failed to do that that it is now facing very serious problems.
Will the Minister accept some responsibility, as the Minister responsible for Merseyside—as was his predecessor — for the fact that hard drug-taking among young people has increased fourfold, while at the same time Government policies have created a situation in which the leader of Liverpool city council, a JP and retired schoolmaster who has never broken the law in his life, is being turned into a law-breaker by the Government because he wants to defend services for the elderly, the disabled and the children in Liverpool?
The hon. Gentleman is seriously misrepresenting the situation. If Councillor Hamilton or any other councillor of Liverpool city council chooses to go outside the law and vote for a budget or rate which may or may not be illegal, that is a matter for the courts. That is their decision. It is in no sense a decision of the Government, and I repudiate wholly what he has said.