Rate Support Grant (England)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:56 pm on 20th January 1986.

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Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith 8:56 pm, 20th January 1986

I never cease to be amazed by the audacity of the Government. They believe that they can fool all the people all the time. During his opening speech the Minister did what I have heard him do on several occasions: he berated local authorities for their high expenditure and he blamed them for the ills of the country's economic condition. Yet he has known for many years that Government public expenditure has been increasing year after year, while local authority expenditure has been forced down. As my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said, the Minister is continuing to tell local authorities. "Do not do as we do, do as we tell you."

To some extent, I sympathise with those who live in the shire counties, because I would be the first to recognise the problem of rural poverty. But I have little sympathy with Conservative Members who represent shire counties because, since 1979, they have given full support to their Government in terms of cutting local authority expenditure. Suddenly the shire county Members discover that they are being hurt. They do not like it, and they complain about it. It is a bit late now. They should have thought of that a few years ago.

The Secretary of State said that his RSG settlement was designed to obtain a balance between rural and inner-city needs. It will not do that at all. Conservative Members and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) pointed out that much of what is happening today is a consequence of the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties. Another cause is that the Government have recognised that the crisis in the inner cities is becoming profoundly dangerous to the fabric of society. We have had riots and crime in our inner cities of a nature and intensity that have not been seen in Britain for more than 100 years. That frightened the Government, so after years of cutting expenditure they are trying to direct a little more money back into the inner cities. The message from that, as some Conservative Members recognise, is that if the riots and inner city troubles are sufficiently great, those areas will receive a little extra money. That is the mess that the Government have got themselves into on this issue.

I sat with the Secretary of State throughout the Committee stage of the Local Government Bill. He was always looking forward to the money that he would save through the abolition of the GLC and metropolitan county councils. Now, both he and his hon. Friends are sadder and wiser. They are making no significant savings, and in March and April many good voluntary and part statutory bodies will either lose money dramatically or go to the wall completely because no one will pick up the bill and ensure that they function. That will apply both in inner city areas and outside them.

There is a desperate crisis in inner city areas, and it affects constituencies such as mine. In Hammersmith and Fulham there has been an appalling loss of services, and there is a dire need for expansion of basic services, such as housing. While talking about Hammersmith and Fulham it is right and appropriate for me to say a word about the late hon. Member for Fulham, Mr. Martin Stevens, who died at the untimely and young age of 56. He and I had strong basic disagreements about political philosophy. However, he spent a great deal of time in his constituency and was frequently seen there taking up people's problems. He will be a loss to the Conservative party, and many people in Fulham will miss him. It is right for the House to pay its respects to him. We knew that we were representing inner city areas with profound problems.

Hammersmith and Fulham council is run by a coalition of Conservative and Liberals who have a strong ideological commitment to privatisation and, above all, to dramatic cuts in public expenditure. We have a housing waiting list of 10,000 people, yet the Government, with the full, active support and encouragement of the Liberal-Tory council, are busy selling eight or nine blocks of flats in Fulham court. In doing so, they are decanting council tenants from those flats, and are even talking about taking eviction powers to remove people who have lived there, often all their lives, from the flats. That is a wholly unacceptable policy, and it does not merely affect those people, but others.

Today I received a not untypical letter from Hammersmith and Fulham council about Mr. and Mrs. Conlon in my constituency. It states: There is no possibility of a transfer as Mr. and Mrs. Conlon have no transfer points. In other words, the council and the Government by cutting the housing budget for building, renovation and repairs are creating a housing crisis in our inner cities which makes the underlying problems far worse for people at every level.

Hammersmith and Fulham has the fourth highest public sector rents in London, yet we have the second highest rate of single-parent families, and many people on low incomes. Despite that, we wonder why more and more people get into debt, why their electricity and gas supplies are cut off, and why the rent is unpaid.

The social services were under the control of a Liberal councillor who is now the chairman of finance. During his period as chairman of the social services committee children on the at risk register, which was set up by the Government, were not being supervised by social workers because of cuts. Eventually they were given a social worker, but only after I, the press and others had exerted pressure. The chairman also tried to interfere with court decisions affecting care proceedings which the committee had set in hand, and had to be warned off by the clerk of the court. The director of social services, who was a good one, was driven from his job and the job was left unfilled for more than 18 months. That is how bad the position became.

We shall now see the full results of that. On Wednesday a report will go to the social services committee which is now under a conservative chairman. It will show that under the financing for the next 12 months it will be necessary to decrease the number of nursery places which have existed since 1984 by 13 per cent. The nursery provision is not keeping pace with the projected increase in the number of children aged up to four years.

Eleven of the children on that waiting list are in priority category 2. That means that there is a danger to the child's health and of serious neglect by the parent. However, there is no place for such children in a nursery school. There are another 86 children in priority category 4. It is considered in that category that there is a serious risk to a child's normal development. For example, the parents might be mentally handicapped or something of that nature. Again there is no possibility in the near future of nursery places for such children. There is a total of 756 children in the top five categories.

There has been a clash between the Government and their own Tory-Liberal council because the council submitted a financial package to the Department of the Environment. The Department rejected that package and the council is now going to have to drop some of its projects as a result.

To cope with that situation the social services committee is proposing, first, to close and sell three children's homes and one home for the elderly, although we all know that the problems of children and the elderly are among the most acute in the area. The social services committee is also proposing to close the student unit. I intend to discover in due course whether that closure will affect training for social workers caring for children on the at risk register. In view of the many recent cases, the last thing we ought to do is cut back on training for social workers. The committee is also to close a luncheon club. That is a measure of the crisis that is hitting the inner cities. The report ends with the words: The Services most affected will be the Area Teams, the Homes for the Elderly and the Day Nurseries where budgets will not be sufficient to maintain full staffing.

The social services committee also proposes to close Riverpoint hostel. Even The London Standard reported a few days ago that that hostel was taking homeless people not just from the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham but from all over London and from outside London. Hon. Members may forget that the inner cities have to pick up some of the problems from the outer London and shire areas.

The Riverside studios, the well-known arts theatre in the borough, will have to close because the council is rejecting a grant that was initially put forward by the Arts Council as long as the council was prepared to pay something as well. The Liberal chairman of the social services committee, Councillor Knott, said: There is no way we are going to fund the Riverside. We are off the hook and do not intend to get back on.

Finally, there is the problem of crime in inner city areas. A week or so ago the Secretary of State for the Home Department boasted of his Downing street seminar. Many of the things in that seminar involving crime prevention cost money. The Secretary of State mentioned 1·3 million houses needing basic improvements in their locks, doors and windows. The rate of grant necessary—which is something in the region of £400 per house or flat for the older properties that need more repairs—represents an overall cost of £500 million. Where will that money come from? Will it come from the shire areas or the inner city areas? Where will the money come from to pay for the caretakers who prevent vandalism and who help clear up graffiti? Where will the money come from for the other social problems that exist in the inner cities and shire areas?

I welcome those Conservative hon. Members who say that they will join Opposition Members in the Lobby tonight. By God, those hon. Members are six years too late. The damage that has been done to the fabric of the country is almost irreversible and will take years to put right. I must tell Conservative Members that it is not an answer simply to shift money from the shires to the inner cities. It must be recognised that at the same time as the Government are putting a greater burden on the inner cities and a greater burden on the shire areas through rates, they are actually giving more back in tax handouts to the rich than ever before.

Social Trends, the booklet published only a few weeks ago, shows that, without any doubt, the rich in Britain, and particularly the very rich, are getting very much richer and the poor are getting very much poorer. At the same time the low income groups in the inner cities and in the shire counties are having to pick up the bill. That is a recipe for disaster and if Conservative Members will carry their logic to its conclusion they will not only vote against the report tonight, but will make sure that the Minister never tries to get away with it again and reverse the policy.