Orders of the Day — Local Government and Scotland

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:58 pm on 17th November 1986.

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Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle 6:58 pm, 17th November 1986

It would seem that the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle) would like to base his legislative proposals for the next Parliament on hearsay and gossip. It reminds me of the old saying, "Don't give the middle classes coal cellars—they'll only put baths in them." Apparently, people used to say of the working classes, "Give them a decent bath and they'll only use it for coal". The same sort of people are now trying to to suggest that there is not really a housing crisis, and that young women are becoming pregnant in order to jump the waiting list. That is absolute nonsense.

The hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire speaks with some authority about rates. As an estate agent, he is very good about knowing how to avoid paying them. He takes the roofs off factories to avoid paying empty property rates. That is how good he is at avoiding paying rates and at working the system.

The Secretary of State for the Environment gave one of the most disgraceful performances that I have ever seen a Minister make from the Government Front Bench, which, incidentally, will be occupied by the Labour party after the next general election. He gave away the Government's tactics for the next general election. Having made nearly 4 million people unemployed, having destroyed British industry and having sustained an attack for seven years on local government democracy with 12 pieces of legislation on the rating front alone — each being avoided by ingenious local authorities—they intend to fight the next election on prejudice and fear.

The Secretary of State could relate only prejudiced little anecdotes against some Labour local authorities that have had the courage to use public money to help the underprivileged and the minorities in our community. But I am proud that Labour local authorities accept that lesbians live in the community. The Secretary of State said that one Labour local authority wanted a gay teacher in every school. I have news for that local authority and for the right hon. Gentleman—there probably already is a gay teacher in every school. There probably is a gay teacher in every school in the Secretary of State's constituency and in Mid-Staffordshire. The only difference between those constituencies and, say, Brent or Lambeth is that teachers in Mid-Staffordshire or in Cirencester and Tewksbury dare not admit that they are gay in case they lose their jobs. Many homosexuals certainly work in the caring professions: in hospitals and old folks' homes. There are certainly many in Conservative constituency parliamentary associations. Some of them even become Members of Parliament, but then they hypocritically vote against gay rights and against legislation to improve the lot of gay people.

I am not ashamed of Labour local authorities giving grants to gay groups. They recognise that such groups and people exist in society and are not hypocritical about that, unlike Conservative Members. I am proud of the many years of pioneering activity and legislation that has been introduced by free and democratic local government.

The Government talk about police monitoring and attack the Labour party for wanting the police to be accountable, but there would not he police forces if Labour local government and Tory local government had not pioneered them in the first place with the Peelers, Bobbies and watch committees. What was wrong with that? Police forces were created by local government so that local communities could be policed. Now that the Labour party wants the return of watch committees, the reaction of the Tory Government is shock and horror, followed by the accusation that the Labour party wants political control of the police. That is nonsense.

I am proud of gas and water socialism. We would not have water authorities and municipal and clean water without the involvement of local government, and nor would we have clean air legislation. Members of this place opposed clean air Bills that were promoted by local government until smog hit London and killed thousands of old people. They then understood what local authorities were talking about.

Without local government action the slums would not have been cleared, we would not have a ship canal company and there would be no municipal airports. None of this progress would have been made had it not been for local government enterprise, which we want to reinvigorate in our communities. Local authorities have been pioneers and they have acted and built on behalf of the communities that they have represented. They have not adopted the policies of greed, fear and prejudice on which the Government play. That is the basis of the Government's attitude to local government and the activities of Labour councils throughout the country, which do such "horrific" things, as Tories believe, and are re-elected throughout the country by those whom they are fighting to protect.

The Government have introduced no fewer than 12 Acts over the past seven years to try to destroy local government democracy and finance. We have had cuts in grants. When the Conservative party came to power in 1979, 60 per cent. of local government expenditure, which was then at a much higher level, was paid for by central Government. On average, only 40 per cent. was raised through local government rates. The reverse is true now. About 48 or 46 per cent. is received from central Government and the remainder has to be raised locally. As my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, that is the main reason for the massive rate increases and the cuts in services that we have seen over the past seven years.

The Conservative party came to power with the idea of cutting public expenditure. The Conservative Government decided to tell local government that if it did not cut public expenditure, cut services and make people unemployed —these policies were resisted by Conservative hung or balanced councils, and by Labour councils—they would reduce grants, and they introduced a system that would have that effect. I was a member of the Committee that considered the Bill which embodied that system, which was subsequently enacted. The Government said to local government, "You will cut your expenditure and reduce your services. If you don't, we will reduce your grant. If you put up your rates by more than the amount that we tell you, we shall take the moneys off you in grant. If you put up your rates even more to make up for the grant that we have taken off you, we shall take even more grant off you."

The Government pursued that policy to such an extent that some local authorities went out of grant. That happened to the Inner London education authority, Islington and one or two other authorities. That meant that it was no longer a deterrent for the Government to say, "We shall cut your grants." Local authorities managed, through their ingenuity, to raise money to maintain services and to ensure that their employees remained in employment through their own resources.

In the light of these developments, the Government decided to introduce rate capping, but many local authorities were able even to get round that. That was achieved by many Labour authorities which wanted to resist cuts in jobs and services. Authorities used all sorts of ingenious devices to circumvent what central Government were doing, and these devices were all legal. I support only legal activity that is designed to get round central Government legislation that applies to capital and revenue expenditure.