Orders of the Day — Local Government Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:42 pm on 3rd March 1987.

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Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 8:42 pm, 3rd March 1987

It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) referring to himself as some form of threatened species. I can only think of him as a species of Leicester leprechraun and I can say that without being accused of being "sizeist" since I am the same physical height as the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Leicester, East raises the name of Leicester regularly, in the same way that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) raises it. We hear Leicester mentioned in this House almost as often as we hear Newham mentioned. For a change, it would be nice to hear the hon. Member for Leicester, East supporting his own council. His council is democratically elected. It represents the people of the city. Indeed, some of those who voted Labour in the local council elections might even vote Conservative at the general election. From my experience on the GLC over many years, someone like Sir Horace Cutler who was the Tory leader of the council was quite prepared to defend London and attack the Conservative Government in the interests of London.

There is an unfortunate divide in the House. Conservative Members take great delight in attacking their own local councils — mainly, of course, because those councils are controlled by a party other than their own. I should like to see a little more community loyalty, which would involve Tory Members defending their councils. They need not necessarily agree with everything that the councils do, but they could defend the councils rather than take every opportunity to attack them.

I will not speak for very long about the Bill as it is rather like Hamlet without the prince. However, it would be wrong of Opposition Members to make great play of the fact that it is not the Bill that we were all expecting. Frankly, I am absolutely delighted that it is not the Bill that we all expected. Obviously, we will take some pleasure in the general discomfort that will be felt on the Government Front Bench as they hear the criticisms from Conservative Members. I am glad that the Bill does not involve compulsory tendering amendments to the Local Government Act 1986 or controls over contract compliance.

A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Leicester, East, referred to contract compliance as if somehow that was an invidious demand made upon local enterprise and that there was nothing good in it. The way Conservative Members refer to contract compliance, one would think that it had been imported by Labour authorities direct from Moscow. The GLC did much pioneering work on contract compliance. We drew our experiences exclusively from the United States, because we found that the practices adopted there had a great deal to commend them.

Contract compliance is taken from the world's premier capitalist state, not a Socialist state. It is not taken from the sort of country to which one would necessarily expect a Socialist GLC to be looking. We discovered that the way in which contract compliance was used to combat racism and discrimination in the United States was something we could bring into this country. I am glad that the Government are not pursuing the banning of contract compliance.

We have heard a great deal from hon. Members referring to creative accountancy and the reasons why local authorities have adopted such practices. The hon. Member for Leicester, East—I am sorry to give him this additional publicity; we know how much he thrives on it and it is very much his oxygen—referred to the list of problems in Leicester. Indeed, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen), like the hon. Member for Leicester, East, ran out an annoying list which did not amount to a row of beans in financial terms.

When a local authority is spending money on policies aimed at ending discrimination against gays or lesbians, it is not the amount of money that upsets Tory Members, it is the principle. Even if it was only a matter of a few pounds, it would still offend and outrage them. When local authorities attempt to pursue policies to end discrimination against gays and lesbians, they run up against the accumulated years of prejudice and bigotry in our society. It is not surprising that there has been a backlash against Labour authorities especially in London which have attempted to deal with the problems of such discrimination.

Local authorities have become involved in creative accountancy not because they want that, or because they are "profligate" as I understand the word profligate, but because they are trying to counteract central Government policies. They have found that central Government policies have deprived them of the resources they so desperately need to defend jobs and services in their areas. It is not surprising that boroughs, especially in London, which have become so deeply involved in the various accountancy procedures are precisely those inner London boroughs with the greatest problems. The Government must surely be prepared to acknowledge that.

In a very statespersonlike speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) spelt out the problems in Newham. On this occasion, we are doing our best to be as nice to the Minister as we possibly can. That actually causes me physical and mental strain. However, I do not wish to upset the Minister too much while he is thinking about the things that he saw in Newham. We want extra resources for Newham. We are prepared to explain the problems to the Minister as patiently as we can so that he can understand our case. If he rejects our case in the end, we can at least say that we tried to demonstrate the problems, but the Minister was not impressed and we did not convince him. However, we did our best. That is because it is the responsibility of Opposition Members who represent Labour boroughs to talk to Tory Ministers. Sometimes we find that a fairly unappetising prospect—not in the case of this Minister, I hasten to add, but in the case of some of his colleagues. However, we have to do it, because that is the democratic process.

With creative accountancy, local authorities have been using the tactics, the techniques, and the skills to try in a democratic and lawful fashion to protect the jobs and services in their areas. They should not be subjected to the sort of vile campaign that they so often have to endure in this House and in the press generally. It cannot be unconnected with the fact that rate support grant, the money that goes from central to local government, has gone down from about 62 per cent. in 1979 to 46 per cent. of local authority expenditure. Even the Financial Times is prepared to acknowledge, and published a fine leader on the fact, that such reductions had a great deal to do with the level of rate increases that local authorities were imposing in order to try to defend their jobs and services,

None of this creative accountancy is unlawful, and it is wrong for Conservative Members to suggest that somehow it is. Indeed, Environment Ministers rather than local authorities have more often been found to be acting unlawfully. Therefore, we do not need any great lectures on legality from the Government.

My third point is about local authorities and their relationship with their communities, the electorate and the government. The hon. Member for Leeds West (Mr. Meadowcroft) and other hon. Members made a good point about this. If those authorities are so appalling, I am surprised that people still vote for them, It is not just a question of whether or not people pay the rates, because I do not think that this necessarily affects their voting pattern. When and if we get around to some kind of community poll tax, Conservative Members will find that what they thought would be a way of opening up these various local authorities to Conservative control will not work.

In terms of voting Labour, there is no direct connection with the amount of rates that are paid. There is nothing advantageous in just sticking up the rates. No one likes to find the rate demand going up by 30, 40, 50, 60, or indeed 80, per cent.

In his speech, the hon. Member for Leicester, East moved around the country and mentioned Ealing. I am surprised and to a certain extent disappointed that his hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) and for Ealing North (Mr. Greenway), who travel mob-handed when it comes to local government Bills, did not come to the House to talk about Ealing's possible 80 per cent. rate increase. The residents of Ealing are probably not delighted about the likely increase, but if one looks, as I have, at what Ealing borough council is doing, one can see why those rates might increase by that amount.

I shall list some of the things that the council has done since May, 1986 when Labour was elected. It has signed deals to acquire 600 new homes to meet the housing crisis; employed extra home helps and under-fives staff; restored free milk to 10,000 first school pupils; taken on much-needed local housing repair teams; recruited 150 extra teachers; begun a £12·1 million programme of road and pavement renewal, including dropped kerbs and new cycle routes; restored grants to voluntary play groups; spent £500,000 on emergency care, responding in particular to the needs of the elderly during the recent cold spell; given schools 11 per cent. more to spend on equipment and books; funded a wide range of new summer play schemes; reduced adult education fees, resulting in a 25 per cent. increase in numbers and started a borough magazine to keep people informed about what their council does.