Social and Economic Situation

Part of Orders of the Day — Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 8:37 pm on 29th June 1987.

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Photo of Mr Ron Leighton Mr Ron Leighton , Newham North East 8:37 pm, 29th June 1987

One of the pleasures of the debate on the Loyal Address is to hear the maiden speeches. It is a great pleasure to follow the convention of congratulating the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on his extremely impressive speech. I am certain that we shall hear much more from him on similar lines. We have just heard an extremely elegant speech from the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). His reputation preceded him to the House. We all know of him as one of the major thinkers of the Conservative party. I believe that he invented monetarism. I believe that he is a true believer and a high priest of the monetarism theory. Therefore, all of us expect that he will climb the greasy pole of politics in an effortless way, and we expect to see him quite soon in the Government. Whether it is from the Front Bench or from the Back Benches, the whole of the House will be extremely pleased to hear from him again at an early opportunity.

There were two sentences in the Gracious Speech that leapt up off the page. They were: In all these policies, my Government will have special regard to the needs of inner cities. Action will be taken to encourage investment and to increase enterprise and employment in those areas. As one who has been talking about inner cities for years, to no avail, I am astonished. It is as though an entirely new Government have appeared, eager to undo and repair the ravages of a neglectful and damaging predecessor. But who has been running things for the past eight years? What have eight years of Conservative policy done for the inner cities? If the Government intend to do something, what has kept them? If they really believe all this, why did they not do it in the last two Parliaments, instead of doing the opposite?

Everyone knows that it is Conservative policies that have caused and exacerbated the decay of the inner cities, and that instead of investing in them the Government have drained £20,000 million in rate support grant out of the inner cities. Do the Government intend to reverse all that? Where is the evidence for that? So what have we now—a twinge of conscience, a change of heart, an admission that they got it wrong before? The Prime Minister announces in a grand manner that she is actually willing to visit some of the inner cities. She makes them sound like foreign countries, with herself as some latterday female Dr. Livingstone, an intrepid explorer venturing into the equivalent of unknown darkest Africa. One wonders whether she might travel by train for the first time in her premiership and perhaps even meet some ordinary people. The royal family has a much better record of visiting inner cities than she has.

Today's debate is about the divisions in our country—never have they been so acute—between Scotland, Wales and England, and between the north and the south. But it is not merely a geographical division—that would be too simple. It is a yawning gulf which the Government are widening by aiding the haves and clobbering the have-nots. It is a division between rich and poor, whether in north or south, and it often shows itself in the chasm between the inner cities, whether north or south, and the leafy suburbs, north or south. The starkest divisions of all are probably contained in one city—London—where ostentatious wealth is flaunted cheek by jowl with the worst poverty in the country. This is not always noticed by Members of Parliament, whose knowledge of London is sometimes mainly of Euston station, Heathrow airport, Buckingham palace, Whitehall and Westminster.

No area has been more grievously hit by the Government than the London borough of Newham, which has found itself on the wrong side of the divisions which have opened up and are tearing us apart. Newham faces acute social, economic and environmental problems experienced by few in comfortable Britain. Government statisticians tell us that only one of the 365 local authority districts in England and Wales suffers worse urban deprivation than Newham. The Department of Education and Science, after taking account of the socio-economic background of pupils entering the schools—their ethnic origin, those from large families or from one-parent families, those taking free school meals, and so on—said that those children were the most socially deprived in all of the 96 local education authority areas in England.

There is a deepening housing crisis, with some 47,000 unfit dwellings and the fastest increase in homelessness in London. There is a high birth rate and a large projected increase in population, and a large increase in the number of elderly people, with the services that they require. We have a large and diverse ethnic minority population—the fourth highest percentage in England and Wales of residents of new Commonwealth origin, many of whose first language is not English and many with special needs. Newham also suffers from high unemployment—under 6,000 in 1969, but now, on any realistic assessment, about 20,000, or one in five of the male population. More than 70 per cent. of jobs are in declining industrial sectors. and currently only I per cent. are in sectors which in the Government's view offer most scope for the future.

Many of Newham's environmental problems arise from the 19th century, when the east end provided the location for London's undesirable industrial and domestic infrastructure—the noxious industries, the sewage works, gas works, power stations and docks, which are now no more. Around these were built tightly packed 19th century workers' housing and what are now very old. school buildings, with an aging infrastructure of roads and sewers all in need of repair. I have seen all those problems, of an intensity experienced by few other parts of the country, get worse under the Conservatives, with absolutely no understanding or sympathy from Government.

Cuts in central Government rate support grant led to a cut of 5 per cent. in education expenditure last year. This meant a reduction of 122 teaching posts, that clothing grants were cut by 50 per cent. and that school meals charges were increased. Classroom equipment and materials are not being replaced, buildings are deteriorating rapidly and, inevitably, standards are suffering. Unless there is a change in Government policy, there will have to be even bigger reductions this year. How is that supposed to benefit or strengthen the nation? Further constraints on housing expenditure will lead merely to more decay, with consequent despair and vandalism. In such stress areas, there are great pressures on the borough's social services department. If Newham's already low expenditure in this area is cut back further, as it would have to be as a result of the Secretary of State's proposed expenditure level, the results are likely to be horrifying.

The Gracious Speech talks of "investment", "enterprise" and "employment" in the inner cities, but what is the Conservatives' record? While the Government's friends make millions overnight in the big bang City, a few miles away in Newham the number of people forced to eke out an existence on meagre supplementary benefit has doubled under the Conservatives, unemployment has more than trebled—up by more than 300 per cent.—and more than a quarter of those unemployed have been unemployed for more than two years. That is the reality that belies the Government's rhetoric.

The intensity of Newham's worsening housing crisis is largely Government manufactured. In 1979, at constant prices, Newham's housing investment programme allocations was £43·1 million. The Conservatives then cut it each year, until in the current year it is only £16·8 million. During that period the accumulated cuts in resources for housing amounted to more than £150 million. Is it any wonder that there are 12,000 people on the housing waiting list and hundreds of homeless families in sordid bed-and-breakfast accommodation? Had the council been able to build at the average rate attained under the Labour Government, there would be an extra 2,000 houses.

The other side of the tragedy is that the resulting acute shortage of houses pushes up prices in the private sector. A council survey showed that, even without this year's 25 per cent. increase in housing prices, a two-bedroomed house cost on average more than £51,000, a three-bedroomed house more than £61,000 and anything larger than that more than £78,000. This means that residents would have to be earning more than £19,000 to buy a two-bedroomed house, more than £22,000 to buy a three-bedroomed house, and more than £28,000 for a four-bedroomed house. Only 3 per cent. of the borough's residents could afford to buy a three-bedroom house, so with no council houses and the private sector priced out of reach, people are set to stay on the waiting list for ever while the number of homeless families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation goes up all the time. Yet we all know that it costs twice as much per annum to keep a family in bed-and-breakfast accommodation than to build a new council house.

There are thousands of unemployed people who could build council houses, so why on earth do the Government not overcome their dogmatic aversion to public housing and bring unmet needs and unused resources together in a great housebuilding and renovation drive? It would make economic sense and would be one of the quickest ways to tackle unemployment and improve life in the inner cities. But where are the signs that the Government are willing to do that?

Nothing will ever be right in these areas until something is done about the chronic levels of mass unemployment and the abysmally low levels of income that it brings in its train. That is the heart of the matter. At Christmas I was touched to receive a card from the Broadwater Farm Youth Association, which I had visited with the Select Committee the previous year. During my visit I was introduced to many "youths", who were willing to be so-described and, indeed, still considered themselves as such at the age of 26 or 28 because they had never had a job, and one cannot mature and become adult without a job and the independent income that goes with it.

The Select Committee found clear evidence of racial disadvantage in the labour market. Black people are twice as likely to be unemployed as are white people and unless something positive is done we shall have a black underclass, completely alienated and shut out of our society. They will feel that they have been kicked in the teeth and we shall have to hope that they will not return the compliment.

Positive action must be taken. The simplest way is through contract compliance on equal opportunities by firms coming into the inner cities. I hope that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and Minister of Trade and Industry, who I know has a positive outlook on racial matters, will pursue that policy or its equivalent. If his colleagues do not like the name, they can change it, but I hope that they will pursue a policy of that type.

One of the growth industries in the inner cities is crime. The Government have created the conditions in which it breeds. Common sense tells us that there is a connection between the growth of unemployment and the growth of crime, even if the connection is not automatic. One of the deterrents to criminal behaviour is what one may lose by being caught—the loss of one's job or perhaps of one's home—but what happens if a person has no job or is homeless? What happens if there seems to be nothing at all to lose, and no stake in society to jeopardise? Who can be surprised at the growth of crime in the festering, despairing conditions that have been created in recent years?

What do the Government propose to do? They describe as their showcase, and invite us all to admire it—the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) did that today—the London Docklands Development Corporation, but local people must be excused if they withhold their plaudits, for they have seen no benefits. Their interests have been ignored. Their needs are simple—jobs and houses for rent. They have had neither. The LDDC has acted as a Government estate agent, selling off land, including council land, to the first and highest bidder, with scant regard for local people. The astronomical prices for accommodation charged by private developers prices accommodation beyond the reach of locals.

As for jobs, a parliamentary reply to me on 27 January this year revealed that the 1981 census of employment, the year of the LDDC's inception, showed that there were 12,400 jobs in the docklands area of Newham. The LDDC's most recent survey shows that, in February 1985, the number of jobs in the same area was 9,746; in other words, a reduction of 2,654 jobs. As the LDDC is unelected and not responsible to local people, it increases their feeling of powerlessness. Local communities are regarded as nuisances to be displaced. Is that to be the pattern of the future?

The acid test is whether the Government are willing to work with local government as an equal and active partner, recognising that their elections and manifestos are as valid and have as much moral value as their own. Or is local government to be suppressed—as was the GLC—and unelected, unaccountable Thatcher placemen moved in to disfranchise local people and privatise public housing and public education, encouraging those who are able and willing to opt out of public provision, leaving just sink schools and welfare housing on the American model for what would then be second-class citizens? A genuine partnership between central and local government would be welcome. We all know that existing city action teams and task forces are largely cosmetic and have had little real effect. We need a thoroughgoing inner cities programme that is commensurate with the size of the problem—one that would work with local people and their elected representatives, not against them.

The Government should approach the inner cities with prudence and sensitivity. They should listen to Labour Members of Parliament, as elected representatives. Are the Government capable of listening? Can they appreciate that a vote in Newham must have equal value to a vote in Finchley'? The Government obtained 43 per cent. of the national poll. The Labour vote in Newham, North-East was 52 per cent. Of the 60 council seats in Newham, Labour has 59. The Government have absolutely no mandate to ride roughshod over local opinion that was so clearly expressed in inner city areas. We want a partnership to assist. But alien occupation and coercion from outside would surely mean the Government overreaching themselves in the arrogance of power. Before the Prime Minister acts in such an autocratic and hubristic manner, she might reflect that President Reagan seemed to be all-powerful at the time of his election two years ago. Prime Minister Macmillan's Government seemed to be impregnable in 1959, and look what happened to them. If the Prime Minister over-reaches herself in that manner, the same will surely happen to her.