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Nottingham has been selected for the first trials of a new scheme that will result in the sale of council estates. The research programme being undertaken by a market research company on behalf of the Department of the Environment involves interviewing groups of eight to 10 people on estates in Nottingham—in Bestwood Park, Top Valley Bestwood and Broxtowe in my constituency—for one and a half hours trying to find the best gloss to put on the sale of council estates to private landlords.
Needless to say, the elderly in Nottingham remember well the era of the private landlord. My family came from an area that was dominated by private landlords. It was an area of high rents, lack of repairs, no modernisation programme and, above all, fear because of no security of tenure. Elderly people who have been council tenants for 30 or 40 years fear for their future, because a small minority of tenants could, with the inducements offered and the attractive way in which a scheme may be promoted, sell their birthright in council estates. There will be no going back. Once those estates are sold, the asset-strippers will ensure that they never return to public ownership.
All that is taking place despite the fact that the Housing Bill has not yet completed all its stages through Parliament. Groups of people are scouring the country conducting interviews so that they can sell estates when the legislation is passed. Not only is that unconstitutional, but I fear the drastic consequences if people are lured into accepting apparent bargains and are then trapped by private landlords—perhaps even slum landlords—who may not take their responsibilities seriously.
Nor can a shortfall in assistance for the elderly be made good by the county council. It has to make resources for social services stretch further than ever before. The county council has one of the best records in the country for inspection of residential homes. It is rightly proud of that record, but is is now restricted from carrying out that important function.
For those who depend on residential care, and for those who may do so in the future, the picture becomes bleaker. Private homes for the elderly have expanded massively as support from the Government — subsidy by the Government—has increased from £10 million in 1979 to £485 million last year. The Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a member, has considered the matter and will report on it soon. The Thatcherite entrepreneurs have seen a killing to be made from the slogan "care in the community". In many cases, the elderly have become like livestock, pulling in up to £220 a head each week from DHSS payments to private nursing homes. At the same time, local authority provision is static or running down and our long-stay hospitals are asset-stripped by hard-faced private sector managers and the cosseted consultants who now direct the NHS.
The Griffiths committee was set up to look at the issue and it suggested that one of the answers was to give more control and direction to local authorities. That in itself was enough to condemn it, within days, to the Government's shredder. I ask the Minister to make clear when the Griffiths report will go out to the widest possible consultation, and when the Firth and Wagner reports will also go out for consultation. Is there any time scale for action on those three reports? Many of us fear that all three reports will be consigned to the back shelf to gather dust, because they are unpopular with certain sections of the Government.
The elderly, more than most, depend on the Health Service, and yet the Government have stopped the supply of NHS spectacles and soon will impose charges for eye tests, deterring early detection of glaucoma, diabetes and cataracts which are common among the elderly. Pensioners were particularly hard-hit when the Government's limited list stopped doctors prescribing free many of the drugs that pensioners were used to.
Now, the junior health Minister talks of giving low priority to the elderly who need treatment. So often, the elderly are at the end of the queue. It is not glamorous to be involved in his replacement and it is far easier to spend money on services other than those that are vital for elderly people, such as chiropody. In Nottingham, to balance the books, the geriatric ward at the City hospital has been closed over the past three months, with the prospect of at least a further six months' closure.
Today's old people are no ordinary generation. They survived the war and defeated Hitler's Nazi tyranny. They went on to found the welfare state and the National Health Service. They deserve to be treated better. "Honour thy father and thy mother" is a reasonable command when they have done so much for us.
The recent Gallup poll in The Daily Telegraph showed that the Labour party had a 30-point lead over the Government on pensioners' issues. Some 52 per cent. of those polled said that Labour would be the most likely party to look after Britain's pensioners, compared with 22 per cent. opting for the Conservatives and 12 per cent. for what was then the alliance. That trust is hard-won and richly deserved. It will be reinforced when this disrespectful, hard-hearted, mean-spiritied, cheeseparing Government have been thrown out. For many pensioners, that day cannot come too soon.