Local Government Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:52 pm on 21st June 1991.

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Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 1:52 pm, 21st June 1991

I appeared in the Chamber at about 10 minutes to ten, when the hon. Gentleman had been speaking for about 11 minutes. He continued to speak for what seemed like an age but was probably about another 25 or 30 minutes, so I had a good idea of his drift. I certainly heard enough to make me feel fully justified in saying that such a sneering, carping, miserable, pathetic speech was not worthy of him or of the House on such an important subject. I am glad that that is now also on the record.

Many Conservative Members take the simplistic approach that if a council is Labour controlled it is bad, and if it is Tory controlled it is good. That is fatuous, and it is impossible to have a properly structured, rational debate when people take that attitude. Anyone who knows anything about local government—I purport to know a little, having been involved in it for some years—will know that there are good Conservative local authorities, such as the one I spoke about earlier, Bournemouth, and there are bad ones. There are bad Labour authorites and good ones. But to take exceptions and use them as a way of attacking all Labour authorities or all local government is unworthy of Conservative Members and certainly not justified in relation to those who work so hard in local authorities.

The continual debates, Bills and orders on local authority matters that we now have in the House show how low grade and petty we have become in recent years. Part of the problem has arisen from the obsessive desire of recent Conservative Governments to decide everything centrally. The great helmswoman, during her period of office, could not resist interfering in everything, whether the opinions and affairs of her hon. Friends or the conduct of local government. As the Minister said, the notion that local government has become a battlefield is a true one, but it became a battlefield because of the enormous hostility of the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) towards local government. London in particular became a battlefield, to the point where she decided that she was not prepared to tolerate what was going on in county hall in the Greater London council, so she abolished it, along with the metropolitan county councils. That is no way for parliamentary sovereignty to be used. It is not true democracy if someone decides that she does not like what is going on in a particular town or county hall and so uses the parliamentary majority to abolish it.

It still rankles with me that someone can approach structures of local government in London and elsewhere by deciding, with a flourish of the pen, that the whole structure is to be abolished. We have heard much talk from Conservative Members, particularly Ministers, about devolution and accountability in local government, but the process used by them has always been to centralise and remove from scrutiny. More and more local government fuctions are moving into the hands of quangos, indirectly elected organisations and Government Departments, where Members of the House cannot scrutinise them. The desire to centralise and the hostility towards local government mean that we have many debates about a section of political activity that we should leave to the people involved, so that they are accountable only to those whom they represent through the ballot box.

Another part of the problem of local authority debates and matters in this House is that we have seen the absolute and relative decline of the whole country. There was a time when local government rarely came up as an issue in the House, apart from the rate support grant and the annual debate. For the rest of the time, central Government allowed local authorities to go their own way and to carry out the functions for which they were elected.

The country has been turned into a bit player among the family of nations, particularly in Europe. That fact is reflected in the House and how we conduct our business today. We are turning into a low-grade, provincial Parliament on the edge of Europe, working ever harder on matters of ever-diminishing importance.

There have been many tumultous events in eastern Europe, in Africa and in Latin America. Around the world, in places such as Africa, people are starving. People are in turmoil and are reaching out for new democratic structures that they have not experienced. The hon. Member for Stroud could have tabled a motion so that we could discuss significant matters affecting the world, and particularly this country, but because there is a by-election in Walton, a party-political knockabout was introduced to try to stir up a bit of nastiness so that the Labour party would lose a few votes in the Liverpool, Walton constituency. I am happy to give all hon. Members their opportunity for knockabout, but I bet any Conservative Member present whatever amount—they are all far wealthier than me—that the Conservative party will not win the by-election in Liverpool, Walton. Indeed, the Conservative candidate will be lucky to hold on to his deposit. All the puff and wind on the Conservative Benches will not win them any votes in Liverpool.

As for local government provision of housing in London, there is a housing crisis in the capital. There are 20,000 empty council properties in London, but there are also 97,000 empty private sector houses in London. The Select Committee reported only yesterday that the Government are responsible for the fact that there are 31,000 empty properties that could be used to house the homeless. Throwing statistics backwards and forwards is an insult to the homeless. It is disgusting and nauseous that the homeless have been turned into a political football. Conservative Members are not prepared to sit down with us and try to solve the homelessness problem in London, which has reached crisis proportions. We are trying to find a consensual way out. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) laughs—