Environment, Local Government and Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:14 pm on 12th May 1992.

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Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth , Coventry North East 6:14 pm, 12th May 1992

I am grateful for the opportunity to make my first speech during this debate.

On these occasions it is customary to mention one's predecessor. Mr. John Hughes represented Coventry, North-East from 1987 until the recent general election. His convictions, and some of his methods of pursuing them, meant that he did not endear himself to everyone. However, he possessed a friendly and approachable way of dealing with his constituents. He certainly possessed tenacity, which he used on their behalf. Therefore, I pay tribute to him for his efforts on their behalf. I wish both him and his wife a peaceful and fulfilling retirement.

Many hon. Members know that Coventry, North-East was represented from 1974 to 1987 by Mr. George Park. I understand that he commanded considerable respect in this place. Hon. Members will be glad to hear that he commands similar respect in the constituency, where he is still very active in local community affairs. He is currently the chairman of the community health council in Coventry. He was very kind and helpful to me in the run-up to the general election. I thank both him and his wife for the help and kindness that they have shown me.

Coventry, North-East is a compact, urban constituency —an integral part of the city which, despite two devastating recessions, still employs more people in manufacturing than the national average. We have a complete mixture of housing: inner city areas, council estates and pleasant semi-suburban, owner-occupied areas. Despite its compact size, my constituency contains and is bordered by some valuable environments that deserve and, in large part, are receiving the protection that they need. In particular, I draw attention to Coombe Abbey park and the Sowe valley, which bring beautiful, natural countryside right up to and into the urban area.

Much work that is commendable has been done by the local authority, local conservationists and the Countryside Commission. They deserve our thanks and support, along with many other local groups that, through their hard work, do so much to maintain the quality of life in the area.

I am afraid, however, that we also have considerable problems in the constituency, as do all urban areas in this country. As I listened to some of the speeches yesterday and today, I found that I could hardly recognise the country that was being described by some Conservative Members. Our cities are in great danger. The trend, under current policies, is towards the position that has been reached in the United States. If effective action is not taken, we shall see in our country what I call the doughnut effect: cities with great holes in the middle, where people do not go and dare not go.

The Queen's Speech does not address those problems. It is not just a question of policing, although that is important. In many cases, the police are stretched beyond belief. Crime, and the fear of crime, has now reached a level that is totally and absolutely unacceptable—this, after 13 years in power of the party that claims to be the party of law and order.

Security, hope and opportunity must be brought back to citizens living in those areas. Current urban policy is, in many cases, exacerbating and increasing the divisions. The grand scheme is favoured rather than housing and school repairs and we hear speeches such as that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey).

I had not intended to talk about education, but I join the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth in his congratulations to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth) on his maiden speech. His accent, confidence and delivery and, although I am not an expert, probably his school tie, prove that he enjoyed a degree of choice in education. It showed in the way that he delivered his speech and he should be congratulated on his ability in that regard. However, in the constituency that I represent we do not have two or three cars per family to take the kids to school. Choice must mean a first-class local school offering first-class education within the area in which it is needed, and we certainly do not have that.

All those problems are of some importance but most important of all is the level of unemployment. In 1974, in his first speech in the House, Mr. George Park spoke of Coventry as being a great centre of manufacturing. He talked of his fears about the fact that British ideas were increasingly being developed abroad. His fears were well founded. We have seen great companies in our city, which were making a contribution towards the national economy and providing employment, going to the wall without any effective attempts to save them. The Queen's Speech talked of privatisation and other policies but said nothing about the regeneration and investment that will be necessary to stop that from continuing.

In 1987, Mr. John Hughes, in his first speech in the House, said that unemployment in the Foleshill ward of my constituency was 28 per cent. Now, five years later, it is 23 per cent. and increasing again. That level of unemployment destroys the fabric of communities and something must be done about it. It affects crime, education, the environment and health. Last year, the local health authority in Coventry did a statistical analysis of life expectancy levels in the different parts of Coventry. This is supposed to be a modern western country offering the best opportunities to all its citizens, yet it discovered a discrepancy in life expectancy levels of over seven years between the most affluent wards in the city and the most deprived. That is totally unacceptable. It discovered that the indicators of poor health followed almost completely the geographical pattern of unemployment levels.

We will not solve those problems by privatisation or anti-union legislation. We will not solve them by allowing hospitals to opt out or by any other of the policies that seem to be high on the agenda. We will not cure unemployment by simply supporting service industries, tourism and so on, important as they are. We must support manufacturing. We must make and sell things if they are to be successful.

I sat in the House yesterday listening to the plans for privatisation. During most of my life I have worked for Jaguar cars. That company was privatised while I was working there, and privatisation was probably far more appropriate there than in many of the proposed areas. However, it did not solve the problems in that company. Some directors became millionaires through lucrative share options, management bonuses, massive increases in salaries and cuts in taxation. They were handed down honours and so on. However, at the end of their reign, more than 4,000 people lost their jobs in the latest round of redundancies.

That is another proud Coventry company that is struggling to survive. The remaining work force, trade unions and the new management, who have at least brought a degree of professionalism in dealing with some of the problems, are working together to solve the problems and pull that company around. Privatisation did nothing for Jaguar and it will do nothing for our coal industry, apart from doing massive damage to our national interest.

Those are the issues that we should be addressing if we want to build a nation at peace with itself, where people of all races and both sexes can live in harmony and walk the streets in safety. Those are the issues that I shall be making my priority during my time in the House. I hope that if I can achieve just one thing, it will be to do some damage to the self-satisfied attitudes that appear to prevail in many parts of the House.