Adjournment (Spring)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:49 pm on 19th May 1992.

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Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden , Birmingham, Northfield 5:49 pm, 19th May 1992

I wish at the outset, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to congratulate you on your appointment and to add my voice to those who have congratulated other maiden speakers. I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Ms. Jones). Many, especially on these Benches, appreciated her comments.

Three new seats were won in Birmingham by Labour at the general election. We had spent the previous two years being told that they were barometer seats. We gathered that whichever party won Northfield, Selly Oak and Yardley would go on to form the Government. It seems that something went wrong with the barometer. I am convinced that in four or five years from now, we will be concerned not simply with so called barometer seats in Birmingham but with constituencies throughout the country, and that Labour will form the next Government.

Of course, one cannot be certain that there will not be any by-elections between now and then. I and my two colleagues from Birmingham—my hon. Friends the Members for Selly Oak and for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms. Morris)—have been allocated offices across the adjoining main road. We are worrying already about the problems that we might face as we cross the road together, perhaps coming to vote in a Division.

It is customary in a maiden speech to speak of one's predecessor. In Northfield, I succeed Roger King, who represented the constituency for nine years. He thrived on the reputation of being the motor industry Member. One of his claims to fame was to have won the first House of Commons versus House of Lords motor race. I think that if he wanted to be remembered for anything—he referred to the subject even in his own maiden speech—it was his campaign against the special car tax. No one could mistake the delight on his face when finally that tax was reduced by half in the last Budget. His only regret must have been that it was the party that he supported that introduced the special car tax in the first place in the 1970s. The recent reduction is welcomed by many of us on the Labour Benches. I add my congratulations to Roger King on his new appointment. He is not leaving the motor industry, for he has been appointed director of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

Northfield is synonymous with the motor industry. It lies to the south-west of Birmingham and contains the giant Longbridge car plant. Many of my constituents work there or in the associated component supply industry. The work force at Longbridge has contributed to the success of Rover in recent years, yet the car industry, like manufacturing as a whole, which is so vital to the Midlands, has been hit hard by the recession. Sales of new cars were down by 20 per cent. in the last year alone.

Those points are not simply of academic significance. Northfield's unemployment rate increased by 36 per cent. in the last year, but that bald figure hides a story of human misery and deprivation. The problems of poverty in Birmingham's inner city are reasonably well known. Though faltering and incomplete, some resources have been put into such areas and are beginning to tackle the problems of poverty in the inner cities. Far more invisible is the issue of outer ring poverty, in particular the poverty on our outer ring estates.

I might mention the estates at Bartley green, Weoley, Longbridge and Northfield itself. There are pockets of unemployment in those areas of between 70 and 80 per cent. They contain a high proportion of older people with a high dependency on benefits. There are also growing numbers of lone parents. In addition, startling poverty and deprivation results from the spiralling problem of debt which affects many of our constituents.

It is ironic to realise that a standard indicator of deprivation is lack of access to a motor car. A report by the director of public health in south Birmingham revealed that the area with the lowest access by families to a motor car was the ward of Longbridge. They make motor cars there, but they cannot afford to own them.

Where there is poverty, ill health soon follows. In south Birmingham, the area that I represent, along with my hon. Friends who represent Selly Oak and Yardley, one clearly sees the problem of ill health. There is a high proportion of low-birthweight babies and stress-related illness is common, with people having a high dependence on tranquillisers.

If the Government are serious about tackling the problems of ill health in society, they must begin seriously to tackle the problems of poverty, bad housing and environmental deprivation. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms. Squire) that it also means tackling the scourge of poverty pay. Unless and until we tackle the problem of poverty in our outer ring estates, we shall have increasing problems with racism. We must reject any attempt to stir up resentment against people who live in the outer ring or inner ring. We shall not achieve anything until we address the problem of poverty in the outer ring and empower the people who live there to contribute to their own destinies.

An example in my constituency is the possible development of about 200 acres of land currently occupied by the psychiatric hospitals on what is called the Rubery and Hollymoor hospital site. It is due to be closed and redeveloped. That raises large issues about the kind of care in the community that will follow. If that land is redeveloped—it is being sold off by the regional health authority, to he developed, we understand, by a firm called Charters, which has had an involvement in Docklands—there must be choices about the type of development that will take place.

Will that development provide offices but few jobs for local people and will it provide housing that local people cannont afford? In other words, will commercial considerations be paramount, and will the local community merely be consulted and the real decisions be taken elsewhere? There is an alternative to that. Real jobs could be provided in that development, along with the necessary training. Housing could be provided in a way that is affordable for local people. It could also be constructed to protect the environment. In other words, the local community should be partners in the whole process and be given a say in the decision making.

As their representative in this place, I know which choice I shall make. It will be for the regional health authority and the developers to choose, but I shall be returning to the whole issue time and again, because the whole community deserves no less.

For the Government, there is the challenge of deciding whether they are prepared to face up to the problems of poverty and deprivation on our outer ring estates. Are they prepared to devote the necessary resources to improve housing conditions, protect the environment, provide adequate levels of benefit and abolish low pay?

Much has been said recently about citizens charters and the rights of citizenship. Those rights will mean little if they are not accompanied by the right to have decent living standards and to live in a pollution-free environment—in other words, to have a decent home. I, and my hon. Friends from Selly Oak and Yardley, will be bringing that issue before the House time and again because it greatly concerns the people we represent.

I am grateful to have had this opportunity to address the House.