Inner Cities

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 2:01 pm on 25th March 1994.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:01 pm, 25th March 1994

This debate has been a tale of two cities: the reality of what has been happening in our cities over the past 15 years, as told to the House so eloquently in the excellent speeches of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie), for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson); and the other cities that Tory Members such as the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) seem to believe exist.

What I saw was a city in which the smoke was everywhere. It smelled of burning wire and plastic. The smoke was so thick that it obscured the lights of a helicopter circling directly overhead. Sirens screamed every few seconds as strike teams of fire engines escorted by California Highway patrol cars—literally convoys of twenty vehicles, the patrol cars to protect the fire-fighters—raced from one fire to the next". That graphic description of Los Angeles in the spring of 1992 was seen by the current United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Henry Cisneros. That is not the sort of tale that we wish to be able to recount at first hand about inner-city Britain. The truth is that our inner cities may not be so far away from that appalling scenario. Our cities have been ravaged because of a lack of guidance, support and leadership from the Conservative Government.

This is Britain in 1994: the British National party—a fascist party—has a council seat in Millwall drugs and crime are out of control; our prisons are overflowing; policemen are shot in broad daylight in cold blood; people are kicked to death on our streets; and people are forced to live on the streets. That is the unfortunate reality of life in Britain, and the ultimate blame rests with the Government.

Since the Conservatives took office in 1979, our cities have had to contend with different inner-city policies being launched at a rate of more than one a year—my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) has already listed them—but still the decay goes on.

This is the first debate on inner cities since the Government decided to abolish the urban programme. We come to lament the urban programme; they come to bury it. There was not one word in the Minister's speech about the successes and achievements of that programme—one policy which, for a generation, provided much-needed funds and support for our inner cities.

The roots of that policy go back a long way, from a speech made by the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson in May 1968, to the changes announced in April 1977 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), with advice from my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), through to when the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) confirmed the Government's commitment to improve the inner cities in 1979.

The right hon. Gentleman was then prepared to lavish praise on the urban programme which was devised by a Labour Government and was readily acceptable to, and accepted by, Conservative Governments. That was the case until 1 December 1993, when the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction said: As the hon. Member knows, the urban programme is being phased out".—[Official Report, 1 December 1993; Vol. 233, c. 1032.] That shock announcement contradicted his superior, the Secretary of State, who proclaimed on 24 January 1993 that the urban programme had not been abolished.

Ministers for inner cities move on just in time to avoid answering questions on policies that have suddenly disappeared. The bodies of old inner-city policies must be holding up the triple towers of the Department of the Environment in Marsham street. Out with the urban programme went 30,000 jobs, 70,000 training places and 9,000 schemes, which provided £250 million a year to our most deprived areas. Those were all destroyed when the Government abolished that long-held policy.

There was no more secure funding for inner-city areas and there was no consultation with the voluntary sector. There was not even a glance back at the lost partnership. That was the latest slur on our inner-city areas. Our cities now face a crisis in confidence, resources and management by the Government. All we get are half-baked schemes and broken promises. There is a deep wound at the heart of our urban society—as has been mentioned so passionately by my hon. Friends—and the bloody fingerprints that caused that deep wound are those of the Government. It is well that the Minister should examine his fingerprints as I say that.

The breakdown in society that can occur has been foretold in Millwall, as was mentioned in the debate. There, the politics of despair and frustration have taken a hold. It is only a small step from Canary wharf to the Isle of Dogs. How can a party that propagates hatred and bigotry have a councillor elected in an inner-city ward in Britain in 1994?

The reason is shamefully obvious. People in that area have been forgotten for far too long by central Government and they are not receiving the help that they so desperately need. There is an absence of hope, and I saw that for myself on Monday when I visited residents and tenants in Tower Hamlets with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn.

The vulnerable have suddenly become scapegoats. The division of ethnic groups on racial grounds in inner-city areas must be stopped at all costs. That is why the Labour party has campaigned strongly against the cutting of section 11 grants. Cutting section 11 will solve none of the budget problems which are so pressing and will only lead to increased friction. That will place an even greater strain on inner-city schools.

There is also a responsibility on the Liberal Democrat party in Tower Hamlets. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) did not take the opportunity to condemn the way in which the Liberal Democrat party operated in Tower Hamlets. It is all very well for the leader of the Liberal Democratic party to lecture us on ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, but then we hear of the ethnic cleansing of council candidates who have been duly selected by the Liberal Democrat party.

I hope that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland, who is a decent man, will take this opportunity to condemn what his party has done in attempting to remove candidates on the ground of their race.