Debate on the Address

Part of Sessional Orders – in the House of Commons at 8:31 pm on 15th November 1995.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts , Sheffield, Attercliffe 8:31 pm, 15th November 1995

In the debate so far, there has been much mention of the concept of one nation. I want to examine that concept and how the Queen's Speech addresses some of the inequalities in our society, especially in the inner-city areas, part of one of which lies in my constituency. I shall consider briefly how the housing and education proposals in the Queen's Speech fit in with the concept of one nation.

At best, the traditional one-nation Tory approach is that the Government should be even-handed with different individuals across society, irrespective of the various inequalities from which those individuals suffer. On the other hand, many Tory Members today have the idea that all a Government should do is stand back from problems, allow market forces to determine how resources are allocated and watch how, by some miraculous trickle-down process, the benefits of wealth creation affect and help everyone in society.

That may be a marvellous economic theory, but many of my inner-city constituents are still waiting for the trickle to come down; it has not affected or benefited them. They have suffered grievously in the past 16 years under the Government.

The Opposition have a different meaning in mind when we use the term "one nation". We support the concept of one nation, not because we believe that it exists in Britain today, but because we believe that it should exist. We look around us at what has happened to our nation, which has been torn apart by the Government's economic and social policies over the past 16 years.

We see a nation in fear of crime—the crime rate has doubled while the Government have been in power. At the same time, we see a nation that needs unifying and in which attention needs to be paid to the problems of the poorest and neediest individuals and communities in our society. For us, the concept of one nation is the concept of a fair nation—something which Conservative Members appear not to recognise.

It is also interesting that a Government with such a profound belief in the free market have at least recognised some of the problems of our inner cities, to the extent that, in the past few years, they have brought into play a number of distinct policy initiatives to try to deal with some of the problems. Unfortunately, there are no more of them in the Queen's Speech, but we must question the validity and worth of what there has been.

There was the creation of the urban development corporations—we have one in my constituency in Sheffield. We have had single regeneration budgets, city challenge, city grants, estate action—a whole range of different initiatives which in many senses are interventionist and go against the main thrust of Government policy, which is to let the market sort out such problems.

At the same time, those resources, which, by and large, have been top-sliced from existing Government programmes and so have not involved new money, have gone only part of the way towards dealing with the problems, which have been exacerbated throughout by continual cuts in local authority budgets caused by cuts in central Government grant and by capping. It will be interesting to see whether capping will continue as the local authority settlements are announced later in the Session.

As well as cuts in the help that local authorities can give to inner cities, there are measures such as local management of schools, under which the formula funding approach has taken money out of the inner cities and redistributed it to other schools.

Government policy has thrown up projects that have attempted to deal with the problems of our poorest communities but, in general, has taken money which could have directly addressed those problems out of the hands of local authorities and schools in inner cities. Over the past 16 years, a whole range of indicators have shown that the inequalities in our society have become greater. There is nothing in the Queen's Speech to give us any encouragement that that trend will be reversed.

Let us consider some of the indicators, such as health. A King's Fund report this year showed that, for the first time in the past 50 years, death rates among the poorest in our population are rising once again. Ken Judge, the director of the King's Fund, described that as a striking and alarming new feature". The report also stated: Social divisions have accelerated at a rate not matched for such a sustained period by any other rich industrialised country. It is not only a matter of death rates. A good recent study by Dr. Snell, the responsible medical officer for Sheffield health authority, showed that in the city of Sheffield there was a whole range of inequalities which meant that people suffered in different degrees from different illnesses, especially in respect of respiratory and heart disease. There are major differences in health conditions, which have become worse rather than more equal over the past few years.

This year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation inquiry into inequalities of wealth in this country showed again a picture of a Britain more divided than at any time since the second world war. The bottom 10 per cent. of people who are earning have suffered a 17 per cent. reduction in their living standards since 1979. The top 10 per cent. were 60 per cent. better off. It is not only a problem of unemployment. The wages of the poorest people who are working fell in real terms during that period.

Unemployment has also worsened those inequalities. Among households in the economically active age range, there was an increase from 3 to 11 per cent. in the number of households in which no one was earning. At the same time, there was an increase in the number of households where two people were earning.

The increase in households where both people are earning and the increase in households where no one is earning have led to a disparity in wealth and living standards. The increasing disparity in wages and earnings, the increasing disparity in overall income levels, and increasing unemployment, have created ghettoes of despair in inner-city areas, which are in themselves a threat to the fabric of our whole society. They are a threat to the whole idea of one nation and unity.

Fear of unemployment and fear of crime are not confined to inner-city areas. People in affluent suburbs are in fear of crime, and are often afraid to go out at night. They are in fear of losing their jobs; in the most recent recession, unemployment has hit middle-class people on middle earnings in the suburbs, as it has hit people in the inner cities. The reality for many people in our inner cities is not that they fear losing their jobs, but that they are certain that they will never get a job. Young people may have been on one or two training courses, but their prospect of getting a job is extremely remote.

Nothing in the Queen's Speech suggests that the Government recognise the worsening health in some areas, with greater disparities shown in all the health indicators, worsening inequalities in income and wealth, as the Rowntree report so accurately demonstrated, and enormous disparities in unemployment. Whatever the Government may say about what they are doing to deal with unemployment nationally—we must recognise that unemployment is far higher than when they came to power in 1979—there are enormous disparities between different parts of the country, and between different communities in Sheffield.

In parts of Sheffield, unemployment is below the national average. In Sheffield, Hallam, unemployment is well below the national average. In my constituency and in Sheffield, Central, unemployment reaches 30 per cent. in some areas. Youth unemployment is far higher and unemployment in the Bangladeshi community is at 80 per cent. There are enormous disparities in the opportunities for people to get a job. Those are unacceptable figures and unacceptable inequalities in this day and age, and they give the lie to the claim that we have one nation in any meaningful sense.

In May last year, in the Darnall area of my constituency and Sheffield, Central, we had some quite serious race disturbances. They were race disturbances because they involved fights between young people of the Asian and white communities in the Darnall area. They involved fights in the street, damage to vehicles, the stoning of a public house and general unrest on the streets. There were a number of arrests, which were followed by demonstrations against the police.

I and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) recognised that the problems went far deeper than the incidents of two nights might have led us to believe. The incidents were triggered off by particular events, but they reflected, in our view, some fundamental social and economic problems within the area.

We therefore commissioned a review. We asked the Government for support, but they would not support the review, and said only that they were interested in looking at it. With the financial support of the Rowntree trust, which had commissioned a work on inequalities, we commissioned an independent review of the problems of the community to try to get a basis for action to stop racial disaffection continuing in the community. Our view was that, although the community had a history of living together, wanted to live together and wanted peace and harmony, enormous problems were beginning to tear it apart.

The review was conducted independently by Professor Paul Wiles, the dean of the faculty of law at the university of Sheffield. He was helped by Blanche Flannery, a former chair of the trades council, Alan Aikin, previously a managing director of a local company, and the assistant chief executive of Birmingham City council. We made sure that the review was independent, and we made sure that local people were asked what they thought were the problems of the area and what should be done.

It was not surprising that some organisations were criticised. The police were criticised in some respects for their policing of the area. I am pleased to say that they have made every effort to improve the situation and that the community has responded positively. That has been a positive outcome of deliberations in the past few months. The city council was criticised for the way in which it operated its youth service, which was fair criticism, although it was rightly praised for its housing service, for its schools and for the planning service it offered.

It is not surprising that, when the authors of the report looked at what needed to be done, they said: Many of the problems of Darnall spring from its poverty, lack of employment for its citizens and lack of facilities for its young people. Those responsible for providing services to Darnall cannot be held responsible for these basic conditions. Instead the major responsibility must be laid at the door of national government policies which have exacerbated inequalities of wealth, worsened employment rates and reduced public expenditure on local services. That reflected the views coming from local people, who were widely consulted in a major public consultation exercise, about their community, about what the problems were, and about what needed to be put right to make their community a better place in which to live.

I have written to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and to the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration to say that it is now up to central Government. Of course, there are problems at local level; the police and the local council must respond. However, their response will not help to solve the problems unless we also have a proper response from central Government.

It is not acceptable that the community has 30 per cent. unemployment and has no chance of its young people getting jobs, whether they are white or Asian, when it has on its doorstep the Sheffield industries where most of the jobs are. Something must be done. We have in Sheffield a training and enterprise council—a Government quango—which has millions of pounds to spend. We have a development corporation next door which has £50 million of resources at its disposal.

The Government and their quangos have a responsibility to ensure that resources are directed to the areas in greatest need. If we do not tackle these problems in our inner-city areas and if we do not address the polarisation and obvious inequalities of our society, we shall provide a breeding ground for racism, racial tensions and racial unrest, and we shall again have the riots that we have had in the past couple of years. We can stop that happening if we address the problems together.

I have already talked to the chair of the TEC, and I have had a letter back from the Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment. They both say that they will now start to address the issues and do what they can to help. The theory of trickle-down will not deliver jobs and resources to these communities; it simply will not happen in that way. We need positive training programmes directed at these areas.

We need to convince business that it has a responsibility to employ people, once they have got the proper skills, from these areas. We need to ensure that proper local employment projects are created and that resources are diverted to them. We need to ensure that construction projects go ahead in these areas, using local labour as a basis for training local people to build the homes in which people in the community can live. If we do not address those problems, the corrosion of collective despair will affect not only the local communities, but our whole society.

One of the issues that came out in the review was that there was a belief in the white community that there was unfair treatment in the allocation of housing, whereby Asian families had a better chance of a house. The review investigated the matter and found that not to be true. The real problem is that there are people in desperate housing need—it does not matter whether they are white or Asian—who are competing for houses that do not exist in sufficient numbers. More social housing which people can afford is needed in communities such as Darnall.

We want to create a new village called Attercliffe village next door to Darnall. The concept has the involvement of local people, housing associations, local builders, the city council and the development corporation. If we used that scheme imaginatively and trained young people to build their own homes for their community, we could not merely create homes for that community and remove a source of racial discontent, but house that community and give people jobs at the same time.

If the Government's housing proposals in the Queen's Speech were genuine, they would be about building more homes and putting into decent repair many houses in inner-city communities. The Government do not intend to deal with the housing crisis by building homes for people to live in. Instead, they intend to make certain homeless families the scapegoats, and they will try to use those families as the justification for unfair competition among some people in our community for housing. They will say that those homeless families are jumping the housing queue.

I accept that, under the current homeless persons legislation, it is possible for people who live with their parents or in-laws to go down to the housing department and claim that they are homeless in an attempt to jump the housing queue. I am sure that that happens in some cases, but let us be absolutely certain about the facts.

At the beginning of the 1980s, people in Sheffield had to wait two years for a decent family home. It may be acceptable to people to live with their parents or in-laws for two years, but imagine when that waiting time extends to six years, with the possibility of being on the waiting list for up to 12 years. At that point, family tensions, discontent, in-fighting and bickering start to pull relationships apart. When that happens, it is no surprise that people decide to go down to the housing department, because they simply cannot stand it any longer.

Other people may lose their homes because of repossession or because of harassment from a private landlord—unfortunately, that happens. Those people and others suffering family turmoil need, most of all, some security. They need a permanent roof over their heads. The Government are planning to take away that security and permanence by saying that such people can have only a temporary tenancy.

That means that those people will have to live with instability—the threat of having to move to another house will hang over them. Such a move means not just another house, but coping with another district, another set of neighbours and perhaps another school for children. All that disturbance to family life, which those people have already gone through once, will be repeated every year, or every two years, as a result of the Government's proposed legislation. That is not acceptable. It is not a fair way to proceed, and it is discriminating against those in greatest need in our society.

If the Government pursue that policy towards the homeless, the Labour party will fight them. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford), who has said that the next Labour Government will repeal that legislation, because it is not the legislation of a fair and civilised society. It is certainly not legislation designed to unite the country and create one nation.

We should obtain the capital receipts of local authorities and use them to build new homes and repair existing ones. That is what local authorities want to do, but they are prevented from doing so.

The Government's education proposals are not fair and are unacceptable. It is interesting that the Government should allow extra capital spending for grant-maintained schools, which can borrow on the private market, presumably free of Treasury control. It is interesting that the Government have nothing to say about the thousands of schools that have not chosen to opt out, and whose buildings are often in a deplorable state.

A school in my constituency has a two-year lifespan, after which it must be pulled down; its 500 pupils will have nowhere to go. The cost of replacing that school is greater than the capital allocation that Sheffield has received this year for the maintenance of its education buildings. The Government's proposals for GM schools are unfair, and they fail to address the problems faced by most of our schools, which have not opted for GM status.

No new funding has been offered to meet the cost of the Government's proposals on nursery education. That simply means that the resources currently devoted to providing nursery education for children in deprived communities will be spread to cover a nursery voucher scheme, and will ensure a place in a playgroup should parents want that. I have nothing against playgroups, whose development I encourage, but if playgroups for all are to be provided at the expense of proper nursery education for inner-city children, that proposal will be utterly opposed by the Opposition.

It is extremely important that we see the proposals in the Queen's speech for what they are. They do not address the reality of the concept of one nation. They do not address the real problems of inequality in our society. In fact, they will make the problems of housing and education worse. Those proposals reveal that, as far as the Conservatives are concerned, the concept of one nation is a myth rather than a reality.