I beg to move,
That this House
takes pride in London's great heritage and its status as a major international capital city;
notes that London remains the heart of global financial markets, a world centre for arts, music and fashion, a leader in higher education, medicine and scientific research, and home to the most diverse tapestry of cosmopolitan culture in Europe;
regrets that this status is being increasingly undermined by the steady reduction in the quality of life experienced by people in London and the South East and, in particular, the daily crisis faced by commuters, with delays on the railways increasing and the London Underground facing severe overcrowding with little hope for significant improvement;
further notes the rise in violent crime, especially on its streets, and the continuing problems for schools and hospitals struggling to cope with low morale and staff shortages;
further notes the environmental scars in many parts of London of abandoned cars, graffiti and rubbish, at a time when Council Taxes are rising even further;
and calls upon the Government to address the needs of people in London and the South East and to improve the quality of overstretched public services.
Anyone expecting a yah-boo debate in which Conservative Members try to blame the ills of London on the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats will be disappointed.
My right hon. Friend is a hard man.
We believe that some consensus needs to exist on London so that everyone—the Government, local authorities, the Mayor and the Assembly—can work together. However, the odd word of criticism of the Government may creep into the debate, but it will be uttered in the spirit of friendship and comradeship.
In the spirit of what is clearly going to be a touchy-feely consensual debate, I give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to apologise in public to the House and the British people for the decision of the Government whom he supported in 1996 to do away with the police housing allowance, triggering one of the worst recruitment and retention crises in police forces in London and the south-east. Was that wrong? Will the hon. Gentleman apologise?
I am sorry that the consensus has broken down so early. Police officers are to come to the House to lobby tomorrow, when we will see what they think of the hon. Gentleman and the Government he supports.
London is traditionally a vibrant and exciting city—a capital of commerce and business, of culture and the arts, and of many different and diverse cultures which have made it an attractive place. However, the question is now being asked, is London a good place to live and to bring up a family? In recent weeks, the capital has had two wake-up calls: we discovered, much to our shock, that a person is five times as likely to be a victim of crime in London as in New York; and the Mercer report on quality of life puts London 11th among all the European Union capitals.
On pollution alone, the Mercer report puts London behind Los Angeles, Istanbul and Lusaka; in the EU, only Athens scores worse then London. More important, on quality of life overall, which takes account of socio-economic factors, crime, transport, the environment and various other measures of whether a city is a pleasant place to live, London has dropped one place since last year and six since 2000. We are now ranked 41st in the world and 11th in the EU behind Vienna, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Brussels, Luxembourg, Berlin, Paris and Dublin. By measuring factors such as personal safety and comfort, transportation and congestion, the Mercer report has picked up early the deterioration in our nation's capital.
Speaking of deterioration, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that throughout the 18 years of Conservative Government there was mass unemployment in London and massive cuts in the number of hospital beds, and that people fled the city because things were getting so bad? Will he confirm also that under Labour the population of London is increasing as people realise that there are more jobs and greater prosperity in the city?
I do not confirm that. The hon. Gentleman should be careful or I will not follow the instructions he gave me a couple of days ago to lay into the Government on congestion charging and the public-private partnership. He cannot say one thing in private and something quite different on the Floor of the House. I hope that I have betrayed no confidences.
The hon. Gentleman has not betrayed a confidence; he has simply got something completely wrong. He knows, because it is on the record, that I oppose the madcap congestion charging scheme introduced by the—independent—Mayor of London, Mr. Livingstone. There might in principle be a scheme that works, but that scheme is not it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for smoking out Mike Gapes. Did not the hon. Gentleman vote for the Bill that allows the independent Mayor to levy those charges? Labour Members complain, but they voted for it.
No. I suggest that it is in the hon. Gentleman's own interests that he remain seated.
The crime figures tell us that in November last year there were almost 13,000 offences of violence against the person, 5,000 offences of robbery and 14 murders. That is roughly the equivalent of 2.5 offences per 1,000 people. When we compare those figures with those for the same offences in New York over the same period, we find that a Londoner was five times as likely as a New Yorker to become a victim of violent crime. It is a sad day for this country when a member of the Soprano crime family might be reluctant to take tea at the Ritz for fear of being mugged in Piccadilly—[Interruption.] I stand corrected; the Sopranos are from New Jersey, but they visit New York. Latest figures show that street crime shot up by 40 per cent. last year and mobile phone theft by 366 per cent. Most shocking of all, the victims and perpetrators of those crimes are likely to be under 18.
Mobile phone thefts are not in themselves the cause of the sudden rise in robberies. We are grateful for Home Office research which shows that if mobile phone thefts were excluded, the upward trend in robberies would barely be blunted—small wonder, when the number of police officers has plummeted by 600 under this Government. As a result of the failure to retain experienced officers, recruitment does not keep pace with losses. The chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, Glen Smyth, said:
Mr. Smyth went on to say:
"You've got to have feet on the beat to put hands on collars."
With fewer police on the street and a reduction in stop and search, it is little surprise that street crime is rising.
Can the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why Conservative members of the Greater London Authority proposed a cut in the police budget, which Sir John Stevens told the Metropolitan police authority would have meant fewer police officers on the beat on the streets in London?
The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong; Conservative members of the GLA proposed that there should be 1,400 officers, which is 200 more than the Mayor proposed. The hon. Gentleman is confused; Conservative members of the GLA suggested a cut in the number of press officers. I know that for Labour Members press officers and policemen are virtually indistinguishable, but it is clear that had the Conservative budget been accepted and had the Liberal Democrat party not cosied up with Labour, there would now be the prospect of more police officers on the beat, not fewer.
As the hon. Gentleman is raising the issue of press officers in the south-east, why did Conservative-controlled Kent county council employ 27 press officers in the year in which it made 27 care managers redundant?
The hon. Gentleman should realise that Kent county council is at the forefront of reducing dependency, with the full approval of the Government. He should also realise that it is taking a lead in employing wardens to offer additional help to the police. It has been highly praised and its officers have been invited to No. 10 for discussions, which is more than the hon. Gentleman has been.
Following the reduction in stop and search by the police, it is interesting that Mr. Mike Best, the editor of The Voice, recently called for it to be increased. He told the BBC that he was concerned about the number of black youths killed in shootings; he believed that the police had moved away from unprofessional standards and would use the tactic of stop and search more sensibly. He went on to say:
"Most people would prefer not to be stopped and searched, but increasing crime is warranting that and the majority of people who have nothing to hide won't mind very much."
The Home Secretary's response to that is surprising. In summary, his approach to stop and search is three- pronged; first, officers must provide an on-the-spot record of stop and search which has taken place; secondly, officers will receive a clear explanation, both of the principles of stop and search and the importance of exercising them fairly and effective; thirdly, a supervising officer will monitor ways in which officers stop and search people and look for trends which give cause for concern.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Home Secretary's proposals on stop and search highlight yet another Government failure—the creation of more bureaucracy and paperwork? One way to get more police on the streets is to reduce the three or four hours that they spend filling in Labour Government paperwork before they can get back out on the streets again.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who may well have been on the police parliamentary trust, as I have. He puts the case robustly. A less robust way would be to say that there are practical difficulties with the proposal. How can I put it nicely? It is not quite like that on the streets.
I have been out on patrol with local officers from my own constabulary and with other police officers. Police are already overburdened with paperwork. They are reluctant to arrest because, as my hon. Friend Mr. Wilshire rightly pointed out, that means taking a couple of police officers off the shift for the best part of four or five hours. Most of the forms that they fill in are purely defensive, to ensure that they are not open to charges under the Human Rights Act 1998 or the various procedures laid down by the police authorities.
I shall make a few more points. I like the hon. Gentleman and I shall come to him in due course.
I was speaking about the practical problems faced by the police. I have seen police officers with a crowd of lads outside a nightclub. It is not like "Heartbeat" or "The Bill". There are not lots of police officers on the street; they do not all go around together. There is usually a single officer, or sometimes two or three. One police officer will be taking down the names of all the people whom the police have stopped to have a word, and the other police officer will be watching the first officer's back and watching the crowd.
Estimates from police officers are that it will take six minutes to record the details. The Home Secretary says that there is no need to worry, as there will be schemes to provide officers with palm-pilots, and through bluetooth technology, all the information will whizz through the ether and go into a big computer somewhere in the police station, where it will be stored. Whether by means of whizzy technology or pen and paper—more often than not, I expect, it will be pen and paper—we will be collecting useless information to be stored for no particular purpose, and putting up the backs of innocent bystanders, who will not want their names recorded. In short, that is no way to tackle crime. We must stop treating the police as the enemy and learn to trust them.
At last. The hon. Gentleman asserted that London's police will not do their duty and will not arrest criminals, for fear of having to fill in a few forms. That is an appalling slur on the police, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it now.
The most charitable thing that I can say in response to that intervention is that that is a very nice tie.
Mayor Giuliani's experience of reviving New York is summarised by his concept of mending broken windows. In a speech before the election, the Prime Minister promised to tackle abandoned cars and urban decay, claiming that such issues were
"at the heart of the Government's rights and responsibilities agenda", since which time abandoned cars have become endemic.
Abandoned cars are hazardous for children and encourage more vandalism and crime in our neighbourhoods. The European directive signed by Labour will force the cost of car disposal to soar, and the bill will have to be met by car owners and council tax payers. As a result of the EU end of life directive, which comes into force in a few short weeks, the cost of the disposal of cars will soar. The Local Government Association estimates that it will cost £300 to scrap a car, which means that most scrap yards will not accept cars without payment. The LGA waste spokesman, Kay Twitchen, remarked:
"We simply don't know how many more cars are going to be dumped. It's frightening."
We have already seen the results of much of that careless dumping. According to the London fire brigade, the number of malicious vehicle fires across London has soared by 25 per cent. in the past year—a key indicator of more burnt and abandoned cars on London's streets.
My hon. Friend raises an issue that is of great concern, especially to the outer-London boroughs. In Bexley, one of the difficulties for the local Metropolitan police service and the local authority in responding quickly to the problem of abandoned cars is the bureaucracy involved in dealing with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea, which is very slow to respond. Despite the interventions, he has highlighted the fact there is no lack of will power on the part of the police or councils, but an excessive amount of Labour bureaucracy that is holding everybody back.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but I must tell him that he ain't seen nothing yet. The nature of the end of life provisions on disposal and the breaking up of cars means that a premium will have to be paid. When those who are not socially responsible or are on low incomes dump their cars, the cost will be picked up by the ratepayer. We will face additional disposal problems and they will become more and more expensive.
Does the hon. Gentleman therefore welcome the Government's proposals to allow the DVLA and local authorities to operate jointly, using each other's information? Does he also welcome the reduction of time in respect of seven-day notices—one day is now required—and the shortening of the period for which local authorities must store abandoned cars? Those measures are taking us in the right direction to reduce a problem that he is right to highlight. We have got some solutions.
To be against those things would be like being against motherhood and apple pie. However, the hon. Gentleman took a long time merely to say that the Government are simply allowing local authorities to look at their computers. The great problem is that the DVLA's information is wholly inaccurate. The problem with Labour Members is that their briefings from the Whips make these little points and they think that everything will change—but it will not.
On abandoned cars, will the hon. Gentleman clarify two points of information? First, did the Conservative party reply to the Government's consultation on abandoned cars, which was published in October last year? Secondly, what does he think about the provisions in the London Local Authorities Bill on abandoned vehicles: does he support them?
Of course, we welcomed the principles, but as we are discussing the disposal of cars and recycling, perhaps it is appropriate to give notice to the hon. Gentleman that I hope that he will tell us in his speech why falsified recycling figures have been exposed in relation to Sutton borough council. A reported figure of 45 per cent. disguised a true figure of 23.5 per cent. in records going back five years. We want to know why the Liberal Democrats are on the fiddle on waste.
Local communities will also face a menace of fly-tipped fridges. New EU regulations that the Government signed without fully understanding the implications have just come into effect. The requirements will increase the cost of disposal. Not only are there currently no facilities throughout the UK for the disposal of fridges in the required manner, but the Government have imposed extra costs on councils that will run to £100 million a year. [Interruption.]
I am most grateful for your protection, Mr. Speaker.
According to the Tidy Britain Group, an organisation that is well known and respected throughout the House, on-the-spot litter fines in England and Wales fell from 2,500 in 1990 to only 422 last year. Interestingly, virtually all such fines were imposed by Wandsworth council.
The hon. Gentleman is debating the quality of life in London and the south-east, but if we are going to have a serious debate, he will need to give the House some indication of what he believes are the components of that quality of life. So far, in his rambling speech, he has said nothing about that at all. For example, does he think that levels of poverty, social deprivation and social exclusion are indicators of the quality of life in London and the south-east? Does he think that the level of public investment in infrastructure and public services is such an indicator? What does he have to say about the contrast between the effect of Labour and Tory years on those indicators of quality of life in London and the south-east?
The hon. Gentleman complains about my rambling, but he has just set a fine example to the House. I may be doing him a great disservice, but I do not think that he was here for the beginning of my speech. I do not think that he heard those fine words about consensus.
No, no. The hon. Gentleman went on for far too long last time. I shall wait for his speech, then I shall intervene on him.
The single greatest cause of the drop in the quality of life of the average Londoner or commuter is transportation. Our rail and underground networks simply cannot cope with demand. They do not have sufficient capacity now; they will not have it in five years' time, and in 10 years, there will have been little change. For most people, the daily trip to the office is cramped, sweaty and nasty. Travellers are packed tight, way over the capacity of the carriages.
I asked a Minister when had been the last time that he had travelled on the underground at peak time. He told me that it had been when he was at school. I dare say that the Minister for Local Government is not a familiar traveller on the tube at peak times.
Well, I doubt it very much. It is all right for him, in the confines of the ministerial car, but, believe me, being on the Central line at half-past 9 is no laughing matter. Things will not get better for travellers for 10 years or more.
The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions may cling to the phoney formula for assessing the success of the railways, but the public know better. Much has been said about Railtrack's planning process, but at least the company was addressing the problems of platform extensions, and the train operating companies were addressing the problems of new rolling stock. Thanks to the Secretary of State's botched placing of Railtrack into administration and the failure to grant franchises of a meaningful length, platform extensions have been postponed and there will be no new trains built after 2004.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the reason for the deteriorating state of London's underground is that, since 1997, investment has been significantly less than in the comparable period leading up to that date? Should not the Government get off their ideological high horse on PPP and get on with improving the London underground?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and what is true of the London underground is also true of the rail system that comes into London. We now know that the much-promised figure of £64 billion over the next 10 years is not accurate. About one third of that sum relates to inflation, about a quarter is double accounting, and a further third is for renewal and maintenance, which leaves just £20 billion for new investment in the railways over 10 years. Even that is an overstatement, because of the extra premium—the Byers premium—that the Government will have to pay because of the botched Railtrack administration. The refusal of pension fund managers to invest in future PPP projects has put many of the infrastructure projects at risk.
We have now had time to assess the PPP for the tube. No one believes that it will work, or that it even has a chance of working, except the Secretary of State. No doubt, the Government machine is looking at ways to sell the PPP to the people of London using snappy, exciting advertising slogans. I am willing to bet that one slogan they will not use is "Stephen says yes, and you can trust Stephen's judgment". That will not be high on the list.
The PPP will not bring substantial improvements in trains, track or signals until well after 2010. There will be only 12 new trains on the whole network by 2009, and most upgrades on lines will be delayed. Planned capacity enhancements will not keep in line with expected growth. London Underground has confirmed that, under the PPP, growth in capacity will be parallel to passenger numbers.
Astonishingly, we are still waiting to hear exactly how much the PPP will cost. In the House, the Secretary of State promised that we would be given figures, but we still have only a vague figure of between 15 and 20 per cent. There is a growing feeling among those concerned with transport that it would be much cheaper for the Secretary of State to put it on his credit card than to go through the whole PPP process.
We now have had the views of the Transport Select Committee in its short but damning report on PPP, which says:
"The decision of the Secretary of State to proceed with the PPP on the back of such a vapid concluding statement from his independent advisers, Ernst & Young, must be questioned."
It goes on:
"It is very concerning that after four years, £100 million pounds of costs, this pivotal decision for the future of London is 'subjective'."
It suggests that there is no basis for the Secretary of State's 15-year projections, and says:
"The decision to approve the PPP without an official review of the suitability of this methodology would demonstrate a lack of fiduciary duty on the part of the Secretary of State and the Treasury."
Finally, it says:
"It is essential that the Government allows Members a debate and vote in the House of Commons on a substantive motion on the future of the London Underground and the PPP."
Conservative Members wholly endorse that recommendation. If the decision is to be meaningful, London MPs must be able to affect it. We believe that Labour Members should have a free vote on the matter.
I agree with much of the hon. Gentleman's analysis of the Government's flawed PPP scheme. Does he share my concern that, according to Bob Kiley and his team, the draft contracts do not give the public sector any termination rights? If the infracos failed to perform, the public sector would not be able to get rid of them. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the whole contractual structure for the PPP could be a millstone around London council tax payers' necks?
The situation is worse than that, so it is no wonder that the Minister for Local Government is looking a bit shifty and upset. If the various infracos do not perform, and fall below par, they will still receive a bonus. This is a terrible deal for London, for the underground, and for the Government. We will be trying to unravel this mess for 30 years. This is an expensive way of funding the underground. It pays not the slightest attention to increasing capacity and improving the service.
I took the Government at their word. When the Secretary of State said across the Dispatch Box that there was a plan B and that the Government would consider the Mayor's proposals, I believed him. We believe that the options put before the much-derided, independent Mayor of London deserve consideration. We will be looking for quality assurance contracts that can achieve reliability, punctuality and cleanliness, and we want the threat of industrial relations problems removed from the tube. That is what the people of London want.
May I return my hon. Friend to the subject of railways? Do not the rail problems extend beyond London to places such as Brentwood and Castle Point, where there is just as much congestion? Our constituents who travel from those areas have suffered a decline in punctuality and reliability under this Government. Does my hon. Friend not deplore the Government's failure to resolve the problems?
My hon. Friend is right. As he knows, nothing has been done about the various pinch points on the approach to London terminals. Nothing has been done about platform extensions. As for the special-purpose vehicles of which the Government are so proud, no financing has got off the ground for a single one. Apparently station extensions are to be subject to the arrangement for special-purpose vehicles. What Railtrack would do with a couple of buckets of cement the Government are trying to do by putting together a special financing arrangement that will simply mean further delays. Moreover, we are unlikely to see an increase in the number of carriages from 12 to eight on most runs, because of the delay in the granting of the franchise. [Laughter.]
Labour Members laugh. They do not have to suffer the consequences. They spend their time in ministerial cars, while ordinary people are trying to get to their jobs in the City, travelling in cramped, overcrowded carriages. They seek the relief that the Government are denying them.
When I was at school an increase would be from eight to 12 rather than from 12 to eight. Is this a sign of falling education standards under this Government, or of a lack of numeracy on the hon. Gentleman's part?
The hon. Lady probably thought that that was a good thing to say at the time. Let me explain, however, that trains currently have eight carriages and we want the number to be increased to 12. That cannot happen, because the Government will not grant the franchise. It is a practical problem. There is a difference between a mere debating chamber and a Chamber that is trying to deal with practical problems.
No. I want to make some progress.
The real congestion problem in London is not caused by the number of cars on the roads. Surprisingly, research has proved that the number has not risen significantly. Congestion is increasing because of the way in which we deal with road repairs. There is to be a congestion charge, which will apply to various London boroughs. There will be a regressive tax that will hit the public sector, public-sector workers and the low-paid very hard. The tax will not move people out of cars, because public transport has not the capacity to carry them. It will be expensive to administer: in the initial years, 90p in every pound collected will go towards administrative charges. The tax is opposed by business, and it will not cut congestion to any significant extent.
We could take a leaf out of Giuliani's book, and start looking at sensible ways of unblocking roads that are blocked by repairs, improving road signs and school transport, and encouraging car pooling. All that could be achieved, and would reduce congestion more than the charge will.
What is true of transport is true of all our public services. We need to follow New York's example, and recognise that improvements are brought about by practical, street-level solutions.
London deserves better. London's decline is not inevitable. London needs leadership, determination and co-operation. The Conservative party is determined to make London a better and safer place in which to live.
I beg to move, To leave out from "Europe" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
'welcomes the Government's commitment to London's continued success, demonstrated by sound economic management, substantially increased employment opportunities, record levels of funding in health, education, crime prevention, transport and other key public services, the promotion of sustainable development, the enhancement of London's environment, cultural diversity and the living standards of its population, as well as the restoration of democratic city-wide government to the capital;
and unreservedly condemns the Opposition strategy of talking down London and the South East.'.
I welcome—indeed, relish—the opportunity to debate the state of London and the south-east, to demonstrate the real and positive benefits that five years of Labour Government have brought and to contrast the quality of life in London and south-east today with the state of affairs 10 years ago, when the Conservative party was in full flood.
A decade ago, London and the south-east were trapped in recession—the second that the Tories had managed to inflict on our country—and 400,000 Londoners were out of work as a consequence. Now, thanks to sound economic management under Labour Governments, the picture is transformed. Since 1997, the number of adults in employment in London and the south-east has grown by nearly 500,000, and unemployment has fallen by 41 per cent. in London and by 46 per cent. in the south-east. Long-term unemployment in the south-east has fallen by nearly 75 per cent. since 1997.
It is curious, as one of my hon. Friends rightly pointed out, that we heard nothing about those achievements from Mr. Pickles, in his remorselessly negative speech. But what else would one expect from the party of unemployment, the party of recession, the party of repossessions?
My right hon. Friend mentioned two recessions. I believe that, if he counts, he will find that there were actually three during that period.
Not only did we not hear about the economic performance of London and the south-east from Mr. Pickles, but we did not hear about the south-east. All his remarks were on London. The south-east, and my constituency in Kent, does not exist to him.
My hon. Friend makes an entirely apt point. I shall not get into a technical debate with him as to whether there were two or three recessions during the period of Conservative Government. All that Conservative Members know is that their party brought the economy of this country to a standstill on at least two separate occasions and there was a huge and terrible social consequence for the people of this country, the damage caused by which we are still repairing.
Before we leave unemployment, would the Minister agree that there is no need for complacency? In Uxbridge, in December, unemployment increased by 10.7 per cent. on the previous year, and in January it increased by 15.9 per cent. on the previous year. In December, in my neighbouring constituency of Hayes and Harlington, it increased by a massive 29.5 per cent. There is no need for complacency.
The hon. Gentleman will well recognise the circumstances of west London and the area around Heathrow airport in the conditions that have applied since
No; I am answering Mr. Randall, who will be the first to recognise that the overall framework of the London economy is such at the moment that there are far more opportunities for people to find work than there were when his party were in government.
It simply is not good enough for the right hon. Gentleman to try to blame all the problems of Heathrow on
I was not implying that the problems were solely associated with
The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar made a lot of fuss about transport. Let me first remind him that the use of public transport has increased enormously, with over 0.5 billion more bus passenger km and 1.7 billion more tube passenger km in London than 10 years ago. New investment is already making an impact and will transform transport options and prospects over the next few years in London and the south-east.
Interestingly, the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar chose not to mention the largest civil engineering contract in Europe; the channel tunnel high-speed rail link. My hon. Friends who represent Kent constituencies would not make that mistake, because they know how important that project is, not just in linking Britain with Europe, but to the economy of Kent and the regeneration of east London.
We all know who is to blame for the fact that there is not yet a high-speed rail link from the channel tunnel to London; the Conservative party. Let me remind the Conservatives of the history. It is now eight years since the channel tunnel was completed, yet while the French and Belgian Governments had taken steps to ensure that high-speed links were in place to link their capitals with the tunnel, the British Government—a Conservative Government—chose deliberately not to put any investment into our railways.
The consequence is that passengers travel at 300 km an hour on the European side and 100 km an hour through the tunnel, and then dawdle in a meandering route through Kent; wonderful for enjoying the Kentish countryside, but a disastrous and shameful comment on the short- sightedness of the British Government of the day.
To be fair to the Conservative party, at the very end of its period in power, it realised that this had been a mistake and began plans to establish a high-speed rail link. But the Conservatives botched it in the usual way, so that when we came into office—within literally a matter of a few weeks—we were presented with the clear evidence that their scheme was not viable and was not going to proceed. That was their legacy. Now, five years later, we have stage one of the CTRL scheme very near completion; on course, on budget and on time. What a contrast with the record of the previous Government.
The consequence of the botched privatisation of British Rail and the mismanagement by Railtrack has caused a serious problem on all parts of the rail network. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that Hatfield did not occur after we took Railtrack into administration. He would do well to ponder that.
In transport, and so many other areas, we are ensuring that the investment is going in to put right the wrongs that were left by the previous Government.
I am curious about the Minister's reference to Hatfield, and about his shroud-waving. Does he believe that the Deputy Prime Minister was wrong when he said that safety was in no way compromised by privatisation? Is he repudiating what the Deputy Prime Minister said? Perhaps he might take this opportunity of reflecting on his words on Hatfield.
Clearly, the hon. Gentleman was not listening. I was pointing out that in the aftermath of Hatfield—as he will know very well—the speed of rail services throughout the country, not just into London, was dramatically affected because of the need to take measures to improve safety provision. That is why I said that it would be unwise of Mr. Francois to focus too much on recent events, rather than on the context of the result of his party's botched privatisation of the railways.
The hon. Gentleman would do well to bear in mind that, if we are trying to have a serious debate about important issues such as the decline in the number of people travelling by air since
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way before he moves too far away from the subject of the channel tunnel rail link. Is he aware that the 10-year strategic railway plan for the south-east—he will have read it but the Opposition probably have not, as they do not consider the south-east—establishes in explicit detail that it will be possible to use the channel tunnel rail link for domestic services? For the first time, we in east Kent have a real prospect of a fast train service to London.
I alluded to that point in my remarks, and I entirely endorse my hon. Friend's view that the link will be a huge asset not just for those travelling from London to the continent, but for people in Kent and east London, who will be able to make use of the greatly improved transport facilities.
Apart from increased investment, a thriving economy and an improving quality of life in London and the south-east, there has been a further striking change in London compared with 10 years ago. That change is in the city's governance. Ten years ago London, alone of all major world cities, had no democratic city-wide authority, following the previous Conservative Government's characteristically arrogant and spiteful decision to abolish the Greater London council. At that time, we said that, on coming to power, we would restore democratic city-wide governance to London, and we have honoured that pledge by creating a Mayor and a separate elected assembly, which together constitute the Greater London Authority.
A further telling comparison can be made between London and the south-east today, and 10 years ago: the number of Tory MPs who represent, and who used to represent, the area. In March 1992, the Conservative party had 48 MPs in London and 61 in the south-east, and felt that it was sitting pretty in the region. Today, after three consecutive electoral setbacks, it has just 13 MPs in London and 53 in the south-east. It was unable to hold on to Harrow, to Croydon, to Hove, to Hastings, to Guildford, to Basildon—[Interruption.]—and to many other places that used to be thought of as true blue. [Interruption.]
The Conservative party was rightly hammered by the electorate in what it thought of as its own back yard.
The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar has better reason than most to understand the shift of the past 10 years. Ten years ago, he was about to embark on a new career, exchanging Bradford council for a south-east constituency, deserting the gritty north for the fleshpots of the south-east, and in the process trying to make the first ever transition from bluff Yorkshireman to Essex man. I have to say—with some affection for the hon. Gentleman—that he has not managed that transition entirely convincingly.
London and the south-east are the economic powerhouse of the United Kingdom economy. Together, they account for nearly a third of the UK's total gross domestic product, and they have a massive impact on the economy of the country as a whole. London is the world's largest centre for international trade in equities, with double the turnover of New York. Inner London is now by far the richest region in the European Union. Its gross domestic product per head is 240 per cent. of the European Union average. Its closest rival, Hamburg, stands at just 180 per cent. This Government are determined to reinforce that economic success story.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that rising standards in our schools are a key contributor to the improvement in London's economy? To cement further his reputation as a shrewd judge of funding applications, will he have a word with his colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills to ensure that they back a private finance initiative bid from the London borough of Harrow to upgrade Rooks Heath high school, which is in my constituency?
I have great admiration for my hon. Friend's skill in advancing his constituency interests and his prescience in referring to education when he cannot have known that I was about to come precisely to that topic. I will of course pass on his comments to my colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills.
In an age when information, skills and technology are the key to prosperity and growth, education is fundamental. For too long education attainment standards in London and the south-east lagged behind our European competitors, and London lagged behind the rest of the UK. This Government have given top priority to transforming educational achievement. Huge increases in funding, an unswerving commitment to raising standards, and a determination to carry through the reform essential to future success, have already begun to make a difference. Thanks to key innovations such as the numeracy and literacy hours and reduced class sizes, primary schoolchildren's performance in London has now caught up with the rest of the country, and the percentage of 15-year-olds passing five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C has risen from 43 per cent. to 46 per cent. There is still much room for improvement, but the trends are all in the right direction.
The Minister is as usual full of promises about education. The Government have promised extra money for teachers but they have not put that money in the hands of local authorities to allow them to pay those teachers. Once again, the Government say one thing and do another.
The hon. Lady makes many claims, but she obviously has not looked at the figures. The number of teachers in London in 1997 was 56,770, but it is now 58,290. More teachers are teaching children, with better resources and better skills, and getting better results. That is the result of this Government's commitment to improving education.
London's cultural vitality and diversity is one of our capital's greatest assets. In that context, the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar conveniently forgot to mention one very obvious symbol of the difference between Tory and Labour Governments. Our national museums and galleries, so many of which are located in our capital city and which contribute so much to our quality of life, are now open to all, free of charge. That is the result of a Labour Government.
The Minister mentioned things that people have forgotten to mention, but does he recognise that one of the greatest determinants undermining the quality of life in London is the dramatically rising crime rate? Does he intend to talk about crime and policing, because those are the issues that matter?
Of course I will deal with crime and policing later in my speech. The hon. Gentleman will also have the pleasure of hearing from the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs, who will wind up at the end of the debate. The hon. Gentleman will therefore have a full and detailed explanation of what the Government are doing to improve security and reduce crime.
Apart from free access to museums, we have seen many other changes in the cultural world. The dome was a huge regeneration success in south-east London. The new Tate gallery is one of the world's most successful museums. The London Eye, on the other side of the river, is a great new attraction. London is full of exciting new buildings and developments, all of which have enhanced our capital's diversity, quality and attractiveness to visitors. Those are all achievements of this Government.
We are not just capitalising on the existing strengths of the London economy and its cultural vitality: we are also committed to tackling deprivation. Delivering better services that are more responsive to local people's needs and priorities is key to the regeneration agenda. New local strategic partnerships are bringing together public, voluntary, private and community stakeholders and are already making an important contribution to regeneration in the capital and the south-east. Neighbourhood renewal funding of nearly £200 million over the next three years has been made available to 20 boroughs in London. Under the new deal for communities, more than £500 million is being provided over 10 years to improve the quality of life in 10 of London's most deprived neighbourhoods through community-led regeneration.
We are also driving ahead with the revitalisation of east London and the Thames estuary. To be fair to the Conservative party, it was a Tory Minister, Michael Heseltine, who saw the opportunity for a transformation of the east Thames corridor, as it was then called. Sadly, his efforts on this—as on so many other issues—were not always appreciated by his own party.
However, the Labour party appreciated those efforts. We recognise the huge potential for regeneration and sustainable development in the Thames gateway area. I have already referred to the channel tunnel rail link, which will bring widespread regeneration benefits, particularly around Stratford, where a new international station will be constructed. That and other infrastructure investment will open up large sites along the Thames gateway. Such sites include Barking Reach, with its potential for over 5,000 new homes, and Stratford Railands, where there is potential for investment in a new commercial and residential district for east London.
We heard yesterday new estimates suggesting that the population of London is set to grow by 700,000 by 2016. That raises huge issues about where expansion, for both housing and businesses, can take place. Thanks to this Government's brownfield-first planning policies, and the adoption of sustainable development principles, London already has the highest rate of urban land recycling for housing in England. Our urban White Paper building on Lord Rogers' proposals demonstrated how we could achieve an urban renaissance with good quality new urban developments served by public transport services, using empty or under-used brownfield sites wherever possible.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of Lord Rogers fundamental recommendations was to reduce the amount of value added tax on empty properties? Many of us campaigned for such a reduction for many years, and last year my right hon. Friend the Chancellor delivered it. Is not that another important strand in creating the right fiscal arrangements for regeneration?
My hon. Friend makes another very good point about the significant changes that the Government have made to assist the process of regeneration.
The availability of affordable housing is a key component in the development of mixed and balanced communities, and providing affordable homes for key workers is also a particular concern. That is why, over the next two years, the Government are putting in an extra £300 million above current levels into London's social housing. That is why, in the south-east, we are increasing the funds available for housing investment by both local authorities and registered social landlords. In addition, the first round of the starter home initiative gave £66 million to help 2,500 key workers in the south-east buy their own homes.
However, the gap cannot be met simply by increasing public subsidy. We have to recognise that, if we are to tackle affordability problems, the first priority must be substantially to increase the rate of new build. That requires a highly innovative and radical approach—from the Government and the Mayor, from the boroughs and local authorities in the south-east as well as in London, and from developers and landowners.
Will the Minister say why, in the council areas of Adur and Worthing in my constituency, not a single starter home initiative application has been approved? There is a drastic shortage of nurses and other public service workers in the area. The differential allowances that the Minister is offering mean that policemen from my area commute into London to enrol with the Metropolitan police, thereby exacerbating the problem of staff shortages in Sussex.
I have not received a letter from the hon. Gentleman so far on those matters but, if he writes to me, I shall be happy to respond. However, the starter home initiative has been warmly welcomed. In general, the experience is that it has worked best in those areas where the authorities concerned have been well prepared to make use of the opportunities that are being presented.
Effective public transport is a vital element in sustainable development, and the Government fully recognise the importance of improving transport in London. We are committed to tackling the historic underfunding of London transport. We recognise this as one of the major problems—if not the major problem—facing the city. That is why our 10-year plan for transport provides a step-change in funding, with £25 billion of public and private investment scheduled over a 10-year period. All forms of transport will benefit.
For example, we can already see some of the improvements coming through increased investment in the bus network. Interestingly, the bus network was another factor that the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar did not mention. Perhaps he does not know it, but more people in London travel on buses than on the underground. Improving the bus network is just as important as improving other forms of transport. Bus use, I am pleased to say, is up by 6 per cent., to the highest level since 1975. The number of bus services is also up, and more than 1,000 new buses are on the road—cleaner, better and more accessible to elderly and disabled people.
Light rail and tram systems offer scope for real improvements in access, particularly to some of London's more disadvantaged areas. The Croydon Tramlink, which opened in May 2000, is an excellent example of this type of new and integrated transport in action.
I am delighted to confirm my hon. Friend's positive appraisal of the effect of the Croydon Tramlink. I remember a pleasant occasion on which I joined him and saw the advantages for the New Addington community in his constituency which has benefited hugely from the new transport system.
On the docklands light railway, passenger use has risen dramatically, particularly over the past three years. The growth is expected to continue, resulting in an annual ridership of 60 million passengers in 2004-05 compared with 35 million in 2000, with further growth expected beyond that.
Central to London's transport is the tube, and its modernisation is essential to a prosperous future for the capital. The Government's public-private partnership proposals demonstrate our wholehearted commitment to modernise the Tube infrastructure. If a final decision is taken to proceed with these plans, they will deliver new trains, higher capacity and better stations which will transform travel for Londoners and visitors to the capital. The plans will deliver £16 billion of investment over the next 15 years—that is about £5,000 for every household in London. Nothing on this scale has ever been undertaken before.
I need to make some progress.
Crime blights the lives of far too many people and undermines the confidence of individuals and communities. Crime rates across London and the south-east are falling but street crime in London—mostly mugging—is bucking the trend. That is the sort of violent offence that worries ordinary people most and on which the Government are determined to crack down.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs will probably say more in his winding-up speech, but let me make a few key points about what we are doing to tackle crime. The number of police officers was mentioned earlier in the debate. I am pleased to say that at the last count, on
Will the right hon. Gentleman please tell the House the number of special constables who were available to London in 1996 and the number available to London now?
As I know from discussions with my local police committee and borough commander, special constables have an important role to play. Either my right hon. Friend or I will be happy to write to the right hon. Lady with a specific answer. As she will appreciate, that is a rather detailed question to put to a Minister who is not a Home Office Minister. I assure the right hon. Lady that she will receive a reply.
We have also set up a new youth and crime unit, based in the Government office for London, supporting work in the 11 London boroughs with the highest youth crime rates. Each borough is drawing up a comprehensive, multi-agency, youth crime reduction strategy. Crime and disorder reduction partnerships have carried out crime audits with local authorities in London and the south-east and are now completing their crime reduction strategies.
Antisocial behaviour is another important aspect of the work of the crime and disorder reduction partnerships. People should be able to live their lives free from intimidation and harassment. That is why we have given the police and local authorities additional powers to tackle antisocial behaviour. By tackling at source antisocial behaviour in young people, we can help stop them falling into a lifetime of criminal activity and instead divert their energies into more constructive work. To help achieve this, in addition to the neighbourhood renewal policies, we have put in place a number of initiatives such as Connexions, and of course our new deal has helped substantial numbers of young people to find work and lay the foundations for a better future.
It is important that all sectors of the community work together to attack crime. To do that effectively, all sectors of society must have confidence in each other. Sadly, that has not always been the case. The Macpherson report and the actions taken subsequently by the Metropolitan police have gone some way to improve relations and mutual confidence between the Metropolitan police and London's ethnic minority communities. A landmark conference on "Black and Minority Ethnic Communities Cracking Crime Together" was held in London last week, and was organised jointly by the Greater London Authority and the Government office for London. That and similar initiatives are all about providing a new impetus for the participation of black and minority ethnic groups in measures to reduce the impact of crime, which is often particularly severe on black and ethnic minority communities.
Graffiti is an important issue and a widespread problem.
I have given way many times, and I must make progress.
Worry about graffiti is growing and the costs of removing it are high. It is not only the costs of cleaning and repairing damage caused by graffiti that are important; it can spoil enjoyment of public places and add to the sense of fear and insecurity in local communities. It can feed a fear of crime, even though there may be nothing, statistically, to back that fear. If graffiti is left untouched for lengthy periods, it can send out a message that no one cares about the area and that, in itself, can bring problems of decline to rundown local neighbourhoods. Action against graffiti should form part of the local strategies for public reassurance and for tackling antisocial behaviour. We expect crime and disorder reduction partnerships to lead such initiatives locally. I commend the initiative of several London boroughs, particularly Lewisham, which has been extremely successful in engaging local communities in effective action to remove graffiti as soon as it appears.
Unlike the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar I am very familiar with the London Local Authorities Bill and have had several discussions with the Association of London Government and with officials to explore the way in which we can facilitate the passage of the Bill through the House. Clearly, we are neutral on such measures, and we want effective powers that enable local authorities to take action against the kind of problems that have been highlighted.
We are also acting to improve and speed up the process of dealing with abandoned vehicles, which is also one of the subjects of the Bill to which the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton just referred. We have had very positive discussions with the Association of London Government about that particular part of the Bill. Our consultation on measures to reduce the notice periods before abandoned vehicles can be cleared off the streets finished on
The Government also strongly support the capital standards programme, a four-year pan-London street cleaning campaign that was launched earlier this month. That is an excellent example of the Mayor, the ALG and the London boroughs working together to improve the quality of life for people in London.
Finally, in thinking about the future of London or any large city, we need to be aware of the threats as well as the opportunities for improvement. The terrible events of
In view of the Minister's obvious concern about the threat from terrorism to London, does he not find it odd that the Metropolitan police is now proposing to sell one of its three helicopters? That will leave only one machine available, at any one time, to cover this very large city.
The Metropolitan police service has been closely involved with all our discussions about London's preparedness to cope with any eventuality. It has not indicated a particular operational reason to raise the issue of a helicopter with me in that context. This is an operational matter for the Metropolitan police, and a matter for its judgment. I assure the House that the Metropolitan police is fully engaged—and very much in the driving seat—in the arrangements to ensure London's preparedness to cope with any eventuality.
All of us who have the honour to represent this part of the country know full well that London is a great city and that there is much to be proud of in the quality of life that people enjoy in London and the south-east. We know that there is still an enormous amount to do to reinforce London and the south-east's strengths and to overcome their weaknesses, and we are determined to achieve this. Working with the Greater London Authority, local authorities and others, we are tackling the problems caused by years of chronic underinvestment in our public services. Putting right that underinvestment lies at the heart of ordinary people's concerns.
We are providing substantial extra funding for health, education, housing, transport, fighting crime and to make sure that our most deprived communities share a better future and have better services. After years of Tory failure, marked by recession, unemployment and underinvestment, in which our public services were run down and devastated, in which our environment was despoiled and in which the people of London and the south-east saw their hopes and aspirations betrayed time and again, we are at last now seeing the real benefits of a Labour Government working with others to secure a bright future and a better quality of life for all in the south-east and London.
I wish to congratulate Mr. Pickles in two respects. First, I congratulate him and his colleagues on calling this debate. It is important that we focus on the quality of life in London and the south-east because it affects our constituents in the varied ways that he and the Minister have mentioned. I was surprised, however, that neither of them concentrated on issues involving the south-east and linked them to London. The Minister touched on that, but he did not make it the main focus of his speech. I shall try to correct that omission in my remarks.
We support the Opposition's motion even though it is very mild. It contains serious omissions—I shall come to them—but it would have been churlish to amend it. I reassure the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar that the Liberal Democrats will support the motion in the Lobby tonight.
In a moment.
It is important that we send the united message that Labour is letting down London and the south-east. We heard that story in the remarks of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar. The streets of London are filthy, public services in London and the south-east are breaking down and crime on the streets is rising. Those fair and valid criticisms can be targeted at the Labour Government, and the House must send the message to the people of London and the south-east that those are our complaints and that we will campaign hard until the problems are put right.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but he should be careful on that point. I cannot remember the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar mentioning pensioners, either.
Some of us are not surprised that Labour has let London down. The Cabinet is made up of people who are anti-London. Time and again, by their policies, the Government have undermined the share of funding available to London. I do not know why the Cabinet is so anti-London but, as London is the most dynamic, diverse and successful city not just in this country but probably in the world, it is madness that the Government are not backing London and the south-east.
I also want to congratulate the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar on his bare-faced cheek. There was not a single apology for the part that the Conservatives have played in the problems facing London and the south-east. What about the rail fragmentation, which is one reason why our railways and transport system are in such a mess? What about the cuts in the national health service and in police numbers that occurred under the Conservatives? What about the underfunding of councils from which so many councils in London and the south-east have suffered? Moreover, the hon. Gentleman provided no alternative. There is a serious case for reallocating the number of Opposition days to give more to the Liberal Democrats. If the Conservative Opposition cannot propose a decent alternative, leave it to the Liberal Democrats, because we will certainly provide one.
As I have said, there were major omissions not only in the hon. Gentleman's speech, but in the motion. For example, it does not mention housing. As all Members from London and south-east constituencies know, housing is utterly central to the quality of life. The lack of affordable housing is undermining our public services. If we cannot give nurses, police officers, teachers and many other public sector workers who are serving our people decent housing, how can we improve their quality of life? That is an appalling omission.
A second major omission is poverty. Although London may be one of the richest cities in the world—the Minister said that inner London, as a sub-region, is one of the richest, if not the richest region in the European Union—some parts are among the poorest in the European Union. Many of our fellow citizens suffer from grinding poverty and huge levels of inequality, and it is outrageous that Conservative Members did not mention that in the debate or in their motion.
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, because he, at least, talks about poverty in a caring way.
I am not disappointed in the hon. Gentleman, because normally he is not only a good attender and a thinking Conservative Member, but someone who listens to other Members' speeches. I said at the beginning of my speech that I wanted a united message to go out from the House about the Government's failure. Labour has been letting the country down.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good point. The Minister compared today's economy with that of 10 years ago. The hon. Gentleman may recall that about 10 years ago, 38 per cent. of pensioners were on means-tested benefits—yet, according to the Library, under this Government the figure will rise to about 57 per cent. by next year. That is poverty under a Labour Government.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the number of pensioners on means-tested benefits in London and the south-east is increasing. However, I have not heard Conservative spokesmen on pensions say that they mean in any way to change the situation. The hon. Gentleman is right to make the criticism, but unfortunately it could be pushed back on to his colleagues.
I want to mention three key issues, none of which were touched on by the Minister or the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, but all of which are fundamental to a debate on the quality of life in London and the south-east. First there is population growth, secondly, funding for public services and, thirdly, the environmental concerns and constraints that determine whether we can deliver proper quality of life for our citizens.
On population, yesterday the Mayor of London's office published a document called "Planning for London's Growth". It is a serious document, which I recommend to right hon. and hon. Members. It suggests that population growth in London will be faster than was previously forecast. One estimate is that in 15 years' time there will be 700,000 more people living in Greater London, which is equivalent to adding a city the size of Leeds. That is a shocking forecast that we must discuss. In the past two years alone, 190,000 people have moved to or been born in London. Since 1989, the population of London has grown by about 600,000—the population of Sheffield.
That is a huge growth in population. It is impossible to debate the quality of life in London and to devise policies to improve it without focusing on that underlying factor. If the population of London is growing by so much, many policies will have to be rethought. To put the growth record in context, in 1945 there were about 8 million people in London. That fell dramatically in the post-war years, so that by 1983 there were about 6.8 million. If those forecasts from the Mayor's office prove right, the population of London will be 8.1 million in 2016. That huge increase presents us with some serious challenges.
Hon. Members may wonder where that increase will come from—50 per cent. will be indigenous to Greater London; 25 per cent. will come from British nationals repatriating to Greater London; and the other 25 per cent. will be made up of other European Union citizens moving to the area on work permits and asylum seekers.
Those are the dynamics of London's demography, but the situation is, if anything, slightly worse in the south-east, where the population growth is probably even greater. Using the Government office for the south-east's definition of the region, its population was 8.75 million last year and is forecast to be 9.4 million by 2016—again, an increase of nearly 700,000. Those huge movements of people affect everything that we are talking about today.
I am concerned about some of the ideas coming from the Mayor's office and the Greater London Authority because we have to decide whether to adopt the strategy of predict and provide or that of alert and avoid. Should we say, "These are the forecasts; we can't do anything about it, so we'll try to increase the infrastructure hugely and manage things by building over all the open spaces in London and the south-east"? Or should we say, "Hold on—yes, we want growth; it's natural and we can't stop all of it"? However, should we also adopt offsetting, dispersal policies, such as those used after the second world war?
The Mayor has set his sights against dispersal policies and opposes them. He is saying that the huge increase in population—it is of historic proportions—should be dealt with in the confines of Greater London because he is a committed defender of the green belt. Therefore, land in Greater London has somehow to accommodate that huge population growth, but I do not think that that is possible because it would seriously undermine the quality of life for our citizens in Greater London.
We will not be able to stop that population growth—we have not even managed to deal with the growth that has taken place in recent years—but we have to try to manage it and invest in London to try to maintain the quality of life. We have to combine that with dispersal policies, central to which are policies to decentralise political, financial and economic power throughout the regions and nations of our country.
If dispersal and decentralisation policies are taken seriously, as the Government have begun to do with Wales and Scotland, the economic fortunes of the regions can be transformed. Surely it is no mistake that Cardiff and Edinburgh are two boom cities in the regions. They have a focus for government, which then attracts business and the financial sector. So decentralising political and economic power can ensure that we have balanced growth, and I suggest that it will help London and the quality of life of Londoners. Londoners need to work with other regions and nations in the United Kingdom. All that makes perfect sense.
My second point concerns the underlying trends that affect the quality of life in London. I wish to talk for a few moments about public funding. All hon. Members know the history of public finance cuts, whether under the Conservative party or in the first three years of the current Labour Government, and we know the effect of those cuts on our health services, police forces and councils. The question is whether those cuts have been any worse in London and whether the problems in London and the south-east are any worse than those in other parts of the country.
I suggest that the particular problems in London and the south-east need a public finance response. Of course, they primarily involve land and house costs. The huge increase in housing costs has had an effect on vacancy rates and recruitment and retention problems, primarily in our public services. It is no coincidence that the vacancy rate for teachers in London is two and a half times the national average. It would be even greater were it not for the fact that many young teachers come to London, usually from Commonwealth countries, to teach for two years before continuing their travels around the world. The needs of our children, who are the future of London, are not being met because of those vacancy rates.
Although the Minister talked about increasing police numbers, he failed to say that the Met is losing 40 experienced officers every month to other forces, which is destabilising it. No wonder street crime has increased. Even if the number of officers increases, the new policemen and policewomen are rookies, straight out of police training college. We are losing the experienced officers who know how to organise and how to catch criminals. Unless the Government deal with retention, they will not tackle street crime. It is crucial that we deal with the problem of retention.
Let us consider just one profession in the health service—nursing. The vacancy rate for nurses in London is 6.5 per cent. compared with a national average of 3.4 per cent. We cannot pretend that we are running sustainable public services with problems of that nature. Some 151 Filipino nurses work in my local hospital in Kingston. They are excellent nurses who have been recruited as part of a good programme that checks their language and nursing skills. However, they are on short-term contracts and can return to Manila and elsewhere in the Philippines after two years. That is not a way to plan and run a service or to ensure that the London health service has a base knowledge. If the Government do not wake up to those problems in public services in London and the south-east, our services will continue to decline.
My hon. Friend is right to raise that concern about nurses and the need to recruit internationally to plug the gaps in the national health service. Given that London accounts for well over half the spend on agency nurses in this country, does he agree that we are wasting money on paying for agency staff because it would be better spent paying better wages so that we retain nurses permanently on the payroll?
My hon. Friend is right. That is why Liberal Democrats in this and the last Parliament have argued for a proper measure of the difference between living costs in London and other regions. That would allow us to work out what the extra allowances should be, to tackle the problems of low pay in London, to have a permanent solution for the problems and to stop chucking money away on agency nurses and teachers.
Does the hon. Gentleman include the south-east in that? Increased pay in London has a ripple effect on the whole region, as my hon. Friends know only too well.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I suggested that there should be an index of the cost of living in London and other regions so that we get a handle on the differences between areas. I know that there are hot spots in other regions. Cities that are undergoing huge economic development also have increasing house prices and problems with recruiting staff—
Yes, and many other successful cities, too. However, although there are hot spots, I do not think that other regions have a hot spot that covers the whole region homogenously. There is a particular problem in the south-east to which the Government have not faced up. They need to re-examine regional government and regional pay bargaining. Unless we decentralise pay bargaining in the public sector and allow regions to negotiate in light of the real costs in their regions, we will never sort out the problem.
As evidence, I cite a recent report by NERA Economic Consulting, which bears close scrutiny. It tries to get the best measure for the real costs of employing people in the public sector in different regions. To do that, it rightly uses private sector wages as a proxy for the state of regional labour markets. NERA's analysis shows that wages in outer London should be 20 per cent. higher than the average for the rest of the country, whereas the Government use a figure of 15 per cent. The figures for inner London are 40 per cent. and 30 per cent. respectively. Those are large differences that have major public finance implications. The Government have to take a closer look.
When considering mechanisms that they might use, whether regional pay or allowances, the Government must take that type of analysis into account. If they do not, Londoners' long-term quality of life will again be undermined because we will not have public servants in the numbers that we need, and we will not benefit in terms of the quality of service they provide.
Incidentally, I was surprised that the Conservative spokesman did not mention the NERA report. Councils throughout London and the south-east are relying on that sort of analysis to ensure that in future they get a better grant funding deal from the Government. The fact that the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar failed to mention it will be noticed by those councils, which will ask why the Conservatives are not speaking up for them. Yet again, the Conservatives have let down the councils in the regions and it has been left to the Liberal Democrats to argue for fair funding.
The third major factor is environmental constraints in London and the south-east—basic constraints such as land for housing, business, and green open spaces, and air and water quality. The Minister mentioned a few of those factors, and under the Greater London Authority Act 1999 the Mayor has to devise strategies for them. However, I suggest that there are other factors responsibility for which has not been given to the Mayor and of which the Minister and his colleagues should take cognisance.
First, there is the danger of flooding. I am told by people who know about these things that the need to plan for a second Thames barrier is not far off. If that is not done, the threat to London will be significant. Secondly, although the Mayor has policies on waste he does not appear to have got them right yet, and progress on recycling in this country is poor. In connection with that—even though he answered none of my questions—let me respond to a point made by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, who is no longer in his place, about Sutton council's recycling figures.
There was a problem with the figures on recycling for Sutton council. On the insistence of councillors, an inquiry was held which found that a council officer had made an error; that was investigated and the figures have now been corrected. Even according to the correct figures, Sutton has an amazing record on recycling, so it was rather unwise of the hon. Gentleman to pick on Sutton council, which is an environmental beacon council. In May last year, it won the EMAS—eco-management and audit scheme—award, the first London borough to gain the award, and one of the first recipients in Europe.
The GLA has powers in environmental matters, but two years on—early days yet, I admit—the Minister must be rather disappointed by the effect that the GLA has had. The GLA model is flawed: the authority has proved to be not powerful enough. I bet that during the Committee stage of the 1999 Act the Minister did not expect that the public-private partnership for London Underground would not have been signed by spring 2002. Night after night, he and his colleagues assured the members of the Standing Committee that PPP was the way forward and that it would bring investment quickly, but three years later not a dime has been invested in London as a result of it. It has been a total failure.
Let me give two other examples of the way in which when we discuss quality of life in London and the south-east we need to take a broader view than has hitherto been taken in this debate.
My hon. Friend was commenting on the GLA model and structure. I hope he agrees that it is very much to be hoped that when they eventually get around to publishing their White Paper on regional government, the Government will reveal a model for regional government that is very different from the one used for the GLA.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and commend to the Minister his ably written paper on regional government; it provoked a lively and well-informed debate at our recent Manchester conference.
One of the examples that I wish to discuss is the terminal 5 decision, about which many of my hon. Friends are concerned. Considering the environmental pressures on the capital, the Government's decision is surely flawed, as it will massively increase those pressures. Will the Minister tell the House whether or not he and his colleagues will give the go-ahead for a third runway at Heathrow? We are waiting to hear the result. The announcement by the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions on terminal 5 was instructive because he failed to rule out the prospect of a third runway at Heathrow. If the Government go ahead and permit all that development to be concentrated in a small sub-region of London, they will create even greater imbalance in our regional and national economies. They do not understand the constraints that the environment places on an economy and a region.
I wish to raise briefly a number of issues; my hon. Friends will go into greater detail if they catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. Front-Bench spokesmen have mentioned them already, so it is right for me to deal with them briefly. First, I am concerned that the Government have not worked effectively enough with the Metropolitan police authority and the Mayor to try to tackle the rise in street crime. Although there has been an increase in police numbers, it has been insufficient. The extra costs on the MPA following
The hon. Gentleman referred to CCTV—almost its first mention in our debate—and called for more support for local authorities to introduce it, which is fine and good. He lauded the record of Liberal Democrat-controlled authorities, but is he aware of, and will he join me in deploring, Liberal Democrat-controlled Wokingham district council, which forgot to bid for CCTV money last year?
May I correct the hon. Lady? If she bothers to look at the detail of what happened in Wokingham, she will find that, when Liberal Democrats took over after the resignation of the Tory chair of the environment committee, they found that the Conservatives had failed to put in an application. The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the matter, but she should have aimed her remarks at Conservative Members. Liberal Democrats in Wokingham have been picking up the pieces of the failed Conservative administration and will no doubt be returned in large numbers in due course.
My second example is the appalling state of our transport system. To hear the Minister talk, it was if nothing had happened to worry commuters in the past few months or the past year. He hardly touched on the problems. Listening to him, it was as though nothing was wrong; everything was rosy and successful. He did not once mention the strikes, the lack of investment or all the delays. He should apologise for that record, not try to put a spin on it.
When the hon. Gentleman looks at the record tomorrow, he will see that throughout my speech the main theme was underinvestment. I hope that he will not make completely unfounded allegations that I did not raise the issue.
I shall certainly look closely at the record, but I do not think that the Minister said that his Government had under-invested in the transport system. We believe that they have. If the Minister had given the figures, they would have shown that his Government have, on average, spent less in the past five years than was spent in the last five years of the Conservative Administration.
My final point on quality of life concerns the NHS and the social care sector. My hon. Friend Mr. Burstow has done a fantastic job in highlighting many problems, not just in London and the south-east, but across the country. In London, I am sure he agrees, we have particular problems, primarily because of staff shortages, wages and property prices; many care home owners have sold their property to developers for residential use. That has meant a massive reduction in the number of care home places in London and the south-east, which has had a knock-on effect on the NHS. To date, the Government have done almost nothing about it. It is Liberal Democrats who have raised the issue on our Opposition days, and we will continue to harry the Government until they start to tackle the problem. Until they do so, we will never be able to get the NHS right in London and the south-east.
If my hon. Friend Tom Brake catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I know that he intends to speak about the problems of abandoned cars, graffiti and the failure to keep the streets of London clean. As he has said on previous occasions—and I agree with him—those are fundamental to improving the quality of life of our citizens in this great capital and the great region of the south-east.
If we are to have a serious debate about the quality of life in London and the south-east, and if we are to get away from banging statistics across the Dispatch Box, as the two previous speakers did, we must discuss the underlying issues so that we can produce long-term analysis and strategic planning. We must adopt policies to ensure that we take power out of Whitehall and distribute it across the country, to give our regions strong government and to give London stronger government, thereby enabling our local communities and our regions to build a better quality of life for all our citizens.
We need consensus on the key issues that determine the quality of life in London and the south-east. For my constituents in Harlow, and, I believe, elsewhere throughout London and the south-east, such issues are whether people have a job, whether they have enough income to keep them out of poverty, whether they have a roof over their head, whether they feel confident sending their children to the local school and whether they feel that their local hospital is improving.
I am not one of those party politicians who says that everything is perfect under my Government and everything was disastrous under the last lot, but if we examine the evidence on those key criteria, it is clear that things are significantly better, or at least moving in the right direction, compared to the situation four and a half or five years ago. I shall highlight some of the aspects where I believe that to be the case.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government spoke about unemployment and what has happened over the past four and a half years. My constituents still remember Norman Lamont singing in the bath and speaking about unemployment being a price worth paying, and the economic philosophy whereby if a measure was not hurting, it was not working. We saw the results of that. In my constituency in 1983, under the last Conservative Government, unemployment rose to 4,700. In 1993, it got as high as 5,200. In all those 18 years, unemployment was never lower than 1,500, yet in September last year, it was as low as 978, and it is only marginally above that figure now. For the thousands of my constituents who had their lives blighted by unemployment, that was a huge improvement in the quality of their life.
To get to first base in terms of a decent standard and quality of life, people need a roof over their head. Thousands of my constituents experienced negative equity or housing repossessions in the late 1980s and early 1990s because of the Conservative mismanagement of the economy. They will be incredulous or angry beyond words to hear the Conservatives now speaking about quality of life.
We need to remind ourselves how serious and pernicious the situation was. At one stage in the early 1990s, 1.8 million households in Britain were experiencing negative equity, and 1 million of those were in London, the south-east and the eastern region. That had a devastating effect on people's quality of life, their confidence, their security and their ability to plan their lives.
A decent quality of life also means having a local state school to which people feel confident about sending their children. On that criterion, parents are in a much better position—even if it is not perfect—than they were four and a half years ago. Despite what the Conservative party says, with some support from the Liberal Democrats, school funding has increased considerably since the Conservative years, especially on school building: building, repairs, maintenance and renovation have tripled. Every time I visit a school in my constituency, I am told about a new science block, classroom or playground—the reality of that increased investment.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says, but is it not even more important that there are enough teachers to do the job that must be done in the schools to which he refers? Schools in his constituency and mine do not have enough teachers, and the main reason for the shortage is that the Government have not funded them.
The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point in an absurd way. There are pressures on recruitment in my constituency and hers and elsewhere in the south-east, but they must be put into context: we have more teachers in schools today than at any time since 1984. One of the reasons for the excess of demand over supply is that the Government are putting more money into revenue budgets for schools, which means that they can employ more teachers. The issue is difficult and we need to think it through carefully and face up to it. It must be recognised that the Conservative party's simplistic claims that the pressure on demand is due to the policies of this Government do not bear any scrutiny.
It is not only on the funding front that improvements are being made in our schools. The focused strategy of target setting and monitoring, as well as the literacy and numeracy strategy, have ensured an attainment increase of almost 50 per cent. among 11-year-olds in four and a half years. Parents in my constituency and elsewhere in the south-east value that significant advance very much indeed. Furthermore, at long last the national health service is increasing its capacity to deliver health improvements, in contrast with the reductions in capacity that occurred under the Conservatives.
Does the hon. Gentleman remember attending the 1999 Labour party conference, at which the Prime Minister promised the country that under Labour everybody would have access to an NHS dentist within two years? Will he please explain the written answer given by Health Ministers last week, showing that 49 per cent. of children in London were registered with an NHS dentist in March 1997, while the latest figure for this year is 37 per cent?
As I said, I do not claim that everything is perfect in terms of taking forward the improvements that we need in our key public services. When I talk to my constituents, I see that they have frustrations and concerns about the pace of change and the improvements that the Government are taking forward, but they know in their bones that the investment is now being made and the change is being delivered in a way that was not even considered during the 18 years that the Conservative party was in power.
Let me focus on the health service from a constituency perspective. In Harlow, £1 million has recently been allocated for the modernisation of our maternity unit, which is the same today as when my 12-year-old son was born in it. That shows the scale of the lack of investment in the past, whereas £1 million has now been allocated. We also have a new GP walk-in centre, providing access to a GP or a nursing service when the patient wants it—a development that is hugely popular with my constituents. Whatever the Conservative party says about funding, the North Essex health authority has had a 10.5 per cent. increase this year—a substantial increase in anybody's book. We need that funding to be sustained, as is now happening under this Government.
We need a debate on the national health service that is based on facts, not spin. I say that to all politicians in all parties. One of the key claims that the Government have rightly made concerns the need to increase nursing numbers and the reality of making that happen. Since 1997—I have obtained these figures not from the Government, but from the Library—the total number of nursing, midwifery and health-visiting staff has increased by some 28,000. That is a point that we need to force home.
I was watching the television at the weekend, and saw an advert for The Mail on Sunday, advertising one of its weekly stories on the alleged crisis in the national health service. I do not know whether hon. Members saw it, but at the end of the advert there was a picture of a hospital bed with a graph at the end of it entitled "Nursing numbers", with a bar chart showing the figure going down. That is a complete and utter lie. It is Conservative party spin. The Labour Government have been accused of spinning on these issues, but our opponents must recognise that they need to get their facts right. Not for nothing did Michael Foot refer, justifiably, to the Daily Mail as "the Forgers' Gazette".
Another aspect of the quality of life of people in London and the south-east is their ability to have access to art and culture. There was an attitude under the Conservative Government that interest in art and culture stopped at a certain point going down the socio-economic scale. This Government have rightly taken a different view. They have invested significantly in that area and brought about policy changes that benefit our constituents in London and the south-east, particularly the introduction of free access to museums to which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government referred. That has been a huge and popular success. Attendances at our national museums since the policy was fully implemented at the beginning of December are up, on average, by about 100 per cent. It is children, the elderly and poor families, in particular, who benefit from that enrichment of their lives.
We are on the point of introducing another significant change that will benefit the arts and culture in London and the south-east, namely the substantial and unprecedented increase in funding for regional theatre starting on
On many of the issues affecting the quality of life, most reasonable people would conclude that the Government are facing up to the concerns and making substantial progress, although there is always much more to be done. In that regard, I find it puzzling that the Liberal Democrats will be supporting the Conservatives on this issue in the Lobby tonight. I think that that decision has little to do with political principle and a great deal more to do with the tactical repositioning that appears to be under way by the Liberal Democrats at the moment, in which a crude and cynical calculation is being made about which seats are on their hit list and which menu of political policies they therefore need to put to the electorate. I would welcome an intervention from Mr. Davey on this. I tried to intervene on him earlier, but he would not let me.
I have charted some of the improvements that have taken place, but I do not claim that everything is perfect. Clearly, as time goes on, there will be new times and new challenges. The Governments who endure and retain popular support have to face up to those new challenges. I want briefly to sketch out some of the challenges that we are facing in London and the south-east. First, the need for a better rail and tube service is paramount, as has been loudly trumpeted on the Opposition Benches. I also know this from my constituents, particularly those who commute into London.
When I discuss these matters with my constituents, as I do regularly, they are unconvinced by the Conservative bluster on the issue. They know that the situation we are in is a result of decades of under-investment in the railways and the tube service. They certainly have long memories: they remember that it was a Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher who came up with the policy of completely removing public subsidy from Network SouthEast and British Rail, as they then were.
My constituents also remember that it was the Conservative party that drove through the flawed and ideologically driven privatisation of British Rail that got us into this situation. However, they remain to be convinced—they want to be convinced—that the Government have the plans and the strategy to repair our rail and tube networks. People feel instinctively that we have taken the right decision on Railtrack. If there is a criticism, it is that the decision was not taken sooner. People desperately want the not-for-profit company to be up and running and improving our rail infrastructure as quickly as possible. They also want the PPP to be up and running, and to see the reality of the increased investment.
The second major challenge that we must face up to is the need to improve the quality and volume of homes to rent in London and the south-east. No area of public spending under the Conservative Government was cut as much as that on council housing. They had a right-to-buy policy, and nothing else. This Government have made a good start with a 50 per cent. increase in housing investment.
If the hon. Gentleman cares to intervene on this issue, I will be happy to take his intervention. The issue of homes to rent is important to constituents in Harlow and elsewhere in the south-east, and they want to hear it articulated in the House of Commons.
That point needs to be made in a constituency context. In my constituency, the local authority has a waiting list of more than 3,000 people, some of whom have waited five or 10 years for a decent home to rent. We must face up to that problem. There is a huge north-south divide: this is a much bigger problem in London and the south-east than it is elsewhere in the country.
Does the hon. Gentleman regret the fact that the Government put a cap on council tax benefit and housing benefit? As a result, many people who require affordable housing in London and the south-east do not have the rent subsidy to enable them to get that housing.
The Government are reforming the system, and intend to reform it further. All of us in the Chamber need to face up to the problem of an acute lack of rented housing. Linked with that is the difficulty in recruiting key public sector professionals in London and the south-east. I share the view of Mr. Davey. However, the solutions that he proposes, which merely tinker with the cost of living allowance and the London allowance, lack credibility. If the salaries of teachers or nurses in London and parts of the south-east were doubled overnight, they would still not be able to afford the cost of homes in those areas. We need a far more radical strategy to deal with that problem.
The final quality of life issue that I want to highlight is community safety. One of the dispiriting aspects of the debate is that we all bandy about the figures on crime levels, instead of reaching cross-party consensus on the fact that crime was falling under the last years of the Conservative Government, and has continued to fall under this Government. However, the real concern of my constituents is not about the absolute level of crime but about what I would describe as low-level, neighbourhood nuisance, aggravation and vandalism, which blight the lives of so many people. In my community and elsewhere, people too often feel that the police and the local authority do not give those problems a high enough priority. The Home Office needs to move forward on that issue, and I know that it is doing that.
Much has been done, but we need to face up to other problems. Those watching the debate and the public at large will form a judgment on whether the Government are moving forward credibly—I think that they would say that they are—and whether the Conservative party has a credible alternative. From what we have heard in the debate, I think that a credible alternative is singularly lacking. We have not heard one substantive proposal. The only alternative on offer for the underground is privatisation. The Tory party is stuck in the days when the answer to every question was to cut taxes and public spending, and to move towards 35 per cent. of gross domestic product. That provides none of the answers to the problems that we face.
The first duty of any Government, no matter which party, is to protect their citizens from harm. The Government are signally failing to do that in London and the south-east. As we sit here in relative comfort, bandying statistics, the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, especially but not exclusively on the big inner-city council estates, are being made a daily hell by thuggery, intimidation, violence, vandalism, drugs, threatening behaviour and neighbourhood disputes. That is going on in a concentrated fashion on big estates, and in a less concentrated but still distressing fashion in rural areas. It seems to me that every agency shrugs, and no one gets to grips with the problem.
Statistics bandied across the House are not the answer to any of these problems. We must ask ourselves how we tackle such crime. Much of that crime—not all of it—is carried out by young people, some of whom are below the age at which the courts have sufficient remedies to deal with them. Why is that coming about? Part of the problem stems from family breakdown. Many of the youngsters who get into that way of life have not had a father or have had a succession of men called "uncle" passing through their household. They have precious little parental supervision, and from the moment they are old enough to go to school unaccompanied they start to play truant, missing vital education. They fall between all the agencies, none of which take absolute responsibility. They learn to idle before they are even at secondary school, and some bunk off secondary school altogether.
When I have visited the education department of Her Majesty's prisons, I have seen fully fledged adults doing the modern equivalent of "the cat sat on the mat". I ask them, "What happened at school?" and I wish I had the smallest coin from the poorest realm for everyone who said, "Didn't go to school, Miss". That is a crying indictment—I am not saying that it is specifically and exclusively an indictment of the Government—of our failure to get to grips with that problem.
Truancy enforcement should be a major priority and concern for any Government if we are to get on top of this problem. If kids want any dealings with the labour market, and are not so rooted in crime that they do not prefer that way of making money, they will have difficulty if they have no skills and are illiterate or innumerate. The labour market increasingly wants the skilled and semi-skilled, and has fewer and fewer jobs for the unskilled. Idling, truancy and an inability to present for jobs when the time comes add up to crime and trouble. Those youngsters find ways of filling their time that make them menaces, nuisances and sometimes serious threats to the law-abiding in their area.
We must get on top of that problem. We must ensure that, when those young people are apprehended and brought before the justice system, adequate remedies are available to deal with them that will get them away from the environment that is causing them a problem and in which they are causing a problem, and that will give them secure training that is specifically directed at the needs of the child. They must have a shared interest in the outcome, which can be built into the system through incentives. We must make some attempt to put those youngsters back into a better way of living. If we do not do that, the quality of life for the people who have to live in their neighbourhoods will continue to deteriorate.
People who live on those big, inner-city council estates have an ambition to lead a normal and decent life. But they cannot escape from what are sometimes very troublesome and threatening neighbourhoods, because they have not the necessary resources. They have a fraction of the resources possessed by those of us who stand here pontificating today. They are trapped. I am not talking just about the archetypal old lady who is afraid to go out after 6 pm. In the run-up to the last election, I travelled up and down the country meeting people living on estates, not only in London, who simply could not live in that environment any longer.
In Hartlepool I met not Mr. Mandelson, but a young man who had bought a modest little house on the edge of a council estate. It was all he could afford, although he had aspirations. He had experienced so much antisocial behaviour—there had been graffiti, vandalism and attacks on his property, just because he owned it and was trying to make a better life for himself—that on the morning I met him he had put the keys of his house through the door of the building society, although he knew that that would prejudice his chances of ever owning a house again. He could no longer live in that house, and he could not sell it for exactly the same reasons.
Two hours after I left, there was a shooting on another estate. I do not think it was a case of cause and effect. I spoke to a large number of people—and I mean a large number—who told me that each time they tried to create a pleasant little front garden it immediately became a target for every vandal in the neighbourhood, not because they had made enemies of the neighbours but simply because it was a nice little front garden.
What are the Government doing about that sort of thing? One answer, although it is not the only answer, is highly visible policing. The Minister spoke of strategies to deal with graffiti. I am all for that, but the best strategy is to have a few policemen about when it is happening. Many people living on estates, including rural estates, complain that they never see a policeman in the neighbourhood. Worse still, when they summon the police they do not arrive.
That is not because the police are not interested. It is not because they do not care tuppence. It is because the police are so overstretched that they must prioritise constantly. Nevertheless, people's confidence in the rule of law is lessened, and as a result their whole quality of life is diminished. The main thing that citizens need to feel—something we all used to take for granted; many of us still do, but too many cannot now—is that they are safe in their own neighbourhoods. They need to feel that they can venture abroad from their own houses, and live in harmony with their neighbours. That basic quality of life should not be beyond realisation, but for far too many people it is.
I think that John Stevens is one of the best things to happen to London. We should listen to him when he says that no end of police effort will work unless it is backed up by the courts and, moreover, is sustainable because there are enough police to sustain it. I am not going to oppose the proposals for community support officers in a knee-jerk fashion, but they are not and never will be a substitute for proper policemen with proper powers, properly trained, properly funded and available in sufficient numbers to make neighbourhoods safe, reliable and pleasant again.
So far I have concentrated on inner-city estates. As some Members will know, that is partly because in a previous incarnation as shadow Home Secretary I took a particular interest in the Arden estate in Hackney. Although it is by no means the worst example, it has enormous problems. Time and again, what I heard from those living there was, "No one cares, no one is here, no one is doing anything. We have been asking for closed-circuit television for goodness knows how many years, and we still do not have it. We have been asking for extra coppers for years, and we still do not have them." It was a crime that no one listened. If we are serious about improving quality of life, that is the issue with which we must deal.
Let me say something about rural areas, and about my constituency. I hear increasingly about problems there. There are farmers living in remote farmhouses who say that people brazenly steal farm vehicles, knowing that even if the farmer can see them and is telephoning the police, it will be a nice long time before the police arrive—unless they are exceptionally unlucky and there happens to be a police car in the neighbourhood. Then there are villagers who say that, particularly in the evenings, people do not feel comfortable moving around the village after dark. What sort of indictment is that? The English village used to be a haven of safety; now too many have become seas of vandalism and antisocial behaviour.
I do not entirely buy the Government's line that antisocial behaviour orders are a rip-roaring success. How many were imposed in the first three years of their existence? The Government have finally, grudgingly conceded that they got it all wrong and must handle it differently in the hope that it will work in future, but only last week—not in my constituency, but nearby in Kent—three 13-year-olds who had defied an ASBO were due to appear in court. They face a period in detention if they are found guilty, but the fact that they defied the order raises serious questions about how effective such orders are in cases of that kind. Again, policemen are needed to ensure that people do not break ASBOs.
In the Malling area, young men the same age have been the subject of ASBOs, have offended against them and have been taken to court. It is the first time that that has happened in the community involved. If a custodial sentence is imposed, a message will go out to other young people. In some circumstances, is it not necessary to demonstrate the effect that this can have on individuals?
If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my earlier comments, he would have noted my specific observation that young people should be taken out of the environment where they are causing a problem and a problem is being caused to them, and should be put into secure training. I devoted a substantial section of my speech to that. Intervention would happen earlier than it does in the case of ASBOs: until an ASBO has been seriously breached, nothing is done.
My point is that the tendency to breach ASBOs would probably be reduced by more visible policing. I am trying to present common-sense solutions to problems that are not easy to deal with, and have multiple roots. I said specifically, not just today but—to make a party political point—well before the last election, when it was a crucial plank of my policy, that youngsters should be taken into secure training if they were causing a neighbourhood menace.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that point. She is making a strong case for more police and greater police visibility, but is it not the case that studies by the Audit Commission and others show that that only provides a comfort factor, and that having police walking the beat and police in cars is not as effective in tackling crime as she may be suggesting?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is wrong and the reason for that stems from what I saw in New York, where, as he knows, there has been not only a zero tolerance policy but a huge hike in the number of police and a huge concentration on visible policing. Visible policing has lots of positive benefits, one of which, as the hon. Gentleman identified, is that it reduces the fear of crime. The second is that it enables police to interact with the community.
I cannot imagine anyone flagging down a police car to say, "Excuse me, officer; I am not certain, but I think that I may have seen something odd two nights ago." However, if there is a man walking the beat at a fairly slow pace, looking interested and, in particular, looking around, that sort of interaction takes place. Just as CCTV is a deterrent to opportunistic crime but not as much to planned and organised crime, a visible policeman is a deterrent to opportunistic crime.
Therefore I do not believe for a moment that visible policing is simply a comfort factor. If one chooses to make comparisons between a police car responding immediately to a call some way off and a policeman who may or may not see something of interest as he wanders along a street, one can reach the conclusion that the hon. Gentleman has drawn, but if one takes a broader view, one reaches a different conclusion.
I think that the right hon. Lady will appreciate my argument when I have made it. When Mayor Giuliani was asked, when he was in London recently, what was the key aspect of his fight against crime, he said that it was not just the number of police but the way in which they interacted with intelligence gathering and a database. What mattered was the way in which those police were deployed. What is needed is intelligent policing—more police, but more intelligently deployed.
That is undeniably the case. Mayor Giuliani had another 11,000 policemen and I am not suggesting that they were all walking up and down streets; they were doing all sorts of things, but they were also walking up and down those streets. In New York, one need not look far to see the visible presence of a policeman. In London, one can sometimes walk quite a long way before seeing one, and in a rural area, or in some villages in my constituency, one will never see a policeman.
I am not saying for a moment that there is a simplistic relationship between the number of police officers and crime. Rather, I am saying that although the number of police may not be a sufficient condition of fighting crime, they are certainly a necessary condition of it, and that if there are not enough policemen, the fight against crime is doomed to failure. That, sadly, is what is happening at the moment.
In addition to policemen there are of course the special constables. When I asked a question about the number of special constables, it apparently constituted such a detailed request that the Minister brushed it away. It is not a detailed question. Special constables are the reserve that the police fall back on. The police are facing an ever-increasing amount of bureaucracy—much, but not all, imposed by the Labour Government—with fewer active numbers and less of a reserve to fall back on. That is obviously totally counter-productive if we want to control crime.
Another aspect of quality of life has nothing to do with crime but causes me considerable irritation and probably causes a great many people to raise their eyebrows and wonder why it only appears to happen in London and not in other capital cities. I am referring to the sheer quantity of litter that blows and flows around London. There are the awful, rotting black bags that sit on pavements and street corners, and which one has to wend one's way round when going out in London in the evening. Why is it that we appear, uniquely, to be unable to control litter and rubbish in London when other capital cities have done it extremely effectively? It impacts on the quality of life and lets the capital down, especially in the eyes of visitors, who are used to completely different standards.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I hope that the Minister will take seriously the points that I have raised and that he will not interpret them as being made in a purely party political spirit. I hope that he will acknowledge that statistics are not the answer; real policemen on real beats, doing real jobs, are.
Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am glad that the emphasis of the discussion has shifted away slightly from London. I feared, soon after the debate started, that we would discuss nothing but London and ignore the rest of the south-east of England. Most of my remarks will be about the experience of my constituency, on the south coast.
Quality of life means different things to different people. To some of my constituents, the fact that a Labour Government are likely to approve a national park for the south downs will be a big boost to their appreciation of the area in which they live and their feelings of well-being. To others, the fact that our Dome concert hall has just reopened after a major refurbishment, financed partly by the local council, partly by national Government funding, partly by English Heritage and partly by the lottery, and the fact that that will lead eventually to refurbishment and an entirely new library and museum in the centre of our city, will be key factors in judging the quality of their life.
For others, quality of life will be headlines such as the following, which appeared in the Brighton daily newspaper, the Argus, on
"City crime has dropped to its lowest point since 1999 . . . Totals" for burglaries and car crime
"late last year were more than 2,000 per month compared to more than 3,000 in 1999. The biggest fall has been in car crime, down to 300 a month compared with 700"— still too many, but a major drop. That was partly the result of special funding directed by the Home Office to the Brighton and the—still existing but soon to be former—Hove and Shoreham divisions to enable them to concentrate on tackling car crime.
However, to many of my constituents, the prime criterion that they would use is whether they have a job. My hon. Friend Mr. Rammell spoke about changes that had happened nationally and in his constituency over the past four and a half years. Throughout the Brighton and Hove city area, in January 1997, there were 14,415 people out of work. That figure has now been reduced to 5,531. In my constituency, the January 1997 figure was 5,721 and now the figure is 1,845—a drop of 66.8 per cent.
I would argue that that drop is mainly attributable to skilful management of the economy by the Labour Government and to other policies, which have been opposed by the Opposition—policies such as the new deal for the unemployed. The new deal first helped young people—young people exactly like those that Miss Widdecombe talked about. It has helped young people exactly like those whom I saw in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a teacher in a secondary school on a council estate in Brighton, who were leaving school at age 16 without hope of employment. The new deal has given them a new kind of hope, but not only hope: it has given them jobs.
The new deal has provided support, encouragement and training for many people who had been considered unemployable by the previous Government because of a disability, or because they were lone parents. They were encouraged to be benefit-dependent, whereas our policies have encouraged them to find the potential within themselves and to use it very positively.
I cannot sit here and listen to the hon. Gentleman saying something about the last Government that is not true. Exactly the reverse is true. No Conservative Government ever encouraged any sector of society to be benefit-dependent.
The hon. Lady is welcome to her opinion. I have listened to a number of untruths from Opposition Members about the policies of this Government, and I stand by my statement. Whereas the previous Government encouraged benefit dependency, with incapacity benefit being the prime example, this Government have encouraged people through training and the sheer shift of emphasis within the Employment Service. The Government have provided opportunities through their management of the economy, and the creation of jobs that that has helped to engender, for people to move off benefit and into work.
If the hon. Gentleman's Government are so keen on reducing benefit dependency, why was it that when we introduced the jobseeker's allowance, which required people to look for work, it was opposed by the then Opposition? Why was it that when we made amendments to incapacity benefit—precisely because it was so abused and used for dependency—were they opposed by the then Opposition? Why did they oppose all those measures when in opposition if they are genuinely opposed to benefit dependency?
That was a long intervention from the right hon. Lady. I stand by my statement. We have attempted to shift away from benefit dependency, not just through the new deal. My constituency and the rest of the Brighton and Hove city council area has benefited from being an employment zone. We also have the working links organisation, which has taken a more flexible approach to training and getting people into jobs.
Assisted area status has been given to parts of the Kemptown constituency and my own, as well as parts of the wider Newhaven to Shoreham area. That is also helping to bring jobs to my part of the south coast. I well recall the days before I was a Member of Parliament when, as a Brighton councillor, I came up to London with a delegation from the Brighton borough council, as it then was, and from East Sussex county council, with which we were then linked, to make a plea to the then DTI Minister—who was at the time the Conservative Member for Hove—for Government support for assisted area status.
We could see the effect that the two recessions—we will not quibble about whether it was two or three—were having on our area. We had seen the way in which they had decimated a once-thriving manufacturing base on the outskirts of Brighton and Hove and the way in which we lost about 6,000 jobs throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.
We made a plea for Conservative Government support for assisted area status and despite the fact that his own constituency would have benefited, the then Minister did not feel able to persuade the Conservative Government to back our bid for that status. It has taken a Labour Government to support that bid and we are now beginning to see some of the fruits of it.
Mr. Davey, who is no longer with us, talked about the need for strategies and for analysis leading to strategies. In terms of the south-east, I draw his attention and that of other hon. Members to the document "A Better Quality of Life in the South-east", produced by the south-east regional assembly, the Government office for the south-east, the South East England development agency, the Environment Agency and the national health service.
The document was published in June last year and carries out exactly the kind of analysis for which the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton was pleading, and develops a strategy for improving the quality of life. The authors of the document—not the Labour Government—say that the single most significant tool in terms of addressing the objective of tackling deprivation and its associated targets is the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal. That is a strategy of this Government, and I am pleased that part of my constituency, the Hollingdean area, will benefit from being part of the strategy, which concentrates on the poorest constituents and brings in funding from the mainstream budgets of public agencies. Perhaps most importantly, it involves the local community in planning the way in which that funding will be used.
Underlying some of the comments of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald—I may be misinterpreting her—was a view that somehow communities were waiting for things to be done to them by outside agencies. I agree that the quality and level of policing is important, but what has been overlooked for too many years—another hallmark of this Government is that we are shifting the emphasis—is the involvement of local people at community level in deciding how additional funding should be used.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I will not trespass on his patience again after this. Does he accept that what he has just said was the exact basis of our single regeneration budget, an extremely successful initiative that the Government have carried on? Does he accept that neighbourhood involvement was the very essence of that?
The single regeneration budget was a late addition to Conservative policies, but I agree that my constituency has benefited in part from it. However, it did not look at the neighbourhood areas in the way that neighbourhood renewal does.
I welcome the fact that we will benefit in parts of my constituency from being part of neighbourhood renewal. That same area of Hollingdean now has sure start funding, which will vastly improve the quality of life of the many families with young children under school age who are living in council estates or areas of private housing that currently have little in the way of community facilities that are sometimes taken for granted elsewhere. These are the kinds of streams of funding that are making a real difference to the lives of people in my community.
I could mention also the increasing health authority allocations over the last five years, and the additional £800,000 given to our local hospital to modernise the maternity unit, much as happened in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow. I could mention also the opening of an NHS dental centre, providing dental treatment for many of those people who, because of changes made by the previous Government in the early 1990s that helped to cut the numbers of dentists in the NHS, have not been able to sign up with an NHS dentist.
I will paraphrase the question that I put to Mr. Rammell. Was the hon. Gentleman at the Labour party conference in October 1999? Did he hear the Prime Minister say that, within two years, everybody in the country would have access to an NHS dentist? Is he aware that, according to Government figures from the Department of Health, the number of people who have access to an NHS dentist amounts to just under 60 per cent? It is over two years since that promise. Could the hon. Gentleman explain why it has not been kept?
The NHS dental centre in my constituency, opened in the autumn of last year, is one of a number of such centres opened across the country since the Prime Minister made that speech at the Labour party conference to which the hon. Gentleman has twice drawn the attention of the House.
While on the subject of health, I could mention the £675,000 of the local capital modernisation fund, provided to our local NHS trust for equipment and small building works. Perhaps most importantly, we have been given the go-ahead for a new children's unit on the site of the Royal Sussex county hospital to replace the 120-year-old Royal Alexandra children's hospital. That hospital was much loved by local families over the years, but as everyone recognises—particularly the medical staff and nurses who work there—the 120-year-old building has long since outlived its capacity for refurbishment and modernisation. I am pleased to say that the Government have brought forward the intended date of completion of the newly transferred children's unit from 2010 to 2007.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned several Government-funded capital projects, but does he acknowledge that, although the Government may have made some progress, a fundamental problem exists in the south-east in terms of the revenue required to bring certain projects on stream? In the south-east, there is a real difficulty in getting year-by-year allocations to back up capital projects.
In my experience, the problem that the hon. Gentleman describes does not apply to the projects that I listed.
I shall finish my remarks on health by drawing attention to the new medical school—one of three in the country—that will open in Brighton this year. This joint project—involving the Government, the University of Sussex, the University of Brighton, and the Royal Sussex County hospital—will create one of the schools that will help to train doctors. Our national health service is still in drastic need of more doctors, and more nurses, because during the 1990s recruitment and training programmes for doctors and nurses were repeatedly cut back. I am pleased that my constituency will have one of the new medical schools.
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald—in mentioning her, I risk her intervening again—rightly drew attention to the problems that can be generated by disaffected young people. As I said, I taught for many years at a secondary school that served a council estate on the edge of Brighton, and I witnessed such problems again and again. That is why I welcome—as will she—schemes such as the positive futures initiative, which is funded by the Home Office. My area has been designated one of the 33 new areas that will form part of the positive futures network.
This issue brings me back to the importance of involving local people in improving the quality of life. The scheme will provide funding for a local partnership—involving the local council, Brighton and Hove Albion football club, South East Dance, Brighton youth centre and Adventure Unlimited—that will work with precisely those young people, aged 10 to 16, who are in danger of falling into the trap of disaffection that the right hon. Lady described.
I have sought to outline certain ways in which several Government policies are directly addressing improving the quality of life for many of my constituents. However, I want to make a plea to the Government that echoes the comments of some other Members. As I said, having a job is probably the most basic measure of one's quality of life, but having somewhere to live goes hand in hand with that. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will know from my correspondence and comments in the House that the problem of obtaining affordable housing is becoming increasingly acute, not just in my constituency but along the entire south coast. Indeed, I suspect that the same is true in London.
I welcome the fact that my area is part of the key workers scheme, which involves the Moat housing association, and that East Sussex, Brighton and Hove health authority now has an additional allowance for nurses and other health service staff. It was excluded from that scheme on its introduction—until health service representatives, my hon. Friends and I undertook a great deal of lobbying. I also welcome the fact that my local council can now specify a proportion of affordable housing in new planning developments, and the many measures in the housing Green Paper and the urban White Paper—such as changes in VAT—that should help to free up empty property. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow and others have referred to such measures. My own council has an empty property strategy, through which it tries to bring back into use some of the many—far too many—empty properties above shops and offices that could be used as flats.
Measures are in place to make housing more accessible to the people who need it, but I renew my plea to the Government to look again at the housing benefit system. In my constituency, the housing benefit that is available to under-25-year-olds in no way compares to even the lowest rents that are being asked for the smallest privately rented properties. I do not want housing benefit to cover the whole of a person's rent, because that would invite landlords to increase rents. However, existing structures, the way in which the local reference rent is set and certain housing benefit restrictions are not helping many of my constituents, particularly the young. As I said, I ask the Government to look again at that issue.
I finish with a slight warning. I hope that the remarks of Mr. Pickles are not widely reported outside the House. I say that not because of any personal animosity—I do not know him well enough to have strong feelings about him one way or the other. However, last week I chaired a meeting of the all-party tourism group, at which the British Tourist Authority referred to the serious decline in tourism in this country, caused in part by foot and mouth disease and the aftermath of
Order. I should tell the House that, so far, Back-Bench speeches are averaging 20 minutes. That will prove the road to disappointment for many hon. Members, unless we can improve on that.
I shall endeavour to keep my comments to a minimum, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Lepper, but I am afraid that I intend to return to the subject of London. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe on making an extremely thoughtful speech on a subject that she obviously cares about greatly, and on which she has a great deal of knowledge. Certain Members would be wise not to paint her as a caricature; they should listen to what she has to say on this important subject.
I welcome the fact that this debate is being held on the Floor of the House, although we have had some interesting debates on London in Westminster Hall. I notice that some of the regular London debaters from Westminster Hall are not in their places today. That is possibly because hon. Members feel a little less constrained in what they say in Westminster Hall. For example, Labour Members have made some very intelligent criticisms of the Government. If the Minister has not yet read the speech made a few weeks ago by Ms Buck on housing in London, I recommend him to do so. It was a model speech about the problems London faces.
London is a great place to live if one is a have—usually the owner of a property—as opposed to a have-not. Middlesex is even better and in Uxbridge we benefit from a position that is close to the centre, being a good location for business and transport, as well as having easy access so that people can enjoy the countryside.
London has much wildlife, and not only on the outskirts. I can recommend the Barnes wetland centre, which is not many miles from here. This season, three bitterns have wintered there. Before a Liberal Democrat jumps up to point out that the centre is in one of their constituencies, I should point out that the only feature they have in common with the birds is an ability to sit on fences.
I shall endeavour to observe the strictures of my hon. Friend Mr. Pickles about not being partisan. I just fell victim again to the temptation to be partisan about the Liberal Democrats—it is like retaliation on the football field, in that one feels like doing it even though one knows one should not and might get a red card for it.
One of the problems with politicians is that we are always taking credit for things that our party has achieved. We also like to ignore those things that we did not get right or left undone. That is true of all parties. However, it is only fair to Londoners to say that London owes its position as a great city today more to the endeavours of Londoners—be they native Londoners, people who have come from elsewhere in the country or people from outside the country—than to any political party.
London has some great universities and in Uxbridge we have Brunel university. Some of the problems we have mentioned with the cost of living—property prices, affordable housing and rents—impinge on students. If we want to encourage people to come to London to study, we must recognise that students face those problems, too.
If everything is so wonderful, hon. Members might wonder what I have to complain about, but as well as some of the greatest advantages, London has some of the worst pockets of deprivation in the country. Hon. Members have mentioned the problem of affordable housing. Well, we want more houses, but we do not want to build on our open spaces. We must consider ways around that problem, including high-density housing, although we must be careful that we do not recreate the problem estates with the high-rise flats that were a big mistake. As we all now know, having a nice environment in which to live and work has a knock-on effect on how people behave.
Mr. Rammell mentioned The Mail on Sunday and its report on hospitals. I am not a regular reader of that newspaper, but I was told today by the Uxbridge Gazette that Hillingdon hospital got one star—the lowest rating. It does not merit such a low grade. Members of Parliament often receive the bad news on hospitals in complaints from constituents, but when we visit the hospitals we often see the reverse because things are laid on especially for us. I know from my family's experiences, and those of neighbours and fellow residents, that the hospital is not always so bad, but matters are not improving. Much of the problem is caused by staffing difficulties.
I am sorry to see that the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs, Mr. Denham, has left the Chamber briefly—even though he has left an admirable replacement—only because in a previous incarnation he dealt with health matters. I want to remind the House of the terrible decision to move Harefield hospital into central London. That sums up some of the problems we face. We are trying to stop people driving into London, but that hospital was moved from the outskirts to the centre. It is better to live on the outskirts of London, and I would have thought that convalescing in Paddington basin is a lot more difficult than in rural Middlesex.
Antisocial behaviour and the general lack of visible policing is a subject on which I hear more complaints than any other at the moment. The problem is real. We have four police stations in Hillingdon borough and none of them has a front counter that is open 24 hours a day. That worries people. Statistics show that not many people attend the front counter of police stations, but the lack of them is a psychological blow and people find it difficult to accept that the police station is open.
The antisocial behaviour that other hon. Members have mentioned seems to be on the increase, although I congratulate the Hillingdon division, which is trying to muster as many men, women and vehicles as it can to go out on Friday and Saturday evenings to tour round looking for, in particular, youth crime. I went out with them recently, and West Drayton and Hayes on a Friday evening were everything that I dreamed they might be.
The quality of life for the people who have, whom I mentioned earlier, can be very good. London can be a super place to live, but that quality can be fragile. Certainly for those who have not, London can be an unpleasant place to live. It has some of the worst accommodation and can be a very lonely place. We do no service to our constituents, or to Londoners generally, if we ignore those problems. I mentioned the problem of unemployment in an intervention during the Minister's speech and I accept his point that it is not the Government's fault. Although levels are relatively low at the moment, compared with other parts of the country, things could get worse quickly. More job cuts are on the horizon.
We know about the problems of public service workers and the lack of affordable housing, but workers in the private sector—for example, in retail—also suffer. We cannot get enough bus drivers or postmen, and that affects the quality of life.
I was disappointed by the Government's amendment, although I know that it is their job to respond to our motion. It is unfair to say that the Opposition are talking London down. We are not. We are trying to raise awareness, because the danger that might result from talking our capital city down could also arise if people who do not want to acknowledge that a problem exists continue to look through rose-tinted spectacles. There has been a hint of that among Labour Members this afternoon. Without awareness, we will never be able to address the problems that affect us all.
I, too, shall concentrate more on London than on the south-east in general. I shall speak mainly about my constituency of Enfield, North, and about the borough of Enfield.
I was surprised to hear Mr. Pickles speak about abandoned cars. That is clearly a huge issue, as abandoned cars blight localities. I very much welcome the White Paper on abandoned vehicles, and it was interesting that the hon. Gentleman did not answer a specific question about whether the Opposition had responded to it. We must conclude that the answer is no, although we stand to be informed on the matter.
However, I was surprised by the hon. Gentleman's remarks most of all because some months ago I raised the matter of abandoned cars at Prime Minister's Question Time. Opposition Members fell about laughing that afternoon, and I was greeted with a huge amount of derision. It was quite intimidating, but I continued with my question because the issue is so important. I am sure that Opposition Members intended to be intimidating, but their reaction showed merely that they have—and have had for many years—a complete lack of regard for what I call the nitty-gritty issues to do with quality of life.
I shall return to the bigger policy areas, such as unemployment and housing, but the real, nitty-gritty issues to do with quality of life are those that face people when they open their front doors. If people do not feel empowered to do anything about those issues, it is highly unlikely that they will engage in the bigger policy areas.
I agree that the nitty-gritty issues are important to ordinary people in their own environment. Those issues include abandoned cars, fly tipping and the location of mobile phone masts. In their general election manifesto, the Conservative Opposition had detailed policies on all those matters, whereas the Government did not touch on them at all. It is not that we had no view on those matters: rather, we had a very detailed view on each of them.
I said that I would return to the issue of crime, but the hon. Gentleman's intervention is a crime against reality. I do not agree with him at all. It is true that abandoned cars, litter, fly tipping, dog fouling, vandalism, graffiti, the antisocial behaviour of travellers and so on are very serious issues in local communities. However, my experience of the general election was that there were really two elections going on. On television, in the media and even locally, the Conservatives seemed to want to talk only about two issues—the euro and asylum seekers. In contrast, the Government—and, to be fair to them, the Liberal Democrats—talked about other matters as well, most notably public services.
Local people made it clear to anyone who knocked on their doors that they wanted to talk about the issues that I listed earlier and about public services. I know that many other hon. Members had the same experience. People understood that those were the issues that affected their quality of life. They are concerned about what goes on in their street, their stairwell, their car park and their park. They are also worried about whether they have jobs, decent housing, and good health services and schools.
However, the Conservatives did not want to discuss those issues in the election. Their manifesto may have tried to pay lip service to those issues, but lip service was all that it achieved.
No, as I want to complete this point. This debate is striking for the absence of an awareness of reality among Opposition Members, and for the fact that they take no responsibility for their inaction when in government. The previous Conservative Government could have had an effect on these matters, but they chose to do nothing. Opposition Members want to jump on a bandwagon by tabling this motion for debate today, but where are they? They take no responsibility for the many problems that exist.
This Labour Government are tackling those problems. They are making some progress, but the problems are deep-seated and have existed through many years of complete disregard and lack of investment by the previous Conservative Government. They will not be solved in a five-year period. The Conservatives had 18 to 19 years in government last time, and they were in government for many more years of the previous century. They created the problems and ignored local people. For so long, they showed neither care nor consideration for local communities, yet they want the problems to be resolved in five years.
I want the Government to continue to act. I want more action, and I want it faster. I want resource levels to be maintained and then increased. I do not accept that all the problems arose in the past five years, nor that this Government have done nothing to tackle them. The problems did not arise in the past five years, and the Government have acted to resolve them.
Another matter that has not been mentioned forms part of the ethos of some political parties, but not of the Conservative Opposition.
No, I will not.
I wish to speak about consultation, the involvement of local people, and partnership. I was a local councillor from 1990 to 1998, with a Conservative Government in power for most of that time. In effect, "consultation" came to be a dirty word when it came to involving people in local authority and other issues, especially health. I remember all the meetings that were held about establishing an internal market for health. It appeared that local people were being consulted, but no one believed it. On the contrary, local people were being told what was going to happen, and that they could like it or lump it.
That really damaged the involvement of local communities in local and national politics.
I will when I have finished this point. We have paid a heavy price for that. I have heard nothing this afternoon to demonstrate that the Opposition have changed their approach. We have heard nothing about the many local community and voluntary groups which have to engage with local authorities and Government to make progress on these issues. In my constituency, we see such consultation in local strategic partnerships, the involvement of people on governing bodies, neighbourhood watch schemes and in voluntary groups. The Conservative party should take responsibility for the damage that it did to that process.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Lady is saying about consultation and involvement. Was it not a Conservative Government who were responsible for large numbers of school governors? Was it not a Conservative Government who introduced community health councils to involve the community in the health service? Did not the Labour Government try to get rid of community health councils and ignore the consultation process?
The hon. Lady will know that even the national body for community health councils agrees that reform is needed. There is no point Conservative Members wrapping themselves in a veneer of respectability, because if we scratch the surface we see that nothing is there.
I fully accept people's right to be travellers and to pursue that lifestyle if they so wish. Problems arise because on many occasions—I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have experienced this—when travellers leave land that is inappropriate for human habitation and has no facilities, they leave behind a dreadful mess. Once they are there, it is very unpleasant for the residents of that area; the travellers are often on their only piece of open space. When they go they leave a mess, and local authorities or the private sector business which owns the car park or land in question is left with the bill for cleaning up after what is essentially antisocial behaviour. Will the Government look more closely at what we can do to assist local authorities and local people in dealing with the issue?
I agree with the hon. Lady, but will she acknowledge that in 1998, the then Home Secretary—now the Foreign Secretary—by way of regulation enabled travellers of whatever description to encamp on derelict land in the ownership of local authorities, resulting in a 16-month encampment in my constituency? The change in the regulations for which her party was responsible led to an extraordinary increase in the problems of travellers in Sussex and the rest of the country.
That is not the case—there was no change in regulation. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman goes back to the Library for some more detail.
Consultation partnerships are important because they empower people. The hon. Gentleman mentioned fly tipping, which in many ways has the same outcome for local residents as visiting travellers. Will the Government consider what measures can be taken to combat this problem? I fear that it is on the increase; it is a scourge and a blight, and local authorities need support in dealing with it. It is a big issue for legitimate local businesses that manage their waste properly. They fear for the future of their business because of the state of the area in which they operate when fly tipping takes place.
My local authority has put in place many initiatives that have made a big difference to local people's quality of life. Enfield council, in partnership with local residents, the police and business, has won almost £2.1 million in Government backing to help tackle crime and the fear of crime. Despite all that has been said, the British crime survey shows that there has been a 7 per cent. drop in crime. There is an issue surrounding street crime and mobile phone crime, which the Government have acknowledged as much as the Conservative party, but there has been a drop in crime overall. It is important to make that point.
Enfield is one of the safest London boroughs. However, we can never afford to be complacent, nor would we want to be. It does not help to scaremonger. People can walk around the streets of Enfield 99 per cent. of the time and be perfectly safe, but the fear of crime is much greater than the likelihood of it happening. Although I support visible policing and believe that there should be more of it, it is also about intelligent policing. That is vital.
Enfield has benefited from an increase of almost 15 per cent. in police numbers from this April, which is very welcome. The £2.1 million from the Government for our CCTV monitoring station will make a tremendous difference in catching criminals and acting as a deterrent. I pay tribute to my local authority in being successful in its bid and to the Government for making the money available so that my local authority could bid for it.
Ponders End and Edmonton have received more than £4 million this year for our neighbourhood renewal programme. That, too, is making a tremendous difference. The way that money will be spent is in direct response to residents' involvement and wishes. It will be aimed at improving quality of life.
On employment, my constituency lost 9,000 manufacturing jobs between 1992 and 1997. That is a huge number. I acknowledge that there are difficulties in the manufacturing sector, but that is not to say that manufacturing cannot succeed, because it can and does. The difference that the Government have made to Enfield is that we now have the lowest unemployment rate for 25 years, and youth unemployment is down by some 83 per cent. That is something to celebrate.
There is a scheme in Enfield that combines housing and jobs. It is a partnership that deals with the catch-22 situation for young people who lack relevant experience and qualifications and are unable to secure that vital first job. The partnership is between Enfield council, the Young Builders Trust and the Lee housing association. Young people build their own homes; they learn construction skills while they do so and, at the end of the process, they have the opportunity to take up a tenancy. They also have the skills to acquire a job. That is an innovative scheme; people could learn a lot from it and I recommend it to my right hon. Friend the Minister. He is nodding—he is clearly aware of such schemes. That came about following a successful bid to the Housing Corporation. More of these schemes are needed.
In conclusion, it is good that we have debates about these issues with regard to London and the south-east. Although issues such as litter, dog fouling, and the state of stairwells and pavements have been treated with derision by Opposition Members in the past, they are very important to our constituents. It is a shame that the Conservatives are Johnny-come-latelys on these issues, but it is no surprise. It is easy for them to pick up these issues now that they are in opposition—they did not bother to do anything about them when they had many years of opportunity to do so—because they do not have to take responsibility for anything whatever.
I want to pick up the theme of quality of life and the environment. I shall restrict my comments to the counties around London. In the context of the south-east regional planning committee—this may surprise you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—Essex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire are considered to be part of the south-east rather than the eastern region. For the purposes of my speech, that is exceptionally convenient and useful.
Everyone seeks to have the best quality of life that they can enjoy, particularly with regard to their housing. Over the last few years, the way in which Serplan, the Crow report and the Government have sought to establish figures to dictate to the home counties and beyond the number of houses that they must build over the next decade and up to 2021 has been nothing more than a shambles. No reasonable person would deny the responsibility of local communities, through local authorities and, up to a point, through central Government, to consider demographic changes. As a result of those changes, there is a need to provide extra housing for young people and others, because more and more people in society are living in single-parent households or on their own. However, because the process is statistically flawed, I question the way in which central Government seek to dictate to local authorities what they are expected to do with regard to house building.
After a series of false starts—and of taking two steps forward, and one step back—the regional planning guidance of December 2001 stated, in effect, that until 2006, 39,000 houses a year must be built, and, thereafter, 43,000 houses a year. If my mathematics are correct, the counties concerned must therefore build a total of just under 880,000 houses over a relatively short period of time. I question whether the way in which those figures have been arrived at, and the basis for the calculations, is correct. The sad fact of life is that if the figures are wrong, and the houses have been built, it will be too late to get that land back.
The Government have continued the policy of my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer when he was Secretary of State for the Environment in insisting on 60 per cent. brownfield build. I applaud that. However, there is a problem in certain areas, which I am sure that the Minister, with his experience, will accept. Some areas do not have 60 per cent. brownfield sites on which to build. My local authority in Chelmsford is one such authority. The Deputy Prime Minister, in a previous incarnation, said that that figure should be flexible, so that it could be traded around the country. Therefore, theoretically, if an area had 80 per cent. brownfield sites, it would be able to build more, whereas an area that had a figure of less than 60 per cent. would be able to build less. I do not disagree with that at all. It is a sensible approach. In reality, however, it seems that nothing is being done to bring that policy, and the mechanisms for it to work, into force. Therefore, a rigid target of 60 per cent. must still be met, even though some areas do not have 60 per cent. brownfield sites to meet it.
On my hon. Friend's point about the target, is it not extraordinary that that target has been fixed so early in the cycle, before information is available from the national census? The results of that census, which clearly identify housing formation and housing need, will not be available until next year.
My hon. Friend makes a telling point. It is characteristic of the cock-eyed way in which the system has operated in the past five years that something as crucial as the census report will not be included in the basis for the figures.
I shall make some progress.
Another problem is that in almost all of these areas—there have been examples in West Sussex, around Stevenage in Hertfordshire and in Hampshire—the local population are being ignored. If the Government paid more than lip service to their rhetoric, that local population should be empowered. However, the building programme is being forced on them with the full arm and might of the law. No account is being taken of local views. Even more disturbingly, if the Government's White Paper proposals for reform of the planning laws go ahead in their current form, the viewpoint and wishes of local communities will be reduced even more by the diktat of this Government and their control freakery.
As I said, that has caused considerable problems in West Sussex, around Stevenage in Hertfordshire and in Hampshire. It has also caused problems further afield, but I shall not test your patience on that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as that is beyond the Serplan area. However, that policy is causing particular problems in my county of Essex, where we are expected to build 112,000 houses by 2011. In my local authority area, we must build just under 12,000 houses, but we do not have 60 per cent. brownfield land for that. Therefore, there will be more and more encroachment on the greenfield sites that everyone wants to maintain as far as realistically possible. That is a worrying problem, and my local authority is having to deal with it.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, as he raises a highly relevant point. Although—for reasons that will become apparent shortly—my local authority is a hung council, it is controlled by the Liberal Democrats. The performance of Liberal Democrats in Chelmsford over the past three or four years has been extraordinary. If one were sad enough to read Liberal Democrat press releases and the ghastly dishonest issues of Focus that Liberal Democrats spew around our constituencies in the run-up to elections, one would conclude that they believe that the green belt is crucially important and should be sacrosanct, and that greenfield sites should be protected where possible.
Mr. Davey had the audacity at the beginning of his speech to say something that Labour and Conservative Members have heard frequently over many years. He said that the Liberal Democrats are not like the other parties and that they do not like nasty bickering. They want to consider the truth and come up with a sensible argument. However, as we all know, the one party that descends first and quickest into the gutter is the Liberal Democrats. We know that they have the audacity—I suppose one has to say also the skill—to go down a row of 30 houses where 30 different opinions are held and give 30 different answers to satisfy all 30 households. We have faced that problem in buckets in Chelmsford.
Liberal Democrats claim to represent the party that believes in the green belt, to be the party of the environment and to be the greens of this Parliament. However, they wanted to put housing on green belt land in the small village of Margaretting in my constituency. Naturally, the proposal caused uproar, but they saw no contradiction between their views on the green belt and plonking 1,500 houses in a village with a population of just more than 1,000 that is totally surrounded by green belt land.
The Liberal Democrats' chairman of planning made the mistake of turning up to a public meeting. The meeting had to be abandoned after 15 minutes. I am told that he was last seen being separated from a member of the public by another member of the public as he got involved in a heated discussion. At that point, even the Liberal Democrats had the common sense to back off.
The Liberal Democrats then had to look round the rest of the borough to find somewhere for the housing, and what happened was breathtaking. Unfortunately for them, as I heard on the grapevine, their councillor for the seat of Boreham in Chelmsford was dissatisfied with the Liberal council, so he decided—inconveniently for the Liberal Democrats—to resign his seat and force a by-election. In July 2000, we had an interesting by-election campaign in which the Conservative candidate was, ironically, the only one who lived in the village.
The Liberal Democrats brought in a high flier who had been defeated in the previous borough elections in the town of Chelmsford and they fought the campaign by pledging that there would be no house building on greenfield land around Boreham. They were so insistent on protecting the environment and the quality of life of the people of Boreham that even the Liberal Democrat leader of the council turned up. There was a photo opportunity that appeared in Focus and they claimed that they would protect Boreham. They said, "Vote Liberal Democrat, return this councillor and Boreham will be saved from the house building that all the people of the village loathe."
Amazingly, there was a 30 per cent. swing from the Liberal Democrat to the Conservative candidate, who also fought the election by opposing the house building. However, within six months of polling, the Liberal Democrats produced their master plan of where the houses would be built in the Chelmsford local authority area. [Hon. Members: "Boreham."] My hon. Friends and the Minister know the Liberals only too well. Surprise, surprise: 2,000 houses are being inflicted on the village of Boreham despite all the Liberal Democrats' promises—at least, that is where they hope they will be built. A process must be gone through and the people of Boreham have united and set up a committee to fight the proposal. They look forward to the public inquiry that will take place next year.
I have a final remark on the Boreham story. Despite what Joan Ryan might have thought about her general election campaign, it was a pleasure to canvass as a Conservative candidate in Boreham in June last year.
Would the hon. Gentleman like to remind the House what percentage of building took place on greenfield sites under the last Conservative Government?
My hon. Friend upstages me. He is absolutely right. For one fleeting moment, I thought that Tom Brake was going to apologise for the performance of Liberal Democrat councillors in Chelmsford, but then I thought, "Don't be silly, Simon. He's a Liberal Democrat." As my hon. Friend rightly said, there was no building on greenfield sites in Boreham before the Liberal Democrat council took the decision that they are hoping to get through.
This is a serious matter. It is wrong that the south-east and the counties covered by Serplan are having such a large amount of house building on greenfield land forced on them. That land will never be recovered once it has been built upon. Given the analysis that is the basis for determining the number of houses that must be built, I fear that by 2021—and, I suspect, long before that—we will have already destroyed the environment before the flaws in the figures become apparent.
My hon. Friend mentioned West Sussex. In my constituency, the inspector's report replying to the Worthing local plan has identified areas of greenfield land that touch areas of outstanding natural beauty on the Sussex downs. Local people and the local council want them to be kept as greenfield land, but the downs are now being identified as potential house building sites because of what the Government have done and what the Deputy Prime Minister instructed local councils to do. He told them to build on greenfield sites in places such as Worthing if the brownfield sites are not available. That is increasingly likely to happen.
I appreciate the fact that my hon. Friend has raised that important point. It is time that the Government were prepared to think again and to listen to the people in places such as West Sussex, Boreham in Chelmsford and Hertfordshire. Why do the Government not reconsider and trust the people and introduce a system that is bottom up rather than top down? Why are the Government not prepared to let local communities, who are far more familiar with the requirements of their area, determine future house building and the needs of the local environment? Instead, the Government are forcing the policy on those communities as a diktat from the centre. I fear from the way in which the Minister shakes his head that my suggestion will not be accepted but, sadly, I am used to that.
This is a Government of control freaks who do not simply control their press officers and news management. They want to control every nook and cranny of our lives. Their policy is deeply unpopular and the statistics show that it is unnecessary. Long after the Minister has had responsibility for local government or housing, he might in the small hours of the night, as he reflects on his career, come to regret the decisions that he took, particularly when he was the Minister for Housing and Planning in the previous Parliament.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Burns. His speech was very well delivered but, at one point, I wondered whether he was describing the life and times of the Chelmsford Liberal Democrat party. He seemed to know such a lot of detail about it that I thought that we were about to hear when its latest whist drive or jumble sale would be held. However, I have sympathy for some of the points that he made.
I want to talk about the county of Kent and my constituency in particular. People's quality of life turns principally on their work, income, holidays and family, and there has been enormous progress on many of those fronts during the past few years. Many of my constituents never got paid holiday under the previous Conservative Government; now they do, because we signed up to the social chapter. Many of them earned as little as £1 an hour; no longer, because we now have a statutory minimum wage. Maternity leave has been increased. A whole raft of measures have not been mentioned during the debate, but they are important to people's lives.
Bob Spink mentioned pensioners. When I knocked on doors during the election, some of those people told me, "I'm getting £200 now" or "I'm getting a free TV licence now." As my hon. Friend Mr. Pond knows, a combination of the Government's policy on cut-price fares and a local Labour initiative led to a flat-rate bus fare of 20p in the Medway towns. Those are quality of life issues. As my hon. Friend Joan Ryan said, they are the nitty-gritty details that affect people's day-to-day lives. People worry about whether they can afford a holiday or need to find the money for their television licence. They do not if they are over 75, because it is provided by the Labour Government.
Fifty per cent. of people who live in the Medway towns travel outside them to work. The hon. Gentleman is right that there have not been vast improvements in commuter trains, although when I travelled up from Chatham today I was in one of the new air-conditioned Networkers with other passengers from the Medway towns. More of those trains are on order from Connex. Difficulties have arisen because Railtrack and Connex have failed to provide sufficient power for all those trains. I admit that I often still have to use slam-door trains, but there is a programme to phase them out and to introduce more trains like the one that I travelled on this afternoon.
"All hail privatisation"—that is the mantra of Conservative Members. If they persist with it, they will continue to do as well as they have done in the past few years.
The problem with privatisation is that it was focused on the short term. On the Connex South Central line, the franchise ran for only seven or eight years. Who on earth wants to invest in a franchise of that length? No wonder the company lost that franchise. In future there must be longer franchises of 25 or 30 years, with proper penalties if quality is not delivered and the requisite improvements are not made. There is no point in saying that everything is marvellous after privatisation, because that is clearly not so. Even if there is no consensus on that in the House, there certainly is in the rest of the country. Once longer franchises are introduced, investment will start to come in. The present arrangements are unsatisfactory.
I want to talk about the effect of education on the quality of life. Miss Widdecombe made a passionate speech about certain communities that we all have in our constituencies and how to tackle some of the deeply entrenched problems. I did not hear all of her speech, but she painted with a broad brush in mapping out the issues. The Government are introducing tangible initiatives and policies to deal with specific problems.
One of those is the sure start programme, which in my constituency provides funding of about £2 million, concentrating on the most deprived areas. It benefits around 1,300 children under the age of three, and works with their parents to tackle deprivation cycles. By creating artificial situations, it is possible to improve the relationship between parents and young children at an early age. That improves the children's emotional development, which means that they are more likely to do well in pre-school. In 2000 there were about 200 pre-school places for three-year-olds in the Medway towns; we now have more than 2,000. That is the direct result of Government money and the development of local infrastructure. If youngsters have good pre-school education they do better when they move on to primary school, and if they get a good grounding in primary school—the numeracy hour, the literacy hour and reduced class sizes have assisted in that—they will do better in secondary school. If they do better in secondary school, we will start to move away from the disfranchisement and disenchantment that they often feel.
I am a great supporter of the sure start scheme. Hoping that I would be able to speak in the debate, I accessed the sure start website. Is the hon. Gentleman proud of the fact that the Government have few schemes in the south-east, but a huge number in the north and north-west? We are discussing problems in the south-east; sure start is an example of an area in which the south-east is deficient in services and funding.
I do not have a map in front of me showing the various deprived areas. If the hon. Lady wants a sure start programme in her area, I am sure that she will articulate that on behalf of her constituents. The programme targets the most needy areas that cover 30 per cent. of the country. Sometimes we are winners in the south-east; sometimes we are not. That is the purpose of a national Government. We cannot have every single programme in every single constituency. I do not know the hon. Lady's constituency well, but I am sure that it has particularly needy areas.
The foundations have been laid at primary school level and we are moving on to the 14 to 19-year-old agenda. For far too long, there has been a fixation with academia whereby every youngster has to get academic qualifications. It is not surprising that if the national curriculum is purely academic, many youngsters do not fit into that. If they are already feeling disaffected and have no connection with the curriculum, it is not surprising that they fall into truancy and bad behaviour. It is incumbent on us, as policy setters, to provide a curriculum that does more to meet youngsters' needs and aspirations. The curriculum should fit them; they should not have to fit into the curriculum. That is an important part of tackling current problems, as opposed to finding long-term solutions.
Investment is being put into our schools. During the general election, parents told me that they approved of what they had seen in schools—the installation of computer suites, the reductions in class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds, and the capital developments. However, there is much more to do.
That is it then; the hon. Gentleman simply blames the Labour Government, but we should start to talk about policies to find a different curriculum to meet the needs, especially those of young men, in the schools in our constituencies. I would have hoped that, instead of just blaming the Government, the hon. Gentleman had something a little more constructive to contribute on an important issue that affects many young people and parents in his constituency.
We must also recognise that we need to deal with literacy issues. The Government's programme of providing more basic adult literacy and numeracy skills is absolutely crucial. As Opposition Members have said, finding or holding down jobs is enormously difficult when people do not have basic skills. It is not just a case of finding jobs; people often have hurdles to overcome to secure those jobs. If there is a downturn in an area, the people without basic numeracy and literacy skills will be the first go. The Government's target of training 750,000 people is very ambitious; nevertheless it is right and proper.
I want to talk about a couple of infrastructure issues in the south-east before I conclude my speech, as I know that other hon. Members want to speak. We live in a crowded country. Indeed, the south-east is one of the most heavily populated and crowded areas in the United Kingdom. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, there are always competing demands in providing affordable housing for the indigenous population, teachers, social workers, nurses and all sorts of other key public sector workers, but finding the solutions to those demands is enormously problematic.
Those competing demands require us to consider the availability of brownfield sites. Until the Labour Government were elected, we did not know the full extent of our brownfield land. We fully understood where housing could be built, other than on greenfield sites, only when the Government undertook a proper audit. The 60:40 split will present different pressures to different areas. Some areas will be able to deliver without a great deal of problems. There are many brownfield sites throughout the Thames gateway area in north Kent, and they have been earmarked for large-scale development.
In every inner-city constituency, there are many rundown properties, and it is right to reduce VAT on renovating properties. With the competing demands of protecting the countryside and providing enough housing for people, it is perverse that VAT for new build on greenfield sites, which builders find cheapest, convenient and most attractive, is zero rated, yet 5 per cent. VAT is still charged on renovating properties, which is expensive on contaminated land and logistically difficult in inner cities. At some point in the future, that scale must be tipped the other way. Logic demands that we make more use of what we have already, so there has to be a fiscal incentive to renovate rather to build new.
I have spoken mainly about Kent—the county that I have lived in all my life. In the constituency where I was born, the primary and secondary schools and the very poor areas, which I know very well, have made important advances in the past few years, under the Labour Government. We have run the economy well. My constituency has the third youngest population in the south-east, but let me tell the House about one of the key things that people told me during the election campaign. Some 80 per cent. of my constituents have mortgages, and they all vividly remember the affect of 15 per cent. interest rates and the recession. They lost their jobs; then they lost their houses; and then they found out that their houses were worth less than they paid for them, and they told me that they put the blame at the foot of the Conservative party.
I am pleased to support the opening speech of my hon. Friend Mr. Pickles, whose constituency neighbours mine. The Minister besmirched his name, so let me begin by answering that. I have checked in the intervening hours between the Minister's insults to my hon. Friend and now, and I can assure the House that there are no fleshpots in Brentwood and Ongar—at least, not yet—so whatever the reason for my hon. Friend's move from his previous abode to the south-east, it was not in search of fleshpots.
It is good to have this debate. The Government often initiate debates about Scotland, Wales and different industries in various parts of the country, yet we rarely have an opportunity to speak about London and the south-east. We have the opportunity to raise such issues on the Floor of the House today only because we have used our Opposition time, and I greatly welcome the opportunity.
Mr. Lepper said that the motion is negative, but it is very positive. We all know that there great advantages to living in and around London, but there are also some problems, which is what the motion highlights. I have lived in other parts of the country and I know the different lifestyles of people in other areas, so I can compare where I live now with other parts of the country.
Hon. Members will not be surprised if I assure them that the towns and villages around Epping Forest are certainly the best places to live in the United Kingdom today. However, I object to the assumption, often made by Labour and Liberal Democrats and members of other parties, that there is only affluence in London and the south-east. There is no doubt that that part of the country has many advantages, but I have been astounded at the complacency of Ministers and many Labour Members who have spoken this evening about planning, housing, transport, crime, health and education. The people who live in my constituency have considerable problems with those issues.
When considering what I would say this evening, I did not look up any statistics—I did not have to. I have merely reflected on the lifestyles and the daily lives of the people who live in Epping Forest, and I know what those problems are. I shall begin with planning. We are fortunate that the forest in and around Epping is protected land, but it is protected by ancient laws whereby it is owned by the City of London corporation and protected by laws made 150 years ago. It is not protected by modern planning laws, so we have to fight right, left and centre to keep the green belt and to preserve the rural areas on the edge of London.
Nowadays, we have to fight the Government's ridiculous ideas on housing to try to preserve the little bit of rural land that still exists. Queen Victoria gave Epping Forest to her people for the enjoyment of the people of London, so that they could get out of London and the areas with no green belt and no trees and go to a place where children could play, which would be pleasant to live in and visit and where people and wildlife could breathe and prosper. However, as my hon. Friend Mr. Burns so eloquently put it, the Government are trying to dump thousands of houses on the green belt without considering what effect that will have on the areas immediately around London.
Is the hon. Lady saying that the Government propose to build on Epping Forest? Can she clarify that? I grew up in Essex and know Epping Forest well. The argument about marginal changes on the edge of the green belt is one thing, but there is no suggestion that Epping Forest is to be built on.
Certainly not, and I apologise if I have not made myself clear. The forest is protected because of ancient laws made more than 150 years ago, but the rest of the area is not because of the Government's negligent attitude towards planning, as witnessed in the desire of the Deputy Prime Minister and other Ministers to dump houses regardless of the opinions of local people.
The cost of private sector housing in London and the south-east is another problem. I agree with much that Mr. Rammell said about the need to build more social housing, council housing and starter homes. However, stamp duty and house prices also need to be addressed. They are not popular issues. Indeed, when I raised them in my maiden speech nearly five years ago, Labour Members laughed at me. I said that the cost of an average three-bedroomed house in my constituency went beyond the stamp duty threshold and that that affected middle-income, middle-class families who wanted to buy a house that was big enough for them to live in without any grandeur.
In the five years since then, house prices in my part of the world have more or less doubled, so the point that I made then is relevant now. The cost of buying property in and around London makes it impossible for people on average incomes to get on the housing ladder. That is not fair. Of course, the Government cannot control everything that has caused the rise in house prices. However, there are some things on which they can take immediate action and make a huge difference to purchasers, especially first-time buyers. Stamp duty is one such thing. I appreciate that the Minister cannot speak on behalf of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it would be good to know that Ministers are aware of the problem.
The massive rise in house prices makes it difficult for first-time buyers to get mortgages. Many mortgage companies believe that today's inflated house prices do not reflect the actual value of houses. The housing market in and around London is becoming distorted and is not working as it should. Some of that is down to the Government's negligence, and they should do something about it.
In addition, if a house is the main asset that is passed on from one generation of a family to another and its value is above the stamp duty threshold, the duty is payable on the whole of the asset. Stamp duty has become nothing more than an extra inheritance tax for many ordinary families in and around London. The Government could solve that problem with the stroke of a pen.
Transport was well covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar. I will not reiterate his points except to say that the tube is important for my constituents. They have waited five years for the Government to do something about it, but they have taken no action. They have done nothing to improve the journey to work that thousands of people from my part of the world have to make every morning.
On crime, my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe made an excellent speech and I would not dream of gilding the lily. I agree with every word that she said, as would all right-thinking normal people in Britain. It is time that the Government woke up and listened to her.
I am especially worried about education and the disgraceful way in which the Government have handled teachers. Teachers need to be told that they are respected professionals and that their work is valued. Parents in my constituency and Conservative Members value it, but the Government do not. They have handled teachers so badly that they are going on strike the day after tomorrow. That poses huge problems for children, who will miss a day's schooling, and for mothers who depend on their children attending school so that they can go to work. On Thursday, those mothers will discover that there is no school for their children to attend, and that missed schooling will make a difference. It will cause enormous disruption to families. The problem is not funny. It is not just about dogma or about pay and conditions; it is about how badly the Government handle people who are doing professional jobs.
Teacher shortages pose a particular problem in my area. Epping Forest is not part of London; it is part of Essex. Teachers, police officers, doctors, nurses, hospital workers, local government officers and those on an average salary in my constituency do not get a London allowance—
For the sake of time, I am afraid that I cannot give way. I must finish so that other hon. Members can speak.
People who work in my constituency do not get a London allowance, but they have to pay London house prices, London transport prices and all the other high costs of living that are borne by people in and around London. That has caused particular problems with teacher shortages and with recruitment and retention in other public sector jobs. We are reaching crisis point. It is not surprising that people travel the extra couple of miles down the road to work if they can earn an extra £5,000 for doing so.
I do not think that the Government are even aware of the problem. They like to draw lines around areas so that they can point to London and the prosperous home counties, but they forget that there is a bit in between. It is not just the green belt that we have to protect; the communities in the towns and villages around Epping Forest need to be protected as well. It is important that the Government recognise the particular problems that we face because we have to cope with London's economic conditions even though we are not part of it.
The Government can deal with those problems. That is the theme of the debate. Problems are inevitable in some aspects of everyday life, and successive Governments have tried to tackle them with varying degrees of success. However, in some areas, a simple stroke of the pen would change Government policy and make a difference. My hon. Friends have mentioned many such areas this evening, and I have drawn attention to further examples. I sincerely hope that the Minister and his colleagues will listen to what we have said when using Opposition time to highlight the problems of London and the south-east.
It is a pleasure to follow Mrs. Laing. I lived in Debden in her constituency from the age of one, having spent my first year in Woodford Bridge—I believe it, too, falls within her constituency—where my grandmother lived all her life. I attended Buckhurst Hill county high school—also in her constituency—which is now the Guru Gobind Singh Khalsa college. Our constituencies are in close proximity to each other.
I remember the hon. Lady's predecessor, the would-be Mayor of London, Steven Norris, campaigning vigorously with local Epping Forest Conservatives against the boundary change proposal made before the 1992 to 1994 boundary changes to the London boroughs. They campaigned to keep 10,000 people in the Epping Forest constituency out of London—there were placards on Fencepiece road on the border between Redbridge and Epping Forest saying, "Keep us out of London! We don't want to be moved into London!" Perhaps some of those people who do not get London allowances now—the ones on whose behalf the hon. Lady complains—would have acted differently had they known that one of the consequences of staying in "leafy Essex", as the campaign put it, would be that they would lose out financially. The campaign was a nonsense. Not least among its effects was that pensioners lost out on concessionary bus fares. Another effect was that the London borough of Redbridge went from three parliamentary constituencies down to two, and the former Conservative Chief Whip had to decamp from Wanstead and Woodford to become a Hampshire Member of Parliament—but that is another story, and not one for this debate.
The terms of the motion, which refers to
"Council Taxes . . . rising even further", are interesting. I do not know whether when drafting the motion the parliamentary Conservative party consulted the Conservative group on Redbridge council, which, with its Liberal Democrat allies, increased council tax in Redbridge from 2.3 per cent. to 6.2 per cent. at last week's budget meeting. We in Redbridge have a hung council, and the Labour group's proposals were defeated. A second meeting was necessary—the first having ended in disarray at 2 o'clock in the morning—to get the budget through. That was the result of the Conservatives and the Liberals, as they have on so many borough issues over the past few months, working in league against the Labour council, which has no overall majority, although that might change in May.
In this debate on London and the south-east, I shall focus on Redbridge. Often there is a polarisation of views, with an image produced of the south-east that has in the middle the great wen—the urban centre, London. In fact, many outer-London boroughs, including mine, have areas with inner-city problems as well as areas that are among the most affluent in the country. Woodford Green, which the hon. Member for Epping Forest will know well, is an example of such an area. Analyses to determine the location of areas of deprivation generally take a borough approach, so Redbridge loses out.
The Conservative Government kept Redbridge out of the LIZ—London implementation zone—for the health service: we got nothing directly from that. We received money only as a side-product of the joint Redbridge and Waltham Forest health authority, even though at the time our mental health services were deplorable. We got some help, but only incidentally, on the back of Waltham Forest. We have not had a successful single regeneration budget bid, but again we got some money because of the joint health authority links.
We are not in the Thames gateway, although our local borough authority is part of the Thames gateway group of authorities, so we get none of that funding. Redbridge is not in the Lea valley. Unlike our neighbouring borough, Newham, we are not able to siphon millions of pounds of European money each year, so regeneration in Stratford, which I welcome, cannot be matched by regeneration in Ilford town centre, which around the railway station has problems that need serious attention.
I therefore welcome the fact that in the sure start scheme at least, the Government have recognised our problems. Loxford ward in my constituency is receiving sure start money. My hon. Friend Mr. Shaw mentioned that, so I will not repeat it, save to say that it is an extremely important initiative. Furthermore, when we compare the data on central Government support for Redbridge borough under the annual local authority settlements we find that, overall, the revenue spending allowed to Redbridge has increased from £207.5 million in 1997 to £273.5 million in the current financial year ending next month. That is an excellent improvement brought about by a Labour Government.
It is interesting to note that the annual central Government grant to Redbridge was cut by the Tories from £160 million in 1992 to £142 million in 1997, whereas Labour has not only restored the grant, but increased it so that we now get £181 million—an extra £37 million on the amount left us by the Conservatives. When Conservative Redbridge councillors and their little Liberal Democrat echoes complain about lack of funding forcing them to push up local council taxes, they should remember that the Labour Government have given more money than the Liberal Democrats ever asked for, and certainly more than would have been given by the Conservatives, whose record is one of cuts to the provision available to the people of my borough. In some years, Redbridge was actually capped during the extremely difficult period in which we faced changing social needs, greater demands, and additional burdens imposed by the Conservative Government.
Those restrictions are gone and my borough is receiving more central Government funding to meet the needs of its people. Of course, it is not enough—it is never enough. We can always say we do not have enough to do everything, but I am pleased by the Government's actions. I praise my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions for his work to give greater emphasis to local government and his support for local government since taking up his current post. The media would do well to comment on that, rather than on tittle-tattle and personalities and all the garbage that we have seen in the Daily Mail and other publications in recent weeks.
Redbridge has also benefited from increases in capital expenditure. The Labour Government have increased education capital spending from £9.3 million in 1997 to £27.5 million in the current financial year. The new private finance initiative-built Oaks Park secondary school is open, with pupils, even though it was delayed a year because the Tory-Liberal coalition on the council objected to the terms of the contract, so the kids started in portakabins—another victory resulting from the Liberal Democrats' ability to swing decisions in a hung council.
Redbridge has benefited from the valuable support that the current Secretary of State for Education and Skills gave when she was a Minister of State at that Department to the Ilford Ursuline high school. That school, a Catholic girls' high school, chose to leave the independent sector and come under the local authority as a voluntary aided faith school, whose admissions criteria state its desire to be a school that reflects the community. The school's policy is that 23 of the 90 children admitted every year are non-Catholics. If I had been able to speak in the debate on faith schools a few weeks ago I would have pointed out that the school, which has a Catholic ethos, provides facilities for Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Jewish and Christian young ladies.
I have to declare an interest, as I have three daughters in different schools in the London borough of Redbridge. All of them are doing well; Redbridge's education results are the best in London and the third best in the country because of the excellent work of local teachers, support staff and people in the local authority who care about those matters. The Labour council assumed minority control in 1994, after the one-party East German-style regime that we had for 30 years. When it did so, there were virtually no nursery places in Redbridge; for the first three years, it made enormous efforts to put its own resources into nursery provision. With the support of the Labour Government, we have been able to accelerate that programme and now have nursery units and nursery classes in all the borough's primary schools; Redbridge now supports a much larger proportion of its young people in nursery education, whereas it had a deplorable record under the Tory council for many years.
The Tory philosophy in Redbridge was low spending, low provision and keeping the council tax down; that is how the Tories ran the borough, with serious consequences. The demography has changed—the population has become younger in the south of the borough, whereas there is an ageing population in other areas—but we have not had support from social services and have not had resources generally to deal with those problems. Historically low levels of spending have had a knock-on consequence over the years. We hope that that is now beginning to be put right; the Government are putting more resources into Redbridge and recognise its social needs. I hope that the 2001 census will provide further ammunition for arguments about rapid social and demographic change, particularly in Ilford.
I want to make two or three further points. As has been mentioned, there is a serious problem with housing in London. Redbridge has a high level of owner-occupation; in fact, my constituency has 78 per cent. owner- occupation. We have almost no social housing. Local government boundary changes made in 1994 meant that much social housing—council housing on the Becontree and Padnall estates—was taken out of the borough and put under the control of Barking and Dagenham. The Tory philosophy in Redbridge was to sell council housing, even before that became the general ethos; Tory councils were doing so in Redbridge in the 1960s. The Tories did not build any council houses for years, and refused to have social housing of any form. Only in the 1990s did they accept the advent of housing associations.
We therefore have a serious lack of housing, and many of the new developments have been in private housing. Land has been sold, so few sites are available for new social housing; on top of that, there is serious demand for such housing. When I first became an MP, people from inner-London boroughs such as Westminster, Hackney and Tower Hamlets who had been placed in private rented accommodation in Redbridge came to me with their problems. I now have constituents who are homeless through no fault of their own—the landlord sells the property or there is some other change—and are placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in Westcliff-on-Sea and Southend-on-Sea; I even had one case in Great Yarmouth. As a result of those changes, there is disruption to people's education, as well as social, environmental and economic consequences. There should be greater priority for social housing in London and help should be provided, not just in areas with big brownfield sites, but in areas such as mine, where local authorities want to buy up private rented accommodation and bring it into the public or socially owned sector, where housing associations operate renovation schemes—a foyer is opening in my constituency to advertise such a scheme—and where there are attempts to introduce affordable housing for key workers.
The problem is difficult because, as has been revealed this week, there has been a significant increase in the number of people moving to London from other parts of the country. As usual, I see that there are no members of the Scottish National party in the Chamber. Interestingly, a report published the other day said that people are fleeing Scotland—I do not know whether just from SNP constituencies—to live in London.
At least I agree with the hon. Lady about that.
There is immigration to London from the rest of the United Kingdom. The European market entails a lot of mobility; many British people go to work in European capital cities, and many Europeans come to work in London. There is migration from Commonwealth countries and historically large numbers of asylum seekers and refugees have come to the capital city. If that is added to housing shortages, we can see that difficult issues have to be addressed. As a result of the policy of the Conservative party over the years not to provide social housing, rents in the private sector are astronomic. People with average incomes, even with London allowances, cannot afford to buy homes in London. If they are outside the social housing sector, they face weekly private rents of £150, £160, £180 and £200 for half-decent accommodation. They have the uncertainty of six-month or one-year leases; within a few months, they may have to disrupt their children's lives and risk homelessness and bed-and-breakfast accommodation until they find somewhere else. The issue must be pushed up the agenda; there are no easy answers, but we must tackle the problem soon.
I want to make some remarks about Ilford station. A few weeks ago, the chair of the Metropolitan police authority, my long-standing friend Lord Harris, came to our borough to talk with the police commander and the local safer communities partnership. We have a crime hot spot in the centre of Ilford. Redbridge is generally a low-crime borough, despite the unfortunate headlines and a few horrible events, including the murder of a young Pakistani law student, Sajjid Chisti, by a gang last May. Generally, however, Redbridge is not an area with high crime. The railway station is owned by Railtrack and operated by Great Eastern Railway; it is badly designed and a magnet for undesirable people, who hang around, begging for travelcards and money. The place is not very nice because of its design.
I urge Railtrack, which owns the station, and Great Eastern Railway, which operates it, to do some serious work to improve Ilford station and make its environment better. We can design out crime to some extent and introduce modern approaches to staffing; there are issues, to which I shall not refer in detail, concerning the station staff and the way in which they dealt with an incident that led to that murder last year. We must take account of those problems in future.
Finally, I raise the problems of other stations. I asked the Library to produce a note for me on the secure stations scheme, which was introduced by British Transport police and Crime Concern in April 1998. I am extremely disappointed that although Liverpool street station is one of the stations that meets the criteria, none of the stations from Liverpool street down to Southend through Ilford, Seven Kings, Goodmayes, Chadwell Heath, Romford—I shall not name all the stations along the line, as some are outside my constituency—through Shenfield to Southend is in the scheme. I want to know why not.
We need to raise standards of security and people's confidence when they travel on our public transport—on the underground, on the overground railway and on buses. I intervened on the speech of the Opposition spokesman and commented on congestion charging. My views are on the record at my website, www.mikegapes.org.uk, and they can also be read in the Official Report of the debates in Westminster Hall, where I spoke in January. The Mayor's scheme is the wrong scheme in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it will have serious detrimental consequences for people who live in outer London.
I congratulate the Opposition on their choice of subject for today's debate. It gives me the opportunity to point out the damaging behaviour of the Conservatives and Liberals in Redbridge council, and the opportunity to praise the Government's record in giving greater support to my borough over the past five years.
I begin by apologising for missing some of the opening speech from the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman. Perhaps surprisingly, I am in total agreement with the Conservative motion, but I must comment briefly on what it does not recognise: the fact that the Conservatives share some responsibility for the poor quality of life that we experience in London and the south-east.
Private affluence and public squalor were not invented back in 1997. The problems are deep-seated. I have lived in London for more than 20 years, and it is clear that under-investment in our transport and other infrastructure and a lack of vision for London have existed for many decades. I understand that the failures of Conservative policy were not recognised in the opening speech, but there will be an opportunity, perhaps in the summing up, for those failures to be recognised, and I understand that at least one Conservative Back Bencher acknowledged in his comments the responsibility that Conservatives share for the present poor quality of life in our capital city.
The person who drafted the Labour amendment obviously has a sense of humour. The Government's amendment welcomes
"the restoration of democratic city-wide government to the capital", but which capital are we talking about—not London, surely? The Government are not willing to give the capital's directly elected authority and Mayor the power they need to fulfil Londoners' wishes. The Government have not restored democratic citywide government to the capital. In some ways, they have created something that resembles a South African homeland, hemmed in legislatively and unable to make the decisions that really matter—on PPP, for example.
Clearly, the state of the tube is fundamental to the quality of life of the 800,000 people who commute into London, so why do the Government persist in imposing on London a plan for the part-privatisation of the underground, which nobody believes will improve the quality of life of Londoners? London's elected representatives will be stuck with trying to manage the scheme as best they can for 30 years, even though the current Mayor was elected specifically in opposition to the plan. Londoners are still wondering why they bothered to vote.
The statutory consultation period for the part- privatisation has been a farce. Last November, during the Transport Committee's hearings into the matter, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions promised that there would be a full consultation with all interested parties before any final decision was made, so that he could form what he described as
"a decision informed by the views of a whole variety of other people and not just by myself."
The consultation that emerged has been a travesty of that promise. The only consultation that has taken place has been the one that the Government are legally bound to undertake with the Mayor and Transport for London, and as much as possible has been done to hamper that consultation. The bare minimum of time was allowed for Transport for London to examine contracts which, we were told, are unique and among the longest and most complex of their type in the world. Even worse, vital documents were withheld from TFL for a considerable period, and only the threat of legal action brought them to light. Perhaps the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs can explain how such activity helps devolved government work properly, and in what respect it will improve the quality of life of Londoners.
The consultation might be more meaningful if the Government followed the Labour-dominated Transport Committee's recent recommendation, which stated:
"It is essential that the Government allow Members a debate and vote in the House of Commons on a substantive motion on the future of London Underground and the PPP."
I hope that the Minister will undertake to speak to his colleagues in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to ensure that such a debate takes place on a free vote, so that Members of all parties can express their views as part of the consultation on the Government's plans for the London underground.
If we are to address one of the key concerns of Londoners in relation to the tube, and one which has a major impact on their quality of life, another question that the Minister will have to answer is exactly what new tube capacity will be created in the first seven and a half years of the PPP contracts. It is the new trains that will make the difference. The £16 billion figure that is repeated ad nauseam sounds impressive, but if one analyses what it will mean in respect of overcrowding, for instance, it does not look impressive at all.
Another aspect of transport that has a significant impact on people's quality of life is train services. Will the Minister comment on the concerns expressed in the Evening Standard today about the possibility of a huge rise in fares, and how that will impact on people's quality of life? There is a clear link between the level of service that people receive and how much they have to pay for it—that influences their perception of their quality of life. If there is a significant increase in fares at the end of the seven-year period during which fare increases were limited to the level of inflation or less, we want to hear from the Government how they think commuters will respond—commuters who live in London and those who travel into London.
As a Member of Parliament for a Yorkshire constituency, I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman says. It seems to be one long whinge about unfair treatment of London and the south-east. Many of my constituents, and many people living in the three northern regions, look at the 70 per cent. of resources in the strategic rail plan that will be spent in London and the south-east and compare it with the tiny amount that is to be spent in the three northern regions. The debate is not particularly edifying for most people living in other parts of the country who look at the affluence and splendour of public and private investment in London and the south-east.
Perhaps I should not have given way to the hon. Gentleman, who has only just appeared in the Chamber. The important point about the tube—it is not a whinge—is that although his Government have apparently devolved power to London, they have devolved none whatever on one of the most critical issues that it faces and are unwilling to give up the reins on the future of the tube.
More general environmental issues, other than the travel experience, are also important for quality of life. Several hon. Members referred to abandoned cars, litter and so on. I remind the Minister of the recent debate on graffiti and the cost to the boroughs of cleaning it up: they have to pay about £3.5 million across London, and transport providers face a similar cost. My hon. Friend Mr. Davey challenged the Minister for Local Government about his view on the London Local Authorities Bill. Indeed, I challenged him a couple of weeks ago during the debate about graffiti. He may have had time to reflect further on the matter, on which he said he was neutral.
Perhaps the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs will tell us whether he personally—he need not necessarily express a Government point of view—thinks that there are good grounds for stopping the sale of graffiti products to under-18s whom the retailer suspects will use them to deface each and every flat surface in the vicinity. I hope he will respond, as he should not underestimate the importance of the issue, which is very significant in terms of quality of life. Indeed, the crime and disorder audit produced by my local authority refers to graffiti as a key issue raised during a two-month period last year. Police visibility was the first concern, but the second major issue was graffiti and vandalism, so it is clear that people want the problem to be dealt with.
I would have liked to deal with many other issues, but I will listen to what the previous occupant of the Chair said about keeping my speech short. I wish that other hon. Members had done so. I should like briefly to draw attention to a police issue and mention concerns about a potential shortage of detectives in the Met. Detectives work unpaid overtime, but sergeants coming up through the ranks do not want to take on such a work load and can see their colleagues working seven days a week. A problem may be building up, as there will be a significant impact on quality of life if those ranks are not being filled.
Hon. Members also mentioned the need for affordable housing. The Government's key worker schemes are welcome, but they do not scratch the surface of the demand that is out there. My local authority has very few housing places; there is perhaps one place for the police and 10 for teachers, but we need fifties or hundreds of them. The Government clearly need to consider the matter, as lack of housing affects quality of life severely.
On airports, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton tried to clarify the position in respect of London's third runway at Heathrow. If the development proceeds, it may have a significant impact on the quality of life not only of the people who live around the airport, but of everyone who lives in London.
This debate has highlighted many of the concerns of Londoners and others in the south-east, including crime, fear of crime, streets that are dirtier than those in Lusaka, according to a report published yesterday, and high pollution and congestion. It has also highlighted the advantages of living within easy reach of our capital city. Quality of life in London and the south-east will improve only once transport, affordable housing and health care provision show signs of improvement. The Government's actions have so far made little or no difference, and the quality of life monitor continues to flat-line.
I hoped that Tom Brake would develop his theme about public squalor and private affluence as it existed before 1997. Listening to some of the speeches made from the Opposition Benches, one would think that Britain before 1997 resembled Roy Plomley's desert island—Sue Lawley's version might be a bit too modern. Under the Tories, this was not an island with a few seagulls and records, the Bible and complete works of Shakespeare; it was one where people's personal security was threatened by rising crime and their financial security was affected by job insecurity and negative equity. It was indeed an island of private affluence and public squalor.
Many of the social attitude surveys carried out towards the mid-1990s showed that the degree of acceptance of inequality that people were prepared to give in the 1980s had evaporated and that there was a genuine aversion to the inequality that had been created. That aversion was greatest among the highest socio-economic groups, because their quality of life was also being diminished by the sort of society that had been created in London and the south-east, as well as throughout the rest of the country. It was not only the poorest who were affected. In London and the south-east, however, the pressures were even sharper, because the inequality was greatest there. The prosperity, where it existed, was at its greatest, but the squalor, poverty and deprivation were very often at their sharpest.
I wonder whether anyone remembers the words of a former Minister for Housing and Planning about the homeless; I think that the hon. Member in question entered the Chamber at one stage during the debate. I refer to the predecessor of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government who complained at having to step over the homeless on his way to the opera. Even his quality of life was diminished by the inequality that had been created, but what about the quality of life for the homeless themselves, the 4 million children living in poverty and the pensioners who were fearful of using heating during the winter months in case they could not afford to pay the bills?
In the past few years many of my constituents have at long last started to see the improvements in quality of life for which they have waited too long. Most important is growing prosperity, underpinned by careful economic management that has delivered the lowest mortgage rates for a generation, low and sustainable inflation and rising employment. That has ensured that we have real security in relation to our homes, living standards and jobs, and there has also been major inward and public investment in our public services. The overall result is a 10 per cent. growth in employment in Gravesham. As my hon. Friend Dr. Stoate would wish me to point out—he cannot do so himself, for reasons that the House will understand—his constituency, which is next door to Gravesham, has seen a 19 per cent. increase in employment under the current Government.
In sectors such as construction, employment has increased by 56 per cent., and it has increased by 25 per cent. in transport and by 45 per cent. in other services. Again, the overall result is a halving of unemployment and a decline in youth unemployment of almost three quarters. Quality of life for those people has been immeasurably improved by what has happened to the economy locally and nationally—an improvement that is underpinned by increasing security.
Getting a job was not always a route towards a better quality of life. We all remember the old Conservative mantra of "low pay or no pay". That was the only choice on offer: people either had a job that was pitifully badly paid, or they were threatened with having no job at all. We have broken through that to ensure that millions of our fellow citizens can have a job with dignity, a decent wage—through the minimum wage—and a decent level of income to meet the cost of their children, through the working families tax credit, which is soon to be replaced by a system of new tax credits that will make a real difference to their living standards and quality of life.
Many hon. Members have referred at some length to crime, which is the main determinant of a poor quality of life for many of our constituents. I will not go into great detail about my constituency, because we had a full debate on this issue on Friday, to which I was able to contribute, although others were not. I was able to point out in that debate the achievements that we have made in reducing the level of crime and social disorder in Gravesham through investment in the police and in resources such as closed circuit television.
I will, however, give one example of a particular estate in my constituency, Lorton Close, which has a high proportion of pensioners and people with disabilities. Real fear existed there when I was first elected to represent Gravesham in 1997—not of their new Member of Parliament, I hasten to add, but of crime and social disorder. I am pleased to say that, in that small area of my constituency, there has been a 75 per cent. reduction in crime over only five years. For the first time, many of the residents feel that they have real quality of life, and the ability to go out, even after dark, without fear of being subjected to crime and disorder.
We are not complacent, however, and we know that a major factor in reducing the quality of people's lives is the fear of crime, if not crime itself. That fear is enhanced because we still have a major problem with youth disorder, vandalism and intimidation in the streets. That problem may not be serious enough—certainly in the case of some decisions by the courts that I have regretted—for the people involved to be brought to justice. Nevertheless, it creates a climate of fear.
I certainly can. Part of the measures involved the police working in partnership with the local authority and the residents. One of the important lessons that we have to learn from the achievements so far is that, unless we get that sort of partnership involving the residents themselves, the extra investment in policing and CCTV will not achieve the significant reductions in crime that we want to see. It is that lesson about partnership that is so important. It has certainly worked in Lorton Close, and elsewhere in my constituency.
I welcome the announcement in the past few days that there is to be greater emphasis on victims and witnesses throughout the criminal justice system and policing generally. That, too, will be important in ensuring that the downward trend in crime can continue. As my hon. Friend Joan Ryan made clear, however, it is the nitty-gritty issues that are so important to all our constituents in determining their quality of life. Abandoned cars, graffiti, vandalism, litter and dog-fouling are not issues that detain the House for many parliamentary hours, but they are the issues that are important to all our constituents.
We have sought to tackle those issues and, through investment in public services—particularly in education and the health service—we are beginning to see an improvement in the life chances of my constituents and the population as a whole. That means that, in the longer term, they will have the opportunity for a better quality of life. Other hon. Members have referred to the fact that, only five years ago, half of our 11-year-olds had not reached basic standards of literacy and numeracy. That meant not only that they were being disadvantaged at that point, but that their quality of life and standard of living were likely to be diminished and damaged throughout their working lives as a result. We cannot be complacent; one fifth of our 11-year-olds are still not reaching those basic standards, and we need further reform and investment in education to ensure that we give those young people the chance that they deserve.
We are moving in the right direction, but that will require further investment in schools, the national health service, transport and roads. An issue that is prominent in my constituency at the moment is the need for a relief road in Denton. Such a road would dramatically improve the quality of life for people living on the estate there. It would also provide the possibility of creating or maintaining 600 jobs and allow the regeneration of a very deprived area.
Our aim, as a Government, is to build prosperity while maintaining and improving the environment and the quality of life. In Gravesham, and elsewhere in the south-east, we enjoy a balance of countryside and urban areas. They are interdependent, and it is critical for the quality of life of all my constituents that we ensure that the rural areas meet the objectives published in the rural White Paper of having a living, working, vibrant countryside. We must also ensure, through the urban regeneration that we have been pursuing, that the town centre is an attractive place to live, by building on the history and heritage of which we are so proud. We must, of course, do that in such a way that we enhance the quality of life well into the future, and we are trying to ensure that we maintain that balance.
Bearing in mind that a number of Members still want to contribute to the debate, I shall briefly conclude by referring to the comments of Miss Widdecombe. She referred to an estate in Hackney that she had visited in the run-up to the election.
Several times, I am sure. She reported that the residents of that estate were concerned that nothing was being done for them to improve their circumstances. Other hon. Members have pointed out to her that the most important factor in the quality of people's lives is the power that they feel that they have over their lives. The concept of people in such a community having something done to them is one of the reasons why they felt so powerless in the past. It is not what we do to residents in such circumstances, but what we can do with them. Giving them the power to improve the quality of their lives is the key to regeneration and to improving their living standards.
The hon. Gentleman has completely distorted what I said. For a start, I did not say "done to them": I said "done for them". The way to achieve any advance is to work with those people. One half of the partnership is the Government, and that is what they were complaining about. They have set up a residents association and undertaken initiatives, but they cannot conceivably provide themselves with CCTV or a policeman. They were complaining that they could not get those things. The hon. Gentleman should stop distorting what I said, stop belittling the people on that estate in Hackney, and start telling the facts instead of making it all up.
I thank the right hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene on her intervention. I think that she understands the point fully, which is clearly why I rattled her cage. Those people want the Government, the local authority and the voluntary sector to work in partnership with them to achieve these things. They want to be active citizens. They do not want to be the dependent recipients of welfare or patronage from this or any other Government. It is by ensuring that they are given responsibility for their own lives that they will feel that their quality of life has been enhanced.
I shall conclude on that point. There has been much discussion about the impact of the policies of previous Conservative Governments measured against the impact of the policies that the present Government have implemented. The big difference is not between the impact of those different policies, but between the present Government who are determined to improve the quality of life for the majority of our citizens and previous Conservative Governments who I do not believe had that as one of their priorities.
In the south-east, taxes have risen and regulation and bureaucracy have grown like Topsy, yet our public services are failing. Clearly, the quality of life of people in the south-east is worse under the Labour Government. The statistics show that, and even Ministers, including the Prime Minister, are beginning to admit it when pressed at the Dispatch Box.
Rail capacity is too low. Reliability, punctuality, costs and services have all fallen since Labour took power. Roads are even more congested now than they were in 1997. Health care is worse, waiting lists are up, a visit to the accident and emergency department is a lottery, bed blocking is up because the Government are trying to destroy the residential care sector, and last week we heard that the wait for cancer treatment is now longer than it was three years ago. That is outrageous, and should not be tolerated by the people of this country.
In education, class sizes are up in secondary schools. Every secondary school in Essex has an extra child in every class. Average class sizes in Essex have increased from 16.8 to 17.7. The Prime Minister certainly did not promise the people of Essex that when he went to the polls. Teachers are overburdened with bureaucracy: more and more form filling, and less and less teaching. It is no wonder that so many of them are leaving the profession and retention is so difficult. The Government have followed their political correctness handbook and have tried to destroy discipline in schools, which has put more pressure on teachers and forced them to leave the profession.
However, I do not want to rant about the Government's performance generally. I want to focus on the quality of life of pensioners and people in the south-east who are over 50 years old. There are many such people, and they are listening carefully to this debate. They have been hit worse by Labour policies than any other group in the country.
Is not it especially nauseating—I cannot think of a better word for it than that—that Labour Members, particularly the Parliamentary Private Secretaries, apparently find the plight of pensioners funny?
No, I will not give way.
The insulting 75p that the Prime Minister gave pensioners a few years ago has been just one of the factors, but the biggest factor to hit people over 50, and everyone in society, was the £5 billion Labour stealth tax on pension funds. The Government's removal of the 20 per cent. credit on dividends was probably the nastiest and most damaging of all Labour's stealth taxes. It is a key cause of the worsening quality of life for elderly people, and it is entirely of the Government's making.
That measure has fuelled pensioner poverty, which has increased under a callous Labour Government. In 1979, after a Labour Administration, 57 per cent. of pensioners were being means-tested. By 1995 that was down to 38 per cent., thanks to sound management by Mrs. Thatcher. According to the House of Commons Library, the figure will have returned to 57 per cent. by 2003. Pensioners need protection from this Government, and we Conservatives will provide it.
No. Many Members wish to speak, and many others have spoken for 20 minutes. We need short, sharp speeches in this place.
Pensioners in particular suffer as a result of council-tax rises while local services are cut, especially in Labour-controlled authorities such as the one in Castle Point. Many Castle Point pensioners will not even receive a pension increase sufficient to cover the rise in their council tax this year. The council-tax rise in Castle Point will amount to an incompetent four times inflation. That is Labour councils for you.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to talk about pensions when the motion tabled by his Front-Bench colleagues does not even mention their plight?
If the hon. Gentleman does not think that having for the first time in their lives to pay more than £1,000 for living in an average band D house will affect the quality of life of the many pensioners whose council tax will rise to that amount, he is living in cloud cuckoo land along with his Liberal Democrat colleagues.
The council tax rise is yet another dishonest Labour stealth tax, as a result of which councils such as Basildon will be returned to sound Conservative control very soon.
It would help pensioners and people over 50 in the south-east if the Government accepted the proposals of my right hon. Friend Mr. Curry, whose private Member's Bill would give pensioners more freedom and choice—words that Labour does not understand—to invest their pension funds as they wish, once they have bought, at 65, an annuity sufficient to prevent them from qualifying for state benefits. The Government's nanny-state approach, which forces pensioners to use their pension funds inappropriately at the age of 75, is dramatically lowering their quality of life.
Pensioners also get a rough deal from the Government when it comes to crime, disorder and street nuisance, all of which have escalated under Labour. The solution is obvious: we need more policemen on the streets—higher visibility policing. That means cutting the bureaucracy with which Labour keeps burdening the police. Labour cut the number of officers in Essex, as has been confirmed by the chief constable and even, recently, the Prime Minister.
We must create an environment in the south-east in which bad behaviour, nuisance and crime are not tolerated at any level. That will improve the quality of life for young and older people alike. It will provide safer communities for all, as Mayor Giuliani has shown in New York, where the streets are much safer than they are now in London.
Another problem that is depressing the quality of life for pensioners is the unrestrained influx of asylum seekers. Yesterday, we learned that the number of asylum seekers trying to get into the south-east from France has tripled in the past year, and French police expect the number to grow even faster during the current year. That damages everyone's quality of life, but especially that of genuine asylum seekers, whom we should be caring for better. It is a direct result of yet another Government refusal to listen.
Time is short, so I shall mention just a few more of the many problems that we face in the south-east as a result of Government policies. One problem is the overdevelopment of our communities that Labour has forced on Castle Point borough council, forcing it, through Serplan, to build an extra 2,400 houses—houses that we need in Castle Point like we need a hole in the head. These will increase congestion and decrease the quality of life for all my constituents, and they will punish the Government for that.
The Government's failure to provide money for infrastructure, such as Canvey Island's third road, is yet another problem. It is high time that the Government started to improve infrastructure and the public services, not just for the community's sake but for the sake of the excellent and dedicated doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers and ambulance drivers. All those superb people who work in our public services deserve better than they are getting from this Labour Government.
Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Much of tonight's debate has centred on London and its suburban boroughs. However, a large part of the south-east, outside that area, is essentially rural in character.
Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As I was saying, a large part of the south-east, outside London and its suburban boroughs, is essentially rural in character. My constituency of Faversham and Mid-Kent is such an area. It is a largely rural constituency, taking in much of the northern downs and the eastern end of the Weald. It clips the eastern suburbs of Maidstone and has in it the market town of Faversham, but it otherwise contains 39 parish councils, spread across the heart of rural Kent. Therefore, for many of my constituents, the quality-of-life issues mean something very different from those in constituencies elsewhere in Kent, and indeed the south-east of England.
However, quality of life is based on two common principles: the quality of the environment and the availability of services. I shall take the quality of the environment first. That, in my case, is entirely defined by the countryside. Kent is, after all, the garden of England, yet it is threatened as never before. Having grown up in the area, that threat is something that I saw as a young child and now see at first hand as the constituency MP.
The countryside is under threat from Government housebuilding targets—plans to which my hon. Friend Mr. Burns has alluded. We are simply trying to push too many people into too small an area. That leads directly to capacity problems. Already, villagers in parishes such as Leeds and Langley are holding demonstrations against heavy vehicle traffic. Villagers in Bearsted complain to me about mobile telephone masts, the plans for whose installation were the direct result of demand caused by an increase in population. They have worries about health and safety. Local residents do not want to see those mobile telephone masts near schools, medical facilities or residential areas.
There are traffic worries brought on by an increase in the number of vehicles. Eight parish councils in my constituency are currently campaigning for interactive speed signs, and a number of others feel that the existing roads are now inadequate to deal with the current volume of traffic.
There are too few police. They are never seen in rural areas. Kent county council is doing something to make up the shortfall with its rural community wardens, but they can be no substitute for real policemen.
The railways are in crisis. There are three train lines to London from my constituency—from Faversham, Maidstone East and Headcorn. All are subject to regular delays and I receive endless complaining letters about them.
There are also problems caused by our close proximity to the channel. Cheap beer importers and bootleggers sell their alcohol to underage children. We have problems with illegal immigrants. Hollingbourne parish council has written to me this week about lorry drivers who regularly drop off illegal immigrants in a lay-by near the M20. They then wander through the village, frightening old people late at night, and jump a train to London.
Finally, there is the state of the rural economy. In my capacity as secretary of the parliamentary fruit group, I will touch on this briefly. The fruit industry defines our part of Kent. The fruit farming industry is wholly unsubsidised, and is good for the environment and the landscape. It produces high-quality food that is good for people, yet it is being suffocated with endless regulations, such as the environmental impact assessment, the EU marketing standards, the seasonal regulations for labour and part-time workers and the recent banning of Thinsec. To put it simply, if we allow our fruit industry to wither, the landscape of Kent and the quality of life for its residents will be destroyed for ever.
The hon. Gentleman included in his list of problems part-time workers. Is he opposed to equal rights for part-time workers and, for that matter, to the minimum wage?
I am not in the slightest opposed to rights for part-time workers. I am opposed to the mass of regulation that makes it impossible for fruit farmers to employ them in the first place.
The second area of concern is the availability of services. I will only say a little on this, as I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak tonight. However, one issue dominates for my constituents; the plans to downgrade the Kent and Canterbury hospital. The hospital is in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Brazier, but it supports the whole of the population in the northern part of my seat. My seat has a number of elderly people and a number of people who live in deprived areas; the seasonal fruit pickers who come to settle in our part of Kent. They are all heavy users of the NHS.
There are three critical facts that affect those people. The first is the transport links from Faversham and the North Downs to the replacement hospital at Ashford, once Canterbury is downgraded, which are poor. If one has to travel by public transport, they are atrocious or non-existent. As I have said, there are large numbers of elderly and disadvantaged people who have always been heavy users of the health service and the public transport system, and they will be effectively disfranchised by the proposal.
Secondly, there is the fate of the cottage hospitals; Faversham cottage hospital in my constituency is a good example. It should have been built up before the plans to downgrade the Kent and Canterbury were put in place. There are no plans to do that and it is not part of the resulting private finance initiative.
Thirdly, there is the question of cancer care, which is of critical importance for all elderly people. The model proposed is something called an ambulatory model, in which 20 per cent. of patients—all the in-patients—are transferred to Maidstone. The model has been rejected by every single cancer consultant across Kent and by the Royal College of Radiologists. It does not exist or work anywhere in the UK and is simply dangerous.
The problems in Faversham and Mid-Kent are different from those of London and the south-east. However, they are similar in that they revolve around two key facts; the quality of the environment and the availability of services. My constituents are particularly concerned about the plans to downgrade Kent and Canterbury hospital and the implications for cancer care across Kent. I urge the Government to act on this and the other problems that I have mentioned in the rural economy before it is too late.
I am glad that my tie has caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I want to speak briefly about Croydon and, more generally, about the problems and opportunities that face our great capital. The one key feature that has affected the opportunities and the problems is the miraculous change of fortune in the economy, which has seen an extra 250,000 people getting jobs in London. However, those extra people are putting pressure on the transport system, and the popularity and economic success of London is putting pressure on house prices, which, in turn, have brought their own pressures to bear.
The investment has delivered results, including higher standards in our schools and smaller classes, particularly in our primary schools, where nearly every class has fewer than 30 pupils. There has been targeted investment in such things as education action zones. In New Addington in my area—where standards were not being delivered and levels of poverty and unemployment were high—we have seen a miraculous renaissance.
I realise that Miss Widdecombe is a bit of a social anthropologist, having been to Hackney once or twice. She knows a bit about these things, but the people who live and breathe in those areas can see the changes brought about by economic opportunities, transport links and investment in imaginative education systems. These systems give new self-esteem to children who, in many instances, come from backgrounds where they are told that they cannot succeed.
I am concerned about the issue of affordable housing. It is central to the debate, and as former leader of the largest council in London and former chair of the London boroughs housing committee, it is worth my commenting on it. The Government face strategic issues such as how to balance investment in quantity with investment in quality. We have chosen to raise standards through a 10-year plan, and I certainly favour a switch to quality at the margin, where demand in London and the south-east is particularly high.
There has also been investment in key workers. We all know the problems associated with recruiting more nurses and teachers, although we have been successful in that regard. I ask the Government to reconsider an audit of all public land in London—particularly that owned by the Ministry of Defence, the police and rail services—to establish whether it is being properly used. Indeed, in the private sector we should consider compulsory purchase orders, so that land that is not properly used—I refer not to traditional brownfield sites, but to land that is not being invested in optimally—can be released and a balance can be struck in terms of affordable housing. In that regard, planning is key. The Mayor is pressing ahead with plans to establish a 40 per cent. level of affordable housing in various areas. It is important that the Government and the Mayor support boroughs in their negotiations with private sector developers who want to minimise their investment in affordable housing.
Although people migrate to London, some migrate from London because the urban townscape does not meet their concerns about the environment, educational opportunities and personal safety and security. Meeting such concerns is key to ensuring that people remain in an urban environment in which they want to live, and where the quality of life is good. I shall return to those issues in a moment.
On the delivery of health in our capital, it is worth noting that enormous extra sums are being invested. In Croydon, we are investing an extra £18 million a year, and since 1997 waiting lists for treatment have reduced by a third. Waiting lists for appointments with consultants have reduced by two thirds, and the length of wait has been halved in the past six months. Such reductions have been achieved partly through investment and partly through person power. An extra 250 nurses in Croydon's Mayday hospital are doing a tremendous job in delivering an additional 2 million operations every year. Although the media may choose to highlight inevitable individual problems, and although people have a perception that the health service is in crisis, in practice consistent improvements are being made in London and locally. Problems exist, but we are finding solutions to them.
People moan about transport, just as they moan about the weather, and difficulties do exist. However, in Croydon a new tram link, involving 28 km of light rail, is transporting 18 million people a year. Bus use in London has risen by 6 per cent., and underground use has risen by 25 per cent. It is true that we need more investment, but such plans are in place. The Opposition say that £20 billion is not enough, but how much more would they spend and from where would they get it? How does that extra expenditure stack up with their commitment to cut tax? The figures do not add up—they are just hot air. The reality is that more people are using public transport systems. We are getting there, but the big problem—it is also an opportunity—is that the enormous number of people now in work is increasing transport demand. However, investment will settle the problem down in the medium term.
Crime is obviously on people's minds. Overall crime has declined by 12 per cent., but street robberies—particularly in relation to mobile phones—are escalating. The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Sir John Stevens, made several assertions on crime recently. In short, he said that more people should be denied bail, more people should be locked up and that there should be more witness protection.
Can the hon. Gentleman explain how the Government will address those shortcomings in the criminal justice system, given that they have thrown out their proposed criminal justice legislation for this Session?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman asked that question, because it has used up some more time. I am about to come to that point.
On the issues that Sir John Stevens has placed at the top of his agenda, his assertion that more people should be given bail is a strange one. It implies that we should reform the Bail Act 1976 and compulsorily deny bail to people. At the moment, hon. Members will know that bail is granted at the discretion of judges and magistrates. It can be, and is, denied if there is a threat of reoffending or witness intimidation. It is not the role of politicians to stick their noses into that subject. Those people who should go to jail should go to jail, and there should be enough space in our prisons to deal with them.
At the same time, we should not forget that we have 70,000 people in our prisons and that no country in Europe jails the same proportion of its population, other than Portugal. We must ask why so many people are in jail. Should some of them not be in jail, such as people who commit housing benefit fraud—for argument's sake—and who do not pose a threat of violence on the streets? They are simply being dislocated from the employment market. Perhaps instead we should consider the root cause of serial offending and tackle that.
I happen to have Sir John's speech in front of me and what he said was:
"It is not uncommon in London to have muggers released on bail eight or nine times before they face trial for their first attack."
Is the hon. Gentleman claiming that Sir John was telling an untruth?
Not for a moment, but the issue is what we should do about the problem. Should Sir John look over the shoulder of every judge and magistrate and insist that they lock everybody up? If mistakes are being made by judges and magistrates, we need to confront that, but it is not for politicians to prescribe that no one should be granted bail. [Interruption.] I am sure that there are many anecdotal examples, but we should not interfere with the granting of bail. We should provide enough room in jails and analyse why people are there.
The figures show that 75 per cent. of people in British prisons have previously been permanently excluded from school. Those people who are troublemakers in the classroom are thrown out, perhaps to keep standards up or to prevent the disruption of classes—a good reason—and end up on the street after five hours of education. What do they do? Is it a surprise that a proportion of them shoplift or steal mobile phones? When they try to return to school, having found it difficult to have their behaviour controlled, they cannot catch up and are excluded again. Ultimately, they end up in jail. They serve a year or two and, within two years of their release, 76 per cent. of males reoffend and are sent back to jail. The overall average is 58 per cent. Those people enter the university of crime—our prison system—learn some new tricks and find it even more difficult to break out of that vicious circle.
Such people need proper, intensive, full-time education in small classes. They need to be forced to learn to read and write. It costs £34,000 a year to keep someone in jail. Would not that money be better spent giving them a proper education, which would keep them off the streets and prevent them from ending up as serial offenders?
Other problems have to do with ethnic composition. For reasons that include social exclusion, there is a greater probability, other things being equal, that people from ethnic minorities—and especially young Afro-Caribbean men—will be excluded from school. That ethnic composition is reflected in the numbers of people in prison, and it is echoed in the difficulties that people face in society when they come out of prison. The problem involves the denial of a person's opportunities and human rights, and it will only grow bigger for everyone unless we confront its causes.
The Government have decided to invest in pupil referral units from September. Instead of being permanently excluded from school, pupils will go to the referral units and receive intensive education. I should prefer the units to be called something else, as at present they sound a bit like borstals. They should represent an alternative schooling system, with intensive education.
As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I have taken part in interviews with the head of our prison service, Mr. Narey. What he has to say is of special interest to people involved in the debate about crime in London.
People reoffend for three reasons. The first is that they do not have a home to go to on release. Forty per cent. of people leaving prison are homeless, so it is no surprise that they go back to offending. Secondly, their social networks have been disrupted. Some 25,000 inmates are placed in prisons situated more than 50 miles from their homes, while another 10,000 are in prisons more than 100 miles away. It is therefore no surprise that their links with spouses and families are broken. The absence of that communication also leads to serial offending.
The third reason for reoffending is that people leaving prison cannot find employment. Why can they not get work? In part it is because they have been in prison, but the main reason is that they are not educated. Ten per cent. of the total number of people targeted by the Government's numeracy and literacy strategies are prison inmates. They have no opportunities, and I hope and expect that the Government will turn the problem around at its cause.
Finally, I repeat that prisons contain a number of people who would not be dangerous to others on the street.
I turn briefly to the problem of graffiti, which is of great concern to people, in Croydon and elsewhere.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am sure that his thoughts on graffiti will be as profound as his thoughts on everything else, but does he recall the conversation that we had only last week, when he was unfortunate enough to be the only hon. Member to be squeezed out of a debate? Will he bear in mind the remarks made on that occasion as he frames and times the rest of his contribution, given that many Opposition Members would like to contribute to the debate?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who refers to the debate on the police last Friday, in which many hon. Members wanted to speak. I sat for three and a half or four hours, but remained the only hon. Member not called to speak. The hon. Gentleman said at the time, helpfully, that I should not worry, as I could always give the speech on another occasion. This is that other occasion, and I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his help.
The problem of graffiti is difficult. In Croydon, we are making some headway through the use of closed circuit television. A strategy of "bang 'em down and lock 'em up" is not always appropriate. By ensuring that the youth service and the police service work hand in hand, we can take a CCTV video of a youth spraying graffiti to his parents. We can then say, "Here's Johnny, doing this. Unless you get him to clean that off, with the council, we'll take him to court." We do not want to force people into the judicial system and the university of crime. We want them to face up to the consequences of their mischief and clean up the graffiti. That is happening, and it is working.
Drug use is a massive cause of crime and a massive problem in prison. Croydon is running a treatment and testing pilot scheme. Instead of going to jail, people given treatment and testing orders have training and education for five days a week and are tested for drugs. If they are not clean, they go to prison. Most of these people have been in prison and know how awful it is. The scheme is keeping people out of prison and helping them to stop their habit. In prison they would continue taking drugs because it is easy to get them. The scheme is working very well.
I understand that in Birmingham, intensive supervision and surveillance programmes that are an alternative to prison are working remarkably well. They give people back their self-esteem by investing in education, giving them work habits and getting them back into normal life. We should be considering that sort of programme.