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Dr. Cunningham : It is interesting to contemplate the business before the House this week and the direction in which the Secretary of State and his right hon. Friends are facing : they are facing in all directions at once. In the Official Secrets Bill it is made abundantly clear that there is no public interest duty--none at all--and no room for any whistleblowers in the Civil Service. The Government do not feel the need even to let people deploy, as a defence, the fact that they believe that something criminal or against the national interest was happening. In the case of the Official Secrets Bill, that is ruled out as a defence for civil servants. Yet in local government, where committees meet in public, where the membership of committees is published, where the press are admitted, and where there is already far more openness, it is felt necessary to appoint someone with a statutory duty to blow the whistle.
Column 183In the very same week in which all this is going on, the chief executive of Westminster city council has just been paid £1 million for not blowing the whistle. How does the Secretary of State explain all this? How can he explain to his hon. Friends, whom he will invite to go through the Lobby with him tonight, that there should be a statutorily appointed person to blow the whistle when he is taking no action on the Westminster city council debacle? Clearly, the Secretary of State is facing every way at once. It is a classic example of the Government's naked hypocrisy that in the very week in which they are legislating these proposals for local government officers they are taking an entirely different view in respect of their own people, civil servants and Tory councillors in Westminster.
As a Westminster ratepayer, I rather share his view about the recent activities there. I hope that he can find it in his heart to agree with me that one good thing about the Bill is that it should enable us, for the first time, to set up a register of councillors' interests. There is a great deal of concern about planning activities and, in particular, about the interests of councillors either as consultants or as professional advisers to planners. Does the hon. Gentleman share with me the hope that through this legislation we can beef up the existing safeguards?
Dr. Cunningham : I certainly share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the goings-on in the neighbourhood of his constituency in Dorset--if those are the events to which he is referring--among developers, planners and Conservative councillors. But they already have a duty under the law to register their interests. In any case, it is only proper that they should register any interest as well as declaring it when involved in any decision.
As the Secretary of State is so concerned about the public interest in this matter, may I ask him whose interests are being served by the Conservative Lady Porter, the leader of Westminster city council, paying £1 million to keep the departing chief executive quiet? Whose interests are being served in that case? I put it to the Secretary of State that the interests of the Tory party are being served at the expense of the ratepayer.
Mr. Ridley : When Mr. Reg Race parted company with Derbyshire county council, no doubt he received his compensation entitlement under the Superannuation Act 1972. I understand that that is all that has been offered by Westminster city council. The only difference is that Derbyshire county council will not tell us how much it paid, whereas Westminster will.
Dr. Cunningham : I almost regret to say that I do not think there is any chance that Reg Race will keep quiet about what went on in Derbyshire, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman, since I have here a copy of the contract that has been drawn up between Lady Porter and Mr. Rodney Brooke, that Mr. Race did not sign any contracts like this. He did not make any commitments like this commitment not to say anything about what has been going on in Westminster city council all this time.
The Secretary of State has always been all too eager to criticise, abuse and insult local councillors, particularly those on Labour authorities, but in the case of the Tory Westminster city council he is paralysed into inactivity and
Column 184silence. He averts his gaze, although if he looks out of his window in Marsham street he can see Westminster city hall in Victoria street. Perhaps he dare not even open the windows in case the stench gets into his office.
These matters are treated with great levity when the Tory party is involved, but the Tories take a very different view of much more minor activities in many of the Labour London boroughs. At a dinner recently a civil servant was asked, "Do civil servants ever really tell jokes?" He replied, po-faced, "No, it is too risky, and it is not necessary--we simply observe Ministers and report the facts."
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Does my hon. Friend agree that, if any Labour-controlled local authority were being run in the corrupt way in which Westminster city council is being run, virtually every Tory Member of Parliament would be calling on the Government to ensure that the administration of the area was placed in the hands of someone from the central authority? Does he agree that, even apart from the cemeteries and the hush-money contracts to which he alluded, Lady Porter has shown herself to be totally disqualified not just to be the leader of a local authority but even to be a member?
Dr. Cunningham : I agree with my hon. Friend. I repeat that the Secretary of State has duties and responsibilities to the ratepayers of Westminster. He should either act to set up an extraordinary audit or institute a public inquiry into what has been going on there. He rushes to judgment elsewhere, but if even one of his rich and influential Tory friends seems threatened the Tory establishment closes ranks with a louder clang than the slamming of the gates of hell. That is what has happened in the case of Westminster city council. It is a scandal, and the Secretary of State should act to put an end to it.
As for the housing aspects of the Bill, the Government's policy and the attitude of the Secretary of State are a national disgrace. The right hon. Gentleman may remember saying to the House :
"Everyone should be able to afford a home, and we will continue to ensure that no one need be homeless because he cannot afford a home. There are problems, but they are not the result of a lack of resources or an overall shortage of housing."--[ Official Report. 10 February 1987 ; Vol. 110, c. 183]?
That was two years ago. Since then, the housing situation has continued to deteriorate for millions of our fellow citizens. There is a stark contrast between the Government's aims and objectives and proposals in the Bill. Policy, generally, is intended to end the role of local government in housing. The reality of housing misery for millions of families and the disgraceful inefficiency with which the Government spend taxpayers' money on housing, as set out in the recent Audit Commission report, ought to shame the Secretary of State, as should the complete omission from the Government's expenditure plans, published in January, of any reference to homelessness or waiting lists. Those words do not appear anywhere in the blue book, Cm. 609, because the Government want to pretend that the problems do not exist.
The Government maintain that pretence at a time when there are 10 times as many people homeless as there were
Column 185when "Cathy Comes Home" troubled the nation's conscience two decades ago. At the latest count, some 116,000 families are homeless. Meanwhile, the number of available lettings continues to decline and the number of new council homes has dropped by four fifths, while the use of temporary accommodation has jumped by six times in six years. Homelessness has been increasing over a long time, across all types of authority, in different regions, under all types of political control and with widely varying housing policies. The Government's responsibilities are the root cause of all that.
Let us consider what has happened to mortgage payers. Last year, the average advance in Great Britain was £36,164. In January 1988, the average net monthly payment was £290.76. It had increased by £81.29 by January of this year. People looking for a home to rent or to buy are crushed between the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who says that he has no sympathy, and the Secretary of State , who says that he has no intention of allowing local authorities to build more houses to meet those needs and problems.
I will give the Secretary of State an example from my constituency surgery a few days ago. A married couple and their child came to see me. They had bought their council house six year ago but had finally had to give it up. They simply could not afford the mortgage repayments any longer. When the Secretary of State came to Copeland borough in my constituency he made it clear that Copeland did not need to build any more council houses. Where does that leave that family? Where can they go? To whom can they turn for help? That is a dramatic example of the human misery resulting from the Government's housing policies.
The Audit Commission report, which was most timely, included a graph illustrating the rise in homelessness under the Government's policies. The Audit Commission said that the cost implications of the escalating use of bed and breakfast are serious. The true gross cost, including authorities which do not complete statistical returns, may well be in excess of £90 million for 1986-87, and in 1987-88 the true cost in London alone was £125 million.
Mr. Irvine Patnick (Sheffield, Hallam) : The hon. Gentleman did not tell us that the Audit Commission report also said that if some authorities, mainly Labour, got their houses back into circulation more quickly, by cutting the repair time to two and a half weeks, there would be 20,000 houses available for rent. The hon. Gentleman referred to a selected point ; he should give us the rest.
At the end of September last year, more than 11,000 homeless households had been placed in bed-andbreakfast hotels by local authorities. In some authorities, families face the prospect of months, or even years, living in hotel rooms. It is now widely accepted that bed-and-breakfast hotels provide generally the worst standard of accommodation at the highest cost, and that conditions in these establishments are totally unsuitable for family life. A family has to live in one room without chairs or tables for meals, sharing bathrooms and toilets, often on
Column 186different floors, used by many families at the same time. Parents have no privacy. Children have nowhere to play or to do their homework. Families' health, particularly that of children and pregnant women, clearly suffers. These problems are compounded if families are placed in a hotel away from their home area since access to schools, social services and medical care is disrupted. The problem of large numbers of families placed outside their home areas is concentrated in London, where around 70 per cent. of households--more than 5,000 families--in bed- and-breakfast are placed outside their own borough. The financial costs of keeping homeless people in bed-and-breakfast hotels are very high. The estimated annual cost of keeping a family in bed and breakfast accommodation in 1986-87 ranged from just over £5,000 in non- metropolitan districts to £11,000 in London. The precise costs vary. We must compare that with the average cost to a local authority of building a new home at about £7,500 per annum, a far more cost-effective, efficient and better solution for everyone and a far more caring approach for any Government to want to take--that is, any Government but the present one, with the present Secretary of State.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) referred to vacant properties. It is a recurring myth for Conservative Members to lay the blame for these problems at the door of local government. As the Audit Commission points out, the highest vacancy rate of any tenure group in England, at 6 per cent., was a Government Department, not a local authority. The Audit Commission made the point that the Government, if they really cared about these matters, would literally--to use an apt phrase-- get their own houses in order instead of wasting the taxpayers' and ratepayers' money. It is true that 2.5 per cent. of local authority dwellings remain unoccupied, but we should compare that with 2.7 per cent. of housing association dwellings and 4.1 per cent. of private sector dwellings. Local government has the best record. I agree that it is not necessarily an acceptable record, but it is a better record than that of Government Departments or housing associations.
Again, the Audit Commission says that the Department of Environment should take the initiative in seeking means to ensure that where such properties are vacant, and not for sale, they are made available for leasing to local authorities and housing associations. One way of encouraging better use would be for the accounting systems of all public sector landlords to show clearly the costs of maintaining void properties. Here we have an indication of the double standards of Government ; at present the Ministry of Defence and the Metropolitan police systems of finance do not show the cost to the ratepayer and the taxpayer of keeping houses empty. In addition, public bodies should bear the true cost of leaving properties vacant and should repay the financial benefits of bringing them into use.
There is much more to talk about in the Bill and there is much more of it that we oppose. I have made the point once, but I make it again, that we fundamentally oppose the new housing finance proposals which will require council house tenants effectively to pay an additional tax to subsidise the poll tax and housing benefit. That is a major departure from the policy followed by all previous Governments. [Interruption.] The Minister of State says that he does not understand that. I should like to think that I have got it wrong, but I assure him that I have not
Column 187because that is the view of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and of all the local authority associations, and it is a direct consequence of the proposals in the Bill. Against that background, it is a disgrace that the White Paper should show that gross capital expenditure on housing is set to fall. In 1988-89 there will be a fall of 19 per cent.--almost one fifth--compared with the financial year 1987-88. In 1989-90 and 1990-91 there will be further falls, and it is projected that by 1991-92 the existing total gross capital expenditure on housing will have been reduced by 27 per cent. How can the Government justify that manic obsession with reducing public investment in housing at a time when so many families desperately need help?
Even the voluntary organisations feel threatened by the proposals in the Bill, and the changes in the law which will threaten their funding. The Secretary of State is well-known as being an admirer of the American system of local government. He should look at what the Sunday newspapers were saying last weekend about the depths of decline in social policy in the city of New York. If the right hon. Gentleman so admires the American approach to local services, he should learn from what is happening to people in the inner cities and urban areas of too many towns and cities in America.
After 10 years of continuous office and an uninterrupted barrage of legislation on local community affairs, the Secretary of State can have no excuses. I regret to say that there is no evidence that he and his ministerial colleagues have learnt any lessons at all. We have no confidence in the Secretary of State wanting to understand the real circumstances faced by millions of his fellow citizens. His attitudes are as ugly as his proposals--neither are acceptable in a fair and civilised society.
Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate) : The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) referred to the situation in America. It is significant that he picked on New York, which has been a problem city for decades. I noted that he made no reference to the successful redevelopments in the inner-city part of Boston, which would be a credit to any local authority. In the same way that the hon. Gentleman was somewhat selective over his quotations from the Audit Commission, so he was in his comparisons of New York and of American local government in general.
The Bill falls into two parts--housing and local government. I hope that the Bill will bring to an end the injustice, which has been growing more noticeable in the past 20 years, in the balance between the ratepayer and the council house tenant. The ratepayer has been asked to pay a larger and larger proportion of the cost of local authority housing, while far too many local authorities have taken no notice of the advice from the district auditor and have set their rent levels well below any sensible figure. What is proposed will in the long run prove to be much fairer and much more acceptable to council tenants.
If rents go up, I believe that the council tenants have every right to demand that the maintenance of their properties is improved. In my constituency, the London borough of Camden is a byword for incompetence and the neglect of tenants. That local authority's main excuse is that it has no money to do the work. It overlooks the fact
Column 188that it has £14 million of rent arrears, that it paid more than £1 million for bed-and-breakfast accommodation that was never occupied, and, as a direct result of a failure to set the rate just over two years ago, it lost £2 million. The district auditor criticised it strongly, but did not have the courage to act. There was £17 million that could have been used to repair council properties.
The tenants who contact me are desperately angry at the conditions under which they must live. My advice to them is that they would certainly be better off buying their accommodation under the right to buy if it were not for the fact that 2,000 cases in Camden are beyond the statutory period and that valuations are deliberately inflated. When, on my advice, those tenants go for redetermination of those values, reductions of more than 10 per cent. are almost always achieved. They would be better off, too, under my right hon. Friend's proposals on co-operatives or in being managed by a private landlord or by a housing association. The last choice of any sensible tenant would be to be managed by a local authority such as that in the London borough of Camden.
I believe that my right hon. Friend is right in what he is proposing. I was certainly glad that he killed the canards that have been passed around by the Opposition that council rents will quintuple, or will rise by any other multiplier. Certainly, my right hon. Friend did not use the words "market forces" or "market rents", although the hon. Member for Copeland implied that he did. I want to say to the hon. Member for Copeland that I agree that this is the 50th local government Bill. When local government was in its prime and was being run by men like Hayward, Griffin, Cunningham and Norman Pritchard, the legislation that we have had to introduce would never have been needed. All those were honourable men who put the interests of their constituents ahead of party political dogma. The tragedy is that such men no longer exist. My right hon. Friend and his predecessor have, therefore, had to introduce over and over again fresh legislation to fill--
Sir Geoffrey Finsberg : It was abolished because it had become one of the most corrupt local authorities in this country. As I have said on more than one occasion, if anyone like Ike Hayward had still been around, the last leaders of the GLC would never have been allowed even through the back door.
My right hon. Friend and his predecessor have been forced over and over again to bring in legislation to block loopholes that they thought no decent person interested in local government would have attempted to use. I also do not regard some of the tricks proposed by the City as having been in the interests of the ratepayer or of the taxpayer. I have always believed that it is right to do what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is doing, which is, when possible, to repay the national debt, and, as my right hon. Friend is suggesting, to repay some local authority debts out of capital receipts. There is nothing wrong with that ; indeed, the very reverse is true. I welcome the forward thinking that my right hon. Friend has introduced into this legislation.
On the question of twin tracking, there are so many examples of Labour council advertisements for senior officer posts indicating that they are expecting the
Column 189applicants to be sympathetic to the political aims of the local authority. We have just got rid--if that is the right word--of a director of social services in the London borough of Camden, a Mr. Kodikara. He was a most incompetent chairman of the social services committee of the London borough of Hackney. He remained a Hackney councillor. He has now gone with a golden handshake, some furniture and, more importantly, a contract for unspecified work at an unspecified price, and nobody can discover why that happened or what the figures are.
I do not accept what the hon. Member for Copeland said. The mere fact that somebody is an officer, well below principal rank, does not mean that he will not tender advice or take decisions on matters where he allows his political judgment to run ahead of his professional judgment. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has had second thoughts about what the Widdicombe Committee said and about the first reactions to that report. I believe that the original response to Widdicombe was not in accord with the evidence from around the country. My right hon. Friend has shown how flexible he is and how he listens to facts when they are given to him.
Staff, whether in local government or in the Civil Service, should be appointed on merit and not because their face fits or their political views fit. If the Bill goes any way towards restoring that once firm principle I shall be delighted.
Mr. Tony Banks : Does the hon. Gentleman believe that those strictures should apply to Government appointments on quangos or within the Civil Service? Does the hon. Gentleman believe that Lord Chalfont and Lord Rees-Mogg have been appointed on their ability or because their faces fit and they subscribe to the Tory party cause?
Sir Geoffrey Finsberg : Alas, the hon. Gentleman confuses the Civil Service and public bodies. They are totally different and therefore what he says is irrelevant. I would not want any civil servant to display political views or to hold any office. If such people wish to be politicians, in common with the hon. Gentleman and me, it is their choice, but they should cease to profess their independence, stand for election and take their chance.
The Bill also talks of achieving political balance on committees and the like, which will prevent advice being given to one party only. That practice operated in Camden where the Labour party created a leader's co- ordinating committee. Officers gave advice to that committee, but no member of the opposition was entitled to be present. That is the wrong way in which to proceed.
It appears that the policy of the Labour party in local government has been to get rid of opposition members on boards of school governors--I am reminded of my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt)--and the like. For that reason the proposals that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health has introduced to get rid of local authority representation on district health authorities are absolutely right. Camden, for example, has refused over and over again to share representation on the local health authority. If that council wants a one- party system, frankly, there should be a no-party system. In the past I have made it clear to friends on Conservative-controlled councils that proportional
Column 190representation on DHAs and the like should be available to the opposition parties. I am glad that the Bill will ensure that that correct policy is followed.
Mr. Cryer : If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about advice being shared among political parties, does he agree that the many advisers employed by the Government, including, for example, Mr. Peter Luff--he is paid £24,000 a year indirectly by his employer and the company is being investigated by that employer, the Department of Trade and Industry-- and the information provided by those advisers, paid for by the taxpayer, should be shared among the opposition as well?
I welcome clause 124 which makes clear exactly what can be charged for in libraries. As my right hon. Friend has said, there never was any intention of charging for the basic core services. I also welcome clause 134 which winds up the Town Development Act 1952. When I was a Minister at the Department of the Environment I decided that that Act had served its purpose and had no real value any more--little was done under that Act from 1980 onwards. At the time it did a good job, but it is right that it should be wound up as it has no further function.
I appreciate that the principle of the Bill will be unacceptable to Opposition Members. I would not expect anything else, as it is their job to say that it is unacceptable even if, in their hearts, they know that there is a lot of merit in it. The Bill will be welcome, however, to people outside who are sick and tired of the perversion of local government. They have witnessed the Labour party's destruction of all that was decent and honourable in local government.
It is almost 40 years since I first entered local government by defeating the late Lord Greenwood. In those days local government was honourable on both sides, but today I fear that it has been put into disrepute by the activities of far too many people whom I do not believe the hon. Member for Copeland likes to acknowledge as members of his party. The Bill will do something to get rid of that element and I welcome it.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North) : I shall confine my remarks primarily to housing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) has covered our concerns about other parts of the Bill. A great deal needs to be done about housing, and it has not been addressed in the Bill or by previous legislation. It has been said that we have reached a half century of local government measures, but since the Government have been in power only five pieces of legislation have specifically dealt with housing. Despite that legislation we have not made any progress. The major problems of housing have not been addressed by the Bill, and they were not addressed by the Local Government Act 1988. The Government have refused to engage in any dialogue about those problems and have refused to recognise them.
Given that the Government have been in office for 10 years, it is interesting to note what the people given responsibility for housing in the Department of the Environment have done during that time. It is 28 months since I was elected to the House and it is remarkable that
Column 191there have been three different Ministers of State and goodness knows how many Under-Secretaries of State since then. I have studied recent publications by the housing press and have noticed the considerable amount of space that has been devoted to pictures of Lord Caithness--he is the Minister of State in the other place. He always appears in various housing journals with a trowel in his hand, laying bricks. The hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier) makes a weekly appearance in some magazine or other wielding a spade and cutting the first sod. He was kind enough to do so on a development in my constituency the other week.
I have devoted some time to considering what various people have done in their various posts during the past 10 years and I believe that I have tumbled on the answer. I believe that the various housing posts within the Department of the Environment represent an employment training scheme for members of the aristocracy. They join the Department to do some work on housing, although they never achieve anything and then go on to do other things.
It is worth considering what has happened to some people who were at the Department of the Environment. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten) was Minister of State, Department of the Environment when I was first elected, but after his training programme in that Department he was dispatched to another Department to resolve the problems of homelessness. He did not, of course, build any more houses as he was sent to that Department to build more prisons. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) was an Under-Secretary at the Department of the Environment when the 1988 Act went through the House. She did not complete her course of training and became the first victim of the landlord-tenant regulations set out in that Act when she was evicted from the Government ; and so it goes on.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) served some time within that Department and had direct responsibilities for housing. Perhaps as a foretaste of the Bill, he left that Department of his own accord, presumably prior to his training being completed, to build a ring fence around the Six Counties of Northern Ireland. I could go on.
Perhaps we could consider the fate of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He was responsible for the Housing Act 1988 when it was in Committee. He has been sent off to rule the world. I understand that he has been advising Secretary-General Gorbachev about the advantages of a secure tenancy over an assured tenancy, although I do not know how that applies to Mr. Gorbachev. There has been a considerable throughput of Ministers but no action. None of the major problems that they inherited because of an aging housing stock has been addressed. The dilemmas and problems have grown worse without any realistic action being taken.
Column 192I should like to examine the opportunities that have not been addressed by the Bill, suggest some ideas that the Government might like to consider as the Bill goes through Committee, on the basis that we need to do something about some of housing's major problems. How can we look at housing finance, which the Bill does in a very partial way, without considering the problems created by having a dual- track system--there seems to be a lot of reference to that--within the subsidy arrangements for housing? We have mortgage interest tax relief that can technically be unlimited. The only limit is on how many people fall into the qualification provisions. That ceiling can go up and up and has indeed been steadily raised because of the number of people who are coming into owner-occupation and taking out mortgages.
Yet at this time last year we witnessed a sharp reduction in housing benefits, which has certainly been felt in my constituency and elsewhere. The subsidy system needs to be sorted out because clearly there is no targeting of mortgage tax relief on one side, where people qualify for it by simply having a mortgage ; yet on the other side targeting has lopped off hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of those eligible to claim housing benefit. The Government might have considered introducing a single housing benefit related to people's needs for housing and their means. That will really help those in housing need, who may be on a low income or dependent on state benefits, to acquire housing suitable to their needs. But no, the Government have not looked at that at all. We hear a lot of talk about rents being allowed to find the market level. We heard that about the Housing Act, and in the Secretary of State's speech today. But what is a market rent? How does one determine a market rent, in an area such as Merseyside, where property values are falling in some parts? With what does one compare it? How does one determine a market rent in an area like mine, where rents are already very high? Indeed, the previous Minister of State, who is now a Minister of State at the Foreign Office, conceded in a meeting with councillors in my constituency that rents were already relatively high. Yet they must increase even more as a result of the Bill.
I do not quite know how the Government will sort out all these things. If they are serious about doing something for the homeless, why do they not consider some of the possibilities in the short-life movement? What we really need, of course, is a long-term solution to homelessness, but the crisis is on us now. In London and other cities there is a large short- life, community-based housing association movement. If the Government want to do something about homelessness, they could go to these community-based associations and say, "We will give you mini-housing association grant money." Even in central London it usually costs about £20,000 to £25,000 to bring a new unit of accommodation into use for the homeless. Why not let associations get on with mini-HAG schemes and bring some of the property that is awaiting repair on stream, and thus do something about the problem? An incidental by-product of that is the reduced cost of these schemes. Whereas it costs about £15,000 a year to keep a homeless family in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, less than £1,000 a year in subsidies will keep a homeless family in short-life accommodation. That eminently sensible suggestion is worth looking at, but there is nothing in the Bill to suggest a solution to the problems of the homeless. It is another missed opportunity.
Column 193Why does the Bill not address the problem of disrepair and the extent to which much new build in the private and, to some extent, in the public sector, adds to it? Why do the Government not look now, for example, at the space standards that are being built to now? Why do they not look at the standards of materials used in the public sector and by housing associations, and certainly in the private sector, as a result of the new financing regime? Why do they not look at standards of materials and construction techniques, with an emphasis on setting reasonable standards?
We already know about the sorry saga of disrepair, with £20 billion a year being needed, but not spent, to bring the stock up to scratch. It is probably a much higher figure now. Why do not the Government look for ways to stop making that problem worse? I know well that much of the housing being built--the Minister will have to concede this if he looks at it carefully--will be a major problem in 20 years' time. It is shoddily built.
Mr. Patnick : Does the hon. Gentleman realise that one of the curses of local government today is that high-rise, mass-density developments that were built in the early 1970s are causing much of the need for refurbishment? The local authorities are throwing money at them as if that is a solution. Demolition is the only way forward. These are big housing blocks, and there is a multiplicity of them.
Mr. Howarth : The hon. Gentleman mentions the problems of high-rise flats. I recognise that demolition is the problem. A 21-storey block of flats called Stourbridge villas, where I have lived, is being demolished in my constituency. But that is not always the answer. If some high-rise blocks were refurbished they would provide satisfactory accommodation for certain people. It is not correct to say that all those blocks should be pulled down, because we shall not be able to replace those units fast enough. Local authorities should be given resources, where appropriate, to improve properties, to repair lifts and stop damp penetration.
The major point is that, unless the Government do something about standards in the construction industry, what is being built at the moment will cause major problems of disrepair in 20 to 30 years' time. The Government of that day, of whatever colour, will have to provide billions of pounds to put the problems right, in both the private and public sectors.
Instead of attacking local government, which is the main thrust of the Bill, why do the Government not look at the possibility of building up partnership arrangements? They already have schemes such as Estate Action, where the Government are tentatively dipping their toes into the water. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment visited the Tower hill part of my constituency, and I give him credit.
In Tower hill, the local residents, the local authority and the Government, in the form of the Estate Action programme, have together carried out major improvements to the estate, and its layout and general environment. But why do the Government not take that idea further and say, "Okay, it is a good idea to involve the community in this type of urban renewal, but we shall also provide the capital"? Instead of money being provided to improve the periphery of estates, improvements could be
Column 194made to the inside of properties, many of which are riddled with damp and have other problems, too. That would be a major step, but it has received no consideration.
Successive Ministers have failed to address Britain's housing problems. They have been hidebound by dogma that is neither relevant nor appropriate to the problems that we face. Unless the Government are prepared to listen to sensible suggestions about how to solve the real problems, their legislation will fail to make any contribution to housing and will probably end up making matters worse.
Mr. Irvine Patnick (Sheffield, Hallam) : It is hard to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) who seems to have been in local government even longer than I have, which is for the majority of my life. The rot started--the two factors have nothing in common--when I joined local government in 1967. I wanted local government's role to be clearly defined in the Bill. Twenty years ago, at the beginning of my service in local government, local government throughout Britain was run on sensible and efficient lines, whether the councils were controlled by Labour or any other party. Between 1970 and 1980 I regret that there was increasing abuse of local government procedures, privileges and finances, which, in the main, have occurred in Labour-controlled councils.
The Bill's objective is to return local government to the practices once prevalent everywhere, based on service to the local community rather than for personal political gain. As the Minister said, we are trying to give local government back to local government. I can remember the time when a local council's chief officer was not only respected but someone about whose political affiliation no one had a clue. I doubt whether he even voted. Those days have long since gone. Yet the Opposition are constantly looking for hidden agendas. They cannot look at a Bill without seeing conspiracy behind it.
Mr. Winnick : Since the hon. Gentleman is criticising local authorities and has mentioned chief executives, will he take this opportunity to condemn Westminster city council which, under the leadership of Lady Porter, has been run in a disgraceful and corrupt way and has been involved in a hush-money contract?
Mr. Gummer rose--
Mr. Patnick : The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) sounds like a continuous tape, going on and on. The words are the same, only the player is different. I give way to my right hon. Friend the Minister.
Mr. Gummer : In answering the point made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), will my hon. Friend ask whether Opposition Members wish to deny the chief executive money that he has paid, legally and properly, into a superannuation fund, and whether they would care to cast their minds over the fact that the only
Column 195case about which they ever talk is the one that has just been mentioned, whereas my hon. Friend could no doubt keep the House here all evening with cases of proven misuse?
Mr. Patnick : I thank my right hon. Friend for those words of guidance. Before I became a Member of the House, a chief executive of a former metropolitan county had a similar experience and, like the chief executive of Westminster council, he took the money to which he was entitled. It is the system that is wrong. I shall refer later to an hon. Member who was in local government.
There is nothing hidden or conspiratorial about the Government's intentions in the Bill. The Government have forced local government to be efficient and responsible. If the Labour party want a form of twin tracking, let it be the twin tracks of efficiency and responsibility. The Bill is a response to proven abuses and needs and it helps to put above board the activities of those centrally involved in local government. The Opposition's stance makes it clear that such a Bill would never see the light of day under a Labour Government. The Bill is overdue and abundantly necessary and deserves the whole-hearted support of the House.
The Government have already implemented some of the Widdicombe report's recommendations on political propaganda on the rates. That matter came before the House in June 1988 and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the Member for Southampton, Itchen--no "h" dropped--(Mr. Chope) explained to me that I was wrong to ask how councils such as those in Sheffield and Derbyshire could issue newspapers which to me were propaganda on the rates.
How can Derbyshire county council which says that it stands by its services go on to say that county councillors have pledged that cuts in services and jobs will not be adopted by the county council "at any time in the foreseeable future and at least until 1993" according to the council's leader? How can that be the right way to run a council? How can that be permitted under legislation? The Government have been soft on such propaganda on the rates, and there is more.
Mr. Redmond : The hon. Gentleman talks about councils spending money on propaganda, but they have a right to inform the people whom they represent. Will he say something about the millions of pounds that the Government spend on propaganda advancing their case instead of putting the facts to the people?
Sir Geoffrey Finsberg : I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that strict rules apply to Ministers and their Departments. In the four years that I was a Minister I spent most of my time being utterly frustrated as a result of being unable to issue facts to counter some of the fiction coming from the Opposition.
Column 196Sheffield city council put out a leaflet entitled "The Community Charge"--the one and only time that it called it that. It usually refers to it as we all know, as the poll tax. In the well- known Sheffield News, which is nothing short of a propaganda sheet paid for by the city's rate-payers for the benefit of Sheffield's Labour party--
Madam Deputy Speaker : A Second Reading debate is wide, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) will, with all his local government experience, be able to return to the Bill.