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13 Nov 2002 : Column 46—continued

5.10 pm

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) on their speeches, which were excellent.

There is much to welcome in the Government's programme for the Session, which is being debated at a time when the world is preoccupied with the war against terrorism and, we hope, avoiding a war between nations. I hope that in the next few months there will be positive advances on both fronts. As we witness yet another period of famine in Ethiopia that threatens the lives of millions of people and yet more trouble between Israel and the Palestinians, we must recognise that the great injustices and inequalities in the world that starve the helpless feed the terrorists.

The Queen's Speech is predominantly about domestic issues, and I shall concentrate on its contents in that respect. There is much in the speech about the need to step up the fight against crime and antisocial behaviour. I support that and look forward to the measures announced in the speech achieving a reduction in both areas. It is true that crime is not as prevalent as the perception and fear of it would suggest, but if people are intimidated into restricting their social activities and their freedom to move about their neighbourhoods because of that perception, we are not winning the war against crime.

Similarly, if people's lives are blighted by the yobbish, selfish and antisocial activities of others, we are not winning the war against antisocial behaviour. It is that sort of behaviour that most blights people's lives—more than crime, more than terrorism and more than the fear of wars—because it is local and personal to thousands of our citizens throughout the country.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a great possibility that the apparent decline in crime is, rather, a decline in recorded crime and that people are not recording it any longer because they are disillusioned?

Mr. Clelland: Disillusionment has spread across many aspects of our nation. Crime is one of them. There

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may be something in what the hon. Gentleman says, but I still believe that the perception of crime is much greater than the actual possibility of it affecting individuals. It is still a real fear.

I hope that the measures announced in the Loyal Address will have an impact on those and related problems, such as the indiscriminate scattering of litter on our streets, the chewing gum problem, animal excretions, people who empty the contents of their cars on to the side of the road and even throw rubbish out of moving vehicles on to roads and motorways. When I compare the state of some of the streets in our towns and cities with some of our close neighbours in Europe, I am ashamed that so many of our people seem oblivious to the way in which litter blights their environment, to say nothing of the vermin and disease that it attracts. We need a combination of penalties and education to begin to make inroads into the problems of litter, and a step change in our approach to recycling and the reduction of unnecessary packaging.

In my remarks on last year's Queen's Speech, I highlighted the fact that antisocial and neighbourhood problems could be reduced with the co-operation of private landlords. Indeed, in Newcastle and Gateshead, voluntary arrangements between landlords and the local authorities have had an effect. However, too many landlords are not interested in the effects that the behaviour of their tenants or indeed the condition of their properties have on the rest of the neighbourhood. We have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) of similar problems in his constituency.

In Newcastle and Gateshead, we know from bitter experience how that can lead to the complete rundown of an area, with decent people being driven out and their empty homes vandalised and often burned out. The resulting devaluation of the properties leaves people in negative equity and the whole area looking like something from the blitz. Houses are then sold off for knockdown prices and—surprise, surprise—who buys them? Often, it is the very landlords whose neglect contributed to the disaster in the first place. They then go to the local authority, asking for grants to help to restore the properties and increase their value. The fact that people can profit from such activity is even more unpalatable than the misery that they cause doing it.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that another serious anomaly is that tenants in some private properties pay rents that are nearly twice what would be paid normally in council-owned properties, despite the fact that private landlords are allowing the properties to deteriorate? Surely someone should step in soon to ensure that tenants get a fair deal.

Mr. Clelland: I agree, except that it is often not the tenants who pay the rents but the taxpayer, who pays through housing benefit and social security. That matter definitely needs to be looked at, because through housing benefit we can help to control landlords. I very much welcome the inclusion in the Queen's Speech of measures to remedy the problem. Landlords must be

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made to bear some of the responsibility for the behaviour of their tenants, as well as for the condition of the property.

A system of licensing and regulations, accompanied by a requirement to issue tenants with proper and enforceable tenancy agreements, is long overdue. Local authorities will have a policing role to play, and I know that they will welcome the opportunity to help to put an end to blight and antisocial behaviour in their localities.

That brings me to the proposed local government Bill. The encouraging words of the Chancellor and the Deputy Prime Minister about releasing councils from the shackles that too often give the lie to the term Xlocal government" will be welcomed by councillors up and down the country. The Government's devolution programme has to be about cascading decisions down to the most appropriate level: devolved assemblies and local government.

I hope that the Bill will also provide an opportunity to look at the proposals from the National Association of Councillors for some sort of recognition for long-serving councillors who retire from public life. A considerable number of elected councillors spend a considerable amount of their working lives on council work, so there should be some provision to ensure that they do not suffer a loss of pension as a result. The Bill might also include a provision for lump-sum payments so that councillors are not deterred from making way for younger candidates by the prospect of financial hardship.

Although not part of the Bill, the House will soon be told of the result of the consultations on the local government finance review. It is important that Ministers make every effort to get this right and make the system fair. The Prime Minister has said that he believes that the ability to make bold decisions is a virtue. This issue requires bold decisions, and I hope that Ministers are up to it. There is a north-south divide and the present system of local government finance is an integral part of it.

I have mentioned devolution and I very much welcome the inclusion in the Queen's Speech of legislative proposals to allow for referendums in the English regions on elected regional assemblies. That is long overdue and is an essential next step in the process that was started in 1997. I was disappointed by the response of the Leader of the Opposition. I know he was there when the Queen read out the Speech; I saw him. I am sure that he has a copy, but he seems to have the wrong end of the stick. He went on about how the Government were going to break up the United Kingdom, how the Deputy Prime Minister would impose a new tier of bureaucracy, how there would be burdens on business and how the Government were abolishing county councils. I wish that the proposals were substantial enough to merit such condemnation. The Queen's Speech does not propose any such thing; it proposes that people in the regions ought to have the right to decide for themselves. I cannot see why anyone in this House should want to deny people in the regions the right to decide for themselves whether they want regional government.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, but does he agree that when it comes to the

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legislation on the referendum, it would be a huge mistake for the Government to continue to pursue the argument that the referendums should be on the dual issues of whether people want a directly elected regional assembly in their region and, in the same single question, whether they support any reorganisation of local government? Does he agree that they are two separate issues and should be treated separately?

Mr. Clelland: Having made that very point on the record, I can hardly change my mind on it now. I agree that local government reorganisation and the introduction of regional government are two completely separate issues. I am not saying that once regional government has been established there may not be a case for regional government's examining the local authority structure in its region and taking decisions, or at least recommending changes along those lines, but I shall certainly be arguing that we need not necessarily make this part of the legislation.

Meanwhile, I look forward to further consideration of the economic disparities between regions. This is a two-edged sword and it is now as much of a problem for the regions that have enjoyed its benefits as it is for those who for too long have suffered its consequences. The south-east is now overcrowded and over-congested. House prices are out of the reach of many average wage earners and key workers, causing problems for public services and private sector employees alike. The situation is becoming critical. At the same time, the north-east continues to suffer the United Kingdom's worst unemployment levels. The population continues to decline and empty properties abound. If regional policy does not address that disparity, people are entitled to ask what regional policy is for.

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