Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and may I belatedly congratulate you on your elevation and appointment? I also congratulate all Members who have delivered their maiden speeches in this House. I have been privileged to listen to many discussions and many maiden speeches, and I have waited patiently, deliberately not rushing to make this speech-after all, in reality, I have probably been waiting for more than a quarter of a century to make this speech. That long wait commenced during a particularly inspiring lecture by one of my A-level politics tutors on a wet Wednesday afternoon, so a few weeks, and indeed a couple of hours, are a small price to pay.
I have not traditionally been an individual who has subscribed to a fatalistic view of life, but I have found my scepticism tested by the fact that my majority of 691 that has bought me to this great House is exactly the same as that of another young Conservative Member of Parliament who won the seat of Wolverhampton South West for the first time in 1950-one Enoch Powell. I make that statement with my tongue firmly pressed against the inside of my cheek and an ironic smile on my face. I also appeal to all Members of the House to take me to one side and proofread any of my speeches should I feel compelled in 18 years' time to make a controversial speech at the Midland hotel. That is unlikely to happen, primarily because the hotel is no longer there, but I have lived enough of a life to know that one should never say never-I ask the Hansard reporters to note that my tongue is now firmly affixed to the other side of my cheek.
Am I here as the product of karma or kismet? I do not know, but I do know that by uttering those words I have probably created some confusion among those who record our statements, as I have introduced some Punjabi words into the rich texture of the records of Hansard. I have to state that I felt honour-bound to do that as I am the first Sikh Member of Parliament to sit on the Conservative Benches.
As is customary during these speeches, I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor, Rob Marris. During the last few weeks of the election campaign, although we were political adversaries we did manage to have many convivial chats and conversations, and during those last few weeks I found Rob to be a man of his word and a thoroughly decent bloke. He was an assiduous consistency MP and will undoubtedly be a tough act to follow, but I will endeavour to fill those extremely large shoes.
In terms of the Wolverhampton South West constituency, perhaps one of the most impressive sights to meet anyone coming in from the city centre is the Molineux stadium, which is home to Wolverhampton Wanderers
football club. I am delighted to say that I am a season ticket holder and fan, and I am even more delighted by the fact that we stayed in the premiership this year. The seat is entirely urban and it is also home to the Express & Star newspaper, the country's largest regional newspaper, which reaches more than 136,000 regular readers. One thing that does stand out for the Express & Star is that, uniquely, it has more than nine editions, covering local areas across the west midlands and maintaining a community base that is not just Wolverhampton-centric.
The constituency is also home to the brewer Marston's, and only recently I was honoured to be present at the opening of its new visitors centre. I would heartily recommend anybody visiting Wolverhampton, including fellow Members, to sample our fine local ale during a visit to the constituency. I could speak at length about the history of the city and its prominent attractions, but that would be to miss out the greatest strength and asset of Wolverhampton-its people. Wulfrunians are famed for a no-nonsense approach to life; they say it as it is, approaching life with an open mind and refreshing honesty. In many ways that attitude mirrors my own personal experiences of growing up in a Sikh family. It is a Punjabi tradition to live life to the full and with "dhel"-that is a Punjabi word for a generous spirit and courageous heart. That, in essence, sums up the vast majority of Wulfrunians. One will not find a city populated by a more decent people, who always speak straight from their soul. As my family always told me when I was growing up, "Real friends will tell you the truth. It is acquaintances who will tell you what you want to hear."
In Wolverhampton, I have spoken to representatives of various bodies about health care in the city, and that is why I have chosen to make my maiden speech in this debate, which is essentially about funding. We have the Phoenix centre, a walk-in centre that offers a wide variety of treatments, along with the Gem centre, which I passed every day during the general election campaign. However, through my discussions with various individuals and numerous bodies I have uncovered a great deal of frustration with the fact that for the last six years, under the last Government, just under £100 million of private investment in health care provision in Wolverhampton had not been spent, after discussion after discussion after procrastination. It would appear that after years of waiting to spend this money, we now have a stalemate and it seems likely that with the passage of time, Wolverhampton and my constituents will have missed out on more than £100 million of investment in health care because of dithering, indecision and inaction. I am not interested in apportioning blame, but have chosen to raise the matter as I feel passionately about it. The issues raised by such inaction could provide guidance to legislators and executives both nationally and locally. I am stoical in my view that we cannot change what happened yesterday, but we can change tomorrow.
To get to the nub of the issue, Wolverhampton has been involved in a dialogue with a LIFTCo-a local improvement finance trust company. A LIFTCo is essentially a PFI initiative to push forward service-led initiatives to bring about radical change in primary and social care. We can talk long and hard about the pros and cons of PFI initiatives, but, through my discussions
with various bodies, I have discovered that total inaction is universally perceived to have been the worst option. I shall not go into the minutiae of the detail, but essentially the public and private sectors have come together in good faith but, over a period of time, either the private sector has lost faith or the project has fallen away, as everybody feels that they are at a total impasse. I feel that the reason for that is that, eventually, somebody has to make a decision and ultimately take a risk. In the past few years, "risk" has become a somewhat dirty word associated with young men wearing garish braces and shouting colourful language across trading floors, leading ultimately to the likes of us picking up the bill for their recklessness. That is the point-in essence, I am talking about calculated risks and about people moving outside their comfort zone.
Perhaps I can illustrate my point more graphically by reciting another conversation with a similar colleague who has done a great deal of work on the role of young men in street gangs. I know I am veering away from the issue of health provision, but the subject of individual risk-taking is just as pertinent. My colleague spoke to many young men about their dreams and hopes and why they had eventually become gang members. One individual story jumped out more than the others. A group of teenagers would regularly meet at a park and it happened that their central meeting point revolved around a set of gymnastic parallel bars. There was a pecking order and young men would impress their peers and, importantly, young women by showing off their prowess on the bars. One day-almost inevitably-somebody fell off and, because of the resultant scratches and bruises, the local council felt honour-bound to remove the bars after health and safety got involved. After a few years the youngsters had formed a gang and a pecking order became established, with antisocial behaviour becoming a badge of honour.
Having been a young man once, I can vaguely remember the desire and the engine that would drive a person to seek acceptance and admiration from their friends and to impress members of the opposite sex. Luckily for me, a sports field was my arena, but it comes back to that basic point: if we endeavour to eliminate risk, we emasculate society and it appears that young men in particular feel that acutely. To put this as bluntly as possible, in terms of our public-private service providers we need to put radical thinking and calculated risk taking and decision making at the centre of provision.
The motives of officers should not be just their salaries and pension pot at the end of their careers. I am under no illusion that this will be easy, but I dare say that governance of any sort over the next few years will be challenging. I-like many Members, I suspect-am always interested in the discussion of ideas, but some have said to me that that does not always happen in the Chamber with the new modern politics.
Forgive me if I have strayed on to controversial ground, but as I suggested earlier, straight talking and a no-nonsense approach is the Wolverhampton way. In that vein, I would make a plea for all Members to revisit the issue of postal voting fraud, which, I am sad to say, appears to be alive and well in many of our metropolitan areas. Since I was elected, I have been approached by numerous individuals in my own constituency who have spoken to me about the issue. In my case, it worked against me; I would say to Opposition Members that
there might be cases where it will have worked against them. In any event, we are all very much at a crossroads. I can envisage a time soon when very easily and quickly we will all face an escalation of a fraudulent race here, as each side endeavours to outdo the other. I hope that Opposition Members will trust my motives for wading into this area, as it damages us all in this House and damages our reputation as a country.
It is all too easy to stereotype the motives of Members as partisan, mischievous or surreptitious. As a child, I often faced brutal stereotyping on my daily journey to school, but even more painful was the pigeonholing inflicted on me on my first day in a new primary school: I was placed in a remedial class for a few years because the natural assumption was that I could not speak English. I say that to illustrate that we are almost all guilty of occasionally judging a book by its cover. So when the Conservatives are castigated for being uncaring over the next few years, I ask hon. Members to remember that I am somebody's son, father, brother, husband, cousin and friend, and that in their eyes one could not find a person further removed from that caricature.
I thank hon. Members for their patience and indulgence in letting me speak, and I hope they will forgive me if I have troubled any sensibilities. This great House is nothing if not a reflection of the individual stories of its Members, and I hope that by adding my perspective I have added to the strength of its foundations and the breadth of debate.
Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) on his excellent maiden speech. He certainly covered the attributes and aspects of his constituency. I congratulate him on the special place that he has achieved in parliamentary history and in the history of the Conservative party. It was good to hear his very generous comments about his predecessor, Rob Marris, who was respected for his honesty, integrity and friendship on the Labour side of the House. I think that is appreciated.
I was just having a brief discussion with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) and my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) about the good things that come out of Wolverhampton. Unfortunately, Wolverhampton Wanderers managed to sell to Sheffield Wednesday one Leon Clarke, whom the hon. Gentleman might remember. Leon Clarke finally scored a goal in the last game of the season, when we were struggling to avoid relegation. In celebrating his wonderful goal, he ran to the advertising hoardings and kicked them, breaking his toe, and was then substituted. I do not think it is true that everything that comes out of Wolverhampton is necessarily first class and admirable.
Let me move on to the debate. The Opposition have made it very clear that we have major reservations about the immediate impact of the cuts and about the proposals for the medium term. We believe it is unnecessary for the cuts to come immediately and that they go too far in the immediate term. We also believe that they are unfair in a number of respects. Bringing in cuts part way through the year has forced local councils to make the cuts that are available to them, which are not necessarily the cuts they would make if they had a bit more time to plan and bring them in properly. We also
disagree fundamentally with the way the cuts have been targeted at funds that are themselves targeted at areas of deprivation. They are cuts against deprived communities, and they are the sort of cuts that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), would have been on his feet protesting about only a few weeks ago.
I want to raise two concerns about where the Government are headed-with their approach to housing and their approach to the general cuts to local government that will be announced in the next few weeks. I did not get an answer earlier from the Minister for Housing about housing targets: he said that the Government did not have any. I did not get an answer about likely numbers, how that area will be funded or what the funding mechanisms will be. I have a real worry regarding the comments of Liberal Democrats about the last Government not building enough houses. I have some sympathy with those sentiments because I think that although we did brilliantly on the Decent Homes programme, we did not build enough social houses to rent. That needs to be rectified, but does any Lib Dem in the House seriously believe that this Government will do better, when they have no idea how that will be achieved? That is complete nonsense.
The problem is that people are going to be much more careful about committing themselves to buying a house as we head towards a situation in which spending will be reined in, people will be fearful of losing their job, wages will fall and benefits will be cut. The likelihood is that the housing market will stagnate, at best, in the next few months. Whether a double-dip recession and the economy going down will produce a slowing down of the housing market, or whether a slowing down of the housing market will produce a double-dip recession, is a chicken-and-egg argument. The likelihood is that economic activity will stall and the housing market will stall.
If fewer people feel able to commit to buying a home, there will be more pressure on social renting and local authority waiting lists, so what have the Government done? The first thing they have done is to suspend the Kickstart programme and schemes whereby local authorities were going to build houses directly for the first time in a long time. Labour and the Lib Dems welcomed that approach when it was introduced, but the Lib Dems are now cutting and stopping it. That is the reality of the situation. If local authorities are no longer allowed to build, what are the alternatives? I have not heard any. We have been promised an announcement at some stage in the future.
We have also been told that the reforms to the housing revenue account have been put on hold. That was one of the few opportunities for local authorities to return to council house building. If they could depend on a given rental stream for the future, they could perhaps use prudential borrowing for that purpose.
The housing association building model depends on cross-subsidies from the selling of homes. If the private sector housing market is stalled, those cross-subsidies will not be available. We do not know what will happen to social housing, because there is complete silence from the Government. All we know is that people who are in social housing will have a tougher time with the housing benefit rules, and some may be forced out of their houses into private rented accommodation.
Caroline Flint: What does my hon. Friend make of the idea of providing help for people who wish to move to another part of the country to find work? None of us would oppose such an arrangement, but given the absence of any policies to create more affordable housing opportunities around the country, how exactly would it work?
Mr Betts: Obviously it would be up to the Government to make any such announcement, but the idea that people should move from communities in the north, where there may be enough housing, to find jobs in the south, where there is a particularly chronic housing shortage, beggars belief. What would people on waiting lists in the south think of someone who arrived there and said, "I will have that house as a matter of priority, because I am moving down here to work"? The policy has not been thought through.
If any Member on the other side of the House can tell me where the mechanism and the funds will come from to enable new social rented housing to be built, I ask him or her to stand up and do so. So far, I have heard nothing from either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. There are no funds for council house building-they have been stalled-and the funds for housing association building are limited. Given the reduction in cross-subsidy from the selling of homes, any money that the Homes and Communities Agency may have to fund housing association accommodation will produce fewer houses. Fewer social houses will be built as a result of this Government's policies, and I am aware of no commitment from Ministers to rectify the position.
What will the Government do about the overall funding situation? We have heard about 25% cuts, and also about protection for education. Presumably Departments other than those dealing with schools and defence will take a bigger hit. We are assuming that councils will receive at least 30%, but the arrangement is not fair, because we will have to protect adult social services and children's services. What is left? Libraries, parks, recreation, street cleaning, the environment and refuse collection. It is no use the Secretary of State telling local authorities how to collect their refuse. Will they have the money to pay for one refuse collection a week?
Then we must consider the differing impacts on various councils. I opposed individual council tax caps when our Government introduced them, and refused to vote for them, but let us assume that they are imposed now. At least authorities will receive the same amount of money from council tax, but there will be cuts in their Government grant. Councils with the most deprivation in their areas receive a bigger amount of grant than those with the least deprivation, which receive more of their money from council tax. Council tax is to be frozen but Government grant is to be cut by 25%, which means that the councils that will suffer the biggest cuts in their overall budgets are those with the most deprivation. That is unfair, and we fundamentally oppose it. The Liberal Democrats used to oppose it as well, and it is time that one or two Members on the Government Benches, including the Minister, started to explain how they will make the system fair.
The fact is that the most disadvantaged councils and communities will be hit hardest by the 25% cuts in Government funding. In their areas, library, recreation and street cleaning budgets will be cut in half. If the
Minister does not agree with that, he must explain why my figures are wrong. If such facilities as adults' and children's services are protected from the 30% cut in the grant, the impact on other services will be dramatic, especially in areas that receive a large amount of Government support because of deprivation.
George Hollingbery: I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman on the Select Committee. It seems from his eloquent speech this afternoon that I have a great deal to learn. I have to say, however, that I am a little tired of Opposition Members targeting the "Tory shires", as if that were a pejorative term. We rightly receive less Government support for our citizens than more deprived boroughs, and I accept and understand that. However, the spending that comes to us is for our more deprived citizens, and cuts to our budgets, which have not been topped up as much over recent years as those in others places, are very important to us. We may be wealthier parts of the country, but the people we are looking after are not.
Mr Betts: In the end, the Government grant reflects the amount of deprivation in an area. Clearly, there are deprived people even in affluent areas, but it is about the total amount of deprivation. Certainly other communities have more deprivation and that is why they get more Government funding and they will be harder hit. That is the point that I am making.
Right at the end of the Minister's speech we got a vague mention of Total Place. It is important that it is developed, but it should not be seen as a panacea. Total Place is at the pilot stage; it has produced some very interesting results and ideas about how public money can be spent better across Departments. The Government have to allow local authorities to take the lead on these matters. The DCLG must get a grip of its colleagues in other Departments and let go of the controls that exist, but that will not deliver overnight savings of 25%. We will not achieve 25% or 30% cuts by efficiency savings; there will be real damage to public services. We must recognise that, and the Government must explain and justify the cuts.
The Secretary of State says that his three priorities are localism, localism and localism, but let us take what the Minister said about refuse collection and people in town halls dictating things. Where is the dictation? The Secretary of State in his new spirit of localism is telling every council in this country how it must empty the bins. It is absolute nonsense. How can we have any trust or faith in a Government who talk about localism and setting local councils free when that is one of their first policy announcements?
It is clear that the Budget package was regressive. That has been shown by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. There was an interesting report in the newspapers at the weekend of an investigation into the totality of the Government cuts by Tim Horton and Howard Reed on behalf of the Fabian society. It showed that when one takes not merely the tax changes but the housing benefit changes and the spending cuts, including local government spending cuts, the poorest 10% of our community will have their spending power cut by six times as much as the richest 10%. That is the impact of the Government's policy. The Budget was not fair and the cuts that have been made so far to local council budgets are not fair. The deficit is truly being cut on the backs of the poorest in our communities.