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3.45 pm

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): I, too, congratulate the new members of the Cabinet.

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, and I am delighted to be part of a Labour Government who have been returned for a second term. I am also delighted that the Queen's Speech referred to public services. In the few minutes for which I intend to detain the House, I want to refer especially to public services in my constituency, and to some of the problems that we experience in ensuring that they are delivered properly.

Like many other Labour Members, I campaigned on health, education and law and order, and the response in my constituency was positive. Unfortunately the turnout was low, but 70 per cent. of those who voted voted Labour. That compares with the result in earlier elections. The only way in which public services can be delivered--and were delivered during the last Parliament--is through a strong and stable economy, and I am pleased that the Queen's Speech referred to a continuation of the Government's economic policies.

The turnout in my constituency was as low as 46 per cent. That is lower than the national average, and caused me considerable concern. In fact, it should concern us all that such a large proportion of my constituents were disengaged from the political process. We have heard one or two reasons for the existence of such voter apathy in today's debate.

As I have said, 70 per cent. of my constituents who voted voted Labour. I could therefore say that there was considerable contentment with the results of the first four years of Labour government, and that I need not worry, because my constituents are happy with what the Labour Government have done. So low was the turnout, however, that I have no idea what the 55 per cent. or so who did not vote were thinking. They may have been thinking the opposite.

Mr. Clapham: They certainly were not thinking Conservative.

Mr. Illsley: I was thrown for a minute then. I was trying to work out the difference between individuality and individualism. However, I fully endorse all that my hon. Friend said, although I did not understand a word of it.

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Although, as I say, it could be said that voters in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend were contented with Labour, the low turnout was a worry. It could well be that a large proportion of my constituents did not vote because they saw no difference between our Government and the last, or did not think that services were being delivered in the way that they wanted. There may have been dissatisfaction with some aspects of our public services, notably in local government. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) about the need to re-engage with local government, particularly councillors, and ensuring that councillors are accountable and are given the tools and the money with which to fulfil their function.

Public services do not involve just health and education. They involve law and order, street cleansing and social services; they involve the provision of home helps and warden services and, in particular, council housing. All those services are issues in my constituency. Considerable concern was expressed about those issues even among people who supported Labour, who raised that point on the doorstep during our canvassing. There are problems of law and order on certain estates in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) mentioned drug dealers and nuisance neighbours. Only a couple of days ago, a case was reported to me involving drug dealers. They have put cameras all around houses to alert them to when the police arrive to try to make an arrest following deliberate disturbances: people are moving in and out of properties all hours of the day and night buying and selling drugs.

Those people use unlicensed, unregistered, untaxed vehicles. They cause problems for the other people on the street, or on the estate, to the point where those people are frightened to leave their homes, to complain or to do anything--the dealers fire guns and all the rest of it. When approached by the police, they simply say, "You cannot do anything to me. You cannot touch me--I am beyond the law." In effect, they are because the police have considerable difficulty in obtaining prosecutions for that type of nuisance neighbour. Very little can be done about the problem unless some extra resource is given to our police to deal with it.

In my local authority, we have a new cabinet system of government with area forums. We engaged on a community plan whereby we asked members of the public to state their priorities--to state what they wanted from local and national Government. Instead of the priority being things such as education and employment, it was the environment, particularly cleaning the environment: cleaning up the rubbish, graffiti and environmental damage that have accumulated over the past few years because the "other services" block grant within the local government financial settlement has been squeezed as money has been given to education, social services and other front-line services. The money available for environmental cleaning has been reduced year on year. The public have now said that they would like their priorities to be recognised.

My local authority has recently had to propose charges on home helps and the warden service. Again, that has not gone down well with elderly constituents in particular, who feel that they contributed throughout their lifetime to national insurance and tax so that such services would be in place.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone referred to the level of serious illness in the Barnsley area. Only a few days ago, a local newspaper reported that one in three ex-miners suffer from some form of disabling disease. Coupled with the rate of local income that he mentioned, that is a cause of acute concern. Basically, local government services have been cut, while the council tax has increased to cover the shortfall in the local government settlements.

My constituency has many problems with council housing, which is a major public service. This morning, I had a telephone call from a Minister to tell me that she was visiting Barnsley this afternoon. It is unfortunate that I could not be there to show her some of our problems. Surprisingly, parts of estates are unlettable, which results in houses being boarded up. Therefore, some tenants have the problem of living in between empty, boarded-up houses, which are a magnet for vandalism, criminal damage and all the rest of it.

The local authority has been left with only one solution to try to deal with that problem: to demolish the council houses. It seems crazy that, in a constituency where up to 3,000 people are waiting for council houses, we are demolishing them. However, it appears to be the only way out. The Government options to deal with that problem are arm's-length companies, stock transfer or the status quo. At present, we are simply subsidising the Treasury by collecting rents, because they are deducted from housing benefit and the minimum repairs allowance, so the money goes back to the Treasury. That means that we cannot afford repairs and capital investment in the housing stock.

Stock transfer has already been rejected in a vote by tenants of the council estates, so we cannot progress that idea. The Government have said that the use of arm's-length companies will be on offer only to local authorities that are classed as excellent in the management of their housing stock. My local authority is extremely good at managing its housing stock, but it will be precluded from forming an arm's-length company. Therefore, we face a huge problem with council housing.

Again, that came across loud and clear throughout the election campaign. Basically, council tenants are saying that they would like the council to remain their landlord. The Government should look at the idea of allowing the council to continue in that role. As I said, our council taxes have increased in exchange for poorer and poorer services. That could be one of the reasons for the particularly low turnout in my constituency.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health knows, on a number of occasions I have raised the fact that my health authority is one of the most poorly funded in the Trent region and in the country as a whole. I have mentioned that, although there is a great desire to improve things, we are simply not getting the money at the speed that we would like. At the end of this financial year, my health authority went into the red by a considerable amount. Health authorities are not allowed to show a deficit, so the local health authority had to borrow to balance its books, yet the area has among the highest rates of heart disease, stroke and, in particular, cancer. I say again to my right hon. Friend that we are the lowest funded authority in the Trent region. We hope that he will address that matter, together with some of the other issues that I have raised with him.

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The local authority runs a civic theatre that is being refurbished and, to assist with that, the authority submitted an application for lottery funding. Such applications are decided by the Arts Council. The theatre has been closed for about three years, which means that local operatic and dramatic societies no longer have a base from which to operate. Yet again, because we are Barnsley, our application for lottery money has been turned down.

It sticks in the craw of Barnsley people, who contribute more than the average to national lottery funding, that we seem to get nothing out of it. It sticks in the craw of Barnsley people when huge amounts of money go to theatres in London, yet our theatre will remain closed until the local authority can find the £3 million funding to refurbish it. I wish that the Government would look again at lottery distribution, so that that funding is distributed more fairly.

I welcome most of what is in the Queen's Speech, particularly the measures on education. I shall not repeat what has been said about that. The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) mentioned the importance of further education. Barnsley college will release 120 lecturers on voluntary redundancy at the end of this month as part of cuts that have been forced upon it as a consequence of the shortfall in funding that will occur at the end of July.

The college has lost income as a result of having to stop franchising courses. The idea of franchising came in under the previous Government with the incorporation of colleges. For some colleges, it was an invitation to go down the wrong route. It has resulted in my college having to repay £5.9 million to the Further Education Funding Council, now the Learning and Skills Council, and having a £2 million shortfall in its annual budget.

Consequently, as I said, there will be 120 redundancies at Barnsley college at the end of this month, and there will be further compulsory redundancies. The sad fact is that those lecturers will be losing their jobs for reasons such as bad management and franchising that are not their fault. I ask Ministers to consider providing assistance to the college to mitigate the effect of the drastic redundancies that will be made in the next few weeks.

As I said, a sound economy has been the key to Labour's success. I hope that continued economic success will enable us to continue providing its fruits in the form of better public services to our electorates. I also hope that Ministers will bear in mind my comments when it comes to the debate on the Labour heartlands--areas such as mine--particularly in relation to local government services, and will try to give us a better deal.

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