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Geraint Davies: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there are more people travelling on the tube than ever before? We now have the Croydon tram, which is moving 18 million passengers a year, and many more people are travelling on the railways. There are difficulties, but tens of billions of pounds will go into the tube in the next few years.

Mr. Moss: The trend in increased use of the railways started under the Conservative Administration as a result of privatisation. That is what led to a substantial increase in the use of the trains.

On toll taxes—

Lawrie Quinn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Moss: No, I have only a limited amount of time and I want to press on. I am moving on to toll taxes. [Hon. Members: "Poll taxes?"] No, toll taxes. Ken Livingstone is looking to introduce congestion taxes in central London by 2003. Other councils in England are entering into pilot schemes for congestion taxes or workplace parking taxes.

The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is working on multi-modal studies examining the possibility of motorway tolls across England. That was

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revealed in a consultants' report the other week. The Government's 10-year transport plan makes it clear that before introducing such taxes

Only this morning it was leaked that the Prime Minister's transport troubleshooter, Lord Birt, is proposing the increased use of road tolls to fund expenditure in the transport sector and to reduce congestion.

We believe that toll taxes will merely divert traffic to less suitable roads, increasing congestion and pollution. Residents outside the tax zone will suffer as drivers will drive and park away from the centre of town in residential areas. In London, even Transport for London has admitted that traffic will rise by 8 per cent. in Southwark and 6 per cent. in Lambeth as a result of the diversion of traffic. Toll taxes will not lead to an overall improvement in air quality. Even Ken Livingstone admitted:

I now turn to the social services. It is becoming clearer with every day that Labour's mismanagement of the NHS has plunged both the care of the elderly and care homes in particular into crisis. It is clear to anyone with any common sense that a thriving care home sector is crucial to the overall well-being of the health service. There are patients lying in hospital who are fit enough to be discharged, but who remain in hospital solely because there is nowhere for them to go and no money in social service departments of local councils to care for them in their own homes.

Why is that? Under this Government, a combination of ineptitude and mismanagement has seen the closure of some 50,000 care home beds since 1997. At any one time more than 6,000 hospital beds are occupied by patients whose discharge has been delayed. The Department of Health states that 680,000 patients have their discharges delayed every year. The fact that patients remain in hospital when they could and should be elsewhere means that, through no fault of their own, they occupy precious beds that would otherwise be given to patients requiring operations. No wonder the waiting lists remain stubbornly high. Not only is there a queue to get into hospital under Labour, but Labour has brought us the queue to get out of hospital.

That speaks volumes about the Government's approach to health more generally. They will never deliver the necessary reforms because they have a deep-rooted antipathy towards private providers. They use the private sector when it suits them, both at home and abroad, but as the Chancellor's statement last week showed, they are totally wedded to a health service funded exclusively from general taxation. They talk about working with the private sector, but in care home provision there is a long-standing relationship between public and private sectors, and the Government are making a complete hash of it.

Geraint Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Moss: No. I have given way to the hon. Gentleman several times already.

Despite the bleak picture, Conservative councils are delivering better quality services for lower taxes. Since 1997 the average band D annual council tax in England has risen by £287—that is, 42 per cent.—under the

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Labour Government. They have turned council tax into a stealth tax. Vulnerable people such as pensioners on fixed incomes have suffered the most, yet on average across different tiers Conservative councils charge £135 a year less on band D bills than Labour councils, and £159 a year less than Liberal Democrat councils.

Labour claims that the average council tax is lower in Labour councils. The fact that average council tax bills, rather than the average band D bills, tend to be lower in Labour areas has nothing to do with the spending decisions of those Labour councils. It is merely a reflection of the fact that property values tend to be lower in Labour areas. Peter Kellner has stated:

He went on to state that Labour's claim

That is a quote from The Sunday Times in 1995. [Laughter.] It is still appropriate. Perhaps the hon. Members who are guffawing, and have been guffawing for most of the morning, would care to write to Peter Kellner to see whether he stands by his quote. The position has not changed since then.

Mr. Betts: The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. Let us take two local authority areas, Labour and Conservative, that have the same average council tax. House values are likely to be slightly lower in the Labour authority area than under the Conservative authority, so band D will always be different because of the different sorts of houses. It is the average that has to be considered, as it is the amount raised from a given number of properties in an area that is the true test for comparison between councils.

Mr. Moss: The hon. Gentleman is wrong on that count. The only true measurement is achieved by comparing the same band; Peter Kellner has endorsed the view that we have taken all along.

Liberal Democrats claim that council taxes have risen faster this year in Conservative councils and at the lowest rate in Lib Dem councils. Although the Government have turned council tax into a stealth tax—they have hit the shire counties hardest—Conservative councils still charge an average of £159 less on band D bills than Liberal Democrat councils. Across every tier of local government, we deliver better local public services at a lower cost.

Conservative councillors are making life better through neighbourhood initiatives. According to Audit Commission data—best value indicator 3—Conservative councils have the highest satisfaction rate among local residents. Some 68 per cent. of residents are satisfied under Conservative councils, as opposed to 61 per cent. under Labour. In case the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) wants to leap to his feet, I must also point out that 65 per cent. are satisfied under the Liberal Democrats. People are most satisfied with the Conservatives because we tackle problems such as crime and graffiti and improve the whole range of public services—and still charge lower taxes.

It is on that basis that I recommend that people vote Conservative in preference to voting for the other parties in next Thursday's local elections.

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10.41 am

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): I welcome this debate, as I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber do, but what a contrast between the two opening speeches. We heard from my hon. Friend the Minister a constructive presentation of a range of issues. Her speech was very different from that of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). I say to him that I am one of those Labour Members who live in a Tory-controlled local authority area, so I see at first hand the sort of services that the Tories provide to my constituents—a point to which I shall return later. None the less, I am sure that all of us welcome the opportunity to debate the quality of life in our communities and constituencies, and the good and bad points in that regard. The debate will certainly cover many issues.

As a London Member, I represent the most densely populated part of the United Kingdom. London's population is well over 7 million and it is growing. Many people who come to the UK come to London, and many remain here as residents. Like all hon. Members, irrespective of the side of the House on which they sit, Londoners rely on the many services that make London a pleasant place in which to live and work. London is a city with many different standards, both rich and poor. Along with my hon. Friends the Members for Putney (Mr. Colman) and for Battersea (Martin Linton), I represent the London borough of Wandsworth, so I see at first hand what happens in a Tory-controlled borough, which we are often told is a flagship borough.

Before I deal with that point, I want to mention a number of other issues. Under this Government, unemployment has fallen considerably. Areas such as mine had very high youth unemployment under the Tory Government, but thankfully, due to the current Government's policies and the money that they have put in, although some youngsters are still unemployed, the number has been enormously reduced. We can see real confidence among young people when we meet them and hear them say, "Yes, it is a bit difficult, but I really believe that I'll get a job."

What concerns me in the area that I represent—I accept that this is a problem not only in London, but in many other parts of the country—is that I regularly see at my advice surgery men and some women who are in their late 40s and early 50s, but who are out of work. Many of them have great skills, but sadly, they are not the skills of today—the modern technology skills that we all know are in demand. Such people come to me and say, "I've got a lot of skill, I am middle aged, and as far as I'm concerned, I've got many years of my working life left. I want to work and not live on benefit." Although the Government have done a great deal to help such people, priority must be given to ensuring that adequate training schemes are available to help men and women in that age group to retrain, so that they can do what they want: re-enter the employment market.

We all know that so much depends on a person being in work, because their income affects their quality of life, the housing that they can afford and the social life that their families can enjoy. There is a great diversity of skills and talents, but if the community that I represent is to thrive, we cannot afford to allow people's talents to go to waste. I make that point very forcefully to my hon. Friend the Minister, because I do not believe—I am sure that none of my colleagues believes—that a person's age

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should determine whether he or she can find employment. That applies not only to London, but to anywhere in the United Kingdom.

Like many other cities and towns, London has ethnic communities. I represent a large Asian community, many of whose members have lived in this country for many years. In many cases, their children were born here. It is estimated that more than 30 per cent. of London's population is of an ethnic background. Such people play a major role in many aspects of life in our society and community, and their quality of life needs to be protected and developed. Good housing and community facilities are important.

Many members of the ethnic community are elderly and are entitled to expect facilities for community and cultural activities—day centres most especially. I say to the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire that in the London borough of Wandsworth, which has a large Asian population, I get no help whatever in trying to get modern day centres and luncheon clubs for the ethnic communities in my constituency. He read out a long list of services that Conservative-controlled authorities are supposed to offer to the local community, but as a local Member of Parliament, I see the lack of any constructive help on such key issues. It would have been interesting if he had commented on the difficulties that Labour Members such as my two colleagues and I, who represent the London borough of Wandsworth, experience in dealing with a Conservative-controlled authority when we try to protect services for our communities.

There are some excellent day centres in my constituency, but sadly, not enough. We tend to forget that ethnic communities have their own forms of worship and want to be able to follow them, as they have a right to do. That can be difficult when dealing with Conservative-controlled authorities such as Wandsworth.

It is important to develop and encourage business opportunities, especially for young people, who often have good ideas but find it difficult to get started. That affects the quality of life in a community. When areas are run down, shops shut and businesses close, and it affects the whole community. My hon. Friend the Minister referred to that in her opening remarks. I am therefore in favour of helping young people to set up local businesses. When I talk to them, they say that the high rents and rates that local businesses have to pay determine whether they remain in business. Perhaps that affects cities such as London more than other parts of the country.

I am currently dealing with the case of a young man who has a Chinese restaurant in my constituency. He has a 15-year lease on the property, on which he has been paying rent of £14,000 a year. The rent is up for review and he has been told that he will be asked to pay £23,500 from June this year—an increase of £9,500. He cannot possibly afford that substantial extra sum of money. The negotiations with the owner will determine whether he can remain in business. Young people talk to each other; my constituent talks to other business people in the area where he owns the restaurant. We need to consider the image of setting up in business that such cases present to young people.

I believe in encouraging young people. Many young people who live in London have an excellent education and a lot of skills, and they need encouragement to start a business. They also need the security of knowing that

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they will receive a fair opportunity to develop it and will not be told after a year or so, "Sorry, you're not meeting your overheads. We will therefore have to cease loaning you money", because that means that the business will close.

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