Funding Of Deprived Urban Communities

I congratulate the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing this important debate. As one or two colleagues may have gathered, notwithstanding the little spat we had a moment or two ago, we work well together – at least that is my side of the story – on several Westminster-related issues.

I believe that we are both glad to see that in the comprehensive performance assessments not only Westminster but also Kensington and Chelsea were rated excellent councils. A neighbouring borough, Hammersmith and Fulham, had an excellent rating as well. It says much for the dedication of councillors and many council officers and employees in central London that we are able to achieve such excellence, particularly in social services, which is always a most difficult side of things, in the difficult circumstances to which the hon. Lady alluded.

One of the first things that I did when I entered Parliament about 18 months ago was to visit the two local hospitals in my patch: Bart’s in the City of London and St. Mary’s in Paddington. When I asked about the bed-blocking problems that I had heard of from so many other parliamentary colleagues, the hospital officials said that they did not have such problems. That is very much a tribute to the work that is done for the most vulnerable in our society.

My constituency, like the hon. Lady’s, is diverse. If people walk through the leafy streets of St. John’s Wood in her constituency, or through the more deprived parts of Bayswater and Pimlico, they would not necessarily assume that they were in, respectively, a constituency with a relatively safe Labour seat or one with a relatively safe Conservative seat. That is true throughout London. The Minister represents Hornsey and Wood Green, which includes lush bits of Fortis Green and Muswell Hill that do not appear to be deprived but, around almost every corner, great problems exist. That applies to suburban areas as well to inner London.

I shall say a few words about the local government finance settlement, touch on the census, which was mentioned by the hon. Lady, and wind up with a few thoughts on deprivation.

There is no doubt that there is abject poverty in central London. Even in my constituency, more than 75 per cent. of housing is social housing in several wards. There are also the many problems that arise from having a large number of asylum seekers and other immigration issues. As the hon. Lady said, a factor that is taken far too little into account is mobility. The most recent figures for 2000 showed that turnover in Cities of London and Westminster was the largest single turnover of any seat – 23 per cent. It is probably the same 23 per cent. that move year on year; the entire population does not change during a four-year period. None the less, that puts major pressures on schools, hospitals and social services.

It was therefore disappointing that, in the financial settlement, the social services of several inner London authorities saw a slash in finances that will have an impact if the 3.5 per cent. floor in increases were to be lifted next year, or at any point in the near future, without considering financing. The settlement runs the risk of penalising excellent, well-run councils, and I am not making a narrow party political point as it is as true for Labour councils as for Conservative ones.

Ms Buck : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that perhaps the entire reason why Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster are at the floor – we have yet to complete analysis on that – is because of the problem with population measurement and the census, rather than with using indicators that have been chosen, as he implied, to penalise these authorities?

Mr. Field : That is fair. In a moment, I shall move on to the environmental, protective and cultural services basket because that has a strong impact, particularly in southern Westminster. It would be wrong to defend the old standard spending assessment system; it was arcane to put it mildly. However, there is a worry that we are replacing it with another grant distribution system that is equally perverse and lacks transparency. Local government finance is not easy at the best of times so we need either to have a relatively clear process or a recognition that clarity will not be achieved. To call the new system transparent when it has arcane rules, is not helpful.

On EPCS, strong arguments exist for treating several central London authorities as sui generis. The business rate for Westminster alone amounts to about £860 million annually, which goes into Government funds and from which Westminster is able to call on about £72.5 million. I appreciate that that may not be a fair comparison, but it suggests that Westminster should be treated differently.

On the cost of street cleansing, the most recent contract that has been signed for Westminster amounts to a 60 per cent. increase on the previous contract. The rate of inflation for cleansing contracts is clearly greater than the average rate of inflation. Westminster does a good job in that area – a number of colleagues say that when they walk across the road they feel that there is a greater risk of a Westminster city council cleansing van knocking them down than of cars or cyclists doing so. Westminster makes an important contribution to the UK as a whole. Central London is a showcase to overseas investors and visitors, and there are vast numbers of non-residents. We need to ensure that the quality of our streets is sufficiently high.

As has been mentioned, the performance of social services in central London is high. However, the budget is at risk, and I hope that central Government will think about ring-fencing it. Many people assume that the City of London, which is part of my constituency, must be a wealthy area because of the riverside developments of recent years and the Barbican, which was not a wealthy area when it was built. The Barbican originally contained much social housing, although the right to buy means that relatively little of it remains. In my patch, there is also Petticoat Square and the Mansell Street estate, which is more like Tower Hamlets than the City of London. It is important that we do not assume that relatively wealthy areas are taken care of because the most vulnerable will fall through the hole if they are not catered for.

It has been estimated that 60,000 people were "lost" in the Westminster census. I moved into Westminster in April 2000, and on three occasions I tried to obtain a census form, but I could not manage to do so. I have never completed a census form, and I know that many people who live near me in Belgravia have experienced the same difficulty. I reiterate the concern of the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North that we need to give that matter some serious thought. That point applies not only to Westminster but several other inner London boroughs, and at last week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time, the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) also expressed similar concerns. I hope that the Government will examine the matter. If the census figures are not right an important knock-on effect, which will affect funding for the most vulnerable in the years ahead, will clearly come into play.

The Office for National Statistics seems to totter from one disaster to another. It overvalued pension funds in February, double-counted contributions in October and now faces concerns about the census. It is high time that it was subject to an independent investigation, and I hope that the Minister can provide some pointers to such an investigation when she replies.

I shall say a few words about asylum seekers in central London. I do so with a slightly heavy heart because, like the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North, I have foreign blood in my veins. My mother had sought asylum twice by the age of 15. She was born in a part of Germany that is now in Poland, and fled with her family in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and then again in 1954. I do not therefore have a hard-and-fast view on asylum seekers, although I personally believe that we should encourage more economic migrants into this country.

We should welcome people who want to abide by our laws and make a contribution to our society by integrating with it and assimilating into it. On the issue of assimilation and the indigenous population, the population is not static and the common norms of today will be different from those that will exist in 20 or 30 years’ time, and there is no doubt that waves of immigrants will play a part in that. Members who represent central London constituencies are weighed down by the amount of work that we have to do on behalf of asylum seekers or people requiring immigration advice. Many of them are not constituents in the sense that they do not count towards the 73,000 people, for example, on our electoral rolls, but none the less they require significant assistance.

I have been concerned by events in Sangatte. In essence, the French Government blackmailed us into allowing the Sangatte refugees to come in. Although many of them have work permits, there is a fear that they have been dumped in central London. Three of four tranches of them have come into my constituency in the past 10 days. The matter, which has not been well thought through, is a further hammer blow to central London after the local government financial settlement, and I hope that the Minister will assure us – I appreciate that the asylum issue is not entirely in her hands – that the costs will be fully underwritten. In so far as central London authorities have to pay the bill for arrivals from Sangatte, who are going to play a part in our society and be living in hostels for the homeless or bed and breakfasts for a time, the costs should be properly underwritten and taken into account in the consideration of future financial settlements.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : The issue of immigrants, asylum seekers and those who are justified in coming here on work permits, visas and so forth is a difficult one that we do not discuss enough. Does my hon. Friend agree that whatever the rights or wrongs of the situation, there should be a proper system of measuring what is going on so that resources can be allocated properly to deal with the problem?

Mr. Field : That is the nub of my point. My personal view – not my party’s – is that we should pull out of most of the conventions of which we are members and look to take more economic refugees or migrants. Many of our so-called European partners have taken a parochial and nationalistic approach that has not assisted us in any way. My hon. Friend is right to say that proper measurement is required, not least because the most vulnerable among the indigenous population will suffer most if resources do not trickle down to those areas that have a disproportionate burden in dealing with asylum seekers.

Ms Buck : Although I am convinced that the census was inaccurate – the hon. Gentleman kindly told us that he did not complete his census form – we would be on dangerous ground if we equated that entirely with asylum seeking and migration, as he and others have attempted to do. When I raised the issue last year, my local authorities told me that there was a greater likelihood of non-participation in the census in the more prosperous and multi-occupancy south of the borough than in the deprived and multi-ethnic north.

Mr. Field rose –

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair) : Order. I deplore over-long interventions, but as it is the hon. Lady’s debate I have showed discretion.

Mr. Field : Many of us deplore over-long speeches, Sir Nicholas. I am sorry if I was in any way misconstrued. I was simply making a narrow point about deprivation in relation to the asylum issue, not trying to link it with the census. I suspect that there are not many asylum seekers in the vicinity of Belgravia who did not fill in their census forms as a result.