As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have long been a strong advocate of the city of Liverpool, and tonight will be no exception. Even though I take issue with the conduct and procedures of Liverpool city council, I wish to place on the record the fact that Liverpool as a city is making tremendous progress in its regeneration, which is due in no small measure to initiatives emanating from this House and the present Government. That is to its credit. I also give credit—[Interruption.]
I pay credit to the many local businesses and organisations that have taken advantage of the opportunities presented by Government initiatives and our status as an objective 1 area to reinvent themselves and turn the city's image and substance around over the past 20 years so that it is now a 21st-century city that, to use a cliché, is meeting all the challenges of a modern economy. The House may therefore wish to know why I have taken issue with the city council. I have many reasons for doing so, but I am particularly concerned about the way in which it conducts itself. While it is doing very good work in some areas—no one can take that away from it—it is manifestly failing the people of Liverpool in other areas. I shall give a few examples, focusing on people who most need the city council's help, including the poor, the homeless, council tenants, and voluntary sector organisations that depend on the council's assistance.
There is a litany of mismanagement so that, in local eyes, the city has changed from a city of culture—a role that Liverpool will officially play under the present Administration in 2008—into a city about which the council could not care less. That tendency is particularly marked in the areas that I have the privilege to represent. I wish to put it on the record that two of the most deprived SOAs—super output areas—in the matrix of indices of deprivation produced by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister are in my constituency. The whole constituency is in the top 1 per cent. of combined deprivation indicators, and it relies extremely heavily on council intervention and Government initiatives to ensure that the people there can share in the opportunities enjoyed by many people in Liverpool and on Merseyside as a whole.
The council continues to treat shabbily the people who most need its help. I shall give a few categories of people it ought to target, and pick out one or two recent examples to demonstrate the way in which they have been treated. This week, we learned of the classic case of Mrs. Janet Whalley, a badly disabled lady who dropped off her severely disabled son outside an after-school club—an initiative that the Government are rightly promoting. Because of a technical dispute over her blue-badge entitlement to disabled parking she was hauled before the courts. The magistrates were outraged, and threw the case out, saying that it should never have been brought. Mrs. Whalley was awarded £500 costs. That was not good enough for the council, which sacked her for gross misconduct—behaviour which no one in their right mind would attribute to a fair-minded employer.
I came across the even better example of Nicola Foster, whose case falls into the homeless category. The homeless are always under pressure, but they are under particular pressure in Liverpool because of the city's regeneration, including new build and the Pathfinder project. The city is going through a period of transition, so we need to deal sensitively with cases at the margins or at the extremes that deserve help. Nicola Foster, unbelievably in modern times, has nine children. For two and a half years, she lived in a hostel near Sefton park. The council offered to rehouse the family in a hostel in Inverness. It wanted to deport a father, a mother and nine children to Inverness, because for two and a half years it had failed miserably to fulfil its duty of care towards those children. By the way, one of the children was offered a place at a local school where my wife used to teach, St. Finbar's, but because of the domestic situation the child has not been to school for two years. We should not be surprised at the indifference of Liverpool city council towards the child's schooling.
Another area in which the council abuses the sensible procedures set up by central Government is in the statementing of children with special needs. Each Liverpool MP has a caseload that would stretch from one side of the Chamber to the other concerning people who cannot get a statement of their child's special needs. What makes the situation even more pernicious is that the council argues that there is no demand for special needs places in special schools, and closes down special schools so that it can realise the capital assets. The Government's policy has always been that children with special needs ought to be catered for in a setting appropriate to them. If inclusion is appropriate, that option should be chosen and we would not dissent from it. But if a special needs place in a special school is the appropriate setting, that is what should be offered.
Many of our children are not getting that. I am dealing with the case of the child of a drug addict brought up by the grandmother, who got him into a secondary school. Because of his special needs, the school could not handle him—not that he was a bad kid, but he was hyperactive. That kid is now in a pupil referral unit for two hours a day, so not only is he not getting help from the very people to whom he ought to look for help, but his condition is being worsened daily by their neglect.
I mentioned council tenants when I referred to Nicola Foster's case. Sometimes I despair of a city council that fails lamentably to look after its own stock and fiddles its figures by transferring the stock out and then claiming great success in upgrading the homes in its council stock. Government policies were designed to encourage more tenant involvement. No doubt the Minister would agree that we all want tenants to have—metaphorically, if not literally—a sense of ownership of the changes going on around them. We had a longstanding Liverpool Federation of Council Tenants and Residents Associations, which sent out a letter—I assume to my colleagues, as well as to me—on
"This is a serious decision taken by our tenant members and tenant management board as it considered that tenant participation is currently so gravely undervalued by our city council that it severely impacts upon the wellbeing and functioning of a vibrant, independent tenant federation."
The letter goes on to list the manifold problems that the federation has faced. It continues:
"A strong, vibrant, informed and independent tenants movement is an asset to any city"—
I say amen to that. However, the letter goes on:
"The climate in this city does not foster a spirit of empowerment but relies upon a culture of repeated rhetoric of 'intentions' without ever considering the means by which 'intentions' are merely the first step of the organic process of change".
That is eloquently put. That ought to be the case but, sadly, it is not so under Liverpool city council.
The council has done some good things and there have been some good investments. There have also been some terrible failures, from the millennium centre on Chavasse park to the King's dock project to the Fourth Grace. Everywhere that the dead hand of the Liberal Democrat city council rests itself, one can guarantee that there will be confusion leading to failure. My great fear, which is shared by people in Liverpool, including business leaders, is that that will bring about the stagnation of ongoing projects.
Indeed, only today, a newspaper headline read "Paradise 'Delayed'". It refers to the Paradise street project, which is the biggest of its kind in the country. It is a regeneration scheme into which Grosvenor—no mean operator in its own right—is putting £920 million. However, the man in charge of Grosvenor is now asking, "How can you deal with a council that repeatedly obfuscates and delays?" Those are the sentiments of a developer who has put a massive amount of money into the city.
To show how far the city has come, I say in passing that I recall the Duke of Westminster commenting that he was happy for his daughters to go on a night out in Liverpool because he felt that they were safe there. That is another nail in the coffin of the myths about Liverpool that prevailed for many years. Happily, we have disposed of them. Liverpool is a relatively safe city. It is a good city for business to invest in and it is a prosperous city, which is evolving rapidly. However, the council is acting as a brake on such progress.
That brake is felt most keenly in the areas where the good citizens of Liverpool who are least able to look after themselves could, in the past, turn to the council for succour. I wanted to be objective about the matter and I examined Liverpool city council's document "Improving performance—leading to excellence". It is subtitled "Achievements in 2004/05 against the corporate plan published in June 2004".
I do not want to say that none of the objectives was met. Many of the council's objectives—not mine or the Government's—have been achieved. However, I have been through page after page headed "Well services, safe and sustainable neighbourhoods with optimum local accountability and influence over service management". That is the interface between council services and an efficient, well run council.
The first example reads:
"We did not achieve our target."
The second example states:
"We did not achieve our target."
The third example contains a little bit of spin:
"We have shown significant improvements in delays and narrowly missed our target."
The fourth example reads:
"We did not achieve our target".
The fifth example states:
"We marginally failed our target".
The sixth example also involves spin:
"Although we have significantly improved the actual numbers of carers who received a carer's assessment . . . the improvement has not been as pronounced."
In other words, they failed. The final example reads:
"We have not increased the take-up in the short-term break schemes."
Social services had damning reports on the sort of social provision that they should make as opposed to the provision that they make.
Alone, that might simply be another record of a poor council, whose position should be resolved at the ballot box. The citizens of Liverpool will have the opportunity to turn those people out—as they undoubtedly will—for their ineptitude in many aspects of their alleged competence. However, there is another phenomenon, on which the Minister, I hope, can throw some light.
There was an extraordinary turn of events, involving the publication of a dossier, which the chief executive compiled on the manoeuvrings of the leader of the council and one of his spin doctors to force out the chief executive. It is an extraordinary document. In all my long time in politics, I have never known such an obvious conspiracy to force somebody out. The leader of the council made a de facto admission by reporting to the Standards Board. His actions were completely out of order.
In the past week, the chief executive and the leader of the council have publicly kissed and made up. However, anyone who thinks that that is more than an Elastoplast on a rupture at the top of the council is much mistaken. My concern is not about those two people falling out but about the outcomes for the people and city of Liverpool. How can the matter be resolved? How can we ensure that the city council is operating according to the rules, and according to expectations, not only of the people as citizens, but those that the Government rightly hold of a council?
I am mindful of the fact that, more than 20 years ago—I never thought I would hear myself say this—49 councillors were debarred and surcharged for the notional loss of £106,000. That became something of a cause célèbre at the time. Yet here we have a council wasting money by the bucketload on a daily basis, and whose two leading lights cannot agree on anything in the public arena. This is letting down the people of Liverpool, and I want to find out from the Minister what redress we have, through central Government, to ensure that it stops.