Mr. Speaker : I regret to have to inform the House of the death of Brynmor Thomas John, esquire, Member for Pontypridd, and I desire, on behalf of the House, to express our sense of the loss we have sustained and our sympathy with the relatives of the hon. Member.
1. Mr. Atkinson : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has received any representations on day-time meetings of district authority committees.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley) : No, Sir
Mr. Atkinson : Does my hon. Friend agree that district councils which choose to hold their committee meetings during the day preclude many good people, from all political parties, from standing as local council candidates? Will she consider including in the forthcoming legislation on the conduct of local authority business a provision that such meetings should be held after normal working hours whenever practicable?
Mrs. Bottomley : Before answering my hon. Friend, I wish to inform the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is undertaking an official visit to China to demonstrate the Government's support for China's efforts in tackling pollution problems and other matters. He cannot, therefore, be here today. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) made an important point. However, it is for local councils to decide when to hold council meetings. The desire to encourage all people possible to serve on local councils is clearly vital to the future of local government. There are often special factors in rural areas, such as people having to travel long distances. We do not propose to legislate to cover that matter, but we hope that councils will have regard not only for serving councillors but for those who might otherwise be excluded.
2. Mr. Marlow : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make it his policy to inform people of the effects on the community charge of profligate local authorities.
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer) : I shall take every opportunity to inform voters that profligate spending by local authorities will lead to high community charges.
Mr. Marlow : My right hon. Friend is a considerate man ; he is also a very intelligent man. He understands about gearing--in other words, that for every £1 that a local authority increases its expenditure the community charge payer will have to cough up an extra £4. If we look around the country at Labour local authorities and assume that they spend a little over 10 per cent. more than Conservative local authorities, which is highly likely, that will increase the community charge by just over 40 per cent. or almost £100. We know that my right hon. Friend would not want to indulge in low politics as he is a fair man and a Christian, but will he make everyone in this country aware that, although we agree that everybody who is entitled to vote should vote, the cost of voting Labour at next year's local authority elections could be £100 per vote?
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend is kind in his remarks, but the facts are clear. If there were a community charge this year, the average in Conservative-controlled authorities would be £196.40 per year and in Labour-controlled authorities £294.40, so there is almost £100 difference.
Mr. Mullin : Has the Minister seen recent reports that the poll tax will result in the transfer of about £800 million from the north to the south? Can he, as a Christian, tell us how it is possible to justify the poorer parts of the country having to transfer wealth to the richer parts?
Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the reports. The revaluation of the business rate will have the effect of transferring almost £900 million from the south to the north.
Mr. Cormack : Will my right hon. Friend ensure that any expenditure on protecting egg farmers is not counted as profligacy?
Mr. Gummer : Sometimes when one is moved from one Department to another one has much for which to thank the Almighty.
Mr. Blunkett : Will the Minister be good enough today to answer the question that he declined to answer on Monday and say how much money he intends to spend on profligate propaganda publicising the Government's case on the poll tax, including the leaflet published yesterday? How much does he intend to spend on telling the voters of Westminster what was said in the Audit Commission's report, published on 6 December, about the way in which the scandalous sale of cemeteries for 15p has resulted in the electorate of Westminster being faced with a £5.5 million bill to repurchase them?
Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to take action against Lady Porter in the same way that he took action against Labour councils during recent years? If so, will he couple that with surcharging his hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health for the £500,000 that she has cost the country by opening her mouth once too often?
Mr. Gummer : I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new job on the Opposition Front Bench. I assure him that the Government will spend no money on propaganda.
Column 8933. Sir Geoffrey Finsberg : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what information he has as to what a typical ward sister would pay in (a) rates, (b) community charge and (c) a system of capital value rates plus local income tax paid in the proportions of 80 : 20, respectively, if she lived in a typical one-bedroomed flat in the London borough of Camden.
Mr. Gummer : A ward sister earning £15,000, living in a flat in Camden worth £70,000 with a rateable value of £300, would pay a rates bill of £635, a community charge of £639, disregarding the transitional safety net, and £2,030 under a system of capital value rates plus local income tax.
Sir Geoffrey Finsberg : Can I assume that my right hon. Friend will take every opportunity to produce, for the benefit of those citizens unlucky enough to live in boroughs such as Camden, factual information about the effects of the policies of the Labour party if it were ever given the chance to put them into effect?
Mr. Gummer : Yes, the double tax that Labour proposes would cost a ward sister more than £2,000 per year, but it is particularly bad in Camden because Camden's overspending is £637 per adult. If it brought its overspending down to what it needs to spend, it could have a reasonable community charge. The effect on the community charge is serious in a borough which does not seem to be able to bring its spending under control.
Dr. Cunningham : How does the Minister expect us to believe that rigged question and fiddled answer when he has completely disregarded the loss to Camden ratepayers of £151 million as a result of the Government's national business tax--a cost to each person in Camden of £824? As he is concentrating on nurses in Camden, perhaps he will tell the House how a nurse earning £15,000 or £20,000 per year can possibly afford the average one-bedroomed flat in Camden which costs more than £100,000. Is he not aware that at the royal free hospital Portakabins are being installed in the car parks because nurses cannot afford to rent or buy homes in the borough as a result of the Government's policies? After their treatment at the hands of the Government and this farrago of fiddled figures and dishonest replies nurses in Camden will treat the Government's answer with nothing but contempt.
Mr. Gummer rose --
Mr. Speaker : Order. I think that "dishonest" in the context of replies made by a Minister is not a parliamentary expression. Will the hon. Gentleman withdraw that?
Dr. Cunningham : I will certainly withdraw the word "dishonest", and use the phrase "grossly inaccurate" instead.
Mr. Gummer : I am extremely pleased that the hon. Gentleman has now confirmed that the Labour scheme would produce a figure of £2,000 because he has failed to reply to my letter asking for the information, as has the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). It is barefaced cheek for him to come to the House and complain about a reply when he has refused to give the public the facts. He knows perfectly well that any loss that may be thought to come from the business rate will be made up in the needs grant. Perhaps the hon.
Column 894Gentleman does not understand the principle, but the fact is true that the hon. Gentleman has produced a plan in place of rates and community charge which he knows would not work and if put into operation it would saddle every nurse with a bill of £2,000.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Labour party has shown, by its questions today and its plans for local income tax and the double tax, that it has entirely abandoned the south of England and wants to spread the disastrous policies of Camden to the rest of London and devastate people's lives there, too?
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend will have noticed that the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) tried to deflect the question because he knows that in every case, when the figures come out, the scheme proposed by the Labour party would be demonstrably devastating to Labour-controlled areas because overspending makes them impossible for people to live in.
4. Mr. Flannery : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will give (a) the number of bids for transfer of local authority property to another landlord registered under parts IV and V of the Housing Act 1988 and (b) the names and locations of the prospective landlords.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Trippier) : Part IV of the Housing Act 1988 is not yet in force. Powers for the Housing Corporation to approve landlords will be commenced in the new year. Voluntary transfers by local authorities take place under powers in the Housing Act 1985, not part V of the 1988 Act. There are a considerable number of such transfers each year, some of which take place under general consents and are therefore not notified to the Department.
Mr. Flannery : Do we understand that the Conservative party not merely openly and publicly advocates vote rigging but will continue to enshrine it in law? What would the Minister say if other organisations even dreamed of such a thing, as they never would, or if the trade unions carried on in the way the Conservative party does? Why does an abstention mean a yes vote?
Mr. Trippier : If a campaign has been waged and different approaches and different appeals made by housing associations and private landlords put to the tenants as opposed to the local authority, people can vote yes for the move to the housing association, for example. If they say no, they will vote under the tenants' choice to stay with the local authority. That is enshrined in the Act. If by the time campaigning has gone ahead they cannot make up their minds, it would be wrong for those people to destroy the chances of tenants who desperately want and seek that change. The hon. Gentleman's point is an extension of the Labour party's campaign of misinformation, which is similar to the campaign that it ran against the right to buy. It failed then and it will fail again.
Mr. Wilshire : Does my hon. Friend agree that if certain councils spent less time churning out propaganda aimed at undermining the Government's housing policies and
Column 895legislation, and more time dealing with the empty houses that they own, repairing houses and collecting rent, local people would get a far better deal and far better houses?
Mr. Trippier : I agree with all that. If local authorities spent more time turning round the number of empty properties that they have, there would be a net increase of 20,000 houses brought on to the market. It is not only local authorities but certain trade unions, certain members of the Socialist Workers party and certain members of Militant who are peddling this misinformation.
Mr. Matthew Taylor : The Minister has correctly told the House that the present transfers are not going ahead under the 1988 Act. He then said that, nevertheless, tenants who vote against transfers will be able to stay with a local authority. That is not the case with transfers that are happening now, and certainly not the case in Torbay, where well over 20 per cent. tenants voted against but if the Minister allows the transfer to go ahead all those tenants, irrespective of how they voted, will be involved in the scheme. How do the Government intend to protect those people's democratic rights?
Mr. Trippier : The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to prejudge the decisions of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. All that I can say today is that we shall shortly be in touch with Torbay council about the matter.
Mr. Patrick Thompson : While Labour Members talk about the rights of council tenants, the Government have given council tenants new incentives and opportunities. Can my hon. Friend confirm that we shall continue to do that?
Mr. Trippier : That is the whole point. The Opposition parties--I use the plural advisedly--spend a great deal of time talking about extending benefits to tenants but do nothing, whereas the Government have extended the freedom of choice to those tenants. It has been exercised through the right to buy, which the Opposition do not like to mention because it has been enormously successful. That same freedom will be extended to more and more tenants as the 1988 Act becomes effective.
Mr. Soley : The Minister's propaganda might be more convincing if he could tell the House that he is prepared to extend that right to the tenants of non-resident private landlords, because we shall do that.
I give the Minister this opportunity to do what he undertook in the House to do--to correct the misleading information that he published by joining me at a joint press conference after the National Consumer Council, which is chaired by a former Conservative Member, and the Institute of Housing have analysed the leaflet that he distributed, and which I have described as grossly misleading propaganda. If that is done, we shall then know who is telling the truth--and it will be our side that wins, not the Minister's.
Mr. Trippier : I welcome a debate on those issues at a place and time of the hon. Gentleman's choosing. There has already been one major debate on the subject, when we debated the Lords amendment. The hon. Gentleman will recall that I extracted from him confirmation that he would publicly denounce leaflets or information classified as misleading or misinformation. He will be pleased to learn that I shall be writing to him this week giving examples of leaflets sent to tenants which are clearly
Column 896misleading. I hope to extract from the hon. Gentleman the public denouncement of them that he promised just a few weeks ago.
Mr. Harry Greenway : Will my hon. Friend draw the attention of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) to the highly misleading and downright dishonest document on the Housing Act 1988 published by Ealing council and the meetings at which tenants were told that if they voted to join a housing association their rents would be doubled and they would have no rights? The BBC did not correct that misinformation in its "Panorama" programme and has not made it clear that any secure tenant wishing to remain with the council can always do so. Will my hon. Friend make that clear?
Mr. Trippier : I confess that I have not incorporated in the package that I am sending to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) this week the Ealing propaganda to which my hon. Friend refers. Perhaps I will save that for next week. We could keep up the campaign on a weekly basis.
5. Mr. Morley : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment where the south-east region is placed in the synthetic index of regional problems in the EEC.
Mr. Trippier : The synthetic index of regional problems in the European Community, attached to the Commission's third periodic report, ranks areas of England on a county basis. Counties within the south-east region of England lie between 66th and 127th position on the index.
Mr. Morley : It may come as no surprise that because the Government have engineered a north-south divide our northern regions do not favourably compare with others in the index. Will the Minister explain why the so- called prosperous south of England also does not favourably compare in the synthetic index of regional problems? For example, 16 German regions are ahead of the English south-east region, and the highest placed in the index is the Greater London region. Will the Minister explain why that is so? Is our country's economic recovery less good than the Government would have us believe?
Mr. Trippier : The hon. Gentleman will welcome, as I do, the fact that his own county ranks high in the order of priorities and will be covered. At the Department, we have strenuously supported the case for that. The index to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his substantive question will not be used after 1 January 1989. It appears that the European Commission accepts that the statistical basis is flawed. No doubt the hon. Gentleman and I can continue this discussion in correspondence or he can visit the Department. However, we maintain that the basis of the index is flawed, and we have pointed that out to the Commission.
6. Mr. Paice : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what proportion of pollution into the North sea from rivers and estuaries comes from Great Britain.
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley : In the order of 20 per cent., according to the quality status report prepared for the second North sea conference held in November last year.
Mr. Paice : The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for that figure. Does not her answer disprove once and for all the allegation that Britain is the dirty man of Europe? Is it not true that German rivers contribute 50 per cent. of known pollution? Will my hon. Friend tell the House what further plans there are to reduce Great Britain's proportion even below 20 per cent.?
Mrs. Bottomley : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out the clear contrast. I agree that 50 per cent. of the riverborne contaminants found in the North sea are borne from rivers at the eastern end of the North sea. Nevertheless, following on from the North sea conference in London least year, which was hosted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, we are bringing forward a clear plan of action for continuing to improve the North sea. We have produced a "red list" of the 26 substances most damaging to our waterways and in addition to our participation in the scientific task force we are moving towards ending incineration and dumping at sea.
Mr. Malcolm Bruce : The Minister has made some valuable contributions in terms of the Government's concern, but will she acknowledge that 20 per cent. is no cause for complacency and that the reason why the Germans, in particular, have such a high rate of pollution is that they have a river which taps the whole continent rather than just these islands? The Government's record on the North sea will be worth defending only when specific regulations are brought before the House to ban the substances that the Minister has in mind and action is taken on them.
Mrs. Bottomley : The hon. Gentleman makes some reasonable points. At last week's meeting of the North sea scientific task force Britain was the only country in the North sea to bring forward specific programmes for monitoring, regulating and providing models of the North sea. Similarly, with the "red list", Britain is the first country to have published a list of substances that we hope to see reduced by 50 per cent. by 1995.
Mr. Bowis : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Thames estuary is the cleanest metropolitan estuary in the world? Will she also confirm that she will not rest on those laurels but will continue to pursue the polluters of the Thames and other rivers, particularly through the courts?
Mrs. Bottomley : The Thames is probably the cleanest metropolitan waterway in the world. About £300 million has been spent on cleaning it up and more than 100 different species are to be found there. However, there is no room for complacency and it is essential that we continue with our programmes to clean up waterways and to protect the North sea. That is why we are committed to a precautionary approach and to a rigorous approach to the implementation of these policies.
Mr. Allan Roberts : Once again, the Minister and Conservative Members have proved that they are wholly complacent about the pollution that this country puts into the North sea. Of course, river discharges into the North sea from Britain are only 20 per cent. But the river Mersey, which is the most polluted river basin in Western Europe, goes into the Irish sea, which they have not mentioned.
Column 898Three hundred million gallons of sewage are discharged every day into Britain's coastal waters. Twenty per cent. of the flow from sewage pipelines is composed of contamined industrial effluent. We dump 200,000 tonnes of liquid industrial contaminated--
Mr. Speaker : Order. The North sea, please.
Mr. Roberts : It is the North sea. Two hundred thousand tonnes go into the North sea. Will the Minister confirm that Britain is the only country dumping massive amounts of sewage sludge into the North sea? Thirty per cent. of Britain's contaminated, poisonous sewage sludge is dumped into the North sea. When will the Government stop that? The Minister will go down in history as one of Britain's great poisoners.
Mrs. Bottomley : I fear that that was an example of air pollution. As a party, we believe in action not words and we believe in action based on sound, scientific evidence. The hon. Gentleman mentioned sewage sludge. It is important to point out that sewage sludge is what remains after the treatment of sewage. One has to find the best practical environmental option. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would prefer to have the sewage sludge spread over the land around his constituency. Our view, is that, where it is the best practical environmental option, it is permissible to dump it, so long as it is strictly licensed and strictly monitored.
Mr. Cran : Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government's commitment to cleaning up the five great estuaries in the North sea is evidenced by the fact that by 1990 £600 million will have been committed in capital works by various water authorities? Does she further agree that in the river Humber oxygen concentration has increased in the past few years from under 45 per cent. to more than 65 per cent.? Does she also agree that the situation will improve because £70 million has been committed by the water authority there to further improvements? Is that not progress and, if not, what is?
Mrs. Bottomley : I most appreciate the fact that my hon. Friend is so well informed on this matter and about the very good progress that we have made, which means that 90 per cent. of our rivers and waterways are of good or fair quality, as compared with a European average of 75 per cent. We have further to go and we are committed to do all that we can to ensure that we maintain the standards of our rivers and waterways.
7. Mr. Corbyn : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he last met the chairman of the Thames water authority ; and what matters were discussed.
The Minister for Water and Planning (Mr. Michael Howard) : I met the chairman of Thames and other water authority chairmen on Monday 5 December. We discussed the excellent progress that the water authorities are making towards privatisation.
Mr. Corbyn : Will the Minister arrange to meet the chairman of the Thames water authority again to discuss with him the authority's considerable land holdings? Will he ask the chairman to investigate why a number of completions of land sales that were imminent were withdrawn by the authority and the land subsequently sold
Column 899to Wimpey and other developers? Will he also consider whether it is right for a public undertaking such as Thames water authority to be involved in exclusive private discussions with individual developers to whom it then decides to sell a particular piece of land? Does not the Minister think that we need a public statement on all the land holdings of the Thames water authority, their valuation and the method of their disposal?
Mr. Howard : In common with all other public bodies, the water authorities are required to obtain the best market price for any land holdings of which they dispose. If the hon. Gentleman has any information to suggest that the best market price has not been obtained, I should be grateful if he would draw it to my attention. All assets, including land holdings, will be fully valued in the prospectuses of the companies when they are offered for sale.
Mr. Hayes : When my hon. and learned Friend met the chairman of Thames water authority, did he congratulate him on improving customer services and reducing debt and operating costs?
Mr. Howard : Not, I confess, on 5 December, but I have done so on previous occasions.
Mrs. Ann Taylor : Will the Minister acknowledge, as his advisers Professor Littlechild and Mr. Kinnersley have acknowledged, that it will be developers who will be most interested in buying into the privatised water industry and that, because they will control the water and sewerage infrastructure, the planning process is bound to be weakened?
Mr. Howard : I do not accept that for one moment. The planning process will continue to apply in its full rigour to land disposed of by the authorities.
Sir Anthony Grant : Rather than waste too much time discussing all this rubbish with the Thames water authority, will my hon. and learned Friend find a little time to discuss with the Anglian water authority, where he will find the greatest possible enthusiasm--
Mr. Speaker : Order. I am sure that it is true of lots of authorities, but the question is about Thames water authority.
Mr. Howard : I shall certainly do that, and I am sure that my hon. Friend's assessment is absolutely accurate.
8. Ms. Primarolo : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to publish the Housing and Local Government Bill.
Mr. Gummer : Early in the new year.
Ms. Primarolo : In drafting the new Bill, will the Minister take the opportunity to ensure that the voting procedure for the transfer of council houses in the Housing Act 1988 is amended to ensure that the dead do not count in the vote? In the vote in Torbay a woman who had been dead for two years but whose name was still on the electoral register was counted as being in favour of the transfer of the council property. Will the Minister also take
Column 900the opportunity today to inform us that, because of such irregularities, the transfer of the Torbay housing stock will not be allowed to go ahead?
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State referred to the decision on the transfer, and that decision will be made known. As regards the hon. Lady's second request, I shall make no such proposals.
Mr. McLoughlin : In considering the conduct of local authorities, which we expect to be included in the Housing and local Government bill, will my right hon. friend seek to ensure that in appointing people to statutory planning boards, such as the national park boards, district or county councils should pick people who live in the area? Is my right hon. Friend aware that people who subject to the planning controls of the Peak national park are fed up with the appointment of people from the city of Derby, who have no contact whatever with the national parks? Might not one way round that be to include a clause providing that at least 50 per cent. of those appointed to a planning board must live in the area.
Mr. Gummer : I know that that problem arises. I have not yet considered the matter, but now that the hon. Gentleman has brought it to my attention I shall certainly do so in view of the Bill.
Mr. O'Brien : Before the Government publish the Housing and Local Government Bill, will the Minister ensure that information about the proposed housing subsidies will be published so that local authorities can make their calculations? Without the details it is difficult for them to assess how the arrangements will work, particularly in relation to rent levels.
Will the Minister also tell us what is the future of urban development, which appears to have fallen off the Government's agenda? Will we have information on that as well before the Bill is published?
Mr. Gummer : I think that in the second part of his question the hon. Gentleman was referring to the economic development powers, as they are what is discussed in the Bill. It will certainly be on the agenda, and I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman is able to obtain all the necessary information when the Bill is published. I very much hope that we shall have as much information as possible about housing subsidies, but the purpose of the Bill is for us to discuss a number of important principles--which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, too, will be able to discuss--and to apply to them particular figures at different times. I do not think the hon. Gentleman need worry about not having the information that he needs when we discuss this important Bill, which will come before us very soon.
9. Mr. Chapman : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on progress by local planning authorities in drawing up, entering into public consultation and implementing statutory local plans (a) generally and (b) in the outer London boroughs.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope) : In terms of
Column 901population, about 65 per cent. of London and about 20 per cent of the rest of England are covered by adopted local plans, with a further 10 to 15 per cent covered by draft plans. Thirteen of the 19 outer London boroughs have complete coverage of adopted or deposited local plans. I hope that the planning policy guidance note published on 30 November will accelerate the preparation and adoption of local plans elsewhere.
Mr. Chapman : I thank my hon. Friend for his detailed reply. I accept that the borough of Barnet has published its draft local plan and is now conducting the statutory six months of public consultation, but can my hon. Friend give an assurance that local planning authorities can turn down planning applications that they deem out of scale and character with neighbouring buildings?
More important, can my hon. Friend assure us that if there are appeals on such planning applications, while the Secretary of State must, of course, look at each appeal individually, there will be some recognition that he will uphold planning authorities that turn down applications because they are out of scale and character?
Mr. Chope : I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurances that he seeks. Those matters are set out in detail in paragraph 22 of the planning policy guidance note.
Mr. Cousins : Will the Minister take up urgently with his colleagues at the Department of Transport key issues such as the motorway proposals now overshadowing much of outer west London? Adequate performance of the fine-grain detail of planning in statutory local plans is being completely overshadowed by major proposals for capital infrastructure investment affecting the lives of entire communities.
Mr. Chope : Obviously some matters--the hon. Gentleman has referred to them--must be dealt with by means of a national or regional strategy, but many others must be dealt with locally. There is considerable demand from local residents that their own local councils resolve such matters.
Mr. Jessel : On local plans for outer London, will my hon. Friend take careful note that it is against the wishes of the public that their leafy roads in outer London should gradually be turned into blocks of six, eight and 12 flats? Will such public feeling be reflected in decisions on planning appeals?
Mr. Chope : My hon. Friend has made a valid point. It is one of the reasons why the new planning policy guidance note contains express reference to allowing local authorities to include in their local plans references to policies on densities for new housing.
10. Mr. Vaz : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he next plans to visit Leicester to discuss with the local council the housing waiting list.