|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 1020Government towards Middlesbrough council in the grants that they hand out, particularly compared with the grants to neighbouring Langbaurgh, and will she look at the tendering processes in the two authorities? Middlesbrough refuses to carry out Government policy and is entering into long-term contracts, thereby making it almost impossible, as identified by the Northern Federation of Master Builders, to tender against the direct labour organisation. Langbaurgh has followed the spirit of Government policy and has made mammoth savings as a result. Is it not time that the Government rewarded such Conservative-controlled authorities which implement Government policy and did not reward authorities such as Middlesbrough?
Mrs. Bottomley : My hon. Friend is right in saying that we have treated Middlesbrough generously, with an increase of more than 8 per cent. in block grant this year. The Local Government Act 1988 provides the powers for the Secretary of State to take when local authorities have been involved in anti-competitive practices. Contracting out can result in major savings for ratepayers and, in future, charge payers. It is up to local authorities to take full advantage of that legislation. In cases where local authorities have abused their position and have behaved in an anti- competitive fashion, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will not hesitate to take the powers at his disposal.
Ms. Mowlam : Does the Minister agree that what is important for the people of Middlesbrough is that the roads are clean, the bins are emptied and the gulleys are cleared? By integrating its services, Middlesbrough city council offers an efficient service and it is working within the Local Government Act 1988. Will the Minister now clarify that that is the case, rather than implying through slurs that Middlesbrough city council is working outside that Act?
Mrs. Bottomley : I hope that the hon. Lady will advise Middlesbrough council to read the recent Audit Commission report, which made it clear that savings of almost 20 per cent. can be achieved by competitive tendering. What is important is that a high standard of services is achieved efficiently and effectively. Once I have looked into the situation in Middlesbrough, I shall ensure that the hon. Lady has a copy of the reply that I shall give to my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt).
Mr. John Marshall : Does my hon. Friend agree that the savings from competitive tendering give local authorities an opportunity to provide a higher quality service without any extra cost to the ratepayer?
Dr. Cunningham : Is the Minister not aware that Middlesbrough council has acted properly, within the law and with the support of the minority Conservative group to produce a tender specification in respect of street cleaning and related functions? As it has acted perfectly properly, why should it be criticised other than for reasons of political spite? Having checked the matter today, which the Minister clearly has not, with the leader of the council,
Column 1021councillor Carr, I am advised that he has received no complaint or opposition from Tory councillors about the procedures followed by the council.
Mrs. Bottomley : What matters is that the council carries out its contracting-out processes fairly, and not in an anti-competitive fashion. That will result in not only a high standard of services, but savings to the ratepayer. Once we have completed our inquiries, which were started by my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh, we shall be able to comment more fully. At this moment it would be quite improper for me to make any further comments.
The Minister for Water and Planning (Mr. Michael Howard) : I regularly meet the chairman of the Yorkshire water authority, both in that capacity and as chairman of the Water Authorities Association, to discuss a wide range of issues, including river pollution.
Mr. Cran : Despite considerable improvements in water quality in the Humber in recent years, I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend will understand that my constituents would like further improvements. Is he satisfied with the reduction in industrial effluents, especially arsenic and aluminium, that are coming into the upper reaches of the Humber? Is he also satisfied that the £70 million that was committed for capital works to improve sewage works will allow the Humber estuary committee to meet its targets for water policy?
Mr. Howard : As my hon. Friend rightly says, considerable progress has been made in achieving reductions in industrial discharges in recent years, including arsenic. We have asked the water authorities concerned to prepare plans for achieving further reductions as part of our response to the second North sea conference and we expect to receive them shortly.
Mr. Madden : When the Minister next meets the chairman of the Yorkshire water authority, will he seek an assurance from him that the authority has abandoned the procedure of deliberately sending huge demand notices to people for water debts for which it knows that they are not liable? Is the Minister aware that one of my constituents, a 76-year-old widow, was recently greatly distressed when she received a bill for more than £500, which had been deliberately sent to her by the Yorkshire water authority, which knew that the debt was that of the Bradford Tory council which, for one reason or another, had been unwilling or unable to pay the debt? Does the Minister agree that that is a monstrous action for any public authority to take? I hope that he will call an end to it.
Mr. Howard : I hope that the hon. Gentleman has drawn that matter to the attention of the Yorkshire water authority and that he has received or will receive a full reply to the point that he has raised.
Column 1022supply industry because at long last the National Rivers Authority will police the worst polluted rivers, which tend to be those of the water authorities?
Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are determined to achieve higher standards for the water environment, as was made clear in a document that the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) leaked as last week's stunt, although it was not a secret document.
Mrs. Ann Taylor : When the Minister meets the chairman of Yorkshire Water will he discuss why the City or the small investor should buy shares in Yorkshire Water on privatisation, as it is currently breaking the law with 63 illegal sewage treatment works that are polluting Yorkshire rivers and causing an overall reduction in river quality in Yorkshire? Or will the Minister persist in relaxing the legal standards on sewage treatment works simply to remove another barrier to privatisation?
Mr. Howard : We are exploring with the Yorkshire water authority an accelerated investment plan, beyond even the £120 million programme which was in its corporate plan for 1988, to bring its sewage works into compliance by March 1992. That is the safeguard for higher standards for the water environment for water consumers in Yorkshire.
Mr. Trippier : From 1 April 1989, rent officers will have the additional power to assess the rents paid by, and the accommodation occupied by, tenants with deregulated tenancies who claim housing benefit. Those assessments will be used in calculating housing benefit subsidy payments to local authorities.
Mr. Cox : It is interesting to hear those comments from the Minister. Nevertheless, is he aware of the growing dissatisfaction over the action of rent officers and the increases that they allow to take place? Many landlords do virtually no repairs and show little interest in their property but when they seek a rent increase they not only receive it but it is a substantial one. Is the Minister further aware that the people who listen to the cases on rent assessment appeal committees are totally unrepresentative of the people who go there to complain about their rent assessments? When will this issue be realistically examined so that people have confidence in the actions of rent officers and rent assessment appeal committees?
Mr. Trippier : I have certainly not received a mailbag on this issue. I have received representations about the deregulated rent policy as outlined in the 1988 Act. If the hon. Gentleman would care to give me some examples--or better still, see me at the Department of Environment--I should be delighted to discuss the matter further.
Mr. Dickens : Would it not be sensible to widen the powers of rent assessment officers to include rent arrears which are a vexing, national and scandalous problem? It is particularly prevalent in Labour-controlled councils, including the Rochdale and Oldham borough councils. Does the Minister agree that if an estate agent fell behind
Column 1023in collecting his rents--like some local councils--he would go out of business in a fortnight? Some local council officers ought to be out of business.
Mr. Trippier : I agree with much of what my hon. Friend said. I am reluctant to suggest to the House that we should give that power to rent officers, who already carry an incredible responsibility. The responsibility should be placed fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the local authority. I agree with my hon. Friend that Rochdale borough council has a deplorable record in that respect, and, dare I say it, that is in stark contrast to the time when I was fortunate enough to lead the council.
Mr. George Howarth : Will the Minister accept that, to some extent, rent arrears have risen as a result of DSS changes? Will he confirm that the early signs are that, as a result of the Housing Act 1988, rents will rise by about 20 per cent? It looks as if rents will become distinctly more unaffordable rather than affordable, as they were supposed to do.
Mr. Trippier : I know that the hon. Gentleman was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Housing Bill. He may accept the principal point that the housing benefit system, which is the responsibility of the DSS, means that the poorest tenants will have all their rent paid. Every person receiving housing benefit receives 100 per cent. protection against rent increases, provided that the rent remains at, or below, the market rent level.
Mr. O'Brien : Will the Minister take serious note of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), because it is a problem? Under the 1988 Act, there are to be changes in the duty of rent assessment officers who, in the future, will not assess fair rents but market rents. Rents will rise sky-high and landlords will have the right to determine tenancy agreements--usually six months--which means that people will be prevented from applying to the rent officer. Is the Minister saying that the interests of tenants, as regards rent levels, is of no interest to him or his Department? Or will he act to secure the rights of tenants to ensure that they are charged rents that they can afford and are not pressganged into accepting tenancies with sky-high rents?
Mr. Trippier : I completely reject the hon. Gentleman's allegation that rents will go sky-high. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was enshrined in the 1988 legislation and we have given reassurances time and again on the Floor of the House that the principal purpose of the 1988 legislation was not only to encourage the private rented sector but to make homes available within it at affordable rents. I have the utmost confidence in the rent officers and it is absolutely right that, although we are responsible for appointing them, we have no direct influence over their assessments. It is right that they should come to their decisions on what market rents should be wholly independently.
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley ; I shall be visiting the Peak district national park on 12 April.
Mr. McLoughlin : We look forward to my hon. Friend's visit to the area covered by the national park. May I draw her attention to the way in which people are appointed to the national parks? Is she satisfied that, of the county council representatives appointed to the national park, the vast majority have no connection with it? Derbyshire county council appoints eight people, seven of whom live outside the national park. People are beginning to say that is is time that was changed. Would it not be better to give greater representation to the district councils?
Mrs. Bottomley : I am not satisfied with that state of affairs. We have said on several occasions that, whenever possible, authorities should draw their national park appointments from the electoral wards within the national parks' boundaries. I hope that my hon. Friend will find some gratification in the fact that of the 11 appointments made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, eight live within the national park area.
Mr. Haynes : Is the Minister aware that many Nottinghamshire people including myself visit the beautiful county of Derbyshire? I want to be there to welcome her when she comes, but may I suggest that she keeps the Secretary of State for the Environment away from Derbyshire, because whatever he gets his grubby hands on, something goes wrong.
Mrs. Bottomley : I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I am very much looking forward to visiting the national park. I am not entirely sure how his comments tie in with the fact that the national parks had a large increase in their supplementary grant last year. They will be celebrating their 40th birthday this year and to mark it, after 10 years of this Government, their grant will have increased by about 20 per cent. in real terms. I regard that as a testimony of confidence in the parks.
15. Mr. Andrew Smith : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any proposals to compensate Football League clubs experiencing financial difficulties following the introduction of the proposed identity card scheme.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Colin Moynihan) : No, Sir. With appropriate technology and proper marketing, the national membership scheme can provide an income stream, not a cost to football.
Mr. Smith : Will the Minister understand that his refusal to provide or offer assistance in the unfortunate event of his scheme coming into practice will be greeted with dismay by all who truly care for football in this country? Many clubs are struggling on the bread line--including some, like my club, Oxford United, which are higher up--so how does the Minister imagine that they will sustain the anticipated 20 per cent. loss in gates? Why does he not put back into football some of the £293 million that the Government take out in tax on ticket receipts and football pools?
Mr. Moynihan : The hon. Gentleman would do well to listen to some of the companies with experience of partial memberships schemes. Such companies have come forward and said that the whole operation could be
Column 1025installed free of charge to clubs and supporters because of the substantial commercial opportunities that exist for the implementation of such a scheme.
Mr. Michael Brown : Has my hon. Friend had an opportunity of seeing the check-in scheme that has been sent to a number of us from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames)? The company, Check Technology, says that it is possible for it to do exactly what my hon. Friend's Bill is intended to do but much more cheaply. Could he discuss its ideas with the company?
Mr. Moynihan : I have received representations on behalf of that firm. I have looked carefully at the proposition. It would be for the Football Membership Authority to determine the technology that it wishes to use and I shall make sure that the company's
representations are put before the FMA in due course.
Mr. Menzies Campbell : Why does the Minister persist in his support for the scheme in the teeth of opposition from the Police Federation? Why does he rely on bogus statistics which do not distinguish between those arrested inside and those arrested outside football grounds and, in particular, do not distinguish between the number of arrests and the number of convictions that follow?
Mr. Moynihan : The hon. and learned Member will be aware that the chief superintendents have written a supporting letter, that the Association of Chief Police Officers welcomed the scheme last summer and that the Police Federation, following a meeting with me, has recognised that a number of its concerns have been allayed and, quite rightly, wants to wait and see the details of the scheme that the football authorities will bring forward in order to assist in its implementation and make it as effective as possible.
Mr. Marlow : Would my hon. Friend confirm that this is enabling legislation which need not be enforced and that, if it is enforced, it need not be enforced on every single team in the Football League?
Mr. Denis Howell : Will the Minister tell us what consultations he is having and what conclusions he has drawn from two deplorable difficulties, one this week at Manchester United's ground when 18,000 supporters had not been admitted to the ground at the time of kick-off and one last November at Highbury when 6,000 people could not get in at all? Has he consulted the chief officers of police and the club officials, all of whom say that if his membership scheme had been in operation it would have seriously aggravated an already difficult situation? Should not the Minister consult the people dealing with these problems on the ground when large numbers of spectators are arriving, and will he listen to the police officers concerning those cases rather than carry on with his scheme which is nothing more than a piece of crass stupidity?
Mr. Moynihan : The right hon. Member knows that I have looked into that incident. I can inform the House that the difficulties arose once the fans had entered the ground. I quote the secretary, Ken Merrett :
"The late arrival of many spectators, together with severe traffic congestion, caused the initial problems. The vast numbers who gained entry from 7 pm onwards caused gangways to become blocked." That has nothing whatever to do with the national membership scheme but rather with good management practice and effective stewarding.
|Next Section (Debates)