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Column 336Vaz, Keith
Waddington, Rt Hon David
Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Walters, Sir Dennis
Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Wareing, Robert N.
Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Wise, Mrs Audrey
Young, David (Bolton SE)
Tellers for the Ayes :
Mr. Frank Haynes and
Mr. Frank Cook.
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)
Porter, David (Waveney)
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Nicholas Bennett and
Mr. Tony Marlow.
Question agreed to .
Question put accordingly and agreed to.
That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the county constituency of Pontypridd in the room of Brynmor Thomas John, Esquire, deceased.
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The House will have noted that you accepted a closure motion of a debate on a by-election writ within 60 minutes. I am sure that you will understand that that has implications for proceedings on other legislation that comes before the House.
Mr. Neil Hamilton : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you will recall, when the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) moved the closure, the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) was on her feet. As the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has pointed out, grave constitutional questions are raised by what has just happened. The action of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland could be regarded as sexist. As the hon. Lady is from Wales, it could also be regarded as racist. I believe that those are two of the greatest crimes in the statute book of the Labour party. Most important, the authoritarianism shown by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland in cutting off the debate after such a short time should be noted for the future and censured.
Mr. Marlow : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is proper, if one makes a mistake in the House, to apologise. I may have to crave the indulgence of the House. I suggested earlier that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who had taken a great interest earlier in our proceedings on writs for by-elections, might be asleep in the Tea Room. That has certain implications. I understand that it is possible that on his way to the Tea Room he was gathered into the torture chamber on the right hand side
Mr. Secretary Ridley, supported by Mr. Secretary Walker, Mr. Secretary Baker, Mr. Secretary Rifkind, Mr. Secretary Clarke, Mr. John Major, Mr. Richard Luce, Mr. John Gummer, Mr. David Trippier and Mrs. Virginia Bottomley, presented a Bill to make provision with respect to the members, officers and other staff and the procedure of local authorities ; to amend Part III of the Local Government Act 1974 and Part II of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1975 and to provide for a national code of local government conduct ; to make further provision about the finances and expenditure of local authorities (including provision with respect to housing subsidies) and about companies in which local authorities have interests ; to make provision for and in connection with renewal areas, grants towards the cost of improvement and repair of housing accommodation and the carrying out of works of maintenance, repair and improvement ; to amend the Housing Act 1985 and Part III of the Local Government Finance Act 1982 ; to amend the Local Government Finance Act 1988 and the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987 and certain enactments relating, as respects Scotland, to rating and valuation, and to provide for the making of grants in respect of certain expenditure incurred before 1st April 1990 ; to make provision with respect to the imposition of charges by local authorities ; to make further provision about certain existing grants and about financial assistance to local authorities in respect of emergencies ; to enable local authorities in Wales to be known solely by Welsh language names ; to provide for the transfer of new town housing stock ; to amend section 47 of the Race Relations Act 1976 ; to make provision about security of tenure for certain tenants under long tenancies ; to provide for the making of grants and giving of guarantees in respect of certain activities carried on in relation to the construction industry ; to provide for the repeal of certain enactments relating to improvement notices, town development and education support grants ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed. [Bill 58.]
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (Norfolk, South-West) : I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to secure fuller, more effective and more consistent public involvement in the development control process.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that there is mounting concern about all aspects of planning and development control, whether it is about the green belt, so-called bad neighbour development, including dumping, misunderstandings about private property owners' rights, perceived inconsistencies in planning decisions and the appeal process. In the words of the District Planning Officers Society :
"Third party interest is here to stay and understandably so." The third party interest and concern are shared by those responsible for taking planning decisions. Planners feel besieged by critics, including the ombudsman, described by one planning officer as having
"crucified every small fault and failing of the authorities, who set out with best of intentions."
There is no lack of legislation to guide planning authorities in England and Wales on consultation and notification in certain spheres. Their duties to consult and notify are clearly defined for certain kinds of development, with certain public bodies and in certain kinds of location. Developments defined as bad neighbours include scrapyards, refuse dumps, mineral workings and cemeteries. In such cases the applicant is required to advertise his proposal, usually by site notice, and the planning authority has to advertise by press or site notice, or both, under section 26 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. The same Act, in section 25, lists public bodies such as highway authorities and the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, which have to be consulted in certain circumstances.
Planning authorities also have to advertise applications for developments in conservation areas for listed buildings, and in other prescribed areas set out in the Act. They must notify parish councils if those councils so wish. In all these areas, therefore, planning authorities--in the main, district councils--know what is required of them by law and the public are protected, by recourse either to the law or to the ombudsman.
But there is another area where the public of England and Wales are not protected by planning law, although their Scottish and Irish counterparts are. Moreover, it is precisely in this area that there is the greatest public concern, according to the ombudsman and the District Planning Officers Society, which says :
"Next-door neighbour complaints are easily the largest planning postbag of the Ombudsman. Most complaints look to the planning authority to inform them of neighbour proposals to build, say, an extension."
It is the issue of neighbour notice, already grasped by Government action for the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland, that I wish to address in the Bill by proposing that planning authorities are required by law to have a code of practice for neighbour notification, drawn up by themselves in accordance with local needs.
Many people are astonished to find that, in England and Wales, planning authorities are not required to notify
Column 339or inform neighbours of proposed developments affecting their properties. In practice, many district councils have a code of practice for neighbour notification, which may be a site notice, a letter, an advertisement in the local press or simply a list of proposed plans in the local free sheet. Others, because of difficulties with the ombudsman, have no code of practice on the ground that, as one of them put it, he would expect them to observe it. Either way, there is no consistency of practice. Such practice as there is may not be understood by the public ; indeed, they may be unaware of its existence. All hon. Members will be familiar with complaints from constituents that the first they knew of a neighbouring development was when the bulldozers arrived next door. The Government have clearly accepted in principle that there is a problem, since they have acted in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, the principle of neighbour notification was first introduced under the General Development Order 1981, amended by the General Development Order 1984.
The applicant is required to notify owners, occupiers and lessees on neighbouring land, which is defined in guidelines, and to accompany his application with a certificate listing the names and addresses of those parties having a notifiable interest. The list is scrutinised by the authority, and if the applicant has been unable to identify all the neighbours, the authority must advertise the proposal in a local newspaper, the applicant paying the cost. In Northern Ireland, the same principle of neighbour notification is being applied, although on a non-statutory trial basis. The Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland has laid upon itself the task of notifying in writing occupiers of buildings on land adjoining the application site. Surveys in Scotland and Northern Ireland reveal support for neighbour notification in principle, which planners consider has increased the public's awareness of the planning system ; but the systems in force in those parts of the British Isles are costly in personnel and time, and because the public believe that the purpose of planning is to protect individual property interests, they do not always give satisfaction. In England and Wales, the Association of District Councils, which has discussed this issue many times, is opposed to an extension, for example, of the Scottish system to England and Wales. Some of its members oppose entirely the direct notification of neighbours by any means on grounds of cost and raising false hopes. Others favour some notification, to be undertaken by the applicant, on a non-statutory basis.
This diversity of approach is confusing for the public, as within one county or even one constituency, such as mine, adjoining councils may have widely differing practices. The borough council of Kings Lynn and West
Column 340Norfolk has a good code of practice, clearly expressed, while Breckland district council prefers to consult only at the discretion of the officer involved.
The District Planning Officers Society is rightly concerned on two counts-- because of the volume of complaints received by the ombudsman on neighbour notification, and because it feels that such complaints damage its relationship with the public. It has identified the best practice, while emphasising that local circumstances must be taken into account. It stresses also that renotification of material amendments to submitted plans is an important issue which must be addressed.
The view of the Department of the Environment as expressed in a letter from the then Under-Secretary of State, in May 1987, is : "There is no substitute for a properly thought out strategy by each local planning authority in accordance with local needs." I agree, but unless this strategy is made a statutory requirement, it will remain meaningless.
We must remember that public interest in planning matters can only increase, that members of the public have no right of appeal against planning conditions which may intimately affect them and their families and that the least people in England and Wales can expect is a consistently applied code of practice which will give them protection, wherever they live, even if not so elaborate and costly as Government legislation has already provided for people in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Bill seeks to require planning authorities to have a code of practice for neighbour notification, to be drawn up by themselves in accordance with local circumstances, widely publicised and subject to scrutiny by the Secretary of State. It is a modest measure designed to be consonant with Government aims of local autonomy and containing public expenditure. It would be a step towards bringing the same rights of information to people in England and Wales as are already enjoyed by their Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts, and I hope that it will gain the support of the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Gillian Shephard, Sir Rhodes Boyson, Mr. Peter Thurnham, Mr. Tim Boswell, Mr. Robert G. Hughes, Miss Ann Widdecombe, Mr. Malcolm Moss, Mr. David Evans, Mr. Simon Burns, Mr. Timothy Kirkhope, Mr. Ian Taylor and Sir Geoffrey Finsberg.
Mrs. Gillian Shephard accordingly presented a Bill to secure fuller, more effective and more consistent public involvement in the development control process : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 17 February and to be printed. [Bill 59.]
That this House, noting that the number of low-paid workers paid below the European decency threshold has increased by two million since 1979 and that the lowest paid are now relatively poorer than at any time for a century, strongly condemns the Government's proposal to abolish the Wages Councils, which will depress the living standards of millions of families and will encourage employers to compete by wage cutting rather than by improved efficiency.
Mr. Meacher : In two days' time the consultation period ends for the Government's consultative document on wages councils. Since the Government have made clear their intention to abolish wages councils, whatever the facade of consultation concludes, the Secretary of State for Employment will leave Britain alone in Europe and almost alone in the world in having no legally enforceable minimum wage provisions. The right hon. Gentleman will be acting in defiance of the CBI, the employers and other management organisations ; he will be breaking a number of international agreements ; he will be disregarding the almost unanimous view of the Tory-dominated Select Committee on Employment : and, worst of all, he will be the architect of the wrong economic policy for Britain, encouraging inefficient employers who cut wages at the expense of good employers who compete by innovation, new investment and new technologies.
One can appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's embarrassment at the consultative document. It is as thin in substance--it is three and half pages if one excludes the appendices--as it is vapid in fact and in argument. Much of the document, I understand, was written in Downing street rather than in the Department of Employment, no doubt by the same young Turks who wrote the National Health Service review. It was sneaked out separately from the White Paper--and several hours later--on 5 December, although it is not clear whether that was because of its economic illiteracy or so as not to harm too much the right hon. Gentleman's reputation in the coming Cabinet reshuffle. The document refers to
"evidence that Council minima continue to be above the levels required to fill jobs."
In other words, the objective of abolition is wage cuts. Yet a few paragraphs later the document states that since the abolition of wages councils' protection for young people,
"their earnings continued to rise."
Column 342Given the Government's belief that the main cause of rising unemployment is high wages, one would expect the rise in earnings of young people to be followed by job losses, but, on the contrary, the document tells us that
"the rate of youth unemployment has declined dramatically." The Secretary of State cannot have his cake and eat it. At one and the same time he wants to argue that wages councils are holding wages too high and thereby destroying jobs, but also that abolition of the wages councils will not lead to wage reductions which might cause hardship. Or perhaps the right hon. Gentleman wishes to dissociate himself from the document because it is riddled with internal inconsistencies.
As hon. Members in all parts of the House know, the truth is that the Government want to lower minimum wages but do not want to be seen doing it because they judge it would be unpopular. The document says, without a shred of evidence :
"the facts do not suggest that cases of extremely low wages, imposed against workers' wishes, will become endemic or widespread." Yet the document reports that current minimum rates of pay for adult workers range from as little as £76 a week to £92 for a full week's work, before tax and other deductions.
We want to know from the right hon. Gentleman--with his £1,000 a week salary and his £100,000 minimum fee membership of
Lloyd's--whether he regards those levels as extremely low wages. The right hon. Gentleman is obviously embarrassed when the facts are revealed. Would a member of Lloyd's regard those as extremely low wages? If the right hon. Gentleman does not, perhaps he will tell the House what he does regard as extremely low wages. If he does regard them as extremely low wages, how could he not accept that the abolition of the wages councils will increase the number of workers paid at these, or even lower, levels?
Mrs. Clwyd : Does my hon. Friend agree that the major issues in the Pontypridd by-election are not the extravagant claims which have been made by Conservative Members during the last hour and a half, but those of high unemployment in areas such as Pontypridd, and, especially, low pay? Is my hon. Friend aware that 40 per cent. of the people working in the Pontypridd constituency earn £4,000 a year or less? Is that not disgraceful?
Mr. Meacher : My hon. Friend makes a significant point, which undoubtedly will feature strongly in the by-election. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) will comment in more detail on that matter when he replies.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) said, more than 40 per cent. of people in Wales--that certainly includes Pontypridd--are now earning less than the European decency threshold. That figure is nearly 10 per cent. higher than it was 10 years ago. That fact is far more important than all the ridiculous filibustering on the by-election which has occurred in the past one and a half hours.
Column 343We are entitled to know the Secretary of State's attitude to low pay, because his Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), was the sole member of the all-party Select Committee on Employment to vote last time round for the abolition of the wages councils. At that time he said : "People have said they do not want to go back to Victorian sweatshops. Would we not be better off if the country was one sweatshop, hard at work instead of having 3 million unemployed?" We should like to know whether the right hon. Gentleman also holds those views, or whether he repudiates his own Parliamentary Private Secretary? I notice that the right hon. Gentleman is keeping extremely quiet.
In one sense we already know the right hon. Gentleman's attitude to low pay --he is in favour of it. He has pursued criminal underpayment of wages below minimum rates with all the enthusiasm of the Prime Minister canvassing at election time for the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). Out of 88,000 establishments caught paying illegally low wages in the past 10 years, he has prosecuted only 56--less than one in 1,000.
The right hon. Gentleman has doubled the number of his fraud investigators, while at the same time he has halved the number of his wages inspectors. The low paid might be excused for thinking that the right hon. Gentleman will certainly use the law against them when they are unemployed, but he will refuse to use it to assist them when they are in work.
Ministers like to refer to the Government as a law and order Government, but it is law and order in a kid glove when it comes to tracking down employers who break the law. The consultation document even admits that, to cope with the reduced inspectorate, routine visits to small firms have now been replaced by postal questionnaires asking the employer whether he is committing the criminal offence of illegal underpayment of his workers. I suppose, on that precedent, the Government might as well abolish the police force, and send regular letters to known criminals asking them whether they have committed any crimes recently. In this case, the right hon. Gentleman is abolishing the wages police force, and he is abandoning any follow up, even letters.
Not one reputable organisation is in favour of the Government's destruction of the wages councils. Just as the Botha Government in South Africa is much more hardline Right than the business community, so the Thatcher Government are much more rigid and intransigent than all the employer organisations. I shall not mention, of course, the Low Pay Unit, the TUC and the Labour party, because their views are well known, but the Confederation of British Industry has made it clear that it sees no reason to change its policy from that which emerged from its consultation in 1985 which showed overwhelming support in the CBI for the retention of reformed wages councils. In a letter of 17 June last year, the director-general of the CBI reported to the right hon. Gentleman--I hope that he will refer to it later :
"it would be wrong to suggest that abolition of Wages Councils is as yet favoured by employers in every sector covered."