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Mr. David Shaw (Dover) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. On this occasion I have some sympathy with hon. Gentlemen. I feel that in the circumstances, in which the Labour party is in severe difficulties in the Pontypridd by-election and is desperate

Mr. Speaker : Order. That is not a point of order for me. [Interruption.] I will be calling the hon. Gentleman in the debate very soon, so I think that we ought to get on.

Mr. Skinner : On a point of order--

Mr. Speaker : No, I am not having any more on that.

Mr. Skinner : On a point of order--

Mr. Speaker : No point of order arises.

Mr. Skinner : You issued the electoral writ--

Mr. Speaker : Order. Mr. Harry Cohen.

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Poll Tax (Restoration of Individual Privacy)

4.11 pm

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987 and the Local Government Finance Act 1988 in order to protect an individual's privacy. The poll tax is the pinnacle of perniciousness under this Tory regime. Some families in my constituency in Leyton will have to pay £1,000 or more a year, and they will go bankrupt. It is, however, the abuse of privacy that I am concerned with today. The title of the Bill speaks for itself. By the time the poll tax is finally introduced, more than £100 million will have been spent to keep tabs on all adults over the age of 18--money which could be much better spent on providing badly needed public services. Instead, millions will be spent on computers and bureaucrats so that local authority officials can invade people's privacy to collect the poll tax. Valentine's day is a poignant day on which to introduce this Bill. It is a day for lovers. Yet in future, poll tax officers will be entitled to know who lives and sleeps with whom so that they can collect the tax. The implementation of the social security cohabitation rule, under which DHSS officials spy on women claimants' sex lives, will seem but a small fondle compared with the collection methods for the poll tax, which will be an orgasm of privacy abuse. Today is also the day of the Valentine's day massacre, but on this occasion it is our privacy rights that are being massacred by the poll tax.

The Guardian of 4 October last year had the following to say : "Couples face policing by poll tax rules. Local council finance officers"--

that is, poll tax officers--

"will be expected to play policeman to force deserted spouses to pay their errant partner's poll tax, according to draft Environment Department guidelines. They will also have to decide whether people sharing a house are living as man and wife and are therefore liable for each others tax and whether couples have separated. Joint and several liability for poll tax applies not only to married couples but also to couples living together as man and wife In general where a husband leaves the matrimonial home without paying his poll tax, officials should resist the administratively more straightforward' course of forcing the deserted wife to pay. They should try to trace the husband. However if they fail--and the Environment Department thinks that will not happen often"-- who are they kidding?--

"then the officers may force the wife to pay, perhaps by seizing the video or deducting the debt from her earnings."

The authorities are to hound and punish women on their own in their own homes for the faults of their partners. Under the Government's poll tax proposals, everyone is to be tagged, tabulated and taxed. Individual privacy has been cast aside as of no value and its loss--in addition to the poll tax itself--is a price that everybody will have to pay. The Government are not too bothered because privacy, like the quality of life, is not easily measured in pounds sterling. The poll tax will be a snooper's charter. Many private bailiff companies are already eager to act as bounty hunters, and councils such as big-pay-off Westminster prepared to hire them.

The purpose of my Bill is to highlight the ways in which privacy is eroded by the poll tax. It also attempts to protect

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poll tax data in law at least to the same extent as the census. Each clause restricts the invasion of privacy that will occur with the poll tax. The detailed provisions are as follows.

Clause 1 ensures that personal data can be used or collected only if it is fully in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1984. The exceptions to that Act granted to poll tax officers are removed. Under my Bill, personal data must be obtained fairly and lawfully and poll tax officers must not mislead people as to why the information is required. Disclosure from the poll tax registeres will be subject to the control exercised by the data protection registrar. Then, at least, he will be able to take up complaints from the public about the misuse of information originally obtained for poll tax purposes. Clause 2, for Scotland, and clause 3, for England and Wales, provide that public inspection of the extract of the register must be for a purpose associated with the poll tax and not for any other purpose such as debt collecting, direct mailing--that is, junk mail--policing and purposes of that kind. In Scotland, anybody can inspect the register or an extract from the register for any purpose. Such unfettered access is an abuse of individual rights, making individuals subject in future to commercial and authoritarian exploitation.

Clause 4 states that information about an individual held for poll tax purposes can be disclosed by a poll tax officer only for a purpose associated with the poll tax and with the consent of the individual. It prevents poll tax registers from being a source of information for other organisations which should have no right to that information on individuals.

Clauses 5 and 6 go together. Clause 5 makes it an offence for any person or organisation to hold or process personal data from more than one poll tax register unless the individual concerned has consented. This stops registers being merged or combined and thus prevents their being used to keep track of the movements of individuals or being used in a wider population database. Clause 6 also places a restriction on collection of the date of birth, so that it is legitimately obtained only where two or more people with the same name live at the same address. That is important because, when people are vetted, their date of birth is required. Without the date of birth, the register is unattractive as a starting point for black lists, credit references and general vetting registers, for which it otherwise would be used. In Scotland it is already possible to combine poll tax registers and, through the use of the date of birth, develop unique personal identifiers in a database that would include the whole adult population of Scotland. That is an intolerable situation, but it is quite legal under the current poll tax law.

Clause 7 removes the Secretary of State's power to breach a duty of confidentiality and disclose any

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information for poll tax purposes. Any disclosure by him would then be subject to the Data Protection Act, as it should be. At the moment, social services Ministers have the power to blurt out almost anything they like if it help in the collection of the poll tax. No at-risk person will be safe from a Minister more interested in collecting the poll tax than in protecting a social services case. Also in relation to the social services connection, clause 8 allows any local authority to refuse to provide information to the poll tax officer if that authority is satisfied that the disclosure would seriously undermine the services that it provides to an individual. That is not the case with regard to the poll tax at present. Under clause 9, the electoral registrar can use the poll tax register to encourage people to vote. However, if the electoral registrar uses the poll tax register, the right to sell the electoral register ceases under my Bill, and the electoral register can be inspected only for electoral purposes. Although the Government have stopped the sale of the poll tax register, the current law allows the poll tax register to be copied by the electoral registrar and the information placed on the electoral register and then sold to all the marketeers, vetters and black-listers who want it. That is a ludicrous situation.

Finally, clause 10 gets the name right, so that it is the more common usage "poll tax" rather than the ridiculously misleading misnomer "community charge". Ministers answering parliamentary questions are currently saying that they are not introducing a poll tax. That is ridiculous. Of course they are doing so--and they will not fool the public by denying that they are and using another name. The poll tax has both commercial and police state potential, and under the present Government privacy comes a poor third to both. Abuses will certainly occur. In the final analysis, if individual privacy rights are to be properly maintained, the poll tax must be abolished. I hope to support a Labour Government that will do just that.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. George J. Buckley, Mr. Bob Clay, Mr. Frank Cook, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie, Mr. John Hughes, Mr. Jeff Rooker, Mr. John McAllion, Mr. Allen McKay and Mr. Martin Redmond.

Poll Tax (Restoration of individual privacy)

Mr. Harry Cohen accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987 and the Local Government Finance Act 1988 in order to protect an individual's privacy : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 3 March and to be printed. [Bill 75.]

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Orders of the Day

Local Government and Housing Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Speaker : Before I call on the Secretary of State for the Environment, I may tell the House that a number of right hon. and hon. Members have written asking to take part in the debate, and others may wish to do so. I do not propose to impose a 10-minute limit on speeches today, but I ask right hon. and hon. Members to make brief contributions, so that all those who wish to participate in the debate may do so.

4.21 pm

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Nicholas Ridley) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill contains a series of reforms, and I will discuss each in the order in which they appear in the Bill.

The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) will probably perform his usual trick and say that this is the 50th local government Bill since 1979. That is a good round number on which to complete the process of local government reform. The Bill completes the new regime for local authorities that we promised at the last general election, and I hope that we can leave it to work for many years--nay, decades--to come.

The first part of the Bill enacts the remaining recommendations of the Widdicombe committee that we have accepted. We have no written constitution. Instead, in central Government, we abide by certain conventions that the Opposition, quite rightly, make sure we observe. Civil servants do not take part in political activity. We have accounting officers who make sure that Ministers keep within financial rules, and the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office make sure that we do not engage in wrong financial practice.

You, Mr. Speaker, ensure that we safeguard the rights of minorities in the House, to be heard and to be represented on Committees. You also make sure that only those entitled to vote in this House do so. For decades, local authorities followed the same principles voluntarily. I very much regret that over the last 10 years, a minority of local authorities--most of them Labour-controlled, but not entirely--have flouted those same conventions, and that it is now necessary to legislate. But it is. We must ensure the same integrity in local government affairs that we ourselves practise, centrally and in this House.

First, we will establish a post of monitoring officer, whom all councils will be required to designate--not unlike the accounting officers in Government Departments. That person will have a duty to report to the council on any proposal or decision that may be illegal, in breach of a code of practice, or likely to result in maladministration or injustice. We gave a similar role to the finance officer in respect of council expenditure under the Local Government Finance Act 1988.

Secondly, we intend clarifying the roles of elected members and officers. There was a time--not that long ago--when no self-respecting senior council officer would dream of taking part in any public political activity. His or her job was as a neutral professional adviser to the council, and that is where their loyalty lay--not to the majority

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party of the day. No senior civil servant is allowed to take part in public political activities, and no civil servant can be a Member of this House.

Most local authority officers still hold to that principle. However, it is a sad fact that some of them have sunk to providing advice as a senior officer in one authority, while expounding their political views in the council chamber of another authority. To put it the other way around, is it right that politicians should, at the same time, take a job in another council as a subsidy for their political activities? How can a member of the public rely on that officer's impartial advice?

ll ends twin tracking in three bands of restricted posts--first, chief officers and their deputies ; secondly, other sensitive posts identified by each council on the basis of statutory criteria ; thirdly, other staff earning £13,500 per annum or more, who--if they are not in sensitive posts--will be able to apply to an independent national adjudicator for exemption. Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : Is not the right hon. Gentleman being absolutely hypocritical? Over the years, many chief officers have been ardent supporters of the Conservative party--as have some senior civil servants. The Government take the view that to be a Conservative supporter is non-political. Others take the view that if one is political, one stands by one's own party. When I became chairman of a Liverpool city council committee, I was told by the chief officer that I could not do this, this and this. I asked him whether it would be against the law, and was told no. Therefore, I told that chief officer, "We will do this, this and this--and I shall take the consequences." We often get advice from chief officers that is pure Toryism--nothing else.

Mr. Ridley : When I first became a Minister, I was told that I could not do this, this and this--and I have always abided by those conventions. Fond though I am of the hon. Gentleman, and much though I admire him, I am extremely glad that he is not a civil servant in my Department, advising me at the same time as he is performing his parliamentary duties.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Recently, the chief officer of Westminster city council told that council and its Tory group, "You should not do this, this, and this." He advised them that it would not be wise to sell off the council's cemeteries for 5p a piece, and suggested that to do so might be asset stripping. Despite that advice from Mr. Brooke, the chief officer of Westminster city council, the Tories went ahead and sold off the council's cemeteries for 15p. The people who bought that land resold it for £1.2 million.

In other words, the chief officer was correct to give the advice that he did. It is now suggested that that land could be sold for £5 million. If Westminster city council wants it back, it will cost its ratepayers a great deal of money. Why does the Secretary of State concentrate on attacking Labour councils, and introducing measures in the Bill for that purpose, instead of getting stuck in to Tory Westminster city council and dealing with its activities?

Mr. Ridley : I am not responsible for the activities of any particular council. If a chief officer wishes to advise his council on what is right and proper and what is not, the Bill facilitates the process that the hon. Gentleman seeks. I cannot think what more he could want.

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The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) in a newspaper article, called the Bill an

"unacceptable attack on human rights".

What nonsense. Does the hon. Gentleman think that it is an attack on human rights that civil servants cannot stand for parliamentary election? How would the Opposition like it if a deputy secretary in my Department were also a Conservative Member of this House? That is an intolerable thought. So we are mirroring, as far as possible, the very rules that apply for the Civil Service.

Mr. Terry Fields (Liverpool, Broadgreen) : As part of this attack on democracy and the disfranchisement of 70,000 people working in the Civil Service, the right hon. Gentleman has set an arbitrary figure of £13,500 a year as the salary of those who will be disfranchised. How does he reconcile that with the fact that the majority of Conservatives in this place receive more by way of handouts, dividends and so on than by way of their salaries?

Mr. Ridley : The hon. Gentleman does not understand the meaning of words. "Disfranchisement" means that one cannot vote. All civil servants and all council employees can vote. The Civil Service is divided into three categories--those who cannot take part in public political activities, those who can stand for council elections and those who are totally free. We are suggesting the same treatment for employees of councils, allowing the maximum number of them--not a total prohibition--who are not in politically sensitive posts to continue political activities.

We are treating council employees better than civil servants in this respect, so the hon. Gentleman's argument is groundless. If Opposition Members press their opposition to these clauses, I do not think they will find it goes down well with their constituents. The people who are most shocked by twin tracking are those who have to pay the bills to meet the salaries of those who do it.

The Bill also provides for a maximum of three staff to be attached to political groups on the council. We are now persuaded that it can be helpful--and indeed desirable--for councillors to have access to a research assistant, as is commonplace in Governments of both parties, who is able to get information, liaise with officers, obtain papers and so on. We shall be placing stringent safeguards on their use to make sure that no conflict occurs.

As I said, this House insists on the essential principle of free and fair political debate. Opposition Members have the right to put their points of view on the Floor of the House and in Committee. There is no such right for minority groups on local authority committees. In some cases, the majority party has taken too much discretion over the appointment and membership of committees. Some have excluded opposition parties altogether from key decision-taking committees. Decisions have been forced through with no public debate.

The Bill will require appointments to committees to be made pro rata to the balance of political parties on the council. It also provides that only elected members, as opposed to co-optees, will be able to vote on executive committees, the single exception being Church or other representatives where they make a major contribution to education. I am sure that the Opposition will agree that we should not be able to co-opt voting members on to our Standing Committees in this House, and the same goes for elected councillors.

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Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland) : Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why it is acceptable--indeed, legally required in some aspects of local government--to have statutory co-optees who can play a prominent role, but he is taking an entirely different view to other local government activities? Why is an exception being made of magistrates, who will retain their ability to attend, and vote on the decisions and activities of, police committees?

Mr. Ridley : If we trace the history of education back through the 1944 Act, we find that it was provided largely by the Church, and many of the assets involved are Church assets. The history of this matter, which can be explored at great length in Committee, leads one to the belief that it is right that those whose assets and help is much involved in public education should be allowed still to play a part in the decision-taking process.

Dr. Cunningham : The right hon. Gentleman is not explaining the point. If it does not cause problems in education or in respect of police committees, what is the justification for taking an entirely different view in other areas, where external and co-opted expertise can make a valuable contribution to the decisions of local government committees?

Mr. Ridley : Nobody is complaining about expertise. That is certainly available. This is about people voting in committees when they have not been elected. The logic of the hon. Gentleman's question suggests that he will be moving amendments to exclude Church representatives and magistrates from voting on council committees. If he seeks to do that, he must argue his case and see how it stands up.

Part II of the Bill strengthens the hand of the Commissioner for Local Administration--the local government ombudsman--by setting specific statutory deadlines by which local authorities must respond to reports and by requiring that any decision not to comply with a local ombudsman's recommendation can be taken only by the full council.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 431 which appears on the Notice Paper today concerning the Quin family, constituents of mine who have been swindled out of £17,000 by Coventry city council, which forced them to sell the lease of their property back to the council and promptly sold it to another company for a profit of over £30,000? Will he include in the Bill powers for local authorities to be forced to take notice of the findings of maladministration by the ombudsman against them?

Mr. Ridley : My hon. Friend has every right to seek publicity for any case where he believes injustice has taken place, but I think that he would hesitate with me to make it possible for the reports of an ombudsman, whether local or national, to be, as it were, imposed on the authority. The authority--whether the Government or a council--is politically responsible, and it must take the responsibility and make its decisions. Publicity is the weapon of the local ombudsman, and we shall make sure that he has access to publicity in his findings.

Part III of the Bill gives local authorities a specific economic development power, which they have long sought and have not had before. Local authorities' efforts to boost the economic regeneration of their area are made under a confused ragbag of powers. The new power will

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give these powers a simpler statutory footing and will oblige authorities to draw up an annual programme of activity in consultation with the local business community.

Part III also clarifies the scope of the discretionary spending power contained in the old section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972. In future, spending under section 137 can take place only if the benefits accrue directly to the area or its inhabitants, and that benefit must be commensurate with the level of expenditure. We will also clarify the rules on where section 137 cannot be used because authorities have other powers. We will therefore change the "free twopenny rate" limit in section 137 moneys to a per capita limit in accordance with the unlamented demise of the domestic rating system. Part IV of the Bill establishes the promised new framework of control over local authorities' borrowing and capital finance. The present capital control system has few friends. It has not delivered the Government's spending plans and it has led to the wrong distribution of spending between authorities. The new system changes the system from control of capital expenditure to control of the sources of finance. Local government has preferred the control of credit for a long time. That is what we are offering.

Under clauses 44 and 45, we will issue credit approvals to control the amount of credit that an authority can borrow. We shall be setting provisional limits three years ahead. It is right for the Government to control that as part of their management of the national economy, as I think the Opposition acknowledge.

Mr. John Redmond (Don Valley) : I am interested to learn that the Government want to control local authorities. Does the Secretary of State agree that the House ought to be in a position to control the Executive? If so, will he seek to remove much of the regulation, and the powers that such regulation will give him, from the Bill?

Mr. Ridley : I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's support, as I believe I have the Opposition's support, for the control of local authority borrowing--or capital--but I do not follow the second part of his question. I always thought that the House had the powers to control the spending of the Executive. The present difficulty is that the House seems to want the Executive to spend more rather than less.

Local authorities will be free to decide to supplement their capital spending by spending from usable capital receipts and also revenue from the community charge. Clause 39 defines credit arrangements to include devices by which local authorities have obtained benefits in advance of paying for them--the so-called creative accounting devices.

Local authorities are now generating capital receipts at a rate of £4 billion a year. Receipts from the right to buy are involuntary, but I am glad that authorities have also come to realise the benefit of divesting themselves of surplus non-housing assets. They have more than trebled, from £350 million to £1,100 million, in the space of five years.

Receipts do not necessarily fall where the need to spend is greatest. The more that authorities spend them, the less there is available for needy councils to borrow, because it

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is the total spend that is currently controlled. Our solution is simple. Clause 49 provides that part of capital receipts should be set aside to reduce authorities' indebtedness. Most local authority assets are financed by borrowing, and that borrowing stands at £45 billion. It is only right that, when the assets are sold, some of the proceeds should go to reduce the borrowing. We are not taking local authorities' receipts ; we are simply saying that some of their receipts should be used to repay their debt.

I am aware that not all local authorities have welcomed the provisions for debt redemption. Whether their community charge payers will be of the same view is quite another matter. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I have therefore decided to take action now to deal with two potential abuses, to ensure that nothing untoward happens to the accumulated receipts of local authorities in the period before the discipline and financial accountability of the community charge take effect.

First, we are taking administrative action to secure that capital receipts cannot be used before the start of the new system to pre-fund acquisitions or works which will take place after the end of the next financial year. This is achieved by revisions to the block borrowing approval and the general consent to the use of capital money. Secondly, we propose that the debt redemption rate applicable in the new system to disposals of stocks and shares and similar investments should be at the higher rate which we propose for capital receipts from sales of council housing. That will remove any temptation for housing receipts to be converted into non-housing receipts by being applied to the purchase of equities.

These measures will take immediate effect. To have consulted in advance would have precipitated a flood of money into prefunding arrangements, as happened in 1985 when we announced changes in the prescribed proportions. Details are being sent today to all authorities, and copies have been placed in the Library of the House. I do not believe that either measure will have any adverse effects on the legitimate capital programmes of local authorities, but the block borrowing approval and the general consent will apply only for the remainder of this financial year and my right hon. Friend and I will be consulting on what should replace them. During the consultation period, as at any other time, local authorities will be able to apply for specific approvals or consents if any unintended consequences of the measures do arise.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East) : The Secretary of State has been very generous in giving way, which is appreciated.

Why should not these matters be left to be decided locally? If the Secretary of State insists that local authorities pay off debt, they will save some interest. It is more than possible, however, that investing money from the sale of council houses would earn them more in profit than the interest that they would have saved by redeeming debt. For example, they could put the money into building new housing to save bed-and-breakfast costs, which would represent a better business deal.

Mr. Ridley : The hon. Gentleman knows full well that Governments, inluding the Government of which he was a member, have always considered it necessary to control local authorities' total capital spending. He may argue that we have controlled it too tightly, but I could argue that in

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the 1970s the Labour Government controlled it a good deal more tightly. That is not to say, however, that the mechanisms of control should not be provided, and that is what the Bill does.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith) : Has the Secretary of State forgotten that in 1980 the same Tory party that now governs the country told local authorities that they would be able to spend their capital receipts on housing? Hashe also forgotten that the London Boroughs Association and the Association of District Councils--both Conservative-controlled--are opposed to his proposals?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also tell us whether money will be taken from a house subject to a compulsory purchase order and put into debt repayment?

Mr. Ridley : In 1980, the hon. Gentleman and I probably under- estimated the enormous success of the right to buy, and did not anticipate that local authorities would now be receiving about £4 billion a year in capital. His party's Government could not turn a blind eye to the economic effects of sums of that size, any more than this Government can.

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West) : My right hon. Friend said earlier that he wished to encourage local authorities to repay their debt, and I certainly support that. But will he clarify the position of local authorities that use their capital receipts to finance internal lending, and therefore to avoid additional debt? Will they be able to continue doing that?

Mr. Ridley : They can do as they will. If they avoid internal lending, it is, in many respects, equivalent to repaying debt. What we will control is the amount of new borrowing. Authorities with high receipts and high spending power from those receipts will clearly be less in need of new borrowing than others.

My officials will continue to monitor local authority expenditure carefully during the months ahead, and I shall not hesitate to take further action if necessary.

Dr. Cunningham : May I ask a question relating to the reply that the Secretary of State gave the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones)? Is he saying that, in the event of internal transfer of the use of capital receipts by local authorities, such a transaction will be excluded from the Bill?

Mr. Ridley : If a local authority sells an asset, it will have to use the prescribed proportion to repay the debt--either 50 per cent. or 75 per cent. It will be able to use the balance to invest in spheres other than that from which it came. There is no control over the vires.

Part V of the Bill introduces a statutory framework for local authority- controlled or influenced companies. The Widdicombe committee recommended that local authority companies should be set up only where there was specific enabling legislation, but we do not wish to do anything to prevent beneficial local authority involvement in companies.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : Will my right hon. Friend put a proper Conservative stamp on this part of the Bill by ensuring that, when local authorities compulsorily purchase a property, they pay the full market value? Perhaps he will bear in mind the firm promise given to the Bolton, Bury and district landlords association that

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the present injustice in the legislation would be put right in the Bill, so that landlords would be given every incentive to provide homes for rent?

Mr. Ridley : An amendment will be moved in Committee to deal with those points. I am sorry that the provision is not already in the Bill : it simply was not drafted in time.

Part VI provides for the reform of local authority housing finance. We have three objectives : to improve the financial discipline of councils and their accountability to their tenants, to ensure that the money provided by the national taxpayer goes where it is really needed and to encourage council rents, over time, to come to bear more resemblance to the real world. Councils will not, with some exceptions, be able to transfer money between the housing revenue account and the rest of their funds, and vice versa. This is called ring fencing.

Broadly speaking, only landlord expenditure will be charged to the housing revenue account. Expenditure on facilities shared with the wider community, or on such social services as wardens for sheltered housing, will either be outside the ring fence or receive a contribution across it. As a result, both tenants and charge payers will get a clear picture of the services they receive and the charges they pay for them.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Ridley : I have given way to every hon. Gentleman who sought to intervene. However, if I continue to do so, I shall speak rather longer that I had intended.

Mr. Rooker : The Secretary of State's generosity is extremely helpful to hon. Members on both sides of the House. He mentioned ring fencing. Who will bear the cost of maintaining housing waiting lists which are not solely for the purpose of the tenants but involve the wider community, such as owner-occupiers who may find themselves homeless? It would be unfair if the cost of maintaining the housing waiting list were taken solely from the housing revenue account.

Mr. Ridley : A number of costs--and that may well be one of them-- should be outside the ring fence and borne by the wider community, particularly when they have a wider social implication beyond the management of the housing stock. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the precise dividing line should be the subject of consultation and discussion in Committee so that we fix it in the right place.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham) : I do not often intervene in the speeches of the Secretary of State, but my understanding of the ring fence is that the housing revenue account would not be able to subsidise the general rate fund account and the general rate fund account would not be able to subsidise the housing revenue account. However, if the housing revenue account is in surplus, will that surplus be allowed to be added to the general rate fund?

Mr. Ridley : I am coming to that. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall explain it precisely.

Clause 68 provides for the new housing revenue account subsidy which replaces three subsidies : the present housing subsidy, the subsidy paid by the Department of Social Security towards rent rebates and the support given

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