The Minister for Local Government (Mr. John Gummer) : Rent arrears to local authorities in London rose by 24 per cent. in 1987-88, from £84 million to £104 million. They are mainly concentrated in a small number of Labour-controlled inner-London boroughs. One third of the total arrears in England and two thirds of the national increase last year was in the worst 10 authorities, nine of which are London boroughs.
Mr. Summerson : In the light of those staggering figures, does my right hon. Friend agree that if local authorities were more efficient in collecting their rents not only would their housing revenue accounts be in better shape, but they would be less assiduous in making ever-increasing calls on the taxpayer for more and more money?
Mr. Gummer : I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. For instance, in Labour-controlled Barking and Dagenham, arrears constitute 3.2 per cent. of the rent roll. In Brent, the figure is 46.9 per cent. in terms of rent and if rates are added it is nearly 100 per cent. That may, of course, be because three Brent Labour councillors together owe amounts of rent which must add up to £8,000.
Mr. Cohen : Is the Minister aware that in the Labour-controlled London borough of Waltham Forest rent arrears have been more than halved from the level under the previous Tory-Liberal controlled council and that the only reason for rent arrears across London increasing has been the cuts in social security benefits, especially housing benefit?
Mr. Gummer : That last comment is not true. It is interesting to note that the 10 authorities with the highest rent arrears are Brent, Lambeth, Southwark, Islington, Hackney, Haringey, Liverpool, Waltham Forest --the eighth highest--Greenwich and Camden. They are all Labour authorities, they are all a disgrace and they should all be put right.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the leader of Brent council owes £2,000 in rent arrears, and that the vice- chairman of the Lambeth housing committee owes £1,500 in rent arrears, having collected
Column 980£29,000 in council attendance allowances in two years? When will my right hon. Friend put into the Local Government and Housing Bill a clause which bans people from remaining councillors if they wilfully owe rent and rates to their local authorities?
Mr. Gummer : I understand that my hon. Friend is a member of the Standing Committee on that Bill, so he will be able to express his views on that matter. I think that he is wrong about the leader of Brent council who I believe is not now in arrears-- [Interruption.] I do not want to go into the history of this as it would be embarrassing. I agree with my hon. Friend about the Lambeth example, in respect of which my comments in the House were attacked by the Opposition but supported by the local representative of the National and Local Government Officers Association.
Mr. Soley : Before Conservative Members turn their hatred on other councillors, will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the Secretary of State's own research shows that council housing is far better managed than housing associations? Why has the Audit Commission commended Brent council on its rent collection procedures and recommended that the Government help by recognising that those arrears have accrued over three different Administrations--including Conservative ones--and that it should have the burden lifted from it? Does the Minister agree with the housing movement generally that the reason for increased rent arrears is housing benefit cuts, or does he agree with the former Under-Secretary of State for Social Services, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo), who said that the real reason was that rents had been put up by the Government?
"In general, tenants regarded housing associations as better providers of management services than councils".
The hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of himself for trying to defend Brent- -the council which does not even have a list of its tenants, the council which found that its council house keys were being sold in Nigeria to students who were coming here, and the council which has rent and rate arrears amounting to nearly 100 per cent. of its roll. Brent council should also be ashamed of itself.
Mr. Gow : What action has been taken through the courts--by fellow councillors who do not belong to the loony Left, by fellow ratepayers who resent district councils cheating them, or by the district auditor--to prevent the scandal from continuing?
Mr. Gummer : People should be taken to court by the councils to which they owe the rent. The problem is that if councillors do not support their officers' attempts to take people who do not pay their rent to court, the officers cease to be able to do their job properly. The trouble is that all those who do not pay their rent put a burden on others who may be much less well off. In a world of generous housing benefit, those who need help get it through the housing benefit system.
10. Mr. Boateng : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make available extra moneys to local authorities, to assist them with any increased housing or advice needs consequent on the rises in mortgage interest rates and the report of the Audit Commission on bed-and- breakfast accommodation.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Trippier) : In the 12 months to September 1988 English authorities accepted responsibility for 116,220 homeless households ; in 1979 the figure was 57,200. For Welsh figures I refer the hon. Members to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. We have already made nearly £50 million in additional resources available to authorities in 1988-89 specifically to help the homeless, together with £680,000 to voluntary groups providing advice and assistance. Our review of the homelessness legislation will take account of current trends and the constructive conclusions of the Audit Commission's study.
Mr. Hughes : Does the Minister appreciate that the leading cause of this distressing social problem is repossession due to mortgage arrears? Quite apart from the situation in London, is he aware that in Wales the rate of repossessions due to mortgage arrears is seven times higher than it was in 1979? Is it not time that the Government took active measures to tackle this problem, first by lowering interest rates and secondly through a major public housing drive?
Mr. Trippier : The hon. Gentleman must have prepared his supplementary question before he read the report from the Building Societies Association, which was widely covered in this morning's press. I am pleased to note that figures published today by the BSA show that mortgage arrears and possessions in the second half of 1988 continued to decline. The director general of the BSA, commenting on those figures, said :
"Statistical analysis shows no relationship between interest rates and either possessions or arrears. In general an increase in interest rates, even a substantial one, does not change a good borrower into a potential possession case."
Mr. Boateng : As the plight of those who languish in bed-and- breakfast accommodation is not a matter of party political controversy but is accepted by all, will the Minister assure Members in all parts of the House that he intends to undertake the review recommended by the Audit Commission of the regulations relative to leasing arrangements, which prevent councils such as my own, which the Minister has commended, from entering into arrangements with the private developers to provide other accommodation for people who otherwise languish in bed-and-breakfast accommodation? Will he also accept the Audit Commission's recommendation that those boroughs which have a particular problem in relation to people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation should receive a special allocation of resources so that they can deal with the problem? Will the Minister give specific assurances on those matters?
Column 982House and outside. The latest figures for London show that there are some 23,300 empty council dwellings, which is three times as many the number of homeless families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. There is a direct correlation not only between those figures, but between the number of empty dwellings in London and the number of people registered as homeless. It is hypocritical for the hon. Gentleman to give the Government advice on housing when he should be spending more of his time giving advice to his local authority to improve its housing management as outlined by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government. Until that authority has cleared up the mess in its own backyard, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should try to specialise in an area in which his own local authority is not an embarrassment to him.
Miss Lestor : Has the Minister yet had time to examine the Barnardo's report and to consider the plight of young people coming out of care and joining the ranks of the homeless because they cannot afford to live and to pay rent? Is it not time that the Minister liaised with the Department of Employment about the position of those young people in regard to YTS? They cannot exist on the money provided and they are being treated as though they lived at home when they have come out of local authority care and literally have nowhere to go?
Mr. Trippier : The hon. Lady's specific point is directly a matter for the Department of Social Security, but I have seen the report to which she refers. It certainly contains some messages that we should examine carefully in our current review of homelessness, which is nearing completion and on which we are almost ready to make a statement.
Mr. Heddle : Is it not a national scandal that more than 130,000 council-owned properties were empty last night, of which more than 30,000 have been empty for more than 12 months? Does my hon. Friend agree that the Audit Commission has produced a damning report on the inefficiency of certain local housing authorities? What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that Brent and other Labour-controlled councils apply the efficiency suggested in the Audit Commission report?
Mr. Trippier : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. As I said, we found the report by the Audit Commission--and Professor Maclennan's report which was released only this week--helpful in that regard. There is an inescapable correlation between the total number of empty properties in Britain and the number of those registered as homeless, particularly as the figures are almost the same. Until local authorities improve their efficiency in managing public housing stock, the position will not improve.
Sir George Young : My hon. Friend will be aware of substantial investment by his Department in hostels in London which have provided shelter for people who would otherwise be homeless. Will he liaise with his colleagues at the Department of Social Security to see whether relatively minor changes can be made in the income support regulations to safeguard the revenue flow which underpins those hostels?
Column 983seeks to convey. I will certainly draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security at the earliest opportunity.
Mr. Malins : Does my hon. Friend agree that because of homelessness many families with children in south London live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in quite appalling conditions? Does he agree that we should be moving towards the abolition of bed-and-breakfast accommodation and in the meantime considering legislation to force landlords of those bed-and- breakfast places to improve standards and conditions for families who have to live in them.
Mr. Trippier : The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right--it is inefficient. We should like more Labour-controlled authorities to use their empty housing stock. Greenwich seems to deal with the matter most satisfactorily, in contrast to more extreme Left-wing authorities which quickly use bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I welcome the joint Association of London Authorities and London Boroughs Association working party report which is providing tighter controls on hotels used by London boroughs.
Mr. Soley : That is a disgraceful response. The Government should be ashamed of their attitude to homelessness. They know that 6 per cent. of Government-owned properties are empty, compared with 3.1 per cent. for housing associations and 2.5 per cent. for local authorities. The Minister knows that the figures that he gave for building societies are misleading because building societies are not the only lenders. One in 10 homeless families are homeless because of mortgage repossession. He also knows that the real reason why homelessness has doubled in Britain and men, women and children have to sleep in cardboard boxes is the lack of low-cost accommodation to rent or for sale. That is what is wrong with the Government's policy.
Mr. Trippier : It is strange that the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) should even comment on this issue as his local authority has not used the £27 million that it has drawn in capital receipts to carry out repairs to existing stock although it has a significant number of dwellings awaiting major repairs. [Interruption.] It is hypocritical of the hon. Gentleman to suggest, as he has today and on previous occasions, that there should be an increase in money for public housing when in their last three years of office the Labour Government cut public housing expenditure-- [Interruption.]
Mr. French : When my right hon. Friend meets representatives of Gloucestershire county council--which, as he will know, is controlled by the Liberals with the support of Labour--will he ask why, in the past three years, the council has increasd its rates more than 50 per cent. while Gloucester city council which is controlled by the Conservatives, plans to reduce its rates by 18 per cent. this year.
Mr. Ridley : I will certainly ask those questions, but I can answer some of them now. The spending by Gloucestershire county council under the control of the Liberal and Labour parties over the full four-year period has increased by 46.2 per cent. against an RPI increase of 20.8 per cent. In addition, the council's debt has increased by 70 per cent. and it is planning this year to take £10 million from balances to try to disguise the necessary rate rise on the eve of the elections.
Mr. Sedgemore : In the light of the current farcical circumstances in which an internationally renowned institution is being squeezed between a car park and an office development, and bearing in mind that the royal opera house has no intention of proceeding with its existing application and has budgeted for a planning inquiry in its second application, is it not time that the Minister called the application in? Is it not time that the Minister put an end to the deception and deceit of the operatic manipulators and ensured that the development which finally takes place will be in the interests of the opera house and the surrounding area?
Mr. Allan Roberts : Very quickly, does the Minister agree that the royal opera house-- [Interruption.] I am being as quick as I can. The royal opera house now admits that the extension scheme does not provide for the type of improvements that are needed--in fact, there will be only 17 extra seats, but 300 extra parking spaces. In the light of those facts, given that this is a sensitive conservation area of national significance, will the Minister agree to call the application in?
Mr. Chope : The local council is well aware of the possible changes. That is why it has not granted planning permission and is having further discussions with the royal opera house. That seems perfectly reasonable.
Column 985meetings held by the Minister for Sport, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) with the chairmen of the Football League clubs.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Colin Moynihan) : My right hon. Friend and I had a useful and constructive meeting with the chairmen of many of the league clubs about the Football Spectators Bill on 17 January and I met them again on 26 January. I met the president of the Football League and chairmen of the Football Association on 10 February to discuss aspects of the Bill and the wish of the football authorities to form the Football Membership Authority.
Mrs. Mahon : In view of the overwhelming opposition to the scheme and the decision in another place on Monday, will the Minister tell the Prime Minister that it is a non-starter and that many league clubs are already in serious financial difficulties? Will he make a name for himself by standing up to the Prime Minister?
Mr. Moynihan : On the first point, the answer is no. On the second point, there is no good reason to believe that the scheme will have an adverse financial impact on clubs, even the smallest. A number of companies have already offered to set up and run the scheme at no cost to the clubs or the supporters. If the football authorities and clubs take a positive approach to marketing the scheme, financing it will not be a problem and the scheme can produce an income stream to football.
Mr. John Carlisle : Does my hon. Friend recall the words of Mr. Ted Croker, then secretary of the Football Association, when he asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last summer to remove her tanks from his lawn? Is it not extraordinary that Opposition Members, the football authorities and a few misguided Conservative peers now seek to frustrate legislation which will remove hooliganism in and around football for ever?
Mr. Pendry : When the Minister met the football authorities, did they help him to unravel a problem, of his own making, for thousands of Northern Irish citizens who have Irish passports and who support Manchester United or Celtic Football Club? They will have to show their passports when they go to Old Trafford, but not when they go to Celtic Park ; they will have to show their passports when Manchester United plays Celtic in a friendly, but not when Celtic plays Manchester United in a friendly, and they will have to show their passports when England plays Eire but not when Scotland plays Eire even though Eire is managed by an Englishman. If that problem was unravelled at that meeting, will the Minister now unravel it for the rest of us?
Column 986have to be a member of the national membership scheme or a guest of the club. In those circumstances, there is no need for the use of passports.
Mr. David Evans : Does my hon. Friend agree that the amendment passed in the other place to the Football Spectators Bill is nonsense and unworkable? Does he also agree that if Liverpool were in the scheme and Tranmere were not, a Liverpool fan who was banned from his own ground and from watching his country abroad would be able to go to Tranmere and cause mayhem?
Mr. Moynihan : My hon. Friend has raised two important points. The Government will give careful consideration to the impact of the amendment. On phasing, the Government have made it clear on many occasions that the position that my hon. Friend has just outlined is accurate. Phasing would require Charlton, a first division club which shares a ground with Crystal Palace, a second division club, to install and dismantle the technology at Selhurst Park every week, according to which team was playing at home. That would be nonsense.
Mr. Menzies Campbell : Why is the Minister so grudging in his acknowledgment of the steps taken by Football League clubs to combat hooliganism in the past three or four years? If he thinks that those steps are insufficient and his own proposals are self-evidently correct, will he allow a free vote when the Bill come back, in a much emasculated form, from the other place?
Mr. Moynihan : On the evidence of the last point, I am convinced that if it were not for the Whipping of the Labour Benches, more Labour Members would support the Government on this important issue. I have made it clear on many occasions that the Government welcome the moves that the football authorities have taken, not least in building on the package of measures announced in February 1987. We saw last season that that was simply not enough and that we needed to come forward with additional measures to tackle a problem that has tarnished our image abroad and which continues to have a major detrimental effect through hooliganism being associated with the sport in this country.
Mr. Latham : If we must proceed with the scheme, may we at least have an assurance that the members of the Football Membership Authority, to which Question No. 7 refers, will be selected from people who attend football matches in places other than the directors' boxes?
Mr. Moynihan : I agree with my hon. Friend and I was grateful to the representatives of the FA and the League whom I met at my last meeting, who said that they wished to be approved as the Football Membership Authority. The Government keenly wish to see that and I am glad that the football authorities do too.
Mr. Denis Howell : Was it with the Minister's authority that, following the Government's defeat in another place on Monday, the No. 10 propaganda department yesterday called the press to a briefing to the effect that unless football ignores the will of Parliament as expressed in the Lords, sanctions will be taken against it, including refusing to allow the football authorities to operate the football membership scheme? Is not that contemptible blackmail? Furthermore, is it not a serious contempt of Parliament and a possible breach of privilege? What explanation can the Minister provide for that scandalous behaviour?
Mr. Moynihan : The only time that I would have used the word "contempt" yesterday was with reference to the contemptible nonsense that the right hon. Gentleman spoke on Radio 4 when he was defeated by my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn, Hatfield (Mr. Evans). The right hon. Gentleman's account of the press briefing from No. 10 is absolute nonsense- - [Interruption.] We have made it clear that we shall consider carefully the effect of the amendment passed in the Lords and make a decision on that, and we shall, no doubt, announce it shortly-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Riddick : Has my hon. Friend seen the letter from the president of the Football League, Mr. Dunnett, to the Football League clubs? Is he aware that the letter is full of distortions and half-truths and, in some cases, downright lies? The letter states :
"Football supporters will be the only people in the country" who have to carry identity cards. But everybody in this place has to carry identity cards. Does my hon. Friend think that Mr. Dunnett is deliberately misleading people, is simply in ignorance of the facts or is putting into practice the habit of misleading people that he no doubt learnt here as a Labour Member?
Mr. Moynihan : I regret that many of the statements made in that letter were misleading. I understand that a number have already been taken up, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn, Hatfield. I am certain that on another occasion I shall be able to respond in full to that letter, although it was not addressed to me.
6. Mr. Win Griffiths : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will give the cost of full implementation of the European Economic Community directive on bathing water and the date when he expects the directive to be fully met.
Mr. Ridley : We have asked water authorities to assess the feasibility of bringing all their bathing waters up to European Community standards by 1995. The detailed compliance programmes and the resulting cost to water consumers are not yet clear.
Mr. Griffiths : Will the Minister confirm that the cost of complying with the bathing water quality directives and of getting rid of all the dangerous derogations in the drinking water quality directive will be about £2 billion? Will he also confirm that the report in The Daily Telegraph today that the Minister had achieved the agreement of Brussels to 1995 being a reasonable time by which we should comply with the bathing water directive is absolutely untrue? When I telephoned Brussels this afternoon, I was told that when officials there read the report in The Daily Telegraph they laughed because they felt that the reporter was not telling the truth all the time. Would not 1992 be a far more reasonable date?
Column 988However, I can give him some information. The Welsh water authority plans to spend £100 million to improve its bathing beaches in the next six years to bring all Welsh waters up to standard. That £100 million will have to be serviced and paid for by Welsh consumers. The total annual spend in England and Wales is currently over £100 million. Over that period, the hon. Gentleman can estimate the total cost of the operation, which does not include improving the quality of water so that it meets the drinking water standards, which will cost considerably more. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman's figure was probably an underestimate of the total cost. I make it clear that these costs will have to be borne by water consumers and are nothing to do with privatisation.
Sir Anthony Meyer : Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is also great concern on the Conservative Benches about the condition of some of our beaches and that many of us will be watching with great care the debates on the Water Bill to ensure that the mechanisms in that measure provide as powerful an incentive to the new water authorities to clean up the beaches as those which exist under the present arrangements?
Mr. Ridley : I can, happily, assure my hon. Friend that the new arrangements, with the National Rivers Authority in place, are infinitely preferable to the older arrangements under which there was no proper control of the investment and standards achieved. I can also comfort my hon. Friend by telling him that the savage and massive cuts in sewerage investment made by the last Labour Administration have been completely reversed and that there are now major programmes in place to finance the necessary improvements.
Mr. Matthew Taylor : Is the Secretary of State aware of the deep concern in the south-west about the condition of the beaches in the area? Is he aware that in that one area, 54 beaches are being investigated for pollution of the water, that 23 regularly fail to meet European bathing water standards and that there is a strong demand for the Government to provide adequate investment nationally to clean our water, our beaches and our environment rather than to follow the massively unpopular path of simply privatising for profit?
Mr. Oppenheim : Bearing in mind that it costs money to clear up our seas and drinking water, may I ask my right hon. Friend to agree that it is wholly in character for the Opposition to be demanding that clean-up and, at the same time, complaining about increased charges to pay for it?
Mr. Ridley : The difficulty with the present situation is that Opposition Members are demanding higher standards, with which I agree, and at the same time denying the resulting financial consequences, which they try to blame on something else.
Dr. Cunningham : Why have the Government deliberately understated the scale of the problem of polluted beaches by designating only 391, when the Royal Commission on environmental pollution recognised that there were 600 beaches in Britain popularly used by
Column 989swimmers? Why did the Minister for Water and Planning stupidly mislead the public today on Radio 4 by saying that there was no health risk unless people could see sewage in the water? Will the Minister admit that colliform bacteria, salmonella, entero viruses and pathogenic micro-organisms are invisible to the naked eye? Is it not clear that Government policy proposes insufficient control over private monopolies and can offer no deadline for the elimination of polluted beaches, as the chairman of the North-West water authority admitted to me in a recent letter? How can the Secretary of State say that the controls in his legislation are adequate when he has promised in advance immunity from prosecution to the private monopolies that he intends to set up? Will he confirm that all identified bathing waters will receive the same environmental quality objectives before privatisation takes place?
Mr. Ridley : The question on the Order Paper concerns meeting the European Community directive, and that is the question I answered. The number of beaches that qualify under that directive is contained in the numbers that were given in a written answer yesterday. As to beaches that have not yet been cleaned, I confirm that swimming in contaminated water carries only a very small risk of disease. The system of controls--which the hon. Gentleman ought to understand by now, because he has been debating them long enough in Committee--is infinitely better than anything we have had before. The hon. Gentleman knows that to be the case, and I believe that even he agrees that if a programme of compliance is in place and adhered to, enforcement and prosecution should not take place until that programme is deviated from.
Mr. Wilshire : The interest shown so far is proof that the Government are operating a good scheme and keeping their promises. Does my hon. Friend agree that action and achievements are the best test of success? If so, can he give the House any good news about the number of jobs created by the scheme? Also, does he have any evidence that Labour local authorities are behaving in their usual way, by whingeing and whining, rather than taking every opportunity to do all they can to help?
Mr. Trippier : Approved city grant projects will provide more than 500 homes and nearly 5,000 jobs, and will bring about 115 acres of land back into use. Labour authorities are improving, albeit slowly, but, in respect of economic development a number of them still suffer from delusions of adequacy. It is clear that they could play more of a proactive role with the private sector. Although they do not have to make a contribution, as they once did under
Column 990urban development grant, I have made it abundantly clear that we shall not consider a city grant application until it receives planning permission.
Mr. Mitchell : Is my hon. Friend aware that businesses in Nottingham, where many of my constituents work, have been extremely successful in winning city grants, with less than £5 million of public money dragging in behind it more than £13 million of private money? That underlines the success of the city grant scheme and clearly demonstrates that Nottingham remains an attractive area for inward investment.
Mr. Trippier : I could not agree more. I have been overwhelmed by the number of applications that I have received from the private sector in Nottingham and the surrounding area. That success should be carefully considered by other areas that have not been so successful in securing city grants, and have not recognised that, as the private sector can now apply direct to the Department of the Environment, bureaucracy has been cut to a minimum.
9. Mr. O'Brien : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many times the urban development corporations have met jointly with his Department ; what matters were discussed ; and if he will make a statement.