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Mr. McCartney : As somebody very much interested in housing matters, I welcome the opportunity given by the hon. Member for debating this issue. Irrespective of party political background, if one has been involved in local community politics either as a councillor or as someone involved professionally, there is no local authority in Britain, whether Conservative, Labour or the alliance has overall control, that does not have either a minority problem or a serious problem in relation to anti- social behaviour by groups of tenants. There is no single easy answer to those problems. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) said, those of us who are aware of the problems know that a variety of steps must be taken about complaints to lead to an understanding of how best to deal with them.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) referred to complaints at his surgeries. The problems that I have to deal with at my advice centres fall into two main categories. I receive complaints about repairs--either about their adequacy or about the time taken to effect them --and about disputes between neighbours. Sometimes those disputes are resolved amicably between the two parties after two or three days without speaking. However, sometimes the problems are intractable, like those referred to by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South.
There are several different types of problem. For example, there are problems with noise. As a result of structural defects in houses constructed in the 1950s and 1960s and an elderly population mingling with younger people, with their different social values, there are severe problems with noise in some buildings. Problems are also caused by drunkenness and drugs. Those problems are growing in certain inner cities and on some estates. They are not a major problem in my area, thank God, but where they do exist they cause severe problems for tenants who must cope with living next to people with alcohol and drug-related problems.
Column 146Crime also causes social stress in some communities. Tragically, neighbours often steal from neighbours. I have heard of several cases over the years, in my capacity as a councillor and as a Member of Parliament, of neighbours returning home to find their house ransacked by a neighbour living immediately beside them, above them or below them. That can cause serious problems on estates in terms of attitudes towards certain tenants.
Unfortunately, in some areas, racial and sexual violence or harassment is increasing. There is also the age-old problem with dogs, which has been exacerbated by a failure to tackle problems of lawlessness and criminal activity. Despite the fact that all local authorities have strict rules about keeping pets and animals in certain types of housing, some authorities are driven in practical circumstances to allow single people and elderly people living alone to maintain an animal in the property. Often there are problems with those people failing to maintain the animals and problems have arisen with dogs roaming in packs in Nottingham and in parts of my constituency. Those animals cause serious health and environmental problems on estates.
Estates also suffer from design and structural problems, many of which were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone. We must tackle the problems associated with poor environment which breed anti-social behaviour, a lack of community spirit and an inability for neighbours to communicate. In many of the flats and maisonettes in my constituency, neighbours sometimes do not know who is living next door. They do not know when neighbours move out or if there is an illness next door. The old family and community traditions are lost in the system-built housing errected in the 1960s. That causes disenchantment in the community and leads to many anti-social problems in the community among a minority of tenants. There is a growing problem of mental illness and mental stress in the community. That is not simply caused by the failure of the programme to introduce people with mental problems, quite rightly, back into the community. Living in a modern society in a socially deprived area with few resources has a great effect on mental stress. In those circumstances, tenants are aggravated by people who, because of mental illness cannot ameliorate their personal habits and behaviour towards their neighbours.
A myriad of difficulties face local authority housing departments. The sample solution of throwing tenants onto the streets by taking action over the tenancy through the courts only raises the problem of where they go after that and who takes responsibility for them. Most local authorities, and particularly my own, adopt a broader attitude. They try to maintain security for the majority of their tenants, taking action to ensure that their lives are not disrupted and totally destroyed. At the same time, they grapple with many of the problems that are at the seat of anti-social behaviour. Local authorities are prepared to take action--rightly so-- against disruptive tenants. I am dealing now with cases in which, in my view, the local authority should withdraw the tenancies of the individuals concerned, because they have not kept their promises either to that authority or to other tenants. In that minority of cases, court action should be taken--and as a Member of Parliament representing the interests of my constituents, I am prepared to say so.
Column 147In other cases, such action is not the way of resolving many of the problems that my hon. Friends have described. Since the Minister's appointment to the Department of the Environment, he and I have been involved in overseeing a number of schemes that my local authority introduced for coping with anti-social behaviour. They involve upgrading the community and the social environment with the creation of a sense of community spirit.
They also involve tenants in challenging anti-social behaviour. By that, I do not mean freelance vigilante groups touring the estates and knocking people over the head, but the involvement of tenants' associations and the local authority in reviewing the management of the estate, changes in investment policy to bring about an improved environment, and the authority's day-to-day role in overcoming anti-social behaviour.
My local authority has taken a number of important steps--with national Government assistance in others. It has introduced to three major estates door security systems, whose introduction has, almost overnight, substantially cut both criminal activity and anti-social behaviour in the vicinity of the flats and maisonettes concerned. On one particular estate, door security systems have in the past 12 months reduced the number of burglaries to almost nothing. Tenants are also given much greater choice as to whether they wish to remain on an estate or move elsewhere. Warden control systems provide for the elderly to be visited daily by the estate's management, who can deal with specific instances of anti-social behaviour by others. Other management changes involve the tenants in estate policies concerning anti-social behaviour by the minority. Tenants are asked for their views on council policy in regard to moving problem families on to estates in large or small clusters. I am pleased to report that, because of the positive attitudes being adopted by tenants, the nature of some estates is rapidly changing.
Such measures cannot banish anti-social behaviour altogether, because no complete solution exists, but positive action and local authority and tenant involvement can create the climate in which changes can happen over a period. When tenants see those changes occurring, their attitude changes dramatically, and they become further involved in the development of policies affecting them. Refurbishment of estates is essential to challenging tenants' attitudes to their environment. There is nothing worse than trying to involve tenants in such improvements when no capital has been invested in the estate and when crime is high, lighting is poor, footpaths between houses are not adequate and there are no facilities for shopping or for tenants--particularly the elderly--to meet, and when local authority services are sited miles from the seat of the problems.
Here again, our local authority has made dramatic changes in its management of difficult estates. Neighbourhood service offices have been set up on the estates, and new types of tenure have been introduced involving housing associations and the private sector in their redevelopment. All tenants have been given the opportunity to become involved in changing their
Column 148environment, and to respond positively to their own attitudes and to those of the minority who are still not prepared to co-operate in the community.
Much can be done. None the less, I still feel frustrated, in sympathy with the tenants who bring me their problems. They may have to live 24 hours a day with another tenant who is consistently drunk, violent and verbally abusive, and they may feel that nothing can be done. When a local authority has taken all possible steps to help such a person--involving, if necessary, other agencies such as the social services department and the health authority--and the offending tenant continues to make someone's life a misery, the landlord should be responsible for representing his interests.
There can be no ifs or buts. None of us who represent people in such circumstances can do other than ask ourselves, "What would I do?", and the answer must be : "Protect the individual from unprovoked attacks"--whether they are physical or verbal, or indeed take the form of another kind of harassment.
There is no risk that Opposition Members will sit on the sidelines and hope that no action is taken. We are all involved in local authority housing ; we understand the problems and are looking for positive responses. A sometimes complex array of policies may be necessary, and those policies must be co-ordinated. In the case of mental illness, for example, much more co-operation is needed between health authorities, social services and housing departments. We cannot simply turn people on to the streets and hope that that will resolve the problem, for anti-social behaviour takes place in the street as well as in the home. Housing departments sometimes end up with the problems that other departments, including Government Departments, fail to tackle early. Health and social problems, for instance, usually manifest themselves there in the end.
Another problem is racial and sexual harassment. Numerous amendments to the Housing Bill were tabled by Opposition Members to strengthen the legislation relating to the private sector, but they were all rebuffed by the Minister of the time--who, as was said earlier, was eventually sacked. At that stage we argued strongly that the rights of private-sector tenants should be protected as much as those of public-sector tenants, and that it should not be left to them to understand whether they could go to the county court to complain of harassment.
We were disappointed that the Department of the Environment did not accept our amendments to strengthen the rights of tenants in the private sector who, unfortunately, suffer similar physical and verbal violence as those in the public sector.
Opposition Members are unanimous about what should be done to solve the problem. I hope that the Minister will respond positively and outline schemes being carried out by his Department and other local initiatives to deal with a complicated and difficult problem which cannot be resolved by simplistic solutions.
Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton) : The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) deserves congratulations on winning an early place in the ballot to introduce a debate of his choice. He selected the subject of anti-social tenants, and we wondered what matters he would raise. He rightly referred to the way of life on estates
Column 149and the anti-social behaviour of certain council tenants. But anti-social behaviour is not confined to council tenants. Certain tenants in private dwellings and housing association property have anti-social habits and create problems, so the subject creates wider concern.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, South expressed the concerns of his constituents and gave examples which applied to Nottingham. I am sure that that anti-social behaviour occurs wherever young people are offered tenancies in high-rise blocks.
The hon. Gentleman referred to noise and rubbish, which I consider the main problems of anti-social behaviour on council estates and on private estates where people have purchased their homes. Car parking and traffic can be another anti-social problem. However, without a doubt tower blocks create anti-social problems themselves. That should be drawn to the attention of the Minister and his colleague, the Minister responsible for planning, as some anti-social planning is taking place. The way that some areas are being developed creates problems. The planning of tower blocks should have been more in keeping with social behaviour and planners are responsible for some of the problems that we are discussing tonight.
Mr. Brandon-Bravo : It has been suggested that simplistic solutions will not solve the real problem, but the hon. Gentleman appears to be guilty of falling into that trap. It is much too simplistic to dismiss tower blocks as anti-social in themselves. I referred specifically to five tower blocks in my constituency. If the flats had security and video control they would be superb. They are beautiful flats and 98 per cent. of the people living in them love them and do not want to move. We are discussing the 1 per cent. or 2 per cent. of people who ruin it for everyone else. Let us be quite clear that tower blocks are not the specific source of anti-social behaviour. They are not. That problem is harder to deal with, but many people like living in those flats. We should not forget that.
Mr. O'Brien : I will not deny what the hon. Gentleman has said about people being satisfied with living in tower blocks. If they had the choice, in many instances they would prefer a house with a garden and no neighbours living above or below them. My experience of people who live in flats is that they would prefer to be housed in semi-detached houses or accommodation where they would have more freedom and a better outlook and environment. I accept that some people will warm to a flat when they have lived there for a while. I will not argue with the hon. Gentleman on that point.
The hon. Gentleman referred to dogs, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney). Only today I received a letter from a constituent who is petitioning about a neighbour who keeps dogs. However, the complaint is not about a tenant but about someone who owns a house. The people are petitioning because that person has created anti-social conditions.
The problem raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South is broad. I cannot comment on the points he made about what is happening in Nottingham, but I can talk about the general position. It is not just tenants of council houses or of other types of rented accommodation but even owner- occupiers who cause anti-social problems. In many instances the reason for the trouble is the way in which planners have developed the area.
Column 150My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) talked about homelessness and how it led to problem families. Obviously, children are a concern. My hon. Friend also referred to the lack of sound-proofing, with noise being one of the main sources of anti-social behaviour. In the main, sound-proofing is left to local authorities but they do not always have the resources to provide it.
Some landlords are responsible for anti-social behaviour because of the poor living conditions and the bad environment that they provide. One of the worst landlords in our area in the past was the National Coal Board. Because of poor maintenance, its houses became semi-slums or even slums in some cases. The only people who were attracted to those areas were people who were less desirable as tenants in the more acceptable housing estates.
Clearly, there are problems that can be laid at the door of landlords. Even the people who bought estates from British Coal are not doing anything to improve the environment there. Tenants are not the only people who are guilty of anti-social behaviour ; landlords, including some local authorities also bear some responsibility. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) referred to the need to refurbish estates and to the fact that there should be provision for estate management. In my opinion, some of the problems in Nottingham that we have heard about come down to the lack of proper estate management. Local authorities should have sufficient trained officers to manage estates and to ensure that the tenants who create problems are identified.
I agree with those hon. Members who have said that there is no excuse for people who deliberately create problems for their neighbours. That kind of behaviour cannot be tolerated in any way. But such people should be given an opportunity to accept reality and become good tenants. However, that requires properly trained housing managers.
In this regard, I refer to the private sector and to housing associations, as well as to the public sector. As I said earlier, there are problems in private housing estates. These can be tackled only through pollution legislation ; action is a matter for the local authority and the environmental health departments.
Because of bad landlords and bad living conditions, some tenants, including caravan dwellers, are caught in a trap. Caravan dwellers can be anti-social neighbours. This is another matter that is causing great concern. The Government have not tackled the problem, but have left it to the local authorities, and there is some argument as to whether the county council or the district council is responsible for taking action.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone referred to the question of homelessness. I am sure that other hon. Members, like me, know of people who, because of the high mortgage rates, are finding it difficult to make their repayments and are having their homes repossessed. That adds to the problem of homelessness, and the splitting up of families creates other social problems.
There should be a better means--through housing managers--of advising people what to do in circumstances such as those mentioned by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South. If the necessary resources were available, counselling on the question of bad neighbours
Column 151could be introduced. I consider that the community watch schemes have helped to stimulate good neighbourly behaviour. In many instances such schemes have brought neighbours together socially and thus created a better environment in the community. Although, I do not know whether that could happen in high-rise blocks because the need for community watch schemes is not the same in such areas as on housing estates, such facilities could be considered if we are looking for ways to try to resolve the problems caused by anti-social tenants.
This subject could develop into a lengthy debate. Education could be a means of trying to prevent anti-social behaviour in tenants, owner- occupiers or caravan dwellers. Although we give serious thought to all these issues, there is no easy way out of the problem. It involves many of the departments of local authorities, such as environmental health, housing and planning. Social housing is a further relevant issue that the Minister and I have addressed on more than one occasion. I repeat that there is no easy way out of this problem.
I advise the hon. Member for Nottingham, South that we are concerned about the anti-social behaviour of some people on estates and that we would support any scheme that tried to resolve the problem. We will not be party to supporting people who make life intolerable for those around them.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Trippier) : We have had a useful, constructive and interestingdebate. Although I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken, I am sure that Opposition Members would wish me to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) on instigating it. Although I shall address several of the points raised by the hon. Members for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay), for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) and for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), I hope that they will forgive me if I initially address my remarks specifically to the problems addressed in my hon. Friend's opening speech.
I take this opportunity of welcoming the fact that, while my hon. Friend addressed the House, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten) was sitting beside me on the Government Front Bench. That is significant because, although, as the hon. Member for Normanton said, there needs to be close liaison between local government departments, I readily acknowledge that there also needs to be close liaison between Government Departments, not least between my own, the Department of the Environment and the Home Office, and not least on this issue.
Before I forget, I repeat the offer that I have made in the past to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South : it might be useful if we had a meeting between Ministers in the Department of the Environment and those in the Home Office to address the problem that he has brought to the notice of the House this evening.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South has become something of an expert in this subject over the years and that he has had close touch with the housing authorities in Nottingham. I am grateful
Column 152to him and other hon. Members for focusing attention on a problem which, in the past, seems to have been intractable, although with a bit of co-operation we could make much progress.
As my speech unfolds, I shall try to develop a number of the themes initiated by the hon. Member for Makerfield. However, initially I must stress the harm that was done in the 1960s and 1970s by the utopian designers who put up housing that we now know to be the most vulnerable in terms of anti-social behaviour. It was fashionable at the time, but the gospel truth is that all the major political parties were to blame. Whoever held central power is irrelevant, because at that time local authorities were controlled by Conservatives, Socialists and, for all I know, Liberals, and we were all guilty.
Open-plan estates, with their lack of enclosed private areas, pointless open spaces and criss-cross footpaths, were bad enough, but tower blocks were the worst culprits, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone said. Features such as easy access, anonymity, lack of supervision, uncared-for public spaces and many others have been catalogued. All those problems can be ameliorated and often cured if tenants, management and designers work together. Nottingham's blocks went up--at the same time as everyone else's--to accommodate people from its massive clearance programmes. Most cities did the same. Some of the worst complexes, such as Balloon Woods, Basford and Hyson Green flats, have come down again, and I believe that Denman and Connaught gardens are to follow. No one could complain at the disappearance of such monstrosities. Many other blocks in Nottingham have the potential to provide good housing in a civilised environment, and I am glad to say that many are well on the way to doing so.
I was much impressed by my visit to the Victoria centre complex at Nottingham. Some 450 flats built over the shopping centre had become difficult to let because criminal elements could gain access to the residential floors by a dozen unguarded routes. Robberies were mounting, and violent crimes had been reported. My Department's Estate Action scheme enabled a system to be installed whereby access is only by the personal card of residents or reference to a central control point. Video surveillance covers not only entrance ways but lifts. In addition, each flat has its own link to the control. The system has been installed only for a year, but already I understand that residents' morale has been transformed. I saw a number of examples of that while I was there and met a number of tenants. There are less elaborate systems in 10 other blocks, several of which are aided by estate action, and three more are soon to be included in the programme. Not all the systems have proved successful. A door entry system controlled by tenants and supervised by a concierge seems to work well enough in a single block, of which Southchurch court, Clifton, is a good example. Video surveillance of unmanned blocks is not satisfactory, however, and where such systems have been installed, the city must think again. I am arranging for a discussion between my Department's Estate Action team and the city council to consider what is to be done with the unsatisfactory systems and how to proceed in the blocks that have not yet been dealt with.
It is for the city council, however, to decide the priority that is to be given to this work. Nottingham has one of the
Column 153biggest housing investment programmes for its size in the country. With rather wiser stewardship of its resources, it could soon find the funds to put in whatever systems are most suitable. The council has once again started building houses to rent, instead of part- funding housing associations, which can obtain some of the cost from the private sector. It prefers three rented houses of which it can claim to be the landlord to four in the hands of another responsible body. Again, the council has abandoned the highly popular "Mini Mod" approach of its Conservative predecessor for a much more expensive council house refurbishment programme.
My Department stands ready to help Nottingham through Estate Action and through the housing investment programme system to meet the most pressing needs it faces. However, we need to be convinced that the council is doing all it can to help itself--minimising public sector costs, bringing in private funding wherever possible and choosing its priorities wisely.
It is not only capital investment that matters. In some cases, sensible allocation policies can make a big difference. The Woodthorpe-Winchester blocks at Nottingham, for instance, are being turned over gradually to elderly people. Another approach is to try to provide places where those who enjoy making a noise late at night can do so without upsetting anyone. Here is an obvious opportunity for the public and private sectors to put their heads together and come up with positive proposals.
The report undertaken for my Department by the university of Glasgow on the nature and effectiveness of housing management concludes that decentralised housing management is generally more effective than centralised. Nottingham has made moves towards fully delegated local management, but much still remains to be done. Regular contact between residents and a local office will only build up if that office is involved with all aspects of housing and has power to take effective action. Here again, the Estate Action group will shortly be discussing with the council what can be done to strengthen on-the-spot management so that that in turn gives tenants the confidence to organise and act in their own best interests. That point was drawn out well by the hon. Member for Normanton. Close contact is particularly important in a transitional situation like that at Connaught gardens, where flats are being emptied in phases. Morale drops, vandalism goes unchecked and tenants feel abandoned unless they have close contact with effective management in such situations.
The hon. Member for Makerfield is well versed in Estate Action schemes, priority estate projects and the use of the community programmes. He was kind enough to invite me to his constituency not long ago, where I saw a first-class example of Estate Action working and involving the local community. He made the point well in his speech tonight. I go one further : it should be an extension of the priority estates project that we should try to develop what we in the Department of the Environment call estate management. We have about eight schemes running in England under which we are encouraging local authorities to pass down some of their responsibilities from the town hall to give some power to the tenants who are operating in the estates.
I visited Burnley recently and was impressed by what I saw. Tenants there had had a recent election and they had elected their own group of people which was rather similar to a tenants committee, but had the responsibility of appointing the local government officer who would
Column 154operate from the local estate office, which would not be in the town hall, but on the estate. That point was made well by the hon. Member for Makerfield. I should like to see the example to which I have referred replicated throughout the country. The more responsibility and training in controlling costs, in accounts and in how to balance the budget of the housing revenue account that is given to such people, the more they can be helped. As the hon. Member for Normanton said, if they have such a presence, they may be in a much stronger position to deal with the problem of anti-social tenants.
We have the technology and we know a great deal more about the management problems than we did before. The recent report by Professor Maclennan has helped us in that regard. In a secure environment, with supportive management, the tenants will find it worthwhile to play their part. Associations can be formed and those ready to protest about anti-social behaviour, for example, will be supported. At this stage, the law can play a part.
To try to bring the House up to date with what is permissible, I shall quickly catalogue what is allowable. One regular problem which can be a bone of contention with anti-social tenants who have no regard for their neighbours is excessive and persistent noise. The specific statutory remedies here are that, under section 58 of The Control of Pollution Act 1974, once a local authority is satisfied that a noise amounting to a statutory nuisance exists or is likely to occur or recur, it may serve on the person responsible a notice, which is enforceable in the magistrates court, requiring the abatement of the noise or prohibiting or restricting its occurrence or recurrence.
Under section 59 of the control of Pollution Act, it is also open to an individual who is bothered by noise affecting his home to complain direct to the magistrates court, which has powers to make and enforce an order with similar effect to that of a local authority notice once it is satisfied that noise amounting to a statutory nuisance exists or is likely to recur.
There is a further legislative weapon. The Housing Act 1980 gave council tenants security of tenure so that a council cannot move a secure tenant without a court order for possession. The Act prescribed 13 grounds--there are now 16--on which a council can seek possession from a secure tenant. One of those grounds--now ground 2 of schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1985-- is that the conduct of a tenant or anyone living with him annoys or is a nuisance to neighbours. A court will grant the order for possession if satisfied that it is reasonable to do so ; it does not have to be satisfied --as it does with some other grounds--that suitable alternative accommodation is available for the dispossessed tenant. This ground has been successfully used, and I understand that several local authorities, of all political persuasions, are considering using it to combat tenants' anti -social behaviour towards their neighbours. Anti-social behaviour, of course, goes much wider than noise.
In addition, anti-social behaviour can be a breach of the tenancy agreement, and a local authority may then have grounds for possession under ground 1 of schedule 2 of the Housing Act 1985--"breach of obligation of the tenancy".
I might add that, when nuisance or annoyance is in issue, evidence of some kind is required, and some authorities, I am told, find it difficult to persuade tenants to attend court to give evidence. I understand that. However, the county court rules expressly give a court discretion to admit hearsay statements in evidence
Column 155"if it thinks it just to do so"
and I understand that some authorities have been able to recover possession using ground 2 on the basis of evidence given by their council officers.
The power to change someone's behaviour by persuasion or punitive measures will vary, I accept, from person to person but some things may be more open to change. We can act to improve the environment and the appearance of council estates. We can devolve the management of estates down to estate level, with estate management offices, and that will certainly help. We can install security measures and reduce opportunities for crime through the relatively new estate action programme. We can encourage efficient housing management, better responsiveness to tenants' wishes and a greater involvement on the part of tenants. All such measures have their part to play in reducing the problems to which hon. Members have referred.
Mr. Allen McKay : I was interested to hear the Minister refer to his contact with the Home Office. The community constable at home in Barnsley shares the semi-detached house that we use to house estate management. It is proving a very effective system to have them together in one unit. Will the Minister talk to his Home Office colleagues about the need to increase the number of community constables on the beat to make the system more efficient?
Mr. Trippier : I have much sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point. Let me tell him the most impressive thing that I saw in Burnley. I opened an estates management office formed by tenants who had previously been members of a tenants' association. The local constable had an office in the same building. I entirely accept that he was not manning the office all the time--neither the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone nor I would want him to do so because that would prevent him from being out on the beat and aware of what was going on--but the community spirit to which the hon. Member for Normanton referred was very much in evidence. That was in stark contrast to what I have seen on some of the difficult estates in other parts of the country.
I have much sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman said. With the development of Estate Action, the priority estates programme and estate management, we must involve the local constabulary wherever possible. Security plays a significant part in getting it right. We should not be so arrogant as to assume that we know all the answers--far from it.
Mr. McCartney : An extension of that point could also be the involvement of the probation service. We in Wigan, along with the Home Office, are already well on the road to a study of the effectiveness of the probation service being involved in estate management projects. We hope that, by the end of next year, a report will come forward. Despite the lack of resources that we all complain about, there has been a positive reaction from the authority, the tenants' association and the probation service.
Mr. Trippier : I welcome the hon. Gentleman's contribution, too. All such organisations have their part to play in reducing the problems to which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South referred. My Department is playing an active part in the allocation of resources and guidance.
Mr. O'Brien : I am interested in what the Minister is saying. He is making the case for placing authority for housing at the local level. In view of the changes in housing legislation, is the Minister saying that the same principle will apply to private and municipal housing estates?
Mr. Trippier : I can hardly see how it can. If one were to suggest that people on a private housing estate should band together other than through neighbourhood watch, which I support, there would be deep resentment among those who think that they are better able to manage their own affairs. When they have come across difficulties with anti-social behaviour, whether it be burglary or other degrees of crime, and they have opted for a neighbourhood watch scheme, which I agree would probably help the community spirit, that is all well and good. They can volunteer to do that.
We are talking about trying to get housing management in local authorities and in housing associations down to the local level, where it can be of greatest possible benefit. If we do the things that I have suggested and some of the things that the hon. Gentleman has suggested, we will get a much better community spirit. We will certainly get more effective housing management.
As I said, this has been an interesting and constructive debate. I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I thank him for raising this important subject. I hope that the record of the debate will be widely read.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : Quite simply, I am more concerned, more alarmed and more frightened by my visit in the last few days of February 1989 to Altamira and the Xingu river rain forest than by any other issue or event in my public life and 27 years' membership of the House of Commons.
Allow me a word to my constituents. We live between Edinburgh and Glasgow, which is the same latitude as the north coast of Labrador. If the destruction in eastern Amazonia proceeds at the exponential pace of felling, clearing and burning of the 1987 and 1988 seasons, we in Linlithgow, along with about 250 million other northern Europeans--not to mention the little matter of the eastern seaboard of the United States-- could have the climate of northern Labrador. There really could be flip in world weather patterns.
I know that neither the Foreign Office Ministers nor the Minister for Overseas Development, who are well-informed and deeply concerned about this matter, dismiss me as alarmist. But should anyone suggest that on this matter I am simply a politician in search of a headline, I am entitled to point out that for 22 years now successive editors of the New Scientist have seen fit to give me a weekly column in their informed and responsible journal. They would not have tolerated me had I not been extremely careful with fact.
At Altamira I had two long sessions with the Brazilian-German chemist from Rio Grande del Sul, Jose Lutzenberger. In simplistic terms the argument is that for tens of thousands, probably millions of years, winds from the east have brought the Atlantic rains to north-eastern Brazil, to the province of Para and the Amazon delta. On account of the vast rain forest eco-system, there were massive low cloud formations. Some 75 per cent. of the rains falling to ground and the forest is returned to the atmosphere through the due processes of evapotranspovation. Some 25 per cent. of the Atlantic rains would flow to the ocean through the Amazon and its tributaries, incidentally carrying one fifth of the world's fresh water flow. The Amazon carries a greater volume of water than the Mississippi, the Zambesi, the Congo, the Orinoco, the Nile, the Ob, the Lena and the St. Lawrence combined.
However, suppose that the rain forest of eastern Amazonia is decimated. What is likely to occur? Will there be the same cloud formations that we have taken for granted? Well, not on the experience of sub-Saharan Africa, which my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), whom I thank for being on the Front-Bench, knows so well. Nor will there be in the light of the recent history of north-eastern Brazil--dry hot air rises ; clouds do not form ; blue skies : classic desertification.
In Brazil I was told that there was evidence that to an alarming extent thermal currents were being generated upwards where rain forest had been devastated, preventing incoming moist air masses. In truncated form, I am saying that the cutting down of eastern Amazonia and the Para rain forest will create a blocking system--a sort of fire-break situation in terms of rain, where the rains do not get through to central Amazonia. That spells planetary trouble. If the "hop-scotch" effect--it would be presumptuous of me to give a lesson in climatological physics--of
Column 158moisture going up down, up down, up down, up down, up down as it crosses the central and western Amazon is broken, if the chain is severed in eastern Amazonia, a number of consequences surely follow. First, the dry season may be longer, which will give more opportunity for more logging and felling, clearing and burning. The savannah will be extended.
Secondly, there will be more and larger forest fires. At a conservative estimate in 1987-88 an area the size of France was destroyed by fire. Satellite NASA information indicates that it is worse. Ministers should ask NASA for a copy of its data.
Thirdly, I was told in Altamira by Jorge Terena, an
English-speaking Amerindian, that, if the central Amazon forest was denied rains for three or four weeks in the rainy season, the entire forest eco- system could die. Does anyone know what percentage of forest can be destroyed without the entire forest eco-system ceasing to be viable? It is a fragile house of cards. My distinct impression was that with thousands of years of accumulated experience, the Xingu Indians knew more about the rain forest than anyone else. I have a specific request of Ministers. I thought it proper to offer the Minister a full copy of my notes before making this speech. Will Ministers ask a most distinguished botanist, the new director of Kew gardens, Dr. Ghillean Prance--whom on purpose I have not yet contacted--to the Foreign Office and ask him for his considered professional opinion? Will they then make that opinion available in the Library of the House? Before being deputy director of the New York botanical garden, Dr. Prance worked in Manaos and has great experience. I do not know what Dr. Prance will say, but hon. Members have the right to know. I ask, too, that the embassy in Brasilia contact Dr. Lutzenberger for a detailed report.
In an excellent and formidable "Panorama" programme, it was asserted that if last year's burning season was repeated, the rain forest would be gone in 20 years. It talked of the loss of an acre a second and claimed that 700 acres a day were lost to freelance gangs producing charcoal. On Channel 4 the dire warnings of the brilliantly powerful "Fragile Earth" series have begun to alert the British electorate. Friends of the Earth has done a magnificent job in alerting us all to the issues.
Let us be clear about those issues--we are confronted with the prospect, here and now, of an irreversible and terribly final biological and botanical holocaust. Gone for ever will be the jaguars and black panthers, most of the parrot family and a host of other animals, birds and insects.
Botanically, I am told that 1 per cent. of Amazon plants have been examined for their medicinal qualities. Labelled jungle medicine, there is an enormous potential for low-level technology in medicine. Elaine Elisabetsky, for example, told me something of her work in Belem on plants to cure epilepsy, specifically on cissus cisyoides vifaceo.
Other unexamined or not fully examined possibilities include veronica types to cure anaemia, avocado leaf to cure inflammation, erva cadreira for insomnia, cinnamon for blood diseases and nausea, mamora for bowel complaints, piao blanco for intestinal trouble, orija for kidney problems, capira santo for pain and diarrhoea, amor cresido for colics, guarana for heart problems. Sucuba has anti-carcinogenic qualities, andiroba could
Column 159help to cure coughs, murure could help muscular pain and rheumatism, alecrin help with puberty problems and piri- piri could help with contraceptive problems.
A species of alexa tree at the western end of Maraca--I commend successive Governments for the help that has been given in Maraca--discovered by Gwilym Lewis contains the plant alkaloid castanospermine, which is also found in Madagascar. Tests at St. Mary's hospital--I do not want to raise hopes--may provide treatment for some forms of AIDS.
It is not only the plant and animal kingdom that could be devastated, but human kind. I ask the Foreign Office to get the Meteorological Office and all the expert advice available to the Government to scrutinise the work of Professor Salati Piracicaba of the university of Brazil and indeed the work of that pioneer of climatological studies, James Lovelock of Cornwall.
The argument is that if the rain forest were to vanish the moist air currents that pound against the Andes would no longer do so. If they cease to do that the high air currents, which in loose terms rebound off the Andes, would simply not be formed.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Eggar) indicated assent.
It is those air currents, warm and humid, which return across the South American continent, parallel the Gulf stream and then split to cover the eastern seaboard of the United States and to cover northern Europe.
Our excellent physicist ambassador in Brasilia, Michael Newington, gently said to me, "Tam, you can't prove all this!" Certainly I cannot. But the trouble is that I am not convinced that anyone else can prove it wrong. All I can reflect is that I was lectured to by O. R. Frisch and Paul Dirac, that Harold Wilson made me work to Pat Blackett for two years and I worked on public issues with Neville Mott. I would never ask Ministers to undertake expensive research in physics if it was ill-considered or frivolous. The stakes are stupendous--little less than a neo-ice age for industrial Europe. That is an issue about which humankind, as Michael Stewart used to say, cannot afford to be wrong. Being wrong could lead to catastrophe. The last ice age came incredibly quickly--that is proven geologically--and we are talking about actual time, not geological time. The mammoth is not a tundra-eating animal. Vegetation was found in the stomachs of mammoths. If the ice age had given them warning, would they not have fled south? How were those animals suddenly encapsulated in ice? May not that tell us something about the suddenness of climatological change?
It is one thing to state such a problem ; it is another to suggest how to set about attempting to resolve it. It is enormously complex. However, there is hope. I say to my hon. Friends that, in my opinion, the Minister answering tonight and the Minister for Overseas Development are as concerned as any first-class Labour Minister would be in the circumstances.
Secondly, the briefing I had before going to Altamira, from Charles de Chassiron, head of the South America department of the Foreign Office, was exceedingly