Previous Section Home Page

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : I believe that this very precious time for Back Benchers should be used to explain in very simple terms why the House should not adjourn before it has addressed itself to certain abuses, and it is important that we should guard the time for that purpose. I shall not detain the House long, but the issue that concerns me is very real.

Over a number of months now, the House has discussed the question of BSE, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which has infected a great many cattle, and there have been discussions on the various ways of dealing with it. I was concerned to discover that infected carcases were being buried in a landfill site in the middle of my constituency, on the Cheshire plain, alongside two specific water sources from which in due course drinking water is taken. When I asked the Ministry of Agriculture whether the animals were being incinerated or buried, it reported that 48 carcases had been disposed of in this way.

Having studied the relevant reports, I appreciate that there are alternative means of disposal, and that the heads had been removed from the infected cattle and taken elsewhere for testing. Nevertheless, I am still greatly concerned at the fact that a landfill tip is being used for such purposes. The site is quite close to housing and while I do not wish to overplay the matter I believe there is some doubt as to whether lime is being used before disposing of the carcases, as is essential when dealing with the destruction of infected beasts.

Having read the Ministrys own reports, there is some suggestion that infected animals may carry the virus infection in the spleen as well as the brain. If that is so, I would want to be assured by the relevant Ministers that in disposing of infected carcases in a landfill site they are not implanting a virus which could have an effect over the next 10 or 20 years. It is all very well talking about caring for the environment, but caring for the environment means taking very careful action where there could be a possible risk to anyone, either now or in the distance future.

I therefore feel that the Minister of Agriculture should be prepared to set up an inquiry into the means of

Column 49

disposing of infected cattle. I know that there are very few incinerators available to destroy such carcases easily, and I understand that some veterinary surgeons doubt whether incineration is necessarily the best means, but if there is any doubt about the way in which infected carcases are being treated I am extremely concerned that they should not be left in the earth.

I am anxious not to cause panic or concern among my constituents who live around the landfill site, but I hope that the Government will make a clear, definitive statement about what is happening there and how the carcases are treated. I hope that the Leader of the House will be prepared to ask his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to reply in some detail to the very genuine fears of my constituents.

If BSE is a growing problem, a number of questions need to be answered. Is incineration the best method of disposal? If so, what plans do the Government have for building incinerators capable of carrying the numbers of carcases which will undoubtedly need to be disposed of in the near future? If incineration is the only method, presumably the landfill site will no longer be used. If, on the other hand, it is possible to dispose of infected carcases safely in that way, why are only the heads being removed when the Ministry's own information seems to suggest that other parts of the carcases may still carry the infection ?

Finally, veterinary health is absolutely vital because of its effect on the food chain. We know from the treatment of viruses in human beings that it is easy to store up difficulties for future generations by misuse of landfill sites, which could be a potential time bomb. I hope that is not the case.

I hope that the Ministry will not be prepared to allow infected carcases to be quietly disposed of, as they have been so far, on a site which is of great concern to my constituents. I hope that Ministers will consider the methods of disposal and reassure everyone concerned in my constituency either that this is the only safe way of dealing with the problem, or that they will come forward very urgently with alternative plans.

The very fact that the disposal of these carcases has been taking place in what amounted almost to secrecy is bound to concern us all. I do not wish to start a panic or to over-dramatise the situation, but if the House adjourns without the serious concern of my constituents being set to rest, I personally shall be exceedingly alarmed because I shall begin to believe that there really is something to hide.

5.19 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams) : I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will not consider the length of the contributions today as a measure of the importance of the subjects which have been raised. Obviously the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) raised a subject which will be of concern to all hon. Members. I suspect that the matter that I want to raise will also concern hon. Members on both sides of the House.

My hon. Friend the Leader of the House should be aware that 90 of my colleagues feel as strongly as I do about the problem of land use. Hon. Members have raised the issue of land use eating into green fields on many occasions over the past few months. Many hon. Members

Column 50

have referred to the need to debate the future of the development plans published in a White Paper in January. Those plans should be discussed in this House.

Extra weight was given to the need to discuss the proposals in that White Paper by a statement made by Plymouth city council on Friday. The council believes that it has run out of land and intends to ask the Boundary Commission for permission to eat into 2,000 acres of land in my constituency for building purposes.

Problems with land use have often been discussed in this House. However, the major problem of land use has been accelerated by the view expressed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that nearly 500,000 new houses need to be built on 53,700 acres in the south of this country.

We are all aware of the need to provide more homes. However, there is increasing concern that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has no regard, although he professes otherwise, for preserving the green fields and the environment of the south and south-west. Unless we have an opportunity to debate the future of the development plans and the Government can hear the strength of feeling on the Conservative as well as on the Opposition Benches, they will be doing an injustice to the House and to the country.

There are 85,000 acres of public vacant land. By vancant I mean dormant, under-utilised or unused. That land is on the register of public land which was set up in 1981 by the then Secretary of State for the Environment to indentify waste land or land that was surplus to requirement, but in public ownership. Over the past eight years, an enormous amount of that land has been sold. Many of us on the Conservative Benches were delighted that the land had been sold and used. However, as fast as land comes off the register, more land goes on. So long as we have the present planning system, land will continue to become vacant, dormant and under-utilised in public ownership and will continue to be placed on the register. I believe that the land register will continue for another 50 years or more as public vacant land is sold and new public land becomes available. There is public waste land in most cities. There is certainly much public vacant land in Plymouth. It belongs not just to the local authority, health authorities and education authorities, but to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and to the Property Services Agency. It is no good the Government saying that they are concerned to preserve the environment and to conserve the beautiful parts of Britain if they continue to allow public vacant land to dominate the scene while they allow the green fields to be eaten up before public vacant land is used.

Instead of debating whether we should continue to use green fields in preference to public vacant land, we should debate the merits of the future of the development plans. Can we discuss whether we want to get rid of the county structure plans in the way that my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is proposing? Do we want city councils like that in Plymouth or in other major conurbations to commandeer thousands of acres of green fields and destroying the environment because they say that they have run out of land ? The Government are not pushing hard enough for public vacant land to be released and used. The land register has indentified the

Column 51

public waste land and vacant land, but the Government have not insisted that they and other public organisations divest themselves of that land.

I was grateful for the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) about my specialisation in this subject. Some hon. Members have read the splendid publication "Public Land Utilisation Management Schemes" which I wrote in conjunction with others last year. That document identifies the scope and extent of public vacant land and argues how it should be used before the Secretary of State for the Environment eats into green field sites in the south and south-east.

There is no point in my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment insisting on more housing being built if public money is not available for the necessary infrastructure to go with it. Ivybridge in my constituency is one of the fastest growing towns in the country. It has inadequate schooling and the police claim that they cannot provide the police presence that they would like because the town continues to expand and there is insufficient public investment. In that town there is insufficient health care, inadequate housing facilities and leisure and recreation services. Similarly, the road network is inadequate.

It is pointless to continue to build on public vacant land or on green field sites unless there is sufficient infrastructure. Problems with inadequate infrastructure can be found in Ivybridge and elsewhere in my constituency. The future of the development plans is very important and we must debate that subject before the House adjourns for the Easter recess.

5.26 pm

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe) : Before the House adjourns for the Easter recess, I want to draw to the attention of the Leader of the House the alarming growth in pollution of the stretches of the Rivers Don and Rother which frame my constituency. I look to the Secretary of State for the Environment for an urgent response.

I spoke about these problems during the Second Reading of the Water Bill. I informed the House that, since 1980, I have engaged the Department of the Environment in correspondence about capital allocations and external financing limits for Yorkshire Water in the light of what I feared then were growing problems of the water supply and pollution. The then Minister of State described my inquiries as unnecessarily gloomy and claimed that the overall trend in river quality was improving.

The expectation then was that Yorkshire rivers would become cleaner during the 1980s. Instead, river quality has worsened throughout the decade. The Yorkshire water authority chairman has admitted to me in correspondence that hundreds of kilometres of south Yorkshire river stretches are still polluted, and the Prime Minister confirmed as much in her reply to me last Thursday. Furthermore, there are growing doubts in south Yorkshire about the quality of domestic water, whether from the Pennines or from the River Derwent. A fear about aluminium from purification processes is associated with the Pennines, and worries about nitrates from agricultural pollution are connected with the River Derwent.

The Government have insisted that when the Water Bill is enacted it will address the problems of water supply and

Column 52

river pollution. Whether the Bill will eventually provide for the appropriate investment and regulatory framework is not my concern today. My continuing worry is that the scale of the problem in south Yorkshire is so huge and probably still deteriorating that the situation cannot await the potential benefits, as the Government see them, of the Water Bill.

Yorkshire Water produced figures last week which show that pollution incidents in the region's rivers have increased more than three fold in the past decade and that complaints about the quality of drinking water in south Yorkshire have also risen steadily over the past two years. Hundreds of Sheffield-area folk have protested recently about dirty water supplies.

Local council officials are considering whether disgruntled consumers may have a case against Yorkshire Water under the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982. I understand that Yorkshire water authority, in common with others, is reconsidering its policy on the use of aluminium in purification processes, following research studies suggesting a possible link between aluminium and Alzheimer's disease.

There is also growing concern in south Yorkshire about the presence of nitrates in drinking water. One quarter of south Yorkshire's drinking water comes from the River Derwent, which is fed by streams and rivulets running through agricultural land. Even if no more fertilisers are used around York, it is feared that water nitrate levels in south Yorkshire will continue to rise. It takes between five and 40 years for the chemical to seep through. There is the fear that the River Derwent will exceed the Community's limit for nitrates in drinking water by the end of the century.

During last winter, I conveyed those fears to the Department of the Environment. In a letter dated 9 January, the Minister for Water and Planning claimed that the revised capital allocation would enable Yorkshire Water to implement its programmes. The Minister, looking to the future, thought that the authority would benefit in particular from the £1 billion programme planned to bring most sewage works up to the necessary standard by 1992.

My purpose in speaking today is to argue that the situation in Yorkshire continues to deteriorate and that there is a need for greater remedial action in advance of the implementation of the Water Bill. My authority for making those submissions is to be found in the current finding of the Yorkshire Post poisoned rivers campaign, in the investigation by the Sunday Times' "Insight" team, and consumer perception. According to a survey commissioned by Yorkshire Water published only last week, more people are worried about the state of rivers in Yorkshire and Humberside than ever previously recorded. According to the findings of the Sunday Times' "Insight" team, Britain's rivers are being polluted at a faster rate than at any time since records began. Industry must bear the brunt of the blame for that.

My constituency is flanked by the Rivers Rother and Don, which are particularly affected. British Coal Products, a subsidiary of British Coal, is one of the top offenders. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) will not mind if I mention that firm, for he will know that its giant coking plant in Chesterfield has appeared to break the law 12 out of the 17 times that tests were undertaken by water authority officials. A sample of the Rother taken by the "Insight"

Column 53

team downstream of the British Coal Products' plant, bordering my constituency, contained measurable concentrations of both cyanide and mercury--neither of which the company is licensed to discharge--yet that plant has never been the subject of a prosecution.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) will welcome a reference to the pollution problems of his side of Sheffield city. British Tissues, in my hon. Friend's constituency, is another offender. It failed consents on 14 out of 27 occasions that its discharges were tested in the past 12 months. Recently, the company spent £2 million on improvements to clear up effluent, and believes that there will be no further problems. However, problems have been arising downstream. British Coal has been prosecuted 21 times in the past three years for pollution offences, but continues to breach the limits. Again, the biggest sufferers are the Rivers Rother and Don, and the worst stretches frame the city of Sheffield.

As the Rother approaches Sheffield, it passes through Rother valley country park, which is popular with nearly 700,000 visitors a year. What those visitors do not know is that the water in the lake must be pumped from a brook three miles away. The next stop is the huge coking plant at Orgreave. Last year, British Steel made profits of more that £400 million but spent only £85,000 on effluent treatment at that site. According to local anglers, no fish have been caught in the Rother for at least 20 years.

Yorkshire Water attempts to clean up the river, but we have seen only a catalogue of delays and broken pledges. In 1974, the water authority said that the Rother would be grade two by 1979. In 1979, Yorkshire Water put the date back to 1987. In 1987, the authority announced a revised target of 2001. The picture is almost as bleak in respect of the Don, where sewage is a greater threat than industry. I dare not use the language describing the nature of the pollution that was used by The Sunday Times yesterday. However, I can tell the House that sewage degrades more rivers than any other form of pollution.

Last year, more than 4,000 pollution incidents were caused by sewage. According to the "Insight" team, cleaning up discharges will cost far more than previously thought. One in five of Britain's sewage works is breaking the law by discharging sub-standard waste into rivers. The Yorkshire water authority is one of the worst offenders. The sewage works at Blackburn meadows, for example, on the boundary of my constituency and within Sheffield city limits, will require more than £30 million to be spent if it is to meet consent standards. At least five miles downstream of the Don disgraceful conditions are observable.

A similar situation exists in Leeds, Bradford and elsewhere in Yorkshire. Last year, Yorkshire Water admitted that about 70 sewage treatment works out of about 600 in the region failed to reach consent standards governing the content of effluent discharged into rivers. Although most of those 70 works are small, substantial investment will be needed if they are to comply. According to the "Insight" team, the total bill could exceed £1.6 billion. That is £600 million more than the figure conveyed to me by the Minister for Water and Planning in his letter of 9 January.

Yesterday's issue of The Sunday Times commented :

"A spokesman for the Department of the Environment yesterday confirmed that the cost of dealing with"


Column 54

"overflows was not included"

in the original figure of £1 billion. That is why I thought that it was urgent to raise the matter today, and why I look to the Leader of the House to convey to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment before Easter how reckless and grievously the shortfall of money is bearing on my constituency, and how important it is to make an early statement.

5.37 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stafford) : I thought that it would be appropriate to deal today with an issue about which I feel strongly, and in respect of which I believe that strong feelings are held by other right hon. and hon. Members. I refer to the relationship of this country to Europe and the context in which we discuss matters which are directly germane not only to domestic legislation but to Community obligations.

A relevant issue arose in Question Time today, in respect of the validity of the Merchant Shipping act 1988, a matter which is currently before the Court of Appeal. I know that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would not want me to go into detail, but as I pointed out in a question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, only last year when the matter was being considered by the courts the Government took the view that it was perfectly right for them to introduce that legislation. The courts upheld that view on a preliminary hearing and awarded costs to the Government.

We are now in a peculiar position in which an appeal against that finding is in process, yet the court previously ruled that the Government should be awarded costs because of their success in introducing a Bill in the House, even though it was argued at the time that the legislation may be inconsistent with our treaty obligations. I introduce my arguments with that point because of its topicality, but it is merely an example of what I regard as a much graver threat.

I should declare at once that I am and always have been pro-Europe. I was a founder member of "Westminster for Europe". There are, however, trends within the Community which are diametrically opposed to the interests of this House as a legislative chamber. Having just returned from a visit to the European Community as a member of the Select Committee on European Legislation, I can say without hesitation that creeping federalism is alive and well. I make no apology for feeling strongly that we have failed to appreciate the extent to which assumptions are made in the Community about the direction in which European legislation is going, and the extent to which the Community's powers are drawing us down a cul-de-sac within the legal ring fence of the treaty of Rome.

I am a strong supporter of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's position as expressed in the Bruges speech. That speech has been gravely under-estimated, misconstrued and misinterpreted. Nothing in it is inconsistent with the position that we could and should adopt in the House, but much of what is happening in the Community, largely in the form of actions taken by the Commission, ought to be challenged by us.

Only a short time ago I asked my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House if he would ensure that we debated the hormone regulation before its adoption in the Council of Ministers. As happens all too frequently, the debate in question was held late at night, at midnight or thereabouts.

Column 55

Nevertheless, the House filled up. The other day we had a similar debate about the heavy commercial vehicles directives, and again the House filled up. The reason why the House fills up when such matters are debated, even at a late hour, is that hon. Members are increasingly conscious of the impact of European measures, not merely on the legislation of this country as a whole but on their constituents.

Hon. Members have a responsibility which cannot be discharged by, for example, Members of the European Parliament. I do not wish to denigrate the European Parliament, but the democratic vote of this country's electorate is expressed through this Chamber to Ministers who are in turn accountable to the House. They sit in the Council of Ministers, but there is a direct relationship between the functions that they perform there and matters determined in British general elections.

Mr. Benn indicated dissent .

Mr. Cash : I see the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) shaking his head. Clearly he does not agree with my analysis, but that is how I see the position.

There is increasing evidence of the misuse of powers granted under the treaty of Rome and the Single European Act. An example is the use of article 100A of the treaty, which deals generally with the internal market. The Select Committee took evidence recently from the Treasury Solicitor and although our report has not yet been published I think that it is fair to say that some of us felt misgivings about the extent and nature of the use of article 100A, and that in some instances the treaty as a whole has been stretched beyond all reasonable recognition.

As Community legislation is bound to be implemented through the House and imposed on the electorate, this is a serious matter because such an enlargement of competence on the part of the Commission and European legislators can effectively bypass the national Parliaments altogether. When the basis on which a local authority exercises its power is challenged, our courts tend to cut down the use of the legislation if the possibility that the authority is exceeding its powers is seriously in question. The European Court of Justice, on the other hand, using its interpretative methods, does exactly the opposite--it tends to enlarge the competence and powers of the Commission, with the result that an almost limitless range of options opens up for those who legislate, through the Community, for our electorates.

That tendency should be resisted because in my view it is bound to lead to more federalism than even the Community's sternest critics thought possible. I will add a rider. As a Conservative Member, I would argue that many of the provisions in the social

dimension--relating, for instance, to worker participation--which I do not believe are contemplated under the treaty of Rome, are being brought in through the back door to satisfy the Socialist leanings of many Community members.

We must put our foot down and stop the acceleration of this trend. I am in favour of majority voting under the Single European Act, but I believe that we must debate European matters at an earlier stage in their progress through the House. I trust that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be able to tell us reasonably soon that a change in procedure may allow that. If that

Column 56

happens, we shall be able--in conjunction, I hope, with other Select Committees--to consider such matters at a time when they are relevant to decision-making, and not when it is already too late in the day. At present we are faced, in effect, with a fait accompli which is causing grave concern in the House.

We should consider this matter in the context not only of our own national Parliament but of all the national Parliaments. If we believe that federalism is an increasing trend in the rest of Europe--I believe that it is rampant--it is up to us to encourage Members of those other Parliaments to take a similar stance to ours. Acquiesence to federalism, given its importance to our democracy and our constitution, could be likened to the appeasement of the 1930s. We are dealing, ultimately, with how our electorate is governed, with Cabinet government and with how we legislate in this country. We cannot allow the House to be reduced to nothing more than a regional council.

I am pro-European, but many of the democratic institutions of our friends and colleagues in Europe have relatively recent origins. The true democratic traditions of the House have enabled us to defend liberty many times during the past 75 years. The simple questioning of authority, and the ability to question those who are accountable, remains at the heart of our system. A remote, undemocratic European Parliament is the only alternative way to maintain a form of democracy in Europe. But that would lead to a single European Parliament with a single European Government-- which the leaders of the European People's party have called for. That is the inevitable consequence which the House cannot accept. We can live happily with our friends and colleagues within the current system governing the European Community, but we have an economic union and not a political union. We can, we will and we must resist federalism.

5.50 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : The point I wish to raise bears on what the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) has just said. It would be inconceivable for the House to adjourn for Easter without recording the fact that last Friday the High Court disallowed an Act which was passed by this House and the House of Lords and received Royal Assent--the Merchant Shipping Act 1988. The High Court referred the case to the European Court. Fortunately "Erskine May" makes it clear that matters before the European Court are not sub judice according to the rules of the House. I am not making any comment that would breach the rules of the House, but for the first time in the history of Parliament an Act passed by both Houses and the regulations under it have been set aside.

I shall put on record what I read in The Scotsman on Saturday on my way from Aberdeen to Inverness. Under the heading "Law of Britain no longer paramount", it stated :

"Law aimed at protecting the interests of the British fishing fleet was negated by an unprecedented High Court ruling in London yesterday."

It continued :

"That was understood to be the first time a British court had interfered with an Act of Parliament in that way Lord Justice Neill, sitting with Mr. Justice Hodgson said that 20 years ago it would have been unthinkable for the High Court to question the validity of an Act of Parliament.

Column 57

Now, the courts had a duty to give effect to European Community law and where there was a conflict to prefer European law to national law. He said the owners of the vessels were seeking a declaration" in respect of part 2 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 and the Merchant Shipping (Registration of Fishing Vessels) Regulations 1988. The same theme was taken up in the Financial Times under the headline :

"Court blocks fishing law in a constitutional first"

and The Guardian which stated :

"Judges block fishery law".

I understand that there is an element of bipartisanship because the newspapers reported that the Government have taken the case to the Court of Appeal and the case may come up in the next day or two. Although I share some of the feelings about federalism expressed by the hon. Member for Stafford, much of what he said has long since happened. The right of the courts to override our legislation was always envisaged in the treaty of accession which was signed by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). I shook my head during the speech by the hon. Member for Stafford because he thinks that when people go to Europe they are accountable to the House of Commons. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a constitutional lawyer, but he may not appreciate that all Acts entered into by Ministers in the Common Market are enacted under the prerogative.

Mr. Cash : Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the European Communities Act 1972 effectively grants the European Community power by and through the authority of the national Parliament of the United Kingdom, and that the Single European Act did the same under the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1986?

Mr. Benn : I do not want to dispute with the hon. Gentleman, but he must not confuse the legislative provision with the powers of the prerogative under which all treaty-making takes place. We passed the European Communities Act 1972--I voted against it--following the signature of the treaty of accession which was never published until the then Prime Minister had signed it. The Single European Act was signed under the prerogative. I was on the Council of Ministers for four or five years and I was president of the Council of Energy Ministers during the six months of our presidency. One does not go to the Council of Ministers empowered by the House, but under the powers of the prerogative, an entirely different process.

Membership of the EEC threw us back several hundred years in domestic law, to prerogative powers in Britain. We went back into the recesses of feudalism to draw out those prerogative powers we are now using to latch federalism on to us. The House is threatened by its own history as well as by agreements entered into by Ministers when they go to Europe.

I do not want to move away from the subject of the legal judgment, but I believe that if we were to apply our laws properly, judges who negated an Act of Parliament would be guilty of contempt, but that may have to await the appeal when the Government have completed their negotiations.

I want to make it clear to the House that we are absolutely impotent unless we repeal section 2 of the European Communities Act. It is no good talking about being a good European. We are all good Europeans ; that is a matter of geography and not a matter of sentiment.

Column 58

Are the arrangements under which we are governed such that we have broken the link between the electorate and the laws under which they are governed?

I am an old parliamentary hand--perhaps I have been here too long--but I was brought up to believe, and I still believe, that when people vote in an election they must be entitled to know that the party for which they vote, if it has a majority, will be able to enact laws under which they will be governed. That is no longer true. Any party elected, whether it is the Conservative party or the Labour party can no longer say to the electorate, "Vote for me and if I have a majority I shall pass that law," because if that law is contrary to Common Market law, British judges will apply Community law. The European Court of Justice is not so relevant--it is very political and would give us enough rope to hang ourselves--but British judges will tell the House of Commons that it has no right to pass that law. When people discover that whoever they vote for they cannot change the law or the system of taxation under which they are governed, either they will go to Brussels and petition the Commissioners who are the modern kings, or they will say, "Why bother to vote? Let us take more direct action to change the law." That delicate fabric of consent on which our system of Government rests has already been torn. We do not know all the consequences. One consequence is separatism in Scotland, as some people in Scotland believe that they would be better off conducting their own negotiations. The fragmentation of the United Kingdom is an inevitable consequence of membership of the EEC.

We cannot go away for Easter without putting on record in Hansard and in the House that on Friday the supremacy of the British Parliament was negated by judges who claimed that what we did as recently as last year was illegal. Before coming back to the matter we may have to wait until the Government succeed in their appeal or make a statement to the House. These are fundamental questions which unite opinion on both sides of the House. Whatever we want to do with our democracy, we all agree that we have to retain it in order to do anything with it.

The time has come to warn the House, and even the passionate Common Market Europeans, that we go thus far but no further. If we dig deeper into the pit, we may find that the courts would not even accept our right to repeal the European Communities Act. We would be in a constitutional crises of enormous magnitude if we were to repeal section 2 to regain the power that we have lost and the court said, "Sorry, but in effect, by usage and practice and common law, Parliament has lost the right to liberate itself."

These issues are more important than might be apparent from the fact that we are discussing the Easter Adjournment. I am grateful for the opportunity of speaking briefly on the matter. It is of a different character from others that have been raised. For all that, it may be an issue that has greater duration than some other important matters that hon. Members have raised.

6 pm

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) : I should also like to implore my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House not to adjourn the House for Easter until we have had an opportunity to review progress on the reform of private sheltered accommodation for the elderly. I reported to the

Column 59

House about a year ago on the establishment of a working party to draw up a code of practice to regulate the private sheltered accommodation industry. I did that because I had received letters from all over the country following articles in the Daily Telegraph about people who were suffering difficulties over service and maintenance charges, the quality of repairs, the operation of wardens and matters concerned with ground rents. They were delighted that somebody in Parliament was taking up the issues surrounding the difficulties concerned with private sheltered accommodation. It is important to debate the issue because the amount of sheltered accommodation in the private sector is growing all the time. I estimate from my research that in 1985 some 5,000 units of sheltered accommodation were built. In 1987 the figure had risen to about 9, 000. Today the industry has built well over 20,000 units in total. At selling prices of between £40,000 and £150,000 one can see that it is a major and dynamic part of the housebuilding industry. Every unit of sheltered accommodation that is built and sold usually frees one conventional house. At a time when the House has been debating housing and planning, it is important to consider the issues surrounding sheltered accommodation because it provides a new and additional source of housing which the official statistics may not yet have recognised.

The reason why a code of practice to regulate the conduct of the industry is important is because of the developing care that sheltered accommodation can provide. Today we have what might be called conventional sheltered accommodation--a simple flat built with others in a complex of high quality, with a warden in residence to look after the elderly persons should they run into trouble. The services for the unit are organised on a professional management basis by large companies, some associated with builders and some independent. In simple terms, floors are swept regularly, light bulbs are changed, gardens are tended and the property is kept in first-class order.

That simple formula is changing in a number of ways of which I think the House should be aware. We see now a population who are living longer. Today's elderly mobile are rapidly becoming the elderly immobile. They are in need of continuing care. That is the next stage of sheltered accommodation, where 24-hour nursing and medical facilities are available on the same site as the flat or bungalow development in which the elderly live.

The amount of control and regulation of the accommodation is limited. The code of practice will have relevance to the purchase and running of this type of property, but I put down a marker to the Government that people involved with social services and health will have to watch developments carefully lest the unscrupulous get involved and people's whole way of life is threatened because of poor management.

We also see the development of the leisure village which has arisen out of sheltered accommodation--a complete facility providing for every want of an elderly person. Those too are being developed without regulation or a code of practice to delineate how the developments are sold, and to lay down the terms and conditions of their management and the rights of redress of anyone who encounters difficulties with them.

Column 60

Looking to the future, I also put down a marker about sheltered accommodation outside the boundaries of the United Kingdom. As sure as eggs are eggs, British developers are already using their expertise to build sheltered accommodation abroad. Currently it is being done by high-quality developers. I do not believe that people are at risk if they purchase such accommodation, but I can see a day when the opportunistic enter the industry and the House may have to debate the difficulties that people are running into over the purchase of sheltered accommodation abroad. Again, the code of practice that the working party is drawing up will serve as a useful indicator to prevent problems.

An article a week ago in The Daily Telegraph was occasioned by problems encountered by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths). I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not in his place, but that is not his fault, in that he did not know that the subject was to be raised. He referred to the continuing difficulties even though a year had passed since a debate in the House on home-based sheltered accommodation. The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the fact that, north of the border, people in one development run by a reputable company are still experiencing difficulties over service and maintenance charges. It would appear that the industry still has a long way to go to get its accounting procedures sorted out. That was a key element for the working party.

The working party received widespread support. On it have sat representatives of organisations such as Age Concern, the House Builders Federation, McCarthy and Stone as representatives of major developers, and the National Federation of Housing Associations. The whole gamut of those involved in the building and management of sheltered accommodation was represented on the working party organised under the aegis of the House Builders Federation. I want to take the opportunity to put on record my thanks to Roger Humber, who chaired the working party, and to Vivien Aldred, who, as assistant director of the House Builders Federation carried the burden of much of the work in drafting the comprehensive approach to setting new standards for the private sheltered accommodation industry. The draft code of practice went out for consultation to a wide range of bodies, including councils professional bodies and others. We have received the consultation papers back and the code of practice has incorporated the recommendations. We have tried hard to incorporate points of good practice in setting up a well-managed scheme covering sale and resale, services, service and maintenance charges and budgets. We are trying to introduce regularity and uniformity into the approach of the industry so that when people study the sales literature, in no way can they be misled about what exactly the deal will be.

During the last year our efforts have been aided by the introduction of the Consumer Protection Act 1987 and the code of practice drawing the attention of potential purchasers to that important legislation. That means that, in future, service and maintenance charge statements must be accurate and must not make misleading statements. If they do the law will apply. It is a comprehensive code designed to make certain that the buyer can beware because he is fully furnished with information. The code goes on to say that in the case of every new development, from now on, there should be a post-purchase pack giving the purchaser all the necessary information. This would set

Column 61

out the obligations of the builder, the managing agent and anyone else with a legal responsibility, lest it should be necessary to respond to complaints.

We have picked up many of the problems that the 150 or so people from all over the country who have written to me on this matter have raised. Their evidence has been laid before the working party. Thus the voice of the consumer, so far as our activities are concerned, has been heard.

I want to deal with one or two points that have arisen from our investigations. Some of the agents that manage sheltered accommodation are also closely associated with the builders. The industry must now consider very carefully the separation of construction from management. Those who are responsible for managing sheltered accommodation should act in a truly independent manner, in the interests of leaseholders.

Then there is the question of value for money. Many elderly people who buy this type of accommodation are seduced by its superficial attractiveness. The quality is high, but these people's financial base is fixed. While interest rates are high, the investment income from the capital freed by the sale of their conventional home and the purchase of sheltered accommodation enables them to meet the management and service charges easily. However, when interest rates fall, some of these people will be in difficulty, bearing in mind that service and maintenance charges rise inexorably. The industry must take urgent steps to address this problem. The last thing we want is a new breed of welfare cases.

Today's sheltered accommodation caters for the mobile elderly. In 20 years' time the residents may well be the elderly immobile and may have to break into their capital base to re-equip their homes with bathrooms and kitchens to cater for their new circumstances. This is something that the industry must take into account in formulating its future policy. The code of practice will do much to redress many of the problems. Its credibility will depend on the spirit with which it is applied by the industry.

In the year of the code of practice, the industry should give urgent consideration to the formation of a trade association, or the creation of an ombudsman facility whereby people with genuine complaints could find proper redress. This code of practice answers many of the complaints to which I drew attention in the House last year. Currently we are negotiating, within the National Housebuilding Council, a new mechanism to give it teeth. It is a voluntary operation, welcomed by the industry, and it should do much to protect the good name of sheltered accommodation, as well as to redress the problems that have been identified.

6.14 pm

Next Section

  Home Page