|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr John Prescott (Kinston upon Hull, East) : I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Buckley) for raising a very important issue which concerns the House and the country at large. In the past two years there have been a unprecedented number of transport tragedies in shipping, in rail, in aviation and on the roads, and there is considerable concern about standards of safety and the role of the Department of Transport. The Department has an unenviable record of being obsessed with privatisation, competition, the market system, economy and efficiency, all of which have played a part in reducing the level of safety and have contributed to some of the tragedies the past two years. I shall develop those points further in the course of my speech.
The debate has been highlighted by two incidents unconnected with it. One was the petition presented by 25,000 people complaining bitterly about the rundown of the coastguard services, and hon. Members have met the coastguards today to receive the petition. The petition demands that the Department reverse the decision about cuts in coastguard stations and coastguards. For an island nation to do without its coastguard service is totally unacceptable. The Government wish to reduce the service solely for economic reasons. That petition was presented on a day when three ships sank around our coasts. They were Panamanian-registered ships. We have lost 1,000 ships from the British Merchant Navy. They have been replaced by Panamanian vessels which are lost at four times the rate of vessels belonging to traditional maritime nations. It is cheaper to employ Panamanian vessels, but the cost is actually greater in terms of the loss of vessels and lives. That is a familiar theme.
Today, as other hon. Members have mentioned, the report has been published on the terrible accident at Manchester airport on 22 August 1985. It is deplorable that it has taken three and a half years to produce that report. As hon. Members have pointed out, it is a reflection on the Civil Aviation Authority and on the
Column 132Department, which has been responsible for its own investigation, that we have not heard why the report was delayed. The petition about the coastguard service and the delay in publishing the report on the Manchester airport crash are two examples of the problems at the heart of transport safety.
My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) made a powerful case about feelings in Manchester about the delay in publishing the air crash report. Is the Minister aware that a carbon copy fire took place in a plane at Prestwick in 1977, and that the report produced in 1979 predicted that the same would happen again unless some of its recommendations were implemented? Those recommendations were not implemented and there was a further tragedy at Manchester. Is the Minister aware of the earlier report, and will he learn any lessons from the Manchester report? The three-year delay reflects the powerful interests behind the scenes--the commercial interests of operators and manufacturers concerned to ensure that whatever criticisms are made do not reflect upon them.
One criticism of the present inquiry system is that all inquiries should be open and public so that there can be proper examination. The Government have done that after the recent rail tragedies. Secret inquiries are not acceptable. One can see the conflict of economic interests and safety. For example, because there were more seats on the aeroplane, the exits from the plane were blocked. That was a clear indication of economic factors taking priority over safety. That is unacceptable, as is the conflict over smoke hoods and the buck-passing between the CAA and the Department of Transport. [Interruption.] That is one of the interesting conflicts. The fire brigade people are talking about the difficulties-- [Interruption.] If the Minister for Public Transport would listen to what is being said instead of rabbiting on, he might learn a thing or two. There is concern about the conflict and the legitimate arguments of both sides about the use of smoke hoods. When, after three years of inquiry, the chief fire officer at Manchester airport complains bitterly that he has not been adequately consulted, that is a matter of concern. The rail crashes at Clapham, Purley and Glasgow highlight the problem of lack of resources to deal with safety. We have also had the plane tragedies at Lockerbie and the M1, the problems about airport security, as well as the pile-up on the M6. These remind us that confidence in safety in all areas of transport has been very much undermined. Then there was King's Cross and Zeebrugge. In a short period there has been unprecedented loss of life in shipping, aviation and railways. Moreover, as the inquiries show, a common theme runs through all the disasters.
The Sheen inquiry into the loss of the vessel at Zeebrugge clearly showed that there was sloppy management and that financial considerations resulted in ships running fuller and going for a faster turn-round. We have seen some of the problems arising from that attitude. The Department received complaints about lights on the bridge and about the run down in the number of marine inspectors. All these things are signs of the climate of reduced concern for safety. The Minister himself, in reply to a parliamentary question, admitted that even after the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster the number of ferry fires has increased four fold in the past year. That is alarming, and it justifies the concern of the people on strike in Dover. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) is
Column 133not in the House to raise some of the points that are worrying his constituents, but no doubt his mind is exercised on other areas. As to the loss of the Derbyshire, it was six years before the Department conducted an inquiry, and the report which was produced recently has given satisfaction to nobody. Under the new inquiry rules that are being introduced, the Department is not prepared to ensure that all reports are made public, but it is prepared to select the people who are to give evidence. That is causing great concern in the shipping industry.
As for the air crash at Lockerbie, the Secretary of State has admitted that he received information about the bomb inquiry but decided not to alert the British Airports Authority about the threat to the aircraft and the need to increase security. The Secretary of State has an awful lot to answer for. It is not sufficient for him to go on television and say that if the question had been put to him in the debate in this House he would have told hon. Members that he had that information. It was cardinal information about which he misled the House.
There is a lot to be explained. The relatives are demanding an explanation from the Secretary of State, who has so far failed to give a full account of the circumstances. As the Select Committee report on aviation security pointed out, the break-up of the police control and the airport fund to finance security shows that the Department played a major part in reducing safety, and all for economic reasons. Economy and efficiency have been allowed to override safety considerations.
On the subject of heavy lorries, the Minister knows of the complaints that his Department's inspectors have been denied the resources to institute prosecutions against lorry owners who overload their vehicle. That, too, has been reported in the press. According to his own examiners, because the Department refused to co-operate in pursuing cases in the courts, the cases were handed to the Yorkshire police, who did prosecute. Drivers were fined, and directors were given prison sentences. If the matter had been left to the Department, nothing would have been done because saving money took priority over safety.
A recent report on the bus industry shows that the traffic commissioners are extremely concerned that, owing to privatisation and deregulation in the industry, we are beginning to see more prosecutions arising from the operation of unsafe buses. It is a matter of concern that, after just one year of operation, the Department's own inspectors should be so worried.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) mentioned British Rail's safety record. It is still a very good record, as I constantly state, but the statistics now admitted by the Government show that the number of accident deaths on the railways has increased by about 30 per cent. since 1982, while the number of collisions and derailments has gone up by nearly 20 per cent. Those are alarming increases--and the figures were given by the railway inspectors themselves--and a matter for great concern. There was an improvement every year up to 1982, but that situation has been reversed. It is right that we should seek an explanation for that.
The reason for the reversal is beginning to come out in some of the inquiry reports. In the case of Clapham we hear of signal failure. In that regard, why was the automatic system for stopping trains not installed? Mr. Stanley Hall, who was in charge of signals investment over this period, says that the reason for the failure to install
Column 134that system was that the Government were tight-fisted with their money--I refer not to capital investment but to the revenue needed to employ people for installation and operation--and Mr. Hall should know, because he was doing the job. That probably explains why drivers are increasingly being blamed for going through red lights and causing accidents.
Human error undoubtedly contributes, but in considering the diamond crossing at the Glasgow incident, I am led to ask whether the Minister is aware that a carbon copy collision of two freight trains, in exactly the same circumstances, occurred a few years ago? Did his inspectors read that report and then say to British Rail, "You must not take a leg out of the diamond crossing system because it may lead to a collision on the line" because that is precisely what happened at Glasgow? If the crossings had remained the same, the accident could not have happened, so why was that leg of the diamond crossing taken out? The answer is that it would save time and manpower on maintenance. That is putting economic considerations above safety priorities and it has been brought about by the financial climate engendered by the Government in seeking to reduce public support for the industry so that our railways are run on a shoestring compared with those of most other countries.
The influence of that financial climate can also be seen in the Underground, where the police were reduced and the Guardian Angels offered to provide security. Station staff have not been available and that, too, has decreased the security for passengers. Those problems were pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing).
The Fennell report reveals that the financial climate led to managers not bringing forward the removal of wooden cladding on the escalators, thus leading to the King's Cross disaster. I could give the Minister any number of quotations to that effect. Yet the Government keep coming to the House and suggesting that they can find no connection between the lack of resources and falling standards of safety. Desmond Fennell refused to receive evidence on the point, saying that it would be ultra vires, but I hope that the Minister will tell us that there will eventually be a debate on the King's Cross Underground fire because the relatives are demanding it. It is a long time since the report was produced and the financial climate affecting safety is now critical.
Recently I met the firemen who have been looking at the Underground system and who have seen many fires since that tragedy. They have told me that there is great resistance to the use of fire certification on our Underground system. Fennell recommended fire practices so that we could find out the problems and get used to giving a greater priority to fire prevention, but despite the Fennell recommendation that there should be one such practice every six months firemen are still being denied the facilities to conduct those exercises because London Underground says that it would be inconvenient for passengers. Such practices happen all the time on the Paris Metro, but here passenger convenience is apparently put before safety as a priority.
That is precisely what has come out at the Clapham inquiry. Although Sir Robert Reid challenges me about it, he admits, possibly with hindsight, that passenger convenience was put before the safety priority. That is unacceptable, but it is a proposition that we hear constantly from the chairmen of such industries.
Column 135Having mentioned Sir Robert Reid I should add that I find it deplorable that British Rail has rushed to see drivers who are injured and in shock, only to blame them for human error. What about management error? What about management greed and cuts in resources? What about the management allowing safety standards to deteriorate on the pretext of passenger convenience, or whatever other reason? Such attitudes and practices are unacceptable.
One shining example that we must mention and commend has been the outstanding work of the emergency services. When one compares that with the record of the Department of Transport, one realises that the Government have presided over a history of massive tragedies in our transport industry and have pursued a policy which has contributed to those tragedies. The Government's obsession with privatisation, profit and cost-cutting while seeking to maintain economy and efficiency has been at the direct expense of safety. The public are prepared to pay more for higher safety standards. They do not accept the Government's priorities and they believe that the Government no longer give proper priority to safety. The public will be giving their own answers on that soon enough.
We today received a letter from the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and we shall consider carefully what he says about one-person operation, leapfrogging, customer-contractor relations and signal-ling. The railways inspectorate is reviewing Underground safety and will report shortly to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It is not dissatisfied with one-person operation, but I shall review the points made by the hon. Gentleman and get in touch with him.
In the space of three months, the country has witnessed five tragic accidents involving our railways and aircraft, at Clapham, Lockerbie, Kegworth, Purley and Bellgrove. Mercifully, serious accidents such as these are rare, which makes them all the more shocking when they occur. In each case, people want to know what went wrong. We are taking appropriate steps to secure the answers to those questions. The formal arrangements have been explained to the House. It is important that the inquiries should be completed as swiftly as possible. To underline the importance of that, my right hon. Friend has decided today that the Bellgrove accident should be investigated by the chief inspecting officer of railways. He will undertake the inquiry instead of Major King, who must give priority over the next few weeks to action arising from the Fennell report.
The progress of the investigations has been reported to the House to the extent that it has been possible to do so without prejudging the final outcome, so I shall not rehearse those points this evening. My main concern will be whether this run of five serious accidents is symptomatic of a more deep-seated problem with the transport system, which has been the theme of a number of speeches this evening.
Column 136Rail is the safest form of transport after air--a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King). In terms of fatal accidents there is little to choose between travel by rail and air. In each case, there has been one fatal accident for every 300 billion passenger kilometres travelled. Rail has a far better safety record than any form of road transport, and that cannot be stressed too often or too firmly. It would be a pity if passengers were misled into thinking that it would be safer to travel by car than by train ; it certainly would not. Historically, fatalities per passenger mile are about 20 times worse for travel by car than by rail or air.
The hon. Member for Hemsworth was worried about the safety of the Channel tunnel link. Many Opposition Members badly want the link and have been pressing for it to be in a tunnel. The railways inspectorate has given its view, and it wants cross tunnels, walkways, fire doors and other safety precautions.
The hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) has my sympathy for a problem that he has pursued doggedly for many years in the House in the interests of his constituents. The safety of transport by road would be worse that by rail, but if investment by British Rail is necessary it can be made without ministerial approval. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of British Rail.
As fatal accidents caused by crashes are so rare, it is difficult to establish a short-term trend, but the long-term trend is clear--rail travel is becoming safer. Improvements between the 1950s and 1980s is marked. Between 1969 and 1988, significant collisions decreased by about a quarter in the latest five-year period compared with the first. The number of significant derailments is down from over 1,500 between 1969 and 1973 to 684 between 1984-88. The improvement is not smooth and regular, and figures vary erratically from year to year.
I sincerely trust that the accidents at Clapham, Purley and Bellgrove will prove to be a bad patch from which the railways will quickly recover. Such incidents have occurred before ; 1957, 1967 and 1975 were years of exceptionally high numbers of deaths on the railways, but they did not mark a deterioration in railway safety, which continued to improve after those unusual years, as it had before.
It is wrong and irresponsible to suggest that a run of three serious rail accidents must mean that the underlying trend has changed abruptly, although it is right and proper to consider the circumstances of each accident to see whether there is a common thread. I do not want to prejudge the outcome of the inquiries into these crashes, but at this stage it is difficult to see any common thread. As the immediate causes of the crashes differ, attention has inevitably focused on the possibility that there is something more fundamentally wrong with British Rail.
Let me dispose of the wholly specious argument, which we have heard again this evening, that there is a decline in safety standards within British Rail caused by underinvestment. Under the last Labour Government, the peak of investment by British Rail--the hon. Member for Hemsworth mentioned this point--was £474 million at today's prices. Last year, British Rail invested £517 million, and this year it has budgeted for £560 million. The level of investment in the coming years will be higher still. Nobody is preventing British Rail from investing in anything, least of all safety. There has been confusion with the public service obligation grant, which is a subsidy reflecting the losses made by the railways. The years of the
Column 137highest public service obligation grant have often coincided with the lowest investment years, and vice versa. It is absurd to believe that only loss-making industries invest.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) has recently spoken about working expenses on the railways. They have been at broadly the same level--between £3 billion and £3.5 billion in real terms --every year since 1975. On Network SouthEast in recent years, there has been a marked upward trend. It has also been alleged that British Rail has neglected safety in favour of other priorities. British Rail has many other issues to engage its attention, such as improving the quality of service, increasing productivity and coping with the growth in demand for rail transport, especially on Network SouthEast but it has never lost sight of the fact that running a safe railway system is its first priority. For the avoidance of doubt, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reinforced that point to the British Rail board in the light of the Fennell report on the causes of the King's Cross fire.
It is suggested that congestion causes accidents. Obviously, an accident involving a train carrying many passengers may result in higher casualties than an accident involving a train which is half empty, but there is no evidence to suggest that overcrowding causes accidents. The railways inspectorate has made it clear that it does not see a link. That leaves the possibility that overcrowding on a train may aggravate the injuries sustained by individual passengers. That is a point into which Mr. Hidden and his assessors will look further if they judge it to be relevant to their inquiries. As far as we can judge, air transport is becoming safer year by year. There are far too few accidents in United Kingdom air space to allow us to establish a meaningful trend. However, the number of air accidents worldwide shows a clear downward trend. Within the United Kingdom, there has been a reduction in the number of air-misses over the past 10 years. The number of risk-bearing airmisses has declined more sharply, from 40 in 1978 to 13 in 1987. That improvement is all the more impressive as it has taken place against the background of a 70 per cent. increase in the amount of air travel undertaken. The improvement is largely attributable to technological advances and is a tribute to those who design, build and maintain aircraft and to those who provide air traffic control services. In sum, we are as confident as we can be that air transport is safe and becoming safer.
The tragedies at Lockerbie and Kegworth, appalling though they were, do not change those underlying facts. There is no doubt in my mind that those two accidents are not symptomatic of a general deterioration in air transport safety and I do not see any link between the causes of those two tragedies. Any lessons to be learned from the Lockerbie disaster will be in the area of airport and airline security. My right hon. Friend has taken steps to improve domestic and international security and the Select Committee on Transport will have a chance to question him on such matters when he gives evidence to it next week.
Column 138I cannot say much now about the lessons to be learned about Kegworth because the air accident investigation branch has yet to issue its interim bulletin on the crash. I note the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) about the time taken to issue the report on the Manchester air disaster. I must point out that the causes of the accident were complex and it was important to learn all the right lessons. The length of time taken was untypical of air accident investigation branch reports. I must also stress that the Civil Aviation Authority has already taken action on many of the recommendations of the air accident investigation branch and it has not been delayed by the passing of the report to those people affected. There is no question of having delayed the taking of remedial measures. The Civil Aviation Authority has initiated a comprehensive research programme to investigate the introduction on civil aircraft of cabin water-spray systems. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson) and the hon. Member for Makerfield are concerned about that point.
Mr. McCartney : The Department knew what had caused the deaths after the coroner's inquiry report. The Department knew then what needed to be done, yet it has taken the Department until today to issue its response. That is outrageous. There was no reason for the delay, other than that the CAA has been trying to bring pressure to bear behind the scenes to prevent an adequate report being presented to the House.
Mr. Portillo : The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. In the weeks and months following the accident, changes were made to the maintenance procedures for the Pratt and Whitney JT8D engines fitted to the aircraft, and to the methods of assessing the effect of repair schemes based on operators' fleet experiences with the engine. That is just one example of how we were getting on with things. Understandably, much of our debate has been devoted to transport by rail and air, but some of my hon. Friends also have stressed the importance of road safety. There is good news to report to the House on road safety. The number of road deaths in 1987--5,125--was the lowest since 1954 ; it was down 5 per cent. compared with 1986. The total casualties are down 3 per cent. to 311,473. Pedestrian deaths are also down and in the first nine months of 1988 the number of deaths was down again by 3 per cent. The peak year for casualties was 1965 when there were 400,000 casualties and 8,000 deaths. Although the number of vehicles has more than doubled and the total distance travelled has more than trebled since then, the number of deaths and injuries has fallen steadily, giving Britain one of the best road safety records in the world. But we still hope for considerable further improvement and that is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has set the target of reducing casualties by one third--from 300,000 to 200,000 a year--by the year 2000. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury asked about reducing spray from lorries. In 1984, regulations were made to require spray suppression equipment conforming to a British standard to be fitted to new motor lorries over 12 tonnes gross weight, to new trailers over 3.5 tonnes gross weight and to existing trailers in service over 16 tonnes gross weight. All these should now be fitted.
Column 139Regulations were made in 1988 to include a check of the equipment in the annual roadworthiness test. I hope that that will be of comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury.
My hon. Friend also asked whether speed limiting devices should be fitted to lorries. As he will know, they are being fitted to coaches under regulations made in 1988, and we shall consider whether they should be fitted to lorries if the present improvement in the behaviour of lorry drivers does not continue in future years. All these road safety developments show that there is a need for publicity initiatives to change people's attitudes to key safety issues and to call for a new approach to road safety education. We need research into accident prevention measures, investment in safer road layouts, improvements in the design of vehicles and changes in our road traffic law. I have given a brief summary of developments in road safety partly to show how much is being done but also to show that we need to advance on many different fronts if we are to secure an improvement in road safety.
I suspect that precisely the same applies to rail, sea and air safety. The more closely one examines the problem, the clearer it becomes that sweeping generalisations and broad-brush solutions are irrelevant. I hope that that will be borne in mind in all our discussions of road safety in the weeks ahead, not least by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East.
Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South) : When hon. Members speak of, or seek to legislate for, where and how people live, we talk of housing. We refer to houses and flats, sometimes to dwellings, and sometimes to units of accommodation. That is where we go wrong. For the people in them, they are their homes. For them, whether or not they own them, they are, or should be, precious to them--something worth caring about. But, for accommodation to be a home and not just a unit of accommodation, the occupier should have the right to peaceful occupation. A home that is affected by the anti-social behaviour of neighbours is not a home. Effectively, it is destroyed as such, and sometimes it is barely deserving of the title "a unit of accommodation".
Anti-social behaviour is a cancer in our housing estates, and in our tower blocks in particular. The problem is known to too many in our urban areas, and we have ducked and fudged the issue for years. In 1981, we were rightly proud of our right-to-buy legislation. There has been no greater or beneficial move in good homemaking. We sought to be fair to those who either could not or did not want to buy. For the first time, we granted tenants real security of tenure. That, too, was a right and proper move, and, in normal circumstances, none would want to see that right diminished. But, in giving security of tenure to good tenants, we gave it to the troublemakers as well. Of course we can take them to court--that is, if there is the political will at local level so to do. I do not need to remind hon. Members just how difficult and how long-winded that process normally is.
Even when troublemakers are taken to court, they know, and the council knows that they know, that the council will rehouse them. Troublemakers raise the proverbial Harvey Smith, and the process starts all over again in some other part of town. No one should have the right to abuse security of tenure in that way and so conduct themselves as to deny their neighbours the right of peaceful occupation.
The problem is largely for local authorities, but it has a clear read- across to the generality of law and order. I urge the appropriate ministerial group to have a good hard look at the issue. Even if a complete answer cannot be found, let us at least do what we can.
Over half the tower blocks in Nottingham are in my constituency. In the Radford area, Buckland and Bladon courts have recently been in the local news. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has recently written to me on the subject. One family feels that they would be better off homeless back in Newcastle, where they came from, than to continue the nightmare that they currently suffer. According to a recent article in our local paper, the young wife said : "It starts about midnight"--
that is, the noise and the music--
"and goes on until 7 or 8 am most nights of the week.
We can't sleep at night. And you can't even hear the television I've been reduced to tears."
According to that article, the police have said that they do not have a soft policy to what we call blues parties--
"They were treated in the same way as other noise complaints"-- but they admitted that there was a problem. That is a masterpiece of understatement.
Column 141There is a group of five other towers in the Lenton area of my constituency. All are structurally sound--excellent flats. But, through the activities of a few, four of those tower blocks are hell. The fifth is being protected by security and no doubt will be the envy of the other four until they too can be protected by a concierge and video system. That cannot be done too soon. Such protection should be a priority ahead of the present Labour city council's new build plan. The 50 new homes in that plan will serve housing needs much less than would immediate investment in security measures. Those problems are certainly not confined to tower blocks. The problem pepper-pots all over our estates--low -rise flats, semis and detached property.
Two weeks ago my advice session was besieged by a dozen or more people at the end of their tether with worry and aggravation. I have been told that local officials are unable to get across to the culprits the strength of feeling of their neighbours and the distress that is being caused. As much as I sympathise with the officials, that simply will not do.
In June of 1985, I met city officers and we spoke of segregating the elderly from the under 40s. That policy has been applied and in some complexes it works very well. We spoke, too, at that meeting of action against certain tenants who lawfully take in lodgers, who, however, are often nothing more than a succession of boy friends. Action must be taken against the registered tenant even when it is the boy friend who is known to be the culprit, and that complicates and prevents an early solution.
The concierge and security approach is said to be expensive, but at least it works. In the long run I suspect that it will cost little more--or perhaps no more--and it will certainly cost less in human distress. There would certainly be less destruction of the flats, the common parts and the main doors to the tower blocks. A tenant's front door will not be kicked in each time that the difficult tenant forgets his key or, if a tenant has not bothered to tell his friend where the party will be, everyone will not be woken up at some unearthly hour until the right flat has been found.
I spoke earlier of political will. Councils do not, for example, enforce their own tenancy agreements. It is argued that when they try and the cases come to court, they find it difficult to get residents to appear as witnesses. I am not surprised, because I know of some of the threats that some of my constituents have had to suffer in those situations.
At the same 1985 meeting, officers of the city said that sanctions other than eviction should be available, but often I believe that that is the only sanction that some of those troublemakers understand.
What angers the honest law-abiding tenant most is the comment, "We can't do anything. Why don't you take them to court yourself?" I have enormous respect for our city's chief environmental health officer. I understand the difficult task he has, and I know that he meant well when in June 1985 he set out how tenants could take action under the Control of Pollution Act 1974, section 59. He wrote at that time : "The majority of such complaints relate to the playing of loud, amplified music at unsociable hours as well as associated noise from groups of people varying in size from 3 or 4 to several hundred congregating on one domestic premises."
He put it down to
"differing life styles, unemployment and in some cases commercial interests".
Column 142He was referring to blues parties. He said that those factors added to the
"annoyance, discomfort, loss of sleep, intimidation and social pressures"
on other tenants.
He went on :
"The noise may be intermittent, irregular and as a result sometimes difficult to monitor to obtain evidence to take legal action under Section 58. In such cases it may be more appropriate for the complainants to take their own action by utilising the provisions of Section 59".
Should we really be expecting our residents to do that sort of work themselves? I believe that that is quite absurd and I share their view that they are entitled to the full protection of the law. In March last year, the then Under-Secretary of State for the Environment my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) responded to my pleas on this topic--
"We specifically gave Councils the power therefore to go to court to seek their removal."
She was referring to those anti-social tenants. She said : "The relevant provision is now Ground 2 of Schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1985. Where a tenant or a person residing in a dwelling-house has been guilty of conduct which is a nuisance or annoyance to neighbours'."
My hon. Friend went on to outline that on those particular grounds "The Court does not have to satisfy itself that in addition suitable alternative accommodation is available for the displaced tenant."
In those circumstances the court would accept that the tenant had made himself intentionally homeless and the local authority would "not be obliged to rehouse him."
Hence my reference to political will. I recognise that few councils, if any, will, on first conviction, seek not to rehouse. If the court thought that that might be the outcome it might not grant the eviction order, hence the lack of use of the special "ground 2" contained in the 1985 Act.
In 1987 my Conservative colleagues in Nottingham won control of the council and held it for but a brief 18 months. At least they had a stab at the problem when they set up the new housing management panel. That set out to deal with persistent anti-social behaviour and included under that heading, noise nuisance, dogs, vandalism, harassment and the illegal use of premises. It tried to offer the offender the chance to explain and/or to correct his or her conduct. At the end of the day, however, it is still down to political will to put the interests of the majority of our tenants before the conduct of the minority and to take that group to court.
Just three weeks ago I was grateful to Superintendent Edwards of the Nottinghamshire constabulary for organising a meeting in the Lenton area of my constituency to listen to tenants' complaints. He acknowledged the problems of late night parties--I do not mean one-offs. Such parties are not always formally blues parties, but they go on and on. He gave an undertaking that those who refuse "to accept the effect of their actions will have proceedings taken against them."
I know that Superintendent Edwards meant it when he gave that undertaking, but what will be the outcome? Has
Column 143the House given the courts the powers or even the understanding that they need to deal with the problem? Perhaps we should have special housing courts to deal with such matters.
One additional sanction should be given to local authorities, and the sooner the better--security of tenure should be forfeit. If a council feels morally bound to rehouse I do not seek to take that right away, but it should not be compelled to grant a further secure tenancy.
The knowledge that the council no longer has to take tenants to court to obtain eviction may--I stress may--curb the excesses of most of the troublemakers. If they still do not want to know after their second chance to live like other people, neither do I. I would have no qualms in declaring such people intentionally homeless and sending them on their way. If that happened a couple of times in Nottingham it would be a salutary lesson. It might not cure all the anti-social families, but it sure might cure a few.
Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : The problem of homeless families has been with us for many years and during that time it has grown because so many associated problems have had to be dealt with.
The dilemma facing local authorities--the problem mainly affects such authorities--is, what do they do if they turn families out? An authority may be faced with a nuisance family that has three, four or five children. If the local authority turns that family out, it must decide what will happen to the children. Here, finance comes into the matter again, because the local authority may decide that it is cheaper to deal with the problem by moving the family into another area rather than take the children into care. Taking children into care creates another problem, because the children may be well cared for and well loved. One problem will be dealt with, therefore, but another will be created.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) said that Nottingham should move these people on ; if it does, they will turn up somewhere else. They cannot continue to be vagrants. We must decide where they should move to. If they move to another city or town, they will have to be dealt with as homeless families, and local authorities will be obliged to rehouse them.
Families who are removed from their accommodation and rehoused are usually resettled in less desirable localities. If all such people are moved into such localities, the problem is moved into one large area that tends to spread outwards. The problem is not easy to deal with.
We have caused a lot of this problem by building tower blocks and low-rise accommodation. My local authority faces the same problems as those that the hon. Gentleman described. Hi-fi sets pound out high decibel noise that penetrates to two or three adjacent houses. I discovered in one of the estates in my constituency that the local authority has not spent enough on sound-proofing. We also made the mistake of thinking that old and young people can live together. Not because it wanted to but because the Government instructed it to increase the density of accommodation, the council built--it had never done this before--terrace-type houses. Until that point, the council had built only
Column 144semi-detached houses. We needed old people's accommodation, and built it as four-bedroomed maisonettes. That just did not work. Old people do not want to be bothered with children, and younger people create a disturbance with their hi-fi sets. So people complained to me at my surgeries, and to the local authority. But noise is not enough reason to turn a family out ; the problem needs careful handling.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving my local authority a good deal of money with which to deal with the problem in another way--making terrace- type housing into semi-detached houses and maisonettes into three-bedroomed houses by taking the roofs away. In partnership with the local authority, we are creating a more environmentally desirable area, thereby dealing with the problem in another way. It works. There will still be the occasional problem family, but there will be fewer problems.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, South described what he called "a succession" of boy friends. That is one of the easiest problems to deal with--provided, as the hon. Gentleman said, the local authority has the will. In the case of single persons, notice to quit is given to the person to whom the home belongs, who must get rid of the problem himself. By and large, notice to quit to the tenant does have the desired effect.
The hon. Gentleman is surprised. My authority has dealt with the problem by creating estate housing agents, who are continually in the area, know the area, know the tenants, know the problems, and after a short period know how to deal with them. So notice to quit and persistent visiting deal with the problem.
Mr. Brandon-Bravo : Does the hon. Gentleman in his city have the problem that he referred to of the single tenant? The rent is paid--either directly or indirectly, but it is paid--and that single person hands the key to all sorts of different people, is often away for weeks or months on end, and there is no mechanism giving the local authority the power to remove the secure tenancy from that person because the rent is being paid, which means that house or flat is being used for all sorts of purposes and it is a nightmare to try to unscramble it. Does he not have that problem?
Mr. McKay : In fact, although the rent is being paid, the property is not being looked after, and it is part of the tenancy agreement that the property be available for inspection at all times and be looked after. Therefore, if the tenancy agreement is broken, notice to quit is given. So there are ways and means available within tenancy agreements. All our tenants have tenancy agreements as a matter of fact and of right at the beginning of their tenancy, not only giving them their rights, but explaining the rights of the local authority and its intention to carry them out.
I am not saying that it is an easy problem, which can be dealt with by simply turning people out. Some problems can be dealt with that way, but not all. The idea is to find out the cause of the problem. As I said, most of the time it is the environment in which people live, and we can deal with that problem. Also, in large areas there is a great deal of unemployment, which in itself leads to bad neighbourliness. We can get rid of problems by looking at the way we design houses in the future.
Column 145We will still have problems, because, I am afraid, in this world there are problem families and there always will be ; they will not just disappear. However, the problem is not dealt with by simply turning people out, turning families on to the street, because someone else has to pick up that problem at a later date or in another area. People do not just disappear. We can deal with the problems of single people where there is a severe problem through social services, but we cannot deal with the family problem by turning the family out.
We have found, by a combination of good housing management, good estate management and the involvement of both police and social services, that we can deal with many of the problems and only be left with the minority, but it is the minority that will cause the trouble. I confess that we have some problems we do not know how to deal with. It is certainly not by turning people out. There must be a way of dealing with the problem, and it is a case of finding out how and when to do it effectively.