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Column 1295and worked ivory in the United Kingdom as a prelude to a worldwide ban. Secondly, there should be a similar and immediate ban in Hong Kong.
Thirdly, there must be an investigation into the money received by CITES from ivory dealers and an investigation into the activities of CITES and into the Minister's own Department, the Department of the Environment, in inviting retrospective clearance to cargoes of illegal ivory in the United Kingdom. If the international regulatory body CITES, is receiving money from ivory dealers, the impartiality and objectivity of that body must obviously be questioned. I want the Minister to look into that carefully.
Fourthly, we need a programme of assistance to those African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique which are desperately trying, against overwhelming odds in certain cases because of the activities of poachers, to protect their remaining elephant herds.
Obviously it is not the Minister's responsibility. She is responsible for the Department of the Environment, but she can talk to her right hon. and hon. Friends in the Foreign Office, and especially in the Ministry of Overseas Development, to ensure that those countries that request our assistance are given it. They need helicopters and Land-Rovers. I do not see why they cannot have British troops if they so request them. I should be quite happy to see the Special Air Service become involved in tracking down poachers. That would be a useful line of activity for it to engage in. It would certainly gain the support of the Opposition. We in this country have done too little for too long to protect African elephants, but we cannot do too much now if we are to save the elephants from extinction. I do not normally make claims such as this because Members of Parliament who say, "I speak on behalf of the people of this country" are usually pompous fools, but on this occasion I cannot have that accusation levelled against me because the people of this country would welcome a dramatic political initiative from Her Majesty's Government. Opposition Members would certainly welcome it, and I am sure that Conservative Members would do so, too. The African elephant desperately needs it. It would be a crime against the world if the African elephant was slaughtered out of existence. I urge the Minister and the Government to act now. 1.44 pm
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : I am sorry that I missed part of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). As usual, he was a little ahead of me. I want to endorse and fully support everything that he has said. It is awful that we, as a wealthy country in the west, along with others, have for too long allowed the importation of ivory when we know full well that it has come from smugglers and the illegal killing of elephants. The importation of ivory through Hong Kong is also a serious problem.
I hope that when the Minister replies she will be very robust in defence of the world's wildlife and will give us a commitment that the Government will do all that they can--including providing the money, and the resources, which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West, to those countries which are striving to uphold the elephant population and to preserve that wildlife. I hope that the Minister will show the people
Column 1296in this country that there is something quite awful about the fact that, despite the alleged progress in the world. every day a species dies out--every day a plant species is eradicated for ever. Yet we call a growth in civilisation the promotion of higher living standards. We need to understand that we cannot continue destroying one species after another at the present rate and expect to carry on living ourselves.
I believe that the understanding that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West and others have shown for the African elephant is an example of the growing understanding that we must work with the world's natural systems and ecosystems rather than destroying and working against them, as the evil poachers and illegal dealers in the ivory trade are doing. What my hon. Friend has said has the overwhelming support of the people of this country and, indeed, of people from all over the world. For many the plight of the African elephant has become a symbol of the plight of the world's wildlife in the same way as the panda was the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund when it was established 30 years ago.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley) : Frankly, we are all agreed that the plight of the African elephant is extremely serious and that it is a creature that we all hold most dear. I was trying to identify what it is about the elephant that is so loveable, so endearing and makes us all respond so warmly and strongly to the present situation. I was reading the other day that it is
"their grandeur, their gentleness, their intelligence, even their humour."
It was said that there is a strange affinity between the life cycle of the elephant
"their family affection and loyalties, their mutual aid, even the respect they show to their dead closely resemble the better aspects of human behaviour."
It appears to lack the more unacceptable aspects of human behaviour, but shares many of the more acceptable ones.
I especially endorse the remarks about the Worldwide Fund for Nature. It is a privilege to have the headquarters of that organisation in my constituency. I have worked closely with it on a number of subjects. I especially pay tribute to its work in protecting the African elephant. It has worked over the years with the European Community and, indeed, in partnership with the Overseas Development Administration, on a number of practical subjects, which, as the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) rightly said, is part of the secret of protecting the species. I want especially to pay tribute to David Shepherd, the wildlife artist and author, who has worked on behalf of the African elephant. He has specialist knowledge and he has made an evocative and powerful case on its behalf.
In recent weeks and months the hon. Member for Newham, North-West has raised a number of topics on which I hope I have been able to offer some encouragement and assistance on behalf of the Government. There is no doubt that in the area of animal welfare and the protection of wildlife the hon. Gentleman has a long-standing reputation of identifying areas that need particular attention. We are all united in our concern about the plight of the African elephant. We are fully committed to the protection of all endangered species and have demonstrated that
Column 1297commitment through our active participation in the implementation of the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora--CITES.
We were one of the original signatories to the convention in 1973. It entered into force in July 1975 and since that time the United Kingdom has played its part in strengthening CITES controls, bringing more species under its protection and encouraging other countries to accede to it.
For example, at the 6th conference of the parties to CITES in 1987, the United Kingdom was successful in securing the conference's agreement to the inclusion, under CITES, of 20 species of bustards, nine species of butterfly, and the medicinal leech. I am pleased to say that another species of butterfly was transferred from appendix II to appendix I. Over 400 species of flora and fauna are listed in appendix I alone, including the Indian elephant, several species of dolphin, the rhinoceros, the alligator, and orchid.
We have fulfilled our role by attendance at the biennial conference of the parties, the meetings of the standing committee and the important African elephant working group, which was set up to consider ways in which to improve the protection of this species. The next meeting of the group will take place in Botswana in July. Within the European Community we attend the regular EC CITES committee meetings, and we played a key part in initiating a review of the implementation of the EC regulations, which apply CITES throughout the Community. In the light of that review, the regulations will be revised to clarify and tighten existing controls.
We work in close co-operation, of course, with our scientific advisers, the Nature Conservancy Council and the royal botanic gardens at Kew. Both organisations have justly deserved reputations in the conservation world, and we frequently call on their expertise. We have regular meetings with them, usually prior to EC meetings. Our scientific advisers attend the EC CITES scientific working group, which advises the EC CITES committee on the scientific aspects of its work.
The Government have become increasingly concerned about the reported decline in the number of African elephants, and it is important to view it within the working of CITES. As the hon. Gentleman said, figures are notoriously difficult to rely on, but it seems that there are fewer than 700,000 African elephants remaining, and many estimates are between 300,000 and 400,000. We have been actively involved in promoting the survival of the African elephant, through strengthening controls on imports and exports of ivory and through aid to those African producer countries seeking to protect their elephant populations. The African elephant has been listed on appendix II of the convention since 1977. Under the terms of the convention, trade in ivory may take place only if certain strict criteria are met.
Mr. Corbyn rose --
In 1985, CITES parties recognised the increasing threat to the African elephant, and the United Kingdom was instrumental in introducing stricter controls on trade in
Column 1298ivory. They included the quota system and the establishment of the Ivory Trade Monitoring Unit, which is based in Lausanne at the CITES secretariat and to which the United Kingdom annually contributes £5, 000. Under the system, most producer countries set quotas agreed by CITES for the export of raw ivory. The ivory is appropriately marked, and exports beyond the quota or of unmarked raw ivory have to be checked with the secretariat in Lausanne to ensure that the export is within the agreed quota and that the documentation is in order. We in Europe, however, considered that that was not enough. The EC CITES regulations set a higher standard of protection than that of the convention for many species, including the African elephant. For example, the convention requires import permits only in the case of appendix I species ; under the EC regulations, import documents are required for all species covered by the CITES appendices. The EC regulations also prohibit several commercial activities, such as sale, in respect of the most endangered species. For the African elephant and certain other species, import permits may be issued only when the import will not have a harmful effect on the conservation of the species or on the population of the species in the country of origin.
In May 1988, the Community agreed to ban the commercial import of ivory from 18 African countries, and it has recently increased it to 19. We have also supported an additional tightening of controls with the Community.
Despite those extra controls, we are conscious of concern about their effectiveness. We are, for example, aware of concern--also expressed by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West--about the control of the ivory trade in Hong Kong. In most matters the Hong Kong Government exercise a high degree of autonomy. That includes trade in endangered species, and they apply CITES controls through their own specific legislation. In view of the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, we are understandably keen to encourage this autonomy. We have been in touch with the Hong Kong authorities about the Government's decision to support a ban on trade in new ivory and the reasons for it. The Hong Kong Government have informed us that they are considering their own position on the issue.
Hong Kong has strictly adhered to all of the conservation and enforcement measures called for by CITES and recently has strengthened its controls on the import of worked ivory. The only ivory which may legally be imported into Hong Kong at present is that which comes from a CITES-approved source and is subject to the issue of a licence.
Mr. Tony Banks : If it is a matter of entering a reservation to CITES at the meeting in October, can Hong Kong enter a reservation on its own or are we the signatories on behalf of Hong Kong to CITES? Therefore, should any such reservation be entered through us?
Mrs. Bottomley : I understand that we are the parties to CITES. We have had discussions with Hong Kong and I can tell the hon. Gentleman of many of the steps taken by the Government to tighten their control over the ivory trade. I understand that in Hong Kong all applications are handled with extreme care to ensure that only legal ivory is exported or imported. On arrival, shipments are physically checked by staff of the Agriculture and Fisheries
Column 1299Department to ensure that they are accompanied by the necessary CITES documents. The ivory itself is inspected to ensure that it matches with the numbers, weight and markings. In any case of doubt, the consignment is detained pending investigation or clarification with the CITES secretariat.
We have also made representations to the Government of the United Arab Emirates, to encourage them to tighten controls on the ivory trade which passes through their country.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West has criticised the licensing system in the United Kingdom, particularly in respect of two recent cases concerning ivory. It is not possible to go into the full detail of the cases because such matters are dealt with confidentially, but I assure the House that we strictly implement all CITES controls and those of EC regulation 3626/82. We do not allow the import or export of raw ivory which has not first been approved by the CITES secretariat. The Department of the Environment, acting as the managing authority under CITES, takes these obligations extremely seriously and exercises them rigorously. It applies great care to each case.
When the consignment to which the hon. Gentleman referred arrived in this country, we were concerned because the documentation and the markings on the tusks did not accord with the requirement of the ivory trade control unit. We consulted the unit which in turn consulted the management authority of Zaire. We were advised that the ivory was legal and we were given revised tusk numbers. An official of the Zairean embassy re-marked the tusks, observed, I hasten to add, by representatives of the Customs and Excise and of the Department of the Environment. The official working on behalf of the Department of the Environment behaved with absolute propriety and with great care throughout the proceedings.
The Department of the Environment is thoroughly committed to the workings of the arrangements and to the preservation of wild life in general.
The hon. Gentleman stated that the secretariat receives funding from ivory traders. That is in line with the wishes of the conference of the parties. At the sixth conference a resolution was passed urging trader groups, among others, to contribute to the secretariat.
The legitimate traders have been as keen as we are to see the illegal trade stamped out. They have made a valuable contribution to the secretariat's work. Through those contributions, the secretariat has been able to function more effectively. We have no evidence of corruption. Indeed, I am sure that the international community as a whole would join our rebuttal of any suggestion of corruption within the secretariat. It performs a difficult and arduous task and it relies a great deal on the professional dedication of its staff. The secretariat has already done much to assist the plight of endangered species and without it their plight would be much worse than it is today. I can assure the hon. Member for Newham, North-West that we will be urging the European Community to take action together to ban the import of raw ivory prior to the decisions of the CITES meeting. Furthermore, when we go to CITES, we will make representations to the effect that, rather than wait the normal 90 days for the resolution to take effect, we should act immediately to preserve and protect the African elephant.
I hope that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West will be encouraged in the belief that the Government, through their commitment to help the African elephant, are prepared with our partners to take all further steps that are necessary to ensure that this noblest of animals continues to play a part in our world heritage for future generations.
Mr. David Amess (Basildon) : There is nothing quite so stimulating as addressing a full House. Obviously this is such an occasion this afternoon. I am proud to represent Basildon, which I believe is the finest town in the country. I am proud of our many achievements, but I am certainly not proud about what I have next to tell the House--indeed, I am absolutely disgusted about it.
Socialist-controlled Basildon district council has just imposed on its ratepayers the largest rate increase in the country of 57.2 per cent. People are rightly outraged about that and those who have been party to such irresponsibility should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
I want to take this opportunity to put the record straight about who is to blame for this absolutely shocking state of affairs, as many lies have been spread throughout the constituency on this subject. The rate increase has nothing to do with the provision of essential services ; it has much more to do with the enhancement of leisure facilities. Socialists under their different labels are entirely to blame for the massive rate increase through their irresponsible fiscal mismanagement which I will describe. Constituents have asked me why Basildon's rates were not capped this year. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, when she replies, will confirm that, through creative accountancy and by drawing upon its reserves, the council failed to meet the Department's criteria. In previous years Basildon's rates were capped. There was obvious disappointment that they were not included in the capping procedure this year. I made my maiden speech on the Rates Bill and I expressed my wish then that the present system of rates should be replaced by the community charge. I am delighted that the present unfair rates system will be replaced by the community charge next year. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make it clear that, where taxpayers' money is spent, the local council should be called to account for its fiscal management.
At the moment, all sorts of leaflets and news items are being spread locally conveying to ratepayers what the level of community charge will be. Somehow the myth is being spread that the level of community charge is entirely the Government's responsibility,. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take the opportunity today to put that right.
I also believe that no one in future should be able to pass the buck and blame others for the level of community charge. I strongly believe that the community charge is good news for Basildon. It is certainly good news for the country at large. It will spread the burden of the cost of local services much more widely. Only a minority of people bear the cost of those services at the moment. During the last year, Basildon council has been described as a hung council. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) has some experience of that. Throughout the past year the casting vote has been held by the chairman of the council, but in reality what happened has been farcical. A Liberal councillor suddenly announced that in future he would sit as an independent. In practice, this so-called independent councillor voted with the Labour members of the district council on every conceivable occasion. The Labour district council did not have the guts to take responsibility for its
Column 1302actions, so--surprise, surprise--after the local elections in May this so-called independent announced that he was going to join the Labour party. However, I have just been advised that not all the Labour councillors are aware of the fact that he has been allowed to join the Labour party. The suggestion, therefore, must be : watch this space.
The council's behaviour has been quite extraordinary. Despite all that has happened, at its first meeting the council went on a massive spending spree. I voted to increase members' allowances, something which the Conservative group on the council has long opposed. The meeting was not held in the council chamber, which was available. Instead, it was held in the Olivier room of the new Towngate theatre, thus involving even more expense.
There is no doubt in my mind that the cost of building and maintaining the new Towngate theatre is a significant reason for Basildon district council having imposed the largest rates increase in the country--57.2 per cent. The old Towngate theatre was razed to the ground. In its place we have the most expensive municipal theatre in the country. It cost £8.5 million. Of course, we did not have the money to build the theatre. As we could not afford to build it, the money had to be borrowed. A private company has been set up to manage the theatre. Its board consists of councillors and other interested parties.
The stark reality of the enterprise is that even if every seat were occupied on every day of the year, we would still lose money. As that reality dawns on our community, many questions are rightly being asked. Who is responsible for having embarked on such a financially stupid scheme in the first place? Who was responsible for designing the theatre? Who approved the final plans? Who gave the advice which, presumably, councillors saw fit to take at the inception of the scheme? Who has been responsible for managing the theatre's affairs from the day that it opened? The Towngate theatre has so far received about £1.5 million in support for the current year, £900,000 of which relates to repayment of the debt charge.
The Labour group did not incorporate a council chamber in the new town hall. It believes that a council chamber is dead space for most of the time, so in future full council meetings are to be held in the theatre's Mirren studio. I believe that all hon. Members will be shocked to hear that in future council meetings in Basildon will be held in the theatre. I believe that that is a gross insult to the democratic process which we all support, and that Basildon will become a municipal laughing stock.
Local people will never forget the brutal way in which the old Towngate theatre was razed to the ground. It was part of the Basildon culture. The local community was attached to the old building. I do not think that the staff's feelings were considered. Many local residents find it patronising and insulting that it is suggested that, with the advent of the new theatre, culture and sophistication have been brought to Basildon. We find that deeply offensive. I can think of nothing that is less in keeping with this new development than the awful banner which has been displayed across the £8.5 million building and the dirty old caravan which looks as though it has been abandoned outside the main entrance.
All manner of questions should be asked. Those who have been responsible for what has happened should be brought to account. Nobody should be allowed to walk away from the issue until a full, proper and independent inquiry has been held. I am advised that the losses on
Column 1303revenue last year were £650,000 and that a debt payment of £1,147, 000 had to be serviced, courtesy of the burdened ratepayers of Basildon.
I am not attacking the concept of a theatre in Basildon. We have always enjoyed very successful theatre. I applaud the arts and enjoy the entertainment that is provided by local groups, but as a Basildon ratepayer I am outraged by what I believe has happened regarding the financial viability of the new Towngate theatre, bearing in mind the huge rate increase that we have suffered.
It is now rightly being asked what proper services the Labour party will sacrifice to satisfy its ego and to continue its support of the theatre. My hon. Friend the Minister, who has responsibility for new towns, has had to grapple with several difficult issues involving Basildon during the past year. Perhaps the most appalling example of Socialist hypocrisy are the lies that have been spread, and which have frightened new town commission tenants about the security of their tenure. The lies are endless, but despite repeated assurances to the contrary from my hon. Friend the Minister, the elderly, who are among the most vulnerable in our community, have been frightened, and local Socialists have continued to stick to the line that new town commission tenants will lose their security of tenure. The episode is all the more disgraceful when one considers that the Labour party was offered new town commission properties when there was a Labour Government. Unlike the council in Harlow, it refused. I believe that, as a result of that decision, Basildon has lost a considerable amount of income which we could have used to great effect.
In spite of the local financial crisis, the Socialist council intended to spend £35,000 of ratepayers' money on a so-called tenants' ballot. It has just had the nerve to send out, at the expense of ratepayers, letters congratulating tenants on something that the Labour party was responsible for starting. The letters were sent out in envelopes depicting a champagne bottle. That is a disgrace and the people responsible for the outrage should be called to account.
The so-called tenants action group is described as non-political but local people know that the organisers are Labour party activists. I am advised that in the recent local elections the disgraceful Militant organisation was active in some parts of the constituency. I thought that Militant was proscribed by the Labour party. How is it that a candidate is allowed to stand under the Labour party banner when we know that he is supported by Militant? The tenants action group leaflet was distributed locally by the Labour party and at the bottom the leaflet says that it has been donated at the expense of Morning Star publications.
The role of local government officers has also been questioned by some people. Local government officers have always enjoyed a proud history of political neutrality and I have always thought that they approached their duties in a thoroughly responsible and professional manner. Therefore, we have a fine tradition that should be encouraged and which, we hope, will flourish. However, the relationship between local government officers and elected representatives should be clear. It is for the latter to tell the former what to do, obviously after taking advice. It should not be the other way round. Elected representatives should be seen to run things and officers
Column 1304should never be put in a compromising position by making political statements that cannot be backed up through the ballot box. The Socialist authority, in its never-ending desire to spend money, continues to interfere in areas for which it has no statutory responsibility. It has recently set up a Health Service monitoring and liaison panel, an anti-poll tax committee and a transport committee, and it has now had the cheek to set up a committee to monitor the activities of the Commission for the New Towns. We know that all those committees are a cloak behind which to knock the Government. That is what it is all about and it is all at the expense of Basildon's hard-pressed ratepayers. The style of Socialists in Basildon has always been to take the credit for things for which they have no responsibility and to avoid criticism for those things for which they should rightly be taken to task. That is highlighted by the fact that they have no concept of what voluntary work is all about. They simply sit there handing out money regardless, and they believe that people should be paid for everything they do. Council proceedings have become so farcical that, to avoid political change, area management such as has been suffered in Walsall and Tower Hamlets has now been adopted at a huge cost to Basildon's ratepayers. Control of spending has been given to area management committees which Socialists hope will remain in the control of Socialist activists.
Basildon's direct labour organisation has just lost £634,000. I know that the Department of the Environment is looking at what action to take over that financial failure. Grandiose schemes, which did not materialise, were heralded by the council.
I hope that a sensible conclusion is reached about the completion of the roofing of our town centre. It is essential that both sides hold constructive talks and that commitments given to established traders are honoured.
We are currently celebrating 40 glorious years since the birth of Basildon as a new town. It is a wonderful place in which to live because of the strength of the local community. I certainly do not wish it to be broken by the financial mismanagement that we are suffering at the hands of the Socialists.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Memberfor Basildon (Mr. Amess) on securing this Adjournment debate to highlight the recent high rate increase in Basildon and the predicament in which the community finds itself. It is fortunate to have as its Member of Parliament such a champion of its interests. I congratulate and strongly support my hon. Friend on his persistent efforts over the past few years to bring to light the irresponsible and extravagant expenditure of Basildon district council, which until last year was Labour-controlled but only recently has become hung--an apt description of the difficulties in which it finds itself, which it is foisting on local residents. Efficient management, good common sense and more accountability are needed on Basildon district council.
My hon. Friend told us that Basildon increased its local rate by over 57 per cent. for 1989-90 to finance a huge increase in spending of 87 per cent. My hon. Friend mentioned its spending on leisure activities. It seems to me
Column 1305that its leisure activity is spending other people's money. That increase is the largest rate increase of any shire district and well above the average increase of 12 per cent. for shire districts. The local rate for Basildon--78.1 p--is the third highest in England. Only Harlow and Wear Valley, which are Labour-controlled districts, have higher rates. In contrast, hon. Members will be interested, but scarcely surprised, to learn that the average increases in local rates between 1988-89 and 1989-90 is almost 14 per cent. among Labour shire authorities compared with only 9 per cent. among Conservative authorities.
Those figures highlight the extreme profligacy of Basildon district council with its ratepayers' money. To understand how the huge rate increase occurred, I shall give the House the basic facts behind it and show that it has nothing to do with the Government but was the result of decisions taken by the council purely and simply to make ratepayers pay for its numerous and extravagant schemes.
Basildon district council has a long history of excessive spending. Throughout the 1980s, total expenditure was well above the amounts assessed for grant-related expenditure. Average spending over GRE since 1983-84 has been a staggering 80 per cent., and in two of the past three years expenditure has been over double the assessed GRE level. That is clearly excessive by any standards and is a heavy burden for the ratepayers of Basildon to carry.
The district's needs are assessed in the same way as those of every other shire district. The assessment measures what an authority needs to spend to provide a standard level of service at a common rate poundage, taking account of the characteristics of the area. It is an objective method based on indicators of need. Of course, there can be, and often are, argument and discussion about precise detail. Hon. Members will be aware that officials are reviewing, with the associations, the methodology for a set of simplified needs assessments to be used under the new revenue support grant system. Basildon's excessive spending led the Secretary of State to rate- cap it each year between 1985-86 and 1988-89. By 1988-89 we had reined rates back to a level below that in 1985-86. But in 1989-90 it was not possible for us under the Rates Act 1984 to cap Basildon. I understand the frustration of many local residents. Section 2(2)(a) of the Rates Act exempts an authority from designation for rate limitation in any financial year if its total budgeted expenditure for that financial year does not exceed a threshold which is statutorily updated each year. This is because authorities with low expenditure in absolute terms have only a relatively small impact on the level of rates which ratepayers actually pay. The Rate Limitation (Designation of Authorities) (Exemption) Order 1988 set the threshold for designation in 1988-89 for capping in 1989-90 at £13.1 million. Basildon's budgeted total expenditure figure of £13 million is just below the threshold for capping.
Although Basildon will receive no block grant in 1989-90 because of its excessive expenditure relative to GRE levels, I should point out that the 1989-90 rate support grant settlement would have allowed Basildon to reduce its local rate by 3 per cent. without the use of balances, had it held its spending roughly constant in real terms. However, even a decrease of 3 per cent. would still
Column 1306have left Basildon ratepayers facing one of the highest rate poundages, but it would have been a welcome step in the right direction. Clearly, there was no need for such a substantial rate rise.
I greatly regret the misinformation and scaremongering on the community charge. Labour local authorities that are spending highly know only too well that the writing is on the wall. With the introduction of the community charge, the community will be well and truly in charge. High- spending, profligate authorities will be exposed for what they are to the local charge payers. The system will be fairer. It will restore local accountability and local residents will know what they should do in the local elections.
I am sure that my hon. Friend hopes that the residents of Basildon will take the good advice of the citizens of the county of Essex and ensure that they elect Conservative representatives, who will conduct themselves efficiently and effectively, have a responsible attitude towards local charge payers' money and provide the best value for money together with high-quality services. We have estimated that, had the community charge been in operation in 1988-89, the charge in Basildon would have been about £267, £65 more than the community charge for spending at need. I stress that those figures are merely illustrative. The level of community charge depends upon the spending policies of the local authorities. Basildon's charge payers will be free to vote for the policies that they want and the party that puts them forward.
My hon. Friend referred to the fact that the ratepayers are now paying the price for excessive capital commitments during the 1980s, using deferred purchase arrangements. We all know much about all those policies seeking to take the waiting out of wanting--live now, pay later. The chickens are coming home to roost.
In recent years, Basildon has entered into substantial deferred purchase arrangements for capital programmes, totalling at least £44 million. These include the Towngate theatre, referred to by my hon. Friend, the Basildon centre and the Markham Chase centre. I share his concern that even if every seat of the theatre were filled for every day of the year it would still make a loss, as he said earlier this week. The district auditor outlined the financial impact of these schemes on the ratepayers of Basildon in his report of July 1987. He estimated that the payments falling due in 1989-90 from deferred purchase schemes would be equivalent to adding 19p to the rate in 1989-90--a rate which I have already said was very high compared with other shire districts. We estimate that these payments could account for around two thirds of the recent rate increase in Basildon. Basildon district council has obviously entered into huge financial commitment and, now that the payments have to be made, the reality of the arrangements is hitting home. The Government have given public warnings many times about the inevitable financial consequences of authorities buying today and paying tomorrow. We have made it clear that local authorities must provide for the debts that they have chosen to incur.
In 1987 Parliament passed legislation designed to remove the advantage within the capital control arrangements for local authorities to enter into deferred purchase agreements. It seems unlikely that authorities would now imprudently use such arrangements. Under the new capital finance arrangements for local authorities
Column 1307which we propose to bring into force from 1 April 1990 deferred purchase arrangements will be treated as a credit arrangement similar to borrowing.
I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to comment on the situation in Basildon. I note that the slogan on the headed notepaper used by the council is, "Caring and winning through". I hope that the Council will take it to heart and provide the ratepayers and future community chargepayers with more responsible financial management. I have no doubt that the new community charge system will bring about greater accountability--
It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.
That, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 129 (Select Committee on Sound Broadcasting), the Select Committee on Televising of Proceedings of the House shall have power to give directions and perform other duties in accordance with the provisions of the Resolution of the House of 26th July 1977, in relation to sound broadcasting, and to make recommendations thereon to the House.-- [Mr. Chapman.]
That, at the sitting on Wednesday 7th June, notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph (1)(b) of Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business), Motions in the name of Mr. Secretary King relating to Northern Ireland may be proceeded with, though opposed, for one and a half hours after the first of them has been entered upon ; and if proceedings thereon have not been previously disposed of, Mr. Speaker shall, at the expiration of that period, put any Questions necessary to dispose of them.-- [Mr. Chapman.]
That Standing Order No. 125 (Select Committee on House of Commons (Services)) be amended, in line 10, by inserting after the word House', the words to adjourn from place to place' ; in line 22, by inserting after the word House' the words to adjourn from place to place, subject to the approval of the committee' ; in line 41, by inserting after the word Offices' the word and' ; and in line 44, by leaving out from the word it' to the end of line 45.-- [Mr. Chapman.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Chapman.]
Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury) : I last raised this issue in the House on 30 November 1988, as reported at columns 849-56 of Hansard. As the time for the debate is limited, I shall not repeat the full background to the anxieties that caused me to seek a further debate on this important issue. As I wish to raise a considerable number of issues and some of them are complex, I shall understand if my hon. Friend the Minister is unable to respond to them in full today and chooses to write to me. I hope that he will reflect on what I have to say and will not shut the door on my suggestions but will give them some consideration and time.
The House will recall that there was a change of flight path at RAF Upper Heyford resulting in a substantial increase in aircraft noise suffered by local people. The chief environmental health officer of Cherwell district council reported the matter last October, stating :
"The nature and magnitude of the noise really has to be experienced for its effects upon people trying to lead a normal life to be truly appreciated As a direct result of the changed aircraft departure routes on 1 June 1988 the rural communities have suffered severe adverse effects by the introduction of aircraft noise levels far in excess of those which previously prevailed. The changed flight paths have not reduced the high noise levels already experienced by other villages but has in some cases increased the level being experienced Cherwell District Council some years ago advised that new building should not be permitted in areas subject to noise levels in excess of 75 dBA and this view has been upheld by Inspectors at Planning Inquiries. It is therefore obvious that noise in excess of that level should not be brought to existing settlements." As a consequence of the change in flight paths, substantial increases in noise were brought to existing settlements and that led to the debate last November. During that debate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health, then the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, undertook that there would be a full study of the costs and implications of realigning the runway. That study was completed earlier this year and my hon. Friend the Minister told a meeting of representatives of local communities that the cost of realigning the runway would be at least £300 million. That meant that it would be impossible. Undoubtedly that was a deeply disappointing result for the many people who had hoped that it might be possible to find a technical solution to enable noise levels to return to something similar to what they were prior to 1 June last year.
Following my hon. Friend's announcement, there are a number of continuing worries. First, there is still concern at the original decision to change the flight paths. There is a suspicion that the change was carried out not for reasons of safety but for convenience, or in anticipation of new planes, further planes or new weapons systems being introduced at Upper Heyford. Part of that suspicion arises because of conflicting accounts about who requested the change in flight paths.
In a letter to me last July, my hon. Friend the present Parliamentary Under -Secretary of State for Health said :
Column 1309"F111s no longer have enough extra thrust to perform manoevres with acceptable reserves for safety sufficient to meet the stringent safety margins required by the United States air force."
Yet, last October, Colonel Nameth of the United States Air Force department in Washington wrote to a local resident saying "the Ministry of Defence proposed a change in the take off pattern"
"the Ministry of Defence has recently adjusted the flight paths for RAF Upper Heyford."
Clearly, the Government's prime responsibility towards the communities around the base must be to ensure that flying activities are carried out as safely as possible. If the old flight paths have become unsafe, clearly the United States Air Force and the Ministry of Defence were under a duty of care not to allow planes to continue to fly on them.
Given that a sizeable number of local people remain unconvinced about the merits of the original decision, I hope that some effort will be made in the near future by the Royal Air Force commander at Upper Heyford, Squadron Leader Rice, and by the United States Air Force commander, Colonel Downer, to provide an opportunity for briefing local people about why the changes were made. Perhaps they could give local people a chance to meet and question some of the pilots involved. It must be in the best interests of both the United States Air Force and the Ministry of Defence for local people to be confident that the original changes in flight paths were taken with their best interests at heart and for no other reason.
There is also concern to ensure that planes adhere to the correct existing flight paths and that, within the present parameters, everything possible is done to reduce noise disturbance. I had a constructive and positive meeting with Colonel Downer and Squadron Leader Rice last week. I am grateful to both of them for their positive approach to these difficulties. I was glad to hear that they have set up a noise abatement group of senior officers at the base to give consideration to any ideas which might reduce noise levels. That demonstrates that people working at the base are conscious of the increasing impact that their activities have on local communities and are starting to think about noise and how it might be reduced. I was also glad to hear that the amount of afternoon and early evening flying is to be substantially reduced. One of the most irksome matters for local people has been the considerable amount of later afternoon and early evening flying around the base, particularly in the summer months when planes return from missions and carry out practice circuits and bumps around the base. I was told that those activities have now been scrubbed, and when planes return to the base they will simply land.
There has also been concern about whether the planes adhere sufficiently strictly to the present designated flight patterns west of the base. I have been told that, whenever flying activity takes place there, a pilot will be sent to Steeple Aston to stand on the designated flight path between Steeple and Middle Aston to monitor the planes flying overhead.
It is also proposed to erect a large white banner on the correct flight path between Steeple and Middle Aston to act as a further visual aid to pilots. While to the outsider