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Points of Order

5.3 pm

Mr. Eric Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is now one and a half hours since the Prime Minister left the Chamber. I wanted to raise a point of order about something that the Prime Minister said at Question Time, but I could not do so because of a ruling that you made. The Prime Minister is probably on her way to America or Russia by now. It is absurd that I can raise my point of order only now, one and a half hours after the issue should have been raised.

I ask you to reconsider carefully your ruling. You accepted a point of order from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery). I do not disagree with that, because it was on a vital matter. My point of order is that the Prime Minister equated people in CND with Pol Pot. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) may laugh, but it is not funny to suggest that hon. Members who believe in CND are murderers or to compare them with Pol Pot and his despicable gang. The matter should have been dealt with there and then but, because of your ruling, only now, one and a half hours later, do I have an opportunity to raise it.

Mr. Speaker : The hon. Gentleman should reflect carefully on what he has just said. At the beginning, he stated that he would have liked to raise a matter with the Prime Minister or about her comments at Question Time.

Mr.Heffer : That is not what I said in my point of order.

Mr. Speaker : I ask the hon. Member to look in Hansard tomorrow at what he said. A point of order must relate to order in the Chamber. I cannot be held responsible for what the Prime Minister says, provided that she is in order. What she says is her own responsibility. As the House knows, points of order are matters on which the Speaker can adjudicate and I cannot adjudicate on whether the Prime Minister's comments are right or wrong. If I allowed what the hon. Member suggests, we should have a whole rash of points of order arising out of Question Time, which would disfigure the proceedings and delay subsequent business. The matter that the hon. Member raises is not a point of order for me.

Several Hon. Members : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker : I shall hear the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), because it is important to clear up the matter.

Mr. Heffer : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you now ruling that hon. Members on either side can say just about anything about citizens for whom you are responsible? We are all responsible to the people who elect us to the House. Are you now saying that it does not matter what the Prime Minister or any other individual says in the House about people, even if it is a downright lie, and that we cannot stand up to defend our people?

Mr. Speaker : I am saying to the hon. Member and to the House that in this place we have total freedom of speech, unless it reflects upon another hon. Member.

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Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that last week you said : "It is not in order to use House of Commons stationery for party-political purposes."-- [ Official Report, 1 November 1989 ; Vol. 159, c. 321.]

I have to hand a House of Commons franked envelope. There is nothing remarkable about that. We use them every day to write to our constituents about matters which concern them. Unfortunately, this envelope, franked and paid for by the taxpayers, was used to send out minutes to members of Redcar constituency Labour party. Will you consider sending a bill to Redcar Labour club, as, among others, it is--

Mr. Speaker : Order. I can give the hon. Member guidance. This matter was raised last week about other similar episodes. Will he kindly send the envelope to the Services Select Committee, which is already dealing with two other cases and which, I am sure, will wish to deal with that matter too?

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You said that you were responsible for the order of the House. This afternoon, a statement was made which related to the London area, for which you allowed one hour. You called mainly London Members. The statement was not issued until the moment when the Secretary of State rose to speak, so no one could read it in depth beforehand or ask sensible questions on it. The whole procedure was a farce. You allowed only half an hour on the ambulance dispute, which relates to the whole country, and you stopped only seven Members who were seeking to catch your eye--of whom I was one--from asking a question. Hon. Members from the north of England in particular were not called to speak about the ambulance dispute. One would have thought that it was a private dispute occurring only in London. Will you consider the way in which you allocate time to ensure that hon. Members from constituencies outside London catch your eye?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is the first time that I have agreed with the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt). I have spent most of my time shouting and bawling from one side to the other--

Mr. Speaker : Order. I do not relish it.

Mr. Skinner : The hon. Member for Langbaurgh is right. I am not against spending an hour on the train

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inquiry statement, and nor am I against spending an hour on the ambulance dispute statement. However, Mr. Speaker, you called hon. Members who had been called previously. There have been several statements on the ambulance dispute and some hon. Members have never been called--

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman is not yet Mr. Speaker. I know that he was an experienced chairman and I often accept--

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : My hon. Friend was very good.

Mr. Speaker : Yes, indeed the hon. Gentleman was a very good chairman. I was often grateful for his advice.

I must say to both the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) and the hon. Member for Bolsover that I have to make a balanced judgment--

Mr. Skinner : You have not been very good at it lately.

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman had better calculate what he is saying.

Mr. Skinner : I have done.

Mr. Speaker : I must tell the hon. Member for Langbaurgh, who raised the point, that I allowed the first statement to continue because I was anxious to ensure that those hon. Members whose constituents had suffered as a result of that sad train accident were called to say something about the report. I hope that the House will not consider that to be wrong.

There was a private notice question yesterday about the ambulance dispute. If the hon. Gentleman had listened carefully today, he would have heard the Secretary of State say that the troops are on alert in London, not elsewhere in the country. Perhaps there will be other occasions when this matter is before us--I hope not--but then I shall bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said.


Patients' Charter

Mr. Charles Kennedy presented a Bill to establish certain rights for people in need of health care, and to promote the involvement of patients in decision-making within the National Health Service : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 10 November and to be printed. [Bill 217.]

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Toxic and Hazardous Substances

(Miscellaneous Provisions)

5.12 pm

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) : I beg to--

Mr. Speaker : Order. Will the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) please sit down?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Yes, I will do.

Mr. McCartney : I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to protect the general public in the purchase and application of toxic and hazardous substances within the home environment ; to provide a code of conduct for use by consumers and contractors ; to set up a register of proscribed substances ; and for other purposes.

I am the chair of the all-party home safety group which campaigns in the House on a wide range of issues on behalf of consumers and workers. We believe in the right to purchase goods that do not poison, cut, gas, electrocute, burn, maim or kill, and in the right of workers to be employed in the safest possible environment. The Bill belongs to a family of measures that the group has been promoting, including a successful campaign to ban dangerous foam furniture, inflammable fabrics, dangerous nursery furniture, the introduction of smoke alarms and the banning of unsafe glass products in the home. We must pay tribute to the London hazards centre for the campaign, and especially to Hugh MacGrillen and his team. The Bill is a solemn and heartfelt tribute to the victims of toxic and hazardous substances, and the list is endless and growing. It is a poignant reminder to the families of Eric Riley--who, in the words of his wife Ann, was murdered by Lindane ; to Keith Pritchett, killed by leukaemia while working for Cuprinol ; David Rea, a Rentokil sprayer who is afflicted by leukaemia and is currently in a very serious condition ; and to a little child, Llwyd Nicholes, who contracted aplastic anaemia following Rentokil's woodworm treatment to his family home. Some 300 families in the United Kingdom--the list is growing weekly--5,500 in West Germany and thousands more worldwide have been affected by dangerous and toxic substances in the home environment. This Bill is a sign to those families that the fight for justice will continue until such products are banned from the market place.

How can it be that a man or a woman working in industry, commerce or the public service is, in theory, protected from the harmful effects of dangerous and hazardous substances by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1988, but can leave his or her employment and go into a do-it-yourself store, a chemist or a local garage, or use Yellow Pages and legally purchase a material or substance that can damage the brain, eyes, skin, lungs, liver, kidneys or reproductive organs, and can, in increasing instances, kill ?

What other country in the world would treat its children in the way that Britain does? Sheep dip containing Lindane cannot be used in Britain ; to do so would be a criminal offence because of its toxicity. Yet Lindane can be administered legally through the prescription service--it is recommended by the National Health Service for use in children's shampoo for the treatment of head lice. It is appalling to think that that substance cannot be used in

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sheep dip because of its toxicity, but it can be used on the heads of little children. The shampoos are sold under the trade names of Lorexane and Quellada. I urge the Minister seriously to consider that policy.

The attitude of the manufacturers and suppliers of toxic chemicals is deplorable. They make no effort to establish whether their products are safe. They attempt to discount evidence of toxic effects and they make very little effort to inform the public of the possible consequences of using their chemicals. For example, Peter Bateman--the public relations director of Rentokil--has described Lindane as a life-saving chemical, despite all the evidence of its toxic properties. I ask Mr. Bateman to stop and think for a moment about Ann and Eric Riley. Eric was exposed to Lindane and

PCP--pentachlorophenol--in January 1987. He rapidly developed lethargy, depression, pain in the throat and stomach and other symptoms. Eric had an epileptic fit in April 1987 and suffered memory loss and lack of co- ordination. He never fully recovered his health. He had a further fit in January 1988, as a result of which he drowned in the family bath--killed by Lindane.

Mr. Bateman should also think about the grandmother in Skipton who wrote to me only this week. Following an advertisement on Yorkshire Television, she bought a product called Gammexene, which contained Lindane, to dust the tomato plants in her greenhouse. She developed nausea, dizziness, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat and muscular spasms in her legs that persisted for some months. Her grandchildren now refuse to kiss her because they complain that she has been poisoned.

Cuprinol, a company that has advertised extensively on television, has been worried for some time that it has been poisoning its own work force. There are 23 outstanding worker claims against the company. The Transport and General Workers Union is more than concerned about the company and its activities and the risks of Cuprinol's hazardous products. The company has chosen to deny publicly the appalling efects of Lindane, TBTO--tributyl tin oxide--and PCPs, yet secretly it has been withdrawing Lindane from its lethal concoctions. If that is the case, why does it not withdraw old stocks from its suppliers? Will it destroy those stocks and issue a warning to consumers not to purchase products containing Lindane produced prior to the date that the substance was removed from the production process? Will it now accept liability for the damage already done to its customers and its work force?

The performance of contractors that use chemicals is even worse. A survey in the Building Trades Journal of 14 specialists in timber treatments reported staggering incompetence. An editorial in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine summed it up :

"Modern management has no incentive for the identification of so far unknown or unproved risk."

Perhaps more importantly, there are no penalties for failing to identify risk. In general, the public have no protection against toxic materials and their use by incompetent or unscrupulous operators.

The complacent attitude of the authorities beggars belief. Only a few months ago at the Dispatch Box the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones), said that he did not believe that Lindane and other chemicals were dangerous. Yet that was at a time when the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had already banned the use of Lindane in sheep dip. On 10 July, the Health and Safety Executive, in a private meeting with

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industry, said that there were problems with the public perception of attitudes towards the introduction and continuation of hazardous substances in the home environment. The HSE pleaded with industry to introduce a system of advice and information leaflets to the public. That information is to be delayed until at least July 1990 because, in the words of minute No. 5, the Nationwide Association of Preserving Specialists reserved its judgment on this matter. Even in private, the industry was not prepared to admit that things were going wrong and that serious damage was being done to the health of many British people.

The situation is even worse. At present, the regulations are not working effectively. For example, a company called Mould Growth Consultants Limited is selling a product called Wintox to local authorities, and it has been established today that it has never received approval from the Health and Safety Executive or the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Those local authorities currently negotiating with that company should withdraw immediately until the company receives approval from the Health and Safety Executive, or the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That should be treated as a matter of urgency.

The Bill would give members of the public the right to information. It would establish a regulatory authority to license particular chemicals or processes for domestic use, a code of practice for the protection of consumers against unscrupulous manufacturers, suppliers and contractors and a register of harmful substances, including a proscribed list.

The House should be asking the Government immediately to ban PCPs and Lindane, to phase out organic insecticides and arsenic formulations and to phase in inorganic bone compounds, to rewrite British standards and to give the Health and Safety Executive a greater role. Without that minimal action, deaths in Britain will continue while wood preservative and chemical companies are happy to put profits before the lives of many working people. That private scandal should be exposed and ended forthwith.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ian McCartney, Mr. Mike Watson, Mr. Frank Doran, Mr. Eric Martlew, Mr. Martyn Jones, Mr. Keith Bradley, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mr. David Hinchliffe, Mr. Thomas McAvoy, Mr. John Battle, Mr. Gerry Steinberg and Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe.

Toxic and Hazardous Substances (Miscellaneous Provisions)

Mr. Ian McCartney accordingly presented a Bill to protect the general public in the purchase and application of toxic and hazardous substances within the home environment ; to provide a code of conduct for use by consumers and contractors ; to set up a register of proscribed substances ; and for other purposes. And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed. [Bill 216.]

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Orders of the Day

Local Government and Housing Bill

[ Second Day


Lords amendments further considered.

Clause 71

Duty to keep Housing Revenue Account

Lords amendment : No. 112, in page 78, line 8, after "1926" insert--

"(dd) any property which--

(a) with the consent of the Secretary of State given under section 417(1) of the Housing Act 1985 ;

(b) with the consent of a Minister given under section 50(1)(e) of the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act 1958 ; or

(c) by virtue of section 50(2) of that Act (houses vesting in local authority on default of another person)

was brought within the corresponding account kept under Part XIII of the Housing Act 1985 for years beginning before 1st April 1990 ;" 5.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope) : I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment Nos. 113 to 118, 119 and amendments (a) to (f), and Lords amendments Nos. 120 to 138, 318 to 327.

Mr. Chope : Part VI and schedule 4 are concerned with revenue finance for local authority housing. It might help the House in its consideration of the various provisions if I set out some of the background and outline our objectives.

The House may know that part VI encapsulates the principles that underlie the Bill--accountability, efficiency, fairness and targeting. The present financial framework in which authorities provide their housing service gives insufficient incentives for efficiency, does not make the best use of public resources, and does not give council tenants a clear view of what their accommodation and the housing service are really worth. Local authorities are required to account for their day-to-day expenditure and income on council housing separately, in the housing revenue account, but they can transfer money freely between their housing revenue account and the rest of their general rate fund. In other words, they can use ratepayers' money to subsidise the housing service, or conversely use surpluses from the housing revenue account to pay for non-housing services. That distorts accountability to tenants and ratepayers, and engenders inefficiency.

The discretion to move resources in and out of the housing revenue account makes it difficult to ensure that the available Exchequer subsidies to council housing are directed to those authorities which most need them. The Government provide about £3 billion of subsidies in support of expenditure on the housing revenue account, but that money is paid through three separate channels

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--housing subsidy, rent rebate subsidy, and an element of rate support grant in support of contributions from the rate fund. Anomalies are almost bound to result from such a system. Some authorities which receive those subsidies can make surpluses which they can use outside the housing revenue account, so Exchequer money for council housing is used for other purposes. The other side of the coin is that fewer resources are then available to target on authorities which need extra help with their housing expenditure. One further consequence of the present financial framework is that the pattern of council rents around the country does not reflect the variation in the value of council housing or the standard of service provided by different councils in different parts of the country. Rents are based instead on historic values. Council tenants cannot clearly see what their accommodation is worth or whether they are receiving an efficient service, and they are not given the signals that they need to exercise freely the choices we have made available in the housing market.

In that context, we have established our new financial regime, which has three objectives--to tighten the financial discipline of local authorities in the provision of the housing service ; to target taxpayer subsidies more effectively ; and to encourage more sensible, realistic council rents, which come to reflect the pattern in the value of housing around the country. Those objectives are set in the context of the total level of housing revenue account subsidy, remaining roughly at this year's level-- £3 billion per annum. There are two main elements of the new regime. First, housing revenue accounts will be ring-fenced from the rest of the authorities' funds, preventing ratepayers' money from being used as a discretionary subsidy to council housing, and restricting the use of housing surpluses outside the account.

Secondly, the three existing sources of Exchequer subsidy will be combined to prevent a single housing revenue account subsidy, paid where on our assumptions authorities need additional help to balance the ring-fenced account. In combination, those two elements will help us to achieve our three objectives.

Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley) : Is it right that private owners who contribute nothing via their rates should be on bungalow waiting lists? A senior citizen has a right to go on the senior citizen list and to be provided with accommodation, but ring fencing makes it extremely difficult for all local authority residents to be treated fairly.

Mr. Chope : I have to disagree. There will not be any inequalities under the new system. There are inequalities under the existing system. It is unreasonable that those who are still waiting for council housing should be contributing, through their rate bills, to the existing council housing revenue account which is there for the benefit of existing tenants. As soon as people on the waiting list become tenants, they will be paying rents which go into the housing revenue account.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : Does the Minister agree that some authorities have not used the rate fund for years to subsidise their council house rents, and that council tenants are paying taxes to subsidise mortgage interest relief?

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Mr. Chope : I do not accept that either. The pattern of historic costs of council housing varies significantly. Some housing estates were built largely in the 1930s, and other councils have a majority of estates built in the 1960s and 1970s, so they have higher historic costs. But it is unreasonable that people, just because they are living in properties built in the 1930s, should enjoy lower rents than people living in properties which are more modern. The essence of our proposals is to make the regime much fairer and more equitable.

The majority of the Lords amendments are technical, designed to clarify the accounting treatment of various items within the housing revenue account. A group of amendments to clause 71 and schedule 4 was intended to clear up an anomaly concerning property that is disposed of. The amendments reflect the common-sense view that such property should no longer be counted as housing revenue account property.

5.30 pm

Amendments were also made to clause 78, and to the schedule dealing with the way in which rent rebates are shown in the account, and providing for the cost of discretionary extensions made by the authority to the housing benefit system. That group took in the change made in Commons Committee at the instigation of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) regarding rebates for war widows and the war disabled.

There were also amendments to the list, in schedule 4, of permitted debits and credits to the account, regarding the relationship between the account and its sub-account, the housing repairs account. Amendments were also made to correct obvious omissions, providing specifically for expenditure from revenue resources on housing capital works, and funds to cover rent arrears.

Two important groups of amendments were made in Committee in another place, both of which were foreshadowed on Report in this House. The first concerns the new residual debt subsidy, or RDS. The RDS provisions in clauses 79 to 81 were introduced to clear up some of the anomalies in the present accounting and subsidy arrangements, which exist when large amounts of an authority's housing stock are disposed of. RDS was to be payable to authorities that disposed of stock for which the receipt did not cover the outstanding debt. Following development of our proposals on housing revenue account subsidy, and consultation with local authorities and the local authority associations, my hon. Friend the then Under-Secretary of State announced our conclusion that a separate residual debt subsidy would be needed only for the current year, 1989-90, and only in the case of authorities not in receipt of main housing subsidy. Amendments Nos. 121 to 128 amend the provisions to give effect to that change in approach.

The second major amendment to this part of the Bill is amendment No. 119, which is intended to ensure that provisions dealing with the calculation of the main housing revenue account subsidy are in line with our stated policy. The first part concerns the Secretary of State's powers to make assumptions for subsidy purposes about credits or debits in the housing revenue account. Housing revenue account subsidy is to be paid to enable an authority to balance its housing revenue account on certain assumptions about its expenditure and income. The main such assumptions concern the level of rents and expenditure on management and maintenance of the

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housing stock. My right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State announced on Report our intentions regarding council house rents.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith) : In case any hon. Member is not clear on this, may I make it clear that the assumption is intended to give the Government an opportunity to set rent levels that they believe should be set throughout the country ?

Mr. Chope : Not at all. The Government are saying loud and clear that it will still be for individual local authorities to decide rent levels. We are also saying, however, that there should be a fairer system of subsidy, and the new system will be much fairer than the existing one.

Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington) : The Minister has said that he intends to clarify the assumptions. A letter from his predecessor, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier), to Manchester city council states : "To the extent that the repairs capitalised were of a normal day-to-day nature, this should be reflected progressively in the M and M allowance in the new HRA Subsidy."

Following yet another change by the Department of the Environment, Manchester, for example, will lose £20 million in subsidy because of the change in treatment of capitalised repairs. That means that rents will have to rise by £10.50 just to stand still. Can the Minister explain why his Department continually changes the subsidy rules, why capitalised repairs are being treated differently and why commitments given by his predecessor have been changed, to the detriment of Manchester's rentpayers?

Mr. Chope : I was intending to deal specifically with capitalised repairs when we reached an amendment on the subject tabled by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley). Let me say to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley), however, that, if he reads the consultation document, he will see that Manchester benefits greatly from the new system. Under our proposed system, it is deemed to need the minimum increase of 95p a week, whereas, under the existing system, this year's assumed increase is £1.95 a week. I shall deal with the issue of capitalised repairs in more detail later. The main point is, however, that Manchester has been spending a good deal on capitalised repairs that were not truly capitalised : in other words, it was spending money on decorating and routine maintenance that no sensible person would regard as expenditure that could properly be capitalised. If Manchester continues to do that, it will not be able to use capital moneys for such purposes. Under the new system, however, it will be able to capitalise genuine capital repairs, as it has been able to do in the past.

Mr. Soley : The Minister has confirmed what I said a few moments ago : in effect, the Government will determine rent levels. As is known by every Conservative councillor in the Association of District Councils, and by every Labour councillor throughout the land, the Minister is deciding-- to use his words--what is sensible. Unfortunately, he is the only person who agrees with his definition of "sensible" ; none of the Conservative or Labour councillors in the ADC agrees with it. Why is the Minister the only sensible person around?

Mr. Chope : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for accepting that I am sensible, but I do not regard myself as

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the only person to take what I consider the sensible view that capital moneys should not be spent on routine house decoration, and that ordinary revenue income should be used for that kind of revenue expenditure. My view is that capital expenditure should be incurred on capital assets : that means truly capitalised repairs that are in the nature of either major long-term maintenance that would probably be incurred only every 30 years, or other capital improvements. That, I think, is the view that most accountants would advise us to take, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman disagrees with it. I know that his authority in Hammersmith has interpreted "capital repairs" very liberally. My Labour-controlled authority in Southampton, however, has taken my view, that it would be wrong to incur capital expenditure on what should normally be revenue items.

Mr. Soley : I thank the Minister for giving way again : he is very generous with his time.

Is it not a fact that almost all industries would think it appropriate to use capital moneys for revenue purposes at times? If the Minister sold his house and moved into a cheaper one, he might well use some of the capital accumulated from the sale to repair and renovate the new house. That is a very normal thing to do. In the words of the Prime Minister, it is the normal everyday economics of the family.

Mr. Chope : No, it is not. I think that responsible authorities would say that, when public money is involved, existing tenants should pay for existing decoration carried out in their flats and houses, and that the cost should not be a burden on successive generations. For that is effectively what is happening : if capital moneys are used to carry out today's routine decoration, debt will be incurred on which interest must be paid by generations of successor tenants.

Mr. Soley : The Minister has just referred to "any responsible authority." Does he therefore think that the Association of District Councils, which agrees with me, not with him, is irresponsible?

Mr. Chope : If and in so far as authorities have used capital moneys for revenue purposes in the way that I have described, I would say that that was ill advised. It will certainly not be possible to do that under the new system.

Mr. Soley : That is the Minister's view.

Mr. Chope : Yes. In my view, it is irresponsible. That is the view of many people in local government.

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