The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory) : The report by the Warren Spring laboratory on airborne lead concentrations in the United Kingdom 1984-88 shows a decrease from 408 nanogrammes of lead per cubic metre of air (ng/m ) in 1985 to 190 ng/m in 1988--that is a decrease of 53 per cent.
Mr. Davis : May I be the first to welcome my hon. Friend to his first Question Time and to say how glad we all are to see that his Trappist vows from his previous job as a Whip have not reduced his customary eloquence? I am pleased to hear the figures that he cites because they reflect a marvellous performance. Does he agree that that is a first-class demonstration of the effectiveness of the policy of light regulation, combined with price and tax incentives, as a way of protecting the environment? What does he expect to see in the future in this area?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind welcome. The figures on airborne lead are, indeed, encouraging, but we continue our efforts to persuade motorists to switch to unleaded fuel. Already the switch to unleaded fuel is preventing 65 tonnes of lead per month from being emitted into the atmosphere. That shows the importance of our continuing campaign. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a first- class example of co-operation between the Government, the trade and the public.
Mr. James Lamond : In joining the welcome to the new Minister, I wonder whether the Prime Minister is aware of his appointment because this week she wrote to me telling me that inquiries about textile matters should be addressed to Mr. Alan Clark, the Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, although he was moved from there in the reshuffle before last.
Many motorists are still uncertain whether the instructions that they have read in the booklet issued by the Department are correct or whether the instructions suggested to them by the agents for the motor cars are
Column 978correct. It is sometimes suggested that motorist should use an occasional fill of leaded petrol. Does the Minister have any views on that point?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome. On his point about advice from the trade, it is true that in certain instances new cars designed to run on unleaded petrol can benefit from small doses of leaded fuel during the running-in period, but that is highly incidental. To clear up any misunderstanding, my Department has just reprinted more copies of the excellent booklet, "Adjust to Unleaded", which I commend to the hon. Gentleman's constituents and the public. It will remove any confusion or misunderstanding about the importance of unleaded fuel.
Mr. Allan Roberts : I, too, welcome the Minister to his new job, but why have questions been planted by his hon. Friends on the Back Benches only on the issue of lead pollution in the atmosphere when the other pollutants from motor cars are far more significant factors in the pollution of the environment and there has been an increase in them, not a reduction? About 3,000 tonnes of lead and 1,031,000 tonnes of nitrogen dioxide are emitted annually from motor cars, and there has been an increase of 33 per cent. in the amount of carbon dioxide--the major greenhouse gas--emitted by cars in the past 10 years. Two Budgets ago the Government said that they would cut subsidies to company cars, yet 6,000 new cars per day come on to our roads, 50 per cent. of them company cars with Government subsidies. When will the Government switch resources to support public transport and actually reduce emissions of carbon dioxide?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman apparently belittles our campaign to persuade motorists to switch to unleaded fuel. We also have in train measures to reduce other forms of harmful emissions. They will be dealt with by the introduction of catalytic converters, which will greatly reduce emissions of carbon monoxide, unburnt hydrocarbons and nitrous oxides. I remind the hon. Gentleman that catalytic converters require unleaded fuel.
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Chris Patten) : My Department is currently consulting local authorities about the possible need to extend their powers to prevent or control acid house or similar parties. We will consider further action in the light of that consultation.
Mr. Taylor : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for saying that he is having consultations. Given the genuine danger of death or serious injuries at such parties, particularly when they might move indoors during the winter months, will he try, for the benefit of environmental health officers, to clarify the existing regulations further? Will he also do his best to extend them as the difficulty arises from the fact that the organisers use secrecy to evade anticipation by local authorities, which makes prevention extremely difficult?
Mr. Chris Patten : I very much agree with what my hon. Friend has said. I also agree with the chief constable of Surrey who said that uncontrolled parties represent a disaster that is waiting to happen with the possibility of fire risk, blocked exists, blocked roads and so on. At the moment we are consulting local authorities and I have no doubt that we must give them greater guidance on the powers already open to them. It is, of course, for the courts to decide ultimately, but I want to issue that guidance as soon as possible.
Mr. Skinner : If there are so many dangers attached to the possibility of holding acid house parties in this enterprise culture, and if the Minister agrees with his hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor) that the consequences could be disastrous, would it not make sense for the Government to get their act together and for the various Departments, including the Department of the Environment, to make it plain to the Secretary of State for Health that, in the event of such a disaster and the need for ambulance crews to get to that disaster, those crews should be paid the money instead of being kept out on the streets?
Mr. Patten : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, like me, was able to hear the wholly convincing answers to that question made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health yesterday.
Mr. Jacques Arnold : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the success of the police intelligence unit in Gravesend, which co-ordinates with local authorities to deter acid house parties such as that suffered in Meopham in September? What hope is there of extending outside Greater London the penalty of imprisonment for those organisers whose actions represent non- compliance with local government licensing of such events?
Mr. Patten : My hon. Friend is right that proper co-ordination between the police and the local authorities is vital. At the moment we are considering with the Home Office, which is in the lead, the issue of penalties as well as guidance for local authorities. We shall make a statement as soon as possible.
Mr. Michael : Is it not ironic that the Minister is having to respond positively to a request from a Conservative Back Bencher for the extension of local authorities' powers when the Government of which he is a member have spent the past 10 years trying to undermine the authority of those local authorities in all sorts of ways, including on planning and licensing matters?
Mr. Patten : We have consistently tried to support and to strengthen responsible local government action and to deter irresponsible local government action. Unlike the previous Labour Government, we believe that the party was over for local authorities in the mid to late 1970s and that they should behave as responsibly and prudently as possible.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : In the month to mid-October, unleaded petrol accounted for nearly 26 per cent. of the market. Demand has increased more than 250-fold since March 1988 when uptake stood at less than 0.1 per cent.
Mr. Arbuthnot : Does my hon. Friend agree that that is extremely good progress, which has been partly brought on by this year's excellent Budget changes? How many more cars could be converted to take unleaded fuel?
Mr. Andrew Mitchell : Is my hon. Friend aware that in my constituency of Gedling only three garages were selling unleaded petrol at the start of the year, but now virtually every garage in my constituency sells it? Is not that a tribute both to the wisdom of using the market mechanism to achieve this important environmental objective, and to the wisdom, good sense and responsibility of my constituents?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : I have heard about my hon. Friend's campaign for unleaded petrol in his constituency and I am glad that he has succeeded. Throughout the country, unleaded fuel is available in about 80 per cent. of petrol stations.
Mrs. Margaret Ewing : We all welcome the large number of people who have transferred to unleaded petrol, but will the Minister accept that the price cut was an effective weapon in persuading them? If so, has he considered the possibility of persuading the Chancellor to introduce similar incentives to encourage people to buy ozone-friendly household goods such as furniture polish?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : Further tax changes are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but the hon. Lady is right to point to the success of the price difference of about 12p between leaded and unleaded petrol. The average motorist, who travels about 10,000 miles per year, will save £40 a year by using unleaded petrol, which is much more than the cost of adjusting the car.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Michael Howard) : The new schemes have been in operation for less than a year, but there are already encouraging signs--for example, more than £350 million has been invested in business expansion scheme companies letting homes on assured tenancies.
Mrs. Gorman : I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his reply. Does he agree that in the short term the new scheme is unlikely to do a lot to help young people who come into London looking for low-cost digs and end up sleeping on the streets? Is he aware of what happened in Sweden, where there were similar problems of a shortage of accommodation for young people? A conscious decision was taken to make new property coming on to the market
Column 981entirely free from restrictions. That has produced a flood of accommodation and, therefore, the Swedes have solved the problem without Government intervention or spending.
Mr. Howard : I do not share my hon. Friend's pessimism about the effect of the changes that the Government have already made. In particular, I hope that she will join me in publicising the extent to which last Session's Act, the Housing Act 1988, has made it easier for people to let rooms in their houses. Under the Act, the charge is purely a matter of agreement between the parties and when the lodger shares accommodation with the owner, the owner no longer needs a court order for repossession.
Mr. George Howarth : Does the Minister accept that the point made by his hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) is the opposite of the truth? No matter how much deregulation the Government bring into the rented housing market, the problems related to the expansion in that market lie elsewhere, as he well knows. How many additional units of rented accommodation does he expect to come on to the market in the next 12 months?
Mr. Howard : The business expansion scheme investment to which I referred could provide 6,000 to 7,000 extra properties. We are prepared to look at a range of initiatives to improve conditions in the housing market, unlike the hon. Gentleman and his party who are interested only in turning back the clock.
Mr. Ian Bruce : Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that many private owners of empty property are still put off renting it because they have heard the scare stories about people losing accommodation in the past due to the regulations brought in by Socialist Governments? Could we do more to publicise the excellent changes that we have made to the housing regulations to get so many empty properties back on the market?
Mr. Howard : I am certainly looking at the possibilities of giving additional publicity to the changes that have been made. It is a sad fact, as my hon. Friend so correctly points out, that the Opposition's only contribution to the debate has been an irresponsible one.
Mr. Soley : Given the decline of 500,000 homes for rent in the private rented sector since 1980, and given that the rate of decline in that sector has accelerated in the 1980s, can the Government explain why their policy has failed so consistently and has accelerated the decline? If not, will the Minister take a walk round to just opposite Downing street and talk to the Shelter workers and the people sleeping rough there, who will tell him what I have been telling him in the House for more than two years?
Mr. Howard : As I explained to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), the changes about which she has asked have been in force for less than a year. One cannot reverse long-seated trends in as short a time as that. When will the hon. Gentleman join us in looking at new initiatives to deal with the problem rather than adopting this negative attitude? The changes that his party would introduce, if it were ever returned to Government, would undoubtedly aggravate the problem.
5. Mr. Jack : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what has been the outcome of his recent discussions with representatives of the local authorities on the introduction of his recently announced amendments to the community charge arrangements.
The Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities (Mr. David Hunt) : Officials are discussing operational aspects of the community charge transitional relief scheme with the local authority associations. In addition, individual local authorities have been invited to make representations. In the light of the response from local government a paper setting out full details of the scheme will be issued shortly.
Mr. Jack : If Labour's control of Lancashire county council results in its exceeding his spending limits for next year while Conservative- controlled Fylde spends within its limits, would the county's action deny pensioners and other vulnerable groups the full benefit of the package of measures that he has just described?
Mr. Hunt : My hon. Friend raises a serious problem--that of the prudent district council and the spendthrift Labour county council, but I give him this pledge. I shall bring regulations before the House prescribing the form of the bill and that bill will make it absolutely clear to every chargepayer which council is the overspender.
Mr. Madden : As the Minister visits Bradford with the frequency of a revolving door, does he agree that it would be a disgrace if my constituents living on the Lower Grange estate had to pay the poll tax before Bradford council kept its promise to build new homes for rent on that estate? In the unlikely event of question No. 80 being reached, will the Minister give a commitment to agree to the grant so that those houses for rent can be built before he introduces his poll tax charges?
Mr. Stern : Does my hon. Friend agree that the most helpful transitional arrangement that he can discuss to overcome the despair of community charge payers in counties such as Avon is community charge capping?
Mr. Gould : Does the Minister agree with Mr. Roy Thomason, the Tory chairman of the Association of District Councils, that his notional average poll tax figure will lead to "false expectations"? Will he or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State undertake to revise that figure upwards when the Chancellor in his Autumn Statement concedes, as he must, that his inflation forecast was too low? If the Government persist in using the bogus figure, does he agree that the so-called safety net will not save many people from paying more than the £3 extra once the poll tax arrangements take effect?
Column 983charge payers who live in those local authority areas, who are having false expectations thrust on them by spendthrift Labour councils.
Mr. Holt : My hon. Friend will know that Cleveland has some of the highest rates in the country. When considering the arrangements, will he examine the possibility of putting law into practice so that the recommendations of the Audit Commission, which in Cleveland has identified savings of £307,000 in the highways department alone, will have the backing of law and will not be flouted by the
Labour-controlled Cleveland county council?
Mr. Hunt : My hon. Friend, with characteristic accuracy, has identified a serious problem. The independent Audit Commission has recognised that in addition to the savings that my hon. Friend has mentioned there exists for local government a savings potential of £900 million of which only £350 million has so far been brought into effect. That is the challenge presently facing Labour local government.
6. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement about what provisions for access to the countryside will be included in the proposed green Bill.
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. David Trippier) : The Government have stated their intention to legislate on a wide range of environmental issues as soon as parliamentary time allows, but it would be premature at this stage to confirm detailed proposals for the forthcoming Session.
Mr. Bennett : I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities. He will agree that may people enjoy walking as a leisure activity. However, over the past 20 years opportunities to get out into the countryside have been reduced because of house building, motorway extensions and other such matters. We need far more land to which people can gain access. Will the Government give careful consideration to including in the green Bill a walkers' charter which will allow people to have access to all mountain and moorland without having to go through the present complicated procedures?
Mr. Trippier : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his initial remarks. I welcome what he says and recognise that access to the countryside is an important recreational pursuit. We have asked the rights of way review committee to examine certain proposals that the hon. Gentleman has discussed with my colleagues in the Department. They will report by the end of the year and we hope to take the matter forward. I also welcome initiatives that are being taken by the Countryside Commission to try to draw together the sometimes conflicting interests of land owners and land users.
Mr. Knapman : Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that the man on the Clapham omnibus has no more reason for walking around the average farm than the average farmer has for walking around the back garden of No. 879 Tottenham Court road?
Column 984That is precisely why I welcome the initiative taken by the Countryside Commission in relation to the setting up of local liaison groups to reconcile the differences between the two. Conciliation and not confrontation is by far the best way to resolve the dispute over rights of way.
Ms. Short : The Minister must know that the Countryside Commission and people throughout the country are desperately worried that some of our most beautiful land will be disposed of after water privatisation. What does he intend to do to protect our rights to use that land?
Mr. Trippier : I reject the hon. Lady's suggestion. We went to enormous lengths to introduce into the Water Act 1989 powers to ensure de facto access to water authority land. Water authorities have an excellent record for providing for that kind of public access and the Act has carried forward and improved those duties.
Mrs. Gorman : Will my hon. Friend confirm that far from our country being covered in housing as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) suggested, 87 per cent. of the south-east of England is still green land or green belt, and the percentage in other parts of the country is much greater? The Conservative party is doing all in its power to preserve that situation.
Mr. Trippier : I welcome the opportunity to confirm that since the Government came to power in 1979, the extent of the green belt has more than doubled, and this is widely welcomed. I give my assurance that the Government are committed to continue to protect public access to the countryside, through any means possible, but principally through rights of way.
7. Mr. Simon Hughes : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress was made towards the adoption of a Communitywide eco-labelling system at the meeting of Ministers on 19 September.
Mr. Hughes : Is the Secretary of State aware that there is some danger that in their rush to appear environment friendly, retailers are either over general or misrepresenting in their labelling, as manifested by a sign that I saw outside a garage in Southwold in Suffolk when I was on my holiday, which said, "Environmentally free food for sale"? Given that we need accurate information, can the Secretary of State assure us that the Government will take the view that we need specific rather than general information, and that it should be substantiated by fact, and that the Government will not continue their opposition to the inclusion of food and drink in the system of European Communitywide eco-labelling?
Mr. Patten : As the hon. Gentleman will concede, the consumer can move forward the environment cause far more effectively in many ways than regulation is able to do, although regulation also has its part to play. We put out a consultation document in the summer, and we are looking at the responses to that. We have also suggested,
Column 985which I am sure is right, that we should have an eco-labelling scheme on a Communitywide basis, particularly with the single market in 1992. It is important to protect people from the rip- offs to which the hon. Gentleman referred. As to whether food and drink should be included, there are, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, initiatives covering organic food. In the next few weeks, we shall be discussing whether we should go beyond that.
Ms. Quin : Will the Secretary of State confirm that while it would be a good idea to get European agreement on an environmental labelling scheme, there is nothing to prevent the Government from introducing one here as early as possible, along the lines of those in West Germany and Canada? Is it not essential to do something along these lines quickly? Otherwise, consumers will continue to be conned by bogus green claims.
Mr. Patten : I agree with both the points that the hon. Lady has made. We want to get ahead with the scheme, but if we can have a Europewide scheme, so much the better. We need to deal with bogus schemes. There are some criticisms made of the German scheme--for example, that it does not take matters from cradle to grave--but it has set the pace in many ways.
Mrs. Ewing : Has the Secretary of State considered meeting CAND-- Caithness Against Nuclear Dumping--an environmentally conscious group? Will he take congnisance of the fact that yesterday, the people of Caithness voted three to one against nuclear waste being stored at Dounreay, thereby ensuring that the people, the district council and the regional council all come out on the same side of the argument? Will he take a more positive attitude than that of Nirex and recognise that the views of the people are ultimately the most important aspect of this debate?
Mr. Patten : I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland meets many groups, that he has met many of the individuals referred to by the hon. Lady, and that he has given them effective and robust answers.
Mr. Squire : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his announced willingness to meet a considerable range of environmental groups. Does he agree that his critical role is to ensure that the environmental option is considered in each and every decision, rather than that it should invariably be the option adopted when sometimes other issues will overtake that issue and so make it better for it not to be adopted?
Column 986increasingly aware of the environmental impact of every decision that we make both as a Government and as individual consumers. To that extent it is obvious that a sensible environment policy does not stop at the front door of the Department of the Environment. It affects all Government Departments, and that is something to which we shall be drawing attention in our White Paper next year.
Mr. Morley : How does the Secretary of State react to criticisms from environment groups about the Government's reaction to the conference in Holland on global warming? Other European countries are willing to accept target limits for a reduction in emissions from cars, factories and power stations but the British Government, along with the United States, have refused to join other European countries in dealing with the matter. Does this not give the claim that the Government are leading the campaign on global warming a somewhat bogus front?
Mr. Patten : The hon. Gentleman's supplementary question might have been difficult to answer if it had been based on the truth. We accepted emission targets at the Netherlands conference. My hon. Friend the Minister of State played a leading role in brokering a consensus on emission targets at the conference, and he deserves the congratulations of the House rather than uninformed criticism.
Mr. Andrew MacKay : When my right hon. Friend meets environment groups, does he find that they share the views of my constituents that he was wise to say that planning considerations should be left to democratically elected local authorities and should find their way to his desk and the desks of his inspectors only as a last resort?
Mr. Patten : It remains one of my ambitions to take fewer planning decisions myself. I want to see local planning authorities taking decisions as far as possible. Obviously they need to take account of regional and national interests when they are drawing up local plans for example.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Colin Moynihan) : No representations have been received specificallyconcerning the River Soar within the city of Leicester. However, a total of 44 representations have been received as a result of advertisements by Severn Trent Water of applications for time-limited discharge consents for certain sewage treatment works which discharge into the Soar upstream of Leicester. These are to allow the completion of capital improvement schemes to raise effluent quality standards.
Mr. Janner : Is the Minister aware that the River Soar, which runs through my constituency and our beautiful Abbey park is becoming an eyesore? Does he understand that it is clogged with weeds, mud and filth? Will he as a rower, albeit a cox, appreciate the complaints that have been made by Leicester rowing club, fishermen and boatmen and by the general public about the state of the river? Will he take steps to have it cleaned up now?
Mr. Moynihan : I am sure that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) knows all about cyprinid waters. He will inform the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) that as a result of this it is recognised to be a fine, pure river and one that has extremely effective coarse fishing that is among the best in Europe, and is designated as such by the European Commission.
Mr. Trippier : We propose to increase the maximum fine for littering under the Litter Act 1983 from £400 to £1,000. We propose also to allow district and borough councils to operate fixed penalty schemes for littering, similar to that currently operating exclusively in Westminster.
Mr. Walker : I thank my hon. Friend for the information that he has given the House. I and others, I am sure, will welcome the increase in fines. Does he agree with me that there is no question but that Britain has become a filthy, mucky place where public places are like rubbish tips? The increase in fines is a long overdue measure and we welcome it. Will he consider extending the Westminster scheme in a way that would enable traffic wardens and others to exercise the powers that it provides? In that way we would restrict more thoroughly the activities of litter louts.
Mr. Trippier : Until litter louts can be persuaded to give up their dirty, inconsiderate and unsocial behaviour, the problem will remain. That is precisely why we are introducing legislation that will include very tough proposals to deal with the problem. We are also hoping to replicate the example set by the City of Westminster so that local authorities can appoint litter wardens, who will be responsible for fixed penalty fines.
Ms. Armstrong : Are not local authorities concerned about the way in which the Government are tackling the problem? Would it not be much better to enable local authorities to employ people in villages for example who could work with the local people to prevent the dropping of litter and to ensure that the whole area is cleaned? Have not the Government caused part of the problem because they have cut the resources of local authorities so that they have had to sack those who could have done the job?
Mr. Trippier : I wholly reject the hon. Lady's suggestion. I could take her to two local authorities in the north that are both controlled by the Labour party, but where the difference in their efficiency and their attitude towards litter collection is absolutely stark. Unless many local authorities take a different attitude, the position will not improve.
I could make some suggestions about areas in which local authorities could save resources. Many of them would do well to abandon their wasteful expenditure on campaigns and nuclear-free zone signs and instead concentrate more on litter-free zones.