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Mr. Tracey : Has my hon. Friend considered the low fines imposed for dropping litter? Is he aware that the heaviest possible measures that the Government might take would be welcomed by the public and would encourage magistrates to impose heavy fines?
Mr. Trippier : I welcome my hon. Friend's comments. I hope that magistrates will take note of the growing public anger about litter when they are considering imposing fines. Paltry fines will send out the wrong message.
Mr. Gould : Are not the filthy streets and the litter-strewn public places, which are now the daily depressing experience of millions of people, in many ways the most visible evidence of what has gone wrong in Thatcherite Britain? Does the Minister understand that that malaise will not be cured by silly slogans or fiddling with fines? Unless the Government provide real resources so that local authorities can tackle the job, the Minister might as well take his green Bill and bag it and bin it.
Mr. Trippier : I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. I am sure that I speak for all my colleagues in saying that I hope that he remains an Opposition spokesman for a very long time.
It is interesting that there have been two questions about resources for local authorities. Is it not amazing that Westminster, Canterbury and the London boroughs of Sutton and Wandsworth are showing that determination coupled with efficiency can produce excellent results within existing budgets? I give notice to the hon. Gentleman that during the passage of the so-called green Bill, I shall be looking to him for 100 per cent. support. He will ignore that caution at his peril.
Mr. Hill : As my hon. Friend has explained that some local authorities are not dealing with the litter problem, should there not be a reverse system of fines? Not only the public but local authorities do not fulfil their duties. It is often the case, especially in the south coast resorts, that local authorities do not empty the litter bins. Should there not be a system of fines for local authorities and, perhaps, even a list of the worst offenders?
Mr. Trippier : I am glad to say that I can give my hon. Friend the comfort that he seeks. We shall introduce powers in the forthcoming legislation which will allow any individual citizen or collection of individuals to take the local authority to court if they are not satisfied with the standard of cleanliness in its area and that is precisely what my hon. Friend is asking for.
12. Mr. Alton : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many prosecutions have been initiated this year against companies responsible for pollution ; and what is the total of fines imposed.
Mr. Trippier : Information on prosecutions in respect of offences under legislation controlling polluting activity is published annually in the Digest of Environmental Protection and Water Statistics and other sources. Comprehensive information for 1989 is not yet available centrally. I understand, however, that since one regulatory agency, the National Rivers Authority, fully assumed its
Column 989responsibilities on 1 September this year, 53 court cases in relation to pollution offences have been heard and 83 similar cases are pending.
Mr. Alton : If the principle is that the polluter should pay, does the Minister agree that the fines that have been imposed during the past decade, and the number of prosecutions, have been derisory? Does the Minister agree that it is not right to allow 200 companies to pollute the River Mersey? That is crazy. For example, Shell recently discharged 150 tonnes of crude oil into the River Mersey. Does he agree that his Department should have initiated a public inquiry? The failure to do that showed that, in the face of big companies, although the Department talks green, they haul up the white flag.
Mr. Trippier : I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's earlier comments. That is why we are toughening up legislation in the forthcoming green Bill and the powers we are giving to Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution. We are also giving greater powers to local authorities. I am sure that they will assume them responsibly.
The hon. Gentleman is sorry that we did not have a public inquiry, but I remind him that we had a full investigation by the Department of Energy and a full investigation by the National Rivers Authority, which decided to take legal action against Shell. I understand that, from Monday, the case has been transferred to Liverpool Crown court. Those are tougher measures than a public inquiry. In addition to that, Professor Bradshaw, an eminent scientist and expert in nature conservation from Liverpool university will study the effects of oil spillages, not only on the Mersey but in a wider brief. We shall all learn from that study. The combination of those three measures is effective and, in many ways tougher than the measures the hon. Gentleman is suggesting to the House.
Mr. Brazier : Can my hon. Friend confirm that the Government have implemented the bulk of the clauses relating to water pollution in the Control of Pollution Act 1974, in sharp contrast to the last Labour Government which introduced the law and did nothing with it?
Mr. Loyden : Is the Minister aware that people on Merseyside felt that the Government's action, or inaction, over the pollution of the River Mersey by an oil spill left a lot to be desired? Should we not congratulate the local government workers who responded immediately to that problem and who probably reduced the effect of what must be the worst environmental problem that Britain has faced since the Secretary of State came into office? I was surprised that the Secretary of State did not make himself available on day one to make a proper assessment of the situation on the Mersey, and I have to agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), who said that the oil company ought to pay the maximum amount of money necessary for clearing up the oil spillage for the damage and for the money that has already been spent on cleaning up the Mersey basin.
Mr. Trippier : I would be the first to compliment not only the local authorities--both elected representatives and officers--but the workers, whom I had the opportunity of meeting, who cleaned up the oil spillage caused by the fracture of the pipe owned by Shell. Their work was very efficient.
Two Ministers of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt) and myself, paid speedy visits to the site. As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, we were effective in bringing about Professor Bradshaw's inquiry. As a result of the spillage, the National Rivers Authority decided to take the action that has now put Shell in court. I do not know what more the Government could have done : we responded very positively.
Mr. Winnick : What about allowing local authorities, in financial terms, to build council houses? Is it not the case that more people will be homeless this Christmas than at any time since the end of the war? Are not the Minister and the Secretary of State disgusted that so many people should be living in squalid accommodation, homeless--or virtually homeless- -in bed-and-breakfast dwellings? That state of affairs arises directly from Government policy.
Mr. Howard : Planned public spending on housing this year and over the next two years amounts to nearly £13 billion. Of course we are aware of the problems, and we are mounting a tremendous effort to overcome them.
Mr. William Powell : Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that the figures that he has announced are marvellous news for the country as a whole, as well as for those who purchase their council houses? Is he aware that there are still many thousands of people with applications in the pipeline who are looking forward to purchasing their homes as soon as they can, and that the trend is accelerating in many parts of the country?
Mr. O'Brien : I have noted the Minister's replies. Will he enlighten the House, however, by telling us how many houses will be built for rent this year? Will he take note of the requests from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Association of District Councils, housing associations and Shelter, which have said that there is a shortage of houses for rent? Will he allow local authorities to use their receipts from the sale of council houses to build
Column 991houses which can be let at an affordable rent, so that the waiting lists can be shortened and homeless people can be accommodated?
Mr. Howard : Some 2 million additional houses have been built over the past 10 years. The budget of the Housing Corporation, on planned figures, will increase by about 60 per cent. over the next three years, and the resources generally to be made available--as I have just said--amount to some £13 billion over this and the next two years. That will enable a large number of houses to be built to deal with the problems to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.
Mr. Moynihan : My hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning anounced a major new capital investment programme over the next 10 years designed to improve our drinking water, to renew sewers and sewage treatment works and to clean up our beaches.
Mr. Carttiss : My constituency has enjoyed the advantages of a private-enterprise water supply company for the past 150 years. Does my hon. Friend agree that the promising prospect of future investment is possible because of the financial framework that the water industry will have after privatisation? Will he confirm that the much brighter future water investment picture contrasts sharply with the savage cuts in investment made by the last Labour Government?
Mr. Moynihan : I confirm what my hon. Friend has said. As he will be aware, the 10-year investment programme secures compliance with the regulatory requirements taken into account when setting price limits. It provides a secure framework for achieving service objectives and it will allow the water industry to maintain and extend the operating capability of relevant assets.
Mrs. Ann Taylor : Will the Minister confirm that the announcements made in the summer about debt write-off and the so-called green dowry mean that taxpayers will be net losers to the tune of £1.3 billion in the water sell-off? Does this not mean that 10 years of Conservative Government have left the water industry in such a precarious position that the Government have had to provide the largest bribe ever to get the industry off their hands?
Mr. Moynihan : The statistics and factors that the hon. Lady brought before the House are not a fair comparison. She will be aware that the Government's 10-year investment programme of £24.6 billion will be a major boon to all customers, not least because they will be aware that only last week the Labour party announced its prospectus estimate of £22 billion. Customers will receive better service, more environmental safeguards and improvements, better sewage treatment facilities and improved bathing water quality. The public would be sold short by the Labour party by £2.6 billion.
Column 992will he bear in mind the almost unanimous opposition of the people of Tyneside to its proposal to build a toxic waste plant at Howdon in the middle of a built-up area? Will he bear in mind that any such proposal should be deleted from the investment programme?
Mr. Moynihan : My hon. Friend has worked assiduously on this issue on behalf of his constituents. The Tyne and Wear development corporation refused planning permission for a sewage sludge industrial waste incinerator at Howdon on 11 September. The applicants, Northumbria Water and the International Technology Corporation, have the right of appeal to the Secretary of State against the refusal of planning permission. I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that in the circumstances I cannot comment on the proposal, but I understand fully that it has caused considerable local anxiety. That anxiety has been brought to the attention of the House and of the Ministers responsible, mainly by my hon. Friend's assiduous work.
Under-Secretary of State in another place on 11 October.
Mr. Fearn : Does the Minister agree that further modification is needed for people living in sheltered accommodation? If such people still have property, they will be liable for the poll tax in two places, unless the 12-month limit is applied to them. Who will pay the poll tax? Will such people pay twice?
Mr. Hunt : The hon. Gentleman will know that on the standard community charge, we recently announced that local authorities will not only have discretion over which class is subject to which multiplier, but will be able to separate within a class for different types of property. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question lies with the local authorities.
Mr. David Shaw : Does my hon. Friend agree that the modifications that he has made to the way in which the community charge will operate will make it a wonderful new system for the elderly and disabled, particularly the blind?
Mr. Hunt : I am very pleased to be able to announce to the House that, following representations that have been made to me by my right hon. and hon. Friends, disabled people will be singled out under the transitional relief arrangements for special treatment and that we have decided that the test should not only be receipt of one of the recognised disability benefits but that it should also include all people who are registered blind.
Mr. Salmond : Can the Minister explain why it is that although the Government have been imposing this iniquitous poll tax on the Scottish people during the last eight months and have been meeting massive resistance from the population, it was only when English
Column 993Conservative Back Benchers started to squeal about their seats and their majorities that they decided to introduce these panicky changes to the poll tax regulations?
Mr. Hunt : If the hon. Gentleman would give my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland the opportunity, I am sure that he would welcome the chance to explain to the hon. Gentleman how well the community charge is going down in Scotland.
Column 994green belt, in contradistinction to the propaganda that I hear outside the House, according to which one would have thought that the amount of green belt was falling instead of increasing. That said, will my hon. Friend look favourably on any application that he receives from Humberside county council for green belt status, particularly against the background of my constituency of Beverley which now resembles a large building site?
Mr. Moynihan : I am aware that Humberside county council is discussing the idea with the districts concerned in my hon. Friend's constituency. Subject to the outcome of the discussions, the county council may decide to publish a draft structure plan alteration formally launching the green belt proposal in the spring of next year. My hon. Friend knows that the Department has no formal standing in the matter. I am sure that he appreciates that I cannot express any view at the Dispatch Box today on the merits of the proposal, since that might prejudice my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's position, should a structure plan alteration come formally before him for consideration.
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