Mr. Secretary Rifkind presented a Bill to confirm a Provisional Order under the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act 1936, relating to British Railways (to be presented under Section 7 of the Act) ; And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be considered upon 30 January and to be printed. [Bill 64.]
Mr. King : It does, Mr. Speaker. Today's Order Paper shows that there are to be questions to the Prime Minister at 3.15 pm. Is that an innovation--which my right hon. and hon. Friends would welcome, but which would terrify the Opposition--or simply a misprint?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory) : The EPT scheme supports research into technology, which will lead to higher environmental standards. We have decided to extend it to include aspects of recycling, which is a fundamental part of our policy to conserve resources and minimise pollution.
Mr. Bruce : I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent reply and the news that recycling will feature heavily in the scheme. The Environmental Protection Bill will encourage local councils to become involved in recycling. My hon. Friend is aware of the problems at Lodmoor near Weymouth where methane is leaking from landfill sites because waste disposal was not dealt with properly in years gone by. Both the local council and the county council are planning to spend community charge payers' money on recycling. Will my hon. Friend assure me that proper funding will be provided, particularly in view of the revenue support grant that is available this year?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : The Environmental Protection Bill requires waste collection authorities to draw up recycling plans and to report on them. Local authorities will not themselves be required to undertake recycling, and I hope that private sector companies will perform the work that my hon. Friend mentioned. We acknowledge the need to encourage the use of recycled products so that the process can be economical.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : We intend to include in the EPT scheme research into plastics recycling. It is partly a problem of better collection and sorting, but research is needed also into the use of plastic products. We want to put money behind good research that will help to increase the present low percentage of use.
Mr. David Martin : Does my hon. Friend agree that environmental protection must be seen increasingly in an international context? As I understand that the European Environment Agency is looking for a home, will my hon. Friend promote the interests of Portsmouth as its location? Portsmouth has excellent links to the continent through its ferry port and roads, which would make it an ideal base for the agency.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : Portsmouth would be a strong candidate, but we have chosen Cambridge as the candidate site that we are promoting to the European Commission. We hope very much that the agency will be sited in this country.
Ms. Walley : Everyone welcomes any recycling initiative, but does not the Minister acknowledge that there is no substitute for a national recycling plan? Will he have regard to the glut of recycled material collected by local authorities? Does he agree that there are at times more important matters than plain market forces, to consider--such as concern for the environment?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : Hasty interference in the market has led to a glut of low-grade waste paper. Subsidies and mandatory recycling in West Germany and in certain American states have led to an oversupply of low- grade waste paper. We are anxious to match that supply with increased demand. The American experience shows that interference before planning has the opposite effect.
Mr. Steen : I am sure that the Minister is aware that we are very conservation minded in south Devon, and that a large number of voluntary groups are collecting litter and paper. Will he explain what help the Government will give them so that they do not collect paper that nobody wants to use, thereby allowing the cutting down of more trees in the tropical rain forests?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : I acknowledge the excellent work on recycling that my hon. Friend does. He refers to the glut of low-grade waste paper. I am aware that three investment schemes are in progress to improve the use of and increase the demand for waste paper. I shall draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary
Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs to his points.
2. Mr. Cox : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the most recent survey undertaken by his Department as to the number of homeless people living rough on the streets of London ; and if he will make a statement.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Michael Spicer) : The most recent count of rough sleepers in London was carried out last year by the department of psychology at the university of Surrey for the Salvation Army. It reported 753 people sleeping rough on the streets of 17 boroughs.
Mr. Cox : Is the Minister aware that that is a deplorable reply? A known problem is worsening month by month, and he says that the most recent survey was last year. Does he read the reports of the Salvation Army and the London housing unit, which outline the enormity of the problem? It has been caused directly by the Government--by the lack of low-rent accommodation and the cutting of benefits to those most in need. Instead of the supposed voice of concern, when will we hear from Ministers about real action to end this scandal in London and many other parts of Britain?
Mr. Spicer : Of course, we accept the seriousness of the problem of the number of people sleeping rough. We have already earmarked £250 million to relieve the problem of the homeless, and that will release some hostel space for people sleeping rough. As a matter of urgency, we are considering further steps to solve this serious problem.
Sir George Young : Is my hon. Friend aware how much we welcome his appointment and wish him well in his new responsibilities? Does he agree that a vigorous extension of the tenants' incentive scheme, to enable council tenants living in cities to move out and to buy their own home, would enable many homeless people currently living in bed and breakfast accommodation to be rehoused within 12 months? Will he confirm that that scheme will have high priority in his approach to dealing with the problem?
Mr. Spicer : I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. The thrust of our policies is to ensure that, first, new homes are built and, secondly, that they are owned by the people who live in them. We have a multitude of schemes for converting tenancy into ownership. That is a combination that will help to solve this serious problem.
Mr. Nellist : Is the Minister aware that, in addition to his own Department not carrying out surveys, it took the Home Office six months-- from July to December last year--to write to me to explain that it does not collect statistics, except a year or a year and a half in arrears, on the number of young people who are being prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act 1824, for homelessness on the streets of London? Does it not behove his Department and the Home Office to organise the statistical collection of information that I get week after week from barristers at the Horseferry road magistrates court, which is only 300 yd from this building, and from elsewhere in London? The evidence shows that every week more teenagers are being prosecuted for lack of money and for sleeping rough on the streets of London. When will the Minister get the facts?
Column 876are difficult to come by because of the nature of the problem. There is no disagreement between the two sides of the House about the seriousness of the matter. There is no question about that. The issue is how we are to solve the problem, and we are urgently applying our minds to that.
Mr. Spicer : It seems that a growing number of young people form part of the increasing population who are sleeping rough. It is certainly part of our policy to do as my hon. Friend suggests and encourage them to go home, and among the first things that the voluntary organisations do are to ask them why they left home and to try to persuade them to return.
3. Ms. Ruddock : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will consider linking grant rates to a definition of affordability of housing based on an agreed percentage of disposable income ; and if he will make a statement.
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Chris Patten) : Landlords who provide rented housing with the help of public subsidy are already expected to charge rents within the reach of those in low-paid employment, and are best placed to decide what such rents should be.
Ms. Ruddock : I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but it is wholly inadequate. Last year the Government forced the providers of such public housing--housing associations--to put up their rents by 24 per cent., thus compelling them to abandon the very goals that the right hon. Gentleman has just reiterated. Public housing rents are now forcing people into poverty.
Mr. Patten : I am not sure that the hon. Lady's propositions are entirely correct. As I believe she knows, the rates of grant for housing association schemes are aimed broadly at enabling housing associations to set rents that comply with the tenants' guarantee. We wish to stand by that guarantee, as do the Housing Corporation and housing associations, so that the accommodation that they provide is within reach of those in low-income employment.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, with the present generous system of housing benefit for those in need, low rents do nothing to help those with housing problems? What is more, do not Labour councils that are engaging in what might be called a rent holiday with the approach of the district council elections care less about housing problems than about gaining votes in those elections?
Mr. Patten : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's last point : such conduct demonstrates the irresponsibility of some Labour authorities. As my hon. Friend implied, housing benefit covers any increases in rents and, as he knows, we are currently spending more than £5 billion on housing benefits.
Column 877Mr. Soley : The Secretary of State is not only complacent but ill-informed. That is probably why the turnover of Ministers responsible for housing has now reached a rate of more than one a year. Assuming that the present Minister remains in his post for long enough before being evicted, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that housing association rents went up by 24 per cent. last year? No one disputes that figure--except, apparently, the Secretary of State. If the Government really care about housing problems and homelessness, when will they get their act together and adopt a housing policy that delivers homes at prices that people can afford, whether for rent or for sale?
Mr. Patten : We have been fortunate in having a succession of excellent Ministers responsible for housing, although it would be invidious for me to suggest that each has been better than his or her predecessor. I am sure that my hon. Friend the current Minister is as delighted as I am that we are now set to double the Housing Corporation's programme, and that the money going to the housing associations is to increase twofold over the next three years.
Mr. Patten : It seems that the Opposition are opaque not only about their housing policies but about some of their other policies, particularly those on local government finance. They all wait avidly for the next appearance of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) in the television studios so that they can learn something about Opposition policies.
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. David Trippier) : Damage to property by graffiti--whether caused by spray paint or otherwise--is already an offence under the Criminal Damage Act 1971, attracting a possible maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment. However, the scourge of graffiti will be removed permanently only when it is brought home to those responsible that their activities are unacceptable. The role of parents and schools in this educative process is clearly of the utmost importance.
Mr. Ashton : The Minister is blaming everyone else. What does he intend to do to prevent the walls in practically every city in Britain being covered by disgusting graffiti? The Minister said nothing about that. First, why does he not introduce a simple law that would prevent paint spray cans being sold to people under 18? Secondly, why does he not introduce a law that would oblige people buying paint spray cans to give their name and address to the shop? The police could then easily trace them when graffiti appeared on walls in the neighbourhood. Simple measures such as that would deter children--it is children, not adults--from doing this. The way to deter them is not by Acts of Parliament.
Mr. Trippier : I share the hon. Gentleman's views about what is clearly a disgusting habit, but he is being uncharacteristically unfair when he says that we are not doing anything about it. I have heard some of his suggestions before. I do not believe that they would be all that effective. They would be extremely difficult to enforce, particularly the taking of names and addresses. That would place an unduly onerous burden on shopkeepers. Many thousands of paint spray cans are sold for legitimate use every year. It is doubtful whether offenders could be tracked down. The House should acknowledge that the Department of the Environment is spending a sizeable amount of money, through its estate action programme, on helping to combat graffiti on rundown council estates. Under the urban programme, we are spending more than £500,000 on anti-graffiti and anti-vandalism projects.
Mr. Summerson : Will my hon. Friend consider using his good offices to persuade the manufacturers of paint spray cans to institute a recycling system? That would be much better than the Romanian idea put across by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton).
Mr. Michael Spicer : We are committed to discussing with local authority associations a thorough overhaul of the "rules" of local connection. It is for local authorities to put forward their views on the most appropriate arrangements.
Mr. Skinner : I hardly dare ask whether the Minister is aware that, whatever rule changes are made with regard to local connection, they will be insignificant compared with the need for a massive public sector housebuilding programme throughout Britain. When the Minister goes to the Strand and sees people living in cardboard boxes, he will understand the reality of the past 10 years of running down the housebuilding programme. There are millions of bricks in stock, thousands of building workers ready to be employed and millions of homeless people. One does not need to be a Pythagoras to put the three together.
Mr. Spicer : The hon. Gentleman and I have been sparring over coal matters for many years. He seems to be as wrong about this subject as he is about coal. A massive increase in funds is going through the Housing Corporation to housing associations. That will double the rate of build by those associations during the next two years. The hon. Gentleman is right that shelter must be provided. That is precisely what the Government are doing by means of a panoply of policies that affect both the private and the public sector. As those policies affect the private as well as the public sector, the hon. Gentleman ignores them.
Mr. David Evans : Does my hon. Friend agree that there is sufficient housing accommodation in London to accommodate 10 times the number of homeless people there? The long-term homeless have turned their back on
Column 879society. Young offenders should be the responsibility of their parents, not of this Government. The Government have done quite enough for the homeless. I hope that they will spend no more money on them.
Mr. Spicer : My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the problem of homelessness goes much deeper than Opposition Members seem to imply. It has to do, for instance, with the relationship between parents and their children, as my hon. Friend said. It is also an international problem ; one of the countries in which it is rife is Denmark. The problem has been in existence for years. I was involved 25 years ago in the setting up of Crisis at Christmas, so homelessness has been with us for a long time. It is a great problem and it will be a great challenge to solve it.
Mr. Tony Banks : Is the Minister aware that homelessness goes no deeper than the fact that there are not enough homes at affordable prices for people who desperately need them? One does not need a degree in housing administration to work that out. Will the hon. Gentleman take note of the fact that in the mid-1970s local authorities in London were building about 25,000 units of accommodation a year, whereas last year they built fewer than 2,000? That is the problem of homelessness : the homes are not being built. Will the Minister assure us that the Department will carry out a full survey of homelessness in London? As he is new to his job, will he take up the offer made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and go out to the streets of London to see this critical problem?
Mr. Spicer : The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised, perhaps, to know that one of the first things that I did in my new job was to go out to see the problem on the streets, as he might have expected of me. Part of the homelessness problem has been caused by the tremendous mismanagement by councils of their estates throughout the country, which has resulted in uninhabitable properties being empty. That is one of the reasons why we are spending £250 million to upgrade those properties--that is a contribution to solving the homelessness problem.
6. Mr. Franks : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to announce a decision concerning the appeal by Thomas Brown of Whinfield farm, Pennington, regarding the revocation by Cumbria county council of his waste disposal licence, lodged in summer 1988.
Mr. Trippier : Written representations have been completed on this appeal, lodged on 16 September 1988, and an official from the Department will make a site visit on 20 February. The Secretary of State hopes to be able to determine the appeal once he has received the site visit report.
Mr. Franks : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having taken a personal interest in this matter since I tabled the question. I am sure that he will agree, if only in private, that it is not only unsatisfactory, but an utter disgrace that it has taken 18 months for the Department to arrange a routine site inspection on a routine appeal. Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity provided by this question, and
Column 880by others tabled by hon. Members on both sides of the House, to look at the appeals procedure, which is the weakest part of the planning process?
Mr. Trippier : I am prepared to go further than my hon. Friend expects me to, in that I am prepared to say publicly that I think the delay wholly unacceptable. I am grateful to him for drawing this matter to my attention. There is certainly enormous pressure on staff time, but, as a result of my hon. Friend drawing this matter to my attention, I shall ensure that the process is speeded up.
representations? Vacancies are running at about 20 per cent. across professional grades ; there is low morale and poor recruitment ; and about 32 staff, compared with Holland's 1,000, are dealing with air pollution. So how does the Minister expect us to believe that the Government are serious about tackling pollution?
Mr. Trippier : It was the Government's idea to set up the inspectorate in the first place and we are very proud of that. The inspectorate of pollution is a powerful agency, set up by us and staffed by talented and highly dedicated people who are committed to ensuring better protection of the environment. It is very sad that the hon. Gentleman should seek to devalue the currency of that. It is true that there are vacancies now, but as I told the first sitting of the Standing Committee considering the Environmental Protection Bill yesterday, whatever resources HMIP needs to do its job it will have. We have been short of applications for the vacancies, but in the past we have been short of people who were up to the necessary quality to fill the vacancies. We have an accelerated recruitment programme, which we hope will end by February, by when I hope to be able to tell the House that we have filled the vacancies.
Mrs. Ann Taylor : Will the Minister expand on his statement in Committee yesterday that whatever resources HMIP requires in future will be available? Will he confirm that that has been cleared with the Treasury, and will the same resources be allocated to local authorities, which under part I of the Bill, will share responsibility with HMIP?
Mr. Trippier : The recruitment of local authority staff is not the responsibility of the Department of the Environment or any other Department. Several local authorities would have much to say if we were so to
Column 881interfere. I think that the hon. Lady prepared her supplementary question prior to hearing my substantive answer to the question on the Order Paper. I clearly said that HMIP will be given whatever resources it needs to do its job.
Mr. Adley : Will my hon. Friend confirm that noise is one of the problems being considered under the Environmental Protection Bill? Will he further confirm that the Department of Transport appears heavily to have censored the content of the Bill, and will he take this opportunity, if I am wrong, to deny that it has insisted that aircraft noise be excluded from consideration?
Mr. Trippier : It is true that we have set up a committee to study noise and that we shall consider certain aspects of noise pollution under the Environmental Protection Bill. The Department of Transport is reviewing aircraft noise. Whether it will be involved in considerations prior to the White Paper is another matter.
The Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities (Mr. David Hunt) : A public information campaign is currently taking place. It is designed to ensure that as many as possible of the 10 million people who could be helped through the payment of community charge benefit, and of the 6 million people who could be helped through the provision of transitional relief, know whether they need to apply in order to receive such help.
Mr. Nellist : Is the Minister aware that no matter how much the Department spends on television advertisements, such as the pensioner telling her dog "Flash" about so-called community charge benefit, the reality is that 1 million people in Scotland are not paying the poll tax? They are likely to be joined in April by millions more in England and Wales [Hon. Members :-- "Including Labour Members?"] Yes, including more than 30 of my hon. Friends. The Minister may think that the battle ended last Thursday with the containment of a few Tory rebels, but, in the words of Ronald Reagan, "He ain't seen nothing yet."
Mr. Hunt : I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman will carefully reflect on what he has just said. He is in a position of authority by virtue of his membership of this honourable House. Will he reflect on the fact that by his action his constituents will have to pay a higher community charge so that he and his cronies can have a free ride?
Mr. Squire : Is my hon. Friend aware that I have a press release from the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) which mentions up to 30 Labour Members of Parliament joining a mass non-payment campaign? Will he accept that those of us who have always been agnostic about the community charge have never suggested that we support non-payment? We fully represent and recognise Parliament's standing in passing laws. Will my hon. Friend join me in recognising that any campaign to encourage the
Column 882non-payment of taxes can only be in the worst interests of this country and, above all, can only reflect badly on the Labour party?
Mr. Hunt : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The privilege of membership of this mother of Parliaments confers on us not only rights and privileges but also duties and responsibilities. The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) sets a very bad example to the country in seeking to urge others not to pay as well as saying that he will not himself pay the community charge. It is, however, very much a matter for the Labour party, and I urge the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) and his colleagues to join me in condemning the hon. Gentleman.
Given the Secretary of State's admission last Thursday that the standard spending assessment system on which local authorities' assessment of need is based is inadequate, given that the distribution system was admitted to be flawed and in need of revision for next year and given the undisputed fact that poll tax figures in at least two thirds of local authorities will be somewhere in the region of £60 to £100 above the Government's target figures, will the Minister stop blaming local government and admit that the £3 so-called ceiling on increases is a myth and that the transition system which is being publicised is, therefore, unacceptably flawed when it comes to what people will get? Will he redirect our money away from propaganda and towards telling people the truth?
Mr. Hunt : I greatly regret that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) did not take this early opportunity of criticising his hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East and of making it clear that his hon. Friend would get no support from him.
As regards the hon. Gentleman's other points, we made it clear in the debate, and I made it clear to the Association of District Councils yesterday, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are perfectly prepared to look at any new evidence that councils wish to adduce as to why their position under the standard spending assessment should be improved. That remains our position. It is now a fact, however, that as the last piece of the jigsaw goes in and every council in the country knows the amount of external finance that it will receive, the level of the community charge is now up to every council to decide.
Sir Dudley Smith : Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that many well- conducted councils face a tremendously above-average increase in the community charge? After this first year, will he please go into the whole question of the grant formula to see whether councils can be more fairly treated?
Mr. Hunt : I agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith) is an effective lobbyist on behalf of his area and the Warwickshire county council. I reiterate that we shall look at any new evidence that he seeks to adduce as to why the standard spending asessment in Warwickshire does not reflect the county's actual needs, but I remind him that nationally the total of the SSAs is 11 per cent. above the equivalent total for grant-related expenditures in the coming year and the external finance goes up by 8.5 per cent.
Mr. Michael Spicer : In consultation with local authority associations and voluntary organisations, we are now taking forward the proposals that my right hon. Friend set out in his statement of 15 November, following our review of the homelessness legislation.
Mr. Orme : Following the exchanges this afternoon, does not the Minister agree that this issue is now a national scandal? It is not just a London problem but is to be found throughout the cities and towns of our country, including my own area of Manchester and Salford? Will his Department initiate a census and report back to the House within one month on the size of the problem and how to deal with it?
It is very difficult to get accurate figures because the population is mobile, but we aim to get as accurate a picture as possible because, as the right hon. Member and many other right hon. and hon. Members have said, the matter is one of considerable urgency to us. There is no question about that. I give the House a firm assurance that we are treating the problem in an urgent manner. The amount of £2 million is available to voluntary organisations to be used to the best advantage.
Mr. Andrew MacKay : As my hon. Friend said in answer to an earlier question, one of the main causes of homelessness is the apparent shortage of rented accommodation, especially in London. Does he recall that last year the Environment Select Committee made it clear that Labour-controlled housing authorities were keeping properties empty for inordinate periods? That is grossly inefficient. What are my hon. Friend and his colleagues doing to ensure that those authorities make better use of their housing stock, thereby reducing homelessness in the capital?
Mr. Spicer : As my hon. Friend knows, the Government have launched many programmes that have that effect. The estate action programme is a highly imaginative scheme which the Government introduced to ensure that, in particular, Labour-controlled council property is put to far better use than it has been recently. I agree with my hon. Friend's point.
Mr. Fearn : Is the Minister aware that many voluntary organisations catering for the homeless are desperately short of money? How much of the £2 million will be distributed to the north-west of England, where we have a great homelessness problem, or is the Minister leaving it entirely to voluntary organisations to sort the matter out?
Mr. Spicer : No. The Government will be deeply involved in the allocation of the funds. We may use the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux as a means of co-ordinating part of the distribution of the funds. The Government are taking an intense interest in the allocation.
Mr. Beaumont-Dark : Does my hon. Friend accept that anyone in his right mind has much sympathy with people who are homeless? Over the past few weeks, and especially last Thursday, the Birmingham Evening Mail ran 48 pages of job advertisements. All those jobs were available for people who wanted them. People who have the good jobs that are advertised in the Birmingham Evening Mail can afford a home. Let us not think that anyone who is homeless is deprived by the Government--often such people do not want to work and do not want to thrive.