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House of Commons

Wednesday 21 February 1990

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions



1. Mr. Ian Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what proportion of the extra funds announced recently to tackled homelessness will be made available directly to housing associations.

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Michael Spicer) : This programme will amount to £250 million over the next two years. Of this, £73 million will be made available to housing associations. Local authorities may choose to channel some of the remainder to housing associations.

Mr. Taylor : My hon. Friend the Minister gives us good information, because homelessness concerns all hon. Members. Will he go further and say what initiatives the Government might take to assist the homeless in general, particularly bearing it in mind that one of the major causes of homelessness is the break-up of marriages and family life?

Mr. Spicer : My hon. Friend is absolutely right : the break-up of family life is one of the most significant reasons for homelessness. Therefore, part of the answer to the homelessness problem is to ensure that as many young people as possible stay close to the family home until they are sure of adequate alternative accommodation and have the financial means to support it. With the help of Shelter, SHAC--the sheltered housing advice centre--and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, I am today launching a homeless advice service at a cost of about £1 million. It will give advice about the dangers of leaving home and about the help available to those who become homeless. As a matter of urgency, we are considering what further comprehensive action we need to take to relieve the problem, especially for those sleeping rough on the streets.

Mr. Fearn : Does the Minister agree that more hostels are required and that if voluntary organisations were given more cash, the problem would be somewhat relieved? At present, giving cash to housing associations does not house the young homeless, with whom we are concerned. Obviously, the associations house people and are doing a good job, but, certainly, they will not be housing the people in real need.

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Mr. Spicer : Yes, one of the things that we are looking at is hostel accommodation. We shall make recommendations in the light of our considerations.

Mr. Tracey : My hon. Friend's announcement is welcome. Does he agree that the problem would be much alleviated if five principal London Labour authorities were to collect the £58 million of outstanding rent owed and did not have 10,000 empty properties?

Mr. Spicer : Sadly, my hon. Friend is right. It is largely the way in which Labour councils manage those estates that has caused some properties to be vacant. That is a national scandal.

Mr. Soley : I am sure that the teenage children in their cardboard boxes will be fascinated by the Government's latest gimmick. Does not the Minister understand that £125 million over one year, followed by £125 million the next year, will not even cover the cost of the homelessness that has been brought about by the latest hike in mortgage interest rates? In addition, it will not cover the cost of giving homes to people who are evicted because they cannot pay the £15 a week rent rises in Conservative Redbridge or Tory Bournemouth. Those are the sort of problems that the Minister should address. One thing that he could do today that would have some weight--perhaps he will tell the House that he will do it--is to allow local authorities to start spending their capital receipts on housing the homeless.

Mr. Spicer : One of the things that Labour spokesmen do not do when they shout their mouths off about this subject is actually to look at the causes. The Government are looking at one of the causes. This is an international problem. I have seen how serious it is in Copenhagen. One of the causes is the break-up of family life, so one of the good steps that we can take is to warn children against leaving their families prematurely. Of course, it then becomes a matter of responsibility for the Government to ensure that there is adequate accommodation for those who become homeless.

Mr. John Marshall : Does my hon. Friend agree that thousands of jobs are available in London and that employers find great difficulty filling those jobs, even when accommodation is offered? Does not that suggest that a number of the so-called homeless are, in fact, malingerers?

Mr. Spicer : Not only is my hon. Friend right that there is high employment throughout the country, but it is often ignored by the Opposition that we have the most generous housing benefits for people who cannot afford accommodation of any country in the western world. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out some of the absurdities of some of the Labour party's propaganda on this matter.

Nature Conservancy Council

2. Mr. Macdonald : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent representations he has received on the proposed break-up of the Nature Conservancy Council.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Chris Patten) : My Department has received a number of representations recently about the proposals to strengthen the conservation and countryside agencies.

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Mr. Macdonald : Does the Secretary of State agree that, following reorganisation, certain aspects of the NCC's work will need to be determined and handled on a United Kingdom basis--for example, the criteria for designating sites of special scientific interest? Will he tell us, first, what aspects will need to be handled in future on a United Kingdom basis ; and secondly, which will be the body responsible for determining those aspects? Will it be the new bodies, or the joint co- ordinating committee, or will it be the responsibility of the Secretary of State himself?

Mr. Patten : It will be primarily the responsibility of the joint statutory committee. I know that Professor Holliday, who will chair the committee, is considering these matters, and he will want to discuss the issue with the territorial organisations. I am sure that he will be able to produce a formula that will satisfy them and all concerned in nature conservancy. I know of the hon. Gentleman's concern about, interest in and knowledge of the subject.

Sir Hector Monro : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the sites of special scientific interest in the Western Isles and the rest of Scotland will be much better served by a strong science-based establishment in Scotland looking after Scottish interests? Does he further agree with the strong opinion in the NCC that England, Scotland and Wales would be much better served by independent councils?

Mr. Patten : I wholly accept what my hon. Friend says. As he will know, we have had letters of support from the territorial committees of the NCC. I am sure that my hon. Friend's point about the SSSIs is one that Magnus Magnusson and other members of the Scottish committee will want to take into full account in due course.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing : Does the Secretary of State agree that tinkering with the structure may not, in itself, be enought to ensure real environmental protection? Will he therefore match the changes with ensuring that adequate funding and adequate powers are given to the appointed personnel? I welcome the appointment of Sir Magnus Magnusson to what the right hon. Gentleman calls the local territorial organisation in Scotland. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that Sir Magnus and his colleagues have a statutory right to be involved in planning issues, which are especially important in this matter?

Mr. Patten : I should not want to cut across the responsibilities of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. But the hon. Lady is perfectly correct to say that we must ensure that all aspects of nature conservancy in Scotland, Wales and England have adequate resources. Unlike our predecessors, we shall increase those resources, not cut them.

Local Government Finance

3. Mr. Nellist : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent representations he has received opposing the introduction of the community charge ; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope) : We continue to receive a good many representations on the community charge, covering a wide range of views.

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Mr. Nellist : Is the Minister aware that the difference between the rates on our house in Coventry, at £619, and the poll tax for two people in Coventry, is £189, and that that is my family's fortnight's summer holiday? If the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister think that they are taking my bairns' two weeks' holiday off them to pay for his bloody poll tax, he does not understand the determination of 1 million people in Scotland who have not paid and of 10 million in England and Wales who will be joining them in five weeks' time.

Mr. Chope : Despite the hon. Gentleman's customary rant on the issue of the community charge, the House should congratulate him because his second home is in the London borough of Wandsworth. Contrary to his earlier protestations, he has registered there for the standard community charge thereby ensuring that his community charge will be about the lowest in the country.

Hon. Members : Oh.

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Nellist : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to hear the rest of the Minister's answer, but, on a point of order, you should reflect on how the Minister knows where I live and where I have registered.

Mr. Chope : I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is so coy about his second home and where it is located. It would be particularly mean-minded of him to withhold payment of the community charge and encourage others to do so. Coventry has the third highest revenue support grant per adult in the west midlands, which is considerably above the national average.

Mr. Winnick : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Madden : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Gould : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Minister's reply calls for an immediate explanation, because the House needs to know how the Minister knows who has registered on the poll tax register when that information is required to be kept confidential by the registrar.

Several Hon. Members rose --

Mr. Speaker : Order. That is not a point of order for me. It is a matter about the contents of an answer.

Mr. Madden : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Chope : Treating that as a question, it was open to the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) to apply to have his name withheld. He did not do so and I can confirm that his name appears on the public extract of the register.

Mr. Madden : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker : I am afraid that hon. Members are taking up a great deal of time. What is the point of order?

Mr. Madden : You, Mr. Speaker, are in the Chair to protect the interests of all hon. Members and, with due respect, the Minister has revealed that he is aware of the home address of a Member of the House. That seems to be a clear breach of assurances given by Ministers that such information would not be revealed to third parties. Therefore--

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Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman could make his point much more briefly than that. Whether a Minister knows where an hon. Member lives is not a material matter for me. [ Hon. Members :-- "It is secret".] Order. It may not be a secret matter. It is a matter for the contents of the answer and not a matter for order in the Chamber. There are many more questions on the community charge.

Mr. Marlow : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I believe that in his supplementary question the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) used unparliamentary language. I should be grateful if you would require him to withdraw it.

Mr. Speaker : I think that the hon. Member used a word which is in current use today, but which I prefer not to hear in the Chamber.

Mr. George Howarth : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker : Order. There are many more questions to come on the community charge.

Mr. Howarth rose--

Mr. Speaker : No.

Mr. Madden : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker : No.

Air Pollution

5. Mr. Adley : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps he is taking to control air pollution.

The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. David Trippier) : Current systems of air pollution control are being strengthened and extended by the Environmental Protection Bill. Additional processes will come under a robust new prior authorisation regime. The Bill enables the Clean Air Acts to be extended to control gaseous emissions from boilers or furnaces. It also streamlines the procedures for controlling air pollution that is a statutory nuisance.

Mr. Adley : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I regret that at the moment the internal combustion engine is excluded from the Environmental Protection Bill. Does my hon. Friend agree that it was never the Government's intention that steam locomotives should be included within the confines of the Bill? Will he confirm that amendment No. 608 to the Bill, tabled in his name and mine, will lift that dire threat from the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens?

Mr. Trippier : My hon. Friend's interest in and support for steam locomotives is extremely well known and there are thousands upon thousands of people like him in the country, who share that interest. There is no question of preventing or curtailing the use of steam locomotives, and we have no intention of changing the law relating to them. We hope to carry forward in part III of the Environmental Protection Bill, the exemption contained in section 72 of the Public Health Act 1961, which excludes steam ejected by railway locomotives from the definition of statutory nuisance.

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Mr. John Garrett : What does the Minister think of the Department of Energy's decision to cut flue gas desulphurisation from power stations? Can he comment on reports of a disagreement between his Department and the Department of Energy? Unless that process goes ahead, we shall be unable to meet the European Community directive on clear air.

Mr. Trippier : To talk about disagreements between the Department of the Environment and the Department of Energy is stretching credulity to breaking point. It is clear to me that the hon. Gentleman has not read the debate that took place in the House yesterday, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy made it perfectly clear that the United Kingdom is fully committed to implementing the large combustion plants directive. We signed it in 1988, and it commits us to a 60 per cent. cut in 1980 SO emissions from existing large plants by 2003. My right hon. Friend is not moving away from that position, and any talk or chatter in the press is purely speculative.

Mr. Butler : Will my hon. Friend confirm that for the first time there will be an individual plant limit placed on Fiddler's Ferry power station for its emissions of sulphur dioxide? Does my hon. Friend accept that that will be very welcome news to the region?

Mr. Trippier : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Yes, I confirm that that is part and parcel of the proposals introduced in the legislation that I referred to, and I am glad that he has welcomed it.

Mrs. Ann Taylor : Does the Minister recognise that diesel smoke is a major pollutant, especially in urban areas? It makes buildings dirty, fouls the atmosphere and is considered by some people to be potentially carcinogenic. Has the Minister discussed steps to control that form of air pollution with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport? Is this one of those areas where the Secretary of State's good intentions are being frustrated by his Cabinet colleagues, or does the Minister not have good intentions on this problem? Is there any Cabinet agreement on this or is this another area where we shall see no action from the Government to protect the environment?

Mr. Trippier : I have never seen my right hon. Friend frustrated : he is not the type, nor indeed is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I am delighted to tell the hon. Lady and the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment pressed the Commission to come forward with those proposals for heavy duty diesel vehicles at the last two Environment Councils. We took that initiative and we are now awaiting the Commission's proposals.

Genetically Engineered Organisms

6. Mr. Malcolm Bruce : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the environmental implications of the release of genetically engineered organisms.

Mr. Trippier : The environmental implications of such releases were considered in the consultation paper issued by the Department in June last year, and in the 13th report of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution published in July last year. Provisions to ensure the safety

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of releases, and to control the conditions under which they occur are included in part VI of the Environmental Protection Bill.

Mr. Bruce : Does the Minister acknowledge that there is a real danger that there will be a dramatic expansion of genetically modified organisms as a perceived means of solving some of our environmental problems? Does he accept that the idea of producing genetically modified animals and patenting them, as has been done with a mouse in the United States, is an absurd, unethical and abhorrent practice? There is an implication from the Minister's colleagues in the Home Office that the British Government would allow genetically created animals to be patented in this country. Does he agree that that should not happen, and that his Department should take responsibility for that, not the Home Office?

Mr. Trippier : The hon. Gentleman suggests that such work may expand dramatically and get out of hand ; in fact it is already expanding dramatically, which is why we have been pleased to take the advice of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution. Most of the measures that it has proposed are incorporated in the Environmental Protection Bill. Part VI of the Bill sets up a flexible control regime, which will operate according to the degree of the risk to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The Secretary of State will have the power to exercise control through consents, by notifications or by separate risk assessment. We shall address any wider issues at the appropriate time in the Standing Committee--as, no doubt, will the hon. Gentleman, who is a member of it.

Mr. Dalyell : What is the Department's assessment of the risk?

Mr. Trippier : Obviously the Department accepts that there is a degree of risk, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced the setting up of a specialist committee to which consents will be referred. If there were any accidents, for instance, we should prefer to be given the committee's expert opinion on how they should be dealt with. As I have said, the controls incorporated in part VI of the Bill are a result of advice given to us by the Royal Commission.

Local Government Finance

7. Mr. Boyes : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many county councils he proposes to poll tax cap in 1990-91 ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Chris Patten : It would be quite wrong to speculate how many or which authorities would be charge-capped if we had to use our capping powers next year. If authorities insist on budgeting excessively, they will be capped ; if they budget sensibly they have nothing to fear.

Mr. Boyes : Before going further down that road, will the Secretary of State take into account the unanimous decision of the policy committee of the royal county of Berkshire to condemn the fairy-tale figures involved in the Government's estimates of the cost of running and maintaining its existing services? The county is taking legal advice about the possibility of a judicial review to seek redress. Does not that show that the Secretary of State has

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got the figures wrong for every local authority in Britain? Is it not time that he did some recalculation and got them right?

Mr. Patten : The spending increases that some councils are discussing would mean, on average, a 35 per cent. increase in domestic rates if the domestic rating system were still in operation next year. Even if we believed everything that every local authority said, there would be no conceivable argument for increases of that size.

As for what the hon. Gentleman said about the royal county of Berkshire, I am wholly satisfied with the arguments that we have advanced in the past. I hope that charge payers will find that the county council sets a sensible budget, and does not ask for percentage income increases in the high teens or low 20s.

Mr. Squire : While taking account of the Opposition's criticism of the community charge, has my right hon. Friend yet received formal notification from the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) that he is engaged in a modern version of the dance of the seven veils, and that the first veil has now dropped? Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the dropping of the last veil will be a mutually rewarding experience?

Mr. Patten : I always want to be entirely fair to the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould). Undoubtedly he would like an opportunity to come down to the House of Commons and explain the many alleged benefits of the roof tax, but the Leader of the Opposition stops him from doing so.

Mr. Orme : Will the Secretary of State explain why a

Labour-controlled authority such as mine in Salford--which, despite experiencing all the usual inner-city problems, has made very prudent assessments--is having to charge £100 above the limit set by the Secretary of State because of the conditions that have been laid down? How can such an authority face up to the arguments that the right hon. Gentleman is putting forward?

Mr. Patten : The right hon. Gentleman's authority, like others-- including some that are Labour-controlled--could allow for an increase in income next year below the rate of inflation. It would also be perfectly possible for his authority to set a charge, as have others--some of them Labour--lower than that implied by the standard spending assessment.

Mr. Neale : Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is growing hope and expectation in Cornwall that he will cap the outrageous increase proposed by Cornwall county council, but that doubt about whether and when that may happen is causing considerable anxiety? The quicker my right hon. Friend can reach a decision, the sooner local and district authorities can plan for change, and the sooner local people will know what the new community charge will be.

Mr. Patten : I recognise my responsibilities towards charge payers, some of whom face outrageous bills. I cannot make a final decision until all local authorities have proposed budgets. We shall then present to the House any proposals that may be necessary. I assure my hon. Friend that we have the interests of community charge payers very much in mind.

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Mr. Gould : Does the Secretary of State concede the overwhelming evidence, not least from Tory-controlled authorities and from many Conservative Members, that his projections of poll tax bills are complete and utter fiction? Does he agree that it would be better to make a clean breast of it and withdraw his figures than make vague threats about charge capping that can only confuse already hard- pressed local authority treasurers? If the Secretary of State must continue on his present course, will he at least publish the criteria on which he proposes to act, so that local authorities which have no confidence in the figures that he has presented so far may at least have some guidance on how they are expected to make their judgments?

Mr. Patten : We shall certainly be publishing criteria on charge capping, if we need to do so, before the hon. Gentleman publishes any statistics or figures about the roof tax. The hon. Gentleman may wish to discuss this point with the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. If some of the rumoured figures for community charge turn out to be true, it will imply a £3 billion increase in spending over the sum that we regard as reasonable. Is it the Opposition's view that we should provide £3 billion additional grant to local authorities in the coming year? That is the question that the Opposition must answer--£3 billion or not?

Tower of London

8. Mr. Gregory : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many people visited the Tower of London on Sunday mornings during 1989 ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Trippier : The only part of the Tower of London currently open to the public on Sunday mornings is Tower wharf, for which admission is free. No statistics are compiled on visitors to the wharf, but it is estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 visit the area on an average Sunday morning in summer, and a few hundred in winter. Many summer visitors go on to enter the main Tower precincts as paying visitors when it opens to the public at 2 pm.

Mr. Gregory : Is not it a national scandal that the Tower of London- -a national treasure trove--is effectively closed on Sundays in winter, and is open only on Sunday afternoons in summer? Is my hon. Friend aware that many British citizens and overseas visitors want to see the Crown jewels and other artefacts in the Tower of London? When will he unlock the Tower, or are its treasures to be seen on Sundays only by the ravens and beefeaters, while the Tower remains closed to citizens and visitors alike?

Mr. Trippier : I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the practicalities and economics of earlier or all-day Sunday opening are currently under review. Sunday mornings have been regarded as providing, particularly in the summer, a much-needed break in the Tower's working routine--certainly for the warders and perhaps for the ravens, too. I confirm that the new chief executive of the royal agency is carefully examining the case for opening the Tower earlier on Sundays.

Mr. Tony Banks : As the Tower of London is still a very secure place, and given the Prime Minister's interest in security--judging from the preposterous Nicolae

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Ceausescu memorial gates that she has had erected at the end of Downing street--would not it be appropriate, if we are all concerned about the right hon. Lady's safety, to bang her up in the Tower and throw the key in the Thames?

Mr. Trippier : I have a better idea. I recommend that the hon. Members for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) be locked in the Tower. That would increase the number of visitors. It would not deny those hon. Members the right to speak in debates because, when they spoke in the Tower, we could hear them down here.

Several Hon. Members rose --

Mr. Speaker : Order. It is a pity to waste a question on that sort of thing.

Local Government Finance

9. Mr. Matthew Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the latest estimated cost for collecting the community charge and the uniform business rate.

Mr. Chope : The estimates for these costs remain at approximately £400 million and £40 million a year respectively.

Mr. Taylor : Does the Minister accept that the cost of collecting the community charge is even more in excess of the original figure put forward by the Government than the poll tax is in excess of the Government's estimate? Is the collection cost more than double the cost of collecting the rates in 1988-89? In my local authority the implication of that massive burden for poll tax payers is that £1 in £5 of expenditure will go on collecting this unfair tax. Might not the Government remove at least that unnecessary burden for which poll tax payers never voted?

Mr. Chope : The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The cost of collecting the community charge is 4p in the £1. Depending upon which local authority area people live in, the cost might be lower. The Government made available a generous amount of grant to help local authorities with the cost of collecting the community charge.

Mr. Dunn : Is not it true that all significant political parties in the House are now committed to the abolition of the rating system? Should not the cost of collecting any alternative, especially the roof tax, be taken into account when debating the matter? Would not the roof tax be a very expensive burden on home owners, especially in the south-east, given the high capital values of properties there?

Mr. Chope : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The roof tax would be an administrative nightmare and it would be incredibly unpopular. It would be a most unfair tax on home improvements.

Mr. Blunkett : Will the Minister take this opportunity to correct the figures given a few moments ago by the Secretary of State, who said that the poll tax would amount to £3 billion more than the assumed level of spending? Does the Minister accept the professional advice that the Government underestimated actual spending by

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£2.5 billion and that, had they taken into account the true level of inflation, their figures might have been more sensible? Will the Minister confirm that in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), he showed that he disagreed with the Secretary of State in relation to poll tax capping by saying : "Local authorities decide the level of their charges, and are accountable directly to their residents for their decisions at the ballot box."-- [Official Report, 16 February 1990 ; Vol. 167, c. 433. ]

Will he confirm that any plans for poll tax capping have been scrapped, or was his reply last Friday incorrect?

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