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House of Commons

Wednesday 27 June 1990

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


National Parks

1. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement about funding for measures to combat footpath erosion in national parks.

The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. David Trippier) : Seventy-five per cent. of national parks approved expenditure is met by the Government through national parks supplementary grant. Aggregate NPSG is based on bids for resources made by each national park for identified national and local priorities, including counter-erosion work and rights of way. Aggregate NPSG for 1990-91 is £9.97 million, an increase of almost 10 per cent. over 1989-90 figures, and over 20 per cent. in real terms since the Government took office in 1979.

Mr. Bennett : I thank the Minister for that reply, but I am sure that he is well aware of the growing problems of footpath erosion in the Yorkshire dales on mountains such as Whernside, Pen-y-ghent and Ingleborough, in north Wales on Tryfar, and in the Lake District. Will he ensure that there are sufficient funds to protect footpaths from erosion and that we open up far larger areas of the countryside so that the wear and tear can be spread over a greater area, not concentrated on one or two honey spots which people visit at present?

Mr. Trippier : I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's point. There has been adequate funding in this year's public expenditure survey round. Given sufficient funding in the forthcoming PES round, we hope to be able to accommodate maintenance in the districts to which he referred.

Mr. Harry Greenway : Will my hon. Friend take cognisance of the fact that in some national parks, footpaths are also used by horse riders and some walkers complain that footpaths get cut up? Will he ensure that there is always money to maintain the paths that horses also use and remind walkers that if it is muddy, they need to wear gumboots?

Mr. Trippier : I am happy to echo the commercial that my hon. Friend has made to the House and confirm--I have a personal interest in the matter --that I consider bridleways to be as important as footpaths.

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Ms. Walley : Does not the Minister realise that there is insufficient money to protect footpaths from erosion? Is he aware that footpath erosion results from too many people walking along the same paths? Is not it important to keep access open throughout the national parks? Will he confirm that he does not in any way support landowners in the North Yorkshire national park authority who wish to take away the public's freedom of access and, in so doing, threaten public access throughout the country?

Mr. Trippier : I am happy to confirm to the hon. Lady and the House that the Government, particularly the Department of the Environment, through the Countryside Commission, are very much in favour of improved access to the countryside, but on authorised routes and recognised footpaths that are legally marked on maps. I know that the hon. Lady would support that.

Local Government Finance

2. Mr. Devlin : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many suggestions he has received for alternatives to the community charge for the raising of local government finance.

The Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities (Mr. Michael Portillo) : We have received a number of such suggestions. However, it is clear that the community charge is the fairest of the options because it is based on the principle that everyone should pay something for the cost of local authority services. No other system makes local government as accountable to the electors.

Mr. Devlin : Is not it remarkable that my hon. Friend has not yet received the Labour party's promised policy paper? Is not it the duty of any party that seriously expects to enter government at some stage to put forward its proposals? The Labour party has plenty to say in criticism of our proposals, but nothing of its own to put forward.

Mr. Portillo : As my hon. Friend says, it is truly remarkable that the Labour party has not come up with an alternative. In its recent policy document it promised to publish that day a background paper setting out its proposals for local government finance. There was no background paper. I suspect that there is no background. The Labour party has no idea what it wishes to do about local government finance and that is why the deafening silence goes on.

Mr. Frank Cook : Will the Minister take it from me that come the next general election the Labour party will have clearly stated its proposals on the matter-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Cook : Will the Minister also take it from me that at that time the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) will very much regret his flippancy this afternoon?

Mr. Portillo : The hon. Gentleman is a great optimist. I wish that I could share his optimism. The Labour party has been considering local government finance for 11 years and has been unable to come up with any answers. I see no reason why the hon. Gentleman should believe that another two years will give the Labour party the breakthrough that it needs. By the next general election,

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the basic fairness of the community charge will be well understood--certainly its great superiority to the rating system which is favoured by some Opposition Members.

Mr. Tracey : I am pleased that my hon. Friend is robust in defence of the fairness of the community charge, and I hope that he will continue to be so. But in his deliberations will he look closely at the standard community charge and the iniquitous suggestion by some local authorities that it must always be at the two times multiplier?

Mr. Portillo : Of course I will consider my hon. Friend's point. This is an area where the Government wished local government to be local. It is an area where we gave discretion to local authorities to apply multipliers on the standard community charge up to a maximum of two. I regret that not all local authorities took seriously enough the consideration of what multiplier should apply to different classes of people and I am now looking carefully at that.

Mr. O'Brien : Because of the great concern throughout Britain at the likely levels of the poll tax next year, when does the Minister intend to announce his alternative to his poll tax? In addition, may we be told when he intends to lay before the House for debate the Government orders spelling out the budgets of councils which he has poll tax-capped? Will he confirm that the delay in making those orders is due to the fact that the Secretary of State has now admitted using information that he received from Tory councillors on Calderdale, Derbyshire and Haringey councils in fixing their authorities' budgets? When does the Minister intend to bring forward his alternative to his poll tax?

Mr. Portillo : The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the position. We are not bringing forward an alternative to the community charge : we are looking at any anomalies in the system. I hope that we shall be able to make an announcement on at least some of those before the summer recess. There has been a judgment today from the Appeal Court and I believe that the way is clear for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to lay before the House the remaining draft orders and, if the House approves them, to make orders stating the final caps for the authorities.

Mr. Cran : Will my hon. Friend take it from me that my constituents find the community charge perfectly acceptable, but that they do not find acceptable the fact that Labour-controlled Humberside county council used the introduction of the charge to increase its expenditure by about 11.75 per cent. and they will have no early opportunity to oppose that at the ballot box? Moreover, most of the other districts in Humberside benefit from the safety net, but mine do not. Will he consider that in his review of the charge?

Mr. Portillo : I have told my hon. Friend and the House that we will carefully consider any new evidence on the standard spending assessments.

I had the pleasure of making a speech in Humberside on Friday evening, when I was able to make the point that the very high spending and the very large increase in spending by Labour-controlled Humberside council has resulted in much higher community charges than would otherwise

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have been justified ; and that, of course, has been the main cause of the high charges borne by my hon. Friend's constituents.

Norfolk Broads

3. Mr. John D. Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what rights the local community has in the management of the Norfolk Broads ; and if he will make a statement on protection of the environment in the Norfolk Broads.

Mr. Trippier : Under the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988, the development, conservation and management of the Norfolk Broads is the responsibility of the Broads Authority which consists of 35 members, over half of whom represent local authorities. Thus they play their part in all aspects of the management of the Broads. The protection of the Broads environment is a prime objective of the Broads Authority, endorsed by the Government, and its commitment to that has been amply demonstrated since it came into being in April last year.

Mr. Taylor : Is the Minister satisfied with the work of the new Broads Authority in its first year of operation? When can we expect a report on that work? As the Minister has stressed that more than 50 per cent. of the members of the new authority are elected representatives of the local community, is not it a desirable formula to have local people involved in the management of such an important area, and will he commend that formula to similar areas elsewhere in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Trippier : I shall certainly consider the hon. Gentleman's first point and whether we can make available a report for all hon. Members to see.

As for the hon. Gentleman's second point--I am certain that this is the point he is making--I noticed that on 21 June he asked a similar question about the replication of that model in Northern Ireland, to which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Northern Ireland replied that he was prepared to become involved in further discussions about Strangford lough in particular. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman welcomed that assurance and will take advantage of it if he sees fit.

Mr. Bellingham : Is my hon. Friend aware that since the new integrated conservation management approach introduced by the Act came into place this unique national asset has been safeguarded for future generations? Will he join me in paying tribute to the Norfolk people and to the one or two Suffolk people who have played a part in the new structure? Does he agree that if the people living around Strangford lough want to learn about conservation they need look no further than Norfolk?

Mr. Trippier : If this carries on we shall have a twinning arrangement between Strangford lough and my hon. Friend's constituency-- which may not be too bad an idea. I am happy to pay tribute to the Broads Authority. My hon. Friend may recall that I had the opportunity to do that in the Standing Committee examining the Environmental Protection Bill.

Mr. Dalyell : What have Ministers learnt from the ongoing saga of Halvergate marshes, which featured so

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much in the Committee stage of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981? Have they learnt anything about the management of wetlands?

Mr. Trippier : I think that we have learnt a great deal and that that has transposed itself into legislation which we hope will come forward from the European Community.

Green Belt

4. Mr. Fishburn : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many acres of green belt have been lost to urban development in the last seven years ; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Michael Spicer) : The total area of approved green belt has more than doubled over the past 11 years ; any loss to urban development will have been minute by comparison.

Mr. Fishburn : Although I am grateful for the Government's rigour in conserving the green belt, can my hon. Friend assure me that the Department will be equally rigorous in preventing development in conservation areas in the inner cities? For instance, two thirds of Kensington qualifies as a conservation area. Will my hon. Friend provide for inner London the same oases of calm as the green belt provides for suburban areas?

Mr. Spicer : The Government wholly support the concept of conservation areas. Their designation is a matter for local authorities, and whether designations should be more widespread is a subject of a current consultation paper on demolitions, responses to which were due this Monday.

Mr. Ron Brown : Will the Minister have a word with his Scottish colleagues and make it clear that Mr. Wallace Mercer, that great entrepreneur, should not be given permission to seize part of Edinburgh's green belt for his super-duper stadium? We should remember that Mr. Mercer is interested only in the fast buck and not in the Hearts or Hibs supporters who have got a squalid deal all the way through this sorry tale which is repeatedly mentioned in the Scottish press.

Mr. Spicer : As the hon. Gentleman says, that is not a matter for me. I shall certainly make sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland hears what the hon. Gentleman says.

Competitive Tendering

5. Mr. Norris : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the progress of the implementation of compulsory competitive tendering in local government.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory) : Competitive tendering for construction and maintenance work has been compulsory since 1980. It was extended to a range of services, such as cleaning, refuse collection and vehicle maintenance by the Local Government Act 1988. It is being phased in and the first two rounds of competition are complete. The results have been encouraging, and it is clear that competition has done a great deal to improve efficiency and secure better value for money.

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Mr. Norris : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that there is no room in the philosophy of either socialism or the free market for waste and that the greatest benefit of competitive tendering is the elimination of waste? On behalf of all those who enjoy the services that are provided by local authorities throughout the country, may I urge him to continue the vigorous programme of competitive tendering that has been undertaken by the Government to ensure maximum value for money for taxpayers and all service users?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : My hon. Friend is entirely right. Compulsory competitive tendering is a potent weapon in the hands of local authorities to secure high-quality services at the most competitive price.

Mr. Hardy : Is there any prospect of the Government adopting for their own responsibilities the safe practices that they now require local government to pursue? If he cares to read the Official Report of the debate on electricity privatisation he will see that if the rules that his Department is seeking to impose on local government were to apply to central Government some occupants of the Treasury would face surcharge or imprisonment.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : We are always looking for new areas in which to introduce the benefits of open competition. I regret that the Labour party is apparently seeking to undermine that by withdrawing the requirement that competition should be compulsory. We are on the side of the charge payer and against the empire builders in some local authorities.

Mr. Michael Brown : Can my hon. Friend report on the position in Humberside? Can he confirm that he has had to issue a section 13 notice because that county council, in flagrant disregard of the charge payers in the county, is failing to operate the competitive tendering requirements of our policy?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : Yes, Sir. Humberside has been issued with a section 13 notice because of apparent anti-competitive behaviour during the tendering round. The council is now required formally to account for its actions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has further sanction powers that he will not hesitate to implement if the evidence warrants it.

Football Stadiums

6. Mr. Pendry : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when his Department's draft consultation document on issues of planning policy guidance on the considerations relevant to new and redeveloped stadiums for Football League clubs will be issued.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Colin Moynihan) : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State hopes soon to issue a draft planning policy guidance note on sport and recreation matters, and it will also deal with all-seater Football League stadiums.

Mr. Pendry : I do not know whether I should be thankful for that laid-back reply. Now that the Under-Secretary of State has been stripped by the Home Office of most of his football responsibilities, at least we cannot blame him for not setting up the Football Licensing Authority. As he has extra time on his hands, will he at least get to grips with his remaining

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responsibilities and give clear guidance to the football clubs on the safety standards laid down by Lord Justice Taylor? It is clear that the clubs are much more anxious than the Government to implement Taylor's proposals.

Mr. Moynihan : That clear guidance has been given and as soon as the Football Licensing Authority has been established, the guidance will be reinforced.

Mr. John Greenway : Although everyone associated with football regrets the delay in implementing the proposals and setting up the licensing authority, does my hon. Friend agree that it is better that we get such matters right and that the right people are appointed to the authority? Does he accept that, in any event, the interim recommendations of Lord Justice Taylor's report have already been implemented by most clubs?

Mr. Moynihan : I agree completely with my hon. Friend's second point. Several clubs have taken positive action to pursue the recommendations in Lord Justice Taylor's interim report. I shall pass the comments that my hon. Friend made in the first part of his question to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Menzies Campbell : Does the Minister agree that if all 92 clubs in the Football League are to have the stadiums that their spectators deserve, some imagination will have to be shown by those who propose developments and more particularly by the local authorities to which such proposals are addressed?

Mr. Moynihan : Yes, I agree completely. It is precisely for that reason that relevant paragraphs will be included in the planning policy guidance note that will be issued shortly.

Mr. Hind : My hon. Friend will be aware that Liverpool, one of the clubs which participated in the match at Hillsborough where the tragedy that gave rise to the Taylor report took place has endorsed the concept of all-seater stadiums. Does my hon. Friend agree that the remarks of Lord Justice Taylor and the policy of the Government have been endorsed by the behaviour of the crowds at the World Cup, who were mainly in all-seater stadiums? There have been almost no incidents in the grounds.

Mr. Moynihan : I agree completely with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Ashton : Is not it 15 months since 95 people were killed at Hillsborough, one year since the legislation went through the House and three months since cash was promised in the Budget? Yet the whole system of improving grounds has been held up by the bureaucracy at the Minister's Department and at the Home Office. The two Departments simply cannot agree on the chairman of the committee and the setting up of the Football Licensing Authority. Since then we have had the riots at Bournemouth. The four years laid down for putting seats in stadiums has been eaten away and soon there will be only three years left. The whole scheme is in danger of being postponed and further accidents may take place because the Home Office and the Department of the Environment cannot get their act together.

Mr. Moynihan : The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. If he had listened to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and my

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reply he would have learnt that many clubs have been responsible and moved ahead with the recommendations in their own right.

World Cup

8. Mr. Alex Carlile : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he will be making to UEFA concerning the behaviour of England fans at the World Cup.

Mr. Moynihan : I have agreed with the president of UEFA that it would be unwise of the Government to take a view on the return of English clubs to European competitions until we are able to assess the behaviour of English supporters in the 1989-90 domestic season and throughout the World Cup. I will provide my assessment to UEFA as soon as possible.

Mr. Carlile : Will the Minister join me in congratulating the vast majority of English fans at the World Cup who, together with their Scottish and Irish friends, have behaved extremely well? Does he agree that although the Italian police perhaps stepped beyond the bounds on several occasions, they have shown the value of dealing with trouble well away from the ground? Will the Minister make representations to UEFA that it is far better to identify troublemakers and deal with them severely, in whichever country they are caught, than to penalise the whole of English football by keeping it out of international competition?

Mr. Moynihan : I, too, recognise that the overwhelming majority of English supporters have gone to Italy to enjoy a festival of football and have behaved admirably.

The hon. and learned Gentleman's second point was on Italian police activity. I join him in commending the Italian police for taking tough, effective and swift measures to contain the incidents of violence.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's third point about action by the courts, I agree that other countries in Europe and, indeed, elsewhere in the world would do well to introduce measures which allow their countries to take action against people convicted of football-related offences in the country where the football match took place. We have led the way through part II of the Football Spectators Act 1989 and I hope that other countries will follow.

Mr. Burt : Is not it the case that a number of the measures that my hon. Friend fought for with the Italian authorities in relation to Sardinia, particularly the bans on alcohol near the ground, and the ferry bans, have been particularly effective as was his work with the football intelligence unit in identifying hooligans before they reached Sardinia? Is not it a disgrace that my hon. Friend's efforts on behalf of this country are constantly being undermined by yesterday's Minister, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell), who has failed to have the good grace to welcome all the efforts that my hon. Friend has made, the majority of which, in the first stage of the competition, were entirely successful?

Mr. Moynihan : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. The Government have always taken the view that it is important to be pro-active and to work closely with the Italian authorities to put in place as many layers of deterrence against hooliganism as possible. We have

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been working hard for more than 14 months and have joined the Italian authorities in more than 120 measures to deter the hooligan element. I deeply regret that a tiny minority is still intent on hooliganism and continues to cause trouble. However, we shall continue throughout the rest of the World Cup to work closely with the Italian authorities, as we have done to date, to make sure that any measures required to stamp out hooliganism have the full backing and support of this Government.

Mr. Fraser : Millions of peace-loving fans want to see England back in European football. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on what he has done, but will he confirm that he intends to play vigorously on their side to get English football back into Europe?

Mr. Moynihan : I have made it absolutely clear to the House that the overwhelming majority of football supporters have behaved well during the World Cup and I shall make it clear to UEFA that where there have been incidents of violence involving English supporters, a comprehensive report- -based on police evidence and my officials' reports, not on newspaper headlines--will form part of the full report which goes to UEFA at the end of the World Cup.

Mr. Charles Wardle : Is my hon. Friend really able to assure UEFA that British football management is sufficiently determined to meet hooliganism with touch discipline? If the Football League can relegate Swindon town from division 1 to division 3 because of the behaviour of a couple of crooks, why did it not demote Leeds united from division 1 to division 4 because of the criminal behaviour of 200 hooligans who laid waste a number of seaside towns?

Mr. Moynihan : My hon. Friend has made his point very clearly. I have no doubt that the Football League will pay due attention to it.

Mr. Denis Howell : May I advise the Minister that this afternoon I have requested a meeting with the president of UEFA--[ Hon. Members :-- "Oh!"]--to make sure that he fully understands that the Minister's policies lie in ruins, as we predicted, and to assure him that the Minister's increasingly frenzied utterances, particularly about innocent people who have been deported without trial, have no support on the Opposition Benches or among responsible people? What steps has the Minister taken to tell the Italian authorities that to round up and deport people, some of whom were tourists, miles away from the scene of the incident, is a disgrace and that every citizen is entitled to defend himself and his reputation under Italian, English and European law? [Interruption.] May I say to the Minister-- [Interruption.] --

Mr. Speaker : Order. The right hon. Gentleman should ask a question, not make a statement.

Mr. Howell : May I ask the Minister to follow the policy on which we have supported him--that guilty people should be prosecuted and dealt with, but that innocent people should be presumed not guilty rather than being rounded up as they have been? [Interruption.] It was clear that Conservative Members-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. This is Question Time, and I must ask the right hon. Gentleman to be brief.

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Mr. Howell : I can assure you, Mr. Speaker, that when I started this question, it was quite a short question.

May I finally say--

Hon. Members : No.

Mr. Speaker : Order. I must ask the right hon. Gentleman to make his final comments brief.

Mr. Howell : That is my intention, Mr. Speaker.

Finally, I ask the Minister to reflect on the monstrous mass libel of guilty and innocent alike represented by the comments that he is reported in this morning's press to have made--that they are criminally motivated. The guilty should be prosecuted but people who have claimed that they are innocent and have not been given the opportunity to prove it should not be convicted by such mass libel.

Mr. Moynihan : When the right hon. Gentleman studies the record, he will see that he has echoed the pleas of the louts who comprise football's effluent tendency. The Government stand shoulder to shoulder with all decent people in this country who condemn the criminally motivated minority of so-called England fans. I remain firm in my support for the tough, swift and effective policing that has undoubtedly contained incidents which could have escalated to levels that we have seen all too often in the past.

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman has only this morning decided that he wishes to seek a meeting with UEFA. He was in Italy for 10 days at the same time as the president of UEFA ; he could perhaps have seen him then.

Mr. Howell rose --

Mr. Speaker : No.

Private Rented Accommodation

10. Mr. Winnick : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many new tenancies he expects will be created by private landlords during 1990-91.

Mr. Michael Spicer : There are clear signs of increased activity in the residential letting market following the Housing Act 1988. I want to speed up this revival of the private rented sector.

Mr. Winnick : Why does the Minister not admit that recent legislation has totally failed to provide rented accommodation for people who desperately need it because they cannot afford to buy? There is no evidence whatever that such accommodation is being provided in the private market. Given the current crisis in the Housing Corporation, and as interest rates continue high, why do not Ministers allow local authorities to start building houses again and providing the accommodation that is so desperately needed? Why should those desperately in need of accommodation be penalised because of the selfishness and dogma of Tory Ministers?

Mr. Spicer : There are two problems facing the private rented sector --to that extent, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The first is that, for years, we have undermined the role and function and the self-confidence of the private landlord. The second is that there is a blight hanging over the private rented sector due to the pronouncements of the Labour party, particularly those to the effect that it would sequester private property and again involve itself in rent control and total tenure. If the

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hon. Gentleman has a problem, perhaps he should have a word with his own Front-Bench spokesmen and get them to remove that blight.

Mr. Patrick Thompson : Does my hon. Friend agree that the anti- private-sector policies of Norwich city council and other Labour councils which preside over large council estates with increasing numbers of empty houses will serve only to increase the number of homeless people in my constituency and others?

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