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Mrs. Currie : Does my hon. Friend agree that in areas such as south Derbyshire a great deal of land can be released for rural housing through opencast coal mining? Will he welcome, as I do, the efforts of the British Coal opencast executive to develop over 400 acres of land in the Cadley hill area? It hopes to provide housing, industrial sites, a golf course, an hotel and a bypass for the local village, all of which will be welcome. Will he ask the Secretary of State for the Environment to come and see the site when it is finished?
Column 935Mr. Yeo : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her kind invitation. There is a great deal of scope for using land-- especially land that has been reclaimed, perhaps with the help of derelict land grant--for imaginative housing schemes in areas where it is easy to obtain planning permission and where the scheme will be welcome to the local community.
Mr. Portillo : My right hon. Friend has announced the new community charge reduction scheme, which is the first result of our review and which will be in place to reduce next year's charges. Work on the longer term is continuing.
Mr. Nellist : Despite the answers given yesterday by the Secretary of State to me and by the Prime Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Dunnachie) that local authorities could be flexible about the poll tax and the troops in the Gulf, does the Minister agree that the 32 Tory councillors on Newbury district council must have approved sending a poll tax demand to 20-year-old Private Mark Patchett, who received it in a trench on the Saudi-Kuwait border? Even though I have not altered my opposition to both the tax and the war, does not the Minister accept that he should take the opportunity this afternoon to do as President Bush did in America last week, when he announced that United States rank-and-file service men and women were exempt from federal income tax, and announce that British troops in the Gulf are henceforth exempt from the poll tax?
Mr. Portillo : I listened to the exchange yesterday between the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) and my right hon. Friend and I did not think that the hon. Gentleman heard my right hon. Friend correctly. What my right hon. Friend said was that community charges registration officers have discretion and that we have recommended to them that where a service man is posted to the Gulf for an indefinite period, he should be regarded as exempt from the day of his posting. The local authority that the hon. Gentleman cited recognised that it had not operated in accordance with that guidance and it issued an apology.
I have no reason to believe that the guidance is defective or that there is need for legislation. If we found that the arrangements were not working satisfactorily for any reason, we would reconsider the matter. The important thing is to give our guidance a chance to work. I have no reason to believe that it is not working satisfactorily.
Mr. Channon : Since my hon. Friend announced recently that the review would take into account not only the community charge but the functions and status of local government, will he assure me that he is giving careful attention to the need to reintroduce county boroughs which would be popular in all parts of the country?
Mr. Portillo : I have noted that my right hon. Friend and others support that idea. Many of my hon. Friends would like to have more unitary authorities and they look back to the county boroughs which used to exist.
Column 936Obviously, I cannot give my right hon. Friend a commitment now, but it is within the scope of the review to consider such matters.
Rev. Martin Smyth : In an earlier reply to the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), it was suggested that the review was complex. Does not it add to the complexity of the review that although the Secretary of State invited parties to participate, he turned down the offer of the fourth-largest party in the House to take part, especially when that party represents constituents, particularly service men, who will be affected?
Mr. Portillo : I am happy to clarify the matter. The Government do not think that it would be productive to talk to parties from Northern Ireland about conditions in Northern Ireland, because that is a matter for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. If representatives of parties in Northern Ireland wish to discuss the effect of the community charge and its arrangements on their constituents who live in Great Britain, I should be happy to accede to that and have a meeting with them.
Mr. Burns : Can my hon. Friend confirm whether during the review he has had any discussions with the Lord President's office or with your office, Mr. Speaker, about the rules of suspension from the House, to take into account Labour Members who are illegally refusing to pay their community charge?
Mr. Portillo : I have not had such discussions, although the question arises sometimes when local authority members who are not paying their community charge have voted on questions of non-collection. I believe that grave legal issues arise. I do not know how they would be resolved in a court of law, but elected representatives should be cautious not only about the example that they set but about voting on matters in which they have an interest.
Mr. Blunkett : In my letter to the Secretary of State on the exemption from the poll tax of service personnel in the Gulf, I offered the full co-operation of the Labour party in passing any regulations necessary to ensure that such action could be carried out by local authorities throughout the country. In the light of the comments yesterday of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) about the increase of £14 per head to residents of that area because of the number of people affected by the Gulf crisis, are the Government willing to reconsider yesterday's announcement so that full reimbursement can be made to local authorities, clarity can be provided to ensure that all people have the same treatment, wherever they live, and fairness and decency can apply?
Mr. Portillo : I am grateful for the Labour party's offer to speed through any necessary legislation, but, as I said in answer to the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist), I am not satisfied that there is a need for legislation. Our recommendations will cope satisfactorily with the generality of cases. The specific case of local authorities with a large number of service men posted to the Gulf which are therefore losing community charge income will be raised at a meeting which I shall have at4 pm with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), who is leading a delegation. I shall listen
Column 937carefully to what he has to say and it will be of broader application to other local authorities. When I have heard the case I shall consider it carefully.
Mr. Baldry : The White Paper on the environment, "This Common Inheritance", sets out a number of measures that we will be pursuing vigorously to ensure successful recycling. We will be pressing industry to increase both the recycling of materials and the use of recycled material ; encouraging retailers to provide collection facilities for recyclable material for their customers ; and persuading industry to expand its capacity to process reclaimed material.
Mr. Mans : I thank my hon. Friend for that encouraging reply. Does he agree that this country still has a long way to go before we can be satisfied with the amount of material that we recycle? Will he encourage other Departments to follow the example of the Department of the Environment in making available bins for recyclable material and in using recycled paper?
Mr. Baldry : My hon. Friend makes a good point. Government Departments are seeking to put their houses in order. The Department of the Environment and the Department of Trade and Industry pay a reasonable premium when purchasing recycled paper and will adopt a policy of positive discrimination in favour of recycled goods wherever practicable and economic. The Department of the Environment has introduced green bins into its main buildings as part of the scheme to recycle office grade waste paper. I hope that other Departments and every office in the country will follow that lead.
Mr. Salmond : Is the Minister aware of the technology for and possibility of using sewage in gasification for power generation or other purposes? Can he point to a single piece of research issued by his Department to local authorities to make them aware of the possibilities of recycling and using sewage in that way?
Mrs. Hicks : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has demonstrated wisely his willingness to go and listen to the voice of the west midlands and to consult widely politicians of all parties. I thank him for that. Will he go a stage further and give those councillors the reassurance that they need, which is that he will carefully assess the weaknesses and strengths of the community charge, not
Column 938least the principle that each individual should make a contribution to the payment for services received? Have Labour Members, especially those who represent west midlands seats, taken advantage of that and contributed to the debate? To date, I have heard a great deal of criticism, but not much constructive help.
Mr. Key : I give my hon. Friend the assurance that she seeks. We shall give due consideration to all that she says. It is true that throughout the country Ministers are meeting members of local authorities of all political parties. We are meeting Liberal Democratic Members of the House and we are grateful for their contribution to the debate. It is a matter of some sorrow that the parliamentary Labour party is not interested in taking part in the discussions.
Mr. Lewis : At the meeting did west midlands councillors complain about the bureaucracy surrounding the poll tax? Is the Minister pleased that nationwide £130 million has been wasted on updating poll tax registers during the past 12 months?
Mr. Key : The Secretary of State discussed with city councillors income from the charge, the level of standard spending assessments and the fact that Birmingham has an 18 per cent. increase in its SSAs. They discussed the overall role of government in controlling spending. There was a discussion with Labour councillors and others about the question of payment of councillors, the number of councillors and the possibility of a directly elected leader and whether he should be paid. It is curious that those councillors did not raise the point to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
Mr. Conway : Is my hon. Friend aware that his Department counts Shropshire as being in the west midlands? Does he therefore accept that we in Shropshire do not regard the county borough option, which is being widely canvassed, as a suitable solution to the problems of accountability? As long as we have two-tier local government, accountability will not be achieved.
Mr. Gould : In the light of the earlier admission from the Minister of State that the poll tax review might leave the poll tax in place in the west midlands and elsewhere, can the Minister say what has happened to the Secretary of State's reforming zeal and to the ferocious attacks that he made on the poll tax when he was campaigning for the Tory leadership? Why will not the right hon. Gentleman and his ministerial colleagues admit that the poll tax is totally discredited and must be abolished? Why cannot he see that that simple admission will clear the way for a proper discussion of what might take its place?
Mr. Key : My right hon. Friend made an exceptionally robust contribution in the House yesterday afternoon and he listened for some hours to the speeches of hon. Members on both sides of the House. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would recognise the widely accepted points in favour of the community charge, such as that everybody should contribute something, which would remain valid whatever one called it.
Sir George Young : Information on rents is not available in this form. Most housing association tenants pay fair rents, which are subject to re-registration every two years. Increases for housing association tenancies re-registered in London and the rest of the south-east during the second quarter of 1990 were 21 and 23 per cent. respectively, over two years.
Mr. Corbyn : Does the Minister agree that those rent increases are absolutely disgraceful for the many poor families who live in that accommodation? The Government's inability to provide sufficient funds to the Housing Corporation to support housing associations' new-build programmes has forced them to borrow money from the private sector, through the banking system. Therefore, they have to pay enormous interest rates. That is one factor which has forced up housing association rents, together with the Government's general trend towards deregulation.
Does the Minister accept that the problem of homelessness can be resolved only when we have sufficient affordable housing for rent? Only that will end the scandal of homelessness in London and the south-east.
Sir George Young : I cannot accept what the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his question. The increase in rents was about the same as the increase in average earnings--average earnings went up 22 per cent. over two years as against rent increases of 21 and 23 per cent. For those not earning, housing benefit will bear the brunt of the increase. Such people are shielded against the increases about which we are speaking.
In the new regime under which housing associations operate they are registered charities and they are required to set rents within reach of people in low-paid employment. Although the new rents may be higher than fair rents, they enable the housing association movement to sustain a much bigger programme of new homes, for which the hon. Gentleman was calling at the end of his question.
Mr. Soley : Tenants of housing associations, councils and the private sector face a disgraceful position. Did not rents in the housing association sector go up by about 25 per cent. the other year? Is not it also true that council rents will go up dramatically in the next couple of weeks and that private sector rents are out of the reach of many people? In those three examples housing benefit does not meet the needs of many people, particularly pensioners
Column 940with small occupational pensions. What will the Government do about rents that are increasingly unaffordable in a rented sector has suffered a collapse, with the loss of 1.5 million properties in the past 10 years? There must be an answer that produces affordable rents in affordable properties.
Sir George Young : I do not accept the premise on which the hon. Gentleman based his question. Housing benefit will underpin market rents-- we have made that absolutely clear. If people cannot afford to pay that market rent, housing benefit will take the strain. It is not true that fair rents have increased faster than earnings--they have increased broadly in line. Over two years there has been a 22 per cent. increase in fair rents and, in London, there has been a 21 per cent. increase in earnings. Therefore, it is not true that rents are rising faster than average earnings.
I repeat that the housing benefit system exists to enable people to pay their rent. There can be no question of people losing their homes because they cannot afford to pay reasonable rents.
Mr. Key : The Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 required local authorities to expose building and highways work to competition and compulsory competitive tendering was extended to a number of other local authority services by the Local Government Act 1988. My Department has commissioned research into the effect of the 1988 Act. Information about financial effects should be available shortly.
Mr. Day : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that the Labour party proposes to abolish compulsory competitive tendering for local services, despite the benefits that it has brought to local people in the form of reduced costs and better services? Does he agree that it shows that, despite the rhetoric of the Opposition, which appears to commit them to efficiency in local government, they are in fact committed to the maintenance of socialist dogma in many of Britain's town halls?
Mr. Key : My hon. Friend has put his finger on an important point. One of the greatest safeguards for local consumers of services is the Audit Commission. The Minister of State drew to the attention of the House in yesterday's debate the fact that the Labour party has plans to subsume the Audit Commission--another telling example of its intentions.
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