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House of Commons

Wednesday 27 February 1991

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

PRIVATE BUSINESS

London Underground

(No. 2) Bill-- (By Order) Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time tomorrow.

Oral Answers to Questions

ENVIRONMENT

Disabled Facilities Grants

1. Mr. Hinchliffe : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will review his policy on the provision of mandatory and discretionary disabled facilities grants.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tim Yeo) : This matter is being kept under review, to ensure that grant assistance continues to help disabled people least able to afford the cost of house adaptations.

Mr. Hinchliffe : Is the Minister aware that local authorities are having to make loans to many applicants because of their inability to meet the scheme's means-testing arrangements, which require certain contributions? In many instances the loans will never be repaid because of applicants' financial circumstances. Is the Minister further aware that some elderly and disabled people are being forced into permanent care because of their inability to make a contribution for adaptations under the scheme? Bearing it in mind that the scheme's means testing arrangements run contrary to the Government's care in the community proposals, will the Minister review the operation of the means-testing arrangements and of the scheme generally?

Mr. Yeo : I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is questioning the principle of means testing, which his party did not oppose in Committee. If he is, it appears that he wants us to spend more taxpayers' money helping the best-off. If the hon. Gentleman is merely questioning the way in which means tests are undertaken in respect of adaptation grants, I assure him that we will review the system, which has been operating for less than eight months. We should like it to be up and running for a year before we undertake such a review. Nevertheless, we shall do that this summer and we will consult the associations that represent the local authorities which are administering it to ascertain how well it is operating.

Mr. Hannam : Does my hon. Friend recall that the original commitment in the consultation document was for


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a non-means tested operation of the grant scheme? Given that there is means testing now, is my hon. Friend aware that many disabled people are now producing examples of the way in which the system is working adversely? When he undertakes his review, will he examine carefully the need to set different criteria for means testing in respect of the disabled?

Mr. Yeo : We will certainly examine the criteria that have operated during the first year and I shall be glad to hear the views of my hon. Friend, whose expertise in the subject is well known. The new scheme was intended to widen the range of home improvements that could be paid for by the mandatory facilities grant. There is no restriction on the size of the grant or on who can apply for one. We aim to allow more disabled people to secure more help and to enable them to live more independently and comfortably at home, if that is possible. In many cases, that objective has been achieved.

Rev. Martin Smyth : I acknowledge the dilemma that presents itself in respect of means testing, but will the Department give special consideration to new build houses, so that there might be savings to a community in the long term in the form of new homes constructed to specifications that are designed to help the disabled?

Mr. Yeo : We have considered that. Ideally--this objective has the support of most of the voluntary organisations concerned--all new houses should meet standards of acceptability and convenience for the disabled, regardless of whether they will in the first instance be occupied by a disabled person or by a family that has a disabled member.

Competitive Tendering

2. Mr. Rooney : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will publish the results of investigations into the costs to local authorities of the compulsory competitive tendering legislation under the Local Government Act.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert Key) : Research is being carried out by the Institute of LocaGovernment Studies. We hope to publish the report on its first year's work in the near future. That research has shown that the cost of tendering is some 2.5 per cent. of total contract costs and that CCT has produced average savings of just under 6 per cent. in the annual cost of providing services--often linked to a higher quality of service.

Mr. Rooney : Is the Minister aware that thousands of contracts have been called into question throughout Britain on the ground of quality? Is he further aware that hundreds of headteachers have complained about the low standard of cleaning in their schools? Will he comment on the economic consequences of thousands of part-time, low-paid local authority workers losing their jobs as a consequence of the legislation?

Mr. Key : Of course I have read the report. That is why we are anxious to evaluate the projects as they are carried out. The Department is responsible, under legislation, for ensuring that the section 13 or section 14 notices may sometimes have to be issued. I hope that the hon.


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Gentleman will agree, however, that we are interested in the quality of service and the value for money offered to the charge payers who are financing that service.

Mr. Barry Field : Does my hon. Friend agree that the competitive tendering legislation has enabled Conservative councillors on Medina borough council to cut community charge not once but twice, benefiting charge payers in the Isle of Wight?

Mr. Key : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Competitive tendering has played its part in that. I congratulate Medina borough council, which has cut its community charge by some 50 per cent. this year.

Mr. O'Brien : Is it true that the survey will not reveal any substantial financial savings for local authorities? Will the report outline the position before and after compulsory competitive tendering? I put it to the Minister that a substantial number of local authorities spend a great deal of time and money on drawing up tenders, only to find that the private sector is simply not interested in tendering.

Will the report also give comparisons relating to the quality and the full value of the service provided for poll tax payers and will it mention the decline in the proper training of personnel? I suggest that CCT represents a further failure of the Government's local government policies.

Mr. Key : The hon. Gentleman ignores the Audit Commission's claim that voluntary competitive tendering can produce savings of between 10 and 30 per cent. That is a substantial amount. We are, of course, always considering whether there should be more compulsory competitive tendering-- whether the scheme should be increased. That can only be in everyone's interests. I do not think that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) would disagree. He wrote on 15 February :

"It would be foolish to pretend that the jolt given to many local authorities has not had some beneficial effect in stimulating their own concentration on quality as well as improved managerial practice."

Hostel Beds

3. Mr. Squire : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the number of hostel beds available (a) in London each night and (b) in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Sir George Young) : The latest estimates available show that the total number of hostel bed spaces in housing association hostels, resettlement units, probation and after- care hostels and those run by local authorities in London is 22,383, and 60,142 in England as a whole. My Department does not hold figures for the rest of the United Kingdom. I take this opportunity to thank the voluntary agencies for their hard work in developing the additional places now coming forward under the rough sleepers initiative and for their help in ensuring that the cold weather emergency provision continues to remain open for an extended period.

Mr. Squire : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he tell us whether at those levels demand continues to be outstripped by supply-- whether spare beds are


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available? Will he also tell us whether the two emergency hostels opened in London during the recent severe cold spell remain open?

Sir George Young : I assure my hon. Friend that, even on the coldest night, space was still available for those sleeping rough in London. The Paddington Green hospital, which is the largest of the emergency cold weather shelters, will stay open for six months and it is planned that the Soho shelter should remain open until the middle of April.

Mr. Fearn : Is the Minister aware of the considerable problem of homelessness in Merseyside, stretching from the Wirral to my constituency, Southport? Has he any idea what he may give the region to deal with that problem? He has recently given certain figures, but most relate to London. How much will go to Merseyside?

Sir George Young : I believe that there is a substantial number of empty properties in Merseyside. That certainly applies to Liverpool, which has experienced a good deal of emigration. One of the difficulties facing Liverpool city council is the excess of homes and I see no reason why anyone should have any reason to sleep rough in Liverpool of all places.

Miss Emma Nicholson : I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing and implementing a package of measures that have gone so far to solve this difficult problem. Will my hon. Friend's Department be prepared to carry out research into whether homeless youngsters have been habitual truants from school, and thereby slipped the leash of parental and teacher control at an early age, and discover whether useful and constructive measures could be derived from such research?

Sir George Young : My Department has commissioned some research from York university to discover more about the motivations and histories of the homeless. A substantial number of people who have been sleeping rough were in care before they came to London. Local authorities have a responsibility to ensure that once children reach the age at which they are no longer their statutory responsibility, those children still have somewhere secure to go so that they do not end up on the streets.

Mr. Soley : Is not this a problem of the Government's own making? We did not have homeless people sleeping rough in the streets like this until we had a Tory Government. Only alcoholics and some mentally ill people slept rough before this Government came to office. I can say that as I have experience as a probation officer in the King's Cross area of London. Is the Minister aware that housing organisations and the Labour party have warned the Government that temporary hostel beds are not the answer? The real answer is real homes for real people who are sleeping in the snow. We want to know now whether the money that the Government are talking about providing will continue to be provided to the many voluntary organisations that have written to the Minister's office, but which have not received answers telling them whether they can continue the work that they started during the cold weather.

Sir George Young : If I may say so, that is a rather simplistic analysis. The problem of rough sleeping


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predates 1979. Responsibility does not rest with the Conservative party. The Manchester Evening News has reported that :

"Homeless people are sleeping rough and begging on Manchester streets while 5,000 council houses and flats stand empty." For every hostel space in London, there are two move-on spaces. We are offering people the opportunity of permanent accommodation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are determined to build on the momentum that has been developed and bring about a situation in which no one has to sleep rough in London.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn rose -- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. The question does relate to the United Kingdom.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : Did my hon. Friend see the recent programme by--surprisingly--the BBC, in which an Aberdonian youth who was sleeping in a box in London was flown back to his mother in Aberdeen and interviewed? He said that the last thing that he wanted to do was to stay in Aberdeen and take a job because he could beg £60 a day in London, and he did not stay in a hostel because he could keep the money if he did not spend it. He was returned by the BBC to London on a British Airways flight. Does not that say something about homeless people?

Sir George Young : I did not see that programme, but there is a small number of people who abuse the hospitality of people in London by begging instead of seeking work. For every case like that, there are some genuine cases of people who do not want to sleep rough. I agree with my hon. and learned Friend that we must deal with the abuses, but we must also make provision for those who do not want to sleep rough and would dearly like to move on to permanent accommodation.

Local Government Finance

4. Mr. Patchett : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any plans to introduce a modern and fair rating system ; and if he will make a statement.

18. Mr. Callaghan : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any plans to introduce a modern and fair rating system ; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine) : Our review of the structure and finance of local government will look at all the options, including domestic property taxes. I hope to be able to give a first indication of our thinking in the spring.

Mr. Patchett : Does the Secretary of State agree that the poll tax is now untenable? When will he admit that it should be abolished?

Mr. Heseltine : The hon. Gentleman is aware that all those matters are being considered. When we have something to say, we will say it, but not until then.

Mr. Speaker : Mr. Callaghan.

Mr. Cryer rose--

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Winnick : In view of the comments that the Secretary of State made about the poll tax when he was a


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Back Bencher, will it be possible for him to remain in government if it is decided by the Cabinet to retain what he himself described as a Tory tax?

Has the right hon. Gentleman any comment on the absurd statement by one of his predecessors that if the rating system was brought back, there would be rioting on the streets? The only rioting that has occurred has been brought about by that Tory tax, the most unfair tax that has ever been introduced-- the poll tax.

Mr. Heseltine : The hon. Gentleman may be aware that many millions of people now realise that the community charge reduction scheme is bringing them substantial reductions in community charge.

Mr. Latham : Is my right hon. Friend aware that his reputation over many years for radical policies is well deserved and that the best way in which he can proceed in this matter is by radical change?

Mr. Heseltine : My hon. Friend is extremely flattering. I shall, if I may, refrain from comment until we produce the conclusions of the review.

Sir Rhodes Boyson : Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is considerable support on the Conservative Back Benches for national expenditure on schools and further education? That would achieve two objects. It would halve the community charge and make all schools grant- maintained schools responsible to parents and not inspectors, which would improve education throughout the country.

Mr. Heseltine : I know how much my right hon. Friend is concerned about this matter. He will know from speeches that I have made that I am a strong supporter of the grant-maintained school principle. When suggesting the switch, my right hon. Friend does not draw my attention to the national taxes that he would wish to be increased to fund his proposals.

Mr. Gould : Will the Secretary of State reassure the millions of people who want to see the back of the poll tax by making it clear that he has refused to be bound by the ideologues in his own party and that he at least is prepared, indeed anxious, to see the abandonment of the poll tax principle?

Mr. Heseltine : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is never possible to discern any ideologues on the Conservative side of the House because there are so many on the other.

Mr. Hayes : I appreciate that my right hon. Friend is doing his best to see that the landed gentry do not riot too much on the streets of Tewkesbury, but will he do what he can to assist my poor beleaguered constituents in Harlow? Their left-wing authority has increased its expenditure by 44 per cent. this year, announced a community charge of £459, and eaten into reserves. When the review is presented, will my right hon. Friend protect people from left-wing authorities such as Harlow?

Mr. Heseltine : As my hon. Friend is aware, by and large, it is beyond any question the practice for Labour authorities to charge significantly more community charge than the Conservatives.


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House Insulation

5. Mr. Battle : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what help is offered to local authority tenants to insulate their homes.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry :) The Government are firmly committed to encouraging greater energy efficiency in local authority dwellings. Substantial capital resources are made available to local authorities to improve their housing stock, and advice and grants are available to tenants on low incomes to insulate their homes.

Mr. Battle : Is the Minister aware that the home insulation scheme has been reduced to the programme that is run by the energy action grants agency scheme in Newcastle and that that is leading to cowboy contractors knocking on the doors of pensioners and people on low incomes, asking for deposits in advance and then disappearing? Would not it be better to have a home insulation scheme that is properly administered and monitored by local authorities to prevent that unscrupulous abuse, to ensure that the scheme results in home improvements for council tenants and that poor people are not left in the cold?

Mr. Baldry : The home energy efficiency scheme is an excellent scheme, to which £27 million has been made available for this financial year. That is a significant increase on the level of help that has been made available to low-income households in the past. The scheme expects to undertake 200,000 insulation jobs this year. Network installers have been registered in all parts of the country and all low-income households have access to a network installer. If the hon. Gentleman has a scintilla of evidence about the scheme not working properly, I suggest that he makes it available to my hon. Friends in the Department of Energy. The energy efficiency agency that is running the scheme is highly reputable and, I am sure, will be concerned about any suggestions made by the hon. Gentleman that any network installer is not coming up to standard. Unless the hon. Gentleman is prepared to give that evidence, he should stop decrying the scheme.

Mr. Colvin : Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that a lot of money is wasted on insulation? Does he further agree that what we want is a uniform national scheme of rating for energy efficiency for buildings? At the moment, we have the national home energy rating scheme and Starpoint. Will my hon. Friend get in touch with his opposite number at the Department of Energy and ask the Department to initiate a uniform scheme, which would make it a great deal easier for my hon. Friend to honour the undertaking that his Department has given to review building regulations to take account of energy efficiency factors in home construction?

Mr. Baldry : The methodology on which both those schemes are based has been developed by the Building Research Establishment. I have no doubt that the Starpoint and national home energy rating schemes are considering ways to ensure that there is the least possible confusion about home energy rating for local authorities and home owners.

Mr. Win Griffiths : The Minister must be aware that about 170 million tonnes of carbon dioxide are thrown up into the atmosphere every year from homes in Britain. Will


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he admit that the scheme for which his and other Departments are responsible, which seeks to reduce our energy consumption, are miserable and, at the moment, hardly doing anything to meet the problem of global warming or even our commitment to stabilise the emission of carbon dioxide by 2005? Will the Government show a radical response and announce some positive schemes that would reduce significantly the amount of carbon dioxide that is thrown into the atmosphere from homes in Britain?

Mr. Baldry : The amounts of money that are being made available to promote energy efficiency improvements just among local authority tenants are substantial ; 25 per cent. of the £3.5 billion of local authority capital investment was spent on improving heating and home insulation last year ; 25 per cent. of the £450 million of estate action resources went on heating and insulation improvements ; £60 million is being spent on the energy efficiency demonstration programme and, as I have already made clear, £27 million has been made available for the home energy efficiency scheme. The sums of money allocated to promote energy efficiency among local authority tenants alone are rightly substantial because we want to ensure maximum energy efficiency throughout our housing stock.

Homelessness

6. Mr. Bidwell : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his estimate on the current levels of homelessness in Greater London.

Sir George Young : In the third quarter of 1990, local authorities in London accepted responsibility to secure accommodation for 9,350 households they found to be homeless. The latest estimate of the voluntary groups dealing with rough sleepers is that there were about 1,000 people sleeping rough in seven main areas in central London at the end of January. Many of those are now using the emergency shelters and other accommodation provided under our initiative.

Mr. Bidwell : Will the Minister comment on the vicious and brutal 103 per cent. increase in rents for council house tenants since the Tories came back into power in the London borough of Ealing? Does not he understand that that is bound to lead to extra homelessness among those who cannot afford to pay?

Sir George Young : I am more than happy to comment on the increase in rents in the London borough of Ealing. It is one of the many legacies that the people of Ealing have had to bear from the outgoing Labour administration, along with a record 66 per cent. increase in rates three years ago. The reason for the rent increase in the London borough of Ealing, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well, is the irresponsible budget set a year ago by the outgoing Labour administration. The council assumed that it would make a profit on private sector leasing which it was never likely to make.

Mr. Tracey : Will my hon. Friend do something serious and immediate about the number of empty homes in councils controlled by the Labour party in London? There are 10,000 in just four Labour-controlled boroughs. Will he also do something about the millions of pounds of uncollected rents in Labour local authorities? Perhaps he


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will invite Opposition Members to chase their local authorities rather than make vacuous propaganda points about homelessness in London.

Sir George Young : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. In London about 20,700 properties owned by local authorities are empty and about £360 million in rents is uncollected. There are substantial resources available which could be used to meet housing need in London.

Mr. George Howarth rose--

Mr. Tony Banks rose--

Mr. Speaker : Mr. George Howarth.

Mr. Tony Banks : Oh come on. The hon. Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey) represents the Tory party in London.

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman is called regularly. He cannot expect to be called every day on every question of his choice.

Mr. George Howarth : Does not the Minister recognise the serious point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) about the connection between the provision of housing at affordable rents and the level of homelessness in London? As regard the 103 per cent. rent increase in the Conservative-controlled London borough of Ealing, will he confirm that the increase would have been even higher if the Minister had not arranged for the authority to be bailed out to the tune of £5 million? If he will confirm that, will he also say that such provision should be made to local authorities throughout the country to cushion the rent increases that his Government are forcing on them?

Sir George Young : I must make it clear that, for obvious reasons, I played no part in the negotiations between the London borough of Ealing and my Department. The Government have taken several steps to increase the supply of affordable accommodation in Greater London, which is the subject of the question. Some £300 million has been made available, part of which is aimed at bringing voids back into use. Some of that is being spent under the tenants' incentive scheme to create vacancies in London. Some has financed homes under the private sector leasing scheme. On top of that, there is a substantial increase in the budget available to the Housing Corporation, providing an increase in the supply of affordable accommodation. The Government are taking several steps to deal with the problems that the hon. Gentleman raises.

Local Government Finance

7. Mr. Robert B. Jones : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what saving in the community charge there would be in 1991-92 to a couple living in Dacorum in a property with a rateable value of £200, under his community charge reduction scheme.

The Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities (Mr. Michael Portillo) : The community charge reduction scheme will take hundredsof pounds off the bills of many people whose rates were low. The couple in my hon. Friend's constituency would have had a rates bill near the national average, but even so might expect a reduction of about £64 between them.


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Mr. Jones : I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Is he aware that Conservative-controlled Dacorum borough council has reduced its community charge by £33 per head and that one reason for that is that 98 per cent. of those registered have paid? Is he aware the council has gone about running the borough in an extremely efficient way, to the great advantage of those who live there? Does not that contrast with the nearby Labour- controlled council of Watford, which has a community charge of almost £100 more, with a cost of collection of £19 per head, compared with £7 per head in Dacorum? In those circumstances, will my hon. Friend advise the people of Watford and other areas of Hertfordshire to do what three opposition councillors in my area did last year and join the Conservative party?

Mr. Portillo : I endorse my hon. Friend's advice. It is remarkable that the community charge in Dacorum has been reduced by 8 per cent. Even so, it is remarkable that the community charge reduction scheme would give a couple in my hon. Friend's constituency a reduction of £133 if they were on three quarters of the average rateable value. Watford has no excuse in looking to the county, because Hertfordshire, which is under Conservative control, is spending £16 below the standard spending assessment, so the entire burden and more must be the responsibility of Watford.

Mr. James Lamond : Is the Minister aware that no amount of tinkering with the poll tax in Dacorum or anywhere else will make it acceptable? Can we expect the Secretary of State to make a better job of finding a method of financing local government than he did in 1972 on local government reorganisation when in charge of the Standing Committee on the Local Government Bill, the disastrous results of which we are still trying to deal with 18 years later?

Mr. Portillo : From the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I thought that his sense of geography was not strong. From the second part, I thought that his sense of history was not strong.

8. Mr. Harry Greenway : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what information he has on the community charge levels for London boroughs in 1991 ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Portillo : Westminster city council has set an example by planning a charge of £176. However, it seems already that some councils are planning charges of over £400 : Hounslow, Merton, Hackney, Camden and Islington.

Mr. Greenway : Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Ealing's Conservative council on reducing the former Labour council community charge by £40 to under £400, despite 10 per cent. inflation? Does he accept my implacable opposition to council rent increases of £10 a week from 1 January and of £17.87 a week from 1 April? I express my implacable opposition even though the previous Labour council was entirely to blame. Can my hon. Friend find a way of helping the council?

Mr. Portillo : My hon. Friend draws attention to the extraordinary achievement of Ealing in bringing down the community charge, given the horrific legacy to which my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning referred a moment ago. What the council has managed to


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do on the community charge is remarkable. I regret that rents have had to go up so much, but there is no doubt where the responsibility lies. The Government have been as co-operative with Ealing in its difficult position as they can be, but in the end the sins of the old Labour administration will be visited on the people of Ealing.

Mr. Fraser : Is the Minister aware that in Lambeth we face appallingly savage cuts as a result of the Government's insisting on the writing off of about £40 million of debt? Why cannot we do what any business would do and write off that debt without treating it on the one hand as money that has to be added to the poll tax or, on the other, as expenditure to be deducted from capped expenditure? Why cannot we tackle it sensibly as a business would?

Mr. Portillo : The hon. Gentleman seeks to compare Lambeth with a business. I am afraid that I find that comparison far-fetched.

Planning

9. Mr. Favell : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received on the remarks by the Minister for housing on the potential beneficial impact of a well-designed new town or village on the landscape.

Mr. Heseltine : I assume that my hon. Friend is referring to a recent speech by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning to a conference on "Tomorrow's New Communities". I have had no direct representations on his remarks.

Mr. Favell : My hon. Friend is right ; I am referring to that brave speech by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning. Everybody is in favour of the green belt ; it is a valuable asset. But if we are never to build beyond the green belt in countryside which is accessible, valuable or beautiful, all building will have to take place within towns. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the vast majority of people live in towns and that they, too, want to be able to see trees and to have somewhere to let the dog run and for their children to play?


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