Read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.
(No. 2) Bill--
Read the Third time, and passed.
That Mr. Bob Dunn be added to the Committee of Selection.-- [Mr. Boswell.]
The Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities (Mr. Michael Portillo) : The Government are currently consulting on the council tax. Our intention is to introduce legislation in good time to implement the new system for the financial year 1993-94.
Mr. Eastham : Why do the Government intend to wait two years to introduce this new legislation when it is obvious that it could be introduced in the coming year? As the Government appear to have a light legislative programme for the coming year, why are they dithering and not getting on with getting rid of the poll tax? Let us kiss it goodbye once and for all.
Mr. Portillo : I am delighted to have that welcome for the council tax. I wish that all Opposition Members had been so welcoming. Clearly the hon. Gentleman has been reading the Local Government Chronicle and he agrees with its conclusion that the council tax will do Manchester a lot of good. As for why we cannot legislate earlier, the hon. Gentleman will know, because the Opposition set it out in a document, that it is necessary to consult on the matter, to get it right and to give the House and another place time to consider it in detail.
Mr. Sims : My hon. Friend refers to the consultation paper, but his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that he has no intention of altering the bands proposed in the document. Will he therefore take this
Column 706opportunity to explain the basis of the valuation of properties to be put in the bands? I am sure that he will be aware of the concern in constituencies such as mine where it appears that, if the valuation is based on the price of properties as exhibited in the offices of local estate agents, people in quite modest properties will find themselves in the same band as those living in millionaires' row. It would be helpful if my hon. Friend could explain the basis of valuation.
Mr. Portillo : We thought carefully about the number of bands proposed and looked at a number of different options. We decided that seven bands was the right number to put forward as our firm proposal. The capital valuation will be based on capital values--that speaks for itself. A number of special factors may be involved in certain properties and that is one of the matters on which we are consulting.
My hon. Friend may not be giving enough weight to the fact that the tax is intended to collect much less than the old rating system used to do and that we have arrived at a balance where those in the most expensive properties will be asked to pay two and a half times as much as those in the least expensive properties. On the whole, people think that that is a fair apportionment of the burden.
Mr. Wigley : If it will take two years to implement such legislation, have the Government considered introducing parallel legislation, which could come into effect much sooner, to prevent those who presently receive an 80 per cent. reduction from having to pay anything at all under the present poll tax system?
Mr. Portillo : Of course, we have thought about it, but we do not propose to do that. People on income support who are expected to pay 20 per cent. of the community charge bill receive an addition to their benefit in respect of the average of those 20 per cent. bills. There has been no adjustment to the amount that they get to take account of the fact that the community charge has been reduced by £140, so a number are receiving more in their benefits than they are asked to pay in their 20 per cent. community charge. That is particularly the case in those local authorities where the charge is low.
Mr. Oppenheim : Bearing in mind that the Labour party proposes to abolish capping and spending limits if it comes to power, will my hon. Friend invite his opposite number to explain to the House how his so-called "fair rates" figures could be kept down to the quoted levels if Labour abolishes capping and competitive tendering? Are not Labour's figures a complete sham?
Mr. Portillo : Labour's figures are not worth the paper that they are written on--partly because the arithmetic is wrong but also because, as my hon. Friend said, Labour does not intend to limit in any way the amount that Labour authorities can spend. We know that those authorities spend through the roof, if they are given the opportunity to do so. We know also that Labour has opposed the transfer of part of the burden to value added tax. Again, Labour's figures are based on an entirely false assumption--on the lower burden being taken from local taxpayers. However, Labour has spoken out against the VAT increase that made that possible.
Column 707published figures purporting to show the council tax under a seven-band system, is it not the case that no work on such a system has been undertaken? Is it not the case also that district valuers were asked to provide estimates on the basis of a 14-band system and that the decision was then taken to lop off the top six bands? Why was that done? Does not that decision completely invalidate the Government's figures and show that the unfair and familiar principle underlying the poll tax has been retained? I refer to the principle that the rich should be protected from paying their full whack, while an unfair burden falls on the rest of us.
Mr. Portillo : We got rid of the unfair principle underlying the old rating system, to which the hon. Gentleman wants to return, whereby the occupants of more expensive properties--even if they had modest incomes-- were expected to pay limitless sums towards local government. The hon. Gentleman also wants sole occupants to pay as much as multiple-occupancy households. That was a major unfairness under the rates system, and we are not prepared to return to it. The hon. Gentleman has been barking up the wrong tree for some time. We devised a system that appeals to the British public as being fair, because it dispenses with the extremes of the rating system. We prefer to base a system on 1991 values, whereas the hon. Gentleman wants to use 1973 values.
2. Mr. Teddy Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what will be the consequences of the distribution of Government grant of the council tax proposals ; and if there will be any significant alteration in so far as it relates to
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert Key) : Grant will be distributed so as to enable authorities to finance spending at a standard level, by levying standard taxable amounts determined by the Secretary of State. Authorities will be compensated for differences in their expenditure needs and for any variations in their taxable capacity. No major changes are proposed to the current system of standard spending assessments.
Mr. Taylor : Is my hon. Friend aware that there was public rejoicing in Southend-on-Sea this year, after years of battling to get rid of the terrible safety net, which forced the people of Southend-on-Sea to subsidise other councils? Is he further aware that my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) and I and all the people of Southend-on-Sea would be very unhappy if that wretched safety net were reintroduced? Is there any truth in the unique revelation appearing in The Scotsman that Jacques Delors could stop local government reforms by virtue of his latest directive?
Mr. Key : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the opportunity to congratulate the electors of Southend-on-Sea on their sensible decision in last Thursday's council elections. Transitional help will continue to be available for households, and we have no proposals to reintroduce area protection grant. My hon. Friend may have been referring to the transfer of undertakings directives, which place a new employer into the shoes of the old employer in respect of dismissals and other aspects of an employee's
Column 708terms and conditions of employment. If that is the case, those directives apply both to the private and public sector and would have no special effect on local authorities.
Mr. Channon : Is my hon. Friend aware that the proposed council tax arrangements set out in recent consultative documents would mean that, in future, nine out of 10 households in Southend-on-Sea are likely to pay even less than they do now? It is already a low figure because Southend-on-Sea is a prudent local authority. Does my hon. Friend share my belief that that is why the Conservatives enjoyed such excellent results in the local elections and why the Liberals were routed?
Mr. Key : I well recall my happy visit to Southend-on-Sea not long ago. My right hon. Friend is right to point out that, had the council tax been up and running this year, a couple living in a house of average value in Southend-on-Sea would have paid £276, as opposed to a community charge of £416.
Mr. Dalyell rose--
Mr. Dalyell : Up the road from Southend-on-Sea is Heveningham hall. Does the Minister know who owns it? As it is the subject of a grant--the word "grant" appears in the original question--can the Minister assure the House that it is not owned by the Iraqi Government?
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine) : The Government's council tax proposal has been widely welcomed by hon. Members and by those involved in local government. I look forward to receiving detailed responses to the consultation exercise now under way.
Mr. Burns : Will my right hon. Friend forgive me if I gently chide him for that reply? The reason is that my right hon. Friend seems not to have included in the representations that he received the thousands of voters in Chelmsford who voted against the Liberal Democrats and voted a Conservative council into Chelmsford, overturning the Liberal Democrat council because they support and like the council tax that my right hon. Friend proposes.
Mr. McCartney : Would the Secretary of State like to make a further visit to Wigan to explain to electors why the rate of council tax to be levied there is double the rate that will be levied in the Conservative borough of Trafford? In Wigan we will have the highest rate levy of all 10 districts in Greater Manchester. When people in boroughs such as Wigan will have to pay twice as much in council tax as those in a borough such as Trafford, does not that show that something is seriously wrong with the calculations?
Mr. Norris : There is no doubt that in my constituency of high- valued properties, the overwhelming majority of constituents will most certainly pay far less under the new council tax than they were paying under the old rating system and that the tax is warmly welcomed in that regard. I suggest that there is one point on which I would invite my right hon. Friend to keep his options open--the question of an additional band at the bottom of the scale, at around £20,000, to take account in my constituency of those who live in mobile homes and other low-cost accommodation, who are often the least fortunate. I suggest that there should be an additional band at the top of the scale at about £250,000, because at present those who live in areas such as mine on the fringes of London frequently find that a value of £160,000 on their property does not mean that they are especially rich.
Mr. Heseltine : Of course, I understand my hon. Friend's point. It has been made by other people. One must consider the banding arrangements in the context of the sums of money that separate one band from another. It is the Government's view that, having considered the various permutations, the seven-band arrangement with which we have come forward is appropriate.
Mr. Gould : As the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities could not answer the question about the six missing bands, perhaps the Secretary of State could try to clear up another matter of confusion. What will be the basis of valuation? Will it be capital valuation, without any conditions--as the Secretary of State said--or will other factors be taken into account, as the Minister of State said on Radio 4, or does confusion continue to reign?
Mr. Heseltine : The only confusion is in the mind of the hon. Gentleman because every time that we answer the question he asks it all over again. The fact is that we have come forward with seven bands. We made it absolutely clear, both in advance of our announcement and subsequently, that we considered a number of other options, but we came to the view that the seven-band option was the most appropriate. That remains the position. As for the broad issue of the valuation process, we also explained that. Whereas the Opposition are in favour of capital values, rental values and building and repair costs as a basis for valuation--whatever that may mean- -we believe in capital values, and we are consulting on that basis.
Mr. Heseltine : My hon. Friend the Minister is not wrong. If people wish to suggest to us specific areas where capital values need modification, we shall consider them. Local government may well produce examples that need specific examination. As we are designing a tax for local authorities to administer and collect, the appropriate way forward is by consultation and not by imposition.
Mr. Heseltine : My Department does not collect this information. There has been a substantial shift of work to private contractors as a result of the compulsory competitive tendering legislation. In addition, a number of local authorities have gone further, on a voluntary basis, in using private contractors to provide services on their behalf.
Mr. Evans : Does my right hon. Friend agree that it was Conservative local authorities that led the way on competitive tendering? Westminster, Wandsworth and Southend-on-Sea have provided better services. Is not it true that those authorities had the lowest community charge? Was not it the Labour party that was dragged screaming into the 20th century when it refused to accept the privatisation of services? Lambeth is one example, with its high community charge and rotten services. Does my right hon. Friend intend to extend competitive tendering to other services?
community--higher quality of service at a lower cost--are to be seen significantly in Wandsworth and Westminster. It is a matter of conjecture whether the Labour party has actually got to the 20th century, kicking and screaming or not.
Mr. Skinner : Despite the hoo-ha about the privatisation of services, is the Secretary of State aware that last Thursday the electors of Britain spoke about that matter and all the other Tory policies? In Bolsover the last four Tories, and the last Liberal Democrat as well, were swept aside. Of the 92 clubs in the Football League, only three are in areas where the local authority is controlled by the Tories. The red flag is flying over Blackpool, Brighton, Plymouth and other seaside resorts.
Mr. Heseltine : The only overwhelming conclusion to be drawn from last Thursday's elections is that the Labour party would not have secured enough votes to form a Government if there had been a general election.
Mr. Squire : I shall revert, if sadly, to the original question. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Labour party's commitment to abolish compulsory tendering at the insistence of the National and Local Government Officers Association and the National Union of Public Employees is a bad deal for consumers and users all over the country and gives the lie to any suggestion that it has forgotten its bad old ways of union- controlled party policies?
Mr. Key : Under current legislation we may consider whether to create additional parish and town councils outside London in the light of recommendations from the Local Government Boundary Commission. In the context
Column 711of the proposals in our recent consultation document on the structure of local government in England, the Government believe that there may be a case for considering whether to enhance the role of parish councils, especially if a new unitary authority were to cover a wide area.
Mr. Barron : Has the Minister considered receiving direct representations from parishioners about parish councils? In Maltby, South Yorkshire, where I live, the district council consistently votes against our having a parish council, although many people in the parish believe that we should have one.
Mr. Key : I believe that 90 per cent. of the hon. Gentleman's constituency has parishes. In our consultation paper, we specifically invite representations, and we shall be glad to receive them from his constituents.
Mrs. Peacock : While my hon. Friend listens to representations on parish councils, will he also listen to representations from my constituents about splitting the metropolitan authority of Kirklees, which provides lousy, inefficient and costly services?
Mr. Key : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to say that it is clear that Labour-controlled authorities have a worse record than Conservative-controlled authorities. However, we do not now intend to alter the structure of the existing unitary authorities.
Mr. Bellotti : I am sure that the Minister will wish to join me and other hon. Members in congratulating all those victors in town and parish elections last Thursday, including the 17 in Polegate town council, in my constituency, all of whom are Liberal Democrats. Will he assure the House that the current consultations will not affect the delay which may occur in the transfer of responsibilities for community care to local authorities, which the Government's programme shows is aimed for April 1993? Will he further assure the House that the finance to enable local authorities to plan for that transfer will be re-examined?
Mr. Key : I am glad to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the community care programme is proceeding on time However, I have to commiserate with him on his party's dismal performance in my constituency, where the independents are now the largest opposition, as opposed to the Liberal Democrats.
Sir Dudley Smith : Is my hon. Friend aware that until my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State came to office there were rumours that parish councils and town councils might be abolished? What he has said today is very welcome indeed, because there is a general feeling throughout the country that town councils provide an essential element in local government in that they are local.
Mr. Key : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although it is true that parish and town councils have comparatively small environmental powers, we recognise that loyalty to parish and town councils is extremely strong and we wish to ensure that their voices are heard properly.
Column 712what the Government plan to do or what recommendations they will make to redress the mismatch between parish and town councils, particularly in the metropolitan districts? As the survey carried out by Aston university and the consultative documents do not address the real problem in metropolitan districts, will the Government take action to ensure that it will be resolved?
Mr. Key : I assure the hon. Gentleman that before taking action we shall consult properly. That is precisely why we invited consultation. I was glad that the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) agreed that that was a sensible way forward. Of course, there are difficulties with parish and town councils. In addition, only about 50 per cent. of the country is parished. There are problems and that is why we are consulting on them.
Mr. Burt : Will my hon. Friend assure us that he does not intend to create any unnecessary and expensive regional bodies which cut right across the public desire to have decisions taken locally, in contrast with Labour party's policy which would bring back those regional bodies? Does he share the concern of my constituents who last week voted Conservative in a 17 per cent. swing from Labour to Conservative and thus backed and supported the Government's policy to say no to unnecessary regional bodies?
Mr. Key : Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We have no plans to introduce regional government. Of course, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The number of votes cast in the north-west show a remarkable improvement in support for the Conservative party.
Mr. Spearing : Does the Minister agree that the last annual report of the LDDC shows much more concern for the needs of developers than for those of local people? Is he aware that most of the £1.8 billion allocated to rail transport has been used to benefit developers and that the LDDC is not supporting the London borough of Newham's petition for a proper interchange between three new railways at Canning Town? Would it not be a pity if the design defects of underground stations built in the west end at the beginning of the century were replicated in the east end at the end of the century?
responsibilities. The LDDC has done a tremendous amount of work with local authorities and other bodies on projects which benefit the community. It has spent about £100 million over the past three years on community projects. It will spend about £87 million over the next three years on community projects and it has made agreements with boroughs such as the London
Column 713borough of Newham on the construction of houses and a series of projects on education and training which will benefit local people. That is an extremely fine record.
Mr. Summerson : The LDDC has a good record of making use of vacant derelict land. Does my hon. Friend agree that other authorities should follow the example set by the LDDC and use their vacant derelict land, thus reducing the pressure to develop green field sites?
Mr. Portillo : Indeed. The London Docklands development corporation has already reclaimed 600 hectares of derelict land--that sounds like quite a lot to me--and has a remarkable record. I wish that other local authorities would follow the LDDC's lead. We set up that corporation precisely for the purpose of bringing about regeneration and it is succeeding extremely well.
7. Mr. Kirkwood : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many of the objectives listed in the White Paper "This Common Inheritance", have so far been achieved ; and if he will make a statement.
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. David Trippier) : In the seven months since the publication of "This CommoInheritance", we have made substantial progress on some 100 of the commitments and proposals that it contained. Many of these were set out in my announcement on 26 March this year. The Government remain committed to the integration of environmental concerns into the whole range of their activities, both in the United Kingdom and internationally. Colleagues in charge of Departments throughout Whitehall are working constructively to press home the White Paper initiatives and to keep up the impetus for progress in the future.
Mr. Kirkwood : Will the Minister confirm that one of the main aims of the White Paper was to set statutory water quality objectives? Is he aware that that commitment was first made in 1987 when the National Rivers Authority was set up? It was repeated when the Water Bill was enacted and has now been restated in the White Paper. Despite that, statutory water quality objectives have yet to be set. As we discuss the matter this afternoon, raw sewage and industrial effluent are being discharged into our water courses and rivers. Is not it scandalous that it has taken the Government all this time to set out those objectives?
Mr. Trippier : I totally reject all that the hon. Gentleman has said. His references to legislation omitted the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which also set out water quality objectives. Such objectives are set by the National Rivers Authority in compliance with European directives, which we must implement. As I have stated repeatedly on the Floor of the House, by 1997 we shall be the first member state of the European Community to achieve 100 per cent. compliance with the bathing water quality directives. That is incredible progress.
Mr. Forman : Was not one of the most important objectives of that excellent White Paper that those sectors of British industry involved in pollution abatement and control should expand as quickly as possible, particularly into the export market? What progress has been made in that direction with the encouragement of the Government?
Mr. Trippier : Enormous progress is being made, particularly in water consultancy. As my hon. Friend suggests in his question, there is an enormous amount of business to be secured for British industry in work abroad, not least in central and eastern Europe. A new technology scheme has been introduced by my Department in conjunction with the Department of Trade and Industry and that is proving enormously successful. However, we still need more British companies to come forward to explain what they can do to share their expertise and technology with other countries who need it.
Mrs. Ann Taylor : Is not the real problem that the White Paper lacks any real objective, timetable or overall strategy? If we are to tackle the environmental crisis that we are facing, is not it about time that the Government started to give a lead? Does the Minister realise that it is no use the Secretary of State making the kind of statement that he made yesterday about regulating for higher standards or telling industry to be more aware and concerned about the environment when the Government are putting the interests of electricity shareholders before the interests of the environment?
Mr. Trippier : I should point out to the hon. Lady that, prior to the reversal in fortunes for the Conservative Government which we all know took place about a few months ago, there were two principal areas in which the Government led the Labour party. One was defence--not surprisingly--and the other was the environment. That should make the hon. Lady hang her head in shame. There is a stark contrast between this Government's record and that of the last Labour Government, who did next to nothing. We have introduced the Water Act 1989, which has been widely welcomed, and the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to give us the toughest regulatory regime in Europe. We introduced a White Paper setting out our programme for the next 10 years. The Labour party is absolutely nowhere on that issue : we have taken the high ground.
Mr. Trippier : The Environmental Protection Act 1990 requires all waste collection authorities to prepare recycling plans. We shall be issuing guidance tomorrow on how to draw up those plans for consultation. We shall also announce details of the distribution of £12 million of supplementary credit approvals to enable local authorities to invest in recycling. That will add significantly to measures already in place to encourage recycling.
Details will be placed in the Library.
Mr. Amos : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that encouraging reply, but will he have further discussions with local councils to set up schemes, in particular for the individual household waste collection of newspapers, glass bottles and tin cans, which would not only be good for the environment, but would help solve the growing litter problem? Will he join me in congratulating two schools in my constituency, Hexham middle school and Corbridge middle school, on the excellent work that they have done in increasing public awareness about the matter?
Column 715Mr. Trippier : With regard to my hon. Friend's latter question, I am happy to congratulate the schools to which he referred and I hope that he will convey those congratulations to them at the earliest opportunity.
With regard to my hon. Friend's first question, we have already been a partner in an experiment that has been running in Sheffield, which is now well known as "recycling city", and that experience has been replicated elsewhere. The scheme has been successful in that there have been doorstep collections and waste has been split up so that it can be recycled. Activity in this area will be stimulated by the new recycling credits scheme that we hope to announce within the next two months.
Mr. Tony Banks : Since we are talking about waste material, how many tonnes of paper were used and how many trees were sacrificed through the scrapping of all the poll tax forms because of Government changes? As it looks as though there is still a great deal of confusion surrounding the council tax, will the Minister recommend to local authorities that they print the new council tax forms on recycled paper or, perhaps, rice paper so that it is more palatable for Ministers when they have to eat their own words?
Mr. Mans : Does my hon. Friend agree that, contrary to the comments of the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), my hon. Friend's remarks show that the Government's recycling policy has clear objectives? Will he go further and ensure that recycling takes place in Government Departments other than his own and in the House of Commons?
Mr. Trippier : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to say that all Government Departments should set an example and follow that given by the Department of the Environment. I understand that the Services Committee of the House has introduced an option whereby Members of Parliament can choose whether to use recycled paper, so I hope that the vast majority of, if not all, Members of Parliament will take the option of using recycled paper.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Yeo) : We have taken a variety of measures over the last three yearsto boost the supply of low-cost housing in rural areas. We have substantially increased public resources through the Housing Corporation for new investment by housing associations, raising the target for the development of new subsidised housing under their special rural programme to 2,250 a year by 1993-94. We recently announced an extra £50 million of credit approvals for rural local authorities for a new programme of low-cost housing and we have amended planning guidance to permit development of low- cost housing for local needs on small sites not otherwise designated for housing.