Read the Third time, and passed .
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tim Yeo) : The information available to me, provided by Liverpool city council, is that it accepted 397 households as homeless in the second quarter of this year.
Mr. Kilfoyle : Is the Minister aware that since 1988 in the city of Liverpool there has been a 48 per cent. increase in the number of homeless families? We have had the smallest number of new home completions in the city since 1982-83. In addition, nationally in the first six months of 1991 there was a 53 per cent. increase in the number of mortgage repossession orders. In this year, the 25th anniversary of Shelter, does the Minister agree that the time is right for him to give effect to the Prime Minister's boast in his letter of support to Shelter that the Government would employ public expenditure where necessary? Or does he concur with the view of the Minister for Housing and Planning that the homeless are merely the people whom one steps over on the way out of the opera?
Mr. Yeo : I share the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman for homeless people in Liverpool. It is because I share it that I must draw attention to the scandalous mismanagement of the housing stock in Liverpool. There are 5,733 empty council houses, almost 2,000 of which have been empty for more than a year. There is £16 million of uncollected rent, more than a quarter of the total rent roll. Those resources in property and money could be put to good use to top up the £23 million housing improvement programme allocation this year, the £12.5 million of estate action money, the £71 million of Housing Corporation money and the £15 million for the
Column 244vacant dwellings initiative. Those are huge resources which taxpayers are making available to Liverpool. If the city council was doing its job, it would put those resources to good use on behalf of the tenants.
Mr. Alton : Is the Minister aware that in addition to the 5,700 empty council-owned properties, there are a further 7,000 empty properties in the private sector, bringing to over 12,000 the number of empty properties in the city of Liverpool? Although I agree with the Minister that empty properties could be used to house homeless people, is not it the case that until capital receipts are released from the sale of council properties, councils will not have the resources to put properties back into use for people who need them?
Mr. Yeo : I have already listed the extensive resources that are available to the council. In addition, the vacant dwellings initiative, which provides £15 million of public money, topped up by £17 million of private investment, is designed to bring privately owned empty properties back into use. There is even more good news on the horizon for Liverpool in the form of a housing action trust. Despite the unremitting hostility of the Opposition Front-Bench team, I am glad to say that the majority group on the present Liverpool city council, in contrast to its predecessor, is showing interest in a housing action trust and my Department is discussing the matter with it.
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine) : A list of the respondents to the consultation paper, "The Structure of Local Government in England" and copies of the responses were placed in the Library of the House on 14 October. There were 1,893 responses.
Mr. Pawsey : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the draft guidance issued by his Department does not require local authorities to be of any particular size to deliver an effective and efficient service? Does he agree that, generally speaking, smaller authorities are closer to local people and better able to reflect their needs and aspirations? Therefore, will he do what he can to encourage a response from small authorities to adopt the new powers?
Mr. Heseltine : My hon. Friend will be glad to hear that in our draft guidance we have left considerable room for the discretion of the Local Government Commission. We are looking for authorities that can deliver efficient and effective services. Certainly there will be every opportunity for authorities of any potential size to put forward their views.
Mr. Pike : Does the Secretary of State accept that if local government is to be local, it is essential that we do not repeat the mistakes of the 1973-74 reorganisation and that any reorganisation must be acceptable to local people?
Mr. Heseltine : The hon. Gentleman has obviously followed the Government's proposals, which are designed carefully to consult local people and to find out whether we can create local authorities that reflect a genuine sense of local community.
Column 245Mr. Channon : Does my right hon. Friend agree that his proposals are welcome, but that the sooner the uncertainty is removed the better? By what date does he believe that the reform of local government will be complete? Will he do his utmost to ensure that it is as quick as possible?
Mr. Heseltine : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support. We expect that the first of the new authorities will be in place by April 1994. We have not set a date for the completion of the exercise, but I shall bear what he said very much in mind.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Sir George Young) : The building of new social housing is now mainly the responsibility of housing associations, with local authorities assuming an enabling role.
Mr. Steinberg : Is the Minister aware that in my constituency, because of Government policy, little house building has taken place? As a result, people can expect to be on the waiting list for about seven years whereas under the Labour Government it was about one year. Is not that a disgrace? Will the Minister confirm or deny that his Department is now threatening local authorities that plan new builds, by saying that it will take away discretionary housing grants?
Sir George Young : I can deny that. No departmental official of mine has told a local authority not to build new. In one case--I think it was in Warwickshire--a local authority, on reflection, revised its bid and decided to develop its relationship with housing associations rather than commit its allocation to its own project.
I notice that the housing investment programme allocations to the city of Durham rose from £1.8 million in 1988-89 to nearly £3 million in the current year. On top of that, £358,000 was allocated to housing associations. I urge the local authority in Durham to develop a relationship with housing associations so that it can make faster progress in meeting the problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
Mr. David Nicholson : In answer to an earlier question the Under- Secretary of State mentioned the vast resources given to the city of Liverpool, and by definition to other inner city authorities, which have not used housing resources sensibly and have not proceeded far with the right to buy. Is my hon. Friend aware that many authorities in the south- west have not only used housing resources sensibly, but have sold about 25 per cent. or more of their stock? In making HIP allocations, will he take those matters into account as well as the efficiency with which those authorities use their stock and their willingness to co-operate with the private sector? That will be good for the building industry and for meeting housing need.
Sir George Young : Local authorities that use their resources sensibly, develop an enabling role and co-operate with the private sector and housing associations will benefit from the new regime being introduced this year by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State,
Column 246whereby HIP allocations take account of the use to which resources are put to give an added incentive to local authorities to improve their performance and the standard of service for their tenants.
Mr. Soley : Is not the Minister dodging the question yet again? Only the other day on "Panorama" Conservative councillors in Worcester said that they could not build new council houses without losing money. Is not the truth of the matter that the way in which the Government have skewed the finances means that councils cannot provide that housing? How much more bad publicity do the Government have to get on the failure of their housing programme from the Duke of Edinburgh, Conservative councillors and their supporters around the country before they do what we are all asking them to do and undertake a planned release of the capital receipts? That is money from the sale of council houses and the Government should invest it again in housing.
Sir George Young : Much of the bad publicity on housing accrues to Labour-controlled local authorities that have mismanaged their resources, let down their tenants, do not implement the right to buy, have been short- sighted about the role of the housing associations and have not developed the enabling role. The Government are making £8 billion of housing resources available next year and £24 billion over three years. We believe that that is a square deal for the housing movement.
Mr. Anthony Coombs : Will my hon. Friend confirm that it is often precisely those authorities that complain most about not being able to use capital receipts which have used the most in the past few years? My local authority, sadly Labour-controlled, has been able to use £16 million of capital receipts in the past five years. Many of those authorities also have land available which they are able to use with housing associations to provide new build, but they would not have been able to do so had not this Government been in power.
Sir George Young : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary have talked with housing authorities throughout the country in the past few weeks and we have been interested to find out that many local authorities have land banks which they are not prepared to make available to housing associations. They are not adopting the broader role that we envisaged. I hope that any local authority that has land available will develop a dialogue quickly with the housing association movement, whose resources are increasing substantially, to see whether it can make faster progress than would otherwise be the case in meeting housing needs in its area.
4. Mr. Alan W. Williams : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the condition of Britain's rivers following the 1990 river quality survey conducted by the National Rivers Authority.
Column 247Mr. Williams : When the Minister reads that report, which has already been widely leaked, he will discover that 11 per cent. of Britain's rivers have improved in quality since 1985, but that 15 per cent. have deteriorated. From 1958 there was a steady improvement in the quality of Britain's rivers, but since 1980 there has been a net deterioration of 6 per cent. Is not that an appalling commentary on the Government's record of caring for the environment?
Mr. Trippier : No, it is not. First, the hon. Gentleman has suggested that the report, which he says has been leaked, is accurate, but I suggest to him and to the House that it is not. That will be revealed by the time the report is published by the NRA. Secondly, the fact that 90 per cent. of river water in the United Kingdom is judged to be of a good or very high standard is something of which I am enormously proud. That contrasts with the rest of the European Community, where 75 per cent. of river water is judged to be of good quality. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that our record is the best in the European Community.
Mr. Dunn : Is my hon. Friend aware that large sections of the River Darent, which runs through the constituency of Dartford--hence the name Dartford--have largely disappeared? Will my hon. Friend therefore give me an undertaking that he will visit Dartford early in the new year, or on Christmas day if need be, to see for himself the damage that has been done to our river and how much has been lost? My hon. Friend should bring with him members of the NRA so that they can provide best advice on how we can give our river back to the people of Dartford.
Mrs. Ann Taylor : Does the Minister realise that his attitude on river quality is incredibly complacent and that the condition of Britain's rivers is causing great concern to many people, from anglers and recreational users of rivers to the chief scientist of the NRA? Why has there been a downturn in river water quality under the Government which has reversed the trend since the mid-1950s? That downturn is all the more remarkable considering the damage that the Government have done by reducing British industry.
Mr. Trippier : It is brass cheek for the hon. Lady to refer to the Government's record on river quality and water in general when one remembers that the Labour Government cut investment in water quality by 30 per cent. It would have taken a considerable amount of time for any Government taking over their shambolic performance to improve the quality of just about everything in the environment, as we have been doing. I remind the hon. Lady who set up the National Rivers Authority. She at least praises the National Rivers Authority on every conceivable occasion. We invented it and set it up--the Labour party did not.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert Key) : I do not propose to make any change in the existing basis of liability or the benefit arrangements for the remaining period of the community charge.
Mr. Madden : Will the Minister now accept that the 20 per cent. contribution is perhaps the cruellest feature of the poll tax fiasco, placing a significant burden on those with the lowest incomes, including many pensioners, in places such as Bradford ? It costs local authorities more to collect than it raises in revenue. Is not the Minister deeply ashamed that he intends to carry on with that cruel and stupid tax instead of scrapping it, as he should have done a long time ago ?
Mr. Key : There is nothing cruel or stupid about providing a benefit system which more than compensates for the 20 per cent. that those people are asked to pay. As for it costing more to collect, the average 20 per cent. charge is about £50, whereas the average cost of collection is about £12.
Mr. Janman : Was not extra money given to those on income support specifically to pay the 20 per cent. contribution ? Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government are being amazingly generous with taxpayers' money from 1993 onwards, when although the minimum 20 per cent. contribution will have been abolished, those on income support will still receive that extra money, which they started to receive two years ago ?
Mr. Key : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I wonder what advice Opposition Members give to their constituents who are liable to pay that 20 per cent. when they discover that they are not paying more than the 20 per cent. that they receive from the rest of the taxpayers.
Mr. Blunkett : Will the Under-Secretary of State read the Audit Commission's evidence about the cost of collecting the 20 per cent. contribution, the havoc that it is causing in terms of non-collection rates and the administrative difficulties that it is causing in magistrates courts ? Does he agree that the announcement last Thursday by the Secretary of State for Social Security is nothing short of a scandal ? It suggested that when the 20 per cent. is abolished the taper will be changed so that, instead of people over social security levels losing 15p in the £1, they will lose 20p, thereby penalising people who are struggling to lift themselves out of poverty, provide pensions for themselves and do what the Conservative party always preaches--stand on their own two feet. Is not it a scandal that, in so doing, their feet will be kicked out from under them ?
Mr. Key : Before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made his announcement, Opposition Members accused us of creating a situation where there would be no taper, but a cut-off and said how cruel that would be. Now that there is a taper, they complain just as loudly. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for
Column 249Social Security for providing a generous new benefit system for the council tax, from which there will be no clawback of the uprated benefit.
Mr. Townsend : As the wood is an 8,000-year-old oak wood only eight miles from the centre of London on a site of special scientific interest, could not the Department have done more to insist that the important new road going close to my constituency was cut-and-cover? Following the thought of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn), may I invite the Minister to come there for a walk with his dog on Christmas day to envisage the damage that the new road will cause?
Mr. Yeo : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his invitation. I was brought up until the age of seven near Oxleas wood and I do not recall so much publicity about the value of that 8,000-year-old wood 40 years ago. A cut-and-cover tunnel would involve slicing a great swathe through the wood to construct the tunnel, quite apart from the £10 million that it would cost. In addition, such a tunnel would involve the closure of the south-facing slip roads at Shooters Hill and would increase traffic on local roads. English Nature is discussing the management plan and proposes the readoption of the practice of coppicing. It also proposes more exploitation of the wood for educational purposes. The local borough has proposed that the wood should be declared a local nature reserve.
Mr. Simon Hughes : Are not the Government missing an opportunity to be both good Europeans and good environmentalists at the same time? Would not it be easy to accede to the commissioner's request to change the three points in the regulation which the Commission says are defective and deal with Crown immune areas, reduce the latitude given to authorities and ensure that environmental assessments are recorded in writing so that we have proper regulations and proper environmental impact assessments? That would test whether Oxleas wood, Twyford down and other such places would survive if there were proper implementation of European law.
Mr. Yeo : As I have made clear, the disagreement between the Government and the Commission does not involve the merits of the case, but the procedures. I do not think that many people are fully aware of that. The Government intend to comply with the Commission's directive and have an exceptionally good record of compliance with directives on environmental assessments. In this case, we followed the procedures in operation at the time. We are good Europeans. For the reasons that I gave in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), I believe that we are looking after the interests and future of the wood as thoroughly as any reasonable person could.
Mr. Peter Bottomley : Does my hon. Friend accept that the change is that there is now a proposal to cut a road through the wood whereas 40 years ago there was not? Would not it be legally wise and politically sensible not to go ahead with the compulsory order to bring in bulldozers until difficulties with the European Commission and local people have been resolved? I can tell my hon. Friend that local people would not mind losing the south-facing slip roads.
Mr. Yeo : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his offer to defend increasing traffic in his immediate neighbourhood. A cut-and-cover tunnel involves cutting, so considerable damage would be inflicted on the wood if that alternative were chosen. In addition, I do not believe that it would necessarily be the most cost-effective use of resources in terms of environmental output to spend such a substantial sum on that project.
Mr. Evans : How long does the Secretary of State expect that it will take to complete the valuations and how long will it take to deal with householders' objections to those valuations? Will not local authorities, which will still be wrestling with the poll tax in 1992, be in a state of total chaos in April 1993? Will those householders whose properties are valued through the use of aerial photographs be informed of that?
Mr. Heseltine : The hon. Gentleman will be aware that responsibility for the detailed exercise of the valuation measurements is the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. I can help the hon. Gentleman by saying that we believe that we are on schedule for the introduction of the council tax in April 1993.
Mr. Bowis : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he has listened to hon. Members and representatives of people with disabilities who are worried that the additional room or larger property that they need to accommodate their disabilities might take them into a higher band and that he has decided that any such people should fall within one band lower than would otherwise be the case?
Mr. Heseltine : I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding the House of our special announcements to ensure that special features of properties adapted for the disabled should be disregarded.
Mr. Key : The Government believe that competition is the best guarantee of efficiency. That is why we are consulting on our proposals for extending compulsory competitive tendering to professional and technical
Column 251services carried out by local authorities. These are set out in "Competing for Quality--Competition in the Provision of Local Services", published on 5 November.
Mr. Cryer : Does the Minister accept that the vast majority of professional and technical officers in local authorities are providing a devoted, decent and efficient service for the benefit of local communities? Does he recognise that his proposals are a kick in the teeth for that devoted service and an invitation not to services that are democratically accountable to the local community, but to the spivs of the free enterprise service sector such as Mr. J. G. L. Poulson, the well-known Tory who demonstrated what sort of corruption can be applied to private enterprise competitive local authority services?
Mr. Key : It is always a pleasure to reply to the beguiling and dulcet tones of the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer). I seem to recall that a gentleman called T. Dan Smith was also involved at that time and that he was not a Conservative.
As I said in Chester to the Society of Chief Architects of Local Authorities, I greatly admire the work carried out by local authority professionals. It is precisely because the best is very good that we want to make it apply to everyone.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes : Does my hon. Friend accept that in many authorities the work being carried out by professional and technical officers is of a high standard and very cost-effective? However, that is not universally the case. Do we not owe it to community charge payers in each of those areas to ensure that the best value is obtained for their money and that they get the most efficient service? The only way to do that is to make sure that they have the fresh air of competitive tendering.
Mr. Key : My hon. Friend is right. I would add just one other factor. On performance standards, under our proposals in the Local Government Bill which is going through another place, the Audit Commission will issue directions whose effect will be to define yardsticks against which local authorities will report their performance. That is not a retrospective or prescriptive but a descriptive process and will allow the citizens of this country to measure the standards of service that they receive from their local authorities.
Mr. Gould : Now that the extension of compulsory competitive tendering has been rejected by the professional bodies, by the whole of the local government world and, most recently, by their Lordships, why will the Minister not admit that the game is up, that the consultation paper will have to be withdrawn, and that the Government must abandon their dogma- driven obsession with privatisation in favour of our insistence that quality and value for money must be the sole criteria?
Mr. Key : Like the hon. Gentleman, I read the Association of Metropolitan Authorities press release calling for withdrawal of the consultation paper. It is astonishing that the Opposition should ask us to legislate without consulting on this very important issue.
The Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities (Mr. Michael Portillo): My Department received more than 800 representations in response to the consultation paper, "A New Tax for Local Government", most of which welcomed its principles.
Mr. Greenway : What changes does my hon. Friend envisage in the assessment of local authority spending needs and in the distribution of Government grant under the council tax? Is he aware that the spending assessment for Ryedale district council, which is in my constituency, is some 20 per cent. lower than that for neighbouring Hambledon, part of which is also in my constituency, even though the two districts have similar characteristics? Does he agree that if the distribution of Government grant were seen to be fair, local residents would not only be able to assess the performance of local authorities but would begin to see that our new council tax is a far better deal than the uncosted return to the rates--or, even worse, the uncosted local income tax--proposed by the Opposition parties?
Mr. Portillo : Our distribution is fair. The reason why Hambledon and Ryedale get different standard spending assessments is not that they are similar but that in some ways they are dissimilar. For example, Hambledon scores much higher on the sparsity valuation, and sparsity was one of the factors that we took into account and put into the process precisely because the Association of District Councils thought that it was a relevant factor. The association is right : it is more expensive to provide services in an area of sparsity than in an area which suffers less from that.
Mr. Bellotti : Will the Minister confirm that he has received representations from Age Concern and others about the income of single pensioners being 60 per cent. of the average income of a retired couple? In the light of those representations will he reconsider the Government's attitude towards the 25 per cent. discount with a view to increasing it?
Mr. Portillo : I believe that 25 per cent. is the right logical discount for single people. The tax is a 50 per cent. property tax and a 50 per cent. personal tax, so the full tax is payable if there are two or more people in the household, while half the tax is payable if the property is empty or is not a sole residence. Therefore, 75 per cent. of the tax is payable if a single person lives there.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman and I agree that there should be a discount for single people--I am only sorry that the Labour party continues to insist that we should return to a rating system in which single people would have to pay through the nose, as they did before.
Miss Emma Nicholson : In view of the forthcoming reform of the common agricultural policy, farmers are naturally concerned about downward pressure on incomes. Will my hon. Friend confirm that under the council tax farms will be identified as working farms and thus avoid an unnecessarily high banding?
Column 253Mr. Portillo : Valuers will have to take account of what properties are really worth. If they are tied into a working farm, or if there are legal agreements that constrain the ways in which they can be used, clearly that will be a material factor in determining whether the properties have a market value and what it is. The answer to my hon. Friend's question is that of course those are relevant considerations for valuers to take into account.
Mr. Gould : In response to the statement by the Birmingham city treasurer that he would have to keep a register to administer the council tax, the Minister asserted that the keeping of such a register would be unlawful. Does he adhere to that assertion and, if so, what was the basis for it?
Mr. Portillo : The basis is that there is no power in the Local Government Finance Bill now in Committee for councils to keep a register. Nor is there any power for them either to require details from people in order to keep a register or to require people to continue to notify them of changes in any register. Therefore, I believe that my comments were valid.
Mr. Brandon-Bravo : Will my hon. Friend commend as compulsory reading part of our proceedings in Committee when for the first time hon. Members listened for two or two and a half hours to-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Portillo : My hon. Friend is right to say that the local income tax is not an alternative to council tax which commends itself to Conservative Members--or even to most Opposition Members, and he is right to say that anybody interested in knowing why local income tax will not work could do no better than to read the report of our proceedings in Committee.
10. Mrs. Mahon : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many people he estimates will be liable to pay the 20 per cent. contribution to the poll tax in Calderdale for 1992-93 ; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Key : The number of people liable to pay 20 per cent. of the community charge in Calderdale next year will depend on a number of factors, including the number of people on incomes at or below the income support level.
Mrs. Mahon : My local authority informs me that the proportion of the population will be 12 per cent. In this season of goodwill, will the Minister promise to listen to the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Audit Commission and every other organisation, including the charities, which say that the 20 per cent. tax is unfair, and that it is a bad tax which works against the poor, or is he content to support the Ebenezer Scrooge of the Department of the Environment? That miserable gentleman repented. May we have an assurance that the Minister will do the same?
Mr. Key : I do not think that anyone has ever accused me of being Ebenezer Scrooge. I am informed that Calderdale tells us that about 11 per cent. of its payers are at the 20 per cent. community charge level--which means about 16,200 people this year, 600 of whom are students. I have explained to the House that we shall not change the benefit system or the 20 per cent. system until we introduce the council tax, but of course I will listen with care to any representations that are made, as I always do.
Mr. Dickens : Is it not a fact that because we have introduced up to 100 per cent. rebates on the new council tax, my constituents in Littleborough and Saddleworth, on the border of Calderdale, will gain quite significantly if they are on income support?
Mr. Key : My hon. Friend is right. Those people will benefit in a number of ways. When the next Conservative Government are re-elected, we shall have a growing and buoyant economy, and everyone will be better off.
Mr. Nellist rose --
Mr. Nellist : Will the Minister still tell people in Calderdale that no one who cannot afford to pay the poll tax will go to prison for that inability? If so, what are they to make of the case last week of Maria Jones, a 22-year-old woman who was 31 weeks pregnant? She offered £5 per week out of her £42 per week benefit, but was sentenced to 60 days in prison by magistrates in Stroud. Will the people in Calderdale still believe him?
Mr. Key : I do not know the details of the individual case ; that is a question for the magistrates. My advice to the hon. Gentleman's constituents is not to listen to the advice of someone who does not pay the tax himself and who advises others not to pay.