Read the Second time, and committed.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Sir George Young) : A total of £386 million has been allocated in 1992-93 to support local authority expenditure on private sector renewal work, including house renovation grants.
Mr. Hutton : Is the Minister aware that that figure represents a cut in the value of renovation grants over previous years and that many local authorities are still struggling to meet the demand for such grants? In my constituency, 4,000 properties could benefit from renovation grants--yet my constituents are having to wait 15 months before their properties can be inspected. Is the Minister satisfied and, if not, what does he intend to do about it?
Sir George Young : On the first point, more resources will be available to the hon. Gentleman's constituents next year for improvement grants. What really matters is the totality of expenditure, from the Government and from local authorities, and next year £1.5 million will be available to his constituents as opposed to £1.3 million this year. That is good news.
On the second point, we recognise that a growing number of authorities face increased expenditure on mandatory grants. I have announced our intention to consult on options for change, and we hope to issue a paper by spring.
Mr. John Marshall : Does my hon. Friend agree that as important as the amount of money give to local authorities is, it is also important to consider their efficiency and whether they are corrupt? Is he aware that the Evening Standard has pointed out that a third of the homeless
Column 1022families in Lambeth are fraudulent? Has he read about the incompetence of that authority, and will he compare it with its competence when he was a member?
2. Mr. Jim Marshall : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the planned expenditure in the current financial year on the Green House programmes to promote energy efficiency work in local authority housing ; and what is the planned expenditure in each of the next two years.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : A total of £45 million is being spent on this demonstration programme in 1992-93, and £5 million is available to complete the programme in 1993-94.
Mr. Marshall : Does the Minister accept that early results of the programme show that it can lead to substantial energy savings and be of direct advantage to the environment? Should not the conclusion be that, instead of running down the programme, we should develop a nationwide strategy which would be to the long-term financial advantage of the domestic energy consumer and the physical environment? Does the Minister intend to bring to the House revised building regulations to take into account the lessons already learnt from that programme?
Mr. Baldry : The results of the demonstration programme are, indeed, exceptionally good and show that reductions in fuel costs of up to 40 per cent. and in carbon dioxide emissions of up to 50 per cent. can be achieved. However, it was a demonstration programme and now all local authorities must learn the lessons and ensure that they take them into account in their mainstream housing renovation programmes. In the coming year they will have a wonderful opportunity to do so because they will not only have the money from mainline housing investment programmes but the opportunity to invest the proceeds of their capital receipts. Their estimate--not ours or the Treasury's--is that they will this year raise £1.75 billion in capital receipts, well over £1 billion of which they can invest in housing. I hope that much of that investment will go on renovating and maintaining their stock.
Yes, we are introducing new building regulations. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State yesterday announced proposals that will substantially improve existing building regulations.
Mr. Ward : Does my hon. Friend agree that this country still lags a long way behind some of our continental friends and that it would be a good investment if, when he introduced new building regulations, he looked ahead 10 or 15 years and introduced the energy efficiency regulations that we think might apply then, so as to avoid large capital expenditure on improvements in the future?
Column 1023of the whole package will be a 25 to 35 per cent. improvement on current building regulations in terms of energy performance. That is a substantial improvement.
Ms. Short : If the Government would move in this policy area, it would benefit everyone. If we go for a big national insulation programme that will generate jobs, cut people's bills and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, that will be the right thing for the country. The Government are cutting the small programme that they had, and proposing new building regulations of a low standard.
Mr. Baldry : Clearly, the hon. Lady has not listened to a word that I said. The demonstration programme proves that local authorities can make substantial savings in terms both of costs and of improved energy efficiency. I hope that local authorities will take their opportunity this year for a substantial housing investment programme, using the released capital receipts to invest in their housing stock. The hon. Lady's city of Birmingham owns about 3,500 commercial properties--I still wonder what it is doing owning those. I hope that Birmingham will consider its asset base, decide what can be realised and apply some of the capital receipts to the city's housing stock.
3. Mr. David Martin : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what estimate has been made of the effect of the housing measures announced by the Chancellor in his autumn statement on the housing market since then.
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Howard) : The Housing Corporation now estimates that these measures will allow housing associations to buy about 17,000 properties in England by the end of March. A further 3,500 purchases will be made possible through cash grants to tenants. Taken together with the recent substantial fall in interest rates, this package should certainly have a very positive impact on the housing market.
Mr. Martin : Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider further measures to encourage rented family housing? Will he examine again the Rent Acts and Housing Acts, which, over many generations, have kept for shelter the rationing and queues which, for food and clothing, were swept away years ago by private enterprise?
Mr. Howard : We have made substantial progress in sweeping away those restrictions that have so long impeded progress in improving and increasing the rented sector in the housing market. I confirm to my hon. Friend that I am always anxious to consider further measures.
Mr. George Howarth : When the Secretary of State reconsiders the package, will he pay attention to the plight of people who bought former council houses, such as the "no fines" houses. Such people often now live in totally unsatisfactory, damp and inadequate properties, and have no means whereby they could afford to bring those properties up to proper standards. Will the Secretary of State consider extending the programme, perhaps to include mandatory grants?
Sir Michael Neubert : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that welcome as the measures in the Chancellor's autumn statement are, they tend to give the greatest benefits to major contractors and large-volume house builders? What help can he offer small and medium-sized building businesses facing not only the ravages of recession but unequal competition from the legal activities of those who operate below the VAT ceiling and can charge 17.5 per cent. less on bills, and the illegal activities of the black economy where it is a case of "cash down and no questions asked"?
Mr. Howard : I am, of course, anxious that any illegal activities such as those referred to by my hon. Friend should be brought to an end. Any information that my hon. Friend and those to whose complaints he referred possess will be carefully considered by the appropriate authorities.
The purpose of the autumn statement package was to improve the condition of the housing market in general, and I believe that it is having a positive impact on the market.
Mr. Battle : Does the Secretary of State agree that it is a bit premature to talk about a housing market recovery on the day we learn that mortgage arrears have shot up by 28 per cent. and more than 147, 000 families with arrears of more than 12 months are staring eviction in the face? Will he confirm that the Prime Minister is to introduce cash handouts for mortgage deposits to get the housing market going? Would it not be better for him to address the real problem? People fear that they are a pay check away from redundancy, so they dare not risk long-term commitments. Rising unemployment is undermining the housing market. Will the Secretary of State confirm that every working day since 1989 more than 600 building workers have lost their jobs? Without tackling unemployment by investment, the Government have no hope of tackling the housing crisis.
Mr. Howard : I am astonished by the hon. Gentleman's question. He began by referring to the increasing numbers of people who are in arrears on their mortgages. Does he not understand that if we persuade the building societies not to evict people and not to go for repossession orders, the inevitable consequence is that the number of people in their properties but in arrears will increase?
Why does the hon. Gentleman not refer to the news out today that the number of repossessions has fallen by 9 per cent. over the past year? Why does he not refer to the views of the director-general of the Council of Mortgage Lenders, who has said that the worst is now over? When will the Labour party stop its deliberate campaign of obstructing recovery and driving our recovery into recession?
Column 1025confidence that they will be investigated thoroughly by the Audit Commission and by the police. My officials have today written to Lambeth council in respect of breaches of competition legislation. I shall consider what action to take in the light of its reply.
Mr. Riddick : Nepotism in Monklands, a £10 million fraud in Lambeth, mismanagement in Sheffield, a £40 million fraud in Hackney and yet more probably to come out--yet the same councils for ever demand more money from the Government. Is that not a disgrace? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that grossly incompetent management by Labour authorities is not only ripping off local poll tax payers, but hitting and betraying the poorest people in society who so depend on the services provided by those local authorities?
Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend is, as usual, absolutely right. At the very time those practices were rife, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) was telling the Labour party conference : "In Labour Local Government we are the voice and the face of the Labour Party in practice."
Mr. Batiste : Is not the root cause of the catalogue of scandals described by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) the fact that in too many Labour councils full-time officers are being undermined by councillors trying to take over the day-to-day running of their departments, thereby undermining the officials and destroying good working practices? Is not meddlesome incompetence the reality of the face of the Labour party in power?
Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend makes a typically shrewd and important point-- [Interruption.] What he says is entirely accurate. I should have thought that on this one question today we might see some signs of humility in the Labour party instead of the reaction of the past few minutes.
Mr. Fraser : The Secretary of State will be aware that our interests are those of voters, of tenants and of consumers. First, will he confirm that the allegations in the chief executive's report on Lambeth are not principally against councillors? Secondly, what on earth has the audit service been doing for the past 10 years? It was quick enough to surcharge councillors over political acts. Why on earth has not the audit service, with a growing budget, been able to deal with the matters contained in the chief executive's report? Will the Secretary of State look at the way in which the audit service has considered these matters as well as at the principal issues involved?
Mr. Keith Hill : Will the Secretary of State accept that my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Ms. Hoey) and I recognise that the initiative that he has taken is inevitable, and that Labour Members will not tolerate fraud and maladministration, wherever and whenever it may occur? Can he ensure that, in all inquiries which may be undertaken, full protection is afforded to the many Lambeth employees who have sought to do an honest day's work for an honest day's pay in difficult circumstances? Does he recognise that the paramount
Column 1026concern is for firm and fast action by both the Government and the council in co-operation, because both agencies have allowed the matter to persist for far too long?
Mr. Howard : I welcome the first part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I am sure that the police will give careful consideration when protection is necessary and appropriate. As far as responsibility for such matters is concerned, it was the Labour council of the London borough of Lambeth which got into this mess, and it is that council which must get out of it.
Sir Paul Beresford : In the light of 10 years of allegations and rumours of corruption and incompetence from members all the way down to the lowest workers at Lambeth, and in the light of a recent article about the chief executive of Lambeth saying that he has known of the problems for some three years, will my hon. Friend agree that the review set up by Lambeth council already smacks of a whitewash? In addition, will he agree greatly to strengthen the Audit Commission and to move into councils such as Lambeth to look across the board and from top to bottom, including the elected members?
Mr. Howard : I would not want to prejudge the outcome of the inquiry which Lambeth council has said that it is setting up. It is certainly of the utmost importance that the Audit Commission should have all the resources that it needs to carry out a proper investigation. I am concerned that no one should be excluded from the remit of that investigation.
Mr. Caborn : Does the Secretary of State agree that misleading the House through early-day motions, in particular early-day motion 1242, is disgraceful, especially in terms of the allegations against Sheffield which have been raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick)?
Madam Speaker : Order. If I could give the hon. Gentleman a little guidance, the Secretary of State has very little to do with that particular early-day motion. The question should be addressed to the Leader of the House. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) should rephrase his question.
Mr. Caborn : Does the Secretary of State agree that misleading the House is a serious allegation? On the subject of alleged corruption in Sheffield, the hon. Member for Hallam--one of the Secretary of State's Conservative colleagues--wrote a letter to Sheffield city council on 21 August 1987 asking for accommodation as a Member of Parliament? Would the Secretary of State like to comment on that?
Mr. Howard : I certainly have a keen interest in, if no responsibility for, the way in which the money of community charge payers in Sheffield is spent. My understanding of the letter to which the hon. Gentleman referred is that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) wrote to the city council asking on what terms accommodation was made available to Members of Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman made allegations of misleading the House with regard to the early-day motion, but he chose not to suggest the extent to which those allegations are misleading. All I can say is that I heard with great dismay the extent to which he and his hon. Friends are prepared to freeload at the expense of charge payers.
Mr. James Hill : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the district auditor in the Southampton area is taking the local Labour- controlled council to court? The council has illegally moved £5.3 million from the housing revenue account to other accounts. I am sorry to inform the House that the chairman of housing at that time was the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who can probably give my right hon. and learned Friends more facts and figures. Will my right hon. and learned Friend keep an eye on the matter, because there is a smell of corruption in the air?
Mr. Denham : Is the Secretary of State aware that the housing committee of Southampton city council, with the unanimous support of Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members, agreed that transfers should be made between the general revenue account and the housing revenue account to enable the tenants of Southampton to benefit from the 50 per cent. reduction in the limit on capital spending applied to capital receipts, as opposed to the 25 per cent. reduction in the limit on HRA spending? Does he accept that it is appropriate for local authorities to seek to maximise their resources in the interests of local people and that members of his party supported that? Does he further accept that there is no indication as yet that the district auditor will take the city council to court?
Mr. Howard : I confess to being mildly surprised that the hon. Gentleman made no reference to the importance of acting within the law in making those adjustments to the accounts of the housing committee in Southampton. It may not be of great significance to the hon. Gentleman, but I venture to surmise that it will be of considerable significance to the Audit Commission.
Mr. Straw : First, may I associate myself with the remarks made to the Secretary of State by my hon. Friends the Members for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) and for Streatham (Mr. Hill)? I hope that the Secretary of State will applaud the fact that resolute action by the new Labour group after the expulsion of 13 former Labour councillors led to the investigation and to no action by the district auditor. When will the Secretary of State show some statesmanship and balance on this? Is he not aware that corruption knows no party boundaries, that there have been 22 examples in the past two years of serious allegations of corruption and fraud in central Government involving in total £1,400 million, and that there are endless examples in Enfield, Bromley, West Wiltshire, Rochester upon Medway, Thanet and Westminster of serious corruption in local authorities run by the Conservatives? On the issue of freeloading-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Straw : On the issue of freeloading raised by the Secretary of State, will he condemn the freeloader former members of his Cabinet who have had their hands in the till and their snouts in the trough of privatised industries?
Column 1028They privatised companies and then sought directorships without any serious distance between them-- [Interruption.]
Madam Speaker : Order. I shall have to use the authority that is given to me by the House if hon. Members will not come to order. I am listening extremely carefully--when I am allowed to--to what the hon. Gentleman has to say. I am sure that he will watch his words carefully.
Is not there one difference between Labour and Conservative : that while Labour has taken resolute and tough action to deal with corruption, as we have in Liverpool and Lambeth, Conservatives have been extremely reluctant ever to condemn miscreants in their own ranks? For example, 10 months after Westminster was found guilty of acting unlawfully in selling three cemeteries for 15p, its then leader, Lady Porter, ended up with a damehood.
Mr. Howard : After that intervention, I can understand why the hon. Gentleman has taken to spending his time making speeches about the monarchy. It was a disgraceful intervention. His remarks were quite appalling. They were in no way fitting for the Front Bench of the party which was responsible for those councils at the time of those events. May I simply draw to the hon. Gentleman's attention the remarks of the spokesman for the London borough of Lambeth : "We are dealing with potentially unlawful malpractice on a scale unprecedented in local government."
The hon. Gentleman would have done well to bear that in mind without seeking to muddy the waters in the pathetic way he did.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robin Squire) : The urban programme has supported, and will continueto support, some excellent projects to improve the quality of life for those who live and work in Coventry. In addition, Coventry city council has bid for urban partnership fund resources for 1993-94 to boost the extra spending power that it will have as a result of the change in the capital receipts rules.
Mr. Cunningham : Does the Minister realise that his statement is made against a background of diminishing resources? Did he carry out an evaluation before he announced a reduction in the urban programme over a period of years? Did he, along with his colleagues, also take into consideration the consequential effect of a reduction in the urban programme and, at the same time, the abandonment of the safer cities project? What hope can he offer people in inner cities, not only in Coventry but
Column 1029in the rest of the country, bearing in mind the serious disturbances last summer? Equally, will he take into account the effects on organisations such as community relations councils and CREDO, which do a tremendous amount of work in the inner cities, not only among the unemployed but in the black community?
Mr. Squire : Of course, all proper consideration was given before the announcement, but programmes must evolve in response to changing circumstances. It would be quite wrong to look at the urban programme in isolation from all other resources that the Government put into inner cities. In 1993-94 the Government will spend some £90 million more over the full range of our programmes in the inner cities than we previously intended.
Mr. Butcher : Will my hon. Friend keep a close eye on urban programmes in Coventry, some of which have been put to good use, and see to it that the accounting officers ensure that they get value for money? Will he also point out that good use has been made of the safer cities programme? When he visits Coventry next week, will he take some of the leaders of the council to one side and tell them that it might help their case if they stopped blaming the Government for all their ills and looked at the pattern of overspending for the past eight years which has led to some rather brutal decisions having to be made in recent months?
Mr. Squire : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. He speaks with great knowledge of Coventry. It is certainly the case that authorities throughout the country--many of which have not benefited from urban programmes and will not benefit from them next year--have been able to fund precisely the sort of projects that concerned the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham) by efficient management of their resources.
Mr. Alan Howarth : Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the remarkable work in Coventry of the Foleshill and Hillfields task force, led by Brian Laughland? Is he aware that when the task force completes its mission shortly--as was always the intention--it will have assisted more than 800 businesses and trained more than 4,000 people and that the beneficial effects of its initiatives in Coventry, taken in partnership with the city council and local community groups, will continue?
Mr. Squire : I commend to the House my hon. Friend's excellent words. He mentioned one task force. There are 16 and they are making significant inroads into inner city problems, creating jobs and improving training. Hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber know that and would applaud it in terms similar to those used by my hon. Friend.
Column 1030information is available, total United Kingdom emissions of sulphur dioxide were 3.77 million tonnes. Two years before, in 1988, the figure was 3.81 million tonnes.
Mr. Davidson : Does the Minister agree that while any move downwards is to be welcomed, that is not sufficient, given that German industry has installed desulphurisation plant in all its power stations, yet the United Kingdom has not? Will he confirm whether it is Government policy to move to desulphurisation by importing more low-sulphur coal from abroad to replace good British coal mined by British miners? Will he confirm that it is his intention to reduce the sulphur emissions of British manufacturing industry by continuing the Government's programme of destroying that industry?
Mr. Maclean : No, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. Since 1970, our SO emissions have decreased by 40 per cent. and we have signed up to a further 60 per cent. reduction by the year 2003. The figures that I have just revealed show that we are well on target to meeting those reductions. All coal is high in sulphurs, but a mix of various energy sources will continue to be available to generators. I assure the House that we can adapt our plans and solutions to meet our targets, even if a slightly different mix of fuels is used.
Mr. Dickens : Does my hon. Friend agree that Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and EC directives have added a lot to the demise of the United Kingdom coal industry, because gas-fired power stations and nuclear power stations do not emit sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere? The environmentalists cannot have it both ways--one either has a clean atmosphere or not.
Mr. Maclean : I can certainly agree unequivocally with the last part of my hon. Friend's question. Every energy source has certain environmental benefits and disbenefits at different points in the use cycle. We have signed up to various international agreements on CO , SO and NO . I am confident that we shall be able to adjust our plans and make use of whatever technical solutions are necessary, so that we continue to honour our international commitments whatever decisions are made--but a cost is always involved.
Mr. Chris Smith : The Minister must accept that there was an increase in sulphur dioxide emissions in Britain in 1990, at a time of severe recession, when, in logic, such emissions should have been decreasing. He must also be aware that the most recent report shows that more than half Britain's trees have been damaged by acid rain. Is not it high time that the Government decided to have a proper programme of desulphurisation for our power stations and started arguing the case for clean coal, rather than doing down our domestic coal industry at every opportunity?
Mr. Maclean : There were some extraordinary assertions there. The hon. Gentleman cannot look at the emission figures for one year only. We have signed up to targets on sulphur dioxide emissions to the year 2003-- that will mean a 60 per cent. reduction following a 40 per cent. reduction. That is considerable by any standards. There is a programme to fit flue gas desulphurisation to three of Britain's largest power stations. Those three stations, operated by National Power and PowerGen,
Column 1031account for about 600,000 tonnes of SO . That is between one quarter and one fifth of SO emitted by all power stations generating more than 300 MW of electricity.
The programme is massive by any standards and it does not come cheaply--FGD costs £400 million a throw. Before the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends suggest that we should automatically fit FGD to every power station, they had better tell the public the cost and make it clear that we are meeting our target without that compulsory restriction.
Mr. Maclean : My right hon. and learned Friend and I have no plans to visit Bassenthwaite lake officially. However, we are totally committed to preservation of the quality of the English lakes and rare species such as vendace. I therefore welcome the National Rivers Authority's detailed study of water quality in the lake to assess the impact of discharges. The NRA has full power to seek improvements in the light of the results of that study.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : Would not it be prudent, before designating Bassenthwaite a national nature reserve, to establish the cause of the pollution indicated by the algae blooms that float on the surface of the lake? Is not it up to North West Water, recognising that the lake, which is in the heart of the Lake District, is dying, to bring forward its investment programme from 1998? Should not it invest now to end the pollution from Keswick sewage works?
Mr. Maclean : I assure the hon. Gentleman that water flows and levels in the Derwent catchment area are being examined and that this new and very thorough examination of water quality will look for links between sewage discharges, nutrient levels and fish populations. Whether or not Bassenthwaite is designated a sensitive area, the NRA has power to order North West Water to upgrade Keswick sewage works at any time if it regards such action as justified. But it is right that we should first get the results of the study. I am sure that the NRA will explain all this to the hon. Gentleman at their meeting on 5 February and I look forward to a personal invitation from the hon. Gentleman to go fishing with him on England's second most beautiful lake, after Ullswater.
Sir George Young : Provisions for revising the right to repair for council tenants are included in the Housing and Urban Development Bill. My Department is today publishing a second consultation paper, which sets out in detail how the new scheme might work.
Mr. Page : I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Does he accept that that represents a dramatic improvement in the level of service to council tenants? No doubt he, like me, speculates as to why certain councils believe that only they have the ability and the skills to provide services to
Column 1032their tenants, even though some authorities, such as Camden, can leave a tenant dead in an apartment for over a year before discovering him. What are the time scales involved here? Within what time does a local authority have to repair a council house before the tenant can take action himself? In addition, what is the position of housing associations?
Sir George Young : On the last point, we have asked the Housing Corporation to introduce a parallel scheme for housing association tenants. We envisage that the local authority will have seven days in which to respond before a tenant is able to go to an approved contractor and have the work done. On my hon. Friend's first point, we want to carry out further improvements to the existing scheme and to work with the grain of the ambitions of the citizens charter.
Mr. Betts : Does the Minister remember that the current right to repair scheme was introduced by the Government against the advice of every local authority association, whatever its political complexion? Bearing in mind the bureaucratic nature of this scheme, may I ask him to inform the House how many--or how few--right to repair applications have been accepted this year? Does he accept that the views and representations of local authority associations should be taken into account to ensure that he does not make the same mistake a second time?