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Sir George Young : The existing scheme has changed attitudes among tenants and local authorities and raised expectations. Often the threat to use the right to repair scheme has had a dramatic effect on local authorities. If the Government did everything that local authority associations wanted them to do, a number of improvements for tenants and ratepayers would not have occurred over the past few years. We are consulting on the details of the scheme. We believe that it will bring dramatic benefits to tenants and I hope that we have the support of all hon. Members in introducing such an important reform.

Oil Pollution

10. Mr. Clifton-Brown : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what action he is taking to meet the Government's commitment to prevent further oil pollution in the sea as stated in the paper entitled "This Common Inheritance".

Mr. Howard : We are continuing to promote more effective international rules against marine oil pollution from all sources and to encourage co-operation in their enforcement. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has set up an inquiry into further measures that are needed to protect the United Kingdom coastline from pollution from merchant shipping.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : Will my right hon. and learned Friend co-operate fully with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Transport when looking into the use by the marine pollution control unit of dispersant spray and its toxicological effect on the environment? Will he ensure that the long-term environmental effects of the Braer disaster are minimised? In line with the stated aims of the Command Paper "This Common Inheritance", will my

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right hon. and learned Friend encourage our international partners to uphold the provisions in annex 1 of MARPOL, the marine pollution convention, relating to oil spills at sea?

Mr. Howard : I can give my hon. Friend assurances on all those issues. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has set up an ecological steering group to examine the long-term consequences of the Braer incident. We are determined to learn all the lessons that we can from that event.

Mr. Simon Hughes : Is the Secretary of State aware that, even as we speak, a row is continuing between civil servants in Whitehall on whether the Minches constitute an internal waterway or an internationally recognised navigable channel? While that dispute is going on, tankers continue to go up and down the Minches and at some stages only four miles separate the coastlines on either side. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment to the House that he and his colleagues in other Departments will go and bang together the heads of the civil servants in Whitehall--I can name them if necessary--to ensure that the International Maritime Organisation designation of "area to be avoided" is agreed and we can prevent the risk of further disasters affecting the west of Scotland or St. Kilda?

Mr. Howard : The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the decision whether waters are internationally navigable is not one to be taken by this country alone, but must be taken in accordance with international law. We have to decide on the interpretation of international law. It is not a matter of banging together the heads of civil servants in Whitehall, but of interpreting the provisions of international law on what areas should be avoided. That issue is being considered by the inquiry that has been set up by my right hon. Friend. We shall be keen to examine carefully the recommendations of that inquiry when they are available.

Mr. Harris : Although I accept everything that my right hon. and learned Friend said, is not it a fact that the Government can take a lead in such matters and should do so when it is necessary to have an exclusion zone or a recognised route for tankers? Is he aware that I have taken up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport requests from the isles of Scilly in my constituency, which suffered from the Torrey Canyon disaster some years ago, that there should be a sensible exclusion zone for bulk tankers and ships carrying dangerous cargoes in the vicinity of the isles of Scilly?

Mr. Howard : I am aware of my hon. Friend's concern for his constituents and the steps that he has taken to safeguard them. Although we can take a lead--and have done so in a number of respects--decisions on such matters have to be taken internationally, through the International Maritime Organisation. We shall be keen to pursue such issues when we receive the report of the inquiry set up by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mandatory Repair Grant

11. Ms. Coffey : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement about waiting lists for mandatory repair grant.

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Sir George Young : Local authorities must deal with valid grant applications within six months of the date they are made.

Ms. Coffey : Is the Minister aware that in Stockport, 600 householders are waiting to apply for mandatory grant? In 1989-90, before the mandatory grants system, 200 houses were improved under block schemes and 650 under individual grants, but in this year, to date, only 40 houses have been improved through block grant schemes and only 300 through individual grants? Does he agree that the present system is not only not achieving its objective of improving private housing stock, but has all the makings of a disaster? Will he introduce proposals under which the problems of private sector housing in Stockport and the north-west can be dealt with more effectively?

Sir George Young : I do not agree with that analysis. For the first two years of the new scheme, there was an underspend on the provision that we made for local authorities. There is good news for Stockport in that, next year, £3.3 million will be available as against £3.1 million this year. As I said in answer to Question 1, we are looking at longer-term implications to see whether there are yet better ways to spend the improvement grant money. As to effectiveness, more and more of the money is going to the homes that are unfit and to people on lower incomes, so there has been much greater success in targeting the system on the properties and people who need it most.

Sir Donald Thompson : Will my hon. Friend look at careful housing authorities, such as Calderdale, which wish to cap the amount of mandatory grant that may be given? The amount of money needed to repair houses in one part of the country may be different from that needed in another. Such authorities know the proper limit and such a scheme would alleviate fraud by the claimant.

Sir George Young : There is good news for Calderdale as well, in that, from 1 April, there will be a cap of £50,000 on any individual improvement grant. We did that as a result of listening to representations such as those from my hon. Friend.

Mr. Pike : Does the Minister recognise that many local authorities are unable to deal with the grant applications, not only because the £386 million to which he referred in his reply to Question 1 is insufficient, but because of the implications for local authorities' capital programmes arising from the portion of the grant that they have to meet? He says that he will consult on the options for change, but what is needed is a quick decision. If not, rather than being improved, the only option for some houses will be demolition.

Sir George Young : I do not agree. As my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary said in answer to an earlier question, authorities will have much greater access to receipts over the next year. They will be able to use those receipts to make receipts to make further progress with home improvement grants. It is no good Labour Members grumbling about that. They have asked for capital receipts to be released for housing. That is what will happen--they will be used to fund home improvement grants.

Mr. Bowis : Does my hon. Friend agree that there would be more money for people whose houses need repair if Labour councils did not waste money by throwing it away

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on firms that have not done the work or on paying firms twice for work that they have done once? Is he aware that that is one of the areas of corruption named by the chief executive of Lambeth council, of which the Pontius Pilate Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) sought to wash his hands?

Sir George Young : The real victims of corruption and inefficiency are the people to whom my hon. Friend referred--those who look to local authorities either for good housing or for improvement grants. We are determined to root out such corruption wherever we can.

Water Charges

12. Mr. William O'Brien : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will introduce legislation to reduce the level of water charges for low income families ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Maclean : No, legislation is not necessary. The director general of the Office of Water Services is responsible for protection of customers' interests generally, including those of low-income families. My Department, together with Ofwat, will be considering ways to alleviate the hardship difficulties experienced by a small proportion of customers who are metered.

Mr. O'Brien : One can only describe the Minister's response and attitude as abysmal. Is he aware that water charges by the 10 water companies have increased by 9.4 per cent. on average in the past year and will increase by 10 per cent. on average in the coming year, which will mean an increase of 60 per cent. since the privatisation of water in 1989? In the five years since privatisation, standing charges have risen tremendously. Does not the Minister feel that the regulator has failed in his duty to those in lower income groups--particularly old ladies who live on their own? Given that Conservative Members have referred to poor people twice this afternoon, does the Minister agree that his answers were abysmal and that something should be done to protect such people?

Mr. Maclean : No, I do not think that my answers were abysmal. If the hon. Gentleman had done his homework, he would know that systems exist to protect such people. Lower-income families may be entitled to social security benefits, such as income support. Last year, the cost of water services was added to the index used for uprating social security benefits, so they are taken into account now.

Mr. Mans : Will my hon. Friend examine the circumstances in which water companies compulsorily fit meters to mixed usage premises that are used both for business and domestic purposes? Where that has occurred in the north-west, firms have often been put out of business as a result of extra charges. Small firms have no comeback on water companies. Will my hon. Friend inquire into that matter?

Mr. Maclean : Yes. I shall be happy to receive more details from my hon. Friend, which I shall naturally pass on to Ofwat and its director general to consider.

Mr. Clelland : Will the Minister investigate the practice of connecting meters in respect of domestic water consumption? Does he agree that although meters may help to conserve water, now that water companies are in

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private hands, they will increase the unit price because they need to maintain their profits? Totally in line with Conservative party policy over the past 14 years, the consumer will end up paying more for less.

Mr. Maclean : I am sorry to disagree with the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question, but it was absolute nonsense. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is not aware of the high standards and regulations that apply to all aspects of our water supply, which are the result both of British controls and EC directives. The quality of our water is improving all the time--it was never as good in the past as it is today--but there is a cost involved in that, which is why water companies are investing £30,000 million improving our water and sewerage systems. The Director General of Water Services has a general obligation to look after customers and consumer interests and I am very content with the way in which he is doing his job.

Market Testing

13. Mr. Amess : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has for extending market testing to white-collar local authority services.

Mr. Howard : My officials are discussing with local authority associations and other interested parties the implementation of my decisions on the extension of compulsory competitive tendering announced in November 1992. The new regime will be rigorous and challenging for all authorities--extending to local authority white-collar services the benefits of competition already demonstrated in respect of manual services.

Mr. Amess : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that Conservative-controlled Basildon district council will, over a period of time, subject all its services to market testing? Is it his judgment that that process will assist in sorting out the terrible financial legacy left by the socialists, who were thrown out of office last May--when every one of their 15 candidates was defeated?

Mr. Howard : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am convinced that market testing of the sort to which he referred will make Conservative -controlled Basildon council a beacon to the rest of local government.

Mr. Olner : Is the Secretary of State aware that the

Attorney-General told the Committee considering the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill that, in his opinion, there was no need to change the legislation and that local authorities should certainly enjoy a level playing field with commercial organisations? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman take that into account when he extends CCT to other local authority activities?

Mr. Howard : I made it clear that any local authority that invites tenders on the basis that the regulations do apply--which is not the view taken by my Department--will risk action by my Department.

Mr. Robert B. Jones : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the predecessor of market testing--compulsory competitive tendering-- brought out much of the evidence that exposed corruption in local government? As the relevant legislation--on everything from the publication of information to compulsory competitive

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tendering--was opposed by Opposition Members, should not they now support market testing, to root out corruption in their own councils?

Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend is entirely right. Every advance that we have made in local government has been opposed by the Opposition. But they will never learn and I cannot hold out any hope to my hon. Friend that we shall obtain their support for market testing or compulsory competitive tendering, obvious though the merits of those policies are to my hon. Friend and all dispassionate observers.

Mr. Henderson : In view of the confusion in the law to which my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) referred over the transfer of undertakings and the European acquired rights directive, will the Secretary of State give an assurance today to local authorities that seek

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to meet their obligations in that regard that he will now alter his guidance to those local authorities about so- called anti-competitive behaviour issued under the Local Government Act 1992? If he will not give that assurance, can the House assume that his motive for introducing market testing has nothing to do with local authority quality or efficiency and everything to do with cutting the wages of local authority employees?

Mr. Howard : If the hon. Gentleman will prepare his question in advance in such detail, he must be prepared to adapt it in the light of answers that have already been given. I gave a comprehensive answer on that point to the hon. Member for Nuneaton, who asked the same question just a minute or two ago. I explained to him that there is no confusion whatever about the law on this subject and I told him what advice my Department has given and will continue to give.

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