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House of Commons

Wednesday 19 January 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Local Government Finance

1. Ms Eagle : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received about local government finance since July.

8. Mr. Litherland : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received about local government finance since July.

The Minister for Local Government and Planning (Mr. David Curry) : We have received many representations on various aspects of local government finance since July. These have included representations from 150 authorities about the provisional local government finance settlement.

Ms Eagle : Is the Minister aware that my authority, the Wirral, is expected to make £12.5 million-worth of cuts in its expenditure this year, which is in addition to the cuts of £53 million that have been demanded of it over the past four years? Is it credible for the Minister to maintain that cuts of that magnitude demanded by the Government do not mean that there will be cuts to front-line services when that is clearly not the case? Our services in local government are being decimated.

Mr. Curry : The hon. Lady has got it wrong. The only possible meaning of a cut is that the budget that her local authority will set for 1994-95 is less than that set for 1993-94. That is not true. Wirral local authority will be able to increase its budget by 1.25 per cent. What it will have to do is cut the budget that it would like to have had. It will have cut its wish budget, which is entirely different from its actual budget. Wirral is not an authority which has to cut its budget in real terms. Only seven authorities are in that category.

Mr. Litherland : Did any of the representations query how vast amounts of public money could be found for prestigious projects, such as the Manchester Olympic bid, which bring kudos and publicity to the Government when, at the same time, vicious cuts for local authorities mean the closing of school playgrounds, swimming baths, pets corners and other leisure amenities? Does not the Minister think that there is a stench of hypocrisy?

Mr. Curry : I do not recall that. However, I recall that a report commissioned by Birmingham council stated that

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Birmingham had indulged in some prestige buildings when it should have spent its money on education. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman might think about that one.

Mr. Pickles : Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 375, which refers to local government finance? Does he agree that all hon. Members must lead by example? Does he believe that Opposition Members who preach about local government finance are handicapped by the behaviour of the councils of the Leader of the Opposition and his deputy? Does my hon. Friend look forward with me to the days when good local government returns to Derbyshire county council and to Monklandsgate?

Mr. Curry : The lesson is that Opposition Members should be careful before they start hurling accusations about councils. There has been a pattern of accusations against authorities. There have been local authorities in respect of which the auditor is not yet satisfied with the accounts, and those include a large number of Labour councils. People should cast the motes out of their own eyes before they level accusations elsewhere. We have a common interest in making sure that local government acts with probity. The sooner we recognise that common interest, the better it will be for everybody.

Mr. Bates : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to improve local government finance is to have unitary authorities? Will he accept the thanks of my constituents for the decision of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State yesterday to abolish Cleveland county council? Will he join me in condemning the decision by Cleveland county council to challenge that decision in the court, at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds to council tax payers, in a vain attempt to save its own neck?

Mr. Curry : If Cleveland thinks that it should spend its charge payers' money by going to court, that is a decision for Cleveland. We implemented the proposals and the provisional and final recommendations of the Boundary Commission. The district councils made strong, articulate representations about how they would carry forward the business of that region, and they were extremely convincing. That is why we implemented the proposals. We will judge every case on its merits according to entirely objective criteria based on the needs of the local electorate and charge payers.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : May I, as the original objector to the sale of the Westminster cemeteries, which led to Mr. Magill's first report, and one of the objectors to designated sales, ask the Minister what action is being taken to ensure that Westminster council no longer wastes ratepayers' money? Do the Government have power to send in a commissioner to make sure that our interests as ratepayers are protected by those Conservative councillors?

Mr. Curry : If we had, we would have done so in respect of Lambeth a long time ago.

Mr. Congdon : Does my hon. Friend agree that those who criticise some local authorities would do better to direct their concern at authorities that waste money, overspend disgracefully, do not collect council house rents, leave houses empty and do not collect their council tax, and that most of those authorities are Labour controlled?

Mr. Curry : Yes.

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Mr. Henderson : Let me refer the Minister to his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) about real cuts. Is he embarrassed by the comments of the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), in May 1993, when he wrote to the Treasury saying that, in the financial year 1994-95, a 5.2 per cent. increase in total standard spending was necessary to protect- -

Madam Speaker : Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is paraphrasing and not quoting.

Mr. Henderson : Indeed, I am, Madam Speaker, and I am about to paraphrase even more in my final paragraph.

Comparing that figure with the 2.3 per cent. increase in total standard spending which is allowed in this year's Budget, will the Minister admit that he has surrendered to the Treasury or say that he needs a "back to basics" course in arithmetic?

Mr. Curry : The hon. Gentleman is clearly in fine form. [ Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."] It took a long time to get that one from Opposition Back-Bench Members, I have to say.

The settlement that we have put forward is fair and reasonable and, in the economic circumstances, one with which local government can cope if it is sensible. That is the reflection of independent commentators such as Mr. Tony Travers on the matter, and that is a perfectly reasonable position.

Regional Offices

2. Mr. Mans : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when a single regional office for all Government Departments in London will be established.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer) : The new regional office for London will come into being in April

Mr. Mans : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new regional offices will be widely welcomed as bringing decisions closer to the community, not only in London but elsewhere, and will be particularly welcomed in Lancashire, where they will provide better liaison with the new unitary authorities, which we hope will come about sooner rather than later so that we can get rid of that high-spending county council as quickly as possible?

Mr. Gummer : Bringing together the various offices of government in London and elsewhere will enable decisions to be made in a much more holistic way, rather than individual decisions being on made matters that should be considered together. Advice will, therefore, come in that unitary manner. It will be for the commission to make its proposals for Lancashire, but I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will have views that he will want to make clearly.

Mr. Vaz : Although the House will welcome better co-ordination between Government Departments--for many years, the Labour party has put forward that policy and it has now been accepted by the Government--does the Secretary of State realise that his plans are fatally flawed in two respects? First, not one extra penny of resources will be allocated to London to deal with the problems that Londoners face and to enable our capital city to compete with the best cities in the world. Secondly, his plans do not go one step towards creating what the people

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of London really want--a properly elected and democratically accountable government for London. Why are the right hon. Gentleman and the Government so afraid of democracy?

Mr. Gummer : First, I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has forgotten the curmudgeonly way in which his more senior colleague welcomed the change when it was introduced. Indeed, he did as much as he could to attack it as being unsatisfactory. I see that Labour Members have already changed their minds about whether we are right. Secondly, I was surprised that, on that occasion, I was accused of hiding cuts in London's budgets in that I was not going to deliver the amount of money which was proposed. In fact, I have delivered every penny of it, so Labour Members were entirely wrong in that slur.

Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman says that we are not spending the money in comparison with other countries. Interestingly, in a recent survey, French voters in Paris nominated London as one of the finest cities in Europe providing services better than those provided in Paris--the city in which they live.

The fourth point that the hon. Gentleman dares to raise is the suggestion that anyone in his right mind would want the Greater London council back again. If we ask people in London--even those who believe in a Greater London council--what they want, none of them put this at the top of the list ; they want a lot of more sensible things first. There will always be some people who forget that billions more pounds would have been wasted if we had continued to have the GLC, whose stewardship of London, especially London transport, was a disgrace that none of us will forget.

Mr. Harry Greenway : Following my right hon. Friend's robust and welcome remarks, will he assure my constituents that under no circumstances will there be a repeat of the Greater London council or anything like it under this or any other Conservative Government? We cannot afford it.

Mr. Gummer : The Government will continue to deal with the real problems in London and leave it to Labour Members to hide the absence of a policy with a continuous nostalgia for one of the worst systems of local government that we have seen.

Local Government Finance

3. Mr. Robert Ainsworth : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what views he has received from the Audit Commission on his provisional proposals for distribution of standard spending assessments.

Mr. Curry : None.

Mr. Ainsworth : Is the Minister aware that in the document "Passing the Bucks", the Audit Commission says that many of the decisions taken on grant distribution are political and there is no adequate explanation for the criteria used? When will we end the year-on-year manipulation of the grant system? In April, people up and down the country will face cuts in their budgets and increases in their taxes. In Coventry, the average will be £57, with £3 million in cuts. When will we have fair taxes at the local level?

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Mr. Curry : The hon. Gentleman is saying that the whole system of distribution--the standing spending assessment system--is rigged politically. The Select Committee on the Environment will report on that, and I will bet the hon. Gentleman that there will be no reference whatever to the rigging of the system. What is more, the Audit Commission does not say that.

It is perfectly legitimate to have a political argument about how much money is available for local authorities, but we shall not have a political argument about the mechanisms of distribution because we do our best to ensure that they are fair, dispassionate, objective and up to date. All the councils that have come to see me--58 councils have been through our doors in the past few weeks--have accepted that.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : I am delighted that there have been no representations to my hon. Friend. The city council in my area is delighted with its standard spending assessment, although, of course, the county council is not pleased and is grousing fit to burst. Does my hon. Friend accept that we who run our affairs properly are delighted?

Mr. Curry : I am grateful to have had the opportunity to give my hon. Friend such pleasure.


4. Mr. Bennett : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement about how many products now have ecolabelling in the United Kingdom.

The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins) : On Thursday 25 November the United Kingdom Ecolabelling Board awarded the first European Community ecolabels to Hoover Ltd. for three washing machines in its New Wave range. Environmental criteria have also been adopted for dishwashers.

Mr. Bennett : I welcome the Minister to his new post, but he takes over a pretty sorry tale as far as ecolabelling is concerned. It is clear that about one third of shoppers would be happy to purchase products that were environmentally friendly, but they have become increasingly disillusioned by false claims. It is almost four years since the Government promised that they would have a proper system in place. Is not it appallingly slow progress to have virtually one award every year for four years? Can the Minister tell us how many more awards there will be in the next 12 months?

Mr. Atkins : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I think that it is right and proper for me to place on record my appreciation of, and thanks to, my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, South (Mr. Yeo), for the sterling work that he did for environmental and rural interests. He can be proud of his ministerial achievements.

The hon. Gentleman has raised the matter of ecolabelling on numerous occasions, and he is right to do so. We are in the forefront of those pressing for a Community-wide system as a result of pressure from my predecessors, and indeed the pressure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will continue to bring to bear. The hon. Gentleman cannot expect us to operate a separate system, which would be clearly counter-productive in the context of the EC.

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Mr. Robert B. Jones : I welcome my hon. Friend to his post. In his time as a Northern Ireland Minister, my hon. Friend had experience of being grilled by the Select Committee on the Environment, and I can promise him just as much in his new post.

Does my hon. Friend agree that making sure that false environmental claims are not made about products is equally as important as ecolabelling? Will he therefore ensure that talks with the DTI deliver a reform of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 in that regard as soon as possible?

Mr. Atkins : My hon. Friend makes an entirely fair point, and I am grateful to him for his kind wishes. We are in conversation with the DTI, and I know from my own experience how important it is that the information that is provided on any product fits in with the Trade Descriptions Act. I know that the DTI is fully aware of our concern and of the concern of the consumer.

Mr. Simon Hughes : Will animal testing now be definitely included in the ecolabelling process? The Government had apparently said that they were willing for animal testing to be included, but that has not been formally confirmed. Will there be across-the-board acceptable criteria and standards? When will the Minister conclude his discussions with the voluntary sector so that a general agreement can be made?

Mr. Atkins : The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I know that the Commission is considering the matter and, as he will understand, I am not yet in a position to make a detailed judgment or statement on where the Commission stands. Certainly the Commission is interested in that, and the ecolabelling board in the United Kingdom is also aware of the concern. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman realises that there is more of an ethical argument than an environmental argument over animal testing, and that is a part of the problem that we have to consider. I shall give the matter my urgent attention.

Sir Roger Moate : Is it not more important to get ecolabelling right than to be rushed into premature judgments? Will my hon. Friend take particularly seriously the representations of the paper industry to ensure that any system of ecolabelling does not work to the disadvantage of British producers of what is an environmentally friendly and eminently recyclable product?

Mr. Atkins : What my hon. Friend says is right. It is essential that we have a standard that is applicable throughout the European Union. In those circumstances, it is better to take time and get it right, recognising that there is legitimate pressure from the consumer and from Conservative and Opposition Members that we should do so as quickly as possible.


5. Mr. Wareing : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to introduce the principle of subsidiarity to relations between central Government and local authorities ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Gummer : I have made clear my commitment to the principle of subsidiarity and the delegation of responsibility not only from central Government to local

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authorities but from local authorities to the lowest possible level, consistent with efficiency, including locally managed and grant-maintained schools.

Mr. Wareing : Alone among European Community members, Britain has a highly centralised government machine in which local self-government has been almost completely destroyed. I hope that the Minister will take on board the feelings of many people in Britain that it is time that local self-government was restored. People are fed up with the creation of quangos staffed by a Tory nomenklatura that will have to be swept away by the next Labour Government. I hope that when he talks about subsidiarity in the sweet terms that he does--

Madam Speaker : Order. I have not yet heard the hon. Gentleman ask a question. Is there one coming into view?

Mr. Wareing : You will remembers, Madam Speaker, that I asked the Minister when he would restore local self-government--or is subsidiarity to be conceded only to Wandsworth and Westminster?

Mr. Gummer : I remind the hon. Gentleman that as Minister for Local Government and now as Secretary of State for the Environment, I pioneered, and fought for, the extension of local government powers by passing community care to local government rather than to any other system. That major extension of local government powers will be completed.

I am interested to see that subsidiarity stops where the hon. Gentleman is. When he talks about subsidiarity, he means that is should stop at the local authority. Why is not the hon. Gentleman fighting for more grant-maintained schools in Liverpool, so that schools can run themselves, instead of insisting that the local authority bosses them about?

Mr. Nigel Evans : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that local authorities are able to spend more than three quarters of all the money that they have, without any specific grants? Will he further confirm that the Government will continue the policy of caring capping, which means that we shall not allow local authorities to spend and waste money and we shall continue to protect ratepayers with capping?

Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend underlines that the reason why we have capping is that some local authorities, including the Liverpool authority that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) supported, behaved in the most disgraceful manner and found it impossible to manage their finances properly. Therefore, I should like to see more and more freedom for the local authorities that are prepared to be responsible in the use of their money. That is why I fought for, and will continue to fight for, the extension of local authority powers, particularly in the caring services through community care.

Mr. Straw : On the issue of subsidiarity between one

authority--Westminster--and central Government, and as Dame Shirley Porter said on the radio that she could not remember whether she had consulted the Government about Westminster's housing and poll tax policies, will the Secretary of State confirm that at the material time, Ministers were, indeed, working in league with

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Westminster and Wandsworth councils in their gerrymandering efforts and were gerrymandering grant to those local authorities just at the time when the authorities were gerrymandering for votes?

The Minister of State said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) that the grant arrangements were objective and dispassionate. Will the Secretary of State say whether the decision to give Wandsworth £33 million of the £390 million available in council tax reduction schemes comes within that category? If it does, how can it be that one authority representing about half of one per cent. of the country's population ended up with 8 per cent. of the grant--16 times its entitlement?

Mr. Gummer : Because Wandsworth has the largest cut in grant and, therefore, attracts a larger amount of the damping system which covers all London boroughs and especially benefits Labour London boroughs. It is rare that I have to say this and I shall say it directly to the hon. Gentleman-- [Interruption.] He may find it amusing to accuse people of organising a system that cannot be run in that way. His local authority associations were fully consulted on the laying down of the SSA system and they know that it is entirely objective. They asked for the damping system that he attacks. He knows that to be absolutely true and he is a disgrace to his party.

Rough Sleepers

6. Lady Olga Maitland : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress is being made with helping people sleeping rough in central London.

The Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction (Sir George Young) : The Government have spent £96 million since 1990 to providealmost 3,500 places in temporary and permanent accommodation and to help people sleeping rough in central London. Independent research shows that our rough sleepers initiative has housed several thousand people with a history of sleeping rough. We have provided a further £86 million to continue the initiative until March 1996. A count by voluntary sector agencies last November found 287 people sleeping rough in central London, compared with estimates of more than 1,000 before the initiative began.

Lady Olga Maitland : I thank my right hon. Friend for that extremely welcome news, but does he agree that it is disappointing that the Labour party persists in putting forward their own campaign-- [Interruption.] --persists in making cheap political capital at the expense of the small number of unfortunate people still sleeping on the streets? How many extra beds were made available during the recent spell of cold weather and what percentage was taken up?

Sir George Young : I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the many voluntary organisations--especially Church-based

organisations--that have done first-class work in achieving the reduction in numbers to which she rightly referred. It is encouraging that, according to the last count undertaken by voluntary associations in November, only three people under the age of 18 were sleeping rough. During the cold spell at the end of November, which was one of the coldest in London, extra emergency beds were opened--I think 150--and the maximum number taken up on any one night was 55.

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Mr. Tony Banks : Why are there so many more people sleeping on the streets of London than in any other European city? Does not the Minister feel any shame about the fact that, in this year of 1994, so many thousands of our young people are sleeping on the streets of London?

Sir George Young : I do not know which European cities the hon. Gentleman visits.

Mr. Tony Banks : I said all of them.

Sir George Young : I do not know which cities the hon. Gentleman visits, but I made it absolutely clear that the regular counts by voluntary organisations--not by the Government--show a reduction from 1,000 three years ago to 287 in November, of which only three were under 18. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that progress has been made and that he will encourage voluntary organisations to drive forward the programme. I also hope that, from time to time, he will accept that the Government do good work on housing.

Mr. John Marshall : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there are empty hostel beds in London today and that there are thousands of empty council houses in Newham, Islington, Lambeth and other Labour-controlled boroughs? Is it not sheer hypocrisy for the Labour party to complain that there are people sleeping rough when Labour councils are the most inefficient housing authorities in London?

Sir George Young : Indeed, I hope that hon. Members who visit European cities will also find the time to visit some of the authorities in London that have large numbers of empty local authority homes. If one goes past an empty council house in London, the chances are that it is owned by a Labour local authority.

Mr. Battle : I recognise that there is some temporary assistance for the homeless in London, but, instead of scapegoating single mothers in his homeless review, making the victims pay the price for his failed housing policies and redefining away the homeless, as the Government have the unemployed, why does not the Minister tackle the causes of the housing and homelessness crisis? There are 1 million people with negative equity, 500,000 people with mortgage arrears, 1.5 million on local authority waiting lists, 150,000 statutorily homeless people and 63,000 people in temporary accommodation. Will not he accept the acute and absolute shortage of homes to rent and acknowledge that Labour authorities have the most effective housing record-- [Interruption.] Of the 25 housing authorities named by the Minister in December, 11 were Labour, four were Tory and one of those named was Westminster. The truth is that Conservative Governments and Conservative councils keep houses empty. Is not it because Labour housing authorities are better that the Minister will not allow Labour local authorities the right to build the much-needed homes to rent?

Sir George Young : I was grateful for the first half-sentence of the hon. Gentleman's remarks when he made a rather grudging recognition that some achievements have been made. When he sees the Government's consultation document on access to social housing tomorrow, he will see that no one is being scapegoated. He should also recognise that in each of the past six quarters, the number of people who are accepted as homeless has fallen and he should recognise that there has been a reduction of 41 per cent. in the number of families in bed

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and breakfast accommodation. The hon. Gentleman should also recognise that of the top 10 local authorities in London that have empty properties, nine are Labour controlled.

Mr. Tracey : Does my right hon. Friend agree that there has been a massive reduction in the numbers of rough sleepers in London since the Government began their initiative and that reports of anything different are grossly overstated, exaggerated and untrue? Will he also agree that there is one particular case in which there is a real problem--the bullring --and will he concentrate his attention on that, so that the propagandising by the Opposition, which is totally untrue, can stop?

Sir George Young : About three years ago, everybody who was sleeping rough in the bullring was offered alternative accommodation and it was closed. The Government asked Lambeth council to leave it closed, but the council decided to reopen it and the problem has recurred. Discussions are taking place with the property owners to see whether we can get a more acceptable alternative to the present design of the bullring, and a key part of any redesigning or rebuilding will be offers of suitable accommodation to those who are sleeping rough.

Minerals Planning Guidance

7. Mr. Mike O'Brien : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he proposes to announce new minerals planning guidance on opencast extraction.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : We published revised planning guidelines for public consultation on 14 December. The guidelines deal with both deep mine and opencast coal and with the disposal of colliery spoil.

Mr. O'Brien : I thank the Secretary of State for his decision in the Birch Copice case, when he refused the application for opencast mining and overruled the public inquiry. May I remind the Minister that 20,000 homes in my constituency are still threatened by the prospect of opencast? Many of the people who live there are former miners and face not only the loss of their jobs but the potential destruction of their environment. Is not it time that he gave local people a veto and a right to say no to opencast despoiling their environment?

Mr. Baldry : In those circumstances, I think that the hon. Gentleman's constituents will welcome the new guidelines, which have gone out to consultation, because they mark a distinct shift. They have withdrawn the strong presumption in favour of opencast coal development that existed previously and have replaced it with a test of environmental acceptability.

Mr. Wells : May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the new guidelines on mineral extraction and ask when he will introduce in the House the orders necessary to put those guidelines into practice?

Mr. Baldry : They are out for consultation, which closes at the end of March. Given their acceptance and welcome in the House, I hope that hon. Members will make that clear as part of the consultation process.

Mr. Chris Smith : The Minister must, however, agree that what he wrote into the new draft planning guidelines

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on opencast mining in December is a presumption not against opencasting, but in favour of it. The guidelines state :

"It would be against the national interest to refuse permission", and only then go on to apply an environmental test. Does not the Minister realise that opencast mining despoils the countryside, damages the local environment and helps to destroy our national deep mine coal industry? Should not there be a strong presumption--far stronger than he has put in this document--against new opencast mining, rather than the green light that the Government seem intent on giving?

Mr. Baldry : Any reasonable person who reads the guidelines will see that they make it clear that where the impact of opencasting would have particularly adverse effects on the environment and the quality of life for local people, permission should not be given unless the development would produce overriding benefits. The guidelines strike a balance between the economic importance of opencast coal and the protection of the environment. It is worth the House recalling that when the socialist Government nationalised the coal industry they did not have any planning regime whatever for opencast mining.

Compulsory Competitive Tendering

9. Mr. Coe : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement about the extension of compulsory competitive tendering.

Mr. Baldry : My Department is currently consulting local authorities and other interested parties on detailed proposals for extending CCT to local authority security work, vehicle management, management of on-street parking and legal services. We will begin consulting on other white collar services in the course of this year. I anticipate that legislation will take effect in a phased programme beginning in April 1995.

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