The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : Independent research by the university of Birmingham has shown that authorities' CCT contracts have ensured better monitoring and better delivery of services. Costs are on average 7 per cent. less than before, and up to 20 per cent. less for some services.
Mr. Clifton-Brown : I warmly welcome my hon. Friend's reply. Is he aware that compulsory competitive tendering breaks up the cosy relationship between some local authorities and trade unions, particularly those local authorities that run direct services organisations ? Is not that really why Labour Members are fearful of fair competition ?
Mr. Baldry : If one wants evidence of that cosy relationship, one need look no further that this week's Municipal Journal . On one page, we discover that the GMB persuaded the Labour-controlled Lancashire county council to rethink its decision to award to outside contractors 19 contracts, which had been won fairly on competitive tender. If we want to know why that has happened, we have only to look on the opposite page, where we discover that the same union will be giving some £250,000 to help the Labour party to fight elections. That is the clearest possible example of a trade union buying influence. The Labour party is clearly in the pocket of the very union that does not want competitive tendering.
Mr. Henderson : I declare an interest, as a member of the GMB. Are not many thousands of GMB and other trade union members employed by local authorities on very low wages ? Have not the cost savings made through CCT often been at the expense of the wages of those low-paid people and, on other occasions, resulted in the quality of services suffering ?
Does the Minister recognise that the transfer of jobs from the public sector, where the Department of the Environment has responsibility, to contractors raises pensions questions ? Will he confirm that contractors themselves have asked for clarification on that ? Does he
Column 928accept that, when jobs are transferred from local authorities to contractors, any system that is fair should include the fair transfer of pension arrangements and that local authorities and contractors should be obliged to honour those arrangements ?
Mr. Baldry : I notice that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges being sponsored by the GMB, but does not have the good grace to acknowledge that the GMB is seeking to persuade the Labour party, with a substantial contribution of funds, to go back on competitive tendering.
As to the hon. Gentleman's point about the effectiveness of competitive tendering, all the research shows that performance has been better monitored, productivity has been improved, staff are better managed and motivated and morale is higher as a consequence of CCT. That independent research has been carried out by the institute of local government management in the university of Birmingham, and Opposition Members do not like it, just as they do not like the advice on pensions given by Dr. Elias and others. We will, of course, look carefully at those points.
Mr. Duncan Smith : Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite what the Opposition have said, my local council, Waltham Forest, has consistently failed to make the extra effort over CCT ? The council's direct services organisation was hugely in debt and failed to collect the outstanding bills, and that led to a reduced service for the public. Was not that directly as a result of a political decision by the council to drag its heels over the matter ?
Mr. Baldry : All the evidence shows that competitive tendering brings substantial savings to local people and improves the quality of service. It is a sad reflection that far too many local authorities still resist introducing competitive tendering, often at the behest of the local trade unions. Local authorities must decide whose interests they serve-- those of local people or those of local trade unionists.
The Minister for Local Government and Planning (Mr. David Curry) : From time to time, there are allegations about fraud and corruption which are pursued by the proper authorities. Fraud and corruption are always to be condemned.
Mr. Heppell : Will the Minister confirm the view that has already been expressed by the Government spokesperson in another place that John Magill, the district auditor in the Westminster homes for votes scandal, acted correctly and followed procedures to the letter ? Will he join me and others in condemning Westminster Tories who are using the tragic death of Dr. Michael Dutt to try to discredit the district auditor's report ?
Mr. Curry : The position is extremely clear and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not know it. The auditor acted perfectly properly, but the conclusions that he has come to are preliminary conclusions, which have not been subject to any trial or adjudication by a court. Clearly,
Column 929there is a procedure that will decide whether those conclusions were well founded. At that point, people can form their judgment. It is wrong to do so before.
"the whole place is falling to bits with corruption" ?
Mr. Betts : Is not it time that Ministers stopped condemning Labour authorities when only vague allegations have been made about their conduct, and addressed the real problems in authorities such as Westminster ? Will the Minister tell us what his Department knew about the cash incentive scheme in Westminster ? Was not that scheme approved by his Department ? Were not the subsidies for that scheme paid by his Department ? Was not the monitoring of the scheme carried out by his Department ? Did not the Department undertake a comprehensive review of the scheme, which showed precisely what was happening ? Is not it time that the Government came clean and not merely criticised what Westminster council did but owned up to their responsibility in that sordid matter ?
Mr. Curry : The hon. Gentleman's introduction was revealing. He asked whether it was not time that we did not look at Labour councils. I say that we should look at all councils where there are allegations of corruption, no matter what political colour they are. We have a common interest in stopping corruption and sorting it out wherever it is found, irrespective of what council it is. We should create a clear distinction between allegations and what is found to be true. When allegations have been proven, we have a common interest in seeking probity in local government, irrespective of what council is involved.
Mrs. Angela Knight : Is my hon. Friend aware that in addition to the allegations of corruption and fraud in Labour-controlled Monklands, Lambeth and Haringey, the ex-deputy leader of Labour-controlled Derbyshire county council is currently serving a prison sentence for defrauding the council by fiddling his expenses ?
Mr. Curry : My understanding is that the gentleman has appealed against his sentence. He is alleged to be conducting council business from his cell in the mean time, and is receiving the allowances that go with those responsibilities. I should have thought that it might be slightly more prudent for those allowances to be held and paid if he is proved not guilty, rather than being paid during the period of his appeal.
Mr. Straw : Is the Minister aware that, on top of the systematic corruption and gerrymandering exposed in Westminster, there is a rising tide of reports of official corruption investigations in one Conservative district council after another, the latest being in South Oxfordshire, Hertsmere and Mid Bedfordshire ? Is not it because the abuse of power by many sections of the Conservative party is so extensive that, in addition to what some Members of Parliament have said, the former Lord Chancellor and ostensible upholder of the rule of law, Lord Hailsham, issued a most disgraceful attack in another place on the
Column 930integrity and independence of the district auditor ? Is not it the case that, in the eyes of some Conservatives, the independence of the judicial process ends where Conservative sleaze and corruption begin ?
Mr. Curry : What the former Lord Chancellor said is perfectly clear. He said that many people were acting as if the auditor's report were proven fact and those people mentioned in it had been condemned in a court of law. He said that was not the case and that the reports contained the preliminary findings, which have to be verified. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that.
If the hon. Gentleman wishes to swap councils across the Dispatch Box, then anyone can play that game. We have a common interest in ensuring that we have a system of local government that people respect and that is conducted on the basis of probity. If the hon. Gentleman wishes simply to drag us into a mud-slinging contest on that subject let him go for it because I am happy to sling with everyone else, but it will not do any good to the electorate, to local government or to those who aspire to public service.
The Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction (Sir George Young) : The early response to the scheme has been encouraging, although it is as yet too early to say how many of the 1.5 million tenants who are eligible will take advantage of it.
Mr. Knapman : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his considered reply. Does not the success of the scheme depend on the level of interest shown in it ? Had the Opposition parties been in power, what level of interest would there have been ?
Sir George Young : My hon. Friend rightly points out that the scheme is of interest to 1.5 million local authority tenants who would not have the choice that is now available to them had we listened to Opposition Members. I hope that all hon. Members will bring to the attention of their local authority tenants the potential of the rent-to-mortgage scheme, which will be of interest to the 1.5 million local authority tenants who are paying their rents in full.
Mr. Soley : Does the Minister remember just before the last general election accepting a mortgage-to-rent scheme that I proposed, at least in part ? The then Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Minister, said that the scheme would save thousands of people from being repossessed and going into bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That was therefore a similar sort of scheme. Why did the Government say before the election that they would save thousands of those families, but fail to do anything afterwards ?
Sir George Young : That is a good example of Opposition Back Benchers implying that the Labour party is committed to substantial public expenditure when they know perfectly well that Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen have distanced themselves from any such commitment.
Column 931The last figures were published in January and showed a welcome reduction in the number of repossessions and most forecasters agree that the figures will continue to fall.
Mr. Waterson : Is not the golden thread running through the rent-to- mortgage scheme, the right to buy council homes and leasehold enfranchisement that Conservative Members believe in people having control over their own lives ? Does my right hon. Friend agree that proposition has never been welcomed by Opposition Members ?
Sir George Young : My hon. Friend makes the point in his characteristically clear way. The Conservative party is interested in choice and in giving people the opportunity to make decisions about their lives. Opposition Members want to deny people that choice.
Mr. Simon Hughes : Before the Minister gets too enthralled by the golden thread of rents to mortgages, let me point out that, as he knows, many people who have bought under the right-to-buy scheme, to which the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) will later allude when he introduces his Assistance for Local Authority Leaseholders Bill, are finding it impossible to sell their homes or pay for the capital or service charges. Can he tell them when he will relieve them of the consequences of buying under the Government's scheme, before he puts other people in a similar position ?
Sir George Young : As I think that the hon. Member will agree, most of those who bought flats from their local authorities did so with the benefit of substantial discounts, also benefited from the fall in interest rates and in no way regret the decision. A minority
Sir George Young : It is nowhere near 70,000. A minority of those who bought are having difficulty selling their flats. My Department is having discussions with the Council of Mortgage Lenders and the local authorities. We are encouraging some local authorities to follow the example of authorities such as Wandsworth, which gives mortgage indemnities to those who want to buy flats. I urge all local authorities to consider whether they have a role to play in proposing mortgage indemnity schemes-- 48 are doing so--or doing what the London borough of Enfield has done and buying the flats back.
Mr. Harry Greenway : Should not that excellent scheme now be extended to housing association tenants ? Will my right hon. Friend look at the ways in which that could be done, despite the early opposition in another place to home purchase by tenants of housing associations ?
Sir George Young : As my hon. Friend knows, housing association tenants do not have the opportunity to take up rent to mortgage, because housing associations use private finance to supplement their resources to build new homes. We have given those tenants opportunities to get access to home ownership by extending the tenants' incentive scheme, which gives them the cash sums that they need to purchase homes in the open market. To some extent, that is a broader choice, because it does not confine them to buying the home in which they currently live.
Ms Eagle : Yet another answer from the Government in which they say that something is not a matter for them. We have just heard a lot about choice from Ministers, yet water metering is rarely a matter of choice ; in fact it is compulsory. Does the Minister agree that when water is compulsorily metered there is a vast increase in the size of bills ? What will he say to my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. McGregor, who have seen their charge of £70 a year for water transformed into a charge of £144 for the first quarter--an increase of close to 700 per cent.--which they simply cannot pay ?
The hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) must understand, as I am sure that many people do, that if we are to be concerned about difficulties with water--for example, the demands for water that we have seen during drought periods in parts of England--we must understand that it is a commodity that may have to be treated in similar ways to others. I do not pretend to offer an absolute answer. Perhaps she would like to consult her Front Bench about the environmental concepts that she pretends to put forward in what, after all, is a point that does not have much validity.
Mr. Thomason : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not unreasonable for people to pay for what they use ? Therefore, is not it right that subsidy should not be given when one bears in mind that, on average, with a metering system people will pay exactly the same ? That point of elementary mathematics appears to have been misunderstood, or is incapable of appreciation, by Opposition Members.
Mr. Atkins : My hon. Friend is quite right. Opposition Members are not very good at mathematics. Although we should be tolerant of their foibles, the fact remains that, as is often the case with environmental issues, they say one thing here and another outside.
Mr. Chris Smith : The Minister must accept, however, that compulsory metering hits many households, especially large families with children and those with disabilities who need frequent bathing. If the Minister is worried about the environmental effects of drought, will he tell the water companies to do something about the 25 per cent. leakage of water, which is lost from the system and never gets to households ? Does not he recognise that compulsory metering takes no account of human need, that it rations by price and discourages proper hygiene ? Will he now ensure
Column 933that private water companies such as Anglian Water, which has already embarked on a programme of compulsory metering, are told to desist in no uncertain terms ?
Mr. Atkins : They are not quite different ; they are comparable and those utilities are required by average families, who pay accordingly. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) knows as well as I do that those in need and the more vulnerable members of society are able to obtain help and support from benefit offices. There is no point in the hon. Gentleman standing at the Dispatch Box to suggest that metering is not on. There are alternative methods of payment, of which metering is one.
Mr. Nicholls : As and when my hon. Friend meets the chairman, I hope that he will take the opportunity to tell him about the indignation and anger that have been expressed during the past four years by hon. Members who represent the west country at the unsustainable level of water charges in the west country, which have continued to rise unabated. When does my hon. Friend expect the valuable initiatives taken in Europe to try to cope with those charges to bring about some decrease ?
Mr. Atkins : My hon. Friend is one of my hon. Friends who have led many delegations to see Ministers, former ones and current ones, to discuss with us the problems of his constituents. I know that he will understand that we are doing all that we possibly can to alleviate the pressures on South West Water and on my hon. Friend's constituents. What is apparent, from what my hon. Friend knows and from what he and his colleagues have said to my right hon. Friend and to me, is that Opposition Members believe that we should implement directives on quality in some areas but are not prepared to listen to the concerns so adequately and properly represented by my hon. Friend and others on behalf of their constituents about those increases in charges.
Mr. Jamieson : Is the Minister aware of the deep concern expressed in Devon and Cornwall by ordinary water users about the fact that their bills are due to double in the next four years to more than £500 a year on average ? Is he also aware that people in the area are appalled by the synthetic concern expressed by people like the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) who, after all, voted in the House for higher bills ?
Column 934west country and promised to cut bills ? Since then, bills have continued to increase. When the bills for next year shortly fall through their letter boxes, people will find that they have gone up by almost a third since the Prime Minister made that promise. How long do they have to wait until their bills are a reasonable level ?
Mr. Atkins : The hon. Gentleman knows full well, because he has also had a meeting with the Secretary of State--incidentally, he broke the information on that to the press before it was properly made available, but, frankly, that is typical of the Liberal party--that the situation is quite clear. We have understood the problem faced by people in the south- west, which is due to the fact that region has a larger number of beaches than other parts of the United Kingdom. Is the hon. Gentleman expecting his hon. Friends in other parts of the country to subsidise the costs that his constituents are being asked to bear ? If so, I should be extremely interested to learn his hon. Friends' response to that suggestion.
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer) : Twenty five authorities have so far transferred their housing, witthe agreement of their tenants, and 18 more are programmed to do so between now and March next year. I shall encourage more to do so in the future.
Mr. Luff : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the real benefits that will start to flow in Wychavon, to the tenants of Wychavon council housing and to the homeless, following the decision of the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction to allow the authority's stock to be transferred to two housing associations ? Does he share my concern about the propaganda from certain Labour-controlled local authorities and the Labour party branches of Maidstone and Thanet against such transfers ? Does he agree that it is about time that the Opposition started to put the interests of tenants and the homeless above their petty ideology ?
Mr. Gummer : When such a transfer was first made in my constituency, I had my doubts, but all I can say is that the experience of transferring local council housing in Suffolk, Coastal to Suffolk Heritage housing association has been uniformly good. In my surgeries, I find that far fewer complaints and many more congratulations are offered about the way in which local housing is run.
I hope that the Opposition will recognise that. I understand that some members of the Labour party realise that it is sensible, as it benefits the tenants and provides more homes for the homeless.
Mrs. Mahon : What can the Minister do about transferring the high- rise flats in Mixenden in my constituency, where asbestos has been found ? The local authority cannot afford to pay for its removal. Would the Minister make special grants available if the property were transferred to a housing association ?
Mr. Gummer : As the hon. Lady knows, a number of local authorities, many of them Labour controlled, are now joining in to decide how best to deal with such matters. [Interruption.] Opposition Members must try to realise that I am trying to be as non-party political as usual, and I shall continue to try and be so. I do not want to embarrass any of the hon. Lady's colleagues, but they are looking into the matter. If the hon. Lady has a particular problem about asbestos in a particular block of flats, I am happy to consider it.
7. Mr. Steen : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects the Local Government Commission to produce its preliminary report on the future structure of local government in Devon and Cornwall.
Mr. Baldry : The Local Government Commission has asked for initial proposals for Devon to be submitted to it by 8 April and for Cornwall by 29 April. The commission will then prepare draft proposals, on which it will consult local people and other interested parties. The publication date for them is a matter for the commission.
Mr. Steen : Does my hon. Friend agree that a recent High Court ruling has changed the rules in favour of two-tier authorities ? Does that explain why the commission is now no longer saying that unitary authorities are the preferred option, but that it will investigate and examine the merits of unitary authorities ? Is he aware that the MORI poll in Devon recently shows that there is no pressure for change in our county ?
Mr. Baldry : First, the Government firmly believe that unitary authorities are often the best way to achieve effective and convenient local government. My hon. Friend is free to make his own views known to the commission, but he has to be aware that there are other views in Devon. I understand that eight out of 10 district councils in Devon are putting an agreed joint submission to the commission proposing a smaller number of unitary authorities. The political complexion of the districts involved is one Conservative, two independent, two Liberal, two with no overall control and one Labour. That shows that, in Devon, as elsewhere in the country, local people and councils of all political complexions are discussing with their neighbours the natural size of local government that is best for their area and are putting agreed proposals to the commission.
Mr. Grocott : Does not the Minister owe it to the House to be absolutely precise about the soaring cost of his plans for local government reform ? Can he confirm that the cost of the commission has risen from £2 million two years ago to an estimated £8 million next year ? Can he further confirm that substantial numbers of civil servants in his Department are engaged full time on that and nothing else and that many others are peripherally involved ?
Finally, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that virtually every local authority in the country is having to devote substantial resources to dealing with the problems of local government reform ? If he wants to pursue such a policy, does he not owe it to local authorities at least to make sure that central Government provide them with the funds for dealing with that expensive procedure ?
Mr. Baldry : The hon. Gentleman clearly has not appreciated that the timetable for the commission has been reduced this year. Of course, that means that the costs are higher this year, but the overall costs are exactly the same. I am also surprised by the hon. Gentleman's lukewarm approach to the issue. Clearly, he has not consulted his Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) who made it clear that Labour has been in favour of unitary authorities almost for ever. I thus find his remarks surprising and out of tune with what is being said, but perhaps it is yet another instance of the Labour party being totally split.
Mr. Hicks : Is my hon. Friend aware that, in spite of the recent court case and subsequent ministerial advice, many of us in the west country take the view that we are over-governed, that there is a strong case for single-tier local authorities, that Cornwall needs local government based on the existing district councils and that the county council should be scrapped ?
vices, such as housing and education, are delivered by different authorities in the same area. In my hon. Friend's constituency, it must be confusing to local people that if they are concerned about the cleaning of their street, they must approach their district council, but if they are concerned about the maintenance of their street, they must approach the county council. That cannot make good sense. As I have made clear, we firmly believe that unitary authorities will often be the best way to achieve effective and convenient local government.
8. Mr. Burden : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his Department's latest estimate of the number of new housing association houses to be completed in 1993-94, 1994-95 and 1995-96.
12. Mr. Barron : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his Department's latest estimate of the number of new housing association houses to be completed in 1993-94, 1994-95 and 1995-96.
Sir George Young : The Housing Corporation estimates that housing associations will provide around 57,600 new lettings in 1993-94, 58, 300 in 1994-95 and 51,500 in 1995-96 ; a total of around 167,400 over the three years.
Mr. Burden : Is not the real fact that in the next financial year Government investment in housing associations will be cut by more than £300 million and in the year after by not far short of £300 million ? How does the Minister explain away the fact that his Government have spent years grooming housing associations as an alternative to local authorities in providing low-cost housing only now to strangle housing associations, forcing them to cut back on building, or raise rents, or both ? What does that mean for the 900 families who become homeless in my city of Birmingham every single month ?
Sir George Young : What really matters is the fact that the Government have exceeded by 25,000 the number of new units they said that they would provide. We have exceeded our manifesto commitment by producing
Column 937178,000 new homes as against 153,000. In the three years 1989-90 to 1991-92 the output was 70,000 ; in the next three years it is likely to be 178,000. That is what really matters for the homeless.
Mr. Barron : Is not what really matters the newbuild social housing that we have for rent in this country and not the figures which the Government are putting out ? Is not it true that there will be a 38 per cent. reduction in building new social housing for rent rather than the figures with which the Minister is misleading the House ?
Sir George Young : What really matters for people in housing need is the number of new lettings. Those are the figures that are of relevance to people in housing need and they are the figures which consistently go up.
Mr. Hendry : Can my right hon. Friend confirm that there are 2 million more houses in this country than there were in 1979, but that too many of them are currently empty ? Can he also confirm that the Government's task force on empty properties is making a concerted attack on bringing back into use those empty Government properties ? Is not it time that Labour local authorities who are sitting on thousands upon thousands of empty houses made an equally determined attack on the problem ?
Sir George Young : My hon. Friend is right. We must make better use of the stock that we already have. There are some 800,000 units empty and there is a political imperative to bring them back into use. I hope shortly to receive the report of the task force, with its recommendations for making better use of Government-owned properties. Local authorities, particularly Labour-controlled local authorities in London, must make better use of their own housing stock if we are to make faster progress.
Mr. Barry Field : Is not the real answer to more housing association houses being built to give the tenants the right to buy ? To paraphrase Shakespeare, what we would like to hear on this side of the House is : "Sir George for England and for housing association tenants".
As I explained, many housing association tenants have the opportunity to become home owners by taking advantage of the tenants incentive scheme. The way in which housing associations are now funded makes it impossible to extend to housing association tenants rights parallel to those available to local authority tenants ; but, in many cases, the tenants incentive scheme is a better alternative.
Mr. Pike : The Minister was very selective about the figure that he gave my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden). He did not dare to compare the current position with that of 1979. Will he not admit that there is now a serious shortfall in housing that is built for rent, as a result of Government policy ? The Government are now cutting the money available to housing associations, and they have axed local authority provision. Given that he accepted last year that capital receipts should be used to allow new building, why does not the Minister accept that they should be used for that purpose now ?
Sir George Young : The figures for homeless acceptances have fallen for the past six quarters ; in the past 12 months, there have been 41 per cent. fewer people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation ; and the number of lettings is rising. That is the currency which matters to people on waiting lists or in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We are making good progress, and we are determined to go on and do even better.