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House of Commons

Wednesday 16 March 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]

PRIVATE BUSINESS --

British Railways (No. 2) Order Confirmation Bill

British Railways (No. 3) Order Confirmation Bill

Read the Third time, and passed.

British Railways Order Confirmation Bill

Read a Second time, and committed.

Oral Answers to Questions

ENVIRONMENT --

Housing Association Rents --

1. Mr. Miller : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the average housing association rent.

2. Mr. Wicks : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what was the average rent for a housing association dwelling in 1978-79 and at the latest available date.

The Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction (Sir George Young) : The average housing association rent in England on 31 March1993 was £34.03 per week.

Although the data were not collected on a comparable basis, the average housing association registered fair rent in England and Wales in 1978-79 was £10.08 per week.

Mr. Miller : Does the Minister accept that, following the proposed cuts in the Housing Corporation budget, those rents will increase significantly--probably well ahead of inflation ? That must be added to the difficulties facing local authorities, particularly lean and well-managed authorities such as Ellesmere Port and Neston. Does the Minister accept that, if those factors are added together, his policies will have dire consequences for people who need low-cost affordable homes ? Will he reverse his policies and act positively in the interests of tenants both of housing associations and of local authorities ?

Sir George Young : I find it hard to take seriously the remarks that the hon. Gentleman has just made. On Monday, the House was invited to vote to give an extra £213 million to my Department, part of which would go to the Housing Corporation budget. I regret to have to tell the House that the hon. Gentleman voted against the provision of that sum. Against that background, I am surprised that he has the nerve to ask about resources for the Housing Corporation.


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Mr. Wicks : Given the average rent figures, and not least the higher figures in many metropolitan areas, does the Minister believe that ordinary families can now afford to be in unsubsidised housing association accommodation ? Is not the effect of the policy to drive up housing benefit expenditure ? How does that square with the declared policy of the Secretary of State for Social Security to drive down such expenditure ?

Sir George Young : I believe that £34 a week is a reasonable rent for housing association property, especially as so much of it is of good quality. The hon. Gentleman must ask himself a question. If he wants to keep rents down, he will find that there are fewer homes being built to meet the needs of those who have a housing problem.

Mr. Michael Spicer : Is not the real issue the speed with which we move towards market rents, to ensure that any assistance through housing benefit is given directly to those who need it, rather than through subventions to the corporation, which are spread among rich and poor alike ?

Sir George Young : My hon. Friend is right. We have made it clear that we believe that a more effective use of public resources is to move away from indiscriminate bricks and mortar subsidies towards more sensitively directed personal subsidies. It inevitably follows that the housing benefit bill will rise, but we believe that it is a more sensible use of public resources and will enable us to build more homes.

Mr. Devlin : Is my right hon. Friend aware of how proud we in Teesside are of the new housing association rented properties that are coming on stream on the Teesdale sites ? Those have been built with the assistance of Teesside development corporation as part of 155,000 properties that have come into being since the general election as a direct result of Government policy.

Sir George Young : The House will be delighted to hear of the good- quality accommodation that is being provided in my hon. Friend's constituency. He is right to point out that the number of units provided by the Housing Corporation have exceeded by 25,000 the commitment that we gave at the general election.

Mr. Raynsford : Will the Minister reconsider his earlier answers and tell the House the figures that the National Federation of Housing Associations supplied to his Department recently, which show that the average rent for all housing association lettings in England is £43.86 a week and that the average for new lettings, which is obviously the most crucial figure, is no less than £51.12 a week ? Will the Minister stop misleading the House with figures that are not accurate and tell us the truth ? Those rents are not affordable.

Sir George Young : I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the answer that I gave to Questions 1 and 2 was incorrect. They were the correct figures. The figure for new properties is, indeed, about £51 per week. That is not the figure that is paid by the vast majority of housing association tenants. Those tenants who are invited to pay the newer rents are eligible for housing benefit if they do not have the income with which to pay.


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Construction Industry --

3. Mr. Heald : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what action he has taken within his Department to support his sponsorship of the construction industry.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : We have established a construction sponsorship directorate committed to doing everything possible to ensure, in partnership with the construction industry, that United Kingdom construction is as successful as humanly possible.

Mr. Heald : Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the unemployment figures announced today showing a fall of 39,000 ? Does he agree that that is excellent news for the unemployed and their families ? Does he agree one reason for the fall is the recovery in the construction industry shown yesterday by the increase in orders at home and by the fact that exports in the construction industry are running at £6 billion a year ? Does he agree that more could be done to help our construction exporters ? What exactly will the directorate do ?

Mr. Baldry : We all have every right to be proud that British construction skills, experience and quality are in such demand throughout the world. That means jobs at home. This year, together with the industry, our construction export promotion division is promoting trade missions, task forces and numerous country-specific events to ensure that United Kingdom construction wins as much business in the world as possible.

Mr. Pike : In the Prime Minister's references yesterday to the construction industry and particularly to housing, was not he ill-advised to refer to an increase in housing construction, when last year's figures show that construction was at an all-time low of 155,922 new starts ? Will the Government give the industry the news that it wants to hear and say that some of the capital receipts can be used and that mandatory grants will continue ?

Mr. Baldry : I simply refer the hon. Gentleman to the most recent statement by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Only days ago, it said :

"As confidence among buyers grows, we are experiencing a heartening buzz of genuine interest in many areas. As spring unfolds, the market will continue to develop. The economic soil is looking fertile and capable of sustaining growth. New house starts are going up at a very fast rate indeed."

Mr. Garnier : Does my hon. Friend accept that, although I am delighted to see any resurgence in the construction industry, my constituents will not be pleased to see construction in the shape of new supermarkets in two places in Oadby in my constituency ? Will my hon. Friend ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to bear that in mind when he considers the applications that will be on his desk before long ?

Mr. Baldry : I commend to every Member of Parliament planning policy guidance note 6, which gives new planning guidance on out-of-town retail developments. It is an excellent publication.


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Energy Saving Trust --

4. Mr. Barron : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the current budget of the Energy Saving Trust.

5. Mr. Dafis : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the funding of the Energy Saving Trust.

The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins) : The Energy Saving Trust is an independent organisation. Funds for its schemes will come from a variety of sources. I understand that its budget for 1994-95 is currently under discussion.

Mr. Barron : Will the Minister comment on the evidence given by British Gas to the Select Committee on the Environment last year that its funding of the Energy Saving Trust would be £2 million last year, £10 million this year and even hundreds of millions in years to come ? In the past 24 hours, I have learnt that, in seven days' time, the Energy Saving Trust will give notice that it intends to cancel the gas condensing boiler scheme, which is the most effective thing that it has done towards reaching the Rio limits on emissions. Why have the Government changed the regulator of British Gas, and why has that regulator sought to change the opinion of British Gas on the E factor in gas pricing and, therefore, cut the funding of the Energy Saving Trust ?

Mr. Atkins : There are a number of questions there and I am aware of your caution in these matters, Madam Speaker. I do not want to answer too many questions from one Opposition Member. Perhaps I can pick the one to which I know the answer, which is that the appointment of the regulator is not a matter for me.

Mr. Dafis : Notwithstanding what the Minister has said, it is clear that the Energy Saving Trust is in big trouble, having had its primary source of finance cut off. Will the Minister bear in mind the fact that, if it survives, the efficient delivery of its programmes will depend on obtaining adequate information about energy efficiency, not least in the domestic sector ? In that regard, may I draw the Minister's attention to the Energy Conservation Bill which was presented by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) ? That Bill would ensure that such information would be available because it requires local authorities to carry out an exhaustive audit of the energy efficiency of domestic properties. Will the Minister give an absolute undertaking that the Government will do nothing to undermine that Bill on Report ?

Mr. Atkins : The hon. Gentleman suggests that the Energy Saving Trust will be without funds, but that is incorrect. We already have a commitment for some £25 million from the electricity companies. That means that, at least until the discussions about the future of the British Gas contribution, plenty of money will be available to provide for the continuance of the Energy Saving Trust.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Is not my hon. Friend confused by the signals from Opposition Members in wanting not to burn coal when gas was coming in ? All their policy papers suggest that we should increase energy prices enormously through carbon taxes, but, of course, they voted against VAT on fuel.


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Mr. Atkins : Like many Conservative Members, I am constantly confused about what the Opposition represent on energy matters.

Mr. Mans : Does my hon. Friend agree that the Energy Saving Trust and the Government should look closely at the use of energy-efficient lighting, which would greatly cut the amount of CO emitted into the atmosphere and save people a considerable amount of money that would more than cover VAT on electricity ?

Mr. Atkins : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who raised this matter for the benefit of all hon. Members in the recent debate on his ten-minute Bill. I was pleased to be here to listen to him and I entirely agree that the message that we all can take is that energy-efficient lightbulbs are much better than existing ones and that the more that we can use them, the better it will be for all concerned.

Mr. George Howarth : I congratulate the Minister on his characteristic candour in his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron). There is a serious dispute between the Government and the Energy Saving Trust and the Director General of Gas Supply about the director general's precise role in this. Although the Minister is not responsible for appointing her, does not he agree that it would be a good idea to sit down, run through the difficulties and try to resolve them, because the Energy Saving Trust's role is clearly being prejudiced by a lack of clarity about her role in the matter ?

Mr. Atkins : The hon. Gentleman is right and fair to draw attention to this concern. It is clearly a matter that we did not anticipate because at the moment OFFER--the Office of Electricity Regulation--does not see a particular problem. The problem that has been highlighted by the Ofgas regulator, Miss Clare Spottiswode, was unexpected, and the matter is being discussed through my Department and the Department of Trade and Industry to see whether there is a way round it. Failing that, we may have to consider other ways by which the matter may be addressed, and that might involve legislation.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : My hon. Friend will be aware that this country spends about £50 billion a year on energy and that the Energy Efficiency Office has estimated that we could save approximately 20 per cent. of that, or £10 billion. My hon. Friend is also aware that his Department has set the Energy Saving Trust a target for carbon reduction of 2.5 million tonnes to meet our Rio target by the year 2000. To do that, the Energy Saving Trust will need to spend about £400 million a year. As well as benefiting consumers, it will cost them only an extra 1.5 per cent., but will benefit our balance of payments by £300 million and create up to 40,000 jobs. Will the Minister confirm that that is the sort of target and the sort of agenda that he will set the Energy Saving Trust ?

Mr. Atkins : Yes, Madam.

Coal Mining Effluent --

6. Mr. Hain : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement about pollution of waterways with coal mining effluent.

Mr. Atkins : Discharges from coal mines in England and Wales are subject to regulation by the National Rivers Authority. It is for the operators and owners of those


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mines, in consultation with the National Rivers Authority, to determine what measures are necessary to avoid pollution.

Mr. Hain : Is the Minister aware that, notwithstanding his factually accurate answer, many hon. Members are frustrated by the buck-passing between British Coal and the National Rivers Authority ? Is he aware that the Neath canal has recently been declared ecologically dead because of mine pollution ? The Neath river is now heavily polluted and the Pelenna river in my constituency is regarded as the most polluted river in Britain ? Will his Department please institute an urgent examination of the problem in conjunction with British Coal, its successors and the National Rivers Authority and will he make a statement in the House about this growing problem, which will get worse as more mines close.

Mr. Atkins : I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman thinks that my answer is factually correct. That in itself is an achievement. [ Laughter. ] I should perhaps have said that it was an achievement for the hon. Gentleman to have recognised it. Under the Water Resources Act 1991, the NRA has powers to prosecute any offence involving pollution from mines. In the particular case that the hon. Gentleman raises--the River Pelenna in his constituency--I understand that the NRA and West Glamorgan county council have joined forces to undertake a £1 million project aimed at restoring the quality of the river to support wildlife and removing the discoloration caused by mine water. If there are any other points relating to individual constituencies, I suggest that hon. Members take them up directly with the NRA.

Mr. Batiste : Does not the question highlight the need for debate in the House on the environmental impact of the coal industry, preferably before the Coal Industry Bill returns to the House on Report and Third Reading ? Perhaps my hon. Friend would discuss the matter with his colleagues and suggest to them that there is considerable feeling on both sides of the House that such a debate should take place.

Mr. Atkins : I will certainly ensure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is aware of my hon. Friend's concern.

Mr. Skinner : Will the Minister also take account of Coalite, which produces coke from coal and the fact that the dioxin effluent coming out of the factory into the River Doe Lea is 1,000 times above the requisite safety level ? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that that is stopped ? Is the National Rivers Authority doing anything about it ? It seems rather laggardly in its action.

Mr. Atkins : I am very disturbed if, as I am sure it is, what the hon. Gentleman says about that river is true. I will ensure that the attention of the NRA is drawn to that case and that if action needs to be taken urgently it will be.

Council Tax --

7. Mr. Duncan : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the correlation between political control and the top and bottom 10 council taxes so far declared.

The Minister for Local Government and Planning (Mr. David Curry) : Of the 10 councils that have fixed the


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highest council taxes, seven are Labour controlled, two others have Labour county councils, which are the principal precepting authorities, while I understand that Liverpool is split between rival Labour factions.

Mr. Duncan : will my hon. Friend confirm that band for band--A for A and B for B, right up to H for H--Conservative councils cost less ? Will he also confirm that while the Labour party continues to play its childish games, the Conservatives will stand and deliver better local government ?

Mr. Curry : It is true : those who live in Conservative council areas and whose properties are in band A pay less than they would under Labour. Those who live in Conservative council areas and are in band B pay less than they would under Labour. It applies right through the bands. Whether one has modest means and lives in a modest house, whether one has a middle income and lives in a middle-income house or even if one is relatively well-off and in band H, one will always pay less under the Conservatives than under Labour or the Liberals.

Mrs. Jane Kennedy : Will the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State's press release issued this morning recognised that Liverpool's band C figure does not represent what most people in Liverpool will be paying and that although there will be an increase, that is almost entirely due to the unfairness of the standard spending assessment for the city ? Will he consider that a fairer way of comparing council tax levels is to look at averages ? Liverpool's average of £550 compares favourably with councils such as Wokingham and Ribble Valley, both of which are Conservative controlled.

Mr. Curry : I cannot think of a less intelligible way of comparing council taxes than using averages, for the simple reason that no one pays an average council tax. Everyone pays one band from A to H and that enables us to make a direct comparison. What matters is how much one pays and one pays less under Conservative-controlled authorities than under Labour- controlled authorities, including Liverpool.

Sir Anthony Durant : Does my hon. Friend agree that council tax levels would be much lower if Labour-controlled councils, such as Islington, Liverpool and Manchester, cleared their enormous debts so that they could use some of the capital receipts ?

Mr. Curry : It is true that if councils collect their debts, council house rents and taxes, that money can go through into services. That has given councils that have improved their tax collection rates much room for manoeuvre this year. That is one of the keys to good services, not an optional extra. It is part of delivering a good service to council tax payers, and

Conservative-controlled councils do it best.

Mr. Straw : A moment ago, in the hearing of the House, the Minister said that the use of average household bills per dwelling was a less intelligible way of comparing what people were spending. If that is so, why did the Department of the Environment, in its press release last March, use average household bills per dwelling ? Will the Minister also explain why the research department of Conservative central office, in a brief dated last March, also used the average council tax per dwelling ? Did Conservative central office use those figures before it discovered that


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average household council tax bills per dwelling are £40 lower in Labour-controlled areas than they are in Conservative-controlled areas and that, whether locally or nationally, the Conservative party costs people more ?

Mr. Curry : We are clearly getting under the hon. Gentleman's skin. I challenge the hon. Gentleman to demonstrate that the council tax paid in any one of the eight bands is lower in a Labour-controlled authority than in a Conservative-controlled authority. He cannot do it. A council with houses predominantly in the lower bands will have a lower average council tax than a council with houses predominantly in the higher bands. That is a matter of statistics, not politics. The hon. Gentleman cannot escape from the basic fact that Labour-controlled councils are setting higher bills. If the hon. Gentleman wishes, I can read to him the 10 councils with the lowest bills, and he will not find a Labour-controlled council among them.

Mr. Tracey : My hon. Friend mentioned the high levels of uncollected rents and council taxes in many Labour-controlled areas. When will the Government do something to force those councils to collect the rents that they should be collecting on behalf of the rest of the population ?

Mr. Curry : If councils collect rents and taxes, they can spend more on services. A lack of services is the result of incompetence on the part of the councils.

Rent Increases --

8. Mr. Hoon : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement about the relative rate of rent rises in the public and private sectors.

Sir George Young : Rents in all sectors have risen during the past few years. Public sector rents have increased to bear a closer relationship to the value of the accommodation being provided. That reflects, in part, our policy of moving away from direct subsidies to suppliers, towards paying personal subsidies to tenants to ensure that help goes to those who really need it.

Deregulation of rents in the private rented sector since 1988 has enabled landlords to achieve a more realistic return on their investment and has contributed to a revival in the number of private lettings.

Mr. Hoon : Rent assessment panels agreed private sector rents in the east midlands for the first quarter of 1993 at an average of £46 a week. Will the Minister congratulate east midlands local authorities on keeping average local authority rents down to £28 as at April 1993 ? Does not that show how much better local authorities are at providing affordable housing than the private sector ?

Sir George Young : The rent officers in the hon. Gentleman's constituency are operating under the Rent Act 1977. That regime shows how they operate. As to other rents in the private sector, Conservatives want investment in the private rented sector to be restored and more good- quality accommodation to be provided by private landlords. If that is to happen, those landlords are entitled to a realistic return and that means higher rents than the controlled rents supported by Labour Members.

Mr. John Marshall : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the level of rents in the public sector is determined, in part, by the number of voids in the public sector ? Is he


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aware that, in the London borough of Barnet, 0.9 per cent. of council houses are empty, whereas in the London borough of Hackney 9.2 per cent. are empty ? Is he further aware that, in certain London Labour boroughs, rent arrears equal more than 20 per cent. of the annual rent roll ? Is that not a national scandal ?

Sir George Young : As always, my hon. Friend's remarks are perceptive. It is unacceptable for local authorities to leave accommodation empty when people are in housing need in those boroughs. I urge all local authorities to do better in bringing back into use the voids under their ownership.

Mr. Battle : Is it not the reality that the Government are intervening and deliberately engineering high, rising rents in all sectors, forcing council rents up, pricing people out of being able to afford a housing association home, coercing council tenants to buy out, draining housing benefit into the private rented sector and forcing people to choose between a home and a job offer ? When will the Minister realise that unemployment and low incomes into high rents just will not go without generating more homelessness ?

Sir George Young : None of that happens. If the hon. Gentleman is making commitments for higher public expenditure, I wonder whether he has cleared that with his hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw).

Housing Waiting Lists --

9. Lady Olga Maitland : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to make housing waiting lists more effective.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer) : Our consultation paper proposes a single local waiting list so thasocial housing is allocated as fairly as possible.

Lady Olga Maitland : I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Will he confirm that, under the proposals, there will be adequate measures to take care of the most vulnerable members of our society ?

Mr. Gummer : Certainly, I would not have introduced the consultation paper unless that was an absolute, basic fact.

Mr. Hardy : With millions of people in need of decent homes and scores, if not hundreds, of thousands of construction workers unemployed, is not the best answer to the length of housing waiting lists to build affordable low-cost housing for people to live in and to provide the jobs that mean that construction workers do not have to go abroad to make a living ?

Mr. Gummer : That is why we have already exceeded the target on which we fought the previous election. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should spend more, perhaps he has not talked the matter over with his hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), because that sounds to me like another promise to spend more money if the Labour party were elected.

Mr. David Nicholson : I agree with my right hon. Friend that we must clamp down on abuses in the housing waiting list system, but will he take the advice that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga


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Maitland) put to him--young women with children should not be put at risk as a result of these measures ? Will he also concentrate on continuing to revive the private rented sector and, therefore, take care that none of those measures damages the Government's rent-a-room initiative ?

Mr. Gummer : I quite agree with my hon. Friend's first point, which is why we want equal access to the waiting list on the ground of need, instead of the present system. I agree that, as far as possible, we should revive the private rented sector, as we want as many homes as possible, particularly to provide for those who are without decent accommodation.

Single Regeneration Budget --

10. Mr. Simpson : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what consultations he had in the development of the single regeneration budget.

Mr. Baldry : Some 10,000 copies of the draft bidding guidance on the single regeneration budget have been distributed, 11 seminars organised and several hundred written responses received.

Mr. Simpson : Does the Minister accept that the new measures that he is introducing are little more than camouflage for a further cut in the funds available for urban regeneration ? Does he acknowledge, in the context of the east midlands, that the three cities of Nottingham, Leicester and Derby received some £10 million under the previous allocation of urban aid funding, whereas under the single regeneration budget they will be invited to bid for a total of £10 million for the whole east midlands region ? Does he accept that 40 or more authorities bidding for an open pot amounts to a descent into game show politics and economics, which reduces the status of funding to little more than the game show "Don't Forget Your Toothbrush" ?

Mr. Baldry : That is all complete bunkum, and I shall gladly write to the hon. Gentleman with the figures to demonstrate the fact. The single regeneration budget straightforwardly fulfils our manifesto commitment to bring together resources for targeted inner-city programmes in a single budget, so that funds go where they are most needed locally, rather than according to a set of priorities determined in Whitehall. I should have thought that every hon. Member would welcome that.

Mr. Straw : Surely the Minister does not wish to mislead the House. Will he confirm that the annual report of the Department of the Environment --published only last week, on 8 March--states that there will be a cut of nearly £200 million in the single regeneration budget over the next two years ?

Mr. Baldry : We are spending £4 billion on urban regeneration this year. In so far as there is any reduction, it is caused by the fact that some institutions, such as those funded by urban development corporations, are beginning to wind down. Those are the straightforward facts.

Council Tax --

11. Mr. Thomason : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what reports he has had so far about council tax levels.


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Mr. Curry : The average band C headline council tax is £516. [Hon. Members :-- "Average ?"] Within that average, it will be found that the average for Conservative authorities is a great deal lower than the average for Labour or Liberal authorities. That represents an increase of 2.2 per cent. on the 1993-94 average.

Mr. Thomason : Has my hon. Friend read the speech that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) made to the Labour local government conference on 4 February, when he said, "I am proud of the"

Madam Speaker : Order. The Executive are responsible for Government policies ; they are not responsible for the activities of any Opposition Member. Will the hon. Gentleman come to his point and ask a question right away ?

Mr. Thomason : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Labour party has

Madam Speaker : Order. Let me explain. I think it only right for me to explain to the House that the Government are not responsible for the activities or the policies of the Labour party at Question Time. [Interruption.] No, it is right for me to be heard, so that the House understands me. The Executive are responsible for Government policies only ; that is their accountability during Question Time.

Mr. Thomason : Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have consistently demonstrated that Labour is a party of high spending and high taxation in local government ?


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