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Madam Speaker : Not very well done, but just about passable.
Mr. Curry : I do not need to demonstrate that fact ; I let it speak for itself.
Mr. Betts : Would the Minister care to admit that his use of band comparisons in regard to council tax is spurious and bogus ? Let us suppose that two comparable authorities raise the same amount from the same number of properties, and their average council tax is the same. Very different comparisons could be made in respect of different bands. Authorities containing more properties in band A, the lowest band--which are more likely to be Labour controlled--would, as a consequence of that fact alone, have higher rates for the other bands. That is a simple mathematical truth. Perhaps the Minister would like to verify it, and also verify the political truth that Labour authorities cost less and give better services.
Mr. Curry : I notice that, whenever someone is about to say something that is manifestly not the case, it is described as some sort of irrefutable truth. It is not the case that Labour authorities cost less. The only sensible basis for comparison is comparing like with like, and that can be done only by making comparisons across the bands--which clearly demonstrates that Conservative councils are setting lower council taxes.
If the hon. Gentleman is saying that the total volume of tax depends on the configuration of properties in a council area, let me tell him that that is so evident that it is hardly worth debating.
Mr. Pickles : Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), is not my hon. Friend being unkind to the Labour party, because
Column 874surely the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) clearly said that his spurious claim was based solely on the fact that Labour authorities have more properties in the lower bands ? Has my hon. Friend noticed that similar Conservative authorities are a lot cheaper, so, band for band, Conservative councils cost people a lot less ?
Mr. Curry : Perhaps my hon. Friend would mention the fact that if Labour authorities have more properties in the lower bands, they are much more likely to get more revenue support grant from the Government and to benefit from council tax relief and various other forms of relief. That means that, despite the fact that Labour councils get more support, they still cost more--they could choose to lower their council tax.
12. Mr. Ainger : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what are the principal sources of nitrogen dioxide emissions ; and which of these are currently increasing and which are decreasing.
Mr. Atkins : Road transport, with 51 per cent., and power stations, with 25 per cent., are the main sources of nitrogen oxide emissions. I am pleased to report that the "Digest of Environmental Protection and Water Statistics", No. 16, which will be published this April, shows that all the major sources are decreasing.
Mr. Ainger : In the light of the increasing evidence that there is a direct link between nitrogen oxide emissions and asthma and other respiratory diseases, will the Government introduce mandatory standards of air quality in line with World Health Organisation guidelines to protect the health of our children and that of other vulnerable people ?
Mr. Atkins : An investigation is considering the problem of air pollution and subsequently, I hope, there will be a report. As the parent of an asthmatic, I am only too well aware of the importance of air quality to asthmatics and others with breathing difficulties, especially in certain urban areas. We expect to be able to make a judgment in the not-too-distant future. The House is aware that the expert panel on air quality standards is considering the issue, and I am only too well aware of the importance of the matter to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
Mrs. Gillan : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the great contributions to reducing greenhouse gases comes from the United Kingdom's nuclear industry, especially Nuclear Electric, which, in 1992-93, reduced carbon dioxide emissions by more than 55 million tonnes and reduced sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 870,000 tonnes ? Does he also agree that, by reducing the United Kingdom's reliance on fossil fuels, we are contributing benefits to the global and national environment ?
Mr. Atkins : My hon. Friend put the point as succinctly and as well as it needed to be recorded.
Mr. Simon Hughes : Does the Minister accept that one of the best ways to tell whether we are improving air quality is by increasing the scope of air monitoring stations because we are far below all comparable countries in testing the quality of air ? Will he ensure that we have the facts so that we can tell what is happening, as a matter of public record and information ?
Mr. Atkins : At the moment, we spend about £4 million per annum on air quality monitoring, and the figure has doubled since the 1991 White Paper. There is always a need to have a pretty fair understanding of air quality and the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but it is certainly our intention to ensure that air quality monitoring is improved, not the reverse.
13. Mr. Wray : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he now intends to publish the third annual update of "This Common Inheritance".
Mr. Gummer : Very soon ; the report is currently with the printers.
Mr. Wray : Does the Minister agree that "This Common Inheritance" was published in 1990 and reported in 1991 and again in 1992 ? Why is it six months late this time ? One of its recommendations was that we should not export toxic waste, but it has now been proved that some non- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries are used as routes for dumping such waste. Does he agree that we should be reporting the recommendation made by the Danes at the Basel convention ?
Mr. Gummer : I made the decision, which was widely welcomed, that we should not publish the next White Paper until after the sustainable development report so that it could be taken into account. I do not think that anyone has objected to that and it has been widely understood to be a sensible order.
We export toxic waste only for reprocessing so that it may be used as a secondary raw material. We export it only to places that have the proper equipment and ability. I intend to continue doing that, and not to export to countries that do not want the waste. If there is any question of this method being used as a means of dumping, I shall examine it at once and cease to allow it to happen. I do not think that the Danish proposition is sensible, because a country that has the proper resources should not be excluded from the possibility of using the raw materials that have been created. Countries must have the proper resources. They must be able to control the waste and they must ensure that it is not used for the purposes that the hon. Gentleman states. We are on the same side and if he has any case that he wants to bring to my attention, I shall be happy to take it up.
Mr. Chris Smith : Following the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Wray), the Secretary of State will, of course, be aware that paragraph 14.61 of "This Common Inheritance" claims that Britain has taken a world lead in calling for self-sufficiency in national waste disposal. However, that does not apply to the export of toxic waste. The Secretary of State may nowadays be unimpressed by the fact that 15 Anglican bishops have called for an end to the export of toxic waste to developing countries, but he may take rather more notice of the call that has been made by Pope John Paul II. Will he, therefore, support the Danish proposal at next week's meeting of the Basel convention for a complete ban on the export of toxic waste from Britain to the developing world ?
Mr. Gummer : I know of no ecclesiastical personage who would support the imperialist view that a country that has exactly the same means of reprocessing toxic waste to help its industry should be denied that opportunity because it happens to be a developing country. Those people want to ensure that none of that toxic waste is dumped on other countries and used improperly. I am determined to ensure that, but I am not acting imperialistically.
14. Mr. Rendel : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will introduce transitional relief for those new authorities which, as a result of the local government review, will face disproportionate increases in their council tax bills.
Mr. Curry : We are discussing with local authority associations the arrangements to finance new councils. When a new council receives a standard spending assessment that does not reflect its inherited commitments, we shall consider whether we should provide transitional help to protect council tax payers.
Mr. Rendel : In the light of that response, will the Minister assure us that, in practice, he will not enforce local government reform on any area against the wishes of the local community ?
Mr. Curry : The purposes of local government reform are perfectly clear. They are to achieve a more accountable form of local government and to achieve more efficient local government. It is also a reform which corresponds to the needs of local people. If first tests demonstrate that changing the system of government will deliver those benefits, that is what we shall do. But if a fairly clear case can be made that that is not so, the Government have no national blueprint. We are not doing it just for the sake of change.
Mr. Oppenheim : What is the likely effect on a new authority's council tax levels ? In Derbyshire county council's dying days, the deputy leader has been thrown into gaol for fraud and continues to draw his council's allowances ; the former leader has resigned in disgrace, having squandered millions building a millionaire's complex in Yalta in the Crimea ; and, habitually, close friends and relatives of senior Labour politicians get top jobs in the council. Is that not real corruption and gerrymandering and will not a cost be passed on to any new councils that are formed after the county council is abolished ?
Mr. Curry : I am sure that all of us want the new councils to start with a completely clean inheritance and perhaps with a different set of values, as well.
Mr. Henderson : The Minister will be aware from his consultations with local authorities and others, especially Conservative colleagues, of the many anxieties about the cost of local government reorganisation. Has the Department commissioned a study to assess the overall cost in England arising out of any changes in the local government review ? If such a study has not been commissioned, will the Minister tell the House why ?
Mr. Curry : It is very simple. Let us be clear : there is a distinction between transitional costs and net costs. The net costs will be met. At the end of the day, we think that
Column 877the realisation of efficiencies, and so on, will pay for the transitional costs. However, until we know what shape local government will take, until we know what the commission comes forward with and until we know what the House will accept, it is utterly impossible to come to any conclusions. We have made it clear that we shall make available to local authorities credits to finance those transitional costs. All the commission's projections show that there will be a pay-back period in efficiency and in avoiding duplication, which will finance the transitional costs, including the rolled-up interest.
Mrs. Lait : Does my hon. Friend share my anger and that of my constituents at the blatant politicking that Lib-Lab-run East Sussex county council puts into its magazine "Countywide", which merely defends its current position ? Is that not as bad as the loony left councils, and will it not be a cost to council tax payers, now and in the future ?
Mr. Curry : I never cease to be amazed by the number of councils that tell me that they need more standard spending assessment because they are so hard up that they cannot finance essential services, yet they always manage to finance consultants, Queen's counsel and other people to argue for their own survival. Several councils have put out misleading propaganda, such as polls that can have only one result. I have seen East Sussex's literature, and it has been one of the most conspicuous authorities in doing that. A genuine debate about the merits of local government reform and how best to deliver services is to be encouraged, but simply trying to protect one's own job by misleading the public shows local government at its worst. We shall examine most carefully the costs incurred by such councils.
15. Mr. Orme : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what actions have been taken in relation to city pride.
Sir George Young : The partners in the three city pride cities, Birmingham, London and Manchester, have all formed partnerships to take forward the preparation of prospectuses for their areas and they are making good progress.
Mr. Orme : Does the Minister agree that that is a competition of the poor versus the poor, instead of providing proper funding for inner-city areas such as Salford ? Government policy is not working in that regard. We need more resources. What does the Minister intend to do about that ?
Sir George Young : We tried to get more resources on Monday night, and I am ashamed to say that the right hon. Gentleman again voted against more resources for my Department. The sum was £213 million, some of which would go to the urban programme. I invite the right hon. Gentleman to hear what Manchester city council said about city pride :
"The City Council is determined to respond very positively to the Secretary of State's invitation."
If Manchester-- [Hon. Members :-- "What about Salford ?"] Salford is part of the committee involved in city pride. If Manchester city council can respond in that generous way, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can do so as well.
16. Mr. Mullin : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to encourage local authorities to deal with the problem of dog fouling of parks, beaches and other public places ; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Atkins : The Government are very concerned about the unpleasant nuisance of dog mess, but we believe that that is primarily a matter for local authorities.
Mr. Mullin : The Minister's reply is hopelessly inadequate. Is it not a fact that our parks, beaches and other public places are ruined by the selfishness of some dog owners ? Does he agree that it is about time that the Government took a lead in making those parks, beaches and other public places available to all our citizens ?
Mr. Atkins : I have considerable sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. It is true that a recent Tidy Britain Group survey revealed that one in six streets was fouled by dogs and that, for 76 per cent. of adults, dog fouling was one of the worst aspects of environmental damage of which they could think. However, one has to recognise that there is a difficulty, between the people who believe that their pets can do no wrong and others who take a different view. I do not want to fall between two stools.
Mr. Hendry : Will my hon. Friend confirm that, as a result of compulsory competitive tendering, Conservative local authorities are more efficient at cleaning up dog dirt than Labour authorities ? Does that not mean that, in a Labour authority, one has to watch not only how much one pays but where one walks ?
Mr. Atkins : We can also say that, at any rate, we have a better class of dog in Tory authorities.
Ms Eagle : Will the Minister explain how the Government could possibly help the nation to clean up its dog mess when they cannot even clear up their own mess ?
Mr. Atkins : I am always concerned at the fact that the hon. Lady is so unhappy about these matters. As I said, this is a serious matter and one which the House should take seriously. It is something which we should encourage. I suspect that there is agreement on both sides of the House about the serious message to give--we want to encourage owners to recognise the importance of not leaving dog mess in places where it can do damage to children, other people and society as a whole. If that message gets across on both sides of the House, that will go a long way towards solving the problem.
17. Mr. Streeter : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what discussions he has had with the Office of Water Services about the basis of charging for water supply in the south-west.
Mr. Gummer : The Department is in frequent discussion with Ofwat on the basis of charging for water.
Mr. Streeter : Is my right hon. Friend aware that water charges in Devon and Cornwall in 1993 were substantially higher than in the rest of the country, and we are now facing an increase in our water charges of more than 12 per cent ? Does he understand that the patience of the residents
Column 879of Devon and Cornwall is wearing thin ? Can he assure me that the Government are leaving no stone unturned to reduce our water bills ? When can we have some positive news on this important subject ?
Mr. Gummer : We are certainly seeking to do all that we can to reduce water bills. However, we must also meet the standards that not only are expected of us by the European Community but which we ourselves want to meet. We are trying to do both at the same time.
Mrs. Helen Jackson : Does the Minister recognise that, because of the frightening increase in bills in the south-west, there is a growing feeling up and down the country that what is wrong with the water industry is that the customer--the consumer--is not coming first ? Does he agree that it is crucial that both the water regulator, Mr. Ian Byatt, and the Government should start to listen to consumers about the unfairness of compulsory metering, the wrongness of disconnecting homes and the impossibility of meeting the very steep water increases ?
Mr. Gummer : My constituents want us to meet the highest standards. They believe that it is a major protection for the consumer that water companies can cut off the supplies of people who refuse to pay their bills when they have the means so to do.
Mr. Harris : May I press my right hon. Friend on what my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) said--people in the south- west will not put up with such bills for much longer ? The fact is that many people cannot pay their bills. We are looking to my right hon. Friend and Mr. Byatt to find a satisfactory solution that will end the misery.
Mr. Gummer : I understand what my hon. Friend says. As he knows, he has been pressing me on these issues for some time, as have other Tory Members for the south-west. There is a difficulty in trying to deliver the standards that we want at a price that is acceptable to the consumer. I am seeking to find every means to do that. However, in the end, those standards cost money, and I know that Mr. Byatt has that point very much in mind.
18. Mr. Faulds : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps he intends to take to ensure that local authorities carry out an energy audit of buildings within their area.
Mr. Baldry : We encourage local authorities to carry out audits of their own buildings as part of good practice and to play a wider role in energy efficiency thinking in their areas.
Mr. Faulds : As you know, Madam Speaker, I am always overkeen to get the business of the House completed. I have a very straight question and will be obliged if I get a very simple answer. Can I have an assurance that the Government will support the Bill of the right hon. Member for Berwick- upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)--the Energy Conservation Bill--without amendment ?
Mr. Baldry : We are considering that matter. However, as I made clear on Second Reading, we will not add to the burdens of local authorities unless it is absolutely necessary.
19. Ms Lynne : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps he is taking to ensure that all urban areas have effective monitoring of air pollution and quality.
Mr. Gummer : We shall cover all major cities within three years and are currently considering responses to our consultation paper, which proposes a national system.
Ms Lynne : Can the Minister confirm that air pollution has increased in urban areas ? Does he agree with the advice that the Government are giving to the millions of asthma sufferers like myself--that we should stay indoors when air pollution is bad ? Does he not think that he should be looking at the causes of pollution, rather than recommending voluntary house arrest ?
Mr. Gummer : I agree that it is the causes of pollution that matter. Indeed, the air in our cities has improved considerably, but lately the increased use of cars has resulted in a return to a rise in pollution. That is why I announced yesterday, for example, planning policy guidance 13, which will change the balance in planning in relation to transport. I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that, in the end, that is the way down which we must go, as well as having cleaner cars.
Mr. Barnes : May we have a full environmental survey of Staveley in north-east Derbyshire, where there are a mass of airborne pollution problems other than those resulting from transport, which has already been mentioned ? Problems arise from the works in the area and from dioxin. I have raised that matter several times in the House. It would be fruitful for the Government to adopt procedures whereby they can solidly investigate asthma and other problems in such areas.
Mr. Gummer : If the hon. Gentleman cares to write to me, I will certainly look into the possibility of doing something special in his area.
20. Mr. Etherington : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what consultations took place in the development of the single regeneration budget.
Mr. Baldry : I refer the hon. Member to the answer that I gave earlier to the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson).
Mr. Etherington : In view of the Secretary of State's statement last November and the projection that there will be a 40 per cent. reduction in urban aid programmes between 1990 and 1996, will the Minister reassure the House that urban areas such as my constituency will not suffer even more drastically than they have done for the past three generations because money has been diverted into more prosperous areas that have only recently suffered because of recession ?
Mr. Baldry : Millions of pounds have been spent on the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and nearby, through the Tyne and Wear development corporation, city challenge and other initiatives--for example, estate action and the single regeneration budget--and millions of pounds will continue to be spent in his constituency on urban regeneration.
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