Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark) : I feel some unease about the regulations. It was not helped by the speech by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) who, if I summarise him correctly, seemed to be asking for more of the same.

The much-quoted briefing from the Institute of Directors has alerted many of us to some of the implications of the measure. One part of the briefing that caught my eye was the reference to the fact that the measure may be contrary to the European Communities Act 1972. The institute raises the interesting argument that raising new taxes would be illegal and improper under the 1972 Act. When my hon. Friend replies, he may choose to discuss that interesting allegation.

Column 1004

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) : Why does the hon. Gentleman think that the Institute of Directors did not bother to point that out when those issues were discussed last year during the passage of the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1992 ? The Institute of Directors went to a great deal of trouble to brief Members on both sides of the House, as did many other Lobby organisations. It did not mention that point. Does the hon. Gentleman think that it is simply an afterthought or pure invention on the part of the institute ?

Mr. Alexander : It is not for me to surmise the reasoning behind the Institute of Directors' thinking, but, as that point has been raised, it deserves an answer. I suggest to my hon. Friend that he may choose to respond to it.

My unease stems from the fact that we, the Conservative party, try to proclaim our support for people who try to run their own businesses, yet too often they say that the ratchet is being turned against them one notch more each time. I am uneasy lest the measure represents another small ratchet. We proclaim our hostility to anything that imposes social costs on industry and we have witnessed--especially those of us who have travelled in Europe--the effect of those burdens on industries in the rest of the European Community. Yet here we are, proposing to reduce reimbursement of statutory maternity pay to 92 per cent.--not a great deal, but it is another burden. It is one more turn of the screw.

The real question that the House must ask--I am not sure that it has been widely debated, canvassed or discussed--is, should the burden of statutory maternity pay fall on the employer or the taxpayer ? Statutory maternity leave requirements are already imposed on the employer, and now the latest measure is imposed. If reimbursement is 92 per cent. today, will it be 50 per cent. in a few years' time ? Will it be the lot in three or four years' time, gradually introduced under new regulations ? I simply pass on to my hon. Friend the Minister my anxiety about the ease with which new burdens seem to be passed on to industry today.

I ask the House and my hon. Friend the Minister what benefit an employer receives by making the payment--or is it, as the institute suggests, another form of tax ? It was said tonight that most employees do not return to the same employer when their period of maternity leave has gone by. The difficulty is that employers have no means of knowing how much the measure will cost them at a point in the future. It is a small amount at the moment, but it could be increased and we do not know whether it will be.

There is a special problem for companies with a high concentration of female employees, especially small employers. In some cases, as has been commented, it may militate against their taking on any female potential employees, and that is a worrying aspect of what we are doing.

The whole thing, as my hon. Friend the Minister has made clear, is a result of the EC pregnant workers directive. I say to him and to the House that it is another burden on business. It is another social cost to industry. I am a little surprised that the Government have not resisted the directive more robustly.

Column 1005

11.14 pm

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport) : I welcome the implementation of the European directive with more enthusiasm than the Minister has shown to date. It will help thousands of women and their families who, because they work part time, have no entitlement to maternity leave or benefit.

Women now form 49.1 per cent. of the work force and 28.2 per cent. of all employees are part-time. Traditionally, women have used part-time work to combine their family responsibilities with their need to earn money, and employers have needed their contribution. But women have not been treated fairly. The nation would grind to a halt without the contribution of women's work, paid and unpaid--mostly unpaid--but women have had precious little recognition for that. The benefits system has discriminated outrageously against women in part-time employment. It has denied them entitlement to unemployment benefit and sick pay, and their pensions have been affected in the long term. The recent Law Lords' ruling said that part -time workers who work more than eight hours should have the same employment rights as full-time workers. The Government are still considering that. I hope that the implementation of the EC directive will be the beginning of many to come and will improve the position of women in part-time work, who seem to be invisible to the Government. Women do work and have children, and the nation can do without neither contribution. It is about time that women were treated more fairly. There has been much discussion this evening about the parliamentary brief from the Institute of Directors, and I was concerned about some of the statements that it contained. For example, it said that the proposed changes to maternity benefit would damage both business and working women, and that business would be saddled with the social cost, which was bound to damage employment opportunities for women of child-bearing age. It said that the extra cost involved in employing women of child-bearing age could handicap their employment prospects.

Every time legislation that would improve the position of women is proposed, it is argued that, in the long term, it will discriminate against women. This evening, it has been argued that, because of the additional social cost which the Government have decided to place on employers, this measure would discriminate against women, so perhaps we should not go along with the EC directive. The same arguments were advanced about equal pay. At the time, it was said that it would discriminate against women's employment, but that prospect never came to pass.

The sum total of what the Institute of Directors seems to be saying is that employers will not employ women in case they get pregnant. This country has equal opportunities legislation and it is therefore not legal to discriminate against employees on the ground of sex or against women because employers think that they are a bad employment prospect. It will be interesting to see how effective that legislation is in the future.

My colleagues and I shall advise women to watch for any signs of discrimination from employers. I warn the Institute of Directors to remember that and advise companies of their legal responsibility under existing

Column 1006

legislation. The suggestion that women should not be employed because of the social cost to employers is outrageous.

I do not regard this as solely a women's issue. It concerns families-- parents being able to provide for themselves and their children and combine work and responsibilities to their children. The employment pattern is changing : part-time work benefits women, their families, and employers. It is extremely important that the contribution that women have made over the years is recognised and treated fairly. I therefore welcome the regulations and look forward to many more EC directives being debated in the House, as it is obvious that Europe has a more progressive attitude towards social legislation than we can expect from the Conservative Government. 11.18 pm

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay) : I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister one simple question. Does he want to get more jobs for people who want to work or does he just seek to obtain better benefits for those who are already in work ? That is what the measure comes down to. It is a good example of politics doing harm by trying to do good.

The provision will price women out of jobs. It will not be immediately obvious, and will apply more to women who seek to enter the labour market-- often for the first time. They will inevitably be viewed by some employers as a potentially more expensive source of labour than other available sources. That could advantage older women who have passed child-bearing age, so that women as a whole may not be harmed. But women with children or women of child-bearing age who wish to work will inevitably be affected to some extent because the regulations will colour the attitude of potential employers. We have come out of an era when women were discriminated against if they got married. Not long ago women had to give up their job if they married--the civil service was the worst employer in that respect. Teachers and nurses had to give up their work if they married. We are entering an era where women may be discriminated against even more simply because they are of marriageable age. Their potential to have children will be seen by employers as a possible burden.

Nobody in the House seeks to improve the lot of women more than me. I am on the side of women, and I want to keep as wide a range of jobs open to them as possible. It is important for women to have the opportunity to go to work, obtain the experience of being at work and have the chance to go back to work without creating additional hidden burdens that make them less desirable as employees.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : Will the hon. Lady give way ?

Mrs. Gorman : If the hon. Lady will wait one moment I shall give way to her.

I want to say something from the employer's perspective. Women and politicians do not create jobs ; employers do. It is important to consider how an employer views all regulations related to employment. People do not understand the notion of "Once bitten, twice shy". If an employer has experienced the difficulties of keeping a job open for a woman who has gone on maternity leave only to find that she does not return, it will influence his

Column 1007

judgment the next time that he faces that prospect. One can take a horse to water, but one cannot make it drink. One can create wonderful employment conditions, but one cannot force an employer to adopt them. He may have to adopt them for existing employees, but his opinions and attitude will be coloured the next time that he considers employing staff. That worries me because, at that stage, women's interests are harmed by such regulations.

My hon. Friend the Minister said that only large employers would be affected. But many large employers--for example, as has been said, in the retail trade--employ women. It is important that those employers remain as open-minded as possible towards younger women. Such employment provides an important source of jobs for many women who want to work part-time or flexible hours, particularly in the retail trade. It is a golden opportunity for women to return to the labour market. We do not want to colour the attitude of employers, but their attitude is already coloured.

Anyone who shops at a supermarket knows jolly well that, in Britain, there is nobody available to pack groceries into bags. Shoppers have to unload the groceries out of their trollies and, while the girl is cashing up, all the goods flood down the other end so that shoppers have to rush backwards and forwards, shoving the shopping into plastic bags before the next lot arrives. In the United States one does not have that problem because there is an extra employee, usually a woman, at the other end of the line packing goods. Why ? Because employees are not so overburdened with costs and hidden-cost regulations as to make them less attractive. Sainsbury, Tesco and Safeway are not being stingy, but trying to keep their risks as low as possible.

That is the simple reason why, if one goes to the movies, one is more likely to have to stumble one's way to one's seat in the dark than to have a young woman with a torch showing the way. Women are less attractive as employees. If they were more attractive and did not bring extra burdens with them, perhaps more of them would be employed.

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford) : May I advise my hon. Friend that she need not go to the United States for those marvellous services ? She has only to travel about four miles from her constituency to Chelmsford, where there is certainly one supermarket that provides them. The new Kingshead Meadow cinema has usherettes who show us to our seats with torches.

Mrs. Gorman : I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I give way to the hon. Lady.

Mrs. Wise : Does the hon. Lady accept that the directive does not compel the Government to put that burden on employers, but that the Government choose to do so ?

Opposition Members do not want discrimination against employers who employ large numbers of women. The burden should be either on all employers or on the state. I remind the hon. Lady and the Government that all employers benefit ultimately from the fact that women continue to get pregnant. If they did not, where would the next generation of workers come from for any employer ?

Mrs. Gorman : The hon. Lady's last point is irrefutable and I would not seek to quarrel with her.

I am concerned particularly about small employers. I have been one and I have represented them for many years before coming to the House. Small employers encounter

Column 1008

enormous difficulties in keeping a job open. I know that the regulations do not yet apply to small employers, but only very small employers are exempt. Keeping open the job of a key employee--often a highly skilled and trained woman--for 14 weeks or more, possibly to find that she does not return to work, creates enormous difficulties and great disincentives.

As many medium-sized firms that face that problem will be included in the changes, I counsel the Minister to consider carefully whether the Government have their priorities right in adding any burden to businesses when the creation and retention of jobs is of paramount importance--a great deal more important than the miserable amount of tax money that the Government will raise in this manner.

Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth) : Does my hon. Friend agree that this is yet another example of divisive, high-cost European legislation that we really do not want, but are lumbered with ?

Mrs. Gorman : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Had he been here a little earlier, he would have heard that point being made very cogently and that is why I have not dealt with it.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to answer the point that I have now made twice, that the measure is not a job creation exercise and in the long term, it undermines the basis of the Government's employment policy--to get more jobs for more people.

11.27 pm

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : I rise to express my concern about those women who will not benefit from the regulations. I welcome the regulations as far as they go and note that they have been imposed on the Government. I regret that that is necessary, but my concern is for those women who earn less than £57 a week and do not benefit at all.

Women on low wages may depend on those wages just as much as any other worker. Those women and their families may be just as dependent on that small extra addition to the family income as those who earn much more. The fact that the wage is low does not mean that it is less important to the family and the loss of that wage can be extremely important. The lower the income, the less one can afford to lose any of it. I regret that the Government have not taken the opportunity to do something about it.

I remind the Minister that when the Select Committee on Health examined maternity services and published a report in March 1992 dealing with maternity pay, it unanimously disapproved of the present arrangements. We pointed out that not only do they disadvantage women on low wages, but they are administered in an extremely rigid manner which leads to great anomalies. The fact that a woman has to qualify over a specified eight-week period makes it extremely unfair in many cases. For example, if a woman is on a bonus or commission her earnings may drop during one or two weeks in the specified eight weeks, but over a longer period--perhaps three months-- she would qualify.

As has been pointed out, there can be deliberate manipulation of the earnings pattern. Sheer accidents can occur, such as when a holiday falls and holiday pay accrues. It is quite wrong that this matter, which is so important to women, should be determined in a very arbitrary and anomalous manner. I am particularly

Column 1009

disappointed that the Government have not addressed that point, especially considering that the Select Committee on Health drew their attention to it in a report which was widely welcomed. The Government have exposed the fact that they intend to do only the minimum and not a morsel more, or they would have looked in a much more general way--perhaps even in a slightly generous way--at the needs of women. I deplore the attitude of hon. Members who think that because the Government choose to discriminate unfairly against employers of large numbers of women it is the women who should suffer. The answer to the needs of employers is entirely in the Government's hands. It seems to me that they are doing both employers of women and women themselves a great disservice in changing the funding arrangements.

I do not believe that employers should have to bear the cost of administering social benefit schemes. It is not fair ; it is not part of an employer's job. I object particularly to the measure being used to discriminate against those who employ women. I object to employers thinking that the answer is to employ fewer women, but I object primarily to a Government who make it an issue at all.

As I said, the Government are ensuring that they do the barest minimum-- that which they cannot evade or avoid--and not a fraction more. The women of this country--especially the low-paid--will draw their own conclusions from that.

11.32 pm

Mr. Bradley : With the leave of the House, I will sum up the debate. However, I will be extremely brief because I think that it is very important that the Minister answers the many points that have been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The debate has clearly exposed the splits over Europe among Government members. My comments at the beginning of the debate that the Government were dragged, kicking and screaming, into implementing the directive were proved correct by the contributions of Government Back Benchers.

I am grateful to Opposition Members--especially my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport and the hon. Member for Preston--for highlighting the weaknesses that still exist in the provision, particularly in relation to the lowest paid women in the work force who are below the national insurance contribution threshold and self-employed women, as the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) pointed out.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Preston said, the Government have decided to transfer the costs on to business. The £55 million bill could have been met by the Government to honour social provision and improve the rights of women workers in this country, but they have chosen to transfer the burden on to business. We shall be monitoring that provision--and that relating to statutory sick pay--to ascertain whether it is the thin end of the wedge as regards the transfer of the cost of social provision from the state to business.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport said, it is absolutely right to have equal opportunities legislation and we shall be monitoring the impact of the provisions to ensure that women are not discriminated against, that their

Column 1010

rights are upheld and that they continue to enjoy protection, whether they are in the workplace or at home on maternity leave. It is essential that we know why the Government have not gone further to ensure proper provision under the regulations and for anomalies in the system to be explained. I shall therefore conclude my remarks in order to allow the Minister the maximum time possible to answer the questions that were asked not only by Opposition Members but by his Back- Bench colleagues.

11.35 pm

Mr. Hague : With the leave of the House, I shall indeed try to use the remaining time to answer as many as possible of the questions that have been asked and to do so without being vague.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) said that the Institute of Directors had asked whether regulations made under the European Communities Act 1972 can be used for the purpose for which we are using them. The Government's understanding of the legal position is clear : the new reimbursement rate has been set to cover only the additional cost of the directive and, as such, is tax neutral for the taxpayer. Employers are not paying a tax ; rather, they are now being asked to meet a small part of the cost of maternity pay for their employees. There is no difficulty of the type feared by the Institute of Directors in bringing forward the regulation under that Act.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) said that the Government would not be enacting the measure without the European Community directive. I have to tell him that the directive was negotiated with other member states and was changed substantially in the course of the negotiations. Without those changes, it would have imposed much greater costs on employers or taxpayers. He asked specifically about the number of employers affected. About 750,000 small employers will continue to receive the full reimbursement rate of 104 per cent. They are about two thirds of the total, which leaves about 500,000 who will pay more as a result. That sum involved is about £55 million.

As I said in my opening remarks, that must be seen against the background of a reduction in employers' national insurance contributions which totalled £830 million and which is £125 million greater than the cost of this change and the end of reimbursement of statutory sick pay.

Mr. Miller rose

Mr. Hague : I am sorry, but I cannot give way in the limited time available.

My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) also asked us to remember the cost for employers and said that women would be priced out of the market. It may be a dangerous thing to say, but I shall have a small wager with my hon. Friend that women will play an increasingly important part in the work force and make an even greater contribution in future, notwithstanding the enactment of this measure.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) also mentioned the cost for employers. To put it in perspective, the amount in question is 0.03 per cent. of the national wage bill, although what he suggested-- having maternity pay set at a level equivalent to occupational sick

Column 1011

pay--would cost an additional £500 million. I am not sure how he and his party envisage financing such a commitment--perhaps it is a matter to which he should turn his thoughts. He also asked why the study of statutory sick pay for small employers could not embrace statutory maternity pay. The answer is that small employers are not affected by the measure. They continue to receive the full 104 per cent. reimbursement.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley), speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, welcomed the measures. I recognise that and I thank him for it. He also asked about the difference between the 14-week and the 18-week entitlement. It is important to point out that 60 per cent. of women in the United Kingdom qualify for up to 40 weeks' maternity absence-- the maximum--which is the longest period available in any member state of the European Community. To establish an 18-week minimum entitlement would add another £50 million to the cost of the measure. Again, the hon. Gentleman and his party need to think about where they would find the additional £50 million that they advocate spending.

The hon. Gentleman and several other hon. Members said that this country was behind the rest of the European Community in maternity provision. It should be borne in mind that the United Kingdom pays statutory maternity pay for longer than most EC countries, and is the only country with a centralised system of income support covering all categories of need. The United Kingdom and Luxembourg are the only countries that wholly finance maternity pay--that will still continue at 92 per cent. in this country. Moreover, 60 per cent. of women qualify for the full 40 weeks of maternity absence, the longest period in any member state.

If hon. Members wish to improve further on those provisions, as many of them have advocated, they must think about how they would finance their suggestions. Some of them have adopted a strange position. Within the past two hours Opposition Members have criticised the burdens put on employers by increasing the cost of maternity pay, yet they have also voted against increasing the Government's revenue. They have been most unwilling to say where they would find the money to finance more generous maternity pay, if it did not come from employers.

Mr. Miller rose

Mr. Hague : As the hon. Gentleman did not have the chance to speak in the debate, I shall let him intervene to tell us the answer to that question.

Mr. Miller : Earlier this evening, because the Minister was worried about his Back Benchers, he carefully explained to them that because of the increased employers' national insurance contributions the changes were tax neutral. Will he therefore go further and extend those provisions to adoptive mothers, because that would also be tax-neutral ? Many of his Back Benchers would agree with him if he did that.

Mr. Hague : The hon. Gentleman has a strange understanding of what "tax-neutral" means. Today we have heard from some Opposition Members proposals for

Column 1012

spending half a billion pounds of extra money. There is nothing tax-neutral about that ; it would be extra money that would have to come from the taxpayer or be borrowed. Opposition Members have fought shy, as they always do, of putting forward any specific proposals on how they would finance their ideas. They have been content to pose as people who would improve conditions for some people by improving the rates of maternity pay and maternity allowance, without any idea of how they would go about it, or where they would find the money. The hon. Member for Withington said several times that the Government had been dragged kicking and screaming into improving maternity pay--a comment originally made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) when the announcement was made. Let me point out to the hon. Member for Withington that statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance are being increased for the whole 18-week payment period. The increase is not restricted to the 14-week period required by the directive.

Under the directive, the higher rate of statutory maternity pay payable to all women with 26 weeks' service could have been restricted. The directive said that any employment test must not exceed 52 weeks. We have gone for a 26-week service qualification for all. Women will also now be free to choose when to start their maternity leave and pay, which is an improvement not required by the directive. Furthermore, small employers will continue to be reimbursed in full--a healthy and helpful arrangement for them which, again, was not required by the directive.

That does not look to me like a list of proposals into which the Government have been dragged kicking and screaming. None of them was required by the directive that the hon. Gentleman said had imposed the changes on the Government.

The regulations will improve maternity pay for 285,000 women and will give the higher rates of maternity pay to 90,000 women each year for the first time. They should be welcomed by the House, and I hope that they will now be approved.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved ,

That the draft Maternity Allowance and Statutory Maternity Pay Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 24th March, be approved.


Seat Belts

11.44 pm

Mr. Roger Evans (Monmouth) : I present a petition bearing the names of more than 156,000 people throughout the country who are concerned about the want of seat belts in school buses. This is the BUSK--belt-up school kids--petition, the material part of the prayer whereof reads as follows :

your undersigned Petitioners call upon this Honourable House to legislate to make it compulsory for seat belts (not lapstraps) to be fitted in all school buses and vehicles used to transport children to and from their schools and on school trips and your petitioners as in duty bound will ever pray etc.

To lie upon the Table .

Column 1013

Livingston Development Corporation

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

11.45 pm

Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) : I am grateful for this opportunity to initiate a short debate on the winding up of Livingston development corporation. This is probably the most strategic issue to confront my constituency in the 11 years in which I have represented it. It also raises wider questions, as testified by the presence in the debate of some of my colleagues from sister new towns who will seek to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, after I conclude, and by the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who shares with me the local authority that is affected by the wind-up. The background to tonight's debate is the Minister's decision to cut short the timetable for the wind-up by two years. That has compressed the time available for an orderly wind-up, and has given rise to a number of severe problems. I shall begin by focusing on the problems it causes for the economic development of the new town. My hon. Friends will remember that, when the process began four years ago, we were assured by Ministers that the solution to maintaining the momentum for economic activity in the new towns was a local development company. Indeed, only three years ago, when the White Paper came out, it described local development companies as the most effective solution to maintain the momentum of economic development in the new towns.

Only last month, Livingston development corporation formally abandoned its plans to try to form a local development company. It has done so because the time scale available is too short, and, because once it has met the target for the sale of assets, it will not have enough left to provide a base for its own local development company.

My first question for the Minister is as follows. Now that we have lost the opportunity to have what he described as the most effective way in which to maintain economic activity, what now ? How can he guarantee that there will continue to be the commercial investment--and the planning to provide for that investment--in a new town with a very young population, where we need another 1,000 jobs every year if we are simply to stand still and cope with the growth in the young work force ?

The other aspect that arises from the short timetable, which has an immediate bearing on the economic development of the new town, is the future of the staff. They are now demoralised, which gives rise to serious problems for the functioning of the new town. The staff have a short time to remain in post, and no longer have the option of a local development company to which to transfer. As my hon. Friends will know, the enhanced redundancy offer to staff of the new town has been withdrawn, with severe implications for the staff of the other new town corporations which face imminent wind-up.

It is a great irony that, all over eastern Europe, countries and towns are struggling to put together teams of people who have some knowledge of attracting inward investment and managing commercial development. In Scotland, we have five very successful teams in the area, yet we are currently breaking them up. Why is there a shorter timetable ?

It is no secret why there is a shorter timetable. I do not

Column 1014

think that the Minister is free to admit why, but he knows perfectly well that we know why there is a shorter timetable, and that we know that he knows why. The reason is the Treasury. The truth of the matter is that, in the past year, the priority consideration in winding up has shifted from how we preserve the economic development of the new town to how we make as much money as possible, as fast as possible, from the sale of the assets of the new town. I am grateful to the Minister for answering a parliamentary question that I asked a couple of months ago and confirming that the target that he set for the sale of assets by Livingston new town in the next two years was £70 million, from industrial and commercial premises and from land for industrial and commercial use. Livingston development corporation has only £84 million-worth of assets in those categories.

We are not looking at a phased sale of assets ; we are looking at a closing down sale. It is not prudent, because the sales are taking place against a depressed property market, which will not give full value for the assets. It is not fair, because, in England, the new towns had a much more rational timetable in which to dispose of their assets, with the option of passing them to the New Towns Staff Commission if they were not disposed of. It is not in the long-term interests of the local residents to have such a rapid sale on such a short timetable.

How will the successor authority find the resources to meet the liabilities that it will merit ? Currently, Livingston development corporation spends £1,355,000 on landscaping. That liability will descend on West Lothian district council or its successor local authority. Where will it find £1,355,000 to meet that additional liability if there are no assets left to be transferred ? When the Minister produced the White Paper, he suggested that voluntary organisations and charitable groups may run some of the community services in new towns and take them over with endowment packages. Again, that model was followed in England. Milton Keynes community trust took over most of the community services, but received 125,000 sq ft of industrial commercial property to pay for it.

I am glad that there is a current move in Livingston to form a Livingston foundation, which will maintain some of the town's identity after the development corporation is wound up, and which may also provide some kind of holding body for community assets. However, I must ask whether, given the target and the scale of the target for sale of assets, there will be anything left worth holding. Will there be any serious endowment package available, either for the local authority or for voluntary groups to maintain those community services ?

The Minister has suggested that it will be possible to fund the local authority's extra liability through the revenue support grant. I do not wish to be unkind to the Minister, who is a pleasing man in his own way, and who also has the advantage of not having been in the Government throughout their period in office ; but, considering the record of the Government over the past 15 years, and hearing the suggestion that we may look to the revenue support grant as the means of additional funds to meet additional liabilities, anybody would have severe difficulty maintaining a straight face. It would make a horse laugh.

The history of the Government in cutting the revenue support grant gives us no confidence that that represents a

Column 1015

long-term vehicle to provide for the additional liabilities that the local authorities will inherit. If the Minister is to insist on that as the way out of his problem, I must put it to him that, if that is to be accepted in good faith, he must separately identify what that money is, and he must ring-fence it, so that we can all see how much it is and what it is for. However, it would be much better if the Minister agreed to the English model of endowing the local authorities with assets from the new town, from which they can meet the costs of the liabilities.

I want to put one specific question to the Minister, and if he cannot answer it now, I should be happy if he would write to me again. It is a question for which I am anxious to have a reply, as are the local authorities.

In his letter to my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) on 29 March, the Minister said that one development corporation had reached a voluntary agreement through negotiation with the local authority about the transfer of assets, which would meet the liabilities from the additional costs imposed on the council when the development corporation was wound up.

That has happened once. If the other new town development corporations were to achieve a similarly negotiated package with their district councils, would the Minister also approve that ? If he approved it, would he be willing to adjust his targets for the development corporations and asset sales to reflect the particular agreement with the district council ?

I shall move on to housing before allowing my hon. Friends to make their contributions. My hon. Friends and I, including my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow, have repeatedly told Ministers over the years that it was vital that tenants should have the opportunity of transferring to the district council at the point of wind up. In fairness to the Minister, I should say that this is one area in which we have made progress. We secured an agreement from the Minister that, if the tenant opted for that transfer, he could have that choice.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : That was the promise from the beginning.

Next Section

  Home Page