Dr. Fox : In discussing that report, will my right hon. Friend make the strongest possible representations to the French Government over the proposals to extend the shooting season, which will result in the unnecessary and unacceptable slaughter of many British migratory birds ? Is my right hon. Friend aware--I hope that he is--that many people in the United Kingdom will find that to be an arrogant and unacceptable proposal, and completely distasteful ?
Mr. Gummer : I have already made it clear to the French Government that any consideration of the proposal to which my hon. Friend has referred must be in the context of there being no change in the present practice. They have assured me that they will take the scientific advice that has so far been given by Ornis, but there is more scientific advice to be obtained. I note that the European Parliament has declined to discuss the matter at this stage. The British Government have taken the clear view that the issue of migratory species is a matter of European Community competence, and we are determined to protect those birds that come to this country.
Mr. Simon Hughes : The Secretary of State's claims that he is protecting the environment look pretty thin when he publishes a 1993 report only in May 1994, when he drops his plans to set up contaminated land registers, when we still have not had before us any legislation on the Environmental Protection Agency and when there are no longer any long-term targets for limiting CO2 emissions. Worst of all, the Government and their friends have tabled more than 200 amendments and new clauses, which are clearly intended to wreck the Energy Conservation Bill being promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). Is the Secretary of State aware that that measure would do more for the environment than anything that he is now doing ?
Mr. Gummer : The Liberal party is utterly unable to make any such comment ever since it reneged on its support for proper taxes on energy consumption. The hon. Gentleman knows very well that his position is untenable. We have heard the usual Liberal demand for something for nothing. The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong in all his other allegations. We are reporting for the third year running on these matters at a later date because of the publication of the report on sustainable development, which has been widely welcomed. Only the Liberal party would make such silly allegations.
Mr. Michael Spicer : My right hon. Friend will be aware that the River Severn was severely polluted last weekend. In the light of that experience, will he have a word with the water regulator to ensure, first, that the quality of water is properly monitored and, secondly, that when such pollution occurs, samples are taken and analysed quickly so that the public can be accurately and properly informed of what is going on ?
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to a serious incident. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside was in the area yesterday. There was an immediate inquiry into the matter. The points that my hon. Friend has raised will be taken fully into account. As far as we can see at this stage, the measures to which my hon. Friend referred were taken. The inquiry will establish that. We shall naturally seek to learn as much as possible from the inquiry to ensure that there is no repetition of that incident.
Mr. Chris Smith : Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that, over the past year, the environmental protection record of local government has been better than that of central Government ? The right hon. Gentleman is fond of pouring scorn on Labour local authorities. Why is it that of the 11 local authorities that have been specially invited by the Government to make a presentation on best practice to the Partnerships for Change conference, not one is controlled by the Conservative party ? Of the eight district councils selected by the Government as examples of best environmental practice, seven were controlled by the Labour party. Will the right hon. Gentleman now praise the pioneering work of Labour councils on environmental protection ?
Mr. Gummer : I am happy to say that up until now we have managed to praise the environmental work of a large number of councils of different political colours, and this is the first time that a party political division has been drawn into the matter. The hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of himself. The only party in the House that has no right to talk about the environment is the Liberal party because it has reneged on all its willingness to support those matters. The Labour party must remember that I have criticised only the fact that it has the vast majority of the councils which demand the most money for the least services. It costs £131 more to pay the council tax in Labour councils-- [Interruption.] --and the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who is trying to intervene, has had to admit that his figures are phoney-- phoney councils, phoney figures, Labour councils.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton : Would my right hon. Friend think that it was making progress in protecting the environment if an application to establish opencast coal operations were granted at Towers Farm in Poynton in my
Column 869constituency, in a most sensitive green belt area right on the edge of Cheshire and on the boundary of Greater Manchester, against the opposition of local residents, the parish council and the borough council and at a time when British Coal is closing coal mines as though there were no tomorrow ?
Mr. Gummer : I do not think that the cause of environmental protection would be helped much if my hon. Friend were to receive an answer in the House of Commons to what is a properly constituted inquiry into the matter, in which the environment will play a major part. I hope that my hon. Friend will wait for the results of that properly constituted inquiry and my decision on it. As to his comments about the coal industry, that is a matter for the coal companies themselves.
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins) : My hon. Friend the Minister for Energy is considering the detailed allocation of responsibilities in respect of coal mines after privatisation, as between the operators and the Coal Authority.
Mr. Campbell : Throughout the county of Durham, wildlife is being destroyed and farmers' fields are being flooded. Surely someone must take responsibility for the pollution. I know that the Government want to renege on their responsibility, but is not it time that someone stood up and took the matter in hand ?
Mr. Atkins : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for--like others of his colleagues--raising that important matter, which we are seeking to address. That is why, following the last Environment Question Time when the matter was raised, I took it upon myself to talk to my colleague the Minister for Energy. At present, if there is a particular cause of pollution, the National Rivers Authority should be spoken to. If the hon. Gentleman has a specific case in mind and would like to talk to the NRA, but has been unsuccessful, I should be pleased if he would take the matter up directly with me.
Mr. Etherington : The Minister will be aware that the National Rivers Authority is of the opinion that the law is somewhat unclear about British Coal's responsibility for pollution. Does he accept that many people are afraid that when private enterprise has the responsibility--if it can be called that--of keeping pollution at bay, the situation might get worse ? Can he assure the House that he will take the necessary action to tighten up the legislation and ensure that no additional burden falls on either water ratepayers or council taxpayers in the areas concerned where there is likely to be a diminution of deep mining ?
Mr. Atkins : As I have said, I recognise the concern. The hon. Gentleman is unfair in his attack on private enterprise--in many areas, private enterprise has demonstrated a good record on environmental activity and
Column 870pollution control--but I understand what he is saying. We have recently published a document called "Paying for our Past" and we have invited various people and organisations to comment on what we should do about contamination of the sort that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I know that the hon. Gentleman's points, and those of the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) and the others who share his worries and concerns, will be dealt with when we consider the results of that consultation.
Mr. George Howarth : Is not it far from the case that the NRA has the responsibilities that the Minister has just suggested that it does ? Does the Minister agree with Lord Crickhowell, the chairman of the NRA--no raving socialist, I understand--who said recently : "There is a legacy of contamination for which no one is currently responsible, no one is prepared or able to pay the necessary clean-up bill, and no one is charged with the running--"
Mr. Howarth : Certainly, Madam Speaker. Is not it clear from the comments of Lord Crickhowell that the responsibility that the Minister claims already rests with the NRA simply does not ? Will the Minister undertake to the House that when the Environmental Protection Agency legislation comes before the House, he will consider using that opportunity to clear up the confusion ? I assure him that, if he does that, he will get co-operation from the Opposition.
Mr. Atkins : Under the Water Resources Act 1991, it is an offence for mine owners to cause or permit the pollution of water courses. There is legislation, but I recognise that there are some questions about exemptions because of the retrospective aspect of the legislation.
Lord Crickhowell's comments during a debate in the House of Lords the other day are part and parcel of the consultation procedure. His views, as the chairman of the NRA, will be considered as important, along with those of others who respond to the consultation document on contaminated land.
The Minister for Local Government and Planning (Mr. David Curry) : The highest council taxes in descending order have been set by Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Coventry, Langbaurgh, Salford, Bristol, Cleethorpes, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool.
The lowest council taxes in ascending order have been set by Westminster, Wellingborough, Wandsworth, the Isles of Scilly, the City of London, Hambleton, Tewkesbury, Rochester, South Cambridgeshire and Ealing.
Mr. Marshall : My hon. Friend has drawn attention to the success of Ealing in setting a low council tax. Is he aware that in 1986, when I was a member of the Ealing council, it boasted the lowest rates in west London ? Is he also aware that 12 months later--following 12 months of
Column 871Labour control--the rates had gone up by 65 per cent ? Does not that show that Conservative councils cost people less and Labour councils cost people more ? Is he also aware that Westminster schools are so good that they appeal to one Labour Member, who prefers Westminster schools to Lambeth schools ?
Mr. Betts : Is not the Minister using fiddled figures in making comparisons ? Does he agree that the only true comparison is that made by using the average rate of council tax ? That simply takes into account the amount that a council spends and how many people live in that area. The use of bands is distorted because the different spread of property types and values in an area is reflected in those figures. Does the Minister agree that no one would use that comparison objectively ? Is not it only those who would try to use the figures for cheap political advantage who would use bands, rather than another comparison ?
Mr. Curry : For Opposition Members to talk about distorted figures is pretty rich. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) quoted figures which entirely overlooked the fact that the three precepting authorities were Labour. Nothing is more irrelevant than to use the average tax per household, as it depends on the level of banding in that property and on the amount of grant that is given. The lower the banding, the greater the grant, and Labour councils are delegated even more grant. The trouble is that they do not use it very well, and that is the heart of the argument.
Mr. Congdon : Does my hon. Friend find it interesting that those authorities in London that receive the highest levels of grant from the Government, such as Lambeth, Haringey, Camden and Islington, also levy the highest council taxes ? Is not it even more revealing that those authorities that receive the lowest levels of rate support grant, such as Wandsworth and Westminster, are able to charge the lowest council taxes ?
Mr. Curry : That is exactly right. It might be helpful if I spelt out those standard spending assessment levels, so that we can get the facts right. Tower Hamlets receives £1,481 per capita--that is not a Conservative council--Hackney receives £1,305, and Islington £1,185. Westminster is number four, receiving £1,167, and Wandsworth does not appear in the top 10 at all.
Mr. Straw : Could the Minister explain why so much money has been stuffed into Wandsworth in non-means-related grant ? Wandsworth contains 0.5 per cent. of the country's population, but receives 11 per cent.-- £44 million--of all non-means-related grant. Could he also explain why, in Westminster, £96 of every £100 of council spending is contributed by central Government, while the council tax payer spends just £4 ?
The Minister claims that the average household tax is irrelevant. Can he explain why that measurement was used this time last year in a private Conservative party briefing document, and was also used in a public Department of the Environment official press release the day before the council tax came into force ? Is not the truth that it was only when Conservative Ministers discovered that Labour costs
Column 872less that they dropped that measurement ? Is not it also true that, while the average council tax is £493 in Conservative areas, it is £453 in Labour areas ? Labour costs £40 less.
Mr. Curry : The hon. Gentleman is an astrologist, not a mathematician. He does not understand the system to begin with. Let me make it clear. Why does Wandsworth receive the grant that it receives ? Because its community charge was zero, to the great benefit of its population, the transit relief had to be at a higher level, and because it had the biggest cut in standard spending assessment. That is why it has the damping grant.
The reason for the proportion of grant that Westminster receives is the fact that it sets a budget below its standard spending assessment. If Westminster set a budget as far above its SSA as Liverpool has, it would have to charge 22 per cent. in its council taxes, which is more than Liverpool charges.
The Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction (Sir George Young) : The Department will build on the enhanced support that it igiving to the construction industry in order to encourage its success in both home and overseas markets.
Mr. Spring : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the £6 billion worth of exports undertaken by the United Kingdom construction industry during 1992 ? Is he satisfied that the industry is receiving sufficient support and can he cite any initiatives that would help it to gain a still larger share of the world market ?
Sir George Young : I pay tribute to the construction industry's work in generating some £6 billion in overseas earnings : that shows that there is a demand for British products and skills. My hon. Friend the Under -Secretary has just returned from India--where he led an export drive-- clutching a fistful of new orders. I am off to Beirut next week, and to Kazakhstan next month, with the construction industry, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is off to Chile and Argentina. The Department will do what it can to help British companies to win orders and generate work for British people.
Mr. Battle : Why do not the Government act now to forge a clear link between housing construction, employment and the health of our economy ? As well as encouraging the industry to win contracts in Berlin and Beirut-- which we welcome--why not also let local authorities use their £5.5 billion worth of capital receipts from council house sales to get thousands of our 500,000 construction workers back to building and repairing the homes that are desperately needed for rent here in Britain ?
Sir George Young : The hon. Gentleman clearly has not seen the figures that we published yesterday about the construction industry. Construction orders for the latest three months were 14 per cent. up on the previous three months--31 per cent. higher than a year ago. Public sector building orders are 50 per cent. up on 1991. There has been a real about- turn in the construction industry, with the most
Column 873positive forecasts that we have seen for many years. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will rejoice at the better news that is now coming out of the industry.
Mr. Ward : My right hon. Friend will be aware that Sir Michael Latham is about to produce an important report on the construction industry. May we be assured that the Government will consider it carefully and will provide any legislative time that may be needed to implement it ?
Sir George Young : As my hon. Friend says, our former colleague Sir Michael Latham is carrying out an important study into construction. His interim report was published a few weeks ago and was well received. He hopes to complete his work in July. It is a tribute to his work that the interim report was well received, and certainly the Government and all those in construction who await his final report in July will give it the serious consideration that it rightly merits.
Mr. Bayley : Do the green Ministers realise that the forest sales programme is eating away at the heart of the national forest ? Will they explain how their stated aim of expanding forest cover, as set out in the document "Sustainable Forestry", will be achieved if they allow private investors to buy the public forest instead of planting their own forests ? When will the forest review report finally appear ?
Mr. Atkins : Green Ministers are those Ministers from various Departments who, under the tutelage of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, take various actions in their Departments to ensure that the use of materials, recycling, energy use and other matters are regularly reviewed and that the Government estate benefits in the same way as everyone else.
6. Mr. Turner : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make extra funds available for housing improvement grant allocations in order to deal effectively with the backlog of housing renovations and repairs in (a) Wolverhampton an (b) other cities and towns.
Column 874properties crying out for improvement, especially new forms of heating. Children in families are cold and the lives of elderly people whose homes need new insulation techniques that ought to be applied to those properties are being affected.
Sir George Young : I recently spent a morning in Wolverhampton in the company of the leader of the council, the Conservative Bill Clark, and I saw at first hand the improvements that the local authority is carrying out to properties in the constituency of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner).
Sir George Young : Indeed I was, and rightly so. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also be electioneering. During my electioneering, I got positive support from those whom I met. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that many of his constituents appreciate the improvements to their properties that are being carried out by the Conservative-controlled Wolverhampton city council.
Mr. Budgen : Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that the people of Wolverhampton understand that socialists always believe that every housing problem can be cured by throwing taxpayers' money at it ? The people of Wolverhampton are increasingly buying their own homes, and they are enjoying the current low interest rates, which make it possible for an increasing number of people to make their own housing provision.
Sir George Young : I am sure that my hon. Friend speaks for a majority of the people in Wolverhampton when he refers to their aspirations to home ownership--aspirations which are now much more within their reach due to the very low rates of interest. I hope that many people in Wolverhampton will take advantage of the present low interest rates to achieve their ambition and buy property in Wolverhampton. There are many good-quality new schemes being built by builders, offering people homes at competitive prices.
Mr. Pike : The Minister knows that the Federation of Master Builders agree with towns such as Wolverhampton that they have not enough money to meet their statutory requirement to meet mandatory grants. Will he make additional resources available to Wolverhampton and other local authorities now, or is he going to end the right and entitlement to mandatory grant ?
Sir George Young : As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have just completed a review of the improvement grant regime, which considered a number of radical options, one of which would be to enable local authorities to have a more proactive approach and promote more home improvement areas. The Government will announce the conclusion of that consultation exercise later this year.
Mr. Faber : Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are about 801 pre-reinforced concrete homes in my constituency in west Wiltshire, many of which are substandard and some of which are in danger of falling down ? Is he further aware of the plans submitted by the
Column 875district council to transfer the entire stock to the private sector for restoration--plans that have so far been blocked by the Treasury ? Can he assure me that in his Department, he will give a fair hearing to the district council when it resubmits the plans, so that those people who live in appalling conditions in PRC homes will have a better chance in the future ?
Sir George Young : As my hon. Friend rightly says, it has not proved possible this year to find a place in the large-scale voluntary transfer programme for the properties to which he refers. I very much hope that it will be possible to restructure the proposal of his local authority, so that the transfer of those properties can proceed in 1995-96, and we will certainly do all that we can to facilitate such a transfer.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : Our further measures to encourage energy efficiency are clearly set out in the United Kingdom's climate change programme, in our strategy for sustainable development launched recently by the Prime Minister, and in our response to the Environment Select Committee's report on energy efficiency.
Mr. Harvey : Can the Minister reassure the House that the decision by the Government and their hon. and right hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches to table more than 200 amendments and new clauses to the Energy Conservation Bill has nothing to do with the desire for the amount of electricity consumed to be maximised before the sale of the remaining 40 per cent. Government stake in the two national power companies ? Is there not a direct contradiction between those two Government policies--energy conservation on the one hand and maximising the revenue from those sales on the other ?
Mr. Baldry : Only a Liberal Member of Parliament could dream up such a fantasy. The straightforward fact is that the Bill would impose a statutory duty to compel every local authority to inspect and audit every home in the country, not only their own housing stock, and we believe that that would impose an unnecessary extra regulatory burden on local authorities and unnecessary extra costs on taxpayers.
Dr. Twinn : Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Midland Electricity on its generous gift of £500,000 to Neighbourhood Energy Action in support of its excellent work, supported by the Government, to insulate low-income homes ? Will he take the opportunity to encourage other British electricity companies and others in the energy field to give money to NEA ?
Mr. Baldry : I fully support everything that my hon. Friend says. Neighbourhood Energy Action does some excellent work, especially the work that it does with the home energy efficiency scheme. That scheme has been nearly doubled to £75 million. It provides grants to improve the energy efficiency of low-income households and will enable 400, 000 homes to be treated in 1994-95. That is an indication of the support that the Government give to energy efficiency.
Mr. Batiste : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the primary purposes and benefits of energy conservation is that it reduces the need for energy production and the environmental damage caused by it, especially by such means as opencast mining ? As his contribution to that process, how soon will he publish the revised guidelines for MPG3 ?
Mr. Chris Smith : On this Friday's Energy Conservation Bill, am I right to assume from the Minister's answer to the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) that the Government are opposed to that measure ? Is that why more than 200 amendments have been tabled in an apparently deliberate attempt to sink the Bill through lack of time ? Is that why the Government are attempting to change the fundamental principle of the Bill from placing a duty on local authorities to allowing a permission for local authorities, thereby undermining the entire purpose and benefit of the Bill ? If the Government engineer the collapse of that measure, will not they be left without a shred of credibility on energy conservation ?
Mr. Baldry : I made clear the Government's approach to the Bill on Second Reading. It is ludicrous for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that, in some way, the Bill is a touchstone of the Government's attitude to energy efficiency. Our commitment to energy efficiency is clear and constant. The budget of the Energy Efficiency Office has been increased to more than £100 million this year, which represents an increase of nearly 50 per cent. on last year and a 17-fold increase in real terms since 1979. We have a clear commitment to energy efficiency, but we do not believe in imposing unnecessary regulatory burdens on local authorities, which will not necessarily bring further benefit to energy efficiency.
Mrs. Browning : Is my hon. Friend aware that, since the latest increase this month, there is now grave concern at the ability of those on fixed incomes and pensioners with modest savings in my constituency of Tiverton to find the money to meet this year's bill, let alone the expected increases in future years ? When speaking to South West Water, will my hon. Friend examine carefully its contribution to the investment in the clean up of south-west beaches and its exorbitant charging for installing water meters ? Will he also make representations to his
Column 877colleagues in the Treasury to ensure that they are aware that financial help will be needed to assist the people of the south-west ?
Mr. Atkins : I understand the concern that my hon. Friend represents, which has been expressed to my right hon. Friend and me by hon. Members from the south-west on numerous occasions. As we all know, there are many beaches in the south-west of England, but fewer people than in the rest of the country to pay for the clean up required, as well as the cost of water. I shall convey my hon. Friend's concerns to my colleagues in the Treasury and to the water companies.
Ms Corston : Is the Minister aware of the growing consensus against the use of compulsory water metering, which is considered a waste of money that should be spent on repairing our ancient water system, and in favour of using council tax bands to assess water bills ?
Mr. Atkins : The hon. Lady's view is not held unanimously, even on her side of the House. Many people feel that metering has a part to play, just as it does in charging for electricity and gas. Given that we are discussing the use of a long-term resource with increasing demands on it, metering seems to be the fairest and simplest way to charge for it. However, I recognise that concerns have been expressed about the possibility of council tax banding. Hon. Members must understand that, were that option to be considered, it could be just as damaging in terms of people's pockets as any of the other options.
Sir John Hannam : Is my hon. Friend aware that water prices for the average householder in the south-west have nearly doubled in the past few years and will double again by the end of the decade if something is not done ? With the water regulator now beginning his work on preparing the charging formula for July's announcement, does my hon. Friend accept the urgency of getting agreement in Brussels on slowing down the implementation of the EC directive ?
Mr. Atkins : I am aware of the concern, largely because many of my hon. Friends have expressed it to me and the Secretary of State. On the directive on urban waste water treatment, we are doing exactly what he asks and seeking to persuade the Commission and our colleagues within the Union that that matter will cost far more than they expected. They are beginning to understand that. As a result, it may be recognised that it can be spread over a longer period.
Ms Quin : Will the Secretary of State be discussing the implementation of EC water quality directives ? Will he confirm that it was the Conservative Government who signed the drinking water directive in 1980 ? Will he give an estimate of the number of jobs that would have been created if the Government had honoured their commitment
Column 878and improved water quality as they said they would ? Will the Government also confirm that a green dowry was given to the water companies at the time of privatisation specifically to bring our water quality up to EC standards ?