Mr. Mackinlay : Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that some of us find that answer quite amazing ? It is known that the Government have been tardy in implementing the water directives, with the consequence that the Commission brought us before the European Court. Can he assure us that the nitrogen oxide directives will be implemented in full, especially in the east Thames corridor, which does not have the air quality monitoring units that exist elsewhere ? They are desperately needed because of the high and rising incidence of asthma in the south-east of England.
Mr. Gummer : The United Kingdom has an extremely good record in implementing and enforcing European Community law. Between 1988 and 1992, a number of environmental complaints against the UK were examined by the Commission, but they resulted in only 2 per cent. of the European Court of Justice environmental judgments against member states. That makes our record very much better than that of most other member states.
The hon. Gentleman was surprised by my answer only because he has been taken in by the publicity of his own Front Bench, which always runs down Britain instead of supporting its very fine environmental record.
Mr. Sykes : Is not it wrong for the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay)--a constituency that is not exactly everyone's idea of an environmentally sensitive area--to trump up charges and create divisions in a week when his party is daily beset by divisions, left, right and centre ?
Column 794That shows that we are doing our best to meet the very high standards that we set ourselves and which other countries do not meet to the same degree.
Mr. Simon Hughes : I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be a little more open with the House and admit that there are areas in which the European Community has said that we should do things, but where the British Government and people have not. The obvious example is the one that he admitted to the House just over a week ago : that we have only 80 per cent. --not 100 per cent.--compliance with the bathing water directive and the need for clean beaches.
Will the right hon. Gentleman now introduce a package that will allow us to obey European law and comply with the directive ? Will he work out, across the parties, if necessary, and with local authorities and other agencies how the money can be found to implement that ?
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) must accept that we are meeting the requirements of the European Community to which we are signatories. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should do so faster than we have agreed. He will remember that he has not suggested that we should spend even more than the £3,000 million a year that we currently spend. As usual, he wants us to do more than the EC wants, but he is not prepared to pay the bill. Whenever he is offered the bill, he tells his constituents that someone else will pay.
Mr. George Howarth : Does the Secretary of State accept that, despite his protestations to the contrary, the problem is seriously growing ? How does he explain that, in coastal towns, 40 per cent. of the raw sewage goes straight into the sea ? How can he explain or defend the fact that, on the urban waste water directive--another thing to which the Government have signed up--there is no programme in place to meet the compliance which is expected by 2005 ? The Secretary of State is finding excuses not to do things. When will we have a Secretary of State who tells us how he will meet the directives in the time expected of him ?
Mr. Gummer : We are committed to meeting our requirements and obligations and we are spending £3,000 million a year. The hon. Gentleman can hardly say that. When challenged last week, the Labour party produced no figures or facts and no policy on water at all. The hon. Gentleman should remember that, in terms of European Court of Justice judgments, Italy, Belgium, Germany, France, Greece, Netherlands and Luxembourg all have worse records than the United Kingdom. We have one judgment against us, which shows how very much better we are doing than most other EC countries.
Mr. Mans : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in many Select Committee reports associated with the environment, it was clear that much of the evidence which the Commission brought forward in relation to the directives was faulty ? The Commission is now modifying considerably the criteria on which these directives are based. Again and again it was shown that the British Government are well ahead of the game, compared with many other member states of the European Community.
Mr. Gummer : I have had further discussions with the Commission and its view--it is also the view of the United Kingdom--is that we have to base matters on the best available science. It seems to me that the only place where people think we are not meeting the requirements and are not seeking to take the lead on the environment is in the House of Commons--on the basis of what are, I think, party political arguments rather than facts.
2. Mr. Illsley : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has to alter the qualifying date for council tax transitional relief or introduce an exemption from the date in extenuating circumstances.
Mr. Illsley : Is not it incumbent on the Government to bring in some measure for people who have been prejudiced by the qualifying date for transitional relief ? The Minister will be aware of a couple in my constituency who, on the qualifying date, had living with them temporarily their daughter and son-in-law. Because the following year the same date was carried forward, they will never be able to take advantage of transitional relief.
Should we be looking at a better use of transitional relief, bearing in mind the fact that Barnsley claimed about £345,000 whereas Wandsworth claimed an incredible £22 million ? That works out at £4 per household in my constituency, compared with £195 per household in Wandsworth.
Mr. Curry : If transitional relief was to be a permanent system, where there had been anomalies one would have to put them right. But by its very definition, it is transitional. We had to have a simple and clear system and we took the last day of the community charge and the first day of the council tax, which was the obvious comparison. It was inevitable that a handful of people would be disadvantaged by that, but, no matter where we had taken that particular point, some people would have been disadvantaged.
I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's constituents, but the fact that the scheme is transitional and that we set up as simple a scheme as possible means that it is unrealistic to try to make more complications. As for Wandsworth, it must be clear from an arithmetical point of view that starting with a community charge of zero and moving to a different system will cause a much steeper transition than for councils that started from a lot more than zero. It is arithmetic, not a deception.
Mr. Jessel : Is my hon. Friend aware that Liberal-controlled Richmond-upon-Thames borough council increased the council tax, with or without transitional relief, by more than any of the other 32 London boroughs ? There were no extenuating circumstances for them and, on 5 May, they lost six council seats.
Mr. Curry : I am pleased to hear what my hon. Friend says. Where the level of taxation and the level of performance of local councils was a strong issue in the elections, Conservative councils, with their record of low taxation, did very well. I have no doubt that people who voted otherwise last week will soon discover what they voted for. They may have their revenge in a few years' time.
The Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction (Sir George Young) : Government Departments are urged to make best use of their empty residential property, through disposal where possible, or by leasing to local housing providers. We encourage local authorities and housing associations to consider the scope for using empty Government-owned homes to meet housing need.
Mr. Soley : Is not it time to stop the nonsense whereby the Government dump thousands of empty Government-owned properties on to the private market and therefore depress house prices, which is bad for the economy ? Through leaseback or other schemes, the Government could transfer those houses to housing associations and councils in areas such as Bromley, where there are empty Air Force homes at Biggin Hill, or Slough, where former Army and Air Force homes are empty. Two local authority areas could get people out of bed and breakfast, save money and help restore the economy.
Sir George Young : The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to learn that only last month 119 Ministry of Defence properties in Finningley were sold to the South Yorkshire housing association and that more than 1, 000 MOD properties are on lease to local authorities or housing associations. It must be right for the MOD to put on the market those properties that it does not need and to give first-time home buyers the opportunity to acquire them. I see nothing wrong with that policy.
Mr. John Marshall : Does my right hon. Friend accept that housing need would be less if local authorities had fewer empty council homes ? He will remember his visit to Hackney, where 9 per cent. of local authority housing stock is empty.
Sir George Young : My hon. Friend is right. There are 71,000 empty local authority homes. That is more than the total number of families in temporary accommodation. The main culprits are Labour-controlled local authorities. It would be in the interests of meeting those housing needs if we could make better use of the potential.
Ms Coffey : Will the Minister confirm that, of the 9,500 responses to his Green Paper, an overwhelming number criticised the Government's proposal to remove the homelessness safety net ? Will he listen to the advice that has been given to him by housing and care professionals and withdraw his proposals ?
Column 797putting more emphasis on prevention and making better use of the private rented sector--commanded support. The Government will of course reflect on the weight of the representations. When we announce our decisions, I hope before the summer recess, I trust that some of the more alarmist propaganda that has been flying around will be put to rest.
Mr. Burns : Will my right hon. Friend go some way towards dispelling some of the alarmist comments that have been made ? Does he accept that the consultation paper keeps a safety net for the most vulnerable members of society and that it prevents queue-jumping, which causes so much misery to those who are pushed down the list because of queue-jumpers ?
Sir George Young : As I said in the debate on 26 January, there is no question of vulnerable people, including families with children, not having a home or not having any suitable accommodation. I agree with what my hon. Friend said at the end of his question. It is right to have a fair approach to the allocation of rented housing and to allocate on the basis of need, not on the basis of whether, at some time in the past, people acquired the label of being statutorily homeless.
Mr. Battle : Given the number of adverse responses and the tone that the Minister has now adopted on the Government's consultation paper on access to housing, will he confirm that he believes that a better way to approach the matter is to consider the code of guidance given to local authorities about allocation, rather than to change the laws by repealing good homelessness legislation, which ensures that the homeless have a statutory right to a secure home ?
Sir George Young : No, it would be wrong at this stage to rule out primary legislation. Some of the proposals in the Green Paper need primary legislation and at this stage I am not disposed to rule that out.
Sir George Young : The private rented sector has expanded considerably since deregulation in 1989. A number of initiatives have been developed to revive the sector and increase the availability of rented accommodation.
Mr. Garnier : Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Harborough district local draft plan, which requires the building of several thousand houses in the villages of Billesdon, Great Glen, Kibworth Beauchamp and Kibworth Harcourt, will do nothing whatever to increase the availability of rented private housing ? Does he also accept that what it will achieve is to destroy those villages in particular and rural south-east Leicestershire in general ?
Sir George Young : As my hon. Friend will know, the Harborough plan is in draft form at present. Proposals will be formally placed on deposit for objections to be made later this year and my hon. Friend has rehearsed a number of those objections. They can then be examined at a public inquiry.
Mr. Pike : The Minister will recognise that there would be little private rented sector housing if it were left purely to market forces and that rent allowances are absolutely crucial to underpinning the private rented sector. Does he recognise the difficulties that have been caused to local authorities because of the increased portion of the rent allowance that they must meet, which is causing problems to many local authorities at present ?
Sir George Young : There would be even less private rented accommodation if we had listened to the Labour party over the past 20 or 30 years. The factor that the hon. Gentleman mentioned--the percentage of housing benefit that falls on local ratepayers--is taken into account each year.
Mr. Brazier : Does my right hon. Friend accept that the provision of more private sector accommodation is central to the idea of providing diverse solutions to the problems of homelessness, but that that should not distract us from the central point that he made earlier : that we must continue to have a unified list with genuine flexibility for local authorities if they are to be free to tackle homelessness in the way they wish to do ?
Sir George Young : I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that all hon. Members will welcome the increase in the number of households renting from private sector landlords. The figure has increased from 1.6 million in 1988 to just under 2 million in 1993. If one is genuinely trying to increase the supply of good-quality accommodation to help those in housing need, that increased supply is something that all of us who share an interest in housing should applaud.
Mr. Foulkes : The Minister will agree that it is a disgrace that, at the end of the 20th century in England and Wales, nearly 250 families have their water supply cut off every week. Does he agree that as it will continue to be illegal in Scotland for water to be disconnected, it would be sensible to apply that to England and Wales as well ?
Mr. Atkins : I cannot comment on what happens in Scotland--that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. Disconnections have been available since the Water Act 1945, so they are hardly new, but the number of disconnections is going down regularly each year.
Mr. Dickens : Does my hon. Friend agree that a "no disconnect" policy would be a "no pay" policy, that most disconnections are reconnected within 48 hours while the remainder occur in empty properties and that water boards give people many options to pay ? What on earth are we talking about ?
Column 799had a survey in November last year among well over 1,000 representative householders, 82 per cent. of whom said that they wanted the disconnection policy maintained.
Mr. Chris Smith : However, is not it a demonstration of peculiar incompetence even for this Government that the Minister tells us that disconnection is essential in England and Wales, while on 14 April the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland not only said that disconnections should remain illegal in Scotland, but placed a clause in the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill specifically to that effect ? Should not the Government be saying the same thing everywhere in Britain : that the disconnection of domestic water supplies--the removal of the means to life and health--has no place in a civilised society ?
Mr. Atkins : I am an Englishman and I can speak only for England. In England, for which I have responsibility, the number of disconnections is going down. According to the regional company responsible for water supplies in the north-west, the vast majority of its customers want the disconnection policy to be maintained. I must remind the House that the policy to allow for disconnections was included in the Water Act 1945, so nothing has changed.
Mr. Clifton-Brown : Does my hon. Friend agree with my experience of dealing with constituents who need to be disconnected that the water companies generally deal with them very sympathetically ? Does he also agree that if people do not pay, the water companies have to increase their charges for everyone else to make up for the shortfall ?
Mr. Atkins : In the present circumstances, a court judgment must be made and only if the arrears are still outstanding is there the possibility of a disconnection order being made. That is an exhaustive procedure and, as I have already told the House, the number of disconnections is decreasing annually. That policy is, apparently, supported by water users and consumers, who wish it to be maintained.
Mr. Evans : Does the Minister agree that, in view of the corruption in Westminster city council, revealed by the BBC "Panorama" programme on Monday night, and the apparent connivance of Ministers to rig grant to Westminster, perhaps the only worthwhile revision would be to remove the grant allocation system from the hands of Ministers and put it in the hands of an independent grant commission ?
Mr. Curry : I do not agree with that for one minute. The Select Committee on the Environment examined the way in which SSAs were distributed and concluded that it was done entirely objectively. I have no doubt that the Labour party ran over the system with a fine-toothed comb, but it has not managed to discover any bias in the system--
Column 800because it is not there. For a member of the Labour party, which spends its life talking about quangos, to propose setting up another one is slightly curious.
Mr. Ian Bruce : Does my hon. Friend agree that the area cost adjustment, which applies only in the south-east of England, has absolutely no basis in fact or logic and that the sooner it is done away with the better ? Once that happens, areas such as Dorset will start to benefit from the real costs of providing services rather than working under a fudge factor, which was introduced to stop the high-spending Labour councils in London going bankrupt.
Mr. Curry : I do not agree with my hon. Friend. The area cost adjustment would not exist if there were no objective reason for it. We examined it carefully. We must, however, consider the way in which it tapers as it leaves central London. I have made it clear to the local authority associations that it will be one of the focuses for the continued review of SSA systems.
Mr. Snape : Has the Minister seen the Department of Environment's "Index of Social Deprivation", which reveals that Sandwell is the ninth poorest borough in England ? Many other black country boroughs feature in that list of deprivation. Is he aware that, today, the Tory leader of Walsall council said that the Government must face the fact that the shire counties have been treated much better than inner-city areas ? Does not that sort of national corruption of local government finance deserve a "Panorama" programme of its own ? Is not it about time that the Government recognised the fact that local authorities, particularly Labour-controlled ones, are being held back from what they are trying to do by the financial rigging of the Government ?
Mr. Curry : That is completely untrue. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the councils that receive the largest grant, he will see that they are all in the inner cities and Labour controlled. If he reads further from the "Index of Social Deprivation", he will discover that Westminster comes 26th and St. Helens comes 54th. That justifies the differential, does it not ?
Dr. Spink : Is my hon. Friend aware that in a recent report of the Select Committee on Education it was proposed that the education element of the SSA should be removed and that it should be calculated under an alternative common funding formula ? Will he consider that report and discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education ?
Mr. Curry : I am perfectly willing to discuss improvements in the system. At the moment, the system is formula-driven. What matters in that case is to ensure that the formula picks up real needs as sensitively as it can and distributes them to where the need is. Therefore, we shall have to continue to review some elements, especially of social need, and we shall do so. People try to make out special cases for this, that or the other. It is always possible to argue that it would be nice to have more money here or more money there, but there is an absolutely equitable system of distribution and no one has been able to prove to the contrary. They cannot prove it because it is not true.
Mr. Straw : In the new spirit of rationality that has broken out between the Front Benches, the Minister must surely recognise that one of the reasons why the Conservative party had its worst results for more than 50
Column 801years in the local elections and the Labour party its best results for 13 years, is a lack of confidence in the impartiality of the SSA grant system. There was overwhelming criticism of that system not only from the Labour party but from council tax payers, who simply could not understand the fairness of the system. As the Environment Select Committee made many criticisms of the SSA system, and as the Audit Commission recommended an independent grant commission, why does the Minister continue in his refusal to consider that and to begin discussions across the Chamber about that sensible proposal ?
Mr. Curry : I did quite a lot of knocking on doors during the local election campaign-- [Interruption.] --especially in Wandsworth, Westminster and Kensington, and I was not engaged in spontaneous discussion about the SSA system at many of them. We have an objective system and the local authority associations co-operate with it fully. We are committed to ensuring that we make that system as finely tuned as possible without its becoming so complex as to be
incomprehensible. We have set out on a good course. A further review is under way and I see no reason to change that.
9. Mr. Gunnell : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make clear in his revision of MPG3 that environmental acceptability is in the national interest in relation to opencast applications.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : The draft revised guidelines withdraw the strong presumption in favour of opencast development which existed previously and replace it with a test of whether a proposed opencast application is environmentally acceptable. Those guidelines are now up for consultation and we are considering all comments carefully, with a view to publishing final guidelines in the summer.
Mr. Gunnell : I thank the Minister for that reply. Local people, however--especially in West Yorkshire--are so used to losing appeals against opencast applications that they will need to see the policy worked out in practice. Will he make it clear to planning inspectors in the future that national interests for coal must not be pitted against the environment, and that the quality of the environment matters and is in the national interest ?
Mr. Baldry : In Leeds, only two opencast applications have been lost on appeal. The system is extremely fair in that regard. As I have made clear to the House on many occasions, the revised guidance will impose a test of whether an application is environmentally acceptable. I should have thought that the whole House would recognise that as an advance on the current situation.
Mr. Oppenheim : With cheap coal readily available on world markets, is it not madness to rip up the countryside of our crowded island ? However, bearing in mind the fact that we are meant not to be being nasty to each other at the moment, will my hon. Friend gently remind Opposition Members that decisions on opencast mining used to be made by the Department of Energy, which habitually passed applications on the nod, before a Conservative
Column 802Government devolved that power to county councils ? Can we now continue with that fine record of tightening controls on opencast mining ?
Mr. Baldry : That is exactly what the draft planning guidance does. It imposes a tough environmental test. If there were an application for opencast mining on a green-field site, the local mineral planning authority would have to bear in mind the fact that it is a green-field site when deciding whether to allow that planning application. Obviously, different criteria would apply if it were considering a derelict land site.
Mr. Henderson : Does the Minister accept that the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) has hit the nail on the head ? People in the north and the midlands where opencast mining is proposed are overwhelmingly opposed to opencast developments. If opencast opportunities arose in Suffolk, Coastal or Oxfordshire, the Minister and his boss would find that public opinion there was the same. In conducting the review, will the Minister accept that public opinion does not believe that environmental acceptability is a sufficiently strong test because of the amount of judgment involved and that the need for coal should also be demonstrated before approval is given ?
Mr. Baldry : No, it is not the purpose of the planning system to determine whether there is a requirement for a specific mineral. Rather, it must strike a balance. In this instance, the planning system must strike a balance between economic need and environmental acceptability. That is what this planning guidance does, and I believe that it will do it extremely well.
Mrs. Angela Knight : My hon. Friend will be aware that local communities dislike the prospect of opencasting. Three such proposals affect my constituency. Will he assure me that his new MPG3 guidelines will take fully into account the environmental impact of opencasting, including the consequence of increased heavy traffic on the road network in surrounding towns and villages ?
Mr. Baldry : If hon. Members look at the draft guidance they will see, set into it in considerable detail, the factors that local planning authorities must take into account : visual impact, noise, transport movements--exactly the concerns mentioned by my hon. Friend--dust, and water pollution. The mineral planning authorities will have to bear in mind a range of environmental considerations in determining whether a planning application is environmentally acceptable. I am therefore more than willing to give my hon. Friend the assurance that she requests.
Mr. Mudie : The Minister will be aware that local authorities fear and believe that the single regeneration budget is a device for disguising spending cuts. Why did the urban programme--the main policy and vehicle for combating deprivation in inner cities--spend £236 million
Column 803two years ago, whereas this year it is spending £85 million, which is a cut of £151 million ? Does that not confirm that the fears of local authorities are correct ?
Mr. Gummer : No, it confirms that the urban programme has been superseded by a number of other programmes that we are using to deal with the problems of our inner cities. The hon. Gentleman will note that in the past we used to go to the United States and other countries to see how they did things and to learn from them, but now they come to see what we are doing. For example, when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister visited President Clinton, Mayor Murphy of Pittsburgh drew attention to the success and model provided by our urban policy. It is now the United States experts who come to the United Kingdom to learn, rather than the other way round, and the Germans and Australians are following suit.
Mr. Devlin : Is it not encouraging how Labour-controlled authorities such as Hartlepool, Stockton-on-Tees and Middlesbrough have taken a leaf from the partnership ethic expounded by the Teesside development corporation and other development corporations and have put forward successful city challenge bids, enabling them to use budgets provided by the Government and the private sector to rebuild inner city areas ?
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend is entirely right. The establishment of the integrated regional offices and the single regeneration budget has been widely welcomed even by people who are politically opposed to us, because they see that we can approach the problems of the inner city in an integrated and holistic way instead of in a partial manner. I therefore hope that the Opposition will continue their support, as they do in the countryside.
Mr. Vaz : Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that, far from solving the enormous problems faced by urban areas, the single regeneration budget will make life much more difficult for the people who run our major towns and cities ? Will he assure us that the shortfall in urban aid which the introduction of the single regeneration budget has created will be made up in full by the Government as a matter of urgency ?
Mr. Gummer : I do not want to transgress the delicate feeling in the House at the moment, but when we announced the single regeneration budget the hon. Gentleman said that it was a cover for a cut and that there would be less than £1.4 billion in 1994-95. In fact, we announced £1.4 billion--precisely the figure that we had given--so the hon. Gentleman has asked a question about something that does not exist. We are putting very significant amounts of money into the inner cities. This is working extremely well and is very widely welcomed. What is more, it is over and above the substantial main programme of investment. The hon. Gentleman should concentrate his fire on reality and stop trying to pretend that things are going wrong in areas where we are doing extremely well.
Mr. Anthony Coombs : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to revive inner cities is to give the people who live in them a direct investment in the making of decisions that affect their lives ? Does he agree that housing action trusts, local management of schools and grant- maintained schools do precisely that ? Is it not