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Column 804somewhat hypocritical for the Labour party to argue for greater local decision-making while opposing each and every such measure ?
Mr. Gummer : I am very much in favour of the subsidiarity to which my hon. Friend refers. Speaking to an audience that included a very large number of Labour councillors, I noticed that when I said that I wanted more subsidiarity from national to local government they cheered, but when I said that I thought that there ought to be more subsidiarity from local government to schools and other organisations they booed. For them, subsidiarity seems to stop at a particular level ; I believe in reaching down to the smallest possible unit in running the government of the country.
Mr. Curry : The functions of local government have always been subject to change. The Government believe that responsibility should be delegated to the level most consistent with competence, practicality and cost-effectiveness.
Mr. Wareing : Does the Minister realise that millions of people, of all parties and of none, deplore the fact that local authorities have been denuded of so many of their powers and functions since the Conservative Government came to power ? Local self-government has been replaced by a vast quangocracy stuffed with Tory placemen and placewomen who are accountable to no one other than the most highly centralising Government in all Europe. Does that not amount to disfranchisement of the electors at local level ?
Mr. Curry : I never quite understand why the hon. Gentleman is so attached to the impenetrable bureaucracy of Whitehall, county hall and town hall. What we are concerned about is the delivery of services closer to the people. It is the people who count--not the bureaucrats or, for that matter, the councils. The hon. Gentleman will know that, for example, in Merseyside there is an urban development corporation, on the board of which there are three councillors, spending £156 million ; a city challenge programme with provision of £131 million ; a task force ; and an objective 1 programme of £354 million. If he takes such exception to all of those, I am sure that we can arrange to cancel the funding.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton : Representing, as I do, a part of the borough of Macclesfield in Cheshire, which has one of only two councils in the whole north-west region that still have overall Conservative control, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he accepts that among some Conservative Members there is a strong feeling that if local government is to continue to exist it must have a range of reasonable and sensible responsibilities ? Otherwise, we shall not get people of the right calibre to serve on councils. Will my hon. Friend ensure that local authorities continue to have proper, full and meaningful responsibilities so that we may continue to have that level of government in the United Kingdom ?
Mr. Curry : Of course--that is precisely why, for example, care in the community and the administration of housing benefit have recently been passed back to local government. What matters is the quality of the service to the person who is receiving it. That is what government at all levels is about. It does not matter so much who delivers a service ; what matters is that it should be provided efficiently. The obsession with county hall, city hall or Whitehall seems to me to be forgetting the essential ingredient--the person on the receiving end, whom government is there to benefit.
Mr. Janner : When considering restoring powers to local authorities, will the Minister do so in the light of the 1991 "Index of Local Conditions", which shows relative deprivation in our cities and which the Minister slid into the Library this morning without even providing copies for the parliamentary press ? Will he look at what has happened since he took powers away from local authorities such as Leicester which, instead of being one of the wealthiest cities in Europe, is now among the 10 per cent. most deprived areas in this country ?
Mr. Curry : If the hon. and learned Gentleman thinks that that is a function of local government powers, he is rather more imaginative than I had credited him. Local government has a remarkable opportunity in the shape of the single regeneration budget and programmes such as city challenge. Local government can act as an assembler of all the resources of the community to tackle particular problems. That is a new and much more exciting challenge than it has had in the past. The single regeneration budget, working with the private sector and public authorities, can make this work. Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman should spend his time telling Leicester to get stuck into all that, instead of complaining about its powers.
Mr. Matthew Banks : While my hon. Friend discusses the possibility of returning powers to councils, especially in Merseyside, will he give me an assurance today that my constituents in Southport will have the chance to have returned to them the powers associated with unitary authority status which they enjoyed before 1974 ? Will he assure me that the Local Government Commission will listen to their pleas as early as 1995, so that we can get out of Sefton and get back on our own again ? Sandgrounders rightly deserve that opportunity.
Mr. Curry : We have made it clear that when the Local Government Commission has completed its review of shire England we shall direct it to look at the boundaries of metropolitan areas where there is a strong case for its doing so.
Mr. Straw : Nothing better confirms the degree to which current Ministers and the party in Government have become infected with the virus of centralisation than the threat that the whole House heard the Minister issue to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing)- -the threat that the funding for various bodies in Liverpool would be cancelled if my hon. Friend did not like what was going on. Does the Minister not understand that it is exactly that kind of arbitrary and capricious exercise of power that voters object to ?
If the Minister is seriously concerned to return power to the people, why has he been a member of an Administration who have has passed more than 144
Column 806separate Acts centralising more and more power over local authorities and taking away from locally elected people the control of more than £24 billion of public spending ?
Mr. Curry : The hon. Gentleman does not want power to the people--he wants power to the councils, which is not always the same thing. That is the fundamental difference between us. We have passed power to the people. We have passed power to school governors, to parents and to people who live on council estates. That is what passing power to the people means. Why is the hon. Gentleman obsessed with passing power to councillors, which is by no means the same thing or the most efficient way of doing things ?
12. Mr. Lester : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what financial savings could accrue to the council tax payers of Broxtowe if the joint districts proposal for the introduction of single-tier local government in Nottinghamshire were implemented.
Mr. Baldry : As the review is still in progress, all aspects of local government reorganisation in Nottinghamshire are a matter for the Local Government Commission, including the costing of options for structural change.
Mr. Lester : Is it not important, in the interim, that local constituents understand that the principal element in their new council tax bills is the amount levied on behalf of the Labour county council and not the proportion levied by their district council ?
Mr. Baldry : Yes, one of the strong arguments in favour of unitary authorities is the straightforward idea of accountability. Having two local authorities can often confuse people and it is not always clear which is rendering a particular service. As my hon. Friend says, this can present particular difficulties in relation to council tax bills, since the lion's share--that rendered by the county council--has to be collected by the district council.
Mr. Heppell : Is the Minister aware that the figures range from about £600 million to more than £1 billion for the transitional changes ? Those changes will have to be met by cuts in services as the Government do not plan to put in any other money to meet their cost. Was there a delay in Nottinghamshire because the commission now recognises that no one in Nottinghamshire either wants the change or wishes to pay for it ?
Mr. Baldry : My hon. Friend says that the hon. Gentleman should not bother, but it might be helpful for him to see that Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen purport to be in favour of unitary authorities. As to savings, some of the figures that have been bandied around are grossly exaggerated. Certainly each of the reorganisations agreed so far by the Local Government Commission estimates that the savings and receipts at the outset will well outweigh the
Column 807initial costs and that thereafter the savings will be continuous year on year. We have made it clear that we expect substantial long-term savings to follow the Local Government Commission recommendations.
13. Mr. McGrady : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what discussions he has had with his ministerial colleague in Northern Ireland concerning the establishment of an environmental protection agency.
Mr. Atkins : My officials are in contact with their opposite numbers in Northern Ireland, where my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland's approach reflects the differing circumstances there.
Mr. McGrady : I thank the Minister for his reply, but I am not sure that I understand what he means by the differing circumstances. He must be aware that some four years have passed since 1990, when the Select Committee on the Environment recommended strongly that such a board be set up in Northern Ireland. Since then, the Government have commissioned a thermal oxide reprocessing plant which, with the regulations attached to it, can allow a 900 per cent. increase in toxic atmospheric discharge and a 1,100 per cent. increase in the toxic discharge into the Irish sea. Is the Minister aware that people living on the eastern coast of Northern Ireland are concerned that the Department is both poacher and gamekeeper in environmental protection and that such an agency is urgently needed as an independent assessor ?
Mr. Atkins : I am only too well aware of the hon. Gentleman's concerns as I was the Minister who took the decision, in the face of the Environment Select Committee, which came to interview me at Stormont on exactly the answers that were given. I recall that the answer was simply that I had a commitment to set up an environment agency in due course, that in Northern Ireland, where the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland has different responsibilities, there was no need for it at that stage, but that the Department of the Environment, represented by me as its Minister, was by no means opposed to such an agency.
14. Mr. Richards : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what was the level of investment in the water industry in 1978- 79 ; and what is the expected level in 1992-93 expressed in constant prices.
Mr. Richards : Is my right hon. Friend aware that about three weeks ago I opened phase 1 of a new sewage treatment plant in Kinmel bay in my constituency costing £23 million ? Will my right hon. Friend and his hon. Friends now come to sunny Rhyl for their summer holidays, so that they can swim in the beautiful clean sea and enjoy the wonderful amenities there for family holidays ?
Mr. Gummer : There is no doubt that Rhyl and the rest of that particularly beautiful north Wales coast is a fine place for a holiday and I am looking forward very much to doing some canvassing in the European elections in that area.
Mrs. Anne Campbell : Is the Minister aware that the cost of this investment has been borne by many people who cannot afford to pay--that is, water rate payers and even those on low incomes ? Is he further aware that this is leading to a very high rate of water disconnections in my constituency--the third highest in the country ? Is it not time he stopped this extortion by water companies from people who cannot afford to pay ?
Mr. Gummer : It is difficult to put the hon. Lady's question alongside the constant demands of Labour Members for even more spending. Where do they think the money comes from ? In the end, it comes from the consumers of water. There is no other way of delivering these very large sums of money. As the hon. Lady is concerned about the situation, I hope that she will support the very careful and cost-effective way in which we are ensuring that we spend what is necessary without overspending. I am sure that her electors in Cambridge will want her to affirm her support, even though she may have to vote against her own Front Bench.
Mr. Nicholls : Although that may be jolly good news in Wales, the standards imposed by the European Commission on the west country mean that people in that region face an intolerable burden, with some 650, 000 water charge payers being responsible for cleaning up one third of the nation's coast. While I accept that that is an obligation imposed by the EC and not Her Majesty's Government, will my right hon. Friend tell us what steps are being taken to ensure that the intolerable burden imposed by Europe will be ameliorated ?
Mr. Gummer : I agree with my hon. Friend who, with his colleagues, has been consistent in pressing on me the very serious matter that he has raised here. We have looked at the way in which the burden falls upon all consumers so that it is as cost-effective as possible. I know that Mr. Ian Byatt is completing his discussions with the water companies and that we should have some direct figures very soon. I hope that my hon. Friend recognises how closely we have been watching the situation. I know that he has pressed hard on behalf of his constituents and others on this matter.
Column 809of Conservative Government during which local authorities have lost powers, functions and relevance, would not the increased use of local referendums be one way to re-involve people in civic debate ?
Sir Anthony Durant : Will my hon. Friend not dismiss the idea of referendums too easily ? Will he also consider doing away with rate capping so that we can then expose those councils which spend wildly and a referendum can be held at the subsequent local government elections ?
Mr. Baldry : My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. If it were not for council tax capping, large numbers of Labour authorities would be only too keen to spend council tax payers' money like confetti.
Mr. Deva : Does my right hon. Friend agree that congratulations are in order on the Government's achievement of those achievable targets ? Does it not vindicate my view and that of the Government that it is far better to set targets which are easily achievable than to set targets which cannot be attained and which other countries have no intention of attaining ?
Mr. Gummer : I agree with my hon. Friend, but I think that where we can raise the standards we ought to do so. I am pleased to say that the European Community as a whole is moving faster than the Montreal protocol requires with regard to chlorofluorocarbons, carbon tetrachloride and hydrochlorofluorocarbons. We have shown that, wherever we can, we will move faster than we are required to do.
Mr. Curry : The Local Government Commission has submitted final recommendations for 10 shire county areas. It is due to announce initial recommendations for a further group of shire counties, including Cumbria, in June.
Column 810Commission, there will be full and wide public consultation with my constituents and those elsewhere in the county so that the final shape of local government in the county of Cumbria can enjoy widespread and continuing public support ?
Mr. Curry : As the hon. Gentleman knows, the commission must make initial recommendations and then a final recommendation. Up to that point, there is no role for the Government. When the commission makes its recommendation, we shall consult widely before we lay an order before the House. I expect that the hon. Gentleman will want to make representations at that time, and we will of course listen to him.
Mr. Barry Field : Will my hon. Friend ensure that the commission, which is charged with reviewing parish and town council representation in local government areas, points out to Opposition Members that under existing legislation it is possible to call a poll ? If local authorities want a poll, they can already have one if they are enparished--rather than listen to the first cuckoos of spring on the Opposition Benches.
Mr. Burden : Will the Minister consider the case of Severn Trent Water, which installed some 700 pre-payment devices ? That has already led to about 400 disconnections. As the Water Act 1989 lays down clear guidelines under which water supplies can be disconnected, and as pre- payment devices do not appear to comply with those guidelines, does the Minister believe that water companies are acting lawfully or unlawfully ?
Mr. Atkins : I am convinced that the companies are acting lawfully. If that were not the case, it would be a matter for the Director General of Water Services. Metering, which is largely the subject of the hon. Gentleman's question, is still being discussed throughout the length and breadth of the country and there remain differing views.
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