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Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent): I shall follow the admirable example set by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and be as brief as possible. I shall enlarge rapidly on the point I made when the Home Secretary generously allowed me to intervene in his speech. There is ample evidence that well-motivated volunteers have a major role to play in the prevention of crime, the rehabilitation of criminals and the support of victims. One of the principal reasons why we do not have far greater involvement of the enormous pool of potential volunteers is that Government agencies are still far too reluctant, whether in the criminal justice system, in the national health service, in the social services or in education, to open their doors and to learn from the excellent examples, which are plentifully available, of the value of volunteers, not in substituting for, but in extending, the reach of professionals. I very much hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will take back that message.
I now turn to environmental matters. I believe strongly that the Government must look again at blight. Blight is an intolerable and oppressive injury done by the state every year, often to hundreds and hundreds of families. In the case of the channel tunnel rail link or the building of a motorway, blight may hang over families for 10 years, 20 years or more. In our present inadequate system, a narrow band of people are fortunate enough to have their houses bought by compulsory purchase, whereas the house values of others are, beyond peradventure, destroyed by public works.
We must consider that matter again. I have raised the matter twice, and on both occasions, the Government have said that any solution that I suggested would distort the market. The Government distort the market all the time, whether by planning restrictions, the social security system, the national health service or whatever. There is no such thing as a pure market, and it is an illusion to imagine there is.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will consider again the restrictions on building houses outside village envelopes. I suspect that there is not a constituency in the country where the conflict between green belt and urban development is more acute than in mine. The present restrictions on planning permissions overcrowd village envelopes, distorting and changing the nature of villages and overloading roads that are incapable of carrying an increased volume of traffic.
The time may have come to make it easier for farmers, for example, who are constantly encouraged to diversify and take themselves out of production, to acquire planning permission for two or three houses, albeit large houses with large gardens, and to return to the tradition of country house building for which this country was famous in the past, but which has now become virtually a thing of the past. On water resources, I hope that the new environmental agencies will take seriously the importance of retaining, restoring and cleaning up rivers. Kent has one of the last remaining chalk streams in the south-east of England,
Column 291which is constantly at risk from increasing water extraction. It is much easier to retain a river than to get it back. I am glad to say that an effort has been made in part of Kent to restore the Darenth river to some extent, but those artificial restorations are not as good as the original river.
I welcome the legislation which we are to introduce for disabled people. May I draw attention to two matters that have occupied much of my time since I came to this place? The first is Lifetime Homes. Last week, I had the privilege of attending the opening of a 128-unit estate of Lifetime Homes owned by the Joseph Rowntree Trust. The title "Lifetime Homes" came from the report of a seminar that I organised with the Helen Hamlyn Foundation five years ago in the university of Kent, when we suggested that it would be better and cheaper in the long run if the housing stock in this country were not constantly narrowed, with steepened stairs and steps up to the front door, as now happens, but if houses were designed with a level access, wider doors to allow wheelchair access, and shower rooms on the ground floor, so that someone incapable of going up the stairs could nevertheless enjoy that kind of washing.
I am delighted to say that the Joseph Rowntree Trust took on that banner, ran with it and has now produced, for less than £500 for the extra facilities for a one-bedroomed house and less than £800 for a two- bedroom house, a whole estate that can be used with equal ease by elderly people, disabled people, young mothers struggling with buggies and shopping, and teenagers who have temporarily damaged themselves playing a game or falling off a motorbike.
We need that kind of housing. Builders are sympathetic to some extent, but will not build them because they say that, unless all their competitors are forced to build to those standards, they are at a competitive disadvantage. I hope that the disablement Bill will at least pay attention to the possibility of extending the M-regulations, or something like them, to the building of new houses.
The second issue which I hope will be taken into account, and about which I believe my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has made encouraging noises to directors of social services, is the old chestnut of direct payments allowing disabled people to command their own budgets and buy their own services at their own hand.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State must realise that Kent does not want the local government review to be referred back. Kent has enough problems trying to cope with the channel tunnel and its offshoots. It is being divided and distorted by continuing debate on the local government review. The Local Government Commission for England report was accepted with a sigh of relief, and we felt that we could once more get on with the business of making Kent prosperous. Now we hear rumours that it is to be referred, and I strongly disapprove.
There will be other opportunities to discuss the channel tunnel rail link, but I disapprove of the proposition that the safeguarded route should become a licence to print money for whoever builds it by charging well over the odds for wayleaves to cross it. That would be a scandalous misuse of a monopoly position, and should not be allowed. The electricity, gas and water companies and so forth should not be held to ransom by the people who
Column 292suddenly become the owners of that great advantage. I shall raise the question of Boxley long tunnel again on another occasion. I firmly support the increase in the European Union budget. I must point out to those of my hon. Friends who disapprove of it that, when we were last responsible for our agricultural support system in this country, it cost us 1.2 per cent. of gross national product. Last year it cost 0.4 per cent., although that was partly due to the fact that GNP has increased so much. The increase was partly a result of the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Export Trade, who is never in the House or the country long enough to attract the respect and support that he deserves for his enormous efforts in helping to export British goods.
The estimated additional costs to the United Kingdom of the Gulf conflict alone were £2,434 million. The idea that, by spending £75 million next year to remove for ever the threat of a conflict in Europe, we would be wasting money, is absurd.
Mr. Gummer: Before my hon. Friend leaves that subject, does he agree that, in his constant quest for new jobs and more investment in Britain, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Export Trade would have no chance whatsoever if we were not an active member of the European Union? Companies invest here because that opens the whole European market to them and their future expansion.
I promised that I would sit down rapidly, and so I shall. We should pass the European Communities (Finance) Bill, to increase the European Union budget, and put the money into a separate account until the EU can demonstrate beyond peradventure that it is taking serious action to diminish the fraud that is attracted to that budget in exactly the same way as fraud is attracted to our social security budget. When Governments make large sums of money available, they will always attract fraud.
There is no reason why we should not take a much more active part in preventing fraud in the European Union, and no reason why we should not honour our engagement to assist the Union's growth and development in exactly the way that the Prime Minister suggested. 1.8 pm
Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich): Like the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), I am sorry that there was no mention in the Queen's Speech of changes in electoral law. Whether I would want the same changes as the hon. Gentleman is not clear, but I had hoped that we might have the opportunity to consider some of the proposals made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes). It is a tragedy that in a so-called democracy so many people are disfranchised in that way. The kind of Bill presented by my hon. Friend would have enabled the enfranchisement of many of those people.
I was also sorry to see in a thin Queen's Speech that the opportunity was not taken to review the Race Relations Act 1976. Hon. Members will know that there is increasing racial harassment and violence in my constituency, and there would have been time in the next Session of Parliament to introduce legislation to tackle those evils effectively.
Column 293That would also have provided an opportunity to take on board the recommendations of the Commission for Racial Equality in its second review of the workings of the Race Relations Act. The Government recognise a need for monitoring employment practices and the importance of contract compliance in terms of the legislation against discrimination in Northern Ireland. If that is recognised in terms of religious discrimination, it should be recognised in terms of racial discrimination in this country as well.
I also hoped that the Government might have included in the Queen's Speech measures to deal more effectively with domestic violence. We know that domestic violence accounts for an enormous proportion of violent crime. I welcome the initiative which the Home Office recently took in its short- lived campaign which built on the success of both the Association of London Authorities and Edinburgh city council in their campaign for zero tolerance.
I had hoped that we might have had some assurance from the Government that they will continue that initiative by giving some guarantees on the future security of the funding for refuges in this country. I believe that that would make one of the most significant contributions towards tackling the problems of domestic violence. I would also have hoped that there might have been some review of the situation faced by victims of domestic violence whose immigration status depends on that of their husband. So many victims of marital and domestic violence are trapped with a choice between deportation or enduring continuing violence. I hope that the Home Secretary will give some attention to that matter.
In view of some recent correspondence which I had with the Home Secretary, I hoped that we might have seen some proposals for changes in the immigration laws concerning the Home Secretary's powers where he deems someone to be a threat to national security. I do not want to go into the details of the case over which I was involved in correspondence with the Home Secretary, but it is not justifiable in a democratic society to give the Home Secretary powers to incarcerate and imprison someone without any recourse to the courts on the basis of the Home Secretary's assertion that somebody is a threat to national security. There ought to be some means of accountability through the courts and some mechanism for appeal.
I shall also refer to my concerns about the emergency services. I hope that we might get an assurance from the Government that, when the standard spending assessments are announced in the next couple of weeks, they will give some guarantee on disregards in SSAs with regard to the rising costs of pensions within the fire and civil defence authorities. Unless that is done, there is a real prospect that we shall face dramatic cuts in the cover provided by fire and civil defence authorities in the next financial year.
I am also sorry to see that there was no commitment in the Queen's Speech to honour the commitment given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he was Home Secretary that there would be a police authority for London with some elements of democratic accountability. That commitment has the backing of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, and is also supported by the Metropolitan police deputy commissioner who is senior vice-president of the Association of Chief Police Officers.
Column 294I hope that the Home Secretary will acknowledge that, in London, the Labour-controlled councils have led in the development of working partnerships with the Metropolitan police to tackle crime. More than 30 community safety groups have been established by boroughs with the Metropolitan police, promoting joint local authority and police initiatives, sharing information and, in some cases, seconding staff.
The Home Secretary has merely established a new body, appointed by him, to provide advice on planning, thereby setting up yet another toothless quango. Londoners will continue to be precepted for the costs of the Metropolitan police, but they will remain without a directly elected authoritative body that can oversee the policing of their city. That arrangement will continue to offend against the basic principle of no taxation without representation.
As for the environmental protection agency, there may be some difficulties with the mix of regulatory and operational functions. In the area of waste regulation, I am fearful about the removal of any democratic accountability, such as obtains in the waste regulation authorities. I hope that that will be examined in some depth when the Bill comes before the House.
The Secretary of State for the Environment will know of my concern about the inadequacy of planning arrangements and inquiries in respect of incineration processes. I hope that he and the President of the Board of Trade will again review the planning regulations, especially in the light of the evidence that has emerged in the interim report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency on the problems of dioxins and furans, many of which result from the combustion of municipal waste.
This is a serious issue. In a letter to me, the Secretary of State said that he believed the planning process was adequate to deal with it, but the former director of public health on Bexley health authority and the chief environmental health officers of Bexley and Greenwich do not share his view. They do not, for instance, think that the planning inquiry into the proposal by Cory Environmental Ltd. adequately considered health and environmental issues, and they are doubtful whether the process will give enough weight to those issues next time.
I wanted to raise a number of other subjects, but I shall end now in the hope that Conservative Members will also speak briefly, thus allowing my hon. Friends a chance to contribute.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North): I, too, will try to be swift, although I do not share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) about the "thinness" of the Gracious Speech. I do not think that a Conservative Government need prove their ideological machismo by bringing acres of legislation to the House. On the contrary, Conservatives should welcome a light legislative programme. Good government is not necessarily about legislating; it is about good administration, and we certainly have good government.
Although I share many of the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) about the failure to include the privatisation of the Royal Mail in the Gracious Speech, I do not think that
Column 295privatisation is the defining issue for the 1990s. It has caught on around the world and been implemented by Governments of left and right everywhere. The fact that we cannot privatise the Royal Mail now is purely testimony to the small size of the Government's majority and to the willingness of the Labour party to remain stuck in the past. But it will be privatised at some stage, to its benefit and the benefit of its customers.
Privatisation is not the issue that will win us the next election. I am reminded of the slogan put to an American politician--"It's the economy, stupid." The British economy is in a stronger position probably than at any time since the war. We have an export-led recovery with strong growth and falling unemployment. These are the ingredients of electoral success for the Conservative party in the years ahead--provided we clothe our economic policy in the right rhetoric so that people understand why our economy has become so successful.
We have established an excellent economic and monetary framework. I am afraid that it has little to do with convergence criteria or the exchange rate mechanism with which Ministers sometimes confuse it. Indeed, it is the antithesis of economic and monetary union, and we should explain it in those terms as a classical, nationalist, monetarist policy. We should take the lead in Europe and explain to other European countries that that is how Europe will become prosperous.
I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) that I welcome the Queen's Speech. Every pearl has a grain of sand and although the European Communities (Finance) Bill will get my support, it being a matter of confidence, it would be wrong to suggest that we can afterwards put the money in a separate account and wait for the European Union to sort out its fraud as my hon. Friend suggests, because under European law we will be obliged to hand over the money for which we have legislated.
When we put the economy in perspective and continue to explain the beneficial effects of the good administration of this good Government, we can tack other issues on to our programme to set out our stall towards the next general election. Those other issues include deregulation and social security reform and, of course, crime and punishment, which is perhaps one of the major issues and of great concern to my constituents.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary deserves praise and encouragement for what he has achieved so far during his term of office. It is unfair of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) to complain that 15 years of Conservative Government are to blame for the state of law and order. On the contrary, that is due to the difficulty faced by Home Secretaries in implementing declared Conservative policy. The resistance to that throughout the law and order establishment has been one of the main obstacles, and confronting that false consensus and breaking it so that Conservative policies can be carried out is now the Government's objective. I thoroughly support that.
Column 296One has only to consider the cases that every hon. Member must face in his constituency to realise the depth of frustration felt by so many of our constituents. I have a letter from a constituent, an elderly lady who was burgled by a yob as she was asleep. He came up to her room and when he woke her, he fled with her carving knife and family treasures, which cannot be replaced. When the matter came to court, the yob was let off, despite the fact that he had committed a number of offences and caused thousands of pounds worth of damage. His only punishment was to agree to pay £5 a week compensation. That old lady faces that yob on the streets of her village every day because he lives there, and she has to suffer his taunts. When faced with such cases, one has great sympathy with victims who feel that the balance between victim and criminal needs to be redressed. I urge the Government to continue to implement a policy of tougher sentencing. Many people despair when they hear the powerful lobbies that criticise the efforts of the Home Secretary and the Government. Those bodies complain that the prison population has gone up, but that increase may be related to the fact that at the same time crime has come down. In my constituency of Colchester, the local police know the regular criminals, the people whom they arrest time after time. They want those people locked up, and if they were it would hardly be surprising to see crime come down.
Parliament has given the courts the power to sentence and courts should be encouraged to sentence according to Parliament's wishes. I draw the attention of the House to the level of sentencing. I asked the Library to provide figures, which are quite startling. In 1993, in England and Wales, there were 1.4 million indictable offences, but only 4.1 per cent. of those convicted of those offences received custodial sentences. It was 4.4 per cent. in total, but only 4.1 per cent. received unsuspended custodial sentences. Is it any wonder that people feel that there is not enough punishment in our legal system? Only 19 per cent. of people in 39,000 cases of violence against the person received custodial sentences. In the categories of violence against the person, sexual offences, burglary, robbery, theft and handling stolen goods and criminal damage, which is one of the most painful and tiresome problems that people suffer in a crime- ridden environment, only 16.2 per cent. of those indicted were given unsuspended custodial sentences. On the question of the sentencing of young people, it is staggering how many were let off. Even of those in the 10 to 16 age group with 10 or more previous convictions, only 23 per cent. were given any sort of prison sentence.
There is a cry to be tough on the causes of crime. If people feel that they can get away with serious criminal offences, it is not surprising that the public do not have faith in the law and order system. How are we to instil better respect? I very much welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's announcements. We need a prison system that is decent but austere. We need a victims' hot line so that victims feel that they have access to the system and are allowed to input information that is relevant to their case. I also welcome the announcement curtailing temporary prison leave.
We need more talk of rights--the right of people to feel safe walking down their own streets; the right of victims to feel that the crimes they suffer are justly punished; and the right of police officers to carry out their duties unhindered by some of the more absurd interference from
Column 297the so-called civil rights lobby. We need to redress the balance between the victim and the criminal. It is worth remembering that among the prison population there are few people over the age of 40. That shows that people do learn eventually and that it is not worth bucking the system. We need a system that instils that lesson rather earlier.
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in today's debate. Together with my hon. Friends, I look forward to seeing the Government's detailed proposals. In particular, I look forward to the publication of the Bill to tackle discrimination against disabled people--especially after the Government's shameful talking out of the comprehensive Bill introduced last Session by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry).
Today, we are discussing home affairs and I welcome the Government's commitment, outlined in the Gracious Speech, to play an active part in tackling drug misuse and trafficking. The problem of drug misuse is tearing apart our local communities and the Government must bear part of the responsibility for the problems on our estates, in our schools and on the streets. We are all concerned about the problem because of the direct link between drugs and crime. There has been a sharp increase in the number of drug offences and drug seizures, mirroring the dramatic increase in crime. In south Yorkshire, drug seizures have increased by more than 1,000 per cent. since 1979. Of course, we do not have to rely on statistics alone to see that drug abuse has risen. How many hon. Members remember a time when a school playing field was out of bounds because of the threat from syringes left behind after use the previous night? That did not happen years ago, but it is currently the horrific position in schools in my constituency. Nevertheless, last year the Government cut the number of drug advisory posts that previously were funded by the Department for Education. They also cut the number of staff based in schools and youth clubs.
If the Government cared about the victims of crime, they would do something about its causes, such as tackling drug abuse. There are many good ways to start. The people of the Willow estate in Thorne in my constituency have suffered from crime, like many people on other estates in my constituency and throughout the country. Much of that crime is drug related--vandalism, theft, destruction of property, abuse, fear and harassment. The good people of that estate--and there are many of them, because the criminals are in the minority--said, "Enough is enough," and are developing a partnership with the police and the local authority to tackle the crime wave that has afflicted them a long while. Those residents want what everyone else wants- -to feel safe in their own homes and to walk down their own streets free from fear and harm. They have my full support for their work through residents associations.
Partnerships are the key--people working together with pride rather than being alone, isolated and in fear. The weakness of the Government's approach across a whole range of policies is that they have spent the last 15 years talking ruthlessly about
individualism--"Get what you can for yourself, no matter who you step on." That attitude will never bring social responsibility but only encourages a mentality whereby people take what they want
Column 298regardless of the impact on others and the wider community. Such attitudes, coupled with economic despair, breed anti- social behaviour, not social responsibility.
Since the royal commission highlighted the need for an independent body to investigate miscarriages of justice, there has been no action by the Government. The Labour party called for such a innovation during the passage of the Criminal Justice Act 1993. Even the Home Secretary made a pledge to his own party conference in 1993. Again, there was no action. I welcome the news that the Government are finally to act, and I hope that they will do so decisively. So far, the Home Secretary has been, at best, lukewarm about that proposal. I trust that he will muster sufficient enthusiasm to make sure that the body is totally independent and that it has sufficient teeth to perform its difficult task effectively.
A halfway house will not be sufficient to reassure the public, whose confidence has been shaken. The decision to establish the review body should not be regarded as an attack on the police. I have good relations with the police in my constituency and was closely involved in bringing them together with a number of concerned residents and groups trying to plan action. South Yorkshire police work hard in the most difficult circumstances and should be praised for their efforts and dedication. They work under extreme pressure from rising crime rates. In 1979, the Tories came to power promising to restore the rule of law. Fifteen years later, crime in south Yorkshire has mushroomed. Since 1989, it has risen 66 per cent. while police numbers have increased by only 2.3 per cent.
The police are also under pressure because of the difficulty of securing convictions. They often feel frustrated when the Crown Prosecution Service does not proceed with cases that the police and victims believe should be prosecuted; it is fast becoming known as the criminal protection service. Others in the criminal justice system have also expressed concern about the CPS and its willingness and ability to take cases forward. Clearly, the Government need to address that issue. The Government cannot fail to appreciate the strength of feeling. In the last two weeks alone, I have been presented with two major petitions.
The Government talk tough but act soft on crime, and ordinary people end up paying the price of their incompetence. People feel let down by the Government, and they have been. The Tories have proved that they do not have the solutions on crime. They have had 15 years in which to sort out the problems and they have failed. If they are not prepared to revise their short-sighted, dogmatic and selfish ideology, they will never find the answers. The content of their legislative programme and their responses to the issues that I have raised today will show whether they are capable of such a leap in understanding.
Column 299The nation and the people of Doncaster, North will be watching and waiting to see what action the Government take. On their past record, I will not be holding my breath.
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras): I shall follow on directly from what my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) said, because the Gracious Speech has demonstrated that the Government are out of touch with the real needs of real people in Britain today.
The Government's priorities seem to be just trying to keep the Tory party together. They do not mind what harm they do to the economy, the health service or the environment as long as they can all cling to office. The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) no longer functions as the Prime Minister; he is reduced to being the Chief Whip of the Tory party. The slogan that he uses is, "More privatisation, more deregulation and more money for our friends." That is all very well for holding on to the support of the fanatics on the right wing of the Tory party, but I am glad to say that it does not appeal to the people of Britain, who want a Government with practical answers to the day-to-day problems that they face. After 15 years of Tory rule, the public will no longer be fobbed off with more publicity stunts, diversions and distractions. They want to see their day- to-day problems solved.
In the time available I can give only three examples of how the Tories have failed, are failing and will fail to solve the problems faced by the people of Britain, and to fulfil their hopes and aspirations. Most people in Britain believe that all our citizens should have a decent home, and at a price or rent that they can afford. It is not an outlandish idea. It is what all Members of Parliament have for themselves and their families. It is common decency. It promotes family life, enhances the health of the nation and makes economic sense. What do we have instead in Britain today? Before I deal with the figures, let us look at what is happening today to real people in our country.
Within half a mile of this Palace, many of our fellow citizens will spend tonight in a cardboard box. Families all over Britain will spend tonight in bed-and-breakfast accommodation--one room in which to live, if one can call it living; one room for parents and children in which to cook, eat, wash and sleep. Next Monday morning, after a whole squalid weekend of it, the children will be packed off to school, half fed, half asleep, to an overcrowded classroom with a harassed teacher, yet the Gracious Speech referred to equal opportunities for all sections of the community. What cant and hypocrisy.
What about the young couple living in the home of their parents or in-laws, trying to bring up a child with a bed and a cot in the front room of somebody else's home? We see the ties that bind that couple together: love, hope and responsibility. We see them losing an unequal struggle, with a lack of privacy, lack of space and irritation without respite. Yet the Prime Minister talks of a nation at ease with itself, when tonight, in tens of thousands of homes, three generations will not be at ease with one another.
Column 300Then there are the families who cannot afford the soaring rents, relying on benefits that do not pay the whole rent; fretting about how they will cope. Yet we now hear that the Government intend to make things worse by cutting housing benefit. There are the families whose homes are worth less than their mortgage. The Government call it "negative equity". To the families concerned, there is a much shorter word--debt. It keeps them awake at night.
Those are all examples of what life will be like for millions of people in Britain tonight. They show the human pain and anguish behind the housing figures. The figures themselves show how the Government have failed the nation. When the Tories came to office, they inherited a house-building programme in which 244,000 houses were completed each year. Last year, the figure was 175,000. The number of council houses built in 1979 was 75,000. Last year, it was 1,940. That means that 39 council houses were completed in 1979 for every one completed last year, or 390 in 1979 for every 10 last year.
Mr. Dobson: The employed parrot on the Government Back Benches asks about housing associations. I expected that. They are supposed to have taken over the role of house building. But, if the hon. Gentleman looks at the number of houses that have been completed by housing associations, councils and new towns put together in 1979, he will see that the figure was 104,000. Last year between them they built 36,000. To put it another way, three houses were completed in 1979 for every one completed last year. While those 36,000 new houses only were being built last year, 160,000 households were officially accepted as homeless--four homeless families for every house that the Government managed to get built. So the Government have failed to build the houses that our people need.
On top of that, the Government have encouraged house prices to rise and they have deliberately driven up housing association and council rents. Over the past five years alone, average council rents have risen by 79 per cent., while the retail prices index has risen by 27 per cent. On top of that, the Government went on to deregulate private rents. So, rents have soared. Tenants have had to pay out a fortune. Many cannot afford the new high rents, so they have either to claim more benefit or claim benefit for the first time. Five years ago, housing benefit cost the taxpayer £3.7 billion. Last year, housing benefit cost the taxpayer £8.8 billion. That was not the fault of the tenants, or the councils, or the housing associations--it was the direct result of Government policy.
Under this Government, building firms have gone broke, building workers are on the dole, house building has gone down, housing costs have soared and the burden on the taxpayer has more than doubled. No wonder the Government, who insist on indicators of performance for local councils, have not got round to having any indicators of performance for themselves. What is needed now is a house-building programme, drawing on the takings from the sale of council houses and augmented by contributions from the private sector, to begin housing the homeless and the overcrowded. That would not only get building workers off the dole, but it would create jobs for people who make cement, bricks, tiles, lavatory pans, baths, curtains, carpets, central heating boilers, light bulbs, cookers and refrigerators. It would even be good for
Column 301florists because if someone moves into a new house or flat, there is always somebody in the family who buys his mum a bunch of flowers. Everybody would benefit from having a decent housing programme. That is what Labour wants to see happen and that is what the people of this country want.
The Tories have, apparently for theological reasons, rejected the practical idea that the answer to a housing shortage is to build more houses. They are much more sophisticated than that. They try to confuse the issue. They produce misleading figures. They try to redefine problems out of existence. I say to the Secretary of State that changing the rules under which a group of people without homes of their own will have priority over another group of people without homes of their own will not do anything to solve the housing problem--it will just redefine it.
There is also the Tories' effort to change the issue by changing the language. They introduced "a rough sleeper's initiative". That suggests shades of "Nineteen Eighty-Four". Until they thought of that title, the usual words were "sleeping rough". "Rough" described the unacceptable conditions under which people were forced to sleep. The rough sleeper's initiative subtly changes all that. Now the word "rough" is used to describe the people, not the conditions under which they sleep. That is another problem redefined. Responsibility is unloaded on to the victims of the Government's policy. What will we get out of this hapless lot next--a charter mark for cardboard boxes?
That is not what people want. That takes me to my second example of the Government's failure. The people did not want their water to be privatised. When the Government ask themselves why they could not convince the people to support the privatisation of the Post Office, they need look no further than the water industry. The people of Britain know what happened and is happening in that industry. They remember that it was sold off at far below its proper price, that shares rose by 17 per cent. in about the first five minutes of trading and that, therefore, the taxpayer lost £873 million on the first day that the water companies' shares were traded.
People know that, since privatisation, their bills have increased by 67 per cent., costing £2.7 billion above what would be justified by inflation. In the south-west, water charges have doubled in five years. In the same period, water company profits have increased by 125 per cent. and water industry bosses' pay has increased by an average of 228 per cent. That average conceals some large discrepancies between one water boss and another. Some, by the standards of the greediest, have shown some restraint, but not the boss of North West Water, who has whacked up his pay from £47,000 a year to £338,000 a year, not to mention the multi- million pound share options.
Needless to say, the Tory party and individual Tories have their snouts in the water trough. Thames Water gave the Tory party £50,000. The hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) is a director of Yorkshire Water. The hon. Member for Ashford (Sir K. Speed) is a director of Folkestone and Dover Water Services and the hon. Member for Crosby (Sir M. Thornton) is a consultant to North West Water. People question whether those private monopolies, which raise their money by levying a tax on
Column 302local people--for that is what the water rate is--should retain the services of any political party through the money that they pay in. What about the famous regulators? The first thing to remember is that the Government are against regulation and never stop saying so. It shows in the way in which water shares shot up after the water regulator announced his new price regime and in the new round of profit announcements. It shows in the way in which the drinking water inspectorate has not mounted a single prosecution since it was set up.
That is not because there is nothing wrong with the water. Thames Water gave £50,000 to the Tory party. In that region, one water sample in every 20 does not meet legal standards. The inspectorate may not be tough on Thames Water, but Thames Water is tough on poor customers, disconnecting 1,200 of them last year, a rather sharp increase on the total before privatisation of just 14.
The Government's keenness on deregulation also showed when the Secretary of State intervened to relieve Yorkshire Water of the £200 million expense of building a first-rate sewage treatment plant to protect the people of Hull and Humberside. How did he do that? He did it by that tried- and-tested Tory technique of redefining the problem out of existence. Hull is now redefined as being on the coast rather than on the estuary, so semi- treated sewage can be pumped into the River Humber.
Up to now, everyone accepted that by nature or the act of God, the open sea started at Spurn point. Now by Act of Gummer, the open sea has been moved 30 miles upstream to the Humber bridge, conveniently to the west of Hull, so lower standards are permitted. The people of Hull and Humberside want straight answers from the Secretary of State. They want to know who asked him to take that decision. They want to know whether parliamentary lobbyists or Tory Members of Parliament were involved in the asking and they will not be satisfied until they get the answers.
We hear fine words from the Government about protecting the environment, but their actions do not live up to their promises.
Mr. McNamara: Will my hon. Friend speculate on how the Humber bridge became a natural boundary for an area of high dispersal? What would have happened if the Humber bridge were two miles further towards the east and if the west Hull outfall had gone straight into an area that was not so desired?
The Government constantly proclaim that they want rid of regulation. Last year, the flagship of their legislative programme was the Bill to deregulate anything that they did not like. They should, therefore, not be surprised to learn that people will regard with some suspicion the Bill to establish an environment agency for England and Wales and a separate one for Scotland. A Government who are so busy deregulating everything else are hardly likely to toughen regulations intended to protect us from fumes, poisonous dumps and rivers and filthy beaches.
We do not know what the Bill will finally say, but we know what the draft one says. It shows that the new agency will not be environmental protection writ large but environmental protection writ small. The agency is to
Column 303combine the functions of the National Rivers Authority, HM inspectorate of pollution and waste regulation authorities. We support that step, but the change is being used to weaken rather than strengthen existing statutory duties.
For example, the NRA has a duty to "further" the conservation of areas of natural beauty, flora, fauna and so on. The duty of the new agency will be to "take into account" the effect that any proposals may have on areas of beauty, flora and fauna. At first sight, that may not seem much of a change, but there is a great difference between having to "further" something and having to take it "into account". As shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, I have to "take into account" the Tory Secretary of State's policies, but I can assure the House that I do not intend to "further" them.
At present, none of the bodies to be amalgamated into the environment agency is required to take into account the costs and benefits of their decisions, but the new agency will have to do so. That will leave it open to legal challenge from powerful business interests and is bound to make it less rigorous in protecting the public. If cost-benefit considerations are to be taken into account, countervailing additional powers and duties must be given to the agencies. For example, the precautionary principle and the concept of making the polluter pay could be enshrined in law and given clear precedence over cost-benefit considerations. Without such changes, the new combined agency will be much weaker than the sum of its parts.
Wildlife trusts have said that they are astounded that the new agency's duty is to be so weak; Friends of the Earth described the Bill as a travesty; and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said that the duty on the new agency is so weak as to be farcical. The National Federation of Anglers believes that it opens the way to a deliberate failure to achieve effectiveness. The Government's reputation has sunk so low that no one trusts a word that any Minister says.
Most interested people welcome the basic idea of the new agency, but they realise that it is flawed from the start, with vested interests taking precedence over the health and welfare of the public and the future of the environment. People are profoundly suspicious of a Government who, we understand, are now considering allowing the nuclear industry to dump bulky, low-level, radioactive waste at landfill sites all over the country. Most people do not like what is already being dumped there and they certainly do not want the situation made worse.
The Environmental Protection Act 1990, passed as a result of Labour pressure, required local authorities to draw up registers of contaminated land. The Government have issued two sets of proposals for implementing that, but both have been withdrawn. We want to know when they will get on with implementing the law. If it was right to pass that law in 1990, surely to God they should have implemented it by now.
The Government have promised action to protect hedgerows, but will the new Bill deliver on that pledge? Will the Government keep their election promise to set up independent boards for national parks and to enhance the status of the New Forest? Will they use the Bill to keep their promise to extend the Trade Descriptions Act
Column 3041968 to cover environmental claims? Will they promote new technology to replace equipment and processes that depend on chemicals which destroy the ozone layer? Will they use money from the roads budget to encourage the installation of devices to reduce and clean up emissions from buses, coaches and lorries? Above all, will they halt their demented crusade against regulation and recognise that regulation has a useful role to play? It has a useful part to play, not just in the immediate protection of the environment, such as trying to reduce the increasing incidence of child asthma, but in making British industry more competitive.
Higher standards for energy efficiency, for engine emissions and for discharges into rivers and seas may cost a bit now, but in the long run, those regulations can help to make British industry more competitive. World markets are crying out for techniques and equipment that can reduce the damaging environmental impact of what is happening now. That is known in the trade as pollution abatement. In future, those world markets will look for plant and equipment that does not create environmental problems in the first place--clean technology, as it is called.
In both markets, Britain is falling behind. Let us take pollution control. At the beginning of the 1980s, Britain's exports of air pollution equipment were eight times the level of imports. By the end of the decade, the decade of triumphant Thatcherism, we were net importers of air pollution equipment. A recent survey of the international pollution abatement market shows Germany, Japan and the United States between them with about half the market. The British share of the world market is so small that it does not rate a mention in the report. It is the same sad story with clean technology, with a lack of Government support in Britain and massive Government support in Germany and Japan.
It is not just a question of Government support. It is widely recognised that the early adoption of strict environmental standards in Germany and Japan gave their industries a head start by requiring them to meet higher standards at home, which made them better equipped to meet higher standards when they sold abroad. As a result, clean technology, which was actually invented in Britain, has been developed and brought to market by Japanese, German and Swedish companies. Deregulation and weak regulation are not just a betrayal of our people's right to clean air, clean water, clean rivers, clean towns and clean countryside. They are a betrayal of British workers and British business.
Given the spur of regulation and Government help, thousands of British people could now find work in research, design, manufacture, construction, installation, operation, maintenance and
repair--top-quality jobs to provide a top-quality environment. Britain would be competing with the best on quality, not reduced to trying to compete with the cheapest on price. That is what the people of our country want to see.
Our people want practical help, practical answers to their problems and a decent future for their children. They heard nothing of that in the Queen's Speech other than bits of cant and hypocrisy. Our people want to see a Britain at work, not a Britain on benefits. They want a Britain where people who work for a living are paid a living wage and where the taxpayer does not have to make up for the poverty wages paid by Tory bosses. They want a Britain where economic prosperity, environmental