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Mr. Hughes: I am delighted to hear from the Minister about the Department's aim. Given that the Rowntree report produced last week--I know that its findings are contested--shows that the gap between the bottom 20 per cent. and the top 20 per cent. has more than doubled in the past 15 years, does he accept that the reality of Government policy, including those of his Department, is a nation of two cities--the haves and the have nots? Will
Column 992he undertake to review all his Department's policies to create something like the policy in which the Prime Minister says the Government believe, but which is not being delivered on the ground?
Mr. Curry: As the hon. Gentleman says, the Rowntree report obviously asks questions, and one can interpret those questions in different ways and give different answers to them; that is part of normal political debate. The number one recommendation of the Rowntree report is that priority should lie in education and training. It is interesting to note, from the first round of our single regeneration budget bids, that that is precisely where the local partnerships have put their priorities. That demonstrates that local partnerships are identifying education and training as the seedcorn for regeneration policies. The hon. Gentleman and I can agree with that.
Mr. Robert Ainsworth: If the policies of the Government are as the Minister has said, what will the Department of the Environment do about Westminster city council, which has systematically engaged in a policy of gentrification, social cleansing and homes for votes? The Department has sat and done nothing while those policies have continued, month on month, year after year.
Mr. Curry: In so far as there are any proceedings taking place about any actions in Westminster city council, it is for those proceedings to continue. In so far as Westminster city council runs a very efficient council in London, I commend it to many of those inner-city councils which have a great deal to learn from it.
Mr. Denham: Is the Secretary of State aware that the decision last year to refuse a partnership bid to bring improved heating and insulation to the 1,000 people on the Holyrood estate in my constituency was taken, to all intents and purposes, by unelected and unaccountable officials working in the Government office of the south-east? Is it not the case that those officials are only part of a pattern of regional English government that spends and allocates nearly £6 billion a year and influences far more? As we have English regional government, is it not high time that English regional government was made accountable to the people that it serves?
Mr. Gummer: First of all, all decisions are advised by civil servants but agreed by Ministers, including the decision relating to Southampton. Secondly, as I understand it, the hon. Gentleman is asking for a bit more clarity from the Labour party. He has fought for a unitary authority for Southampton; now he wants to take that unitary authority away and have a regional government.
I understand also that the difficulty for Conservative Members is that the Opposition spokesman has one policy on regional government, the previous spokesman had another policy, and it is difficult to discuss English
Column 993regional government in the House when the person who makes the decisions is not here, but speaks to the television and radio, saying that the Opposition have now put off regional government, because they have suddenly discovered that it would mean five tiers of government for large numbers of people, which people do not want and do not want to pay for.
Mrs. Lait: Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the south-east there are already improved communications between local bodies and central Government? Is he further aware that the regional office now has a much clearer picture of local needs than it did, and is hence much more likely to match the needs with grants? Does he agree that a regional assembly or, even worse, control by local councillors, would be the last thing to generate the growth that is needed in the south-east of England?
Mr. Gummer: First, I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the Labour party supported the idea of bringing together the various local offices of Government, so that we had a common view throughout a range of things, and there was a holistic answer and not individual sectional answers.
Secondly, it is a very odd world, is it not, where the Labour party is now telling its supporters in the counties that, if Labour returned to power, it would cancel, ban and stop all county councils. The Labour party has decided on the abolition of the county councils, irrespective of the fact that all the county councils controlled by the Labour party are fighting for their continuance.
Mr. Hardy: Does the Minister agree that the Government cannot have their cake and eat it? A few questions ago, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), gave a favourable and sympathetic answer to the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson), who called for local accountability--in effect, devolution. The Secretary of State then poured scorn on those of us who believe that a much more efficient and just administration can be provided with a much greater level of devolution than that which the Government are prepared to consider.
Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman is suggesting to the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) that, far from getting the local accountability which comes from unitary authorities, Southampton should turn it down in favour of a new tier of local government which is called regional government. People in England do not want regional government, and people in Scotland and Wales do not want regional or national government.
Mrs. Knight: Is my hon. Friend aware that, whereas there is real understanding that some parts of the country face higher costs than others, there is also real concern about the method of distribution of the area cost adjustment? For example, it allocates more than
Column 994£200 per child to the education SSA in Hertfordshire, yet it allocates nothing to Derbyshire. Will my hon. Friend address those disparities in his most welcome review?
Mr. Curry: As my hon. Friend knows, the area cost adjustment recognises the additional total labour costs in the south-east. The problem is that, as it is constructed at the moment, the south-east alone is eligible for it, and there are very good reasons for that. However, I wish to examine whether we can change the basis of distributing the area cost adjustment by looking at travel-to-work areas, so that the whole country can be eligible for it. If that proves to be a more robust method, we will adopt it. If it does not, I am not prepared to make a change unless I am sure that it will be an improvement which I can defend as being totally impartial.
Mr. William O'Brien: When considering any changes to the system, will the Minister have regard to the authorities in the Webber Craig group, including Wakefield, which are at a disadvantage because of pupil-cost ratios? A few weeks ago I also raised with the Prime Minister the matter of cuts to the fire service in that area and the costs involved. Will the Minister take seriously the representations from Wakefield and West Yorkshire about those issues?
Mr. Curry: The Webber Craig group of local authorities has been very effective in bringing forward ideas--for example, its idea of compensation for employment and health problems--which are now part of the distribution method.
Central to the question is the fact that, if local authorities believe that there are issues which must be addressed, we shall examine them, together with my own agenda of matters that I intend to review in the course of the year. The procedure is conducted with the co-operation of local authority associations, which enables us to arrive at a method which everyone subscribes to as being as fair and objective as possible.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I recognise the need for the area cost adjustment, because some areas face higher costs than others, but can the Minister not find a better system of tapering out those areas of high cost? For example, Oxfordshire receives area cost adjustments whereas Gloucestershire does not receive anything. Would it not be fairer to taper it off gradually to nothing throughout the country?
Mr. Curry: It would be quite difficult to measure additional costs in the south-east if we went as far as Berwickshire to judge them. We have clearly improved the taper in the south-east and I am now satisfied that it works within the confines of that method. If we are to try to move to a nation-wide system we shall have to look for an alternative method, and in that context we are now considering travel-to-work areas. I hope that that will work, as it will enable me to use a system which I believe that all people will perceive as being fair, objective and universally applicable.
Mr. Banks: I urge the Minister and his colleagues to take a very close interest in what is occurring at County hall. It is becoming clear that neither the London residuary body nor the Secretary of State's predecessor, the present Home Secretary, studied the bid from the cowboy organisation, Shirayama. There is a scandal in the making at County hall. Ministers may not feel that they owe it to themselves to examine it closely and take direct action, but do they not owe it to the people of London to do so?
Sir Paul Beresford: I have considerable respect for the hon. Gentleman's interest in County hall because it was his political nursery. The preparatory work that is going on there is being watched and inspected carefully--particularly by English Heritage, which was there some two weeks ago.
Mr. Jacques Arnold: If the plans for County hall, involving a hotel complex and other such proposals, were not to go ahead, would my hon. Friend consider proposals to place the London School of Economics there? That would be far better than a bloated and expensive bureaucracy at the expense of people of Greater London, as proposed by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks).
Sir Paul Beresford: There is no evidence of any need for that. I understand that the most recent comment by Mr. Shirayama, while viewing his earthquake-destroyed property, was that he was working on a property in London--County hall.
Mr. Atkins: Last week we issued for public consultation a draft waste strategy for England and Wales. It aims to use the principles of sustainable development to provide a coherent framework for waste management policy and practice. Copies of the document are available in the Library.
Mr. Bennett: I thank the Minister for that reply. Could he clear up a question about green taxes? He will appreciate that many people are campaigning that Britain should follow that line. Does he accept that there is a dilemma with the green tax? Although it discourages environmentally unfriendly activity, Governments can be hooked on the income that it raises. Are the Government introducing the landfill levy primarily to increase funds for the Government, or to discourage the use of landfill sites for waste disposal?
Mr. Atkins: The levy will not increase funds directly to the Government. The whole idea of it as an economic instrument is to make people think through their waste strategy in companies or local corporations. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would also like to address his
Column 996concerns to my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who ultimately is responsible for these matters.
Mr. Ian Bruce: My hon. Friend will know that the Government have been under great pressure to stop waste dumping and the burial of waste. Is he aware that in many cases, such as Dorset, the supposedly greener option of waste to energy has been wholly unacceptable, as it has to my constituents? Are we going in the wrong direction in trying to press those solutions when the green lobbies themselves are saying they are worse than waste dumping? Perhaps we should go back to the old technology.
Mr. Atkins: As it happens, yesterday I was at the Henry Doubleday Research Association, which does much work in composting and the recycling of organic waste. I was taken to Leicestershire to see a particular site that the county is operating. Many other waste authorities are also recycling and composting green waste. In the future that is likely to happen more often than not. If my hon. Friend has problems in Dorset that he feels that I can address, I shall be more than happy to help him and my other hon. Friends.
Mr. Atkins: My hon. Friend will be aware that some councils in Northern Ireland have done some really remarkable work on waste to energy. Down is the case in point, but I know from my former incarnation as a Northern Ireland Minister how much work was being done on alternative sources of energy. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman directs his question to the Minister responsible for such matters in the Province. I am trying to do my best over here on the basis of the good knowledge and experience that I gained in Northern Ireland.
Ms Ruddock: Further to that answer, what is the Minister's response to the report in The Observer last weekend that some municipal incinerators were emitting dioxins at a rate of more than 300 times the Government's safety limits and that Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution believes that they should be reduced by 90 per cent? What are his plans on the landfill levy in respect of local authorities? It appears to us that it would be a diversion of money from council tax payers straight to the Treasury.
Mr. Atkins: I never make the mistake of reading The Observer , so I cannot comment on that particular report; however, I understand that the serious issue underlying the hon. Lady's question is worth pursuing. I shall certainly ask HMIP exactly what the hon. Lady is referring to and ask for a report on it as soon as possible. Question Time is perhaps not the time to discuss the detail of the landfill levy, but I can assure the hon. Lady that we have many more policies relating to waste disposal than ever she does.
Column 997interest in that factory and his visit to Leicestershire demonstrate the Government's attitude towards private and Government partnership in that sector?
Mr. Atkins: I am only sorry that the Whips did not allow my hon. Friend to be with me yesterday when I visited his constituency. He is right --the issue is all about partnership between the private sector and local authorities, as well as making companies recognise what can be done. Above all, the message that I would ask my hon. Friend to take back to his attractive part of Leicestershire is that domestic users of green waste from the garden can have it recycled and use it again for compost to benefit their gardens--it is a good system.
Mr. Robert B. Jones: Since 1979 we have taken, and are continuing to take, a range of measures and quality initiatives for improving the value for money in local authority services, including establishing the Audit Commission, compulsory competitive tendering and introducing the citizens charter and performance indicators.
Mr. Mackinlay: Does the Minister understand that Essex county council's ability to improve and extend services is substantially hindered by the unfair rate support grant settlement? Will he consider the accuracy of his earlier reply, when he told the House that there had been no representations from Essex about rate support grant? There have been representations, and on 1 February a letter was sent to the Secretary of State complaining about the alteration without consultation of the demographic data relating to education services. Has not my county been disadvantaged by the inefficiency and bureaucracy of the Department? When will the leader of the council receive a reply to his letter of 1 February addressed to the Secretary of State?
Mr. Jones: If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard me say that there had been no representations in the period up to the laying of the order before the House. Of course, representations after the order has been laid are too late--the point that has been made to Essex county council.
Mr. Thomason: Does my hon. Friend agree that compulsory competitive tendering has contributed considerably to the improvement of local government services? Will he consider possible ways of extending that system? The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) seems to want to terminate it, much to the horror of many Labour council leaders.
Mr. Jones: My hon. Friend is right. Compulsory competitive tendering has resulted in substantial savings for council tax payers and a substantial improvement in quality in many cases. It is fascinating for Ministers talking to Labour-controlled councils about CCT for housing management--they find that those councils are, for the first time, discussing with their tenants what should be provided and at what quality.
Column 998governors and even Tory county councillors are up in arms about the Government and are clearly saying that they want better services and are prepared to pay for them? They do not want a Government who tell them to pay more and get less.
Mr. Jones: As the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of Shropshire, it may be relevant to remind the House that Shropshire local authority employs 32.7 staff per 1,000 of the population, whereas Gloucestershire employs 21 staff per thousand of the population--the local authorities are not that dissimilar. Shropshire and other councils should consider their manpower levels and start saving.
Mr. Carrington: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, but will he consider the other problems with council repairs: their cost and their quality? My hon. Friend should look seriously at the need to give council tenants and council leaseholders a vetting power over the cost of council repairs and the standard to which they are done. Council tenants and council leaseholders pay for the repairs.
Mr. Curry: The law gives leaseholders protection against unreasonable service charges. Landlords can recover the charges only if they are reasonably incurred and the work is of a reasonable standard. Leaseholders have the right to be consulted, to inspect accounts on which charges are based and to challenge unreasonable charges in the courts. I should be pleased to receive information from my hon. Friend about the specific problems brought to him by his constituents.
Mr. Robert B. Jones: We have put in place the legislative framework extending compulsory competitive tendering to housing management. The first contracts are due to be in operation from April 1996. I am pleased to say that local authorities are making good progress with their preparations.
Mr. Fishburn: As competitive tendering always produces cheaper, more efficient and more humane management of the public housing stock, can my hon. Friend tell me why so many people on the Opposition Benches remain opposed to it?
Mr. Jones: I think that they approach the matter with political dogma rather than adopting a flexible approach such as that taken by the Government. No local authority in history has done everything by direct labour. No local authority in history has done everything by private contractor. The proper thing is to draw a boundary--not
Column 999on the basis of political whim and dogma-- and to use a process of competitive tendering against a specification, invite tenders, judge their quality and award the contract.
Mr. Skinner: Now that it is known that more than £50 billion is spent by the quangos that have been set up by the Tories, what steps have the Government taken to ensure that quangos use compulsory competitive tendering?
Mr. Jones: Non-departmental public bodies are encouraged to go through a process of tendering as much as any other body. Competitive tendering has brought a great deal of benefit, for example, in the health service. It has been possible to feed those benefits through into patient care.
Mr. Sutcliffe: How does the Minister intend to stop abuses by property speculators such as Spring Ram Corporation in my constituency, which blackmailed the local authority into providing planning permission in green-belt areas by promising jobs and then set up a retail development? How will that assist local authorities such as Bradford, which suffer blight in their city centres?
Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman will know that I have made it clear that there can be no movement from a non-retail operation to a retail operation. There have been many occasions on which people have pretended that they were doing something different. I have insisted that the decision be made on the proper planning grounds. If the hon. Gentleman would like to bring that case to me, I will examine it carefully.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports me in putting pressure on local authorities to recognise that if we are not to have out-of-town shopping centres which will mar the countryside, they must make the inner cities and the towns much more attractive to business and to shoppers. Therefore, the next stage must be a real reaction of support from local authorities. I am getting such support from some local authorities of all political parties.
Mr. McLoughlin: Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the outstanding contribution that out-of-town shopping centres have made in enhancing facilities for disabled people, in making it more pleasurable to go shopping and in making local authorities
Column 1000question carefully how they develop town centres, so as to attract shoppers rather than, as has happened so often in the past, discourage them?
Mr. Gummer: I agree that much of the improvement in city centres and town centres, particularly those run by Labour authorities, has been the result of the development of out-of-town shopping centres and the fear that unless standards are raised it will be impossible to stop people moving to the out-of-town centres. I hope that we shall see an increasing willingness to provide the same quality and choice in our city centres as is available outside.
Mr. Howarth: I did not have the benefit of hearing the Minister's answer on that occasion, but having heard similar answers on many other occasions, I am sure that it was up to his usual inadequate standard. Is not the important point that a great deal of water could be conserved if the Government, in conjunction with the water companies, embarked on an active campaign to stop the leaks and conserve water?
Mr. Atkins: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman could not be here earlier; I am sure that he had a good reason for that. What I said to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson), which I reiterate, is that much of the wastage is from the domestic, rather than the company, source. Companies are already spending a large sum dealing with the problem.
However, generally speaking, the hon. Gentleman's point is right. That is why I was associated with the Water Services Association launch of a detailed technical document dealing with the problems of leakage. I shall be delighted to ask the association to send the hon. Gentleman a copy, which will make good reading for him.
Mr. Fabricant: I want to take up the point about water wastage at domestic level. My hon. Friend will be aware that Armitage Shanks is based in my constituency. Will he resist the growing pressure in Europe for the European method of flushing toilets, which causes a great deal of water leakage, to be adopted in Britain? Our system uses a vacuum siphon method, which prevents water leakage.
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