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Column 994massive road-building schemes. By giving people a viable alternative to car journeys, reliance on car travel can diminish the associated problems of congestion and air pollution.
The Labour party believes that it is essential to protect our towns and cities so that they can flourish and provide an effective basis for community life.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford): The debate hasnot quite been a love-in but certainly an occasion for considerable agreement or, perhaps, variations on a theme. There was a little bit of Christmas tree utilisation--my hon. Friends the Members for Edmonton (Dr. Twinn) and for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) covered the debate with a few coloured lights and attacks on the Treasury, among other things. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) said, there was a huge measure of agreement.
I was, surprisingly, able to agree with some of what the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) said. I understand what she said as I have experienced great difficulty in finding clothes, but especially shoes, in the right size. The hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) might be interested to know that my youngest son wholly understands the importance of activity shopping, filling his pockets with as much pocket money as he can bludge off his parents and buying fast food. His third word was "McDonald's". Perhaps we should warn the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) to watch his son--his third word might be "Sainsbury".
I was intrigued to hear the reasoning advanced by the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). He blamed the Government but then immediately turned on the then Liberal council and said that it was to blame, too. Of course, the temptation was to agree with him. We have come to expect the type of speech made by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel). It appears that the Liberal party invented everything from bicycles to viable solutions, even if someone else thought of them first.
Like other hon. Members, I am grateful to have this opportunity to acknowledge the work of the Environment Select Committee and congratulate it on its excellent report. I say that not only because it provided strong support for our policy but because, in its spirit of inquiry, it accurately pinpointed matters where the policy needs clarification and where further development is needed.
The Committee, initially under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), then under that of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field), who launched the report, and subsequently under that of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who initiated this debate, has produced a clear and thorough report. It presented the Department with a considerable challenge. As has been said, we agreed with most of the Committee's recommendations. By responding positively, we have set ourselves a major work programme. As people will recognise, we shall not be able to do it all at once. Some things will be done as a matter of priority; others will follow on a longer time scale. I recognise the concern for us to move quickly in forming a response to PPG 6 and its variations. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said at Question
Column 995Time today, we intend to have the consultation draft issued by the summer. In the meantime, PPG 6 as it stands, plus ministerial speeches and the inferences in them, will apply, which is why it is appropriate to try to get through some of the points raised this evening as quickly as I can.
We accept that this is not a one-off opportunity to tune our policy. We must monitor the policy continuously to ensure that it is effective in meeting our objectives, which are to maintain and enhance existing town centres and ensure that everyone has access to a wide variety of shopping. As has been said, the benefits of competition should be accessible to all, not only those who have access to a car.
The Select Committee provided a major opportunity to scrutinise not only Government policy but the most recent developments in this fast-moving industry. It provided us with a lot of useful material and proposals for action, which we very much appreciate. My Department, on behalf of the Government, has now responded to those proposals fully and positively and we are proposing to revise our PPG note on town centres and retail developments, to commission good practice guidance, to promote town centre management, to commission research and to improve the quality of statistics on the retail industry that may be used for retail planning.
In our response, we propose to revise PPG 6. I should make it clear that we are proposing particularly to clarify a number of issues in response to the Committee's comments. We do not propose a dramatic and radical extension of our policy because, after all, the Committee broadly endorses the policy as it is.
The Committee highlighted the need to clarify our approach to the location of retail development. We propose to do that in two ways. First, the PPG will emphasise the need for a plan-led approach. That means that we shall expect local planning authorities to set out clearly in their development plans the strategy for retail development. That will need to be based on a good understanding of existing centres--city, town, district, local centres and even the particular historic preserves, I suppose we could call them, of my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton- Brown). We shall also need to reflect on the need and demand for further retail development in those areas. Local plans will need to be clear and unambiguous about where development is expected to take place and which sites are earmarked for retail development. Secondly, the revised PPG will clarify our approach to the location of retail developments. PPG 6 and subsequent speeches by Ministers describe a "sequential approach". That advised planning authorities and developers to look first for town centre sites. When suitable sites are not available, those concerns should look for edge-of-centre sites. That means that the shoppers coming by car are able to walk into the town centre for shopping and other business and it also enables those coming to the centre by bus or on foot to walk out to the new shops. The PPG suggests that the limits be defined in terms of "reasonable walking distance".
We may need to be more specific. There is a limit to how far people can walk with several heavy bags of shopping and how far car drivers will walk. That has been
Column 996explained in no uncertain and clear terms by my wife, who utilises the sort of Sainsbury's store enjoyed by the hon. Member for Leicester, East at the weekend.
Mr. Timms: I welcome what the Minister is saying about the changing policy framework, but what advice would he give to a local authority that is having to look again at earlier planning permission? My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said in opening the debate that many planning applications have been given permission, but have not yet been implemented. When the time limit expires, local authorities have to look again at the permission granted, or sometimes the applicant wants to vary the conditions that were imposed first time round. Would he advise local authorities to look at the application afresh in the light of the new policy, or should they feel constrained by the policy when the initial application was made? Indeed, what guidelines will Ministers follow in reconsidering old applications?
Sir Paul Beresford: At this stage, my advice would be that the new conditions would apply if the application fell out of time. There will be some cases where there could be justification for not locating in the town centre, such as large showrooms or where people want to take goods away that they could not reasonably carry from the centre of the town. In those cases, we shall still expect retail developments to take into account the current tests: the impact on the vitality and viability of existing centres, accessibility by a choice of means of transport and the impact of overall car use. Put simply, we shall still expect local planning authorities and developers to look for locations that will also be easily accessible to those without a car. Our advice is to look at the town centre first and then at the edge-of-centre sites, before considering looking out of the centre: a sequential approach to look for suitable sites. It should apply equally to food shopping and comparison shopping.
To revitalise our town centres, we need to encourage
diversification, which hon. Members have touched on. Town centres are not only about shopping. We want to encourage a wide variety of activities in town centres, even if it is the eating of fast food by the son of the hon. Member for Brent, South.
We want to encourage offices, entertainment, culture, higher education, hospitals and, most of all, housing. We must bring our town centres back to life. To do that, we want to promote a greater mixture of uses, not only side by side, but on top of one another. We want to remove some the barriers to achieving that and will be working closely with the financial institutions and developers to that end.
Mr. Vaz: Will the Minister confirm the report in The Independent of 20 February that the Department of the Environment is proposing to develop a superstore outside Cambridge?
Sir Paul Beresford: At this stage, we are considering the proposal with considerable care. It might be helpful if the hon. Gentleman would await developments.
One of the main areas on which the Environment Select Committee focused was the perceived inconsistency between two different guidance notes--PPG 6 and
Column 997PPG 13. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already indicated that the Government are concerned about how town centre car parking is currently used. Although circumstances may vary from place to place, it may be more a question of making better use of existing parking spaces--through management and pricing policies--than providing a lot more car parking.
The key issue is to make short-term public parking available to town centre users, rather than insisting that generous parking be provided in new developments. That is part of the pressure that drives business out of town. The revised PPG will remove any misunderstanding.
The key to creating vital and viable town centres and meeting the challenge of existing out-of-town developments is to take positive action to improve them. Existing guidance already promotes town centres. Our report, "Vital and Viable Town Centres: Meeting the Challenge", which was published last May, makes the case for assessing the health of a centre, establishing a partnership body and drawing up a strategy and action plan for the centre. It recognises that each centre will need to establish the way ahead for its own future.
To take that initiative further, we agree with the Select Committee that more guidance to all those concerned is needed. We will work closely with the Association of Town Centre Management to produce good practice guidance and to promote training in that field. Town centre improvements and town centre management will involve extra money. We are actively considering how that will be funded. Much of it will come from targeting existing resources more effectively, such as through the Department of Transport package approach, which encourages local authorities to adopt a genuinely strategic approach to dealing with their transport problems, particularly in urban areas. Likewise, local resources can also be targeted more effectively, such as on street cleaning, lighting and measures to build out crime, which includes closed circuit television.
We recognise, however, that additional funds will be needed. My Department has already targeted town centres through various urban programmes, the latest being city challenge, to which reference was made, and the single regeneration budget. Some 40 schemes within that budget, accounting for 20 per cent. of the funding, are partnerships aimed at town centre revitalisation.
Funding will also need to come from other partners. Up to now, that has been in the form of generous support from a few major retailers, such as Boots and Marks and Spencer. In future, we will need ways of giving everyone an opportunity to contribute and of encouraging them to do so. We are still looking at ways of achieving that. To help developers and retailers invest in town centres, we need to help them in other ways. In particular, we are looking for ways to assist them in site assembly. The plan-led approach, which I referred to earlier, will both help that and be helped by it. The plan, with the participation of retailers, should identify appropriate sites for further retail development. Once in the plan, that will assist land assembly, especially if there is a need to acquire sites compulsorily.
We need to provide a more favourable climate to encourage private investment in town centres. We will be looking at ways to involve the private sector in town
Column 998centre revitalisation, both through direct investment in property and through investment in the town centre infrastructure. A key issue raised by the Select Committee, which my Department recognises, is the need for more research on retail issues to assist the planning system. In particular, there is general agreement on the need for better information about the impact of out-of-centre and out- of-town developments. Research is being commissioned at the moment on the impact of out-of-town shopping, and we are hoping to sponsor research on attitudes to, and preferences for, the various different types of shopping.
The first concern is the impact of out-of-centre superstores, especially on market towns, which rely heavily on a town centre supermarket as the anchor store. The second is the impact, including the cumulative effects, of some of the newer out-of-centre retail formats--retail warehouse parks, warehouse clubs and factory outlet centres and so forth--on existing centres.
If the issue of impact and its relative significance is better understood, the assessment of out-of-centre developments should be made much easier. One of the main concerns, however, is that existing information about retailing is not as good as it could be and we are committed to improving the availability of existing data, including information on floor space and employment. Provided that a way to obtain information on retail turnover can be found, that does not create an undue burden on business, and it will ensure
confidentiality and guarantee co-operation by retailers. The Government will consider favourably proposals for securing data on retail turnover. It is hoped that all that data can eventually be available for defined town centres, at regular intervals, which will help towns and cities monitor the health of their centres. In conclusion, may I again congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment on his excellent report? I hope he considers that we have responded fully and constructively. As he will no doubt point out, our next task is to deliver. The Select Committee will be calling us to account in a year's time and I hope that we will be able to show considerable progress. On this subject, it would appear that we are all agreed on the correct way forward. We all seem to have the same objective: to make the planning system work in delivering what we all want--vital and viable town centres that are attractive, accessible and desirable to everyone to shop in. 9.55pm
Mr. Bennett: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I thank the Minister for his response and take him up on the point that he made in conclusion?
The tradition established by my predecessor, who is now the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, was that the Select Committee had a duty to return to its reports to find out what progress had been made. The Minister seemed to think that we might let him off for 12 months, but I think that some members of the Committee would probably rather come back to it a little sooner. May I suggest that we might look into it in October?
We are concerned that we get the new planning guidance as quickly as possible, and I think that the Government recognise that. We are also concerned about
Column 999the planning applications that are in the pipeline but where construction has not taken place. We want to hear quickly how the Government will finance city centre management and it would be wrong for us to wait another 12 months for a progress report. I suspect, therefore, that the Select Committee will want to come back to the matter much sooner. I hope that the Government will have taken action by then.
Question deferred, pursuant to paragraph (3) of Standing Order No 52 (Consideration of Estimates).
Sitting suspended .
On resuming :
It being Ten o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- proceeded to put forthwith the deferred Questions which he was directed by paragraph (5) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of estimates) to put at that hour.
That a further supplementary sum not exceeding £1,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray the charges that will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1995 for expenditure by the Department of Trade and Industry on support for business, research and development; consumer protection and the regulation of trade, energy related programmes, including research and development, and residual privatisation expenses; departmental administration, central and miscellaneous services; security of oil and gas supplies; the operational costs of departmental executive agencies and associated research laboratory privatisation expenses; the provision of land and building; loans, grants and other payments.
put and agreed to.
That a further supplementary sum not exceeding £1,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray the charges that will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1995 for expenditure by the Department of the Environment and its agencies on administration, including research, royal commissioners, committees, etc., and by the Planning Inspectorate Executive Agency on appeals, and by the Building Research Establishment Executive Agency on buildings research and surveys. put and agreed to.
It being after Ten o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- proceeded to put forthwith the Questions which he was directed by paragraphs (1) and (2) of Standing Order No. 53 (Questions on voting of estimates etc.) to put at that hour.
That during the year ending on 31st March 1996 a number not exceeding 53,500 all ranks be maintained for Naval Service.
That during the year ending on 31st March 1996 a number not exceeding 142,990 all ranks be maintained for Army Service, a number not exceeding 131,000 for the Individual Reserves, and a number not exceeding 63,950 for the Territorial Army.
That during the year ending on 31st March 1996 a number not exceeding 73,860 all ranks be maintained for the Air Force Service, a number not exceeding 18,150 for the Royal Air Force Reserve, and a number not exceeding 2,050 for the Royal Auxiliary Air Force.
That a sum not exceeding £167,222,897.35 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to make good excesses of certain grants for Civil Services for the year ended on 31st March 1994, as set out in House of Commons Paper No. 180.
That a further sum not exceeding £1,171,473,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to complete or defray the charges for Defence and Civil Services for the year ending on 31st March 1995, as set out in House of Commons Papers Nos. 181 and 250. Ordered,
That a Bill be brought in upon the foregoing resolutions: And that the Chairman of Ways and Means, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Jonathan Aitken, Sir George Young, Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory and Mr. Anthony Nelson do prepare and bring it in.
Sir George Young accordingly presented a Bill to apply certain sums out of the Consolidated Fund to the service of the years ending on 31st March 1995 and 1996; And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed. [Bill 64.]
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).
That the draft Medicines (Fixing of Fees Relating to Medicinal Products for Human Use) Amendment Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 2nd March, be approved.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]
Question agreed to.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]
Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate on the subject of the compensation recovery unit of the Department of Social Security. This little-publicised body is causing misery and anger up and down the land, and it is high time the Government were forced to justify the activities being carried out in its name. This year, the CRU will claw back around £100 million from victims of accident, illness or disease, who may have taken several years to obtain an award from insurers or from the courts.
In this financial year, about 40,000 people will have had to pay benefit back to the CRU, and about 700 people will have had to pay back more than £25,000 each. The biggest single clawback that I have been able to find this year is from a person with a spinal injury, who has had to pay more than £84,000 to the DSS. For someone to have received that amount of benefit during the past few years, he or she must be a paraplegic or almost totally dependent on others. The 10 biggest clawbacks of this year are all for over £65,000 of benefit being paid back to the CRU.
My association with this issue arises from contact with Clydeside Action on Asbestos. Jointly, we lobbied Parliament in November last year, as a result of which a splendid article in the Daily Mirror led to large numbers of victims of the DSS contacting me. With subsequent publicity, I have now received more than 140 letters on that subject.
I shall list at random some of those cases. A man from Middlesbrough fell off scaffolding and received a spinal injury. He can never do manual work again, and has been off work for three and a half years. He was offered £25,000, and has had to pay back £21,000 to the CRU, leaving the rest for legal and medical bills. A 50-year-old woman from Manchester had an accident in 1990 which left her with a permanent disability and in constant pain. He employers have now offered her £2,500, which is all she will be allowed to keep under the rules of the CRU. She says:
"What on earth have I made all those contributions for? This law is obscene. The honest hardworking folk are being kicked in the teeth."
A man from Durham who spent 33 years down the pits had an accident in 1989 which left him permanently disabled. After three years, British Coal offered him £2,500--again, all that he will be allowed to keep. A man from Lancashire had an accident in 1991 and lost his job. The case is still pending, although the insurers admitted liability on the first day. He owes the CRU £25,000.
A Staffordshire man is already losing £30,000 to the CRU. He notes, as I do, the insult of the amounts being offered for industrial injuries. He contrasts his case with that of a major in the Army who was sacked from her job for being pregnant, and was awarded £400,000 in compensation. Another example is a Belfast bus driver who, after 26 years of work, lost his leg in a terrorist bomb explosion. He was offered £10,000 in compensation, which he fears he may lose to the CRU.
Column 1002What emerges from those 140 cases is a burning sense of anger from people whose lives have been turned upside down. Many of them have lost their jobs and incomes, and have endured pain and inconvenience with which they must live.
The Minister smirks. I do not find those cases at all funny.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Roger Evans): If the hon. Gentleman is saying that some of those people are paraplegics, is he not aware that, under the old system, future payments of attendance and mobility allowance continuing for years in the future would have to be taken into account? If he wants to make a comparison, he should make an accurate one.
Mr. Worthington: I shall come to that matter in a moment. Who do those people now regard as public enemy number one? It is the Government, who should have been their safeguard. They no longer regard those who caused the illness or accident as their enemy. In all cases, they feel betrayed by the Government.
They thought that they were part of a national insurance scheme into which they had contributed year after year to cover themselves against an eventual calamity. They never thought that the scheme was a fraud, in that the money would have to be repaid. What was the point of their national insurance contributions? Those who were not receiving contributory benefits did not have to pay them back. I am grateful to the Social Security Select Committee for agreeing to my suggestion that it should investigate the work of the DSS. The Minister appeared before the Committee today, and I was pleased to see that he found it impossible to justify the CRU's work. It was disturbing to see that he had no knowledge of the consequences of its work.
I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who is in his place, for initiating his Workplace Injury Victims Bill, which draws attention to this issue.
Perhaps the Minister will be able to explain this evening how there is justice when all the money that is received in benefit is clawed back, although for years the victims have been contributing 9 or 10 per cent. of their incomes to national insurance. All the money is clawed back. The pre- 1989 scheme, under which half the benefit was clawed back, contained an element of justice, as the victim was at least allowed to keep his or her own contribution.
There is no justice in the present scheme. When a victim receives compensation for illness, disease or accident, that settlement comprises various elements of damages, such as compensation for previous earnings and loss of future earnings and often a large payment for pain and suffering. When the Government claw back benefits, they ignore those elements and take back everything that has been paid by way of benefit to the victims, even if that encroaches upon any sum awarded for pain and suffering.
That is nothing more than theft. The Government have absolutely no entitlement to money which has been awarded to cover pain and suffering. Perhaps the Minister will inform the House how he justifies that indefensible action.
Column 1003I said earlier that I became involved in this issue through my association with Clydeside Action on Asbestos and Clydebank Action on Asbestos. Asbestosis sufferers have had to pay back £1 million to the DSS this year. Can one imagine the horror of the situation when sufferers of that terminal and appalling disease fight for years to gain some compensation for the illness inflicted upon them by negligent employers, and then have to pay back their compensation to the DSS?
Clydeside Action on Asbestos has dealt with cases of people who have paid back up to £50,000. Even if they die before the settlement is made, the DSS is at the graveside to claw back the money from mourning dependants.
Asbestosis sufferers have to suffer a terrible ordeal. First, they must prove that they contracted the disease rather than lung cancer or some other illness. They must then prove where they contracted that disease, perhaps 10, 20, 30 or 40 years before, and they must find workmates who can testify that they worked there. They must then locate their employers, many of whom have gone out of business, or find their responsible successor bodies.
They then face years of litigation. If they win their cases, they may have to pay back to the DSS all the money awarded to them. That is a squalid practice, which reflects very badly on this country, and especially on the Government.
I am particularly angry about the situation because my constituency of Clydebank has an asbestos disease rate about 500 times the national average, due to its background of shipbuilding and engineering and the presence of a major asbestos factory. An article in The Glasgow Herald in 1993 about Turner and Newall's asbestos factory is accompanied by a photograph of young factory workers from 1953. All those workers are now dead, and 12 of them died from breathing-related diseases.
The matter is about much more than asbestosis, although I believe that asbestosis sufferers suffer particularly badly because of the time involved in settling their claims. Often, people are desperately ill, and a large part of their settlement is awarded for pain and suffering.
Other injustices are also emerging. What will happen if the insurance companies or the courts make a particularly niggardly settlement? What is the point of appealing that decision when any extra settlement will simply be confiscated by the agents of the Government?
There is increasing evidence--which is known to me and to the trade unions, if not to the Minister--that the clawback is backfiring, as more and more insurance companies are now offering only £2,500, which is the maximum amount that cannot be clawed back. Britain's largest union, Unison, has seen the number of cases which settle at £2,500 increase from 40 in 1990 to 270 in 1993, although the total number of cases has not increased. That is a more than sixfold increase. The Transport and General Workers Union and the GMB report the same findings.
How interesting it is that the victims are so angry with the Government that they would rather those who cause their affliction got off lightly than that the Government recovered more money. It is the reverse of what the
Column 1004Government intended. They said that the principle was that the negligent and the culpable should not be subsidised by the taxpayer, but that is what is happening.
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Will my hon. Friend comment on my suggestion that the ultimate solution should be for the compensator--either the employer or his insurance company--to have to repay to the state the social security benefits instead of the person who is ill or injured? That would load the dice slightly in favour of workers who are suffering from the exploitation of employers or insurance companies that deliberately stall and offer insulting sums in compensation.
Mr. Worthington: That is a worthwhile idea to explore. The present position is certainly intolerable, as the person who is suffering from the system is the one who has already suffered.
In evidence to the Social Security Select Committee, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers described the effect of the CRU as iniquitous, and so it is.
This afternoon, I listened to the Minister's response to questions from the Social Security Select Committee. It was a depressing and disturbing experience. The Minister seemed to have no knowledge of or concern for the consequences of his policies upon people who had suffered a calamity in their lives. All that mattered to his Department and the Government was efficiently gathering in £100 million per year.
The fact that the system was treating quite brutally victims of industrial accidents, disease and other misfortunes seemed not to bother him at all, and he was quite unable to answer questions about the consequences of his policies upon those people. Bad employers are now benefiting from his policies, because of the increased practice of only £2,500 being offered. That seems to have passed him by, and the Department does not even bother to keep statistics.
He seemed to justify it all by saying that the taxpayer now benefited by £100 million a year. The victims are taxpayers. They paid their national insurance and all their other taxes for years, and they have the right to be considered. Are they being treated fairly? I am a taxpayer, and I do not want tax savings at the expense of those who are injured, maimed or ill.
This afternoon, the Minister seemed unaware that he is no longer supposed to be a smart lawyer. He is supposed to be a Minister of the Crown, and deal with the world of values. I would like him now to defend the values that are causing distress to thousands of people throughout the country through the CRU.