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Mr. Khabra: Does the Minister agree that the doubling of rent has been caused by the Government's deliberate policy of reducing the rate of grant to housing associations, which has fallen from 75 per cent. in 1989 to 62 per cent. today? Will he consider giving more grant
Column 894to the housing associations so that the rise in rents stop and more people can be given homes in housing association property?
Mr. Jones: As I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a trade-off between grant rates and volumes. Reducing the grant rate has, of course, resulted in 10,000 more lettings being made available. Of course the hon. Gentleman is right that the grant rate must be kept under review. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) made exactly that point as Minister for Housing and Planning when he answered questions before the Environment Select Committee on the subject some considerable time ago.
Mr. Anthony Coombs: Will my hon. Friend remind the House of the enormous benefits to be gained from the wholesale transfer of housing stock to housing associations, which can mean far better management, a reduction in local authority debt, lower council taxes as a result, and far better conditions for those tenants whose houses are transferred?
Mr. Jones: My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to what has happened as a result of large scale voluntary transfers. It is not only a question of benefits for the local authority and for the tenants. Additional building has also been possible as a result of LSVT housing associations. They have also been able to bring forward their capital improvement programmes. It is very much a win-win situation.
Mr. Pike: Does the Minister recognise that the private sector is looking increasingly warily at investing in housing association stock because rent levels are now so high that people can obtain those properties only if they can get full housing benefit? Does the Minister accept that the situation is now unacceptable and that we must do something more to ensure that units are offered at affordable rents?
Mr. Jones: As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, my right hon. and hon. Friends and I spend much time discussing these matters with the lenders. We have found a continuing enthusiasm on their part for lending to housing associations, which they see as a solid investment.
Mr. Robert B. Jones: The number of households accepted by London local authorities as statutorily homeless continues to fall. Last year 9.9 per cent. fewer households were accepted than in 1993, which is 24 per cent. below the 1992 level. In central London, the Government's £182 million rough sleepers initiative has reduced the number of people sleeping rough by three quarters.
Column 895Department? They have the experience, expertise and knowledge, and they know very well that there is no reason for anyone to sleep rough on the streets of London.
Mr. Jones: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have no problem in joining her in paying tribute to the voluntary agencies. They do a very good job in respect of rough sleeping and in respect of preventing homelessness elsewhere. However, it is also only fair to pay tribute to the many local authorities which have put a great deal of effort into preventing homelessness, as opposed to dealing with the problem once it arises.
Mr. Gerrard: I welcome the fall in the homelessness figures, but what effect does the Minister expect to see in respect of next year's figures as a result of the cuts in income support for mortgage payers and the caps on housing benefit? Would the Minister like to predict what effect that will have on next year's figures?
Mr. Jones: As local authorities appreciate the importance of preventive action, I certainly expect that to feed through in terms of the homelessness figures. As the rough sleepers initiative has gathered pace, and as we have managed to house those people who are willing to be housed, the problem will come down to a hard core of those who, because of drugs, mental illness or drink problems, are perhaps unwilling to be housed-- unless one opts for enforced action, which raises a number of moral issues.
Mr. Hendry: Will my hon. Friend ensure that the most recent figures, which show a drop in the homelessness numbers, are sent to organisations such as Shelter? Does he not find it slightly strange that such organisations issue press releases whenever the figures are worse but have been strangely silent over the past two years while the figures have been improving?
17. Mr. Mullin: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received about capping criteria for the Tyne and Wear fire and civil defence authority; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Mullin: Is the Minister aware that Tyne and Wear fire and civil defence authority has lost about £540,000, and Manchester more than £1 million, as a result of bungling by the Department in setting the capping criteria? What steps is the Minister taking to repair the damage and to avoid any repeat of that situation next year?
Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman will know that, once a budget has been set, an authority cannot revise it upwards unless some legal point went wrong in the calculation. Having set the budget, authorities are able by definition to discharge their statutory responsibilities within it. I am considering the criteria for next year and
Column 896will consider the point that he is making about the amount by which the Tyne and Wear authority might have raised its budget, had it set it later.
Mr. O'Hara: Is the Minister aware of the danger that, because of the cap imposed by his Department on its budget, the Tyne and Wear authority might not be able to fulfil its statutory obligations under law--as laid on it by the Home Secretary--as is already the case on Merseyside?
Mr. Curry: If a local authority sets a budget within the cap, we must assume that it can discharge its statutory responsibilities. Local authorities can set a budget above the cap and tell the Government why that is necessary to discharge their responsibilities satisfactorily. A number of authorities have taken that course of action, but it was not one pursued by Tyne and Wear or Merseyside authorities.
Sir Paul Beresford: Through the London Docklands development corporation, we have invested about £400 million in major infrastructure works in the royal docks. That has triggered a number of innovative and exciting private finance initiative regeneration projects-- particularly the urban village, the proposed exhibition centre and the combined heat and power energy company. All have the potential to make a major contribution to east London's economy.
Sir Michael Neubert: Is my hon. Friend aware of the disappointment at the decision not to allocate funding from the single regeneration budget for the royals university college. That and the proposals for a new international exhibition centre represent a major opportunity to regenerate east London as a whole in the way that he described. As the royals already have excellent access by road, light rail and air, through London city airport, will my hon. Friend undertake to continue the Government's role as a catalyst in realising the full commercial, academic and employment potential of the royal docks?
Sir Paul Beresford: I can reassure my hon. Friend. As I understand it, although the royal docks missed this year's single regeneration budget bid they intend to bid again next year. Perhaps my hon. Friend could help them to ensure that they win the competition next time around.
19. Mr. Duncan: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to announce his Department's proposals for the organisation of local government in the counties of Leicestershire and Rutland.
Column 897investigate whether his Department might publish its assessment of the costs and practicality of granting unitary status to Rutland?
Mr. Gummer: Rutland has almost unparalleled support for its own special nature, as I have seen in all that I have read. There are obvious problems with an area which has a population of just 33,000 or so, but we are certainly looking at the proposals--not only the commission's proposals to me, but those that my hon. Friend has put to me.
Mr. McLoughlin: Is my right hon. Friend aware that, if unitary status is given to Rutland, many of us will want to know why district councils which are larger than Rutland and have made cases for unitary status have been denied it?
Mr. Gummer: The commission has made certain recommendations and happens to have recommended Rutland for that purpose and not my hon. Friend's excellent district council. I want to try to achieve a coherent result, and special circumstances distinguish some places from others.
20. Mr. Dalyell: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment for what reasons he declined the invitation of Councillor Hedley Salt for any Minister in his Department to address a major conference of the Coalfield Communities Campaign in London at any hour of any date of his choosing in February.
Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside met a delegation led by the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) only this week. I am meeting a delegation from the group led by my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle), and my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration has met Mr. Salt on four occasions in the recent past, including a visit to his town to see the city challenge, which was partly attracted there because of the closure of mines.
Mr. Dalyell: Should it not be a high priority in the Department's strategy to face up to the appalling problem--now that so many mine pumps have gone silent--of water systems which are seriously injured?
Mr. Gummer: The list of occasions on which that and other matters have been discussed recently shows that it is a high priority. We are trying to solve the problem, but the hon. Gentleman will agree that to do so we need to balance a range of different matters. In my judgment, we are getting the balance about right.
Mr. Dobson: Although none of the Ministers at the Department could be bothered to turn up at a meeting that the Coalfield Communities Campaign was willing to organise on any date convenient to them, will the Secretary of State acknowledge that it is necessary for the Government to take immediate action to make sure that pumping continues in disused mines and is recommenced in a number of others? If not, rivers and streams in the coalfield communities--which were so badly betrayed by the pit closure programme two years ago--will be grossly polluted.
Column 898While the right hon. Gentleman is on his feet, will he also tell the House what progress is being made towards establishing the enterprise zones in the coalfield communities, which were so prominently promised two years ago and on which nothing has yet been done?
Mr. Gummer: On the hon. Gentleman's second point, we are going through the detailed procedure which is necessary under European legislation. On his first point, he shows yet again that he does not know his facts and that he has not done his homework. The truth is that there is a commitment from the Government--made without any pressure from the hon. Gentleman--to carry out what he has asked for. The hon. Gentleman really ought to check his facts before he gets to his feet.
Mr. Riddick: If my right hon. Friend did attend a conference organised by the Coalfield Communities Campaign, would it not provide him with an opportunity to point out the excellent work carried out by British Coal Enterprise in creating more than 100,000 new jobs in those areas which have been hit by pit closures?
Mr. Gummer: We have been able to do that on the large number of occasions on which we have met those concerned. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who leads for the Opposition on this, is now descending to cheap jibes, and has ceased to understand the facts at all.
22. Ms Ruddock: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received recently from environmental groups regarding the Environment Bill [Lords] ; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Atkins: I have received a number of representations from a range of organisations and individuals with an interest in the Environment Bill. Most of those representations have raised subjects also addressed by amendments being discussed as the Bill makes progress through another place.
Ms Ruddock: The Minister will therefore know that all the major conservation groups--with membership now amounting to some 5 million-- supported the successful amendment in another place to the definition of the purposes of national parks. Notwithstanding the pressure that the Minister will come under from those promoting noisy sports, will he give an undertaking to include the promotion of quiet enjoyment in the purposes of national parks?
Mr. Atkins: I should be interested to hear how the hon. Lady defines quiet enjoyment. That point came up during the debates in another place. If the hon. Lady had read any of the debates, she would have seen that at least one Law Lord suggested that the definition as amended is rather bad law and needs to be qualified more carefully. I should be interested to know what effect the hon. Lady feels that the promotion of quiet enjoyment currently in the Bill would have on the RAC rally, which is one of the biggest sporting events in the country and which hundreds of thousands people go to watch as it passes though national parks. If the hon. Lady wants that rally to be abolished, she is going the right way about it.
Mr. Robert B. Jones: Under sections 19 and 20 of the Local Government Finance Act 1982, the auditor has powers to declare items of account unlawful and to recover, by surcharge of those responsible, any financial loss sustained by the authority as a result of illegal action or wilful misconduct by officers or members of the authority.
Mr. Field: Has my hon. Friend heard that some of the wishy-washy Liberal Democrat councillors on the Isle of Wight are telling their electorate that they cannot possibly refuse to grant a licence for an open- air pop festival on the island this summer because they might be surcharged? Does he agree that, like the leader of their party, they have a pathological dislike of any difficult decision and that that reason is almost as much balderdash as one of their manifestos, and is completely untrue?
Mr. Jones: It certainly sounds like a Liberal cop-out to me. I am sure that my hon. Friend will put those councillors and, for that matter, their electors in touch with the legal advisers to the local authority concerned, who will be delighted to confirm that only illegal action or wilful misconduct would result in a surcharge, which therefore seems unlikely in the case that he raises.
Mr. Betts: Does the Minister accept that, if councillors engage in corrupt practices, they can be subject to criminal processes and surcharged? If he and his colleagues have evidence to support the allegations made today by the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) about corruption in Labour authorities, is he not surprised that far more councils have not been surcharged over the years? Does he believe that the majority of Labour councils are corrupt, as the right hon. Gentleman alleged? If so, what evidence does he have to prove that?
Mr. Jones: Certainly they are incompetent; I do not know whether they are corrupt. The hon. Gent should note that among those providing evidence for investigation into councillors are some of his hon. Friends.
Mr. Thomason: Will my hon. Friend confirm that the distribution of housing improvement grant for the purposes of gaining party political advantage, as alleged in the case of Birmingham city council, could be surchargeable?
Mr. Jones: The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), who has been campaigning strongly on that issue, has drawn attention to malpractices in Birmingham which must be investigated. I look forward with interest to the results of those investigations.
Mr. Barnes: Twenty-one councillors in Clay Cross in my constituency were surcharged in the early 1970s, before the passing of the legislation to which the Minister referred. They were surcharged not on grounds of corruption but for political decisions that they took. Ten of those were surcharged a total sum of £2,300, which could be done only by charging them jointly and severally. People in my constituency are therefore keen to
Column 900see that what is going on in Westminster and Wandsworth involving millions of pounds is properly dealt with under the law and that the surcharging provision applies.
Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman clearly was not listening to what I said. I specifically mentioned the case of wilful misconduct, and the hon. Gentleman knows that breaking the law deliberately is wilful misconduct. The surcharge that he mentioned arose as a result of a conviction. The hon. Gentleman proves, as many of his colleagues have done time and again, that the Labour party could not be trusted with an independent judicial system because it does not believe in the process of the courts and of finding people guilty or innocent as a result of a judicial process. Labour Members want to hang, draw and quarter people without going through any of those processes.
Mr. Ottaway: I welcome that level of investment, which certainly would not have happened under a Labour Government, but does my hon. Friend feel that it is doing enough to exert downward pressure on prices? In my constituency, Thames Water supplies water to the north of the constituency at 40 per cent. below the price at which East Surrey Water supplies it in the south of the constituency. What is he doing to encourage more competition between adjacent water companies?
Mr. Atkins: I understand my hon. Friend's problem. He will know that the matter is for the water regulator-- [Interruption.] As usual, the Opposition want it both ways. If the regulator is independent, they suggest that we should attack the regulator; if it is the reverse, they say that we are interfering. The regulator has a task to fulfil. My hon. Friend has raised that point in the past. I will ensure that the regulator understands the depth of his concern and reports to me accordingly.
Mr. Atkins: As usual, the Labour party has got it wrong. As a result of the Government's policy of privatising water, there is now more money available to do the necessary remedial work in a wide variety of areas, the cost of which would otherwise have been borne by the taxpayer. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that his party would be prepared to spend yet more money if it were in government, I should like to know where that money would come from.
Mr. Mans: Will my hon. Friend compare the figure that he has just given for investment in water infrastructure since privatisation with what happened during the 1970s, when the average amount spent per year on water infrastructure decreased from £900 million to £500 million between 1974 and 1979? Does that not show
Column 901the success of privatisation in increasing investment in water infrastructure and giving everyone better water and a better system?
Mr. Atkins: My hon. Friend is quite right. He is in a position to know about the matter because, in Fleetwood in his constituency, North West Water is spending hundreds of millions of pounds to complete a sewage treatment centre which will solve some of the problems of sewage outflow on to the beaches. That is a substantial sum of money and it is indicative of the changed attitude of the water companies, now privatised, compared with their outlook under the dead hand of nationalisation.
26. Mr. Alan W. Williams: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what the total number of people working for the National Rivers Authority was (a) when it was first established and (b) on the latest available figures.
Mr. Williams: The Minister will know that the establishment of the National Rivers Authority was supported by the Labour party and has proved a great success. Does he agree that the excellent people in pollution control will form the basis of the Environmental Protection Agency, and that their good work must continue in that agency?
Mr. Atkins: I am delighted to say that the hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. The NRA and the people involved with it have done a great job. Many people involved in angling, for example, believe that the water bailiffs perform significant and important tasks along the river banks. During the progress of the Environment Bill, the Government intend to ensure that the NRA, like the other agencies to be subsumed into the new environment agency, will continue to play a very important role.
Mr. Jessel: As my constituency has more River Thames bank than any other constituency in Greater London, I can inform my hon. Friend that the River Thames is in excellent condition, which is a great credit to the National Rivers Authority and to the Government who established that agency.
Mr. Atkins: As a fellow riparian Member, with the River Ribble forming a substantial part of the boundary of my constituency, I know only too well what the NRA has achieved. I am delighted that my hon. Friend and I agree on that issue, as on so many others.
Column 902about the reduced level of staffing foreshadowed in the annual report published two days ago? That will do nothing to assist the National Rivers Authority in taking necessary action on the issue of abandoned mines, which was raised at the Coalfield Communities Campaign conference. We cannot address that serious issue without having sufficient staff levels in the monitoring agencies such as the National Rivers Authority.
Mr. Atkins: The hon. Lady, like so many Opposition Members, believes that more people should be involved in performing those tasks than we believe is warranted. As I said to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), the NRA is an extremely efficient organisation WHICH has performed extremely well over the years. It has improved its operation, increased its productivity and done the job more efficiently.
The hon. Lady's point about abandoned mines is well taken. I had a very interesting and constructive meeting with her right hon. Friend the Opposition Chief Whip only yesterday, when we discussed those matters at some length. He agreed with me that, give or take a nuance or two, he and others support what we are trying to do.
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. Hawkins: Does my hon. Friend agree that compulsory competitive tendering has been one of the most successful Government policies, in that it has at long last brought some common sense even to some Labour authorities? Is it not greatly to be welcomed that compulsory competitive tendering can be brought into a further sector of local authority financial operations so that we may have an improvement in the standard of housing management right across the country, even in Labour and Liberal Democrat authorities, as they will be forced to use business common sense?
Mr. Jones: Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. I would particularly point out to him that, for the first time in years, Labour and Liberal councils are being forced to talk to their tenants about what they want in terms of standards and methods of organisation. That is one of the great successes of compulsory competitive tendering.
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