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Local Government Expenditure

4. Mr. Pawsey: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many representations he has received about the abolition of local authority capping; and how many supported abolition. [29772]

Mr. Curry: We have received a number of representations on local authority capping, and many were in favour of its abolition. We also receive many letters from council tax payers complaining about high council taxes.

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Mr. Pawsey: I thank my hon. Friend for that even-handed reply. Does he agree that the abolition of capping would ensure a greater measure of responsibility and responsiveness being added to local authorities--particularly in respect of spending and spending policies? Does my hon. Friend further agree that local authorities would be less dependent on central Government for additional funding? Does my hon. Friend agree also that there would be much greater accountability and that abolishing capping would add a new dimension to local democracy?

Mr. Curry: The answer to my hon. Friend's questions is obviously yes--of course it would. If local authorities could raise more of their own expenditure, local councillors would welcome that and would be more accountable in that sense. As I have constantly said in the House, there are two sides to the question. If I were a councillor, of course I would argue that capping should go, because I would like to raise what I want to spend. Central Government must take account of the fact that 25 per cent. of public expenditure is accounted for by local council spending, so no Government can afford to neglect to take a view on that volume of expenditure, given the effective management of the whole economy. There are two rights in conflict and, sensibly, we try to find a way to reconcile them and help local authorities, while making sure that central Government's economic management remains impeccable--because the economy needs local taxpayers most of all.

Mrs. Anne Campbell: Is the Minister aware of the widespread dismay in Cambridgeshire caused by the Government's decision to cap Cambridgeshire's budget at the standard spending assessment? Surely local people ought to decide how large class sizes or the charge levied in respect of elderly people who need care should be? Those matters cannot be decided by central Government.

Mr. Curry: If it is so self-evident that such decisions must be taken by local councils and that central Government have no part to play, I am surprised that the Labour party is so strongly committed to maintaining the capping legislation on the statute book. That legislation acknowledges that, at the end of the day, central Government must take a view of total public expenditure. That is the origin of the argument about capping. I acknowledge that there is an argument from local councils about their autonomy and ability to take local decisions--I have never denied that. However, I acknowledge also as a Minister that the Government must take a view of a sensible level of public expenditure in the economy as a whole. We have been doing that, and we would be irresponsible not to do so.

Mr. Pickles: Is my hon. Friend aware that one consequence of abolishing capping would be higher council tax bills? Is he aware that, in a recent survey conducted by The Sunday Times among the leaders of 80 Labour authorities, more than half said that they would increase the bills if capping were removed? Is my hon. Friend further aware that it was estimated that, just among the authorities sampled in that survey, an extra £500 million would be taken out of council tax payers' pockets?

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Mr. Curry: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The instinct of Labour-controlled local authorities is always to want to raise more taxes. That is why I believe that if the Labour party got into office it would demonstrate exactly the same instinct.

House Building

5. Mr. Skinner: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what are the latest annual figures for house building; and what was the figure in 1978. [29774]

The Minister for Construction, Planning and Energy Efficiency (Mr. Robert B. Jones): A total of 188,700 new homes were completed in Great Britain in 1995. There were 279,800 completions in 1978.

Mr. Skinner: After 17 years of Tory Government, is it not a fact that 67,000 local authority homes were completed in 1978--the last full year of a Labour Government--and that in 1995 the number is down to a miserable 612 for the whole of the country? We have 500,000 bricklayers and construction workers on the dole. We have bricks piled up at the London Brick Company. Construction companies are going to the wall. Is it not time that the Government pulled their finger out and did something about releasing capital receipts? Do not blame the minimum wage and the social chapter for this disaster.

Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman is confusing two issues. We are trying to ensure that we make the most effective use of existing stock. Therefore, what is important is the number of tenancies, not the number of new buildings. A large number of schemes are in place to create extra vacancies into which people can move, to ensure that we effectively manage existing stock.

Lady Olga Maitland: Does my hon. Friend agree that there has never been a better time for first-time buyers to buy their homes? More than that, they have the incentive of mortgage rates, which are at their lowest level for 30 years. Is that not a justification of the Government's policies? They are a success and people are going with it.

Mr. Jones: Of course my hon. Friend is right. Not only are mortgage rates low at the moment by historical standards, but they are also affordable, because of the rise in real incomes and the fall in mortgage rates; so now is a good time not just for first-time buyers but for other buyers to put their hat into the ring and buy a house.

Ministerial Rail Travel

6. Mr. Win Griffiths: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what percentage of his official travel in the last 12 months has been undertaken by rail. [29776]

Mr. Clappison: My right hon. Friend, with Ministers from other Departments, uses the railways whenever it is the most cost-effective and feasible form of transport.

Mr. Griffiths: Why did the Minister not give me the percentage? Surely the Department keeps a record of miles travelled or journeys undertaken. I suggest that he

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set a personal example on the control of emissions into the atmosphere. Why did the hon. Gentleman not give me the figures?

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Gentleman asks for a personal example. I can tell him that, since I have been a Minister, I have made 20 visits outside London, 15 of which were made by train. I can also tell him that I used the train and the tube to come to work today from my constituency, as I do regularly. I practise what I preach. Those who do not practise what they preach inhabit the Opposition Front Bench.

Environmental Agreements

7. Mr. Bennett: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will list the international environmental agreements to which the UK is a party, and the extent to which the UK has met its obligation under those agreements. [29778]

Mr. Clappison: My Department has a very good record of complying with international agreements.

Mr. Bennett: I wonder whether the Minister will place in the Library a list of all the financial commitments that we have made under the Montreal protocol, the Rio agreement and others, the dates when we made the payments and the dates when we should be making the payments. Does he appreciate that many people in developing countries feel that we are using environmental agreements as an old form of colonialism to impose our views on them? Will he ensure that we do all that we can to transfer technology from developed countries to underdeveloped countries to ensure that they can meet high environmental standards?

Mr. Clappison: We provide full and appropriate information about the activities that we undertake. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the Government have honoured their commitments under both the agreements that he mentioned. On the Rio commitments, we recently produced our proposals for biodiversity, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, include help towards conservation in developing countries--a very important contribution to help them to meet their commitments. I think that about £130 million is the sum in the global environment facility fund. Also, on the climate convention and carbon dioxide emissions, we have more than exceeded our promises. We have also complied with our agreements on the Montreal protocol. When the Government enter into international commitments, they keep them.

Mr. Harry Greenway: Has my hon. Friend seen the international reports stating that the ozone layer is recovering--[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) can sunbathe again if he likes. Is that recovery not due to this Government's excellent environmental policies, which lead the world?

Mr. Clappison: The ozone layer has benefited from our commitment to the Montreal protocol, as well as a number of other international indicators.

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Mrs. Ewing: Obviously, the Minister has recognised that the disposal of any form of waste is a matter for international concern. Has he read the recent report on the disposal of nuclear waste at Dounreay in the north of Scotland? It shows that, some 30 years ago, there was a disposal of about 1,400 tonnes of fissile material, including caesium and uranium. Does that breach any international agreement? Will the hon. Gentleman give a commitment to hold a public inquiry into the situation and will he ensure that the House is kept fully informed of developments?

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Lady will be aware that waste licensing is covered by a very strict regime--and the type of waste to which she referred comes under an especially strict regime. If she will let me have the details, I shall look into the matter.

Mr. Dobson: Will the Minister confirm that the Government now intend to comply fully with the European urban waste water treatment directive? Will he also confirm that the Government will not repeat their previous efforts, which were turned down in the courts, to re-define the boundaries of the Humber and Severn estuaries, leaving half-treated sewage floating past Bristol and Hull?

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Government's lawyers, when giving evidence in court, said that the Government had taken that action to save money so that things would be easier for the already fat cat bosses of Yorkshire Water and Wessex Water?

Mr. Clappison: We have just heard a contribution to hot air. The public want a continued improvement in the quality of our bathing waters and rivers. They want clean water. Under any objective scientific test, standards are improving and British people have a higher quality of water than ever before.

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