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The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): The introduction of best value in housing and of tenant participation compacts from 1 April 2000 should ensure that tenants have more influence over the way in which their homes are managed. We will be monitoring whether local authorities have introduced compacts, and their performance on tenant participation generally, through this year's annual housing investment programme assessment process. We have also recently commissioned research to monitor how best value in housing and compacts are being introduced and developed. The initial findings will be available next year.
Dr. Whitehead: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. He is undoubtedly aware that a number of large housing estates are run by housing associations, sometimes after large-scale voluntary transfer. Will he encourage such associations to follow the lead of those such as the Swaythling housing society in Southampton in introducing programmes of tenant participation and tenant management on their estates, so that the benefits of the programme that he outlined can be extended to other estates?
Mr. Raynsford: I very much agree with the approach described by my hon. Friend, and can confirm that the Government are working closely with the Housing Corporation so that the introduction of best value in respect of local authorities and tenant participation compacts is mirrored by measures taken by housing associations to ensure that they adopt best value principles and that they fully involve their tenants in an appropriate participation framework.
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman asks which three steps would most empower tenants, but, if he had read our housing Green Paper, published in April, he would know that the measures that we are taking to give tenants greater choice, greater opportunity in respect of lettings policy and fairer rent structures will all give tenants a far greater say and involvement in their housing. That will lead to greater tenant satisfaction.
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): The consultation period for proposed new regulations on drinking water quality closed on Friday 30 June, and almost 350 responses were received by that date.
The 10th annual report of the drinking water inspectorate, which will be published tomorrow, shows a welcome further improvement in water quality, and reports that water companies are well placed to meet the quality improvements required by the new regulations.
No one likes furry kettles, so will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituent, Mrs. Sandy Campbell and her company, SC Softeners? Given that the regulations under consultation appear to propose a more stringent regime than the EU regulations on which they were based, will he give my constituent some assurance that she can continue to contribute to water softening and improved water quality under the new regime?
Mr. Meacher: I certainly can give that assurance. My hon. Friend is right: under the new EC directive, we had the option to reduce controls on sodium or artificially softened water. On the advice of the Department of Health, we opted not to do so. The reason for that is the concern that when sodium is used in conjunction with infant formula, it should be safe for babies to drink without putting them at risk of the condition, infant hypernatraemia.
A problem has arisen because of an orchestrated campaign of misinformation: people, who may include my hon. Friend's constituent, have been told that they will have to blend their softened water with hard water in order to achieve the desired result. That is not true. The regulations will have no impact on them whatever.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Will the Minister consider carefully the provisions under any new draft directives emanating from Brussels on the quality of drinking water? Is he aware of estimates showing that 50 per cent. of previous EU directives have not dealt with aspects of health and safety, but were entirely to do with the colour and taste of water? It can thus fairly be said that this country has spent hundreds of millions--if not billions--of pounds on meeting unnecessary standards.
Mr. Meacher: Of course the hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that the health and safety of drinking water is absolutely at a premium, but I believe that he understates how important it is that all householders should receive water that is not unpleasant to taste or discoloured. Some 300 or 400 incidents a year are reported. I believe that, as we shall learn tomorrow, the number is gradually decreasing, but it is a matter of serious concern. It is true that, partly as a result of the investments that began under the previous Government but which we have extended substantially, the quality of drinking water in this country is second to none--as good as it is anywhere in the continent, and I would say considerably better than that of bottled water.
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): Last December we published for consultation the information relating to local authority district rankings on five different measures of deprivation. As part of the consultation exercise we also offered each authority information on the ward scores and rankings for their area. I am today arranging for the updated ward scores and rankings to be sent to each authority for information. The summary report will be published later this year along with the deprivation scores and rankings of all wards and districts in England. The report will provide details of where to obtain, subject to any confidentiality constraints, the underlying raw data.
Ms Buck: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for that reply. She will be aware of the concern that exists in some London boroughs about the possible implications for the index. I wonder whether she will allow a period of formal consultation following the publication of the data that she has announced today, to allow authorities to respond on the basis of that new information. Will deprived wards or ward clusters that fall outside the new index of local deprivation priority rank be able to access Government funding streams targeted at certain deprived areas?
Ms Armstrong: The work is a research project which has been carried out for the Department and for the Government by Oxford university. It provides considerable new information. We are now using 33 different factors to give us better information about wards. That information has been shared with authorities over the past six months. The formal consultation finished earlier this year and additional work has been taking place to refine that.
We shall ensure that, before the index is used to allocate money, it takes account of the fact that we are in a changing position, and therefore we would of course institute transitional arrangements if and when we do proceed. This is a very difficult issue. No statistics tell the whole story. None of us trusts statistics wholly. However, we want to ensure that we obtain the best information available, so that local authorities know where deprivation is occurring and where they should target their money in order to tackle that deprivation.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Does the Minister accept that if her local deprivation index takes into account access or lack of access to a local sub-post office, it is set to show increasing deprivation because of the Government's cancellation of £400 million of revenues going to sub-post offices? Can she further confirm that the so-called guarantee against closures of sub-post offices will be completely worthless, because the fine print shows that the Government will still allow them to close if they cannot find anyone willing to run them because they have rendered them unprofitable?
Ms Armstrong: I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave the right hon. Gentleman his answer some questions ago: that under the present Government there has been a concerted effort to improve access to services for people, wherever they live. The index and the work that I mentioned, as well as other work through the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal, will enable us better to ensure that people, wherever they live, have access to the services that they need, including post offices. The statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made a couple of weeks ago demonstrates that the Government will follow through that commitment, and that support for rural post offices--and post offices in urban areas that have been struggling--will now be much more secure than it ever was under the regime of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley).