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The hon. Gentleman had a pop at the Government about council tax. When Conservative Members talk about council tax, they never say that it was not only introduced to replace the disastrous policy of the poll tax, but was paid for by increasing VATa regressive tax that punishes the less well offfrom 15 per cent. to 17.5 per cent. They call for the devolution of powers to local councils, yet scream blue murder when it is given. They perpetuate the myth that the Government have taken money off the southern councils and given it to the northern councils. Many of my constituents up north would disagree with that. I remind them that since 1997 all authorities have had above-inflation increases in their grant.
Mr. Woolas: It does no such thingit says that there are flaws in the local government finance system, which the hon. Gentleman's party introduced. It is obvious to anybody who is involved that as we are giving extra grant to councils across the board, it is unfair to say that we are robbing Peter to pay Paul.
But I must move swiftly on. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley accused us of fiddling the honours system, but this Government are introducing an independent appointments system for the House of Lords that his party in the other place is dead set against. I find the hon. Gentleman's accusation unfair, given our track record, but perhaps we can have a bit of point-scoring at Christmas.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) raised important constituency issues on behalf of his constituent Mrs. Ann Stevens, in relation to the miners' compensation scheme. I am pleased to be able to inform him that my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business and Enterprise is going to write to all firms involved, including Mark Gilbert Morse, to ask for confirmation of its charging policy. It is worth pointing out that, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, it was this Government who introduced the scheme in the first place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), who is another regular participant in Adjournment debates, raised her concerns about university fees, which I will of course bring to the attention of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, if he does not know them already. I look forward in the new year to a robust debate on how we can ensure that half our teenagers get the university degrees that will secure the graduate skills base we require in order to succeed in the modern industrial world.
The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) raised what seemed like dozens of issues in a wide-ranging speech. I shall pick on one, and assure him of support for Nelson's day. The Leader of the House has a model of Victory, Nelson's flagship, in his office, as hon. Members who have been involved in the consultations on the hours of the House know.
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): I fear that the debate will have no seasonal edge. Illegal camping does not relate to Santa Claus, his elves and his reindeer, exhausted from delivering presents in South Derbyshire, finding temporary sustenance there. It is a regular nuisance that my constituents constantly fear and face. On this occasion, I want to concentrate on that nuisance when it occurs on Highways Agency property.
Few people in South Derbyshire have much good will towards those who camp illegally in our area, avoid the two authorised sites, damage other people's properties and leave often repulsive waste behind them when they go. Few will send Christmas cards to public bodies that are supine in the face of that illegality and throw public money away rather than using their legal rights as property owners.
I have raised matters that relate to illegal camping on several occasions in the House. Tonight, I shall focus on the way in which the Highways Agency handles intrusion on its property. I intend to refer to only two sites in my constituency, about which I have substantial facts that are based on my correspondence and parliamentary questions. Travellers' occupation of agency land in South Derbyshire is common, yet the obvious lessons that I shall present in the debate are never learned.
In April 2000, travellers occupied an agency site at the junction of the A38 and the A50 near Willington in my constituency. They were there for some time, and obvious and blatant breaches of law took place. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 seeks to prevent dumping waste at unauthorised sites. It also attempts to prevent the carriage of waste in unauthorised vehiclesclearly a dangerous and often unhygienic activity. The penalties for offences can rightly be severe and include confiscating vehicles.
The occupiers of the site turned it into something like a battlefield. Stripped-down, burnt-out cars were scattered over the site, which was in full public view. Entrance to it and activities on it could readily be observed. When the travellers leftthe Highways Agency was so tardy in pursuing possession that they eventually left of their own accordthe agency cleared the site at a public cost of nearly £14,000. It spent nearly £4,000 erecting barriers at the entrance and a further £17,000 establishing a 24-hour watch on the site. A person lived in a caravan there to prevent a repetition of events. The figures exclude agency time, abortive legal costs and doubtless much else that fell outside the narrow confines of my parliamentary question. The site was sold and no occupations have since taken place.
What do we learn from the first incident? First, the agency possessed pockets of land, of some value to someone else, that it did not know what to do with. Once road schemes are completed, surplus land should be rapidly disposed of. Secondly, the agency is slow in obtaining possession. I am well aware that, like any public agency, the Highways Agency must act within the law and according to Government guidance on the
The agency has little knowledge of environmental law. In the case of the illegal carriage of waste, it need be demonstrated only that a vehicle was being used for that purpose. No identification of the driver is required, and even perfunctory observation of this or other sites would have yielded prosecutable evidence without confrontation with individuals.
Let me turn to the next case. In March, a group of travellers occupied a large agency site adjacent to the A50 at Foston. Again, it rapidly became obvious that waste carriage and dumping was taking place. It took until 9 May for proceedings to go to court. No attempts were made to impede activity on site, or to prosecute blatant offenders. Following my initial queries, the agency explained its approach thus:
"Happily", as the acting chief executive perhaps ironically told me, the agency once again obtained legal authority to reoccupy the site on 13 October. It is worth noting again the extraordinary delay. The occupation was in August, but the agency did not gain legal authority to reoccupy until 13 October. There had been some intervening difficulties. As Mr. Hickey's letter mildly puts it,
I also queried waste dumping on site. Mr. Hickey agreed that this was "vexing". He pleaded that there were no witnesses. We then had the waste clearance and site security costs to face. The cost of clearing the site was estimated at about £24,000, although I do not know what the final figure was. Securing the site properly was estimated to cost nearly another £2,000. Legal fees were approaching £4,000 with, when my parliamentary question was answered, more to come.
By this time, Archie Robertson had taken over as chief executive. I am not sure whether the turnover of people at the Highways Agency has had anything to do with competence in respect of handling such matters, but one can only hope for a better performance. I queried what efforts had been made to tackle quite blatant law breaking on the site. Perhaps too politely, I pointed to what appeared to be a passive approach. I should explain that the site is in even more public view than the Willington site, as it can be readily observed from all angles, and access to it can be watched with no difficulty whatever. On the suggestion that it might be cost-effective to observe the site, he remarked:
Even if we could justify assigning Agency staff on a 24-hour basis"
Furthermore, no attemptI have checked this in conversation with the local policewas made to involve the police or the enforcement authorities, which are the Environment Agency and the district council, in addressing the problem. The constant references to collaboration with statutory agencies, which pepper the
Proper collaboration for the benefit of the local community or to save taxpayers' money is singularly absent. Also, the chief executive was unaware of the 24-hour surveillance paid for in my constituency by the agency, but two years earlier. He refers to it being quite impossible to consider 24-hour surveillance, although there is no evidence that it need take place for as long as that. As I have demonstrated, however, it was paid for in another location about 4 miles away.
Once again, after those costly events, the site was sold. The new ownerthe former ownerwill, I am certain, manage it effectively and ensure that these events become an unpleasant memory. Continued agency ownership, on its track record, would be a recipe for further cost and harm. Let me be clear about the simple steps that the agency must take and should have taken previously. First, it should review its surplus land immediately on completion of a road and transfer that land to proper ownership as a matter of urgency. In both sites, road construction had long passed by.
Finally, it should not regard law breaking as a vexing problem to be swamped with taxpayers' money, but should instead recognise a responsibility to help to uphold the law and protect public resources.
Agency complacency, passivity and ignorance have cost more than £70,000 in this small area on just two sites. I dread to think how much of our money is hosed at this problem nationwide. New strategies, tactics and attitudes are required. I look forward to the Minister's response.