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Lord Avebury: My Lords—

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords—

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is it not a case for Brussels?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord will have to repeat his question.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, if the cable companies are not under any kind of control, is it not a case for Brussels?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, no.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, can my noble friend explain why the streets of London are in a greater mess today than they have been since the war? Has my noble friend noted in particular the appalling mess of the roadway in front of Buckingham Palace, and can he say why that has been allowed to happen?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I cannot verify, or otherwise, my noble friend's claim about the state of the roads since the war. I would have to take advice on that matter. Indeed, proper records have existed only since the passage of the New Roads and Street Works Act,

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which I mentioned earlier. The Buckingham Palace scheme is important for the tourism industry in this country and has valuable safety benefits.

Lord Monson: My Lords, do those private non-utility cable companies pay any compensation to the local authorities concerned? That would at least allow council tax to be reduced slightly, which would be some consolation to the afflicted residents.

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I shall have to find out that piece of information. I have explained that those companies are under a duty to notify the highway authority and to co-ordinate with the other utilities. It is important to note that many people value the services that the cable companies provide. It is not just cable television but a range of other services such as telephone and information that comes down the cables.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, the House will be astonished that the Minister has not announced the usual recipe for dealing with critical situations. Perhaps he will indicate why not. The usual recipe is, of course, for the Government to set up a quango, people it with their friends, including a chairman at a salary of £450,000 a year. Does the Minister recognise that this is a serious matter which is causing a great deal of concern, notwithstanding the fact that the Act to which he referred has not come fully into operation? Will he give an undertaking that the Government will carry out some inquiries into the situation?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord feels that the local authorities are doing a bad job in maintaining the highways for which they are responsible. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is obviously responsible for maintenance on the trunk roads. We place great store on reducing congestion and getting traffic moving in London. I believe that the co-ordination provisions of the New Roads and Street Works Act will make a great difference to the situation.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords—

Noble Lords: Next Question.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords—

Noble Lords: Order, order!

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, but I am aware that we have only six minutes for the final Question. As always, I am in your Lordships' hands, but your Lordships may feel that the time has come to move on.

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The Disabled: Council Tax Liability

3.32 p.m.

Lord Rix asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they propose to take on the reports that people with disabilities and those looking after people with disabilities are gaoled for failing to pay council tax or the former community charge.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Viscount Ullswater): My Lords, a council tax defaulter may be imprisoned only in cases of wilful refusal to pay or culpable neglect, and after account is taken of means. The Government are conscious of the particular needs of disabled people. We have today issued a consultation paper which proposes that dwellings which are occupied solely by people who are severely mentally impaired should from 1st April 1995 be exempt from the council tax.

Lord Rix: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for that response. I had no knowledge of that proposal before I asked the Question. On the other hand, I should still like to stress the point that there must be something seriously wrong with a situation whereby a man who is physically and mentally handicapped and suffering from cancer can be gaoled for 28 days. Because it is not a criminal charge, he would not be entitled to report his condition to the magistrates. The magistrates could pass sentence in his absence, and he would be found guilty of a charge and debt which he might be totally unable to comprehend. Does the Minister agree that that could still happen, even with the announcement that he has just made?

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord. The Government share the noble Lord's anxiety for people with disabilities. I hope that the proposed changes in the council tax liability regulations that I have just announced will alleviate those anxieties. The committal of debtors is very much the last resort and should be used only when people have not met their commitments, and other enforcement measures have proved to be inappropriate or unsuccessful.

Lord Renton: My Lords, bearing in mind that the Government are anxious to avoid these unfortunate cases in the future, would my noble friend consider it helpful if somehow, when such cases arise again, the local government welfare officer was informed by the court and was asked to see what he could do to help?

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, before the magistrates use their powers, they must try to find out all the circumstances of the case. It is only in rare instances where they are persuaded that there is some form of culpable neglect or wilful refusal that such a committal can be made.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, will the Minister reconsider the answer he has just given? Some disturbing cases are being reported in the newspapers, including cases of single mothers who have made an offer to pay and who are then imprisoned although there is no provision for care for their children, and also cases, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, of people

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unable to make provision for disabled relatives once they are sent to prison. Given that the High Court has intervened on more than one occasion to overrule magistrates who have sent such debtors to prison, can the Minister make further inquiries to ensure that we do not revert to the 18th century structure of debtors' prisons?

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I understand that the Magistrates' Association is taking seriously reports that some magistrates have not been adequately advised or trained in the use of powers to imprison people for non-payment of the community charge or council tax. The Government share those anxieties and therefore welcome the association's announcement that it will be studying Mr. Justice Turner's judgment, and issuing further guidance to magistrates as soon as possible.

Baroness Elles: My Lords, is not the problem that the magistrates are not informed of the situation of the persons coming before the bench? Unless there is some procedure whereby the individual concerned can inform the bench of the disability or the disadvantage, the magistrates have to act in ignorance.

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, if there is no show from the defendant, that puts the magistrates in a difficult position. Again, I should have thought that the further advice of the Magistrates' Association would go a long way towards assisting in this matter.

Environment Bill [H.L.]

3.37 p.m.

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Viscount Ullswater.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 20 [The Scottish Environment Protection Agency]:

[Amendment No. 130 not moved.]

On Question, Whether Clause 20 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove: It may appear to the Committee that this is a negative Motion. I raise it largely because I want to emphasise the importance of the arguments put forward on Second Reading and at other times in support of the SEPA, many of which I believe to be false. The establishment of the SEPA will result in the ousting of the control of potentially polluting processes, and a lack of local presence on the enforcing authorities and a lack of points of contact for advice, which currently exist through the local authorities, particularly through locally elected representatives.

I favour a genuine Scottish environmental protection commission operating in partnership with local government and covering a wider range of services.

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They should include coastal protection and flood prevention, which would be most apposite in Scotland after the serious damage caused two or three weeks ago. The proposed timing for the establishment of the agency could not be worse when viewed against the background of the upheaval that will be caused by the implementation of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994.

If it is inevitable that a single body is to take over pollution control, the Health and Safety Commission provides the best model for achieving that. The commission, which includes a local elected member, enjoys the benefits of a policy overview, with enforcement being shared between central government and local authorities. The uniformity of enforcement is assured to a great extent by the existence of the Health and Safety Executive and the local authorities association enforcement liaison committee and its various sub-committees.

The use of a commission model would seem to satisfy the objectives of both central and local government and should be further investigated. Such a commission could be engaged in policy formulation and research and development, leading to the development and auditing of minimum environmental standards.

Instead, the Government have proposed a narrowly focused, service-providing regulatory agency, which will have great difficulty in moving beyond its purely pollution control remit to take on the much broader agenda of sustainable development. The allied concepts of integrated pollution control and the polluter-pays principle must be the guiding force behind the work of any agency involved in the field.

The Government's strictures on the need to relieve the burden of costs on industry cuts right across that. I do not want industry to have additional or unreasonable costs, but someone must pay for the costs of pollution. If that is not industry, the local authority and the local people must pay. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 recognised the proper role of local authorities in giving them new powers in relation to the control of certain areas of pollution and the management of solid waste disposal. Despite the commitment of authorities in preparing to undertake their new task, it is proposed that those should be absorbed by the SEPA. That hardly indicates an integrated approach to the legislative process. It is widely believed, in particular by those in Scotland who are knowledgeable about pollution issues, that the system of pollution control provided for in the 1990 Act achieves an optimum level of integration.

Authorities have restructured departments and increased staffing levels to meet the new more specialised responsibilities. Staff in local authorities are not only capable of undertaking the new duties but also possess the expertise to look at issues of public health and environmental protection on a global basis. They are also able to respond positively and comprehensively to all environmental matters, and those such as building control and health and safety functions, giving them the ability to deal effectively with issues closely related to

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the duties that the SEPA seeks to absorb. The net result is that if the SEPA is established it is likely to be a poorer and less effective service.

It is sad that, after all that work, we shall produce a less effective body and I oppose the Question that Clause 20 shall stand part of the Bill.

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