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Commons Chamber

Volume 961: debated on Wednesday 31 January 1979

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 31 January 1979

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Untitled Debate

Yesterday there were complaints in the House about the small number of questions that we were able to reach. I propose to call fewer supplementary questions today, but it will also be a great help if questions and answers are brief.

Environment

Sports Scholarships

1.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will bring forward proposals to provide sports scholarships on the same basis as awards for academic higher education?

I entirely agree that sporting excellence deserves encouragement just as much as academic or artistic excellence. Within the limits of the funds available, I believe that my scheme for special centres of sporting excellence has the great advantage of offering opportunities to potential top-class sportsmen whatever their academic abilities. I am also pleased that several local authorities are considering granting sports scholarships, and I believe this should be encouraged.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply and ask him to use his good offices to thank the Sports Aid Foundation for the good work that it is doing. Will he take special measures to seek a meeting with the local authority associations with the object of providing scholarships for young people who have the potential to provide Britain with the finest sportsmen in the world?

I am grateful that my hon. Friend has drawn attention to the magnificent work of the Sports Aid Foundation which, within one year, has assisted 350 competitors in 37 different sports. The local authority associations sit on the advisory committee under my chairmanship, and I shall take advantage of that suggestion to raise this matter with them at an early opportunity.

As one of the Members of this honourable House who attend the House of Commons gymnasium—the Minister himself is an irregular attender, though I am delighted that he attends sometimes—may I ask the Minister whether he agrees that it would do this country a great deal of good if we could exploit the fantastic potential to which his hon. Friend has referred by making much more more money available for sports through sports scholarships?

I entirely agree with that. I do my best, as do my right hon. Friends, to make Government money increasingly available to the Sports Council. By and large, whenever we have sporting success there is a great psychological uplift around the country.

House Building (Starts And Completions)

2.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is satisfied with the level of new house building and if he will make a statement.

16.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what are the latest figures for housing starts and completions in the public and private sectors.

In November 1978—the latest month for which figures are available—there were 6,900 public sector starts and 13,200 in the private sector in Great Britain. There were 11,400 completions by the public sector and 12,900 by the private sector. I hope that the improved level of private sector starts will continue; but those for public sector starts are disappointing even bearing in mind the greater emphasis that many local authorities are now placing on gradual renewal and rehabilitation rather than demolition and new build.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Is it correct that 45,000 fewer new houses per year have been started during the lifetime of this Government than under the previous Conservative Government? If the record of the last Tory Administration had been maintained there would now be 200,000 more families living in new homes. How does the right hon. Gentleman square that with his February 1974 election pledge to reverse the serious housing fall? Will the right hon. Gentleman have a word with Transport House to repudiate the disgraceful party political broadcast earlier this month which said that no Government had built more houses than the present one?

We have had this kind of exchange before. The hon. Gentleman knows very well that the boom that was achieved in 1972–73 under the previous Tory Administration collapsed in 1974. It collapsed not, if I may say so, because of anything that we did. It had collapsed when we took over. What we have tried to do since is to maintain a reasonable, continuing and balanced new build programme between the public and private sectors. We had substantially succeeded, until the fall-out in public sector building as a result of changes in local political management in the past year.

Now that the combination of Treasury controls on house building and the indifference of Tory local authorities to their housing responsibilities have succeeded in reducing the public sector starts to the disastrous level of 1973, what action does my right hon. Friend intend to take to reverse the trend?

The actions that I can take are inevitably limited by the fact that housing is a locally provided service. Unless I were to envisage some major constitutional change in the relationship between central and local government, there are, clearly, limits to what I can do. I assure my hon. Friend, however, that I am giving every possible encouragement to local authorities to build. Where it is possible to switch from non-building authorities to those that are prepared to build I am willing to do it, and have done so.

How does the Secretary of State justify the broadcast referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley)? Did he write it? Did he approve every word?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the under-spending by Tory local authorities is a major factor in the decline in public sector building, the system of cash limits has resulted in a certain reduction in the activities of local authorities? Is he satisfied that this is purely a matter of teething troubles, and are there any steps that he can take to ensure that the effect of the system is diminished?

Cash limits, certainly in the first year after their introduction, may well have had some braking effect on the house building programme. But, as my hon. Friend will recall, we have greatly eased the situation, first, by agreeing about three-year programmes for housing allocation and, secondly, by allowing a carry-forward of 10 per cent. from one year to the next and an anticipation for the following year of the same amount. There is, therefore, considerable flexibility in the system.

So that we may keep the matter in proper perspective, does the Secretary of State agree that as well as the reasons that he has given for the hiccup caused through the change in the base of financing, local authorities have under-spent by only about 5 per cent. of the allocation under the housing investment programme? Does he agree that that is not a startling figure? If we are talking party politics, is it not true that Labour authorities such as Manchester and Sheffield were among those that did not spend their full allocation?

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the 1977–78 figures rather than the latest ones. I agree that a 5 per cent. underspend is not necessarily disastrous. But the figures that are emerging concern the crucial element, which is the number of approvals given. They determine the number of starts and completions in subsequent years. The number of approvals has fallen off uite sharply, and I am worried about it.

Canals And Waterways

3.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what action he is taking to enable voluntary workers to restart clearance work on British Waterways Board canals.

7.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the effects of the industrial situation on the inland waterways.

I regret that long-standing difficulties over pay have led to non-co-operation by the staff of the British Waterways Board, and this has prevented the Board from making a physical start on the Fraenkel maintenance programme, and has also affected routine maintenance. This inevitably results in closures of sections of canal in the interests of public safety, and has also compelled the Board to withdraw permission for voluntary bodies to work on projects where the staff will not supervise the work.

I recognise that the Board is currently faced with particular difficulties in attempting to maintain the inland waterways in a proper condition. The Board has my full support, and I am doing all I can to find a speedy solution to its present difficulties.

Since the withdrawal by British Waterways Board employees of their co-operation stems from a dispute that is now over three years old, is it not time that the Government took much more urgent action to try to end the dispute? What opportunities have the employees been offered for arbitration?

I thank the hon. Member for his measured supplementary question. We have sought various ways of easing the situation. I confess that I had considerable hope a few weeks ago that we might get an urgent consideration of the dispute under schedule 11 to the Employment Protection Act. However, the tight drafting of the terms of reference of that schedule precluded that solution. I am therefore looking most urgently for an alternative.

Is the Minister aware of the seriousness of the situation for the canal network? Does he agree that unless this matter is resolved fairly soon there will be considerable damage to the canal system and possible danger to those who live alongside it? Since the Central Arbitration Committee has rejected the opportunity to look at this case, is it not time that the right hon. Gentleman met the NALGO representatives and discussed the case with them?

I should be very willing to meet officers of NALGO. I have had opportunities to discuss these matters with them previously, and I hope to have the opportunity of resuming contact with them shortly. I have very much in mind the safety aspect. I am aware of the safety problem to which the Fraenkel committee drew attention. I have made an allocation of substantial resources. It is now a question of getting the money spent.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the expansion of leisure and sporting facilities which is possible on the waterways can be promoted by voluntary agencies and groups of voluntary workers? Will my right hon. Friend indicate in which specific ways he feels his Department might be able to assist in the funding of clearance projects?

I am willing to look at further encouragement to voluntary work, but the existing level of voluntary work has had to be curtailed because, in the absence of BWB supervisory staffs, it cannot be properly supervised. At present they are not prepared to supervise it, but I assure the House that I shall do my utmost to bring that state of affairs to an end as soon as I can.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, in addition to the conditions described in the Fraenkel report, further and expensive damage is being a caused to canals and to boats by the lowering of levels, which has been necessary as a result of the industrial action? Will he bear that in mind when thinking in terms of any settlement of the dispute?

Yes, I shall bear that in mind. I am sure that the BWB management will have it in mind in considering the priority allocations of the substantial sums being made available.

Rates

4.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what he expects to be the average increase in rates in 1979–80.

9.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his revised estimate of the average increase in rates, following the Government's announcement of increased pay for the low paid and other changes in pay policy.

As I told the House when I announced the RSG settlement last November, the settlement was compatible with a national average for domestic rate increases in single figures. The actual level of increase will, however, depend on the level of expenditure authorities decide to undertake, the provision they make for inflation and the extent to which they are prepared to draw from balances.

As to the announced changes in pay policy, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced on 16 January that the cash limits on rate support grant will be increased to take account of the Government's initiative on the low paid. That will not, therefore, significantly affect the level of domestic rate increases.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some Tory-controlled county councils are now inflicting demands for increases of as much as 25 per cent. on their unfortunate ratepayers, and that some of those are the authorities that have been underspending, and even cutting back on housing maintenance and repairs and on personal social services? Does my right hon. Friend foresee the need for these authorities to apply for supplementary increases later in the year, as some of them have been threatening?

I ask my hon. Friend on this occasion to be a little more merciful to county councils than perhaps we have felt appropriate in the past. I do so for one special and particular reason. We have shifted the needs element payment this year to shire districts for the first time. That means that the shire counties will be obliged to some extent to increase their precept, but that should be followed by matching decreases in the rate calls of the shire districts that will benefit.

As the Prime Minister said that if the wages of local authority manual workers went up by 15 per cent., rates could be expected to rise by as much as 27 per cent., is the Secretary of State prepared to take any steps to ensure that average rate increases are kept to single figures?

I am not prepared to do what I understand was the proposal of the Opposition Front Bench some time ago and say in an authoritarian way that local government must limit total expenses. I still counsel the House, however, not to jump to conclusions because of the recommendations by borough treasurers and finance committees. I am not aware that any—but, if any, certainly not more than a handful—rates have been struck throughout the country.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the nasty situation that is building up, which appears to be a repeat of the 1974 rate revolt but which this time may be more serious than before? Is he also aware that very few counties and districts in rural areas will be able to keep their rate increases below 20 per cent.? Is he, therefore, prepared to announce today that any settlement in the public sector that is above the 8·8 per cent. already stated by the Prime Minister will be met out of central funds?

I am not prepared to say that, and it is too early for the hon. Gentleman to say with such emphasis that his expectation will turn out to be correct. In any event, I reiterate that this year a proportion of the increase should be matched by a reduction of rates in the shire districts, which for the first time are benefiting from the payments of the needs element.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the high rate increases in many inner city areas, including the London borough of Lambeth, are a direct result of councils attempting to implement the Government's inner city programmes, with policies of better housing, amenities and more jobs? Will he take steps to make special funds available so that the expectations that he has rightly raised, both in his White Paper and since, can be met in the inner city areas without an undue burden on local ratepayers?

I am deeply aware of the financial problems of the inner cities. But in terms of both the special allocations that we have made to the inner cities, including the Lambeth partnership area, with regard to urban grant, and the way in which the rate support grant has operated in favour of inner city areas, particularly the settlement for London with its emphasis on inner London, I believe that this will be helpful, if not completely satisfactory, to the inner city boroughs affected.

Is the Secretary of State aware that today he is playing the role of an ostrich, firmly burying his head in the sand and ignoring the reality around him? Is he persisting in telling the House that, with the current pressure on local authority wages, he expects rate increases to remain in single figures, bearing in mind that the Prime Minister recently said that if average wage settlements went up to 10 per cent.—which is the new average level for the low-paid—rates would go up on average by 18 per cent.? Will he now seriously consider calling together the local authority associations to renegotiate the settlement this year and, if necessary, to discussing the possibility of cutting services?

I do not intend to call the local authorities together to renegotiate the rate support grant, and certainly not to invite them to cut back on their services. I shall continue to invite them to negotiate realistically and sensibly to achieve a settlement that is compatible with the maintenance of public expenditure and a reasonable level of rate increases.

Is the Minister aware that one of the reasons why rates are likely to rise more than expected is the increase in minimum lending rate to 12½ per cent., which has resulted in local authorities paying more in interest charges across a whole range of their services? Incidentally, that policy was pushed by friends of the Tory Party in the City. Will the Minister also take into account that when the wage settlements for local authority employees are finalised, which will be above the amount already suggested by the Prime Minister last week, there will be offsets such as family income supplement, offsets for those paying increased taxes and in terms of rent and rate rebates?

On my hon. Friend's second point, I shall consider what the offsets may be. As he will realise, it is difficult to predict this on an across-the-board basis when measures for assistance to particular families are involved. I can give him considerable reassurance on his first point. We have always excluded interest rates from our calculations for rate support grant. At the time of the increase order, which we shall make in six months' time, we shall take full account of changes in interest rates. There is that help to local authorities.

Homes (Insulation)

5.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any plans to introduce a new scheme under the Homes Insulation Act.

18.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is satisfied that retirement pensioners are able effectively to make use of his Department's homes insulation scheme.

I am keeping the operation of the present scheme under review, but have no plans to extend or change its basic provisions immediately. I shall, however, shortly amend the present scheme in order to list those loft insulation products which will be acceptable for grant purposes. I am satisfied that pensioners are able effectively to make use of the scheme.

My right hon. Friend's answer will convince my hon. Friend who asked whether this question was a plant. Nobody would have been more surprised than I had the answer been "Yes". However, will my right hon. Friend note that many people are disbarred from participating in the scheme because they have already made a start on insulation or have inadequate insulation? This rules out those who want to remedy unsatisfactory insulation or to improve existing insulation. Will the Minister amend the scheme so that those people, especially the elderly, can qualify for help?

I understand my hon. Friend's point, but, as was well argued when the Bill was introduced, our objective is to apply expenditure where it is most needed first and thereby enable uninsulated lofts to be insulated. Partly insulated lofts, although unsatisfactory by modern standards, are at least better than uninsulated lofts. When the scheme has been in operation for some time we shall be in a better position to review additions or variants.

How many pensioners have benefited from the scheme, and what percentage is that of the total? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the difficulties of many pensioners on low incomes who are unable to find the total cost of the work before they receive any grant? Can he ensure that they get the grant, perhaps on the basis of an acceptable estimate?

On the first point, we do not have such returns from the local authorities, and I am not sure whether we shall require that statistical breakdown. On the second point, that is a possibility. If such problems are emerging, I should like to receive information about them. So far I have had no evidence of this. Fears have been expressed, but that is different. I shall be prepared to consider an administrative variant to overcome the initial cost problem. We are looking at various ways in which this can be done should there be a need for such an eventuality. But I should first like to have evidence.

I invite the Minister and the Secretary of State to visit the two prototype houses that have been constructed by Salford council on completely new principles. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the designers estimate that the total heating cost will be only £30 per year? On the coldest day this year—and that is saying something—the temperature inside these houses was 70 deg. This scheme may go a long way to avoid the cold, wet, damp and fungus that are afflicting many households today.

I am aware of the Salford project and, from what I have read of it. I am very impressed. The authority is to be highly commended for what it has attempted. As I have been unable to visit the scheme, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is going there shortly at the invitation of the Salford city council. I welcome this kind of work. A great deal of it is being carried out under the auspices of the Building Research Establishment, under the direct umbrella of the Department. But whatever may be the prospects of applying these techniques to new fields, the main problem is with the existing stock. The solution that the Salford project offers cannot help directly, but it will help in the future.

Will the Minister consider some of my constituents, who have been unable to apply for a grant because Camden borough council failed to appoint a relevant officer before the winter started and took no action on his excellent circulars?

I should like to have further information about that. However, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that this is a matter entirely for the elected councils. We have provided the powers through Parliament and the resources by way of Government. If I may have the information, I can make inquiries.

Caravan Sites Act 1968

6.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will now review the working of the Caravan Sites Act 1968.

A review of the working of part II of the Act was undertaken by Sir John Cripps, and we are already acting upon many of his recommendations.

Do the Cripps proposals go to the heart of what is happening? For example, will the Minister look again at the situation in Oxford, where, because of the rigidity of the Act, the county council feels that it cannot close one site where conditions are appalling without designating another site, which may very quickly turn out to be equally appalling? Is this a sensible way of tackling the problem?

Part of the problem is that there are about 8,500 gipsy families and only 2,000 sites for them. I appreciate that the county councils have difficulties with district councils when they come to carry out their duties under the 1968 Act. We are bringing in a Bill which will give those councils a 100 per cent. grant for the provision of new sites, and I hope that they will make the best possible use of it.

My hon. Friend's promise of a Bill will be greatly welcomed, particularly in Peterborough. When is the Bill likely to come before the House?

The Bill has been published and I hope that it will have its Second Reading in another place within the next couple of weeks.

Is the Minister aware of the gravity of this problem, particularly in the fruit-growing counties? Does he appreciate the great difficulty in which the private citizen finds himself with regard to planning permission for individual caravans, or two or three caravans on a farm, whereas the district and county authorities have a free hand? There seems to be one law for the councils and another for the individual.

As I said, we hope to assist the county councils in their problems with the districts by repealing section 8 of the 1968 Act. One of the problems which the gipsies face, and which the towns now face, is that many of the gipsies who went to work in areas such as the hon. Gentleman's during the summer do not now do so, but concentrate on the towns.

Council Houses (Sale)

8.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has for extending home ownership, by accelerating the sale of council houses and flats to their tenants; and if he will make a statement.

20.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will review the policy of his Department concerning the sale of council houses to sitting tenants.

I have no proposals for accelerating the sale of council houses. Existing policies for sales have been reviewed, and I hope to be able to consult the local authority associations very soon about proposed changes.

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity of confirming that it is the Government's policy to extend home ownership in whatever way they can assist in that task? What opinion does the right hon. Gentleman have of the decision of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, announced earlier this week, to sell 53,000 council houses on a sliding scale, giving a better advantage to those who have been tenants for the longest time?

It is certainly no news to the House that we are very much in favour of extending home ownership. What has divided the House on this issue—it is the only difference that I can think of—is that we believe that we can extend home ownership principally by encouraging people in the private or public rented sectors to purchase houses in the private sector—either new build or existing houses. We have made many arrangements to assist in this, including the special facility for first-time purchases.

The hon. Gentleman and his party take the view that the most important approach to the extension of home ownership is to encourage authorities to sell local authority houses, regardless of the need for rented accommodation. I do not believe that that is the right policy to pursue, particularly if it is pursued in an ill-considered way.

My approach has always been that one must judge the situation district by district and area by area. I cannot answer for Northern Ireland, but I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will be only too pleased to do so at the right time.

Since a large number of council tenants would like to buy the houses which they at present rent, and since this would make good economic sense, will the right hon. Gentleman introduce legislation to make it easier for these people to fulfil their ambition?

There is at present, and has been since 1970, a general consent whereby local authorities which have the responsibility of providing rented housing, and a broader responsibility for the housing need in their areas, have the permission to sell houses where they think and judge it right to do so. Therefore, I cannot accept what the hon. Gentleman says. The facilities are there. Indeed, they are quite generous, and many tenants are able to take advantage of them.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in some areas, for example, Southampton where council houses have been sold on an extensive scale and no new houses have been built to replace them, many families with children find it completely impossible to transfer from a council flat to a council house? As a result, these children will be condemned for many years to come to live in unsuitable conditions.

My hon. Friend has put the point very fairly. If one were seriously looking at the situation of an individual authority, and if one were judging a sensible policy about sale, one would want to take account of whether that authority was building at the same time. What is particularly deplorable is the situation where there is a clear need for rented accommodation and a council is not building and is at the same time selling off its existing stock. This is particularly deplorable where sales of houses with gardens are taking place in authority areas where, overwhelmingly, local rented accommodation is in high-rise flats.

If the Secretary of State believes that the sale of council houses should be dealt with on a district by district basis, subject to local conditions, why is he turning down those local authorities that wish to sell at a 30 per cent. discount and apply to him for permission to do so?

Because I do not believe that—[Interruption.] I have not changed the level of discounts, and I can see some advantage in them, provided they are linked to the right of a local authority to buy back over a period of years at the price at which it sells. But given the lack of considered approach by many councils at the present time—I fear that there is altogether too strong a political element in their judgment—I should not want to encourage them simply to offer houses on conditions which would amount to a loss to the ratepayer and taxpayer.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Conservative Opposition's policy on this matter represents a disgraceful attempt to buy votes by giving the opportunity to a lucky few to purchase public assets at a discount? Does he accept that hon. Members with the experience of the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), and others, must be aware that the cost to the public, the taxpayer, the ratepayer and those in need of homes must vastly outweigh any short-term advantage to the lucky few? Will he condemn this in rather more specific terms than he has done?

I have made it clear that I condemn an indiscriminate approach to council house sales. I have said that, I believe, on every occasion that I have come to the Dispatch Box. But I do not intend to engage in a kind of Dutch auction with the Opposition, and I do not believe that it is in the long-term interests of our people that either political party should follow that route.

Inner City Areas (Development)

10.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he proposes to review the authorities receiving help under the Government's special inner urban areas programmes.

I have no plans at present to alter the nature or scope of our inner cities policy, other than to increase the level of resources for the urban programme, as indicated in the White Paper on public expenditure, Cmnd. 7439.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the list is now of no practical importance, because the sad truth is that whatever small benefit might have been available to towns under the inner urban area programme, the economic consequences of industrial disruption and strikes will fall with especial severity on the large towns and cities, particularly on the rates? Does he accept that any small benefits have been cancelled out by the present developments?

Many aspects of our national life have been affected by recent disruption. That will undoubtedly have its effect during the course of this year. I emphasise that we are dealing with inner city policy. If we are being serious about it, we are dealing with policies that will have their effect over the next five to 10 years. In spite of all the financial pressures, I am glad to say that we have been able to make a remarkable increase in the whole urban aid programme. We were spending only £30 million a year on the urban aid programme in 1976–77. In the White Paper that has recently been published I was able to indicate that that spending will increase to £170 million in 1982–83.

What, in my right hon. Friend's opinion, is the effect of the sharp drop in the availability of building society funds for the financing of home improvements in inner urban areas, despite the fact that the level of public spending for that purpose has been maintained?

I shall be interested to have my hon. Friend's constituency experience. In general, the building societies have been able to make larger loan allocations in the inner cities.

The arrangements for support lending by which the societies lend to those nominated for home purchase by the local authorities have led to an agreement that £400 million will be allocated for the forthcoming year.

The right hon. Gentleman has announced an increase in the urban programme. Have there been compensating reductions in other programmes that are associated with the increase in the urban programme? If so, where have the cuts been made? For example, have they been made in the housing programme?

No. I gave the figure for a rising programme extending to 1982–83. There are changes in the composition of individual programmes. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are talking about a modest increase in the growth of public expenditure as a whole. I shall consider his argument.

Does my right hon. Friend remember visiting Paddington in the autumn of 1978, just before we did not have a general election? Does he recall the reaction of my constituents, who were pleased to know what he was doing for many other parts of London but disappointed when he turned to me and said that the scheme did not apply in my constituency? Does he accept that conditions in substantial parts of my constituency are every bit as bad as those in other parts of London? Is he aware that some of my constituents feel that he is ignoring them, in the same way as he has been ignoring my letters asking him to receive a deputation on this issue?

I fear that it is difficult to meet all the proper demands that my hon. Friends put upon me. I do not dispute that there are serious problems in the constituency represented by my hon. Friend. My problem within the inner city programme has been to weigh the extent of the problems and to try to determine priorities. I regret that so far I have not been able to include my hon. Friend's borough in that programme.

Local Authorities (Grants To Industry)

11.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment which local authorities have made grants to attract industry, using the provisions of the Inner Urban Areas Act.

This information is not yet available. But designated authorities will be asked to let my Department know the level of expenditure and income under the Act and possible other relevant information at the end of this financial year and for subsequent years.

Is the Minister aware that while his Department is encouraging grants and loans to industry through the Inner Urban Areas Act and encouraging industry to come back to London, the regional policies of the Department of Industry are pulling in exactly the opposite direction and continue unabated, as does the Government's policy for the dispersal of civil servants? What will the right hon. Gentleman do to ensure that everybody in the boat rows in the same direction?

The hon. Gentleman is being somewhat unfair to the Department of Industry. It is not for me to answer in detail for it. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will table an appropriate question. Considerable changes have been announced since the introduction of the inner city initiative in the operation of IDC policy and in industrial development by the Department of Industry. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman checks on the statements that have been issued and are now operative in all the inner city areas that are otherwise outside assisted area status. I refer especially to London and Birmingham.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his Department has a responsibility for planning? Does he agree that it is pointless for Ministers to say that they support local authorities that are trying to attract industry back to London when, at the same time, they approve menacing planning schemes? For example, the planning department of the London borough of Ealing has allowed masses of warehouses to be built on land where industry could have been sited. That is a matter that my right hon. Friend should examine.

Except in certain respects where reserve powers apply, Ministers with planning responsibilities are not responsible for the detailed operation of planning procedures. That responsibility has been given by Parliament to local planning departments.

Warehousing policy in certain parts of London near Heathrow airport has been going on for a good many years, and it is not directly connected, to say the least, with inner city policy.

Partnership Committees (Staff)

12.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many civil servants are involved in membership and servicing of committees in connection with the partnership authorities.

There are 16 civil servants working full-time on servicing the seven inner city partnerships. Taking into account all Government Departments and their regional organisations, about another 85 civil servants are involved partially in the work of the partnerships and the 15 programme authorities.

Will the right hon. Gentleman compare that number with the number of voluntary workers and interest groups that are involved in the partnerships? Does he agree that to make them a success it is important that the full co-operation of the local community should be sought and involved?

I shall not take up the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question and make comparisons. It would not be possible to obtain the statistics, even if they were relevant. The importance of local co-operation was given great force in the White Paper on inner city policy. I assure the House that in every one of the partnerships and programme authorities there has been a considerable effort to draw in community and voluntary activity. In all instances, considerable portions of the enlarged urban aid programme to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has referred have been directed to assist an expansion of community work.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the work of the civil servants and that of the voluntary agencies would be better known if the partnership committees were open to the public, especially where local authorities on the partnership committees make representations to the Secretary of State that that should be so? Is it not significant that these local authorities are all Labour controlled? It may be that they are calling on the Government to carry out Labour Party policy that was passed in 1974, namely, that there should be more open government. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, at least in this respect, it is about time we implemented that policy? What are the Government afraid of?

There was not an announced inner city policy in 1974. There is no lack of information between the local authorities, both county and district, the other authorities involved in the partnerships and the community organisations. There are, rightly, variations in the way in which consultation is undertaken in the various partnerships and programme authorities. I do not accept that the opening up of what are, in effect, steering groups would provide a solution to communication. Other means must be found.

Public Buildings (Lifts)

13.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement concerning the building standards for the size of lifts in public buildings.

The size of lifts is not controlled in regulations, but there is a British Standard 2655 of 1971 which specifies loads and dimensions of lifts for various uses.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the head of the casualty department at Preston Royal infirmary told me that a number of lifts at that hospital and others were too small to take stretchers? He feared that lives would be endangered. Does my right hon. Friend not think that action should be taken to ensure a minimum size for lifts?

That is a different matter from that raised in my hon. Friend's original question. It will be difficult to find a solution if that problem arises on any scale in Preston in existing buildings. As regards the future, I make two points. I take note of the general proposition on guidance. More importantly, the number of high-rise, or even medium-rise, blocks of flats now being built by local authorities is down to less than 2 per cent., compared with 23 or 24 per cent. of the building programme a few years ago.

Will the Minister look at the problem of direct labour maintenance of lifts, which is an unmitigated disaster?

I have no doubt that the hon. Member will send me information. I understand that the vast majority of lifts in these high-rise blocks of flats are serviced by maintenance contractors.

Local Government (Staffordshire)

14.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has any plans to transfer powers from Staffordshire county council to Tamworth and Lichfield district councils as part of his scheme for organic change in local government.

The Government's proposals for transferring powers from counties to districts are contained in the White Paper on organic change in local government published last week. Under these proposals, districts with a population below 100,000 will not be eligible for any transfers, and on that basis the powers of Tamworth borough council and Lichfield district councils will remain unchanged. In common with all districts in England, however, they will become responsible for all but a narrow range of planning decisions.

Is my hon. Friend aware that, while his White Paper is right in principle, it is none the less a considerable disappointment and anti-climax? Many of us had hoped he would be doing far more to repair the damage of the Tories' 1972 reorganisation. Will my right hon. Friend admit, even at this late stage, that many of the old county boroughs operated perfectly well with populations of 60,000 and 70,000? Why cannot he respond to the wishes of the Labour Party in Lichfield and Tamworth, and elsewhere, and transfer powers from counties?

I am afraid that we have to look at this realistically. My hon. Friend knows that my disposition is in favour of looking to smaller local government units rather than larger ones. If we were to go far below the cut-off level of 100,000 we would have units of administration dealing with personal social services and traffic management which would not easily cater for the kind of services, with their specialities, which are needed today.

Roads (Gritting)

15.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment, in the light of the discussions he has had with local authorities in the United Kingdom, what information he now has on the reasons why local authorities were unable to grit the roads prior to the major snow falls which first fell on 27 December.

The first snow warnings were received in some areas on the 28 December and in others on the 29 and 30. The reports I am now receiving from the local authorities show that they either commenced operations immediately or did so within a few hours of the warnings. Salting and gritting operations suffered seriously in some cases from gale force winds and rain together with very low temperatures at night. The vastly reduced volume of road traffic resulting from the bank holiday was also an important factor in aggravating the situation.

I thank the Minister for that reply. In how many areas was gritting not possible because the unions refused to do standby duty?

I have no information of that happening at all over the bank holiday, which was the immediate crisis to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is true that this has happened occasionally since the action by the public service employees, but it is not right to apply that situation to the Christmas and new year period.

Is my hon. Friend aware that Liverpool has experienced its worst period ever for the removal of snow and ice from the roads, due to the fact that the controlling Liberal Party, together with the Conservatives, refused to turn out the workers to make certain that roads were gritted properly and the snow cleared, which was always done under a Labour authority?

My hon. Friend is right that in certain parts of the country Conservative authorities changed the standby arrangement, which gave great offence to the men and aggravated the situation that existed.

Building Construction (Research)

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a statement on the role of the Building Research Establishment in helping to prevent building failures; and what resources have been allocated for this purpose in the current financial year.

Much of BRE's research on materials, components, structures and fire is concerned with preventing building failures and defects. I cannot give a reliable assessment of the resources involved, since in many cases the work is part of a wider project dealing with other related issues, such as improving performance or giving better value for money.

Is it not unsatisfactory that the vital Doomwatch section of the BRE is minute and short of resources? In view of disasters such as Ronan Point and high alumina cement and the bad state of many new council flats, should not this matter be given the highest priority?

I would not say that the problem over the integrity division to which the hon. Gentleman refers has lasted as long as he suggested, when he refers back to the Ronan Point disaster. I accept that this is an important priority element in BRE work. Our problem has been to overcome shortages of staff and to achieve recruitment up to establishment. It has been difficult to recruit staff. We are continuing our efforts.

Will the Minister confirm that those figures show that local authorities have had to pay over £200 million to meet necessary repairs due to building defects and incompetent builders? Will he undertake to publish that list of local authorities in the Official Report?

I should not like, without checking, to confirm the figure that my hon. Friend has mentioned. There is, undoubtedly, a considerable area of justifiable concern about faults which have developed partly as a result of design and partly as a result of contract management during the industrialised building era. We should not exaggerate the matter and suggest that it applies to everything that went on in the 1950s and the 1960s, but it is certainly a significant element. We shall need to pay close attention to rectifying these matters in the future.

Coast Erosion (Yorkshire)

19.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what consideration he is giving to the prevention of coast erosion on the East Coast of Yorkshire by use of colliery waste and power station fly ash; and if he will make a statement.

Following the recommendations of a working party set up by the Department in 1974, the local authorities concerned are now considering how best to dispose of the region's colliery spoil and fuel ash. However, we are advised that it is unlikely that these substances, on their own, can provide adequate protection against erosion of the coast. They are unable to withstand the constant battering from the waves. In the case of colliery waste, there are also strong environmental objections arising from the despoilation of the beaches and the discolouration of the water. Experience of tipping colliery waste on to the Durham beaches has shown this.

I welcome that encouraging reply. Is my hon. Friend aware that the National Coal Board is proposing to put colliery waste on 200 acres of good agricultural land in my area? In the Selby district, the Central Electricity Generating Board is taking 150 acres to dump fly ash from Drax power station. Is he also aware that we are losing 30 acres of good land each year at Spurn Point, and that, shortly, it will become an island?

Would it not be sound economic sense to use Government money now to prevent this further loss of good agricultural land rather than reclaim it after it has been degraded by industry or lost by erosion?

I met some of my hon. Friends constituents who took the trouble to travel to Hull when I was visiting the Yorkshire coast to study the problem of erosion. It is difficult for me to comment on the planning matters to which he refers. These matters are in the hands of the county council and may come to my right hon. Friend in his quasi-judicial role.

What is my hon. Friend doing to encourage the use of pulverised fuel ash to produce building materials?

My Department and the Property Services Agency have done a great deal to encourage its use. Much of it is used already in the manufacture of lightweight concrete blocks, and so on. There is an increasing use of it, and at the moment we are examining its further use. Government Departments use it a great deal, and perhaps local authorities could use it more.

When my hon. Friend visited Spurn Point in East Yorkshire, he saw maps of the changes in that peninsula since the middle ages. Is he aware that if gales and the other elements burst Spurn Point, there could be a potent effect upon Hull as a port? It would be silted up, and the channels would be in an unholy mess.

We shall discuss this with the harbour authority, though the representations that we received came from the coastal districts of Withernsea, Holderness, and so on. If the harbour authority and the Hull city council wish, we shall discuss the problems with them. Flooding itself is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but we work together closely on these matters.

Does the Minister appreciate that his hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall) has a very good point about the spoliation of agricultural land? Is not the right thing to do with fly ash which cannot be used to put it back in the mines where it came from and thus stop subsidence?

That is done wherever possible. The National Coal Board has done a great deal in using extinct pits to pack away waste from present pits and Central Electricity Generating Board waste.

Is it true that the nationalised industries are not subject to normal planning procedures and that this is a big part of the problem?

No, it is not true. They submit planning applications initially to local planning authorities. With opencast coal applications, of course, the decisions are made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, and not by my Department.

Questions To Ministers

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of your exhortation at the beginning of Question Time that you hoped to get through more questions today than was possible yesterday, may I draw your attention to the fact that we managed to reach only question No. 20 and that some hon. Members who did not choose to table questions were called on more than one occasion?

We have had 23 questions answered today, because a number were bracketed together. When only one hon. Member rises, there is a better chance of hon. Members being called.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We could have done even better if replies from the Treasury Bench had not been so rambling. There was a time when Ministers would reply "Yes, Sir", "No, Sir," or "Not without notice". Can nothing be done to improve the state of the Treasury Bench, short of Dissolution?

I do not disagree that answers today were long. I do not disagree with that at all.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is not it a fact that we get through so few questions on many occasions because of the Government's reluctance to give answers?

Funeral Facilities (Picketing)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a statement on the disruption by picketing of funeral facilities in the metropolitan boroughs of Tameside and Liverpool.

Following last Week's day of action organised by unions, selective strike action against local authority cemeteries and crematoria is continuing in certain parts of the country. According to the latest information available to me, the action is most marked in the North-West, in particular Liverpool and Tameside.

I deplore this action, and I made my views known to the general secretaries and national officers of the unions concerned at the weekend when I asked them to remove, from their list of selective action, crematoria and cemeteries. I was informed last night that advice had been issued by the unions to their members designed to limit the impact of action here on the public.

I take this opportunity of urging the men concerned, whatever their grievance, to reconsider their action, to understand the distress being caused to the bereaved, and the deep offence being caused to the overwhelming mass of our people, and to return to work.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there are now 225 bodies in Liverpool and 38 in Tameside awaiting funerals and that the strike appears to have spread, having, I understand, been going on since 19 January in Tameside? Is he aware, further, that the procedure for funerals in Liverpool now is that the local area medical officer of health has to inspect each body, that if he certifies that it is a danger to public health a committee of the union is consulted to seek its agreement that the funeral may proceed, and that that agreement may or may not be forthcoming? May I remind the Secretary of State that on Monday the Home Secretary told the House that the Government were not prepared to stand by idly, that they were not prepared to have dead bodies kept in a disused factory in Speke, and that the trade union leaders would not accept it either? The position remains the same; indeed, it is probably rather worse than it was on Monday. The whole House agrees with the Secretary of State about the shattering effects that this action must have on relatives of the deceased, but may I ask him whether he now thinks it appropriate that he should come back to this House, at the latest tomorrow, with proposals for firm action on behalf of the Government to deal with this totally regrettable and unnecessary state of affairs?

I do not think that the issue of public health, as such, is the one upon which we need concentrate, simply because I do not believe for one moment that there would be any objection there. This goes much more widely than matters of public health. It involves the inevitable feelings of people when they are affected by death in the family and in their community. I do not think, therefore, that we ought to judge this matter against the background of hazard to public health.

I have, of course, been in close touch with the two local authorities concerned, and I shall no doubt be in touch with them again today. However, I advise the House and the hon. Member, in the light of the information and advice given to the authorities yesterday by the unions concerned and, I hope, in the light of the expressions of view which this House has already made to the men directly concerned, to wait perhaps until a little later to see what response there is. In the meantime, as I say, we are in touch with the local authorities concerned, and we are prepared to take such action as we and they agree.

I am sure that the whole House would want to accept the advice of the Secretary of State if he felt able to assure us that he would make a further statement on this matter tomorrow.

Of course, I shall consider what the hon. Gentleman says. However, as I said to him a moment ago, it is perfectly reasonable for me to say to him that it might perhaps be a little better to wait 48 hours than to say "Tomorrow".

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Government supporters who wish to see these workers get a decent living wage and who support them in their claim for one nevertheless are deeply concerned at the distress that is being caused to bereaved families? Is he aware also that it is not just attacks on the workers that are required but speedy action to bring this matter to a settlement? Is he aware, finally, that some of us are taking urgent steps to arrange a meeting with the workers concerned in order to discuss the matter and endeavour to get a settlement at the earliest possible moment?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am very glad to know that my hon. Friend, as a Member of Parliament for the city principally concerned, has been using his personal influence in order to resolve the situation there.

I think that the House understands that the men concerned are among many groups of low-paid workers, and there is no disposition anywhere not to consider their claim very seriously. However, I believe that the nature of the action that is being taken is not one that is likely in any way to assist them in the solution to their grievance.

Is the Minister aware that fear of confrontation between mourners and pickets is resulting in funeral services not being continued in the chapels of the cemetery? I should like to join with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) and go with him to see the gravediggers, so that we have a joint approach from both sides of the House.

Perhaps I may leave it to the hon. Gentleman to carry out his bilateral negotiations. But, again, the hon. Gentleman represents the area concerned, and I am sure that he will use such influence as he has to bring about a solution.

Does the Secretary of State agree that if there is clear evidence by tomorrow morning that those involved have not taken the advice of the union leaders and that this bizarre situation is to continue, it will be his duty to make a statement telling the House what the Government intend to do about it? The situation will be entirely unacceptable to the people if they are no longer able to bury their dead.

I must clearly take some account of the views of the local authorities concerned in this matter. Also, clearly, I have to consider the wishes of the bereaved families concerned. The House should bear in mind that while obvious solutions are available to the Government, those solutions in themselves might lead to a situation in which those who are principally concerned, the bereaved, could be more upset by what was being done than they are even by the present situation.

In an effort speedily to end the strike, will my right hon. Friend indicate to the employers' side the Government's view on its latest pay offer to the men involved, which is between £2·15 and £2·45 a week? Incidentally, the offer includes an increase in pay of a miserly 60p a week for the lowest grades of manual worker. This Scrooge-like attitude is contrary to the Prime Minister's recent statement on the lower-paid.

I simply say that while the course of negotiations is still far from satisfactory—I shall have something to say about that, perhaps, Mr. Speaker, in a few minutes' time—my hon. Friend should look again at the Prime Minister's statement of 16 January. There he will see that the particular underpin arrangement would certainly apply to low-paid workers up to the level of £70 a week; indeed, it postulates a £3·50 payment.

Having regard to the well-known fact that on Merseyside the strike committees do not follow the advice of the trade unions, is not 48 hours too long a period for the House to wait for the Government to take really active steps to relieve the situation there? Forty-eight hours will take us into the weekend. That means that we shall not have anything done until, perhaps, early next week.

I have noted what the right hon. Gentleman said, as I have noted what one or two other hon. Members said. Certainly I shall consider the matter further.

I should like to take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Scotland Exchange (Mr. Parry). What is needed is a quick settlement of the dispute. What steps are being taken by the local authority? It appears to me that an Alice-in-Wonderland situation is developing. Local authorities are saying that they are not prepared to offer 8½ per cent. because that would be rejected by the union, and they continue to offer 5 per cent., which they hope will be accepted. When will the Government make it clear that they are not standing between employer and worker on the question of the low-paid?

I shall be working for and encouraging a reasonable and early settlement, but I do not think that we can, as it were, say that the settlement and action to deal with this question can be time-related. I think that the question of dead people remaining unburied in parts of the North-West must be settled without delay.

Is the Secretary of of State aware that at a meeting of the Greater Manchester council this morning the council decided to invoke section 138 of the Local Government Act 1972? That was because Councillor Fieldhouse, the leader of the council, stated that the council was concerned with the protection and preservation of people suffering as a result of the present situation caused by industrial action by local government employees. Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that other councils could be urged to take the same sort of action?

I think that that is a general power that the Greater Manchester council has. It relates to the services for which the county council is responsible. I would certainly need to look very carefully to see whether there were implications here for the exercise of powers that belong to the metropolitan district councils.

This is an extension of Question Time. I shall call the hon. Members who have been rising.

Is not it a fact that on this occasion we are witnessing, albeit with a few exceptions, the whole House indulging in a bout of utter hypocrisy? Is it not also a fact that the House of Commons and the Government could resolve this matter, could get rid of these dead bodies, and could ensure that people were buried properly if the Opposition would encourage the Government to pay a decent wage to those concerned in the dispute? Is not it a fact that no one in this House—no one—would do the job that these people are doing for a take-home pay of about £40 a week? Instead of indulging in these bouts of hypocrisy, is not it time we resolved the matter? We have it in our power to do so. It is time that the present Government understood where their supporters are. They are not on the Opposition Benches; they are amongst the many local government workers who are fighting for decency and a decent wage.

I hope that my hon. Friend, at a later stage today, will consider very carefully his sense of priorities and values.

Beyond that, I simply say this to him: hypocrisy—no; death is not hypocrisy. Nor is human grief. Nor is the sense of common humanity that people have when they share these experiences. Therefore, some sense of common fellowship and decency—

Is the Secretary of State aware that almost the whole House totally endorses his last remarks? As Her Majesty's Secretary of State, will he make it quite plain to the House and the country that the Government just will not tolerate this situation beyond tomorrow?

I think that the views expressed in the House, almost unanimously, will be a very helpful factor in the situation.

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that there will be widespread acceptance of the view that he has put forward and the way that he has sought to handle a very difficult situation today? However, does he also appreciate that in this matter of very great concern to many people, and so, rightly, to this House, it really is very important that he should report to the House tomorrow on what has happened? In the interests of the whole House and the people concerned, I hope that he will feel able to do that.

The right hon. Gentleman was kind enough to say that it is a difficult matter. It is a very sensitive matter. I ask him to let me reflect further on the pleas made by the House to make a statement tomorrow, but not to pin me at present to an absolute and specific promise.

Local Authority Manual Workers (Pay)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a statement on the breakdown of negotiations over local authority manual workers' pay.

A meeting of the national joint council was held yesterday, and I regret that no progress was made. I shall be seeing the employers' representatives tomorrow, and I trust that negotiations will be resumed in a few days.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is rather amazing that apparently the employers' side did not feel able to put the Government's £3·50 offer on the negotiating table, and apparently did not agree with the comparability studies that have been suggested by the Government? Will the Government now immediately institute such studies? Does my right hon. Friend agree that negotiation is better than industrial disruption—better not only for the community but also for individual workers?

I wholly agree with the sentiment expressed by my hon. Friend about negotiation. I must confess that I was surprised about yesterday's events, because I had been led to believe that the meeting would be the start of serious negotiations, and it is well known that the Government's underpinning proposals, anounced by the Prime Minister on 16 January, are of particular relevance to the lower-paid. I believe that comparability needs to be discussed further, but by no means at undue length. I hope that the negotiations will resume shortly, and resume on serious propositions.

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify one point in what he said? Is it not a fact that the negotiations have not broken down and that therefore the industrial action now being taken is yet another example of action before negotiations finally terminate? Secondly, is it not a fact that the union's national officer said on television last night that even if the employers had given what the Prime Minister offered, it would still have been rejected?

One always has to take account of the particular situation—whether it be a situation of negotiation, pre-negotiation, or negotiations on the point of starting—in judging what people who are party to the negotiations say about particular figures. I agree that this is not a question of the breakdown of negotiations; it is really, as it were, a beginning of negotiations which everyone is determined to see start.

Is not the key to this situation the fact that a study should be set up now by the Government to make an urgent report—say, before Easter—on the whole question of comparability? The team to do the job should be appointed by the Government, with the terms of reference to be agreed, so that the arguments about the lower-paid and comparability can be taken on board. Is it not clear from what we have said, and despite what has been said by Members on the Opposition Benches, that unless the Government move in and take the negotiating committee by the scruff of the neck we will not get anywhere?

While I understand the superficial attraction of a very quick comparability study, I do not believe that that would be the right way to proceed, although I believe that the general principle of comparability is extremely relevant. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) well understands that, in view of the very many different skills and occupations concerned, we need to do a serious job if comparability is to play, as I believe it should, an important part in future negotiations.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that every local authority association in the country is Tory-controlled, hence the obstruction that appeared to exist at yesterday morning's meeting? Can he explain to the House what negotiations are going on between the Prime Minister himself and the local authority associations about what the Prime Minister said last week—and, I think, said very sincerely—in this House?

I hope that the political complexion of the local authority associations—[Interruption.]—will not be a problem in getting serious negotiations going. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend may be assured—

Order. I remind the House, which I have not done for a long time, that interruptions from a sedentary position are unparliamentary and that Ministers and other Members must be allowed to put their point of view.

I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain) that the Prime Minister's statement and its relevance to the local government pay claim have been made absolutely plain to the local authority associations in, I should think, at least two meetings that I have had with them.

Will the Secretary of State say whether the Government have intimated to either the employers or the employees' side in this negotiation whether there is any limit, or any Government guidance on what should be the limit, of the employers' offer? If so, will he say what that limit is?

Following the Prime Minister's announcement on 16 January, the local authority associations are certainly aware of the Government's proposition. We have had discussions with the employers, and they were able to come forward with and to put to us a proposition that carried the underpin concept a step further forward. On the understanding that this could lead to a solution of the situation, we were prepared to assist them in terms of the rate support grant in the way that we normally do.

What happens now? Is there a date for another meeting soon? Can the right hon. Gentleman arrange it?

I have every reason to believe that the two sides, although they did not progress yesterday, are in close touch with each other, and I have no doubt that a further meeting will be arranged within the next few days.

Order. I remind the House that this is an extension of Question Time, but I will call a few more Members.

My right hon. Friend keeps referring to negotiations, but does not he agree that in any set of negotiations one has to have something to negotiate about? Therefore, if the local authority associations have refused to put an offer on the table, there have been no negotiations. Although he could not agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) that the negotiations should be taken by the scruff of the neck, could the Secretary of State at least indicate forcefully to the local authority associations that they should get on with the job of negotiating?

My hon. Friend is right—the negotiations have not begun. I shall be seeing the local authority associations tomorrow and I assure him that I will make plain my strong interest, and the interest of the whole country, in the commencement of meaningful negotiations.

Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear on behalf of us all that the right to strike does not extend to the right to take selective industrial action without loss of pay?

It depends on the nature of the selective actions, which are of a wide-ranging kind. I cannot give a blanket response to such a general question.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that yesterday's pussy-footing around by Tories who profess to believe in free collective bargaining but then refuse to bargain can only strengthen the hand of those workers who believe that they can only gain by taking further industrial action and weaken the hand of those who believe that the only solution is through collective bargaining with their employers?

I agree that an unfortunate impression was created by the fact that, when everyone had expected negotiations to begin, they did not begin. I agree that, in the general climate of opinion at present, all have to be careful not only about the substance of what they are doing but about their tactics.

Does the Minister agree that we would all prefer successful negotiation? Negotiation presupposes equality of strength between the two sides. Within the existing legislative framework and philosophy of the Government, and their actions over recent years, there is now no incentive for those who strike to settle at all, except upon the basis of total victory to them and total defeat for the Government. That fundamental situation remains. Until it is changed there can be nothing but inflation.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is advancing an argument, not a question.

I shall call two more speakers from either side—plus one, maybe.

Surely the Secretary of State must understand that meaningful negotiations are not on if the Government retain their rigid position of saying "No more than £3·50 or 7 per cent. on average for those earning less than £70 per week". Will he assure the House that there is some flexibility in this? He knows that the Prime Minister's offer goes nowhere near reaching the £60 minimum that is demanded by the unions and therefore the unions have said before the negotiations start that that offer is not on.

Will the Secretary of State now put some money on the table and get down to the task of meaningful negotiations, and get rid of the Prime Minister's maximum?

It is the taxpayers' and ratepayers' money that is involved. We must take account of the effect of any settlement outside what we anticipated in the terms of the rate support grant on taxation and the rates.

I do not accept what my hon. Friend said about a rigid position. The Prime Minister's statement indicated a clear desire to help the lower-paid. The local authorities, basing themselves on that, came forward with a proposition that developed it further. We gave them our assurance that we could accept that proposition. I do not accept that that is a rigid position.

Will the Secretary of State discuss with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education as soon as possible the impact that this dispute is having on many schools? In parts of the country they have been open for only nine or 10 days since Christmas. That is having a serious effect upon the education of the children concerned.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is concerned about and aware of the difficulties in the schools to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I undertake to pass his remarks on to her. However, the House has the opportunity of questioning her on her responsibilities.

The Minister will have read the document produced by the National Union of Public Employees, which sets out clearly and unequivocally the £60 minimum case in terms of both comparability and inflation. May I remind him that the Government's offer is 8 per cent. to all the workers involved? Should not the Government set up an inquiry straight away, irrespective of what the Tory-dominated local authorities intend to do about it?

Certainly we shall consider further, without undue delay, the question of comparability studies, which do not apply only to local government workers. We are thinking of the Health Service workers and other workers. It is a wide-ranging exercise.

As to the substance of the NUPE pamphlet to which my hon. Friend referred, I am not clear to what it refers when it quotes the figure of £60. The average earnings among local government manual workers on the April 1978 survey figures from the Department of Employment were £65, or thereabouts. Clearly the document cannot refer to the earnings figures. It must refer to the basic rates. That represents a difficult problem.

Does the Secretary of State realise that it is his responsibility to give realistic guidance to the local authority associations? Will he take account of what was said by the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson)? If the water workers rejected the 14 per cent. offer, and the Minister can find a large amount of money for the BBC staff and many others, is it not totally unrealistic to suggest that the figure can be only 8½ per cent.?

I do not accept that there is a close parallel between the two cases cited. There is the basis for a realistic start to negotiations.

Yesterday at Question Time the Prime Minister said:

"An offer has been made to local government workers of an increase—a substantial improvement in their low pay and a study of comparability."—[Official Report, 30 January 1979; Vol. 961, c. 1235.]
Is it not correct that yesterday afternoon the employers' side rejected a request from the trade union side for a special inquiry into the rates of pay of manual workers?

It is slightly more complicated than that. As I understand the local authorities' viewpoint, they would like a very wide-ranging comparability study. They will want to discuss that. However, I should certainly not say that they had turned down the idea of a comparability study affecting local government employees. I hope that we shall be able to straighten out and make plain those factors very soon.

Will the Secretary of State be a little more forthcoming about the meetings that he has had in these negotiations? He told the House that he met the employers. Has he or any other Minister met the employees to explain the implications of Government pay policy for the claim that is under discussion? Will he confirm that it is not the political persuasion of the local authority associations that is important in this case?

Local authority associations, of whatever political persuasion, will do their best to carry out Government pay policy within the context of the Government rate support grant. It is those two critical national policies that are in question in the whole of the negotiations now under way.

Thirdly, will the Secretary of State say something about the position of cash limits as far as these negotiations go? I believe that the cash limit in local government expenditure is the only cash limit that has been published. The Prime Minister agreed that in so far as he made an offer to the low-paid it could be varied to that amount. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the cash limits will not be varied as a consequence of any decisions about the negotiations that are still to be resolved?

Fourthly, will the Secretary of State confirm the Prime Minister's figures—which the Secretary of State apparently does not have this afternoon—showing that a settlement of 10 per cent. will lead to rate increases on average of 18 per cent., and a settlement of 15 per cent. will lead to rate increases of 27 per cent. on average?

I am not entirely convinced that quite so many detailed questions are helpful at the beginning of a negotiation. However, I shall reply as best I can.

I could see both the employers and the representatives of the unions again. We have explored together the question of the nature and kind of comparability study that offers one of the main keys to the solution of our problems, not just now but in the future.

I understand the limitations imposed by the local authority employers. Nevertheless, the approach must be designed to obtain a solution. It is necessary that the way in which people proceed should be extremely tactful in this obviously sensitive situation.

Thirdly, as to the figures put to me by the hon. Gentleman, I confirm this. It is always difficult to make assumptions behind a statement of figures on which I am asked to comment. It is broadly the case that for every 1 per cent. increase in incomes across the board in local government paid out of the rates—not just to local government manual workers—there would be an increase of about £75 million a year.

Will the Minister answer the third question about the position of cash limits, on which the Government's economic strategy depends?

It is easy and straightforward to answer that question. The cash limit follows what the Government agree in terms of what is a proper settlement. As the Prime Minister made clear in his statement on 16 January, the cash limit would be adjusted in order to take account of the low pay underpin that had been put forward.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A few moments ago you said that in the interests of the business to come you would accept two more questions from each side. This is the third time that the Macebearer has been on his feet.

Order. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain) knows that when I make that sort of statement I usually say "including the Front Bench". I did not do that today.

Order. The hon. Gentleman must give me a chance. I have had notice of four applications under Standing Order No. 9. I will first take the concluding question. Mr. Heseltine.

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. I shall be very brief. When he made his special concession to the lower-paid the Prime Minister announced that the cash limit would be varied to take that concession into account. Will the cash limit be varied further to reflect any other settlements in terms of this negotiation?

I have not given any impression that it will be adjusted for any other settlement. What I made clear is that the development of the Prime Minister's underpin idea in a slightly more generous way by the local authority employers had been put to us, and we confirmed that we would be able to cash-limit that as well.

Hospitals (Industrial Action)

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the threat to the welfare of hospital patients presented by the current industrial action within the National Health Service."
I submit to the House that there could be nothing more specific and important than the threat to human life that this dispute poses. We know that there is such a threat. We have the evidence of the Secretary of State himself, who said so only yesterday. Indeed, we know that there are hundreds of hospitals throughout the country which are, in effect, in a state of siege. We also know—I managed to get this information just over an hour ago—that the latest attempt by the Secretary of State to intervene in one of these disputes ended after eight minutes.

This would seem, therefore, to be a matter that should be debated in the House. Irrespective of the merits of the case of the lower-paid, the House has an overriding responsibility for the proper functioning of the National Health Service. It is a matter that we must debate. I believe that those outside the House who are suffering, and the many others who are worrying because they have relatives or friends in hospital, will neither understand nor forgive us if we do not turn our attention at an early opportunity to a discussion of this grave and important matter.

The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) gave me notice this morning that he would seek leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believed should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the threat to the welfare of hospital patients presented by the current industrial action within the National Health Service."
I listened with concern to the hon. Gentleman. The House knows the limitation of my powers. I am aware of the facts that the hon. Gentleman raised in his application but I cannot today submit his application to the House.

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the serious situation which has arisen because of the lightning strike of domestic workers affecting two hospitals in the Chelsea constituency, as well as others in central London."
I am conscious that this is not a new issue. Indeed, eloquently but unsuccessfully my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) has already sought to move the Adjournment on a related matter.

I intrude briefly on the time of the House because this morning there was an important development when members of the National Union of Public Employees had a mass meeting at St. Stephen's hospital, in my constituency, and decided to call out all their members in the Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea districts. This is bound to have the most profound effect on the health and welfare of patients in the two major hospitals in my constituency, St. Mary Abbots and St. Stephen's.

The origins of this House lie in the struggle for the rights of the individual. Today not just the rights of individuals but their health and their very lives are being threatened by the action of this union. I submit that it is Parliament's duty to discuss this matter as soon as possible.

When the most vulnerable members of our community are being used as a lever in the pursuit of a claim, it is Parliament's job to get to grips with it. We have had the appeal of the medical profession to the Prime Minister. We have had the Secretary of State acknowledging the seriousness of the matter. We have had the NUPE branch leader, Mr. Morris, acknowledging the dangers of cross-infection in the wards that will be affected by his members' action. It is essential that Parliament should do something about this.

We have become accustomed to dustbins not being collected and to the dead not being buried, but the sick always have a special claim upon a decent society. There is a very compelling reason for our discussing the matter in Parliament and trying to give a lead back towards that sense of common fellowship of which the Secretary of State for the Environment spoke earlier.

The hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott) gave me notice this morning that he would seek leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believed should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the serious situation which has arisen because of the lightning strike of domestic workers affecting two hospitals in the Chelsea constituency, as well as others in central London."
I listened to the hon. Gentleman with equal concern to that with which I listened earlier to his hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack). I have indicated to the House that I am well aware of the serious issues that have been raised. The House has instructed me not to give reasons for my decision. I regret that I cannot this day submit the hon. Gentleman's application, to the House.

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the effect of industrial action on the hospital service in the Newcastle upon Tyne area."
I am aware that my two hon. Friends who preceded me in their efforts to obtain an Adjournment debate have raised the general state of the suffering of patients in hospitals throughout the country. I nevertheless believe that the escalation of strike action has now brought the hospital service in the Newcastle region to a state of near chaos.

Laundry service at the general hospital is now reduced to below emergency requirements. The large St. Nicholas psychiatric hospital, which requires 20,000 pieces of laundry to be processed each week, is today, I am given to understand, without any clean laundry at all. The Royal Victoria infirmary, where there is a laundry overtime ban, is not meeting emergency requirements. In addition, the ambulance service is dealing with emergencies only. This means that there are no discharges from the hospitals in the Newcastle area, and this further exacerbates the position.

I hope that what I have said amply illustrates the specific and important nature of my request. I believe that the urgency can best be illustrated by the enormous difficulty which those in the hospital services are having in dealing not only with official union action but in having to deal with innumerable individual actions. It is making their task very difficult indeed. This is a state of crisis in our Newcastle hospital services that is. I believe, without parallel in our history.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Sir W. Elliott) gave notice this morning that he would seek to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believed should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the effect of industrial action on the hospital service in the Newcastle upon Tyne area."
I listened to the serious statement made by the hon. Gentleman. He will have heard my earlier replies to his hon. Friend, and while I in no way seek to minimise the importance of what the hon. Gentleman has said I have to rule that I cannot this day submit his application to the House.

Later

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. With reference to the points raised under Standing Order No. 9 by my hon. Friends relating to hospitals, which you very kindly agreed to consider very seriously—the House is deeply indebted to you for that—I do hope that you will recognise that there are many others of us with similar problems who have not raised them under Standing Order No. 9. We all have similar crises developing, and I hope that you will bear that in mind when coming to your decision.

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I am well aware that probably every hon. Member with a hospital in his constituency could rise in his place and make a similar application.

Schools (Industrial Action)

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the closure of schools within the London borough of Havering as a result of industrial action of NUPE and the General and Municipal Workers Union."
The matter is specific, in that these unions have announced a planned programme of industrial disruption directed towards the enforced closure of 10 different schools in the London borough of Havering, of which my constituency of Romford forms a part, on each school day from 29 January to 13 February. The issue is important, because it means that every day during this fortnight numbers of schoolchildren in my constituency will lose their right to education. In common with many other areas, all schools in Havering were closed on 22 January as a result of a strike of municipal workers. Now more schooling is being lost, in defiance of the statutory duty that education should be provided.

I do not need to underline the importance of education to all children. Time lost at their time of life cannot be recovered, and inevitably this enforced irregularity in attendance will encourage the trend towards truancy and vandalism which is already a social problem and may even lead to more juvenile crime. The vast majority of parents in Romford are working people, and working mothers in particular will be badly inconvenienced if they have to make arrangements for their children to be looked after during the day. If they are unsuccessful in this their children may be left to roam the streets.

The matter is urgent, because although in its judgment the London borough of Havering has already advised parents of school closures this week—in advance of making a general public announcement which brought the matter to my attention—there is still a chance before the weekend to avoid another spate of closures next week. In any case, further closures may well follow from a protracted dispute. For these reasons, Mr. Speaker, I hope that you will be able to accede to my request for an early opportunity to debate this emergency caused by the strike of public service workers in my constituency.

The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) gave me notice this morning that he would seek leave, under Standing Order No. 9, to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believes should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the closure of schools within the London borough of Havering as a result of industrial action by NUPE and the General and Municipal Workers Union."
I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. He will know that there was a similar application earlier this week about the closure of schools, and the House has instructed me to give no reasons for my decision when an application is made under Standing Order No. 9. I have to rule that the hon. Gentleman's submission, despite the seriousness of his arguments, does not fall within the provisions of Standing Order No. 9 and therefore I cannot submit his application to the House.

National Land Fund

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hope that you will think that this is an important matter for the House. On 15 December 1978 you were kind enough to write informing me that there was no objection to my proceeding with my Bill on the national heritage fund, which also involved the national land fund. You stated that I was not debarred from doing so by Standing Order No. 91, which prevents a private Member introducing a Bill the main object of which is the creation of a charge on public revenue. That was significant, for my Bill proposes the transfer of the national land fund from Treasury control to independent trustees.

The Treasury claims that that would constitute public expenditure. Mr. Speaker, you did not agree, saying that the fund was constituted by the Finance Act 1946 and that the necessary contribution upon the Consolidated Fund was authorised by the House.
"This having once taken place",
you stated,
"it does not seem to me that any further charge would be created by the transfer of the national land fund to independent trustees."
You also referred to a ruling by one of your predecessors, in December 1957, to the same effect.

The Question for the Second Reading of my Bill was put in the House last Friday. I now seek your guidance on a constitutional question affecting the rights and privileges of the House.

You, Mr. Speaker, and a former Speaker have ruled unequivocally that the House voted the public expenditure for the national land fund in 1946. The Treasury, however, disagrees. In evidence to the Environment Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee, on pages 16 and 17, questions 8, 10, 11, and 12, and on page 18, question 32, of the third report of the Expenditure Committee of 1977–78 and in the statement of the Government's expenditure plans, Cmnd. 7439, page 159, paragraph 12, it has, either explicitly or implicitly, stated that public expenditure did not take place in 1946.

I beg your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, to ask who determines whether the House has voted public expenditure, the House or the Treasury. If it is the House, is it not a serious state of affairs that the Treasury has consistently ignored a Speaker's ruling since 1947? I am most grateful to you for your help and consideration in this matter.