asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many and which county and non-metropolitan district councils have fixed their rate for the municipal year 1985–86 at (a) the rate for the year 1984–85 or below, (b) less than 5 per cent. above the rate for the year 1984–85, (c) between 5 per cent. and 10 per cent., (d) between 10 per cent. and 15 per cent. (e) between 15 per cent. and 20 per cent. and (f) over 20 per cent. above the rate for the year 1984–85.
I have today placed in the Library the information currently available. Although it is too early to give a firm estimate of the increase in rates for 1985–86, it seems likely that the average increase in general rates in England will be between 7 and 7·5 per cent., and the average increase in domestic rates between 8 and 8·5 per cent.
Is it not correct that in the shire counties the average rate rise will be more than 9 per cent., which is wildly far from the estimate given by the Secretary of State in December, when he said that he hoped that it would be in low single figures? Are not high rate rises entirely attributable to the Government's policies on rate support grant and rate capping? Does that not imply that authorities in Tory areas must cut substantially the services that they provide to stand any chance of holding the rate rises down, even to about 9 per cent?
The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong, and unwittingly scored an own goal against the Liberal party. The average rate rise in the Conservative shire counties is 6·5 per cent., whereas in the one Liberal-controlled shire county it is 8 per cent. It is the old story that where the Liberals influence events spending and rates are high.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of a document issued in the name of the Haringey joint union committee against rate capping, which has been endorsed by the London boroughs shop stewards on a Londonwide basis, calling for complete disruption of local authority services by phased action, including shutting down street lighting and traffic lights, stopping Thames water maintenance — [HON. MEMBERS: "Order."]—closing schools—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."]—taking over the financing of computer services of local authorities, and refusing to accept—
Order. The hon. Gentleman should not make a speech.
taking over power—
Order. Has the hon. Gentleman reached his question yet?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is close to criminal conspiracy and incitement to unlawful action? What action will he take?
I have not seen the document to which my hon. Friend refers and, therefore, I do not know its details—whether it is silly bravado or whether it amounts to something with a more sinister intent. I shall look at it, as he has drawn it to my attention today. Clearly, if it has a more sinister intent I shall draw it to the attention of the appropriate authorities.
What advice will the Minister give the authorities which have accepted the lower rating for this year and failed to meet their statutory obligations as a result?
I know of no local authority or any rate-capped authority which is in danger of not meeting its statutory obligations because of the rate support grant settlement this year. Regarding rate-capped authorities, there was a significant move forward this morning in that a High Court judge told Hackney that it must set a legal rate. He ruled that there were no reasonable grounds for the borough to defer making a rate. I hope that this period of illegality will end.
Would any rate increase have been necessary, and would not the average rate demand have been at least 20 per cent. lower, had the Government maintained the same share of local authority expenditure that was provided in 1979–80? Will the Minister give the total burden placed on businesses and industry as a result of the change?
As regards the proportion of the rate support grant since 1979, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the biggest cut was under his Government, when the former Chancellor reduced it from 66 to 61 per cent. in one year. The hon. Gentleman was a member of the Government who did that. The reduction this year from 51·9 to 48·7 per cent. means that there is less grant available, but, even so, if all authorities in England had budgeted to spend at target the average rate increases would have been lower than the ones that I have just announced.
Has my right hon. Friend heard the news this very day of the stunning irresponsibility by which the city of Birmingham, under its Labour masters, is putting up the rates by 43 per cent.? Is it not time for such authorities to stop talking about helping industry when they are going to ruin it and their citizens?
My hon. Friend is correct. There could be no greater distinction between Conservative and Labour control of Birmingham. Last year, under the Conservatives, the rates fell; this year under Labour they have gone up by 43 per cent. That is bad news for the residents of Birmingham.
Does the Minister accept the figures of the Rating and Valuation Association, which show that average rates will increase by more than 9 per cent. in this financial year—twice the rate of inflation? Does he recognise, as everyone outside the House and the Opposition do, that the biggest single reason for that is the consistent reduction in rate support grant? Rather than listen to his right hon. Friend berating Labour councils which are desperately trying to defend jobs and services, why do not the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend meet representatives of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of London Authorities to negotiate a settlement of the outstanding difficulties?
My right hon. Friend and I have made it clear that negotiations with the rate-capped authorities are unacceptable because the House has approved the rate support grant order and has agreed and passed orders for the rate-capped authorities. We have said that they are therefore not negotiable. It is now up to the rate-capped authorities to do what is legal—to set the rate which has been approved by the House.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Liberal-controlled Isle of Wight county council has increased its rates by 38 per cent. since 1981, and that because of the Lib-Lab pact which now controls Cheshire county council, that council has increased its rate by 48 per cent. since 1981? Is that not disgraceful, and does it not show the hypocrisy of the question of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)?
The figures speak for themselves, in that those who live in Labour-controlled shire counties will have an average rate of 178p this year, those in coalition-controlled county councils 156p, and those in Conservative-controlled county councils 148p. Those who live under Conservative-controlled county councils will be 30p better off than those who live under Labour and coalition-controlled councils.
Will the Minister put the record straight and confirm that the Isle of Wight county council rate increase was 7·53 per cent.? The 1p rate added by the Liberal-controlled Medina borough council reduces it to 7·1 per cent. The average ratepayer in the Isle of Wight pays £30 per head less than the average ratepayer in Chichester and £600 or £700 less than the average ratepayer in Westminster. We have stuck by targets, but the Secretary of State for the Environment gave us the worst settlement of all counties. We lost 4p, and that is why the rates went up this time by 7·53 per cent.
I think that I said 8 per cent.
Why does the right hon. Gentleman not tell the truth?
If with the district included, it is slightly less, I accept that. Even if it is 7·53 per cent., it is still substantially higher than the average for Conservative-controlled county councils.
Local Authorities (Expenditure)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will abolish spending targets for all local authorities.
I have said that we would like to do so.
Does the Minister agree that we have an absurd system of local government finance — [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."]. I shall come to that point in a moment. The Government's new so-called objective targets under the GREA are completely ignored by the Government in the vast majority of cases when they set spending targets. Are not those spending targets a sign, first, of the Government's desire to run local government and, secondly, of their complete failure to reform the rating system?
The purpose of the targets has been to rein back the growth of local authority current expenditure. They have succeeded in reining back that growth from over 3·5 per cent. a year above the rate of inflation to under 1 per cent. The targets have worked, and the great majority of local authorities have co-operated with them. That has been a solid gain for the country and the ratepayers.
When my right hon. Friend is carrying out the urgently necessary review of local authority finance, will he talk to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science about alternative ways of funding education? That could lead to two advantages: first, the reduction of the rates burden; and, secondly, the removal of the discredited Burnham system for the negotiation of teachers' pay.
The second part of that question should be addressed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. On the first part, I have the impression from hon. Members on both sides of the House that people wish to see local decisions taken locally. That is one of the main purposes of the studies on which we have embarked. It is difficult to see how such a development could be consistent with centralising substantial areas of education spending at the Department of Education and Science.
Despite the operation of target, which was deliberately designed to hit Labour authorities more than Conservative ones, the average domestic rate bill in the shire county areas is over 40p a week higher in the Conservative-controlled shires than in the Labour-controlled shires. Does that not show that people get more for less in Labour areas?On the future of the target system, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the problem associated with target is the operation of penalties, and that it would be unacceptable to Conservative as well as Labour authorities if, instead of the target and penalty system, we had a penalty system based upon GREAs?
The hon. Gentleman makes a naive comparison. The system is intended to reflect differences in resources among authorities. It is clear that in the past four years the average increase in rates in Labour county councils has been 62 per cent. while in Tory county councils it has been 31 per cent.—exactly half. That is the true comparison that should be made between authorities under Conservative and Labour control.Secondly, I have made it clear that the extent to which we are able to move away from targets in the coming year will depend in part on what local authorities budget for this year, and in part on the mechanism that we may be able to put in place to exercise a restraining influence on budgets in 1986–87.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will arrange future meetings with the appropriate sports authorities to discuss the possibility of the Olympic Games being held in Britain.
I have no plans to do so. Bids for staging the games are the responsibility of the British Olympic Association and interested cities.
Will the Minister make it clear that the Government will give every encouragement, including adequate financial support, to the sports authorities to put in a bid to stage the Olympic Games in Britain? Bearing in mind the recent Government intervention leading to the switch in the venue of the England-Scotland football international from Wembley to Hampden Park, should there not be some Government intervention to ensure that some Olympic events are staged in Scotland? We should remember the recent exemplary behaviour of Scottish sports fans, compared with that of some of the hooligan elements down here.
There are many steps to be taken before anyone can plan for any eventualities in the next decade.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we should welcome the Olympic Games, perhaps hosted partly in England, partly in Wales, partly in Scotland and partly in Northern Ireland? Will he continue to have discussions with the British Olympic Association, and does he have any information about whether a substantial fund of private money will be available to finance the games, as was the case in America?
The latter part of my hon. Friend's question is an important consideration. The most important attitudes are those of the British Olympic Association and individual cities. There is a long way to go before there can be any planning.
I trust that the Minister will press for Britain to host the Olympic Games. Will he bear in mind the interests of Merseyside, which has several extremely good stadiums, football teams that do not get involved in punch-ups and a good sporting record? Does the Minister agree that it would be a good area in which to stage part of the Olympic Games?
I am at one with the hon. Gentleman when he refers to the good behaviour of the football teams in his area. I pay tribute to them and their record. These are matters for consideration. I remain at the disposal of the British Olympic Association if it wishes to have further discussions. There is a long way to go and, as I understand it, the selection is not made by the International Olympic Committee until mid-way through next year.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the sports promotion council in Glasgow has advanced claims to host the 1992 Olympics in that city? Given the diversity and quality of sporting facilities in Scotland, will my hon. Friend give an assurance that his Department will do everything possible to encourage the powers that be to consider Scotland as a place to host the Olympic Games?
I note what my hon. Friend said. I am sure that he will be well supported by my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Scottish Office in any possible or potential bids.
As the British Olympic Association says that it is the Government who have encouraged it to make a bid, what estimate have the Government made of the cost of providing a games village for upwards of 20,000 people, a 100,000-seater stadium, an international pool and similar facilities for 20 other sports? As the Government are restricting all local authorities' spending on sport, where do they expect the money to come from?
I am delighted to welcome the right hon. Gentleman's new-found zest for the private sector. I assure him that the Government have just as much vision as did the post-war Labour Government in hosting the 1948 games. Many steps have to be taken before any decisions can be made.
Local Authorities (Expenditure)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received in response to the reduction in the prescribed proportion of capital receipts which local authorities may spend.
My right hon. Friend and I have received a number of representations from right hon. and hon. Members and from local authorities. In response to those representations, my right hon. Friend has announced that local authorities may continue to use in full capital receipts from low-cost home ownership schemes instead of only 30 per cent. as proposed originally. He has also agreed to consider applications from local authorities which may not be able to meet their obligations under the Housing Defects Act 1984.
Does the Minister agree that it is sheer economic madness and incompetence of the highest order that, when we have a crisis in local government with education, social services and housing, local authorities are unable to spend their own money, thereby saving by doing repairs this year rather than in future when the bill for such repairs will be greater?
The hon. Gentleman will recall that the House has debated this matter fully on two occasions. The first was 27 February, when the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) was given responsibility for deploying the Opposition's case. The Government had a modest majority of 108. When, a fortnight later, on 13 March, responsibility for deploying the Opposition's case was transferred to the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), the Government had a majority of 121.I hope that the hon. Member for Copeland will speak for the Opposition more frequently.
What urgency is my hon. Friend according to the departmental review that he announced in the latter debate? Has he instructed his officials that a new system should be in place by this time next year?
I have told the House, as I have told my hon. Friend, that the present system of control by central Government of local authority capital expenditure is the reverse of perfect. Because we recognise that truth, and because this Government are striving towards perfection, we are giving more urgency to the review to which my hon. Friend referred.
The House is seeing more and more that the Minister does not want seriously to answer important questions put to him by both sides of the House. May I put to the Minister one question relating to the concession made by the Secretary of State in our last debate in respect of the Housing Defects Act? How many applications have been made by local authorities under that concession and, more importantly, how much money does the Secretary of State have available to make a reality of that concession?
No applications have yet been received from local authorities in response to the announcement by my right hon. Friend in the debate last month. On 27 March the Department sent a circular to local authorities, a copy of which, if it is not already in the Library, will be placed there by me. The resources to be made available will depend upon the strength of the case that local authorities are able to make. In the debate my right hon. Friend made it clear that he would consider sympathetically applications by local authorities.
Since mobility of labour is one of the key factors in reducing unemployment, and since one consequence of the reduction in the proportion of capital expenditure that local authorities can incur will be to restrict the rate at which public sector housing is built, does my hon. Friend agree that the impelementation of this policy makes it even more urgent that we should take steps to abolish the Rent Acts so that the private housing market can be reactivated?
I hope that it will be possible before too long to make a statement about the Government's policy in this matter.
Conservation (Management Agreements)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many management agreements have now been concluded between farmers and local authorities since the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 came into operation.
The Countryside Commission has been informed of 64 management agreements that have been concluded by local authorities under the provisions of the 1981 Act. Of these, 38 involve no financial consideration.
Does that rather disappointing total not indicate that the Act still needs a few more teeth? Is my hon. Friend aware that in some cases habitats and landscapes can be destroyed before a local authority even knows about it, let alone has the chance to conclude a management agreement? Is not this an argument for some kind of notification procedure under which a local authority has to be given notice in advance of an owner's intention to carry out work on his land?
I do not think that these figures necessarily represent the whole story. The provisions of the 1981 Act are only a part of the battery of powers that are available. There was a recent case in my hon. Friend's constituency where a felling licence was ignored. The result was that large fines had to be paid by those involved, which should remind people that other powers are available to deal with these matters.
Will the Minister give further consideration to the point that his hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) has made, and at the same time commend those farmers who have taken part in management agreements and those who are involved in the farming and wildlife advisory group? Is it not clear that their increasing commitment to conservation is not matched in any sensible way by the present Administration?
The hon. Member will not expect me to agree with the last point that he made, which I rebut strongly. However, I am delighted to join him in paying tribute to the farmers who, in many cases, under the advisory group, are doing a very good job. The survey recently carried out by the National Farmers Union shows what is being done by those farmers who have a real care for the countryside.
Since management agreements should involve an element of positive management rather than dealing with the handing over of public money for nothing in return, does my hon. Friend have any information about how many of the management agreements include such a positive element?
I do not have the figures with me, but all the power is there for positive elements to be included in the management agreements. The fact that many Countryside Commission agreements do not involve the payment of money makes the point that there is much more voluntary co-operation than people often realise.
Is the Minister aware of the comments of the Prince of Wales this morning that far too often farmers are still exploiting the land for profit without respect for conservation? Would not an appropriate response be to reinstate, at the behest of the Government, a provision in the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Bill putting a duty on MAFF to consider conservation as well as agricultural interests?
As usual, the Liberal party is concentrating on form rather than reality. We want developments of the kind to which the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) has paid tribute and which are indeed taking place. It is not a matter of passing Acts of Parliament and feeling that we have done something clever. It is a matter of getting real voluntary co-operation, and that is what the Government are doing.
Washington, Peterlee And Aycliffe
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the future of the Washington, Peterlee and Aycliffe new towns.
I announced on March 21 that the new town development corporations of Aycliffe, Peterlee and Washington would continue until 31 March 1988. That decision has been widely welcomed in the north-east.
Is the Secretary of State aware that that decision has been widely welcomed throughout the northeast, and especially by Labour Members? Will he confirm, however, that he is reducing the staffing and capital budgets of the Aycliffe and Peterlee development corporations from £12 million to £2 million at a time when unemployment in my constituency is 26·8 per cent.? In his reliance on private capital markets, is he aware that the development corporations were set up in the first place because of the failure of those markets?
The spending limits for all three authorities will be £11 million in 1986–87 and £8·5 million in 1987–88. We believe that that will give the development corporations ample opportunity to achieve the primary purpose of the extension — that is, to continue their promotional work and to complete the building work already in hand. In this context, I pay tribute to the way in which the development corporations have succeeded in attracting important investment to the north-east —notably the Nissan site, which I hope to visit in a few weeks' time.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that his decision is generally applauded in the north-east and that at a time of industrial change it is absolutely right to retain the job-seeking functions of the corporations?
That is the primary purpose of extending the lives of the development corporations. I very much welcome the progress being made by Sir Ralph Carr-Ellison, who is seeking to establish a voluntary development body to perpetuate and, I hope, improve the work being done in attracting new firms to the north-east.
Is the Secretary of State aware that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment informed me in a written answer yesterday that 6,000 people in the borough of Sunderland have been unemployed for more than three years? In those circumstances, is it not disgraceful and absurd that a respected job-promoting agency should be closed down?
Order. Does this have anything to do with the main question?
Yes, Mr. Speaker. With respect, I represent the new town of Washington, which is included in the question. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that, having created chaos in the north-east by not agreeing to an extension for the new town corporation—
Order. I thought that the Minister said that it was continuing. The hon. Gentleman talks as though it were closing down.
For your information, Mr. Speaker, the letter from the Department of the Environment about the future of the new town of Washington states that it has an extension of 2¼ years only and that it will then be closed down. Will the Minister pass a message to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that, chaos having been created in the north-east by obstacles being put in the way of the extension of the new town of Washington, by limiting it to 2¼ years and not to five years, for which we asked in reply to the consultative document, he is compounding the unemployment problem in that area?
' I am very fond of the hon. Gentleman, and we on the Conservative Benches respect him greatly, but I must say that he has got it wildly wrong. My decision to extend the life of these development corporations to 1988 has been warmly welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House and by the entire community of north-east London — [Interruption.] — England. I am only sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not able to join in the chorus of welcome for my decision.
As a former member of the board of Washington development corporation, I welcome my right hon. Friend's remarks this afternoon. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House whether the potential inward investment promotional rate of which he has been talking in respect of Washington, Peterlee and Aycliffe will apply also to other new town corporations, such as Telford, which adjoins my constituency, when they reach their winding-up dates?
No firm date has been set for the winding up of Telford development corporation, save that it will be towards the end of this decade. If there are promotional activities to be carried on after that, it will be for the business and local authority interests in the area to decide how best to carry that forward. It has always been recognised that the new town development corporations would have a limited life. It is to make sure that the essential functions of promotion are carried on that I have extended the life of these three in the north-east.
Is the Secretary of State aware that I am one person on the Labour Benches who gives only a cool welcome to the extension? Having regard to the National Coal Board's statements on pit closures since the end of the miners' strike, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, particularly in an area like mine, an extension of three years to Peterlee development corporation is simply inadequate? A minimum of five years is essential. Is he aware that he has cleverly put in blanket form the budgets for the three new towns? Is it not a fact—and will he come clean on this—that the budget for Peterlee development corporation is now less than half what it has been in the past? Will he say whether he is instructing Peterlee development corporation to reduce its staff?
It certainly would be appropriate that the staffing of the development corporations should match the resources that they have available. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I recognise that it is the concern of Aycliffe and Peterlee that they should have a fair share of the expenditure cake in comparison with Washington. This will be discussed with the corporations in the usual annual review of the finances.
Not representing any constituents in north-east London, I am not qualified to speak for them, but I am qualified to speak for the people in the non h-east. Perhaps the Minister would get it right. Will he accept that, after considerable pressure on him by my hon.Friends to make a decision, the decision that he has made is wrong and the period is not long enough? It would make more sense, if he believes in being converted to the real world, to say that what is required is that the budget should be made much bigger. Finally, I welcome the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) into the real world. He has now left market forces. Perhaps the Minister should leave them as well.
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's question calls for a reply.
There were three questions.
The hon. Gentleman has recognised that the decision has been widely welcomed in the north-east, and that this now gives time for local authorities, the TUC and industrial organisations to work with Sir Ralph in order to bring into existence the new body, which I think will carry forward this promotional activity.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any plans to meet the leaders of the Liverpool city council to discuss its budget proposals.
Is not that an unreasonable answer from the Secretary of State, bearing in mind the special problems that Liverpool faces above all other local authorities, which the right hon. Gentleman acknowledges? Will the right hon. Gentleman now state what instructions are to be given to the district auditor concerning Liverpool? Has he made any plans to send in commissioners if the council refuses to fix a rate?
I have made it clear many times in the House that the responsibility for administering services, whether in Liverpool or any other area of the country, rests with the elected councillors of that area. I have no powers to put in commissioners, and I have no desire to put in commissioners. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will use his influence to persuade the Liverpool city councillors that they must now make a rate to administer their city properly.
Will my right hon. Friend remember, in his exchanges with Liverpool city council, that were he to make any concessions at all to the irresponsibilities of that local authority, that would be viewed with great concern by economic and responsible authorities such as Norfolk county council, which act in a responsible and economical way?
Despite the boasts of some of the Liverpool city councillors last year, it is now widely recognised in Liverpool and elsewhere that no concessions were made to Liverpool last year, and it is not intended to make any concessions to Liverpool this year. The responsibility for making a rate rests firmly upon that city council.
Notwithstanding the answer from the Secretary of State, does he not recall his attitude following the visit which he and his hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction made to Liverpool last year, when he saw the deplorable housing situation in the city? He promised that he would use his best endeavours to give more assistance to housing. Despite what the hon.Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) has just said about Liverpool city council, it is doing the responsible work of regenerating 17 priority areas. We welcome the new Tate in the north, but is it not a bit incongruous that the right hon. Gentleman offers largesse on the one hand for something that is hardly a priority in Liverpool, and on the other hand ignores the elected representatives of the people of Liverpool?
On my visit to see the housing of Liverpool the following question struck me: how did it ever get like that, and who carried the responsibility for it? Secondly, I was struck by the immense progress being made by the housing co-operatives in Liverpool. I deeply regret the fact that Liverpool city council has thought fit to strike them off its list of those who receive help from it. I hope that the council will have second thoughts and support the housing co-operatives, as they are doing extremely good work.
Not only is the Secretary of State's geography wrong today, but so is his history. Is he not aware that for 10 years his own party, in coalition with the Liberals, was responsible for the administration of the city of Liverpool? Does the right hon. Gentleman not recall that the Labour party has been in power for only just over a year? Is it not a fact that it has inherited an appalling mess from the right hon. Gentleman's friends? Why does he take such pleasure in being vindictive about that council's determination to help the people of Liverpool solve their problems?
If the word vindictive were to be used, it might be much more appropriately applied to some of the members of Liverpool city council with whom I have tried to work and by whom I have been kicked in the teeth. If the hon. Gentleman still has any shred of influence in that quarter, perhaps he will recognise that, generally, authorities which seek to co-operate with the Government on inner city policy make more progress than those which positively refuse to do so, and take pleasure in doing nothing but attack the Government at every possible opportunity.
Manchester (Rate Support Grant)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has received any representations from Manchester city council in connection with the rate support grant settlement for 1985–86; and if he will make a statement.
Manchester city council was one of the 26 authorities represented at a collective meeting on 4 February.
Is my hon. Friend aware that when Manchester set its rate on Sunday, against the advice of the hard-Left leadership, the leader of the council, Councillor Stringer, described it as something that would bring a smile to the face of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State? If my hon. Friend is in touch with Councillor Stringer, will he ask him to bring a smile to the faces of some of my constituents who live on Councillor Stringer's overspill estates in my constituency, and to concentrate not on nuclear-free zones and police monitoring units, but on keeping those properties in a decent and proper state of repair?
I shall certainly do that. I noticed that Councillor Stringer also described the setting of the rate as a defeat for the Labour party. Since it was a victory for common sense, I suppose that he must be right.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that as well as the 112,000 signatures on a petition that was left on the Downing street doorstep, there were 10,000 people on the streets of Manchester calling for jobs, services and democracy? The Minister must recognise this, because he has given us a guarantee that he will visit Manchester. Will he give a commitment to the House today that when he comes to Manchester — unlike Ministers before him, who shed crocodile tears and then went away and did nothing—he will have an open mind?
I think that many of my hon. Friends will regard the fact that Manchester received a 3·8 per cent. increase in its target and a 10 per cent. increase in its GRE as a rather generous settlement.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent representations he has received regarding the implications of the House of Lords decision in the Hartshead Quarry case for the control of development in the vicinity of quarries.
I was sent copies of the report issued by the County Planning Officers Society on 14 November 1984 and the report issued by the Peak park joint planning board on 22 February 1985, both of which consider the implications of the Hartshead judgment. I have also received representations from the local authority associations. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) tabled a parliamentary question on this subject, and I have received nine letters from right hon. and hon. Members since 22 February.
Does the Minister realise and recognise the very serious implications of this judgment for planning authorities? Has he been reminded of the fact that we now have a situation in which limestone and sand quarries, which have sometimes discontinued operations for 10 or 20 years, can decide to recommence operations and no longer require planning approval? There is often housing and other residential accommodation adjacent to those workings, creating very serious problems. Will the Minister seriously consider urgently introducing new legislation to control this?
I can set the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest, because when the remaining provisions of part I of the Town and Country Planning (Minerals) Act 1981 are introduced there will be a range of powers available to authorities. It will then be for them to decide which of these is most appropriate to any individual case. Each case, of course, must be considered on its planning merits. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) on 11 March. That sets out our intentions in parliamentary terms over the next few months.
While I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for the additional information that he has given to the House on this important matter, and while he will appreciate, as I do, that quarrying is a vital employer in the Peak park and other such areas—and farming, too, for that matter—does he agree that there is an anomaly in the present planning legislation relating to quarrying? This does not apply to anything else. Does he not think, therefore, that legislation is required to put this right?
I do not believe that any new legislation is required. I think that my answer to my hon. Friend earlier this month outlined the position. We have to accept that, following the House of Lords ruling, planning permission to extract minerals from the site remains available unless the Peak park joint planning board exercises its powers to make an order revoking that permission or that use of the land. I certainly take note of what my hon. Friend has said, but when these orders are laid later in this Session they will give the local authorities a range of powers. That was the intention of the 1981 Act. It was designed to introduce after-care and further provisos.
Gleneagles Agreement (Private Clubs)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has discussed with the Association of District Councils the Gleneagles agreement and how it may affect the hiring of sports facilities to private clubs.
I am disappointed with that reply. Does my hon. Friend not think that he should discuss the matter with the Labour councils which are threatening to withdraw sports facilities from clubs just because some of their players have been to South Africa? Does he agree that the matter goes beyond the Gleneagles agreement and that if that policy were followed by Labour councils they would be at liberty to withdraw sports facilities from any team with members who are of a political colour different from their own?
The issue arouses deep passion on both sides of the House. It is for local authorities to decide how they will administer their sports facilities, and for the courts to decide whether their actions are unlawful. My locus in this respect is non-existent. The Court of Appeal has upheld the local authority's action as lawful within its duties under section 71 of the Race Relations Act 1976.
In the various discussions, has the Minister's attention been drawn to the strong concern in Scotland about the rugby associations involving themselves in a world cup, despite South Africa being involved? Is the Minister not worried that the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh might be jeopardised? Will he do more than he appears to be doing to protect the spirit of the Gleneagles agreement?
The House will be aware of the action that I took last year in relation to the rugby tour of South Africa. The House understands the Government's policy. Naturally, I am anxious to do everything that I can to ensure that all sports' governing bodies recognise our external obligations under the Gleneagles agreement. The Commonwealth Games in 1986 are important, not only for Britain, but for Commonwealth sport.
Notwithstanding the Minister's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle), do not the Government have an absolute duty to protect the freedom of individuals? If a local authority blatantly impinges upon the freedom of individuals because of their political beliefs, surely the Government must stand strongly behind those freedoms.
I endorse my hon. Friend's initial remarks, but it is not for the House of Commons to question a decision by the Court of Appeal.
Is it not time that the Rugby Union realised — as the judges have held in the case of the Leicester council and the Leicester rugby club —that public bodies are entitled to expect a more responsible attitude towards the Gleneagles agreement from people whom they finance? Since rugby received £175,000 last year from the Sports Council and public funds, what action will the Minister take to bring that home to the Rugby Union and to persuade it to act more responsibly in respect of South Africa?
We must ask ourselves the important question whether we want to stop coaching and rugby at junior level merely because the governing body decides to send a side to South Africa. I do not think that we should cut off the noses of some people to spite others. The money provided to develop and enhance rugby union at grass roots is a most important dimension. To cut that off would be a spiteful move for the future of rugby. We must try to educate the Rugby Union to have a wider concern for rugby throughout the world.
Local Authorities (Tender Lists)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will introduce legislation to prevent local authorities from excluding on political grounds individual companies from tender lists for contracts for council projects.
The consultation paper on competition in the provision of local authority services issued on 14 February proposes legislation to nullify the imposition of such irrelevant conditions in local authority contracts or invitations to tender. Subject to the consultation, it is proposed to legislate in the next Session of Parliament.
That is welcome news. Is my right hon. Friend aware that Labour and Liberal councillors on the Peterborough city council have combined to try to blackmail legal firms by threatening to prevent them contracting for city council business if they have done any work at RAF Molesworth—or even if they are willing to do such work? Is that not a disgraceful abuse of councillors' powers and counter to ratepayers' interests? Should that practice not be made illegal? How soon can we expect action?
I agree with my hon. Friend that such conduct is totally unacceptable. That is why we have put our proposals out for consultation. I look forward to receiving my hon. Friend's support for the legislation in the next Session.
Why do the Secretary of State and his Back-Bench colleagues always want to legislate when local politicians take a decision with which they disagree? Why do they not let local politicians defend such decisions at elections and let local electors make their choice of the policies that they support? Do the Secretary of State and his Back-Bench colleagues act in this way because local Conservatives have no confidence in their campaigning ability?
The hon. Gentleman's proposition is absolutely astonishing. Is the Liberal party defending what Peterborough council has done? If so, let us proclaim throughout the country that that is what we can expect if more Liberal councillors are elected next month.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what information he has as to the costs incurred by local authorities in removing asbestos from their buildings.
The joint central and local government working party on asbestos, set up by my Department last year, is at present seeking and collating information from the local authority associations on the scale of use of asbestos materials in buildings. This includes some information relating to the costs of removal of asbestos, but no national picture or overall estimate of costs is available.
Will the hon. Gentleman condemn Wandsworth council for taking legal action against two of my constituents, resulting in their incurring costs plus damages of nearly £9,000, when all they did was use legal action to delay for six days the demolition of Latchmere baths in my constituency because they feared that asbestos in that building would be a danger to local residents? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such public-spirited action by my constituents — one of whom is now a local councillor—should be rewarded, rather than penalised by the threat of bankruptcy?
I would be very ill-advised to do what the hon. Gentleman invites me to do. The case was taken to court. The hon. Gentleman's constituents lost and Wandsworth won, and Wandsworth was awarded costs. It is not for Ministers to comment on that decision.
As a curtain-raiser to an important Adjournment debate tomorrow, will my hon. Friend use his good offices to encourage local authorities to adopt the recently invented process of the vitrification of asbestos waste which, apart from removing the toxicity of the waste completely and therefore preventing health hazards, has the financial merit of being able to be undertaken in some cases at half the conventional cost of bagging and dumping the waste?
I am sorry to say that I shall not be participating in the Adjournment debate tomorrow. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State — the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave)—whose happy task that will be has heard my hon. Friend's remarks, and I know that his remarks will embrace the response to those proposals.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received from Basildon district council, following the setting by the council of a legal rate; and if he will make a statement.
I welcome Basildon's decision to fix a legal rate. No representations have been received consequent on that decision.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that Basildon district council proposes to close Billericay swimming pool from 7 May and that rate capping is the reason that the council gives for its action? Is my right hon. Friend aware also that the documents leaked to me from the management team of Basildon district council—a copy of which I gave to my right hon. Friend last night—make it clear that rate capping is not involved in the decision and that the same saving of £100,000 a year would have been achieved by cancelling the contract with Union Communications to handle the public relations for the council against the Government?
I thank my hon. Friend for letting me see those documents, because they show that the council's policy—
—wait for it. They show that the council's policy is to favour the areas regarded by the present Administration as having the greatest social need. What has the council done to implement that policy? It has cut out a recreational service but has gone on paying £100,000 to an advertising firm to conduct a campaign against Government policies. I hope that Basildon residents and ratepayers will recognise the cynicism of that decision.
Royal Commission On Environmental Pollution (Recommendations)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what recommendations of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution have been acted upon by the Government.
Since 1979 the Government have published positive responses to the recommendations contained in five Royal Commission reports, and set in hand follow-up action as appropriate.
Why do the Government not stop equivocating and sign the Ottawa declaration on acid rain?
In the answer to the tenth Royal Commission report, the Government have taken the trouble to set out the reasons why they did not want to do that, and I know that the hon. Gentleman is very familiar with the arguments in that response.
Will my hon. Friend confirm his opinion of the commission's findings on the efficacy of long sea outfall?
As my hon. Friend is aware, the Government have also responded to that matter in their answer to the tenth Royal Commission report. I refer him to that response, over which a great deal of trouble was taken.
As the Minister said in a television interview about Britain joining the 30 per cent. club:
may I ask what is stopping him?"If you want my opinion, I would have taken the risk of joining the 30 per cent. club",
The hon. Gentleman did not quote me fully. I said that that would have been an easy thing to do as a number of other countries have done it knowing perfectly well that they would do nothing about it. That is not how Britain approaches these matters, and I am proud of that.
On a point of order arising out of Question Time, Mr. Speaker. Do you accept that the people of Manchester will be very disappointed at the limited number of supplementary questions taken on a very important series of questions when compared with—
Order. The problem with Question Time is that although I do try to call as many hon. Members as possible, when an area has a number of Members representing it it is impossible to call all of them. Every time that Front Bench speakers rise—and they rose eight times today—it makes it more difficult for me to call Back Benchers.