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Environment

Volume 80: debated on Wednesday 12 June 1985

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Sports Council

1.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when next he plans to meet the new chairman of the Sports Council to discuss the future development of the Sports Council.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

I meet the chairman frequently and will be meeting him next week. A meeting to discuss the council's corporate plan has been arranged for 4 July.

Is the Minister aware that his appointment of John Smith as chairman of the Sports Council is popular in sporting circles, and that we wish him well? Does he recall the remarks of the new chairman on his appointment, when he said that he would take the appropriate initiatives to heal the wounds between the Central Council of Physical Recreation and the Sports Council and to bring about the unity necessary to rebuild sport in the United Kingdom? Will the Minister use his best endeavours to assist Mr. Smith to bring about that desirable aim?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about the new chairman of the Sports Council, who will be an admirable successor to Mr. Jeeps. Obviously, the House is aware that the rapport between the Sports Council and the CCPR has been of major concern to the hon. Gentleman. He has rightly identified a most important issue. The governing bodies can take courage from what the new chairman said at the inaugural press conference as a most constructive way forward. I am happy to tell the House that the new chairman has already met the chairman of the CCPR to discuss effective measures for future co-operation. I am at their disposal to help in any way that I can.

Can the Minister tell us anything about the progress of the Government, with or without consultation with the Sports Council, in dealing with the football violence that besets the entire country? Is he aware that it is now 13 weeks since the Prime Minister took her initiative and that in that time none of my hon. Friends, nor anyone with responsibility in the Labour party, has been consulted, despite our offer of help and the plea of the Government in seeking help? When will we be consulted? When do the Government intend to introduce legislation? Bearing in mind that there are only 11 weeks before the season starts, how on earth can we pass legislation and get the money and the work done in time for next season?

I am at the disposal of the House. The question refers to the future development of the Sports Council. I am more than happy to discuss these important issues. A meeting is to take place later this afternoon with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Prime Minister, other Ministers and the football authorities. Next week I am chairing the third meeting of a working party to assess the cost and effect of the work that will have to be done before August and the kick-off for the new season. I have concluded the first round of a meeting with Ministers of the eight countries in Europe to decide how we can improve and develop the importance of football within Europe. This series of measures is designed to ensure that recent tragic events are never repeated.

Oil (Onshore Drilling)

3.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a statement on the environmental implications of current and planned onshore drilling for oil.

My Department's circular 2/85 provided guidance to mineral planning authorities in preparing development plan policies and deciding individual applications. On 3 June we published a booklet setting out the environmental safeguards at each stage of development. These seek to achieve the right balance between the nation's need for oil and its concern to protect the environment.

I welcome the booklet, but can the Minister give an assurance that the damage to the quality of local life in all future drillings will not be any greater than that splendidly achieved at Lockton in north Yorkshire during the past 10 years? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if he applies the Lockton standard firmly, there need not be any public alarm or significant damage to the quality of life?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his most helpful comments. Many people are quite rightly concerned about the environmental implications. If we are to maximise this country's potential wealth and oil reserves there must be drilling, but it must be done in an environmentally acceptable way. The hon. Gentleman has drawn our attention to a way in which it can be done very well, and it is our objective to extend those standards.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that drilling for exploratory wells is about to commence in Poole harbour? We accept its necessity and appreciate the co-operation and planning on the part of BP in all its operations both in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne) at Wytch farm. If the Wytch farm standards are applied elsewhere, the public interest will be served both from the point of view of recovering oil and of protecting the environment.

Again I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know only too well the pressures placed on Members of Parliament as a result of such developments, but it has been shown that such developments can be carried out in an environmentally acceptable way. I, too, commend the arrangements that BP has made, together with Dorset county council. Indeed, I am glad that this has not become a party political matter, because it is in the interests of the country as a whole.

When cases go to the Secretary of State on appeal for his consideration, will the Minister ensure that some degree of equivalence is applied to them? Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the Secretary of State gives the same consideration to the people of south-east England when they find a few nodding donkeys near their gardens as was given, for example, to applications for opencast coalmining in south Wales, with its consequent ravaging of the environment?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point. There are three stages to the development of oil: exploration, appraisal and development. At each of the three stages there has to be a separate licence and a separate planning application. We also insist upon proper restoration and after-care. However, I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's remarks. If we had imposed some concern for restoration and after-care on the industrial development that took place in the 19th century, we would not have so many of the industrial scars that we see today.

In the context of mineral extraction, if my right hon. Friend has a chance to speak to his right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Energy, will he put it to them that if it is their intention to proceed with turning Solihull into a coalmining community, it must be done with the maximum environmental sensitivity—

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the question is about onshore drilling for oil, and his point seems rather wide of that.

Improvement And Repair Grants

4.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he collects information on how many local authorities are currently giving discretionary improvement and repair grants.

6.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many local authorities currently have a block on accepting or processing new improvement grant applications; how many of those are in urban areas; and if he will make a statement.

Responsibility for administering the home improvement grant system rests with local authorities. The Department does not collate information in the form requested on the grant approval practices of individual authorities.

The Minister's answer shows how little interest the Government have in repairs. May I inform the hon. Gentleman that only a handful of local authorities now deal with new applications for improvement and repair grants because of the cuts in housing investment programmes and the freezing of capital receipts? There was a pre-election boom in improvement grants, but there are now thousands of disillusioned people — many of whom are poor—who cannot have any repairs carried out because they cannot obtain help from the local authority. If Environment Ministers are to be more than just the Treasury's errand boys, when will there be a resumption of a reasonable level of repair grants? According to the Minister's own figures, there are 3·5 million unsatisfactory dwellings in this country.

The local authority is obliged by law to process and award mandatory grants. In Lambeth, discretionary grants are being considered by the local authority. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this year the likely spend on improvement grants will be well in excess of the £90 million spent when he and his Government were last in office.

Is not Waltham Forest, which incidentally is Tory-controlled with Liberal support, one of the increasing number of local authorities putting a block on improvement grants? Does that not mean that many people in Leyton are having the vital means to combat dilapidations cut off? What action will the Government take to restore grants, or will they openly confess that their policy is that good housing is expendable?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government make an allocation available to Waltham Forest for housing, and it is up to the authority to decide how much to allocate to improvement grants and how much to other aspects of housing policy. We have made it clear that we hope that it will give priority in improvement grants to those on low incomes, the disabled, and those living in statutory improvement areas. The expenditure on improvement grants in Waltham Forest is likely to be substantially in excess of that six years ago.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is a problem in the midlands as well as in London? In the light of the Green Paper, which talks about loans, will my hon. Friend have another look at the basic implementation of improvement grants, and in particular at what the late Anthony Crosland introduced in the late 1960s, because that system worked and people who applied for grants got them?

As my hon. Friend knows, we have recently issued a Green Paper outlining some new proposals for improvement grants and that will provide the opportunity, which my hon. Friend is seeking, to inject some helpful comments on how we might improve the system. Until the system is changed, people are entitled to apply under the legislation as it is; and, as I have shown, that is a fairly generous regime.

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the deteriorating condition of our housing stock will be adequately tackled through the system proposed in the Green Paper of replacing grants by loans that must be repaid when the owner moves? Will that not simply be a tax on moving and make it even more difficult for the unemployed to get on their bikes?

An essential component of the Green Paper is the suggestion that the private sector should play a far greater part in restoring the housing stock, together with the owner-occupier. It is not right to expect the public sector to bear the burden of modernising the housing stock. At the end of the day, the responsibility should rest with the owner of the property.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Green Paper on improvement grants contains much that is immensely worth while, particularly, for example, on the simplification of the designated areas and the definition of what is an unfit property? Therefore, is there any likelihood of early legislation on this important subject?

My hon. Friend will have to await the Queen's Speech to see our legislative proposals, but she is right to draw our attention to the suggestions in the Green Paper. The abolition of the rateable value, for example, will bring entitlement to many more people who are denied it at the moment, and there is a suggestion that there should be more generous compensation for those affected by clearance. There is much in the Green Paper that is worthy of support.

Is the Minister aware that in the Rotherham metropolitan borough more than 600 applicants for improvement grants have been disappointed in recent months, and that that is happening at a time when hundreds of building workers are unemployed? Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Green Papers are no answer to the urgent need for the improvement of Britain's housing stock and the creation of jobs?

It is up to the hon. Gentleman's local authority to decide how much of its resources to make available for improvement grants. I hope that it will take note of the hon. Gentleman's view that it should give greater priority to this than to other aspects of the programme. As to the Green Paper, if its proposals were followed up there would be better use of public money in that it would be targeted at the people and the buildings that need public sector help.

Asbestos And Toxic Substances

5.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps he will take to ensure that local communities, community councils and local councils are consulted prior to the dumping of asbestos or toxic substances in their areas.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. William Waldegrave)

Deposit of such wastes is already subject to licensing by county councils in England and by district councils in Scotland and Wales. All authorities can be expected to take account of local opinion in their decisions. In England, county councils are obliged by law to consult district councils.

Does the Minister consider it reasonable that his Department should have exploited a licence which was granted to deal with the dumping of domestic asbestos in Glenboig so that it will now have to cope with the whole of the Trident project and the vast quantities of asbestos arising from it? Is it fair that mining communities, which have already had more than their fair share of pneumoconiosis and other problems, should now have to put up with such dangers to their health and that of their families?

Whatever is done with asbestos waste, it must be done safely in regard to local communities and any other people in the area. I gather that the PSA's contractor, Shanks and McEwan, was asked on Monday by the sheriff court to have further consultations with the Monklands district council, and it will do so shortly.

Has my hon. Friend had time to consider the implications of and opportunities provided by the new technological process of vitrification of asbestos waste, following the Adjournment debate which I introduced two months ago? Does my hon. Friend appreciate that, if it can be done economically, it will remove the anxieties of hon. Members on each side of the House as well as those of local authorities and communities?

The process is indeed relevant to the problem raised by the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) and is under study.

Is the Minister aware that there is a great deal of disquiet in my constituency about the burial of asbestos waste? Is he aware that 100 tonnes of asbestos waste have been buried by the Central Electricity Generating Board on the site of Cliff Quay power station? Is he satisfied that the regulations governing the burial of such waste are adequate? Will he not hesitate to come before the House and seek to alter the regulations if he has any doubts in his mind arising from evidence from Ipswich or any other part of the country?

I am sure that any Minister must give that assurance. We have had the recent Doll inquiry into asbestos dangers, and the regulations seem to be satisfactory, but if any serious doubts were brought forward my Department would treat them as a matter or urgency.

Can the Minister tell the House whether there is any truth in the rumours that several hundred thousand tonnes of asbestos waste are to be dumped in Glenboig? Is it not curious that a contract which was let for the disposal of domestic waste is now apparently turning into one for the major disposal of asbestos from the nuclear submarine programme? Is that not a very unsatisfactory state of affairs?

Why does the Secretary of State not call in this proposal to dump large amounts of asbestos in the way proposed, especially bearing in mind what he said when publishing the report of the hazardous waste inspectorate? The Secretary of State then said that the report "shows a disturbing situation. It describes a level of performance in both public and pri/vate secto/rs /which too frequently falls below acceptable standards."—[Official Report, 5 June 1985; Vol. 80, c. 166.].

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not out of order for an hon. Member to make a quotation during Question Time?

Order. The question was rather a long one. It is not in order for the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) to read the passage, but he may paraphrase it.

Has not the Secretary of State's own inspectorate reported that the methods currently employed for the disposal of such wastes are very unsatisfactory? Will he now call in the proposal?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with the outcome of Monday's hearing. As was shown, the licence is adequate, but the sheriff has asked for further discussion between the contractor and the Monklands district council. My own Department is considering all the options. Understandably, this scale of operations was not envisaged originally, and we must see that the matter is dealt with properly.

System-Built Housing

7.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will institute an inquiry into the problems of system-built local authority housing and its implications for future housing investment.

The Building Research Establishment has carried out studies into problems associated with prefabricated reinforced concrete houses designed before 1960 and has published reports. It is now making a study of more recent large panel systems of construction. My Department has written to all local authorities asking them to let us know what work they believe is needed to renovate the houses and flats which they own, including system-built dwellings. When I have the results of this inquiry, I will consider the implications for future housing investment.

Is it not necessary for the Government to give a clear commitment that they are prepared to make financial resources available to deal with this massive problem? If the Government do not make those resources available, they will condemn many thousands of people to live in housing that is environmentally and socially unfit in many respects. People look to the Government for action. What action will the Minister take?

I have already explained to the House that the Building Research Establishment is inquiring into this matter. Sixteen full-time members of the staff at BRE are engaged in the study. I prefer to defer a decision on future investments that will be needed to deal with the problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred until after we have studied the reports from local authorities. I look forward to my meeting, which has been arranged for today week, with the hon. Gentleman and the chairman of Leeds city council housing committee.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have already taken action with the implementation of the Housing Defects Act 1984? Does my hon. Friend welcome the agreement which appears to have been reached between the Building Societies Association and the National House Building Council? Building societies are to recommend to their vendors the fact that building societies will now be able to lend mortgages on PRC houses, thereby enabling people whose houses have been blighted to take advantage of the grants under the Housing Defects Act and once again restore a free market to this vital section of the community.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He might have reminded the House, although he did not, that the Labour party voted against the Second Reading of the Housing Defects Bill. I welcome the progress that has been made by the NHBC and the building societies to arrive at an acceptable method of repairing defective houses. We do not yet have those acceptable methods of repair, but I hope that they will be in operation before the summer.

Housing Standards

8.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his most recent estimate of the number of homes in the United Kingdom regarded as being below tolerable standards.

The 1981 "English House Condition Survey" estimated that 1 · 1 million dwellings in England were unfit for human habitation. An updated estimate will be provided by the next survey to be held in 1986.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris), that only by providing proper improvement grants to private owners will we keep pace with the deterioration in housing stock? Is he aware that people in local government well remember what happened some years ago in the cities when the rate of grant was reduced from 75 to 50 per cent? Suddenly, private owners were unable to carry out the necessary renovations of their houses. Unless proper improvement grants are made available to those people, will we not be faced with having to demolish and rebuild some properties at far greater cost?

I must question the assumption at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, that it is up to the taxpayer to maintain the condition of privately-owned houses. In the first instance, it must be the responsibility of the owner-occupier to maintain his house in good condition. Where that has failed, there is a case for public sector intervention in certain cases. It would be wrong to imply, as the hon. Gentleman did, that the emphasis on restoring the condition of private housing stock rests with the taxpayer.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the substantial reduction in the number of houses below a tolerable standard north of the border owes a great deal to the success of the Government's policy on housing improvement grants? Does he also agree that, judiciously used, housing improvement grants can do a great deal to improve housing stock and to create employment in the construction sector? Will my hon. Friend and his colleagues press the Treasury to make appropriate resources available for this important grant?

I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that the Department of the Environment has done well in relation to improvement grants. The figure increased from £90 million to £900 million over six years at a time of restraint on public expenditure generally. I hope my hon. Friend also agrees that, within public expenditure constraints, we have tried to make improvement grants a priority. I was encouraged to learn of the good results in Scotland. I am sure that the policy over the past five or six years has resulted in large numbers of houses in England being improved.

Does the Minister agree that the Government's only response to the problems of deteriorating and defective housing has been to cut local authority investment programmes by more than half in cash terms in the last five years and to prevent local authorities from using their own capital receipts to assist with the problem? Is he aware that that demonstrates yet again the Government's contempt for the badly housed, of whom there are hundreds of thousands?

I reject that analysis entirely. The policy of the Government has been to engage the resources of the private and public sectors to tackle the housing problems and to generate a large volume of receipts for local authorities from vigorous sales as a result of the right to buy, which was opposed at the time by Labour Members. I repeat that the answer to the problems caused by poor housing conditions does not rest solely on more public money being provided. We must also get the resources of the institutions and owner-occupiers.

Will my hon. Friend accept, however, that it is far cheaper to improve a house than to knock it down and build another? Is he aware that where clearance has taken place the social problems that have resulted have far outweighed any savings that my hon. Friend thinks there may have been in terms of improvement grants? Will he reconsider the importance of improvement grants, which I believe are good for the community, good for first time house-buyers, good for the country and ensure good value for money?

Order. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides want to hear the Minister's reply.

If my hon. Friend re-reads the Green Paper on improvement grants which we published a few weeks ago he will see that the Government share his desire to maintain the housing stock in good condition. However, we say that it is more important in the future to engage the resources of the private sector as well as those of the public sector so as to make even faster progress than we have so far made. I hope he will agree that the Government's commitment to getting the private institutions—building societies, pension funds and the building industry — to put more into it is wholly consistent with our philosophy and will enable us to make faster progress than we would were we to rely solely on publicly funded improvement grants.

The Minister should be deeply ashamed to stand at the Dispatch Box and announce to the House and, more importantly, to the country, that 1·1 million houses are not in a tolerable condition, especially at a time when he is cutting not only improvement grants but the financial wherewithal to solve the problem. Is it not patently obvious to him, even at this stage, that his policies have failed? Will he go back to the drawing board and re-think the whole issue, not just because of what Labour Members think about his policies, but on behalf of the people who are living in the houses in question? Is he aware that if he does not do that he will be condemning them to living in the sort of intolerable conditions in which he would not be prepared to live? Will he please have a re-think and produce a new solution, knowing that his policies have patently failed?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the figure of unfit houses that was revealed in the 1981 survey was lower than the figure shown in the 1976 survey. [Interruption.] The 1976 figure showed fewer unfit houses than there were in 1971, and the 1981 figure showed fewer unfit houses than there were in 1976. It is not true to say, therefore, that there are more unfit houses. The answer to the rest of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question is that we have recently outlined some fresh initiatives in relation to home improvements to enable faster progress to be made, and I look forward to seeing his response to our Green Paper.

Rent Acts

9.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to complete his review of the Rent Acts.

The Government hope to introduce legislation to encourage the supply of more homes for renting in the private sector, but probably not during the lifetime of this Parliament.

In view of newspaper rumours that the Cabinet has decided not to go ahead with the lifting of all rent restrictions, can the Secretary of State confirm that this is because the Prime Minister suddenly realised what the electoral consequences would be for her personally in Finchley if she lifted all rent controls in a constituency where no fewer than 23 per cent. of the households are living in privately rented accommodation, compared with 12 per cent. in the rest of the country?

I do not think that anyone other than the hon. Gentleman is talking about lifting all rent controls from privately rented property—[Interruption.] The fact of the matter is that the Labour party has done all that it can over the years to undermine the private rented sector and is determined to do nothing whatever to help it in the future. A heavy load of responsibility rests upon the Labour party.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are a substantial number of empty dwellings which were previously privately rented, particularly in London, which, if brought back into use, would go a long way towards solving the housing problem, and that the best way of achieving this aim would be to revive the private rented sector?

I agree with my hon. Friend, but the fact is that to restore the private rented sector so that it can play a proper role in housing the people of this country requires the confidence of landlords. Whatever proposals we introduced before the next general election would inevitably face the negative threat of repeal by the Labour party. That is why it is more sensible to consider introducing legislation early in the next Parliament.

Given that the Secretary of State long ago gave up the policy of building houses and that he has now gone back on the policy of improving houses and reforming the Rent Acts, what housing policy do this Government have left?

The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. There has been a huge recovery in the building of houses for sale. He will have seen the latest forecasts of the House Builders Federation. It expects substantially to increase the number of starts this year.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that by causing housing shortages the Rent Acts have been responsible for more misery and unhappiness than almost any other social question? Is it not shameful of the Government to have abandoned the cause of the repeal of the Rent Acts?

I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government have done no such thing. We share his view that there is a very important role to be played by the private rented sector, but if it is to play that role the Government have to enjoy the confidence of landlords and of those who would build and let. That is unlikely to happen as a result of any legislation passed before the next general election, and that is why I have decided to postpone it.

Is it not the case that the Minister for Housing and Construction has suffered a bitter political disappointment? His plan to abolish the Rent Acts and rent regulations have been vetoed by the Cabinet. One notices that he has not resigned. Is the Secretary of State aware that it will come as a considerable relief to many private tenants in London and elsewhere that there is to be no abolition of security of tenure and of the rent regulations, which, if it did come about, would cause the same misery as the Tory Rent Act of 1957?

The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. There has never been any proposal to abolish rent control for sitting tenants. That was made absolutely clear. If the hon. Gentleman does not recognise that, in part at least, the problems of homelessness can be traced to the decline in the private rented sector, he is even more blind than I thought.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be widespread disappointment at his announcement today? Many people feel that the problems of the homeless could very largely be met by liberalising the Rent Acts so as to bring into occupation the large quantities of empty housing that exist in this country?

My hon. Friend is right. If landlords are to be persuaded, after legislation, to let their empty property, they need to have confidence that they will be able to regain possession. Because of the threats of the Labour party that any such legislation would be repealed, there does not seem to be a great deal of sense in seeking to introduce legislation in this Parliament. My hon. Friend referred to empty properties. For some time we have been turning our attention to ways of trying to reduce the number of empty properties in the public sector, which has become a major scandal.

We are glad to have the confidence of the Secretary of State that Labour Members will be sitting on the Treasury Bench after the next election. One reason for that will be that we put the security of tenants above the profits of landlords. Although the Secretary of State and Conservative Back Bench Members bleed their hearts out for the homeless, do they not understand that the last time the Conservative party went down the road of Rachmanism and de-control—in 1957—the House was told that that would lead to an increase in private rented homes and a decrease in homelessness. However, it led to the fastest decline in the private rented sector since the war. Is the Minister aware that if the Government reintroduce the de-control of new or existing tenancies it will lead, not to an increase in rented accommodation, but to a decrease, hardship and Rachmanism?

The hon. Gentleman simply does not understand what he is talking about. Is a landlord more likely to bring pressure on a tenant to vacate his premises if that tenant is paying a low protected rent, or if he is paying a market rent? If there were de-control of new lettings, with tenants paying market rents, that would restore the balance. The hon. Gentleman has made the attitude of the Labour party crystal clear, and has fully justified our decision to wait until the next election.

Countryside Commission

10.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will state the level of funding for the Countryside Commission annually since 1979 at constant prices.

At constant prices and 1985 value, Countryside Commission expenditure has increased from £9 million in 1979 to £15·3 million this year. But the earlier figure excludes staff and accommodation costs, which were met directly by the Department until 1 April 1982. On a comparable basis, the increase in real terms is about 35 per cent.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information, and I am sure that the House will support funding the Countryside Commission in a reasonable way, because it must discharge many difficult duties. Can he say what will happen when the GLC and the metropolitan councils are abolished? At present, they undertake duties and responsibilities that will fall upon the Countryside Commission after abolition.

Yesterday I met the chairman and senior officers of the Countryside Commission to discuss its corporate plan, and we discussed this matter in some detail. It will be a factor that we shall take into account when deciding the funds to be provided to the Countryside Commission next year.

Does the Minister appreciate that the Opposition believe that the voluntary amenity and conservation bodies are essential in the protection of the countryside? Will he confirm that, although the budget of the Countryside Commission has been increased, strings have been attached to it? One such string is that the amount provided to the voluntary societies is strictly limited. Will he increase that limit?

The Countryside Commission put that point to us yesterday, and we shall take it into account. It is not unfair to reflect the priorities of the Government and the House in the plans of the Countryside Commission, and the corporate plan is designed to be a reasonable consensus on the priorities.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one success of the Countryside Commission has been the establishment of demonstration farms, which have shown that productive agriculture and imaginative conservation can work hand in hand? Should we not follow up that success, and could not our aim of good stewardship for the countryside be furthered by giving great publicity to the demonstration farms?

My hon. Friend is right. The growth of farming and wildlife advisory groups, with the help of the Countryside Commission, has been an outstanding success in countryside policy in recent years. I hope that progress will be continued, and, if possible, accelerated.

Council House Sales (Bolton)

11.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will give the projected number of right-to-buy purchases in Bolton for 1985–86.

In its 1984 housing investment programme return, Bolton reported expecting 17 low-cost home ownership sales and 400 other dwelling sales in 1985–86. Authorities were not asked to separate right-to-buy sales.

Will my hon. Friend look into the case of my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Bailey? They have a clear right to buy their council house, but are being obstructed by the joint efforts of Bolton council and the Greater Manchester council.

As, at long last, it is now Labour party policy to support the right-to-buy, I am sorry that this obstruction is continuing. I shall indeed see whether rights which Parliament intended to go to Mr. amd Mrs. Bailey are being unduly delayed or obstructed by two Labour-controlled authorities. I shall write to my hon. Friend as soon as I can.

Are not an increasing number of people who were encouraged to buy their homes now asking local authorities to repurchase them because of poverty and unemployment — [HoN. members: "In Bolton."] — in Bolton and the rest of the country? Does the Minister keep statistics on the number of people who wish to resell their houses to local authorities?

Repossessions of properties mortgaged to local authorities have fallen from 1,100 in 1981–82 to 800 in 1983–84.1 am sure that those figures are as relevant to Bolton as to anywhere else.

Home Improvement

12.

asked the Secretary of Ştate for the environment what representations he has received following the publication of the Green Paper on home improvements.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what responses he has received to the Green Paper on home improvement grants.

To date I have received four considered responses and a letter from an hon. Member on behalf of a constituent. There have also been a number of requests for a longer consultation period, and on 10 June my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction announced that the period is to be extended from 9 July to 30 September.

With 1·1 million unfit dwellings, including 500,000 with outside toilets, does the right hon. Gentleman not appreciate that this Green Paper, based on the means test principle, in no way matches the immensity of the problem? Should not the Secretary of State ensure that local authorities are given the wherewithal to tackle this vital work?

Overwhelmingly, the maintenance and improvement of private houses is, and always has been, carried out at the expense of their owners, with or without loans from building societies or banks. We expect that to continue. I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would support a system whereby help from the taxpayer should be confined to those who really need it. It makes no sense to tax the public to pay for home improvements when owners can well afford such improvements themselves.

1

As early legislation on this Green Paper seems doubtful, will my right hon. Friend re-write the section dealing with rip-offs by cowboys? Is he aware that there is an extremely disappointing response in the Green Paper and that much stronger consumer protection measures are necessary?

I am sure that that is one of the matters to which we shall give great attention once we have received representations on the Green Paper. I hope that the extension of time for the submission of responses will be welcomed, not least by the building industry, which is looking forward to playing a fuller part in securing the maintenance, repair and improvement of the private sector.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Government's home improvements policy is bordering on the farcical? It is clear from the postbags of most Members of Parliament that at the first meeting of a local authority at the beginning of the financial year more applications are submitted than there is money available, and that for the next 11 months local authorities tell applicants that no home improvement money is left.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that the proposals in the Green Paper are a considerable simplification of the system, particularly of the different categories of grant. They draw a clear distinction between the mandatory improvement of houses, for which grants will continue to be available., and the discretionary repair and improvement of houses, for which a system of loans is suggested. In both cases this will be based on the means of the owner. This is a very much more rational system for securing public help for those owners who cannot afford to do the work themse/lves. I had hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would support that as a considerable improvement on the present system.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that expenditure arising from improvement grants is a very cost-effective way of maintaining the quality of our housing stock from the taxpayers' point of view and that it gives rise to a great deal of labour-intensive activity, adding demand to the British economy? In the light of that, does he agree that it is not the most appropriate area in which to seek savings?

I hope that my hon. Friend will have taken comfort from the most recent figures published by the Department, which suggests that in the first quarter of this year total expenditure on repairs, maintenance and improvement was 10 per cent. up on the previous quarter and 8 per cent. higher than for the comparable period of the previous year. [Interruption.] I hope that the Opposition will applaud that, because that is how to get houses repaired and improved. Even more significantly, that increase in total expenditure comes at a time when the peak of expenditure on improvement grants has already passed. I take much comfort from that.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the statement on page 1 of the Green Paper that there are 3·5 million unsatisfactory houses is a damning indictment of Government policy in the last half dozen years? Why will the Government not come clean about the proposed changes? There are no figures in the Green Paper relating to compatibility with the social security review, and no figures are given in the social security review either. Does the right hon. Gentleman admit that the Government are trying to disguise the fact that they intend to make major savings in this area in which investment is desperately needed? Will he also publish figures, as the Secretary for Wales has recently done, giving an analysis of renovation grants? Is he aware that the analysis shows that the system is working quite well in Wales, in that the average household income for recipients of grant is just over £5,000 and 72 per cent. of those who received grants had savings of less than £1,000, so people on low incomes are clearly benefiting from the system?

We intend to publish the full results of the English distribution of grant inquiry in the autumn. Annex 1 to the Green Paper sets out the main findings in some detail, but I can give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that the full figures will follow later.

The Green Paper rightly includes an annex about improvements and adaptations for the disabled. Does the Secretary of State intend that that should also cover improvements and adaptations for the elderly? Is he aware of the splendid "Staying Put" scheme sponsored by the Anchor housing association, and will he encourage the provision of loans for work of that kind?

I am well aware of the excellent work of the Anchor housing association through that scheme. I hope that the proposals in the Green Paper can be used to reinforce that work. I must, however, put it firmly to the House that it makes no sense for the taxpayer to have to put his hand in his pocket—we are always being told that people pay tax at far too low a level of income—to finance work on other people's houses when those other people could well afford to do the work themselves. We shall help those who need help, but not those who can afford to do the work themselves.

Water Supplies (Nitrate Content)

14.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has now come to a decision on the applications from water authorities for exemption from the regulations limiting the nitrate content of public water supplies.

The Council of European Communities' Ministers has laid down, with effect from the 15 July, a maximum concentration of 50 mg of nitrate per litre of water. Under article 9 the directive allows for derogations to be made and I have received 49 applications for derogation. I will announce my decision shortly.

Will the Minister accept my sincere congratulations on having so far resisted the enormous pressure on him and the Secretary of State to approve derogation,s which would be an environmental disaster and a potentially serious health hazard? Does he agree that it would be unthinkable for the Government to agree even to a temporary derogation, against the clear views of the World Health Organisation, without steps being taken to reduce the appalling use of nitrate fertilisers on farm land, which merely pollutes public water supplies?

My hon. Friend will know that the advice of the World Health Organisation does not accord with that which we have received in the report of the joint committee on medical aspects of water quality, which was published in April last year. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend knows as well as any hon. Member, this is an extremely serious matter. I would want to give it more careful consideration. I shall meet our principal medical advisers before I come to a decision.

Why should we allow farmers to continue to use large quantities of nitrogen fertilisers which pollute our water supplies, endanger health and threaten wildlife, merely to produce large quantities of unwanted food, which must be stored at great expense to the taxpayer? We would not allow manufacturing industry to get away with that, would we? Would it not be more sensible for the hon. Gentleman to put pressure on the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to stop farmers from using excessive quantities of nitrogen?

The House will know that, under the Control of Pollution Act 1974, a water authority can prosecute in appropriate cases when there has been pollution of a water supply. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, following discussions between my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and me, a code of good agricultural practice, which deals with nitrates among other things, was issued in January. I hope that farmers will follow that advice. In conjunction with my right hon. Friend, I shall continue to monitor the situation.

My hon. Friend has told the House how important this matter is. Can he therefore explain why the Government are cutting the subsidy for research at the Freshwater Biological Association, which is in my constituency, when such an important part of its research is concerned with the effects of nitrates on water supply?

Although there might be/ some reductions in my noble Friend's constituency, there is an increase in other research, notably at the universities.

House Building (North-West Region)

15.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the house building programme in the north-west region.

About 20,050 dwellings were completed in the north-west region in 1984, compared with 18,250 in 1983 and 17,450 in 1982.

Is the Minister aware that those figures are pathetic when set against the need for housing in the north-west region? When the Secretary of State visits the north-west next week, and especially when he visits the city of Salford, will he please listen intently to the representations that will be made by that authority about the devastating effect on its housing programme of the severe cuts in housing investment programme money during the past six years?

My right hon. Friend is looking forward to his visit to the north-west in a few days' time. He will, of course, listen attentively to representations made by local councillors about the gravity of the housing situation there. I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees that the figures that I gave show a welcome increase in the number of completions in the north-west region.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although it is important to consider the house building programme in the north-west, the building programme in the southeast is equally important? A planning application in the south-east region had a public inquiry two and a half years ago, and one single inspector has yet to make up his mind one way or the other.

Local Authorities (Services)

16.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will carry out a survey of all local authorities to establish the changes in support for: home helps, nursery education, capitation, revenue support, mentally handicapped, the elderly, concessionary fares, adaptations under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, community facilities, industrial promotion and repairs and maintenance to local authority property.

I have no plans to extend the surveys already undertaken by my Department to collect information on local authority expenditure on these services.

If a genuine survey were conducted, would it not reveal that support for home helps, nursery education, capitation, revenue support, mentally handicapped—[HoN. members: "Reading."] Yes, it is a long list—the elderly, concessionary fares, adaptations for the chronically sick and disabled, community facilities, industrial promotion budgets, repairs and maintenance to local authority properties — for every-thing affecting local authority programmes — has been cut to shreds? Why should Labour-controlled authorities, which were elected with a mandate to retain services, feel compelled to implement cuts imposed on them by the Government which offend the spirit of their manifestos?

The hon. Gentleman claims that there have been cuts in social provision in his area. By 1983·84, there were 10 per cent. more home helps than there were four years previously and 3 per cent. more nursery pupils, over the same period. Expenditure on concessionary fares increased by 90 per cent. over the same period. In the area covered by his district council, concessionary fares have increased by 89 per cent. Nursery school expenditure in Cumbria increased by 38 per cent. and home help expenditure increased by 69 per cent. I hope that he will personally thank the Prime Minister for the increase in social provision in his area.

Division (Member's Name)

3.30 pm

Last night, after the 10 o'clock Division, the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) complained that, after having passed through the Aye Lobby, he found that the Tellers had already left. Mr. Deputy Speaker undertook to inquire into the matter. Inquiries have shown that the hon. Gentleman was in no way to blame. Accordingly, I direct that his name should be added to those recorded as voting in the Aye Lobby and that the total number should be corrected.

I/ a/m deeply grateful for what you have said, Mr.Speaker. I am sorry for any trouble that I may have caused to anyone.

Pensioners' Heating And Communications

3.32 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to guarantee supplies of gas and electricity to pensioners and to abolish standing charges for pensioners for gas and electricity and to abolish telephone rentals.

Last winter was an especially cold and unpleasant one and many people used extra heating during the winter to maintain some degree of comfort in their homes. I am sure that Members of this place did so, along with many pensioers throughout the country. Those hon. Members who did so will have no problem in paying last winter's gas and electricity bills, but many pensioners have been in some fear ever since the end of the winter, as they do not know how they will be able to pay their bills. The bills will be especially high because the winter was particularly severe.

It is important that we discuss the effects of the high costs of heating and cooking on pensioners and try to do something to alleviate them. Many statistics are available, but one that stands out a mile is that the deaths of the elderly are greater by 22 per cent. during the winter months than they are in the summer months. This is because the elderly cannot cope with the cold. Unfortunately, because of the high costs, many of them do not heat their homes to the level that they should. Many suffer from hypothermia and tragically many die as a result. The House should consider this matter seriously.

The number of pensioners whose gas or electricity supply is cut off as a result of inability to pay the bill is considerable. During December 1983 to December 1984, there were 92,825 electricity cut-offs. The most recent estimate suggests that about 4·5 per cent. of that number were pensioner households, which means that over 4,000 pensioners had their electricity supply cut off during that period.

The electricity and gas boards both claim that the number of cut-offs has reduced since the introduction of direct payment schemes, whereby pensioners and other poor people have their gas and electricity bills paid direct. That may be a satisfactory way for the boards to collect their money and to make the enormous profits that they now enjoy, but it results in a squeeze on the household budgets of pensioners and others who are the poorest in our society. This means that they lose out in other directions. For example, they may not eat properly and they may be unable to go out or do anything else to support their standard of living.

The aim of the Bill is, first, to guarantee supplies of gas and electricity for pensioners so that they cannot be cut off in any circumstances. That aim is based on society recognising that pensioners hold a special place in society and have special needs and that cutting off their gas or electricity is dangerous and could lead to their death.

I also suggest that we go some way towards alleviating pensioners' hardship by abolishing standing charges for them. The system of standing charges has been in operation for some years. It was supported by a report from the Price Commission on gas prices in 1979 and 1980 which claimed:

"The economic rationale for a separate standing charge for domestic credit customers is that it ensures that prices charged are more closely related to costs than would be the case if a single rate per therm were charged at all levels of usage. The supply of gas involves fixed costs per customer unrelated to the volume supplied."
I object to the fact that the report says that the introduction of standing charges would protect the largest consumers of gas and electricity, whereas I believe that we should be protecting the smallest consumers. The standing charge system means that the smallest consumers pay the most for gas and electricity. Because of that, a rebate system was introduced which meant that no consumer would pay more than half the bill in standing charges.

The problem with the rebate system is that it has not necessarily exclusively benefited pensioners. A report from the South of Scotland electricity board, and a number of others, shows that the main beneficiaries of the rebate scheme have not been pensioners but have been the owners of second homes which are the cause of great anxiety in Wales, Scotland and some parts of England.

Although the boards concede that the standing charge falls unfairly on the smallest consumers, they are now trying to withdraw it on the grounds that the only people who have benefited to any great extent are the owners of second homes. The boards are deliberately and callously ignoring the plight of pensioners and other small consumers who have to pay far more because of the standing charge system.

My Bill therefore proposes to end the rebate system and abolish standing charges for pensioners only so that the owners of second homes, who can well afford to heat their first home and probably their second home, do not benefit on the backs of pensioners and the good campaigning that the pensioners' organisations have done over the years.

The cost of standing charges varies, but added to the standing charges for gas and electricity and the telephone rental, they can easily amount to between £20 and £40 per quarter for a pensioner household. That is a scandalous amount and a major attack on living standards.

It is important that if the Bill is passed into law, as I hope it will be, hon. Members realise that I am not proposing to abolish standing charges for pensioners merely to increase the unit costs of gas, electricity and telephones for every other consumer—that would also obviously affect pensioner households — but that the Government should use public funds to ensure that there is no further increase in those prices for anyone because of the abolition of standing charges for pensioners.

Any examination of the financial results of both fuel boards in the past year would show that they could well afford to do that. In the year 1983–84, the Electricity Council returned a profit of £623 million, the British Gas Corporation returned a profit of £668 million and, over the past six months alone, British Telecom returned a profit of £684 million.

According to the Government's figures the cost of abolishing standing charges for gas and electricity would be only £300 million in one year. The British Gas Corporation levy last year was £522 million. The Government could well afford to abolish standing charges, and it would be a major benefit to pensioners.

I do not believe that the Bill would end the horror and poverty that many pensioner households face day in, day out, and the fear that many of them have about heating their homes adequately or even cooking a hot meal on a cold evening because they cannot afford the bill. However, it would go some way towards alleviating that poverty.

It is amazing that, in a few moments, the Secretary of State for Defence will be telling us of the bottomless pit that defence expenditure has become. The cost of just one quarter of the Trident programme will be £2.5 billion. The cost of abolishing standing charges for pensioners could be paid for by not proceeding with the ludicrous proposal to build a major international airport at Port Stanley. There are hundreds of other examples in the defence Estimates that could be used to pay the cost of my Bill.

It is unlikely that any hon. Member will rise and oppose the Bill. In some ways, I should be glad if hon. Members opposed it, because at least we would hear their arguments for charging pensioners and poor people more than wealthy people for gas and electricity.

Many pensioners' groups throughout the country have written to me enclosing copies of letters received from their own Members of Parliament who say how much they support the abolition of standing charges for gas and electricity for pensioners and the abolition of telephone rentals. Some of those letters come from surprising quarters. I shall not detain the House by reading out the names of the hon. Members involved, but when I have completed my researches I shall publish all the names and I think that we shall find that they make up a majority of the House. The nearer we get to the general election, the larger the majority will be.

I am sure that you will be glad, Mr. Speaker, to give me the opportunity to read out those names and to prove that there is a majority — albeit many of the hon. Members in that majority are practicing self-imposed silence — for the abolition of standing charges for gas and electricity for pensioners.

I hope that the House will take the problem seriously and will support the Bill to end the fear that many old people face as they try to meet last winter's bill and their trepidation about their inability to keep themselves warm or adequately fed next winter.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Tony Benn, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Bob Clay, Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. Dennis Canavan, Miss Joan Maynard, Ms. Clare Short, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Mr. Chris Smith, Mr. Robert N. Wareing and Mr. David Winnick.

pensioners' heating and communications

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn accordingly presented a Bill to guarantee supplies of gas and electricity to pensioners and to abolish standing charges for pensioners for gas and electricity and to abolish telephone rentals: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 5 July and to be printed. [Bill 157.]