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Environment

Volume 227: debated on Wednesday 30 June 1993

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Ozone Depletion

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to meet his EC colleagues to discuss measures to reduce the release of chlorofluoro-carbons and other gases causing depletion of the ozone layer; and if he will make a statement.

Measures to protect the ozone layer were discussed at the Council of European Environment Ministers earlier this week. I hope that we shall agree a new European regulation on ozone-depleting substances in the autumn.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and take this opportunity to welcome him to the Dispatch Box. He has made a seamless transition from agriculture to the environment. I should like to press him on the issue. Is there not more that we can do, especially in terms of recycling substances which are destroying the ozone layer?

I thank my hon. Friend. We are doing a great deal to encourage recycling. We have made the venting of waste chlorofluorocarbons illegal; we have allocated supplementary credit approvals to local authorities for investment in recycling facilities for 1993–94; and we have given special priority to schemes to help in that direction. As these substances exist, it is important to ensure that they are used usefully, but that, in future, they are not manufactured.

May I associate the Opposition Benches with the welcome to the new Secretary of State for the Environment? He may be assured of the greatest collaboration from this side in every initiative that supports good environmental practice and sustainability. In the light of allegations about a firm in Leeds, will he make it clear that anybody who discharges into the atmosphere materials such as chlorofluoromethane is liable to be prosecuted under sections 33 and 34 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990? Can it be made clear that prosecutions will take place as the law permits, and is the Secretary of State quite clear that, under his administration in the Department, there will be no mild response if people flagrantly break the law, but that he will make sure that that Act is enforced in the way that was intended?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the part of his question that was helpful. I do not want to refer to the case about which he spoke in the second part of his question, because that would obviously be improper. In general, I take a strong view about the need for this generation not to destroy the next generation. Therefore, the kind of activities to which the hon. Gentleman refers will be dealt with using the full rigour of the law.

Will my right hon. Friend take time to look at a report published in a national newspaper last week which casts grave doubts on the idea that locally produced, that is to say, earthbound-produced, chemicals have any effect at all on the ozone layer? The article said that the coming and going of holes in the ozone layer was a natural phenomenon. Before we begin to destroy the important refrigeration industry by banning one of its essential chemicals, we should take grave note of that report.

My hon. Friend and I have often sparred on matters not dissimilar to this one. I advise my hon. Friend not to base her arguments on a selective number of reports. It must be accepted that the dangers to the ozone layer are now pretty well attested. Even if the attestation were less, the dangers of getting this wrong for the next generation are so great that it is proper for us to take very tough measures. The fact that we are taking such measures in concert with our European partners and with other partners throughout the world enables us to ensure that our important refrigeration industry is able to compete on level terms with that industry in other countries. After all, there are alternatives for the refrigeration industry in most cases and they are now being put into place.

May I join in welcoming the right hon. Gentleman to his new job? May I also welcome what he said about taking precautions for the next generation and say how genuinely sad I am that he has made a very bad start in that job? The previous Secretary of State promised that the United Kingdom would take the lead on tighter European Community regulation on ozone depletion. Is it not the case that we made no progress at the recent meeting because of the big row about carbon energy tax? Eleven countries in Europe want to make progress; the United Kingdom says no. Therefore, Europe cannot sign the climate convention and Britain is holding back progress on such issues for the whole of Europe. That is the start that the right hon. Gentleman has made in his job.

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks. In our meeting over lunch on the subject of which she speaks, we ended up moving from 11 to I against the United Kingdom, to 10 to 2 in favour, because every other member, bar two, felt that the Danish proposition did nothing to help prevent climate change. We felt that we ought to work at those things together. She will find—especially if she gives me her help—no one more concerned to protect the next generation than I am. I hope that she will not start our negotiations and discussions by making party-political points when there is no basis for them.

May I join in welcoming the Minister to his new post? He will understand, however, in the light of his unfortunate radio interview, that many of us will be looking for some sign that he is now fully in command of the subject as regards the ozone layer. Can he tell us why dry cleaning businesses in this country are not being offered any special assistance to convert machinery away from ozone-damaging processes, in accordance with the Montreal protocol, when my understanding is that assistance is available elsewhere in the European Community? When will the Minister consider assistance for dry cleaning businesses in this country?

I would not have expected an unremitting welcome from the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have fought long battles because I am in favour of sea fish conservation and he opposes it, for many narrow-minded, short-term reasons, so he has to find some comment of that sort.

Britain's dry cleaning industry is as close to my heart as it is to the hon. Gentleman's and I recognise its difficulties. I am happy to consider whether other people benefit from things from which our dry cleaning industry does not, but it is not unreasonable to ask industry to meet requirements that are necessary for the protection of the future of this nation and the rest of the world. Businesses ought to meet those requirements and, in general, are doing so. They have been given time to do so and I hope that no one will take the hon. Gentleman's comments as an excuse for not proceeding as fast as possible.

Council Tax

2.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he last met representatives of local authorities to discuss the implementation of the council tax.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) discussed the council tax with representatives of local authorities in England in September 1992. My Department has continued to work closely with local authorities on all aspects of council tax implementation.

Is the Minister aware that many thousands of householders throughout England and Wales believe that their homes have been placed in the wrong council tax band, and that they are still waiting for their cases to be heard? Can he tell the House what measures he is taking to speed up the hearing of those cases so that those householders may find some peace of mind? That will help revenue collection in hard-pressed local authorities.

Less than 3 per cent. of bandings have been appealed against and it is intended that the vast majority will be dealt with as speedily and effectively as possible. We anticipate that the vast majority of appeals will be dealt with during next year and many will be dealt with much sooner.

Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that there has been a great welcome for the introduction of the council tax? In my constituency, in the first week, half the telephone calls to the local council came from people who wanted to know why their bill was so low, because they did not appreciate the generosity of transitional relief. Does he also agree that many people have been misled by Labour party-political broadcasts, which claim that council tax under Labour councils is £16 lower on average than under Conservative councils? Can he confirm that that is extremely misleading? If one compares like with like for homes in the same band, the tax is much less under Conservative councils.

My hon. Friend makes some extremely good points. Six out of 10 people will pay less under the council tax than they did under the community charge. Band for band, Conservative councils cost less and deliver better services. Of course, it is absurd to compare average bill with average bill when the average band in a Labour area is band A and in a Conservative area it is band D. If we simply take the average band in a Conservative area, the tax is £107 less than the Labour equivalent.

Why does not the Minister wake up to the fact that the electors believed us on the council tax, not the Tories, which is why the Tory party was annihilated at the county elections and we had spectacular successes?

While the Minister is singing the praises of the poll tax, is he aware that his Secretary of State, when he was Minister for the poll tax, screeched around the country damning any idea of a property tax based on capital values, such as the council tax? The right hon. Gentleman even claimed that the poll tax was the
"clearest and fairest local tax ever"
and that it was, "a morally superior alternative" to a property-based tax.

Has the Secretary of State yet told the Minister whether he still holds such crackpot views, or does the Minister think that his right hon. Friend's desire to stay in office has got the better of his moral superiority?

Electors should be very wary of listening to any estimates from the Labour party on anything to do with local tax. For example, Labour-controlled Birmingham city council said that the introduction of the council tax and this year's settlement would result in 3,000 redundancies. It then revised that figure to 1,000. In the event, it increased its full-time payroll by 2·3 per cent. So much for Labour estimates.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the main question was about implementation? I must say that, from my postbag, there appears to have been a very smooth transition from the community charge to the council tax. Does my hon. Friend further agree that if people have any complaints about banding, they should write to their Member of Parliament as soon as possible? The implementation has been so smooth that I believe that the council tax is one of the best policies that the Government have introduced recently.

My hon. Friend makes some excellent points. As I said, only 3 per cent. of bandings have been appealed against. That is a sign that the vast majority of people accept that their bandings are fair and reasonable. As I also said, six out of 10 people pay less under the council tax than they did under the community charge. We must also take into account council tax benefit, transitional relief and discounts—all of which further reduce the bills that people have to pay.

Water Disconnections

3.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his latest information on the numbers of domestic households being disconnected from their water supply in order to recover debt.

In total, 18,636 domestic customers had their water supply disconnected in 1992–93 for non-payment of their bills.

Is the Minister aware that in my constituency of Devonport and in the region covered by South West Water, water charges are rising more rapidly than anywhere else in the country? That will inevitably lead to more and more people falling behind with their bills and they will then face disconnection. Does he accept that access to clean water is a basic fundamental human right which is essential to health and life? Will he introduce measures to outlaw disconnections and ensure that water companies use more acceptable means to collect their charges?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are doing everything that they can to ensure that price rises are kept to a minimum. The fact is that rates of disconnection in the south-west are barely half the national average. Whatever else may be the cause, it is clear that rates of disconnection are nothing to do with the hon. Gentleman's concern about prices.

Disconnection must remain as a necessary last resort—a sanction on those who will not pay. It is not designed to dispossess those who cannot pay. In fact, over half of all households that are disconnected have their supply reconnected within 48 hours. No one who is seeking help from the Department of Social Security will be disconnected until his case has been investigated.

Prohibiting disconnections would burden those customers who pay their bills, in order to help those who refuse to pay theirs. That is a policy which characterises the Labour party and it explains why it remains out of office.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that water disconnections last year were substantially down on the year before—by between 10 and 12 per cent.—and that a great many hoops have to be gone through before anybody can possibly be disconnected?

My hon. Friend is right; disconnections are down and so are court actions. She is also right that there are considerable obstacles to water companies disconnecting customers. They have to go through an elaborate legal process, and disconnection takes place only when all other routes have been exhausted. The overwhelming evidence is that it catches only those who have refused to pay and not those who are unable to pay.

May I first welcome the Minister to his new post? Does he agree that it is an outrage that every week 360 families in Britain have their water supply disconnected, while we heard only this morning that the chairman of North West Water received a salary increase last year of 43 per cent., bringing his salary to £238,000 a year? When will we end the barbaric practice of cutting off people's water supply, which is essential to their life and health, simply to recover a debt? Why do we not follow the example of other countries, including Scotland, I am pleased to say, and outlaw that practice?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. In the case of North West Water, I have seen a letter from his hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) to the Prime Minister today about the pay of the chairman of North West Water. Disconnections in the north-west are even lower than they are in the south-west; they are running at about a quarter of the level that prevails across the country. It is absolutely typical of the Labour party to make no mention of the huge increase in the investment programme of the water industry since privatisation—a £30 billion programme through the decade. The water companies invest £8,000 every minute of every day. The Labour party can think only about the politics of envy and their concern about salaries.

Does my hon. Friend accept that there ought to be a happy medium between the idiocy of free water advocated by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devenport (Mr. Jamieson) and the level of water charges in the south-west? Does he accept that while it is not the Government's fault that the European bathing water directive has brought about extremely high water charges in the south-west, ultimately only the Government can deliver a solution? While I do not suggest that we should have free water, as the hon. Member for Devonport did, will my hon. Friend at least take on board that there is a problem in the west country which has to be addressed?

Yes. I am grateful at last to have an intervention from my hon. Friend, who approaches the subject in a more rational light. Of course we cannot have free water; however, we entirely share his concern about the rate of price increases in the south-west and we are examining every possible option to find ways to restrain those price increases. I can assure him that, in complying with the European Community directives, we will make sure that we move no further or faster than we are absolutely required to do by law, and if there are any other ways of bringing those price increases under control and slowing them down, we are ready to discuss them with my hon. Friend and other hon. Friends from that region.

Local Government Reform

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many representations he has received in support of the Local Government Commission's report, "The Future Local Government of Avon, Gloucestershire and Somerset".

At this stage of the review, representations are to be made to the Local Government Commission and not to me.

Is the Secretary of State aware that his proposals have gone down like a lead balloon and that the commissioners have been lucky to escape alive from public consultation meetings? Will he change the guidelines to commission and explain why he is prepared to spend large amounts of money on the review at the same time as cutting spending on front-line services such as education and police?

I have received representations from all over the House. Some of the recommendations have been well received—for instance in Avon, Humberside and Cleveland—and some have not been well received. However, we are only at stage 1 in a long process of consultation. The commission has to bring forward revised recommendations, the Government have to judge them and the House of Commons has to accept them. People have plenty of opportunity to make clear their views. To write off the thing now would be silly and it certainly would not be the views of the Liberal councillors whom I met at the Association of District Councils meeting in Bournemouth.

Is my hon. Friend aware of early-day motion 2153, signed by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones), which suggests that we should stop the local government review and retain both county and district councils? Does my hon. Friend accept that everybody in Gloucestershire wants unitary authorities, for their increased efficiency and the savings that they will make, and that that opinion is shared by the county council and the district council—everybody in the county except the hon. Gentleman?

We should have to reflect hard before we decided that we were simply going to call the review off, as the hon. Gentleman's early-day motion says. It would be a wrong decision and it would be difficult to explain why in certain authorities, such as Cleveland and Avon, people were to have the opportunity of successor unitary authorities, but in other parts of the country that may have similar characteristics, that was not to be available. The sensible thing is to consider the review and how we should take it forward to ensure that it reflects local opinions and the need to deliver local services effectively, rather than to spend too much time on the competing territorial ambitions of councillors.

Is the Minister aware that the Labour party conference and the national executive have long and consistently supported the principle of unitary authorities and of the commission to examine those proposals? I therefore welcome what he has said. Does the Minister understand, however, that there is widespread anxiety about the commission's interpretation of its guidance, especially on the issues of cost and of community identity?

Does the Minister share the Labour party's view that the commission's current policy for local elections to be held once every four years only, in place of annual elections in most places, would be a disaster for local democracy and would greatly reduce the accountability of councils to their local electorates?

The Government have no religious views on how elections are to take place in successor organisations and we shall be willing to listen to representations on how that would make councils more accountable and effective.

The hon. Gentleman's comments on unitary councils reflect the opinion of many people. It is important that people have the opportunity to express what sort of councils they want. In all the debate about the review, we should not lose sight of the fact that the essential purpose is the delivery of services to people. If there is an overwhelming feeling that the review needs to be looked at to see how it can be taken forward, the Government are open to that. Sir John Banham has made similar comments. We do not want to lose sight of the fact that the review is about the delivery of services to people, and how best that can be done in an efficient way that reflects the opinions, feelings and identities of people.

May I ask my hon. Friend to grasp Sir John Banham warmly by the throat and to ask him not to tinker with history and our heritage? He will be cheered to the echo if he gets rid of the aberration of Avon and restores the traditional county boundaries for all purposes other than local government, but if he carries on inventing history, or reinventing history, by, for example, creating an East Riding of Yorkshire that bears no resemblance to the original, those proposals will be as hated as the current counties of Humberside and Avon are.

I agree with my hon. Friend that one of the essential purposes of the review is to have regard to where people feel they belong and their identities. I know that there is a great anxiety over certain reunification movements. My hon. Friend will know that West Craven, in Yorkshire, has been put into Lancashire for reasons that—speaking as a Yorkshire Member—are always incomprehensible, but there is a move to return it to Yorkshire. It is up to people to express what they want from the review. It is at an early stage. The final recommendations must reflect local opinion and prove that they have done so. The Government have the discretion to accept the recommendations, to send them back to the commission or to make modifications within its spirit. There is a lot of work to be done. I listen carefully to what my hon. Friend and other hon. Members say about the feelings expressed by their constituents.

Dioxin

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will now meet a deputation of representatives from North Derbyshire to discuss dioxin and other related environmental matters.

A meeting is proposed for 5 July between Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution and elected members and officers of Derbyshire county council and district councils specifically to discuss dioxins in Derbyshire.

I call on the Secretary of State for the Environment to meet the representatives and not just Her Majesty's inspectorate. Two years ago, dioxin was discovered in the milk in Bolsover. It was then found in the beef cattle and then in the soil. It has now been found in the next door constituency of Derbyshire, North-East. I call on the Minister to understand that we have a right to have meetings and a public inquiry. If dioxin was discovered in the pond that belongs to the Secretary of State for the Environment, there would be health inspectors and public inquiries until the cows come home.

I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman is in characteristically courteous form. The report on the subject and all the relevant information will be published as soon as possible after a decision has been taken on whether to prosecute Coalite. Meanwhile, the Coalite incinerator has been closed for modification. Before it can restart operations, it will have to meet stringent standards. The House will also want to know that the Government's commitment to controlling dioxin emissions was demonstrated yesterday by our agreement in the Council of Ministers to the directive on the incineration of hazardous waste, which sets very demanding limits. Bearing all that in mind, no purpose would be served by holding a meeting at this stage.

Council Tax

6.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to alter the help available to people living alone under the council tax.

People living alone are entitled to a 25 per cent. council tax discount. Many will also receive relief to ease the transition from the community charge. Households on low incomes qualify for benefit to offset part or all of their council tax liability.

I thank my hon. Friend for that extremely helpful reply. Can he confirm that when the Local Government Finance Act 1992 was passing through the House, Opposition Members voted against the principle of a discount for those who live alone? Will he further note that many single-person households comprise pensioners? Given the Opposition's alleged concern for pensioners, does he agree that voting against a discount means voting against pensioners' interests?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Labour party made it clear in Committee that it objected in principle to the discount system. Labour Members made it clear that an incoming Labour Government would do away with the discount. Anyone who has a discount for being a single person, whether a pensioner or not, knows that if the Labour party had its way, discounts would be scrapped.

Does the Minister accept that despite what he has said, many elderly pensioners living alone are angry about the situation in which they find themselves? They were told that they would benefit most when rates were abolished, but they paid a lot more under the poll tax. Many of them are now paying even more under the council tax than they were under the poll tax. Will the Government consider introducing a banding lower than band A which would help many single people living alone and others who live in areas where there are many band A properties? In 57 local authorities, more than 50 per cent. of the properties are in band A.

Pensioners must think it a bit rich for a party that did not want to have discounts at all to now act as the pensioners' friend.

Construction Industry

7.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps have been taken by his Department since April 1992 specifically to assist the United Kingdom construction industry.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply on 27 January, Official Report, columns 762–63. Since then, the Government have introduced measures in the Budget to help the industry and my Department has undertaken a range of supporting activities including a review of sponsorship, three successful overseas trade missions, new consultative arrangements, an increased commitment to collaborative research and guidance on the involvement of private finance.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that more than 500,000 people have lost their jobs in the construction industry during the recession, that housing starts are 46 per cent. down since 1988 and that commercial output is down by 35 per cent. since 1990? Does my right hon. Friend agree with the House-Builders Federation, with the Building Employers Confederation, with the Federation of Master Builders and with the Manufacturing and Construction Industries Alliance which urge the Government further to reduce interest rates modestly, to abolish stamp duty, to increase expenditure on the repair and refurbishment of public building and housing stock and to ensure that those measures are introduced by our right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the autumn Budget?

I will ensure that my hon. Friend's recommendations for the Budget are passed on to our right hon. and learned Friend. I agree that the construction industry has gone through a difficult time during the recession. It would be wrong of us to underestimate the degree to which that has harmed businesses. There is no doubt, however, that things are a little better. Total construction orders for the first quarter of 1993 are 22 per cent. higher than in the previous three months. Public works new orders are up 43 per cent. on this time last year. Public housing and housing association orders are up by 26 per cent. There is no doubt that the situation is improving after a very difficult time. What is important is that our right hon. and learned Friend should not take measures that would make even more difficult our exit from the recession. To burden us with greater debt would do that. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will not seek to press our right hon. and learned Friend to move in that direction.

Is the Minister aware that only a few weeks ago the Employment Select Committee conducted an inquiry and that the chairman of Blue Circle Cement appeared before it? We were told about the crisis and the job losses in the cement industry, due to the fact that electricity costs had increased by 40 per cent., with the result that the company is closing down many of its establishments and is now importing cheap cement from countries such as Greece. What does the Minister intend to do about high energy costs that are affecting the construction industry?

I am happy to look at the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but I think that he must accept the fact that the cost of energy is something which all industries have to bear. Energy costs are particularly difficult in the cement industry because of the very high degree to which its costs are affected by electricity prices. However, these are not costs which can be passed on to others. It is a natural part of the cost of cement production. What is really difficult for the cement industry is the fall in orders because of the recession. What is therefore most important for the industry is that the Government continue with their economic policy and get us out of the recession much more quickly than any of our competitors.

Ought not the construction industry and my right hon. Friend salute with gratitude Mr. George Soros and all those who saved the British economy on 16 September and gave us a new economic policy, lower interest rates and the construction industry the chance once again to play its important role?

I am not sure which people we should salute, but we should have saluted the exchange rate mechanism which enabled us to bring down our interest rates in the way that we did. We began to come out of the recession before we moved out of the ERM. My hon. Friend's thanks should range more widely.

The Secretary of State claims that, in his words, things are a little better. Is he not aware of yesterday's reports from the United Kingdom's largest housebuilders which show that the pace of recovery in the housing market has slowed down in the last four weeks, which is precisely the length of time that the Secretary of State has been in his new post? Is not the reality, as the Building Employers Confederation spelt out today, that the construction industry is one of the hardest hit industries in this Government-induced recession? Output was down by 14 per cent. between 1990 and 1992 and it is still on a downward trend. The number of new housing starts has fallen by 46 per cent. since 1988. Repairs, maintenance and improvement work is 18 per cent. lower than it was in 1989. Why does the Secretary of State for the Environment not take some responsibility for it? Why does he not use the recently published English house condition survey as a charter for renovation and repair and tackle the problem of the 1·5 million homes that are now revealed to be unfit? Why does he not re-employ the 500,000 building workers who are on the dole and ensure that sufficient homes are provided for all those who need them?

If I may take the House back to the hon. Gentleman's first sentence, his early seminary training will remind him that that piece of logic does not stand up. One cannot take four weeks and think that that will lead to any understanding of what is actually happening. In the three months to April, housing starts and completions rose by 20 and 14 per cent. respectively. That is a sensible measure and one which the hon. Gentleman would normally take.I am sure that if he were judging the circumstances of a local or national Government run by Labour, he would take that kind of measure.

If we talk sensible measurements, the fact is that we are slowly but surely emerging from the recession. We shall get better. However, I am unlikely to have had the particular effect that the hon. Gentleman suggests I have over the past four weeks. He offers me the kind of power that would lead me to take credit for the good weather and that would obviously also be wrong.

Local Government, Cleveland

8.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what assessment he has made of the Local Government Commission's proposals for Cleveland.

I am required to take a view on the final proposals which will follow further consultation of local opinion by the commission.

Does the Minister agree that the Local Government Commission, far from being the political fix that some people have described it, carried out its work in Cleveland in a fair, rigorous and conscientious way? However, is the Minister aware of the disgraceful scaremongering and climate of intimidation which has been created by some people who are opposed to the commission's proposals? Will he take it from me that the majority of people in Cleveland want four unitary, local-based councils and that nothing else will do?

We have had some extremely disturbing reports about intimidation by certain people, including the Labour-controlled Cleveland council which is fighting desperately for its survival. We have heard elsewhere of meetings being packed by local authority employees. Of course they have their voice and a right to express their opinions. However, so has everyone else and it is opinion as a whole which counts. If opinion as a whole wants the change in Cleveland as in Avon and in Humberside—and we all know that those councils perhaps never quite attached themselves to the affections of people in the way that some historical councils did—and if people continue to make their representations, they will get those changes.

Is my hon. Friend aware that Cleveland county council's campaign of lies and disinformation, which has been deliberately designed to spread fear and anxiety among the council employees and among the public they are there to serve, has been condemned this afternoon on both sides of the House? Will he therefore give an undertaking that those responsible for the scurrilous campaign to save their own skins at the taxpayers' expense will receive the fullest possible scrutiny of the Department of the Environment and the district auditor?

I wish to make it absolutely clear that the kind of activity that has been reported is clearly wholly unacceptable. Whether or not people like the proposals by the Local Government Commission, the commission is free of party political colour. It would be entirely wrong if we were to introduce any note of party politics into the way in which the commission goes about its work, no matter what opinions we may form about its conclusions. Therefore, if people are going to try to gerrymander local opinion and give a false impression, it is clear that we will know about that and form our conclusions about what we believe to be genuine objective local opinion on the ground of all people and not necessarily those who are councillors, who work for the council or who have a special interest.

Urban Regeneration

9.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what further plans he has to assist the regeneration of urban areas.

10.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on current urban policy.

12.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on his urban policies.

The Government will continue to support the regeneration of cities through their main programmes and through special measures. I am sure that the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Byers) welcomes the impact in his and other urban areas of measures such as city challenge, the urban development corporations, the urban partnership fund, city grant and estate action. The Tyne and Wear UDC alone has attracted more than £500 million to its area since 1987.

Is the Minister aware that, due to over-concentration in the property market during the late 1980s, six urban development corporations have made a loss of £67 million as a result of the drop in property values? What steps does the Minister intend to take to ensure that, in future, public money is used for job creation and not for property speculation?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not running down the excellent work of the Tyne and Wear urban development corporation in his constituency. There has been a net increase of more than 9,000 jobs in that area since the UDC started work. It has a budget of £37·5 million this year and is making progress in creating wealth, creating jobs and promoting enterprise in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Is the Minister aware that about 10,000 jobs and training places will be lost in Birmingham as a result of his decision to cancel the urban programme? Is he further aware that the city council spent £120,000 at his request to prepare the bids which he then cancelled at the last minute? Will he now apologise to the people of Birmingham and refund that £120,000?

The urban programme has not been cancelled. It is spending £7 million this year in Small Heath and is sponsoring about 10,000 projects throughout the country, promoting enterprise and wealth. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome Birmingham's success with city challenge, representing £7·5 million each year, a total of £37·5 million creating wealth, prosperity and jobs in Birmingham. He should look at the total investment in Birmingham from the Government and not concentrate on one small part of it.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in Liverpool, £17 million of urban programme money is being replaced by only £1·1 million of urban partnership, with the consequent destruction of more than 3,000 jobs? Is he further aware that in Dovecot in my constituency, investment in housing stock will now not be able to be supported by commensurate investment in the environment? What ideas does the Minister have to help the people of Dovecot improve their environment?

Again, the hon. Lady's constituency was a successful bidder for city challenge, and the rewards for city challenge far outweigh the value of the urban programme. In addition to that, there is a housing action trust in Liverpool and we have the Merseyside task force and the urban development corporation. I urge the hon. Lady to look at the totality of investment by the Government in Liverpool. She will find that it has been very substantial indeed.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that Government as a whole are now putting about £4 billion per annum through targeted initiatives into urban areas in this country? Will he look at the important priorities in many urban areas, including in my constituency, and the need to help target the relatively high levels of inner town urban unemployment? I appreciate the way in which his Department is assisting in that work.

Will my right. hon. Friend also look at a matter about which he knows I am particularly concerned, and that is the difficulty with premises that are currently hotels which can be turned into hostels without seeking change of use planning permission? That issue is of great concern and is having damaging effects on the legitimate tourism industry. I appreciate that he and his ministerial colleagues are aware of the position. I welcome their interest and hope that my right hon. Friend will examine the matter.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. He raised, in the latter part of his supplementary question, an issue that has been raised with me by a number of my hon. Friends who represent seaside resorts. I propose to discuss the subject with my ministerial colleagues in the Department of Social Security to see whether further steps might be necessary. I welcomed a note of sanity and perspective in the first part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question in relation to the debate on inner cities. It is indeed the case that since 1979 there has been a fourfold real increase in urban spending by my Department.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the better aspects, arising out of the list of grants to which he referred, is the flexibility with which grants are applied? Will he continue with that flexibility and imagination, especially as they are applied in Calder Valley?

Yes, indeed. The Department is anxious to get the best value from its programmes. We have a competitive regime which rewards local authorities and voluntary organisations that put forward value-for-money schemes which bring with them private funding and create jobs in their areas. I shall look with interest at any projects coming from my hon. Friend's constituency.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is necessary, for urban programmes to succeed, to have efficient and honest local authorities? Is he convinced that the local authority of Lambeth is efficient or honest? Does he agree that it is high time that the commissioners were sent in to run that council in the way it was once run?

Like my hon. Friend, I read the report prepared by the former chief executive, Herman Ouseley, on the London borough of Lambeth, and it contained a number of worrying allegations which, I know, are being followed up in the appropriate quarters. It is a matter for concern if any local authority misuses its ratepayers'; funds, and the appropriate avenues are available to people through the police or the district auditor.

Does the Minister recall the last Conservative election manifesto, ironically entitled "The Best Future for Britain", which claimed that our cities had been transformed? After the abolition of the urban programme—as the Minister knows very well, there are to be no new schemes under that programme—and the loss of 34,000 inner city jobs, after the abandonment of city challenge, of which there is to be no third round, and after announcing savage cuts of more than one third in urban funding over the next three years, I am sure that the whole House agrees that our cities have indeed been transformed. Does not the Minister accept that it is high time the Government started to celebrate and support cities, instead of undermining them and denying them the resources that they so desperately need?

I do not know how the hon. Gentleman has the nerve to come to the House and say such a thing. I have here a copy of The Guardian of 15 June, which, referring to the hon. Gentleman, says:

"He also said that Labour had been neglecting the inner cities and needed a new strategy."
Those are not my words; they are the words of the hon. Gentleman. He went on to talk about the establishment of an inquiry called City 2020–2020 being, presumably, the earliest year in which he thinks a Labour Government will take office. This inquiry, for inspiration, is to start by looking at the socialist stewardship of areas such as Lambeth, Islington and Hackney.

Will my right hon. Friend think again about his Department's refusal to grant housing action trust money to Copley close in my constituency, in respect of which a very good case was made? I hope that he will see that that very important and deserving estate is given the help that it greatly needs.

My hon. Friend and the London borough of Ealing are perfectly capable of putting forward another bid for estate action funds for that estate. We shall continue the estate action programme next year. If my hon. Friend would like to talk to the councillors and the director of housing of the borough and then resubmit the bid, we shall see whether, within resources, we can help.

Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant

11.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received about the environmental implications that may arise from the operation of THORP; and if he will make a statement.

As the hon. Gentleman will understand, I have received a number of representations about the environmental implications that may arise from the operation of THORP.

What is the basis of the current consultation period, why has it been extended, and what does the Secretary of State hope to find out? Does he agree that, because the Government are not prepared to underwrite the contracts and because the electricity companies are not prepared to sign them, the Government are in a cleft stick, which will result in non-viability for THORP or in a blank cheque that will cost us all dear? Are there not real doubts about the economic viability and environmental safety of THORP? Should not the matter be cleared up sooner rather than later? Why should all those people have their agony and uncertainty prolonged?

The hon. Gentleman must accept that Parliament has put me and my right hon. Friend in the very clear position of having to assure ourselves before granting, or refusing to grant, the necessary powers to start up THORP. I shall treat my responsibilities as the House would want me to treat them. I shall take as little time as is necessary to do the job properly. I shall do it as quickly as possible, but not in a slap-dash way. That is what the hon. Gentleman must expect. He does not help the case by making extreme allegations in either direction. Special interests are pleading on both sides. My job is to uphold the public interest, together with my right hon. Friend.

What representations about the environmental implications of not starting up the THORP process has my right hon. Friend received? Does he accept that, even if we do away with THORP, the accumulated waste will not disappear and that, whatever we do in the future, it is far better to treat radioactive waste scientifically? THORP is a well-engineered, modern process intended to do just that, and it should be kept.

My hon. Friend expresses a particular point of view. Clearly, the Government and others put their particular points of view in the debate on THORP, and I know how strongly people hold their views. My job in these circumstances is clear: before I and my right hon. Friend allow THORP to go ahead, I must satisfy myself that it is in the public interest. That is what I intend to do and I shall do so in such a way that, whatever the result, people can see that it is done properly. It would be wrong for a parliamentarian to seek to hurry one beyond a point where one can take seriously the opposing arguments or to delay one, which would also be unacceptable. What I am trying to do is not easy; obviously it is not easy because both sides have strong views, and a great deal hangs on the decision. The one thing on which the public can depend is that the House has demanded that the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are put in a quasi judicial position and that that position demands that we do not take a view until we have considered all the facts.

On a constructive note, would the Secretary of State be prepared to consider supporting an authorisation to British Nuclear Fuels plc to undertake the commissioning of the uranium lines at THORP, particularly as it would mean that many jobs could be saved and also because BNFL has said that it is prepared to pay the £250,000 costs to decommission those lines in the event that, at the end of the day, THORP was not fully commissioned?

I confess that I have a difficulty because the hon. Gentleman has, rather less constructively, already said that the Government are the reason for the problems. He said that he did not blame the company but that he blamed the Government whereas his hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), who is not a shadow agriculture spokesman—my right hon. Friend is a co-judge in the matter—said something quite different. He said:

"I think the management of BNFL are using the workforce at Sellafield as a bit of a gun to hold to the Government's head."
I therefore find it very difficult to decide what members of Labour's Front Bench are saying about this matter. I had better tell the hon. Gentleman that I shall do everything I can to carry out what I need to do with my right hon. Friend as rapidly as is consonant with doing the job properly. At the same time, if BNFL wishes a variation in its present authorisation, it must make the proposal to HM inspectorate as the law requires.

I remind the House that the problem is that we have always known that this type of decision is not easy. We therefore have a very clear procedure to follow. Although I know that it is disappointing for members of all parties, I am determined to adhere to the rules and regulations; otherwise, what the House has sought as a protection of the public interest would not exist. My job is to protect the public interest against what are necessarily sectional interests, either those of Greenpeace or of BNFL.

Government Building Contracts

13.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what decisions he has reached on the need for a pay-when-paid clause in Government building contracts.

I am not considering any such clause. Government contracts are required to contain a clause committing the supplier or contractor to pay his subcontractors promptly.

Is the Minister aware that many companies across the country have full order books and are profitable but that they unfortunately cannot get paid? Will he assure me that the Government will set an example by paying their bills on time? Does he agree that the lot opposite know nothing about paying bills as their bills are paid by the National Union of Public Employees, the Confederation of Health Service Employees and the National and Local Government Officers Association, among others? Does he agree that the label "No say, no pay" hangs very well around their necks?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those who do good work deserve to be paid promptly. All Government contracts include provision for the prompt payment by main contractors of their subcontractors, usually within 30 days of receipt.

The Minister will be aware that there is a great deal of concern among many subcontracting companies, including small companies in the building industry, that they are not getting a fair deal as subcontractors to main contractors for Government contracts. Will the Minister be honest with the House and acknowledge that the reason for contractual arrangements not being sufficiently tough is that main contractors, such as Tarmac, have received favours from the Government in their attempts to privatise the Property Services Agency?

That is a ludicrous suggestion. As a Minister who sponsors the construction industry, my only ambition is to see the healthiest possible construction industry. That aim is something which the Labour party would not understand, however, because when it was last in government, it introduced a moratorium on many infrastructure contracts. We have clear Government contracts that stipulate that subcontractors should be paid within 30 days of their bills being presented.

Local Government

14.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what weight he will give to local opinion in Gloucestershire in arriving at decisions on local government structure in the county.

The Local Government Commission's final reports must demonstrate that due weight has been given to community identities and interests.

Is my hon. Friend aware that some local authorities are packing public meetings with their own staff? Is he further aware that certain local authorities distribute their own counter literature when distributing the Local Government Commission's literature? Will my hon. Friend ensure that those practices are fully discounted, and that the public have their fair say in the commission's decision on local government reorganisation?

I am determined that the final conclusion should rest upon the genuinely expressed wishes of local people, and not upon any rigging of that opinion.