HC Deb 08 July 1981 vol 8 cc389-90
3. Mr. Murphy

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps he is taking to encourage local councils to study the possibility of privatising local services such as refuse disposal and road sweeping.

15. Mr. David Atkinson

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment in what way he is encouraging local authorities to consider the privatisation of services.

The Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services (Mr. Tom King)

We consistently stress the importance of obtaining value for money in every local authority service and the need to investigate the most satisfactory means of providing these services, including privatisation. To provide more information about this, an independent study, commissioned by us, of different methods employed and charges made for a range of local authority environmental services in selected local authorities in England will be published shortly.

Mr. Murphy

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that there are considerable advantages, such as reduced costs and increased efficiency, for the ratepayers by way of privatisation and that this has been shown in the excellent example of Southend? Is it not therefore important for the Government to emphasise how valuable that can be for the ratepayers?

Mr. King

That seems to be the evidence of Southend council. I hope that every local authority will look objectively at every service that it provides in the interests of its ratepayers and electors to see that those services are provided in the most cost-effective way.

Mr. Atkinson

Does my right hon. Friend accept that privatisation offers the best hope of permanently reducing the cost to local government? Has he considered practices in the United States, and will he consider even legislation to ensure that local authorities put their services out to private tender?

Mr. King

I think I am right in saying that the vast majority of refuse collection is done by private contractors in the United States and that that is the normally accepted practice there. Only a tiny proportion of refuse collection is done by private contractors in the United Kingdom. The majority of it is done by council employees. It is not at all clear whether there is a logical reason why that should be so. That is why we want the matter to be examined as carefully as possible.

Mr. Weetch

Is the Minister aware that in various parts of the country people who want to buy council houses are being ripped off by a combination of estate agents and Tory councils? Is he further aware that these private services which are foisted upon prospective buyers are totally unnecessary, because local authorities, if they want to sell council houses, could ensure that they did not add burdens through the use of estate agents?

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that housing is not my responsibility. I am sure that he will direct his allegations to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction. However, my own observation is that the most severe rip-off of all relates to those Labour councils which are denying people the right to buy their own council homes. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will play his part to ensure that the Ipswich council considerably improves its perormance.

Mr. Ward

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the proportion of rented housing available for people in housing need has practically dried up as a result of the antics of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman)? If the House could agree that landlords who were now prepared to rent houses would not have them snatched back by the Opposition's antics, more housing would now be available.

Mr. King

I seem to be taking over another portfolio. I am aware of the notorious activities of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman). From my own observations in my constituency, I know that this increases the number of homeless people who could otherwise be properly housed.

Mr. Graham

We are aware of the Government's propensity to flog off valuable public assets, such as dockyards, ordnance factories and gas showrooms. Instead of encouraging local authorities to flog off valuable public services, why do the Government not respond to the anguished cries from Conservative councils, such as that in Enfield, which are being forced to lower even further their already low level of services?

Mr. King

I am sure the House would agree that many areas of public provision are at an inadequate level which we would like to see improved. However, part of the reason is that for far too long the State has tried to do far too much and has done it pretty badly. With the limited resources available, it is vital that we restrain the public sector so that those things which only the State can do are done properly.