HC Deb 17 February 1982 vol 18 cc282-4
19. Mr. Teddy Taylor

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will take further steps to encourage local authorities to investigate the introduction of private competitive enterprise in place of services provided by the councils themselves and if he will make a statement.

Mr. King

My colleagues and I take every opportunity to impress upon local authorities the importance of considering the scope for using the private sector in this way. An increasing number of authorities are doing so. We have also commissioned and recently published a study by Coopers and Lybrand on"Service Provision and Pricing Policy in Local Government", which I believe will prove a most useful stimulus to further developments.

Mr. Taylor

Is my right hon. Friend aware that on Monday night, when the GLC was increasing its rate by 90 per cent., in Southend a decision was made to freeze the borough rate for the current year despite inflation and despite the cut in Government grant? Does he realise that this decision follows the cut last year in the borough rate? In view of Southend's proven success in saving money for the ratepayers and providing good services through privatisation, does my right hon. Friend think that it would be a good idea if he and his colleagues visited Southend to ascertain how its success could be applied in other areas?

Mr. King

My noble Friend Lord Bellwin, the Under-Secretary of State, has visited Southend. He takes a close interest in these matters. We have taken a keen interest in the developments that have taken place at Southend. I pay tribute to all that has been achieved, which demonstrates clearly that when economies in expenditure are mentioned it is rubbish to complain that that inevitably means cuts in services. Where there has been a positive approach to these issues, and where more economical ways of achieving improvements are sought, as at Southend, it has been to the great benefit of all concerned.

Mr. Graham

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that at Southend the trade unions offered to review working practices, which would have reduced costs below those of the contractors, and that the council refused to take up that offer? Does the Minister accept that trade refuse charges have doubled and that the assets of the cleansing department were virtually given away to contractors? Is he prepared to allow public bodies to squander public funds and assets so disgracefully?

Mr. King

I do not know how much of that information the hon. Gentleman drew from an article in theNew Statesman, which I was interested to read. I took the trouble to have it checked and I found that there were many inaccuracies. I understand that the council is now in the process of correcting the figures. I understand, too, for example, that the figures given for overheads were incorrect. It is extraordinary if the hon. Gentleman is attacking a scheme that can provide better working conditions for employees, lower costs for ratepayers and a better service for the borough. If there is to be a serious approach to public expenditure in this place, the hon. Gentleman should consider seriously the benefits that can be achieved instead of taking a dogmatic and doctrinaire attitude.

Mr. Murphy

Will my right hon. Friend consider introducing early legislation to give private enterprise the right to tender for council contracts?

Mr. King

This is a matter for councils to consider, and many councils are now doing so. One would have been more impressed by the supplementary questions by Labour Members if improvements had been offered in areas where there have been restrictive practices as an initiative by those concerned and not in the face of competitive tenders from outside.

Mr. Skinner

Is it not true that this Tory-controlled council awarded the tender to Exclusive Cleaning Ltd., although it did not submit the lowest tender, and despite the provision in the tender that where extra houses were built, the company would charge the council—the ratepayers—£15 for every additional 100 houses for refuse disposal, an agreement upon which it reneged? When it was awarded the contract it claimed from the council not £15 for every additional 100 houses but £15 for every house, an increase of 1, 000 per cent?

Mr. King

I think that we have identified another reader of theNew Statesman. If the hon. Gentleman is seriously interested in the truth, he should make some more serious efforts to obtain the real facts and not merely take the article at face value.