HC Deb 09 January 1985 vol 70 cc770-2
7. Mr. Chris Smith

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he intends to make a visit to all local authority areas designated under the Rates Act 1984.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

No, but I and other DOE Ministers make many such visits in the normal course of our duties.

Mr. Smith

In the course of his visits the right hon. Gentleman will doubtless have become aware of the anger of many residents in the rate-capped areas at the Government's proposals. Will the right hon. Gentleman at least say whether he is now prepared to meet a joint delegation from the rate-capped authorities? Will he also say what statutory basis, if any, exists for the date of 15 January which he has set down to the rate-capped authorities for the making of representations?

Mr. Jenkin

The rate-capped authorities should be aware that the timetable requires that we shall very shortly be laying the orders setting out those rate and precept limits that have not been agreed. Therefore, the time left for them to exercise their statutory rights individually to seek to argue for a higher rate or precept limit is running out rapidly. I urge any which are contemplating that to do so quickly. Once the orders have been laid it will be very much more difficult to secure any change. If I have an application—and I have not yet—for representatives of all the 16 or 18 authorities to meet me collectively, I shall be very happy to see them.

Mr. Couchman

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the great offence taken by taxpayers and ratepayers when they are assailed by notices telling them that they have entered a rate-capped, nuclear-free zone and are wished a happy festive season by such as the London borough of Lewisham, which has painted expensive notices expressing good wishes and giving some political slogans denigrating the Government's action? Does my right hon. Friend agree that this reinforces yet again, if it needs reinforcement, the action that he has taken to cap their rates?

Mr. Jenkin

I agree with my hon. Friend, and it is a scandal. The Association of Labour Authorities in London has now voted to spend £350,000 on this campaign. The ratepayers in those authorities should know that £350,000 would buy no fewer than a quarter of a million meals on wheels. That is the alternative.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Secretary of State aware that in some of the local authorities now facing the axe from this Government one idea being canvassed strongly amongst their leaders is that they should refuse to pay any further instalments on local authority debt? The right hon. Gentleman should not be surprised at the action that might be taken in that respect. If it is right for banks such as Johnson Matthey to be trading in an insolvent fashion and then to be rescued by the Bank of England with a nod and wink from the Government, why should not the authorities do the same? It is the only way to salvation for some of them.

Mr. Jenkin

The hon. Gentleman studies such matters closely and he will know that debt repayments are a first charge upon the revenues of a local authority. He may or may not know that when one recent London local authority leader threatened not to pay his debt interest, his brokers swiftly ran him round all the money markets to say that it was pure political propaganda. That is the reality. Of course the local authorities will pay their debt charges. The people who will suffer if they do not will be their staff, who will not be paid, and the clients of the local authority services, who will not get their services.

Mr. Spencer

If my right hon. Friend receives representations from Leicester, will he take time to point out the impressive rejuvenation of the inner area that has already taken place under the inner area programme as a result of grants totalling more than £20 million which Leicester has received during the past four or five years?

Mr. Jenkin

My hon. and learned Friend is right. Leicester has had much help from the Government. I have not yet had from any local authority, certainly not from Leicester, an application for an increase in the rate limit that I have set. As I said earlier in reply to the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), time has now almost run out for that. If they wish to come forward, they should do so promptly.

Dr. Cunningham

Does the Secretary of State recognise that his statement of willingness to meet the authorities will be welcomed? Certainly I welcome it. I hope that he will not hold rigidly to the date of 15 January, especially as two of the three weeks that have elapsed since he made his statement have been taken up by the holiday period, which as every sensible hon. Member knows, is a time when local authority business, like much Government and House of Commons business, does not take place.

Will the Secretary of State accept that his refusal in a Parliamentary answer to me of 18 December to spell out the principles on which he has exercised his discretion under the Act in fixing rates for authorities will inhibit the negotiations in which he says he is willing to engage? Will he rethink his answer?

Mr. Jenkin

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome, but I must make it clear that my readiness to meet a deputation cannot constitute an application from a local authority for a revision of the rate or precept limit. That can only be made individually by each authority. We have to proceed strictly by the legislation. It is only if there is negotiation about the limit, instigated by an application by an individual authority, that it would be appropriate, according to my clear legal advice, for me to become involved in spelling out the assumptions that have been made. If any authority wishes to object to the rate limit it must do so swiftly and individually and enter upon a discussion. The hon. Gentleman knows the parliamentary procedures, and we shall have to make the orders fairly soon.