HC Deb 28 March 1985 vol 76 cc669-82 4.15 pm
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

I beg to move amendment No. 80, in page 4, line 29, at beginning insert— 'This section and section 9 below shall not come into effect until the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament a report giving details of the arrangements for waste disposal which will obtain in Greater London and the metropolitan counties at the date on which those sections come into effect and those which are expected to obtain for the following six months.'.

As is often the case, the words on the Amendment Paper do not convey clearly either the meaning or importance of the amendment and the subject under discussion. We are talking about arrangements for waste disposal and regulation following the Government's proposal to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan county councils.

It has been clear since the Bill was published that the Government have no definite proposals or schemes worked out for that crucial area of policy in Britain's major conurbations and the City. As we have all agreed, the regulation and disposal of waste does not appear at first sight to many people outside the House to be of particular importance.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Or inside.

Dr. Cunningham

Yes, I accept that too. The fact remains that it is a crucial service for the well-being of Britain's capital city and metropolitan counties. Such a policy and services have major implications for health and safety and other such aspects.

When the matter was first raised in Committee, it was clear that the Government did not know what would happen following the abolition of the authorities. Subsequently, I wrote to the Minister for Local Government with a series of questions which we hoped would be answered before the conclusion of the Committee stage. Those hopes were dashed, as had been our hopes on many other questions to Ministers during the Committee stage. Clearly, holes and weaknesses remain in the legislative proposals.

On 7 March 1985, in Committee, I returned to the issue and in reply the Minister for Local Government said: I shall hold meetings with the London borough leaders who are talking to us before Report, at which time I hope and expect to report to the House on the proposals"—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 7 March 1985, c. 1970.]

We have not yet had any report, and we have had no clarification of the muddle generated as a result of the Government's policies. I very much hope that we shall finally learn from the Government what their intentions are, and what detailed, worked-out, properly considered proposals they have to put to the House in that regard.

We are talking about a system which operates on the basis of a strategic service, and which operates across the metropolitan counties and the GLC. Of course, organisation on this sort of scale has many important advantages, such as the ability to attract expert teams, to promote technological advance, to implement recycling initiatives, to plan proposals for the long term and the ability to monitor and deal with pollution across small administrative boundaries. In addition, there are the economics of scale. Virtually all those important aspects of the present arrangements are placed in jeopardy by proposals to abolish those seven democratically elected authorities. Devolution to district councils working voluntarily together will be fraught with problems. Indeed, that was pointed out in the report commissioned by the metropolitan councils, and prepared by Coopers and Lybrand.

Waste disposal leads to an emotional and emotive response from communities. I refer not only to well-known environmental issues, but to the physical location of facilities, transport arrangements and so on. Many boroughs and districts are simply unable to resolve such difficulties within their boundaries. As a result, we believe that costs to the ratepayer will rise and that possible technological innovation will be stifled. Moreover, environmental conditions are likely to be inferior, and provision for the control, for example, of hazardous waste may be jeopardised.

So far nothing that has been said by the Minister for Local Government, by the Secretary of State for the Environment or by any other Minister with responsibilities in this area has convinced us that the Government have any clear and coherent solution to offer following abolition of the councils. To judge from the Minister's indication across the Dispatch Box a few moments ago, I understand that he is now in a position to answer those questions.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

About time, too.

Dr. Cunningham

My hon. Friend is quite right. The Minister's failure to respond cannot be for want of questions being put to him or for want of opportunities in which to answer.

We have no confidence in the proposals for joint arrangements. As I have said, they are likely to be less effective and less efficient, to cost more than existing arrangements and be likely to deal less satisfactorily with environmental problems and associated difficulties.

I hope—although I do not expect—that the Minister can provide us with some convincing answers. It is not only us but the boroughs, districts and millions of people who will be affected, to whom those answers are long overdue.

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

Before replying to the speech of the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), I should like to comment on a point raised twice in the House yesterday by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) concerning the delivery of letters in relation to the new financial controls that were agreed by the House yesterday.

In order to avoid accusations of legislation by press release, we went to great pains last Thursday to ensure that all concerned, and particularly the abolition authorities, were informed of the new controls before they came into effect at midnight. I shall outline the sequence of events. The regional offices have confirmed delivery of the letter, which enclosed a copy of the amendments to the Local Government Bill, and the 3.30 pm press release reporting my written answer, by 3.30 pm at the latest.

As far as the GLC and ILEA are concerned, we have established the following. The Department's messenger has confirmed that he took letters with pink "Priority" labels to Mr. Stonefrost of the GLC and Mr. Stubbs of ILEA, leaving Marsham street at 3.40 pm. He handed the letters to a "young cheerful man with brown hair" in the GLC basement post room—the normal delivery point—at about 4 pm. He then delivered post to Elizabeth house and was logged back into Marsham street at 5 pm. Mr. Stubbs' secretary confirmed by telephone this morning that she has the ILEA letter booked in as having been received on Thursday. Members of the press were called to county hall—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Does this have anything to do with the amendment?

Mr. Baker

Tangentially, yes, Mr. Speaker, in that yesterday I was asked twice about this issue. I suppose that I could have asked to make a statement, but I thought that it would probably be more convenient to clarify the matter in the context of this debate. I do not seek to abuse the procedures of the House—indeed, I am always anxious to help the House in its deliberations—but I believe that when I was asked about this matter yesterday the hon. Member for Newham, North-West was making a frivolous complaint. However, I set in hand inquiries — [Interruption.] A question will be answered setting everything out. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West should have known that the GLC—which, like us, gets leaked documents—held a press conference an hour before my press release, and implied that it would have people working all night to try to subvert our intentions.

Mr. Tony Banks


Mr. Baker

As we wish to make progress on the amendment, I fear that I would be out of order if I gave way—

Mr. Tony Banks


Mr. Baker

—but I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We should get on with the debate on the amendment. However, as the Minister made a mini-statement, I shall allow the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) to intervene.

Mr. Tony Banks

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the Minister. I shall not detain the House for long, as we wish to debate the amendment.

My first point is that I do not make frivolous interventions on such serious matters. Secondly, I am satisfied that the letter was delivered to county hall on Thursday. I am equally satisfied that the director-general's office did not receive it until 9.20 am on Friday. One reason for that was that there was no one in the director-general's office when the letter was delivered, at 5 o'clock, or thereabouts, on the previous Thursday.

The Minister said that the letter was delivered to the director-general's office. It was not. That cheerful young man with brown hair is no doubt an admirable member of the GLC staff, but I should have thought that for such an important communication some other way could have been found of drawing it to the immediate attention of the chief executive of the GLC. Although I accept what the Minister said, he has not exonerated himself—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We should now move on to the amendment.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

I shall observe your request, Mr. Speaker, and not make the comments that I was tempted to make about the inefficiency of the GLC post room.

It may help the House if I intervene at this early stage in the debate. I hope that what I have to say will convince the House that the report called for in the amendment is unnecessary and that the amendment should therefore be rejected.

As the House knows, the Government's intention, as reflected in the Bill, is to secure the transfer of waste disposal and regulation functions to the borough and district councils. To facilitate that transfer, successor authorities were asked to submit by the end of last month statements of the arrangements which they proposed for carrying out these functions, and in particular arrangements for co-ordinating action with one another, where appropriate.

I am pleased to note that proposals have been, or are due shortly to be, received from 20 London boroughs, and that, thanks to the co-operation between those authorities, they embody an outline plan for carrying out these functions over the whole of London.

4.30 pm

They envisage the formation of seven groupings of authorities for disposal and other purposes, with arrangements for co-ordinating certain regulatory and other non-operational functions, and the formation of a special unit to deal with hazardous wastes. I met the leaders of these 20 boroughs last week and was very encouraged by their positive and constructive approach to developing proposals for this service in London.

Other authorities in London have not so far seen fit to submit proposals or to take part in the joint discussions which have taken place between authorities. I now hope, however, that they will take a more realistic view of the situation. The Government believe that the functions can be successfully carried out on the basis of the proposals submitted. It is accordingly very much in the interest of the remaining authorities to make up for lost time and participate in the joint planning and discussions now necessary to finalise the arrangements.

No comprehensive proposals have yet been submitted for the metropolitan counties, although six districts have submitted individual statements of what they have in mind. In most of the counties the problems are less complex than in London, and the task of making the necessary arrangements is correspondingly simpler. It is none the less important that planning for the takeover of the new functions should proceed without further delay. To assist this process I am today issuing a guidance document which advises successor authorities further on the types of practical arrangement which may be appropriate, drawing on the experience in London. I am placing copies in the Library later this evening.

In all counties we shall be looking for arrangements which ensure a smooth transition, make optimum use of existing assets, and relate satisfactorily to the pattern of needs in the areas covered. We will also want authorities to exploit to the full the opportunities for the use of the private sector, including joint public and private financing and management of facilities such as landfill sites and transfer stations.

Since the Committee stage, I have also met representatives of the private sector, and I was immensely encouraged by the particularly positive way in which they are looking at the transfer of functions and exploring ways in which they can help even further. The private sector is very important in this context. It handles about 75 to 80 per cent. of the work done in waste disposal.

The extent to which authorities will need to co-ordinate for operational purposes will depend on the extent to which they are dependent on the same facilities or contracts for treatment or disposal of waste either now or in the immediate future. In the case of regulatory and other non-operational functions, we shall look for some countywide co-ordination to ensure reasonable consistency in the application of standards for licensing waste disposal sites and effectiveness in the enforcement of the current controls. We also regard it as essential that there should be close co-ordination of control over, and services to deal with, hazardous wastes.

I am highly conscious of the importance of maintaining public confidence in the standards of hazardous waste disposal and control. I assure the House that the Government take their responsibilities in this area very seriously indeed. My right hon. Friend made the same point earlier this week in the Government's response to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology's report on hazardous waste disposal.

We therefore believe that proper arrangements for successor authorities to obtain specialist advice on hazardous waste and on its control must obtain from 1 April next year. These activities need to be fully coordinated between authorities and existing centres of specialist staff, facilities and equipment. Especially, computer-based records should be kept intact as far as possible. We take the view that it would make sense to employ the necessary staff in a common unit, probably based in one authority, but making its services available to the whole of London on a repayment basis.

The Government now look to successor authorities to draw up and submit to the Department as soon as possible more detailed proposals which can form the basis for decisions on staffing and for the necessary orders for transfer of assets and liabilities. It will be necessary for proposals to identify specifically to whom the assets and liabilities are to be transferred, and on what conditions. The best arrangements in general will be for transfer to a single authority, with that authority making separate agreements with other authorities involved, but there may be cases where authorities should be parties to contracts jointly and severally. In the cases that I have discussed with London authorities, both of those are possible arrangements.

The Government will not hesitate to use, if need be, the reserve powers under the Bill to secure—

Dr. Cunningham

On the specific question of all the assets going to one authority, is the right hon. Gentleman really suggesting that all the refuse carts in the GLC area should go to one authority?

Mr. Baker

That is not my proposal. As the hon. Gentleman will see, there is a proposal for seven groupings in London. In the meeting that I had with the boroughs last week—

Dr. Cunningham


Mr. Baker

May I just explain to the hon. Gentleman? I shall give way in a moment.

There are various possible arrangements. On the assets — which are the transfer depots and the trucks and lorries that will be used—the groupings can decide to handle these collectively as a joint committee, if they so wish. Some have expressed a desire to do that. There is even the possibility — which I shall come to in a moment—of a joint board, which is the upper final solution, as it were. Then there is a joint committee, there are voluntary arrangements, and there are arrangements under which the contracts are continued on a joint and several basis.

The boroughs in London to which I have talked are well advanced in their plans for this. The principle is that the assets, such as incinerators and transfer depots, will be transferred to the boroughs in which they are situated, and the arrangements which the boroughs will come to, in which they will determine how many trucks they will use, can be vested either in one borough or in a group of boroughs collectively, jointly and severally.

The point that I am making all the time is that it is essentially for the boroughs and districts outside the London district councils to talk together and decide which is the best way forward.

What has happened so far is that the Conservative boroughs in London have put their plans on the table and discussed with us fully. The Conservative district councils outside London have done that. The Labour district councils are still taking the line of not wishing to talk to the Government at all. I very much hope that that attitude will change very quickly, because we know informally that many of the district and borough councils are making their own plans and talking to each other on this.

Dr. Cunningham

The right hon. Gentleman keeps using phrases like "we envisage", and "we have an outline plan". He said a few moments ago, "The point that I am making". The point that he is making over and over again is that there are still no clear, definite, agreed proposals in existence. That is what is very clearly coming out of what he is saying.

Mr. Baker

As I have made clear, as regards London the proposals are quite specific. There are seven groupings of boroughs—

Mr. Tony Banks


Mr. Baker

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. The groupings are set out in the paper on advice and guidance. They are: group 1: Kingston, Merton, Sutton, Croydon and Bromley; group 2: Bexley, Lewisham, Greenwich and Southwark; group 3: Richmond, Hounslow, Hammersmith and Fulham, Hillingdon, Ealing, Harrow and Brent; group 4: Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Haringey, Islington, Hackney and Waltham Forest; group 5: Redbridge, Havering, Newham and Barking; group 6: Westminster, City of London and Tower Hamlets; and group 7: Kensington and Chelsea, Wandsworth and Lambeth.

Mr. Tony Banks


Mr. Baker

Will the hon. Gentleman listen to what I am saying? These are the proposals that have derived from our consultations with 20 boroughs—the Conservative boroughs and also the Liberal-controlled borough of Richmond. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Labour boroughs are still not talking to us—or to anybody, as far as I know, including himself. These are the groupings which both ourselves and the London boroughs are convinced will work on an operational basis and with regard to the contacts and operations that go on in waste disposal. I hope that the guidance notes published today, and the proposals, will encourage those London boroughs which have not yet started to talk to begin talks among themselves and with us.

Mr. Tony Banks

May we see the guidance notes, because they are important to the debate? It would be helpful if we could see them within the next 10 minutes. The seven groupings obviously have not been discussed with the Labour-controlled boroughs. Was the proposal made by civil servants, or by the 20 Conservative-controlled boroughs?

Mr. Baker

A series of discussions have taken place between my Department's waste disposal experts and members of the hazardous waste unit and the London boroughs. The pattern for waste disposal in London has been examined at a series of meetings. We know a great deal about waste disposal in London, as do the London boroughs, because their trucks convey most of the waste to the transfer depots.

I hope that discussions and reasonableness will prevail and that voluntary arrangements will be worked out. If that does not happen, I can use reserve powers to establish joint boards either for all the conurbations or for parts of the conurbations. I shall not hesitate to use those reserve powers if necessary to ensure satisfactory arrangements for waste disposal when the Bill takes effect.

I am firmly of the view that no occasion has yet been shown for the exercise of those powers. It should not be necessary to use them if authorities now prepare and submit plans for carrying out their new functions. Many Labour districts outside London are talking, and planning their own waste disposal arrangements. I believe that some Labour-controlled London boroughs are doing the same. It would be better if discussions were more frank and open and if the boroughs talk to neighbouring boroughs in the way that I have suggested.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

The Minister's statement was a disappointment. Many of us expected a clear, decisive statement on what the Government intend to do about waste disposal. If anything, we are even more muddled now.

The proposals have been discussed with 20 London boroughs, but 12 of the boroughs are not involved in the discussions. All that we have from the Minister is the promise of a guidance document, and, once again, an appeal for talks. He has been appealing to the boroughs to talk on this and other issues for a long time. I think that there is a grave risk that the boroughs will not talk, at least until the Bill is on the statute book. That means that more time will be wasted.

The proposals for the metropolitan counties are even less clear. No overall proposal has been submitted in respect of any of the metropolitan counties.

What happens if the co-operation of the boroughs which are not involved is not forthcoming? The Minister proposes seven groupings, but setting up voluntary groups of London boroughs for providing a variety of services has not been a total success in the past.

The grouping proposed for south-east London is much the same as that which was set up to deal with computer services for south-east London. That eventually broke down as a result of internal pressure from a number of the boroughs. At one time a number of consortia administered trading standards across Greater London, but that eventually broke down as a result of pressure from the boroughs.

The Minister's statement is not convincing and leaves us in doubt. The Minister says, "Don't worry. Trust me. I have powers, and a variety of opportunities are available. If the voluntary arrangements do not work we can use the concept of the lead borough or joint board." The proposals are vague. At what point does the Minister intend to use his reserve powers? When shall we have a clear statement about this important service?

4.45 pm

All the expert evidence and evidence from private waste disposal interests leads us to believe that waste disposal must be an overall responsibility conducted on a county-wide basis. It is far too important a service to be left to the type of cobbled-up arrangements which the Minister is still trailing before the House. On this, as on so many other topics, the Minister is saying, "Don't worry. It will be all right on the night." That is not an appropriate approach to a service as important as waste disposal.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

I should not have been amazed at the Minister's statement, but I was. He heralded it as if he was about to reveal new schemes, plans, discussions and solutions which would allay all our anxieties and demonstrate that the waste disposal functions now carried out by the GLC and the six metropolitan counties can be carried out adequately by the London boroughs and the metropolitan districts. However, the Minister did not do that.

The statement proved that what we said throughout the proceedings in Committee and what everyone else has been saying is true. The districts and the London boroughs will not be able adequately to take over and run waste disposal functions effectively and efficiently. The fact that the Minister has taken reserve powers shows that the Government do not believe that the districts and boroughs will be able easily to provide an adequate service.

The statement, the proposals and the arrangements in the Bill prove that the function should not be handed to the districts, but that it should be run at a conurbation-wide level. The Minister shakes his head, but the function cannot be operated at district and borough level.

The Minister glibly talks about submissions from the metropolitan areas and claims that it is simple for the districts to get together. Sefton metropolitan district has made a submission which I have read. Its scheme is to start tipping on sites above the level already agreed for tipping by two planning bodies — the Sefton and Merseyside planning authorities. On two of the sites—Sefton and Fell lane—tipping will take place on top of landscaping. Waste mountains will be created instead of holes being filled. No holes are left in Sefton. The arrangements will be difficult in Merseyside because St. Helens has all the holes and the other districts have all the waste. If I lived in Labour-controlled St. Helens, I should ensure that Sefton, one of the lowest rated authorities in the country, paid handsomely to tip refuse in my area. I would not particularly want Southport's refuse in St. Helens.

One private refuse disposal tip in the Wirral has not functioned properly since it was opened. I am sure that if I were in the Conservative-controlled Wirral, I would not want Conservative-controlled Sefton's refuse coming into my area. There is no agreement on Merseyside. Ron Watson, the leader of Sefton council, has not thrashed it out with Derek Hatton. They are not likely to, even when the Bill is on the statute book, if it gets there.

The whole thing is a hotch-potch. Since Merseyside county council took over waste disposal after local government reorganisation, there has been tremendous pioneering. There has been constructive and creative use of waste; public open spaces have been created; refuse has been tipped in underground caves in other districts, which would not have happened previously; a programme has been set up to manufacture waste into fuel pellets; and civic amenity sites have been established throughout the area. The same has happened in many other metropolitan areas. All that could go by the board when the metropolitan counties are abolished.

As the Minister said, the private sector works in partnership with Merseyside county council, the other metropolitan authorities and the GLC. If the private sector is anything to go by, it is not keen on the abolition of the metropolitan counties or on the Government's proposals for waste disposal. The National Association of Waste Disposal Contractors has said: The effectiveness of voluntary joint boards as an alternative regulatory authority for the disposal of waste has not been historically successful, as was demonstrated prior to the 1974 reorganisation.

I could give many other quotes. The Confederation of British Industry said: We have considered very carefully the Government's proposals that responsibility for waste regulation and disposal should be transferred to individual Districts and Borough Councils. The overwhelming majority of members consulted were of the view that voluntary co-operation is unlikely to work, and that statutory joint arrangements should be made from the outset.

The lie to the Government's arguments in favour of their abolition proposals is given when we consider waste disposal. Their proposals prove that they are not getting rid of one tier of local government and giving power to a lower tier. They are getting rid of a tier of democratically elected local government and setting up another tier, which is not democratically accountable, to run services such as waste disposal.

In the not-too-distant future I hope to see in Merseyside and elsewhere district heating schemes, with waste incineration providing some of the heat, because we shall not get the Marshall plan grand-scale scheme. That can be planned only on a conurbation basis. This legislation is sacrificing future experiments of that kind. I hope the Government will accept the amendment.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

We have heard once again from the Minister the hollow answers that we received in Committee. We have made no progress. The substantive matters of concern that were raised about waste disposal, particularly in the metropolitan counties, have been answered in the same way by the Minister. He has heard from a few of the district councils, but he does not know what the rest are doing. He hopes that something is being organised, but he knows little or nothing about it. He says that, if necessary, he will rely on voluntary cooperation.

In my hand I have an exchange of correspondence, which was published yesterday, between the chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Secretary of State for the Environment about waste disposal within the metropolitan counties and the GLC area. Sir Richard Southwood is obviously as worried as we are about the Government's seeming indifference to the future of waste disposal. Sir Richard tells us that he is concerned, in particular, about the comparison with the Welsh authorities — a topic raised on several occasions in Committee. The Welsh authorities failed abysmally to match the standards operating in the rest of the country. Those points were put to the Minister in Committee and they were put by Sir Richard to the Secretary of State in the exchange of correspondence. Yet, important though they are, there has been no response to them.

Sir Richard pointed out the need to build up professional expertise on waste disposal. He said that the expertise is in relatively short supply and needs husbanding, which the metropolitan counties have done successfully in the past. He said that this is unlikely to happen if waste disposal becomes the responsibility of districts. Yet, once again, the Secretary of State responded with deafening silence and indifference.

Sir Richard pointed to the link between waste disposal, minerals planning and land reclamation—all issues that were raised in Committee and to which there were no answers. Once again this afternoon the Minister refuses to make any comment on those important matters, and in his response to Sir Richard the Secretary of State failed to deal with them.

I could go on at considerable length, because these are important and detailed points, but I appreciate the ridiculous pressure on time today. I must draw the attention of the House to a press release about a speech made by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment yesterday at a conference in London on waste disposal. He said that in some areas waste disposal is unsatisfactory, that there are many problems and that in some parts of the country waste disposal authorities have taken considerable steps towards a regional approach.

One Minister from the Department of the Environment is saying that we need larger authorities and a regional structure to organise waste disposal. That is the sensible way to do things. If he were sitting behind the Minister for Local Government now, he would be stabbing him in the back. Fortunately for the Minister, he is not here today to give him that kind of treatment.

Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

Where is he?

Mr. Lloyd

My hon. Friend asks where he is. Clearly he has been exiled to a waste disposal conference elsewhere because of his damaging comments.

There is schizophrenia within the Department of the Environment. One Minister tells us that we need a regional approach, while another tells us that the best approach is that provided by districts and by the London boroughs. Surely the House is entitled to draw the conclusion that one Minister or the other does not know what he is talking about and, more generally, that the Department has no clear view on the problem of waste disposal.

We have no adequate answers to the waste disposal problem in my area, which has no landfill sites. Perhaps the tip in Stretford, which should have been consigned to history, will be reopened to become a major site for the disposal of waste. That would lead to massive resistance from the residents and cause anxiety and heartache to those who would suffer the consequences.

It is lack of knowledge about what will happen in the future that concerned the Opposition in Committee and concerns us again today. We have not yet received adequate answers and we are unlikely to receive them when the Minister replies to the debate. For those reasons, it is important that the amendment is accepted. Even though the amendment would provide minimum safeguards, it would mean that the Minister would have to take seriously the important problems that will affect communities.

5 pm

Mr. Tony Banks

Despite what the Minister has said, nothing has been finally determined. Therefore, I hope that the House will agree to the amendment. The debate underlines the fact that this is the most ill-thought-out part of the Bill — and that is saying something, given the nature of the Bill as a whole. We should have had this debate in Committee.

The Minister has put forward a series of thoughts about proposals, and that is quite inappropriate on Report. We want to know what the proposed seven groupings are, so that we can determine whether they make any sense geographically. I know that the Labour boroughs have not been involved in any consultation, so neither the Minister nor I know to what extent they would be prepared to go along with their Tory counterparts on any proposals.

Voluntary agreements will not work, as has been shown by historical precedent. Every significant independent study into waste disposal in London has come out against the sort of proposals now being made. Have any of the Tory boroughs argued that current arrangements should continue for two or three years after abolition? In that way, the boroughs could try to grapple with the problems that the Minister is about to give them.

The Minister mentioned lead boroughs and hazardous waste disposal. I think that he accepts that hazardous waste will be a Londonwide strategic matter. What will happen about site licensing, waste planning and research and development? All those matters have been identified as Londonwide strategic problems. Will the lead borough proposals be applied in those areas also?

Has the Minister yet been able to identify any savings? It was generally conceded in Committee that there would not be any savings of either staff or money. During the period of discussion between publication of the Bill and today, the Government have suggested 11 different forms of co-operation that they would be prepared to accept. Is the Minister prepared to accept a whole series of different proposals — for example, statutory groupings existing alongside voluntary groupings or individual boroughs going it alone if they so wish? We do not believe that an effective voluntary arrangement can be agreed by April 1986. Is the Minister thinking about what will happen after 1 April 1986 if he cannot achieve some voluntary agreement?

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I wish to add to the list of questions that we hope the Minister will answer. It is obvious that his proposals are only barely off the drawing board, yet we were led to expect a Government announcement of a plan.

When the Minister produced the analysis of responses to "Streamlining the Cities", he said that 15 of the London boroughs were in favour of the proposal that waste disposal and regulation should be transferred to the London boroughs and metropolitan districts. Was that a dishonest statement? If it was not, have those boroughs now changed their minds? It is clear that they do not now hold the view that they either can or are willing to cope with his proposals.

The Minister refuses to accept that there can be Londonwide arrangements. He has put forward a half idea for another form of grouping. This time it is not a joint board or a collection of joint committees but a wider grouping — just the sort of thing that we thought the Government did not want. The Minister should come clean about this.

The Minister told Tory leaders and my colleague Mr. David Williams, the leader of Richmond council, that he was unwilling to set up a joint board because it would be politically unacceptable. The leader of Croydon, who is also chairman of the LBA, wanted a joint committee as he thought joint boards would be politically dangerous for the Conservative party and would cause dissatisfaction among the Tory boroughs. That is what the Minister was told at the meeting that he hastily convened last week.

Mr. Kenneth Baker


Mr. Hughes

Yes. It is ludicrous that proposals about such substantive and important matters should be decided on political considerations and not on objective local service considerations.

What will be the cost in penalties of breaking the three, four, five and 10-year GLC contracts? Surely it is better that the present arrangements should continue. The Minister should admit that he was wrong to say that the boroughs could take control. He should return to the current arrangements, which are working well and of which the GLC and the metropolitan counties can justifiably be proud.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall reply to the debate.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asked me to bring forward a Government plan. He is a member of a party with a great tradition of being against authority and centralisation, yet he urges the Government to lay upon boroughs and districts the exact details of how they should carry out certain functions. Such a plan would require a great deal more detail than rate capping. It sits ill with what I believe to be the hon. Gentleman's basic instincts—which are localist and a belief in placing more responsibility with local authorities — for him to suggest such a plan. I think that, on reflection, he would not wish to stand by the idea of Government telling districts and boroughs exactly how to handle waste disposal.

It is true that the leader of the Liberal council in Richmond came to see me with Conservative borough leaders. He said that that did not mean that he supported the Bill, but that he thought it sensible and wise to discuss the future. I applaud him for that. I only wish other borough leaders would accept the fact that this Bill will reach the statute book within the next two or three months —as last night's vote demonstrated to those who have any doubts that the Government are determined to take the Bill through. Therefore, it would be sensible for those who will have functions and responsibilities devolved upon them on 1 April 1986 to get together and plan sensibly. That is what I am asking the boroughs and districts to do.

There is the fallback position of a joint board—either a collective board or individual boards. However, joint boards mean precepts and GREA expenditure would have to be allocated to them. When many of the boroughs and districts realise that, I am sure that they will prefer to operate with a joint committee. I believe that that will work effectively.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) asked me about some of the other functions. In the case of regulatory and other non-operational functions, we shall look for some countywide co-ordination to ensure reasonable consistency in the application of standards for licensing waste disposal sites and effectiveness in the enforcement of current controls.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether statutory groupings could work alongside voluntary groupings. If that position emerges in London, and if some areas want statutory groupings — for example, joint boards — I shall use the powers under clause 9. That does not mean that there will have to be a joint board for each area of London.

The hon. Gentleman's question about the boroughs was raised at the meeting that I had with them at which one or two said that they would be prepared to operate alone. Before agreeing to that, I must consider the impact that that would have on neighbouring boroughs as we have to take into account the availability of landfill sites and incinerators.

Those who have influence in the councils that are to be abolished, such as the hon. Member for Newham, NorthWest—the chairman-elect of the GLC—should be aware that I hope that there will be co-operation and discussion. Many discussions are already taking place informally and many Labour-controlled councils are planning for the inevitable—the end of the metropolitan councils and the GLC.

Dr. Cunningham

With the leave of the House. This all too brief debate has exposed yet again the fact that the Government have no definite proposals to put to the House. The Minister's opening speech was as abstract and convoluted as the design on his tie. He told us nothing that we were not told weeks ago in Committee. He had nothing new to tell us today, and it is clear that there are no new agreements on arrangements for the metropolitan counties or for London.

The Minister said that the Bill will reach the statute book. All the signs are that, if it does, it will still have no firm and properly worked out proposals for waste disposal in major conurbations and London. As he mentioned groupings, I can tell him that one of those which he mentioned — that which includes Liberal-controlled Richmond and several Tory boroughs—is already rent with divisions. I understand that the Tory borough of Ealing—a wholehearted supporter of abolition—believes that the transfer of waste disposal services to the successor authorities should take place without detriment to existing standards of service and that the most effective means of ensuring that is to maintain existing arrangements intact. Why is it calling for abolition?

The Minister was kind enough to give me, at short notice, a document that he has issued today. It contains revealing statements such as: The nature and degree of co-ordination needed will hinge on the degree of dependence involved. I wonder what that is supposed to mean.

Under the heading "Main Criteria," the document says: The essential starting point is that all waste disposal functions can and should be carried out by borough and district councils. That is clearly not the case. It has been demonstrated that they cannot carry out those functions on the basis of borough and district boundaries. That is the nexus of the Government's difficulties in this matter.

Because of lack of time and the need to press on to other important matters, such as the Inner London education authority, we shall not call for a Division on this amendment, but the debate has demonstrated that the Government's proposals on refuse are rubbish.

Amendment negatived.

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