§ Debate. resumed on the Motion moved on 31st October last by the Earl of Selborne—namely, That a humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:—
§ "Most Gracious Sovereign-We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament."
§ 3.1 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington)
My Lords, today's debate concerning local government, the environment and agriculture may appear to your 148 Lordships to cover widely diverse subjects. But I submit that they are all interweaved and in many ways interdependent. Agriculture and the environment go hand in hand in the presentation of our much loved landscape now and for the future. Local government's involvement with housing and planning completes the triangle.
The legislation announced in Her Majesty the Queen's gracious Speech concerns two important Bills affecting local government so I shall begin there. The first Bill, introduced into your Lordships' House yesterday, is the Local Government Bill. The second, introduced last week in another place, is the Local Government Finance Bill.
The Local Government Bill has two principal purposes. It contains our proposals for implementing some aspects of the Citizen's Charter and proposals to review the structure of local government by the setting up of the local government commission.
The Local Government Bill will implement four specific proposals from the Citizen's Charter. Those four proposals deal with: measuring the performance of local authorities; the way in which authorities respond to their auditor's reports and recommendations; the publication of information by the Audit Commission; and competition. I shall say a few words about each of those in turn.
I shall deal first with performance measures. The White Paper on the Citizen's Charter drew attention to wide disparities in the level and cost of services provided by local authorities. Of course there can be many reasons for those disparities but at present the very fact that there are disparities at all is hidden from the public. Some information is published but only in a limited and unco-ordinated way. It does not provide any basis for making comparisons between authorities.
Our proposals will enable meaningful comparisons to be made. For that purpose we shall extend the powers of the Audit Commission and the Scottish Accounts Commission. Those commissions are independent of central government. Over the years they have built up an impressive reputation for the high quality of their work on value for money.
We believe that our proposals will stimulate a much wider appreciation among local authorities of the opportunities which exist for improving the value for money of the services they provide. They will also enable local people to make judgments about the performance of their local council.
Our second proposals concern the reports and recommendations which may be made by the auditor of a local authority. Those reports and recommendations are frequently concerned with improving the value for money of council services. Alas, they are not always equally welcome. Sometimes the authority prefers to sweep the auditor's reports under the carpet.
Under our proposals that will no longer be possible. We shall require authorities to consider an auditor's report or recommendation at a full council meeting within a period of four months after receiving it and to give a formal response.
Again, publicity is central to that process. Authorities will be required to publish the fact of a 149 report and its subject matter, give notice of the meeting and then publish their response. The Audit Commission will, under our third proposal, be empowered to name publicly those local authorities which do not meet those requirements.
The Government's proposals concerning the competition requirements for the provision of services by local authorities are intended to achieve two principal objectives. First, we wish to implement the commitment in the Citizen's Charter White Paper to ensure that the private sector has a fair chance to compete for local authority work. Secondly, we wish to extend the requirements for local authorities to subject service provision to competition.
The Government have today published a consultation paper which contains details of how we propose to use those enabling provisions. Copies of the paper have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
The Government's objective is to encourage maximum efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of services to the public by local authorities. The experience of the past decade has shown the value of competition in achieving that.
The Government consider there is a need to clarify the framework of competitive tendering for local authority services. We are concerned that unless private sector contractors are convinced that they have a fair chance of winning they may no longer consider it worth their while to bid for work. It is for that reason that we propose a power for the Secretary of State to define what is or is not anti-competitive behaviour.
The extension of compulsory competitive tendering to professional services is more complex and we therefore propose enabling provisions so that tendering procedures may be modified when competition is extended. Comments on our proposals are invited by 31st January 1992.
The Government also propose to set up a new local government commission to replace the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. The new commission's main task will be to review the structure of local government in England. Wales and Scotland are not affected. We intend that the commission will carry out a rolling programme of reviews, examining the shire counties area by area. The commission will have a duty to recommend the most suitable structure for each area which it examines. There is no intention that either county or district councils should be abolished as a tier.
Responses to our consultation paper on The Structure of Local Government in England from principal local authorities showed that the majority were keen to achieve unitary status. While we believe that unitary authorities will provide a better structure than exists at present, it will be open to the commission to recommend that a two-tier structure should continue in some areas.
The Bill also sets out a framework for the procedure the commission will follow in conducting reviews, including consultation with local authorities and local people.
150 My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment intends to issue guidance to the commission about the matters to which it will be required to have regard in carrying out reviews. The commission will consider the costs and benefits of change and how economic and effective are service arrangements.
Where the Secretary of State decides to implement recommendations for structural changes from the commission, he will lay orders before both Houses of Parliament which will be subject to affirmative resolution procedures. He may also make orders on consequential transfers of local government functions.
The Local Government Finance Bill provides a new, fair and stable basis for local government finance. It introduces the council tax, a new method of raising revenue from the domestic sector which I believe will be widely welcomed both by local authorities and the public.
The council tax is based on the value of property but it avoids the difficulties which made domestic rates so unsatisfactory. The new system will provide for reduced bills for single-person households. Most single-person households consist of elderly people. Under domestic rates their circumstances could not be reflected. The council tax will ensure that their bills are more closely tailored to their circumstances.
Many people will agree that a property tax is a sensible basis for a local tax. But taxes are paid by individuals, not properties, and it is essential to ensure that any system offers appropriate protection to those who are less well off.
The Bill therefore provides for a rebate system which takes full account of ability to pay. Council tax benefit will provide rebates of up to 100 per cent. for people on low incomes. This, I am sure, will be widely welcomed on all sides of both Houses and throughout the country.
The council tax is a straightforward tax which is easy to administer. A local authority will know from the outset the number of bills that it has to issue. A straightforward and non-intrusive method of assessing eligibility for discounts will avoid the need for any kind of comprehensive register. Most households will receive a standard bill and there will be no need for the authority to conduct any inquiries into the numbers and status of the residents.
The valuation bands to which dwellings will be assigned are the same throughout England, Wales and Scotland. The Government believe that regional banding would be unsatisfactory and would introduce unacceptable anomalies. There will be concessions for certain groups; in particular, students, student nurses, apprentices and youth training trainees.
I move on to the environment. Although there is no specific legislation planned this Session on the countryside or the environment, I want to mention briefly two events: the publication of the anniversary report on the environment White Paper and the United Nations conference on the environment.
Last September—on the exact day of the original White Paper launch—we published our first anniversary report. The White Paper was the first comprehensive policy statement by any British 151 government. The anniversary report was the first time that a British government had subjected their policies to such open accountability. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has given art assurance that there will continue to be reports on a regular basis.
In the anniversary report we accounted for every one of the 350 or so White Paper commitments. Over 200 commitments have already been met. On those which will take time, we have recorded the progress made so far. I am pleased to be able to report that over 400 separate environmental measures have been taken this year. They range from telephone helplines for those concerned about air quality to international agreements on key issues such as water quality.
We are now well into the preparatory work for the very important United Nations conference on the environment and development which will take place in Brazil next June. The Prime Minister has been among the first heads of state to state his intention to attend the conference. The United Kingdom has played a leading role in the preparations for the conference and in providing assistance for developing countries to attend.
Our objectives at the conference are several. The priority is to conclude a framework convention on climate change and I am pleased to say that the United Kingdom's draft has been adopted as the working text for discussion. We are also working hard to conclude a framework convention on bio-diversity and forestry.
Among other things we hope that the conference will agree a statement of environmental rights and obligations which will inform future policy making. Our aim is that this Earth Charter, as it is known, will cover such fundamental principles as the precautionary approach, the polluter-pays principle and public access to environmental information.
The final objective of the conference is to agree Agenda 21—the action plan for the 21st century. That will set out national, regional and international environmental strategies and plans and state clear responsibilities for specific commitments. Wherever possible we hope that the plan will be monitored through existing institutions.
I have perforce had to limit my remarks on environmental and countryside issues to the two umbrella initiatives which will affect us in the coming year. However, many matters affecting the countryside and the environment generally will be put before your Lordships and thoroughly discussed.
Finally, perhaps I may turn to agriculture. In his reply to Her Majesty's most gracious Speech, my noble friend Lord Selborne stressed the vital importance of achieving a successful outcome to the GATT negotiations and of securing a reformed CAP which fully recognises the Community's international as well as internal obligations. I could not agree more. We must do everything in our power to ensure that the log jam in the GATT negotiations is removed. Negotiations in Geneva are now moving into what we all hope will be their decisive phase.
Agriculture is only one of a wide range of issues under discussion, but it is widely regarded as one of the most important. Indeed, it would be no 152 exaggeration to say that agreement on agriculture is essential if there is to be a successful conclusion to the round as a whole.
I believe that there is a real willingness to bring the round to a conclusion over the next few weeks. I hope that the Community will be able to respond positively and constructively to the Dunkel paper when it emerges.
As I indicated, the Community has accepted the need for significant reform of the CAP and is actively engaged on internal negotiations to that end. We had a most interesting and constructive debate on that very issue just a few weeks ago. Since then the Commission has produced the detailed legislative texts which provide the basis for the detailed negotiations that are taking place.
In those negotiations, the Government will seek changes which achieve comprehensive reductions in support, applied with equal effect throughout the Community, and with compensation limited to those who really need it. We shall seek to have the proposals for headage limits in the livestock sector dropped in favour of action on prices. We shall also seek changes in the set-aside proposals and elsewhere which encourage the farmer's responsibility for the environment.
Such changes would contain the cost of the CAP and reduce the burden for both consumer and taxpayer. They would bring Community agriculture closer to the realities of the market and, by promoting efficiency rather than hindering structural development, would prepare our farmers for the challenges of a more liberal era in agricultural world trade. They would recognise and reward our farmers' roles as both agriculturalists and environmentalists. Only in that way can we provide our farmers with the prospect of a viable long-term future which will enable them to plan ahead with confidence and so continue to make that contribution to a healthy countryside and a prosperous rural economy which they have made for generations.
Caring for the rural environment is central to our thinking about the future shape of the common agricultural policy. Our countryside is very largely the product of generations of farmers. They have shaped it; now they have a key role to play as its custodians, maintaining it in good heart for the next generation while at the same time continuing to earn a fair living from it.
In the United Kingdom we have been progressively developing agricultural support towards environmental care; for example through our environmentally sensitive areas scheme, our farm and conservation grants scheme and our farm woodlands scheme. We want to see this important shift in emphasis carried through to the level of the European Community as a whole.
We shall be pressing for our pioneering work on environmentally sensitive areas to be carried forward under the agri-environmental action programme proposed by the Commission as part of its CAP reform package. We want the Commission's current sketchy proposals to be developed into a coherent and cost effective set of environmental measures, which are 153 nevertheless capable of application in the widely different local circumstances throughout the Community.
Such measures should not be just an extra added on to the CAP. Environmental policies should be an integral part of a reformed CAP and should, wherever possible and when worthwhile, shape the various market support arrangements. Environmental concerns and objectives should be explicitly stated as integral to the support arrangements and as practical steps taken to achieve environmental protection with the help of those arrangements.
If such a change in attitudes were achieved, the Commission would not in future propose, as it has done, what is in effect compulsory set-aside, affecting large tracts of countryside without appropriate environmental safeguards; and it would not seek major changes to the livestock regimes which give scarcely any consideration to environmental concerns. We have a long way to go but we shall keep up the pressure to green the CAP.
Dealing with three such vast subjects in a limited time amounts to more than trying to put a quart into a pint pot. Your Lordships will no doubt be making good my omissions and I look forward to listening to the debate and to my noble friend's summing up.
§ 3.23 p.m.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will forgive me if I do not follow up the subject matter of the latter part of her speech. It will be dealt with by my noble friend Lord Gallacher at the conclusion of the debate. I hope that I shall also be forgiven if I devote more attention, as did the Queen's Speech, to the local government side of today's debate rather than to the environmental side. That is partly because those matters will be discussed with more expertise than I can claim by my noble friends Lady Nicol and Lord Hatch. Indeed, as the Session proceeds, they will be dealt with from the Front Bench by my noble friend Lady Nicol and Lady Hilton, who, I am delighted to say, will join us to cover these matters.
Even so, I am bound to say that it is disappointing to hear from the Government that there will be no further legislation on environmental matters. That certainly does not reflect the impression of urgency that we were given when the environment White Paper was produced just over a year ago. I noticed that in her speech the Minister did not refer to the report which was produced this year as a progress report. She chose to use the words "anniversary report" because, as we well know, although the report may produce evidence of some little progress on a large number of small issues, there is no evidence of effective progress on the major concerns to which the White Paper addressed itself. That is for exactly the reason that we anticipated when we debated this matter a year ago; namely, that the Government's responsibility for the environment—which ought to be overarching a number of departments of state, not simply the Department of the Environment but also the Departments of Transport and Energy in particular—has not been put 154 into place. There has been no effective overseeing of the environment between the different departments of state. For that reason, as we anticipated a year ago, there has been no real progress.
In particular it is disappointing that the Government, having come round at last to our view that there ought to be a single environmental protection agency—a view which we have expressed in policy documents on a number of occasions—have not been prepared to introduce legislation to that effect. There is only a consultation document to which responses are required by 31st January next year. There will be no prospect of any action until we have to take action after the next election. It is noticeable—is it not?—that when the Government want to slow down matters they put forward consultation papers with a lengthy deadline for responses and when they want to speed up things they produce the legislation (as they have done today with the Local Government Bill) and the consultation paper at the same time. It is hard to see how in either of those cases consultation can be intended to add significantly to the quality of debate. I am pleased to hear that the Prime Minister has indicated that he will be present at the United Nations conference in Brazil in June. No doubt without fear of contradiction I can say on behalf of my right honourable friend Mr. Neil Kinnock that he will honour that undertaking when he is Prime Minister in June.
I now turn to the issues of the Bills that will come before us. I shall start, as did the noble Baroness, with the Local Government Finance Bill. It is noticeable that with this Bill we come almost full circle in terms of legislation by this Government on local authority finance. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, put it very elegantly in his speech last Thursday when he referred to "the net legislative utility" of debates in Parliament on this matter. He did not go quite far enough. When we look back to the Local Government Finance Bill which introduced the poll tax and consider the debates which will take place on the new Local Government Finance Bill, we might well say that they have a negative financial utility.
There has been a change in the usual to-ing and fro-ing between governments of different political persuasions. It is bad enough when governments consider it their duty first of all to overturn the actions of their predecessors. Now we have a government going to great lengths, which include the imposition of a guillotine in another place, to overturn their own legislation. One can hardly have sunk lower in standards of competence of government than this Government in respect of local government finance.
But it is all part of a pattern. We now come up to what is perhaps the hundredth piece of legislation about local government since the Conservative Party came to office in 1979. As recently as 1989 a previous Secretary of State, Mr. Nicholas Ridley, in introducing the Local Government and Housing Bill claimed that it would repeat the essential reforms of the framework within which local authorities operate. Some hope, my Lords. Ever since that day there has been an unending stream of local government 155 legislation, all in the same direction. It has all involved the erosion of local government and the strengthening of central government.
The matter goes a long way back. Those who consider the parlous state of our prisons will hardly be surprised to learn that some of the worst events have happened since local authorities lost their control of prisons in the last century. Those who look at the unparalleled state of government-induced confusion in our hospital service will not be surprised to learn that it was nothing like as bad when local authorities controlled the bulk of the hospitals. Those who consider the vast amount of expenditure which is required to bring our water and sewerage industries up to standard will recall that our water and sewerage industries were expropriated from local government control in the mid-1970s.
Since then every single intervention of central government in local government has been to restrict local governments' responsibilities and powers. In education, there has been the setting up of city technology colleges. The invention of grant maintained schools not only took schools away from local authority control but, by taking away those schools which were threatened with closure for very good demographic reasons, ensured that local authorities had much less chance of running an effective schools service with the schools that were left to them. The intervention of the Government in taking away polytechnics from local authorities—I do not oppose that; the Labour Party is not opposed to it—is another example of the way in which local authorities are having responsibilities taken away from them. What is now proposed in the Further and Higher Education Bill is that further education sixth form colleges and overall oversight of post-16 education shall be in the hands of central government.
In hosing, the first move by this Government in the early 1980s was for compulsory sale by local authorities of their housing stock to their tenants. Again, we are not opposed to that. But we are certainly opposed to the corollary in the Government's mind: that local authorities will not receive the proceeds of those sales—they will not be able to use them for more housing—and, indeed, as Ministers have made clear this year, local authorities will not be in the business of having housing to rent.
In more local ways the Government have attempted to bypass local authorities' responsibilities for housing by the creation of urban development corporations, housing action trusts—although they have been a conspicuous failure—and generally by the heavy financing of non-elected bodies in local services and the starvation of resources for elected local authorities. That is what it comes down to. The financial and constitutional independence of local authorities is under threat from this Government. The continuing flood of local authority legislation is evidence of that.
The Citizen's Charter sounds grand, except that of course the phrase was used by the Labour Party some time before it was taken up by this Government. From the legislation which was introduced into this House last night, I fear that the concept of empowerment 156 which ought to be behind the Citizen's Charter has been debased so far as concerns local government into the introduction of league tables of performance; and they will be very poor league tables of performance.
It is noticeable that the Local Government Finance Act 1982 set standards of economy, efficiency and effectiveness as the remit of the Audit Commission. That remit, as I well recall, was renewed and amended by both Houses of Parliament in debate earlier this year. We all thought both in 1982 and this year that the concept of economy, efficiency and effectiveness was a good way to define the responsibilities of the Audit Commission. We now have the word "cost" added. What does that mean? What can that add, unless it means that—notwithstanding economy, efficiency and effectiveness—the criterion that will be set for local authorities is low cost regardless of need. There is no other meaning.
I fear that we shall be judging local authority services not by standards of quality—otherwise the word "cost" would not come into it—but simply by setting league tables of costs regardless of the different levels of need in different parts of the country, the different levels of resources available and the wishes of local people who might, of their own free judgment expressed in electing their local representatives, decide that they want a higher quality service for a higher cost.
That is the case with nursery education. It is conspicuous that Labour local authorities elected democratically have decided that a nursery education should be provided for a higher proportion of under-fives; and Conservative local authorities have exercised their undoubted right to provide less nursery education. I fear that if the cost of the service is the only consideration we shall land up with everyone being forced to make the minimum provision, with no opportunity for people to express their wishes democratically in demanding better services even at a higher cost.
When we consider the criteria which are applied to the league tables, it is conspicuous that they apply only to local authorities. The Bill that is now before the House specifically states that health authorities are excluded from the consideration. There are serious dangers here. Of course there are dangers of high spending; but there are also serious dangers of low spending. I believe that my noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, whose maiden speech we look forward to keenly, will have a few things to say about low spending local authorities.
We are not opposed to the provisions for the publication of auditors' reports and council responses to them. Indeed, we have been advocating that for some time. We are not opposed to naming the councils that will delay in submitting their accounts. We have been saying that for some time. In case the Minister doubts it, we said so in our publication At Your Service in April 1986 and in our publication Quality Street in April 1989. In 1986 we said that there should be clear performance targets and standards for each service. Indeed at least 20 Labour councils, including York, Basildon and Stockton, have included in their policies customer contracts which go considerably 157 further than the Government's own proposals. Since the Government have not gone that far, I can promise the Minister that amendments to provide for customer contracts will be introduced during the passage of the local government Bill.
Some of those ideas have a respectable pedigree. In other words, we have been putting them forward for a long time and have been ignored. Unfortunately those who know far more about horse racing than I do will testify that a respectable pedigree does not always mean that the horse wins the race.
I refer now to the issue of compulsory competitive tendering. The key word is "compulsion". We thought when the present Secretary of State, Mr. Heseltine, spoke to the Association of District Councils on 28th June of this year that the idea of compulsion in these matters had been abandoned by government. He said that the best performing authorities should be able to go about their business unconstrained. He went on to say—and I agree with him—that those who fail to deliver find themselves hamstrung. That is an admirable sentiment but it is not what is contained in the Bill. Everyone, regardless of existing performance, will be required to go out to competitive tender.
We find ourselves in a most curious position. I am glad that the Leader of the House is present. Today saw the publication of the Bill. In addition, at a press conference given by the Secretary of State, we saw publication of a new consultative document entitled Competing for Quality. What do we find in the Bill? I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is not in the Chamber. Clause 8 states:The Secretary of State may by order make such modifications of Part I of the 1988 Act (competition) as he thinks fit".The proposal means that it will be possible to vary existing legislation that has been considered by your Lordships' House by order and not by legislation. A number of people concerned with the quality and dignity of legislation will find that an unacceptable proposition.
Perhaps worse, we shall be asked to debate in November and December this year sections of a Bill which are subject to consultation. Those sections are therefore expressed in the most general enabling terms and give us no idea of the Government's actual intentions. In other words, either the consultation process is a sham and the Government can tell us what they propose to do about competition, or it is not a sham in which case your Lordships are being asked to waste time debating a matter on which the Government have not yet made up their mind.
That cannot be the way to treat Parliament, whether it is the House of Lords or the House of Commons. I must warn Ministers that the most strongly expressed exception will be taken to treating Parliament and legislation in that way. It is unacceptable for a government not to express even in principle their objectives in a piece of legislation and instead expect Parliament to discuss what has been put out for consultation as the basis of the detail of the legislation, leaving Parliament in ignorance of the Government's final position. I complained loudly enough last year after the Planning and Compensation 158 Bill was debated on Second Reading and then changed at great length when it arrived in Committee. In many cases the amendments were drafting amendments and were relatively trivial. However, this is the kernel of an important part of an important Bill. If the Government have not made up their mind what they think about the matter they should not bring legislation before Parliament.
I could have spent longer on parts of the Bill had I had more than an hour or so to read it. Furthermore, I do not wish to anticipate the Second Reading debate. However, Part II dealing with local government changes for England will not be opposed in principle by Her Majesty's Opposition. They are matters which have a respectable pedigree. Labour Party publications entitled Opportunity, Quality and Accountability published in April and Devolution and Democracy published in July set out what the Government have now belatedly come round to stating.
In April we stated that there was no need for a uniform structure throughout the country. Indeed, during our debate on the gracious Speech last year I said that I did not see why there should be the same structure throughout the country nor did I see why local people should not choose the form of local government structure most suitable for them. It may well be that people on the Isle of Wight will decide to keep a county council and abolish two district councils. It is highly likely that people in Cleveland and Avon will wish to keep district councils and abolish the county councils which were imposed on them by a Conservative Government not too many years ago.
The fact that we have said it all before and that the Government have come round to our view does not necessarily mean that we are convinced of the perfection of the words of the Bill as it stands. Therefore, I cannot promise that we shall give any part of the Bill a rapid passage. We shall do our duty to the best of our ability to ensure that the Local Government Bill before us and, above all, the Local Government Finance Bill—the council tax Bill—are given proper consideration by Parliament.
It is not our intention in any way to delay the abolition of the poll tax. During the summer we made clear that it was open to the Government there and then to abolish the poll tax in such a way that it would be gone by April 1992. We made clear that we would support as an interim measure any attempt to return to the rating system and so abolish the poll tax immediately. The Government rejected those appeals and now it is too late to carry out our proposals.
The present proposals were described by the Minister in her speech as a completely new system of taxation for local government. Given the Government's record in the effectiveness of their approach to local government finance, it is hardly surprising if we say, "Hold on a bit! Can we be certain that you have got it right?". We shall ask questions about the fairness of the council tax and whether the bands reflect ability to pay. We suspect that they do not. We shall ask whether the council tax improves the accountability of local authorities. As the standard spending assessment, which is widely distrusted by 159 local government members and by professionals, is to remain unchanged we doubt whether accountability will be Unproved. We shall also ask questions about the costs of the new system. Whatever Ministers say, a register of individuals will be required in order to identify those households entitled to a discount. We shall again oppose the continuation of capping—the Government's admission that they cannot get it right even after more than 12 years.
We shall not ask such questions in any sense of trying to delay legislation for its own sake. However, I do not believe that the people of this country will wish again to repeat the shambles of legislation for local government which has been imposed on it by this Government during the past few years. It is up to Parliament to seek to protect the people from a repetition of that shambles.
§ 3.48 p.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I too shall try not to anticipate the Second Reading debate on the local government legislation which we shall consider later in the Session. Some noble Lords, including a number of the class of 1991, consider that they are experiencing something new almost every day. I find it a great privilege to be able to speak in the debate on the humble Address.
New legislation for local government and local government structure presents a golden opportunity to set a fair tax and to increase democracy and accountability in local government. I regret that it does not take 20/20 vision to see that that is unlikely to be the effect of the Bills that we are to consider. Since the first announcement of the proposed new council tax we have seen the contortions that are likely to be necessary. Rebates for students have been announced and they are most welcome and necessary. However, we wish to know whether they extend to students not in halls of residence. Although we should not discuss such detail today it is an example of the kind of detail that must be extracted and worked at extraordinarily hard if we are to come close to ensuring that the tax is fair. The more measures there are to deal with tiny parts of the legislation, the more it will be seen that the whole of the legislation is centrally and fundamentally flawed.
We are told that the new tax will be fair. I take one example. A "normal" household is something in the order of two plus whatever adults. Therefore, is it logical that the discount for a single person should be 25 per cent.? Why is it not 50 per cent.? In fact, I do not advocate a 50 per cent. discount but I should like to know the logic behind what is proposed.
Whatever arrangements there are for applying the discount, it seems to me that they will be unsatisfactory. Either we must have a register—we have been told that there will not be a register—or local authorities must use all sensible means at their disposal to check. Does that mean that they must use the electoral register? It seems common sense that they should use it, although there are civil liberties arguments against that. If that is used then the public could be forgiven for again describing the new council tax as a poll tax.
160 In the debate which we had on the Local Government and Finance Valuation Act, every argument which we heard with regard to the council tax seemed to me to be an argument for local income tax: a secure source of income for local authorities; much lower collection costs; accountability and, above all, fairness. By fairness I mean ability to pay with an exact relationship to the taxpayers' resources and not just a relationship at the extremes of those resources.
If the tax is related to ability to pay, there would not be the nonsenses which we see already and anxieties that the sums may be wrong. In the past few days we have seen professionals' comments that because house prices have fallen so dramatically in some areas of the country, the calculations of the amounts which the council tax will raise may not be correct. Above all, a local income tax is fair because it takes us back to a culture in which tax was to be paid and not evaded.
There is a financial priority which is apparently not on the stocks; that is, the relaxation of controls over capital receipts by local authorities from housing stock. It is symptomatic of the heavy hand of central government that local authorities are required to sell but not to use the assets properly. The losers from that are not the local authorities but the people without homes.
I hope that in the new legislation for compulsory competitive tendering, we shall stand back and look not just at the effects on the service, which of course are important, but also at the effects on the staff required to administer the service. One comment made to me from many sources is that if competitive tendering for revenue collection is introduced, the resultant lowering of morale among our poor, hard-pressed and overworked council employees will be drastic. The introduction of a council tax will be complex work, particularly while it is still necessary to collect the poll tax. It is not a particularly glamorous job and I should not expect there to be many takers for it anyway.
I have no objection in principle to competition; of course not. Good local authorities will always look for the best way to carry out their duties. However, we must not be so dogmatic and the procedures must not be so cumbersome that we lose the best practice. The element of compulsion takes that good practice into the realm of dogma. I welcomed the news last week that the lowest tender will not necessarily be regarded as the best tender. Quality must be a criterion. I welcome the assistance that the Audit Commission may give on that. There is plenty to learn from the practice now carried on by local authorities. The Audit Commission may help to make that known.
The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, mentioned customer contracts. They are assurances by local authorities to their own ratepayers and taxpayers. Local authorities are prepared to stand by what they agree and to offer rebates if they do not deliver. That is a right in law which seems not to have been working through in the proposed new charters.
As a quid pro quo, I hope that there may be something for local authorities to help them to do rather better and more easily what they want to do. I 161 suggest that a new power should be given to them. It may be rather scandalous to suggest that local authorities should be enabled to do something else. They should have a power of general competence; in other words, local authorities should be allowed to make the decisions which are best for their own communities unless there are specific statutory rules which prevent them doing so. Currently, the opposite is the case.
It is interesting to hear that the consultation which is to take place will run in parallel with deliberations on the Bill. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us at the end of this debate how the Bill will be dealt with if the response to the consultation is "no". I believe we should all be interested to learn that. It would be reassuring to those responding to the consultation to know that their comments will be taken into account.
Local government is more than mere administration. It is a fundamental and democratic right. I welcome a review of local government structure. I hope that its primary aim will be to revive and strengthen local government. It needs to lay the ground rules about minimum standards and democratic procedures. Apart from that, decisions need to be undertaken by and in the local community. The local community should decide the shape of the local authority. Local people know what is their natural community and should not have government imposed on them from some remote centre.
One area which is literally crying out for reform and is not included in the review is London. The call for a voice for London comes from business, residents, commuters and the man in the street. In five short years it has risen up the public agenda. If ever there was a will for change, that will is as regards a government for London. Of course London has a government; that is, central government. Above all, central government should recognise how vital is London's health to the health of Britain. The economic success of London on the world stage must not be taken for granted and yet there is no one to promote London. In an age of mass communication and media, it is easy to decry image. However, London is extremely dependent upon its image so that our overseas colleagues and competitors can judge us. At the crudest economic level, London needs not just a voice but someone to tell the international community everything which is good about it.
It is tough for London because it has been very successful and innovative in the past. It has set itself high standards. We risk killing the goose which lays the golden egg or perhaps not killing it but letting it die slowly of neglect. The voice for London must be democratic. It should not necessarily have wide powers and should deal with only what is truly strategic. It should take power more from central government than the boroughs. However, unless it is truly democratic and representative it will not command respect. I do not advocate the return of the old GLC but I advocate a democratically elected government for the only major capital city without one.
162 All local government should be a means of ensuring accountability, representative councils and greater participation. On these Benches we are proud to advocate in that the adoption of a fair voting system. At a stroke with a fair system we could end the ability of unrepresented minorities to dictate policy for political motives. A more representative cross-section of the community would be involved. I include in that cross-section a number of women. Without a fair voting system, any changes will fail to make councils more representative or accountable.
Others will deal with the environment. Perhaps I may simply say that a better political system would give us a better environment. With a system which is secretive we have almost no access to environmental information; with a system which is centralised Whitehall is overloaded and our environmental policy is inflexible; with a voting system which is unfair, voters with new anxieties such as the environment are penalised.
The Government rightly require local governments to be open. I hope that in adopting their own principles they will think more about public rights to freedom of information. To give a short example in one word, I would say Camelford. There will be plenty more to say on the topics in today's debate. I shall not say more today, other than to hope that this House will shape tomorrow's local democracy using the best traditions of fairness which I know this House is capable of promoting.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
My Lords, I wish to thank all quarters of this House for the kindness and help that has been given to me and my family since the sudden death of my father some 18 months ago.
We are here to debate the replacement of the poll tax, the extension of compulsory competitive tendering to "white collar" jobs in local authorities and the introduction of some unitary authorities across Britain.
I am concerned at the Government's constant extension of their powers over local authorities. Local authorities are fast becoming centres of local administration rather than of local government. The authorities which have most benefited from the Government's approach are those that have anticipated reforms and led the way in privatising their services and selling their council stock. Nowhere is that more true than in the London Borough of Wandsworth, where I am an elected councillor. While it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge that Wandsworth is an efficiently run council and certainly a master of self-publicity, there should be no doubt in people's minds that the majority of Wandsworth residents have benefited at the expense of the borough's most poor and vulnerable residents.
Wandsworth has a poll tax of nothing. The world knows that; it is advertised everywhere. However, it also has one of the highest council rents in the country and makes one of the lowest per capita contributions to the voluntary sector in Inner London. Wandsworth privatises all that it can. In the Government's eyes it sets an example to other authorities across the 163 country. In Wandsworth we are now going through another typical privatisation, which I shall recount to your Lordships. It is the privatisation of the school cleaning contract. It will exemplify my point.
The council's direct services organisation will be putting forward a bid and the basis of their bid will be to pay council staff around £3.80 an hour. The private contractors are known and anticipated to put forward a hid based on paying their staff £2.80 an hour and I have beer told that some pay as low as £1.75 an hour. Of course the contractors' staff—they are not staff; they are contractors themselves—will not be entitled to any sick pay, any holiday pay and few rights while working is cleaners. Worse than that, it is the practice of Wand worth Council to put out a contract for bid and obtain responses. However, should only the direct services reply, then it rejigs the contract, talks to the private contractors and rebids the contract. That is precisely the situation we have reached in Wandsworth with the cleaning of the schools. I make no comment in regard to the quality of work one can expect for £1.75 an hour.
In my view that is the true face of privatisation. It is forcing people across the country on to breadline wages and is a callous example of the Government's compulsory competitive tendering policy without adequate safety nets. In my view local authorities should be allowed to arrange their affairs as they are elected to do, while there should be some national guidelines and restrictions. In London it would be so much more appropriate and easy if there were a strategic authority through which all London local authorities could discuss, debate and challenge strategic proposals.
One laughable example of the present situation in London homes to mind. It concerns the urban motorway proposals of two years ago. One such proposed motorway ran through the northern boroughs of London and stopped on the north side of Wandsworth Bridge. It was specifically designed to funnel traffic through Wandsworth and into South London. Wandsworth was not consulted about it because the road did not actually cross on to Wandsworth soil. It is a clear example of where a strategic authority would have been appropriate.
I see strategic authorities as being appropriate for other parts of Britain, forming a basis for regional authorities. I see regional authorities as an effective and long overdue tool for moving real decision making from Whitehall and giving it back to local communities. That is precisely the opposite of the trends we have seen since 1979. Indeed, it was in my father's maiden speech in 1975 while he was chairman of the GLC that he spoke of strengthening the GLC's powers so that it could act as a prototype for regional assemblies in the country. Time has moved on, but the approach remains right and should be acted upon.
If we are to have active and responsible local authorities and regions in Britain, our national government must be confident enough of their own role to let the boroughs and districts be centres of local government and not just local administration. The Government must also be seen to be democratic and responsible. In saying, "seen to be democratic", I am 164 unfortunately aware that this Chamber is known to be undemocratic. Unfortunately, it is a source of cynicism and ridicule of our national government that Peers such as myself, unelected, hereditary Peers, have a right to speak and vote on the affairs of the nation. I can assure the House that should ever I be fortunate enough to sit on the Government Benches as part of a Labour Government, I should be working to put myself out of a job as soon as possible.
To conclude, we need to reverse the centralisation of power and give our local communities a proper say in their local affairs. That can best be done by building on our borough and district councils, introducing regional strategic authorities and abolishing the House of Lords in its present state. As this is my maiden speech, I have sought to be as non-political and uncontroversial as possible. I look forward to playing a full part in proceedings in this House at a future time.
§ 4.8 p.m.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, I am sure that noble Lords will expect me to start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, on his maiden and totally uncontroversial speech. Those noble Lords who have been here a lot longer than I will know that the noble Lord's father was a much esteemed Member of this House and indeed was the Opposition Chief Whip. He was greatly respected by all. We are all looking forward to the next speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, when of course he will be controversial and the speaker who comes after him will be able to take up some of the points on which he dwelt. The congratulations coming from me are a little strange; I am on my maiden speech plus one. In around 10 minutes I shall be happy to tell the noble Lord whether one's second speech is any less of an ordeal than one's first.
I do not want to talk about London, which will probably be a relief to those noble Lords whose interests exist throughout the rest of this country. Sometimes those of us who live to the north think that a lot of people in London believe that the country begins and ends at the M.25. I believe that is a car park I should one day visit.
I should like to deal quite quickly with three aspects, taking first local government. When one looks at how local government should fund itself, there are two or three principles I should like to put before the House. First, it is right that local government should raise a portion of its finance directly from its citizens. I believe that inevitably, given the expenditure of local government, that portion is quite rightly a small one. It is right that it should raise a portion of its finance. Secondly, it is best if the tax is a clearly separate one from any of the taxes raised by central government. Noble Lords will not be surprised to hear from me that local income tax does not meet that criterion. The distinction between local and central government would be absolutely lost in income tax. I believe that the public would very quickly subsume the lot and blame the Government. That may be all very well when your party is not in power, but I believe that it 165 would make bad news for the party which is in power in being blamed for the income tax including the income tax of local authorities.
Thirdly, it must be simple to collect. It is stating the self-evident to say that the poll tax did not meet that particular criterion. I believe that the proposals in the Local Government Finance Bill are a sensible return to a local government tax based on property and property values. In that respect it is obviously easier to collect. Houses cannot move, which must be a redeeming feature of the system. I believe that the one thing we discovered as regards the poll tax is that our population moves in a fairly considerable way. I suspect that the changes in the register have been a great deal more than anyone ever foresaw.
I see very little difference between what the Government are proposing and what I understand the Labour Party are proposing. I suspect that much will be made of the difference. I listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, who was trying to make as much as he could of that difference. I believe that the basic underlying principle of a tax on the value of property is agreed by both sides. It seems to me that the Labour Party believe that we should go up in pound steps which opens up all the byzantine arguments which we had concerning the old rating system about how many radiators you install in your house or the size of the garage that you have just added, or whatever else. There is the system which goes up in larger steps which, it is hoped, will reduce, if not completely eliminate, the problems of people arguing as to whether their house is of the same or of a greater value than the house next door.
I wish to say three things to the Government. I suspect that the poll tax may be found to be engraved on my heart if not on my mind. I welcome my noble friend's assurance—and I wish to underline it—that the Government should be sure that there is no need for a register in order to deal with the single person discount. During the passage of the Bill, both here and in another place, I hope that the Government will listen and mark the points raised and attend to them if they seem justified. I believe it was failure in that regard during the passage of the poll tax legislation which very largely brought about many of the problems that we found with the tax. I very much welcome the 100 per cent. rebate in the new tax. That is sensible. It avoids another very serious problem that arose with the poll tax. But why are we stuck with the 20 per cent. for the remaining year of the poll tax? I say to my noble friends that I cannot imagine that it is doing any good to stick to that principle.
I now wish to turn to local government reform. I shall stick with Scotland. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is no doubt considering all the views. Interestingly, about a year ago everyone seemed to want to move away from the two-tier system. It was difficult to find a single defender. Suddenly, defenders are everywhere and very few people seem to be all that sure where they want to move. There is much wrong with the two-tier system. It may be that I have heard it in previous speeches as regards the English and Welsh position, 166 but one of the factors which is wrong is that we tend to try to have a uniform system over the whole country regardless of whether we are talking about urban or rural areas. Perhaps that is one thing that we should attempt not to do the next time round.
There is some controversy in Scotland that the Secretary of State is not setting up a commission. I have listened to that with interest. I recall that it was a commission of the great and the good—at least, they thought that they were the great and the good—which produced the two-tier system which was put into effect in 1974 and which, until recently, was pretty universally unpopular. My advice to my honourable friends is to move slowly with local government reform. It costs a fortune and makes no friends and, arguably, it probably does not improve the situation. One should attend to how local government works. At the risk of crossing the noble Lord who preceded me, despite the fact that it was his maiden speech, I should have thought that it was a joy to be a councillor in Wandsworth with a nil poll tax.
I now turn to agriculture and the environment. The common agricultural policy is important not just for agriculture but also for the countryside. For example, the encouragement to grow cereals by the way in which the Community bought cereals and stored them in ever-growing mountains, encouraged some farmers into the rather destructive techniques of grubbing up hedgerows and ploughing up what should have remained permanent pasture. Therefore, the common agricultural policy does not only impact on farming, but it impacts also on the environment. In every way it is a perfectly unsatisfactory solution to agriculture in the Community.
Many of the proposals in front of Commissioner MacSharry and the Community at the moment would be intensely damaging to British agriculture and thus to the majority of farmers who actually keep the countryside in the way all the urban dwellers like to see it. Perhaps I may give one example. I suspect that other noble Lords who follow me will develop it. As regards sheep farming, the proposals on headage limitation will be extremely damaging to sheep farmers on the hills and uplands. They will be entirely directed to benefit those part-time farmers in the golden triangle of Europe who have very well paid full-time jobs and who do not need the help of the headage payment.
The hill sheep farmer in the Highlands of Scotland, with 1,000 ewes or more, is by no means the rich man which Commissioner MacSharry and many of his colleagues seem to imagine. If these headage payments are controlled and limits are put on, sheep farming in these remote areas will become more and more uneconomic. Real problems will occur for the agriculture industry in our hills and uplands and for the rural economy in general. I believe that there is a need to separate agriculture and food from a social policy needed to work in the countryside. It is needed to encourage people to live and stay there. We should try to distinguish that.
I speak quite firmly as someone who is in favour of the European Community and who believes that we have a great deal to do to develop it. However, what 167 worries me is that often there is no genuinely level playing field. There are quite different views about agriculture between ourselves and many of our Continental partners. I know that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food takes a robust view on this matter in the Community. I am not asking the farmers in Germany to change the system which they operate. They should not ask us to change the system that we operate and which suits our quite different land tenure, agricultural holdings and climatic conditions.
There is another aspect of the common agricultural policy which I always find profoundly disturbing. On the one hand, the EC has said to us, as noble Lords will know, that we should not allow tobacco advertising on television, and that we should insist on health messages on cigarette packets. On the other hand, if you go into the depths of the common agricultural policy you will find that we are all paying out millions to sustain farmers in Europe to grow tobacco. If there is anything more illogical in anybody's policy than that, I cannot imagine it.
I conclude by looking at set-aside. As the Scottish Office Minister concerned with agriculture at the time, I can remember when we launched that with great trumpeting. It has a major part to play. However, it is only one of the factors which must be brought to bear on the amount of land which will need to come out of direct agricultural production. There are other ways. The danger with set-aside is that it is hard to justify vast areas of ground not being used and people being paid not to use them.
There are other crops which we can grow for which there is demand. I can think of one crop which would help the environment, which would help with atmospheric pollution and which would certainly help the balance of payments—namely, trees. Well planned and well planted trees of all kinds enhance the countryside and provide rural employment, raw material for downstream industries and much employment in those industries. I am always puzzled by the fact. that environmentalists love trees in Brazil and they love the Black Forest but they seem totally opposed to trees and forests in this country.
The problem is that planting rates are disastrously low at present. I should tell my noble friends that I believe the, Government must find ways to boost planting rates back to the targets set by them. We have excellent growing conditions for trees in this country. Such development can make an important impact on employment in the countryside. It is a sensible use of land which we no longer need to produce food. I hope that the Government will look seriously at the decline in planting rates and at ways in which to boost those rates.
§ 4.20 p.m.
§ Lord Hatch of Lusby
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, may know that it is almost ritualistic in this House to congratulate a maiden speaker. He may also know that I am not very interested in ritual. Therefore, the congratulations I offer him are direct and personal. I believe that he is the fourth generation of his family that I have known.
168 I am delighted to note the skilled contribution that he will be able to make to our knowledge of local government in this House. I am even more delighted that he has returned to the radicalism of his great grandfather. We hope to hear from him many times in the future.
My contribution this afternoon is entirely confined to the sentence in the gracious Speech which reads:The United Kingdom will work for a successful United Nations Conference on Environment and Development next June".I have given notice to the noble Baroness who is to conclude the debate of the questions that I should like her to answer on behalf of the Government. Moreover, earlier, before the long Recess, I had a short discussion with her when I expressed the hope that she would keep the House constantly informed of developments in the preparation for the conference at Rio next June.
At this stage of our development I should like the Minister to share with the House knowledge of the policies in the discussions which Her Majesty's Government have been having with the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a framework and convention on climate change. I believe that it has held three meetings—in Washington, Geneva and Nairobi—and is to hold a fourth in Geneva next month. I believe that we in this House and those in another place should be constantly informed by the Government as to what policies they are adopting within this preparatory conference so that we are able to criticise and discuss them and have knowledge of what the Government are doing on our behalf.
I should like to think—no doubt this will bring some wry smiles to the faces of some noble Lords—that the material of this debate was outside the party political scope. I say that because I believe that we ought to have a consensus on the essential ends, and that is something which we have not yet achieved. If we can obtain such a consensus, that would be the time to engage in political debate on the means of seeking the ends. There is a positive debate on the different political approaches as to how the international objectives in the environmental field should be reached. I shall mention them briefly at a later stage.
As regards the three conferences which have been held so far preparatory to Rio, I believe that we are entitled to ask the noble Baroness to give us a thorough account of the attitude which the Government have been taking. I should like her to address certain specific issues which have already been raised at the conferences and to say where the Government stand. For example, at the last conference in September held in Nairobi, I believe that the United States was virtually isolated on the question of whether there were sufficient targets and timetables for cutting emissions and cutting down on the use of gases. Is that the case? Moreover, is it also the case that at the conference the United Kingdom and Japan appeared to move somewhat nearer to the general European Community attitude on stating specific targets and timetables for cuts in emissions? As I understand it, the European Community in 169 general believes that by the end of this century we ought to reach stability on the emission of carbon dioxide in particular.
Is it also true that in Nairobi the United Kingdom dropped the policy that has commonly been known as pledge and review, which I believe was also supported by Japan? Pledge and review has been condemned as being purely voluntary and therefore open to breach without any penalty and indeed without there being any breach of treaty. One can contrast that with what is now becoming pretty universally accepted: that unless carbon dioxide can be cut by at least 20 per cent. below the 1988 level, never mind stability, global warming will continue. Even with the targets which have already been reached, global warming will continue throughout the next century. At the present levels, including the cuts agreed upon, by the end of the next century the global temperature will be more than 1"C above the level today. If that happens there can be no doubt that there will be ecological disaster in many parts of the world which will change the ecological stability of the entire globe.
We are talking about something which is surely the most significant issue of our age. The conference at Rio next June has been called in order to discuss whether this planet will be capable of maintaining the human race into the second half of the 21st century. An added issue and one of equal significance is whether it will be possible for the peoples of the developing world to raise their standard of living just to the point at which they can continue to exist without at the same time so multiplying the polluting effects which we in the industrial world have started that there will be virtually no hope for human life on this planet. I believe that the noble Baroness agrees with me on those points. What is important is how we deal with the challenge facing us.
I refer again to the Nairobi conference in September. Can the noble Baroness tell us whether the British Government are now quite firmly opposed to what is called double counting? The Americans have proposed the counting of a number of gases so that manufacturers can increase the emission of carbon dioxide because they are decreasing the emission of CFCs. They can thereby claim that they are making progress towards reducing emissions even though the emission of carbon dioxide is increasing. We know that in the United States carbon dioxide emissions are increasing. We know that vehicles in the United States are now becoming less and less efficient. There was a time when they became more efficient, but over the past three years they have become less and less efficient. We know that manufacturers are planning to increase the number of vehicles which means that carbon dioxide emissions are bound to increase. Will they be able to claim that, because they are reducing the emissions of CFCs, the net balance is one which enables them to claim that they are actually reducing the danger of global warming? That is the double counting argument. I have asked the noble Baroness about it before. I should like a firm assurance from her 170 that the British Government reject that form of estimation which quite clearly is not reducing the dangers of such emissions.
I should also like to ask the noble Baroness about carbon taxes. The European Community is coming closer and closer to complete support for carbon taxes. I notice that the noble Baroness who opened the debate referred to the principle of polluter pays. How will the polluter pay? Will the polluter pay for the pollution that is occasioned by the use of carbon? Will there be carbon taxes? If there are to be carbon taxes, where will they go? Will they be used to increase the efficiency of public transport? Will they contribute towards the transfer of technology to the third world? Where do the Government see them going?
In this respect it is interesting to note that there is one omission from the White Paper. One of the Government's pledges was to civilise traffic in towns by preventing additional car commuting. Why is nothing said about that in the annual report? Have the Government given up their recognition that the increase in commuter traffic, particularly in company cars, and the road building programme into which they have entered are bound to increase pollution? Are they quietly hoping that we will not notice that they have had nothing to say about the first year's experience in dealing with traffic pollution?
Where do the Government stand on energy saving? I understand that they opposed a measure brought forward in the European Community on the efficiency of gas boilers. The White Paper refers to improving the efficiency of domestic appliances. The gas boiler is a domestic appliance and makes a contribution to the emission of carbon dioxide. Is it true that the Government opposed this measure; and if so, why did they do so?
On the issue of energy efficiency and renewables, I understand that there is a potential excess supply of renewables over the targets which the Government have set—in other words, developers are offering far more in the provision of renewable sources of energy than the Government's targets allow for. In regard to wind, wave and solar energy, is it the case that if the Government were to give the go-ahead a great deal more of our energy could be created by those methods; and that there are now developers who are begging for support to do so? Without such sources of energy, how do the Government expect to secure the cuts which they say are their targets? Can they do so without an increase in renewables and without increasing energy efficiency? We have talked about energy efficiency before. Why is VAT charged on energy conserving equipment? Is it not in the interests of society that energy conserving equipment such as light bulbs should be VAT free? I remind the noble Baroness that over the past two years the market for energy conservation equipment has dropped by 30 per cent., which I am sure is not what the Government are aiming at.
Finally, I come back to the wide issue of the relationship of global warming and the international challenge which we face to what is happening in the third world. I had a little experience of that relationship during the long Recess. In Tanzania, the 171 coral reefs are being destroyed by dynamiting. Every year the sea encroaches further into the land. In Cape Town, fires on Table Mountain have caused tremendous landslides which have engulfed houses, shops and villages, down to the lower slopes of the Cape. In the third world 17 million children die of starvation every year. Mobilising its forces in order to increase the standard of living will at the same time increase the danger of global disaster. We must come together with the third world and admit that we have been responsible for most of the pollution in this world and are responsible for most of the danger to the human race. We must therefore assist the third world in the transfer of technology and in the provision of finance in order to escalate its development so that its people can live. We must do so without at the same time destroying the opportunity for the human race to continue to inhabit this planet. Where dc the British Government stand when that issue is being discussed—as we know it is—and when the Chinese and Indians, and now the Africans and the Latin Americans, are preparing to meet that direct question which will be the central issue at Rio?
I do not have time to discuss the ideological argument as to how we should achieve those aims. I hope the Minister will agree that we should be able to agree on the aims, although we shall argue about the means used to achieve those aims. I hope that even the Government do not agree that the means used to attain those ends should include what is happening in Guyana, with the profiteering through privateering of the Guyanese forests. That is making profit out of potential deaths, not just among the Guyanese but among all the people who rely upon those forests to be the sink for the gases which are now accumulating to produce the dreaded menace of global warming.
§ 4.41 p.m.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I have to apologise I o the House and to the Minister. First, I must leave at six o'clock to catch an aeroplane to Paris for a meeting tomorrow morning where I shall be working hard. Secondly, I apologise to noble Lords because I shall say many of the things that I have said previously, but that will do them no harm.
The position of the CAP is untenable. The most extraordinary thing is happening. The CAP's original objectives were admirable. A great deal of essential food was provided for Europe. It was right to do that, but then no one knew when to stop. In this country, in particular in my county, one finds acres of ground covered with buildings. The ground is not being used to grow anything, but the buildings are used to store surpluses which are exported at subsidised, dump prices, to the great distress of our cousins in Australia, New Zealand and the third world generally. That is because the CAP, the Commission and the Council of Ministers paid no attention to the market.
I do not believe in surrendering to pure market forces; but any system which does not pay attention to them will rind itself in trouble. That is what has happened. We have enormous expenditure and surpluses, and we are making ourselves unpopular all over the world—I speak of us as Europe—and 172 something must be done. I do not know whether the present proposals will be successful. I shall discuss them later. While we are throwing about enormous sums of money, British agriculture is in a poor way.
I have figures from the NFU's excellent economic department —a very reputable source—which show that since 1978 the industry's income since 1978 has dropped by over 50 per cent. in real terms. That is an extraordinary thing to happen to an efficient industry. The way we in Britain have buckled down to building an efficient agricultural industry is marvellous. One has only to look at the productivity figures: the bigger farms have one man to 300 acres, whereas at the end of the war there were five or six. Those are surprising figures. Costs have escalated greatly, and the British farming industry deserves to be treated far better.
I gave an illustration during the debate on the report on the CAP from the Select Committee on European Affairs. It now takes five times more barley to buy a tractor than it did 30 years ago. Those figures are the same for practically every aspect of farming, including the price of land. Although the CAP must be reformed, we should also study what is happening to farming. Cereal production is the main target when people criticise the CAP. The figures are interesting. In the EC as a whole about 90 million acres produces some 172 million tonnes of cereals, oilseed rape and so forth. Scotland has 1.6 million acres under cereals producing about 3.5 million tonnes. The United Kingdom has 19 million acres producing something over three tonnes an acre. Those figures illustrate how competent is our farming and they are far better than those produced elsewhere.
According to the FAO, the world's total cereal production last year was 1,894 million tonnes. That is a great deal of cereal, but it is 60 million tonnes down on 1990. That is a reduction of about 3 per cent. The FAO expects 1991–92 production to be insufficient to meet demand so that a draw down of stocks will occur. At the end of this season it expects stocks to be at the lower end of the range it considers necessary for world food security. We must watch what we are doing.
We see the figures for the United States and believe that they have enormous reserves. They do. They have 20 million acres in reserve. The efficiency with which they grow grain is poor. They can produce about 30 million tonnes extra. Even with that amount coming on to the world market, world food reserves will remain shaky. We must be cautious when we talk about cutting production. We must ensure that this country and European agriculture have a level playing field when compared to the United States, Canada and everywhere else, and that we do not cut production merely to benefit them. It is important that a fair agreement is arrived at in GATT.
I am unhappy about the cereals proposals under the MacSharry arrangement. They postulate that in order to qualify for the deficiency payment one can only produce so many tonnes. Above a certain size of farm there is no payment for set-aside nor a deficiency character payment. That is obviously set up to please and satisfy the small farmers of Europe whose average farm size is about 20 hectares against the much larger and more competent farms in this country. There is 173 use of the extraordinary word "modulation", meaning that smaller farmers are paid more. Modulation has another great fault. There is no question of giving these totally uneconomic farmers a carrot to encourage them to retire, although that also exists. The proposal is that there should be a permanent deficiency payment to wholly uneconomic farmers.
The Commission has ignored various suggestions which would have paid people over 20 years through a bond, buying them out, and thereby freeing the competent farmers to get on with production at a price more in line with the true world price. The present proposal is that within three years the price will reduce to about £80 per tonne as the guarantee given to farmers in cereal growing areas. I know of no farmer in this country or elsewhere who could possibly produce at £80 a tonne, if he has reasonable overheads. It is not possible. Mr. Murphy has produced careful figures for the competent farmers of East Anglia. He has investigated costs in the United States and the figures agree. We shall arrive at that figure in three years' time, according to MacSharry. We need to stand absolutely firm over these practical issues.
I have some happy quotes and some unhappy ones from a speech by Mr. Gummer in Scotland which was made with an eye on a certain by-election. Nevertheless, the speech gave categorical assurances and difficult figures. He said that,the MacSharry plan would result in 14 per cent. of Scottish arable land being set aside for other purposes, against 9 per cent. in the EC as a whole. A total of 47 per cent. of Scots farmers would not be compensated—against 34 per cent. in the EC… More than half the dairy cows in Scotland would not qualify for the dairy cow premium, compared to 11 per cent. in the EC as a whole, and 47 per cent. in the UK".Mr. Gummer then gave a number of figures. The NFU figure is correct since I checked it. According to the NFU, a 300-acre arable farm yielding 2.9 tonnes per acre of cereals and 1.2 tonnes per acre of oilseed rape would suffer an overall loss of margin of about £8,000. Anyone who knows the income in recent years of a 300-acre cereal farm will know that that is reducing the farm to a totally unviable state.
Mr. Gummer also said:We are not going to have British agriculture disadvantaged in order to support other parts of Europe which have not adapted to the economic and environmental facts of life".I hope that he is able to achieve that, because in this country we have sorted out the inefficiencies that were apparent 20 or 30 years ago. The small dairy farmer in the Yorkshire Dales has gone completely. He used to milk 12, 10 or even fewer cows and expected a living from them. We now have one man looking after anything up to 150 cows on various farms over the country.
However, in the EC—and it is even lower for Europe—the average size of a dairy herd now is 16 cows. It is totally impossible to support the situation. I hope we shall not allow the Council of Ministers to support a scheme which will accept that level of incompetence for ever. It is not possible. The Commission should look at buying out the small farmers who in most cases live in areas where 174 part-time farming is possible and there are other jobs for farmers. Mr. Gummer must go for realistic cereal prices. Of course they should come down. But they must be realistic and not based on a totally false world price which is purely a dump price. He will have a difficult task.
Another essential is that in order to reduce the cereal surplus quickly we should have a really attractive set-aside scheme. I wholly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, that bigger and better incentives for forestry are necessary if we wish to plant a crop which will be of great value to the country. In the marginal areas, land must come out of cereal growing. The best and only way I can see to achieve that in a realistic manner is to pay a reasonable set-aside amount. I know that our figure in this country does not cover overheads in nearly every case. Also, in marginal, second-class land, a sensible extensification scheme for encouraging more grass and less intensive methods is possible. One could be worked out which would be a great help to those areas and would replace production of uneconomic grain.
With the hills and uplands, the headage payment and other payments to farms are absolutely essential. No one has yet suggested a way in which agriculture in these areas can be replaced as a basic method of keeping the place alive and retaining the population. The hill land compensatory allowances must be increased and we must tie them to environmental objects.
For goodness' sake, let us look at the policy and people who apply these environmental objectives. There is the extraordinary case in Scotland of which everyone has heard. One of the best and biggest hill farmers in Scotland, John Cameron, bought an estate and produced a plan to develop it and to plant trees, and so improve grazing and hold and increase the population. One would have said that it was an admirable plan for the people of the area. He put that plan before the Nature Conservancy Council. A young man from that body visited John Cameron. The young man was no doubt highly intelligent and no doubt he had a beard too. The young man considered the plan and looked at the land in question. He said the plan was no good. John Cameron asked the young man what he should do with his land. He offered to plant any kind of tree that was recommended to him and to preserve any rare orchids that might be on his land.
The young man replied that there was nothing John Cameron could do. He said he liked the land. He considered it was a wonderful example of wilderness and should be left alone. That decision cost the Government a great deal of money. If we are to have an effective environment programme that kind of decision cannot be allowed. For goodness sake let us have practical people making these decisions as well as scientists. In reaching their decisions they should consider all the aspects of the matter. They should be people who care about communities as well as corncrakes. If the Government recruited such people we might achieve an effective environment policy.
§ 5.1 p.m
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, my concerns may seem rather small in comparison with those of my noble friend Lord Hatch. However, I am sure your Lordships will agree that when we have finished saving the planet we must be certain that the world we have saved was worth it. Therefore I make no apology for returning to problems nearer home. Most of my remarks will concern the continuing pressure on our countryside. In the gracious Speech there was a lack of positive proposals on this matter. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, seemed optimistic that we would discuss countryside matters as time went on. I hope that will be the case and I look forward to those discussions. In the meantime, however, I shall draw attention to matters that are causing concern.
We have discovered that private legislation as a means of authorising transport development schemes is to be ended. I know that many noble Lords will welcome that step as the existing arrangements were often us,1 to avoid the normal planning procedures. We also applaud the fact that the proposed changes were the subject of consultation. However, we share the concern of the Council for the Protection of Rural England that the Government have gone back on an important agreement on procedure. It had been agreed that the final decision should be made by Parliament after a public inquiry had been completed so that Parliament could make its decision knowing all the facts. However, on 17th May a Department of Transport press notice announced that this procedure was to be reversed and that parliamentary debate would precede a public inquiry.
The CPRE was dismayed by that move. It stated in a letter to the Secretary of State on 18th June:CPRE believes that it is appropriate for Parliament to reserve the right to take the final decision on some projects of national importance. But, where the projects in question stand to affect adversely the rights of large groups of individual; in particular places, this should occur after there has been an opportunity for detailed scrutiny and debate through a public inquiry. The notion that Parliament should decide the principle of a controversial development affecting the lives of possibly thousands of individuals before its implications have been properly assessed and scrutinised is, quite simply, misguided given recent experience which has shown the inadequacy of existing Parliamentary review mechanisms … The resentment created by Parliament's decision in principle on the basis of such unsatisfactory scrutiny would, moreover, have unpredictable and possibly volatile effects on any public inquiry that followed".Perhaps that procedure is not a final decision on the part of the Government and we shall be able to discuss it when the appropriate Bill comes before the House. As an ex ample of putting the cart before the horse, that measure is astounding even by the present standard, of the Department of Transport.
The whole question of landscape beauty in connection with roads needs to be considered. I apologise for referring to transport matters but there appears to be no other occasion this week when I can do so. The transport proposals I shall refer to will have serious repercussions for the environment. The Government's £12 billion road building programme poses an extremely serious threat to areas of high landscape beauty and public enjoyment and to the work of organisations which seek to protect them. The 176 proposals as they stand will affect 12 out of our 38 areas of outstanding natural beauty and will damage 27 sites of special scientific interest.
Foremost among the organisations affected is the National Trust, which is greatly concerned by the proposals. As one of the largest landowners in the country, the trust has had to face road proposals on a regular basis. However, never before has it had to cope with road building on the scale of the current programme—some 40 of the proposed road schemes are likely to affect trust properties. It is both the exceptional number of the proposals and their insensitivity to the areas' amenity and landscape value which are causing such concern to conservationists.
Among the schemes which would damage trust properties are the bypass proposals for Morecombelake and Melbury Abbas in Dorset which would run through parts of the Golden Cap Estate and Melbury Down respectively. These are some of the most prized landscapes in the South of England. Another proposed scheme, the A.3 bypass of Hindhead in Surrey, would take a corner of the Devil's Punchbowl. That is a highly prized local beauty spot in an otherwise built-up area.
There is no doubt that some roads urgently need improvement in order to relieve congestion, to cope with increasing traffic, either actual or forecast, and to reduce road accidents. We question, however, whether the Government give adequate consideration to possible environmental effects and to the development of alternatives. It would also be much easier to develop a considered environmentally-sensitive strategy if the Government were to look at problem areas in the context of the whole road or region concerned instead of in the piecemeal fashion in which they currently address these areas.
If further evidence were needed of these problems, the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales reminds us of the difficulties being caused by piecemeal development of the A.5. The Brecknock branch of the CPRW wrote to the highways department of the Welsh Office. The letter states:There appears to be no coherent policy for the A40 as a whole. We believe there should be a primary long-term objective to deter heavy industrial traffic from using the A40 west of Abergavenny through the national park and some of the most attractive and least developed countryside in South Wales".The branch wants such traffic routed along the A.465 Heads of the Valleys road already scheduled for improvement. The letter continues:Unless there is a positive strategy for deflecting such traffic from the A40, the removal of each bottleneck will attract more lorries, thereby increasing pressure for yet more expensive schemes, which in turn will attract more heavy goods vehicles".We are all familiar with that pattern. There is already a tarmac web over our countryside, but that tarmac is as gossamer compared with the roads the Government have planned. The Government must make the environment a higher priority if roads are not to continue the steady destruction of what was once our green and pleasant land.
I wish to refer now to some other omissions from the gracious Speech. Those omissions should be noted. It is very disappointing that, despite previous 177 commitments from the Government concerning landscape protection orders in national parks, no proposals have yet been produced. Landscape protection orders have been under discussion since 1986 when Mrs. Rumbold, in her then capacity, announced plans for them. That announcement was followed six months later by a consultation document. In May 1987 the Conservative Party manifesto promised greater protection for national parks. We are now in the last Session of that Parliament and the commitment has still not been honoured.
There is also the question of hedgerow protection. The case has been argued in this House many times and I do not want to go over it again. Your Lordships are familiar with the saga of destruction and the many figures which are bandied about. However, I remind the House that, despite the replanting which has undoubtedly taken place, between 1984 and 1990 there was still a net loss of 85,000 kilometres of hedgerow. The Government have admitted the need for action and constantly say that they see it as a priority. However, a clause in the Planning and Compensation Bill which would have been helpful was deleted by the Government. Their commitment to this environmental feature must be in question.
I now turn briefly to ESAs, the creation of which we all welcomed at the time. A very promising start was made but progress appears to have stopped. I was very glad to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, give a commitment of continuing government support for ESAs. However, earlier this year, in discussion with Government departments and farmers, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds identified 11 areas which were suitable for designation within the government's criteria in terms of bird conservation and many other qualities. What seemed to be constructive and progressive sessions with government departments and farmers have so far produced no result. Can the Minister give the House this afternoon any details of progress? Does she know whether any of those areas are to be designated and when we can expect an announcement?
Finally, I turn, perhaps inevitably, to the question of the protection of common land. I have raised this subject many times in this House, by various methods. I do not propose to rehearse all the arguments again today. However, perhaps I may just remind your Lordships of the length of time this story has been running. It began in 1955 with a Royal Commission on Common Land. That commission sat from 1955 to 1958 and there was agreement that action was urgently needed. Thereafter there was a long history of conferences and reports, culminating in a report by the Common Land Forum which was published in May 1986. Subsequently there were arguments with the Moorlands Association and other bodies. Nevertheless, in May 1987 the Conservative Party election manifesto again gave a firm commitment that the Conservatives would legislate in this Parliament to protect common land. Again, we are in the last Session and there is no sign of that commitment being honoured.
178 If there are further environmental commitments in the next Conservative Party manifesto we shall all view them with some suspicion in view of what has happened to those two very firm earlier commitments which I have mentioned.
I am disappointed that there was not more in the gracious Speech about those concerns, which are shared by so many people in this country. In spite of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, in relation to the developments in Scotland, they are no longer the concerns only of bearded, sandalled environmentalists. Conservation bodies have enormous memberships. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has a membership which is approaching 1 million; the National Trust has 1½ million members, and there is a descending scale of membership of other bodies. Added together they amount to millions of people in this country who are concerned about the matters which I have mentioned. I beg the Government to take them seriously.
I know that my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey is prepared to wait until the next Labour Government but I do not believe that we have much time. I believe that some of these matters need to be attended to now and cannot wait even another six months.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Lord Cochrane of Cults
My Lords, today's debate on the gracious Speech linking local government, the environment and agriculture has resulted in many tours of the inside of the town hall and a few occasional excursions into other areas. I propose very briefly to take an excursion into the countryside. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Trumpington for saying in her introductory speech what good things were in store which the Government hope to enact, and in particular that there was to be support for the farming community in the event of the common agricultural policy being so reformed as to make agriculture in this country untenable for the majority. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, for producing the statistical analysis—which I had not done—which supports what I shall say.
For those who live in the country as I do—and here I must declare an interest and my connection with planning—the principal worry now is that the prosperity of farming will be destroyed by the reform of the common agricultural policy. I agree that the common agricultural policy has worked itself into a nonsensical position, but there is anxiety about what will happen if prices are reduced to anything like the extent currently proposed. It would then be impossible for farmers to survive. They would go bankrupt or give up. What are we to do about it? We must have a policy to prevent the depopulation of the countryside.
We are now faced with the situation which existed in the 'twenties and 'thirties. I well remember when I was a student at Cambridge the late Wilfred Mansfield describing the downward spiral in agriculture. He had a gloomy voice, which I could not attempt to imitate. He said that first farmers starve the land, then they starve the animals, then they starve themselves. We cannot allow that to happen again. We have had some 50 or so 179 years of prosperity. We must ensure that we do not destroy it, either at the whim of Brussels or through confusion about our objectives in this country.
Without enough to live on, the outlook for farmers is grim. I am sure that noble Lords in this House who have knowledge of agriculture will agree. The Ministry of Agriculture and the Scottish Department of Agriculture have produced a considerable range of schemes such as set-aside and the farm woodland scheme, all of which alleviate the situation. However, I do not believe that they are enough.
Such schemes are valuable but they do not require the hard-up farmer to put up much money in front. If he is to broaden his base of activity, he must think of new enterprises. That almost invariably requires money up front. Before he does that, he has to carry out market research to find out whether he will have any customers. There is no point in building something, or starting up an enterprise making something if there are no customers. I am in the caravan business and I remember being assailed by somebody who said that it was rotten that people were building caravans and advertising all over the place and yet a caravan park which belonged to a relation had had only three visitors during the whole of the year. Its position may have suffered as a result of the road network and the weather of central Wales, but that person had not done any market research. I suspect that he had not counted the caravans going past the gate. He had perhaps failed to get a sign at the nearest main road due to the malign influence of the planners. I do not know, but it can happen if you do not do your homework.
If you intend to do market research to any extent, it must be relevant to your position and you must therefore pay for it. It is expensive. Time is involved. I urge my noble friend the Minister to commend to her department that good quality market research should be a supportable operation in considering farm diversification or extensification. That would prevent mistakes and enable the applicant to carry more weight with his banker who will doubtless be extremely suspicious because he will already be eyeing his customer's bank balance which is probably negative. It will also help considerably in finding a partner who may produce some of the cash and skills necessary to exploit the great asset of the farmer; namely, the position of his farm and the area that it occupies. That is what he must sell and it is up to him to find a way of doing so.
When the farmer reaches that stage, he will encounter another hazard. Every district has one; it is called the planning committee. Planning committees tend to take a conservative view—conservative with a small 'c' I hasten to add for the benefit of the Benches opposite—of what is good for the country. They think that if it is not there already, it is probably bad news. They entirely forget the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, that the countryside is substantially artificial. It has been created over the centuries by the toil of those who lived there in the expectation that their work. would be rewarded by prosperity.
Your Lordships' House recently passed the Planning and Compensation Act. One of the 180 unexpected effects of that Act is that local plans will carry much more weight than they did previously. Inevitably, a local plan will tend to be prepared by looking backwards, not by looking forwards. Looking forwards is always dangerous, particularly in the eyes of people who feel that they might be assailed by conservationists of every hue and type. Local plans will therefore almost certainly seek to preserve the status quo perhaps with minor improvements or desirable objectives; but they will not cater for the need to re-use substantial areas of farmland which, to put it bluntly, are now redundant. I hope that the noble Baroness and her department will urge, through the appropriate channels, that those planning committees and those plans should take full account of the social implications of what is happening in agriculture so that our beautiful countryside can be maintained and those who live there can take pride in doing useful work in pleasant surroundings.
I hope that noble Lords will agree with me that we cannot allow agriculture to die while we all look the other way. I urge that flexibility of development, much of which will in any event be small-scale and reversible —indeed, some may be ephemeral—should be allowed with the minimum of bureaucracy in planning departments.
Finally, I should like to give my heartiest congratulations to my noble friend the Minister and her department for solving that long-running problem; namely, the export of horses. I am truly grateful for the great success which her department has had in the face of much hostility.
§ 5.24 p.m.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
My Lords, I welcomed the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, although I am sorry that he is not in his place when I pay tribute to his wise and balanced speech. He reminded us that local government reorganisation was not exclusively a London affair, and that appropriate local government reorganisation in Scotland would follow. Noble Lords will recall that Scotland was the guinea pig for the poll tax. The noble Lord reminded the Government that, when they scrutinise the matter further and consider the future of local government, they should listen to the views expressed. I well recall debating the matter well into the night together with the late Lord Ross of Marnock. It was a great bore to English Members of the House; but if they read the debate in Hansard, they will see that it would have greatly benefited the Government if they had listened to the views expressed. I therefore hope that Ministers will listen carefully to the views expressed with regard to any proposals for local government reorganisation.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, made another point that interested me particularly. That was his final reference to the importance of forestry. Members of this House may not be surprised to hear that I wish to develop that theme this afternoon. I have received two glossy brochures about forestry in the last day or two. That is one thing about forestry literature; it lends itself to beautiful pictures. The first is from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I am sure that this 181 will be of special interest to my noble friend Lady Nicol who speaks authoritatively on behalf of that organisation from time to time. In its beautiful 50-page document, the RSPB concludes:we believe that Government should now undertake a thorough review of forestry, leading to a single statement of policy, setting long-term objectives, targets, and objectives for existing forests".If there is one thing that we can do without in the forestry industry, it is another review of long-term strategy.
Almost by the same post there arrived on my desk an equally beautiful and glossy document entitled Forestry Policy for Great Britain, published by the Government as recently as September 1991. I commend to the RSPB and its almost 3 million enthusiastic members a study of the Government's policy towards forestry in that document because it has much to commend it. It sets out the basic policy stating that:Forests and woodlands are an integral part of the rural environment, providing important opportunities for recreation and for public access to the countryside. They are also a valued component of our landscapes and an essential habitat for wildlife. Our forestry industry makes a substantial and increasing contribution to meeting the growing national demand for timber and provides support and employment to people living in rural communities … The two main aims of the Government's forestry policy are thus:The sustainable management of our existing woods and forests.A steady expansion of tree cover to increase the many, diverse benefits that forests provide".I welcome the Government's commitment. That document is sponsored by all three Ministers involved with forestry and I hope that it will be studied carefully.
The one disappointment in the document is the introduction next to the picture of Mr. Ian Lang, the Secretary of State for Scotland, who says:The record of Government forestry policy initiatives over the past 12 years has been one of considerable progress and achievement".I assume that when the Minister made that Statement in all good faith he had not seen the planting figures for the year ended 31st March 1991, because in the document he confirms that the government target is 33,000 hectares per annum of new planting in order to sustain the industry. In fact last year the private sector planted 11,700 hectares, not 33,000 hectares.
The poor old Forestry Commission, which only a few years ago was planting 11,000 hectares per annum, now plants between 3,000 and 4,000 hectares per annum. So instead of reaching a declared target under the Government—the farm woodland scheme represents another 3,500 hectares a year—last year there were something like 18,000 hectares planted compared with the government target of 33,000 hectares. I hope that in addition to publishing those excellent objectives the Government will take some steps to realise the implications of the policy which they have agreed.
This is a sad situation because the immediate effect of the decline in planting is not apparent. One gets the first thinnings in 12 or 15 years for the pulp industry and it is probably around 30 years for mature timber, while the famous hardwoods will not mature for a 182 hundred years. So forestry is a long-term investment which does not lend itself to short-term considerations.
What does the decline of planting mean to the large pulp industries which we have induced to invest in Britain? Two years ago one plant in Scotland attracted an investment of £100 million and a similar investment took place at Shotton. We have pretended to those people that there will be a ready and continuing supply of timber when in fact—and it is not apparent—today's decline in planting will now make that supply almost impossible. There will be great difficulty in fulfilling it.
I should like to quote just one more basic figure. The import of timber and timber products to this country costs £6 billion per annum in our balance of payments. One month's supply of total exports from the United Kingdom is nullified by the import of £6 billion of timber and timber products. Surely there is a basic economic interest in doing something about that situation.
I very much regret that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, is not now in her place. She speaks frequently and eloquently on behalf of the conservationists. I should like to say a few words to expand on the recent case mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie. It is the case of John Cameron, who bought land in Glen Lyon and produced a plan in which there would be some diversity—sheep farming, forestry and so on. It was a mixed development of that estate, which was eminently sensible and which he agreed to adjust if necessary in order to accommodate environmental interests. That estate is designated an SSSI and he had to apply to the Nature Conservancy Council for permission to carry out his plan. That was refused. It is a 4,000 acre estate but even a sheep pen the size of a football field was not permitted under the precious SSSI. John Cameron then went to the land court in Scotland and asked for compensation for the non-development of his estate. The cheque which he has recently received amounted to £600,000 for the lack of development and something like £150,000 in interest—the matter had been going on for some time —plus his expenses. He received a cheque for £1 million for doing nothing. The birds and plants in Glenlochy must be very expensive ones.
That warning should be heeded. I understand that there are some 20 cases of similar applications which are still pending. I hope that our conservationist friends will take heed of the implications of some of the restrictions and inhibitions that have been placed on sensible land use and development, particularly in Scotland but also elsewhere.
I want to make just one more comment in connection with our RSPB friends who seem to visualise that somehow or other the development of forestry is against the interests of good land use or sensible planning. People who go into forestry do not do so to make money. Take the example of the young man described in the supplement to today's Times. People go into forestry because they love the countryside. Many of them resent directives from people in London about how they should manage 183 their countryside. There are dedicated people in the Forestry Commission. They are dedicated because they love what they do.
I suggest to the Government that they should look again at their policy and ask how we can produce the minimum 33,000 hectares which they have confirmed as their target. I ask them to look again at that matter. When I was chairman of the Forestry Commission, the private sector and the public sector worked together. They both planted about the same amount every year—around 11,000 to 15,000 hectares. They worked together in training and in research. There was a happy partnership in what was a model of a mixed economy. Why in heaven's name should that pattern be destroyed by selling off the Forestry Commission for ideological reasons when the private sector has not taken up the slack from the decline in Forestry Commission planting?
These matters should not be viewed in the short term; nor should they be considered in ideological terms. The Government should be proud of the Forestry Commission. They should not necessarily destroy the high morale that exists in that organisation. I urge the Government to take a further look at their forestry policy if they intend to implement their declared intentions.
§ 5.38 p.m.
§ Viscount Hanworth
My Lords, for a long time I have wanted to bring forward some matters about local government. They are not covered in the consultation and local government review published in April 1991; nor are they in the consultation paper, A new tax for local government. My thesis is this: how far is the present set-up democratic in the general sense of the word?
I do not put forward just a party line on the merits of proportional representation, although I see that as an important way forward which would avoid some of the extreme situations which have arisen from time to time. We talk about democracy. That does not imply that everyone who has a button on his television set should vote on everything about which he has little knowledge; nor should we hide behind the not unreasonable argument that democracy means government by the duly elected representatives of the people.
Straightaway one sees that on the last point there is a problem. As we well know, the people who stand for election may simply have been nominated by a majority of some extremist group which has managed to take over the local elected party. That has been seen in Liverpool and elsewhere with disastrous results. So we should consider how far the simplistic ideas are what we mean by democracy. Recently I heard democracy defined more subtly; namely, as a symbiosis in which the will of the people is balanced with the wellbeing of the state.
Had there been proportional representation, would it have been necessary from the Conservatives' point of view to abolish the Greater London Council? So much of its work on a non-political basis was truly useful and cannot easily be provided by a grouping of 184 several other regional bodies. They lack the GLC's overview and ability to provide expensive expertise where it is needed. We have lost something.
What are the failings of our local government system at present? In general terms it is scarcely democratic in any sense of the word. Too few vote for any candidate except on party lines. Party politics should be only a minor consideration in local elections. What should matter are the qualities of the candidate which make him or her suitable to represent the electors, local knowledge and a large dose of common sense.
How many people know their council representatives or even consider such knowledge important to them? There are basically two problems. The first lies in getting the right people to stand for local elections. There are plenty of very capable older people with experience and qualifications. But what about the young? Too many of those who come forward in reality are power seekers or activists. Those who might be able or willing to give the time have other demands on them. In this imperfect world what should be done? I give no solutions. But of course one mentions larger payments to councillors. I wonder, my Lords!
Secondly, we ought to have more interest from the electorate. Electors should not cast their vote, if they vote at all, solely on party lines. I believe that the Australians may be right. They insist that people who do not vote should have to pay a fine or other penalty.
Although I can understand why there are objections to proportional representation for national elections, I can see nothing against it for local government. It should mean that councils are more balanced and that one party with only a small majority on the council does not completely dominate all decisions, sometimes even at the expense of important local issues.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, we welcome the commitment in the gracious Speech to abolish the poll tax. With your Lordships' permission, I wish to speak about that today. If noble Lords will permit an historical reference, the new Poor Law of 1834 sought to discipline those local authorities which paid out poor relief on the basis of family need. It was probably the most detested piece of legislation in the 19th century. A couple of years previously Lord Melbourne, then Home Secretary, confessed to being rather worried about getting his legislation through the newly reformed parliament. "I will always support you when you are in the right, Lord Melbourne", said one of the young MPs to him. "Be damned to that", said Lord Melbourne with his customary charm, "When I'm in the right the question looks after itself. I need your support when I'm in the wrong". When the new Poor Law was imposed in the North, it generated Chartism, brought in the opposition and deformed social policy for a generation.
The poll tax may likewise be regarded in future years as one of this century's most unpopular pieces of legislation. Now, £l4 billion of costs and sweeteners later—the sum may eventually be nearer £20 billion —the Government have acknowledged in the Queen's 185 Speech, in Lord Melbourne's phrase, that they were in the wrong. In the inimitable words of the Prime Minister as reported in the Daily Mail:I'll tell you about the poll tax. We were bounced into it … without thinking".That is an honourable admission. However, in the process the poll tax has placed about one adult in three in debt to his local authority and looks set to put one adult in five through the courts by the end of the year. Summonses have been issued and ignored; liability orders go unpaid; warrants are undelivered; bailiffs are denied access; and the police prudently stand by. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, what is hard to forgive about the poll tax is that the Government have recklessly squandered the law-abiding instincts of ordinary people.
As CIPFA, one of the local authority institutions, has said, people now consider that,Local taxes are vulnerable to local pressure not to pay".It suspects that the council tax, a flagship of the Queen's Speech, may well face the same problem.
We regret that no mention was made in the Queen's Speech that the 20 per cent. contribution would be immediately abolished. Anything that costs two and a half times as much to collect as it brings in must be financially perverse. However, the Minister justified the 20 per cent. contribution last year on two grounds: first, it was a matter of major principle that everyone contributed—that principle has now been discarded—and, secondly, that income support levels would have to be readjusted. When the 20 per cent. rule is abolished in April 1993 are the Government really proposing to cut income support for those who are too often among the homeless at the same time as those rich enough to own a second home will find their liability on it halved by the council tax?
Among the 800 consultation papers in response to the Government's proposals, I cannot find one that favours keeping the 20 per cent. contribution in the dying years of the poll tax—and why? It is not just on the ground of financial hardship, although that is severe enough. It is not just on the ground of financial perversity, although that is real enough. It is because the poll tax was at least introduced against a background of a stable rating system which virtually collected itself. The rates were almost on autopilot while city and county treasurers set up the poll tax. However, against a background of administrative, financial and legal turmoil we shall now see a council tax, more complex than the poll tax, introduced in half the time, while simultaneously the poll tax collapses, arrears and court cases mount and councils have to contract out their finance function under CCT in 1993.
Systems are collapsing. The software will crash. The Government may guillotine the Bill referred to in the gracious Speech so that it passes through Parliament on time. However, without removing the 20 per cent. contribution well in advance I have to say that they will not see the council tax introduced in local government on time.
I hope that noble Lords will allow me to spend a little time on the council tax, the flagship of the Queen's Speech. The poll tax fell because it is unfair and unworkable. So too I fear is the council tax. It is 186 not fair among households within an authority. It is not fair among properties within an authority. It is not fair among authorities. Let me enlarge on that. On fairness among householders, as noble Lords will know, a pensioner couple who are barely above rebate level will pay a third more in council tax than a single millionaire. Rebates are fair because they relate to income; discounts are unfair because they do not. Indeed, since for the single person discounts are proposed to be a percentage of basic bill, not a flat rate, they will help most those who live in the highest value houses.
Is it nonetheless true that single people make less use of local authority services? That appears to be the assumption behind the single person discount. That too is doubtful. Perhaps I may take the largest services. First, education: a single person will use an education service no more and no less than a childless couple. An elderly widow whose children have grown up will use the service no more and no less than a pensioner couple. Secondly, sheltered services or sheltered housing: in my experience the single, elderly widow uses such services rather more than a pensioner couple who are still able to support each other. Thirdly, roads: car usage depends not at all on whether one is single but very much on gender and job. Fourthly, street services such as cleaning, lighting, police and fire: household size is irrelevant. So what is the justification for a single person discount if it is not related to ability to pay—which it is not—and appears to be only doubtfully related to the use of services? I suggest that it is not fair.
Secondly, as we understand it from the Bill, the council tax is not fair because properties within an authority are not properly and rightly assessed. With only eight national bands properties bunch in the bottom of those bands in the North and in the top in the South. Of course the more that properties bunch, the more flat rate and regressive the council tax becomes. In Hull two-thirds of all property is in the single bottom band. It is virtually a flat rate tax, like the poll tax that it is supposed to replace. Individual valuations, many more bands and regional variations might have made the council tax valuation system more fair but in the paving Bill the Government refused the lot.
The council tax is also unfair between authorities. The Government have said that they will not change the standard spending assessment and grant structure. Grants are designed to intermesh the needs of a local authority with its resources. The Government say that as regards the needs element the standard spending assessment will remain in place. It is unreasonable to have an SSA which, on the one hand, ignores economic deprivation such as homelessness or unemployment but, on the other hand, includes tourist nights as an indication of hardship and need. Does anyone outside Westminster City Council believe that to be fair?
The resources side of the grant allocation will be equally flawed because the Government have stated that properties of equal value will denote equal ability to pay. That assumes that all properties denote equal ability to pay but they do not. As all noble Lords 187 know, property prices vary more than incomes and as a result I he most deprived inner London boroughs will find themselves penalised twice over. The Audit Commission has warned that the grant structure commands no confidence outside Marsham Street. I ask the Minister to look again.
I suggest that the council tax is not fair between people, s not fair between properties and is not fair between authorities. However, will it work? No, my Lords. Council tax is a property tax crossed with a poll tax and as a result it is more complex than either. So what do we have? We start with a dubious property valuation done from the back of a car which will place properties in artificially compressed bands on the basis of which the Government will use their discredited standard spending assessment to distribute grant. Local authorities will then estimate their poundage and produce a householder's bill. We are halfway there.
Now ask local authorities to rework that bill for transitional arrangements. Now rework that bill a second time for the single person discount and/or status discounts. Now rework that bill a third time for the rebate on the liable householder's bill. Is that a final bill? No, not quite—now do the calculations all over again in case it is financially better not to claim the rebate for the householder but the low income discount for the second adult. If that second adult should move during the course of the year, and half of them probably will, calculate the bill again. Oh, and as the final bill will depend on all the adults in the household and their relationships to each other being calculated, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, rightly said, keep a register as well.
The Bill is asking local government to set up a council tax in half the time that they had to introduce the poll tax. They are being asked to set up a council tax in half the time while chasing arrears, while still closing down the old rates, while trying to close down the poll tax, while still seeking to collect the business rate and while their staff face redundancy under compulsive competitive tendering.
I suggest to your Lordships that in replacing the poll tax with the council tax the Government are replacing the indefensible with the unworkable. It is not fair, it will not work and it will not last.
§ 5.56 p.m.
§ The Earl of Radnor
My Lords, I am sorry that I am unable to follow the noble Baroness in her vigorous argument about local government and the poll tax. I freely admit that to do so is beyond my competence; it is not my subject. I wish to speak for a short time about the environment globally and locally, about farming, the CAP and the differences that will occur and Mr. MacSharry's plan or whatever might eventuate. Finally, I wish to peer into the future and see what might happen. I believe that a gloomy picture is evolving in the countryside.
As regards a global strategy for the environment, whatever is said in Nairobi or Rio, it appears to be something of a failure. The North Sea is filthy because of the Rhine and the Schelde, for instance. Our ships are tied up for 10 days each month because there are 188 not enough fish. At least two nations have begun to catch whales again. The rain forests are still being burnt and the ozone layer is bigger. It would appear that although there may be talk nothing much is happening. It is easy to understand why. How on earth one gets so many people from such diverse nations together I do not know.
I remember a debate in this House sometime ago about the quality of life. I believe that we should think back to that debate. The two main reasons why the world is in such a mess are that there are too many people, particularly in the third world, and that the people in the first world demand too high a quality of life. They produce masses of people; we demand masses of motor cars. They are the main problems that should be tackled on an international scale.
When I joined your Lordships' House the Lord Chancellor was Lord Gardiner. He was most keen on a charity called Countdown. However, one has not counted much down in India, Brazil and so on. They are the two most important issues to be resolved, after which one might begin to think about agreement on other matters.
I now turn to the environment, local or parochial, in this country. I have been in your Lordships' House for 20 years and it seems that during those 20 years we have discovered pollution, animal welfare, and so on. There has been a mass of legislation some of which has been incorporated in larger Bills; for example, the Water Bill. Some of that legislation is contained in smaller Bills, and there have been various Bills dealing with animal welfare. I should not say that any of that was bad. However, we should be aware that nearly all those rules and regulations have taken the sharp edge off competitive farming. They were not very competitive before. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, is not in his seat. They were very competitive in comparison with European farmers but because of the costs of our labour and machinery, our demands are far too high and years ago we priced ourselves out of the world market. We may be talking of £80 per tonne, as I said in the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, but some countries can produce wheat at £40 per tonne.
That blunts the farmer to begin with. Probably quite rightly, he is prohibited from making as much money as he might have made. We now have the CAP debacle which will be very difficult. We have been given figures. At the moment farmers are having a fairly thin time and some are having an extremely thin time. However, if what we read about happens, times will be far thinner and far more difficult. I spoke about this in a previous debate. It is of prime importance that when we go to Brussels to discuss this matter, we must use every power which we possess to get away from the idea which they have on the Continent that they must always support the smaller farmer. As we all know, that is always to our detriment and is grossly unfair.
What then must the farmer do and what is he doing now? From personal experience and experience of farmers who farm locally, the farmer is drawing in his horns. I share the same teacher as my noble friend Lord Cochrane. He always said that high farming is 189 no answer to low prices. We are not high farming but we are drawing in our horns on variable costs. That does not make a great deal of difference. Then one must attack vigorously fixed costs, which amounts to machinery and labour. There is already a substantial build up of redundancies. In the countryside redundancy is extremely difficult because there is little alternative work. I have tried to draw a comparison, and in a certain newspaper, I read about a number of mining redundancies in Nottinghamshire. That is the same sort of situation because those people are also stuck where they are. The farmers who lose their farming jobs find it difficult to find an alternative. There is nothing to do.
In my opinion, when that happens the villages will die. Some people say that they will change because the country has changed. Totally different people live in the country. There used to be controversy at one time and now townspeople have come to live in the country. The controversies have not gone away. In fact, they have worsened.
One matter which may well happen in that future scenario is that people will become redundant. There are already redundancies and I could quote figures but I shall not waste your Lordships' time. However, if those figures are looked at on a country-wide basis, the picture would be fairly horrifying. Land will be set-aside and if that is done, it does not require much work. We are told to mow it twice a year but it does not take a contractor very long to do that.
Over the years many buildings have been constructed and until recently, all have been grant-aided by the farm and horticultural fund. They are modern buildings built from asbestos and steel. They are dotted about all over England. We have all seen them. Some people say they are hideous. However, they exist. They are factory units and have been so named. I do not say that factory owners or manufacturers will necessarily take them up, but on occasions they may do so. That would create alternative employment for country people who are thrown out of work.
I suggest—and this is the only part of local government which I wish to touch upon—that considerations of employment should become a very important part of planning. In some way or other planners should be made aware—perhaps forced—to consider carefully the employment implications when they look at, for example, the change of user of any barn or other building. At present foul rumour has it that planners do not like those buildings and would rather see them left empty or even pulled down. I can think of nothing worse than that.
I should like to make one suggestion. Which agency should deal with the situation? The noble Lord, Lord Vinson, was sitting in front of me but is not now in his place. However, the Rural Development Commission is beautifully equipped to deal with the unemployment retraining situation. Unfortunately it has a small budget from the DoE. However, it has power to subsidise the conversion of buildings such as those about which I have spoken. It has training schemes and it could use real force to get people working again 190 and to keep going the villages and communities. However, the figure of £28 million is derisory in the face of the problem. There cannot be a better agency through which those changes might be effected, but it will need at least twice as much money, if not more than that.
§ 6.8 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, I congratulate my young colleague, my noble friend Lord Ponsonby, on a very competent maiden speech. It illustrated some of the events taking place in a London authority on which he serves as a councillor. I was pleased to hear him mention his father whom we knew as Tom. I express the appreciation which we owe to his father for the kind way in which he helped new Members when they came to your Lordships' House. Nothing was too much trouble and he made the way easy for most of us.
I was interested in my noble friend's reference to the financial situation in his local authority and also the authority in which I live. I find it strange that I live in the City of Westminster, where property has much higher values than where I live in the North, yet I pay to the local authority here only one third as much as I pay in the North.
The local authority to which my noble friend Lord Ponsonby referred has a nil community charge. There is no question but that the Government broke with the tradition of impartiality of treating local authorities even-handedly, whatever their political colours. It will be interesting to see whether any more jiggery pokery emerges. The residents in the local authority of which my noble friend spoke and on which he serves, and where I live in London—unless I have misread the Bill or some jiggery pokery is introduced—will have to meet the full blast of whatever charges are introduced under the Bill when it becomes an Act. It will be interesting to see whether the Government's popularity remains high in such areas when the Bill is enacted.
I shall not dwell on that aspect any more. We shall deal with the Bill in due course. As my noble friend Lord McIntosh said, we shall look at it on its merits and, in the interests of the people, where we can amend it we shall try to do so. I wish to speak on a subject that, strangely enough, received no mention in the gracious Speech; the subject of housing. In certain sections of our community that is our biggest social problem. Despite what Ministers at the Dispatch Box say, whether it be in your Lordships' House or in another place, the situation is continuing to deteriorate.
I wonder why there was no mention of housing in the gracious Speech. I can only assume that it is an admission of guilt or something of that nature as regards housing people in this country. Over the past four or five years there have been questions from all sides of this House on the increase in the numbers of homeless people. I mentioned it last year in the corresponding debate on the gracious Speech. I said that coming along the Strand I had been surprised to see that each doorway was almost totally full with young people sleeping there. Last week, at 9.30 in the morning—not the evening—I walked along 191 Tottenham Court Road on an errand. Youngsters were just coming out of the doorways with their sleeping bags. That is Tottenham Court Road.
We are continually told that things are getting better. There was a reference in the gracious Speech to the regeneration of the inner cities. However, that is not what I am talking about. I am speaking of those areas in the cities where, historically, people have lived but which are now beginning to die rapidly of arteriosclerosis. The Government are not allowing the local authorities the finance to put their houses in order and maintain them as they should be maintained.
Should one wish to consider the situation on the basis of figures, the Library kindly looked some out for me. They showed that in 1979 around 3 million houses were available for rent in the private sector. In 1989 the figure was down to 1.68 million. That is a tremendous loss and one which is getting worse; those figures will have been out of date by the time they were printed. In new town local authorities, in 1979 there were 6.7 million houses for rent. In December of last year that figure had fallen to 5.438 million. There was therefore a loss of 1,260,000 houses for rent.
I know why the figure for owner occupation has risen; it is due to the enormous sale of local authority houses—over 1 million. Let us not forget that. The scheme has been an outstanding success for those who live in council houses and wish to buy them. But even dispassionate and non-political people such as those attending the bishops' conventions and the ecclesiastical conventions are saying that it has had an adverse effect on the ability of local authorities to rehouse homeless people. As I say, it is a good thing for those in a position to buy a council house. However, we now have a Prime Minister who has issued a number of charters. He is on record as saying that he wants to preside over a fairer Britain. I will give the House some figures which may be worth considering and perhaps your Lordships will decide whether it is a fairer Britain as regards housing.
Only a week last Saturday I took one of my grandsons for a walk in the area where I live; it is a place called Denton on the outskirts of Manchester. I passed a modest "semi" built within the past 20 years. It was empty because it had been repossessed. It was falling into disrepair. It had been repossessed because the owners could not pay the mortgage.
I walked on through a place called Haughton Green and came to a delightful place that I did not know existed. It was a row of cottages. I happened to speak about the area to a man coming the other way. He said, "I do not live in those cottages. I live in those council houses at the top". That is a council estate owned by the City of Manchester. It was built by direct labour when I was the chairman in Manchester. They are very nice houses, traditionally built. The man did not know who I was and I did not tell him. He said, "I'm going to buy my house. Don't get me wrong, I'm totally Labour. I'll vote Labour. But I can't get anything done to the house because the council has no money". I asked what he would pay for the house. It was a quasi-semi, the middle one of four. He said, "It has been valued at £35,000 but I'll buy it 192 for £13,000. However, there's one in the same avenue which a couple bought some time ago when the valuations were a lot lower and they only paid £3,000. They have sold it for £48,000".
One can compare that treatment with the treatment of the 48,000 families who were dispossessed last year. When calculating what those discounts are worth, in the case of the first house it would have been around £60 a week towards paying off their mortgage if the owners had been buying it in the normal way. In the case of the second, with a £23,000 discount the man is actually receiving a direct credit of over £40 a week. At the same time, young owner occupiers are being slung out on the streets in increasing numbers and the Government are standing by and watching it happen.
Where is the fair-handed treatment in that situation? If one person can receive a discount on a council house, it is surely right for young people who want to buy a house to have the same scale of financial assistance to help them set up home for their families. Make no mistake: an overwhelming number of families who have been dispossessed will never get back into the housing market. They will have to be catered for by somebody else.
This debate gives me a feeling of déjà vu. With your Lordships' permission, I could echo what I said last year in the same debate, when I asked a question which was never answered. A couple of weeks ago the noble Baroness sat on the Bench Opposite and gave some figures for what the Government were supposed to be doing. The inference was that they had found extra funding for housing. I submitted those figures to the AMA. It said that that money was not extra money. It is not new money; it is money that has already been allocated for council house projects. It has been creamed off the top for that use.
Let us see what has taken place. It seems to me that the Government have an inveterate hatred of council housing and, for the life of me, I cannot understand why. When Harold Macmillan, as he then was, was responsible for building 300,000 council houses in a year the Government were proud of it and boasted of it. What the Government are doing now is a different kettle of fish. Since the early 1920s a stock of about 6.5 million council houses of various types and sizes in various locations has been built up. I am not for one moment saying that all those houses were managed perfectly well and that everything was great.
I speak not only for myself but also for Conservative chairmen of housing who have controlled housing in Manchester. I take a rooted objection to the view of this Government that people like me, my noble friend Lady Fisher who is not here, and Conservative chairmen of housing, have let down the public over the years. That has not happened. One of the most humane men I ever met who was concerned with public housing was a Conservative chairman of housing in Manchester, Sir Richard Harper. If he had been alive today he would have been horrified to hear some of the nonsense spoken by Ministers in denigration of councils and the way in which they have looked after their tenants.
We hear the usual about 100,000 empty council house properties. The Government should make 193 resources available so that they can be tenantable. If we wish to play that game, then the biggest culprits in keeping properties empty in percentage terms are the Government themselves. In percentage terms three times as many government properties are empty as one will find on local authority estates. When did this wind-down in council house building start? We now have back at the Department of the Environment the golden boy known as Tarzan in another place. He is supposed to alter the situation and he promises to make it all right overnight. I refer to Mr. Heseltine.
What did he do in his previous term of office at the Department of the Environment? In 1978–79 London boroughs, which are at the pressure point, combined with the GLC, received £1.785 million of government money to deal with their housing problems. However, by the time Mr. Heseltine left the department, that figure had been cut to £965 million. The latest figures for 1989 show that the amount was cut further to £430 million. It is unbelievable that such an act could have been put into effect without much being said.
On a national basis, when Mr. Heseltine took control of the Department of the Environment on the last occasion, the aggregate national figure for local authority housing was £5.266 billion. In the last year that figure has dropped to £1.127 billion. That is a cut of 80 per cent. We then wonder why there is a shortage of housing to let. We now have the pyromaniac back in charge of the fire brigade. He is the man who caused all the trouble. In my opinion no cure will come unless the Government get away from the stupid and dogmatic idea that in future they do not want councils to be providers but simply enablers.
Figures were given recently by a colleague of the noble Baroness which indicated the Government's philosophy—that is, that local authorities have been removed from control and responsibility for judging the need in their areas and to build houses accordingly. They will be only enablers. Their job has been taken over by housing trusts of various kinds. In reply to the figures that I gave which showed that the building of council housing had become almost a nil factor, the Minister said that by 1993 housing associations would provide 48,000 units a year.
The Government's own statistics show that, in order to prevent further erosion of the housing situation in this country, one million new houses will be required by the turn of the century. If the Government wish to have a housing policy with any elasticity in it they will need 1 million new houses. The Government say that there will be 48,000 units a year to let. That is an absolute insult. For Ministers to stand at the Dispatch Box and claim that that is a success is like us believing that we won the last war at Dunkirk. It is absolute rubbish. I wish that Ministers both in another place and in this House would return to reality and start to talk in real terms.
I have spoken briefly about housing associations. I understand they they are now in difficulty. They are already trying to work out their yardsticks for next year in order to keep up with a building programme. I find it beyond belief that in the building industry it is predicted that another 100,000 men will be put on 194 the dole in the next 12 months; yet we are told that next week the Chancellor of the Exchequer will announce further expenditure of £10 billion. We are supposed to be in financial difficulties. Where is that money coming from or is it being provided on tick, as we call it? Will that money come from another source?
I can make a suggestion. Money which has been taken out of the public housing sector should be put back. The bricklayers and others should be sent back to work and new houses should be built for those at the lower end of the social scale. The Government may theorise and monkey about, but there is no other organisation that can build houses to the extent that we need them for people at the lower end of the social scale. I am not condemning housing associations because they have a supplementary role to play.
I ask the Minister whether for once she will consider that there is some merit in what the councils did over a period of 50 years—a proven record—as opposed to fantasising about things which the Government hope will succeed but which have not a cat in hell's chance of doing so. I ask the Minister to allow local authorities to build houses and to make the funds available. In the main it is young people who should be got out of their sleeping bags and into houses which are so earnestly needed. If the Labour Party win the next election we shall bring forward legislation. Local authorities will be building houses very quickly. I see that the Minister is smiling, but I do not believe that there is much to smile about if one is living in a doorway in this weather. That problem is on the increase and it will not go away unless some of the methods that my party have put forward in its document on housing are adopted. The Government should forget their bias and allow the local authorities to get on with the job which they have done so well in the past.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
My Lords, I should apologise first for speaking in the gap. However, when I arrived here this afternoon I was rather horrified to see that the subject matter had attracted comparatively few speakers. I found that rather worrying. At the end of the day I should have thought that our environment, our agriculture, and our rural community were matters which were very important and dear to us all. Therefore, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to make one or two observations which it is to be hoped may be constructive to some extent. I have also asked the indulgence of my noble friend Lady Blatch because I have another engagement which necessitates my leaving the Chamber at half-past six. So noble Lords will be pleased to know that I am not likely to speak for very long.
In her excellent opening speech my noble friend Lady Trumpington said that agriculture and the environment were intrinsically tied up together. That is very true. It is only sad to reflect that the state of agriculture in our country at present, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, pointed out, is not very good. The returns today as compared to those of yesterday are at best static and at worst going down. Overheads are undoubtedly increasing and the twain 195 are getting further and further apart. There is little margin left for those engaged in agriculture—not only farmers but also landlords—to be able to afford to devote a percentage of their returns for the benefit, development and improvement of the countryside.
What I am about to say saddens me. It is not in any way a reflection on my party but it is a fact. Sometimes you have to acknowledge facts and the truth hurts. Over the years that I have been privileged enough to be involved in agriculture I have found that farmers have benefited rather more under the party opposite than under our own party. I do not know why that is. I am very sorry to have to say it. However, it is true and I am never afraid to state what I believe to be the truth.
We have arrived at the idea of a thing called set-aside in order to reduce the amount of corn which is being produced. The farmers are being blamed for producing too much corn and cereals and for creating a cereal mountain. But why should they take the blame? They were encouraged to do that very thing 20 years ago. They did so. They were subsidised for it. They received help and grants and did darned well. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, said, there is now one man to 150 cows. But on the Continent what do they have? They have Farmer Giles and one man to 16 cows. It is ridiculous. But what do we do? We institute a process called set-aside. I shall not go into the arguments for and against set-aside as I can only talk about the principle.
As regards any form of efficient business, I have never heard of a situation where someone is actually paid to do nothing. But that is set-aside. People are being paid to produce nothing. There is something fundamentally wrong in the principle. I shall not go further than that; but it is wrong. One day when the scheme comes to an end someone will want an extra man, an extra machine, an extra tractor, and so on, but they will have been disposed of because they were set aside and not used for anything. Where will that money come from? I believe that one day the pigeons will come home to roost. I am very sorry to have to say that, but I said so originally.
I turn now to the environment. We hear about schemes whereby various bodies such as the Countryside Commission and other such organisations will benefit from the presence of an appointed officer called an expert in the environment. But what does that mean? What qualifications does one have to have for the job? There is only one expert in the environment that I know of and that is the chap who actually lives and works in the countryside. We do not want interference from people who set themselves up on a pedestal and think they know what they are talking about. I say that because much of the time they are, for understandable reasons, slightly wide of the mark.
Let us take an aspect of the environment which has not been mentioned, woodlands and trees. No one would argue against the fact that trees and woodlands look beautiful, whether it be the greenery of the spring, the full bloom of summer or the autumnal colour of the fall. But what have we done about it? We have introduced financial legislation which dictates 196 totally against the planting and management of private woodlands. We are abolishing the form of what is commonly called Schedule D whereby expenditure on woodlands is allowable against tax but sales of timber are taxable. It will now be on Schedule B where no tax is paid and no allowance made. That is very misguided. Again I said so at the time. It is misguided simply because there is no money to be made out of private woodlands. Woodlands are grown, nurtured and looked after by those who are fortunate enough —perhaps I should say unfortunate enough—to own them. They do so simply because they love them and love the countryside. They love their estates and they love what they see. They want to produce something that other people will enjoy. However, that cannot be done without expense being incurred.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Viscount, but it is a tradition in this House that those noble Lords who have not put their names down to speak but who wish to speak during the gap should confine themselves to a very brief speech on one subject. I believe that the noble Viscount has gone beyond that point.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I stand corrected. In the circumstances I shall confine myself to this subject and leave it there.
As regards the environment I hope that the Government will think seriously and carefully about fiscal and financial implications for the treatment of woodlands. There should be greater incentives for owners and managers through tax advantages. That would enable woodlands to be properly managed in accordance with a silvicultural policy which would benefit the environment.
I am sorry if I have exceeded my brief. I am grateful for having been corrected.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, as we reach this stage of the debate it is my duty and pleasure to take up some of the threads on the subject of the environment which have been debated in the extremely interesting discussion this evening. A number of matters concerning the environment were raised in the gracious Speech, although there was perhaps not nearly as much actual legislation. I suppose that we are extremely lucky that in commenting upon this subject we are able to feel that we have as Secretary of State for the Environment someone who has a feeling for the subject, who is interested and passionate about the environment and who has energy and efficiency; indeed, he has been showing efficiency about the environment of his own party very recently with considerable success. Moreover, he has promised to report back on the White Papers in the future and that is a pledge of accountability which must be welcomed even though there are areas in which it has so far not been fulfilled.
But despite his interest in the environment, the Secretary of State is, after all, a Member of the Government. And the Government are pledged to 197 policies which seem to militate against the defence of the environment, let alone its preservation in the future. There is a phrase in the gracious Speech which does not appear to bear on the environment. However, I believe that it actually does. It states that Her Majesty's Government:will maintain firm control of public spending with the aim of keeping its share of national income on the downward trend over time".That is a classical recipe for private affluence amid public squalor. It might indeed have been tolerable if we felt that the cash saved in the public sector would in some way help the poor in this country, the poor who are becoming permanently and steadily poorer, but we know that that will not happen. We know where the money saved will go. It will go in tax cuts as long as this Government are in office—let us hope that that will not be too long—which will benefit the better off, those whom the Government, poor saps, are expecting will vote for them at the next general election.
One of the major works of the Department of the Environment over a period of time will be the preparation for a successful United Nations conference next June on environment and development. That is extremely important. It is especially important that this country shows that it is prepared to take a hard line on, for instance, the control of emissions rather than the weaker alternatives which are proposed by the United States. I shall not proceed further in this area tonight because all that I could say has been said quite forcefully by the noble Lord, Lord Hatch.
We have heard a certain amount this afternoon and this evening about the integration of the environment in the CAP. Indeed the noble Baroness who opened the debate talked seriously about it and said how much it was welcomed. What I welcome is the fact that there are people on all sides of the House who are now able to talk about it with approval. When I came to your Lordships' House 15 years ago or thereabouts I remember that to mention the environment and agriculture in the same breath was to invite scorn from everyone. Agriculture was a business, we were told, and the business must be pursued. To persuade people that MAFF, as it then was, should have environmental advisers was an uphill task. Perhaps our revolution needs to be taken a little further.
We have heard a certain amount about how the European system to which the CAP is geared does not fit in with our traditional system of land tenure and countryside management. I was brought up in that traditional system. I was brought up on a large estate and on a working farm and I have a great affection for that system. But I am always surprised that no one seems to draw the conclusion that it may not be the Europeans who are wrong; it may actually be us. We may need to turn our attention to looking after the small farmer, improving his lot, increasing his numbers and populating the country in that way. Your Lordships may wonder how that ties in with the age old Liberal policy of free trade. I can assure you that by dint of taking a great deal longer, which I do not intend to do, I could reconcile the two. But it is 198 true that we need to regenerate our countryside and keep it pleasant by having more people on the land and asking them to use it appropriately. That idea appears to have been very much neglected.
I turn penultimately to the suggestion that a Bill will be introduced to replace private legislation as a means of authorising transport development schemes. The Private Bill system is well due for the chop, and, as such, we must welcome this proposal. However, a point was raised by a noble Baroness on this side of the House about Parliament deciding on the principle of some schemes before an inquiry is set up. That seems to me, as it seemed to her, to be absolutely ridiculous. It is an extension of the fact that people have been thinking in terms of the Bill system in Parliament—a Bill is introduced for Second Reading, the principle is discussed there and then the details are ironed out in Committee. That system works for that purpose, but it does not work at all with the kind of plans and developments in the countryside that we are talking about.
A principle is not involved in that respect. There is, instead, is a whole series of conflicting interests between which a compromise has to be found. That can be done only by the inquiry itself. It is not until there has been such an inquiry—a public inquiry, an educational inquiry—that your Lordships' House or another place is capable of passing a judgment. The Government's scheme is very much a case of verdict first, trial after. That is never satisfactory.
I shall trespass only for a second on the ground covered by my noble colleague Lady Hamwee in turning my attention to the idea of a review of local government structure. I do so because it has a considerable bearing on the environment and how it is managed. Since I first came into Parliament I have seen power after power taken away from local government. I have seen it become bigger and bigger and more remote. I have no doubt at all that the time must come when that is put into reverse—power is passed down again and our affairs are organised in smaller units. I hope that that will start now. Decisions are best made where people know and care what is happening. That is more or less in the smallest possible units, with some wider safeguard as a balance. If the Government can start to go into reverse on that matter they will earn our thanks more than they seem likely to on the other matters in the gracious Speech to do with the environment.
§ 6.49 p.m.
§ Lord Gallacher
My Lords, the gracious Speech makes no reference to agriculture and food as such, although there is a passing mention of reform of the common agricultural policy. We are grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, for the up-date she gave us on the position regarding reform of the CAP. I do not propose, however, to go into that subject in any detail as your Lordships will recall that we debated it in considerable detail as recently as 17th October.
At his party conference on 8th October, the Minister of Agriculture gave notice of moves to help farmers, and promised the introduction of a 199 programme which he called "Our Farming Future". He said that every farmer and farm worker should know where they stood, and we strongly agree with that point of view. In particular, we are concerned about the position not merely of farmers but of farm workers, because the statistics on reductions in the size of the labour force, and the conversion of many farms to part-time working all seem to us to indicate a serious labour situation, especially for men who may be based in rural areas with limited opportunities for employment there and perhaps difficulty in finding transport to towns, even if they can find work in urban areas.
Having regard to the importance of that programme, I wonder whether the Minister can say when it is likely to be published. The Minister of Agriculture promised it by December. I wonder whether that date will be adhered to or whether his farming future document must await the settlement of the common agricultural policy and the GATT negotiations themselves.
On the same date the Minister acknowledged a £6 billion annual trade gap in the United Kingdom's balance of payments for food and drink. Of that, £4.4 billion was with EC countries in 1990, and over half of that was with the five northern EC countries whose climate is similar to ours.
The deficit is in food—thanks to exports of Scotch whisky! Any harmonisation by the EC of rates of duty on alcohol at the expense of whisky and in favour of wine would have a serious knock-on effect on the United Kingdom's present balance of payments.
That adverse balance on food is well known to Her Majesty's Government. On 22nd March last, the Minister of Agriculture announced that he had asked a junior Minister in MAFF to report to him on how best the matter could he put right. That was eight months ago. When do Her Majesty's Government expect that report?
The gravity of the current situation is well described' in the 1990–91 annual report of the chairman of Food from Britain. Hopes for that organisation were high in 1983 when a previous Minister for Agriculture set it up. Today, despite noble endeavours, it does not have much of a tale to tell. Indeed, it ought perhaps be called Food for Britain since it is the United Kingdom's adverse balance which now preoccupies it. Food from Britain's main supporters from a financial point of view, apart from Her Majesty's Government, are the Milk Marketing Board, the Meat and Livestock Commission and the Home Grown Cereals Authority. They are all statutory bodies authorised to raise levies for promotional purposes. Much of that money is used for generic publicity, and its value is not capable of assessment. We need a better overview of food marketing than that which took place hastily in 1983 when Food from Britain was set up. There are trends which need serious attention, and they cover the whole of the food chain. For example, consumer dis-benefit in Britain from the CAP is acknowledged. Farmers say that the benefit to them is minimal: much CAP money goes on intervention, export subsidies and fraud.
200 Food processors criticise CAP prices in comparison with world prices. Retailers say little, but the merciless trend to supermarkets and own-label products continues. It is estimated that from 60 per cent. to 70 per cent. of supermarket sales are now in own-label goods. The most successful of those supermarkets now report a net profit on turnover of 6 per cent. plus, which is about what food retailers made before retail price maintenance was abolished. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom market is now attracting German and Danish food chains which, it is said, can, like their counterparts in the United States of America, make an adequate return on capital with a net profit of just above 2 per cent. on turnover. Does all that augur well for the United Kingdom's balance of payments on food? How can one sell own-label abroad if no outlets exist there?
I accept that our tight policy on planning consents for supermarkets—whether out-of-town or edge-of-town—forces up land development values, and that hard-pressed local authorities, before granting consents, often require planning gains which also add to development costs, so that a higher return on turnover is probably needed in the United Kingdom in order to give the necessary return on capital. Even so, the differential in present rates of net profit on turnover need explaining.
The impact of environmental policies on food prices may not be well enough appreciated. Can the Minister tell us to what extent the Department of the Environment attempts a price impact assessment in the planning guidance advice that it gives to local authorities? I am concerned that the low paid cannot now afford products for healthy eating and that is a serious matter at any time.
Farmers are strong in their ability to complain about their results, and with some reason; and yet they do little to organise themselves as sellers. They were once encouraged by Her Majesty's Government to improve their marketing and the Food from Britain organisation was charged with the added task of continuing to promote producer co-operatives. Grants for the establishment of such co-operatives were quietly withdrawn a year ago, and no new applications have been eligible since 14th May 1991. Does that mean that there is no serious anxiety on the part of Her Majesty's Government about producer marketing at a time when the balance of payments is £6 billion in the red? Are we to assume satisfaction with a situation where farmers do not look beyond the farm gate? As students, we were taught that a nation's balance of payments had to balance and that borrowing was the ultimate way of achieving that. Farmers claim that their CAP benefit is limited; and yet traditionally they have to borrow to achieve even that.
If borrowing rates for farmers are high, as they are under this Government, how can one also justify a balance of payments food deficit? Can we also justify a 1991 UK forecast contribution to the EC of £1,225 million as well, of course, as import levies and a share of VAT? If two-thirds of that contribution is roughly in respect of our share of the net cost of the CAP, that 201 means that our Community food deficit of £4.4 billion costs us an added £816 million, in addition to higher interest rates. That is hardly a success story.
Instead of merely asking a junior to report on the food balance of payments deficit, the Minister ought to be engaged in a comprehensive review of the present economics of food, from grower to consumer, to satisfy himself that all is well and that traditional ways and schemes of assistance to farmers are still well-founded, when food processing and distribution have seen revolutionary changes, including a major concentration of power in a few retailers over consumers and suppliers.
Those are serious matters which were not addressed in the gracious Speech. They are serious matters to which the Minister of Agriculture, in his public utterances, does not appear to show undue anxiety. As a future government, it seems to us that no self respecting Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer would allow a Minister of Agriculture to run a deficit of that magnitude for such a protracted period without asking what in the name of heaven he was doing about it. I hope that those comments will be useful to the House and have amplified what I believe to be a regrettable omission from the gracious Speech; namely, concern about food and food matters generally in this country.
§ 6.59 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Baroness Blatch)
My Lords, in the interests of responding to a detailed debate, I shall abandon my prepared speech and deal with the individual points that have been raised. This has been a wide-ranging and interesting debate, covering the Government's agricultural and environmental policies. Those are issues for a full day's debate in themselves. We have also debated the two Bills relating to local government which were outlined in the Queen's Speech.
I must turn to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede. I join with all Members of the House who remember his father. We looked upon him with great affection; and we held him in the highest esteem. I listened to the noble Lord's speech with interest. It was uncharacteristic, if I may say so, for a maiden speech. He is concerned about what he calls unfair play in Wandsworth in respect of rigging contracting out. It is important that he should take full advantage of the system which is in place for investigating such an accusation of rigging, and I hope that he will do just that.
The contribution of this House both to the making of legislation and to the furthering of serious debate is unequalled. I believe that over time the noble Lord will come to be impressed with the performance of the House and he may have second thoughts about the demise of the second parliamentary Chamber.
The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, started with an opening salvo about the Government reversing a major piece of legislation in the lifetime of one parliament. Had the country voted Labour in recent years, it is doubtful that the United Kingdom would 202 be a member of the European Community at all, or that it would have an adequate defence. We certainly would not have Trident. Trade union reforms would have been reversed; private schools would no longer exist. I could go on. What we see now and what we have now is a Labour Leader energetically persuading his party to retain trade union reforms, to keep nuclear weapons, to retain Trident, to strengthen our European membership and to allow the retention of private schools.
The only policy I know of that has not been reversed is that the Labour Party would allow unleashed spending by local authorities with no limits whatever. So we do not need lectures on reversing policy. I believe that we responded very properly to a perception by the public of what they deemed to be an unfair tax.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, opened by saying that there were many gaps in her knowledge. She felt that it was not appropriate at this stage to anticipate forthcoming local government legislation. I believe that she and I will do battle across the Chamber, I hope in a friendly and constructive way; and I am certain that all those gaps will be filled.
The noble Baroness was anxious about a register. As long as each house remains in one of the eight bands and the relativity between the bands remains constant, whether the prices of properties increase or diminish should not affect the total tax take.
The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, was worried about the application of competitive tendering on the NHS. I remind him that page 39 of the Citizen's Charter states that:We shall also invite the Audit Commission to publish similar comparative tables for the NHS as a stimulus to improvement. These will supplement standard information for patients which health authorities are expected to provide. We would expect relatively weak health authorities to take action to bring about management improvements".This provision does not need primary legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, was concerned about league tables. I believe that he missed the point. We will take account of both standard and cost; in every publication so far, standards and costs go together. It is important that local authorities determine their own standards and properly specify and cost them. But it is important that the public know them. Therefore, economy, efficiency and effectiveness are very much a part of what we are talking about.
Continuing his concern about CCT, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh also said that it was an outrage that the Government had introduced a Bill before consulting on the proposals. I suggest that that is nonsense. The Bill's provisions are enabling ones. Any changes to the CCT framework or extensions of CCT will require secondary legislation. There will be ample time for us to take full account of responses to the consultation paper before any regulations or orders are made. We are giving interested parties almost three months to respond to the consultation.
Secondary legislation is an appropriate vehicle for implementation of the proposals. It will permit the Government to be flexible and sensitive—a point pleaded for by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee— 203 when extending CCT to each new service, and to establish the CCT regime most suited to the circumstances of each service. This should please your Lordships. The noble Baroness herself pointed out the risks of' inflexibility; we are working for flexibility. Affirmative resolutions by both Houses will be required. Local government must be consulted again before orders are made, according to Clause 8(3) of the Bill.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was concerned about staff morale, especially in respect of CCT for revenue collection. I believe that point was made in my absence by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. The Government do not propose to extend CCT to financial services under the local government Bill. They propose that there should be an internal market so that we have the most efficient delivery of a service: therefore it will not be a concern for the Bill.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was joined by others who were worried about a voice for London. It is important to make the distinction between a voice for London and a government for London. Both parties opposite believe that a government for London is needed. We have no plans to change the general structure of local government in London and no desire to inflict on Londoners another layer of bureaucracy which would create, not solve, problems. Where a strategic view is needed, there are arrangements to achieve it. Under this Government there will be no return to the GLC-either mother of GLC or son of GLC.
The noble Baroness asked why there was only a 25 per cent. not a 50 per cent. reduction. That is because the tax has both a property and a personal element. The standard bill comprises a 50 per cent. property and a 50 per cent. personal element. It also assumes two adults so that each adult represents 25 per cent. of the bill.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, asked whether the Government would cut income support when they abolish the 20 per cent. contributions. Decisions on the level of social security benefit for 1993–94 will be announced in the usual way in the autumn of next year.
The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about the register of individuals to identify households which are entitled to a discount. They will identify themselves because they have to apply for the discount. The noble Baroness. Lady Hollis, looks puzzled. There will be an assumption of two people per household; if there is to be a discount it must be applied for.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, was concerned about hedgerows. It is important to remember that besides losses of hedgerows the findings also show an encouraging amount of new planting. Above all, they point to the need for improved management of hedges and our proposed new incentive scheme will help meet that need. The scheme does not hinge on legislation and we are working to take it forward as a matter of priority.
The noble Baroness was again concerned about progress on environmentally sensitive areas. The Government remain firmly committed to ESAs. We 204 are currently consulting interested organisations on ideas for improving the environmental benefits of the existing schemes, for example, by extending the period of agreement from five to 10 years. We hope shortly to put the revised schemes before Parliament. We have also asked English Nature and the Countryside Commission for advice on priorities should further designations be decided in the future.
Continuing with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, about calling for extra protection for national parks, the Government were pleased to receive the report of the independent National Parks Review Panel earlier this year and the statements from the countryside agencies. The panel's report is a major evaluation of the ways in which the basic purposes of the parks might most effectively be met in the next century. There is no doubt that the national parks contain some of the best and most beautiful of our landscapes. We remain deeply committed to their protection. This commitment has already been shown in the recent announcement of independent status for all parks, and the Government will respond to the rest of the report before the end of the year.
The noble Baroness asked about legislation on common land. She will be aware that, following extensive consultations, our policy on common land was set out in a statement in July last year. It was in the light of that and the inevitable complexity of any new legislation on common land that I advised this House just over seven months ago that, although it remained our policy to safeguard common land and to strengthen the ways in which we would protect and use it and we recognised the importance of legislation, we regretted that we could not see an opportunity to legislate comprehensively during the lifetime of this Parliament.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was concerned about access to environmental information. My noble friend Lady Trumpington referred to that matter and mentioned the lead Britain was giving. The Government agree that public access to environmental information is essential. One of the major principles in the White Paper concerns already set up or proposed registers on such matters as pollution consents and contaminated land. The United Kingdom played a leading role in negotiating a European directive on access to environmental information. That directive will give public rights of access to environmental information held by public authorities. Shortly we shall issue a consultation paper on how the UK Government will implement the directive.
The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and a number of other speakers expressed concern about the way we were setting up the Environmental Protection Agency. The setting up of the agency is a complicated task. We want to consult widely with all those involved. We need to work with existing institutions to agree a smooth transfer for the industry they serve and for their own staff. It is not possible to bring legislation forward in the present Session of Parliament. If we had legislated in this Session, I have no doubt that the very noble Lords who asked why there was no 205 legislation for the EPA in this Session would have complained that we were rushing legislation through Parliament before an election.
My noble friend Lord Mackay was concerned about a number of matters. I agree with him that the MacSharry proposals for the sheep sector failed to take account of the nature of our upland farms and their vital importance in maintaining the upland environment. That is why my honourable friend the Minister responsible for agriculture is opposing the new headage limits so vigorously.
As regards support for tobacco, it is absurd that tobacco is the most heavily subsidised CAP crop per hectare, particularly as the EC has policies to discourage smoking. The Government are arguing for support to be phased out over time but there must be transitional protection for those producers such as the Greeks who are wholly dependent on the crop for an income and who have virtually no alternatives. My noble friend also referred to forestry. As regards support for forestry, the Government have a firm policy for the expansion of multi-purpose forestry in Britain. That was made clear when we launched our forestry policy restatement last month. We are placing particular emphasis on better land and have increased the better land supplement to £400 for conifers and £600 for broadleaved trees. We are not complacent, but we remind noble Lords that new planting in England has shown a threefold increase since 1987.
My noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, the noble Lords, Lord Mackie of Benshie and Lord Cochrane of Cults, and my noble friend Lord Radnor were all concerned about the CAP. The CAP has been outstandingly successful in increasing agricultural productivity but it contains a number of fundamental weaknesses. Not only is it costly and inefficient but it neglects consumers and has encouraged agricultural intensification to such an extent that significant damage has resulted to landscape features and habitats. We welcome the proposals for reform generally and the recognition which they give to environmental concerns. The challenge is successfully to reconcile consumer and environmental goals with a lower cost agricultural policy. The CAP must ensure that agricultural markets are responsive to changing consumer needs, that the rural economy and environment are maintained and enhanced and that a balance is maintained between providing a fair standard of living for agricultural communities and affordable food for consumers. The UK Government will press for reform which takes account of those needs.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, was also concerned about the changes in procedures for Private Bills. The proposed change in the procedure by which parliamentary debate will take place in advance of a public inquiry reflects the outcome of consultation by the Department of Transport on Private Bills. New arrangements will apply to only a small number of major schemes which the Secretary of State for Transport regards as being nationally significant. Parliament will be asked to debate the principles behind the policy. The public inquiry will then 206 examine detailed proposals. It is sensible that in schemes of national importance Parliament should debate the principle at the outset.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, was also concerned about the £12 billion cost of the road building programme. I am sure the noble Baroness has welcomed the tree planting programme on motorway verges and on existing roads. The number of trees planted—mainly mature broadleaved species—has increased by 25 per cent. That programme involves both local authorities and the Forestry Commission and is an excellent example of environmental collaboration. The landscaping of new roads will depend on local circumstances and will take into account representations from local communities and consultations with interested groups.
My noble friend Lord Radnor was concerned about the Rural Development Commission. He asked whether it was doing everything possible to improve conditions in rural areas. I agree with the remarks of my noble friend on the need to encourage new forms of rural development. The RDC is the appropriate agency to carry out work in that field. It has a successful redundant building grants scheme which has helped many people to convert buildings to new and profitable uses.
The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, was predominantly concerned about housing. The Government view housing associations as the main providers of additional subsidised housing for rent. Public funding for associations through the Housing Corporation will increase to £2 billion from £1.2 billion by 1993. Together with their increased ability to draw in private funds, this will permit a sustained increase in output of subsidised housing by associations over the next few years. The noble Lord, Lord Dean, made a number of interesting comments on the right to buy council housing. I have a question for him which I do not expect him to answer at the moment. However, I must ask the noble Lord whether he would reduce the discount allowed for tenants on the right to buy schemes, or would he approve additional funds to assist owners with private mortgages and, if so, how does that square with the comments made by the shadow Treasury spokesman in another place?
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, I was making the point that a home is a home whether its occupants have to buy it, rent it or whatever. The Prime Minister has made a stand on a fair society. I was merely asking about equal treatment in financial terms for people who have been dispossessed of their homes because they were unable to pay their mortgages.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, the point I was making is that to give equal treatment one either has to reduce the amount of subsidy given to people buying their council homes to help people with private mortgages, or one has to find extra money. The noble Lord believed that half a million houses would be required by the end of the century. He claimed that only 48,000 houses per year were being built by housing associations. That adds up to 432,000 houses by the 207 end of the century, according to my arithmetic. That does not include all the other providers of housing, for example the private sector and local authorities.
The noble Lord, Lord Hatch, is present in the Chamber. He raised three main points of which he kindly gave me prior notice. The noble Lord asked about the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee. In its first three meetings the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), has made good progress in achieving many areas of common ground between countries. It is encouraging that at the last session in September over 100 countries were represented. It is only through this global participation that we can respond effectively to climate change.
The INC will meet again in Geneva between 9th and 20th December. We hope that this meeting will be able to produce a substantive convention text which can be finalised in the remaining sessions before the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in June 1992, during which the convention is due to be signed.
The United Kingdom's approach to the negotiations has been to work for an effective convention which can be supported by as many countries as possible. It should above all establish the process needed for a global response to climate change. This approach has been strongly supported in the European Community. The Dutch Presidency, speaking on behalf of the member states, made several statements at the last INC meeting setting out the main elements we would like to see in the convention.
The Community called for a commitment by all countries:to prepare, report and update national strategies which include inventories of greenhouse gas emissions and describe the measures being taken to limit emissions and preserve and enhance sinks for greenhouse gases".Those strategies should be reviewed by an expert body established by the convention.
The Community also called specifically for the stabilisation of CO2 emissions by the year 2000, in general at 1990 levels, by industrialised countries individually or jointly. Developed countries should strengthen their co-operation with developing countries to enable them fully to address climate change without hindering their development goals through the provision of financial resources and the transfer of environmentally sound technologies.
We should be happy to make copies of the Presidency statements available to noble Lords through the Library of the House.
The Community also explained our views on the "basket" or "comprehensive" approach. While recognising that an approach which considers all sources and sinks is desirable, the Community stated that:in the present situation and the foreseen scope of the specific commitments this approach cannot be implemented as yet in the specific commitments. We believe that with respect to the specific commitment regarding stabilisation of emissions we should take a gas by gas approach".The European Commission should take lessons in plain English!
That is, of course, very much the approach which the UK proposed in a paper on a phased comprehensive approach which was discussed by 208 European Community Environment Ministers in March 1991. The paper also proposed that commitments made in other agreements—pecifically the Montreal Protocol—should not be "double counted" by being included in the climate change convention.
In relation to the third point about carbon dioxide emissions, the Government consider that the UK's target of returning carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2005 is a demanding one. However, we have made it clear that, if possible, we shall improve upon it.
The Secretary of State for Energy is currently reviewing the Government's strategy for promoting renewable energy. We shall assess the extent to which renewable sources of energy could help further to restrain greenhouse gas emissions.
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy has today laid the second non fossil fuel obligation order. This sets an obligation, building up to 457 megawatts of renewable energy capacity over the period from 1st January 1992 to 31st December 1998. That virtually doubles the amount of renewable sourced generating capacity contracted to the regional electricity companies in England and Wales. It is a further major step in assisting renewables to enter the commercial electricity generation market. In due course the Government will announce their further proposals for a renewables order.
The noble Lord, Lord Hatch, asked whether we opposed EC measures to improve energy efficiency. I am glad to tell him that the Energy Council reached agreement on 24th October on measures to improve energy efficiency in gas boilers. That takes account of gas boiler technology in all member states.
The noble Lord asked about our policy on carbon tax. The policy on carbon tax is explained in paragraph 3.23 on page 182 of the anniversary report. Taxation is one means of reaching CO2 targets but can be introduced only if competitor countries do likewise: otherwise this country would be seriously disadvantaged. There are no early plans to introduce a carbon tax but we shall continue to contribute to international discussions on all measures to reduce CO2.
The noble Lord's final point concerned the dropping of "pledge and review" at the negotiations in Nairobi. The United Kingdom is a strong supporter of "pledge and review". Countries are to prepare national strategies setting out action to limit emissions and provide progress reports on achievements. In addition, we are continuing to press for CO2 emission targets, especially from developing countries.
The trade gap study prepared by the Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Mr. Curry, was an internal study. The Government have made clear the importance they attach to improving the marketing of agricultural products and food, as is shown by our support for Food from Britain. We shall be announcing further action soon but it is primarily for the industry to market its produce in the single market.
§ Lord Hatch of Lusby
My Lords, perhaps I may just say that I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness 209 for the comprehensive answers she has given to my questions. May I ask her whether I am right in assuming that the British Government now totally reject the policy of double counting and agree with the paper from which she quoted which was put forward at Nairobi by the Dutch Minister?
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I hope that the House will be indulgent and recognise that in dealing comprehensively with the points of which I was given advance notice I have exceeded my time. I have answered that question; I shall consider my answer and if I can make it clearer I shall write to the noble Lord.
We aim, through measures in the Local Government Bill, to ensure that communities get the best possible service from their local authorities. The 210 Citizen's Charter measures and the reform of local government finance and structure will improve accountability, make local government more responsive to local communities, improve the quality of services and firmly put the interests of people first. I look forward to many hours of detailed debate on the two local government Bills.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)
My Lords, I beg to move that this debate be now adjourned until tomorrow.
§ Moved, That the debate be now adjourned until tomorrow.—(Earl Ferrers.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly.
§ House adjourned at twenty-six minutes past seven o'clock.