I should like to put two points on the record. First, I thank Madam Speaker through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for granting me this debate. Secondly, a jaundiced view is currently going round that somehow the art of debate, and its effectiveness in the Chamber, has lost some of its currency over recent years. However, the effect of securing a previous Adjournment debate on behalf of my constituents about a constituency problem—this debate also concerns a constituency problem—was remarkable, and with the help of the Isle of Wight council officers, we got a result. I therefore hope that no one will ever say, certainly in my hearing, that Parliament's effectiveness has been reduced over the years.
When I entered the House in 1987, I was told that the very best way to get on was to want for nothing. I had a check list of matters concerning the Isle of Wight that was slightly longer than a supermarket till printout, and gradually I have managed to put ticks beside the items. I am sure that the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), who I am delighted will be replying to the debate, will be pleased to know that the subject of the debate is just about the last major problem that I inherited on being elected. I hope that the debate, which concerns the case of the residents of the prison residential estates of Albany, Camp Hill and Parkhurst, will lubricate a solution for my constituents, not hinder it.
In May 1984, the Home Office requested that the Isle of Wight county council adopt the prison estate roads on the Albany, Parkhurst and Camp Hill residential estates. Residents were subsequently asked by the Home Office in January 1985 for £131 a household towards road maintenance, but very few paid and those who did were refunded. Following a decision to sell prison officers their homes and the implementation of the "Fresh Start" policy, a number of serious problems arose.
The problems were brought to my attention in July 1988 when the island was accepted as a water metering trial area. I was alerted to the fact that residents paid their water bills directly to the prisons and not the water company. Even more curiously, the governors of the three island prisons debited the residents for their water consumption. I wrote to the Home Office about that and the adoption of the estate roads. Southern Water considered that the water supply pipes on the estates were not up to standard. A reply from the then Minister on 27 October 1988 stated that there was no question of the water supply pipes being renewed or adopted by the Home Office.
Following a meeting that I had at the Home Office on 8 November 1988 with the then Minister and his advisers, the Home Office wrote to Southern Water on 20 December 1988 to request that water meters be installed in prison estate properties. Agreement was reached with Southern Water and the Home Office in March 1989 for a new water mains supply and pipes, which was concluded in June 1989 and cost all the estates nearly £200,000. The amount covered the total cost of the new mains and one half of the cost of connections to individual properties. I must make it clear that the other half was met by the Department of the Environment under
the water metering trial areas financing scheme. I took up the matter again in September 1989, when each household was asked to contribute £250. On 7 June 1991, a letter from the then Home Office Minister stated:
I can confirm that the Home Office has paid for the work in connection with water metering and installation of pipes.
On 21 August 1991, the then Home Office Minister wrote to me about the cleansing, maintenance and weed growth on the roads and footpaths. That letter stated:
Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult to find suitable inmates and resources
to undertake maintenance work on roads, verges and payments. Hitherto, prisoners had formed work gangs to maintain estate roads and the general environment. Surely the letter is a clear admission of the Home Office's liability for the roads.
Another letter from the Home Office on 18 January 1993 said:
The Head of Works has been concerned about the condition of street lighting.
Three years later, no action has been taken on a system that is by now well over 20 years old. That letter is surely another clear admission of the Home Office's liability.
Recently, the No. 30 bus service was withdrawn because the Home Office refused to allow a double-decker through the estate due to the Home Office's three-tonne limit on estate roads, yet prison vehicles way in excess of three tonnes regularly use the roads. Are my constituents to become responsible for the damage that will be caused by the weight of those vehicles on the roads if they are to assume liability as the Home Office has requested? Surely the fact that the Home Office has imposed its own weight limit is another tangible sign of liability and one that cannot be transferred to the residents.
In 1991, the residents sought a legal opinion. At the time, Mr. Attwater was the chief estates officer for the Home Office. The legal opinion stated:
Continuing with legal points, it was suggested by Mr. Attwater
at a meeting with the residents
that the Residents in fact own the roads as there was a presumption in law (according to him) that a private highway was owned by adjoining landowners up to the middle of such highway. He stated that this was the view of the Treasury Solicitor.
The advice to the residents was that the solicitor did not accept that interpretation for one minute. The solicitor said:
There may well be such a presumption but it can be easily rebutted by other evidence. In the first place, each householder is given a right of way over all the roads and footpaths without any reservation for the particular piece of highway in front of his land. Secondly, the Conveyances (which are modern), make no provision for such a statement in the Conveyance, which one would expect. Thirdly, if there was such a provision, either expressed or intended, one would have expected the Home Office to have reserved a right in all Conveyances to use the roads and footpaths.
The Home Office does not do this for the simple reason that it is not necessary. Undoubtedly, the Home Office has retained ownership of the roads in question.
He goes on to address some other points.
Quite apart from all this, it would appear that the Home Office spent £13,000.00 on the roads a few years ago, and then called for a contribution from residents.
As I have already said, that contribution was in fact not paid by the majority of the residents and those who did had the money refunded. He continues:
This will be quite incredible if the Home Office was now found not to be the owner of the roads after all.
He addresses the point about the street lighting:
it seems that by mistake, provision for this was not put into the Conveyances. The Home Office has paid for street lighting ever since. Again, this would be an incredible thing to do if the Home Office was no longer the owner of the roads in which the street lighting is placed.
I reach a number of conclusions. The first is that a conditioned precedent was established when the Home Office, which at first refused responsibility for the supply of water to the residents, subsequently admitted that liability by paying for the installation of pipes to a standard that made them available for adoption by the water company. That is what the residents are asking for in respect of the street lighting and the roads. My second conclusion is that, by demanding money for the maintenance of the roads more than 10 years ago and then refunding the money, the Home Office has again admitted its liability for the maintenance of those estate roads.
The legal opinion that the residents obtained will be of considerable interest to my hon. Friend the Minister. When I became the Member of Parliament, I had a queue of prison officers in my constituency surgery each week who came to complain about the delays in the conveyancing of their homes by the Treasury Solicitor. As a result of my intervention, the Treasury Solicitor's services were dropped by one of my hon. Friend's predecessors and a local solicitor—on the mainland, I hasten to add—was appointed to take over the work. One of the first comments made by that solicitor was that the properties should not have been conveyed without a proper estate management committee having been set up. By that time, it was too late and, despite a real attempt by that solicitor's firm to sort out what is a mess, to put it politely, it was not able to do so.
My third point for my hon. Friend is that I hope that she will not rely on the Treasury Solicitor for advice on the matter because her Department has already dropped that source. The Home Office itself has sought and appointed outside advisers. Further, the legal opinion obtained by the residents happens to have been written by a solicitor whose advice is so treasured by the Home Office that it has subsequently confirmed his appointment as Her Majesty's coroner for the Isle of Wight, so I know that my hon. Friend the Minister would not wish to call into doubt the advice that he gave the residents.
My fourth point is about the reduction in the extent of Crown immunity, on which I and my hon. Friend the Minister have campaigned for some years and which is making progress as a result of the Gracious Speech. One of the points that the coroner for the Isle of Wight rightly made when he was a local solicitor in his advice to the residents is that Crown immunity is involved in the problem. I believe that that has receded into the distance and the Crown can no longer hide behind that immunity. By its actions and to some extent its defaults, it has admitted liability in its entirety.
I have one final point to ask my hon. Friend the Minister as a matter of detail which has not come out in correspondence. If the Home Office seriously maintains that there is an apportionment between the residents and the Home Office, how many hundredth is the Home Office claiming that it owns compared with the residents? I understand the Home Office's situation, but the dwellings were not sold at a price that recognised the liability and the Department cannot hope to visit the sins of the Treasury Solicitor on the residents of the isle of Wight—at least, not so long as I am the Member of Parliament.
In conclusion, I wish to place on record the considerable help and assistance that I have received from Richard Tilt, the Director General of the Prison Service, and his staff, and from Felix Hetherington and his staff at the Isle of Wight county council. I tried to find a solution in a land swap between the two parties that would be of such value as to make the debate unnecessary. I come to the House not as a first resort, but as a last resort and I hope that—as a result of the debate and the good will that exists on the Isle of Wight for the prisons and that exists between the Home Office and the Isle of Wight county council and as a result of my hon. Friend the Minister's intervention—when we ring out the old and ring in the new, we shall find a solution to one of the final problems that has sat on my desk for too long.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) on obtaining the debate and also on the tireless way in which he represents the interests of his constituency. I do not know whether to be more sad or relieved that this is his last remaining problem, because that would deprive us of his ready eloquence. I feel like saying that I hope that he will find other problems, but I do not quite mean that and I am sure that he will continue to represent his constituency with all the vigour that he has shown in the past. If, as I have good reason to suspect, my hon. Friend is not satisfied with my response, I am willing to meet him, with my officials, to see whether we can make any further progress or obtain any further clarification. I may also say that my hon. Friend has shown a consistent interest in prison issues in general, for which I am extremely grateful—most of the time.
Since 1989, as part of the discounted sales scheme, the Prison Service has sold off some 90 per cent. of its housing on the former staff residential estates of Albany, Camp Hill and Parkhurst. Since then, as my hon. Friend pointed out, residents have complained that roads and services on the estates have not been maintained, and have argued that the Prison Service should retain responsibility for their maintenance.
During the past year, the Prison Service has made considerable efforts to resolve the difficulties. Prison Service officials have met representatives of the local residents associations on a number of occasions, and the Director General of the Prison Service met my hon. Friend on 18 March. On that occasion, my hon. Friend acknowledged that the difficulties experienced by the residents were complex, and suggested that the Prison Service arrange for the Isle of Wight council to adopt all liabilities on the estates, in exchange for the release of Prison Service land to the council.
We agreed to explore that possibility, and Prison Service officials met Isle of Wight council officials on 22 March to discuss my hon. Friend's proposal. However, on 29 June, the Isle of Wight council rejected the proposal, stating that it felt that it would be taking on liabilities and responsibilities far in excess of the value of the land offered. Prison Service officials met again with Isle of Wight officials on 21 October, when it was agreed that there was no quick and acceptable solution to improving the roads and services on the estate. While the council was prepared to assist with any improvements, it said that it was unable to provide capital funding for any maintenance work.
In an attempt to resolve the impasse, the Prison Service subsequently agreed that the Isle of Wight council should commission a feasibility study to establish the scope and cost of the maintenance work needed to bring the roads and services on the Albany estate to an acceptable standard for adoption by the council. While agreeing, in principle, to undertake any maintenance work, the council requested that the Prison Service should provide capital funding in advance that would then be recouped from the residents. On 29 November, the Isle of Wight council advised the Prison Service that the cost of upgrading the roads on the Albany estate would be in the region of £215,000. The Prison Service is currently considering how that work might be taken forward.
However, it would be wrong for the Prison Service to retain a responsibility for the maintenance of services to those properties. The conveyance documents—which I have been shown by the Prison Service—under which sales of the houses were arranged clearly set out the position on maintaining the roads and services applying to the properties. Although they did not include the estate roads, the conveyances for houses on the Camp Hill estate stated that there would be an obligation on the new owners to contribute to the cost of maintaining roads, footpaths, sewers, drains, water courses, gutters and electric street lighting. The conveyances for houses on the Albany estate included the transfer of ownership of the roads and made it clear that the new owners would have responsibility for maintenance, repair and removal of sewers, drains, water courses, gutters and street lighting. The conveyances for houses on the Parkhurst estate included a mixture of those conditions.
The conveyances provided for the new owners to contribute to the cost of any maintenance and improvement work. Each resident who accepted the terms of the discount sales scheme should have sought appropriate legal advice before accepting the conveyancing terms.
An independent firm of chartered surveyors, Gerald Eve, has confirmed the Prison Service's view about the terms of conveyance of the properties. Government property lawyers have confirmed that the Prison Service has no legal obligation to carry out maintenance and repairs to roads and services for the properties.
The Prison Service now owns only a small number of properties on the estates. It cannot continue to invest in those private estates from moneys voted by Parliament for the maintenance of operational prison establishments. The residents have therefore been given notice that they will be required to pay for the maintenance of roads and services in accordance with the terms of sale of their properties.
It is clear that responsibility for maintenance costs lies with the residents. That is set out in the terms of conveyance of the properties. The Prison Service has attempted to resolve some of the difficulties and will consider future proposals, but it is under no legal obligation to carry out maintenance work. In future it will carry out work only after consulting local residents and obtaining their agreement that they will fund such work.
I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend say that. The residents were told that if they did not get themselves organised to continue the street lighting, it would be turned off. That seems a pretty brutal arrangement, particularly in a community in which the two parties co-exist so well.
The conveyance made clear where the responsibility for street lighting lay. It would not be proper for the Prison Service to take responsibility for the lighting. It is right that local residents should adopt the responsibilities clearly shown in their conveyances. The Prison Service will, of course, continue to repair and maintain the access roads to the prisons.
I do not wish to dismiss the issue, but the legal position is clear. The Prison Service and I remain willing to consider any proposals that the residents, the council or my hon. Friend may wish to submit. In that spirit of co-operation, I hope that we shall be able to resolve this complex issue.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was greatly involved in the discussions on the Jopling recommendations and the Adjournment debates on Wednesday mornings. At no time during those discussions was it stated that, if a Minister was not on the Front Bench when the previous debate finished, the debate could not begin. However, I think that it was stated that, if the hon. Member with the next debate was in his place, it could go ahead, and that there should be no suspension of the House because the Minister was not in his place. Has there been a change since the Jopling recommendations?
As far as I am aware, there has been no change. This is a 1 o'clock debate. If the hon. Member and the Minister are present and the previous debate ends early, it has been the practice that the next debate can begin. But there is no obligation on a Member or a Minister to be here before the allocated time. This debate was scheduled for 1 o'clock. The Minister was not present, so it could not go ahead.