Skip to main content

Deputy Prime Minister

Volume 407: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked

Antisocial Behaviour

1.

What his Department's role is in reducing antisocial behaviour in local communities. [119747]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Phil Hope)

The Government recognise the impact that antisocial behaviour can have on local communities and people's quality of life. That is why we are taking strong and concerted action across Government to tackle problems of antisocial and nuisance behaviour. Examples of action being taken by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister include neighbourhood warden schemes, new measures to deal with antisocial tenants, and a new package of more than £200 million to create cleaner, safer, more attractive local environments.

I thank the Minister for that reply and congratulate him warmly on his appointment.

Last Friday, I visited Inspector Holland, at Swanage police station, to discuss antisocial behaviour in that part of my constituency. He informed me of the reluctance of many local agencies to use their existing powers for antisocial behaviour orders. Will the Minister assure me that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will issue clear guidance on how councils should use the new powers in the legislation that we are currently examining in this place and elsewhere, so that, even in Tory councils, where they are happy to do nothing and then blame the Government, we can ensure that the problem of antisocial behaviour is tackled properly throughout the country?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks.

I agree that it is important that local agencies make use of all the powers available to them to tackle antisocial behaviour. My hon. Friend has been at the forefront of local campaigns to reduce that problem in his constituency, pressing local councils to take more decisive action. I take this opportunity to urge all councils to use their new powers and the new resources that the Government have provided to tackle a problem that blights too many of our local communities.

I, too, congratulate the Minister on his new appointment.

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can be held personally responsible for the new £200 million package to which he referred, but I am keen to know his view on how that package of measures to get rid of antisocial behaviour ties in with the Licensing Bill, to which we gave a Third Reading only the other night, and its plans to allow 24-hour drinking on all our streets—especially as regards central London.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks.

The hon. Gentleman must understand that we are working across Government to implement a range of programmes to tackle antisocial behaviour, so that on our streets we see new neighbourhood wardens and new community support officers who will be working hard in their areas, with local communities, doing a different job from that of the police, to tackle the kind of problem to which he referred. I am confident that they will be able to take serious steps to reduce crime rates and to ensure that the trend continues downward.

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to the Treasury Bench in a long-overdue promotion.

As one of my hon. Friend's first duties, will he arrange a meeting with his counterpart at the Department for Education and Skills? My hon. Friend will know from his previous work that one of the keys to tackling antisocial behaviour is developing parenting and social skills in young people before they become antisocial. Will he discuss that with the DFES and consider asking his colleagues to include those skills for young people in the national curriculum?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks.

My hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point. As well as measures to tackle crime, we are introducing measures to tackle the underlying causes of crime—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] My hon. Friend is right to point that out. Many of our constituencies benefit from programmes such as sure start, as well as from the children's fund, from Connexions and the youth service, which work with young people and families to deal with problems of low self-esteem and under-achievement at school. Those programmes are raising standards, attainment and aspirations in some of the poorest neighbourhoods in our communities.

I, too, warmly welcome and congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his new position. He was a distinguished Back Bencher and I am sure that he will quickly get used to defending the indefensible.

Although the hon. Gentleman has been at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for only a short time, does not he feel a degree of embarrassment that the average number of antisocial behaviour orders is less than 5 per cent. of what the Government predicted? Does he blame local councils for that, or is the real culprit a Government who mistake press releases for law enforcement? Local authorities can use such orders only against a backdrop of neighbourhood policing, so will he support the Conservative call for an extra 40,000 police officers on our streets?

Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks, and I am glad that I do not have to defend a record of crime doubling under the Conservatives or to go into the next general election defending a pledge to cut public spending by 20 per cent. The facts are that there have been 785 antisocial behaviour orders up to last November, that the threat of such orders can have an impact on reducing crime and that the new Antisocial Behaviour Bill, which I hope the Conservative party will stop its foolish opposition to and start to support, will introduce new measures to clamp down on such problems in our communities.

Council Housing

If he will make a statement on his policy on funding council housing. [119748]

Our policy is to enable local authorities properly to manage and maintain their stock, while charging fair and affordable rents. All councils are required to bring their stock up to the decent homes standard. Indeed, since 1997, we have reduced the number of non-decent social homes by 500,000, and we are on track to ensure that all social housing is decent by 2010.

In a recent report in Property People, Lord Rooker is quoted as telling tenants in Hammersmith and Fulham that there would be "no exceptions" to the policy of making councils choose between stock transfer, the private finance initiative or arm's length management organisation options. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether that report is accurate? If it is not, will he assure the tenants who vote against those options that their local authorities will be adequately funded to meet the Government's very worthy decent homes target?

My hon. Friend exactly reports the options that we have got. The three options, as reported by Lord Rooker, are absolutely right, but there is an option for local authorities to stay with their housing stock if they wish. Those are the choices that they have, but we have made considerable changes and investment in housing has gone from about £750 million to £2.1 billion—a tremendous increase, against the Tory record of reducing housing investment every year.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that, at the end of 1997, 25,000 social houses were built in this country, but by the end of last year, the figure had fallen to 14,500 social houses built six years into a Labour Government? Why has that happened? Is not he ashamed that a Labour Government have turned their back on some of the country's poorest people?

It is a bit of a cheek for the hon. Gentleman to say that—he belonged to a Government who had a housing record that was, frankly, scandalous. They left us with a £19 billion disinvestment, which we have just referred to, and a year-on-year decrease in housing investment. As I told the House when I launched the sustainable community package, the record in housing of all Governments, over decades, has been poor and unacceptable. That is why we have invested the largest amount of money ever given to a housing programme—£22 billion. We intend to reverse the trend, and we have made major changes in improving the housing stock. The amount of money available is not enough to meet every demand, but it reverses the decline that we saw under the Tories, who produced a massive repair backlog and a year-on-year decrease and gave away £40 billion in subsidising the right to buy, instead of improving homes for the people. Half a million homes were repossessed between 1990 and 1997. That is the record of a Tory Government, and we will not take any lecture from them on housing policy.

My right hon. Friend will have seen the report from Hammersmith and Fulham, which was well prepared and indicated that tenants wanted to stay with the council. Indeed, I gave evidence to that very excellent committee. However, one of the problems in Ealing—another part of my constituency—is that a Conservative council doubled the rent overnight. When that happens, as I pointed out to the tenants, one of the problems of remaining under council control is that they become victims of political change at very short notice. If we want good quality housing in this country, we need a genuine long-term commitment, free of that sort of political gerrymandering of rents.

Indeed, that is the record that we inherited, and we have given local authorities the option to change from that system and to have a greater opportunity for continuity, to get the proper investment and to have decent quality homes. That is the dividing line between our policies and those that we inherited from the Tories.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister regard it as indispensable, in order to meet his communities plan targets, for private developers to be given access to Housing Corporation loans?

Housing Corporation funding is available for that and has been used in the past. We are looking at a range of public and private financing. As the right hon. Gentleman well knows from his experience in government, the reality of the housing situation is that there is a lack of adequate resources. We have turned more to using public and private resources to lift the amount of investment for housing. We are considering using private resources for housing corporations.

Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), council tenants in my constituency warmly welcome the Government's commitment to the decent homes target and the extra funding that has been made available for council housing. However, they are against stock transfer and want to remain with the local authority. Will my right hon. Friend assure them that if they stay with the local authority, funding will still be available for the decent homes target to be met?

I understand my hon. Friend's point. He must know from his experience on housing that the disinvestment that occurred in the local authority housing stock means that something like £19 billion has to be found. We have to restart a housing programme. There are major problems in the south and the north and we need resources from public and private sources as well as the Exchequer. Given those circumstances, we have had to say that we will try to provide adequate funding for those who want to stay with local authorities, but we have provided alternatives, which the majority of councils are using to bring together public and private financing so that investment in housing to correct the disinvestment can be achieved more quickly.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister willing to consider the project just down the road at Elephant and Castle, which he knows about, and the project on the Aylesbury estate, which he and I have talked about, to find out how we can achieve what he told his colleagues? Where a regeneration scheme that is supported by the Government is going ahead, is there a way in which people who want to be council tenants can be assured of the same funding for new homes in the public sector as would be available if they transferred to registered social landlords?

Yes, but I have made it clear that there are a number of choices: regeneration programmes, private finance initiative programmes, stock transfer programmes and ALMO programmes. They all represent different approaches and they increase resources. I am trying to be fair to all sectors of the housing community, which is what the programmes are about. [Interruption.]

Order. May I say to the House that there are far too many extraneous conversations going on, the total volume of which is making it difficult to hear both questions and answers?

Regional Government

What representations he has received concerning the case for a referendum on regional government in Yorkshire. [119750]

On Monday 16 June, I announced that Yorkshire and Humberside would be one of the first regions to move toward a referendum for an elected assembly. Our soundings exercise shows that there is a high level of interest in the referendum across all groups and interests in the Yorkshire and Humberside region.

If the Yorkshire and Humberside assembly is to have effective powers to plan integrated public transport throughout the region and perhaps to initiate measures such as a region-wide concessionary fare pass for pensioners, will there be a continuing need for separate passenger transport authorities in west and south Yorkshire?

There is no intention of changing the passenger transport authorities at this stage—I think that they are doing quite a good job. Of course, the regional dimension of transport is important. We would give an assembly, especially an elected assembly, the opportunity to make decisions on transport in the regions, and in the context of a region, rather than only with regard to an area covered by a passenger transport authority. A passenger transport authority not only plans for the area for which it is responsible, but has responsibility for delivery. I am sure that there will be a close working relationship between the bodies.

May I crave your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and add my congratulations to the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), on his arrival to the Front Bench? After his time with me on the Public Accounts Committee, I was unsurprised by his characteristically good opening performance.

The Deputy Prime Minister's idea of a good response is 833 people in favour of a referendum out of 5 million people in Yorkshire and Humberside. If a referendum is a good idea when 833 people want one, why is it a bad idea when 1.7 million people want one?

The right hon. Gentleman keeps referring to 8,000. As I think we made clear in our exchanges yesterday, that does not represent the total number of people who expressed a point of view. There were 50,000 people overall. Responses on petitions, for example, which may include thousands or hundreds of signatures, were considered as one response. We have had exchanges on the subject before. I justified the decision to the House on the basis that the three northern areas have shown an overwhelming interest in a referendum. We intend to give them that opportunity. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the one county council in our Yorkshire area—the Tory North Yorkshire county council—also wanted the referendum. I am happy to agree to that.

I am interested that the right hon. Gentleman returns to the principle of the block vote in his calculation of who supports his idea and I look forward to meeting him on the hustings. BBC "Look North", not known as a Tory front organisation, particularly as his son works for it, carried out a survey this week of 5,000 people—five times the number of people who responded to the right hon. Gentleman in Yorkshire—and nine out of 10 thought that regional assemblies were a bad idea. Why does he still insist on spending millions of pounds of public money and disrupting perfectly good local government to pursue his obsession with this daft idea?

The same BBC carried out a poll that said that 72 per cent. wanted a referendum. I am prepared to accept that. There will be a referendum and by God I look forward to debating that with the right hon. Gentleman.

Home Energy Efficiency

What plans he has to issue guidance to local planning authorities concerning minimum energy efficiency standards in (a) new and (b) existing housing. [119751]

Although we have no plans to issue specific guidance to planning authorities on energy efficiency standards for housing, the Government have recently brought in a number of measures to help improve energy efficiency in homes.

For example, the new building regulations, which came into effect just over a year ago, are expected to improve energy performance in new homes by some 25 per cent. The draft housing Bill, published in March this year, aims to replace the present fitness standard with a new housing health and safety rating system, which will allow local authorities to tackle cold hazard in existing homes, especially in the private rented sector. Also, our so-called "decent home" programme, begun in the year 2000 and to be completed in 2010, will bring all social housing and much private rented accommodation up to a reasonable degree of warmth through more efficient heating and better insulation.

I am grateful for that reply, but is my hon. Friend aware that as many as 100 local authorities have reported pathetic and paltry increases in domestic energy efficiency of as little as 1 per cent. in their areas since 1996? Is he prepared to wield the big stick and issue directions to them to up their performances?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She is a doughty and knowledgeable campaigner on green issues. However, this time she has not got it quite right. The truth is that energy conservation authorities report improvements in domestic energy efficiency on an annual basis. Only one local authority reported a total overall improvement of 1 per cent. or less since 1996. Let me reassure my hon. Friend that we expect local authorities to continue improving their performance on domestic energy efficiency. To that end, the energy White Paper contains the commitment to review existing guidance to energy conservation authorities on complying with the requirements of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment as a Minister. Will he admit that the Government have not done enough to improve energy efficiency in houses? In particular, they have failed to take advantage of design conditions that would improve energy efficiency by maximising the use of natural daylight and heating. Will he introduce plans to encourage local authorities to improve their planning process to ensure that energy efficiency is paid the highest regard in new housing?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman., but I am grateful for his kind remarks. As I said, there are no plans to issue further guidance relating solely to energy efficiency in housing. However, many of our initiatives cover such matters more generally. For example, we are currently examining, together with other Departments, how to bring the use of renewables and the improvement of energy efficiency and its development more within the scope of the planning system. We are proceeding in the context of the review of planning policy guidance note 22 and the Government's wider planning reforms in a way that will not impose undue burdens on developers.

Local Government

What progress he has made with the balance of funding review of local government. [119752]

The steering group's first meeting on 28 April discussed key issues from the local and central Government perspectives. Our next meeting on 25 June will consider papers on principles, accountability, equalisation and international comparisons, along with proposals for further research. We will invite interested parties to submit papers later this summer.

What greater freedoms and responsibilities will that allow local authorities?

As my hon. Friend knows, we set out in our White Paper, which we published 18 months ago, proposed extensions of freedoms and flexibilities to local authorities, and we are legislating for that in our current Local Government Bill. However, the balance of funding review will explore a number of channels in which it is possible to extend that agenda to offer greater freedom for local authorities, particularly where that helps to drive up their performance and deliver higher quality services to their residents.

Does the Minister acknowledge that there can be a significant shift in the balance of funding only if local government has a fair local tax base? Will the Minister's review therefore consider scrapping the unfair Tory council tax? Does he not recognise that for councils like Kingston, which already raises 41 per cent. of its budget through the unfair council tax, the unfairness of the tax means that the burden on pensioners and those on low incomes is already far too harsh?

We have not ruled out any options from the review. We will take a broad view and consider a range of options. However, before rushing to precipitate conclusions, the hon. Gentleman ought to give consideration to one important factor: the ease of collection of forms of taxation. He will realise that there are certain advantages in taxation systems that relate to property, where evasion is much more difficult than with some of the other types of taxation that I know the Liberal Democrats tend to favour.

National Assembly For Wales

If he will submit evidence to the commission on the powers and electoral arrangements of the National Assembly for Wales. [119753]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Yvette Cooper)

The Government have provided the Richard commission with a memorandum of evidence. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has given oral evidence. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has not been invited to give evidence and would not expect to do so.

Before the reshuffle, the Deputy Prime Minister had overall control of relations between the UK Government and the National Assembly for Wales. Does he retain that position, and if so, what is the role of the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs? Is he, perhaps, head of a new Department of administrative affairs?

The position was set out last week. The Deputy Prime Minister is responsible for regional government in the English regions. My noble Friend the Lord Falconer is responsible for overall devolution issues arising out of the Act of Settlement, and the five people currently responsible for those settlement issues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister are moving to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, as set out last week.

On Monday the Deputy Prime Minister said that some of the regional assemblies in England would be accorded tax-varying powers. Why has that consistently been ruled out for the Welsh Assembly?

That was not what my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said this week.

Postal Ballots

When he last met the Electoral Commission to discuss the all-postal vote pilot ballots and their possible extension. [119756]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Yvette Cooper)

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions met the chair of the Electoral Commission on 22 May. Issues discussed included the highly successful pilot schemes held in May.

Given the success of the schemes and the increased turnout, is it not important that in 2004 at the local elections and the Euro elections, people still have the chance of all-postal ballots? What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that that happens?

My hon. Friend is right that the all-postal ballots increased turnout on average from about 33 per cent. to just under 50 per cent. We are looking at the implications for the combination of the Euro elections and the local government elections next year.

Homelessness

How many homeless households have been accommodated in bed-and-breakfast hostels since 1997. [119757]

I have placed in the Library a table detailing the number of homeless households accommodated in bed-and-breakfast hotels since 1997. The number increased from an average of about 4,400 in 1997 to more than 13,000 by the end of September 2002. That is plainly unsatisfactory and we have been taking action to address the issue, especially where it affects children. I am pleased to say that figures published yesterday show a fall in the number of such households to 12,200 in March this year. Importantly, the number of families with children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has been reduced even more significantly, by almost 30 per cent. over the past year.

I shall certainly look at those figures. It is nice to hear a Minister admit that something has gone wrong. Why does he think that it has gone wrong so dramatically?

There are a variety of reasons, including such sadnesses as family break-up and evictions, and the general increase in house prices. The Government are committed to dealing with these things and we are investing new funds in social housing to eradicate the scourge of homelessness in our society.