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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 4 July 2006


The Secretary of State was asked—

Sporting Events

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are backing Glasgow’s excellent bid to bring the 2014 Commonwealth games to the city. I recently hosted a reception with the Scottish Executive Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport to encourage support and raise awareness. Scotland’s strategy for attracting, organising and delivering major events is, of course, the responsibility of Scottish Executive Ministers.

I thank the Minister for that response. I also support the Commonwealth games bid, but I also welcome the Government’s intention to host the 2018 World cup. At the moment, the Chancellor seems to be going out of the way to downplay his Scottishness, and when making the World cup announcement, he seemed specifically to exclude Scotland from co-hosting the bid, yet Scotland has some excellent stadiums and some great fans. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Chancellor to make the case for a joint bid between both England and Scotland for the 2018 World cup?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for Glasgow’s bid. It will be a great boost not just to the city but to the whole of Scotland, bringing in many additional tourists and, of course, raising the profile of sport, and it will also allow those games to take place in other locations in Scotland—such as the excellent proposal to hold the sailing competitions in Inverclyde.

On the World cup bid for 2018, the hon. Gentleman is quite right: the Government launched a study last year into the feasibility of holding the FIFA World cup in England in 2018. The study is being conducted jointly by the Treasury and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and we await its outcome.

Does the Minister recognise that a successful Commonwealth games bid by Glasgow will also bring long-term benefits to housing and regeneration in Dalmarnock in my constituency—the best site for the athletes’ village—and, overall, bring benefits to Scotland?

My hon. Friend is entirely correct. Of course the most important part of the games is not so much the event itself—although, of course, that will be the centrepiece—but the legacy of sport infrastructure, plus new community infrastructure, that will remain in some of the most deprived parts of Glasgow. So, taken as a whole, this is very exciting prospect for Scotland, to which I am sure every hon. Member will give their support.

TV Licences

2. What discussions he has had with the BBC about rural residents in Scotland using the Post Office to renew their television licence. (80907)

The contract decision is a commercial matter for the BBC, as the television licensing authority. Of course the corporation has a duty to licence holders to achieve value for money in collecting licence fee revenue.

I thank the Minister for that answer, as far as it goes, but does he not recognise that the Scotland Office has a duty to speak up for the needs of Scottish residents, particularly rural residents? In my constituency, there were 41 sub-post offices where licences could have been renewed; now there are only 16 pay points where the BBC will allow that to happen. Should the Minister not remind the BBC that it has a duty to serve rural Scotland, as well as urban Scotland, and that is crucial that the BBC go back to the Post Office and look again at whether they can negotiate a contract to allow rural residents to renew their licences at post offices.

No, I regret that I am not able to interfere in the commercial contracts between the licensing authority and the Post Office. The Government’s role is to ensure that the Post Office receives the investment that it needs to compete in the modern world. That is why we put in £2 billion of additional support so that it can be part of the universal banking network, for example, and a lot of that support is ongoing. That is the proper role of government; I am afraid that to interfere in those commercial negotiations is not the proper role.

Does my hon. Friend not agree that, given the proposal to change the terms of the Crown post office in Irvine, the service will not be as good as under the old system? The post offices in the constituencies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) have also been changed from Crown post offices to franchises, reducing the possibility of buying licences in those new post offices.

I understand the concern that has been expressed, particularly on the proposal to move the post office from 165 High street to 130 High street, where it will become part of a Spar franchise. My hon. Friend will, of course, understand that the Crown post office network represents some 4 per cent. of the entire network, yet it loses £70 million annually. So there are some tough commercial decisions for the Post Office in managing the Crown network, but I hope that his constituents will not suffer any diminution in service of the type that he mentions, because the Post Office has an important role to play, not just in rural Scotland, where, of course, it has a central role, but in urban Scotland, too.


3. What recent meetings he has held with ministerial colleagues to discuss energy issues in Scotland. (80908)

In the course of his busy schedule of meetings with Ministers, has the Secretary of State has the opportunity to discuss with them the findings of the Energywatch report, “Are fuel poverty targets out of range”, which notes that, mainly owing to rocketing energy prices, fuel poverty levels in Scotland are worryingly close to where they were in 1996? Has he pressed the Treasury and Department for Work and Pensions to end the scandal that, in energy-rich Scotland, pensioners are worried about fuel bills, and to increase the winter fuel allowance, which is now nowhere near sufficient to meet our pensioners’ escalating energy bills?

Of course the hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that fuel bills have been rising. That phenomenon is not unique to Scotland or indeed the United Kingdom, but reflects general changes that have taken place in energy prices around the globe, because we are now dealing in global markets. He is also right to recognise that, in addressing fuel poverty, there is a contribution to be made by the winter fuel payment. It was a Labour Government who introduced the winter fuel payment and a Labour Government who increased that payment. The winter fuel payment has made a significant contribution to addressing the challenge, but we continue to look at the matter in the light of changing circumstances.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the discussion about the Government’s energy review has been rather focused on electricity generation? Given that electricity accounts for less than 20 per cent. of our final energy consumption, will he ensure that his right hon. Friends at Westminster and Holyrood properly address the issue of improving the energy intensity of our economy?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Although there has been, perhaps understandably, a continued focus in the media on energy production, we also face further challenges—in particular, in relation to energy efficiency. That has a major contribution to make in addressing the challenge of fuel poverty. I know from my experience as a constituency MP the effect of the warm deal initiative by the Scottish Executive in many communities. It affects pensioners right across Scotland. When the energy review is published, there will be recognition not just of some of the challenges that we face with energy production, but of the wider issue of energy conservation.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the work force of Dounreay, by whose excellent efforts in decommissioning the legacy cost of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority has been substantially reduced? Will he further support the local initiative to provide alternative employment for those who are so effectively working themselves out of employment, with an alternative energy park at Dounreay?

I am still struggling to establish whether that contribution was pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear—[Hon. Members: “Both”]—which, in a nutshell, is a challenge not unique to the hon. Gentleman, but which applies to his whole party. Of course we welcome and congratulate people on the work that is being done effectively at Dounreay. There will be challenges in terms of how the work force can use the skills that have been developed over a number of decades. I would be happy to receive representations on that matter from him.

Will my right hon. Friend make it perfectly clear—and does he agree with me—that nuclear power has to be part of a balanced energy policy, and that if no nuclear power stations are to be built in Scotland, future Scottish consumers will be at risk of more massive hikes in the price of gas and electricity, and of blackouts and power cuts, and will also face considerable problems with security of supply?

The energy review reflects not simply challenges relating to diversity and security of supply, as my hon. Friend makes clear, but the energy mix that is appropriate to a modern advanced economy. That energy mix varies north and south of the border. Both Hunterston and Torness operate in Scotland, which accounts for a higher proportion of the energy mix being produced by nuclear power plants in Scotland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

It is important to reiterate the point that I made at the last Scottish questions: when it comes to judgments on new-build nuclear facilities, those matters rightfully rest with the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament, given the terms of the Electricity Act 1989 and the devolved nature of planning laws in Scotland.

Dr. Elaine Murray MSP has said that Labour policy at the Scottish Parliament elections will be not to veto new nuclear power stations in Scotland, yet the First Minister appears to take a very different line. What is the Labour position in Scotland?

I had the opportunity to discuss the energy review only a couple of days ago with the First Minister. It is not for me today, on behalf of the Scotland Office, to anticipate the terms of the manifesto that will be produced by the Labour party. That will be devised in Scotland, as has been the case in the past.

Regardless of what our future energy needs may be, does my right hon. Friend agree that we will need a strong manufacturing base to build the future power plants? Will he reassure manufacturing companies such as Mitsui Babcock that, if they hang on in there, work will come their way?

Having had the opportunity to visit Mitsui Babcock in Porterfield road in Renfrew on previous occasions, I know of the leading edge technology that it is developing, not least in relation to clean coal technology. When the energy review is published in due course, there will be significant opportunities not only as regards renewables but more generally as regards power generation. I hope that Mitsui Babcock, along with other Scottish companies, seizes the opportunities that that provides.

It appears that there is still some confusion arising from the Secretary of State’s position on this matter. My party’s position is clear. Does the Secretary of State agree with Scotland’s First Minister, who appears to be suggesting that, with major investment in renewables, Scotland could be free of new nuclear power stations, or with his colleague Dr. Elaine Murray MSP, who says that Labour will not block any applications for nuclear build?

The hon. Lady comes close to offering a new definition of the term “brass neck”, given that her place on the Liberal Front Bench is a direct consequence of her predecessor’s opinions on nuclear power. We make no apology for the fact that there has been a significant and successful push for renewables in Scotland led by the Labour-led Scottish Executive. At the same time, the position of the Scottish Executive—that issues need to be resolved in relation to nuclear waste—has been made clear for several months. A process has been established by the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations to address that, and that work is ongoing.

When the Secretary of State next has a meeting with the First Minister to discuss the nuclear review, will he bring the Prime Minister’s views to his notice? When the Prime Minister spoke to the Liaison Committee this morning, he made it perfectly plain that he personally is completely in favour of nuclear power and that he always had been before he commissioned the energy review. Surely that is an important matter of which the First Minister should be aware?

The hon. Gentleman is one of a number of former shadow Scottish Secretaries speaking today. The Prime Minister has made it clear on several occasions that, along with considering nuclear power, he wants a big push on renewables and a step change in energy efficiency. Those concerns initiated the energy review, and they will all be addressed when the review is published.

Sewel Convention

5. When he expects to respond to the report of the Scottish Affairs Committee, “The Sewel Convention: the Westminster perspective”. (80910)

As is customary, the Government’s response to the Scottish Affairs Committee will be submitted within two months of the report’s publication date.

The Prime Minister has ruled out a ban on Scottish Members from voting on English-only issues on the grounds that

“if you end up with two classes of MP you will end up with a host of real problems”.

Does the Minister accept that there are already two classes of MP? For example, I speak for my constituents on matters such as education and health, but he does not do that for his. My constituents are rather fed up with the situation and want to know what the Government are going to do about it.

No, I do not accept that. I believe that the Conservative proposals would lead to multitude of different classes of Member of Parliament and, inevitably, the break-up of the United Kingdom. It is not just me saying that. I quote:

“The danger is that Mr Cameron’s plans will only hasten the damaging break-up of a united kingdom…It is up to responsible politicians to seek a more constructive solution.”

That was the voice of the Daily Mail this morning. If even the Daily Mail recognises that the Conservative plans are grossly irresponsible, it is time that Conservative Front Benchers did so too.

Is my hon. Friend aware that under the Conservative proposals the shadow Secretary of State would not be allowed to vote on the future of health services in Carlisle—

When my hon. Friend responds to the consultation document, will he ensure that the idiotic and dangerous Conservative proposals, the logic of which would lead to—

The West Lothian question was rightly flagged up as a problem in the report by the Scottish Affairs Committee. Apart from the radical idea of a penalty shoot-out suggested yesterday in a Scottish newspaper, which of the four suggestions does the Minister prefer? Given the success of independence for the United States, which is marked today, as well as for Norway, Ireland and Iceland, surely independence is the only serious solution, especially for the largest stateless nation in Europe—England?

At least the hon. Gentleman is entirely consistent in his view. It does not bother him in the slightest that there would be multiple categories of MP in this House or that some MPs would vote for some things and some for others, because his party is a separatist party. I understand why his party supports such a daft proposal, but what beggars belief is that the Conservative and Unionist party supports it.

When people from all parts of our country have fought together for Britain, traded and worked together for centuries, and built an NHS established by a Welshman, will my hon. Friend rule out any suggestion that we should destroy centuries of successful partnership for short-term, party political reasons? Crossrail, a London Mayor and Northern Ireland are all examples of issues on which many MPs vote, even though the result will never affect many of their constituents. Will my hon. Friend join me—

And an excellent point it was, too. My hon. Friend correctly points out that the United Kingdom is one of the most successful countries in the history of the world. It is successful because it has brought together in a Union nations who stood together, fought together, traded together and built up a country that is the envy of the world. We put that at risk at our peril. It is a shame that the party that used to be a unionist party has abandoned that principle.

Let me make it clear: this party will take no lectures from the Labour party on our unflinching commitment to the Union. The Minister’s complacency on this issue is astounding. It is the fact that Labour will do nothing about the so-called West Lothian question that puts the Union in question. Although there are many different views about the answer to the West Lothian question, the Minister cannot deny that there is now cross-party support for the view that the present arrangements are unsustainable—apart from the Scottish Affairs Committee, the Father of the House, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Members for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) and for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle). Will the Minister, for once, agree with Jack McConnell that there should be a mature debate on this important constitutional issue, not the usual yah-boo politics?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct to say that there is a multitude of opinions on the matter. That is why his colleague the shadow Defence Secretary, not to mention his colleague the former Foreign Secretary, have legged it in the opposite direction of his proposal to create a multitude of types of MP in this House. Not only that, but Professor Vernon Bogdanor, who successfully torpedoed the last daft proposal that emerged from the Benches opposite—the Bill of Rights—has said that the in-out solution that the Conservatives are putting forward would be the worst of all possible worlds. When will the hon. Gentleman accept that his proposal to have a multitude of different MPs in this House is a massive step along the road to breaking up the United Kingdom?

Speaking of questions, I jumped a question, so we go back to Question 4. I call Mr. Lazarowicz.

Private Sector Employment

The macro-economic stability delivered by this Government continues to benefit the whole of the United Kingdom, including Scotland. Scottish employment has hit a new record high with the private sector driving the expansion. There are 124,200 more people working in the private sector than there were in 1999, and every significant business survey suggests that private sector output and employment continued to grow over the year to date.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for pointing out how Scotland gains from its Union with the rest of the UK. Does he agree that those figures show how Scottish business would be put at risk if it were forced to endure four years with a destabilising referendum on breaking up the UK hanging over its head?

I find myself in complete agreement with my hon. Friend and, indeed, with the Fraser of Allander Institute’s study on exactly that question, which made clear the profound risks that other parties would choose to run with the very stability that has been the foundation of our sustained economic success under Labour since 1997.

Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment at last week’s announcement by Jabil that it will close production at Ayr by the end of 2007, with a loss of 217 jobs? Given his positive assessment of the Scottish economy, how optimistic is he that those who lose their job will be able to find alternative employment? What will the Government do to assist them in that matter?

Any job loss affecting any family, not just in Scotland but across the United Kingdom, is a tragedy, and we want to work effectively with the relevant agencies, particularly the Scottish Executive, to make sure that the requisite support is provided to anyone who finds themselves in those unfortunate circumstances. I am certainly happy to write to my hon. Friend about the specific instance that she cited, but she is right to acknowledge that that unfortunate loss of employment has taken place against a backdrop of sustained employment in recent years. The Royal Bank of Scotland, in its most recent study, on 12 June 2006, stated:

“On its own terms May was another strong month for Scotland…Employment growth continues apace on the back of the stable expansion, with net jobs growth for the 15th consecutive month.”

But sadly, the most discussed job creation scheme in the Labour party is not designed to tackle the problems raised by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), as it concerns the job prospects of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his efforts to become the Prime Minister. Why are Scotland’s employment rates lower than those in Iceland, Denmark and Norway? Why is Scotland’s economic growth only a third of growth in Iceland, and half that in Ireland and Norway? On independence day, instead of aping old Tory arguments, can the Government explain why our neighbours are performing better with independence than Scotland, which is run from London under Labour?

I hardly know where to begin in responding to the political points that are notionally wrapped up in that question. First, I remind the hon. Gentleman that there has been sustained economic growth under Labour, which far exceeds anything that was achieved in 18 years of Conservative government, when two recessions were visited on Scotland. Secondly, we have a record of sustained economic growth in Scotland, which was not achieved to the same extent by previous Administrations. Finally, to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s point about the Chancellor’s record of economic stability, I direct him to any of the recent international studies that observe that the macro-economic framework established by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1997 is the foundation on which Scotland and the whole United Kingdom continue to enjoy such prosperity and jobs growth.

I have noticed that the Secretary of State is always keen to agree with the CBI when it supports his argument, but does he agree with the new head of the CBI, Richard Lambert, who said that the fact that the public sector in Scotland

“is noticeably larger than for the UK as a whole…is a constraint”

on the dynamic growth of the Scottish economy?

Candidly, I do not agree with that observation, for the following reasons. First, there is no direct correlation between the size of the public sector and the level of economic growth not just in Scotland but, indeed, in other European countries. For decades, Scandinavian countries, for example, have had a large public sector, along with high and sustained employment. Secondly, it is time that the Opposition left behind the rather tired and familiar argument of “Private sector, good; public sector, bad”. The recipe for modern economic success relies on effective research and development, along with effective vocational skills and education, all of which is contingent on the sustained economic investment in the public sector achieved under the Labour Government.

Economic Activity

8. What assessment he has made of the recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report, “Boosting Jobs and Incomes”, in respect of economic activity levels in Scotland. (80913)

I have discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of subjects. The OECD’s “Boosting Jobs and Incomes” report shows that, for the first time in 50 years, the UK has a higher employment rate and a better combination of unemployment and inactivity rates than any other major industrialised country. The latest labour market statistics show that economic activity in Scotland is at the highest level ever recorded.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that in the not too distant past unemployment was twice its present level, and youth unemployment three times what it is now? Will he and his colleagues continue to do their utmost to ensure that we never ever return to those days?

I am certainly happy to give that assurance. May I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s endeavours to tackle poverty and unemployment in his constituency for many years? He is right to point out that our labour market position is better than it has been in decades. According to the International Labour Organisation unemployment count, unemployment has been cut by a third since 1997, and more than 160,000 people have been helped into jobs in Scotland since 1997 through the new deal, notwithstanding the opposition of Opposition parties.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply to my question. With the upcoming energy review, there is a massive potential for biofuels. INEOS, which took over the BP refinery and chemical plant at Grangemouth, wishes to establish a massive new biochemical production plant, which may be located at Grangemouth if we all work together. Will my right hon. Friend pledge to join the local council, local management and myself to win that huge investment for Scotland, which is good for energy production, good for the environment and good for the Scottish economy?

My hon. Friend makes a number of important points. Of course I am happy to meet him to discuss the economic proposition that he describes for Grangemouth. He is right to recognise the important contributions that biofuels can make to the energy review, which will be published in due course. In the Department for Transport we have also championed the renewable transport fuels obligation, which will see a biofuels mix being added to the petrol served at the pump in the years to come. I believe that in the years ahead of the target that has been set by the Government, there is further scope for biofuels, but we need to recognise that there are continuing challenges in relation to biofuels, one of which is to be able to secure biodiversity at the same time as addressing the environmental challenges that my hon. Friend describes.

Foreign Criminals (Deportation)

9. What discussions he has had with Ministers in the Home Office about the deportation from Scotland of foreign nationals who have served sentences of imprisonment. (80915)

When the Secretary of State next meets officials from the Home Office, will he raise with them the question of the bail policy operated by the immigration and nationality directorate? It has become apparent to me while I have been pursuing the case of my constituent Sakchai Makao that the Home Office operates a presumption against bail. Can the Minister tell the House how that can possibly be compatible with the European convention on human rights, under which there is supposed to be a presumption in favour of bail?

I recognise the concern that there has been in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency about the case he mentions. He is experienced enough a parliamentarian to know that I cannot comment on the particular case, especially as a judgment is due to be made soon. Everything that the Government do in that regard is consistent with our obligations under the ECHR, and the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity, should he wish, to raise the matter directly with the Home Secretary at the next Home Office Question Time.

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Conservation Areas

Planning policy guidance note 15, which deals with planning and the historic environment, sets out the Government’s planning policy in regard to conservation areas. Conservation areas represent a key part of the Government’s desire to preserve and enhance areas of historic importance, and planning policies reflect this.

Does my hon. Friend agree that since they were introduced in the 1960s, the now more than 8,000 conservation areas have greatly enhanced our environment and preserved and maintained local areas? Will she encourage in councils the rejection of the notion that because some historic buildings have gone in particular areas, they should not be accepted for conservation area status? Will she in particular encourage the acceptance of Bebington village as a conservation area and seek to protect the conservation area of Port Sunlight?

I entirely agree that conservation areas are important for protecting and valuing our historic environment. Conservation areas and the wider historic environment should be recognised in the context of local authorities’ work, particularly in their local development frameworks. Whether a local area should be made a conservation area is, however, a matter for local decision, and I am sure my hon. Friend will continue to campaign vigorously and represent his constituents well on the matter.

In accordance with Government planning policy, in 2004 100 per cent. of new homes in south Buckinghamshire were built on brownfield sites, but is the Minister aware that every one of those brownfield sites was, in fact, a garden? Does she accept that the definition of brownfield sites is not relevant in this case, and that gardens should be exempted from the definition to remove such a crazy anomaly?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, as I am, that there was a full debate on the matter only the other week—

Hon. Members are always entitled to raise the matter. It is important that we develop more homes and that those become available for people to live in. We know that there are pressures in the south of England, so we need to continue to consider all options and all the issues that affect them.

The new Secretary of State challenged planning policy head-on in a conservation area in her own constituency when she opposed the building of a block of flats at Markland Hill. Now that the right hon. Lady is responsible for planning policy, will the Minister urge her to use the benefit of her own experience to reform planning law and restore powers to local people over where and how we get the additional housing stock that we need?

Of course it is important that local authorities have appropriate decision-making powers in such situations, and of course we are always looking at and reviewing how these issues are dealt with and what needs to be taken into consideration. But any planning decision must have regard to what is appropriate in a particular environment, so the planning policies have to take those into account and give the local authorities the opportunity to make the right decisions in particular areas within a framework guidance.

Building Regulations

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
(Angela E. Smith)

Part G of the building regulations, which relates to sanitation, bathrooms and hot water storage, already applies to refurbished homes. The Department is not currently reviewing part G, but is reviewing building regulations as a whole, including water efficiency and conservation, and will look at risks and standards including those under part G.

My hon. Friend will be aware that this year 600 people, three quarters of them children under five, will receive third degree burns to a significant percentage of their body as a result of bathwater scalds. In April this year, 10-year-old Holly Devonport from Wakefield came to this place to launch the hot water burns like fire campaign; she herself lost half of the skin on her body when she fell into a scalding bath as a five-year-old. I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that we achieve change in those building regulations, just as we have made changes to prevent death from electric shocks, gas and fires. Hot water is the last huge risk that is unregulated in the home.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her commitment and persistence on this issue. She will be aware that in care homes for vulnerable adults measures are already in place through building regulations. We need to consider who is at risk, the level of that risk and the best way to address it. The building regulations review provides an opportunity to do that. I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that we will look carefully at the matter to see what can be done.


New cases of homelessness are at their lowest level since 1985 and the number of households in temporary accommodation is falling. We are achieving this by investing in homelessness prevention schemes, increasing the supply of new social housing and improving opportunities for moving from temporary accommodation into settled homes.

I welcome the progress set out by my right hon. Friend, but will she look at how local authorities interpret the preventing homelessness agenda and the Homelessness Act 2002, especially in Northampton where the local authority has refused to accept responsibility for a man who suffers from leprosy, and faces being turfed out of his home? Does she think that it is acceptable in this day and age that people with such illnesses are left homeless on the streets?

No, I do not. I am not familiar with the case that my hon. Friend has brought to my attention today, but it is important that local authorities not only reduce homelessness but deal with individual cases in a sensitive and appropriate manner. If she would like me to look at the case that she has highlighted, I would be happy to do so.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is no adult homelessness provision in Shropshire, which leads to homeless people sleeping in cars, in derelict cars, on Ercall wood and on the Wrekin itself. Will the Secretary of State liaise with Labour-led Telford and Wrekin council to do something about this ongoing problem?

It is very important that we have appropriate hostels so that rough sleepers can be properly accommodated, that we take action on bed-and-breakfast accommodation so that families do not have to bring up their children in cramped conditions, and that we encourage local authorities to move people from expensive temporary accommodation into more permanent settled homes. The Government, as the hon. Gentleman will know, have taken action across all those fronts, with rough sleeping falling by 75 per cent.; we are ending the number of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and investing £19 million in hostel provision. There may well be individual areas where yet more needs to be done, and we as a Government, working with Labour local councils, are committed to making that happen.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that homelessness and the shortage of affordable houses are problems not only in the south but in my constituency in Sheffield, in the north of the country. She will have seen the report of the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which calls for increased house building and for a significant proportion of those houses to be affordable houses for rent. In order to achieve that, will she give greater powers to three-star arm’s length management organisations such as Sheffield Homes, to enable them to build new houses and to contribute to dealing with the housing shortage problem, which affects so many people?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Over the past nine years we have corrected the £19 billion backlog in repairs, which was vitally needed in order to improve our social housing stock. It is right that we now move our emphasis from the decent homes programme—although that needs to continue, of course—to allowing councils, including councils with arm’s length management organisations, to build new council housing where that is needed. Over the next few years we will increase investment in new social homes by 50 per cent. We also recently issued a document about innovative ways of allowing local councils and ALMOs to build new homes.

I think that the Secretary of State might find that this is the first year since 1997 in which homelessness figures have actually dipped—although Crisis estimates that there are 380,000 cases of hidden homelessness. However, I want to take my question away from such figures. Is not the tragedy of homelessness that its causes and cures are not so much the physical provision of accommodation, but personal matters such as relationship breakdown, mental illness, and the leaving of care or the forces? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that her Department is doing enough to encourage small charities, such as Thames Reach Bondway, King’s Arms, Emmaus and the Jericho Road Project, which are trying to tackle the deep-seated causes and to provide stability for the homeless, to prevent them from being placed in accommodation to clear a statistic today only for them to become another one tomorrow when they cannot cope?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is important that we work not only with local authorities but with the voluntary and charitable sector, to enable people to live independently for longer in their own homes, and also to support them in whatever form of accommodation is needed. We are investing about £1.8 billion through the supporting people programme, which enables people to live independently for longer. But it is also right to invest more money in hostel provision, which we are doing, and which increasingly links the accommodation needs of individuals with their job-search needs and other needs, to enable them to live independently.

Today the Government will publish their Welfare Reform Bill, which includes a major reform of housing benefit. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions on ensuring that the terms of the Bill sustain people in their homes, and do not lead to a rise in homelessness?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to housing benefit and how it is framed, and, of course, my Department and the DWP work very closely on those issues. Let me highlight one issue. We are working with innovative local authorities such as Newham to recycle some of the proceeds from housing benefit when they use the private sector rather than the social rented sector to house vulnerable families, so that they can move more families from high- cost temporary accommodation into settled accommodation. I would like to see such innovative schemes expand. Later this year we will announce a fund for London, which may be replicated elsewhere, and which will allow such schemes to be developed further.

Social Housing

There are 1.5 million households recorded as on the waiting list for social housing. The accuracy of the list varies from area to area, as it is updated in different ways, and lists do not assess the level of need for social housing in an area.

Bearing in mind the 1.5 million people on the list, is the Minister proud of the fact that under her Government there has been a net loss of 584,000 social homes? Will she consider allowing local authorities to use receipts from social homes sold under the right-to-buy scheme to build more social houses, as well as bringing the 600,000 empty houses into occupation.?

The hon. Lady will be aware that we are increasing the level of social housing and new build by 50 per cent. over the next three years, because we think that we need more of it. We are also investing a lot of the money from capital receipts in supporting housing and infrastructure throughout the country. We have said, too, that when local councils operate the social homebuy scheme, which offers people the chance to buy a share in their home, that money should be recycled into new social housing as well.

In south Yorkshire, which covers Rotherham, Sheffield, Barnsley and Doncaster, according to the House of Commons the latest figures for last year show that the number of social housing dwellings built amounts to 15. Why is the figure so low?

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the distribution of social housing depends on the bids that come forward from housing associations in different parts of the country. He might want to talk to his local council about working with housing associations to come forward with good bids for his area, especially if there is a need for new social housing there. We need to increase the level of social housing throughout the country. It is due to increase by 50 per cent., and the Chancellor has said that social housing will be a priority in the spending review. However, we need closer partnerships among local councils, housing associations and other organisations so that good bids come forward. We also need to use the planning gain system to fund new homes.

Given that hundreds of families throughout south Manchester are waiting to be rehoused, will the Minister join me in condemning my local council’s decision not to guarantee that a proportion of land set aside for development will be for social housing?

Obviously, I cannot comment on individual planning decisions taken by local authorities. However, I can say that we think that local authorities should look seriously at building requirements for social housing into their planning system and approach. It is interesting that of the 140,000 new homes that were built in 2004, some 100,000 were built with no developer contribution to social housing or infrastructure. That is not fair; there should be more contributions.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one way of meeting the demand for social housing would be for every planning authority to stipulate that at least 30 per cent. of houses in every new development should be affordable?

My hon. Friend is right. We should be doing more through the planning system to encourage more social housing. Clearly, the situation will vary from area to area; nevertheless, that is an important approach, which I know that my hon. Friend feels strongly about and has campaigned for. There are ways to use the planning system better, including by using the section 106 system to support and fund a lot of the new homes that are badly needed in local communities.

We applaud the Government’s aspirations for building more social housing, and I hope that the Minister is successful in persuading her right hon. Friend the Chancellor to help the building of social housing to return to the higher level that we had under the last Conservative Government. The Minister will be painfully aware that there are 90,000 empty residential properties in the public sector—including, of course, Dorneywood. However, her recently introduced empty dwelling management orders do nothing to tackle that problem. Instead of creating new powers to seize the homes of the dead, why do Ministers not take action to deal with the paralysis affecting Labour local authorities, such as those to which the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) referred?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, his party cut investment in social housing, whereas ours has increased it. It is certainly right that land prices and construction costs were significantly lower in the early 1990s, but that was because his party engineered a massive housing market crash. I hope that that is not his approach to providing new social housing now.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of empty homes. He is right to say that local authorities and housing associations need to address the problem of empty homes in their areas and ensure that they are refurbished and fit for use. That is why we are putting so much money into the decent homes programme, and thus dealing with the massive backlog of repairs that his party left behind. It is irresponsible of Conservative Members to say that we must do something about the scandal of derelict and abandoned homes that have been left to blight communities, but then to oppose every single measure designed to do something about it.


My right hon. Friend surely knows that the Bolton ALMO is unique, in that it is the only ALMO that is regenerating estates in both the public and private sector. Will she therefore consider extending the Bolton model to other areas with high housing demand, especially urban areas with high waiting lists? She will also know that the Bolton housing waiting list has quadrupled in recent years.

I am familiar with the Bolton at Home ALMO, which is unique in dealing with private as well as public sector housing, and is a three-star ALMO with excellent prospects for improving. My hon. Friend asks me whether the model can be extended, and I think that there is potential for extending it to other areas. He also touched on the future of ALMOs. I suggest that he is trying to get at what will happen to ALMOs after the decent homes programme has finished. My view is that it should be for local authorities, in consultation with tenants, to decide what works best for them. That will always be the yardstick by which I judge future proposals: will the proposed model make the quality of life better for the tenants or others who live in the housing stock?

Will the Secretary of State also have a look urgently at the level of ALMO debts that are accumulating throughout the country? The debt portfolio of my local council, Hammersmith and Fulham, is growing—it was projected to grow under the previous Labour administration—from about £295 million to about £500 million. Almost all of that was due to ALMO debt. Does the right hon. Lady think that that is sustainable? In only four years there has been a £200 million increase in debt.

I am happy to examine the ALMO in Hammersmith and Fulham, which the hon. Gentleman mentions. I think that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the huge additional investment that has gone not only into housing that has gone through the stock transfer process but has also gone through ALMOs to local authorities. We are consulting on ways in which it might be possible for councils that have not gone through the ALMO process to benefit from some extra flexibility, so that they can go on to build more homes and make their communities better, as well as concentrating on the decent homes programme. There is an exciting future for local authorities that want to build up their local housing strategy function and think broadly about not only how to improve the public stock but how to improve the private stock as well, and create better mixed communities.

When large construction companies go bust, a significant number of small to medium-sized enterprises that have completed their work for the large company will invariably go bust as well. SMEs, as we know, are the backbone of the construction industry and payment security is vital for them if they are to survive. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that during the review, part 2 of the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996 will be amended to ensure that payment uncertainty in the construction industry is brought to an end?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and one that I know she feels strongly about. I am happy to consider the issue that she raises in the course of the review.

Local Government Finance

My right hon. Friend met Sir Michael Lyons shortly after her appointment, when he discussed with her his report “National Prosperity, local choice, and civic engagement”, which was published on 8 May 2006.

The Minister will know that the inquiry under Sir Michael Lyons has cost more than £2.25 million—which does include £230,000-worth of research. It appears to endorse a new council tax on housing, which will affect more than 4 million households. Will the Minister undertake pilot schemes to test Sir Michael’s recommendations for changes to local government funding? If he does—and I recommend him to do so—where will these tests take place?

I am always willing to listen to suggestions from the hon. Gentleman. [Hon. Members: “Why?”] They normally come with common sense behind them, so I will consider the point that he makes. However, I hope that he will recognise that the report that Sir Michael published was his interim report. We are waiting with great interest for his final report later in the year.

I wonder whether Sir Michael, as part of his report on local government finance, mentioned that two-tier systems within Lancashire are far more expensive for the council tax payer. Would my hon. Friend recommend single-tier government for Lancashire, given the benefit that is enjoyed in Manchester?

I think that it would be wise for me not to do so, so I shall not be tempted to take that course of action. However, my hon. Friend may be interested to learn that we have had discussions on the economic prosperity of Lancashire with both tiers of councils very recently.

I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the grossly unfair burden of council tax on many residents, and particularly those who are just above benefit level. Will he encourage the Secretary of State to meet Sir Michael Lyons when she is in Bournemouth tomorrow and encourage him to be radical and introduce a local government finance system based on residents’ ability to pay? Perhaps the Secretary of State can play her part by linking her structural review to the Minister’s financial review, which would provide joined-up government for local democracy.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on, for the first time, not mentioning local income tax in a discussion about council tax at Question Time. I wonder whether that is a straw in the wind, and whether there will be a change in policy—we shall watch that space with interest. The hon. Gentleman’s point about the equity of the council tax benefit system, which was the subject of one of Sir Michael’s reports, is important, and I repeat that my right hon. Friend met Sir Michael recently.

Having endured the doubling of their council tax since 1997, my constituents are extremely concerned about the impact of revaluation and want to know where they stand. Will the Minister tell us how soon after Sir Michael Lyons’ report is published council tax revaluation will take place?

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. The former Minister of Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, made it clear in his announcement to this House that we were postponing the revaluation of domestic properties in England and that he did not expect that revaluation to take place in the life of this Parliament. That remains Government policy.


21. What assessment she has made of issues relating to travellers in Billericay and district; and if she will make a statement. (81879)

I am aware that in Basildon there are currently 185 caravans on unauthorised developments. The Government have offered to work with Basildon and neighbouring authorities to identify alternative sites for Travellers currently on unauthorised developments. The primary responsibility for addressing those issues rests with Basildon council.

The Minister will be aware that with the largest Traveller site in the UK, if not Europe, situated in Crays Hill in my constituency, there is a widespread belief that there is a Government bias in favour of Travellers when it comes to illegal sites, as evidenced by the two-year and four-year stays of execution recently given to unlawful Travellers. Nowhere does that bias seem more evident than in the Government’s unwillingness to meet local residents from Crays Hill, Hovefields and Pitsea to discuss the matter. As I have a letter from the Minister stating that the Government regularly meet local Travellers—they have wined and dined them—does the Minister think that the Government’s refusal to meet local residents is fair, and what is she going to do about it?

Strong powers are available to local authorities to address unauthorised camping and antisocial behaviour, where it occurs. The key to effective enforcement lies in new site provision.

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have not met local Travellers to discuss the issue, and that I do not intend to do so. I do not intend meet local residents either because, as other Ministers and I have told him, while a planning application is ongoing it is inappropriate for Ministers to engage in discussions with parties when they may have to make a decision.


Rising housing demand is driven by demographic change, which includes the fact that more people live alone, and by the needs of the economy. If we do not respond to rising housing demand, we will see first-time buyers priced out of the market, rising overcrowding and pressures on recruitment for businesses and public services, which is why we support the provision of new homes.

I am grateful for that answer. Rising demand is driven not only by smaller house sizes, smaller family sizes and longer lives—we welcome that—but by international migration, which accounts for 30 per cent. of rising demand. Is not it cruel and heartless to hand out work permits to people who have no realistic prospect of finding accommodation when they get to this country and who compete, when they arrive, with our most vulnerable fellow citizens for that rare accommodation?

Obviously the hon. Gentleman is right to say that one has to take a sensible approach to immigration and housing policy. However, we must recognise that immigration supports our economy. Migrant workers contribute around 10 per cent. of Government tax receipts and account for only 8 per cent. of Government spending. They are critical to the economy. Of course we must ensure that appropriate housing is in place. I emphasise that 72 per cent. of household growth is accounted for by single households. We need to ensure that we build more new homes to meet the overall needs of the economy, and our changing and increasing population.

My hon. Friend knows that housing demand is perhaps at its most acute among the homeless. She will also know that in December she announced £88 million of assistance to local authorities with homelessness projects. However, does she know that on 7 February the Conservative cabinet member for housing in Birmingham claimed, in response to a question from his son, who is also a Conservative councillor in Birmingham, that the city had received “not one single penny” from that fund? He has repeated that on two or three subsequent occasions, even saying that my hon. Friend should apologise to the people of Birmingham. Is he telling the truth?

Order. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member. He should know that supplementaries should be brief. [Interruption.] Sometimes I have seen the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) take her time over her supplementaries, too. The point is that I went over the time to call the hon. Gentleman, and I therefore expected a brief question. I would appreciate it if the hon. Lady did not tell me how to chair the proceedings. She would not know where to start.

My answer is brief. In December 2005, Birmingham city council was allocated £650,000 of homelessness grant for 2006-07. It has been given an indicative allocation for the same amount for 2007-08. Those are the facts.