The Secretary of State was asked—
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and I also meet representatives from the broadcasting sector from time to time. In addition, on Friday 27 October, I gave the keynote address at a major conference on digital switchover in Scotland.
I have supported the BBC all through my life and I still support it and the licence fee system. However, in my constituency, which is a semi-rural area, the biggest single town in Midlothian, which has some 20,000 people, still cannot get digital transfer. It is not good enough to be told that they will get it in 2010, with whatever problems come at that time. Does my hon. Friend agree that the BBC should be looking at the possibility of a rebate for people who cannot get digital transfer? They are getting a bit fed up with the advertisements, when digital is not available to them.
I well understand the frustrations of my hon. Friend’s constituents. As he knows, a number of people in my constituency cannot even get an analogue signal, let alone a digital one, and it is frustrating for them. I well understand how they feel. At the moment, more than 80 per cent. of Scottish homes are able to receive a digital signal through their aerial. That figure will rise to about 98.5 per cent. at the time of digital switchover. We need to switch off the analogue transmitters in order for that number to rise to 98.5 per cent. I am afraid that I am not able to offer him the comfort that he seeks. Having raised this issue with the BBC on a number of occasions, I know that it feels that it has a duty to get to about 98.5 per cent. I hope that when coverage increases from 80 per cent. to 98.5 per cent., many of his constituents will be able to get that signal.
Although it is good news that all those people will be able to get digital coverage, my hon. Friend will be aware that there is grave concern about the ability of people to understand the system—particularly our elderly population. Does he agree that, come digital switchover, voluntary sector organisations, such as CACE—Cumbernauld action for care of the elderly—which works closely with the elderly, will be key in assisting the elderly population to operate and receive the system properly?
Yes, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I know that she has raised it during the deliberations of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. It is important that we provide a package of help for vulnerable people and older people. It will not just be older people who might need some support and technical assistance in switching over, but, particularly for those people, we need a help package that will give the assistance that they need. Digital UK is taking the lead on that. I know that it will want to work closely with the voluntary sector to ensure that those who are used to visiting older people in their homes, and have their trust and confidence, will be able to take the message on digital switchover to those vulnerable groups.
My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) makes an important point about the condition of analogue systems at the moment. For example, people in a large part of the city of Aberdeen cannot get Channel 5. I was one of them. I recently bought a digital television. I have 20-odd other channels, but I still have not got Channel 5. If the Minister is going to make it worth while for people to invest in digital technology, we need to think about how we are going to get an improved service.
I am sure that, as long as my hon. Friend’s constituents can access the Parliament Channel, they will sleep safely in their beds. He makes an important and valid point: people have chosen to switch to digital because of the opportunities that it gives them, the multi-channel service, and the availability of interactivity on the services. He will know from his time on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee that there is a major engineering exercise involved in turning off all the various transmitters that need to be fixed and so on. We need to make sure that that is done in a way that does not disadvantage people, that helps them to make the change over to the digital future, and that allows them to get rather more channels, including Channel 5, than he currently gets.
The Minister is, of course, aware that parts of Scotland will be the first in the United Kingdom to be part of the digital switchover. Will he make it clear to Digital UK that awareness of the switchover is, in itself, not sufficient and that the work with voluntary groups and community groups is vital? For many of those groups, face-to-face contact will be the only way to ensure that there is understanding and, more importantly, no fear of the changeover.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Awareness is key. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) and I, he will have seen a lot of the adverts that are running to make people aware of the switchover. Awareness has risen from about 66 per cent. to 70 per cent. in just the last few months, as a result of the campaign. However, it is vital—particularly in borders, which will be the first region of the UK to switch over entirely at the end of 2008—that there is as high a level of awareness as possible. That is why Digital UK has taken a special interest in what is happening in borders. It is also paying close attention to what is happening in Scotland. It has dedicated staff working in Scotlandto raise awareness and achieve the result that he is looking for.
I attended the conference that the Minister addressed and I pay tribute to the fact that he is taking a close personal interest in the subject. He will be aware that huge numbers of people in rural areas depend for their television signal on relay transmitters, rather than main transmitters. Under the current plans, many of them thus stand to get a second-tier service after switchover because they will receive only a fraction of the available channels. Does the Minister think that that is unfair? Will he ensure that Ofcom rethinks the proposals so that everyone can get an equal and fair service?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the borders digital forum that he has set up to help to raise awareness. He was fortunate enough to hear my keynote speech at the major conference on digital switchover a week or two ago. I accept the point that he makes. As I understand it, there is essentially an engineering constraint—this is a major engineering project. However, Ofcom will have to keep the matter under consideration as we move through the process.
Act of Union
We have already indicated our intention to mark this important anniversary. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announcedon 15 June 2006, the Royal Mint will issue a commemorative coin. The Chancellor and I will launch the coin at a special event in January. Among other commemorative activities, I am pleased to know that plans are also being made to mount an exhibition in both the House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.
The Union of England and Scotland is one of the great success stories of modern European history and it has given us three centuries of stability. The £2 coin is welcome and I am pleased that there will be an exhibition. In a recent written response, the Secretary of State alluded to the fact that other events will be held. Will he elaborate on what local authorities and other institutions might be doing?
Of course, it is up to local authorities to make judgments on such matters. We are in discussion with the Scottish Executive and I discussed the Westminster Parliament’s response with the Leader of the House only yesterday. I rarely find myself in agreement with the views expressed by Conservative Members, but the Union is Scotland’s mature choice. It has brought huge benefits not only to Scotland, but to England, so I am sure that we will both join in celebrating the success of, and future prospects for,the Union.
Would not next year’s anniversary be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate our Britishness and the shared values of democracy, equality, freedom, fairness and tolerance that bind this united country together? Given that people from all parts of the United Kingdom have worked and fought together for centuries, would not the anniversary be a great opportunity to reject once and for all divisive, anti-British and unpatriotic proposals to ban some MPs from voting in the House, which would tear up the British constitution and lead—
I think that I got my hon. Friend’s point. He speaks common sense when he recognises that a United Kingdom needs a united Parliament. Notwithstanding the sentiments expressed by some Opposition Members, now is not the time to play fast and loose with the British constitution in terms of maintaining the integrity of the House of Commons. I have some sympathy with the point made by my hon. Friend. This Sunday, I will take my place at the Cenotaph to recognise the extent to which Scottish and English soldiers, together with soldiers from right across the United Kingdom, fought together to defeat fascism and then came back home and worked together to build a national health service. Those are huge achievements from the past century of the United Kingdom and I believe that we will have equally great successes in the coming century.
There will also be representatives of some 30 independent countries at the Cenotaph on Sunday.
Amid all the street parties and mass celebrations that the Secretary of State expects for the Treaty of Union, will he ensure that there is a key role for the First Minister of Scotland, who appears to have been sidelined as a mere cipher by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s taking charge of the campaign? Has the Secretary of State noticed that since the Chancellor of the Exchequer assumed control of the pro-Union campaign, support for Scottish independence has soared to an all-time high, while support for the Labour party has plummeted to an all-time low? Will the Secretary of State promise to keep on doing what he is doing?
The hon. Gentleman’s talk of street parties reminds me of the image of him with the tartan army on top of a bus in Toulouse in 1998, which was the last time he claimed that Scotland was heading towards independence. The combined force of the Labour party in the Scottish Parliament and Labour at Westminster saw off that challenge. As we look ahead to the celebration of the Union, I am confident that the question that will dominate Scottish politics in the years to come will no longer be, “What is the point of Britain?”, but, “What is the point of the Scottish National party?”
I welcome the commemorative events for such a significant milestone. Does the Secretary of State agree that, given that it took almost three centuries to re-establish a Scottish Parliament, the time is ripe for mature evolution of our constitutional arrangements, but not pulling up the plant simply to see how the roots are developing? In that respect, what is his take on the suggestion that Jim Wallace floated in his Glasgow university lecture last week, reflecting on his time as Deputy First Minister in the coalition and on occasions as First Minister, that—leaving aside the argument about reform of the House of Lords—there could be an argument for the First Minister having a guaranteed place in the Lords to strengthen the links between the two Parliaments?
I am aware of that debate and of the discussions that continue in Government and across both Houses on the reform of the House of Lords. I am sure consideration will be given to that suggestion, and to others. I place on record my admiration for the work of the right hon. Gentleman, in the constitutional convention that led to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and as we move towards the 300th anniversary of the Union, and his close interest in constitutional matters. I know not whether it is to be transmitted by digital signal or analogue signal, but I understand that there will be an influential documentary on the history of the Union with which the right hon. Gentleman may have more than a passing familiarity, owing to his authorship and editorship of the programme in due course.
Does the Secretary of State accept that my constituency shipyards have huge orders as a result of Scotland being part of the United Kingdom? Will he prevail on his colleague the Chancellor to make large numbers of the £2 coin available to me to distribute to my constituents in order to demonstrate the value of the British dividend?
I fear that I must disappoint my hon. Friend by assuring him that prudence continues to have influence in the Treasury. On the substantive point that he makes about the significance of defence contracts to Scottish employment, that was of course one of the decisive arguments in Glasgow, Govan and elsewhere back in 1998. Since then, when one sees not only the frigates that have been built at Scotstoun, but the prospect of the Royal Navy securing aircraft carriers, it would be economic madness for any party to suggest that Scotland’s interests were advanced by tearing itself out of the Union, when the manifest benefits of the Union are so clear to my hon. Friend’s constituents.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union presents an excellent opportunity to look afresh at our constitutional settlement, and that a calm, considered and well informed debate is needed to set a framework for further powers to be devolvedto Holyrood and to explore greater devolution in England?
I have already acknowledged the constructive role that the Liberal Democrats played in the constitutional convention, which made proposals that the late, great John Smith described as
“the settled will of the Scottish people”—
the determination to see devolution in the United Kingdom. Echoing the sentiments of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy), given that we are only eight years into a strong Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom, there is a case for continuing the progress that devolution has made. It provides the perfect balance between stability through the United Kingdom and the flexibility to address the challenges we have heard about during these questions—for example, the highest ever level of employment secured in Scotland.
I welcome much of what the Secretary of State said, and what the Prime Minister said yesterday about the enormous benefits to Scotland of being in the Union—similar comments to those that the Leader of the Opposition made when he was in Glasgow recently. Will the Secretary of State make sure that the celebrations focus not just on 300 years of success together, but on the future of the Union in the 21st century, working together?
I sense that a sinner repents by endorsing devolution in the United Kingdom. I welcome at least the recognition by the Conservatives that devolution is now the settled will of the Scottish people, as well as the determination to take forward the debate about Scotland’s place within the United Kingdom. I have little doubt that, over the months to come, whether on the basis of the anniversary of the Union or of the historic choice that Scotland faces next May, there will be a continued and vital discussion about the important contribution that Scotland can make to the Union over the next 300 years.
Conservative Members are clear on our commitment to make the devolved settlement work. Does the Secretary of State agree, however, that support for the Union remains very strong in Scotland, and that the alleged rise in support for independence has nothing to do with a desire for further constitutional change but is the result of disillusionment with the Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive?
It will come as no surprise that I am not convinced by the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Polls come and go, but the truth is that at every opportunity the Scottish people have rejected the politics of grudge and grievance and of separation and have recognised that Scotland’s mature choice is to remain within the United Kingdom, which is why Scotland has sustained economic growth, high levels of employment, low interest rates and the prospect of further prosperity within the UK.
Local Income Tax
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly meet Treasury colleagues to discuss a range of issues as they affect Scotland. As my hon. Friend knows, however, local taxes to fund local authority expenditure are devolved to the Scottish Executive.
In his discussions with the Chancellor, will my hon. Friend stress that a large number of hard-working, two-income families in my constituency will be particularly badly hit by any move from a property-based tax to a local income tax, which is, surprisingly, the policy of the Scottish National party and of the Liberal Democrats?
I will certainly ensure that my hon. Friend’s point is made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in any discussions. The list of council tax band D figures in Scotland shows that her local authority in Aberdeen and mine in Inverclyde are well above the Scottish average; both, of course, are run by the Liberal Democrats, who have not only failed to keep the council tax under control but now want to clobber hard-working families with a huge hike in their income tax. It is no surprise that that policy is shared by the SNP, which simply would not be able to make the figures add up.
Will the Minister promise to remind the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) of her words in a few years’ time when she is complaining about the disastrous effect, especially on people of low and fixed income, of the revaluation that is inevitably coming? When he has his discussions with the Chancellor, will he discuss the effects on the Scottish housing market and, consequently, on the Scottish economy, of that revaluation when it comes?
When the hon. Gentleman got to his feet, I thought that he was going to take the opportunity to apologise for the comments made by his colleague who said:
“A fireman and a nurse are not the average family. They are a rich family that can afford to pay more.”
His party’s local income tax policy is predicated on the belief that a nurse and a fireman are a rich family who should get clobbered more. That is why we will have no truck with a local income tax, which will clobber hard-working families. I would like the SNP to distance itself from it as well.
An independent study in Edinburgh showed that the typical two-income household in my constituency would be at least £300 a year worse off through the introduction of local income tax. Does my hon. Friend agree that such a massive hike in income tax would have a damaging effect on the economic success in areas such as Edinburgh, and in the rest of the country, under this Government?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the economic strength in Scotland, where we have more people in work than ever before, where our employment rate is among the highest in Europe, and where we have steady growth and steady investment in schools, hospitals and other public services. Any attempt to clobber hard-working families with a local income tax, under which they would pay hundreds of pounds more, would be very damaging not only to those families but to the Scottish economy.
Although there is no room for complacency, the Scottish economy is in a strong position, with economic growth exceeding the long-term trend and a higher employment rate than the UK and almost all other countries of the European Union.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I should direct him to remarks made only yesterday by Tim Crawford, group economist at HBOS, who said:
“The pace of Scottish economic growth is set to accelerate in the final quarter of 2006 and into 2007, mainly reflecting the improvement in business optimism over the past 6 months.”
Growth is, according to that forecast, accelerating, against a backdrop of Scottish unemployment at4.8 per cent., which is the lowest ever and below the rate for the G7, the eurozone and the EU15. Frankly, the Conservatives should do better.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the excellent growth and low unemployment figures to which he refers derive from investment in both the private and public sector? Will he take this opportunity to debunk the argument that investment and more jobs in the public sector somehow crowd out the private sector?
Yes, I am happy to take that opportunity. There is absolutely no evidence from the Scottish economy of the public sector squeezing out private investment. Indeed, growth in public sector investment, along with macro-economic stability over recent years, has been one of the critical success factors, bringing low interest rates, high levels of employment and steady growth. I believe that it is the rank prejudice of Conservative Members towards doctors, teachers, nurses, home helps and other vital public services that—[Interruption.]
To what extent does the Secretary of State agree that the constitutional stability that Scotland enjoys within the United Kingdom has contributed to our excellent economic record of recent years? Does he agree that the years of constitutional turmoil that would follow any move to independence would be deeply damaging to Scotland’s economic performance?
This might be a first, but I find myself in full agreement with a Liberal Democrat. Of course, the serious point is that the UK’s macro-economic performance over the past decade has been, as the OECD described it, a paragon of stability. Why would we wish to imperil that achievement by tearing up the macro-economic framework and, presumably, by establishing a Scottish pound, a separate set of Scottish accounting standards and a separate Scottish financial services agency? That seems quite beyond belief and is an idea that could be advanced only by a party bearing grudges and grievances rather than possessing a serious critique of what the Scottish economy needs.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the shape of the Scottish economy has changed drastically over the years with financial services accounting for 8 per cent. of the whole economy and dwarfing the traditional industries of mining, shipbuilding and even whisky. Does he agree that an independent Bank of England and a single regulatory authority have served the interests of Scotland well and that the only guarantee of a prosperous Scotland is a vote for the Union?
My right hon. Friend, in the light of his work in this place, speaks with real authority on these matters. Of course the Scottish financial community has been the fastest growing sector of the Scottish economy in recent years. Anyone who has worked closely with that community recognises the extent to which it is an export-based sector of the Scottish economy that relies dramatically on the ability to sell products on the market, and the largest single market is the rest of the UK. It would make no sense to make those markets foreign markets for Scotland.
Cross-border Health Issues
My right hon. Friend regularly meets the First Minister to discuss a range of issues. Cross-border health issues are, however, primarily a matter for bilateral discussions between the Department of Health and the Scottish Executive.
I am rather disappointed with the Minister’s response. I would have thought that, with hospitals closing, nurses being sacked and thousands of people waiting longer than six months for NHS operations, health matters were a priority rather than something that is only slightly discussed.
I have a long list of statistics in front of me, which I shall not trouble the House by reading out, showing that there are more nurses, more doctors and more health workers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. They also show how the number of patients on waiting lists, which under the Conservatives ran into the thousands, are now only a few dozen. There are 300,000 more people working in the NHS today. The hon. Gentleman’s party voted against every single penny piece of that investment, so it ill becomes Conservative Members to come to the House demanding more spending on the NHS, education and crime at the same time as going outside and promising £20 billion worth of tax cuts. That did not wash at the last election and it will not wash at the next one either.
With permission, I shall answer Questions 6 and 7 together.
As I have said, Scotland continues to benefit from the economic stability delivered by the Government, which is demonstrated by the recent gross domestic product data. I welcome those figures, which show output growth of 0.6 per cent. in the past quarter and 2.2 per cent. in the past year. That is above the long-term trend rate of growth for the Scottish economy.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is no coincidence that the growth figures go together with the highest number of people in employment in Scotland? Will he confirm that the Government will continue to have full employment as one of our most important objectives?
I agree with my hon. Friend. When the late John Smith made the claim that full employment would again be at the centre of the Labour party’s economic strategy, it was perceived as a bold, innovative and radical proposal. The fact that people now regard without surprise our extraordinarily successful employment record not only in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom is testimony to his wisdom and foresight when he said, almost 50 years after the Beveridge commission, that we should again place full employment at the centre of the Labour party’s economic strategy.
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Firefighters (Insurance Cover)
The 2003 pay agreement did not contain any conditions for insurance cover for firefighters attending a terrorist incident. However, the dependants of a firefighter who dies from duty-related injury are entitled to a lump sum payment of up to seven times pensionable pay and enhancements to pensions for widows, widowers and civil partners. A firefighter injured on duty receives an ill-health pension and injury benefits of up to 85 per cent. of salary.
Personal insurance policies are a matter for individuals. Discussions took place between Departments and information on the arrangements that we have established was communicated to all fire and rescue service personnel, including all firefighters. There has been no negative feedback and there are therefore currently no plans to take the matter further.
Given that firefighters, other emergency service workers and, indeed, members of the armed forces in support of the civil power may often work side by side in the same dangerous situations caused by terrorism, what contacts has the Department had with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that there is equity in the benefits that any of those brave people get if they are injured or—heaven forbid—killed?
I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that it is a time of considerable change for firefighters. Co-responding was one change that we believed was being introduced, whereby firefighters who reach a terrorist incident or an accident first can give some emergency medical treatment before the arrival of the ambulance or paramedics. Given the recent court case in Nottinghamshire, in which the judge effectively ruled that that was not part of firefighters’ conditions of service, what are the Government doing to examine the matter, bearing in mind the importance of ensuring that the people involved in incidents receive emergency treatment from the first qualified people to arrive on the scene?
My hon. Friend highlights one specific case, but I can think of two or three authorities that are already involved in co-responding schemes. It is a matter for continuing discussion with the fire and rescue service. We perceive tremendous benefits to co-responding. Fire authorities that are currently engaged in it report back to us the benefits to the public of good engagement with other services.
I am not sure what the hon. Lady is making a special case for. My hope is that we shall never have to use the compensation arrangements that we have in place for our firefighters. We have the best trainers and equipment in the world to ensure that their safety is as great as we can possibly make it. However, in those tragic incidents when firefighters are injured or lose their lives, compensation arrangements are in place for their families.
Local Government White Paper
I have had strong and active support from Cabinet colleagues in developing the policies in the local government White Paper. Across Government, we are committed to implementing the White Paper in full so that citizens get the full benefit of a Government focus on key priorities, greater local innovation and stronger leadership.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. It is only right that she should be commended for taking these issues forward on a cross-departmental basis. With regard to local government reorganisation in the county of Cumbria, and to the borough of Copeland, there are many issues that demand unique attention and special arrangements. Copeland hosts the Sellafield nuclear facility, and it is only just and equitable that future planning issues and powers relating to all aspects of the nuclear industry should reside with the people of Copeland, and not with the people of Kendal and Penrith—
If my hon. Friend is referring to the circumstances surrounding the long-term disposal of nuclear waste, I am sure that he will be aware thatmy right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made it clear that such disposal represents a unique long-term challenge for us all, and that he would like to see voluntary arrangements in which local communities benefit as a result of agreeing the long-term disposal of the waste.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood the proposals in the local government White Paper. It sets out three new relationships: a new relationship between central and local government; a new relationship between local government and its partners; and a new relationship between local government and the citizen. The desire is to reduce the number of targets from up to 1,200, and to concentrate on about 35. If we get that right—I am sure that we will, through the comprehensive spending review—local authorities will be freed to innovate locally, to be creative in responding to local challenges, to lead their areas in relation to the services that they deliver and to speak out for all services delivered. To me, that is equivalent to devolution and deregulation that will set up a new freedom for local government.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the White Paper, a common thread of which is the wish to reduce central control and to give power to communities and citizens. In that regard, will she tell us more about the new performance framework, which strikes those of us who were previously local councillors and who are keen to ensure that local citizens have more rights than they have now as exciting and innovative?
My hon. Friend draws our attention to an important point in the White Paper. Because of the new framework, and the new relationship between central and local government, we will be able to reform the rolling system of inspection for each local government service and to replace the present comprehensive performance assessment with a proportionate, risk-based, comprehensive area assessment. The Local Government Association and other local government stakeholders have been calling for this reform for many years, and it should massively reduce the costs for local authorities and make it possible for them to lead their areas better.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in implementing the White Paper, there will be room to consider not only unitary options based on current district and county boundaries but the reinstatement of historic counties such as Westmorland and Cumberland?
Of course we will consider any such proposals on their merits. There is a case for unitary authorities that can better lead their areas, but I do not want two-tier authorities across the country to be distracted for months—or, indeed, years—by the process of reorganising boundaries. That would distract them from their main job, which is to improve the quality of local services, and to increase prosperity for local citizens and respond to their concerns. An invitation to bid was sent out at the same time as the local government White Paper, setting forth the criteria against which any bid will be made. It makes it clear that the building block of any proposal should be the district councils, which should be the units around which proposals are based.
May I tell my right hon. Friend that the White Paper has been generally well received by councillors in my constituency, but they have one genuine fear—that the White Paper will be used to reduce drastically the overall number of councillors nationally? Will she reassure me on that?
I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend on that point. I know how much he champions the cause of his constituency and local authority. Rightly, he believes that his local councillors are making a huge contribution to well-being in his area, and he wants to see a future for them. I assure him that our proposals are devolutionary, and that it will be for local areas to decide whether to move to single-member wards or, for example, to all-out elections.
The White Paper calls for parish councils in London. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that will include powers to hike council tax via a parish precept? Is she aware that the average parish levy on band D is £30, and that it is more than £100 in some parts of the country? Is not it the case that Londoners now face a triple tax whammy—a parish council tax, a looming council tax revaluation, and a soaring bill for the Olympics because the Treasury and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are at one another’s throats?
The hon. Lady is not right at all. The White Paper would allow London the freedom that everywhere else in the country has to determine neighbourhood arrangements. If local people think that they are better served through parishes rather than, for example, neighbourhood forums, it would be for local people to feed that view to the local authority. The proposals are about making services responsive to local citizens’ and community concerns. I hope that both sides of the House share the view that it is in everybody’s interests to ensure that we meet citizens’ rising expectations and tailor services to meet local needs.
The recent White Paper confirms the Government’s determination to tackle regional economic disparities. Will my right hon. Friend have discussions with the Chancellor to ensure that the upcoming comprehensive spending review will continue the movement of resources towards those areas of the country with the greatest needs?
My hon. Friend knows well that the Government have increased resources to local authorities by 39 per cent. in real terms since 1997, as against a cut of 7 per cent. in real terms when the Conservative party was in power. The Government value local services and local provision, which is why our White Paper proposes a new local settlement. Just as important as the distribution of funding, however, is the flexibility of funding. While it is right that we always keep under review the appropriate balance between different local authority areas, it is also right that we give local areas the flexibility to manage the resources channelled to them. That is what the White Paper proposes.
In the Secretary of State’s discussions with the Chancellor, apart from listening to his grave concerns about city regions, will she take the opportunity to ensure that local government is given the right level of resources to deliver on the responsibilities imposed on them, week by week, by central Government? Will she assure the House that the local government settlement and the Chancellor’s comprehensive spending review will reflect the needs of local communities for services from an independent, genuine local government?
If the hon. Gentleman is calling for greater investment in public services, this Government are delivering that investment to local authorities. Through the local area agreement, we are giving local areas much more flexibility over how they use those resources. For example, £500 million is currently funnelled through local area agreements, which could rise in future to £4.7 billion. He is right, too, that if we impose new burdens on local authorities, they should be funded from central Government for that purpose. The Government are committed to that, as will be seen through the comprehensive spending review.
My local city council, after rejecting the idea of an elected mayor, is governed by an improved committee system. The upcoming White Paper includes three alternative leadership models, all of which, sadly, are incompatible with our current system. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that there will be enough time and consultation for local authorities to implement any upcoming legislation?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. It is only right that we talk not just to the local authorities that will have to adopt one of the three new models, but to authorities that have a different model for particular local reasons. Specific discussions will take place with Brighton and Hove to ensure that the structure we expect it to adopt is welcome locally.
The legislation on empty dwelling management orders became fully effective in July. We expect only a small number of orders to be used in the next 12 months as part of local authorities’ strategies to bring empty and abandoned homes back into use.
I think that local authorities should be able to use a range of measures to deal with the problem of long-term empty homes, and so does the hon. Gentleman’s local council. New Forest district council has said in response to our consultation that it
“welcomes the introduction of Empty Dwelling Management Orders as a tool to ensure that empty property is returned to use…Our officers will continue to encourage owners to accept our help which should prevent the need to request an Empty Dwelling Management Order. However it will be extremely useful to have this tool in reserve.”
I helped to persuade a former housing Minister—my distinguished and ever-popular right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill)—to make provision for empty dwelling management orders in the Housing Act 2004. Does my hon. Friend agree that while local authorities should not be over-hasty in seeking such orders, they should show some dispatch, not just because empty homes attract crime and antisocial behaviour and affect the value of neighbouring homes but, crucially, because the cost of refurbishing such houses and returning them to a decent condition rises very quickly, making the orders uneconomic?
My hon. Friend is right. The problem of empty homes can cause huge difficulties to local communities, particularly neighbours who may have to suffer all kinds of vandalism, crime or problems with squatters moving in when homes are empty for a long time. The councils that have done the most work in pursuing the strategies to which I referred often find that when they start proceedings, landlords introduce voluntary measures to bring homes back into use; so the strategies can be very effective.
The Minister will be aware that there are 90,000 empty properties in the public sector. A procedure that can help to ensure that such properties are occupied is the public request ordering disposal, but a written answer from the Department reveals that the Government have turned down every single PROD application since they came to office. Whenever citizens have asked for homes in the public sector to be filled, the Government have said no. Can the Minister tell us why?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the circumstances in which those particular orders can be used are very limited. Each case must be decided on its merits.
The number of public sector empty homes has fallen by 13 per cent. over the past two years, whereas the number of private sector empty homes—which account for 85 per cent. of the total—has not. That is why we have introduced powers to deal with private sector empty homes. The hon. Gentleman’s party has opposed those powers, but they could make a huge difference to vulnerable families who must suffer as a result of neighbouring empty homes, which can cause a huge amount of blight among communities.
The Minister will know of a report that I forwarded to her recently. It refers to a survey of estate agents which showed that last year five times as many properties in my constituency were sold to second-home buyers as were sold to first-time buyers. We are, I hope, due to meet shortly to discuss the issues arising from that. What reassurance can the Minister give Members who represent constituencies where large numbers of second homes remain empty for most of the year while there is still massive demand for affordable homes?
The hon. Gentleman is right. There are pressures on housing in all kinds of areas across the country. As he will know, the pressures caused by second homes are limited to certain areas where they cause significant problems. In a large range of areas, they cause no particular problems in the housing market. I shall be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss his concerns further, but we do not think it appropriate for second homes to be covered by empty dwelling management orders, which are designed to deal with very different circumstances.
Fantastic work is being done next door to my constituency by the regeneration company New East Manchester. However, many houses inside my constituency—particularly the older terraced stock—are now experiencing the same problems, with absentee private landlords and antisocial tenants. What discussions is my hon. Friend’s Department having with local authorities such as Stockport and Tameside to ensure that the problems are not merely displaced but are tackled at source?
My hon. Friend is right that addressing simply one aspect of a local housing problem will not be enough; we have to look at the local housing market as a whole, including the impact on neighbouring areas. We are working closely with local authorities across the country to support empty homes strategies and housing market renewal programmes where there are particular problems with low demand. I am happy to discuss the particular problems that my hon. Friend faces in his area.
Local Government White Paper
The local government White Paper “Strong and Prosperous Communities” will support the delivery of high-quality public services to all citizens including, of course, the elderly. The White Paper will help local authorities and their partners to provide integrated customer-focused health and social care services to the elderly.
Older people have been left off the political agenda for too long, particularly with regard to funding for care at the end of their lives. Due to poor guidance from the DCLG, formerly the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, local authorities can often interpret supporting people contracts in wildly different ways. Providers in the care home system tell me they need certainty and clarity. What will the Minister do in the future so that the Department gives clear and comprehensive guidance on this matter?
The hon. Lady answers a very important question. [Hon. Members: “Asks.”] Asks, sorry; I am answering it. Actually, she has answered it. The need for stability in funding has been recognised by the move from a two-year period to a three-year period of funding settlement from April 2008 onwards. She will be aware of the strategy document that we published in July on the supporting people framework which addresses the very point that she quite rightly raises.
May we have some basic standards laid down for local authorities to follow in their care for the elderly? Suffolk local authority’s supporting people commissioning body is currently taking away funding for community alarm systems when all the indications are that these are a good value-for-money means of supporting people to follow the body’s basic aim of preventing older and vulnerable people from getting into a bad way. I thought community alarm systems were part of the draft national strategy. Is not withdrawing them incompatible with the whole concept of supporting people?
The supporting people programme has helped some 814,000 elderly people and the provision of warden and alarm services is an important part of that. My hon. Friend will forgive me for not knowing the specific details that he raises, but there is consistent advice and guidance from my Department to local authorities.
Have not the Government been unfortunately successful in setting local authorities against local health trusts? Too often local authorities are asking elderly people to sell their homes for social care rather than for health care. There is confusion at local government level. Would the Minister like to clear up that confusion?
Yes, I would. That is precisely why the White Paper builds on the successful policy of local area agreements, on which there is consensus across local government, to allow better joining-up so that different public agencies—the council, the primary care trust and other agencies—work towards the same objectives and goals and not against each other.
The Association of Directors of Social Services puts the shortfall in funding for social care at £1.8 billion, and the Local Government Association reports that seven out of 10 councils are suffering from NHS cost-cutting pressures. Will the Minister now accept that there is a real crisis in social care and can he explain why this was completely overlooked in last week’s White Paper?
The hon. Lady’s comments sadden me, because she seems to fail to understand the difference between the need for health authorities to balance their books—which we all have to do in any walk of life—and the issue of cuts. Like local councils, the NHS has received extra funding year on year from this Government. Of course, that is not the same as the demands that are placed on councils, and I would be surprised if the Association of Directors of Social Services did not put forward demands for extra money, as it always has done. We listen to those demands carefully and work with the Local Government Association to identify cost pressures and, where possible, relieve them. The hon. Lady cannot paint a picture of reduced resources, as the opposite isthe case.
Local Government Finance
The average council tax per dwelling in 2006-07 in England is £1,056, and in Cornwall it is £1,011.
I am glad that the Minister has confirmed that council tax in Cornwall remains below the national average, but can he give some reassurance that any changes to council tax will not be made in such a way as to penalise areas such as our own, where house prices—especially because of the purchase of second homes—are way above the national average, but incomes are 25 per cent. below? It is rumoured that Ministers are considering a system that would penalise those areas that are seen as most popular or attractive. In some of those areas, incomes are very low and the local population is already penalised by the huge mortgages that they have to pay.
We are very much aware of the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about Cornwall, which was also made earlier by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). I can reassure the hon. Gentlemen that the rumours amount to nothing more than scaremongering to try to frighten people on the basis of a misinterpretation of the Government’s policy. Of course, our policy is to limit council tax increases through our capping policy.
I am glad that my hon. Friend reminds the House of the existence of council tax benefit. Just under 15 per cent. of council tax is paid by the benefits system to ensure that those who are least well off are not punished. He raises an important point about those just above the threshold and we have askedSir Michael Lyons to make recommendations in that area. I will bear in mind the point my hon. Friend makes on behalf of the people of Bolton, with whom I have had that conversation.
Tackling Islamist extremism has a cross-departmental focus. My Department is leading the Government’s work on engaging with Muslim communities to acknowledge and tackle Islamist extremism at the grassroots. With an expanding network of Muslim partners, we are developing communities that condemn and isolate extremist activity.
That is a complete myth. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that following the attacks, the Government tried to engage with the Muslim community and set up a process called the preventing extremism together taskforce. Action has been agreed on all but three of the 27 recommendations that were addressed to Government. Indeed, the Government are taking forward action to develop forums against extremism across the country, have developed road shows for Islamic scholars in which 30,000 young people have already participated—the target is 100,000—and, together with the Muslim community, have promoted MINAB, the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Body, to regulate mosques and imams.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on her thoughtful speech on 11 October and her desire to develop relationships with a wider network of Muslim organisations. Does she share the concerns of many that the Muslim Council of Britain, in its refusal to participate in holocaust memorial day and its support for extremist ideologues such as Abul Ala Mawdudi, is not helping us to confront Islamist extremism but has instead helped to nurture it?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. The scale of the threat that we face, both in this country and globally, has increased substantially since 9/11, 7/7 and the terror plots of earlier this summer. It is right that we ask more of our partners in the Muslim community, and more of people of other faiths and none. We face a shared problem, and we need to show real leadership as we ask people to face up to the size of the challenge. They must speak out for our shared values and challenge extremism wherever they find it. I will work with any organisation that will challenge extremism and speak out in defence of our shared values.
The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) asked about holocaust memorial day. I said recently that I found it unusual and surprising that an organisation professing to support our common humanity and to defend our shared values would choose not to support holocaust memorial day. There are signs that the Muslim Council of Britain is beginning to rethink its approach, and I welcome that.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will welcome today’s conviction of Dhiren Barot for the heinous plot that he wanted to carry out in London, and that she will wish to congratulate the police and security services. In her magnificent keynote speech on 11 October, she talked about common values—
I welcome the comments that my hon. Friend makes. The recent arrest and trial of the person to whom he refers illustrates the wider point that we in this country face a really severe threat. We must face up to the size of that threat, and continually strive to do more. We must accelerate our efforts to work with the Muslim and other communities, and we need to bring in wider partners to help us do that. We need to be clear about what are this country’s non-negotiable values. Recently, I attempted to define them, but respect—for others, for life and for the rule of law—is at the heart of what British society stands for. It is also at the heart of the mainstream faiths, and it affects everything and everyone in our society today.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should all warmly welcome the life sentence that has been passed today, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik) noted? The judge has made it clear that the person concerned must serve at least 40 years in prison. Should not that be a lesson and a warning to anyone who wants to bring terrorism and destruction to our country and our people?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must have the appropriate security response to the threat that Muslims and non-Muslims in this country face. However, security responses alone are not sufficient, as we must also win the battle for hearts and minds that is the heart and essence of what we stand for. As a country, we must be prepared to welcome people of all faiths, and recognise the real and rich contribution that British Muslims make to our society. We must work with those who want to show leadership to make sure that all can benefit from a safe environment in the future.