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Communities and Local Government

Volume 451: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2006

The Secretary of State was asked—

Firefighters (Insurance Cover)

16. Whether the conditions in the 2003 pay agreement in respect of insurance cover for firefighters attending a terrorist incident have been implemented; and if she will make a statement. (99685)

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

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.

Have there been any outcomes of the inter-departmental discussions on emergency service issues about terrorism exclusions in some personal insurance policies?

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?

Regular and frequent discussions take place, but there is no equity between the arrangements. Indeed, the benefits paid to firefighters compare well with those for any other service.

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.

Fire and rescue personnel are often the first to enter a disaster scene, which makes them particularly vulnerable to secondary devices. Do not those special circumstances make them a special case?

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

17. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on their role in implementing aspects of the local government White Paper. (99686)

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—

Order. There must be a question, and it must be brief. The Secretary of State will try to answer the hon. Gentleman—

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.

Empty Dwellings

18. What her estimate is of the number of private homes that will be subject to an empty dwelling management order in the next 12 months. (99688)

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 agree.

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

19. What impact she expects the proposals in the local government White Paper to have on the care provided by local authorities for the elderly. (99689)

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

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.

Before the council tax bills go out next year, will my hon. Friend consider those on fixed incomes who just fail to qualify for benefits? Their real incomes are declining year on year.

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.

Islamist Extremism

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.

In a blaze of publicity the Government set up the Muslim taskforce, which made 64 recommendations. Why have the Government implemented only three of them?

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—

Order. I know that these are very important matters, but the hon. Gentleman may put only a brief question to the Secretary of State. He has done that, and now the right hon. Lady will answer.

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.