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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 454: debated on Tuesday 12 December 2006


The Secretary of State was asked—

Climate Change

1. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on climate change issues relating to Scotland. (104866)

I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on a range of issues.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the comments made this week by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on climate change, explaining that it is the major challenge facing the world today and that the United Kingdom has to play its part both domestically and internationally. Does he agree that, rather than pulling up the drawbridge and cold-shouldering the European Union, as the Conservatives wish to do, or spending many months fruitlessly renegotiating its way back into the European Union, as would happen if the Scottish National party were to lead us, Scotland should play its full part as an integral part of the United Kingdom in leading change in Europe that will make a real difference to climate change for our citizens?

I find myself in complete agreement with my hon. Friend. The European Union—now 25, soon to be 27, members—can make a significant contribution to tackling climate change. The Kyoto protocol and the process that was taken forward evidences the leadership role by the European Union. It is therefore incongruous that the principal Opposition party spends its time trying to disentangle itself from a principal party in the European Parliament, and that one of the main Opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament is so confused that it seems to support independence in the European Union, but wants to secede from the one Union that has been more successful than any other over the last 300 years: the United Kingdom.

Scotland is leading the way for the UK in tackling climate change: for example, by means of more ambitious targets for renewable energy generation of 40 per cent. by 2020, which we are on course to exceed. Does the Minister agree that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and other Departments, can learn from the Scottish example and that, in Scotland, we can and should go further and meet 100 per cent. of Scotland’s electricity needs from renewable sources by 2050?

The starting point is somewhat different. The foresight shown by predecessors in my office as Secretary of State for Scotland has resulted in a far greater element of hydro power being generated in Scotland than south of the border. I am proud that, historically, the Labour party has been supportive of those kinds of environmentally friendly power-generating initiatives in Scotland, and I am glad to say that the Scottish Executive, led by the Labour party, have once again shown a leadership role in showing that we can be a world centre for renewables in years to come.

Both England and Scotland should work together on the issue. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proposal for a zero-carbon building target for new buildings within 10 years in England and Wales could usefully be adopted by the Scottish Executive, as well, and will he urge his colleagues in the Executive to follow that example?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we are stronger together and weaker apart when confronting the challenge of climate change and he is also right to recognise the visionary statement that was made last week about carbon-free homes. I am sure that the Scottish Executive will give the matter consideration, given their continued determination to lead on the issue in Scotland.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the report from the Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership, which concludes that cod has moved northwards in the North sea as a result of sea warming changing the distribution of plankton, a point made by Scottish fishermen over several years? Given that the Fisheries Council is due to meet next week, will he for once stand up for this important Scottish industry and press his colleagues in DEFRA to oppose any further quota cuts until that new evidence is fully taken into account?

I am aware of the review of the cod recovery plan, but the approach taken by the hon. Gentleman’s party would prejudice the ability to get the outcome that is in the interests of Scottish fishermen. The nationalists simply cannot answer the question of how they would get into the European Union after independence, given their position on the common fisheries policy. That would leave Scottish fishermen high and dry.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Caledonian Paper in my constituency on the announcement that it made last week of an investment of some £58 million for a new power generation plant? Will he urge other industries in my constituency and elsewhere to do likewise so that what is happening with its carbon tonnage, which will be reduced from 90,000 tonnes per annum to 15,000 tonnes once the new plant is on stream, will be repeated elsewhere?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Caledonian Paper, which has shown real foresight with that innovative investment. I know from having visited his constituency with him that he takes a close interest not just in environmental issues, but in the economic development needs of that part of Scotland. I pay tribute to him for his tireless efforts on behalf of his constituents and local companies.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise

I met the chairman and chief executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise on 29 November and, among other matters, discussed the strong economic performance of the region.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s wholehearted commitment to seeing university status granted to the university of the Highlands and Islands Millennium institute? Will he also confirm that he and his colleagues are taking each and every opportunity to stress to all the UK bodies involved, especially the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the need to make as rapid and realistic progress as is achievable, according to the set timetable, given the overwhelming social, economic and cultural importance of such a development to not only the highlands and islands, but Scotland and, indeed, the UK as a whole?

I am well aware of the importance of the establishment of the university of the highlands and islands. The matter has been raised in discussions that I have had with Highlands and Islands Enterprise and conversations that I had when I visited the highlands and islands. I am aware of the exciting prospects for the university that were raised at the dinner that the right hon. Gentleman kindly hosted with the chief executive and chair of Highlands and Islands Enterprise—[Interruption.] I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman paid for the dinner; he just hosted it—another failed Lib Dem spending promise.

I am aware that the various institutions in the proposed university have received a good report on the quality of education that they are providing, although some governance matters need to be sorted out. I am convinced that they can be sorted and that we will see the establishment of a university in the highlands and islands that will not only play a tremendous part in the economic regeneration of the area, but encourage people to move to the area to study and then stay there.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that the Scottish Affairs Committee is in the highlands and islands as part of our inquiry into poverty. Yesterday, I met representatives of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, other stakeholders and members of the public. The overriding concern expressed by local communities is about the Government’s plans to butcher the rural post office network. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State, at this late hour, make representations to the Department of Trade and Industry to save this valued and essential service?

I am aware that the Scottish Affairs Committee is in the highlands and islands today, although I was not aware that the hon. Gentleman had mastered the art of bilocation by managing to be here at the same time. As I have said at the Dispatch Box almost every month for the past 18 months, the Government accept the need to continue to sustain a viable post office network throughout the country. That is why we are investing £2 billion to ensure that the post office can compete in the modern world. However, there are problems. When the rural network loses £150 million a year and there are 800 post offices throughout the UK with four or fewer customers a day, with each transaction costing the taxpayer £17, that is an unsustainable state of affairs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will make a statement in due course and set out the way forward. We want to continue to have a viable and sustainable post office network, but some difficult decisions will have to be taken.

The Minister will doubtless be aware of the great commitment that Highlands and Islands Enterprise has demonstrated towards the development of marine renewables. In that regard, however, will the Minister speak to his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry about the way in which its marine renewable fund operates? The creation of the fund was welcome, but those who are involved in research and development tell me that because of the way in which it was set up, it is virtually impossible to get money out of it. Will the Minister take up that point in his discussions with his DTI colleagues?

I am happy to look into the matter on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf, although I do not accept the assertion that it is virtually impossible to get money out of the fund. However, it is important that organisations with good proposals are able to access that funding. I am sure that he would want to pay tribute to the funding that the UK has given to the maritime research centre that is based in his constituency, which has done a lot of work to ensure that we will be in a position very soon to get more of our energy from wave and tidal sources. We are not there yet, which is why the investment is needed, but I will examine the point that the hon. Gentleman makes.

Cross-border Issues

3. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the effect of cross-border patient flows on hospital waiting times. (104870)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State regularly meets the First Minister to discuss a wide range of issues. As I advised the hon. Gentleman during Scottish questions last month, however, cross-border health issues are primarily for the Department of Health and the Scottish Executive.

Do Scottish patients waiting for an operation at an English hospital have the same priority at that hospital as English patients? Does the Minister know how many Scottish patients have been waiting more than six months for an NHS operation?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is referring to people waiting for operations who happen to be Scottish, but who live in England.

The hon. Gentleman is talking about cross-patient waiting—[Interruption.] They were very cross patients under the Conservatives, but waiting times have come down under Labour. Agreements are made between the Scottish health service and health authorities in England and Wales, primarily in the border areas. However, in Scotland, as in England, waiting times and waiting lists for operations are falling. Thanks to the investment that the Government have put in, the number of deaths from cancer, heart attacks and strokes—the main killer diseases in Scotland’s history—has come down in recent times. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman’s party opposed all that investment.

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has just made clear, I discuss a wide range of matters with the First Minister on a regular basis.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that full response, but given his current sabbatical to run the increasingly desperate and hysterical Labour campaign for the Holyrood elections, I wonder that he has any time to touch on what is supposed to be his real brief. Does he agree that, given the stagnation of the rail and road network, both cross-border and, more particularly, in England, the House deserves and requires a full-time Secretary of State, not one giving his orders in Bute house to the Scottish First Minister?

Where do I begin? First, on part-time attendance, I note the absence of the Scarlet Pimpernel from the Benches opposite. I resist absolutely any suggestion that I am obliged to make hysterical attacks—I simply tell the truth about the Scottish National party’s policies. I pointed out that the SNP leader was 51, but I supposed that if there was independence, under the SNP’s figures, he would be about 27. On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point about whether the rail industry is stagnating, it may have passed his notice that we have the fastest growing passenger railway in Europe, that more than 1 billion passengers a year now use the railways, and that we are committing record and sustained levels of investment. Once again, the SNP needs to do its homework.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the importance of the Glasgow airport rail link, not only to the local economy but to tourism. Has an assessment been carried out on what the effect would be of the SNP’s policy of opposing that investment?

The reinstatement of the ferry service between Campeltown and Ballycastle would be a great encouragement to tourism and would improve business links between Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Scottish Executive are prepared to back the ferry with hard cash, but the Government here in Westminster are not. Will the Secretary of State please have a word with his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office, and convince them of the benefit that reinstating that ferry service would bring to both Scotland and Northern Ireland?

I am certainly always happy to discuss with my colleagues any transport issues that are within the remit of the British Government, but may I suggest that the hon. Gentleman has a word with the Liberal Democrat Transport Minister in Scotland, too?

Senior businessmen in my constituency are concerned about the possible currency in an independent Scotland. It will not be the pound, and it will not be the euro. If the SNP lost a referendum on the euro, it would have to introduce the Scottish bawbee. At what part of the cross-border road will we have to change currency?

Order. These questions must be closely related, but they are not. I hope that Mr. Mundell will manage better.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case that Sir Rod Eddington has effectively ruled out a high-speed rail link between Scotland and London, saying that a high-speed rail link

“between two cities would not offer the economy…new”


“or trading opportunities, if those cities were already a day-trip away from each other by existing rail…links”?

Does the Secretary of State agree with that statement?

The Government have not yet reached a final view on high-speed rail links connecting the north and south of the country. We will of course give serious consideration to Sir Rod Eddington’s report. He has commented on the high-speed rail link, among other modes of transport, and that will inform my Department’s work as we move forward on the issue.

Can the Secretary of State comment on the absence of discussions between Northern Ireland Ministers, those in his Ministry, as Secretary of State for Scotland, and those in the Department for Transport, which is the other portfolio that he holds, to deal with the parlous state of the road between the English-Scottish border and the ports from which ferries go to Northern Ireland? Is it not important that there is discussion between the three Ministries about improving the road from Stranraer to Gretna, in the interests of the United Kingdom, and the important commercial life of Northern Ireland? May we have those discussions?

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was just reminding me of the scale of investment in the roads network in Northern Ireland. Of course, we maintain a dialogue with the Scottish Executive looking at issues such as the one that my hon. Friend described, which impacts on the locality and more widely. Those discussions would be infinitely more difficult if we were dealing with foreign Governments.

Property Tax

Local taxes, such as council tax and non-domestic rates, to fund local authority expenditure are matters for the Scottish Executive.

The Minister will know that many elderly people live on modest retirement incomes, but the value of their properties has increased substantially over the years. What discussions has he had with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about the likely impact of a property tax on people on limited or low incomes?

As I said in my main answer to the hon. Lady, any decision to change the basis of local taxation in Scotland is a matter for the Scottish Executive, but my colleagues in the Executive are not attracted to proposals for a local property tax. The best thing that we can do for pensioners and people on low and modest incomes is to ensure that they receive the help and support that they require through pension credit and above-inflation increases in the state pension. I urge the House to compare that with the 18 years of Conservative rule, when the basic state pension rose in value only once.

My hon. Friend will be aware that in discussions about local council funding, some people have proposed replacing property tax with local income tax. What assessment has he made of the impact that that would have on Scotland and on individuals who live there?

The impact on hard-working two-income families would be devastating if we adopted a local income tax. The Burt report, which was published recently, said that to make the same amount of money as the council tax, local income tax would have to be set at 6.9 per cent. I understand that the Scottish National party would cap it at 3 per cent., which would leave a black hole in local finances of £1 billion. That would mean massive Government tax hikes and borrowing or massive cuts in spending in local authority areas. Once again, it would be the hard-working families—

I think that it can be said that my party has learned from bitter experience that there is no easy answer to financing local government in Scotland. However, the answer is definitely not a local income tax or a property tax, which would result in working families paying thousands of pounds more in tax. As ever, the First Minister has prevaricated on the matter, but given the expectation that the Lyons report will recommend the introduction of a property tax for England and Wales—such a tax is to be introduced in Northern Ireland—is not the reality that a property tax is a fait accompli if Labour is returned to power in the Scottish Parliament elections?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the answer is not a property tax or a local income tax. However, neither is the answer introducing a poll tax, which was his party’s last attempt to solve the problem and which was overwhelmingly rejected by the people of Scotland. We have clearly said that we are not going to introduce a property tax nor will we introduce a local income tax, which would cost a fortune to fund, with 32 different rates across Scotland and all the administrative nightmares that that would involve. Most of all, it would clobber hard-working two-income families the length and breadth of Scotland who would be up to £1,000 worse off.


6. What progress has been made towards achieving full employment in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (104873)

Scotland continues to benefit from the Government’s commitment to achieving full employment. The latest labour market data show the highest number of people employed in Scotland since records began. Total employment is up by more than 200,000 since 1997, and the employment rate in Scotland exceeds that of both the wider UK and almost all countries in the European Union.

I am very grateful to the Minister for his answer and, indeed, for the huge amount of work that has been done to achieve those figures and to tackle the reality of unemployment for the people whom it affects. Last Friday, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) and I attended the opening of offices in my constituency for the Irvine Bay Regeneration Company, which hopes to turn the tide. There has been a 25 per cent. increase in employment in my constituency since 1997, but a huge amount still needs to be done to regenerate the area. Does my right hon. Friend welcome—

I am well aware of the important work that the Irvine Bay company anticipates undertaking, given that that was an area of Scotland devastated by two recessions in as many decades under the Conservatives. As regards traditional manufacturing, I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome the comments of Dr. Peter Hughes, the chief executive of Scottish Engineering, who said on 1 December:

“Our industry is feeling a higher level of optimism than for some time”.

As my hon. Friend recognises, however, the challenge is not just in manufacturing, but in services, so I am sure she will also welcome the words of the RBS Group chief economist Andrew McLaughlin, who only yesterday noted that

“growth of Scottish private sector output remained robust and broad based across both manufacturing and service sectors in November.”

Those are welcome signs of continued and sustained economic growth not just in Ayrshire, but right across Scotland.

As the Secretary of State knows, a major employer in Scotland is the Scotch whisky industry. What discussions has he had with the Venezuelan Government about the new trade barriers that that Government have introduced, which are having a substantial impact on Scottish exports to Latin America?

I am sure all hon. Members will be interested in the fact that the Scotch Whisky Association is having its annual reception this week at which there will be an opportunity for us to meet its representatives. Since assuming the office of Secretary of State for Scotland, I have of course met the Scotch Whisky Association. With reference to the hon. Gentleman’s particular point about Venezuela, in a previous role as Trade Minister I made representations on behalf of the Scottish whisky industry to the Indian Government and to other Governments about the need for trade barriers to come down. That argues for the effective link-up between the Scotland Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which would be imperilled by a break-up of the United Kingdom and the loss of national influence that the United Kingdom brings.

Oil/Gas Industry

When my right hon. Friend met representatives of the oil and gas industry, did he discuss with them their tax liability over the next 30 years? It is unlikely that he did, as neither he nor I nor the oil industry knows what the oil price is likely to be next week, never mind over the next 30 years, but I am told that there are some people who think that one can run a country on the basis of the oil income.

I find myself in agreement with my hon. Friend. I met the chairman of Shell in the UK last week and made it clear how inherently difficult it is to try to predict the oil price looking to the future. One need only look at the significant drop in the price of Brent crude in recent months to evidence the fact that it would be the height of irresponsibility to try to build an economic policy on as volatile a commodity as oil.

I draw the attention of the House to my entries in the Register of Members’ Interests related to the oil and gas industry. The price of oil into the future is obviously unknown, but what can be less unknown is Government policy. The Government can give a clear indication of the framework in which investors will operate—both the tax and regulatory regime. What message has the right hon. Gentleman given to the industry about his Government’s desire for a long-term strategy to ensure maximum recovery of oil and gas from the North sea?

The meeting that I had with Shell was the latest meeting that I have had with representatives of the oil interests in the United Kingdom. Of course we want to see a long-term productive future for the UK continental shelf, and for the North sea basin in particular. That is why, through the PILOT mechanism, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I have been working week in, week out, month in, month out to ensure that there is a sustained engagement with our Department, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury. On that basis, I believe we can look forward with real optimism to the years ahead for the North sea.

With reference to the fluctuating oil price, has my right hon. Friend had time to look at the GERS figures that were published yesterday, and what conclusion does he draw from them?

The figures confirm, as The Scotsman made clear on its front page today, that there is a black hole in the Scottish National party’s economics. Oil has a significant contribution to make, but it cannot fill the black hole created by the public expenditure commitments that the nationalists would be determined to make.

Act of Union

As I informed the House on 7 November, the Chancellor and I will launch a commemorative £2 coin. There will be exhibitions in both Houses of Parliament and in the Scottish Parliament, and other activities are in preparation.

Apart from her gracious agreement to appear on the new £2 coin, what other activities and engagements does the Secretary of State plan for Her Majesty in the tricentenary celebrations?

With respect, it would be better to take that issue forward in discussions with the royal household rather than prejudging it with an answer today.

Would not one way of celebrating the Act of Union effectively next year be for Scotland to join England in its World cup bid for 2018? That would allow the two countries to show joint sporting endeavour, and Scotland would finally be allowed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to bid for the World cup with England.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that FIFA does not encourage joint bids. I will disappoint him, if he wants to argue for a joint United Kingdom football team, because I have supported Scotland too often and with enough disappointment in the past to be deeply unconvinced by that particular argument.

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Sustainable Communities

14. What steps she is taking to promote sustainable communities in areas of high density student housing. (108116)

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

My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government recently met my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) and representatives from the university, the local authority and community groups, of which the Storer action group was particularly impressive, to discuss the issue. As a result of that meeting, we are now examining a number of measures in the areas of planning, housing, finance and local area agreements to try to find a sustainable resolution to the problems. The problem can be more general, and as part of our work to create sustainable communities, we supported the publication of the Universities UK guide on studentification in partnership with the Department for Education and Skills earlier this year, which outlines good practice to integrate students into the community.

I thank the Minister for that reply and, through her, thank the Minister for Local Government for recently visiting Loughborough to talk to residents and those who are concerned. We have a genuine partnership in Loughborough, where university students and others are working together, and I am proud of that. We want to pursue use classes orders, which are prevalent in Northern Ireland in determining the change of use that turns a particular property into a house in multiple occupation. Will the Minister agree to meet me and other representatives at some stage to pursue that particular point, which may not change the problem that we have at the moment but could help with future studentification problems around the country?

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution, and he has played an extremely valuable role. He has lobbied Ministers, including me, and the Minister for Local Government was particularly impressed by the group that he brought together and by his lobbying on the issue. There are differences between the situation in Northern Ireland and the situation in Great Britain. The circumstances here may mean that UCOs are not suitable, but we should discuss anything that could relieve the situation and are happy to meet him. He has made his arguments with some force, and a meeting could be helpful.

There is no doubt that studentification is a major and growing problem in towns such as Loughborough and in many cities in England. I welcome the fact that the Government are looking at proposals, because the Housing Act 2004 did not say very much about that growing problem. A recent UK Universities report stated that the key is joint working, which I welcome, but I hope that the Government examine proposals to strengthen the ability of housing authorities to protect local citizens. The offset to the growth of universities is that many local people find it difficult to get into the housing market.

I recognise that there are a number of problems. Students want decent housing and to maintain a community, and local residents often feel the effects of experiencing a different kind of community. We need to examine housing and planning, and there are some new planning regulations that address some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised. We are keeping the matter under review and are aware of the problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough has been particularly vocal in highlighting the issues of concern that we need to address.

In roads in my constituency near the university, half the population turns over every year. When that happens, every other house has a “To Let” sign outside it, which is not a sustainable community. I know that the Minister is aware of the problem from her experience in Northern Ireland, but I wonder why the Government have set their face against imposing similar solutions not only to reduce the size of the population in an HMO at which point planning permission is required, but to require compulsory licensing for all small HMOs as well as large HMOs, which are included in the Housing Act 2004.

It would be wrong for my hon. Friend to assume that the Government have set their face against changes that improve the situation. The original purpose of the HMO legislation was to run fire safety and risk assessments. Different remedies are available in GB that are not available in Northern Ireland. For example, Northern Ireland does not have local area agreements. One of the approaches that we are pursuing, particularly in Loughborough, is that of using local area agreements, and if possible bringing in the universities as well. That is not an option in Northern Ireland. We must consider every possible way of trying to resolve the problem. I would be reluctant always to see students as part of the problem; I hope that they can be part of the solution. We do not want to demonise students. We need to ensure that we have sustainable communities in which everybody feels comfortable.

I am sure that the Minister agrees that sustainable communities, whether in student areas or elsewhere, can be created only if environmental sustainability is taken fully into account as well. She will know that buildings are responsible for more than half of all carbon emissions in this country. Will she come clean and publish the overdue first biennial report on the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004, which will set out what measures, if any, she has taken to reduce the carbon imprint of buildings?

We will consider that issue. The Government have made several responses. The planning policy statement on climate change, which will be published in draft form tomorrow, will provide an opportunity to consult and get some views on these issues.

Surely it is difficult to maintain sustainable communities in areas of high density student housing if students’ travel arrangements are undermined by the Department’s arrangements for funding passenger transport authorities. The problems in Tyne and Wear have been raised on the Floor of the House on several occasions. They have now been going on for more than a year. The Department has promised to do something about it, but so far has not. When will we hear what the solution is?

If a solution were easily found it would have been found by now. It is a complex situation. I can tell my right hon. Friend that transport is one of the areas examined in the PPS on climate change, so it will be taken into account in that regard.

Overview/Scrutiny Committees

15. What recent discussions she has had with local authorities on the role of overview and scrutiny committees; and if she will make a statement. (108117)

16. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of overview and scrutiny committees in holding local authorities to account. (108118)

Prior to the local government White Paper, Ministers and officials had extensive discussions, including on overview and scrutiny, with local authorities and others. We are extending councillors’ scrutiny role so that they can more effectively hold to account those who provide public services to their communities.

I am pleased about the importance that my right hon. Friend attaches to scrutiny of matters internal and external to the council. Does she agree that there are many good examples of scrutiny in local authorities, some of which model their role on that of Westminster Select Committees? In other authorities, however, scrutiny is too lowly graded. It is not properly resourced, councillors are not properly trained, and in many cases the officers being scrutinised manage the officers who give advice to the scrutiny committees. Does she accept that there is a role for her Department and the Local Government Association to play together in disseminating examples of good practice and trying to pull the poorest performing authorities up to the levels of the best?

I agree with my hon. Friend. There are some fantastic examples of local councillors coming together and challenging the council and others in their local area, thereby raising the quality of scrutiny and ultimately of local public services. That depends partly on genuine interest from members and partly on the authority’s willingness to respond. Committees that are independently resourced can be very effective in ensuring high-quality scrutiny. We want to work with the LGA to ensure that best practice in our best councils is spread right across the country.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will be interested to know that on some occasions I have given evidence to scrutiny committees of my local authority, particularly on matters such as licensing and use of disorder zones. Just as when we serve on Select Committees we have good back-up from the teams that support us, scrutiny committees must, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) said, have the necessary resources to do their work. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that in the context of the White Paper she will consider how professional resources can be better supported in local government?

I certainly give my hon. Friend that commitment. As we move forward, we want to shift responsibility for target setting and scrutinising proposals from central Government to local government. That will free resources that are currently spent on looking upwards, filling in forms and central bureaucracy, thus allowing local overview and scrutiny decisions to be made at the right level. I hope that the money that will be saved through the complete change of one performance regime can be put into supporting overview and scrutiny committees to do an even better job than they do at the moment.

I bring news from Northamptonshire, where scrutiny is in good heart but under great pressure. It is under particular pressure because of the poor revenue support grants that we have had in the past few years. Given the Secretary of State’s remarks, will she give me encouragement by telling me how much money she intends to give my county to ensure that separate scrutiny support can exist, as she just advised?

I send my greetings to Northamptonshire and I am pleased that it has such excellent overview and scrutiny committees. Of course independent resourcing of scrutiny committees can make committees work better and raise the quality of local decision making. However, I am trying to move away from central prescription to allow local authorities to make the decisions that are right for them. I do not want to replace with one hand what I take away with the other. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that sentiment.

Will the Secretary of State expand on the effectiveness of overview and scrutiny committees when calling in decisions by bodies such as primary care trusts, if they have to consider decisions such as that made by Devon PCT yesterday to close community hospital beds and reduce the hours for magnetic resonance imaging units without consulting anyone?

Overview and scrutiny committees can be incredibly effective. Indeed, 60 per cent. of executive councillors said that they had a policy decision changed because of overview and scrutiny. I do not know the details of the case that the hon. Gentleman cites, but it would be appropriate for local councillors and people to get involved and use overview and scrutiny committees to review decisions about local hospital reconfiguration or changes, raise the quality of debate, take evidence from different sources and make recommendations. I would expect that to happen in many places throughout the country.

May I inform my right hon. Friend of an example of bad practice by the overview and scrutiny committee in the London borough of Wandsworth? Often, it simply rubber-stamps decisions made behind closed doors. What carrots and/or sticks will the new Bill contain to ensure that boroughs such as Wandsworth follow best rather than bad practice for overview and scrutiny committees?

I completely sympathise with my hon. Friend’s predicament in Wandsworth. Of course, when local councillors are involved in actively scrutinising decisions on behalf of local people, those local people can have their voices heard and ultimately help shape services. In the coming months, we will work with local authorities and others, including my hon. Friend, if he has an interest, to draw up guidance that local authorities can use if they wish to ensure that decisions are made in the best possible way.

Might not the Secretary of State’s time be better spent in reading some of the many reports of overview and scrutiny committees about councils’ No. 1 problem—care of the elderly? The reports were summed up in a letter, which was published in The Guardian last week, from 45 leaders of authorities of all political persuasions. It said that services for the elderly were “teetering on the brink”. That is made worse by Labour cuts to the national health service. Instead of treating local government like her personal Lego set, will the Secretary of State tell hon. Members whether the Government have a plan to deal with the crisis, or is she content to abandon the elderly to the indignity of poor service and neglect?

The hon. Gentleman may like playing with Lego; I do not. I draw his attention to our investment, year in, year out, in local public services. The quality of public services is increasing, as is satisfaction—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) has a privilege in getting to the Dispatch Box and questioning the Secretary of State. He must listen to her reply.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Not only has real-terms funding for local services increased by almost 40 per cent. since 1997, following yearly cuts in investment in public services, but our commitment to social care cannot be questioned either, as we are investing in that as well. Rather than mouthing comments from a sedentary position, the hon. Gentleman should get real, look at the funding that has gone into local government and say whether or not he would match it.

Thurrock Development Corporation

Over the past few months, the Thurrock development corporation has been securing key sites for jobs and housing in Purfleet, West Thurrock and on the riverside, as well as making progress on major cultural and environmental projects.

I very much welcome that statement, but will the Minister assure me that the Thurrock development corporation will be facilitated by the Government in terms of capital spending, so that it can fulfil its seven-year business plan and strategy? Without the means, the Government’s policies will not be achieved, and I want them to be achieved.

My hon. Friend is right that capital investment is required across Thurrock to ensure the necessary infrastructure and progress. We will provide capital investment to support the development corporation. He will also welcome the fantastic proposal to relocate the Royal Opera house production facility and archives to Thurrock, which will build skills and create jobs as well as supporting new homes and cultural development in the area.

The Thames Gateway, of which Thurrock is a key part, was originally the vision of my noble Friend Lord Heseltine, and the Opposition strongly support it. The hon. Lady must therefore have been both brave and embarrassed, just a fortnight ago, to admit to her Government’s serious mistakes in carrying the project forward. Given that the design and quality problems and the mess of the 37 overlapping public bodies defusing accountability and leadership were identified long ago—not least by the Government’s own urban taskforce last November—why has it taken them so long to get round to sorting it out? How long will it be before a similar apology is due to those caught up in a series of questionable decisions and failed court actions associated with the Liverpool pathfinder scheme?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has decided to talk such complete nonsense and has failed to welcome the new strategic plan for the Thames Gateway. That has been welcomed by local authorities and development agencies across the Thames Gateway, including Conservative local authorities, which agree that billions of pounds of new investment in infrastructure to support new jobs and homes, and raising the quality of design, is the right approach to making the Thames Gateway a fantastic place to live.

Community Cohesion

18. If she will make a statement on her Department's work to support community cohesion since May 2005. (108120)

We have continued to support areas facing particular challenges. Since its launch in August, the Commission on Integration and Cohesion has been undertaking a programme of consultation and visits. It will make recommendations in June next year. The local government White Paper sets out a number of measures to improve cohesion.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. She will be aware that 2007 marks the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Community Development Foundation, the country’s foremost source of expertise on community development and social cohesion. In recent years, the CDF has delivered and administered the faith in the communities programme on behalf of her Department and its predecessors. In the light of the Prime Minister’s recent comments on cohesion, does my right hon. Friend agree that cohesion must start from the grass roots of communities, but that organisations such as CDF can contribute the expertise and knowledge that will help it to succeed?

Yes, I do. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend as chair of the CDF and to community workers up and down the country who are striving to build cohesion and communities that get on well side by side, share values and understand what difference is, but understand what it is to be British. I understand the contribution of that particular organisation, which builds from the grass roots to make sure that our communities are good places in which to live and work.

I am grateful to Ministers at the Department for meeting me to discuss the challenges to community cohesion in Slough, but they still exist because of the huge changes faced by my community. Will my right hon. Friend look at a proposal submitted recently by Slough council to help with those challenges?

My hon. Friend has raised this issue with Ministers for some months, and we are well aware of the problems facing Slough and other councils throughout the country. Next week I shall meet a delegation of local authorities to discuss some of them. We will work with local authorities not just to identify particular local pressures and challenges, but to identify what will help authorities to manage such tensions and spread best practice across the country. I stand ready to consider those issues whenever new evidence emerges.

A crucial prerequisite for achieving and sustaining community cohesion is, of course, equality before the law. Given that no fewer than 100 right hon. and hon. Members signed an early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), by me and by others urging early and undiluted implementation of the regulations on sexual orientation, when will they be forthcoming?

I have already responded to the hon. Gentleman on this point. As he knows, respect for the rule of law is at the heart of British politics. The Government are prepared to legislate to prevent discrimination of any kind, so that people can take advantage of goods and services without the threat of such discrimination. As the hon. Gentleman also knows, however, there are strong views on precisely how that legislation should be implemented in practice. More than 3,000 responses were received to consultation, and we will respond to it in due course, but my main priority must be to establish effective regulations by April so that people with a particular sexual orientation can be protected from discrimination.

The Muslim Council of Britain has defended the Muslim Public Affairs Committee and its involvement in the politics of the far right, including holocaust denial. In view of that, does my right hon. Friend consider either organisation to be a suitable partner in contribution to community cohesion?

I find it surprising that any organisation in Britain today does not recognise the reality of the holocaust. I also find it surprising that members of leadership organisations in the Muslim community, or indeed other faith communities, should choose not to attend holocaust memorial day. I know that a debate on the issues is taking place in those organisations, and I would encourage its continuation.

I hope to see the organisations myself, along with my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government—who is responsible for community cohesion—in Newcastle in January to remember the holocaust. I hope that we can work towards a society in which the contribution of all people, of all faiths and none, is fully recognised.

Social Housing

19. What change there has been in the number of households on council waiting lists for social housing since 1997. (108121)

In England, 1.63 million households are on the waiting list for social housing. The number of households on the waiting list has been broadly unchanged between 1997 and 2001-02. There has been a significant increase in the last four years, which reflects the difficulty of affordability faced by those trying to get on to the housing ladder.

In Chesterfield the waiting list has risen from 1,774 to 6,170, while nationally it has risen by half a million. Yet Government policy has allowed the number of social houses to fall by 600,000 since 1997, and the Government steal £3 million of Chesterfield council tenants’ rent every year rather than allow Chesterfield to build new social housing. When will the Government change their disastrous, dogmatic and failed housing policies?

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to learn that I do not agree with his characterisation. It is enormously important for us to produce more houses in all sectors—the private sector, shared ownership and social housing—and we are on course to deliver our target of 30,000 social rented houses a year by 2008.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, housing revenue account money is seen as a national resource, allowing us to target the areas in most need. We are therefore providing more resources, including more resources for Chesterfield.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that the crisis in housing is now becoming as fierce in some northern towns and cities as it is in some southern towns and cities? Bolton has lost a third of its housing stock, largely through the right to buy, and its housing waiting list in the last few years has quadrupled from 5,000 to over 23,000, and it is rising steeply. A few days ago, the Minister for Housing and Planning met the northern housing forum. Will the Department look at its proposals for alleviating the housing crisis in northern areas?

My hon. Friend is right to recognise that housing issues affect not only the south of England, but the north as well. We need to build more houses throughout England. It is important that we look at proper local assessments, and we are of course very happy to consider any proposals and initiatives that are brought forward by local communities.

Islamist Extremism

20. What assessment her Department has made of the effectiveness of Government initiatives to tackle Islamist extremism. (108122)

The Department plays a critical role, working effectively with local government and communities to tackle Islamist extremism. We continue to monitor our work at both local and national level, and to build on what we have learned from previous initiatives, such as the “Preventing Extremism Together” project, to inform our policy development.

Last month, the Secretary of State told the House that action had been agreed on all but three of the 27 recommendations of the “Preventing Extremism Together” taskforce that were addressed to Government. As action agreed is not the same as action taken, can the Minister tell the House howmany of the recommendations have so far been implemented?

Yes I can, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking the question—it gives me an opportunity to put the record straight, because some misinformation has been perpetuated on this point by mischief makers. Action has been agreed on all but three of the 27 recommendations that were for Government to lead on. Three have been completed—the recommendation about consultation on the Department for Education and Skills Green Paper, expansion of the minority ethnic achievements project, and the extension of equal opportunities legislation to cover discrimination on the ground of faith—and 17 are in progress. The Government have accepted the recommendations and are working on implementing them. Three are under consideration and the Government are deciding whether to accept them. Of the four remaining, alternatives are in place for two, and two are not being taken forward.

A number of weeks ago, the Muslim Parents Association of Milton Keynes organised a highly successful meeting that was attended by about 200 members of the local Muslim community and people from other faith communities, at which two Imams launched a theological discussion about Islam and how it precisely did not explain the actions of certain extremists within the Muslim community. Will the Minister say what support his Department is giving to moderate Muslim organisations such as the Milton Keynes Muslim Parents Association?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It gives me the opportunity to re-emphasise on behalf of the Government what is of course the case: those who use the name of Islam to justify violence and criminal terrorism are to be condemned. The Government’s programme with the mainstream Muslim community, Imams and various organisations to make that point clear includes events to perpetuate the true nature of Islam and to put to bed the arguments of those who use it to justify their violent extremism, and more than 30,000 young British Muslims have attended those events.

Brownfield Land

The definition of previously developed land is based on the land use change statistics from 1985. It is a practical definition for statistical purposes and should most sensibly remain as set out in the new planning policy statement published 10 days ago.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Large gardens of houses in south Manchester such as the Rookery and Jessiefield are threatened with development. Does the Minister not accept that redesignating gardens as greenfield rather than brownfield sites would afford extra protection against such overdevelopment?

There are practical difficulties in changing the definition in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. There is not only the question of how one deals with patios; we do not want to make it harder for people to build extensions in their own gardens and to their own homes. There are ways for local councils to address the problems associated with unsustainable development on garden land. Several local authorities already have such policies, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take up the matter with his local council. The new planning policy statement on housing gives local authorities greater powers to have particular policies in this area, and he would be wise to look at that new planning guidance.