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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 455: debated on Tuesday 23 January 2007


The Secretary of State was asked—

Scottish Elections

1. What discussions he has had with the First Minister on the measures required to ensure maximum voter participation in the Scottish Parliamentary and local council elections in May 2007; and if he will make a statement. (116340)

The Government and the Scottish Executive are working closely together to ensure maximum participation in the combined elections on 3 May.

As my hon. Friend knows, leaders of all the major political parties have urged a high turnout in the May elections. Will he redouble his efforts and, in particular, seek the help of the media to explain to their readers and viewers why it is so important that they turn out on 3 May to ensure that they get the Government they deserve?

My hon. Friend raises an important matter. The upcoming elections are vital for Scotland’s future, and I hope that in the run-up to the elections the key issues at stake will be given a good airing in the media. At stake are two different visions of Scotland. One is of a confident Scotland playing a full role in the United Kingdom, continuing to invest in schools and in skills, and continuing to address the big challenges that face our country in the 21st century. The other vision of Scotland’s future is one mired in years of constitutional wrangling, with uncertainty about what our currency will be and who will set the monetary framework, with Scotland isolated from our key allies, out of the European Union and completely irrelevant. It is a big election and there are big issues at stake.

The Minister knows that in normal democracies, debates play a major part in encouraging turnout of voters. The Secretary of State for Scotland regularly appears on television debates instead of the First Minister, who seems unwilling or unable to take part. Will he encourage Jack McConnell to stop running away and take part, at least between police interviews?

The hon. Gentleman’s leader had the opportunity to be in the Scottish Parliament and debate with Jack McConnell every day of the year, but he chose to run away from the Scottish Parliament to come here to lead a rump group. Now he wants to go back, but he wants to stay as an MP here. He wants to be a Member of the Scottish Parliament for a constituency and he wants to be on the list. The elections are not just about debates on television. They are about real, substantive issues, a vision of a Scotland that would be isolated under him, which would not have its own currency, which would not set its own monetary policy framework, and which would be isolated in Europe because his party would take us out of the European Union. His party has no clue how to address the great big challenges facing Scotland today. That is why, once again, as in every single election, it will be rejected by the Scottish voters.

One of my concerns about the upcoming Scottish elections is that many of the migrants from various parts of the European Union working in Scotland may not be aware of their right to vote and the need to register to vote. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the Scottish Executive to ensure full participation for all those legally living, working and paying taxes in Scotland?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. When we passed the Electoral Administration Act 2006, there was great concern about how we would make sure that the new migrants in the country from Poland and elsewhere in the EU who are entitled to vote in these elections would be made aware of the fact that they could vote and would be encouraged to be put on the electoral register. That is why we have given additional financial support to electoral registration officers to drive up registration and to put out information in other languages, including Polish, so that all those who are living in Scotland and making a financial contribution to Scotland, and who are entitled to vote in the elections, get the opportunity to do so.

The Scottish Executive and the Scotland Office published their response to the Arbuthnott Commission today. I find both responses disappointing. Does the Minister share my consternation that the Scottish Executive should dismiss the Arbuthnott Commission’s recommendation to split the Scottish parliamentary and local government elections, without presenting any evidence that that would increase turnout, whereas all the evidence shows that it will increase confusion? Does he agree that the Scottish Executive and his Government are showing contempt for the people of Scotland by bringing about two major electoral changes on one day?

I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman is disappointed. We have taken one of the key recommendations from the Arbuthnott report to combine the ballot papers in the Scottish Parliament elections, so that Scottish voters are not presented with one ballot paper for the first-past-the-post constituency and another for the regional list, which did generate some confusion. We have worked hard with the Electoral Commission and others to produce a design that would be colour coded and make things as simple as possible when people cast their vote. The decision on the date of the local elections is entirely a matter for the Scottish Executive, but I share their view that combining the elections on the same day will help turnout.

Does the Minister accept that voter participation is not just about the number of people who turn up at the polling station but the number of validly cast votes? What level of improperly cast ballots is unacceptable? Will he and the Scottish Executive move away from the system that they, along with their Liberal Democrat chums, foisted on the people of Scotland?

It is important to distinguish between a genuine mistake when filling in a ballot paper and voter fraud, to which I believe that the hon. Gentleman refers. There is no evidence of significant voter fraud in Scotland. If he has any, he should present it. We included provisions in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 to combat voter fraud. I remind him that he spent a large part of his career as a member of the Social Democratic party, which promoted the single transferable vote system.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, given the new electoral system for the local government elections in Scotland, we should do everything we can to ensure that it is publicised as widely as possible so that we get the maximum possible turnout?

I agree. The Electoral Commission has a key role to play in that. It recently made three significant grants available to: the Leonard Cheshire foundation, which helps ensure that people with disabilities can vote; Outside the Box, which helps those with learning disabilities, and the Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Sector Organisations. We want to ensure that everyone in Scotland, regardless of creed, colour and disability, can participate in the elections. It is also important that Members of Parliament do our bit to ensure that as many people as possible are registered to vote. We must encourage our councils and electoral registration officers to undertake that. We have a clear vision: everyone who is entitled to vote must be allowed to do so, and there must be minimum fraud and the highest possible turnout.

There is concern in all parties about low turnout among young people in elections. Next May, for the first time in Scotland, 18-year-old candidates, including the Liberal Democrat challenger in the First Minister’s constituency, will stand for election. I hope that the Minister and the First Minister welcome the implementation of that new law. When will the Government take the next step and encourage more young people to play an active part in the political process by introducing voting at 16?

First, the hon. Lady could have said that it is a reform introduced by the Government that allows 18-year-olds to stand as candidates. That provision did not fall out of a clear blue sky. It underlines our commitment to engaging with young people and ensuring that they play a full part.

The Electoral Commission has done a great deal of work on voting at 16. Opinion is evenly divided about whether that is a good idea even among 16 and 17-year-olds. I am not especially attracted to the proposal, but we can keep an open mind on it. I stress that, for young people, the vision of Scotland that invests in them, their future and education and skills will contrast with a vision of Scotland that mires us in years of constitutional argument so that, in the meantime, any business thinking of investing in the United Kingdom will not choose Scotland. That is not a good future for young people.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way in which to encourage people to get involved in the democratic process is to demonstrate the importance of politics and how it enhances the quality of their lives? I am sure that he will take every opportunity to remind the electorate of what the Scottish Labour Government have done for the people of Scotland.

I certainly will. I shall specifically consider the performance of the Scottish education system, which has long been acknowledged to be excellent. Thanks to our additional investment in schools, and the strength of the UK economy, which has allowed the Scottish Executive to increase investment in schools massively, we have even better results. We now need to move forward to consider, for example, skills and skills academies, which will be to the fore on Labour’s agenda for the future of Scotland. We have an optimistic vision for that future, in which young people will be encouraged to stay and play a full part.


2. What average length of time it has taken for a reply to be received to correspondence from him to the First Minister. (116341)

On average, correspondence from the First Minister to the Secretary of State for Scotland has been sent within the 20-day target time scale set by the Scottish Executive.

That is a most illuminating answer. On 6 November 2006, I wrote to the First Minister to ask how many people waited more than six months for a national health service operation, in breach of the Government’s guarantee. I appreciate that the question might be embarrassing for the First Minister, but, despite a chasing letter, I have yet to receive a reply. Is not that shameful?

I understand that the Health Minister in the Scottish Executive has written a reply to the hon. Gentleman, in which he apologises for the delay in responding to him. He also points out that waiting times and waiting lists in Scotland are falling, that the number of patients with a guarantee waiting more than 18 weeks is the lowest ever recorded, and that deaths from cardiac disease, cancer and stroke are all falling after years of increasing. Those things have not happened by accident. They have happened because the UK Government made available to the Scottish Executive record sums of money to invest in the health service, yet the hon. Gentleman voted against every penny—

Is it not the case that the Scotland Office has sent a pitiful 350 official letters since 2005, while receiving, on average, seven letters a day from a concerned and anxious public? Does the Minister think that that represents good value for money? Will he explain what exactly is the point of the Scotland Office, given this overwhelmingly burdensome activity?

Given that some of those letters are from the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, he is adding to the enormous burden of work that the Scotland Office has to do. All appearances to the contrary, the Scotland Office is a remarkably slim and lean organisation. If the hon. Gentleman looks across Whitehall and across the devolved Administrations, he will see in the Scotland Office a highly efficient organisation that carries out its activities in a very efficient way.

Gas Production

3. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the benefits to Scotland of encouraging gas production west of Shetland. (116342)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of issues. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry confirmed to the hon. Gentleman last week, the lack of gas infrastructure west of Shetland is a key constraint on present development. We have established a group from industry and Government to work together on that. In addition, we have changed the licensing scheme to encourage development. About 60 blocks have been licensed, and activity is under way.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The whole country benefits from developments in the North sea, and the Scotland Office should be well placed to impress upon the Government just how much high-tech industry and how many manufacturing jobs are developed on the back of such activity, and exactly what the export potential is. It is crucial to find new provinces and to open up new fields before we decommission the old ones. In his answer to me last week, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry spoke a lot about the problems of getting the oil out, but the crucial factor in the west of Shetland basin is the need to get the gas fields together. It is the cost of bringing together the small gas fields that is inhibiting production.

I am certainly happy to reiterate the hon. Gentleman’s points to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The hon. Gentleman is right to acknowledge the significant potential west of Shetland. It represents about 17 per cent. of the UK’s remaining oil and gas reserves, and presents a considerable challenge, on which the Government are working with industry.

While such exploration is important, does my right hon. Friend agree that an economy built solely on the success or failure of fossil fuels is likely to result in an overall reduction in spending and economic activity?

My hon. Friend is right to say that oil in the North sea and elsewhere is a finite commodity. North sea production passed its peak in the first year of the Scottish Parliament back in 1999.

I hear the claim that Norway should be a lodestar for us in using that finite commodity more effectively. Norway has about twice the UK’s oil reserves, yet Norwegians pay a higher top rate of tax, a higher basic rate of income tax, higher VAT, higher employers’ national insurance contributions and higher duties. That is something that the whole House should consider.


My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions regarding immigration matters, but we have had no discussions on those issues with the European Commissioners.

How many immigrants from the new EU entrant states have arrived in Scotland since the accession of those countries, and how many work permits does the Secretary of State expect to issue to immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania?

I do not have those figures here, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with them. Scotland and the Scottish economy have benefited from the inward migration of people from the accession states. Scotland has near record low levels of unemployment and near record high levels of economic activity. That situation never occurred during the 18 years when the hon. Gentleman’s party was responsible for the economy.

When my hon. Friend does meet the Commissioners to discuss immigration, will he emphasise the tremendous benefits that we have gained from the immigrants who have come to work in Scotland from the EU accession states? Will he also raise with them the need for a speedy implementation of the temporary workers directive, because it is clear that, in some parts of Scotland and elsewhere, the people who are coming in are being forced to work under certain conditions because they are in gangs? They are not getting proper holiday pay, sickness pay or pension benefits. The only way to ensure that such people are not exploited is to have the same rules for everyone, so that every temporary worker and everyone coming in from elsewhere in the EU works under the same conditions as UK employees.

My hon. Friend is right to point out the economic contribution that individuals from the A8 countries are making in Scotland. They are entitled to the same employment protection as everyone else, including rights to the minimum wage. It is important that those workers receive the minimum wage and are not used to undercut wage rates throughout Scotland. He mentioned the issue of gangs, and he is sitting beside our hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) who, through his gangmaster legislation, has done more than anyone else to highlight the issue, for which I pay tribute to him. It is absolutely right that people coming into this country are treated fairly and on a level playing field with everyone else.

How would the Secretary of State find time to meet European Commissioners when he is so busy standing in for the First Minister in debates on Scotland. Has not the reality of Scotland’s European representation been laid bare by the leaked memo from the head of the European office of the Scottish Executive, which says that UK Departments ignore Scottish representations, that Scottish Ministers have to wait outside the Council of Ministers while decisions are made and that,

“Scotland no longer has a hard-hitting voice within Cabinet”?

Is that a reference to the Secretary of State, or just to the reduced status of his office?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of that report, which gives me the opportunity to read out its conclusion—[Interruption.] He would do well to listen to this. It states:

“Scotland’s voice in Europe is stronger as part of the UK. As one of the big 4 Member States within the EU, the UK is a very powerful player. There is no more effective a position for Scotland than having one of the most influential Member States representing Scotland’s interests within all 3 of the EU institutions.”

His argument is completely demolished.

For once I can agree with the Minister. Can he shed a little light on the lack of clarity in relation to the future role of European Commissioners in respect of immigration and all other issues in Scotland if it were torn out of the United Kingdom, and if it had to reapply, as it surely would, for EU membership?

It is entirely clear that if Scotland were to secede from the member state country, it would secede from the European Union, and would have to reapply. The French have recently altered their constitution to show that Scotland would not be allowed back in the EU unless there was a yes vote in a referendum in France. We would therefore be handing over Scotland’s future membership of the EU to the French electorate. Even were that not the case, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) proposes to take Scotland out of the common fisheries policy, which means that he would not even be at the Fisheries Council to take part in such discussions. Twenty-five countries would be debating the common fisheries policy in one room, and he would be in the next room, talking to himself. I know that he is never happier than when talking to himself, but that will do Scotland no good at all.

Military Bases (Security)

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on security at military bases in Scotland. (116346)

Scotland has a proud tradition of peaceful protests, and I have taken part in many for causes in which I believe, not with the sole purpose of getting arrested for a cheap photo opportunity. Does the Secretary of State agree that the recent irresponsible conduct of some MSPs, who say that they aspire to run our country, has been not only a waste of police time but has deprived some of our poorest communities of the increased police presence that they richly deserve?

I recognise, as does my hon. Friend, the right to peaceful protest. Those elected representatives who organised some kind of pantomime arrest at Faslane should answer to their constituents as to whether they regard that as a good use of police time when we face challenges such as antisocial behaviour, and not least when the police have been given new powers to deal with such issues, notwithstanding the opposition of some parties represented in this Chamber.

Has the Secretary of State had discussions with the Ministry of Defence about the so-called Trident tax and its possible effects on the MOD budget and therefore on security in military bases in Scotland? [Interruption.] If so, did he consider whether the tax might be illegal, and whether it was in fact pointless to impose any tax, because any taxes collected would result in cuts in the Scottish Executive budget in the long run? [Interruption.]

Order. I must tell members of the Scottish National party that it is only courteous to allow hon. Members to be heard in the Chamber. That also applies when Ministers are replying. [Interruption.] I am trying to put the case against intervening, and there is the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) opening his mouth. That does not help.

The story that appeared in the Scottish newspapers at the weekend about the so-called “tax on the taxpayer” tells us far more about Opposition parties’ desperate need for headlines than about any serious attempt at policy-making. Once again we have a party that, while professing to want independence in Europe, seems intent on ignoring European Union law.

Green Energy Generation

6. What steps are being taken to expand the use of green energy generation from wave and tidal sources in Scotland. (116347)

Since 1999 the Government have committed £29 million to the research and development of marine energy technologies. In addition, we have created the marine renewable deployment fund with a further £50 million allocated to help projects move from the research stage to demonstration. Moreover, we have invested in infrastructure. That investment includes £15 million for the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, a dedicated test facility for wave and tidal technology developers.

Given the Government’s intention to introduce a climate change Bill, has the Secretary of State considered the impact that the Bill will have on the Scottish Executive’s approach to the environment?

In the normal course of events, we discuss such matters with the Scottish Executive. However, it is entirely consistent to recognise in statute—as the Bill will—the considerable change described in the Stern report and other academic studies of the science of climate change.

I pay tribute to the labour-led Executive in Scotland. They have taken a pioneering role, particularly in relation to renewables, and recognise not just the challenge but the responsibility to develop such technologies in the years ahead.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the immense potential for tidal energy in the Pentland firth and, indeed, other remoter areas off the coast of Scotland. Is he also aware that one of the potential barriers is the lack of transmission capacity? Does he agree with the many experts who now believe that an undersea interconnector would be a more effective way of reducing the lack of transmission than pylons?

A number of technical challenges will need to be overcome in what is still, at this stage, a relatively immature technology. The main challenge is to move that technology forward. I assure the hon. Gentleman that all such matters are given due consideration. They have been dealt with in discussions that I understand he has had with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, and also in other discussions that take place in Government, particularly with the Department of Trade and Industry.

Would not the most important help be not requiring energy producers to pay £20 per kWh to connect to the national grid, as opposed to the subsidy of £8 per kWh that is provided in London?

The suggestion that greater connections to the English market somehow make sense is certainly an interesting line of argument coming from a nationalist, given that the nationalists seem intent on putting up new barriers.

Asylum Seekers

8. What recent discussions he has had with Home Office Ministers on dawn raids to remove failed asylum seekers in Scotland. (116349)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Home Office Ministers on matters that affect Scotland.

When the Minister next meets the Minister responsible for immigration, will he convey to him the revulsion that is widely felt in Scotland at the practice of dawn raids, especially when children are involved? It is now matched by the revulsion at a new practice involving the luring of children and whole families to immigration offices for signing-on purposes.

If the Minister will not listen to the people of Scotland, will he listen to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International and the Commissioner for Children and Young People in Scotland? They all deplore the practice as well.

Absolutely no one wants early-morning removals to continue. They can only ever be justified as a last resort, when families and individuals have been invited to leave over and over again, when they have been offered financial assistance to leave over and over again, and when they have refused to leave over and over again. If we are to have an immigration and asylum policy that has any meaning at all, we must reserve the right as a nation to say no to some people, and if they refuse to go we must reserve the right to remove them by force if necessary. I do not want to see that happen. I want to see a situation, which we will have under the new asylum model, where decisions are made much more quickly, one caseworker works with individuals throughout their case, and individuals, when they have exhausted their appeals and are invited to leave the country, actually leave.

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Lyons Review

13. What assessment she has made of the implications for the local government White Paper of Sir Michael Lyons review. (117381)

The pre-Budget report stated that Sir Michael’s report would be published around the time of the Budget 2007. In developing the White Paper, the Government took full account of his work to date on the future role and function of local government. That included in particular his discussion paper on the future role and function of local government, national prosperity, local choice and civic engagement, which was published in May last year.

May I thank my hon. Friend for his response and ask him to confirm that, while Sir Michael Lyons is due to report in March and further legislation may be required at that time, it is the Government’s current intention, on the back of the White Paper, to increase the amount of funding that councils receive that is not ring-fenced? Will the Minister confirm that he will increase the sums pooled in local area agreements?

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question, which gives me the opportunity to confirm that that is the case. The Government’s policy is to have a presumption against ring-fencing in funding. May I tell the House through you, Mr. Speaker, that this year the local area agreements will receive £520 million of pooled money and that that will rise to up to £1.5 billion in the financial year 2007-08, so I can confirm that the answer to the question is yes.

I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to Sir Michael Lyons report rather than the White Paper. I appreciate the importance of his question. The answer to that question is that neither I nor the Government know what Sir Michael is going to report on that matter. Of course the distribution of non-domestic rates is a hugely important part of local government funding, contributing around £17.5 billion this year, so we await his report with interest.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that if Sir Michael’s report is to be a success, it will have to find ways of ensuring that local authorities can raise more of the money that they spend. It is also important that it finds a way of dealing with the perversity of gearing in local government finance, and a way of giving local authorities incentives to consider favourably planning applications for business and commercial developments. Is not the easiest way to do that simply to denationalise the business rate and to give control of the rate back to local authorities?

I am aware of my hon. Friend's long-standing advocacy of that point. I note that he said it was the easiest way; he did not say that it was easy. It would be best if I were not drawn on that matter. Suffice it to say that the Government have introduced the local authority business growth incentives scheme that incentivises and rewards local authorities that achieve a growth in the number of businesses created, or indeed a slowdown if it is in a negative area. That scheme will be distributing some £1.5 billion. That is real money from which local authorities are benefiting.

Last night, the Minister said that the Lyons’ review had to be delayed until after the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill to deal with form and function first, but after the publication of the Lyons interim review Sir Michael made it clear that he had views about devolution and fewer targets, and he warned against another massive restructuring, so what is it in the Lyons review that the Government are trying to hide?

I was as confused by that question as I was by the hon. Lady’s contribution to last night’s debate. I repeat what I said: it makes perfect sense—to me it is common sense, and I think that the Opposition are trying to find ways to oppose for the sake of opposing—to have the White Paper and the Bill on local government functions before looking at financial proposals and any legislation that might be produced, because if that is required, it will have to be introduced in the next parliamentary Session.

In his report of last May, Sir Michael Lyons clearly stated his views about political boundaries being redrawn. That has nothing to do with finance, but everything to do with form and function. In the interests of common sense, will the Government now give an assurance that Sir Michael will be asked to give evidence to the Bill Committee, as requested?

I cannot give that guarantee. With respect, I think that the hon. Lady is rather confused about what her own policy is. The Opposition have asked for a permissive regime that would allow local authorities to put forward proposals for restructuring, where they wish to do so. The deadline for initial proposals is the end of the current week, and I suspect that there will be proposals from local authorities of all types and all political colours from across the country. Some of them will be Conservative and some will not, and I await all the proposals with interest.

Central and local government have an agreed formula to distribute grant to local authorities. Not all councils receive the grant that that formula dictates. Can the Minister give an assurance that at the end of the next comprehensive spending review all councils will receive the agreed level of grant?

No, I cannot guarantee that. My hon. Friend again raises that important point on behalf of his four-star council. To be fair, it is a point that has been raised by Members of various parties. It concerns authorities that would receive more money if the Government had not put in a floor to protect those authorities that would lose significant amounts quickly if we had not put in that damping effect. The Government’s position is that we retain damping to protect those authorities, but as we move into the next financial settlement, which will be for a three-year period from April 2008 onwards, we will review decisions in the light of that important announcement.

The Minister has just repeated what he said in yesterday’s debate, which is that he thinks that it is an advantage to Members that we are considering his Bill prior to the Lyons report. It is my understanding that that view is not shared by Sir Michael himself, nor by many in the local government family who find it astonishing that we are being expected to take one set of decisions without being aware of what the Government intend to do in respect of another set. Can the Minister say exactly what he thinks the advantage is in our dealing with the Bill in the dark without the Lyons report; and can he give us an assurance that when the Lyons report is published he will take quick action to abolish the council tax and to repatriate the uniform business rate to local councils?

I strongly advise the hon. Gentleman who speaks for the Liberal Democrats seriously to revise his policy on business rates. At present, £17.5 billion is redistributed through the non-domestic rating system, as opposed to £3.335 billion through the remainder of the revenue support grant—RSG. Of that £17.5 billion, some four or five councils contribute almost 10 per cent. The redistributive effect of the national non-domestic rates—NNDR—in the absence of the dedicated schools budget from the RSG renders his policy one that would significantly damage the poorer areas of this country. Therefore I cannot give him the guarantee that he asks for.

When considering the Lyons review findings, can my hon. Friend look at better developing ways to ensure that those—sometimes not insubstantial—areas of the country that have pockets of deprivation and real need but which are located in local authorities that are considered to be affluent do not miss out on the additional funding that they need and deserve?

I commend my hon. Friend for raising again a problem that one of the local authorities in his constituency faces. Members of different parties point to wards or sub-ward areas that have poverty and deprivation that are not recognised in either the neighbourhood renewal fund or, it is argued, the RSG—although it is, of course, weighted within the RSG. I cannot give my hon. Friend the commitment that such changes will be made in the current financial period, but I do give the commitment that I will look at it for the future spending review period.

Travellers (Crays Hill)

The Secretary of State is considering a number of planning appeals in relation to Dale Farm. As this case is under active consideration, and for reasons of procedural propriety, it is not possible to comment on its details. A decision is expected by 28 February.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but she will be aware of recently published research by the Echo newspaper that casts doubt on claims by Travellers at Dale Farm that they have nowhere else to go, should the pending inquiry decision go against them. On Thursday, representatives from the settled community will visit Parliament to press for this research to be considered before the Government’s decision, and for a Government-led inquiry into the issue in general. In the interests of fairness, will the Minister consider meeting this delegation, as we know that the Department has had contact with Travellers from Crays Hill?

There have been no meetings between the Department’s Ministers and Travellers concerning this application. For reasons of propriety, it is not appropriate for Ministers to meet any of the parties while this matter is under consideration, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. So this is not a question of Ministers not wanting to take the full range of issues into consideration; this is a procedural point, and he serves his constituents ill by suggesting that we can do otherwise.

Order. This is a very narrow question that relates only to Travellers from Dale Farm, Crays Hill. We must move on.

Community Land Trusts

15. What assessment her Department has made of the role of community land trusts in affordable housing projects. (117383)

Community land trusts are an interesting and promising new option for delivering affordable housing. The Housing Corporation and English Partnerships are working with a number of potential community land trusts, with the aim of getting some viable pilot schemes established.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Has she assessed the value of these projects and what the resource costs might be?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and he is absolutely right to say that we need to look at the evidence to see how these projects can contribute to our affordable housing targets, and whether tenants should be able to have a greater say over their own estates and housing developments, and what difference that would make. That is precisely why the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships are working with a number of potential projects to help them get up and running. They hope to have a number up and running by this summer, and some on site by the end of next year.

Supplementary planning gain, or, to use its proper name, a roof tax, will certainly make land scarcer and more expensive. How does the Secretary of State equate the need to build more affordable housing, which I accept, with that tax?

The hon. Gentleman knows that we have the Planning-gain Supplement (Preparations) Bill in place, so that we can consider all the issues in detail. Frankly, our proposals, which look seriously at the need for more infrastructure provision and the need to finance it, are far more credible than the position adopted by the Conservatives, who have no proposals whatsoever for funding greater infrastructure.

Does my right hon. Friend know that the northern housing forum recently met the Minister for Housing and Planning, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), to suggest that land already in council ownership should be allowed to be released at nil, or below market, value, so that houses affordable to ordinary people could be built on it?

I am aware of the meeting that has recently taken place between Bolton At Home and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, and I know that this was one of the issues considered at that meeting. It has come up with an incredibly interesting and innovative proposal to use local authority land so that people have much greater access to low-cost home ownership. I understand that that bid is in with the Northern Housing Challenge and will be considered, and I hope that a shortlist will be announced soon.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her warm words about community land trusts and will take them as an implicit endorsement of our policy to use them as a way of increasing housing supply and aiding low cost home ownership. I am sure that she will be aware that the Scottish community land unit provides pre-development support for those who wish to set up CLTs and has access to money from the Big Lottery Fund. We are all aware that Scottish expertise will be playing a bigger part in the Labour party in the months to come, so can the Secretary of State assure me that she will pre-empt that move by learning from Scotland and making money available from the Big Lottery Fund for those in England and Wales who wish to access low-cost home ownership through CLTs?

May I say how wholeheartedly I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to look at all sources of funding and, indeed, land for new affordable housing. Indeed, we will look at any option that he or anyone else puts forward to increase the supply of land for that purpose. I read recently of the hon. Gentleman’s claim that his new-found interest in community land trusts was inspired by the Levellers of the English civil war. I am rather more interested in the current civil war in the Conservative party on whether to build new homes for affordable housing. Indeed, only last month the hon. Gentleman said, “I think”—

Council Housing

Yes, we will provide further funding for improving council housing. So far the decent homes programme has cut the number of homes failing the decency standard by some 1.4 million and has delivered 720,000 new boilers and central heating systems for council and social housing across the country.

While I recognise the Government’s focus on that particular policy and the increased investment, my surgeries are still inundated with residents who want to move to better properties, people desperate for homes, and others who want simple things such as central heating or some repairs. What help or hope can my hon. Friend offer to my constituents?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have said that all council and social housing needs to meet the decency standards. It is shocking that we inherited a £19 billion backlog in repairs and maintenance in 1997. We will, by 2010, have invested £40 billion in improving those homes, including putting in modern kitchens and central heating, tackling fuel poverty and cutting carbon emissions from those homes.

I appreciate the Minister’s comments about council housing and the social rented sector in general. However, part of the commitment made in the decent homes charter was to private sector vulnerable households. I am aware that in Rochdale, for example, 66 per cent. of all private sector vulnerable households are unfit, largely because of thermal comfort issues. In view of the fact that across the north-west last year 303 old people died of hypothermia, what further action will the Department take to deal with private sector vulnerable households?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I know that the arm’s length management organisation in Rochdale has almost completed its programme and, thanks to the £100 million provided by the Labour Government, will have refurbished and modernised more than 16,000 homes in the area, ensuring that they meet the proper standards for central heating and insulation. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to support private sector homes to ensure that pensioners in particular are not living in cold homes. The warm front programme has already assisted 1.2 million households across the country and we want to go further in helping to warm and insulate more such households.

Of course the Government deserve congratulations for tackling the enormous backlog of repairs and improvements that they inherited in 1997, but could we not go further, with an additional source of funds, and stop the process by which good local authority landlords, who have long provided decent, affordable housing in an accountable framework, are coercing tenants into stock transfers that they do not want, employing consultants and spending many millions of pounds on a process that is utterly wasteful?

We have provided additional funding to councils so that they can refurbish their homes, and it amounts to a 30 per cent. increase per home since 1997. Using that additional funding and their own resources, nearly 100 councils will be able to bring their stock up to the decency standard over the next few years. The additional funding has been provided through the ALMO programme and stock transfers and is a very substantial investment in existing homes, but my hon. Friend will accept that we must make sure that there is investment in building new homes, for which there is also a serious need.

One consequence of the Government’s mismanagement of EU migration is the great strain placed on social and private sector housing in some parts of the country. What are the Government going to do about the exploitation of EU migrants by unscrupulous landlords? Also, the poor condition of many houses in multiple occupation is a major problem in places such as Peterborough, where we have 6,500 people on the council waiting list. What are the Government going to do about that?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the measures in the Housing Bill, which give local authorities powers to deal with serious problems with private sector landlords and to require proper licences for HMOs. He should urge his council to use those powers.

The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) also mentioned the pressures on social housing and private housing. The Government’s response is very clear: we believe that we need to build more homes. The Conservative party have opposed that.

Antisocial Behaviour

18. What role her Department plays in the development of antisocial behaviour policy; and if she will make a statement. (117386)

My Department has made considerable progress over the past year, delivering on a range of commitments set out in the Respect action plan. For example, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I earlier this month announced new regulations that will give arm’s-length management organisations and tenant management organisations powers to apply for antisocial behaviour orders.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the measures that she has introduced, and I am pleased to hear that her Department is working well with other Departments. Councils have been given the tools and powers necessary to bring people to justice and to protect victims of antisocial behaviour, but does she agree that it is time they used them? How can she make sure that they do?

I do not suppose that my hon. Friend knows that Bolton was the first local authority in the country to sign up to the Respect standard on housing management, which plays an important role in tackling antisocial behaviour. However, he is right to suggest that councils, housing associations and other relevant partners all over the country must play their full role in cracking down on antisocial behaviour. They must use all the tools at their disposal, including ASBOs, as antisocial behaviour can blight the lives of vulnerable people.

Does the Secretary of State agree that ASBOs and fixed-penalty notices do not stop youngsters reoffending, and will she look favourably on our proposal for a national school-leaver programme? Working with the Duke of Edinburgh trust, for example, the programme would encourage young people to take up positive activities, to the benefit of the whole community.

The hon. Lady will be aware of the Government’s proposals to encourage young people to be much more involved in their local communities, with activities both on and off school sites, but I cannot agree that ASBOs are not effective. They deal with the hard core of criminals, and I understand that the people who receive them have, on average, 31 convictions each. Moreover, the other measures that can be taken before that point is reached are highly successful in curbing antisocial behaviour, or stopping it altogether.

What liaison is there between the Department and local groups involved in dealing with antisocial behaviour? I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the work of Inspector Nick Mills and his team in the Vauxhall and Kirkdale areas of Liverpool, and the pioneering work of the Liverpool community justice centre.

I should be interested in hearing more about that pioneering work. There are examples of innovative practice across the country. As a result of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is passing through Parliament and had its Second Reading last night, I hope that local councils will work to the same community safety targets, with the police working to a target agreed with the local authority, the probation service and youth action teams. They will all be working towards the same objective: to combat antisocial behaviour and improve community safety. That will help people to create not only a culture of respect but also better places to live.


My Department leads across Government on the prevention aspect of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy. We also have responsibility for promoting community cohesion, including ensuring that extremists who promote hatred are marginalised. My Department has particular responsibilities for working effectively with local government and engaging with communities to acknowledge and tackle violent extremism at grass-roots level.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer and I am sure he will agree that one of the best ways to stop extremists spreading their corrosive poison in our communities is for every decent person to reject the ugliness of extremism with their vote at the ballot box. What is my hon. Friend’s Department doing to raise awareness of the importance both of voting in elections to defeat extremism and of getting into communities to stop that poison at the roots?

I commend the work that my hon. Friend has done in his constituency to tackle this difficult problem. My Department has a funding stream of about £5 million, which is available to local authorities to help them to put together strategies to tackle those who promote violent extremism. My Department is in conversation with my hon. Friend’s local authority in Stoke-on-Trent.

What lessons did my hon. Friend learn from the visit to Leicester he made with the Minister for Women and Equality about the way in which a city such as Leicester, where the local authority has worked with the local community for many years, is able to combat racism and extremism?

The most important lesson from Leicester is that a strong inter-faith dialogue, talking and agreeing joint action and involving young people—as Leicester has done—makes an investment in the community that reaps rewards for many generations. Indeed, the rest of the country looks to Leicester to lead on the issue.


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

I am tempted to say not enough. In 2004, the National Census of Local Authority Councillors in England and Wales—the employers organisation—reported that of the 18,195 councillors covered by survey responses, only 1,333, which is just 7.3 per cent., were under 40. The review of the incentives for and barriers to becoming councillors announced in the local government White Paper will examine the factors influencing that situation.

I think my hon. Friend will agree that that really is not good enough. We must achieve a better age profile. I was elected to a local authority at 22; I left at 39 to come to the House. A sad indictment, because I was one of the youngest councillors and I was leaving the local authority. What can my hon. Friend do to encourage more young people to recognise the importance for their lives of having that voice? We must persuade them that politics is important and that it makes a difference for them.

Not many of us want to discuss grey hair in the Chamber.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle); I was 38 when I left my local authority, Essex county council, and I was replaced by somebody older. It is incumbent on all of us involved in politics not only to set an example to younger people in our constituencies and to engage them, but also to identify the problem. The review outlined in the White Paper, which will look at barriers and incentives, will help us to encourage young people to get involved. I hope that in our political parties we, too, can take on that role.

I got involved in local government as a county councillor in my late 20s and resigned because, like the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), I came to this House, but does the Minister agree that what is really important is the commitment of people to local government, not their age? Experience surely counts for something. Does she value it?

It would be very foolish to stand before the House and say that I did not value the experience of hon. Members and councillors. However, what we generally want to see are local authorities and a Parliament that are genuinely reflective of society. That means people of all ages being involved, so of course experience is greatly valued, but so is the introduction of new and younger members—to councils and Parliament as well.

Local Government Finance

22. To what extent her Department will take into account its assessment of value for money in local authority spending in 2005-06 when it determines local authority grant uplifts for 2006-07; and if she will make a statement. (117393)

The Minister will be aware that my local council of Wandsworth received a much lower than average grant uplift this year—in spite of being graded excellent by the Audit Commission and in spite of being rated as the best value for taxpayers’ money council in the whole country. How can he justify my local taxpayers getting such a raw deal from Whitehall when the council is doing such a good job?

I challenge the hon. Lady’s assumption that her constituents are getting a raw deal. Indeed, we specifically provided a floor to protect authorities such as hers that do not suffer the same deprivation—I am not denying that there is some deprivation in her area—as other authorities. Rather than criticise us, I would have thought that the hon. Lady would be thanking the Government for providing a floor to protect the grant, which has been above inflation throughout the Government’s period of office.