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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 458: debated on Tuesday 27 March 2007

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked—

International Development Fund

1. What discussions he has had with the First Minister on the Scottish Executive’s international development fund. (128975)

I have regular discussions with the First Minister on a range of subjects. In 2005 the First Minister, in agreement with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, launched a fund that will provide £12 million over four years to help improve health and education, particularly in Malawi.

I thank the Minister for that reply. In the same year of 2005, the Government signed the Paris declaration, whose stated aim was to eliminate “duplication of efforts” and to rationalise

“donor activity to make it as cost-effective as possible.”

Does the Minister agree that on both counts, the international development fund makes a mockery of the UK’s commitment to the Paris declaration?

No, I do not. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my answer, he would have heard me say that the First Minister was in agreement with the Secretary of State for International Development. Staff of the Department for International Development sit on the expert group that advises how the fund is used, and that group is working in harmony. We will take lectures on international development from many quarters, but not from the party that cut international development spending year on year.

May I draw to my hon. Friend’s attention the fact that NHS Scotland is providing much expertise and training assistance to Malawi? When the International Development Committee visited last year, it was made clear that there was a real need to address the brain drain from that country, and its total lack of capacity. NHS Scotland and its partners in the rest of the UK are playing an important part in helping in that regard.

My hon. Friend speaks with great authority on the matter, as she is a member of the International Development Committee and has a connection with the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention. She is right to say that DFID and all the other agencies that we work with are operating in partnership in Malawi. DFID is recognised as being the gold standard when it comes to such work: that is why it is important, even though the fund being administered is small compared with the vast sums of money at DFID’s disposal, to make sure that it does not suffer from duplication of effort. I am confident that it does not.

May I too urge the Minister to ignore anti-Scottish and anti-Malawian Tories, and to acknowledge Scotland’s distinctive relationships and associations with sub-Saharan Africa? Has he seen the opinion poll carried out by the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, which shows that 76 per cent. of the Scottish people believe that decisions about Scotland’s share of development funding should be made in Scotland?

The people of Scotland, through the country’s membership of the UK, are making the most fantastic contribution to international development around the world. The policy of the hon. Gentleman’s party is to break up the UK and take Scotland out of it, but that would do nothing to further the cause of international development. It is this Government—led, in this instance, by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s international leadership—who have led the way in cutting debt and helping the most heavily indebted poor countries. At Gleneagles, we brought together leaders from all over the world to set up an international finance facility. Scots should be proud of the role that Scots in the UK play to help the poorest in the world.

Digital Switchover

The Minister will be aware that people in vast areas of rural Scotland will not be able to receive through their aerials the full range of digital services that are available to the rest of the country. What action will he take to ensure that rural Scotland does not receive a second-tier service for digital terrestrial television?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important matter that I have acknowledged previously from the Dispatch Box. Essentially, this is a matter of engineering. The full suite of programmes can be broadcast from the main transmission masts, but that cannot happen from the relay transmitters because the signal is weaker. That is where the two-tier element comes in. On Thursday, I am due to meet Vicki Nash of Ofcom Scotland at the organisation’s office in Glasgow. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will raise the matter with her, and that I will get back to him.

I assure the Minister that that issue was raised at the borders digital forum last week—but may I draw his attention to another issue? Digital TV providers are rightly promoting early adoption of the technology required for digital switchover, which means that older people and people in vulnerable groups are already converting their sets ahead of the availability of the financial assistance scheme later in the year. Will he explain why his colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport do not support the provision of retrospective support for those who convert now and would otherwise have been entitled to that financial assistance?

The whole point about assistance is to help those who are experiencing difficulties converting. Obviously, if people have converted they might not have been eligible for that assistance—and the hon. Gentleman knows that there is always a problem with retrospective payments in such cases. However, I hope that he will be reassured to learn that I will add that particular point to the ever-growing agenda for my meeting with Vicki Nash on Thursday.

Taxation

I hold regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues and members of the business community on a range of matters, including fiscal matters. As part of the United Kingdom, Scotland continues to benefit from this Government’s management of the economy, which has delivered stability, low inflation, low interest rates and high employment.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with Sir Peter Burt of the Burt commission that replacing council tax with a local income tax would be impractical, and that setting up a nationally set tax would cost the Executive £19 million and employers £60 million, and that it would have annual running costs as high as £55 million? If so, will he ensure that such a rise does not happen for Scotland or the Scottish people?

Sir Peter Burt makes a powerful case. It would be very difficult for people to explain, whether at Westminster or from Holyrood, why it would be in Scotland’s interest to become the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom. A recent success of devolved government is the reversal of the brain drain and an historic turnaround in the demographic challenge that we faced in Scotland. It is for others who want to make Scotland the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom to try to make sense of that policy, in the context of the real successes that are being enjoyed at the moment.

Given that the great Budget “tax cut” con trick has been well and truly exposed, the Red Book shows that oil revenues are rising, not falling as claimed by the Chancellor, and the Labour party has committed itself not just to keeping but to revaluing the hated council tax, causing misery to hundreds of thousands of Scottish families, is it any wonder that Cabinet Ministers cannot even remember the name of the First Minister, and that the First Minister has taken to calling the Secretary of State rude names in French? Who is responsible—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman must take his seat. I do not see what the First Minister has to do with his question. It should be a bit more specific, and he must keep it tight. Just a few more words—nothing more.

Who is responsible for the taxation position, and the shambles and negativity in the Labour Cabinet—[Interruption.]

The second intervention was no more worthy of the hon. Gentleman than the first, Mr. Speaker. As for tax con tricks, I am concerned about the suggestion by the Scottish National party that a 3p rise in income tax would be adequate to cover the large financial hole in its income tax proposals. The fact is that it is not the Government’s policy to saddle every Scottish family with an additional tax bill of £5,000. It is not our policy to make the Scottish part of the United Kingdom the highest taxed part of the UK; that is the policy of the SNP.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the consequences of 6p on income tax would be particularly severe in areas where incomes are higher than the Scottish average. Will he consider making an assessment of the impact of local income tax on different parts of Scotland so that we can see the full damage for ourselves?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is the SNP whose sums do not add up, not the Government’s figures. I would simply say that the dividing line is now clearer than ever: it is a 2p cut in the basic rate with the Government, or a 3p—or, indeed, 6p—rise with the Scottish National party.

One in five Scots will be hit by tax rises under the Chancellor’s latest Budget—that is 1 million Scots who are already on low incomes. He has proposed increased tax credits to compensate, but take-up among some groups is as low as 20 per cent. How can the Government pretend to create a fairer tax system when the reality is that the Chancellor is acting like Robin Hood in reverse?

With respect, in the middle of a debate about figures adding up, I am not sure that the Liberal Democrats are the most authoritative source. If the hon. Lady seriously wishes to address the issue of child poverty, she will welcome the child benefit rise to £20 a week. Child benefit was £575 a year in 1997, but by 2010 it will be more than £1,000. Before asking her next question, perhaps she should look at the Institute of Fiscal Studies report on the Budget, which stated that when those changes in the tax system and the tax credits system are taken into account, the poorest 20 per cent. will benefit most from the Budget.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that quite apart from the substantial damage that would be done to the people of Scotland by any proposal to increase income tax by 3p, or to introduce a local income tax, such measures are totally unworkable except at tremendous cost? Does he further agree that they would also require the agreement of the Westminster Departments that would have to collect any such taxes?

Of course, some people advocate a position called fiscal autonomy. For example, Crawford Beveridge argues that there should be a shift in the tax powers. Indeed that individual has been quoted a number of times by several Members, so it would be helpful for people to understand the consequences of such a change. On 29 October, Crawford Beveridge stated:

“I advocate the policy that Scotland should raise the money it spends. I know that could potentially plunge the place into recession, because it is unlikely that the total tax take would be as much as Scotland currently receives under the Barnett formula.”

With friends like that, no wonder those people cannot make their figures add up.

Although I might agree with the Secretary of State about the disastrous impact that the SNP’s 3p tax rise might have, did he really think that anyone in Scotland would not see through a Budget that gave with one hand and took with the other? What does he have to say to people about that?

First, may I say what a pleasure it is to welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House—not least because when he has important contributions to make to public debate in Scotland, he is so often busy with constituency events? None the less, the statement he has just offered us evidences the point that he made in his previous work as an MSP, when he stated that there was a “simple lack of thinkers” on the Scottish Conservative Benches.

On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point about the changes in both income tax and corporation tax, I would have hoped that he would welcome the cut in corporation tax and the cut in the basic rate of income tax. If, as part of the new modern Conservative party, he is seriously concerned with the distributional effects, I again refer him to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which said that the poorest 20 per cent. would benefit most from the Budget.

At least I know the names of my colleagues in Scotland. The Secretary of State is as complacent about poverty in Scotland as he appears to be about the Scottish election campaign, which he is allegedly running. Is he aware that figures released today by the Department for Work and Pensions show that child poverty is increasing, inequality is rising, and the incomes of the poorest fifth are in decline? Is it any wonder that the people of Scotland are so determined to get rid of Labour in May?

The reason why the hon. Gentleman knows the names of his colleagues is that they are all calling for his resignation. Frankly, with a question like that, is it any wonder that he is the only person in history—as far as I am aware—to be rejected as a parliamentary candidate by the Liberal Democrats? The fact is that over the past 10 years child poverty has fallen more rapidly in the United Kingdom than anywhere else in Europe, and child poverty is falling more rapidly in Scotland than in any other part of the UK. Of course there is work to be done, but the party that can be trusted to take it forward is Labour, not the Opposition.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when we are trying to attract new talent to Scotland because of skills shortages, to have the highest taxation in the UK would not be appropriate?

Ferry Services

4. What recent discussions he has had with the European Commission on the effects of the European maritime cabotage regulations on Scottish ferry services. (128978)

Ferry services within Scotland are a matter for the Scottish Executive. The UK Government supported the Executive in making representations to the European Commission on matters relating to ferry services in Scotland, securing a number of important concessions.

The European rules on subsidised ferry services in Scotland are clearly a piece of useless bureaucratic nonsense. They have already forced the Scottish Executive to waste more than £15 million on a pointless tender exercise, and are putting at risk the future of vehicle-carrying services between Dunoon and Gourock. Will the Secretary of State, who represents the UK on the European Transport Council, go to Brussels, tell the Transport Ministers what nonsense the rules are, and get them altered before the Scottish taxpayer is forced to waste even more money, and vehicle-carrying services between Dunoon and Gourock are brought to an end?

May I begin by declaring that the headquarters of CalMac are in my constituency? That allows me to say that I am aware of the concerns over this protracted tendering exercise, which is, as I have said, a matter for the Scottish Executive. Both the Executive and the UK Government agreed that we had to go through the tendering process, although it has led to some slightly ill-informed speculation, and comparisons with the Paris Metro. There is a different regulatory regime for the Metro system and the maritime system—and as far as I am aware, there are no boats on the Paris Metro. People who want to make that comparison should think twice before doing so.

My hon. Friend is aware that I have the island communities of Arran and Cumbrae within my constituency. Has he given consideration to what more can be done to make the lifeline ferry services in Scotland affordable for Scotland’s island communities?

Yes. I know those communities very well indeed, and I was pleased to be in Stornoway two weeks ago with the First Minister when he announced that, if he is re-elected as First Minister, there will be a ferry discount commitment. [Hon. Members: “What’s his name?”] I understand why Opposition Members do not want to hear about the ferry discount scheme that will benefit the lifeline communities in the islands in the west of Scotland, but they will have to. If re-elected, we are going to introduce a scheme that will give a 40 per cent. discount to inhabitants of the islands—not just the Clyde islands such as Arran and Cumbrae, but the western islands. The move to introduce that important ferry subsidy is due to the intense lobbying and great activity of Alasdair Morrison, the Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Western Isles, who, more than anyone else, has helped to bring this scheme about. Great tribute is due to him.

Can the Minister properly explain why £15 million was wasted in the CalMac tendering? Was it because Scottish Executive Liberal Ministers did not get on with the Department for Transport? Yesterday we saw the reality of Labour’s own co-operation between Westminster and Holyrood, when the Health Secretary did not know the First Minister’s name. Some £15 million has been wasted—enough for three years of free travel to my constituency, and especially Stornoway. My constituents have been kept on tenterhooks. CalMac crews have not known is going on. Would it not have been much better for Scotland to have dealt directly with Europe on this matter, rather than involving imperialist Whitehall Departments—not least, to save money?

It is absolutely astonishing that when we are discussing a 40 per cent. ferry discount proposal that will benefit the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, he does not even have the grace to welcome that announcement or say that he is going to support it. That is because he did nothing whatever to bring the announcement about. That stands in sharp contrast to Alasdair Morrison, the Labour MSP, who worked tirelessly on behalf of his constituents and who has secured this great victory for them.

Unemployment

It is almost as if my hon. Friend had prepared his supplementary question in advance, Mr. Speaker.

The stability generated by this Government's management of the economy has delivered the strongest labour market in decades. Scotland has a higher employment rate than the rest of the United Kingdom and nearly all other countries in Europe. There is, of course, no room for complacency. Last week’s Budget shows that work continues towards the long-term goal of employment opportunity for all.

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. These events are just so exciting that I got carried away.

Does the Minister agree that under the benevolent guidance of the comrade Chancellor, unemployment in my constituency has fallen by over 50 per cent. in the last 10 years, youth unemployment is down by over 80 per cent. and long-term unemployment is down by over 90 per cent.? Is he aware that the major employers in my area are the National Savings bank at Cowglen and the Govan shipyards, both of which depend on customers in England and the rest of the United Kingdom for the vast bulk of their business? Is he aware that if bad people wrench the United Kingdom apart, there will be enormous unemployment in my area?

I certainly am aware of the final point that my hon. Friend makes. I have campaigned on the issue of National Savings in Cowglen and on BAE Systems and the Govan yard and the Scotstoun yard, along with him. Independent research published by the Fraser of Allander Institute on 19 March concluded that the Clyde yards contribute more than £238 million to the Scottish economy and support almost 4,500 jobs across Scotland. The fact is that those yards—and the tradition of shipbuilding on the Clyde—have been sustained because of naval orders placed by the British Government. I leave it to the electors of my hon. Friend’s constituency and across the west of Scotland to reach a judgment on whether, if there were not a United Kingdom, they would see those United Kingdom orders coming to the Clyde.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the impact on unemployment of Ministers’ decisions, especially regarding the loss of jobs in the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs because of relocation away from such current offices as Wick? Will he ensure that when Ministers take such decisions, they understand their impact on remote regions?

Of course, I am happy to examine the specific point that is of direct constituency interest to the hon. Gentleman. However, I can assure him that the DWP and other Departments are in the process of increasing the computerisation of systems that are inevitably and appropriately being upgraded in the light of continuing customer demand.

Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on, or respond to, the fact that HMRC employs 1,000-plus people in my constituency, which has a good employment record? What would happen in the event of Scotland being ripped away from the rest of the UK?

My hon. Friend is entirely right to recognise the risks that would be caused to jobs coming through the DWP, Customs and Excise and other Government agencies that employ people in the United Kingdom. Both the public and private sectors have made a contribution to the uplift in employment that we have seen in recent years. While, of course, we have seen more doctors, nurses and teachers, the private sector too is growing. That is why I welcome the recent statement by Andrew McLaughlin, the Royal Bank of Scotland Group’s chief economist, in which he said:

“Growth in private sector job creation hit a new high in February.”

The Secretary of State will be aware of the support employment projects run at Falkirk football club and at Dens and Tannadice in Dundee, which take small groups of people and build them up with confidence, motivation skills and the soft skills that employers need. He might also be aware of the community project in Leith called Working Rite, which takes young unemployed people and gives them, pre-apprenticeship, one-to-one mentoring with journeymen and experienced tradesmen. All those projects have a massive success rate, so does the Secretary of State agree that for that group of people, who have traditionally found it hard to get into employment, such a one-to-one, soft-skill, motivation, mentoring and coaching process might be more applicable than the traditional one-size-fits-all approach on finding employment that Governments have historically taken?

Of course, the challenge that we face on worklessness has evolved. When we were first elected in 1997, there were many people who had found themselves unemployed as a consequence of two recessions in as many decades. Now we are addressing people with specific needs, such as those who are not job-ready because of numeracy or literacy problems, or drug dependency. That is why it is important that a range of providers is working to offer the necessary assistance. In my constituency an organisation called Working Links is undertaking such work, and I welcome the progress that it has made.

Perhaps there is one matter on which the Secretary of State and I can agree: Scotland’s place in the Union has contributed greatly to employment levels in Scotland over the years. The commitment to the Union is absolute among Conservative Members, but does the Secretary of State really believe that bullying and scaremongering is the way to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom? Does he not agree that it is incumbent on all Unionists to make a positive case for the Union?

I hope that there is common ground between us that the way not to make a case for the Union is to have a large group of students turning up with megaphones without batteries in them.

Inward Investment

6. What recent estimate he has made of the level of inward investment in the Scottish economy; and if he will make a statement. (128980)

There are no official estimates of the level of inward investment in Scotland, but the most recent data produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that the UK was the world’s largest recipient of inward foreign direct investment in 2005, while Ernst and Young’s inward investment monitor showed that Scotland attracted more of that inward investment than any other part of the UK, apart from the south-east of England.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the level of inward investment to which he referred is due to the United Kingdom’s strong and stable economy? Does he further agree that on 3 May, if Scottish nationalists are given the chance to start divorce proceedings from the United Kingdoms, it will damage our—

I certainly agree that inward investment has a key role to play, and the competitiveness of the British economy and the Scottish economy is essential in attracting that inward investment. That is why I welcome the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness report of 2006, which ranked the UK 10th in its table of international business competitiveness. It is 11 places above Ireland, and it is above Norway, Iceland, Canada and France.

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Affordable Housing (North Yorkshire)

There have been significant increases in the number of home owners in North Yorkshire over the past 10 years. However, house prices have gone up, putting pressure on first-time buyers, and the number of homes being built in Yorkshire still falls short of the number of new households. That is why we are increasing investment in affordable housing in Yorkshire—but we need to build more homes of all kinds.

Does the Minister share my concern that not only is the average cost of housing in North Yorkshire, and Yorkshire and the Humber as a whole, higher than the average price in the rest of England, but average earnings are lower, so there is a double effect? In addition, the impact of council tax increases has been stark, and in 2005 some 10,500 affordable homes were lost through the right-to-buy scheme. What exactly are her Government doing to promote affordable housing in North Yorkshire?

The hon. Lady will be aware that we put in place a series of safeguards on the right to buy—a policy that, as she knows, her party introduced. We are doubling investment in affordable housing in Yorkshire, but she, and councils across Yorkshire, need to realise that we need to build more homes. Local councils can themselves do more, for example through section 106 agreements, which still deliver only a small proportion of the affordable homes across North Yorkshire.

House prices in York have increased faster than house prices across the country as a whole. They used to be lower than the average price nationally but now they are considerably higher, and young working couples are being priced out of their own city. York has built 600 homes under section 106 agreements, and could build more if it got more social housing subsidy from the Government. Will more Government subsidy be coming to York?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We need more affordable housing across Yorkshire. That is why we have already doubled investment in affordable housing in Yorkshire, as I said. We want to support the provision of more affordable homes through the spending review, but we think that local authorities need to do their bit. Certainly, across the northern regions fewer resources come from section 106 than in other areas, and we believe that by working alongside other programmes, we can do more to get those additional affordable homes.

The Government are, crucially, responsible for key elements of housing supply in North Yorkshire and the wider Yorkshire and the Humber region. One respect in which Ministers are directly responsible for the area is through the millennium community scheme. Ten years ago, in 1997, the Government announced that they were creating seven new millennium villages. One of them, Allerton Bywater, is in Yorkshire. The scheme has so far cost a massive £131,565,732, but in Allerton only 44 houses have been built. Can Ministers explain why the scheme has been such an expensive failure? Where has all the money gone?

I invite the hon. Gentleman to come to Allerton Bywater and see the huge progress that has been made in turning round a derelict pit site that needed considerable investment and remediation. That coalfield community had been abandoned by the Conservative Party for many years, but it is now receiving new investment in new facilities. There are major new programmes, in which homes are being built and new facilities provided for the local community, including community centres and new parks and spaces. He should come and see the impact of new investment, not only in Greenwich millennium village, but in Allerton Bywater millennium village and a series of villages across the country. He knows from reading the answers to his own parliamentary questions that he is utterly misrepresenting the figures. He should recognise the important benefits that are being created for communities, which he would be dishonest to ignore.

Inter-faith Forums

17. What steps her Department is taking to promote inter-faith forums as a means of tackling religious extremism. (129831)

Inter-faith initiatives play a key role in tackling and isolating violent extremist activity. My Department supports the Inter Faith Network, which represents the collective voice of all main faith communities and helps regional and local bodies to contribute to community cohesion. The work of community groups is at the heart of our response to the challenge that we face from violent extremism.

I am aware of the good work done in Portsmouth with Portsmouth Interfaith Forum in building networks in hard to reach communities across the faiths, largely due to a full-time inter-faith co-ordinator. However, because of the vagaries of the faith communities capacity-building funding, what is funded in year 1 cannot be funded in year 2, so the work looks as though it may go to waste. Will my right hon. Friend agree to look into the matter for me?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she is doing in championing the needs of her constituents. Clearly, I am not familiar with the particular programme that she mentions, although I am happy to look into that. She is right to draw attention to the work that inter-faith activity can do. The Department has invested £5 million this year, and the same last year, in that work. We are also working extremely closely with the Office of the Third Sector. In its review of voluntary sector activity, including faith communities, we are thinking about how we can ensure the sustainability of funding going forward, which I know is of huge interest to those involved in the field.

Has the Secretary of State filled the post of director general, equality, in her Department, a post that is supposed to be in charge of leading the tackling extremism together strategy? If she has, why did it take over a year and a half, and thousands of pounds worth of advertising, to fill that space?

Yes, we have. The reason we went through a search process was because the community cohesion element of the work that was with the Home Office came to the new Department for Communities and Local Government. It is right that it has done so, because now we are able to think about equalities in the round, taking account of the views of faith groups as we take account of the views of other equalities groups. That give us a huge opportunity, going forward, to think through how we make this country and this society a fairer and better place for people to live. We have a candidate of fantastic calibre in that job to take that work forward.

I welcome all the good work that the Secretary of State and the Minister for Women and Equality are doing on the equality agenda. On inter-faith activity, does my right hon. Friend agree that getting young people together in those forums is particularly important? Bridging the divide at an early age is crucial to tackling it later. What does she see as the role of the new commission in trying to achieve her stated ambition to make sure that the work is continued?

My right hon. Friend is right to say that involving young people in inter-faith work and in joint and shared activity is vital to our future. Evidence shows that young people are particularly prone to the messages from violent extremists. If we are to ensure that they have the defences that they need and that communities are resilient to the threat posed by violent extremists, we need to engage as many young people as possible. The new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, to which my right hon. Friend referred, will have a particular role in making sure that people of all ages and across all faiths are able to have their voices heard. In the Muslim community especially, and also at local authority level, we face a challenge as a Government to make sure that the voices of young people and women are heard in the debate—voices that have for too long been neglected.

Local Democracy

On 8 February, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the launch of an independent Commission on Local Councillors to consider the incentives and barriers to people serving as councillors and to make recommendations. The commission will consider a range of issues, including encouraging people who are able, qualified and representative to be candidates to serve as councillors. The commission is expected to report in the autumn.

I welcome the Government’s move to establish the commission. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the national census of local authority councillors published recently by the Local Government Association and others, and is therefore also aware of the scale of the task faced by the commission. The census shows that at present councillors are far from fully representative of the communities they serve, that their average age is in the late 50s, and that all parties are struggling to attract and retain council candidates of calibre. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a challenge for the Government, for local government and for all political parties if those of us who care about the future of local democracy are to see it flourish?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who served with distinction as leader of his city—one of the most diverse cities in our country—for, I believe, 18 years. He is right to draw this matter to our attention. I will not list the figures from the census, but Members will gather that the pattern across the country is that councillors are not as representative of communities as we would all like them to be—although I have to say that some parties start from a better base than others.

Does the Minister agree that one of the biggest disincentives preventing people from becoming involved in local government is the feeling that their role makes no difference? Would not one of the best ways of making people feel they can make a difference as councillors be to give them back more control over local decision making and local spending, perhaps by supporting the Sustainable Communities Bill?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the ingenuity of his question, which is linked to Question 19. It is for exactly that reason that our proposals in our White Paper and in our Bill will rightly give councillors more powers—particularly in their role as ward councillors, which involves the implementation of measures such as the community call for action.

The Minister will know that the number of councillors aged 45 or less has halved in the past 20 years, from 26 per cent. in 1985 to a paltry 13.5 per cent. last year. Obviously, the introduction of education for citizenship as part of the national curriculum will help, but what other initiatives can we pursue to encourage more young people to become councillors?

I would not want to give my hon. Friend or, indeed, anyone else the impression that I was biased against people over 45—for obvious reasons—but his point is very important. Unless we can involve younger people in representing our communities, local government will not be as healthy as we would all like it to be. As well as the measures outlined in the announcement of the commission, the Government are taking a range of measures, particularly with the Department for Education and Skills, but also with other Departments, to pursue initiatives such as the Youth Parliament and other youth forums, all of which can help.

Should not the Minister acknowledge the role that his Government have played in discouraging councillors over the past 10 years? Is it not the case that too many councillors up and down the land have expressed their despair at the fact that, through their manic culture of targets, quotas and directives, the Government have completely distorted the relationship between national and local government?

In 2005-06, 5,091 circulars and directives were delivered to councils from the Government—50 per working week. The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, with which we have dealt recently, offered the Minister more chances to be permissive to councils in terms of their leadership structure, limitations on targets and the forced abolition of patient forums, all of which he turned down. Is it not the case that those standing as councillors and wanting to be free of such wretched Government control still do so more in hope than in expectation?

I do not accept the picture that the hon. Gentleman paints. The comprehensive performance assessment has led to improvement in the quality of public services provided by local councils, but the new arrangements—part-heralded by the Bill on whose Committee the hon. Gentleman served—strip away many of those targets in the new regime and allow for the local decision making that we and the Local Government Association want.

While high standards and probity are important in the lives of local authorities, does the Minister accept that some of the activities of the Standards Board work against councils? Are not the long delays, and the fact that the Standards Board does not tell councillors about an initial complaint, worth investigating?

It is because of such representations that changes have been made to the operation and logistics of the Standards Board and to the code of conduct upon which we consulted recently and which the Committee debated. I think that my hon. Friend will find the outcome to his satisfaction.

Sustainable Communities Bill

The Sustainable Communities Bill is, of course, a private Member’s Bill. I understand that representatives of the Bill’s supporters recently met the Local Government Association to discuss it, as I will shortly.

The Minister will be aware that more than 400 Members from both sides of the House, including not only the whole Conservative party but half the parliamentary Labour party, are supporting the Bill. Can he explain why the Secretary of State is the only Member to have refused to have local meetings in her constituency, having turned down a whole range of possible dates? Is not that very worrying? Can he give the House an absolute assurance that the Government will do nothing to block or impede the Bill when it returns to the House?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met the supporters of the Bill, as have I. Indeed, last night we had a very interesting and successful rally about the themes of the Bill in Central Hall, Westminster, at which the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) spoke. I was able to point out to him and to others that the Government are supportive of the goals of the Bill, as I told the House when it was debated. However, whatever its virtues, those who claim that it will solve every problem in their constituencies are sadly mistaken.

One of the great attractions of such legislation is that it would give local authorities in the UK the same powers and entitlements that they have in other parts of Europe—in France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy—including the right to set energy generating and water recycling standards so as to exceed national targets rather than follow them. Will the Minister look again at the proposals that are being made for policy planning guidelines to give UK local authorities the same across-the-board entitlements as their counterparts in Europe?

My hon. Friend will know that we have our goal of zero carbon homes. We will indeed be considering the points that he raises. Many of the measures already contained in legislation before the House move towards substantial powers being held locally, particularly through the local area agreement process. I am pleased to tell the House that by the end of this week every local authority in England will have a local area agreement.

Given that the Prime Minister wrote to the Secretary of State on 9 May last year charging her with providing radical devolution to local communities, can the Minister explain why he has such a hang-up about the Sustainable Communities Bill, which would do precisely that? Can he now throw his weight, and get his Department to throw its weight, behind the Bill and set local authorities free to achieve what the Prime Minister wanted the Secretary of State to achieve?

The measures that the Government have brought before the House on sustainable communities strategies, local development frameworks, local area agreements and the new statutory framework move the relationship substantially from the centre to local areas. As regards the Sustainable Communities Bill, my colleagues and I will make it better and make it workable. I would have thought that that would be welcomed by Members, such as the hon. Gentleman, who are supporting it. It would not be right or responsible for a Government to agree to pass a Bill in the knowledge that their legal advisers and parliamentary counsel had pointed out deficiencies in it. That is why I am adopting the approach of tabling amendments, as the hon. Gentleman will know if he is following the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he said last night. Does he agree that the best way to scrutinise the Bill properly is to get it into Committee? There have been many negotiations behind the scenes and I greatly appreciate what my hon. Friend has done to make that happen. However, we need the Bill to come into Committee so that we can properly discuss how to move forward with that important measure.

My hon. Friend is right. Of course, the measure is a private Member’s Bill and its promoter, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who cannot be here today, is entering into constructive discussions with the Department and me about the way in which we can ensure that its goals and objectives are met in a manner that improves existing legislation and the measure. However, the Bill is the property of the House.

Last night, we all enjoyed the Minister’s company before a rally of more than 1,000 people. However, the campaigners were disappointed to hear his view that the Sustainable Communities Bill is superfluous because its spirit and letter are covered by other Government measures. Where, in legislation, is the requirement to publish in full all the taxpayers’ money spent in a locality and the discretion for local authorities to spend it as they see fit?

The hon. Lady does not accurately reflect my comments at the rally last night. I did not use the word “superfluous” and it is wrong to try to portray the Government’s attitude in that way. It is also wrong to tell constituents and the public in general that passing the Bill, virtuous though it is, will stop every pub, shop and post office closing and bring nirvana to our constituencies. It will not. It is, frankly, misleading to suggest that. I agreed with one thing—I emphasise “one”—that the right hon. Member for Witney said, which is that it is no good people saying one thing and doing another. I would have thought that the party of the free market wanted a level playing field, not the use of planning laws for centralised control—

High Hedges

20. What guidance her Department gives to councils that impose charges to deal with complaints under the high hedges provisions contained in part 8 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003; and if she will make a statement. (129834)

Our advice on fees under the high hedges legislation is in the guidance document “High Hedges Complaints: Prevention and Cure.” It states that each local authority is responsible for deciding whether, and at what level, to charge for dealing with complaints about high hedges.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. She knows that I have tried to highlight the unfairness associated with the policy for some time. I cannot understand why there should be any difference between investigating a planning violation or a noisy neighbours problem and a high hedges complaint. Yet action on one is free but action on other costs more than £600 in some local authorities. Some of my elderly constituents cannot afford the £320 that it costs in the Bristol area. I have been assured by some of my hon. Friend’s predecessors that the matter is kept under constant review. Does she anticipate any results from that constant scrutiny?

As my hon. Friend will remember, the subject of high hedges was tackled initially in a private Member’s Bill and then taken up by the Government. Essentially, we enabled the existence of a system to deal with private matters, which concern only the individuals directly involved. That is different from antisocial behaviour such as noise nuisance. We have made it clear that local councils are in a position to determine what they should charge. If they so chose, they could charge less for people who are on low incomes or over a certain age.

Has the Minister undertaken an estimate of the total amount of money raised through complaint charges since the Act came into force?

No, we do not collect centrally the data on the operation of high hedges legislation, so that information is not available. To respond further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) about a review, we consider it too early to reach a conclusion on these matters. We are not receiving a great deal of complaints about how the 2003 Act is operating, so we do not believe that there are many problems with it. We will review it in due course, but not yet.

New Homes

The analysis in the Barker review showed that we should aim to deliver about 200,000 new homes a year to prevent future problems with affordability. The level of house building has increased from around 130,000 to 180,000, but we need to go further.

My constituents want to know that they have a Government who are on their side, helping people who are working hard on limited incomes to get on in life. What more can the Government do to help people earning perhaps £10,000 or £12,000 a year who are keen to start a family, but want to wait until they have got on the housing ladder and can buy or rent a home of their own?

We will be helping 160,000 families into shared ownership programmes by 2010, but, frankly, we also have to get serious about building more homes. My hon. Friend will know that there is continued opposition, including from the Opposition Benches, to building more houses. Early-day motion 519 of the last Session stated that the Government’s housing proposals would

“lead to unacceptable overdevelopment in Surrey and other parts of the South East”.

It was signed by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and, frankly, that shows an irresponsible attitude towards the first-time buyers of the future.

Will the Minister follow up her comment about irresponsible decisions by estimating how many of those new homes will be built on natural floodplains?

The hon. Gentleman will know that housing developments around natural floodplains have been in place over our history. Many developments in the city of York and elsewhere are in natural floodplains, but he will also know that we have tightened the planning guidance in that area. In particular, we set out new planning policy guidance before Christmas in order to prevent inappropriate development in flood areas and ensure that homes are sustainable for the future.

Do we not need to target more new housing specifically at young people, particularly those who are homeless, or about to be homeless? Will the Government develop a strategy to promote the building of foyer projects in each town throughout the country?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the good work that foyer projects do. We have set a target to end the use of bed and breakfast for young homeless people, as we think it inappropriate. Foyer schemes are one way of doing things, but there may be other ways of providing supported housing for young people in communities. My hon. Friend is right to say that it should be a priority. We have made great progress helping families out of homelessness and now we want to do more for young people.

Thirty-three years ago, I was vice-chair of housing in Luton when we had a housing waiting list of 4,000 families. We simply built and bought thousands of homes and housed all on that waiting list. Our housing waiting list is even bigger now and the majority of people on it cannot contemplate home ownership, as it is simply beyond them. I suggest that my hon. Friend should look again at what we used to do in the ’70s and perhaps replicate it now.

My hon. Friend will know that the housing market has changed substantially since the 1970s, and that we now have far more home owners than we did then. He will also know that it is right to increase market housing, along with more shared ownership and social housing. I think that councils need to play a stronger role in that process as part of the investment in new housing for the next few years.

Landlords

The mandatory licensing of high-risk houses in multiple occupation and discretionary powers for local authorities to license other private rented accommodation were introduced in April 2006. From 6 April this year, we will introduce a scheme to protect tenancy deposits.

There has certainly been excellent short and medium-term progress at the bottom end of the market in the schemes for HMO licensing and tenancy deposit protection, but does the Secretary of State agree that we need some long-term reforms in this sector—either by licensing rented property or by encouraging landlords to sign up to minimum management standards, greater security of tenure and linking rent rises only to inflation? That would make private sector renting much more attractive and guarantee a lot more tenants decent homes. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

I agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend’s comments. We should have a dual approach. First, we should encourage minimum standards and the spread of good practice across the sector. We are doing that by supporting accreditation schemes, whereby local authorities work with landlords to drive up standards across the sector. Secondly, we should give local authorities the powers that they need where management and landlords are clearly failing in their duties. If we take that two-pronged approach, we will avoid a situation in which hundreds and thousands of tenants throughout the country face the consequences of extraordinarily poor management on occasion, and insecurity in their tenure as well.

Will my right hon. Friend examine the grave situation on Tyneside and further afield, where people who find themselves in debt, such as my constituents Anthony and Gillian McCluskey, are enticed to sell their property at far below its market value to unscrupulous property companies on the assumption that they can rent the property back, only to be given notice to quit very shortly afterwards?

I will certainly look into that issue. I thank my hon. Friend for drawing it to my attention; I understand that he has raised it before in this House. It is vital that anyone who is considering a sale and leaseback arrangement takes good quality legal advice. I know that my hon. Friend is working with his local citizens advice bureau to make sure that potentially vulnerable people are given the best possible advice and steered in the direction of legal advice, so that they can take out appropriate arrangements.