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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2007

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Digital Switchover

1. What steps the Government are taking to raise awareness of digital switchover in Scotland; and when he last discussed this matter with Ofcom and Digital UK. (156888)

The Secretary of State recently met Ofcom and I met Paul Hughes, Digital UK’s national manager for Scotland, over the summer. In addition, I will address a conference in Scotland next month on the opportunities presented by digital switchover. Book early to avoid disappointment.

The Minister knows that there are currently teething problems in Whitehaven, especially with people not knowing about the switchover. My constituency has an above average number of elderly people, whose television is not a luxury but a necessity. What contact has my hon. Friend made with, for example, Glasgow city council, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Citizens Advice Scotland and the electricity boards to ensure that information is issued especially to the elderly about the changeover?

My hon. Friend mentioned Whitehaven, which is the first part of the UK to switch over. That will happen tomorrow. I was not aware of the teething problems that he mentioned. When I last examined the matter, I was told that awareness in Whitehaven was 100 per cent., which sounded suspiciously North Korean, but I am prepared to believe that the percentage is high. He is right that the key to it all is public awareness. No single organisation—be it Digital UK or the BBC—will achieve that on its own. We need to work together—the councils, the Scottish Executive and the registered social landlords, who also have a role to play—so that, when the scheme is extended throughout Scotland, beginning in Borders in 2008 and in the rest of Scotland in 2010, there is awareness of it, ensuring that people know that switchover will happen and know the steps that they have to take. In addition, a help scheme will be in place for the elderly and vulnerable people to whom my hon. Friend referred, so that they do not lose out on that opportunity.

The help scheme will not kick in until close to switchover. What is happening now to develop new handsets for the visually impaired, those with disabilities who have difficulty accessing digital TV, and those, mainly the elderly, who may need to buy a new TV before the help scheme kicks in in their area but also need access to digital advice now so that they do not miss out when the switchover happens?

That is precisely why Digital UK appointed a national manager for Scotland, Paul Hughes, and why I met him earlier. I pay tribute to him for raising the issue of the handset for people with disabilities. After he prompted me, I spoke to Vicki Nash of Ofcom Scotland about the matter. I also discussed it with the Scottish Consumer Council because it is a genuine concern. Ofcom Scotland has conducted some research on how useable the handsets are, the results of which are being fed back into the former Department of Trade and Industry—now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—taskforce on the matter. As I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), it is important that no one loses out, especially those who have visual or other disabilities.

Does my hon. Friend agree that digital television provides opportunities, especially for my constituents through North Lanarkshire local authority, which provides information and tremendous services? Will he encourage other local authorities to conduct a similar exercise?

My hon. Friend is right. Indeed, she pre-empts excerpts of my keynote speech next month. North Lanarkshire has proposed a creative and imaginative scheme, which is a way to disseminate information throughout the area so that everybody knows the services to which they are entitled and that they can access. It is an excellent programme, which I thoroughly recommend to other local authority areas, not only in Scotland but throughout the UK.

Ministerial Meetings

I understand that the frequency and format of my meetings with the First Minister are consistent with those of our predecessors. I have also had a series of informal meetings with the First Minister. For example, I met him as recently as this Saturday when we watched Scotland’s magnificent victory over Ukraine at Hampden Park.

What recent discussions has the Secretary of State held with the First Minister about Glasgow’s Commonwealth games bid? What advice has he given the First Minister, who will shortly lead a delegation of 46 members to Sri Lanka to hear the announcement? Does he agree with Glasgow city councillor John Mason, who says that the size of the delegation is “very excessive”? Will the right hon. Gentleman join the delegation?

I have no plans to join the delegation. The appropriateness of the size of the delegation will be determined by the outcome of the lobbying. If Glasgow—as I expect that it will—wins the Commonwealth games, we will look back at the size of the delegation, and if every member has made a contribution to that appropriate outcome, we will celebrate them. It is not in my gift to determine who goes—I have no expertise in such lobbying; perhaps the hon. Gentleman does. If so, he should let Glasgow have the benefit of it. We all look forward to a successful bid. I am sure that he will cheer as loudly as the rest of us when Glasgow makes a successful bid for the Commonwealth games.

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend will take the opportunity, next time he meets the First Minister, to remind him that my constituents in Ochil and South Perthshire expect to see him working co-operatively and constructively in Scotland’s interests, not using the opportunity for party political grandstanding.

I say to my hon. Friend, and I have said in the past, that my interest as the Secretary of State for Scotland is primarily in making devolution work for the people of Scotland. I am in absolutely no doubt that it will work in the interests of the people of Scotland only if I personally have a constructive relationship with the First Minister, which I believe I do, and if he and his Ministers develop constructive relationships with my colleagues. Some of the activity of the past week suggests that, in order for us to do that, they might need to resist the temptation to develop confrontation out of what appeared to be co-operation.

With that good spirit in mind, will the Secretary of State endeavour in his next meeting with the First Minister to join him, the National Farmers Union Scotland and the Scottish Government in battling for Scottish farmers and Scottish crofters? Will he lend his weight to the campaign for the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to live up to its responsibility and fully cover all welfare and compensation payments arising from foot and mouth?

Like everyone else in the House—and everyone else in Scotland—I have enormous sympathy for farmers and the plight that they face. I am among the many hon. Members who have constituents who are directly affected by those circumstances. Our concern for them is heightened by the fact that the events that generated those circumstances were well beyond their control. They were the victims. The hon. Gentleman will know from his colleagues in Scotland that Scotland Office Ministers have been working closely with ministerial colleagues on a range of issues that arose out of the outbreak of foot and mouth, from hours for haulage drivers all the way to support for farmers. Indeed, I met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this morning to discuss that very issue.

I commend the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) for leading a genuinely cross-party initiative and for engaging constructively. I understand that he will be meeting farmers later today with the Secretary of State. He is to be commended for that. Perhaps the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) and some of the members of his party could take a leaf out of that book, by working in co-operation and not in confrontation.

Next time my right hon. Friend meets the First Minister, will he raise the question of our armed forces returning to the UK? If our service personnel return to an English local authority, they receive priority treatment through the health service, but in Scotland they do not. Will my right hon. Friend raise with the First Minister the important question of how our service personnel are treated in Scotland?

My hon. Friend may well have uncovered an application of what I thought was a cross-UK policy to give veterans priority in relation to health service treatment. I suspect that that is not the only area where there are differences between the rest of the United Kingdom and Scotland in relation to veterans’ access to public services. For example, he will know from the work that he has been doing on the Select Committee on Defence that we are making quite significant progress here in England, through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government among others, on removing some of the impediments that armed forces personnel face in accessing social housing. Those are of course challenges that the Scottish Executive face, too. I am sure that, with the encouragement of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) and others, they will be up to those challenges, but there are still gaps in their provision of service.

May I impress upon the Secretary of State the importance of making communication work between London and Edinburgh? If communication between his Department and the Scottish Government in Edinburgh does not work, the devolutionary settlement will not work, and that can lead in only one direction. The people who will suffer in the meantime are those whom we are supposed to represent here, such as those in the Scottish livestock industry, to which he has referred. I am having to take representatives of the industry, along with people from other parties, to meet the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this evening, simply because relations between the two Departments have broken down.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the parties to a successful devolutionary settlement, at Government level, must be able to work with each other openly and with confidence. Undoubtedly, some of those currently in that partnership appear to have something to learn about such work, and about the degree of trust necessary; I am certain that they will learn. On support for the livestock industry, I have commended the hon. Gentleman on his action, and I assure him that he will find support from Ministers in the Scotland Office. We are doing everything in our power to ensure that the issue is resolved, not only in the best interests of the farming community but in those of the welfare of animals.

Instead of constantly picking a fight with Westminster, the policy-light and heavily aggressive Scottish National party Administration in Edinburgh should provide solutions to the everyday problems faced by our constituents, whether in health or education, and help to make Scotland a better place. Does the Secretary of State agree that the £30 billion comprehensive spending review settlement for Scotland—which, incidentally, is double what Scotland received in 1999—is a good deal for Scotland, and that enough policy measures can be implemented with that generous budget?

I agree with my right hon. Friend that the Scottish Executive have at their disposal a budget that, on any measure, is twice what Donald Dewar had when devolved Government took responsibility for areas of public policy delivery. More immediately, the Scottish people are watching exactly what the minority Administration in Scotland deliver. They promise announcements: by my calculation, they have told us that about 60 of their policy promises have been delayed pending the generous settlement that they have received. Their manifesto made several very important promises, and they ought to know that the people of Scotland are watching. Those who were voted in to keep an eye on them in government will bring to the attention of the Scottish people their failure to deliver, I suspect, on every single one of those promises.

We heard today, and in the last Scottish questions on 10 July, the Secretary of State’s commitment to co-operate. At the beginning of this term of the Scottish Parliament, the new First Minister said that under his stewardship the Scottish Parliament would be about compromise, concession, intelligent debate and mature discussion. The Secretary of State will accept, however, that the people of Scotland have not seen that over the past two weeks, and that they expect and deserve better from both their Governments. Does he now accept that the memorandum of understanding on managing the relationships between the UK Government and devolved Administrations is no longer fit for purpose? Does he agree that the Secretary of State for Justice should review it as soon as possible?

The memorandum of understanding to which the hon. Gentleman refers says, in particular, that most contacts between the Government and devolved Administrations

“should be carried out on a bilateral or multi-lateral basis, between departments which deal on a day-to-day basis with the issues at stake”.

That is how the UK Government want things to work in practice. There is a long record of such arrangements working in practice, benefiting not only the people of Scotland but those of Northern Ireland, Wales and London. There is no reason why we cannot return to that basis, within the context of the existing memorandum of understanding. We ought to be able to get to a situation, within the existing memorandum of understanding, in which not only can the words of co-operation be used but the deeds of co-operation are manifest.

On foot and mouth compensation, surely the whole episode was entirely predictable as soon as the draft statement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was changed. Why did not the Secretary of State for Scotland move to manage that situation? Will he tell the House when he knew that foot and mouth compensation had been offered by DEFRA, and when he knew that the terms of that offer had been changed? Will he clarify newspaper reports that the Minister of State has been charged with running round Whitehall Departments to tell them now not to give information to Scotland?

The Minister of State has been charged with no such responsibility. The hon. Gentleman ought not to believe everything that he reads in the newspaper, even if he has briefed the newspaper himself—indeed, especially if he has briefed the newspaper himself: that might be a reason for not believing what is in it.

In relation to the issue—[Hon. Members: “When?”] Perhaps Conservative Front Benchers would have the good manners at least to wait until the question has been answered before deciding that it has not been answered.

At no point was I aware that an offer had been made and withdrawn, because no such offer was ever made and withdrawn. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made that absolutely clear. He has personally made it public that he played no part in the sort of behaviour in which he was accused of taking part, and in withdrawing an offer that had been made.

All of us who have been in government—and there are still some Members on the Conservative Benches who have experience in government—know fine well about discussions on access to the reserve. If the scale and nature of a bid is appropriate to a reserve that is held for particular purposes, there will be arguments about access to it, but all who have been in government know full well that that involves a debate with the Treasury. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear, we shall be able to see whether it supports such a bid as the situation evolves.

Post Office Closures

 3. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on post office closures in Scotland. (156891)

I have regular such discussions with ministerial colleagues. The Minister of State for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr McFadden), recently visited Dumfries and Galloway, where he saw different methods of postal services provision working well in rural areas.

Under this Labour Government, a quarter of post offices in the west of Scotland have already closed. Next week, when the public consultation starts, we shall learn which of the remaining 300 will face the axe. Does the Minister think that the consultation will be meaningful? Does he expect that if the public voice strong opposition, a significant number of the post offices earmarked for closure will be granted a reprieve?

As I have told the hon. Lady in the past, the Government are firmly committed to maintaining a viable and sustainable post office network. That is why we have already invested £2 billion and are investing a further £1.7 billion. As the hon. Lady knows, however, the Post Office is subject to all sorts of pressures, and there are all sorts of reasons why individual post office branches must close. The hon. Lady found that out for herself recently when she campaigned to save a branch, only to discover that the reason for its being threatened with closure was that the local Liberal Democrat council was selling the building that housed it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if post offices are to serve communities across Scotland, it is imperative for account to be taken of the length of the journeys that people must undertake in order to visit them?

My hon. Friend is entirely right, but I would go further: the problem is not just the length of the journey but the impediments in the way of it. I have encountered examples in which a journey described as being only about half a mile involved a motorway which prevented people from travelling the half-mile. That is why the consultation will consider factors such as the placing of motorways, as well as bus routes, sea crossings, rivers, mountains and so forth. All those factors must be taken into consideration. We are committed to ensuring that people can still have access to postal services, because we believe in the value of the Post Office. That is why we are investing so heavily in maintaining a post office network.

The official consultation period shows that there are a mere 12 weeks between the announcement of the proposals to the public and their implementation. The Post Office seems reluctant to engage in public meetings throughout the process in the areas concerned. As the largest stakeholder, will the Government ensure that Post Office management face the public in those areas and answer their questions? Will they also ensure that the benchmark used in deciding which branches are closed relates to whether people view a post office as a necessity rather than a convenience?

The hon. Gentleman is right to this extent: there must be a proper and transparent process. People need to see the criteria against which decisions on individual post offices will be made. We are not adopting a purely commercial stance on this issue; if we were, the Post Office would be decimated not only in Scotland but throughout the UK. Instead, we are capping a maximum number of closures, and we are continuing with sustained investment. I must also say that this transparent, open and sustained programme of post office closures stands in stark contrast to the 3,500 post office closures when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power, when there was no proper management, no proper investment, no proper strategy and no proper help and support for the communities left bereft.

Child Poverty (Glasgow)

5. What recent estimate he has made of the number of children in the City of Glasgow area living in poverty. (156893)

The Scottish measurement of poverty unfortunately does not provide numbers for households in each local authority. In Scotland, however, the number of children living in relative poverty, after housing costs, has fallen from 330,000 in 1998-99 to 250,000 in 2005-06—a drop of 80,000.

As a regular visitor to my constituency, does my right hon. Friend agree that the statistics should be measured by local authority area? Is he aware that almost 33,000 grants for clothes and shoes for schoolchildren were made to needy families in Glasgow last year? That is an unacceptably high figure in this day and age. Will he therefore agree as a matter of urgency to meet the leaders of Glasgow city council and the Scottish Executive to discuss what additional resources can be made available to lift many more Glasgow children out of poverty and to give them a better chance of a decent life in future?

As my hon. Friend points out, I have occasion to be in his constituency the odd time, and I also pass through it. I commend him on his campaigning work for decades against poverty among his constituents. I have over the past 10 years witnessed a transformation of his constituency. Housing has been generated in greater numbers than I have ever seen before in a lifetime of being in and around it. I can also think of at least two shopping centres that have been developed, and a significant number of employment opportunities have recently been developing there. However, my hon. Friend is right to point out that, despite all that improvement and all the support from this Government to help people out of poverty through a number of measures, there is still a hard core of poverty in his constituency. That is a result of decades of neglect, principally by the Conservatives.

I will be perfectly content to meet the leadership of Glasgow city council—I have done so on a number of occasions since I took up this post—and others, to ensure that resources and initiatives are appropriately directed into Glasgow, because it deserves the opportunity to continue to improve as it has done over the past decade.

Order. So that the House knows what I am doing, that was a closed question about the city of Glasgow. I call Mr. Mark Pritchard.

Trade Links (Scotland/Malawi)

6. What steps his Department is taking to foster trade links between Scotland and Malawi; and if he will make a statement. (156894)

The Scotland Office does not have a remit for developing international trade, but I am happy to report that UK Government spending on Malawi amounts to some £70 million. For the sake of completeness, I should add that the Scottish Executive’s contribution to international development in Malawi is £3 million.

Notwithstanding Scotland’s close links to Malawi dating back to Dr. Livingstone, does the Minister share my concern that when the new chief of Blantyre—also known as the British high commissioner—was in charge of Scotland, albeit briefly, he set up a Scottish international aid charity and that that charity might be competing with, rather than complementing, the excellent and important work of the Department for International Development, which is, of course, a reserved matter?

If that were the case there would be a concern, but there is not a concern because DFID officials are working closely with Scottish Executive officials on that. I should point out that some 560 DFID officials work in East Kilbride, where a large part of the Department is based, and that extends Scotland’s contribution to international aid and development. When I saw that this question had been tabled, I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would congratulate the Government on an 11 per cent. increase in international aid, reversing years of decline and cuts to the international aid budget under the last Tory Government, so that we are now well on the way to meeting our international obligations.

Employment Levels

The employment level in Scotland stands at 2.54 million, with the rate of employment at 76.7 per cent. The current employment level and rate are both at near historic levels.

The Secretary of State is well aware of the huge improvement in employment throughout Scotland, but particularly in my constituency, since 1997. Indeed, 25 per cent. more people are now in work than in 1997. However, unemployment and low pay remain major problems in many parts of Scotland, particularly Ayrshire. What does the Secretary of State believe can further be done to improve employment levels, so that we reach full employment—our manifesto commitment—in Scotland?

As a fellow Ayrshire MP, I am well aware of the challenges that the economy of Ayrshire faces in sustaining and increasing employment. Given the systemic difficulties that Ayrshire has faced over a long period, the level of improvement over the past decade is nothing short of miraculous. However, none of us are entitled to rest on our laurels, and we will not achieve our objective of full employment, whatever that measure might be—against the accepted standards of a few decades ago, we are well past the benchmark that was set for any Government by economists—unless we sustain and maintain a stable economy, as we have been able to do, and unless we address the issues of skills, resources and economic development, with the co-operation and help, of course, of the Scottish Executive, who have the major responsibility in that regard. I have absolutely no doubt that, if we do more of what we have been doing in making work pay and encouraging people into work, we will achieve the objective that my hon. Friend and I share.

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Home Information Packs

15. What assessment has been made of the effect of the introduction of home information packs on the housing market. (158164)

20. What recent assessment has been made of the effect of the introduction of home information packs on the housing market. (158169)

Home information packs are proving to be fast to produce, and are providing the market with important early information. They have already proved a trigger to cuts in search costs. Estate agents have encouraged people to market early, in advance of HIPs, with predictable short-term impacts on the timing of listings. However, the overall market is currently affected by wider factors, such as attitudes to interest rates and uncertainty in the financial markets.

Does the Minister not see that home information packs have harmed the housing market, and does she not realise that inspectors, whom she promised would earn up to £70,000 a year, will be lucky if they take home £10,000 this year? Are we not right to say that, when we return to office, we will scrap this ridiculous scheme?

No, the right hon. Gentleman is not right. HIPs are already having an impact on search costs, for example. More than 80 local authorities have cut the cost of searches as a result of HIPs’ introduction, some by more than £100. The right hon. Gentleman should admit to energy assessors and home inspectors across the country that his party’s policy would put them all out of work, because he would abolish energy certificates altogether.

Research carried out by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has found a direct link between the introduction of home information packs and the reduction in new instructions by a staggering 37 per cent. Is this the Minister’s idea of bringing about stability in the housing market?

Shock news! The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors opposes home information packs! It has been opposing HIPs and trying to block the introduction of energy certificates for a long time. It even introduced a court case to try to block them, which is tragic, because energy certificates are hugely important and provide vital information for people across the market. We know that new listings have been falling across the market since June—long before HIPs were introduced—and that there are other factors. For example and as most commentators would point out, buyers’ decisions are perhaps currently the most significant factor in the market.

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend has had a chance to see this afternoon’s Evening Standard, which contains an article stating that Conservative Front Benchers have written to the Department’s permanent secretary giving

“formal notice that”

this

“project faces cancellation under the Tories.”

Will my right hon. Friend instruct the permanent secretary to keep that letter in safe keeping, so that we can bring it out when the Tories make a U-turn on this very good policy?

My hon. Friend can rest assured that the permanent secretary will be able to keep that letter in a drawer for a very long time indeed. Opposition Members should consider that, by opposing EPCs, they are opposing a measure about which Friends of the Earth has said that

“without them, there is absolutely no hope of making significant progress on low-carbon homes and tackling climate change.”

EPCs are about providing important information to help consumers cut fuel bills and carbon emissions. They are something that we should support, not oppose in the way that Opposition Members are trying to do.

Contrary to the vision of housing Armageddon that the Opposition predicted when HIPs were introduced, does not my right hon. Friend agree that we have seen no discernible impact on new properties coming on to the market? They have been introduced at a third of the cost, and without the lengthy delays caused by the shortage of inspectors predicted by the Opposition. Given the successful implementation of HIPs for three and four-bedroom properties, will my right hon. Friend consider how quickly she can introduce them for one and two-bedroom properties, as that would be a real help for first-time buyers? Will she also give further consideration to bringing in compulsory home condition reports, as they would make HIPs more effective in the future?

My hon. Friend makes some important points. We are working with a range of stakeholders in the industry, including Which?, about what the next steps should be. For example, we are looking at promoting e-conveyancing as part of our consideration of the wider issues to do with the buying and selling of homes. Back in May, we identified key issues to do with the number of inspectors in place, the impact of HIPs on the market, and how they could be implemented smoothly, and we will take a sensible decision about the timing of the roll-out in the light of those factors.

As yesterday’s Hansard shows, the Minister has been forced to admit that a mere 4 per cent. of those who have ordered HIPs have also ordered the optional home condition report. Is it not about time, therefore, that she came to the same conclusion as the public and scrapped HIPs in favour of the simple EPC system that operates in Northern Ireland?

May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that EPCs have not been introduced in Northern Ireland? In fact, the Administration there are learning from our experience and from the measures that we have taken. Moreover, people in Northern Ireland will not benefit from the reduction in search costs already evident across the market here as a result of the introduction of HIPs.

Opposition Members sound a bit like Chicken Licken in their belief that the sky is always falling. They said that HIPs would cost £1,000, take months to produce and increase council tax, but all of that has turned out be barmy nonsense. We need a sensible debate about how we take forward improvements to home buying and selling but, unfortunately, Opposition Members remain incapable of taking part in it.

May I urge my right hon. Friend to look at what is happening in Denmark? In the UK, and especially in England and Wales, it takes something like 12 weeks to exchange contracts, and a third of transactions fall through. In contrast, the introduction in Denmark of the equivalent of HIPs caused the time for contract exchange to fall to seven days and reduced to almost zero the proportion of contracts falling through.

My hon. Friend is right. Denmark was one of the first countries to introduce EPCs and HIPs, with the result that there have been very substantial improvements to the process of buying and selling homes there. We should learn from other countries’ experiences and recognise the benefits that such reforms can bring to that process.

Sheltered Housing

16. What assessment she has made of the level of satisfaction amongst older sheltered housing residents with floating support under supporting people. (158165)

Local communities know their areas best. That is why all decisions about how services are funded and monitored, including on satisfaction, are made at local level. It is central Government’s role to provide support and funding, and that is precisely what we are doing. My Department is providing £1.7 billion to local authorities for the supporting people fund this year. That money allows 800,000 older people to live independently, and more older people are getting the help that they need. Between 2006 and 2007, the number of older people getting housing support went up by nearly 20,000.

Does the Secretary of State accept that according to Age Concern many older people believe that the move to floating support has resulted in a second-class and fragmented service?

No, I do not accept that. Being able to be flexible in the way that supporting people funds are used means that we can use the money to best effect, so that it is not only people in sheltered housing who can get support but, increasingly, people in their own homes. As I said, we are helping 800,000 older people to live independently. The important thing is that the support is not tied to bricks and mortar; it is about assessing people’s real needs and having the flexibility locally to meet those needs. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wants many more older people to be helped irrespective of their tenure.

But does my right hon. Friend accept that the process has added a level of complexity to the way in which most sheltered housing schemes work? They are tenanted and rented through local authorities or housing associations and the biggest problem is that the supporting people budget has not been the most stable one. Will she look at it again to ensure that older people have the security that they want and the stability of funding that they should expect?

Yes. Stability in funding is important, and I am sure my hon. Friend accepts that the amount of money that has gone into the fund has been very significant in recent years—£1.7 billion. The important thing is that local authorities should take into account the views of not just older people but the whole range of vulnerable people helped by the funding to ensure that services are tailored to the needs of those people. Built into the framework there is an absolute emphasis on making sure that the services are suitable for the often complex needs that supporting people funds are designed to meet.

I am surprised that the Secretary of State sounds so happy. Is it not the case that supporting people budgets have been slashed in recent years, largely because the Government underestimated the cost of provision, leaving councils to pick up the bill? The costs to councils of social care and support of the elderly are soaring, made worse by the NHS cuts that have shunted costs directly on to council bills. The Local Government Association issued a cross-party warning last week that council tax will be above the rate of inflation for the next three years. Does the Secretary of State share that assessment? Does she agree with it or is she still in denial?

Far from being in denial, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that in many cases excellent Labour councils are providing more services. I am sure that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) is aware that his council in Manchester is a four-star local authority providing excellent services, with an excellent direction of travel. It is providing services to more older people this year than in the past. I have to tell the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that, unfortunately, Conservative councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham and Suffolk county council have implemented significant cuts in support for older people. The contrast is absolutely obvious.

Social Housing

We are increasing investment in new social housing, and I can today announce more than £10 billion funding for the regional housing pot over the next three years, to invest in new social housing, new shared ownership housing and housing renewal. That is an increase of nearly 40 per cent. compared with the previous three years.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that announcement and congratulate her on making it in the House today. Is not it important that all communities in the United Kingdom build increasing amounts of social housing? Following the research that has enabled her to make her announcement today, what advice can she offer the devolved Administration in Scotland—unfortunately, there are no Members of devolved Administrations in the House today—that would be useful in devolved areas?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As he knows, housing is a devolved matter. We know that throughout the country we have a growing ageing population, with more people living alone, which means that we need more homes and more affordable housing. That requires new investment, which cannot be provided if unfunded tax cuts are being proposed.

What hope does the Minister offer the 330,000 families on the housing waiting list in London, or the 1.6 million families on the waiting list nationwide, of ever getting decent social housing? Is not it the case that it will take 35 years for those people to be taken off the list? With house prices still rising—the average is £400,000 in London—the chance of their ever having an affordable home is shrinking. Does not she accept that we need to increase dramatically the amount of social housing and affordable housing, and that the figures in the comprehensive spending review do not go nearly far enough towards achieving that?

I agree that we need to build more social housing, more shared-ownership housing and more housing across the board, and that we need to raise more resources from planning gain to provide additional funding. We are putting in several billion pounds of additional funding over the next three years. It is important that we take a responsible approach to the public finances, and increases in public investment have to be paid for. For London, we are supporting a 27 per cent. increase in the regional funding over the next three years, in addition to extra help for people who want to move out of London to find more affordable housing.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the acute shortage of social housing in Leeds, which has prompted the Leeds Tenants Federation to launch its “Right to Rent” campaign? Does she understand the federation’s concern that Leeds is not sufficiently committed to providing more social housing or putting pressure on developers to deliver the proportion of affordable housing laid down in planning permissions? Will she examine these concerns?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know that there has been hostility from some on Leeds city council to supporting sufficient additional and affordable housing. Every council and every area needs to do more to support more affordable housing for their local communities. We are supporting a 32 per cent. increase in the funding for Yorkshire and Humberside, which will enable substantial increases in social housing and continued housing renewal to be supported. I urge Leeds city council to work with other housing associations and local developers to bid for that funding in order to support tenants in my hon. Friend’s area.

The social homebuy scheme is meant to help social tenants to buy or part-buy their rented homes, so why are only 78 of the 1,400 housing associations offering the scheme?

The social homebuy scheme is a pilot scheme, as we have always said. The pilot concludes in March and we will then take decisions about how to take the scheme forward. It is right to examine different innovative ways to help more people on to the housing ladder and to help first-time buyers. I must say to Conservative Members that they cannot help first-time buyers if they are not prepared to back the building of the new homes that Britain needs.

Affordable Homes (Wirral, South)

18. What steps her Department is taking to provide affordable homes for people living in Wirral, South. (158167)

In the housing Green Paper, we announced a 50 per cent. increase in investment for affordable homes of at least £8 billion over the next three years. Furthermore, the Housing Corporation is inviting local providers to bid for affordable homes investment.

Wirral metropolitan borough council is working to make better use of public sector land assets, which has already enabled it to provide 270 additional affordable homes in one area. It is also reviewing its affordable housing policy.

Does my hon. Friend accept that that demonstrates that the policy of restricting house building in parts of Wirral, South often, if not always, works well and results in appropriate development? Does he understand that its reduction or removal is likely to lead to the development of executive homes rather than low-cost housing and result in a victory for a well-funded housing lobby?

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. He knows the importance of mixed communities and diversity in the housing offer, particularly in terms of affordable housing. Housing has the potential to be a source of inequality over the next few years. That is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has announced an £801 million cash boost for the north-west region to tackle affordable housing. I hope that Wirral, South receives its fair share.

Affordable Housing

19. What assessment she has made of the level of need for additional affordable housing; and if she will make a statement. (158168)

Using the methodology of Kate Barker’s review of housing supply, the Department estimates newly arising need that cannot be met in the market or by existing stock of at least 40,000 new social rented homes per annum. In the housing Green Paper, we announced an increase in new affordable housing to at least 70,000 per annum by 2010-11, of which 45,000 homes will be for social rent. We have a goal to go further in subsequent years, to 50,000 new social homes a year in the next spending review period.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s strong and long-standing commitment to affordable and social housing. I also welcome the announcements today and the statement yesterday on a proposed independent, stand-alone regulatory body for housing, including affordable housing. Will my hon. Friend look carefully at honeypot areas, such as Hebden Bridge in my constituency, where there are many second homes in converted mills, but very few houses for families?

My hon. Friend makes a good point and I hope that she will refer it to the regional assembly to consider. With regard to housing allocation, it is well worth considering other affordable housing options. Since 1997, 400,000 new affordable homes have been built—the figure also includes refurbished properties, which goes to show what can be done with existing properties.

The Government always look at the supply side of housing, not the demand side. Will the Minister confirm that more than 1 million of the 3 million houses that the Government wish to build over the next 15 years will be needed for future immigration? Will he tell us what assessment he has made of the impact of immigration and asylum on affordable and social housing over the past 10 years?

The hon. Gentleman needs to be aware that more than 70 per cent. of the demand for housing between now and 2020 will be due to people living in single-person households and other demographic factors. It is not all about migration. We have a migration impacts forum, which I chair jointly with a Minister from the Home Office, but we should also consider the contribution of migrants to this country. They contribute more, in terms of gross domestic product, than they take out, and the percentage is growing over the years.

Historically, my constituency had a large, poor quality housing stock and a low-value private stock. Now, it has a thriving private sector market and a hugely improved social housing stock, but an acute shortage of affordable housing. In spite of all the developments, not enough property is coming on to the market. Can my hon. Friend assure me that he will work with the local authorities and developers to ensure that that supply of housing improves?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. He has mentioned the enhanced allocations in the west midlands, including some 41 per cent. for his own area. The national allocation will be 70,000 more affordable homes per year by 2010-11, which will, I hope, make a huge difference to his constituency and region, and to the whole country.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that all too many affordable homes are not affordable at all when they go on the market, being far too expensive for many first-time buyers. Will the Government commit to putting large quantities of public land, such as that belonging to the Ministry of Defence and the NHS—which they have talked about releasing—into community land trusts, which hold the land and sell on the bricks and mortar at an affordable price?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point; we are piloting such schemes presently. In terms of getting people on to the housing ladder for the first time, he should be aware that 26,000 key workers have benefited since the scheme was put in place in 2001 and 80,000 people have also been helped by shared equity schemes in recent years.

I welcome the Government’s proposal for eco-towns, but can the Minister reassure me that the same high environmental standards will be applied to new affordable housing, so that they are not just affordable for the people who rent or buy them, but affordable to run, in terms of heating bills?

My hon. Friend is probably aware that there are higher standards for affordable housing than for other types of allocation. He makes a good point about eco-homes, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing will take it on board.

Planning Decisions (Local Accountability)

Our proposals for nationally significant infrastructure projects will involve the public at every stage—on the development of national policy, on project proposals as they are being developed, and at the inquiry stage. We propose to create a legal requirement for promoters to consult the public before submitting an application for a nationally significant infrastructure project. That will be a big step forward, bringing about the early engagement of people affected by proposals for new or changed infrastructure.

The question is who takes the decision, and although the Secretary of State has helpfully suggested that there should be less control on local authorities, through reduced targets, which I very much welcome, the fact is that in recent years responsibility for planning decisions has moved away from local councils to regional government, then to unelected regional development agencies, and now to a national body. Does she not agree that local decisions are best taken locally by elected people?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming our increased flexibility for local government. There will certainly be both ministerial and parliamentary involvement in drawing up the national policy statements, which will provide a robust, accountable framework for the policy for major infrastructure projects. Through that system, we want to achieve increased certainty, more transparency and key accountability. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that five years to get major infrastructure proposals agreed to is far too long for the future of the country. If we want to ensure economic prosperity, balanced with environmental sustainability, we need a new planning regime that gives us certainty, timeliness and accountability.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the planning policy guidance note that Opposition parties largely hold responsible for reducing councils’ room to manoeuvre was replaced some time ago with planning policy statement 3 on housing? That planning policy statement largely leaves local councils discretion on housing planning matters, including on the density of development, and on garden development policy. Every time that a Tory or Liberal Democrat councillor—

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the way in which local authorities have increased flexibility to meet the needs of their local communities. I am sure that he will agree that the best local councils do exactly that through housing and planning decisions for their neighbourhoods. Coincidentally, those best councils, who are in touch with their communities, may well be the kind of councils that my hon. Friend mentioned.

As a result of Government diktat, Kettering borough council has had a statutory duty placed on it to draw up plans for an extra 13,100 houses. That will increase the number of homes in Kettering by one third in the next 15 years. If there were a local referendum on whether local people agreed with those plans, would the Secretary of State take a blind bit of notice?

I am disappointed and rather shocked by the hon. Gentleman’s way of expressing himself. He said that there is a diktat that requires the homes to be built. I would ask him to think a bit more carefully about the views of his community and the people whom he represents. Many of those people will have families—sons and daughters—who are in desperate need of new homes. Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that he does not want to provide new homes for first-time buyers, and that he will continue to betray them?

Recently, Bolton’s planning committee turned down an application to erect a mobile telephone mast right in the heart of Little Lever precinct in my constituency. What does my right hon. Friend have to say to the angry residents of Little Lever, who found that T-Mobile turned up early one Sunday morning and erected the mast without planning permission? Should not firms like that be fined for their absolute arrogance?

My hon. Friend raises an issue of importance to local communities, and it is vital that the companies that are involved are sensitive to the needs of local people, conduct their business in a proper way with integrity, and consult the local community. If in the instance that the hon. Gentleman mentions, local views have simply been ignored and trampled on, clearly that is a matter that we will want to look into, because the basis of the system is trust and confidence. Where that is lacking, decisions will not have the support of the constituency.

Flooding

We are committed to ensuring that the areas hit by the floods in the summer recover as soon as possible. So far we have made available comprehensive support of up to £57 million. However, we know that full recovery for many households, businesses and communities may yet take months. We will remain available and give the support needed for them to achieve that.

Given that some houses that were flash-flooded in Cheltenham in June and July now face spiralling insurance premiums and, possibly, a fall in price, is it wise or unwise to plan to build more homes in flood-risk areas such as Leckhampton? In time, houses built in such areas could be unsaleable and uninsurable, and could exacerbate flooding in nearby communities in Cheltenham.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have tightened up considerably planning legislation and regulations; we did so in December last year. That means that the preference now is for locations with a low flood risk. Given the area from which he comes, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is not always possible to avoid flood risk altogether. Therefore, where there is a flood risk, we have built into the process a requirement for the Environment Agency to offer an assessment of the risks entailed to the planning authority. That is reducing the risk for developments in the future.

It is clear from the evidence that we have received on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, as part of an inquiry into flooding, that the advice of the Environment Agency on development on flood plains is far too often set aside. What plans are there to toughen up the framework so that at least those who can predict reasonably accurately where floods might take place will not see their advice rejected and floods taking place in the years that follow?

That is exactly why we tightened up the regulation and process in the first place. First, the new guidance requires developers and planners to take account of the flood risk. Secondly, it directs development to areas of lowest risk. Thirdly, where there remains a flooding risk, the guidance requires that the Environment Agency assessment and advice should be made available as part of the planning authority’s decision. Although it is early days, the evidence so far suggests that the number of go-aheads given contrary to Environment Agency advice is falling.