House of Commons
Thursday 8 November 2007
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
On 25 October the House agreed new temporary Standing Orders about time limits on speeches, including special limits for topical debates and, for the first time, limits on Front-Bench speeches. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] A very good decision. Because of the complexity of these arrangements, I have approved a memorandum to be published on each of the next few days explaining how the new arrangements will work. For most debates, time limits on Back-Bench speeches, if used, will vary from three to 15 minutes, as before. It is my intention to operate the rules flexibly, so that limits may be increased or decreased in the course of a debate to ensure maximum possible participation and the use of all the time available.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 12 November will be—
Monday 12 November—Continuation of the Queen’s Speech. The subjects for debate, as you announced, Mr. Speaker, will be foreign affairs followed by defence.
Tuesday 13 November—Continuation of the Queen’s Speech. The subjects will be health, and education and schools.
Wednesday 14 November—Conclusion of the Queen’s Speech. The economy and pensions will be debated.
Thursday 15 November—Motion to approve the appointment of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, followed by a debate on international development.
Friday 16 November—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 19 November will include—
Monday 19 November—Second Reading of the European Communities (Finance) Bill.
Tuesday 20 November—Second Reading of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill.
Wednesday 21 November—Opposition Day [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 22 November—Second Reading of the Sale of Student Loans Bill.
Friday 23 November—The House will not be sitting.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall in November will be—
Thursday 15 November—A debate on the reports from the Treasury Select Committee on Financial Inclusion.
Thursday 22 November—A debate on the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Thursday 29 November—A debate on the report from the Trade and Industry Committee on “Stamp of Approval? Restructuring the Post Office”.
Our previous Session was busy, with 29 Government Bills, three Back-Bench Bills reaching Royal Assent and 79 oral statements. As Leader of the House, I am determined that we should be just as effective in this Session. We shall have proper time for scrutiny of Government proposals, ministerial announcements will be to the House first and my door is always open to any hon. Member.
I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the future business and for her promise that statements will be made to the House first.
Two days ago, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs put out a press release on the European Union’s new foot and mouth movement restrictions for livestock. It allows some farmers to export again, but it means greater restrictions for some farmers in the south-east, yet there was no statement to Parliament on the issue, written or oral. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the new foot and mouth restrictions?
In trying to avoid the West Lothian question, the Prime Minister announced his big idea, Regional Select Committees. Yet when the Leader of the House was asked about Regional Select Committees two weeks ago, she pointedly talked about regional accountability and refused to endorse them. Perhaps they are another Brown policy that is falling apart. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on the Government’s policy on Regional Select Committees?
The Roman Catholic bishop to the military says that the Government have a duty to our armed forces in death and in injury, and must do the very best for their anxious and grieving families. Sadly, that is not happening. When the right hon. and learned Lady was Minister for justice, she said that the backlog of 110 military inquests was unacceptable and promised that it would be sorted out. In July, when there was a backlog of 109, she said that
“we cannot have delays to inquests.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1611.]
This month the Ministry of Justice confirmed that the backlog is now 116 cases. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Justice on this important matter?
On Tuesday, the Governor of the Bank of England said that the Northern Rock crisis could have been prevented, had the Chancellor acted earlier. After the “is he, isn’t he” flip-flopping on capital gains tax, and the pilfered pre-Budget report, there are now serious questions about the Chancellor’s ability to do the job. May we have a debate in Government time on the Chancellor’s competence?
May we also have a debate on honesty in advertising? Last week, the Prime Minister’s spin doctors contacted several schools to tell them that he was going to praise them in his keynote education speech. But, guess what, he did not mention a single one of them. First he used BNP slogans promising policies that are illegal, then we had double-counted troop withdrawals, and now he is playing politics with schoolchildren. A debate would allow the Prime Minister to apologise to the people he is taking for a ride.
The Prime Minister wants to stop Opposition parties campaigning in his marginal seats by fixing the rules on party funding. Of course, he will not scrap the £10,000 communications allowance that Labour MPs voted for themselves—[Hon. Members: “And you!”] We voted against it. Nor will he limit the millions of pounds poured into Labour’s coffers by the trade unions, which, in turn, get taxpayers’ money and changes in the law. May we have a debate in Government time on the union modernisation fund, the Warwick agreement and all the others ways in which Labour repays its union donors?
Last weekend, the Justice Secretary said that the Labour party was “despondent” and that it needed a good week to
“get out of this rut”,
but it is still in the rut. This week, we have had indecision, incompetence and weakness. Is that not the truth of this Prime Minister—all spin and no vision?
The right hon. Lady asked about foot and mouth arrangements. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is the subject of the Queen’s Speech debate later today. No doubt she will be able to raise those questions with the Secretary of State at that point, and he will no doubt be able to answer them.
The right hon. Lady asked about regional accountability. She will know, as a member of the Modernisation Committee, that the Committee has agreed to look into how we can strengthen the accountability to the House for the work that is going on in the different regions. No doubt it will produce proposals that we shall be able to debate in the House. I think that there is general agreement that we want to strengthen accountability to the House for those activities, which are so important in the different regions. The regional Ministers have already made marked progress in that respect.
The right hon. Lady asked an important question about inquests into the deaths of those who tragically lost their lives serving in our armed forces. We, and the bereaved relatives, are concerned that there should be a thorough investigation by the board of inquiry of the armed services, and a full and thorough inquest that should not be delayed. Bereaved relatives should be able to get answers to their questions as soon as possible. We need to keep a careful eye on the length of time it takes to bring a case to the inquest. The actual number waiting for an inquest is a different point. The point is to ensure that every family has an inquest as soon as possible. The Justice Minister will no doubt keep the House updated on the time it is taking for inquests to come to hearing.
The right hon. Lady asked about the Chancellor. The Treasury will be the subject of the Queen’s Speech debate next Wednesday, so hon. Members will be able to put their questions directly to the Chancellor.
The right hon. Lady also made a number of points about party election funding. I am sure that the whole House would agree that we want party election funding to be fair and open, and that we should end the arms race that is resulting in parties spending more and more on election campaigning while fewer and fewer people turn out to vote.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the communications allowance. Hon. Members will know that every report that has looked into the connection between the people in this country and the House of Commons has emphasised the importance of individual hon. Members communicating and keeping in touch with their constituents. The communications allowance, which the House voted for, is important in enabling hon. Members to report to their constituents between elections and to tell them about the good work that they are doing.
The right hon. Lady asked about trade union funding. I am sure that she and all hon. Members will know the difference between one millionaire and hundreds of thousands of people at work who contribute to a party through their contributions to their union. I remind the House that the Secretary of State for Justice will make a statement should he have any proposals following the suspension of the discussions chaired by Hayden Phillips.
A couple of weeks ago, in response to my question on the timing of the publication of the Senior Salaries Review Body report, the Leader of the House said “very shortly.” Has she had the opportunity in the past couple of weeks to consult the thesaurus to indicate to us now when she anticipates being able to publish it?
I congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady on a few days ago celebrating 25 years as a Member of this House. She has had a very successful parliamentary career, which she will celebrate with colleagues later today.
I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her statement. We anticipated the contents of the Queen’s Speech from the draft Queen’s Speech published before the summer. There was then a consultation. Is she in a position to tell us how many people responded to the consultation, and what notice was taken of the responses?
Why is the marine Bill still not definitely on the agenda? It has been around, and discussed, for some time, and has been in draft form. Why is it not being brought forward? Will the right hon. and learned Lady ask her colleagues to reconsider their view on that?
There are, I think, five or six draft Bills. With the exception of possibly the constitutional reform Bill, for fairly obvious reasons, the others might all be suitable for Committees of both Houses to consider, rather than have separate consideration at both ends of Parliament. That was successfully done for the Climate Change Bill in the last Session, and the model is worth pursuing. However, I follow the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in saying that we need an honest discussion about Regional Select Committees. If they are to go ahead, will the Leader of the House guarantee that they will reflect the political composition of the region and not be biased in favour of the Government in every case?
On broader constitutional reform, which is the subject of the Queen’s Speech debate, when will the report, which we know has been finished, into the Government’s review of election systems across the UK be published? When will we get a commitment to serious constitutional reform of the big questions, rather than just tinkering at the edges?
We know that a very important Commonwealth conference will take place in Uganda later this month. Places such as Sri Lanka—Commonwealth neighbours and friends of ours—are going through a terrible time, in this case with a terrible civil war. May we have a full debate before the conference so that the Foreign Secretary can come here and talk about the Government’s intentions? May we have a guarantee of a statement by the Prime Minister immediately after the conference, when he can be accountable for Government policies on supporting the Commonwealth, which some of us believe is very important?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about my 25 years in the House. It has been an honour and privilege to be a Member of the House for 25 years, and in particular to represent the constituency of Camberwell and Peckham for those years.
The hon. Gentleman asked how many people had responded to the publication of our draft legislative programme. The first question for us to ask is whether the Government should work behind the scenes on their draft legislative programme or publish it earlier. We have published it earlier, and that in its own right is an important move towards transparency. We have made something open that was previously kept behind closed doors. It is the first time that we have done that, and the systems for giving information to people about the draft legislative programme, and for inviting people to comment for the first time on something that they have never seen before, are in their infancy. That is why not many people commented, but regional Ministers consulted in all regions. Local authority leaders were also consulted in all regions, and many attended the consultation meetings. Businesses responded to the regional consultations, as did voluntary sector leaders.
I think that we were right to publish our draft legislative programme, and we will do better next year by publishing it earlier. Hon. Members should decide whether it is a good idea to publish it, but I think it is. There is no justification for taking it back behind closed doors. I shall publish a report in due course, when we have received the results of the Modernisation Committee’s reflections, and it will state the number of people who did and did not respond.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the marine Bill was included in the Queen's Speech. It will be published in draft, and I expect widespread consultation on it. The hon. Gentleman himself acknowledged how important it was to publish the Climate Change Bill in draft first so that there could be proper pre-legislative scrutiny.
The hon. Gentleman asked about regional accountability. We want to ensure that it is effective and legitimate—legitimate as seen from Westminster, and as seen from the region. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Modernisation Committee is looking into that, and we will present proposals to the House. There will be no perfect constitutional answer, but I am sure that we can do more to strengthen regional accountability.
I shall draw the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the Ministry of Justice’s review of election systems to the attention of the Secretary of State, who may be able to write to him and give him an idea of timing. He asked about the important forthcoming Commonwealth conference: I remind him that there will be a debate on the Department for International Development next Monday, when, no doubt, he will be able to raise some of the issues with the Secretary of State.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that one area in which the House has not got its arrangements right is the monitoring of European legislation. The Committee concerned does a noble job and works extraordinarily hard, but a major transport scheme is coming up—Galileo—which, although it could cost the country billions, has not been debated properly, although it has been debated in the House. I think that we should look at the system again. Perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend will get it right before she celebrates her next 25 years in the House.
I think I shall have much less than 25 years in which to present the House with proposals on how we should do what I think we all agree we need to do—make the scrutiny that the House can give European matters more effective. We voted last week that I should return to the House in three weeks’ time, and I shall do so, having consulted widely with, among others, exceptionally senior, experienced, long-standing Members of Parliament, including Chairs of Transport Committees.
I congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady on having had second thoughts about the absurd proposition that there should be all these Regional Select Committees. Will she also have second thoughts about the automatic timetabling of Bills? If it continues, it will make a total nonsense of all the Prime Minister’s protestations about this place.
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I am not having second thoughts about regional accountability. What I am doing is thinking carefully about it, and consulting widely. I remain committed to presenting the House with proposals to strengthen regional accountability.
As for the timetabling of Bills, I remember a time when there was not effective timetabling. All the debate might bunch up on the first two clauses of a Bill; we would then not debate the rest of it, and important aspects of legislation would remain unscrutinised. Obviously we must manage our time effectively and work together to ensure that our scrutiny is effective.
May we have a debate on the cleaning of hospitals? In it, we should particularly take into account the experience of the 1980s, when ancillary staff numbers were reduced from 171,000 to 66,000—so it is no wonder that we had dirty hospitals then, and that we now need to put that right.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Ensuring that our health services do not expose patients to the risk of hospital-acquired infection is a high Government priority. It is important that members of cleaning teams feel valued and that there is an interrelationship between them and the nursing and medical teams.
Will the Leader of the House tell us when the housing and regeneration Bill will receive its Second Reading—or even when it will be published? The Co-operative estates division of the Co-operative society is one of the largest landowners in my constituency, and it proposes to build 20,000 homes on its own farmland and adjacent farmland belonging to English Partnerships. That will have a devastating effect on rural south-east Leicestershire. Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early publication and debate?
When the housing and regeneration Bill is brought before the House it will be subject to inclusion in my business statement for the previous Thursday. More affordable housing is one of our priorities. Too many people cannot afford to rent the housing they need or buy the home they aspire to. We will back people’s aspirations to have the housing they need—and it would be disappointing if the official Opposition were to try to stand in the way of people’s aspirations for decent housing.
I acknowledge that we will soon have a Westminster Hall debate on the structure of the Post Office, but may we have an urgent statement on the aftermath of the postal dispute? All Members will know of constituents who are still waiting for mail posted four or five weeks ago to be delivered. Many of them run small businesses or are waiting for items such as cash. We ought to know how many items of mail have been lost and how much is still delayed, and before we restructure it we ought also to know whether the Post Office management is capable of sorting out this mess.
I will bring my hon. Friend’s important questions to the attention of the relevant Secretary of State. My hon. Friend knows that a review is being undertaken into the effect of market liberalisation on the Royal Mail and that we remain strongly committed to universal postal services. There will be a debate in Westminster Hall on 29 November.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider the merit of the Government publishing in advance a statement—perhaps in the form of a written ministerial statement—on their objectives for the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference? Do the Government intend to make an oral statement in the House after the conference on what went on and what was agreed?
That is the second time that that important point has been made. I will bring it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development.
Let me correct my answer to the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley): the response should, perhaps, have been not that I will reflect but “They are trying to nick our ideas.”
May we have a statement on the service provided to Members by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs when dealing with correspondence connected with tax credits? I have written on numerous occasions, and I finally received a reply to a letter sent in January. That is a wholly unacceptable service. Worried members of the public are asking for their tax credits to be regularised, but Members cannot obtain the information to assist them. I ask for an early statement on how this will be resolved.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We must ensure that agencies working in the public interest are publicly accountable. I will draw his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, a Treasury debate is taking place next Thursday, and it might be an opportunity to raise those points.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that we have just had the Competition Commission’s interim report on supermarkets. When we get the final report, will she make time for a proper debate on the role of supermarkets and on what the commission has had to say? Is it not also time that we had a proper inquiry into toy safety? Given the number of toys being taken off our shelves, I wonder whether kids are going to get any toys this Christmas. Is it not time that we examined this issue, including where toys are being manufactured and the standards that are being applied in their manufacture?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. This issue could well be worth a topical debate, which, as a Member, he could propose. Later today there will be a debate on issues relating to the Department for Communities and Local Government, which is responsible for trading standards officers, and there is a debate on business, enterprise and regulatory reform next Wednesday.
In her business statement, the Leader of the House announced the Second Reading of three Government Bills and went on to say that she was anxious that the House should have time to hold the Government to account. Against that background, will she reflect on her reply to my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack)? It may well be that, in opposition, she behaved as she described in Standing Committees. Time has moved on. Will she allow one Government Bill to go through un-timetabled, so that the House can properly hold the Government to account and demonstrate that there are better ways of proceeding than 20 years ago?
I understand that the Finance Bill is not timetabled. We will all recognise that we must seek to achieve the right balance to make sure that every bit of a Bill can be scrutinised, and that there is enough time for scrutiny of each clause. That is a matter for discussion between all parties, and we should seek to get the balance right.
Should not the Home Secretary, as the Minister responsible for the Metropolitan police, come to the House next week and make a statement on the future of Sir Ian Blair? Most reasonable people share the view of the Greater London authority that he should no longer be in his position.
The Home Secretary has made a number of comments in this House and elsewhere about the work of the Metropolitan Commissioner, which she and the Government strongly support. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, unlike him, I am a Member of Parliament representing a London constituency. I have discussed this issue with my constituents, and, on the basis of an unscientific opinion survey, I would say that they are very supportive of the work that the Metropolitan Commissioner has been leading in the Metropolitan police. Despite believing that it was absolutely tragic that this innocent young man lost his life, they do not want the commissioner to resign, but to get on with his job of protecting Londoners. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Independent Police Complaints Commission is publishing its report this morning, and that this issue was debated yesterday.
Will the Leader of the House provide an opportunity for an early debate on the National Audit Office report, which was published today and is in the Vote Office, on how the Government managed to squander £33 million on an asylum centre in Bicester that was never built, where a brick was not laid and a sod was not turned? Is it not scandalous that, had it not been for my asking the NAO to undertake this report, none of this would ever have come out, and that no Minister has offered today to apologise? Like everything else with this Government, when they squander such a sum, I suspect that no Minister will apologise. They have been promising Bicester a new community hospital for nearly a decade, and £33 million could have built, staffed and run such a hospital for many decades to come. Will the Leader of the House apologise on behalf of the Government for the monstrous waste of money on this project?
May we have a specific debate in the relatively near future on the grave situation in Pakistan? I appreciate that the House will have the opportunity to debate this matter next Monday, but clearly the situation is continuing and deeply troubling, and the House will want to keep a close eye on it.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Foreign Secretary made a statement to the House yesterday on the grave issues in Pakistan and that foreign affairs is the subject of the Queen’s Speech debate next Monday. We would all agree that we want the elections confirmed for January, we want Musharraf to relinquish his military position, and we want the preparation for free and fair elections by the releasing of political prisoners and the freeing of the press.
I am sure that everybody present was delighted to hear the Leader of the House’s opening comments about her commitment to ensure that hon. Members hear about matters in the House rather than through announcements in the press. Does she accept that it did her Government’s reputation for spin and for putting presentation over substance no good when, in responding to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about the foot and mouth disease statement issued as a press release, rather than as an oral or written statement to this House, she tried to dismiss the issue immediately and said that there will be a debate on it in a couple of days’ time? Surely that is just not good enough, and does not reflect the commitment that she was making earlier.
Does the Leader of the House recall replying to a debate in Westminster Hall on coroners’ courts last summer, in which she said that the system was badly in need of reform and that there would be a Bill in the Queen’s Speech? Is that not even more important now that we have had the Healthcare Commission’s report into the 90 deaths of people in Kent hospitals from C. difficile, none of which were reported to the local coroner? Will she look into that and tell the House why no Bill is coming before it in the near future?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the health and social care Bill included in this Queen’s Speech will make further progress on improving provision for death certification. I still hope that if we can make progress on the other aspects of the legislative programme time will be found for the important reforms contained in the draft Coroners Bill, which has already been considered by this House through the relevant Select Committee.
I congratulate the Leader of the House on her first 25 years in this place and on the brevity of her answers; it makes a refreshing change and long may it last. May we have an urgent debate on the link between taxation and the funding of public services, because over the past 10 years, my constituents have paid more in national insurance, more in stamp duty and more in income tax due to this Government’s use of fiscal drag, yet they have faced the closure of two local hospitals and overcrowded trains, and they now face a reduction in police numbers? What has gone wrong? Why cannot this Government show my constituents a little bit of love?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about my 25 years. There will be a Queen’s Speech debate on the Treasury next Wednesday. I am sure that he will know, as his constituents do, that under this Government the economy has been stable, employment has risen and is full, and there has been record investment in schools, hospitals and other public services in his constituency. We intend to maintain that record.
Will the Leader of the House speak to the Chancellor about his proposals for capital gains tax rises and small businesses? In my constituency and across the land, millions of small firms are unclear about where they stand. They are unclear because we have had spin from No. 10, changes in proposals from the Treasury and uncertainty from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The result is that small firms do not know how to make their arrangements over the next six months. Will the Leader of the House make it clear to the Chancellor that waiting to make a statement in the Budget will not do? Those firms need an answer so that they can plan. After all, they are the employers of nearly half the private sector work force. They deserve a debate and a statement from the Chancellor, so will she now ensure that that happens?
The Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph has been running an important campaign, called “Shout on a Lout”, to highlight the harassment, alarm and distress caused to both people and animals by the antisocial and sometimes criminal use of fireworks. May we have a debate in Government time about the effectiveness or otherwise of the Government’s legislation on fireworks, because—in my opinion and that of my constituents in Kettering—it is a growing problem?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) asked the Leader of the House about the Prime Minister telling some schools that he would be using their names in a speech and then not doing so, but she appeared not to address that particular issue. One of those schools is in the Bradford district and it has caused a lot of upset to those involved. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Prime Minister comes to the House and makes a statement on why he told those schools that he was going to use their names in his speech, but then failed to do so?
We would all want to back up the Prime Minister’s view that those schools that are working hard to increase the involvement of parents in their children’s education are to be congratulated, including those schools in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency that are doing exactly that.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to apologise to you and to the House for remarks made on “Newsnight” the other evening, in which I suggested, incorrectly, that you were asleep during proceedings on the Queen’s Speech debate. It was wrong of me to draw the Chair into a matter of political dispute and I hope that you will accept that I intended no personal offence and fully withdraw my comments.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. It was too noisy to fall asleep that day. The matter is now finished.
Channel Tunnel Rail Link (Supplementary Provisions)
Secretary Ruth Kelly, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary David Miliband, Secretary Hazel Blears, Andy Burnham, Tessa Jowell and Mr. Tom Harris, presented a Bill to make provision amending, and supplementary to, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act 1996: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 12 November and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 4].
Secretary Ruth Kelly, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Hilary Benn, Mr. Secretary Hutton, Ms Harriet Harman, Secretary Hazel Blears and Secretary James Purnell, presented a Bill to make provision for a railway transport system running from Maidenhead, in the County of Berkshire, and Heathrow Airport, in the London Borough of Hillingdon, through central London to Shenfield, in the County of Essex, and Abbey Wood, in the London Borough of Greenwich; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First and Second time without Question put, and (having been reported from the Select Committee in the last Session) stood re-committed to a Public Bill Committee, pursuant to Order [23 October 2007]; and ordered to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 5].
Sale of Student Loans
Secretary John Denham, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, Jane Kennedy, Huw Irranca-Davies, Ian Pearson and Bill Rammell, presented a Bill to enable the sale of rights to repayments of student loans; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 12 November and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 6].
Orders of the Day
Debate on the Address
Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [6 November],
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom and Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.—[Mr. Caborn.]
Question again proposed.
Local Government and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
It is a privilege to open this section of the debate on the Gracious Speech. I wish to start by paying tribute to the four firefighters who lost their lives in Warwickshire last weekend: John Averis, Ian Reid, Ashley Stevens and Darren Yates-Badley. Their loss is a reminder of the commitment and courage that our dedicated emergency services show every day, be they firefighters, ambulance crews, police officers, community support officers or the volunteers of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. This was the worst loss of life for the fire and rescue service in a single incident for 35 years. It has had a huge impact on a small community, and I know that it is felt very deeply by their colleagues everywhere. Our condolences go to all their friends and families.
I am proud to be Communities Secretary at a time when, as the Government’s programme has made clear, we are poised to make a significant shift in the way that the business of government is carried out. We want more power to be given to Parliament and to the people. Devolution will be brought to the countries, councils, communities and citizens. What a contrast that will be with the record in government of the Opposition, who should be judged by their deeds and not their words. In 18 years, they hoovered up powers to the centre, from schools, colleges, local councils and the NHS. They abolished London-wide government, and starved councils of cash.
Yes, as a councillor in the Tory years, I remember how the Conservative Government cut budgets every year. Let’s hope that we never go back to that. It beggars belief that the Leader of the Opposition is in Manchester today to launch a Conservative co-operative movement. Conservatism and co-operation have as much in common as chalk and cheese.
As ever, the Opposition’s rhetoric about localism is merely a fig leaf for their desire to cut public spending, shrink the state and let the free market take over. The Conservatives believe not in co-operation but in competition of the kind that lets a few swim while the many sink. That is what we saw in the 1980s and 1990s, in my city and in communities across the country. By their deeds shall we know them.
Today, thanks to 10 years of investment and the commitment of local leaders, over three quarters of councils now have three or four stars from the Audit Commission.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way, but will she set the record straight in respect of an answer that she gave during the Department for Communities and Local Government Question Time of 16 October? Speaking of services for the elderly, she said that Manchester city council was
“a four-star local authority providing excellent services, with an excellent direction of travel.”—[Official Report, 16 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 692.]
She went on to say that the contrast with Conservative councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham was “absolutely obvious”. However, the facts are as follows: the Commission for Social Care Inspection ratings for adult social care gave Hammersmith and Fulham three stars and Manchester only two, while the Audit Commission’s comprehensive performance assessment gave Hammersmith and Fulham four stars and Manchester three. Moreover, Hammersmith and Fulham achieved £1,813 in spending per head on the elderly, while Manchester city council managed only £1,419. Will the right hon. Lady set the record straight because, if she wants people to have confidence in her role, she must be fair on all councils of all parties?
The hon. Gentleman forgets to mention that a lot of that good work was built up under Labour. Will he say why Hammersmith and Fulham, a four-star council, is about to increase the charges for meals on wheels by £200 a year? I do not think that a four-star council needs to take that sort of action.
Perhaps that just enables us to see what the priorities of Hammersmith and Fulham council are.
We must put the governing back into local government. Local councils should not merely administer services, they should shape the future, build a foundation for aspiration and ambition and not wait for Whitehall to tell them what to do next.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, and I do not want to be contentious, but the answer to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) referred was given to me. It was to me that she gave information about Manchester that clearly was not accurate. If she is telling the House that the information about Manchester that she gave that day was not right, will she now correct what she said?
Certainly, I think that Manchester city council provides excellent service for people in the city. The information to which the hon. Gentleman refers was given in response to a query from another Manchester Member of Parliament. I wanted to make sure that he was fully aware of the excellent work done by Manchester city council.
We now have a number of excellent local leaders right across local government. John Merry, the leader of my own Salford city council, is a shining example. Salford council provides excellent services and makes sure that there is a foundation in our city for aspiration and achievement among even the poorest people.
Last month, I announced the new indicators for measuring local government’s performance. There are now just 198 such indicators, compared with the 1,200 that there were in the past. I also announced new flexibility for local councils to direct funding to meet their local priorities, with £5 billion of grants being mainstreamed. Local government must use its new freedom and demonstrate what confident councils, ambitious for the people whom they serve, really can achieve.
This Government also want to see an unprecedented transfer of power and influence direct to local people; elected representatives who are not afraid of the views of local people but enriched and strengthened by them. As the Green Paper “The Governance of Britain” made clear, we cannot overcome the challenges that we face today or meet the rising aspirations of the British people if we do not make people themselves part of the solution. At the heart of my politics for the past 25 years has been the conviction that there are no better advocates for local communities, no better agents for local change, than local people themselves.
Last month I published jointly with the Local Government Association a community empowerment action plan underpinned by £35 million of funding. It outlines a series of practical proposals to pass power to the people—action, not rhetoric. Community kitties, local citizens juries, and the transfer of assets such as underused buildings to local voluntary groups are just some of the methods that pioneering local councils have explored. I challenge every council to take up these new opportunities. In the months to come, colleagues across government and I will be working closely together to embed the principles of community empowerment into a wide range of policies, from policing to health.
The Gracious Speech showed that we are a Government with the courage and the vision to take the difficult long-term decisions that are in the interests of this country. Look at house building. The fact is that for a generation we have not been building enough homes to keep up with the needs of our population. Today we are building 185,000 homes a year, the highest rate for nearly 20 years. But with the number of households projected to grow by over 220,000 each year from now to 2026, it is clear that we must go further.
Already many first-time buyers have to struggle to afford a deposit. Too many young families are living in cramped conditions or on council waiting lists. Without urgent action, their prospects of one day owning their own home will become increasingly remote.
The Government try to portray their aim to build 3 million homes before 2020 as simply a way to ensure that young people can get on the housing ladder. Will she confirm that, by the Government’s own admission, of the 3 million houses that they say will be built more than 1 million are for future immigration? Is that why, after his disastrous slogan of “British jobs for British workers”, the Prime Minister has not come up with a slogan of “British houses for British families”?
Many of the new homes that will be built will be for families; they will be for first-time buyers. However, they will also be for older people, who increasingly are living alone. The hon. Gentleman has to recognise that this is a demographic problem and not simply seek to scapegoat immigrants.
This is a Government on the side of aspiration for the many, not the few. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we will build 3 million new homes by 2020. I want to pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing. She is taking the programme forward with passion and vigour. The Conservative party, by opposing our plans to build more homes, is betraying the aspirations of everyone who wants to own their own home but is struggling to get on the ladder.
The Government will bring forward a housing and regeneration Bill to create a new homes and communities agency. The agency will be vital to delivering our Government’s housing ambitions, working with local authorities and the private sector to promote regeneration and build new social and affordable housing.
I am delighted at the progress that is being made. When the new agency is created, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the regulations governing it deal with the problem that crops up from time to time in all Government Departments in constituencies such as mine where there are pockets of severe deprivation within a broader community that is very wealthy? Cheshire is a wealthy county, but there are pockets of severe deprivation that get left out in the matrix that is used for Government funding.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. He will know that we have been trying to ensure that we use the data about super-output areas so that we really drill down into those pockets of deprivation in our policies right across the board, but also in housing policy. It is a key issue. Sometimes these matters are felt even more keenly where there are pockets of deprivation within an area that is affluent overall.
The right hon. Lady will understand that the issue is not just the number of houses to be built—everybody accepts that we need more—but where they are placed. In my constituency, a public inquiry is going on that will end up on her desk and I obviously do not expect her to pre-empt that decision, but can she assure me and my constituents that when she makes a decision on that inquiry it will be based on the current Cambridgeshire structure plan and the decisions, plans and strategies of locally elected people rather than allowing them to be overruled, as was implied by the inspector at the opening of the inquiry, by her objectives for far more houses, bearing in mind that we already have a new town only 5 or 6 miles away from the proposed site? Will the Secretary of State assure my constituents that she will judge the situation after allowing for the views of local people rather than simply allowing her figures to overrule any form of local accountability?
I can certainly reassure the hon. Gentleman that the decisions will be made entirely properly, in accordance with all the local plans and the most up-to-date planning rules, and with integrity and probity. Of course, they will.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman says that everyone accepts the need to build more homes. I hope he is talking to members of his party, many of whom are on record opposing the building of new homes across the country. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said that Government housing plans would leave
“a concrete scar across…rural England”.
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) said:
“Suburbs like Barnet are under attack from…excessive targets for new house building.”
The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) said that the current level of house building was “excessive”. That was three years ago, so I hope that Opposition Members are joining us in saying that there is an absolute need to build more homes to meet aspirations, especially those of young families.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that in the north of England some communities have experienced fast economic growth and enormous demand for housing, and have housing affordability problems that are as severe as those in the home counties? When the Government consider awarding growth point status to new local authorities, will my right hon. Friend look at cities such as my constituency, City of York, in exactly the same terms as southern cities to ensure that we have the support for additional housing that we need in the north of England?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. His constituency is a very attractive place in which to live and is under similar pressure to places in the south. We will make sure that there are growth points in the north as well as in the south so that everybody across the country can benefit.
I thank the right hon. Lady for being so generous.
Many houses are being built in and around my constituency of Broxbourne. At present, my constituents face packed trains, packed tubes, packed roads, packed hospitals and no water. It is easy to talk about building houses, but where will the infrastructure come from? Where is the Government’s vision for infrastructure?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is not just about vision; it is about being prepared to put in the resources. We are putting £1.9 billion into infrastructure, with £300 million for the community infrastructure fund. We shall be introducing the planning charge. This Government have proper plans to make a difference, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support new house building otherwise he will have a job explaining to his constituents why he is letting down first-time buyers who need housing.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady as I should like her to correct the impression she may have just given the House with an inaccurate or partial quote from something that I may have said three years ago. I have repeatedly maintained that we need more affordable housing; the question of whether it is excessive relates entirely to the relationship with the provision of infrastructure. In my part of the country there is a lot of house building but no investment in infrastructure at all. That is what I mean by “excessive”.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Quality as well as quantity is fundamental, and that brings me to my next point. I am talking about not the one-size-fits-all monolithic estates of the past, but mixed communities, supported by excellent schools, transport and hospitals; about decent design, which helps defeat crime, provides space for young and old, with green spaces and safe places to come together as friends and neighbours; about green homes, where the needs of the environment are balanced with the needs of families; and not about the quick-fix solutions that blighted too much of the post-war building programme, but about well designed houses that people are proud to call home.
I visited Nottingham yesterday to see the innovative proposals for new eco-homes in the Meadows area of the city. I saw real enthusiasm, real vision and, crucially, genuine support from the local community for the new development. It is a tragedy that the Tories oppose such initiatives, because they are the prisoners of the nimbyism of Opposition Members.
On the point about eco-homes and better standards in tackling climate change, the Environmental Audit Committee found in a report some time ago that the regulation of standards and building regulations are not maintained as well as they should be. I urge my right hon. Friend to consider giving local authorities more powers to carry out the monitoring rather than leaving that to the self-regulating people in the building industry who often fail to implement or observe the standards.
Enforcement has improved, but issues still remain. We intend to carry out a review of the building regulations to make sure that we have a proper system in place.
It has been 20 years since there was major reform to the regulation of social housing. Giving tenants a bigger say over the management of the places where they live is a core part of bringing social housing up to standard in the 21st century, after the Tories left us a repairs backlog of £19 billion. The Bill will create the new office for tenants and social landlords, giving tenants a stronger voice.
It is interesting that on 5 October this year, on BBC Radio 4’s “Any Questions” programme, we got a glimpse of the Opposition’s attitude to social housing, when the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) described a walk down a road in Chesham and Amersham. He claimed that one side of the road, the owner-occupied side, had neat gardens and painted doors and that the other side, the rented side, did not. Tories think that tenants do not look after their properties. I was shocked by that description. I thought it was an insult to 8 million tenants and to the millions of people in social housing who take pride in their neighbourhoods and homes.
Will the new agency also regulate council housing? In Northampton, the housing service is going down the drain and we urgently need to make sure that we do not have new social housing that is of a high standard and regulated while the standard of council housing—it is a Lib Dem council—is constantly deteriorating.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Initially, the regulation will not extend to council-run property, but we want to consider whether it will be able to do that later on. We want to make sure that we get the regulation right in the first place before extending the responsibilities.
Building the new homes that Britain urgently needs also has implications for our planning system. It was a Labour Government who introduced the landmark Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which set out the guiding principles for a framework that has endured for 60 years. Today, it is a Labour Government who are ready to renew that framework to meet the modern challenges of climate change, the economic pressures of globalisation and the need for a secure energy supply.
In particular, it is vital to improve the system for nationally significant infrastructure such as ports, reservoirs and power plants. It is still too complex, opaque and very slow. Typically, applications take almost two years with many cases taking much longer. For example, it took more than six years for a decision to be made on both the north Yorkshire grid upgrade and Thameslink 2000. Britain cannot wait that long. We will bring forward a planning Bill to streamline and improve the planning regime. The Bill will introduce a single consent regime for major infrastructure projects and establish an independent infrastructure planning commission. That will help to ensure that more timely and predictable decisions are taken on infrastructure projects that are key to economic growth, international competitiveness, tackling climate change, energy security and improving quality of life.
Let me be clear that this must not—and will not—come at the cost of transparency and public involvement. In fact, it will improve opportunities for public participation at every stage of the process. Both Parliament and the public will play a central role in debate about the national policy statements that will set out the country’s long-term needs for renewable energy, major transport schemes and so forth. In each and every case when developers wish to build national infrastructure, they will have to consult local people before submitting an application. Local inquiries will become more accessible so that everyone—not just those with the most resources and the best understanding of the system—has a fair chance to have their say.
There are already different targets for different kinds of brownfield land. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has raised that issue before. Clearly, our Government’s record of building on brownfield land rather than greenfield sites is extremely good, and there has been a significant increase in building on brownfield sites.
Building strong communities is about much more than bricks and mortar. My Department will lead work on ensuring that people of all backgrounds have the opportunity to come together and share a sense of civic pride and belonging. In an age of globalisation, this work has never been more important. For generations this country has benefited enormously from the contribution of migrants in all fields: the economy, culture and civic life. As the patterns of migration change, we continue to benefit. However, we need to have an honest debate about the different impact on different local communities. The migration impact forum, which is jointly chaired by my Department and the Home Office, is providing the evidence that we need to respond effectively. The Commission on Integration and Cohesion has already reported on what positive measures we can take now.
I am trying to take the right hon. Lady at her word about having an honest debate. However, does she concede that local authorities predicted at least three years ago that there would be an enormous strain on the delivery of public services as a result of her Government’s cack-handed and mismanaged policy on accession states in terms of immigration? We have 20,000 new EU migrants in my constituency, which is putting an enormous strain on local public services and causing enormous problems with community cohesion. Where is the honesty in that and where is the debate? It is too little, too late.
It is important to have an honest debate and to come up with practical proposals to ensure that communities that are experiencing significant change can cope with the pressures. It is irresponsible simply to raise these issues without having a way forward on policy. That is why I call for an honest, transparent and proper debate.
In order to have that honest debate, will the right hon. Lady give an undertaking that all figures on migration given by the Government will be accurate?
The figures that we have from the Office for National Statistics, which operates entirely independently, are the best available figures. As I said last week, I want to ensure that the ONS works with local authorities to determine whether there are ways in which the figures can be enhanced. People have suggested using general practitioner registration figures, for example, as a means of enhancing the statistics. However, one of the problems is that many people coming to this country do not register with GPs, but attend accident and emergency centres. That is one illustration of the difficulties of getting the most accurate figures.
I will give way in a moment.
I welcome the commission’s recommendations on information packs, on explaining rights and responsibilities to new arrivals, on school twinning schemes, and on local citizens days. Those are all ways in which we can bring people together to try to find a shared future. That is about dealing with the pressures, rather than simply highlighting the problems. I can tell hon. Members that before the Local Government Association produced its most recent report, I had already announced an extra £50 million to help communities to cope with the extra pressures arising from the need for integration. Again, what about the Conservative party? It seems that Conservative candidates can state publicly that Enoch was right, and will not even necessarily be summarily dismissed by their party leader.
Clearly, a range of people have expressed concern about the current best available figures. I am therefore pleased that the Office for National Statistics will work with the Local Government Association to see whether there are ways in which additional information can be gathered, but that is not without its difficulties. I referred to GP registrations; national insurance numbers do not necessarily give an accurate reflection, either. We have to make sure that we use the best available figures to make the right policy decisions.
May I bring to my right hon. Friend’s attention a good example of practical work in that respect? In my town, the hospital needed more nurses. Representations were made to the primary care trust because of the increasing number of children being born to eastern European couples, so the trust simply provided the extra funding for the extra nurses. It is looking at the issue and is working constructively with the hospital, instead of using the scaremongering tactics that the Opposition try to use.
Yes, that is exactly the right approach: identify the pressures and come up with practical proposals to deal with them. That is the kind of responsible policy that we ought to, and do, have in Government.
The final matter that I wanted to mention was the challenge of violent extremism in our communities. A tiny minority of people are involved in extremism. They do not speak for the vast majority of the UK’s Muslim communities, who share a deep repugnance for acts of terror. None the less, the challenge leaves no room for complacency. We have to continue to work together with those in our Muslim communities who are committed to standing up for peace, respect and tolerance. The Prime Minister has confirmed that over the next three years we will invest £70 million in making all our communities more resilient to violent extremism. Let me make it clear that although my Department is leading our work with local authorities and their partners, preventing violent extremism is a national effort across Government. I hope that the House and the country will stand united in dealing with the challenge that faces us.
The Government’s programme makes it clear that this is a Government with a vision of building stronger communities in towns, cities and rural areas alike, and a Government with the courage to take the long-term decisions that are vital for the country’s future, so that we meet the rising aspirations of the British people. I am proud to put our programme before the House.
May I join the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in paying tribute to our firefighters? I know that even now there may still be the bodies of some civilians in the place that was affected. It should be mentioned that the firefighters concerned were retained. In all our communities, we all owe an enormous debt to retained firefighters. They do an ordinary job of work during the day, and at the sound of a bleep they drop everything and go and put their life on the line. We are all very grateful for it, and recognise the importance of retained firefighters.
The right hon. Lady obviously takes a great interest in the visit of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) to Manchester. She wondered what a Conservative had to do with a co-operative society. I have to tell her that my great-grandfather was one of the founders of the Keighley co-operative society; he was also one of the founders of the Independent Labour party. [Interruption.] He soon became disillusioned and moved on.
The right hon. Lady did not want to be here today
I am sorry, but I must tell my hon. Friend that I always think that it is marvellous to be in the Chamber to hear the right hon. Lady speak. It reminds me why I am a Conservative.
The right hon. Lady strongly believed that she, I and other hon. Members should have a more pressing engagement. If the Prime Minister had listened to her, we would be pounding the streets, either last Thursday or today, securing the vote for the general election. I know that, because she is a blogger—and a very fine one with surprising views. For the sake of accuracy, I have obtained a copy of her conference blog, which is entitled, “Snap election? Bring it on!” She is not afraid of holding unconventional views. The Prime Minister’s speech at the conference was described by commentators as
“one-third piffle and two-thirds plagiarism”.
It is worth giving the right hon. Lady’s assessment, as it expresses an interesting oddball view:
“Gordon’s speech…was the highlight of the week. It showed real strength and national leadership. It also was noticeable for not mentioning David Cameron once.”
It is fair to say, however, that the Prime Minister mentioned my right hon. Friend a few times the following week. In case hon. Members are worried that the Secretary of State’s judgment was temporarily unhinged by her time as chairman of the Labour party—that would be understandable, given that she suffered the worst local government defeat in the history of that once-great party—may I tell them that her recovery has begun? She showed great prescience—and I commend her on it—in her assessment of the leaders of our respective parties. She wrote:
“The contrast between the two leaders couldn’t be starker. Strength versus weakness. Vision versus PR.”
Before the pixels had a chance to reform on her computer, it was pretty clear to everyone which leader had strength, vision and bottle.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will give way to him in a few moments, because I want to discuss something that the Secretary of State said.
The right hon. Lady castigated a number of Conservative Members for defending their constituencies, and said that we were a bunch of nimbys. I have a list with me, and I would like her to consider whether the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, who opposes high-density building in his constituency, and the Minister for the Olympics, the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), are nimbys. The Minister for the Olympics said that proposals for flats in her constituency were
“totally inappropriate and will have a wholly detrimental impact on the amenities of local residents in the area.”
The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), opposes—hon. Members have guessed it—housing development in his constituency. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), is against the building of 9,000 houses in his constituency. He could say to my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps): “9K, no way.”
In a moment, when I have finished the list.
It is a pleasure to see the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), in the Chamber. He has objected to 570 new homes in his constituency. It occurred to me while listening to the Secretary of State that there is a new definition of “nimby”—not in the Minister’s backyard.
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, Government Members back more homes, and increased housing in their constituencies. Do members of the Conservative Front-Bench team support more homes in their constituencies, as opposed to calling for reductions in the overall amount of housing by literally thousands in their constituencies?
In Leeds, the Conservative-controlled council, with the aid of its Liberal Democrat bedfellows, has introduced a new form of nimbyism, which is about reducing the number of polling stations across the city. Does that encourage people’s participation in elections? Will the hon. Gentleman oppose the plans of the Conservative administration in Leeds to reduce the number of polling stations?
I understand that the hon. Gentleman may be on the way to another place. As far as I know, there are no polling booths there. But no doubt he is doing a good service to his party. On the location of polling stations, I have been involved in local government for a long time and in this place for a long time, and generally the matter is regarded as non-political. I hope that the council in Leeds will strive for consensus to ensure that the maximum number of people are able to vote at a given polling station.
We now know the reason why the Prime Minister rejected the advice from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and postponed the election. He said that he wanted to
“show people the vision that we have for the future of this country...and show people the policies that are going to make a huge difference and show the change in the country itself.”
I wonder what went wrong. The Queen’s Speech is painfully lacking in vision. The plodding nature of the proposals could not be clearer than in the measures that the right hon. Lady is responsible for.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Since there seems to be happy discussion of the fact that not only Back-Bench speeches, but Front-Bench speeches should be curtailed, would it be possible also to write in the suggestion that Front Benchers should talk vaguely about what is on the Order Paper?
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has a sense-of-humour failure.
Each year the Government announce new housing figures and each year the housing crisis gets deeper. Each and every year the Government miss their own targets on house building. The Government are so out of touch with the housing market that their cure for failure is to increase the target even more. Goodness me! Is that not how Nikita Khrushchev ruined Soviet agriculture?
Let us consider what we were told on Tuesday—that the Government are going to build 3 million new houses by 2020. The Government do not have the capacity to build 3 million houses, nor do local authorities. The Government can create conditions that encourage house building, and councils can help facilitate new communities. The reality is that the Government have not come anywhere close to meeting their own targets.
The figures speak for themselves. The Government are building fewer houses than the previous Conservative Government. Under Labour, in England an average of just over 145,000 homes have been built each year since 1997. Across the whole of the Thatcher and the Major Governments, the average number of houses built each and every year was well over 173,000. So what is the Government’s response to failing to provide enough new homes? The Prime Minister talks about meeting aspirations. What first-time buyers want are bricks and mortar.
According to the Halifax, there were an estimated 315,000 first-time buyers in 2006, the lowest total for a quarter of a century. Home ownership is falling for the first time since records began. Mortgage repossessions are up. The Government, through higher taxation and a refusal to listen, have kicked the housing ladder away from thousands of first-time buyers. Homes are unaffordable for the vast majority of people.
If the hon. Gentleman believes that bricks and mortar—new homes—are indeed needed, will he take the opportunity to condemn the Conservative-led South East England regional assembly, which is arguing for cuts, rather than increases, in the level of house building in the south-east?
I am not entirely sure that that is true. I was about to say, having mentioned Nikita Khrushchev, that the right hon. Lady would make a very bad commissar, but on reflection, I think she would make a very good commissar.
Let us look at the Government’s announcements yesterday and compare them with reality. They say that they are going to build 10 eco-towns. There is something familiar about that. As far back as 1998, Ministers were talking about eco-towns. Last year they announced plans for six eco-community developments, but the reality is different. This year Ministers admitted that only one in 10 of the planned new homes had been built. The Government talk about opening up social housing and reinvigorating the social housing sector, but the reality is different.
The Government have made cuts to the right to buy sector, denying thousands of people in social housing the chance to own their own homes. Ministers talk about getting social tenants on the social housing ladder. They have a plan called the Social HomeBuy scheme—
It is a pretty good pilot, for £15 million. When the press release came out, there was nothing about it being a pilot scheme. Some pilot! [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady should contain herself. She will get a chance. I know that she is feeling a bit uncomfortable, but live with it.
The scheme, which would cost £15 million, was intended to get 5,000 people on to the housing ladder. How many are on the housing ladder? How many took up the scheme? Eighty-eight. A £15 million scheme that cannot get beyond double figures is shameful. When the going gets tough, the Government reach for their favourite solution for all ills—a new quango.
If the right hon. Lady wants another go, she is welcome.
I realise that the hon. Gentleman is not very keen on answering questions and has not yet answered any of the questions that I put to him, whether on the South East England regional assembly or any other issue. I will give him one more chance. As he is well aware from parliamentary answers and matters on the record, the Social HomeBuy pilot has spent less than £1 million on setting up a pilot scheme, not £15 million, as he says. He also knows that the Government have set out a programme of £8 billion of investment in new affordable housing. Can he say whether his party would back that £8 billion, especially given the £6 billion black hole that it faces?
Black hole? Is that from the Government who have just revised borrowing requirements by £11.6 billion? I will take no lectures from the Government. They are the Government of the dodgy figures on housing, dodgy figures on the homeless and an inability to get round to building. We do not want to hear from the right hon. Lady any more on those matters.
Let us talk about the quango. The new homes and communities agency, which is better known as the greenfield housing development agency, will be established by merging English Partnerships with the Housing Corporation. In typical Labour fashion, two quangos will be merged to produce—well, two quangos, for alongside the greenfield housing development agency, the office for tenants and social landlords will be created.
Only this Government would demand 3 million new houses and simultaneously be demolishing homes against people’s will. That act of supreme vandalism, which is called the pathfinder scheme, is another failure. It was much trumpeted, full of high expectations, with no delivery. Across the country terraced houses are being bulldozed against the wishes of local people and local communities, and the Government refuse to listen. Bureaucrats in Whitehall are forcing the demolition of family homes across England. Town halls that fail to meet the arbitrary targets for bulldozing or seizing homes will face the threat of savage cuts to their funding.
Let me give an example that the Secretary of State might well recognise. In Salford, town hall bosses have rejected pleas for the local community to renovate homes in Seedley under the pathfinder scheme. They opted to demolish, on the grounds that the renovation plans lacked the “transformational” qualities needed to obtain Government funding. Why do the Government think that the only way to build new houses is to ride roughshod over the communities that they want to build in?
Perhaps I could invite the hon. Gentleman to visit Seedley and Langworthy in my constituency, where he will see the work that has been done over the past 10 years to rebuild a community virtually destroyed by the previous Government. We now have terraced housing that is sought after by people in our community and houses prices have increased dramatically. In the past, one used to be able to buy and sell a terraced house in Seedley and Langworthy for £5,000 to £6,000, because the community was absolutely devastated. The average house price now is around £70,000. That community has been rebuilt and has got off its knees, after the legacy that the Tory party left it. I invite the hon. Gentleman to come and visit the people of my community who have prospered under this Government.
My hon. Friend has rightly highlighted a number of central Government cock-ups. Does he also recognise that the end result of the Government’s decision seven years ago to force through planning guidance to ensure that we build thousands of flats is that many families who needed homes now find thousands of flats, but no family homes? Does he agree that that central direction is one of the reasons we are in the mess we are in?
The Soviet tractor factory approach to density has not worked. It has just created a number of flats that have gone for rent-to-buy and buy-to-rent. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield and I visited a mixed development on Monday with different areas of density that could manage a density of 55 to the hectare, which is pretty impressive. We have to place that against a different kind of development—the kind with bland uniformity.
My hon. Friend is doing a tremendous job of highlighting 10 years of failure from the Government. Does he put that down to sheer incompetence or cynicism; in other words, that by maintaining the dynamics—or mis-dynamics—of supply and demand in the housing market, in order to ensure that the economy continues to thrive, the Government are letting down a generation of people who wish to have their own homes built?
In truth, I do not think that the people across the Dispatch Box are cynical or incompetent; I just think that they are misdirected. They simply do not understand how the housing market works and have adopted a Soviet approach to central planning—I will come to the commissar in a moment. It was not so long ago that the figures for car and telephone production for the year would be announced from that Dispatch Box. Housing is the last bit of socialism that the Government have got, so I entirely understand that they might be reluctant to get rid of it.
We have listened for nearly 20 minutes to the hon. Gentleman’s rather poor stand-up turn, which would not go down well in a nightclub. Will he now spend just one minute explaining to the House some alternative Conservative policies? Last time the Conservatives were in power, we had a massive backlog of repairs and modernisation required in the housing stock for the most disadvantaged communities in my constituency. What would he do for those people?
I was brought up in a terraced house and raised for most of my life on a council estate. Do not patronise me—I know what it is like to live on a poor estate, what it is like to be poor and what it is like to be abandoned by Labour on those estates. I have been generous in giving way and I have responded to hon. Members, so I will now tell the hon. Gentleman what we are going to do, which is in the main part of my speech. If he will be a little patient, we will come to it, but all in appropriate time.
The greenfield housing development agency represents the greatest threat to the green belt yet. The Secretary of State was reluctant to offer reassurances about the safety of the green belt when she gave evidence before the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, only to be contradicted by a panicky Prime Minister a few hours later. Can she guarantee that the green belt protection will stay in place?
Okay—it will be interesting to see how that is implemented. Is the reality instead that the Government are just waiting to let rip with the bulldozer and the concrete mixer, regardless of the views and concerns of local residents? Why does the Secretary of State not realise that she needs to work with local communities rather than imposing her iron will, along with the clunking fist? Why can she not realise that we need to build communities, not homes? [Interruption.] The reason Government Members laugh is this. Their idea of building is to rip up green fields and put on lots of little ticky-tacky houses. The first generation is proud to live in them, the second generation shuns them and the third generation regards living in them as a badge of failure.
That is why we want to build real communities, with real homes that people are proud of. We need more homes that are affordable, well managed, environmentally sustainable and eco-friendly. Many need to be built in cities, but not all. Can the Secretary of State see that increasing the supply of such homes can be best achieved by working with local communities, rather than by overriding local feeling, which she is intent on doing? We need developments with roads, hospitals, nurseries and shops, with homes that people will want to live in—homes with gardens for children to play in and spaces to park a car.
I hope that we can build a consensus on planning. It is clear that the Government are in a mess with their proposals for the Bill. Let me assure the right hon. Lady that we recognise the need to improve our planning system, not just for large infrastructure projects, but for the good of local authorities and the communities that they represent. Our planning system can at times be slow, too expensive and too bureaucratic. We must never see a repeat of the painful process of approval for terminal 5 at Heathrow. However, the new rules on inquiries have only just been introduced and seem to be working reasonably well in the Stansted inquiry.
We need a system that is fast and responsive to changing needs, and which allows us to build the large-scale infrastructure that is so vital to our continuing prosperity. The problem is that so many of the difficulties in the current planning system are of the Government’s making. The ink is hardly dry on the previous planning Act and here we are, desperate to legislate again. The system introduced by the Government is ensnaring local authorities in red tape and bureaucracy. We need a system that is accountable to the public and democratic, and which carries public confidence and support.
Regrettably, the proposals before us achieve none of those aims. Instead, we see a new planning quango—the infrastructure planning commission—that will strip local authorities of their say on planning applications on everything from airports, power stations, motorways, ports, sewerage plants, hazardous waste storage and landfill. As one might expect, the quango is unaccountable and effectively unsackable.
My doubts on that change are not partisan. Perhaps I should quote the views of the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), the former Housing and Planning Minister. He is of the view that
“decisions on major facilities such as nuclear power stations should be taken by elected ministers rather than the IPC, which will not be democratically accountable.”
I entirely agree with him. The IPC’s functions include powers for the “compulsory purchase of land” and
“powers to amend, apply or display local and public legislation governing infrastructure”.
Responsibility for regional planning is to be transferred from the unelected regional assemblies to the unelected regional development agencies. Perhaps the commandment from the Secretary of State is “Quango shall speak unto quango”. The quangocracy is not a success. At present, the Government say that all decisions would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, yet this would only be via the Select Committee system. Parliament as such will have no opportunity to approve or reject them. That simply is not good enough. National infrastructure projects deserve a proper debate to which the whole House can contribute. We are prepared to look at ways of making large infrastructure statements accountable to the whole of Parliament. If we can find a way to offer genuine accountability and genuine democracy, we will look at any proposals that the Secretary of State might make. The real expertise on planning still resides with local authorities, and it would be better to return strategic planning to them than to create an unpopular quango.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned nuclear power and infrastructure projects. Does he agree that, specifically in regard to nuclear power, it is important to have an informed debate, and that any consultation is genuinely that—a genuine consultation rather than window dressing prior to the Government’s announcing that they are already in favour of nuclear power, whatever the outcome of the consultation? Whether or not one is in favour of that kind of technology, surely the House and the country deserve the respect of being allowed to hear the facts rather than simply the prejudices of the Government.
I entirely agree. Matters like these are marred by political prejudice—that is the nature of the thing—but I think that the folks out there expect us to take a view on this, and to listen to what they have to say. Even if we disagree with them, they will at least respect us if we make that decision.
My hon. Friend has spoken passionately about the need for sustainable communities. Does he share my disappointment that the Secretary of State, in making her partisan attack on the Conservatives’ localist credentials, signally failed to mention the Sustainable Communities Bill when talking about the Government’s programme, even though it passed through Parliament with strong cross-party support? Will my hon. Friend join me in pressing the Government to place on record their determination to implement the Bill with real energy, as though it had been invented in Government?
I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my hon. Friend for the work that he did to bring that most important piece of legislation to the statute book. Having had conversations with the Secretary of State and the Minister for Housing, I know that they share our enthusiasm for it, but perhaps, in these partisan times, the odd nice thing gets left out. That is life, I suppose.
On a personal note, may I say how much I regret the fact that the marine Bill is still only at the draft stage? We were promised a marine Bill in 2005, and it has been one of the main objectives since 2001. We have been waiting patiently, but our patience is now exhausted. I have always thought that the marine Bill and the Climate Change Bill were really just two sides of the same coin. Of course we welcome the Climate Change Bill. Such is our enthusiasm that we have welcomed it every time the Government have announced it. I am aware that my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), will have many points to make on this subject when he winds up the debate, so I shall not cover them now, but we do support the Bill’s objectives.
However, I must take issue with the fact that the Prime Minister has sought to sneak another stealth tax into the Climate Change Bill. This is a stealth tax masquerading as a green one. I was somewhat surprised to see its inclusion in the Bill. According to the press, first it was in, then it was out. A press conference was arranged, the Minister was ready, then No. 10 cancelled it on the quiet, just like the election. Then DEFRA said that it had been going to happen all the time. In out, in out. This is not the politics of a firm, well-run Government; this is the politics of the hokey-cokey. Bin taxes are just going to shake things about. They will damage the local environment and public health by leading to a surge in fly-tipping and backyard burning. Neighbours will be creeping out in the dead of night to drop the remains of their chicken tikka masala in next door’s bin. The countryside will be blighted by fly-tipping, and back garden rubbish burning will pollute the atmosphere.
Let me quote from the outgoing Mayor of London. Mayor Livingstone calls the plans “flawed” and says that bin taxes would be a “disaster in London”. Labour-run Northumberland county council slams them as “unworkable and impractical”. The set-up and running costs of such a complex tax, involving the installing of microchips in every bin, will mean that the overall burden of taxation for ordinary families will rise. Families now face the double whammy of record council tax bills and a new bin tax. Let me be clear: bin taxes will be costly, they will damage the environment, and we will continue to oppose them.
What we saw yesterday was little more than reannounced policies, reheated soundbites and tired old ideas. If this Queen’s Speech were fast food, it would be a dodgy kebab, warmed up once too often, overlooked by the public and well past its sell-by date. This is not the change that people want. Only the Conservative party has the ideas and the energy to meet the aspirations of the British public. We were promised a vision for the future. We were promised change. This is not vision. This is not renewal. This is just the next chapter in the long goodbye of a tired and increasingly pointless Government.
It is some time since I have addressed the House from the Back Benches—about 18 and a half years, I think—but I am delighted to be speaking today and to welcome the Gracious Speech. I was very pleased to hear what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had to say. I was extremely disappointed, however, in the contribution of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), whom I knew well in local government. I remember him when he was a local government leader. He did not talk about the north at all today, and I do not think that he would dare go anywhere near it now. They kicked him out of Bradford, and now we know why. I am really disappointed that he gave us not an ounce of an idea of what he would seek to do in housing, local government or anything else. We know nothing about Tory policies—because, I suspect, there simply are no Tory policies.
Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak with some trepidation, because I am not going to speak only on today’s topic. I shall ask for your indulgence, and use this debate on the Queen’s Speech to talk about some of the issues that keep me going, get me up in the morning and convince me that this Government can do even more to change the opportunities of the people in communities such as mine, who for years were led to believe that they had nothing to contribute, and told that the Government did not expect them to play any part in the world. The devastation of communities such as mine during the Tory years is still deep in people’s psyche; it is there for all to see. The difference that has been made over the past 10 years is remarkable, but there is still more to do.
The real strength of the Queen’s Speech was the commitment to aspiration. Many people in the north-east have simply never believed that they were able to take part in the advantages of our modern society. If there is one thing that we need to do in the north-east, it is to turn around the aspirations of the younger generation, and of their parents, so that that generation can really become the drivers of change and opportunity. Much of what was in the Queen’s Speech, and in the public service agreements in the Budget statement last month, showed how the Government have learned from their time in office that there needs to be a much clearer focus and much more effective cross-cutting interdepartmental work.
I spent the last year of my time in government trying to ensure that we joined up different polices and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, shaped places more effectively, so that people living in them could achieve their very best and turn their lives around. I want us to do that by tackling the huge challenges, such as child poverty, which still exist in the north-east. I am pleased to be involved with people in the region in turning child poverty round within the next generation. As a result of the legacy in the region, it has the highest number of children who do not get the opportunities that they should have.
I disagree with the main plank of what the Tories have said. They try to maintain that society is broken. Society is not broken. Far too many people within our society and communities are not getting the opportunities that they need, and do not have real access to what would turn those opportunities around. However, many people have opportunities today and are achieving—they have jobs, and so on—because of what has been going on in this Government, and they want to be part of ensuring that things are even better for the next generation.
I admit that in my last year in government I became obsessed with early intervention. The Government have done remarkable things for early years opportunities. We have built up an infrastructure of children’s centres around the country, and there is a recognition that early years education and opportunity make a difference to children’s lives. Sometimes, however, we were not sufficiently systematic to ensure that those got through to the children who needed them most. We opened the doors, and hoped that they would all come through. What happens is that those who recognise the opportunity storm through the doors and take it up, but some of those who are not too sure how to go about it, or who are worried about what life would be like in there, or whether they would be embarrassed because they did not have the same vocabulary, or whatever, as other people there, simply do not turn up.
One of the programmes that we introduced is the family nurse partnership, and I was delighted when a couple of weeks ago the Government announced that they were giving a further £30 million to that. The programme is rolling out in 10 pilot areas around the country. The Leader of the Opposition does not know what he thinks about it yet. He called it a new programme of foetal ASBOs—antisocial behaviour orders—but others on his Front Bench welcomed it because they saw what it could do.
I was delighted to meet Professor David Olds in my constituency the week before last when he came to see how the programme is being rolled out in Durham. It is making a huge difference. Nurses are meeting young women whom they say nobody else has picked up. Those young women have an early pregnancy, and may have mental health problems. They have certainly missed a lot of school, and their literacy and numeracy may not be what we would expect. Now, however, they have learned about what happens to a baby’s brain as it develops in the foetus and are now enthusiastically deciding for themselves that it would be a good thing if they do not smoke or drink any more, because they know that that will enable their baby to grow better in the womb and to be born heavier and probably later.
The programme’s results are beginning to show real differences in local communities. We know, because the programme has been so well researched and evidenced internationally, that it produces enormous benefits for both parents and children. The amazing thing—this really interested the professor from Colorado—is that we are managing to get fathers involved, in a way that they have not managed to achieve as well in America.
In America, for every $1 spent in the programme, the state, or the foundations, will have saved $5 by the time the child is 15. I am not saying that we will get such superb results in this country, but the programme will make a huge difference. The young women and the parents are beginning to get some self-respect—some knowledge and understanding of themselves and their responsibilities in terms of rearing their children. That is making a difference as those children are growing up. We know that we have to get to the most disadvantaged as early as we can and work with them in a positive way so that they can draw on their own resources and strengths and build on those.
Our society is not broken. We have to engage with people in ways that allow and enable them to be the best that they can. I sometimes look at the Opposition and wonder where things went wrong—but I know that such programmes can be productive. I urge the Government to see how we can use our resources most effectively in all their programmes. We cannot do that just by pouring money in; we must build relationships, using the money effectively and ensuring that we make a difference in the lives of the people who were abandoned, rejected and absolutely neglected by the previous Administration. I look forward to working with my right hon. Friends to ensure that that is precisely the legacy that this Government give to the country—by building a new generation that can take the opportunities to develop their skills, and to develop the skills and opportunities in their communities, so that our country is at the forefront of how the world develops in the future.
We share the Secretary of State’s grief and concern at the loss of the firefighters’ lives. I, and my party, want to be associated with the condolences that she extended. It is a stark reminder that however much we talk about such things in the House, it is often the people out there—the local service providers—who take the hits when trouble strikes.
I welcome the Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box to defend her Government’s record and to explain their intentions. The Department that she runs has a central role to play in key issues that this country faces. Planning and housing are clearly among those. The fact has not been mentioned yet, but more than 1.6 million families are on the council house waiting list. House prices have been rising and are now unreachable by many first-time buyers, especially in the south, but also in constituencies such as mine, in Greater Manchester. Repossessions are predicted to rise from 8,000 in 2004 to 30,000 this year and 45,000 next year. As we have heard from the intermittent references to the subject of the debate, there is an overheated housing market in the overcrowded south-east, and there are environmental problems that go with that.
Less often mentioned has been the fact that more than half the carbon dioxide emitted in this country comes from buildings. The regulation and environmental control of buildings is also within the Secretary of State’s remit. If we take the new projections of population growth seriously, it appears that many of the existing pressures will become more severe in the coming year.
The Department has a central role in ensuring that local services are provided throughout the country in a timely and effective way. Last week’s comprehensive spending review and pre-Budget statement made it clear that things will be very difficult for local government over the coming year, given a sharp reduction in the development of finances. The Minister for Local Government himself has said that there will be a tight settlement. We know that there will be ferocious pressures on the delivery of social care throughout the country, we know that the costs of the single-status agreement—which were raised earlier—are not funded properly, and we have heard rumours that another round of unitary authorities is being contemplated in Lancashire and Cumbria. It is a turbulent world in which the Secretary of State reigns and provides finance. The provision of finance, too, should have featured in the Queen's Speech, but it contained no proposals for reform of the local taxation system.
This is not just a question of housing, planning and local services; we must also consider equality and social cohesion. The Secretary of State referred briefly to the report by the Commission on Integration and Cohesion. I hope to hear later today that she has accepted its recommendations, and that she will place the results of her consideration in the Library.
We were tantalised by the reference to action on citizenship in the Queen's Speech. The Secretary of State did not mention it explicitly, but her commission has produced recommendations which I consider to be of great sense, sensitivity and understanding. I hope that any action on citizenship that is taken will pay especial regard to what the commission has said, and as a first step will restore funds to local authorities to provide English lessons without the penalties that have been hinted at elsewhere.
It is interesting to note that despite a great deal of talk beforehand, the single equalities Bill did not find its way into the Queen's Speech in draft or any other form—but we do have measures relating to housing, planning, local services, equality and social cohesion. How have the Government, and the Department in particular, responded to those crucial issues? Many of them require cross-departmental action—people getting out of the silos, joined-up government, and so forth—and that applies to no issue more than it does to climate change, “the greatest threat to mankind”.
What contribution does the Secretary of State intend to make during this Session to solving the problem of climate change? We are bound to say, “None, really.” The Climate Change Bill is welcome, but it covers only carbon dioxide emissions, it does not set annual targets—it establishes instead a five-year target which is out of synchronisation with the general election sequence to which we are accustomed—and, at 60 per cent., its target is too low. It should also be noted that it does not include aviation or shipping. Nevertheless, any climate change Bill is better than no climate change Bill, just as any single equalities Bill would have been better than no single equalities Bill.
I was fascinated by the Secretary of State’s assurance that the Merton rule would be retained, and that, in her words, the Department wished to strengthen it and make it more flexible. I do not believe that it is possible to do both those things at the same time. Local authorities all over the country have already adopted the Merton rule or variants of it, and others wish to do so. Whatever the Secretary of State says in this place, her civil servants are still advising councils to hold back and to slow down, which cannot be right. I urge the Secretary of State to back up what is in the Climate Change Bill by letting local authorities and local democracy get on with the job that they are ready and willing to do in support of the Government’s strategy.
I cannot let pass the opportunity of mentioning what was said to the Secretary of State earlier about monitoring the effectiveness of environmental regulation of buildings. She said that a review was being carried out. I remind her that there was cross-party support for the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004, which I was happy to promote, but that I am still waiting for her and her Ministers to implement the provision allowing additional monitoring. She does not need new legislation in the Queen's Speech; she just needs to get on with it.
We must also ask where the marine Bill is—but that is not the right hon. Lady’s problem. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is sitting next to her, knows very well that only two or three weeks ago, when he spoke at a meeting here, he gave a clear hint that the Bill would be ready and waiting for us in the Queen's Speech—but it is not.
I return to the question of housing and planning. Ministers seem to think that with housing, there is a choice to be made between quality and quantity, but the Liberal Democrats reject that idea. We must have high-quality sustainable housing, and we must have more housing as well. The need is substantial, but what we are offered is too little affordable housing, too little social housing and too little sustainable housing. We need to see, in the housing Bill, measures that genuinely empower local communities to make their own decisions, and to provide public land for affordable housing through the use of community land trusts.
Please will the Secretary of State give an undertaking that all new homes will be zero-energy buildings with zero carbon emissions by 2011, rather than by 2016, which is the Government’s aspiration? Will she also present proposals to start the upgrading of existing buildings, especially the 70 per cent. of existing homes that will still be in use in 2050 and which, unless action is taken now, will still be emitting a ridiculously high level of carbon?
Does my hon. Friend agree that although the eco-towns proposal is clearly of environmental interest, the real challenge relates to proposals for eco-suburbs—ensuring that homes in existing suburbs are fitted with equipment that can deal with the environmental impact of emissions?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. I know that his borough of Sutton is beginning to explore the possibilities. We need to recognise that the huge majority of the housing that is supposed to be zero-carbon by 2050 has already been built, so we must take action with regard to that sector.
Will my hon. Friend join me in expressing gratitude to the Centre for Alternative Technology, which has devised a blueprint for a zero-carbon Britain? Are not such organisations experts in the field, and should not all parties pay attention to their recommendations? They make a practical reality out of what the Government may previously have considered to be theories.
The fact is that the country is bubbling with ideas. The work has been done, and there are people ready to step forward and implement it. What they need is a clear signal from the Government that they should get on with the job. The Merton rule could be taken as a very precise example of how not to deal with the issue: by hanging a sword of Damocles over it, the Government have inhibited the step forward that local government and local communities are ready to take. My hon. Friend has made a powerful point about the availability of the ideas and advice that are needed.
The Government must produce plans to make not only housing but entire communities economically, socially and—crucially—environmentally sustainable. The Department has seriously underachieved in terms of its proposals for the housing Bill, but has it done any better with the planning reform Bill? The indications suggest that its main effect will be to help Labour’s friends in the nuclear and supermarket industries, rather than to give local people a genuine say in planning.
Nobody can deny that the current planning system has major structural flaws. There are some serious difficulties at what might be termed the micro-level, the middle level and the macro-level. One of the more grotesque and absurd features of the micro-level is that planning applications are generally considered without the input of locally elected representatives, because the code of conduct prevents that. There are also other flaws that need to be put right, such as that there is no third-party right of appeal, and that some developments—such as mobile telecommunications masts—are substantially excluded from the planning process. It would be good to be able to report that the Bill looks set to fix those problems, but so far it certainly does not.
There are absurd consequences at the middle level. Towns such as Yeovil and Chesterfield—both of which are represented by my hon. Friends—want more homes, but they cannot build them because the national and regional planning guidelines for their areas prevent that. Whatever else is included in the Bill, I hope that there will be a provision that allows local communities that want to build to be able to do so. If we want more homes, the starting point must be to put them where local communities want them to be.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the flipside of that is that communities should be able to refuse more housing where that is less appropriate? My community, for instance, is accepting up to 8,500 new houses but draws the line at 10,000, 12,000, 14,000 or more, which would push development into the green belt, and developers are currently eyeing up the Cotswolds area of outstanding natural beauty.
My hon. Friend makes an important point: how do we strike the balance between the requirements of local communities and those of our country as a whole? The planning reform Bill must address that. My party will examine whether it does so, and if so, how. There ought to be a greater element of local self-determination in such matters.
Does my hon. Friend agree that getting that balance correct would involve ensuring that certain issues are addressed? There was an application to convert a shop into a takeaway in the Parade, in Benyon road. The community and local councillors did not want that. A reformed planning Bill would ensure that that local decision was kept local—instead of being passed on to an inspector in Bristol who found against the wishes of the local community and councillors.
That intervention brings me neatly on to consideration of what is wrong with the planning system at the macro-level. All sorts of decisions—my hon. Friend has just produced an example of one—finish up on the Secretary of State’s desk. It is unimaginable to me that the Secretary of State would, in signing off the inspector’s report, have particular regard to the circumstances of a takeaway in Carshalton and Wallington. There is something wrong there.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that a Liberal Democrat Government would prevent any appeal beyond the local government level? There are local issues that all of us feel strongly about, but is he seriously suggesting that the whole system should be log-jammed by a local district council wishing to ensure that there are no further developments?
Having listened to the comments from the Conservative Front Bench, I was under the impression that that was the policy that the Conservatives were advocating. The hon. Gentleman might wish to come back on that point.
We have published proposals to increase the amount of housing. Clearly, it is not a practical or feasible option to give every street the right to veto any development that might take place there, but we also need to avoid sending too many decisions to the top level of the planning system—the Secretary of State’s desk. I noted a phrase that the right hon. Lady used. She said that the Government were going to drill down into pockets of deprivation—but I think that they are more likely to drill down into pockets. My point, however, is that there is a network that can take decision making by the Secretary of State down to absurdly low levels.
What does the Bill propose in relation to major strategic developments? The present system is not satisfactory. It takes forever, and in many cases it seems to be a charade, in which the result produced at the end is exactly the same as the initial proposal. I do not generally advocate a return to Victorian values, but—
I understand the frustration with the time that the current planning process takes, particularly when it goes to inquiry. However, the hon. Gentleman made the sweeping statement that the current system does not work, and there was an implication that it is undemocratic. Let me point to the outcome—twice now—of public inquiries relating to the east London river crossing and Thames Gateway bridge. Two planning inspectors turned down those major planning applications, in support of what the local community had been asking for—so the system does work sometimes.
I do not pretend to be an expert, and nor do I want to offer an opinion about that crossing, which I know has serious problems, but I do know that the two local authorities concerned and the elected Mayor approved the project. There was a conflict at that point, and perhaps those local authorities were not representative of the views of their communities; the hon. Gentleman clearly believes that to be the case.
I was about to talk about Victorian values, because we should look back to the era of the railway developments of the 19th century. More miles of railway were developed in 50 years then than miles of motorway were built in the last 50 years of the 20th century, and the Secretary of State had nothing at all to do with it. This House did, however; railway Bills cluttered up the House’s time in that era.
The Secretary of State is currently too often the arbiter of major infrastructure projects, and saying that he or she is democratically accountable to this House is only a fig leaf. Frequently, the lengthy preliminaries of reports and inquiries serve only to validate a decision that has already been taken. We will examine closely what the Government are now proposing. It is one thing to streamline the process, but it is another thing to ignore the evidence completely and override the clear wishes of the local community.
I put the following point to the Secretary of State when the White Paper was first presented to the House: if there is to be an independent commission, it is important for it to be genuinely independent, so that it can contradict the intention of the Secretary of State, and if it does so, the Secretary of State will leave it at that. If not, it will simply be another link in a lengthy chain of decision making, and will not improve the situation one bit.
The debate on planning has so far largely focused on housing. Will the hon. Gentleman say something about the effect of planning on renewable energy development? Does he think, for example, that too many wind farms are stuck in the planning system, and if so, does he have a solution?
Yes, I do think that, and I also think that if we ever reach the point where the current Government, or our next Government, approve a high-speed rail link to the north of England we shall face the same problem. There are national and strategic proposals that must be decided at a national and strategic level—I am quite willing to say that. However, it is still very important for that element of democratic accountability to be there not just in a notional sense, but in a real and effective sense.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, strangely, among the issues that land on the desk of, and are decided by, the Secretary of State in Westminster are applications for energy generation over 50 MW in Wales? Under the new proposals, a commission for England and Wales will take those decisions, rather than a Welsh Assembly body.
My hon. Friend tempts me into some very difficult territory. I will listen carefully to his further representations on that point.
The problem with the Queen’s Speech is not just what is in it, but what is not in it. Chief among those absences is the lack of a single equalities Bill. Discrimination law in this country is in a mess, and we need that Bill to protect people regardless of their race, disability, sexual orientation, religion or gender identity. It is a great pity, and I very much regret that such a Bill will not come forward in this parliamentary Session. I hope that behind the scenes there will be some action to kick it forward promptly. However, if there is to be a delay, the Secretary of State could take advantage of that setback to consider including within that Bill the outlawing of discrimination on the ground of caste, as well. Some of us attended a conference in this place yesterday, hosted by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), at which we heard testimonies to the pervasive way in which this blatant discrimination has crept into British public services. This is a real and substantial issue, and it now falls to the Secretary of State, on behalf of the Government, to take it up.
In the Queen’s Speech the Government have flunked the housing question, blocked the planning issue, stumped local government and run away from equality. Neither they nor the Conservatives have any answers to the key issues of fair local taxation, local empowerment and Britain’s housing crisis. The Liberal Democrats will, accordingly, vote against the Queen’s Speech.
Order. Before I call the next speaker I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 12-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches, and it applies from now on.
Debates on Queen’s Speeches always involve a wide range of subjects, and this is perhaps a good opportunity for Members to assess—to audit, even—what is happening not only in their own constituencies but within Parliament. On looking back at the changes that have taken place in Crewe and Nantwich in the past 10 years, I can see exactly why we should be positive and welcome the workmanlike terms of this Queen’s Speech. New schools have been built in my constituency, including three new primary schools, one of which was custom-built in an area that was previously unable to get any assistance. Not one but three new health centres have been built, in which we are able to offer an enormous range of primary health care services. There has also been an explosion of university places. I am amused to think that within a very short period, Crewe and Nantwich will undoubtedly be known as a university town. I imagine that within the next 300 years, ours shall be regarded as the doyenne of those establishments, far outflanking those newcomers that claim credit for their students’ background, general development and education.
When I look back at the positive and useful things that have happened, it is important—indeed, essential—to relate them to the future. The future in Crewe and Nantwich is going to be sparkling and happy. Our unemployment has virtually disappeared and we are building new houses at an incredible rate, but we still have exactly the problems associated with deprivation that one of my hon. Friends identified earlier. We have all the deprivation factors that destroy lives, although happily, only within a very small area. For example, there are children who do not seem to benefit from Sure Start services or from the imaginative range of health and education services that could transform their future, and parents who are still unable to find anywhere decent to live.
In conducting the “audit” to which I referred, perhaps we in this House could ask that housing associations be looked at closely. Those who persuaded local authorities to hand over their housing stock by advancing the argument that they would be able, through a housing association, to get all their repairs done, get all their buildings brought up to first-class status and achieve a truly high-class level of housing perhaps need to do some persuading that that is actually happening. Indeed, some housing authorities, struggling as they are to change people’s circumstances, still have a vast backlog of repairs. They are finding it virtually impossible to rehouse people who would have been on the old housing authority lists—both young, small families and those who want to change their accommodation. The flexibility within the housing stock seems to have disappeared, and we do not yet seem able to address those problems.
We must consider not only education and housing but transport, which is my field. To me, transport is a vital issue. For example, we are demanding a sparkling new station at Crewe, which will be the gateway to the north-west. We want either a proper development of the Victorian buildings or a genuinely new, architect-designed, superb station. Not only are all those things possible; we shall insist on their being created.
However, the reality is that in order to push such change and to hold together the myriad streams needed for funding and development, we need a sound, carefully researched and defensible local authority structure. The Government decided—one understands why—that the changes in local authorities were such that we should not only seriously look at the whole question of restructuring, but ask where we can make serious advances. Those of us who know that there is increasing demand in Whitehall for shared services and for reorganising not only the number of jobs, but where they are and how they are done, recognise that local government cannot expect to escape that. However, it is essential that we do not make changes that, far from providing bigger sums of money, better planning and more imaginative schemes, go back two or three steps by splitting local authorities, making many of them unviable and difficult to support. I am afraid that we in Cheshire are in danger of doing that.
When a reorganisation of local government in Cheshire was originally suggested, I looked carefully at both sets of figures. I had no particular animus toward one set or the other, because frankly, like Members of all political parties, I had councillors on both sides of the argument. I looked carefully at the proposed split and I must confess that I assumed—wrongly—that once the Government had looked at the economics of it, they would not argue the case any further. Splitting Cheshire into two unitary authorities would cost more than £100 million, and the new authorities would run out of reserves in their first year of operation. Many of the things that are essential to me, such as planning the new education and transport services, would rely on two authorities that might be—perhaps inevitably would be—under different forms of political control. Those authorities would have to be prepared to vire money from their own budget into the budget next door, which is controlled by their opponents. I have great faith in human nature, but I find that an unlikely scenario and one that causes me considerable difficulty.
The financial case for a single Cheshire unitary authority is proven. It meets the Government’s affordability criteria, generating a surplus of £58 million over the five-year payback period. It can be demonstrated because it relates not to the existing county, but to a new idea of a county region responding to the flows across Cheshire, connecting with Liverpool in one direction, Manchester in another, the potteries in a third, and north Wales and Shrewsbury in a fourth, so that ours is a most flexible and increasingly imaginative area. If we were to go ahead with splitting Cheshire in the way that has been suggested, worrying things would happen.
Although four districts asked for this split, their own advisers, Deloitte, examined the affordability material and assessed 78 per cent. of the categories of cost as being above normal risk. That led the Conservative-controlled authority that had originally asked for this to say that it was giving the information to the Department, but that it did not now support the idea. That is mildly worrying. Furthermore, three sets of figures have been submitted on this bid, but totally different assessments have been made each time and they have been found to be seriously wanting in a number of fields. I do not have the time to set those out today. The reality is that the political argument—this is not party political—for this change is not proven.
There is an appetite for unitary government in Cheshire, and the Government are right to identify it. The two unitary authorities idea lacks credibility and stakeholder support. The letter that the Secretary of State sent demonstrated that it would be supported only if the facts and figures added up and were plainly and clearly demonstrable. They are not, and the case is clearly made the other way.
Those who support local government and who want to see it leading in those fields that are most important, supporting the work of the Labour Government and providing the sort of leadership that only locally elected people can provide, know that local authorities must themselves be viable if they are able to fulfil that role and must have the support of the people who elected them. I am sure that the Secretary of State will understand that that is not the case in respect of the proposal for Cheshire to be divided from top to bottom. I know that she will reconsider the figures when they are presented to her.
One of the delights of this debate is that one can range widely over the body politic. If you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will not, within the rules of the House, confine myself to discussing local government.
The Queen’s Speech is an opportunity for the Government to set out their stall and their vision. One does not need to be particularly parti pris to come to the conclusion that there is a certain lack of momentum at the moment—I put it no more strongly than that—which is not surprising when a Government have been in power for 10 years. This sort of phase in history has happened before. We can think of Eden following the exciting period of the Churchill Government, of Douglas-Home following Macmillan, of Callaghan following Wilson, and lastly of Major following Thatcher. It may be right that we go through this sort of period when a Government feel that they must consolidate and they do not have any burning ambition to change things because they have been in power for a number of years. The trouble is that a Government who do not wish to change events often are the victim of events—that was the case for the Callaghan, Major and Eden Governments. That is a real danger for this Government. Many people have been disappointed with politics in recent weeks and have started to ask where the beef is, what this Government are about and what their great vision is.
I, along with colleagues who represent Lincolnshire constituencies, talked to the Conservative group on Lincolnshire county council last week. That group had great worries about the lack of direction that it was receiving from the Government. In a sense, the Government started off with a series of reforms. In education, they abolished grant-maintained schools. They went in one direction and they have now rowed back with academies. They made a series of reforms of the health service. They rolled out all that health policy and have rowed back again with foundation hospitals.
We have also had all this debate about reorganisation. Councillors in Lincolnshire and, I suspect, elsewhere want a degree of stability. The French, German and American political systems do not have constant reorganisations. Lincolnshire does not want or need any other reorganisation. Logically and intellectually, I favour the unitary system, but there is no point throwing all these chairs up in the air, abolishing the district councils in Lincolnshire and elsewhere, abolishing the county councils and starting from scratch, because we will not solve our problems by such reorganisation.
The hon. Gentleman represents a fairly rural area, as do I. Does he agree that rural communities sense a degree of drift by the Government? Having endured a difficult economic situation, made worse by the recent outbreaks of various diseases, the rural community does not feel very supported by the Government. It feels that they are potentially willing to allow the small communities, which are still very dependent on agriculture, to go into terminal decline. Does he agree that we want a clearer strategy and more positive focus on supporting our rural communities in Wales, and indeed in England?
I heartily agree with that. Of course, this will be denied by the Government, but that is the view of the rural communities.
That view is buttressed by what is happening to post offices. Lincolnshire faces a swathe of closures of apparently productive and profitable post offices that serve the community. The Public Accounts Committee constantly examines areas of waste and incompetence. We do not get involved in party politics; last week, we examined job-creation schemes. One such scheme was spending £73,000 per job, yet my constituents see that profitable, successful post offices that serve the rural community face extinction. We are talking about people who often work for small salaries and who provide an essential public service. No business case is offered for this, and gagging orders are served, so we cannot be given the facts. We write to Ministers and to the chairman of the Post Office, but we do not receive answers. The Government must address the real feeling of rural communities in this country that they are suffering in so many ways in terms of funding. Our Lincolnshire police force is at the bottom of the Government funding league—no county is more badly funded.
I now come to my main theme. Places such as Lincolnshire are, for the first time in their history, faced with a wave of immigration. So many of the issues that my councillors were talking about last week were based on worries about immigration. In a sense, we can have a healthy debate, because one can now talk about immigration without being accused of indulging in racist undertones. This immigration is coming from eastern Europe. The people are extremely welcome, individually and in groups, and they are hard working. However, 40 per cent. of the children in some schools in Boston speak only a foreign language. We welcome them because they will contribute to the community and within just a few months they will learn English. Apart from having difficult, foreign-sounding names, like the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), they will be completely indistinguishable from British people in a few months. However, where is the Government funding to provide all the services that those people need? This is not a traditional immigration debate about people who have a different ethos coming to places such as Lincolnshire. This is simply a practical debate about how we ensure that the roads, schools and all the rest of it are in place to provide for people. The Government need to provide some answers.
If we are to be honest about the immigration debate, we must also consider immigration from outside the EU. Personally, I think that the Muslim minority in this country provides an enormous amount of individuality and creativity, and is hugely beneficial. However, the Government have mishandled the whole Muslim question in two ways. First, they have been far too weak in dealing with Muslim extremism. The Government have not made it clear that people are welcome in this country, but primarily because they see themselves as British. We have only to look at the wave of Jewish immigration into this country in the early part of the 20th century to see how successful that community has been in integrating fully into our society. It is now represented in many spheres, right at the very top of society.
We have to be firm with the leaders of the Muslim community and say to them, “You are very welcome, but you have to integrate”. I am very concerned about the creation of a ghetto mentality in the Muslim community, with Muslim faith schools, in which people spend too long in an introverted system. I would much rather see them integrate fully into the education system.
The other way in which the Government are mishandling the issue is in foreign and defence affairs. I shall stray a little into that area, if you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I think that I am allowed to do so. The Government have alienated the Muslim minority in this country and throughout the world through their policies on Iraq, in particular, and Afghanistan, to a lesser extent. It is well known that I voted against the Iraq war, and I shall not go over that again. However, in the Liaison Committee over the past year, I have repeatedly asked detailed questions of the former Prime Minister, and I have also asked the Secretary of State for Defence what on earth is going on in Iraq. Answers have not been forthcoming.
We have had an answer from a senior serving officer, responsible for thousands of troops, who told a Sunday newspaper that the decision to pull soldiers out of the centre of Basra last month came after commanders concluded that using Iraqi forces would be more effective. He said:
“We would go down there dressed as Robocop, shooting at people if they shot at us, and innocent people were getting hurt. We don’t speak Arabic to explain and our translators were too scared to work for us any more. What benefit were we bringing to these people?”
The article also states:
“British forces have struck a deal with Shia militias to withdraw to a single base at the international airport in return for assurances that they will no longer be attacked.”
The fact is that the invasion of Iraq was a fundamental diplomatic and military disaster. It has given enormous impetus to Muslim extremism and we are still making mistakes there. We are still alienating Muslim opinion. We have got out of Basra and it appears that the only victors there are the Muslim militias. I voted against the war and I think that we should get out as soon as possible.
There are also real dangers facing us in Afghanistan. I know that terrorism is a real problem there, and we should by all means go in there to deal with it. But if we think that we can impose our western liberal values on Iraq or Afghanistan, we are deluding ourselves.
Does it strike the hon. Gentleman as ironic that, given the successes that we had in Northern Ireland in dissolving the motives for terrorism, little effort appears to have been made in the so-called international war on terror to understand the motives? To understand those motives is not to condone the acts of terrorism, but does he agree that the lessons from Northern Ireland could usefully be relearnt by the British and American Governments?
Of course I agree with that. Probably everyone sitting in this Chamber agrees deep down, although they cannot say it publicly, that we have mishandled Muslim opinion and that we have failed to learn from what we achieved in Northern Ireland. It has been a mistake to try to impose our values and we are paying the price—through substantially increased spending on our security services.
If we are to have an honest debate about immigration and local government, we must also have an honest debate about education and health policy. I suspect a lack of momentum in those areas. We had a Public Accounts Committee report only a couple of weeks ago on the academy programme. Large sums of money are being spent on academies, but the evidence shows that their results are below the national average. I know that they are placed in difficult areas and that some are catching up, but I question whether we are just recreating the comprehensive schools that were built in the 1960s. The first such schools experienced a surge in interest and academic standards, but because we did not address the fundamental flaws in the education system, they ultimately became failed schools. When the new paint has rubbed off in 20 years’ time, the academies could also become failed schools.
I have a simple solution that I have advanced consistently—although I have perhaps not brought my Front Benchers with me—which is giving head teachers the freedom to run their schools in the way that they want. That means giving them freedom over budgets, over hiring and firing teachers and over selecting, deselecting and expelling pupils. I am not talking about a return to grammar schools, because that debate misses the point. I am talking about more freedom for head teachers.
This very day, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), a former leader of the Conservative party, is launching a new scheme for pathfinder schools in some of the most difficult areas. Those schools will provide real hope and opportunity in those areas, becoming beacons of excellence. But we have to set them free. If the academies are to be successful, they have to have that freedom.
That suggestion is not some weird idea from a right-wing think tank. Look at what is happening in Holland, and in Sweden, of all countries. Sweden has had continual social democratic government for the last half century and it has a universal voucher scheme. It is also introducing—although this is not generally known—a voucher scheme for hospitals. It is privatising hospitals and providing beacons within its national health service, delivering real choice. I strongly believe that politics is about empowerment, about providing ordinary people—through vouchers or any other means—the real empowerment in health and education that better off people already have.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am afraid that I may only give way a couple of times and my time is about to run out.
I have identified a theme that I shall try to impress on Front Benchers on both sides of the House. We are now at a stage in politics at which we have agreed that central direction simply does not work. We now all apparently agree with localism, but if that is to be more than just a slogan, we have to trust the people. We have to trust individual choice and we have to empower local people to make choices in health and education.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. I shall not follow him all the way to Iraq, although I do share some of the concerns that he raised on the issue of immigration. However, I wish to speak mainly about housing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) pointed out, after 10 years of this Government, we all sense a general improvement in the quality of the health service, hospitals and transport in our constituencies, but housing is one of the weaker areas in that general improvement, and that is why I wish to concentrate on it.
I welcome the commitment to an expanding housing drive in the Queen’s Speech, which will be pushed through by the new Minister for Housing. My right hon. Friend is not in her place at present, but she carries all our good will and will bring a new intelligence and dynamism to the housing issue. Having made that sycophantic point, I wish to raise certain problems in housing. We have tried to drive forward on housing while carrying an excessive burden from the past of failed policies, which will make it more difficult to make progress. It is a huge problem, because the building record has been poor. The supply and demand equation has featured in the escalation in house prices.
More importantly, under the Tories there was a long period of disinvestment in council and social housing that produced horrendous problems on housing estates. I draw the House’s attention to the research done by Leon Feinstein, of the university of London’s institute of education, entitled “The Public Value of Social Housing”. It analyses the relationship between housing and life chances and shows that the housing estates were very mixed communities in the 1950s. Very often, they were a springboard for success and social advance. By the turn of the century, however, thanks to disinvestment and the fact that the scarcity of public rented housing meant that they had become dumping grounds, the estates had become a drag on performance. They were associated with high unemployment and a comparative failure in life chances.
It is a shocking report, and the ground has to be made up. The problem is huge, and the Government must shed some of the burdens of failed policies in the past. They should take the money used on those policies and put it into the housing construction and refurbishment drives, as otherwise success will not be achieved—especially given the short time scale that now remains.
I have various criticisms to make, therefore, although I shall not make them in the spirit of a performance at the Bolling working men’s club, which was what the Opposition spokesman gave us earlier. I want to offer more sensible criticisms of some of our policies that are not working as they should.
First, I turn to the pathfinder programme. Some time ago on the “Tonight” programme, Trevor McDonald revealed that, under the pathfinder programme, viable terraced housing that could be reconditioned very cheaply was being pulled down and replaced with far more expensive housing that people did not want. That has been a feature of the pathfinder programme’s performance.
In addition, the National Audit Office has released a report on housing market renewal through the pathfinder programme, and I shall be able to tell the House about it at one minute past 12 noon tomorrow. However, I can say today that it is very critical and that it states that the programme does not provide good value for money. The pathfinder programme is disappointing, and the money spent on it could be used elsewhere.
Secondly, I emphasise that there can be no successful housing drive without councils’ full and enthusiastic co-operation. Yet the Government continue to pressure councils, keeping them short of the money that they need to do the job in respect of housing because they prefer them to privatise their housing stocks. Councils are still being bullied, bamboozled and bribed into going for privatisation, even though it is an expensive programme in itself. Enormous gap funding is required for the new housing associations, there is a big debt write-off and the NAO has estimated the costs per property of the whole transfer programme at about £700. That money could go to housing, but in fact it is being spent on estate agents, lawyers, consultants and accountants all over the country.
It is wrong for the Government to maintain the pressure to privatise housing. That pressure should be suspended until we put local authorities on a favourable financial footing so that they can play on a level playing field against the registered social landlords. At present, the playing field is not level, especially when it comes to RSLs’ ability to borrow and the debt write-off that they enjoy.
The Government are alienating local authorities instead of co-operating with them, but 3 million council properties remain in council control, often through arm’s length management organisations. More than 100 authorities have rejected transfer or decided not to go for it, and the Minister for Housing has said that 95 per cent. of them can meet the decent homes target by the dates to which we committed in our manifesto. However, many are forced to get money for repairs and refurbishment by selling off council housing and the sites to private developers.
It cannot make sense to try to increase the stock of public rented housing by selling it off and pulling it down. Yet that is what is happening in places such as Sheffield—where my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) and I were due to speak against the policy at a meeting tonight—Birmingham and Camden. The Minister for Housing has said that the amount pulled down will be less than the amount of new build, but that cannot be true in Camden, where very little land, if any, is available for council housing.
Is my hon. Friend also aware that the financial pressure that some housing associations face has caused them to sell off street properties, either on the open market or at auction? Such properties are exactly the ones that we need if we are to create mixed communities. The very same effect that my hon. Friend described in respect of estates will therefore obtain with street properties.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point, and I was about to deal with the role of the RSLs. The building drive can be pushed forward only with the co-operation and good will of councils. The RSLs are not a naturally entrepreneurial sector. For obvious reasons, they are cautious, preferring to build up balances and reserves rather than expand and improve. Moreover, they are merging together into bigger and bigger RSLs that cover the whole country rather than a specific area.
The RSLs are also sluggish. Some of the problems with the Thames Gateway seem to have arisen because the RSLs are not putting the drive into new building that is needed, and there is no one to bash heads together and force them forward. The Government are going to have to energise and drive forward the RSLs in a way that they seem reluctant to do at the moment.
Another criticism is that there is no firm basis for local authority finance. For three years running, the Labour party conference has demanded the so-called “fourth option”—that is, that the Government should stop taking money out of housing revenue accounts. At the moment, about £1.5 billion a year is taken out of those accounts to pay off historic debt, but why should we pay that debt? People do not pay off historic debt if they go into hospital, so why should they if they go into council accommodation? Another half a billion pounds of right-to-buy proceeds is also lost in the same way. Local authorities cannot compete on the same basis as RSLs in terms of loans, because—as the Department’s own research states—the management and maintenance grants that could provide a finance stream to borrow against are kept deliberately low to prevent them from being used for that purpose.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, but he will know that one of the biggest problems facing local authorities that have chosen to remain social landlords is that they perceive that they are being penalised by the way that the money is clawed back. Does he agree that, as a result, it can appear that one area is subsidising another area, in a way that could, against the wishes of everyone involved, force the relevant ballot to be rerun?
That is true, and the Government must take account of the point that my hon. Friend makes. How can authorities participate if they find themselves in that trap, where they are left to rot by the Government? A form of gap funding should exist that enables them to fill the gap between the revenue and resources that are available to them and the costs involved in refurbishment and regeneration and in meeting the decent homes target. Gap funding along those lines is not provided to councils, but only to the private sector. That is another weakness, and the local authorities affected should not be left in that position.
It is true that the Government are undertaking an experiment at the moment, with six local authorities keeping the revenues from housing revenue accounts. However, the indications are that the experiment is not going well, and the six authorities are certainly not being treated very generously. Moreover, it will take time to survey the results of the experiment, and the problem is one that faces us now: unless local authorities’ housing revenue accounts are put on a firm basis so that they can participate in programmes such as the ones that have been described, they will not have the good will, or the ability, to build the houses that we need.
A fourth criticism has to do with our obsession with ownership. The research done by Professor Blanchflower indicates that the countries with the highest levels of home ownership also have the highest levels of unemployment. I suppose that that may have something to do with labour mobility, but the money that goes into home ownership programmes for key workers merely adds fuel to the flames of rising house prices. That money is quickly discounted by the local market and is effectively wasted. It also is used for buying shares in RSL properties, even though people are frankly not keen on that. If they opt for a share-buying scheme, they have to pay rent and meet the cost of a mortgage, as well as pay for repairs. The housing associations do not want to do it, and the customers do not want to do it either because two thirds of them are on benefit. What would be the benefit of such a scheme? Shares will be difficult to sell when people do buy them, so money is being poured into the scheme and it is being wasted.
The main commitment must be to build more council houses and more RSL houses—more social housing generally. The demand now is for housing to rent, not to buy, because people cannot afford to get on the ladder. A Shelter survey has indicated that people’s first priority is affordable housing, which could be rented or low-priced housing. Their second priority is safe communities. Ownership is only the third priority of people who want housing. So why are we foisting so much effort into ownership schemes when we should be building much more public housing for rent? People cannot afford to get on the ladder now, so there is no plan A unless we build more public rented housing. If the market collapses, as the International Monetary Fund has warned us that it might well do, there is no plan B because once repossessions begin and people face negative equity, where are they going to go if we are not building houses for the public rented sector?
My fifth criticism is of the 15 local housing companies, which are a top-down enforced arrangement. They are effectively a means of forcing local authorities to disgorge their land that could be used for building council houses so that at least half of it is lost through public sale and the other half is lost through transfer to a private sector company that the council cannot control. I am not happy with that. Let us end these failed programmes. Let us give the Minister the boost that she deserves and the money that she must have to go through with the housing drive that the country needs. There is only one slogan to end on, and that is, “Build, build, build”.
I should like to associate myself and my colleagues with the sympathy expressed for the fighters against the fire. I am sure that our prayers and sympathies are with all those who feel that great loss today.
I want to use the fact that in this debate wide scope is given to us to comment on things that are on our minds. I am suffering great fears as far as my Province is concerned at the present time. I hope that the Minister will take what I am going to say to his colleagues. We had a police officer shot in the city of Londonderry this morning. He was taking his child to a local school. He was a member of the Roman Catholic Church. He was shot with a shotgun and he has suffered serious injuries. It is not for me to say who is responsible for this, but I am told on good authority that the IRA dissidents are definitely under the shadow of this particular crime. If that is so, we could be going back to things that we thought we had finally conquered.
I trust that this House will understand how the people in Northern Ireland feel. I am sure that we will be able to get the victory, but it will come only when there is rigorous law enforcement and those who do these deeds know that they cannot get away with them. I make an appeal to the authorities about this matter. As the House is aware, this is not a devolved matter. It is not a matter for me or the Assembly.
The other matter that I want to tell the House about is a very sad matter indeed. A young boy called Dean Clarke was sold a drug pill for 50p on the open market. It was sold to him in an area that is dominated by Protestant paramilitaries. The young boy took the pill; he has since died. That is something that I must underscore today. I make a call to the Government to take immediate action on open drug selling in parts of Belfast. The evangelical Presbyterian minister who has been in that place for many years went to the police and gave them evidence. He went himself and publicly bought these tablets from the sellers for 50p. For 50p, this young boy’s life was taken. That is intolerable, and I trust that the House and the Government will understand just how we feel. Nevertheless, we must press on toward the mark. I look forward to the day when I will not need to stand up in this House and bring such a message, but I feel that the urgency of it needs to be impressed on us all.
In response to the Queen’s Speech, I want to address certain issues that affect my constituents. The speech has focused rightly on those matters, and that will be of enormous benefit to the people whom I represent.
Looking at my constituency and what has changed in the past 10 years, I can already see enormous improvements in job availability. Unemployment is now down to the national average. That is something I do not think anyone believed was possible in 1997 when the Government were elected. We have seen enormous improvements to local schools, both in the resources that they have and the buildings in which they operate. The same is true for local health facilities.
However, when people come to my surgery with two particular problems, my heart sinks. The first is housing. It is often young couples who come; I have met three or four in the past week alone. They are absolutely desperate either for a home of their own or to move home because they need somewhere larger. A young mother was telling me the other day that she lived in a two-bedroom house with four children and the house is simply not big enough to cope. Another young mother was living at home with her parents because there was not a home available. She wanted to remain in the area because the reality for family life is that grandparents will help with child care; if they do, mothers can go out to work and add to the family income and improve family life, and that is important to them. So people need a home in the area where they were brought up and have all their family and social ties.
All too often, I have to say to people, “I am very sorry, there is just an enormous waiting list.” Even people who have priority because of their overcrowding or homelessness often cannot get housing in the south of Sheffield, where housing problems are particularly acute. Demolition is rightly taking place on two or three of the local estates there which were system built in the 1970s and the housing stock and fabric has simply failed. That puts additional pressure on the availability of empty homes.
It would be enormously helpful if the Housing Corporation put pressure on housing associations to give their fair share of allocations to people on the council’s list, especially people with priority need and homeless families. All too often, housing associations do not follow through on the commitments that they give, which puts all the pressure back on the local arm’s length management organisation, Sheffield Homes, which is doing an incredibly good job. So the first issue that makes my heart sink is when people come and say, “Can you help me get a home?” and the answer often is, “No, not in the foreseeable future.”
So what can we do to help? The Queen’s Speech has got it absolutely right this time by focusing on the fact that we need 3 million additional homes to be built in this country. A good proportion of them need to be built for rent for people who cannot or do not want to buy a home. In my constituency, house prices are three times higher than they were in the late 1990s, and homes that were affordable then are not affordable now. Giving local authorities and ALMOs the chance to get into the house-building programme is incredibly welcome, but I caution Ministers that there are some practical difficulties in that process, which we need to remove.
It is proposed that authorities will receive about £40,000 per unit in grant from the Housing Corporation. Six ALMOs are being given the opportunity to bid for funds, but will £40,000 be enough to enable an authority to embark on a house-building programme and make the sums stack up, especially given the complications of the housing revenue account? There are some pilot schemes under way to try to disentangle the housing revenue account problems and develop something more practical to allow authorities to build homes. At present, there is the perverse situation that they could build new homes and lose grant in the process. We need to speed up the procedures and consider whether we need to reform the whole housing revenue account system. That will be a major challenge for the Government in the next spending round.
Are the methods by which ALMOs and local authorities are to be allowed to build homes, such as the development of housing companies and the involvement of various partners, so complicated that there will be a time lag before homes are actually built? My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) pointed out that the situation is not as simple as it was in the old days, when local authorities got the money and built council homes. Some of the mechanics for involving ALMOs and local authorities in the house-building process are difficult. The Government are right to consider a number of routes, but how quickly will they deliver the homes people need?
The Government’s intentions and motives are right: they are putting housing at the top of the agenda because 3 million homes need to be built, but have we got the mechanics right? Will the process enable housing for rent, which we need in constituencies such as mine, to be built as quickly as possible? That is a major and serious challenge facing the Government. I want to be part of the debate, pushing the Government onwards to achieve the extra housing we all desire.
The second issue that makes my heart sink is when my constituents say, “First Bus or Stagecoach has decided to take away the bus service I rely on.” It might be the service they rely on to get to work because their shift starts at 7 in the morning. It might be the service they rely on to go and see their husband or wife who is in a residential home and it will now take them an hour longer to get there. It might be the service they rely on to take their children to the grandparents who will drop them at school because the parents are going to work.
Family and social life and employment can be disrupted at the drop of a hat when bus companies take such decisions, so I am pleased by the Government’s commitment to allow passenger transport authorities to take powers to use quality contracts, and to create and deliver a framework for services in their area. They will also be able to determine fares and service standards and other things that are important to my community. The restrictions on bus operators’ powers to change routes and drop services at 42 days’ notice are important. The Government’s intentions are right, and those measures will be vital. Often the same people have housing and transport problems; the poorer people in the community need a home to rent and they rely on local bus services.
Again, however, the Government have not quite got the mechanics right. I want to take up the proposals, and perhaps when we consider the legislation for giving powers back to passenger transport authorities we can make some changes compared with the previous draft Bill. The fundamental problem with the Government’s proposals is the length of time it could take between a local PTA deciding that it might want to bring back quality contracts and review the operation of buses in its area and setting up those contracts. It could take up to two years.
Another problem is that the Government do not quite trust elected PTAs enough—whether they are county councils or the metropolitan PTAs. Once an authority has decided, after a considerable amount of consultation and review, that the proposed system of quality contracts is the appropriate way forward, the traffic commissioners will have the right to second-guess the PTA’s proposals. Why should an unelected traffic commissioner be able to veto a decision made by an elected PTA? If we believe in localism and the transfer of real responsibilities and powers to elected members locally, why should the traffic commissioners have that right? Even if the traffic commissioner agrees with the proposal, why is it necessary to have the right of appeal to a transport tribunal, which will merely prolong the process? Although voters, the PTA and the local community in general can determine that quality contracts are the right way to bring sense and order to the provision of local bus services, unelected bodies will still have the right to review and veto the proposals.
Will the Government reconsider those proposals? By all means, let the traffic commissioners be part of the consultation process, but they should not have the right of veto. Their review should be undertaken in parallel with the decision-making processes of the transport authority, which would cut down the time involved and enable decisions to be taken more quickly.
During this Session, I hope to comment on the Government’s proposals on planning, which in general I support. It is right to try to speed up the process and to adopt a sensible approach to major projects. The existing system is nonsense; many inquiries take years rather than months so we need a consistent approach, with national policy guidelines on the provision of energy or airports. Individual applications for airports or energy-producing units would then be considered in the context of overall policy, which is a much better structured way forward.
My only concern relates to the proposal to abolish the needs test for retail development. I shall need perpetual reassurance from Ministers that nothing the Government propose will in any way damage the improvements that have been made in the past few years in terms of more retail development in town and district centres and on the edges of such centres rather than on greenfield sites, with all the related problems of congestion and environmental pollution, as well as the fact that people with no access to a car cannot buy the cheaper food that is often available in supermarkets. I hope that Ministers will reassure me that the abolition of the needs test will not weaken the emphasis on building in town and district centres. That has been extremely important for the regeneration of cities such as Sheffield where there will be a £500 million shopping development in the centre of town over the next four or five years. The developers, Hammerson, point out that the project is being built as a result of the city council’s clear rules—in line with Government guidelines—on planning policy for out-of-town developments.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we keep the brownfield site quota uppermost in our minds? The problem is not just the number of developments, but the suitability of sites. Many of the most suitable sites are on brownfield land. We need to get both the fiscal and planning regimes right.
I agree. My hon. Friend’s point applies to retail and housing developments. There may be a need to build on some greenfield sites, but it is important that we look at brownfield sites, as we are doing in Sheffield in the Don and Attercliffe area where we are building between 3,000 and 4,000 new homes on brownfield sites, which will regenerate the local community.
Another issue raised by my constituents is the pressure on local authority social services budgets, which I hope the Government will address. The issue was not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, although there will be a Green Paper. We rightly encourage the health service to ensure that people do not go to hospital unless it is absolutely necessary and that they stay in hospital for only a short time, receiving care, treatment and help in the community. However, the result is that financial responsibilities are transferred from the health service to local authority budgets, which are already under strain. Fortunately, people are living longer but they require more care at home. People with learning disabilities rightly require increasing amounts of assistance from local authorities, with care at home, training, day centres and other provision.
There are real needs in our communities so I shall be interested in the provisions of the independent living Bill. The chief executive of an organisation supporting that measure is one of my constituents. When he came to see me we discussed how much better it would be if we could give people who need care at home the freedom of having a personal budget. The local authority would still assess their needs, but if they had a personal budget they could buy the services they needed. Where such schemes have been trialled, not only have people benefited from improved services that they actually want but there have been efficiency savings owing to the non-provision of services people do not want. I hope the Government will return to that matter in due course.
In general, I very much welcome the proposals in the Queen’s Speech.
I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, but the contents of the Government’s programme do not match the expectations raised by the Prime Minister’s hype of the past few months. In fact, the Government seem to have run out of steam. Much has been rehashed and restated and there is little in the Government’s programme that will be welcomed in my constituency of Bexleyheath and Crayford.
In particular, I fear that many of the problems facing the country are not being addressed by the Government. The problems of the national health service locally and especially in my borough of Bexley in south-east London are not addressed in the Queen’s Speech. We face real problems of NHS cuts and downgrades in our area and there are threats to the accident and emergency and maternity units at the local hospital of Queen Mary’s in Sidcup. It appears that the Government are not really concerned with that.
Not at the moment; I have not even got started on my speech. The hon. Gentleman will have his turn later.
I am also surprised that there is nothing in the Queen’s Speech about the looming pensions crisis, which is of grave concern to many of my constituents. In addition, they are concerned about the piecemeal constitutional reform that appears in the Queen’s Speech. It will not deal with the unfairness faced by England and English Members of Parliament. These issues will not go away and the problems will get worse unless the Government are prepared to deal with them, talk about them and realistically endeavour to solve them.
I was somewhat disappointed by the remarks of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Her partisan and cliché-ridden speech did not add up. On one front, she said that she wanted to devolve more powers down to local authorities, but on the other she was taking away powers on planning and other issues. She is facing in two different directions. There is an excellent Conservative council in Bexley and it does tremendously good work, but it receives a poor financial settlement from central Government. The council is expected to do more for less. In addition, in the past year, the Government have given more powers to the Mayor of London to take planning decisions. That takes planning powers away from local authorities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) on his robust, positive and effective speech. I note that the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) is sadly no longer in her place, but her speech highlighted aspiration as vital for our young people. Conservative Members are absolutely behind her in that; we want aspiration so that people can raise themselves up and rise to the top. Why then is our education system still failing so many of our young people? It is not helping them to fulfil their aspirations, but more on that later.
Today, we are concentrating on the environment as a major issue. Without doubt, it is one of the greatest challenges of our age. I strongly welcome the Climate Change Bill and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, we have welcomed it several times before. Naturally it is now pleasing to see that it is actually going to come about. However, there are still concerns. Is it logical for the Government to set carbon budgets years ahead before a new committee on climate change will have reported on what the overall targets should be? Are the Government again wanting to spin headlines without being interested in the substantial issues? I am delighted to see the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in his place because, last month, I asked him a question about the independence of the committee. He told me to be patient. I remain patient and will look with great interest as the Bill goes through at what he has to offer and at how he plans to monitor and take things forward.
The Government talk about wanting to control carbon emissions, but it is always disappointing that they have failed to meet the targets that they have set themselves. Conservative Members are united with the Government that there must be action to deal with the problem, but the Government could do more. In particular, the Climate Change Bill should contain rolling annual emissions targets. We need an independent body to set, as well as monitor, these targets and we have pressed hard for an annual report from the Government on how they will make progress on this important issue. Such measures would make a difference and we will support the Government on the Bill if they can tweak the provisions in the direction that we would like.
On a local matter, I know that in an intervention the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) has already raised the issue of the Thames Gateway bridge.
The hon. Gentleman always gets his facts wrong. He is known for that locally as well as in the House. The fact is that it is a different proposal for a different bridge to go to a different place and to be built at a different time. Unfortunately, he is stuck in the past just like so many of his colleagues on the Government Benches.
It is interesting that the Government have a plan for cutting emissions and improving air quality, but what is the result? We are all united against the Thames Gateway bridge in our area of south-east London and there was a public inquiry. The public inquiry inspector said that the bridge was not necessary for the development of the Thames Gateway, but who was it who would not accept the report? The answer is the very Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who opened the debate. She did not like the outcome of the inspector’s report so she has reopened the public inquiry so it can perhaps come to a decision that she would like. The Government speak with one voice to say that they want a cut in emissions to improve air quality and to deal with the problems that we have in south-east London, but if the proposal for the bridge goes ahead, it will increase traffic, have health consequences and increase the problems for the environment. Of course, we now know that the reopened public inquiry will not take place until 2009, so people locally have that sword of Damocles above them.
Nuclear power will be discussed later. I am trying to get across—[Interruption.] I am discussing the issues affecting my local area and they include the emissions from traffic. I would like more public transport and not the Thames Gateway bridge. My approach would help to cut emissions and, as well as dealing with issues of road safety, help to improve health in my area.
I am concerned that other issues have not appeared in the Queen’s Speech. In my time outside the House, I worked for Bexley college and dealt with young people and others who were at the college trying to obtain the qualifications that would enable them to lead fulfilling lives and have a good future. I therefore welcome the Bill on education and skills that proposes to improve education and training and to enforce duties on young people and parents to ensure that young people participate in education. I welcome moves to improve access to post-16 education. After all, we now know that there are more than 250,000 more people not in education or training than there were in 1997. That is under a Government who keep telling us how successful their education policies have been. That statistic is really worrying.
If we have spent so much on education and invested in it, why are so many young people disaffected? They do not have the skills of reading and writing at the ages of 11 and 16 that they need to be able to participate so that they can make something of themselves. That big question has not been addressed in the Queen’s Speech and although I welcome the proposed Bill, there is much more that we should do to raise standards for those within the current statutory school age of between five and 16.
The diversity and variety of Bexley’s schools is excellent. We have grammar schools, technical schools and single-sex schools, and our council is determined to do the best for all children. I know that school attendance has been a national problem. The number of children of compulsory school age having at least one unauthorised absence has increased by 22 per cent. nationally in the past five or six years. That is very worrying because every day that a child misses at school cannot be made up. We want to ensure that children have the opportunity to be in school and to learn. The Government boast that they have spent £1 billion on tackling truancy, but truancy has increased. That needs to be addressed seriously, not only because children are losing education, but because we wonder and worry about what those children are doing when they are not in school.
May I suggest that the Government examine the work that is being carried out in my borough of Bexley that is led by our two excellent cabinet members, Councillors Simon Windle and Teresa O’Neill? I hope that their “every day counts” strategy will do much to improve attendance in Bexley, even though it is not as bad as that in many other parts of the country.
Bexley head teachers said that they wanted much clearer guidelines and advice, and, more importantly, policies that were applied consistently across the borough. From this year, there will no longer be differences for children in different schools. Parents have been asked to try to keep to a minimum the time that their children are absent from school. Additionally, schools no longer have holiday forms to complete. Instead, parents or carers will need to write directly to their child’s head teacher to justify why holidays should be granted during term time. Any pupil’s attendance at school is a partnership among the child, parents, the school and the local authority. A child’s formal education is a valued asset that should be treasured and looked after carefully. Teachers in our schools do a tremendous job, but they can be allowed to do their very best only if everyone ensures that children attend school as much as possible.
Much more needs to be done on standards and discipline in education. The present system is failing too many children, which is a disgrace. When we look forward, we want to see a well educated, enthused and aspirational group of young people who can take this country forward. That was what we were looking for from the Queen’s Speech.
We approve of some aspects of the Queen’s Speech. We welcome what is proposed in the Climate Change Bill, although we will need to tweak it. We welcome the proposed education Bill, but it is not enough. More needs to be done in schools, but such action was lacking from the Queen’s Speech.
My constituents will find the Queen’s Speech wanting in addressing many of their concerns, notably the NHS, crime, immigration and education. The Government seem to be rather bankrupt of new ideas and the Queen’s Speech proves it.
In view of the time limit, I shall confine my remarks to some of the matters raised by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee regarding the draft Climate Change Bill and the Government’s response. I welcome the all-party agreement of the Committee, on which I serve, on the principal purpose of the Bill: to enshrine national carbon emission reduction targets in law. We will be the first country in the world to do that, which is hardly an indication that the Government are running out of ideas and commitment, as some hon. Members have suggested. Doing so will not only firmly place such issues on the political agenda and the Government’s agenda, but strengthen the will of the Government to create and deliver the certainty that is essential so that businesses and other organisations can be confident that the matter is here to stay for decades to come, and that investment can be put in place and decisions taken in the knowledge that the Government will not back off. That crucial political aspect of the Bill is absolutely essential and is entirely consistent with the message of the Stern report, which described climate change as the
“greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen.”
Stability and certainty in policy and the political will will be crucial if major players in the economy are to tackle that market failure.
The draft Bill proposed that, by 2050, carbon dioxide emissions must be at least 60 per cent. less than they were in 1990. The Committee heard evidence that the science on which that figure was based has moved on. However, we did not think that, as politicians, we should just pluck another figure out of the air. We thought that the expert committee on climate change would be best placed to make recommendations on the matter and that that committee should be free to alter targets—certainly the 2050 target, and also the interim 2020 target. The draft Bill did not allow for that, so I was pleased that the Government’s response indicated that the climate change committee will have the power to do that and that it must report on the target by autumn 2009.
I would like the report to happen a little earlier because I understand that the Government intend that the committee should exist in shadow form before the Bill is enacted. That will be helpful, and the committee is bound to be doing some work on that while it is thinking about the period of the first carbon budget. The public will be looking to the committee to do so.
The 60 per cent. target will be very tough in itself. The CBI has signed up to it, but I understand that some of its members are moaning and groaning. That is all the more reason why, if we are to end up with the higher target that I think we will need, the argument for it must be based on science. However, there is not yet a consensus on the science. For example, the Tyndall centre for climate change research argues for a 90 per cent. reduction from the 1990 base. It recommended that figure in a report that it prepared for Friends of the Earth, which gave evidence to the Select Committee, but Friends of the Earth did not adopt that figure and went for 80 per cent. There is not yet consensus, but the science is moving on.
The hon. Gentleman is making a number of extremely powerful points. May I push him a little further? How sensible does he think it is that the Bill—we expect—will set the targets and that the climate change committee will come to a decision on what the targets should be only after that process?
The issue needs careful consideration. It will be important that there is a figure in the Bill because that will show that the Government mean business. I hope that the expert committee will start its work early next year. If the door is open under the framework of the Act to use a mechanism involving the expert committee so that the figure can be upped in the light of scientific consensus, that is a perfectly sensible way of going forward. The Government cannot be accused of vagueness at the start of such a serious process.
The Bill will propose five-year periods for carbon budgeting, starting in autumn 2008. Binding limits will be set for each five-year period and three consecutive periods may be examined at one time. The draft Bill included a requirement that the committee on climate change should make an annual report to Parliament on the progress being made. That provision was very welcome and supported by the Select Committee. The Committee also supported five-year budget periods. Some argue for annual statutory targets, but they would be bound to create a focus on shorter-term reduction objectives. Such targets would also be too sensitive to weather, short-term climate change and changes to the market price of energy. Five-year periods are thus more sensible and fit in with the internationally agreed time periods involved under Kyoto and the European Union emissions trading scheme.
When Friends of the Earth and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds gave evidence to the Select Committee, they supported annual statutory budgets because they thought that the fact that a five-year period could span a change of Government might weaken a Government’s resolve to address the situation. However, that Select Committee evidence session shows that both Friends of the Earth and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds would be content with five-year budgetary periods, provided that there be explicit annual milestones, so that the Government could be held accountable and could make decisions regarding emissions during a five-year budget period, not just at the end of it. The Select Committee agreed with that and supported a five-year period, but with annual milestones set and published by the climate change committee.
In their response, the Government welcomed the support for the five-year budget period, but apparently they are set against annual targets or milestones, which they say would undermine the credibility of the system. They cite all kinds of problems—and the Select Committee would agree with them, if we were talking about annual statutory targets, but we are not, and I am not. We are talking about milestones that are not statutory. Milestones will exist anyway along a five-year route—a 15-year route, in fact—even if the Government do not want to recognise them.
The minute that the Bill becomes an Act, people will talk. They will be anxious and interested. Parliamentarians and all sorts of organisations will want to know what progress we are making, and what the ifs and buts are. It would be better for the Government to embrace that reality, and not to seem to set their face against indicative milestones. Such milestones are not statutory targets. I believe that they are entirely consistent with an annual emissions report to Parliament—something to which the Government are committed. What will that report talk about, unless it is the progress that has, or has not, been made, and how we will deal with the situation? Of course some people will misunderstand or deliberately misrepresent the annual milestones, but that is no reason why the Government should not embrace the concept, and I hope that they will consider doing so.
As I have said, I am pleased that the proposed committee on climate change will start its work sooner rather than later. The Select Committee made a number of comments about it. Mainly we wanted to make sure that it was independent and had sufficient resources, but I will pick on just one comment: the proposal that, among the experts on the committee, there be a specialist in dealing with and understanding biodiversity. Biodiversity is obviously affected by climate change, which has all sorts of human and economic consequences for it. I am disappointed and surprised that the Government disagreed with that in their response. They said that biodiversity was considered in everything that the Government did, and that it was in the ether, as it were, at all times. Well, I am sorry, but I am not terribly convinced by that. We are setting up a mechanism through which to consider climate change, and biodiversity should be among the issues that are constantly considered; it should not just be assumed that it is being considered at all times, because that is not convincing.
In the draft Bill, it was proposed that international aviation and shipping emissions not be included, but that they be included at some future point. The position now, I believe, is that the Government accept the logic that they must be included at some point. That will of course affect the difficulty, or otherwise, of achieving a 60 or 70 per cent. reduction target, but at least the target will be based on reality. The Government are right to indicate that the committee on climate change will have the power to recommend the point at which emissions from international aviation and shipping be included. I must say that in the evidence that the Committee received, the opinion was overwhelmingly that they should be included from day one.
There is a case for saying that although there are clearly technical difficulties, and although clearly the planet cannot deal with the issue until there is proper international agreement, there is such a thing as political leadership, which perhaps involves taking a few risks. No one is going to say, “You shouldn’t do that.” No country will deny that we should do it, ultimately. We, as the first industrialised country, are in a strong position to give political leadership on the issue. We should look towards an early inclusion of international aviation and shipping emissions, rather than wait for the European Union emissions trading scheme or some other international agreement, which will clearly be needed beyond that. It will strengthen the Government’s arguments for securing those international agreements if they take the lead in the way that I suggest.
On the inclusion of aviation in the European emissions trading scheme, does my hon. Friend agree that it will be quite wrong of the EU and the Government not to include the impact of radiative forcing when calculating the impact of aviation, when there is eventually trading within the scheme, as its impact could be up to four times greater than is currently calculated?
Right. Of course, the science will, hopefully, take on board all of that, because we are interested in dealing with the reality, and not with what happens to be fashionable at any point in time; the subject is far too important for that.
I should like to draw attention to one or two other related matters. It is important that the Bill establishes a clear relationship with the rest of what the Government do, in terms of joined-up, seamless government, certainly as regards the terms of the legislative programme outlined in the Queen’s Speech. There is to be a planning Bill, a housing and regeneration Bill, an energy Bill and a draft marine Bill. Those four, at least, have a strong influence on how we reach our emission reduction targets, on our trajectory, and on the issue of cumulative reductions in carbon dioxide. I was going to go through all those Bills, but there is no time. However, the important point is that we must make sure, when each Bill is introduced and goes through its stages in the House, that the scrutiny includes remembering that the Climate Change Bill seeks to overarch all of that. We will not deliver on climate change unless those Bills and other measures succeed in addressing the concerns in detail.
Clearly, I support the Climate Change Bill, but I support changes to the draft Bill that the Select Committee examined. I look forward to the Bill’s publication. There are some hopeful indications in the Government response, but further changes need to be made. I say that because I want a robust Bill that will command support throughout the country and in the House. It is such a crucial issue; we just have to get it right.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate on the Gracious Speech. I want to focus on the issues in the speech that particularly affect my constituents in Fareham. Those topics happen to be the subject of the earlier interchanges between the Front Benchers—housing and planning. Let me give the House some background that will enable hon. Members to understand my concerns, and why I am articulating the concerns of my constituents.
Fareham borough council is one of a number of councils in south Hampshire that have formed the partnership for urban south Hampshire, to develop plans that will form part of the south-east plan. The partnership proposes that 80,000 houses be built in the area between just to the west of Southampton, through Portsmouth to Havant. Under those plans, 13,000 houses will be built in my constituency over 20 years—10,000 in a strategic development area, and 3,000 in areas of Fareham that are already developed. The plans are partly to help stimulate economic growth, and partly to accommodate population growth in the area. The population studies that the councils commissioned to help inform their decisions show that in the 20 years from 2006 there will be an extra 53,200 single-person households, and only an extra 5,700 new family households. It is clear from the analysis that has been done that there is demand for more houses in the area.
Despite the logic that underpins those plans, my constituents have some concerns about development, which are rooted in their experiences to date—and are not, I hope, a reflection of the experiences they will have in future. They have three particular concerns: infrastructure, density and location, and a lack of democratic accountability.
In Fareham, there has been rapid development over the past 20 or 30 years. New communities have grown up, but there has also been a shortfall in infrastructure. Whiteley, for example, is a community split between Fareham and Winchester. It has a single primary school, which does not have enough places for the children in the community, who have to be bussed to the other side of the M27 to schools elsewhere in my constituency. In September I was proud to open a new permanent GP surgery in Whiteley. It is the first and only such surgery in Whiteley; the doctors were operating out of portakabins until earlier this year. There is one road in and out of Whiteley, and 3,000 to 4,000 houses, and residents think that new houses are being built without adequate infrastructure. Elsewhere in the borough, there has been large-scale infill development in recent years, but Blackbrook maternity hospital has closed, there is no investment in new road schemes, and it is difficult for local residents to find a dentist in the area. For them, new housing means pressure on existing local services, and they cannot see the Government taking any steps to relieve that pressure.
Hampshire county council and other local councils supported the south Hampshire rapid transit scheme, which proposed to operate a tram through Gosport into Portsmouth. Unfortunately, the Department for Transport decided not to proceed with the funding of that scheme, yet no other funding has been made available to improve public transport. Interestingly, the panel empowered by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to investigate the south-east plan said in its report that it was regrettable that the rapid transit scheme did not proceed, because when people were considering how to accommodate the additional housing growth in the area, they would have to look afresh at public transport and other schemes to improve infrastructure. Local people therefore believe that development has taken place without the incentive of new infrastructure to maintain or enhance their quality of life.
Density and location are a concern because there are not many brownfield industrial sites in Fareham, so most brownfield development has taken place in back gardens. Fareham has topped Hampshire’s garden-grabbing league for the past two years, and people ascribe the change in their residential environment to the building of new blocks of flats. Those problems are not exclusive to Fareham, and are experienced throughout south Hampshire. We are told that high density is important to improve affordability, but the price of those flats is four or five times the average salary of people in Fareham, so they are not necessarily affordable developments. Problems caused by the lack of infrastructure are therefore compounded by changes in residential areas.
Local people are concerned, too, about the lack of control over development. They do not believe that they have a say in development, because central Government’s control is too strong, so their protests are ignored. The combination of a deteriorating quality of life, development that changes the character of an area and a lack of local accountability cause people to be frustrated with development and anxious about what will happen to their community in future. They will get no relief from the housing and planning Bills that are to be introduced, and they regard the proposals to move planning from regional assemblies to regional development agencies, following the shift from counties to RDAs in the last planning Act, as moving power further and further away from people and their elected representatives. The evidence from the partnership for urban south Hampshire is that local councils can work together at sub-regional level to tackle those issues. The Government need to learn that decisions do not need to happen at the regional level or in Whitehall, but can happen at the local level. The proposal to move decisions further and further up the chain alienates people from the political process at the local level.
My constituents are concerned, too, about the planning charge in the pre-Budget report; legislation may be required to introduce it in this Parliament. It is a response to criticism about the planning gain supplement, but my constituents are concerned about the small print. They are worried that money raised on houses built in Fareham, Southampton and Portsmouth could be taken away and spent on other priorities in the region. They regard it as a stealth tax, as money is taken out of the local area to be used elsewhere. Money could also be raised in other areas in the south-east and channelled into Fareham, Portsmouth and Southampton, but that would mean that another group of people—another Member’s constituents—would be disfranchised, and would not receive the economic benefit of developments in their area.
The money raised by the planning charge should therefore be spent in the area where it is raised, unless local councils agree that it should be spent elsewhere. Local councils across the south-east, for example, agreed that the Hindhead tunnel to improve road connections from Hampshire and Surrey to London was a regional priority. They took voluntary action to back the regional plan. People are prepared to work collectively to support such projects, but they will not be happy if they are compelled to pass up money raised from houses built in their area so that it can be used for projects elsewhere.
The lack of democratic accountability and the risk that money raised by the planning charge will be used elsewhere may exacerbate people’s alienation from the planning process in areas such as south Hampshire. If the Government intend to pursue the policy of centrally imposed targets for Hampshire and other parts of the south-east, they must will both the ends and the means. Too often, the Government say that the money will be made available for infrastructure, but people in south Hampshire need clear evidence that they are prepared to step up to the plate. They do not want a repeat of what has happened in Whiteley and other parts of south Hampshire, where infrastructure has not kept pace with house building and economic development.
Until the Government recognise the need for change, the measures on planning and housing mentioned in the Gracious Address will not address the concerns of people in my constituency. If we are to tackle growing frustration with the planning system, we need a change in approach. We need to move away from top-down big government that takes powers away from local communities, and away from money being raised by the planning charge in one area to be used in another. We need to give back to local communities the right to determine how development affects their area, and the responsibility for meeting their housing needs. Local communities must see the fruits of development, so we must provide incentives to improve infrastructure. The Gracious Speech does not show that the Government can provide the change that the country needs. People in my constituency are desperate for change: they are desperate for more local accountability and local responsibility. The Government talk about that, but they do not deliver. I believe that the Conservatives can talk about it, act on it and deliver it.
I am pleased to take part in the debate. I particularly welcome the announcement in the Queen’s Speech of a Bill to improve services for vulnerable children and young people, including those in public care. It is good that Ministers are taking forward their proposals in the “Care Matters” White Paper, to improve outcomes for looked-after children and young people. The Government have made real progress in the past 10 years in helping children and young people, especially under the Every Child Matters agenda.
It is right that we are offering universal support and help to parents through services delivered in children’s centres. In my constituency, Stockport, in two of the most deprived areas parents are being offered a range of services that include parenting courses, speech therapy for young children, advice on diet, StoryBus read and play, and share care schemes.
Many years ago I was a social worker in those same areas. At that time it was almost impossible to access services for vulnerable families. The services that were available in specialist centres stigmatised and separated those families from the wider community and labelled them as social care families—a label that followed the children through their school years to the time when they became parents, and the cycle started again.
Of course, those families are hard to reach and to help, but the difference now is that services are available, and because they are universal and are often provided by local parents and the imaginative use of volunteers, those hard-to-reach families will be reached. Their children will benefit and will stand a better chance of staying with their parents, with better parenting than happened in my day, when the choice was to leave children in bad situations or take them into care, which meant placing them in situations that did not improve their life chances.
As the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) said in a recent speech,
“We need to recognise that, where the state is responsible for a child’s welfare, it has a moral obligation to care for that child as any other good parent would”.
So I particularly welcome the White Paper’s focus on improving outcomes for children in public care, especially in their educational attainment at school.
I am especially interested in improving outcomes for the group of young people who, because of the complexity of their problems, are often cared for in children’s homes. There are 6,500 children in children’s homes and hostels in England. That is 11 per cent. of all children. Children in children’s homes tend to be older. Just 1.5 per cent. of looked-after five to nine-year-olds are in such accommodation, compared with 14 per cent. of 10 to 15-year-olds and 23 per cent. of those aged 16-plus.
Those children and young people are—understandably, because of their backgrounds—among the most challenging in their behaviour, and the most needy of the best care that the public system can provide. Without a stable care placement, there is little chance of a stable school or training placement, and without that there will be no improvement in outcomes or in their life chances. They need the best care both in the care placement by the provider and in the support and interventions of the corporate parent—the local authority that has responsibility for looking after them.
One of the issues that concerns me locally is the number of children from other boroughs who are placed in my local authority area, Stockport. In 2005 Lord Filkin, then the junior Minister with responsibility for children and families, wrote to all councils stressing that
“a firm Government commitment that, save in exceptional circumstances, out-of-authority placements for looked after children should be restricted to cases where they are clearly in the child’s best interests”.
He argued that too often such placements were not in a child’s best interests and made it harder for a local council
“to act as an attentive corporate parent”,
and that children were
“less likely to thrive if they are living well away from their own communities”.
He added that
“out-of-authority placements can also result in unhelpful concentrations of children with high levels of need in particular parts of the country”.
I wholeheartedly agree. This is exactly the problem that we are experiencing in Stockport.
How can social workers miles from a children’s home satisfactorily discharge their corporate parenting responsibilities without delegating them totally to the provider, whose interests may not always coincide with what is in the best interests of the child? My concern is that in some parts of the country local authorities are not heeding this Government advice, and that children, especially those with complex behaviour problems, are being “exported” from one borough to another.
The growth of independent children’s homes has created some positives—for example, choice and tailored placements suitable to children’s needs—but also some negatives. While it has allowed some local authorities to seek better value by closing their own children’s homes, it has led to an increase in exporting children elsewhere. For example, I understand that more than 1,000 children from other authorities are placed in Kent. In Stockport we have 200 children placed from other boroughs; indeed, we have 17 per cent. of all children’s homes within Greater Manchester.
Although most homes offer a good if not excellent service there are, as there are everywhere, “rogue traders”. There are incentives for local authorities to place children out of their own borough. While the placing authority pays fees to the private home—in some cases up to £4,000 per week per child—it is the receiving local authority and the police that have to foot the bill for tackling repeat offending and running away, education and health, including mental health. A Greater Manchester police analysis showed that 81 per cent. of all children missing from home are missing from children’s homes in Stockport, compared to a conurbation average of 65 per cent. That reflects the complex difficulties of those young people, the high level of private provision in the borough and the difficulty that those private homes have in managing those children.
Our local research showed that children missing from home during a particular six-month period had committed on average just under five offences each, and that 47 per cent. had been victims of crime on more than one occasion, which included physical and sexual assaults. There is also evidence of substance misuse and prostitution when missing. A failure to manage those children in care not only has a high resource cost for the authority in which they are placed but, more importantly, exposes them and the wider community to risk.
In Stockport we have seen the profitable development of a market in importing prolific and priority offenders from other boroughs. In one case, authorities were leafleted by a Stockport home owner with an offer to send their persistent and schedule 1 offenders to his private children’s home in Stockport. The problem is that the care provided by such homes does not seem to manage or stabilise the behaviour of those young people. The area round one three-bedded children’s home in Stockport that took offenders from Liverpool was hit with a swift rise in burglary, car thefts and criminal damage. My interest is in ensuring that the children in those small homes are looked after and supervised properly, and that the inspections are rigorous in taking into account factors such as repeat offending and the number of times children run away or go missing.
Children’s homes of whatever size are now regulated by Ofsted, which registers and inspects them a minimum of twice a year. There are national minimum standards that children’s homes must adhere to, and each home must have a statement of purpose. Inspectors should assess the home against the aims of the Every Child Matters agenda, which includes categories such as “Staying safe”, “Enjoying and achieving”, “Making a positive contribution” and “Achieving economic well-being”, so there are criteria against which homes can be measured.
However, there is anecdotal evidence in Stockport that in practice the inspection reports are not as rigorous as they should be. I understand that some reports do not adequately report how often children get into trouble or go missing, and are more concerned with issues such as the quality of food and the cleanliness of bathrooms. It cannot be right that an inspection report on one Stockport home failed to mention that one young person had offended 89 times. Surely reference to that would have been relevant under the “Staying safe” category of Every Child Matters. If such issues are not reported, how can other agencies provide the interventions needed to help the young person concerned and others like them?
As Lord Filkin said, children are less likely to thrive if they are away from their own communities. If the child or young person is a long way from home, there is less opportunity to do whole-family work. Also, if a young person is placed in their authority of origin, offender management and safeguarding will rest with those who are more familiar with the case. There will therefore be greater stability in the resourcing and provision of substance misuse services, child and adolescent mental health services, family work, parenting, education, training and employment. I am also concerned that the requirement under the Children Act 1989 to promote contacts with families can be difficult to meet if children are placed away from home. Children in children’s homes will often have complex physical, behavioural and educational needs. If we are to improve the outcomes for such children, it is crucial that all the local agencies have a full knowledge and understanding of the problems.
The children and young persons Bill offers an opportunity to address those issues and the gap in outcomes between children in care and their peers, and to improve placement stability and consistency for children in care. It should be mandatory for the local crime and disorder reduction partnership to be notified by private homes when a prolific and persistent offender is exported into their area. However, some homes will not share information as to who is resident, which makes the CDRP’s task of either safeguarding or reducing crime more difficult. We should also consider standardising the base assessment of young people before and during placements to ensure both that the inspectors are mindful of the “Staying safe” category in reducing crime and tracking runaways, and that inspectors report fully on such incidents. If those measures were used robustly, they would stop providers from offering inappropriate placements for young people who they know they cannot manage, and act as a lever for improving staff training.
There can be no doubt that it is best to place children in a home near to their own home, because the social worker responsible for supervising and reviewing their case can easily access and make use of local agencies to improve the life chances of that young person. That is inevitably more difficult if a child is placed outside the area, many miles away. Inevitably, however, some children will be placed outside their own authority, for very good reasons and because it is in their best interests. It is important that we have a robust and strict inspection regime that reports on all aspects of their progress, so that the child who is a long way from home can be properly parented and his or her life chances can be improved. It is important to address those issues with this most difficult group of young people—and we cannot achieve that without improving public care and corporate parenting.
I should like to return to the subject raised by the hon. Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall). I served on the Joint Committee on the draft Climate Change Bill and also on the Environmental Audit Committee, and I am glad to see a number of my colleague survivors of those Committees here today.
There is no doubt that climate change is the greatest new political issue to have arisen in our lifetime. At their highest, the stakes are the most extraordinary possible—namely, the survival of life on earth. I have no hesitation in welcoming the intentions of the Government in bringing forward the Bill. I should say in passing, however, that they sometimes seem to forget how the commitment to the Bill came about. It was in fact campaigned for by Friends of the Earth, and the support of the Liberal Democrats, the nationalists and, eventually, the Conservatives, persuaded the Government to introduce it. None the less, that consensus is worth hanging on to.
It is also worth mentioning, as did the hon. Member for Bedford, how the Bill will work. It will work by increasing the Government’s credibility in climate change policy, because they will be giving away power. By setting up the committee and imposing legal obligations on themselves, they will increase their ability credibly to bargain internationally and credibly to go to industry and the public with measures that will help to deal with the problem. In that regard, however, I still have some concerns about how the Bill will work, because I do not think that the Government are willing, yet, to give up enough power to give themselves enough credibility in the coming decades.
I want to concentrate on two areas, both of which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Bedford: the targets and the carbon budgeting process. On the 2020 and the 2050 targets, it is clear from discussions in all the Committees that have looked at the Bill that the most important factor is that there should be a total emissions target over the entire period. Yes, there should also be an end-point target relating to how great a reduction we make, but what really matters in climate change is the amount of greenhouse gas that has gone into the atmosphere across time. That total volume target is not mentioned in the Bill, but it needs to be in there.