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Commons Chamber

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2008

House of Commons

Tuesday 26 February 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Devon and Somerset Fire Service

1. What discussions she has had with the Devon and Somerset fire service on its funding settlement; and if she will make a statement. (188682)

The Devon and Somerset fire service met the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), on 5 December. It also submitted written representations, and we carefully considered those alongside all the other representations that we received before making our decisions on the local government finance settlement.

The Minister will be aware that the Devon and Somerset fire service estimates that it is £2 million worse off because of the change to the pensions for firemen, although that was meant to be cost-neutral. The Government Actuary’s Department came up with a figure of £1.2 million, although the way in which it was calculated means that we are talking about £174,000 less than even that amount. The Under-Secretary has indicated to the authority that he estimates that it was short-changed by £440,000. Will the Minister for Local Government provide all the estimates calculated for Devon and Somerset’s funding, so that we can decide whether we are short of £1 million, £174,000 or—

The changes to which the hon. Gentleman refers were designed to smooth out the cost peaks and troughs that fire authorities previously faced year to year in paying for pensions. The Devon and Somerset fire and rescue service has been quids in as a result of this arrangement, whereby the national Government step in to make good any shortfall over the past couple of years. Of course I am happy to examine the case that the Devon and Somerset authority has offered—we did so in the run-up to the finance settlement and we will do so again if it has fresh information—but I have studied the figures, and I think that the balance of advantage lies with that service.

Would the Minister be prepared to meet a cross-party delegation of Members of Parliament from Devon and Somerset to examine next year’s settlement, because every year the authority has to consider cutting operational capacity, as it has done in this year’s budget round, and that cannot be in anyone’s interest?

Of course I will meet a delegation of MPs—I am always prepared to do so. I do not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman, but nor should his own fire and rescue service. Far from being hard done by in the next financial year, and unlike 10 fire and rescue services whose settlements are on the floor for such authorities, Devon and Somerset’s settlements for the next three years of the period are significantly above the floor. The authority is thus hardly hard done by in the terms that he argues.

Clearly the three-year settlement is disappointing. The Minister will be aware of the disquiet felt by many fire authorities in the south-west about the financial implications of the FiReControl project. It is felt not least in the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), where there is near universal opposition to the closure of the tri-service centre in Quedgeley as a result of a new FiReControl centre in Taunton. The regional FiReControl project is three-years late, and 14 times over budget and still heading north. Will the Minister for Local Government give the House a firm undertaking that the cost overruns on the project will not mean fewer firefighters and poorer pensions in the south-west and throughout the country?

First, the hon. Gentleman misrepresents some significant opinion about the attitude to the FiReControl project in the west country. Secondly, the FiReControl project is designed to strengthen the service’s capacity to deal with all sorts of pressures and challenges that it may face in the future. Far from demonstrating the case against that initiative, the summer floods reinforced the case for making just such a move. We will do our best to ensure that the implementation of the FiReControl programme across the country proceeds according to its current time scale and budget. That is what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be doing, and I shall give him any support that he needs.

Affordable Housing

The Housing Corporation is on track to meet the affordable housing targets we set for its 2006 to 2008 affordable housing programme. Not only that, the corporation is today announcing initial allocations for the new affordable housing programme for 2008 to 2011, which will contribute towards our Housing Green Paper target of providing 70,000 new affordable homes per annum by 2010-11, of which 45,000 will be social rent homes.

Funding has been scrapped for the rural housing enablers at a time when the Government are nowhere near meeting their unambitious targets for new affordable housing in rural areas. I wrote to the Minister recently about the “Home on the Farm” scheme, which would have provided hundreds of new dwellings by transforming disused farm buildings in my constituency. Does she agree that that is an imaginative scheme which could help to prevent more of our rural communities from becoming lifeless ghettoes of empty second homes? If so, will she support the restoring of the funding to the rural housing enablers so that such schemes can become a reality?

There is plenty of opportunity for local authorities, should they wish to do so, to use planning policy statement 3, which provides for marketing affordable housing in rural areas. There are several ways in which that can be done, including using disused buildings. I am pleased to announce today a new national target for rural affordable housing, to deliver 10,300—[Interruption.] At least we have targets for house building. The target is to deliver 10,300 completed homes in communities of fewer than 3,000 in the next three years. That represents a rise of more than 50 per cent. on the 4,625 units allocated, and it is for completions, which is a lot better than for allocations.

Will the Minister review the targets for supported housing for young people? We need more such housing, especially through the development of more foyer projects. We made a commitment that we would have a foyer scheme in every town: when will we get that?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s question because in my previous role at the Department for Work and Pensions I was pleased to meet the Foyer Federation to hear how it was providing homes for 10,000 young people a year, and supporting them in finding work, through learning and skills packages. I am pleased to say that the number of homeless 16 and 17-year-olds in bed and breakfast accommodation is down a third. We need to do more and, with my colleagues in the DWP, I intend to explore further what more we can do for young people through housing.

With the number of first-time buyers at its lowest since 1980 and home ownership falling, is not it time for the Government to remove the roadblocks to home ownership that they have put in place, such as rising stamp duty and home information packs?

The Tories say that they want to help first-time buyers, but across the country they oppose the extra homes that first-time buyers and young families desperately need. The fact is that we have helped almost 95,000 people get their first step on the housing ladder through shared ownership schemes. We have 1 million more people in home ownership since 1997, and we are building not only the homes but the sustainable communities to ensure that everyone has a chance to have a roof over their head.

The real roadblocks to a property-owning democracy are mass unemployment, hugely high interest rates and low standards of living. I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Government on having avoided all three of those factors left to us by the Conservative party. Does she accept that, even given that, it is necessary for people to get a step on the first rung of the ladder? Will she therefore insist on going ahead with her plans for affordable housing and not be diverted by the opposition or cynicism of the Conservatives?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. In order to create the environment for home ownership, we need good employment rates, and they are at a record level; we need low interest rates and inflation; and, importantly, we need to build the houses. There is no point Opposition Members talking about supporting more people in buying their own homes if they then join Tory councils locally to oppose every house building venture. We are committed to more affordable homes and to considering different schemes to make that happen, but we should not kid ourselves: we need to overcome the lack of house building over decades to ensure that we can provide, among other things, the first rung on the property ladder.

What discussions has the Minister had recently with the house building industry about the provision of affordable and social housing, and how it might be a good idea to have such provision as part of general housing development, so that ghettoes of affordable and social housing are not established? I would be very interested to know what initiatives the Government are taking.

I am pleased to say that one of my first telephone calls was to Stewart Baseley, who leads the Home Builders Federation. The hon. Gentleman is right: we do want to ensure a mix of tenures in developments. To achieve that, we have to have support at local level, which I have to repeat is not often forthcoming from his party.

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that, while we need more affordable housing, especially in my constituency, we should remember, too, that some tenants in Keighley—especially on the Woodhouse estate, which is managed by Bradford Community Housing Trust—live in appalling conditions? The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, our hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), will bear that out, and he is going to visit that estate. I wish that we could do something to encourage the trust to improve those houses, especially at a time when it is shoving the rents up—notices went out yesterday.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s question. I know that she recently had an Adjournment debate on that issue. I hope that she is aware of the measures that we are taking through the Housing and Regeneration Bill to provide the tenants of registered social landlords with the opportunity through Oftenant to ensure that they get the services that they require. We want to raise the standard of support for tenants, and that means empowering them to have a voice about how to drive up the standards of services.

Growth Point Bids

New growth points are subject to the statutory regional and local planning process, and so any growth bids will be subject to robust testing and public consultation as part of the regional spatial strategy and local development framework mechanisms.

Reassuring as the Minister’s answer is, to date the growth point bid submitted for Blackpool and the Preston area has not been subject to any form of public input or consultation. Will the Minister assure me that mechanisms will be established, if that growth point bid is successful, to enable the public, at appropriate stages, to have their input before the area is irrevocably changed by the proposals in the bid?

I love conspiracy theories, too, but the idea that we are trying to promote growth point bids behind closed doors and in smoke-filled rooms is wrong—actually, because of the smoking ban, it would be illegal, too. Let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman that we will bring forward proposals shortly on the second phase of growth point bids. I reiterate my original answer: they will be subject to the full statutory planning mechanism.

My hon. Friend has been kind in listening to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) and me argue for our own growth area. Does my hon. Friend agree, on the basis of what he saw in Northampton this morning, that any extra funding allocated to the west Northamptonshire growth area would be money well spent?

I have seen a lot of my hon. Friend today. I thank her for her hospitality during my visit to Northampton this morning. I have seen the ambition and vitality in that town, of which she is a true champion. May I point out that the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation will receive more than £30.1 million over the next three years? From what I have seen today, I am sure that it will be well spent. I pay tribute, too, to the fantastic residents of the Goldings estate, whom I met at Goldcrest community room. They need to be part of the growth point process, too.

Has the Minister noticed that not one of the growth point bids for Leicestershire includes the site of the Co-operative Wholesale Society’s bid for a new town of up to 40,000 people in my constituency? Does he think that that is a coincidence?

The hon. and learned Gentleman and I have clashed over that matter on a number of occasions and he has had an Adjournment debate on the subject. I know that he is a strong champion of his community on the matter. I reiterate that growth point bids, as well as eco-town suggestions, will be brought forward very shortly and will be subject to the statutory planning mechanism.

The city of Plymouth has growth point status, which has been approved through the planning process and has the support of local people. Will the Minister tell us how in a joined-up Government we will achieve our growth targets if the Ministry of Defence closes our naval base, as was reported in The Sunday Times over the weekend?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about joined-up government. It is important that we concentrate on housing growth and on increasing the supply that this country so sorely needs, but it is also important that we have the infrastructure and economic base to ensure that we have sustainable communities throughout the country.

If growth point bids are to succeed, the house builders will need land. I hope that the housing ministerial team will seek to emulate their distinguished predecessor, Harold Macmillan, who built 300,000 houses a year in the 1950s. He did so by building on big gardens and green land in towns and suburbs. Those who oppose any new house building and any release of gardens and land are doing future generations a great disservice. When will the Conservative party copy Harold Macmillan and support the Government Front-Bench—

Home Information Packs

4. If she will publish the findings of the home information pack pilot surveys conducted since November 2005. (188687)

As the House has been told, Ipsos MORI is still in the process of finalising its conclusions. A copy of the research report will be placed in the Library of the House once the project has been finalised.

Any professional organisation that conducts a pilot will assess its results before rolling out the policy in question. Has the HIP pilot been evaluated? Did that evaluation prove that HIPs have had a measurable benefit, or did the survey show that there has been no measurable improvement from the introduction of HIPs—and is that why the Government have rolled out the policy before evaluating and publishing the outcome of the survey?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have learned from the trials, but we want to give the House a more comprehensive analysis of the information that has been compiled. We have seen already that HIPs can improve the market, and that they are making a difference and providing increased transparency. On average, a pack takes seven to 15 days to prepare, and the people who said that each one would cost £1,000 have been shown to be wrong: a HIP costs £350, and some estate agents are incorporating the cost in their fee. So far, 320,000 HIPs have been issued. We are on a journey, and I want to evaluate how HIPs are bedding in, but it is interesting to see what those who oppose them are doing. Only last week, the Opposition Front-Bench team put out a press release asking for more information about HIPs. They had better make their minds up.

Will my honorary friend—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] Does she accept that it is particularly important to include information about flooding in a HIP, especially in areas such as the one that I represent? Did the pilot provide any insight in that regard? If not, is it worth looking at areas where flooding has occurred to make sure that such information is included in future HIPs?

With my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, I am looking at all the issues to do with housing, planning and flooding. I shall look into the matter that my hon. Friend raises, and I shall be happy to get back to him with some more information. We recognise the risk that flooding poses, but it is a problem that we can deal with in a number of different ways. The result is that new developments can cope with flooding risks, and that means that the housing supply can continue to grow. However, he raises an important point, and I shall be interested to learn whether he believes that information about flooding should be integral to the HIPs process.

Will the Minister confirm that the questionnaire about HIPs included a question about the period for which a pack is valid? The housing market is very slow and even on a downturn at the moment, so people selling a home might need to purchase more than one HIP.

I am looking at various matters to do with insurance and first-day marketing that my predecessor—

No, not at all. My predecessor identified various problems and acted on them, but it is wise for any Minister to take stock as the deadline approaches. I shall be happy to look into the question raised by the hon. Gentleman.

When HIPs are evaluated, will my right hon. Friend look into their effect on people posing as sellers? When such people put their house on the market, young couples incur the expense of a survey, only to find that the house is withdrawn when its market price has been established. It is clear that the people involved have no intention of selling, and their actions merely mislead potential buyers.

Yes, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest just that. People are thinking carefully about whether they really want to put their house on the market or should just chance it to see what will happen. Other people are probably better to quote on the matter than Ministers. MyLondonHome, an internet property portal, believes that home information packs will have a positive effect on the house buying and selling process. We welcome that opinion from the people who work in the sector.

We have heard today that it does not in fact take four to six days for a HIP to come through, as the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) told me before, but that it takes seven to 15 days. We are getting closer to the truth. Surely, having waited nearly a year for the results of the Ipsos MORI trials on HIPs, and having spent £4 million of taxpayers’ money, and still not having had the results, despite HIPs now applying to all shapes and sizes of house, is it not time that the Minister at least took some responsibility for her own decisions and her predecessor’s by apologising to the public for spending that £4 million of public money, which has gone absolutely nowhere, as the policy has already been introduced, and has simply been wasted?

Was that the question? I tried to detect a question in there. [Interruption.] Well, we will look at Hansard to see whether there was actually a question. It is interesting—[Interruption.] It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman is standing before the House suggesting that his party is against HIPs, when on Wednesday 13 February the Conservative party issued a press release calling for the inclusion of licensing information.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one group of home buyers to have been substantially advantaged by HIPs are first-time buyers, who get information provided up front at no cost to them? Will she reflect, however, that if the Government eventually see their way to including home condition reports in HIPs, first-time buyers will be even better off than they are now?

Yes, that is a good point. For those buying properties, it would offer an opportunity not to duplicate activity and in so doing duplicate expense. We will be looking through the findings from the area trials in considering the status of home condition reports, along with other policy areas, and I intend to ensure that we move towards permanent implementation for HIPs by consolidating the transitional arrangements.

Finance (London)

5. What discussions the Government office for London has had with the (a) London Development Agency and (b) Greater London authority on finances. (188688)

Officials from the Government office for London have had discussions with the GLA and LDA on a range of financial issues, reflecting their responsibility for administering the Government’s block grants to those organisations.

Following the Deloitte report commissioned by the London assembly last summer, which revealed inadequate justification or accountability for much LDA spending on the initiative of the Mayor or his advisers, what steps has the Minister taken to ensure sufficient statutory safeguards to prevent misuse of public funds?

The hon. Gentleman will know that in 2005 the LDA took steps to strengthen its project management, delivery arrangements and scrutiny. He will also know that the LDA is accountable to the Mayor, and I hope that he will know that the London assembly is responsible for scrutiny. The Government office for London is responsible for administering the block grants to the GLA, but the checks and balances in relation to action by the Mayor clearly belong to the London assembly, and the LDA is accountable to the Mayor.

Is it not time for a full and transparent register of the interests of the Mayor’s advisers, so that we can put an end to the scandal by which large sums of LDA money are transferred to groups or bodies with which it later transpires those advisers have some business connection?

The hon. Gentleman will know that on 15 February, Lee Jasper, to whom I presume he is referring, asked the Mayor to refer any allegations to the police, and was suspended by the Mayor. The hon. Gentleman will also know that five days later on 20 February the police stated that they would not be investigating, and no criminal allegations were reported. He is fully aware of that situation.

If on 1 May, nine weeks from now, London council tax payers form a view that the London Development Agency has not been properly managed, that money has been badly spent, that the audit trail is incomplete, and that there is no proper political accountability for the past four years, who should they hold to account? Is there not only one answer to that: the current Mayor of London?

The hon. Gentleman is correct that the best form of accountability is through democracy, and people will have the chance to vote on 1 May. It is interesting that when Michael Portillo was recently asked who he would vote for in the mayoral election, Ken or Boris, he said, “More choices, please”, so he will not be backing Boris. He also said that it would perhaps be rather good for the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) to lose the next election. He has experience of losing—

Speaking of endorsements for the London Mayor, the Secretary of State will know that the Prime Minister is refusing to endorse Ken Livingstone, and refers simply to the Labour administration at City Hall. It appears that the two have not met in public for some months now. Are the Government supporting Ken Livingstone for Mayor, or are they simply embarrassed by the fact that he is mired in sleaze and maladministration?

Order. We are going rather wide of the question. I will try Mr. Neill to see whether he can stay in order.

I will do my best, Mr. Speaker.

I am always happy to look the Secretary of State straight in the eye. I ask her to reflect on the fact that her suggestion that the issue is nothing to do with the Government really does not stack up, as they created the institutions in question. When they did so, they claimed that the Greater London authority would be a beacon of transparency and accountability. Would she like to explain what kind of beacon it is, and what kind of transparency it has, given that the Mayor’s adviser failed to register the fact that he is chairman of an organisation seeking a grant from the body that employs him, and given that the Mayor’s adviser sent an e-mail to an officer telling them to lay off an organisation that happens to be run by one of his associates? If that is transparency, will the Secretary of State not reflect on whether her beacon needs a new battery?

I ask the hon. Gentleman to raise his sights a little, although I would never accuse him of digging in the gutter. The GLA has the power to summon the Mayor and the LDA. It has the power to call for the disclosure of documents. It also has a new power for confirmatory hearings. The matter is serious. Do the Opposition really believe in decentralisation, devolution and scrutiny at the local level, which is what they talk about, or are they now saying that the issue is a matter for Government from the centre, not for the GLA? Just to make it clear, I will place on record that I think that Ken Livingstone has been an excellent Mayor for London. If we look at policy, there is congestion charging, better public transport, the Olympics and the regeneration of the city. It is an excellent record.

Housing Stock Transfers

Since 1 January 2003, there have been 105 housing stock transfers by 66 authorities, involving more than 422,000 dwellings, which has levered in £6.4 billion of private finance.

I am grateful for that response, and I welcome the Government’s policy to give tenants more direct control over their homes through non-profit housing associations; I think that that is absolutely right. Will the Minister tell us how that policy can help us to increase the availability of social housing, which is so badly needed in many communities, including my community of Castle Point?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question; he raises an interesting point. I have been taking the Housing and Regeneration Bill through Committee, and the relationship and interplay between the new Homes and Communities Agency and the regulator for social housing will be key. Tenants will have a view on what housing is needed in their area, and they need to contact the regulator to make sure that affordable housing is available there.

About 7,500 tenants in North-West Leicestershire have spent many, many months subject to a disgracefully unbalanced £1 million coerced stock transfer campaign by the local authority. When will my hon. Friend be in a position to respond to that district council’s proposals, so that the ballot can at long last take place and the deeply damaging cloud of uncertainty can be lifted?

I agree with my hon. Friend that clouds of uncertainty are bad for tenants. I mentioned the Housing and Regeneration Bill. One of its key provisions is to ensure that it is mandatory for tenants to have a ballot in respect of transfer of ownership of their homes, and I would encourage all local authorities to do that in the meantime.

Will the Minister congratulate Conservative-run Kettering borough council, of which I am privileged to be a member, which has decided to retain its council housing stock, is well on track to meet its decent homes standards, and is building a record number of affordable homes every year?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will thank the Government for the increase in council house investment during the past decade. Council investment has increased from £800 per home in 1997 to £1,100 per home this year—that is a 30 per cent. increase in real terms. We have also made available £3.7 billion to arm’s length management organisations to deliver improvements to council housing stock, and we will be spending more than £4 billion over the next comprehensive spending review period on arm’s length management organisations. I hope the hon. Gentleman will thank the Government for that unprecedented and sustained investment in council house stock.

Housing Associations (CEOs)

7. What the five highest salaries are in 2007-08 of chief executive officers of housing associations; and if she will make a statement. (188690)

Information about chief executive salaries appears in housing associations’ annual accounts. I do not have information on 2007-08 salaries as the accounting year has not yet ended, but I have information for 2006-07, which was published in Inside Housing in September last year. The five top CEO salaries were as follows: Places for People—£258,000, Anchor Trust—£240,000, Sanctuary—£225,000, Genesis—£210,000, and Hanover—£210,000.

There is an interesting link between this question and the previous one, which I should point out. On top of the basic salaries, those five people also received bonuses each year almost equal to my salary as a Back-Bench MP, and should they retire they can receive up to £300,000 as a lump sum. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is an example of the pay-to-retain-me culture, and that the boards of housing associations should realise that they are handling public money?

If you will forgive me, Mr. Speaker, I will not get into the debate on pay for Back-Bench Members, but my hon. Friend makes the reasonable point that the boards of housing associations need to be responsible and show restraint. However, it is right for the boards to make such decisions. They are regulated by the Housing Corporation, which can intervene and has done so in cases of mismanagement. It is also important to remember that there are representatives of local residents on the boards. We should continue to keep the focus on those boards.

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is interested in applying, but as I said, it is for the boards to decide. There are about 2,000 registered social landlords delivering 2 million homes to about 4 million residents. It is important to remember that what I read out to the House was just the salaries of the top five CEOs, and despite the fact that they are doing a good job, it would be unfair to focus on just the top five.

Unitary Status (East Anglia)

8. When she next expects to meet representatives of local authorities in East Anglia to discuss Government plans for unitary status. (188691)

Ministers have no plans to meet local authorities in East Anglia at this stage in the boundary committee’s work. I have asked the boundary committee to advise whether it would recommend unitary arrangements for the area in future, but at present it is best that local authorities speak to, meet and deal with the boundary committee, which they are doing.

Is the Minister aware that I have not yet met a social worker, teacher, fire officer, police officer, planning official or highways engineer who is in favour of the proposals? The only people I have met who are in favour are the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) and a few senior local government officials who are eyeing up large redundancy payments. Why does not the Minister listen to the public, who believe that the proposals will not make any difference to the delivery of efficient local government in East Anglia? Will he listen to the public and scrap those ideas?

The case for unitary rather than multi-tier local government is very strong, and we set it out a couple of years ago. Just to be clear to the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, let me repeat that there are no proposals for unitary reorganisation in East Anglia at present. That is precisely what I have asked the boundary committee to look at; after discussing the matter in detail with local authorities and others in the area, it will judge whether to recommend to Ministers that there is a good unitary solution for the area in the future. When or if it does that, I will consider it.

I hope that the Minister knows that no local authority, parish council or organisation of any kind, except the Waveney Labour party, is in favour of this abortion called Yartoft, which tries to link Yarmouth and Lowestoft. May I have his absolute undertaking that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will not accept any proposition that is so wholly against the views of every single elected authority concerned?

I will send the right hon. Gentleman a copy of the guidance that we have given to the boundary committee, because that also sets out the way in which we will consider, and the criteria against which we will consider, any proposals that the boundary committee may make to us at the end of the work it has been asked to do. If he and his hon. Friends want to meet me about that at the appropriate stage, of course I will do so.

Does the Minister accept that any restructuring of local government in Norfolk will divert time and money away from improving front-line public services, and that ultimately it will be the hard-pressed taxpayer who has to pay for the privilege?

It is true that any proposal for restructuring local government inevitably raises fierce feelings. It usually raises resistance, particularly from those councils that may not have a future under any arrangements. I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the guidance, too, because it makes it clear that at this stage of the work it is for the boundary committee to formulate a draft alternative proposal, and that

“Any dialogue with, or request for information from, a local authority should not involve the authority having to incur significant expenditure.”

I hope that that is of some reassurance to him and his local authorities.


9. What contribution eco-towns are expected to make to the supply of housing, with particular reference to affordable homes. (188692)

Eco-towns offer an exciting opportunity to provide desperately needed new homes for families and first-time buyers, but in a way that is consistent with our climate change objectives. They must have at least 30 per cent. affordable housing, but I am keen to see whether we can achieve even more, with some developments pushing towards 50 per cent.

I hope that the Scottish Executive in Holyrood are listening to our commitment in this regard. I note that eco-towns will provide low running cost properties and good access to public transport, but does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to regenerate our towns and cities at the same time so that one does not succeed at the expense of the other?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that the eco-towns of the future, of which we hope to have 10, take into account the areas where they are situated and the links with other communities. I see some real possibilities, particularly in realising a public transport vision in some communities. I understand from my hon. Friend and others from Scotland that the Scottish National party has been quiet on these matters, but I hope it will learn from the ambition and progress here in Westminster to provide homes in a way that meets our climate change objectives.

This morning, the Minister for Social Development in Northern Ireland announced an eco-village for Enniskillen. We welcome all such developments, but may we have an assurance that we will make further progress at a more dynamic pace to try to reassure communities throughout the United Kingdom that we are serious about climate change?

We have set ourselves the world-class challenge of making all new homes zero-carbon by 2016. That has put us at the forefront of what we can do with housing and the built environment. Eco-towns, our zero-carbon challenge and our work across Government on climate change put us in a good place to get on top of the issue, so that the Government can lead and we can facilitate and enable local authorities and businesses—and the public, who also want to do the right thing—to play their parts.

Social Housing

10. What assessment she has made of the potential of local housing companies to increase available social housing stock. (188693)

Local housing companies have the potential to contribute significantly to the target of 200,000 new homes on surplus public sector land by 2016. English Partnerships is working with 14 local authorities on developing the local housing company model. That will provide an accurate basis for assessing its potential, but early indications suggest that it may be possible, through the model, to deliver 15 to 20 per cent. more affordable housing on each site than traditional disposal and planning processes would deliver.

Will the Minister expand on the benefits of local housing companies in providing extra resources for local authorities and extra affordable houses in my constituency and others?

The model places local authorities at the very heart of the development process, thereby affording councils greater influence over such matters as the quality and mix of houses. To respond directly to my hon. Friend, I should say that, crucially, it allows councils to benefit from the increasing value of land on the site which can be ploughed back into affordable housing. I am taking a keen and personal interest in the 14 pilot areas for local housing companies and I hope that more councils will consider that model in future.

Topical Questions

My Department is responsible for achieving the delivery of 3 million new homes by 2020 and for encouraging active, empowered and cohesive communities right across England.

Unfortunately, the Secretary of State did not mention people who sleep rough. According to Government figures, nobody is sleeping rough in Wellingborough, Rushden or the rest of Northamptonshire, and fewer than 500 are doing so in the whole of England. Recently, I attended the opening of a night shelter at the Full Gospel church in Rushden. It was immediately occupied by five rough sleepers. If the Government do not recognise the problem, how can they solve it?

Our homelessness policy has been tremendously successful, particularly in respect of the worst type of homelessness—rough sleeping. The number involved has reduced to 498 from last year. I understand the mechanics of what the hon. Gentleman is saying in terms of a 0 to 10 categorisation, and I have pledged to look at that. However, we are in a fantastic phase of homelessness policy. We are moving forward from an ad hoc situation—trying to find somebody a bed for the night—to making sure that we address the real, underlying problems of homelessness and rough sleeping. We are looking at skills and training and have just ploughed the biggest cash injection ever into homelessness services. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be pleased with that.

T2. Ministers will be aware of concern that the replacement for the neighbourhood renewal fund is a fund focused exclusively on unemployment. There is concern that there should be continuing funding for social regeneration, particularly in deprived areas; I am thinking particularly of building communities and ensuring that people have a voice at a local level. What further consideration are Ministers giving to ensuring that there is that voice at a local level and that some of those social regeneration projects continue? (188673)

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. He will know that the neighbourhood renewal fund has been extremely successful in tackling crime and improving educational performance, particularly in our poorest communities. The working neighbourhoods fund is specifically focused on tackling worklessness, because in some of the poorest communities there are several generations of people who have not worked. It is absolutely crucial that we tackle that.

My hon. Friend will also know that the local area agreement process is built on making sure that every citizen has a voice on the priorities for their communities. I can confirm to my hon. Friend that although his authority will not get the neighbourhood renewal fund, there will be a transition authority for the new working neighbourhoods fund, which is £1.5 billion over the next three years for those authorities in England.

T4. Will the Minister take a very close look at the representations made by the six local authorities that each have less than half the sum that they need for the Supporting People programme? Will she look closely at speeding up the pace of change of the grant formula and have urgent talks with Stoke-on-Trent city council to see whether we can use underspend from other areas or whether, through talks with the regional Minister, we can find a way to get the money that we need now rather than having to wait 13 years before we get the allocation we need? (188675)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that issue. She has an excellent record on campaigning not only on Supporting People but on getting more housing and facilities in her area. The Supporting People programme helps hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable people in our communities to get supported housing, and there is now £1.5 billion in the programme. I certainly undertake to look at the points that she has raised about accelerating the programme and ensuring that we direct the funds to the places where it really matters. I think that everybody in this House would agree that the Supporting People policy has been one of the most successful, particularly in working with the voluntary sector.

On 27 November last year, the Secretary of State told the House that the Government had “no plans for” a “revaluation” of council tax. She will be painfully aware that that statement was at considerable variance with the actuality. Documents released by her Department show that since 2005 the Government have spent at least £6 million on preparing for revaluation. Will she withdraw her statement of 27 November and apologise for its inaccuracy?

I certainly will not. What I will say to the hon. Gentleman is what I have said many times before at this Dispatch Box—that there are no plans for a revaluation in the lifetime of this Parliament, and certainly not before 2010 or 2011. We now have a three-year local government settlement that provides the certainty, stability and predictability that local authorities need. To be honest, the report in The Sunday Telegraph is simply more scaremongering. No revaluation—I do not know how many times I have to say it.

It was the right hon. Lady’s Department’s own work; we should be clear that we have this information only because officials failed to obliterate the words beneath blacked-out paragraphs in the released documents. The documents show that many thousands of households are paying more council tax than they should be, and that those errors have been kept secret—in the Government’s own words—owing to the

“adverse press coverage this could generate in the current climate.”

Will she now tell us the true number of households in the wrong band? Is it more than 400,000? Or will we have to rely on the vagaries of her Department’s magic marker to know the truth?

I try to be kind to the hon. Gentleman—I genuinely do—but I have to say to him that by choosing this particular issue he is on very shaky ground. He will know that the document to which he refers is more than two years old, from before we passed the legislation dealing with this issue. There will be individual properties that are in the wrong council tax band, and there is a process for people to make an appeal for that to be addressed, but for him to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that there will be hundreds of thousands is patently untrue, and scaremongering.

T5. The Secretary of State kindly wrote to me last week suggesting that I hold a citizenship day event in my constituency. Does she agree that it would be an even better idea to combine a citizenship day with a Britain day so that we can celebrate the virtues of British citizenship? (188676)

My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. We have put together a pack to encourage local authorities to celebrate citizenship, but to do it in their own local way. Whether that reflects what works best in Wrexham or across the whole of our nation, I hope that it is something that local authorities take an active interest in, and we will continue to support it from the Department.

T6. Last year, the Department for Communities and Local Government decided not to reorganise Cumbria, but to leave it under a two-tier authority. When that decision, which I supported, was announced, the six district councils and the county council pledged to work together to reduce waste, save money and improve services. Will the Secretary of State write to those councils and ask them what progress they have made on that pledge? (188678)

My hon. Friend is right: we decided last year not to proceed with the unitary proposals from Cumbria, and the onus is now on the county and district councils to work together more closely. He may be interested to know that the Leadership Centre for Local Government is involved in helping them to do just that, and that over the next three years £380 million will be made available to help councils to improve and become more efficient. Part of the way they need to do that will be to work together more closely. I hope that his councils will draw on those funds, and on the expertise that we are making available to them.

Regional Ministers have now been in post for more than six months, yet still there is no structure to hold them to account. Does the Secretary of State not think that it would be a better idea to get rid of them altogether, as these unaccountable entities are nothing more than Government representatives in the region, rather than the region’s representatives in Government? Is not the truth that they are nothing more than a waste of space?

I am very disappointed by the hon. Lady’s approach to this issue, from a party that is supposedly committed to devolution and decentralisation. Regional Ministers have performed an excellent function over the last few months, ensuring that some of the organisations in the region are more accountable to the people of this country, and that we are able to question and scrutinise the activity of many of those organisations. I would have hoped that the Liberal Democrat party, supposedly a localist party, would want to see more devolution—

T7. I shall be interested to see which Cabinet attendee steps up to the plate to respond to my question on the Thames Gateway, particularly as I am complaining again about the absence of joined-up government in the prosecution of the Prime Minister’s laudable objective of regeneration in the gateway. Why is it that someone in the Department is frustrating the development of the Thames Gateway by refusing to approve the eastern region spatial strategy? That is leading to paralysis of decision making, a disincentive to investors— (188679)

I get the drift, most certainly. I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this issue. On 4 March, I will be chairing the Thames Gateway strategic partnership. It is my intention over the months ahead to identify clearly what we need to do across Government and in the Department to make progress. Considerable progress has been made, but there is more to be done. The new Homes and Communities Agency, under Sir Bob Kerslake, will be taking on that strategic responsibility. I will be working with him to ensure that we make more progress and ensure even greater success for all the communities in the Thames Gateway area.

On that very point, I still do not think that we have had an explanation from the Government of why, after years of poor performance by the Department in the management of the Thames Gateway, and a very damning Public Accounts Committee report last November, the chief executive of barely a year was sacked but the Minister responsible for the policy has received a promotion. Could we now have that explanation?

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that some of the content of the PAC report is clearly out of date. Much progress has been made, and there is more to be done. This is an ambitious project. A lot is required nationally, regionally and locally in order to deliver outcomes, and although there is constructive criticism to be made, we have to ensure that we highlight the fantastic things that have already been done in the Thames Gateway with regard to jobs, homes and the environment. Constructive criticism is always important, but let us not lose sight of that.

T8. When a school, such as North Wheatley in my constituency, is flooded in July and again in January, is it not incumbent on the local authority to rebuild the school as new in conjunction with the Environment Agency? (188680)

It is certainly incumbent on the local education authority, working with the local authority, to take every step that it can to get the kids back into their classrooms so that they do not lose out on their education. I well remember the North Wheatley school, which I visited in the summer along with the North Leverton primary school, which was also flooded. I will look into the matter for my hon. Friend, and if I can assist as I did previously, I will do so.

T9. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing agree to meet me and other concerned Members of Parliament of all parties who have major anxieties about land maintenance companies, such as Greenbelt Group Ltd, which owns the common land on new estates in perpetuity, charges home owners excessive costs, provides little or no service and then sends threatening and bullying letters to my constituents and others? (188681)

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and others who think that that is an important concern for their constituents.

Are Ministers aware that MCL, the Government’s consultants on funding the national bus concessions scheme, has estimated that Chelmsford needs £1.1 million extra to be fully funded? Are Ministers also aware that Chelmsford will get only £413,000—a shortfall of £738,000? The current scheme, which starts at 9 am, will have to meet the statutory minimum time set by the Government at 9.30 am. Will Ministers reconsider, fund the scheme properly and stop insulting my constituents by writing to me and trying to blame the borough council rather than themselves for failing to fund the scheme fully?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a significant amount of extra investment has been made in concessionary bus schemes for pensioners and disabled people, in a way that has never previously been known in this country. That represents tremendous progress. He also knows that the Local Government Association requested that the extra funding for concessionary fares should be made in a specific grant and ring-fenced, contrary to the rest of our policies. I agreed to do that, and £212 million—a generous sum—has been allocated and will meet the needs of authorities to provide concessionary fares.

Gambling Policy

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on casino policy.

Today I am laying a draft order identifying 16 local authorities that will be authorised to license the eight large and eight small casinos permitted by the Gambling Act 2005. I do not intend to authorise a regional casino.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) established the casino advisory panel to advise on the location of the 17 new casinos permitted by the Act. The panel considered applications from 68 local authorities and made its recommendations after detailed consideration.

Before I make further progress, the House will want to know that, since we last discussed those matters, the chair of the independent panel, Professor Stephen Crow, has passed away. I hope that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences to his family and paying tribute to the integrity and dedication that he brought to his role.

Last March, an order incorporating the panel’s recommendations was defeated in another place. Since then, the Government have reflected on the range of views expressed in both Houses and beyond. There was a consensus that the eight large and eight small casino licences should be awarded to the 16 licensing authorities identified by the casino advisory panel. That view was expressed by Opposition Front Benchers and their lordships in their message to this House, calling for the 16 to be incorporated in a fresh order.

Following last year’s local elections, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) invited all 16 councils to state whether it remained their wish to license a new casino. All 16 have requested inclusion in the new order.

However, there was and is no consensus on a regional casino. There are important differences between the regional casino on the one hand and the large and small casinos on the other. The regional casino would have been allowed up to 1,250 unlimited stake and prize gaming machines—something not previously seen in the United Kingdom. The large and small casinos would be allowed to offer 150 and 80 category B1 gaming machines respectively, with a maximum £2 stake and £4,000 prize. B1 machines are already in use in Britain today.

There are two principal and independent reasons for my decision not to proceed with a regional casino. First, concerns were expressed in both Houses about the potential negative impact of a regional casino operating on the proposed scale. I have not seen anything to suggest that the will of Parliament has changed. Secondly, I have considered the evidence, both old and new, on the impact of regional casinos. This evidence, including the scoping study by Lancaster university, which I am laying in the House today, points towards the uncertainty of the risks involved and does not dispel those anxieties.

The Gambling Commission's prevalence study, published in September, highlights the fact that problem gambling, although small, remains persistent. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has concluded that regional casinos are likely to have no, or only marginal net benefits compared with other means of economic and social regeneration. In the light of that and the evidence about the uncertain levels of risk, I do not intend to authorise a regional casino.

I know that my decision will disappoint many in Manchester, particularly east Manchester, one of the most deprived areas of the country. Taking forward the conclusions of the report published today, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will lead an ad hoc ministerial group to work with Manchester council and its partners to identify and bring forward a range of regeneration alternatives. The group will produce its first report by the end of March. Considerable support has been expressed in both Houses for the regeneration of Blackpool. My right hon. Friend has today announced a package of investment for the town worth close to £300 million.

I seek the consent of the House to authorise eight small and eight large casinos, because I am satisfied that they do not pose the same level of risk—[Interruption.]

I am satisfied that they do not pose the same level of risk to the public as a regional casino. That said, my instinct is to proceed with caution at all times considering measures to protect young and vulnerable people. Therefore, any new casinos authorised by the order will be required to abide by strict new rules, including in respect of: providing non-gambling areas where customers can take a break from gambling; prohibiting the provision of free drinks to customers while they are gambling; prohibiting the use of credit cards to purchase chips or play gaming machines; ensuring that any cash machines are located away from gaming areas; and requiring casinos to have policies to identify problem gamblers and provide information about support for addiction. Operators who break those rules risk losing their licence, fines and up to 51 weeks’ imprisonment.

Taken together, those measures make up the toughest regulatory regime for gambling in the world, but today I am signalling my intention to go further still. Regulators, legislators, operators and owners all have a duty to act in a socially responsible manner, accepting that for some gambling is an addiction, not a leisure pursuit. I was surprised to find that only 360 of the 3,800 licensed operators have so far made contributions to the Responsibility in Gambling Trust this year, which offers advice and treatment to people with gambling addictions and is chaired so ably by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). That is not acceptable. Promises were made, and I expect them to be kept.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has called for the introduction of a statutory levy. Unless the industry delivers a substantial increase in contributions by the end of this year and makes contributions in a timely fashion, I will seek the approval of the House for a statutory levy, at a rate to be determined. Secondly, I believe that it is a good principle that all casinos are subject to a period of closure every day, when individuals are required to leave the premises. Currently, casinos are prevented from offering gambling over 24 hours, unless they apply to local authorities for an extension. However, I wish to rule out the possibility that some may remain open round the clock, by requiring them to close their doors for at least six hours.

In conclusion, the order we are laying today is an enabling order, giving 16 local authorities the ability to proceed with plans for small and large casinos. Whether to do so is entirely a matter for local decision, and I hope that local people will be consulted and involved at all stages.

Small and large casinos will bring local economic benefits and provide enabling development with the potential to create new community facilities. But, as the Lancaster study concludes, there are costs and benefits of casino development that need to be weighed in the balance. That is why I shall at all times proceed with caution, and continue to keep gambling policy under review according to my responsibilities under the Act, to take advice from the Gambling Commission, and to be guided by the evidence. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance notice of his statement. I appreciate that he is new to his brief, and that not all the issues surrounding the statement are of his own making. I welcome certain elements of the statement, particularly the commitment to increased resources going to the Responsibility in Gambling Trust, which is run with great tenacity by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). We also add our condolences to the family of Professor Stephen Crow.

The Secretary of State mentioned his concerns about problem gambling. The Government’s own problem gambling prevalence study, published in September, identified internet gambling as one of the fastest growing areas of problem gambling, yet he did not mention it. Is he aware that nearly one in 10 adults who gamble online have an addiction? Do the Government have a policy to prevent online gambling addiction? If so, why did the Prime Minister, in his last Budget as Chancellor, introduce a new 15 per cent. tax for online gambling operators? This has resulted in not a single one re-registering in the UK, where children and other vulnerable groups are protected by much safer and stronger regulations. Does the Secretary of State now think that it was wrong to liberalise gambling advertising in September, in a way that has made it easier for overseas gambling operators, who are not subject to those regulations, to promote their online products in the UK? In the absence of a coherent approach to problem gambling, is there not a danger that the Government’s efforts to appear tough on the issue will be perceived more as PR than reality?

The Government’s policy on casinos appears even more confused. First, there was to be no limit on the number of super-casinos, then the limit was 96. Then it was 40, then eight, and then one. Today it is none. There is to be no super-casino, but 16 larger casinos instead. That is not so much a U-turn as an S-bend. The House will remember that this policy started way back in 2005, the year that saw the then Deputy Prime Minister gallivanting in a cowboy outfit around the ranch of Philip Anschutz, who was then hoping for a super-casino licence.

Given the time and money that have been wasted since then, will the Secretary of State at the very least apologise to the people of Manchester and Blackpool? Will he contest the legal action that councils there and in other parts of the country might bring to retrieve the costs of their super-casino bids, which were made in good faith but have now turned out to be a total waste of money?

The Prime Minister said that he was going to end sofa government. Will the Secretary of State therefore explain why the super-casino decision was taken last July without consulting the Cabinet? He has spoken of new rules for the new casinos. Will he acknowledge, however, that none of the rules in his statement is new, and that they are all covered by existing Gambling Commission licensing conditions?

Finally, will the Secretary of State show me one paragraph in the Department for Communities and Local Government report on alternative regeneration strategies that is not already known to Manchester, Blackpool or any other council trying to regenerate? Is there not a risk that this report will be seen as yet another piece of hurried window-dressing for a decision that has already been made from on high?

Our position on the 16 larger casinos remains unchanged. It looks as though the Government might finally have fumbled and stumbled their way to more or less the right solution, but, until they have a coherent anti-problem-gambling strategy, are we not being faced with the worst possible option for the industry, for the public, and for gambling addicts—namely, a jumble of half-baked policies, zigzags and U-turns?

It took time, but we got there in the end, and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s indication of support for the order. I am also grateful for his words of support about the Responsibility in Gambling Trust and I would like to reiterate what I said in my statement—that our intention to introduce a statutory levy is very real, unless we see a significant improvement and unless payments are made in a more timely fashion. I understand that the trust needs to plan and make preparations for the year ahead. I emphasise again the importance of proceeding in a timely manner, and I hope that that will be heard beyond the House.

The hon. Gentleman is also right to raise issues around online gambling. There is, of course, a connection between today’s statement and the growing popularity of online gambling, but my statement was specifically about casino policy, which is why I did not deal with online gambling directly in it. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s concern, however, which is why we have asked the Gambling Commission to conduct further research of the data in order to find out more about the risks and causes of problem gambling on the internet. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the prevalence study, which found that the less than 1 per cent. level of problem gambling has remained unchanged. There can be no possibility of complacency on that matter, but the overall rate remains unchanged, although there has been an increase in online and other forms of gambling. As I say, we are not complacent and we keep these matters under review.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned super-casinos and referred to the 16 large casinos, so let me explain again that today’s order authorises eight large and eight small casinos, which are very different in character. They will include only machines that are currently available in casinos that are operational today. That is why I am satisfied that it is appropriate to authorise and move forward with these 16 identified casinos.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government would apologise to Manchester and Blackpool, but if I understood it correctly, it was his policy to stand up against the potential for a casino in those locations, so he should make that point clear. We have put together a package of support for Blackpool, which I believe will be widely welcomed across the House and in the other place. It is worth close to £300 million and will take Blackpool further forward. We will also look closely into issues surrounding the regeneration of east Manchester, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has made some announcements today that will begin that process. There is a serious intention to look into alternatives to casino-led regeneration.

On the hon. Gentleman’s last point about why there was no further action since last July, I remind him that all this did not begin last July, but in the House of Lords in March. It would have been arrogant of the Government not to have reflected on the views expressed in the other place and in this House, as we wanted carefully to consider how to take forward a casino policy that has a degree of consensus in Parliament. Following the local elections, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions wrote to local authorities—rightly, in my view, as the change of political complexion could have led to the emergence of different views on casino policy. Towards the end of last year, some local authorities asked for more time to make their judgments about whether to proceed with casinos, but by the end of the year they had all come back to us, indicating a wish to proceed. I then considered the evidence and consulted Cabinet colleagues in the devolved Administrations, which brings us to today’s process. I believe that we were right to listen to concerns and in the end, as the hon. Gentleman himself concluded, the order before us is the right order.

May I tell my right hon. Friend that people in Manchester will not think it “arrogant” of the Government but bonkers of them to accept the will of the non-elected House of Lords, particularly at the expense of 3,000 jobs for people in my constituency and surrounding areas? This must be very disappointing for my constituents, so may I ask the Secretary of State very specifically for an absolute guarantee that the Government will now commit themselves to finding the regeneration structures that will ensure that the still high levels of poverty in the city of Manchester are dealt with? I look to my right hon. Friend to give that commitment from the Dispatch Box today.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and I can assure him on his main point that the Government have the serious intent and commitment to work quickly to establish the alternatives for regeneration. Proposals are already on the table, some put forward by Manchester city council, and if we all work quickly to evaluate them, we should be able to produce a first report by the end of March, as I said.

As for my hon. Friend’s description of the decision as “bonkers”, it should be stressed that the regional casino was a very different entity from the large and small casinos, not just in terms of the number of machines but, principally, because it would have introduced something entirely new to the country. The views expressed in the House of Lords were clear, but in this House, too, there was concern and uncertainty about whether that was the right way to proceed. Having reflected on all those factors, I decided that it was not the right way to proceed, but I was able to conclude that the eight large and eight small casinos are acceptable.

I hear what my hon. Friend says, however. We will work quickly to identify alternative regeneration possibilities, and I hope he will feel encouraged by that.

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for giving notice of his statement. I join him in his condolences to the family of Professor Stephen Crow.

As the Secretary of State said, it was back in March last year that Liberal Democrats in both Houses proposed a mechanism by which to proceed with the eight large and eight small casinos. Despite the answer that he gave earlier, I fail to understand why there have been 11 months of needless delay.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important for local people to be consulted on more than just planning for specific casino proposals? Will he explain how that will happen? I welcome today’s publication of the two reports, but the scoping study was due to be completed in November 2006. Why has there been a 16-month delay?

As we have heard, the Government initially wanted, and voted for, an unlimited number of super-casinos. Then they wanted eight, then one, and now they have dropped the idea altogether. Has not their flip-flopping led councils on an expensive wild goose chase? We understand that £1 million of taxpayers’ money has been wasted.

I too welcome the extra help for Blackpool and Manchester, but given that the Secretary of State did not answer the question asked by the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), how does he respond to Manchester’s claim that much of the rumoured help is already in the pipeline? Does he accept that while we debate the introduction of 16 casinos, far more are creeping into the country through the back door? In 2005 the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), then Minister with responsibility for gambling, said,

“we can say with certainty that there will be no more than 150 casinos.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 11 January 2005; c. 718.]

We know that there are already 144 casinos, and if we add 16, the total reaches 160. However, will the Secretary of State confirm that according to the Government’s latest figures, up to 125 applications under the Gaming Act 1968 are still in the pipeline? That brings the total to not 150, but 285. So was not the former Minister wrong? What is the Secretary of State’s estimate of the likely number of casinos?

I congratulate the Secretary of State on being consistent in one respect. He is the third successive Secretary of State since 2003 to threaten a compulsory levy if the gambling industry, most notably the internet gambling industry, does not contribute more to the Responsibility in Gambling Trust. He wants a substantial increase, but without a clear target and deadline, does he not risk sounding like the boy who cried wolf?

The Government may have arrived at the right solution in the end, but the process of reaching it has been a sorry saga of dithering, wasted opportunities and considerable cost.

Although I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, I could not work out whether he supported the order; but let me take him on directly in regard to his accusation about dithering. He spoke of 11 months of delay. Surely it would have been wrong not to reflect on the deep concerns expressed on both sides of both Houses, and wrong not to take soundings from the local authorities involved. We allowed time for local consideration of the issues, and I feel comfortable that that was the right way to proceed.

I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman about the consultation of local people. This is essentially an enabling order. It is right for the decision to be made at local level, and I expect local authorities not just to use the powers and observe the requirements to consult provided by the Gambling Act 2005 but, as good practice, to consult local people and communities at every stage of the process, particularly when the detail of the proposal is clear. It is very important that there is an expectation of consultation all the way through.

On the number of casinos under the 1968 Act, the hon. Gentleman put out figures last week claiming that potentially 300 casinos were in the offing. They are not our figures; I do not recognise them at all. There could not under any scenario be anything close to 300. He is right that 144 are in operation. The order would allow for 16 more. Others have been turned down and are awaiting appeal, and others are being processed by the Gambling Commission, but the numbers come nowhere near the figures that he published last week.

May I say a word about the legislation that we have introduced? Under the old 1968 Act system, the House had no control over the proliferation of new casinos. Applications could be authorised through a local process. However, under the Gambling Act 2005, which we passed in this Parliament, the will of Parliament has to be heard before any new casinos can be created, and as the hon. Gentleman knows, we suspended further applications under the 1968 Act some time ago.

I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I think we responded rightly to the concerns raised, and I hope that he and his colleagues will support the order when it comes before the House.

My right hon. Friend referred to the ad hoc ministerial group that is to be set up by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to work with Manchester city council on regeneration alternatives. In her letter to the leader of the council today, she talks about

“replicating the kind of job creation numbers that the casino could have delivered.”

While my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) of course has a primary interest in the location of the casino, because the jobs would have been spread widely all Manchester Members of Parliament have an interest in job creation and regeneration, and I should be grateful for an assurance that the Gorton constituency will be well included in such plans.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I am sure that he will join me in celebrating the success of the Manchester economy in recent times, and that he would want to pay tribute to the city council for the remarkable job it has done in bringing Manchester around from its position in the 1980s and early 1990s. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government leads on regeneration matters, and I know that she was listening carefully to his comments.

Of course, in east Manchester we are building on the legacy of a successful Commonwealth games. My Department has a role to play in ensuring that we build on that sporting legacy and further enhance the sporting potential of that region, and use it as a catalyst for regeneration. As we have seen, sport can be a catalyst for regeneration. I give my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) an assurance—as I did a moment ago to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central—that we will work with good intent to develop a strong package that will respond to the needs that Manchester city council has put to us.

Is the Secretary of State aware that most people will regard his statement this afternoon as the final chapter in a saga of total shambles and incompetence? Does he understand the resentment that is bound to be felt in authorities such as Blackpool that chose to put in an application only for a regional casino licence? It is one thing to lose in fair competition, but the competition has now been scrapped entirely. Should such councils not at least have another opportunity to apply for a licence for a large or small casino?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who is Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, as I know that he has taken a close interest in these matters over a long period. I think, however, that it is also true that he supported the recent gambling legislation when it passed through this House, so although he talks about a long saga it appears that he has supported the Government position fairly consistently throughout the process.

On the Blackpool and Manchester question, it is important to say that when local authorities put forward applications it was entirely their own decision whether to apply to the independent advisory panel for one of the licences. Although I was not in the Department at the time, I understand that authorities that did not bid for all the potential licences were advised that they could do so should they wish to change their original bid, but Blackpool and Manchester remained as bidders purely for the regional licence. It is a matter for local authorities to decide their own strategies in pursuit of regeneration opportunities. It would be entirely wrong for me to reopen that process and allow a new process to begin. We should proceed with the eight and eight locations, as the panel advised us to do.

My right hon. Friend knows full well that his Department instigated the taskforce for Blackpool in the context of very strong support last year in both Houses for Blackpool’s position. He referred to the statement and document from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about Blackpool’s funding package. It remains to be seen how much of that is new and focused money, and that will obviously be examined carefully. Given the moral responsibility that his Department bears in this issue, will he use his good offices—his strongest offices—to work with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to ensure that those proposals are for new money and that they begin to fill the regeneration hole left by the removal of the prospect of a super-casino in Blackpool? Will he use his best endeavours, with his senior officials—

Order. I think that the Secretary of State gets the point. We must have brief questions and answers. [Interruption.] Short and sharp would be fine.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) for the way in which they have pursued Blackpool’s case in recent times. As a north-west MP, I know that, along with other Members across the House, people agree and sympathise with the case that my hon. Friends have made for regeneration in Blackpool. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has asked the Government office for the north-west to report back each quarter on progress made against the taskforce recommendations published today. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South that there is a further proposal for the creation of an events site at the tower festival headland to showcase Blackpool’s cultural connections and provide a centrepiece so that it becomes the “capital of dance”. That is a serious proposal; it is being considered by my Department, and we hope to make further progress on it shortly.

I thank the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) for their support for the Responsibility in Gambling Trust. May I point out to the Secretary of State and the House that funding for the treatment of problem gambling has increased more than tenfold since the trust was formed six years ago? Last year, we launched the gambleaware website. We have a business plan and we are launching a problem gambling national strategy later this year. But this has to be funded, and I welcome his support. The major bookmakers, casino operators and trade associations all support the trust. Will he ask the Gambling Commission to use the voluntary funding mechanism agreed between the trust and the trade associations in assessing the licence obligations of other operators who are currently not paying the trust?

The hon. Gentleman’s welcome for what we have announced today is heartening. I assure him that this is not an empty threat: this system has a final chance to work on a voluntary basis. It might be shown not to work, and I shall be interested to hear his views on whether it is working as we make progress from this point before making a final determination on whether we need a statutory levy. I pay tribute to him and to his colleagues at the trust. The gambleaware website has been a very welcome development. I shall listen to him carefully over the coming months before deciding whether we need to take further action on the status of the levy.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) made the point about spin-off job creation not only in east Manchester but throughout the east side of Greater Manchester. When the ad hoc ministerial group that has been announced identifies and proposes a range of regeneration alternatives, will the Secretary of State ensure that they are of an equal strategic nature in respect of the wider eastern part of Greater Manchester, as undoubtedly the spin-off job creation from the super-casino proposals would have extended into constituencies such as mine?

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes and I point him towards the work that the Department for Communities and Local Government has published today, because it considers the question of a possible displacement of jobs by a regional casino. It also questioned the extent to which jobs created would be truly additional. The task facing the ad hoc group is to identify proposals that will have a lasting benefit for the whole of the Manchester economy, and I am confident that it can come forward with such a package.

Most Members will be aware that I was never in favour of a super-casino for east Manchester, mainly because I had serious doubts that it was a suitable vehicle for regeneration. Given that the Government have now accepted that a super-casino would not deliver the regeneration that east Manchester deserves, they needed to come up with concrete proposals to create skilled local jobs for local people. The announcement today is merely a vague set of pre-election rumours or, as the Manchester Evening News described it, a piecemeal package of possibilities—

Order. I understand that the hon. Gentleman, who is a newer Member, is keen to put his message across, but if we do not have short, sharp questions and responses, we cannot get through this statement.

Concrete proposals are exactly what we intend to make: that is the purpose of the group that we have established. As I said in my statement, it will produce its first report by the end of March. There was a separate process set up for Blackpool which started work ahead of this process. I do not think that anyone would question the proposals offered to Blackpool, but we want concrete proposals for east Manchester that constitute a sustainable package that will have a wider beneficial impact across the city’s economy.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on rowing back on these proposals. In Wolverhampton, there is already ample opportunity for gambling, with a raft of betting shops, bingo halls—

And racecourses and so on. Indeed, masses of illicit cash are already generated through prostitution and drugs. It is the ultimate insult to people in Wolverhampton to talk about regeneration on the back of a game of pitch and toss in a casino. That should be outwith the lexicon of Labour policies.

The issue is entirely a matter for local decision making. I would be shocked and amazed if my hon. Friend were not able to make his views heard as forcefully locally as he does in this House. I refer him to the detailed work done by Newham council to gauge the level of support locally for any proposed casino. I would hope that any local authority, as a matter of good practice, would involve local people before making a final decision on what are, as he rightly says, very important matters.

I have some sympathy with the Secretary of State, who was left holding the parcel when the music stopped on this fiasco, which has been going on for far too long. It is worth pointing out that we could have got there so much more quickly had his predecessor agreed to reintroduce a single order, as we suggested about a year ago. The statement is rather ambitiously called “Gambling Policy”, which would be a start as far as the Government are concerned. Is it still part of the Government’s policy to make Britain the online gambling capital of the world, and what work has his Department done since the Ascot summit?

The hon. Gentleman says that we could have got there more quickly; I have been through the process by which we arrived at the conclusion today, and while we could say many things about it, the one thing that we could not say is that it has not been deliberative and consultative. We have shown a willingness to listen, but as I said to the shadow Secretary of State, it is important that we keep everything under review and consider the effect and prevalence of online gambling when making any decisions about gambling in casinos or elsewhere. I intend to do precisely that and there will be a further prevalence study. As I say, the last one showed that while we might feel that levels of problem gambling are uncomfortably high, they are not increasing.

In relation to gambling policies, could it be the case that the smaller casinos, in particular, result in further unfair competition for bingo halls and seaside arcades? As the Secretary of State knows, those businesses have already suffered drastic reductions in their incomes and also increased compliance costs. What urgent action will he take to address that problem as we approach the beginning of the season?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The bingo industry and bingo clubs play an important part in the constituencies of many people in this House, including mine, as do amusement arcades in seaside towns. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport regularly meets the representatives of both industries. We continue to listen carefully to their views and in doing so we consider at all times the important social role played by bingo halls in particular.

Will the Secretary of State elaborate on the part of his statement where he drew a distinction between the proposal for 16 small and large casinos and the previous proposal for a regional casino? He said that he was satisfied that the proposed casinos do not pose the same level of risk to the public as a regional casino. Will he outline, then, what level of risk the present proposal poses to the public where those casinos will be situated?

I apologise if that was not clear enough in my statement. The point that I was making was that we are dealing with a known quantity: category B1 gaming machines. The difference is that the proposal for a regional casino would have introduced a large number of unlimited stake and prize gaming machines—category A machines—which would have been entirely new to the UK. That is the clear distinction. The regional casino would also have been a much larger entity. There are clear differences and those are the issues that I have considered. Given that there are already category B1 machines in existing casinos in this country, I am satisfied that on the balance of risks the eight small and eight large casinos can safely proceed.

The statement means the loss of 3,500 jobs for Manchester, which were won in a fair and open competition, yet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in a letter to Manchester city council, said that there will be no special treatment and no immediate creation of new jobs. Why are we not trying to overturn the views of the bishops and unelected peers in the other place, who put us in this situation, or giving Manchester special treatment to replace the jobs that will be lost because of the decisions in this statement?

I feel that it would have been wrong simply to return to the House with the same order as was defeated in another place last March. However, Manchester’s case for east Manchester and the need for regeneration is well made, and that is why the ad hoc group has been established. I encourage my hon. Friend to reserve judgment until that group has completed its work. At that point, he will be entitled to judge whether this proposal is an acceptable package as an alternative to a regional casino. The decision was clearly taken on the balance of evidence about a regional casino and, as I have just explained to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), the risks that that could have posed to the public.

When the Government changed their mind about Northern Rock, the private sector preferred bidders were compensated in full for the cost of their bids. Why are the Government not treating the public sector bidders in the same way in this instance?

As I said to the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), it was entirely for local authorities to decide whether or not to pursue an application for any of the three categories of casino authorised under the 2005 Act. As part of the process, the independent panels went back to the local authorities that bid to say that they could extend their range of applications at any time. At least one local authority that bid for a regional casino got a large casino in the end because it put in a bid for a large casino, too. The decisions about what to bid for were made locally and local authorities have to live with the consequences of those decisions.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the success of London’s O2 arena shows that it is perfectly possible for the private sector, working with the public sector, to help regenerate large areas by means of leisure complexes? They can do that without having to resort to super-casinos, whose machines offering unlimited stakes and prizes are highly addictive and could have raised our rate of problem gambling.

That is a good point, although from my days many years ago as an adviser to this Department, I seem to recall that some public money was involved in the creation of what is now called the O2 arena. My hon. Friend is right to say that sport, leisure and culture can be a powerful catalyst for wider regeneration. There is evidence for that up and down the country, and I want to encourage exactly those public-private partnerships that he seems to be referring to.

The Secretary of State has made the right decision today about super-casinos, but I must pick him up on what he said about compensation. The Government have cancelled a competition that the city of Manchester thought that it had won. Surely he ought to accept that Manchester should be compensated for the costs that it incurred.

I welcome the welcome for the decision expressed by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), although I shall resist the temptation to respond to the sedentary comment from the Opposition Benches. However, I repeat that an ad hoc group is looking at all the issues that the decision raises, and I hope that it can conclude its work swiftly.

Following the Secretary of State’s non-answer to the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), does he accept that another major flaw of the Gambling Act 2005 was the requirement to remove gaming machines with a £2 stake from bingo halls, adult gaming centres and seaside arcades? That has caused a catastrophic fall in business on such premises, and will he do something about it?

I understand that the same issues were raised in an Adjournment debate last week, to which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State responded. He is in discussions with the industry about the questions that have been raised, but we will keep all such matters under review.

My right hon. Friend said that his instinct was to proceed with caution at all times and that he would take into consideration measures to protect young and vulnerable people. Will he confirm that admittance to casinos will be limited to people aged 21 and over, and will he expand a little further on his instincts in this area?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. The Act provides that 18 is the minimum age for entry to a casino, but my instinct is that 21 would be the right age. However, that is not a firm view and I am willing to listen to the views expressed by hon. Members of all parties before reaching a firm view. I have looked at the international evidence, though, and it seems that 21 is the age at which people around the world are admitted into casinos. I shall be interested to find out whether there is an appetite in the House for adopting a similar provision here.

Setting aside the illogicality of dishing up what I calculate to be more than half a billion pounds as a sop to Manchester and Blackpool, when the Secretary of State looks at the figures promised for Blackpool, will he not see that two thirds of that £300 million has been committed already by other Departments?

I think that people in Blackpool will be interested in what the hon. Gentleman has said. At the beginning of my statement, I said that we had listened carefully to the views expressed in this House and another place. It has been impossible not to be aware of the strength of feeling about Blackpool, and it is clear that people want a sustainable regeneration package for the area. That package will draw on a range of sources, and I set out a moment ago the further support that may be available from my Department. Taken together, that represents a substantial investment in improving Blackpool.

I spent many hours on the Bill that became the Gambling Act 2005, when the Government’s policy often seemed to change not every day, but every hour. My right hon. Friend’s announcement today has made me wonder whether all that effort was worth it—and, frankly, I do not think that it was. However, may I urge him to meet representatives of the British Casino Association before he introduces any more restrictions on casinos’ operations? The 1968 Act has been criticised, but this country’s casino industry has been largely well run and free of crime. Does he agree that the real problem is internet gambling?

My hon. Friend is right to say that casinos are, on the whole, well run and crime-free. Long may that remain the case. He says that the time has been wasted, but I do not think that he should conclude that. The Gambling Act 2005 is a much stronger framework for the consideration of such matters. The House used to have no control over the extension of the number of casinos; the Act, as well as introducing tougher new measures, gave us the ability to do so. I will meet the British Casino Association before considering any further restrictions in that area.

The Secretary of State has repeated his noble aim of requiring casinos, like bookmakers, to have policies to identify problem gamblers. I used to be a bookmaker, and I can say in all honesty that I never had any understanding of the detail of my customers’ bank accounts, and so never knew whether they were betting more than they could afford to lose. Can he share his experience and tell us how operators are supposed to identify problem gamblers? Would that not put staff—often young or low-paid people—in the difficult circumstance of having to tell people that they cannot place a bet because they have a problem?

The hon. Gentleman’s experience is far more extensive than mine, and I will listen carefully to him on such matters. I hope that operators would work with the organisation chaired by his hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) to develop good policies enabling them to identify problem gamblers. I suspect that most people who work in betting shops, casinos and similar places know their regular visitors and whether they have a potential problem needing further help and support. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a good and fair point. That is exactly why the trust needs more resource: to help improve the quality of the policies that will be developed.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on putting the final nail in the coffin of the ridiculous and dangerous super-casino concept, and on recognising that investment in the creative industries, information technology, sustainable construction, skills and higher education represents the best future for young people in the Greater Manchester sub-region. Will he tell us more about his approach to gambling addiction and, particularly in view of the Australian experience, about how he will monitor any increase in gambling addiction as a result of the commission of 16 new casinos?

The main mechanism is the Gambling Commission’s prevalence study. As I mentioned earlier, we want it to focus particularly on online gambling. That is how we will measure. We will keep the matter under review at all times. I welcome my hon. Friend’s welcome for the decision that we announced today, and I agree that there is the potential to do something with the site available in east Manchester that is far more innovative and brings longer-lasting benefits to the north-west economy for many years to come.

Does the Government’s alleged gambling policy recognise the link between alcohol and drugs and problem gambling? If so, is the Secretary of State concerned about the lack of screening of problem gamblers in alcohol and drug treatment centres in the probation and prison services, and will he make representations to those presenting the alcohol and drugs strategy that problem gambling should be included?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The Responsibility in Gambling Trust could look at that issue too, so I will consider it further. It is a good point.

Will the Secretary of State give a more convincing reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) and others about the plight of the seaside holiday resorts with amusement arcades, which have been badly hit by the consequences of the Gambling Act? Such resorts are in great competition with overseas holidays. The matter is urgent and serious, and it deserves a better response than his reply that he was keeping it under review. As he is in a mood of contrition, will he agree that mistakes have been made and that they must be corrected?

No, we do not accept that. As I said earlier, we pay close attention to the issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised, which are important to many hon. Members. Of the casinos authorised today, only a small number are in seaside resorts, so it is not in seaside resorts that the order’s impact will mainly be felt, but he makes an important point. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is in regular discussion with representatives of the arcade industry, and we will continue to keep the matter under close review.

I warmly thank the Government for dithering on the issue, because during all the dithering, Conservative-controlled Scarborough borough council has taken decisive action and has successfully persuaded Merlin Entertainments to build the new Legoland on the site for which the casino was in pole position. However, we will have a casino somewhere. In how many of the 16 cases will the opening of a new casino result in the closure of an existing casino that is unable to compete on equal terms?

The hon. Gentleman has illustrated very well the point that I sought to make in my statement: these are matters for local decision making. The new Legoland development sounds very enticing. It will be for his local council to decide where, how and if it uses the authority that we seek to give it through the order. However, let me make it clear once again that the decisions are local at all times. I do not seek to interfere further in them, although I should say that the process by which licences are awarded must follow the guidelines that accompany the order laid down today.

The Secretary of State’s statement will be warmly welcomed by many, including myself and organisations such as the Evangelical Alliance, which has campaigned long and hard against regional casinos. However, the Government’s unbelievable dithering on the issue will have cost the people of Manchester and Blackpool dearly. I am still not clear on why the Secretary of State changed his mind. Was it because he believes, as I do, that the so-called economic benefits are far outweighed by the social and economic costs?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s welcome for the statement. Let me say again that it is less than a year since the Lords rejected the original order. It surely was right and proper to have a period of reflection before bringing any new order before the House. Indeed, if I remember correctly, lots of newspapers called for a period of reflection at the time. We have provided precisely that. It was right to consult local councils, and to give them time after local elections to decide whether they wished to proceed. All of that took until the back end of last year; it was only at the end of last year that we were able to get confirmation from all 16. Having held a consultative process in Government, we are coming forward with the order today, so I reject the hon. Lady’s accusation that the process has been subject to delay and dither.

Further to the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), does the Secretary of State really understand the grave crisis facing the amusement arcade industry? There are amusement arcades in King’s Lynn and Hunstanton that are losing customers by the day. Surely he can now reverse the damaging changes to the £50 jackpot machines. That would go some way towards solving the problem.

I understand that the British Amusement Catering Trade Association, the representative body, has made a series of requests to the Department, which are being considered by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. He informs me that he will write to those concerned and respond to the requests by the end of the week. Again, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we are not insensitive to the important issues facing seaside towns. The Department will come forward soon with a serious, substantial initiative to get further investment for seaside towns, so that we protect their heritage and improve their facilities.


Copyright in Sound Recordings and Performers’ Rights (Term Extension)

Pete Wishart, supported by Mr. Ian Cawsey, Mr. Mark Field, Sandra Gidley, John Robertson, Rosemary McKenna, Adam Price, Mr. Greg Knight, John Hemming, Stewart Hosie, Kelvin Hopkins and Janet Anderson, presented a Bill to extend the duration of copyright in sound recordings and of performers’ rights; and for connected purposes.: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 7 March, and to be printed. [Bill 78].

Small Print

4.29 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make requirements regarding the minimum size of print in certain documents, including those relating to advertising and contracts; and for connected purposes.

The Bill’s objective is simple: it is not to impose any additional regulations on the content of terms and conditions in advertisements or contracts, but to ensure that customers are reasonably able to read what they say. It is easy to say “Let the buyer beware”, but if the buyer cannot read the contract, how is he or she supposed to beware?

I shall give an example that happened to me personally just last week. It is not a particularly severe example compared with some of the others that I shall cite, but it illustrates the point. People who make an online purchase, as I did last week, may be offered a voucher if they make another purchase from the same firm—in this case, Expedia. If they click on that offer, they find that they have signed up to pay £8 a month for ever, until they cancel it, for a package of discount vouchers that they will get in the future. The website does not spell out what the vouchers are or their value. More to the point, the deal is in small print and people have to look for it to see that that is what they are signing up for.

I noticed the offer because a constituent raised the matter with me a few weeks ago, after he had ordered some flowers online. He accepted the offer and, as a result, a couple of months later he noticed he had been paying £8 a month to a company that he had never heard of. He inquired why and found out that he had been fooled by the small print.

Much more serious examples have come up in my discussions with non-governmental organisations, in relation to matters such as the redemption payment to be made when a mortgage is redeemed, which may be much more substantial than the mortgage holder expects. In a lease, the fine print relating to rental arrangements governs when the deposit is to be returned. Often the deposit is never seen again because of something deep down in the contract, especially if a person is a relatively vulnerable renter who is not used to the formalities of legal contracts and who has difficulty burrowing into small print deep in the contract. In the case of insurance policies, insurance companies are happy to take people’s money no matter how old they are, but when policyholders come to claim, they find that in the small print there is an exclusion based on their age.

The Bill has widespread support. The phrase “in the small print” has become a standard metaphor for evasive and devious modification of what appears to be on offer. I am grateful for the help of the Royal National Institute of the Blind and the Plain English Campaign in preparing the Bill. I welcome the support of Age Concern, Help the Aged and the Trading Standards Institute, which was helpfully brought in by my co-sponsor, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell).

I thank the other co-sponsors present—my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), and the hon. Members for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer). If I have missed anyone, I apologise. I am grateful for the all-party support and for the support of my local newspaper, the Nottingham Evening Post.

In fairness, amid the orgy of congratulation, I have had a critical note from the Advertising Standards Authority, which has reservations about the Bill and does not believe there is a problem. It says that it already has the power to regulate the area adequately. With all due respect to the Advertising Standards Authority, that does not seem in practice to prevent widespread use of small print with the objective of obscuring unwelcome terms and conditions.

As we all know, ten-minute Bills tend to have a sad fate in the eternal grey waiting room of the pending section of the Order Paper, but I am glad to say that in this case a Minister from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has agreed to take the matter up, and I will meet him next week to see whether the issue can be addressed as part of the new EU directive on consumer protection. There might be those who have their doubts about the EU but I hope that on this issue at least we are of one mind in saying that the consumer deserves protection against manipulation in the small print. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Nick Palmer, Mr. Graham Allen, Norman Baker, Michael Jabez Foster, Mr. Fabian Hamilton, John Hemming, Susan Kramer, Dr. Julian Lewis, Shona McIsaac and Mr. Paul Truswell.

Small Print

Dr. Nick Palmer accordingly presented a Bill to make requirements regarding the minimum size of print in certain documents, including those relating to advertising and contracts; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 14 March, and to be printed [Bill 76].


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Order [28 January],

That the Order of 28th January be further amended as follows: in the Table, in the entry for Allotted Day 7, in the third column:

(a) for ‘4½ hours’ substitute ‘3 hours’, and

(b) for ‘1½ hours’ substitute ‘3 hours’.—[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

Question agreed to.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will the Chair reconsider the decision not to select the Liberal Democrat amendment for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU? That is the question that goes to the heart of the debate before the House. That is the debate that people want to hear. We are being gagged, Sir.

Order. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point of order, but having made it he must not go on and start debating the matter. The selection of amendments is made by Mr. Speaker, and is not open for questioning in the House. Hon. Members will have every opportunity to discuss these matters when we embark—[Hon. Members: “When?”] Order. During the course of the debate.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I share the dismay of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). What guidance can you give me on how we can secure—if not today, at some point during the remaining stages of the Bill—the opportunity to debate the issue that many Members want debated and many members of the public want debated: our future membership of the EU?

Order. I have made the situation quite clear to hon. Members. I am sorry if they do not accept it—

No, there can be no further point of order. We must now get on with the debate.

I have raised procedural questions about the Bill with Mr. Speaker and other occupants of the Chair. I have asked for guidance from Officers of the House on the drafting of amendments that will be selectable—generally, on the Bill, not just on this issue. I have been told that we must see the Clerks. My colleagues have been to see the Clerks and have taken advice from them. They have submitted amendments that the Clerks have told them are in order. Please will you tell me and those other colleagues who have made points of order on the Bill what more we have to do to have a point of order accepted that allows an amendment to be debated in the House on an issue that a quarter of the British people represented here want to be debated and many people regularly tell us ought to be debated? What else do we have to do, because we have followed the rules that we have been given?

All the hon. Gentleman has done is to confirm how carefully this matter has been studied by everybody concerned. Following that careful study, Mr. Speaker has made his selection of amendments for today; that must be the end of it for today.

Order. We are simply wasting time. I am not prepared to take any more points of order on the selection of amendments for today.

On a separate point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, relating to the scope of the Bill. It is clear that the Bill is making

“provision in connection with the Treaty of Lisbon Amending the Treaty on European Union”.

In that context, I simply say that the treaty has been described by the European Scrutiny Committee, on which I sit, as “substantially equivalent” to the original constitution. The Liberal Democrats have broken their promises.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is a very experienced Member of this House and knows that we are not at this point in time discussing the Bill. We are discussing the motion before the House. I suggest that we now start on that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am grateful for your granting me this point of order. This is an outrage to the House—[Interruption.]

Order. The outrage to the House is in danger of being the hon. Gentleman’s attitude to the Chair—[Interruption.] Order. He has made his point. I have told him already how matters stand. There will be opportunities to discuss these matters—[Hon. Members: “When?”] There will be opportunities to discuss these matters at a different time.

If the hon. Gentleman persists in arguing with Mr. Speaker’s selection for amendments today, I shall be extremely annoyed. He has made his point; everybody has understood it. It is firmly on the record. Now I must insist that we get on with the debate. I call Mr. Jim Murphy.