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Commons Chamber

Volume 474: debated on Monday 31 March 2008

House of Commons

Monday 31 March 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pensioner Benefits

1. What steps his Department is taking to increase the take-up of benefit entitlements by pensioners. (197190)

We want every pensioner to claim the benefits to which they are entitled, which is why we are making it easier and more straightforward for them to do so. Pensioners can claim a number of benefits by making a telephone call, and the Department will then send them forms to fill in for council tax benefit. Some pensioners do not send those forms in, so, as from October, the process will be done automatically, obviating the need to send in forms. Pensioners will be covered for state pensions, pension credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit—one telephone call for all benefits.

To what extent does the Department work in partnership with non-governmental organisations that deal with the elderly and with partner organisations such as the health service, which may enable us to target pensioner groups? Does the Minister have any plans to extend that? Over-75s receive free television licences, but do we use that information to ensure that people who are eligible are targeted?

We have access to information, particularly on winter fuel payments, that covers large numbers of pensioners and gives us quite a lot of data on where they are. We work with Help the Aged, Age Concern, citizens advice bureaux, Community Service Volunteers and others to increase the take-up of benefits, and partnerships have been developed with local authorities, too. The aim is to develop joint working partnerships so that we can raise take-up across all the benefits. There are no official links with the NHS as such—we co-ordinate through Departments, but there are not official links locally. We often receive referrals from GPs, hospitals and carers, and the Disability and Carers Service works closely with the Department of Health.

Will the Minister confirm that many of my constituents who formerly worked for Dexion and had their pensions stolen from them no longer need to take up benefits, because they will receive compensation from the financial assistance scheme? Will he confirm that the Treasury will not—as a result of Government delay in giving my constituents the compensation that they deserve—take up to 40 per cent. tax from my constituents who have got their pensions through FAS?

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that, this morning, I was able to talk to his constituent, Mr. Humphries, and tell him that we hoped to make an announcement today that the Treasury had agreed that the lump sum payments to be paid to various FAS recipients can be taxed in a way that means that most of those people—it depends on their tax circumstances—will not be pushed into the higher tax bracket as a result of those lump sum payments, so they can spread their tax payment over time. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituent will welcome that, and that he will, too.

One of the benefits that pensioners draw, as my hon. and learned Friend will be aware, is the pension element of the industrial injuries disablement benefit. May I draw his attention to the fact that his Department has received a recommendation from the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council relating to men who worked in the screens on the colliery surfaces during the 40 years up to 1983, proposing that provision for COPD—chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—be extended to cover that group of workers? Will he look urgently at that decision, because the group of men who would claim that benefit are elderly, and we need to ensure that those who are eligible can claim industrial injuries disablement benefit and, in addition, explore whether there is a full and final payment of compensation, similar to that paid to their underground colleagues? It is urgent that that decision be looked at and the recommendation accepted.

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will look at that as a matter of urgency. He knows that I, too, represent an area with a working colliery and a large mining community, and these matters are important to such communities.

There will be a welcome from Members on both sides of the House if that review is successful. Is the Minister satisfied with the situation of men over 60 in relatively low-paid full-time work who are not automatically reminded that they are eligible for winter fuel payment? Will he look at that to see whether he can make a change to procedures?

We want to ensure that everyone who is entitled to the winter fuel payment registers to receive it. There is a substantial advertising campaign to ensure that we get that take-up, but people have to register. Indeed, they should have registered already to take up the winter fuel payment this year.

Will the Minister convey the thanks of many Members of Parliament to the Pension Service for the quality of care it gives many of our constituents? Given that it is the Government’s aim to increase take-up, what is his estimate for the coming years of the increased number of pensioners claiming the benefits to which they are entitled?

I am pleased to be able to tell my right hon. Friend that our target for the year finishing tomorrow was to get 235,000 people on to pension credit. In fact, we have reached 250,000, so we have gone beyond that figure. I have indicated that I want to see it increased during the coming year, so I am pleased to tell him that we are continuing to press to get more people on to pension credit.

The Minister says that he wants to increase take-up and I welcome that, but the Budget tells a different story. If the Government were intending to get the benefits to every eligible pensioner, by 2010-11, an extra £1.75 billion would have been allocated in the Budget. Instead, the Budget assumes no increase in take-up over the next three years. How is he getting on with persuading the Treasury that getting the benefits to the pensioners who are entitled to them is not poor value for money, as the Treasury seems to assume?

We certainly want to get benefits to all the pensioners who are entitled to them. That is one of the reasons why, just before Christmas, I announced the introduction of automaticity, which sounds complicated but basically means that with one phone call a person can obtain four different benefits.

The process of getting the benefits needs to be simplified. One of the problems that we have had in getting people on to pension credit is that we have written to pensioners—in some cases, four or five times—asking them to apply, and some have chosen not to do so. We cannot force them to apply; it is their decision. However, for those who apply, we can make it easier to get the benefits. That is why, from October, we will introduce the new system of automaticity, where those who get one benefit will get four.

Will my hon. and learned Friend explain how the various Departments are co-operating in promoting benefits for pensioners? He will know that take-up of concessionary bus passes is not particularly high. In my area, they are claimed by about 57 per cent. of pensioners. Will the Pension Service remind pensioners of the enhanced benefits of the scheme and encourage them to apply?

We certainly want everyone who wishes to have a concessionary bus pass to take up that concession. We will rely on local authorities to promote the project. One of the issues is that local authorities in different areas have different start and finish times. Although the Government are promoting a national scheme and paying for a certain proportion of it, some local authorities have felt able to go beyond that and have raised the extra funding from the council tax system. As a result, running a national campaign is a lot more difficult, but there has been plenty of national publicity, MPs and Ministers have been promoting the scheme, and the Government are proud of the fact that we have introduced it and ensured that pensioners can travel on local services around the country at off-peak times. That is something we have done; the Conservative party never even attempted it when it was in government.

Any measures to boost take-up of benefits are welcome and long overdue, but has the Minister made any estimate of the number of pensioners who are forced to use their winter fuel allowance to pay soaring council tax and utility bills and to pay for basic foodstuffs? Is he not ashamed that the latest EU figures show that Britain is fourth from the bottom of the poverty league, so that only pensioners in Spain, Latvia and Cyprus are more likely to fall into poverty?

We are the party that has lifted more than 1 million pensioners out of relative poverty. It takes some brass neck for Conservatives, who wanted to increase VAT on fuel to 17.5 per cent. and keep pensioners on basic pensions of £69, to say that they are now worried about pensioners. They seem to worry about the poor pensioner only when someone else is in government.

The Government are making winter fuel payments to deal with fuel poverty issues. We are ensuring that people who need help because they are poor are getting pension credit, and that we deal with the issues related to take-up. The Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported did nothing, and he has some brass neck to suggest otherwise.

Is my hon. and learned Friend considering renaming council tax benefit “council tax rebate”, as advocated by Sir Michael Lyons, to increase take-up among pensioners? Would it be possible to link the systems and computers of the Inland Revenue with those of local government to ensure automatic payment of council tax benefit?

I always hesitate to assure people that it is easy to link computer systems; it is not always easy. However, we work with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Treasury to see where we can share data to ensure that we get the information we need to target pension credit in particular. After October, pension credit will be linked to council tax benefit, so it will be possible to ensure that people who claim one get the other as well.

Local Employment Partnerships

2. What progress has been made by local employment partnerships in assisting disadvantaged people into work; and if he will make a statement. (197191)

Local employment partnerships have started well. The initiative is growing rapidly; more than 600 employers have signed up and more than 200 have already recruited through their partnerships, helping more than 3,000 people into work so far.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware of a partnership programme in Glasgow, whereby John Wheatley college takes deprived adults from communities and trains them to work in the health service? That has come about because of an innovative and dynamic principal called Ian Graham, who has taken chances to do it. It looks as though the initiative will be a great success.

I am pleased to say that I have heard about the achievements of Mr. Graham and John Wheatley college. The March employment figures show how strong the UK labour market is. More people than ever are in work and the numbers on unemployment benefit are down into the 700,000s for the first time since 1975. Local employment partnerships such as the one in my hon. Friend’s area will help to ensure that the benefits of a strong labour market extend to disadvantaged jobseekers who have been out of work for a long time. I welcome the progress being made in her area.

Is the Minister aware that one of the partners—Carter and Carter, I believe—that had been due to deliver on the partnership scheme in North Yorkshire has gone into receivership? What are the implications for North Yorkshire, and who will now deliver on that partnership?

I am aware of the problems that have beset Carter and Carter Group plc. However, I can tell the hon. Lady that Newcastle college is taking over the contracts for which Carter and Carter was responsible. She can be reassured that there will be continuity of support for her constituents and others.

I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on what the Government have done to get disadvantaged people—particularly people with severe learning difficulties, who were totally ignored by the previous Administration—into work. However, getting people with such difficulties into work-based opportunities is still proving a tremendous challenge, for obvious reasons. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and representatives from my local employment partnership, the Shaw Trust and Mencap, to discuss what more can be done locally in Crosby to help such people?

Yes, I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and representatives of the organisations she mentions. Those organisations have done excellent work, not only in her constituency but elsewhere, under the auspices of the pathways to work programme and other initiatives that we have been supporting. We have been able to make good progress, but I look forward to discussing with her what is happening in her constituency.

Personalised Support

Employment increased last month to a new record high of 29.46 million and claimant unemployment has fallen to its lowest since 1975. Our six different new deals have helped 1.85 million people into work. We are now merging the new deals for jobseekers into a single, flexible new deal to tailor the support to the needs of each person.

In my constituency, there are now 1.25 jobs for every person of employment age. That is a huge success, but there are still large numbers of people on incapacity benefit who have been out of work for many years, and many of those people have acute mental health problems. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have to do an awful lot more to help people with mental health problems to get back into training and, ultimately, back into the workplace?

Yes, that is absolutely right. We commissioned Dame Carol Black to consider that issue, and her report of last week gives us a good way of doing exactly that. We will continue to reform incapacity benefit, which we are committed to abolishing. In October, we will introduce the new employment and support allowance, which will be based on what people can do rather than what they cannot. That very much includes people with mental health problems. We are considering how we and the NHS can ensure that we give them the support to get them back into work.

On Friday, I visited the Pertemps agency in West Bromwich and was very impressed with the fact that it has got 910 people, many of them long-term unemployed, back to work since last April. It was obvious from my discussions that barriers to employment relate not only to skills, but to psychological, cultural and a range of other factors. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that when the Government look to get people into work, their approach takes all those factors into account?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. That is exactly why we will involve the voluntary and private sectors in delivering personalised support to each of those individuals and will pay by result so that they have the freedom to decide how to get people back into work, but will be rewarded on the basis of how they do so.

The Secretary of State has said that the Government will reassess all existing incapacity benefit claimants between 2010 and 2013. How many extra pathways to work opportunities will there be over and above those already announced to help those who are reassessed, where that is appropriate?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are extending pathways to work to the whole country from this April. I believe that his party has exactly the same goal as us on incapacity benefit. The Conservatives have announced that they want to match our goal of getting 1 million people off incapacity benefit, and we welcome their support for our policy. I hope that he will now stop promising completely non-existent welfare reform savings.

Child Poverty

On Budget day, we published “Ending child poverty: everybody’s business”, reaffirming the Government’s target of halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020. The measures announced in the Budget will invest an additional £950 million and reduce child poverty by a further 250,000 children by 2010-11. Combined with announcements in last year’s Budget and pre-Budget report, that means an extra 500,000 children will be lifted out of poverty.

I particularly welcome the Government’s decision, announced in the Budget, to disregard child benefit for the purposes of council tax benefit and housing benefit claims from 2009. What steps will be taken next year to highlight that with all child benefit recipients?

My hon. Friend is right that this is a vital move towards making work pay, and I congratulate him on his campaigning on the issue. I believe that his early-day motion 1736 called for this last year, so he has clearly had a big influence on Government policy. It is a good thing that he has, because this measure, combined with others, means that 250,000 children will be lifted out of poverty. People will not have to apply for it—it will happen automatically—but we will ensure that they know that it, combined with other measures, means that work really does pay and that they can lift their family and children out of poverty.

As my right hon. Friend will be aware, it is also important that we have appropriate complementary as child care and early intervention policies. I understand that he will soon visit Scotland and very much hope that he will be able to visit Glasgow, where there are a number of very successful projects. Will he ensure that he clearly puts the message across to the Scottish National party Administration that they need urgently to consider their refusal to promise all vulnerable two-year-olds a place in nursery school, which had been promised by the previous Labour Administration, and that they need to do much more in prioritising child care support, which has received little attention?

That is absolutely right. I look forward to visiting Glasgow and seeing the innovative work of the Labour council. It is shocking to hear that the SNP is not committed to lifting children out of poverty. If it genuinely believes that this issue needs to be addressed, it must not cut child care but ensure that it matches our policy of having a contract out of poverty whereby the Government put in place the right support through the tax and benefits system but parents do their bit as well, as regards their responsibilities.

It was estimated 18 months ago that the Government would need to put in an extra £4.5 billion per annum if they were to have a 50:50 chance of meeting the 2010 target. The £950 million figure is welcome, but does it not mean that there is no chance of meeting the 2010 target?

No, the Government are committed to meeting the target, and the announcement in question was widely welcomed by the child poverty lobby. It means that we will be able to lift a further 1 million children out of poverty. That is an extraordinary achievement in itself, but we will continue to do everything we can to meet the 2010 target, and to eradicate poverty by 2020.

Children and young people with special educational needs are among those most obviously at risk of poverty. Of course, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin) said a few moments ago from the Government Benches, early intervention is of the essence, but some people need help later on.

Given that the Department for Children, Schools and Families is committed to raising the education leaving age, what discussions has the right hon. Gentleman had with his colleagues in that Department about the importance of ensuring that continuing support is made available, not least through the Connexions service, so that those people have a good chance of escaping from poverty and ensuring that their children do not go on to suffer it?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and his work on the issue is widely recognised throughout the House. He will be glad to know that there is a joint unit working between my Department and the Department for Children, Schools and Families because we recognise that this is a two-way bargain: the Government put in place the right support through the tax and benefit system, and the education and nursery systems help people to lift themselves out of poverty and get the skills that they need to succeed in life.

We need to ensure that disabled children are helped, which is why we try to ensure that people claim disability living allowance. We also need to look at the needs of teenage mothers. We have announced a pilot to look at how we can provide them with more support, in combination with the Foyer system, to ensure that they can be lifted out of poverty as well.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the Government have done much to eradicate child poverty, there is much to be done? It is a difficult proposition. However, he now has the talents of David Freud in his Department, and I wonder whether he could carefully apply David Freud’s talents to consider a more joined-up approach to child poverty over many more years.

We are, of course, implementing David Freud’s recommendations, and my hon. Friend is right to say that he is advising the Department on exactly how to do that. We welcome anyone’s thoughts on how to abolish child poverty and we shall look to work with the child poverty lobby and anybody else on refreshing our strategy to meet the goal of taking children out of poverty by 2020.

We in my party also want to see child poverty ended by 2020, but believe this vital objective is being undermined by the Government failing fully to recognise and tackle some of the deep-seated causes of child poverty. So, do the Government agree that while poverty contributes to parental separation, single parenthood is also a major cause of poverty? A reduction in the couple penalty would be socially just, so that marriage was no longer increasingly the preserve of the middle classes, which last week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics show to be the case.

I have real respect for the hon. Gentleman, but, frankly, I find that question hypocritical enough to be almost unbearable. The Conservative party is not even—

Order. Please withdraw the term “hypocritical”. The right hon. Gentleman is referring to a Member of the House.

I withdraw. The party of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) will not even sign up to the goal of abolishing child poverty. It has no policy to deliver on that, and it voted against the measures in the Budget. As he knows, those in his party are not committed to that goal, and that difference between what they try to say and their policies will be exposed between now and election day.

Carers

5. What progress has been made on reviewing support for working carers; and if he will make a statement. (197194)

The carer’s allowance earnings limit was increased to £95 a week in October 2007. The current review of the national carers strategy is looking in depth at the full range of support that is provided to carers, including working carers. This is being done in consultation with carers and the organisations that represent them.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and for her personal commitment to solving the problem. It is widely agreed that carers who can and want to should be able to combine their caring responsibilities with paid employment, which is beneficial for them and society, so will she ensure that the review looks not only at the earnings limit, which remains low, despite the increase, but at making it easier for working carers who qualify for carer’s allowance to claim it without having to make trips back and forth to the benefit office every week, as many of them have to do?

I thank my hon. Friend not only for the question, but for the way she has championed carers’ rights over her years in the Commons. I am sure that she will be delighted to know that one of the taskforces will consider wider issues of employment—not only income and benefits, but how carers can be encouraged and supported to balance their caring responsibilities and employment. Of course, we are always looking at ways to make the application process for our benefits far more straightforward.

Carers do a wonderful job and save the state hundreds of millions of pounds every year. Does the Minister recognise that demographic change, especially in counties such as Northamptonshire, means that many more very elderly people in our local populations will require greater support?

We are all aware that there is a demographic issue about caring responsibilities. That is why I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman welcomed the Prime Minister’s establishing the review of our national carers strategy, which will obviously take into account some of the demographic issues that the hon. Gentleman highlighted—in relation to not only his constituency, but the whole country.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to support carers to get into work is to provide good quality respite or day care? She will not be surprised to find out that Aberdeen city council, as part of the £27 million of cuts in its budget, is closing day centres and taking away day care, thus probably making it much more difficult for many carers in Aberdeen to carry on with their work. It has done all that without undertaking any disability impact study on the consequences of its decision.

It is astonishing, given the statutory requirement under the disability equality duty, that a local authority has not conducted an impact assessment of the change in its services. My hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) are working hard to ensure that Aberdeen council faces up to its responsibilities. If there is anything I can do to assist, I would be only too delighted to help. This is an interesting decision by an alliance of the SNP and Liberal Democrats in Aberdeen.

Does the Minister accept that many carers can and wish to work only part time, and that those for whom they care would often prefer to be cared for in-house when their permanent carer is out at work? During the review, will she look carefully at enabling long-term carers to afford such provision?

All those issues have been raised as part of the review of the national carers strategy. Of course, the strategy is a cross-governmental development. As well as the issues for which the Department for Work and Pensions is responsible, including employment and income, we are working closely with the Department of Health, which is examining some of the social care issues. Carers’ organisations and carers have raised the very issues that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Lone Parents

6. What safeguards his Department plans to put in place to ensure that lone parents who cannot find suitable child care will not be required to take up jobs under the jobseeker’s allowance regulatory framework. (197195)

We will be amending regulations to increase the discretion of Jobcentre Plus advisers, so that a lone parent claiming jobseeker’s allowance will not be penalised for leaving or failing to take up a job on the ground that appropriate, affordable child care is not available.

I thank the Minister for that response, but what assurance can he give lone parents that additional costs, such as free or half-price transport in London and the free school meals entitlement under income support, will be taken into account in those calculations, too?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met lone parent support groups last week and we discussed how the amendment to the regulations to which I have referred might work. Jobcentre Plus will support parents looking for child care and will recognise that other costs might be incurred as well. We want to maximise the opportunity for work and the contribution of work to reducing child poverty. The hon. Gentleman will acknowledge how big that contribution potentially is and how much children’s well-being is improved when their parent is in work. That is the aim of the change that we are making.

The Minister will know that for many lone parents the problem is not so much finding work as the issue of churn—of entering jobs, but finding themselves unable to cope and having to give them up. I welcome what he said about ensuring that child care is taken into account when the conditionality of JSA is considered. Many lone parents will have had bad experiences of struggling with child care, so what steps will be taken to ensure they know that they will not be penalised if they have child care problems, so that they do not act as a disincentive to entering work?

My hon. Friend has taken a lot of interest in the matter, and I welcome the points that she and the lone parent support organisations have made. We are considering the precise form that the regulations will take. She will know that all local authorities in England and Wales will be required from next month to ensure that there is sufficient child care to meet the needs of working parents, particularly those on lower incomes. By 2010 we want all schools to be extended schools. Advisers will be given the discretion to ensure that lone parents will not lose out if no appropriate affordable child care is available for them.

But could the Minister tell the House whether he considers there to be any forms of work that might be inappropriate under the regulations? For example, would it be appropriate to ask a lone parent to do a considerable amount of evening and night work, bearing in mind that their children would be at school all day and not see their parent in the evening, but be left to the child care that the Minister thinks appropriate?

These are matters that advisers will be able to take into account. Lone parents should be able to be good parents as well as enjoy the benefits of employment. There is clear evidence not only that families are better off when a parent is in work, but that their children’s well-being is improved.

My right hon. Friend realises that it is not just lone parents, but all parents who sometimes experience difficulties in finding suitable child care. Will he make it a duty for local authorities or even jobcentres to keep a directory of available child care? Will he also publicise that directory and make it available to the people out there seeking the best child care for their children?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. It is likely that local authorities will want to do that, because all local authorities in England and Wales will from next month be required to

“secure sufficient childcare to meet the needs of working parents”.

Local authorities will certainly want to ensure that information about that provision is widely available in their areas.

Jobcentre Plus

7. What proportion of telephone calls to Jobcentre Plus were answered in the most recent period for which figures are available. (197196)

In February 2008, Jobcentre Plus contact centres answered 95.4 per cent. of the more than 1.4 million calls offered, therefore comfortably exceeding the 90 per cent. target.

Although I commend Jobcentre Plus for the progress that it has made and for the targets that it has met, 5 per cent. of unanswered calls cut off with a message saying “Ring back later” is still a lot of people. Given that they are people desperately seeking work, when can we eliminate the 5 per cent. unanswered rate?

The 95.4 per cent. rate is very high. In the case of first contact, which involves people calling to arrange a benefit for the first time, which is perhaps the most urgent task that the centres have to perform, the answer rate is 98.1 per cent. Call managing and queue-busting systems have been introduced in the system and work effectively, but Jobcentre Plus is implementing further improvements to those schemes in June. I can also tell my hon. Friend that the whole system has been externally validated and has proven comparable to the best available anywhere in the private sector.

I am not quite sure of the Minister’s definition of an answer. For my constituents, who have to rely on the regional office in Canterbury, the problems are still great. They would just laugh if they heard the answer to that question.

Well, the local offices that are part of the benefit delivery centre do not at the moment have the exact same call management system that the call centres use. [Hon. Members: “Ah.”] I was referring earlier to the call centres. The benefit delivery centres do not have the same system but they are planning to introduce it, and it will be in place by this summer, so they will be able to implement the system of call management and queue-busting that I referred to in the answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman). In any event, notwithstanding the absence of the precise measurement system, we believe that most benefit delivery centres are also hitting the 90 per cent. rate.

Incapacity Benefit

9. How many people had been on incapacity benefit for more than five years at the most recent date for which a figure is available. (197198)

Last May, the number of people who had been claiming incapacity benefit for over five years was 1.23 million, and it had fallen in the previous quarter.

I noted the Minister’s reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). However, of the 2.6 million people claiming incapacity benefit, 1.8 million began claiming during the past 10 years, since 1997. Does the Minister agree that the past 10 years have been a missed opportunity, in which not enough people of working age have been helped back to work? Surely we need real welfare reform now.

No, I certainly do not agree with that. The real scandal is that the number of incapacity benefit claimants more than tripled under the Tory Government, when the hon. Gentleman was a Government Member; incapacity benefit was used, for a long period, to disguise rising unemployment. We have reversed the position; the number of people claiming incapacity benefit is coming down for the first time in decades, thanks to the success of the reforms that we have introduced, including the pathways to work programme. Our aim is to reduce by a million the number of people receiving incapacity benefit by 2015. I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the progress made.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that one of the key tools for helping incapacity benefit claimants back to work is the permitted work rules, but there are four separate permitted work regimes, which is very confusing for people. Will he today promise to look at that, and will he try to come up with a simple, single system that is easy for people to take advantage of, and to understand?

My hon. Friend has raised the issue before, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be writing to him about it shortly. I can confirm that we are looking into the very point that my hon. Friend raises.

My registered blind constituent, Mr. McCarthy-Fox, is concerned to ensure that work capability assessments are carried out by people who understand disabilities such as his. How will serious physical disabilities such as blindness and learning disabilities such as Down’s syndrome be taken into account in those assessments, and when will my right hon. Friend publish the criteria for conducting the interviews?

My hon. Friend will know that the regulations for the employment and support allowance were published last week, and the work capability assessment is an important part of the process. We developed the procedures in close discussion with disability organisations. I think that it is widely recognised that the arrangements that will be put in place, including the work capability assessment, will be a considerable improvement on the current personal capability assessments. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, of course, that we need to make a proper and accurate assessment of all the conditions that people applying for the employment and support allowance may have, and I hope that when he looks at the details he will see that the new arrangements are a considerable improvement on the old ones.

Older People

10. What steps his Department is taking to encourage employers to recognise the contribution of older people in the workplace. (197199)

On Thursday I visited Heritage Glass in Shrewsbury, where the youngest salesman is 60 and the oldest is 73. The company has found that its business has been boosted by employing older people. The Government are encouraging employers to employ older people as part of a mixed work force, and to challenge some of the ageist myths that some still believe. The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006 prohibit unjustified age discrimination in employment and training.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that response. He will be aware that Glasgow city council recently announced that any school leaver wishing to take up an apprenticeship will be guaranteed that option, but that will work only if local employers and the elderly work force play their part. Some elderly skilled members of the work force currently on disablement benefit are more than capable of passing on their skills and talents to future generations. Will my hon. and learned Friend agree to meet like-minded Labour colleagues to talk through the issues, so that we make sure that people who have skills pass them on but do not lose their benefits?

It is important for us to ensure that skills can be passed on, and I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that. I can also tell him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will visit Glasgow shortly and meet members of the city council, and that he will have an opportunity to discuss the project and some of the issues that my hon. Friend has raised.

Welfare to Work

The city strategy pathfinders are committed to increasing employment in their area, and have agreed targets for the client groups on which they concentrate. The pathfinders have now moved into the delivery phase, and are rolling out their business plans.

Does the Secretary of State agree that local strategic partnerships have an important role in bringing together health, skills, children’s services, and communities and neighbourhoods? Does he agree that such linking and joined-up work is necessary at national level too, involving Departments other than his own and relating to housing in particular? The new proposals to enable single parents in socially registered housing who are using the Foyer scheme to return to work is one of the most important initiatives that I hope the Secretary of State will be able to encourage—and will he also ensure that he makes the time to visit Nottingham?

As my hon. Friend knows, I am looking forward to visiting Nottingham on 22 April. He is right in saying that local strategic partnerships have a key role to play. I congratulate him on his own role as chair of his local strategic partnership, which is one of the leading partnerships in implementing our employment city strategy. He is also right in saying that we need to work closely with other Departments at national level. That is why we introduced the working neighbourhood fund, which brings together funding from my Department and from the Department for Communities and Local Government so that with a single fund we can target the problem together.

Topical Questions

As a result of our announced extension of the financial assistance scheme, some people will receive FAS payments for a past period. Concern has been expressed that those people might be in a higher tax band. I am pleased to say that, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions Reform confirmed earlier, that will not happen. My officials are currently working with their colleagues in HM Revenue and Customs to establish how the work will be carried out.

I thank the Secretary of State for his explanation. Can he tell us whether his target for eliminating child poverty is actually a target, or more of an aspiration?

The Conservatives should stop digging themselves into a hole. It is a target, and, as we have reaffirmed, we are committed to it. In the Budget we announced just under £1 billion of spending to take another 250,000 children out of poverty. The outrage is that the Conservative party voted against those measures.

T3. It is estimated that 1.5 million people’s lives have been destroyed by involuntary tranquilliser addiction leading to long periods of mental ill health. A man whom I met recently had been on tranquillisers for 45 years. Those people want to work, but cannot do so. As far as I am aware, the only primary care trust that has introduced a withdrawal programme is Oldham. Will the Secretary of State encourage his Department and the Department of Health to study the Oldham model with the aim of getting some of those people off prescription drugs and back to work? That would improve their quality of life, and would reduce the benefits bill as well. (197216)

My hon. Friend has identified a serious problem, on which I know he has campaigned for some time. He will be glad to know that Dame Carol Black’s review commits my Department and the Department of Health to working together closely on the issue, and that Dame Carol will use that work to ensure that we can help people with mental health problems. We are also working on our drug strategy to ensure that we can provide better support for people who wish to return to work.

As the hon. Gentleman knows and as has been explained on many occasions, we advertise any jobs that are legal. I am sure that he would do exactly the same.

I have a selection here of adverts currently appearing on Jobcentre Plus websites. Many of them advertise jobs for the national minimum wage and they are quite clear—this one, in particular, says:

“Duties require the successful applicant to be nude/semi nude”.

I regard asking women to work, naked or semi-naked, on the national minimum wage as exploitation. Why does not the Secretary of State share that view and why does he continue to condone Jobcentre Plus supporting vacancies like that?

In that case, if the hon. Gentleman believes that and he wants to have the means to live up to those ends, he will introduce proposals to ban those adverts. At the moment, it is legal and Jobcentre Plus obviously has a duty to comply with anything that is legal. The hon. Gentleman, however, has no proposals to do anything any differently.

T7. I know that on quite a few occasions some parts of the Government have difficulty talking to other parts, but will the Minister explain why staff working on the MPs’ hotline for the Child Support Agency cannot speak by telephone to the Bolton office, but have to put any matters in writing, which is leading to many delays? I have raised the matter previously in a written question, so may I urge the Minister, when he looks further into the issue, not simply to accept what his civil servants tell him? Clearly, even a year later, the problem is still going on. (197221)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that problem. As he knows, there were a series of problems with the Bolton office for a while, but in many cases, we have seen improvements. I have myself spoken to officials who are working on the MPs’ hotline. I will take my hon. Friend’s point seriously and I promise to look into it further for him in the light of what he has said.

T6. If the Home Office has its way, migrant domestic workers will have a non-renewable six-month visa and will be unable to change employers. Is that not a recipe for increasing domestic abuse and trafficking? If the women come forward, they will be sent back home; and they cannot get another job because they will have only a non-transferable six-month visa. For a Government who are supposedly committed to stamping out trafficking, is that not an extraordinary proposal from the Home Office? Will the Minister do something about it? (197219)

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s work as chair of the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children. As he knows, we are committed to implementing the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking before the end of this year. My Department is working very closely with the Home Office and others on exactly how those arrangements will work. The convention envisages a two-step process and we are looking at granting a resident’s permit in the second stage. We will discuss the details with the Home Office, so I would be interested to receive any representations from the hon. Gentleman about the detailed form that any such regulations should take.

T8. Given that £133 million has been spent on developing systems within the CSA, can those of my constituents who are currently on the old formula expect to be transferred to the new formula at a relatively early date? (197222)

As my hon. Friend knows, because of the IT problems that have tended to plague the agency ever since its inception, transfer from one funding regime to another has not been possible to achieve. As we move towards the introduction of the new commission to replace the existing agency, we have set out that movement towards an integrated maintenance calculation will begin in 2010.

The Secretary of State knows that the Conservative party is committed to the eradication of child poverty by 2020, yet he claims that it is not. The Secretary of State knows that the Government will not meet their child poverty target in 2010, yet he maintained in the House today that it will be met. I put it to him that, as an internal document from the Department for Work and Pensions, published in February this year, says:

“Despite effective policies these targets are unlikely to be fully met”.

Will the Secretary of State come clean today and tell the House the truth—that the targets will not be met on current policies?

If the hon. Gentleman read his documents more carefully, he would know that that was before the Budget, which announced an extra £1 billion, which Conservative Members voted against. If he also read his own party’s documents, he would know that the Conservatives are not committed to ending child poverty; they talk vaguely about an aspiration, but have no policy to deliver it. They have tried to say that they will find more money from the working tax credit, but that was going to come from £3 billion of welfare savings, which are no longer there. The Conservatives now need to come clean and admit that they have no policy on child policy and that they would make no difference to it.

T9. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware that family support workers who work out of children’s centres, alongside community midwives, health visitors, nursery staff and so on, do an excellent job in reaching out to those families who have often been beyond the reach of traditional services. They also do an excellent job in helping lone parents to get back into training and work. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that his Department will support the retention of family support workers in children’s centres, unlike the Conservative party, which wants to get rid of them? (197223)

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance, and I can go further: she will be glad to know that we will ensure that we pilot the use of Jobcentre Plus advisers working in children’s centres, so that when parents take their children to get support there, they also discover how they can find opportunities to work. So we are making sure that we have both health and children’s services working hand in glove with the services from the Department for Work and Pensions and from Jobcentre Plus.

The Minister was talking earlier about getting people on the blind and partially sighted register back to work. Does he accept that it is actually far better and more cost-effective to keep people, particularly those with degenerative eye diseases, in work while they are still capable of working, rather than their losing their jobs? That needs support and the provision of adaptations. Is that a priority for the Department?

I have discussed the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises with the organisations that represent blind and visually impaired people. He is quite right to suggest that one of the issues that we need to consider is how we maintain people in employment when their vision is deteriorating, as it does for many working people. He can be assured that we are working to ensure that people are maintained in employment for as long as possible, because one of the major issues that we face is that, if people drop out of employment, it is far more difficult for them to move back into it.

When the Minister tries to get people back to work, which he is undoubtedly trying to do, will he take it a little bit easy on the older members of our society, such as miners and shipyard workers who are about the age of 60 who have most probably worked all their life in hard industry and are crippled with arthritis? One of my constituents is being chased to go back to work, and he is 61. I think that it is a bit much.

Of course we want to provide more support for those who are in greatest need. My hon. Friend may have seen that we announced last week that we will provide extra support for people who are the poorest and most disabled. People who are in the support group of the employment and support allowance will be an extra £16 a week better off. That shows that our reforms are about two things: helping people who can work back into work and providing more support for those who need more help.

Can the Secretary of State say why the number of people in severe poverty—5.2 million—is the highest that it has been in 27 years?

The hon. Gentleman keeps banging on about those figures, but he knows perfectly well that the Office for National Statistics has said that they are not reliable because the sample is too small. It is interesting to hear him talking in today’s questions, because I believe that, last week, he told The Guardian—his favourite paper—

Order. I must stop the Secretary of State. It is for him to give an account of his stewardship, not to talk about an hon. Member speaking to The Guardian.

Further to the earlier question from my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) about employers encouraging older people in the workplace, one in four of UK adults are, like me, over the age of 60; will the Minister say whether he believes that each tier of our right hon. Friend’s Government is adequately represented in that regard? Will he urge the Prime Minister to ensure that the special contribution of the over-60s is better reflected in future reshuffles?

Will the Minister comment on grants of up to £3,000 to purchase vehicles being made available to foreign nationals working in the UK?

I am very happy to make inquiries into that matter. Obviously, we have a Motability scheme to support disabled people to drive. I do not think the matter the hon. Gentleman raises is one for my Department, but if he writes to me, I will be happy to look into it.

There is a bit of a difficulty for the following reason. We have been quoting figures that the average pensioner household will be £1,500, or £29 a week, better off, but last week the Conservative party published its own document, which is well worth looking at—

Further to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), the living in poverty figure is 5.2 million—that is an Office for National Statistics figure. Will the Secretary of State now answer my hon. Friend’s question, because he has passed the buck a number of times today?

Child poverty is down by 600,000, and pensioner poverty is down by more than 1 million. That is in contrast to the record of the Conservative Government, under whom both went up.

Last week, the Secretary of State made an announcement about the employment and support allowance. Will he tell the House how important that allowance will be, in giving both support to those who cannot work and help to those who can work?

That is exactly right. It will mean £16 more for the most disabled people. They will not be required to work, but as a consequence of the benefit changes we are introducing they will have much more support to get back into work, and much more income as well.

Heathrow Terminal 5

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement on the problems occurring for passengers at Heathrow terminal 5 and the security measures in place at the terminal.

I thank the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) for providing the opportunity to make a statement on the problems occurring for passengers at Heathrow’s terminal 5. The Secretary of State sends her apologies for being unable to respond to the question herself, but she is on a pre-arranged regional visit; I believe that the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) are aware of that.

Heathrow’s new terminal 5 opened to the public on Thursday 27 March. The terminal is operated by BAA plc, but British Airways is the sole airline using it. On 27 March, BA moved to T5 the majority of its short haul operations, which accounts for about 400 flights per day and some 34,000 passengers.

The management of terminal 5 is an operational matter for British Airways and BAA, but that does not mean that the Government are not taking a keen interest in seeing that the difficulties T5 has faced since it opened last week are addressed and resolved as quickly as possible. On its first day in operation, T5’s bespoke baggage system was affected by a number of issues. First, there were technical software problems, but more significantly BA’s challenge was integrating teams of staff, and it has been addressing this as a priority.

After 27 March, the baggage system became clogged as more bags were checked in than were being placed on aircraft. On a number of occasions, the system stopped functioning, which led to planes taking off without some or all of their luggage. BA has had to cancel short haul flights to ease the pressure on the baggage system. By the end of the weekend, some 28,000 bags had been placed in temporary storage. BA drafted in 400 volunteers over the weekend to help sort those bags and estimates that it will take up to a week to get them back to their owners.

The issue is mainly a problem for departing passengers. BA has advised that the incoming arrival bag times have been coming down steadily over the past few days and the average first bag time is now seven to eight minutes. That is as good, if not better, than for other Heathrow terminals.

As the Secretary of State has made clear, we expect BA and BAA to work together to ensure that solutions are found and that there is as little disruption as possible to passengers. Department for Transport officials have been in touch with BA and BAA at a senior level throughout. The Secretary of State spoke to the chief executive of BA, Mr. Willie Walsh, and to Mr. Colin Matthews, chief executive of BAA, on Saturday, and I visited the airport on Sunday to see the situation at first hand.

We have also been assisting BA, where appropriate given the necessity of maintaining effective security, in optimising all its security screening options, to help it tackle the backlog of bags that have yet to be reunited with their owners.

As our discussion document “Towards a Sustainable Transport System”, published last October, makes clear, we want a much greater emphasis on the needs of transport users. Passengers should expect airline and airport operators to deliver a good standard of service; so, although we recognise the considerable challenges in opening a major new terminal, we agree that it is extremely regrettable to say the least that passengers using T5 have had to suffer an unacceptably poor travel experience. Although I am convinced that T5 will ultimately prove to be a significant benefit to the passenger, there is no denying that delivery so far has fallen well short of expectations. What struck me on Sunday was just how devastated individual staff members were, from chief executives through to staff on the shop floor, that this had gone badly wrong. They were working hard to restore their own pride, as well as that of the operation, as was shown by, among other things, the number of volunteers who were helping.

The important thing now is to put things right. BA’s and BAA’s focus must not be deflected from resolving the problems affecting T5 and ensuring that the passenger experience improves significantly as a matter of urgency. That includes ensuring that those passengers who have been affected by disruption receive, at the very least, the assistance and compensation to which they are legally entitled. It is in both BA’s and BAA’s interests to work effectively together to deliver the necessary improvement. The travelling public are not mainly interested in who is to blame for which particular failing, but rather in being treated properly when things go wrong and in seeing real progress towards the high standards of customer service to which both BA and BAA aspire. Once T5 is on track, we will press both operators to identify the lessons learned and to explain their plans for ensuring that good service standards are not only delivered but maintained.

Before concluding, I must comment on security at T5. As one would expect, I am unable to go into detail on the specifics of issues raised in the last few days, but I would like to reassure the House that the Government enforce a sophisticated airport security regime, which delivers many layers of protection to the travelling public. The Department works closely with airport operators to ensure that standards are met, and officials have worked particularly intensively at Heathrow in recent weeks, given the opening of T5. That is normal in respect of security when a new terminal comes on line and helps to identify any areas that require improvement. The Department then works with the operator to ensure that swift action is taken to ensure that appropriate mitigation is in place. The process has been no different with T5. Let me assure you, and the House, Mr. Speaker, that aviation security is of the highest priority for the Government.

In conclusion, we accept the reality of the problems facing passengers using T5, we are monitoring the situation very closely to encourage BA and BAA to address the issues and we stand ready to assist in any way if it is appropriate to do so.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing this urgent question.

Since terminal 5 opened for business in the early hours of Thursday morning hundreds of flights have been cancelled, thousands of bags have been delayed or have gone missing, and thousands of passengers have suffered severe inconvenience and frustration. Both BA and BAA have let down their customers badly and, yet again, the state of Heathrow is a national embarrassment.

Even more worryingly, yesterday’s newspapers reported that Department for Transport inspectors had managed to bypass security checks on nine occasions during trials of the terminal’s new systems and that the terminal’s alarm system was not working properly. Will the Minister tell us what tests were carried out in relation to T5’s security systems in advance of the opening? Will he give us the results, including details on the number of times inspectors were able to bypass security checks? What steps were taken to remedy the problems revealed by the tests carried out? Were the tests re-run and, if so, what was the result? Is it true that the fingerprint checks were dropped shortly before the terminal’s opening to switch to a photographic recognition system? It is hard to believe that there would have been enough time to test that system appropriately in the short time available.

The Secretary of State said of T5 that “this building exhausts superlatives.” At the launch, she said:

“Terminal 5 is a bold statement of intent for Heathrow’s future.”

She continued:

“It sends out a message that together we are working to make Heathrow a world-class airport again.”

Given the impact of the project on our image overseas, to what extent did she or the Minister challenge BAA and BA about the adequacy of their preparations before the opening of T5? Did the Secretary of State or her officials scrutinise the plans that those two companies had for the first week of operation of such a crucial project for our national interest? How confident is the Minister that the problems will be resolved by the time terminal 4 flights switch to the new terminal? Is he confident that BA and BAA have kept passengers adequately informed during the crisis and given the best advice on the right compensation? Is he sufficiently confident that BAA’s renovation of Heathrow’s other terminals will be completed on time? What steps are being taken to ensure that the problems of the past week will not recur when the terminals reopen?

What steps are being taken to ensure that BAA and BA plan properly for the huge influx of passengers during the 2012 Olympics? A repeat of the fiasco of the last few days would be a disaster for the 2012 games and would leave the country a laughing stock around the world. Surely a company faced with real competition would be less likely to make basic and complacent mistakes such as leaving staff without an overflow car park facility on the most important day for Heathrow for a decade.

Does the Minister agree that the calamitous events of the past few days have strengthened the case for breaking up BAA’s monopolistic grip on airport capacity in the south-east? Does he agree that the time has come for the Competition Commission to proceed with the break-up? Finally, will the events of the past few days give the Government any cause to reconsider whether BAA is capable of managing the project to construct the third runway and sixth terminal that the Government are dead-set on building regardless of whether crucial environmental questions are answered or not?

How can the Minister or the Secretary of State possibly hold BAA to account effectively on all the critical questions that I have asked? How can they get tough on BAA’s performance on T5 when the Department has actively colluded with the company to fiddle the figures on Heathrow expansion? The cosy relationship between the Labour establishment and BAA on a third runway is notorious and means that the Government cannot possibly be objective in judging BAA’s lamentable performance during the opening of terminal 5.

The hon. Lady has asked a series of questions and I shall try to respond to as many as I can. First, I rebut the allegation of collusion. The consultation that the Department recently concluded in respect of the expansion of Heathrow was based on the 2003 White Paper that followed years of examination of whether we could meet the strict environmental standards that we laid down on noise, emissions and access. We were confident that those standards could be met and that is contained in the consultation documentation—the matter is out for consultation. Of course, the hon. Lady will have the opportunity to discuss the issues on Wednesday afternoon, when the Liberal Democrats have a half-day Opposition debate on Heathrow. I suspect that we will deal with the issues in more detail then.

Fingerprint checks were not dropped as a matter of security, but there were questions about the system’s efficacy and BAA decided not to proceed with it at that time. That was not a matter for the Department for Transport or for TRANSEC. We had no reason to believe that the plans for T5 would not work. The building—I believe that we all monitored its progress over recent years—is an exemplary, of British engineering, architecture and construction. It is a magnificent structure. Officials of the Department for Transport, BAA and BA are always in regular contact and we had no reason to believe that it would not work. We were confident about that and we were sure that the terminal would operate effectively.

This has been a great disappointment. As the hon. Lady said, national pride has been dented. Her Majesty opened T5 to national fanfare and delight in early March. The following week, when the A380 arrived for its first flight, many of us believed that Heathrow had turned a corner and that the bad publicity of recent years would turn into positive publicity, notwithstanding the importance of scrutiny as regards the expansion. Clearly, that was not the case.

The hon. Lady asked about compensation. The European Union’s denied boarding and cancellation regulations set out an airline’s responsibilities to passengers in the event of long delays on departure or the cancellation of flights. It is the responsibility of British Airways to comply with that regulation with regard to the delays and cancellations experienced at terminal 5 in the past few days. From our discussions with the airline, it is clear that it is aware of its responsibilities under those regulations, and is endeavouring to comply with them. The Civil Aviation Authority is monitoring the situation to ensure that that happens.

The 2012 Olympics will be a matter of great national pride. We are very confident that we will be able to deliver the Olympics as outlined, on time, and we have no reason to believe that that will not be the case. Incidents such as T5 serve only to reinforce our resolve to ensure that we redouble our efforts and that the 2012 Olympics are a huge success.

I believe that ultimately, and within a short period, terminal 5 will be a source of great national pride. It is a magnificent building; the services within it are top of the range in terms of passenger experience, and we believe that BA and BAA will be able to show that off to the world in very short order.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating my constituents who work at Heathrow, who, despite the job cuts in recent years and despite BAA trying to attack their pension fund before Christmas, nevertheless loyally turned out in large numbers, many of them volunteers, to help the travelling public? May I ask him to start thinking again about the future expansion of Heathrow, given the grotesque incompetence of BAA in managing the terminal 5 project in recent weeks and given that all the Government’s policies have been based upon the advice of BAA?

I am very happy to acknowledge the role of all those working at Heathrow, who have tried to put the situation right. As I said earlier, one thing that struck me in speaking to staff members at all levels within BA and BAA was the damage to their self-esteem, and the fact that they were taking it personally that the systems had failed them. They were working extremely hard to try to correct the situation, as was evidenced by the number who volunteered to come in and do so.

The role of BAA in the consultation exercise was that it advised and supplied information. We set out in the 2003 White Paper that, for the economic interests of UK plc, we needed to increase the capacity at Heathrow, and that BAA had a role to play in that exercise. We did not accept all that it sent us without checking it. We have our own experts and officials in the Department who ensured that what BAA supplied was double-checked and that the evidence that we produced in the consultation exercise was Department for Transport information, not BAA information.

On BAA and its competence, I believe that we all know that the Competition Commission is to report on the operation of BAA in 2009. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on that matter at this point.

The events of the past few days represent a disgraceful inconvenience to passengers, reflect extremely badly on BA and BAA and are a national disgrace. I notice that the terminal 5 website still shows BA’s chief executive, Willie Walsh, describing it as

“an extremely sophisticated baggage system with a terminal built around it.”

It reminds me rather more of the legendary sign at Oslo airport, which says:

“We take your luggage and send it in all directions.”

How could the new terminal open with cancelled flights, parking problems, staff shortages and non-functioning escalators on day one? Will the Minister contrast that fiasco with the smooth opening of St. Pancras International, and perhaps conclude that members of the public, when they can, might be better taking the train, particularly given the lower carbon emissions associated with rail?

The Minister mentioned compensation. Is he aware that the CAA has indicated that it believes that British Airways has breached EU legislation on passengers’ rights by limiting compensation and expenses? What action will he take to ensure that BA provides its passengers with the compensation to which they are entitled as soon as possible?

What guarantee can the Minister give us that when there is a big surge in people wishing to travel by air this weekend, with the school holidays coming up, people will not be subject to cancelled flights, long delays and lost baggage at terminal 5?

On security, how did BAA and the Government get themselves into a position where their plans to implement the fingerprinting of passengers were criticised by the Information Commissioner and had to be withdrawn at short notice? Why were they not checked in advance? Will the Government ensure that we have good security at Heathrow without resorting to the type of police state measures that some of the Minister’s colleagues are all too keen on?

Finally, does this not show that the Government are wrong to accept the word of BAA and BA and their assurances when it comes to major infrastructure projects of national importance? Will the Government learn that lesson and commission independent research into the proposals for a third runway rather than relying on BAA to write their consultation paper for them?

In my past few answers I tried to rebut the allegation that BAA wrote our consultation document for us. That is patently not the case; it is a Department for Transport document and we stand by that. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the British Airways website. I am sure the company heard it too and is no doubt correcting the website at the moment. I shall not criticise BA for that being the last thing it is paying attention to, because the company is trying to make sure that the operation at T5 is corrected and improved to serve passengers. That is where the focus ought to be.

I believe I answered the point about compensation; the CAA is monitoring the situation and British Airways is clearly aware of its responsibilities under the EU’s denied boarding and cancellation regulations and is endeavouring to comply with them. Obviously, members of the public will be able to check on various websites for advice on how best to proceed.

On the hon. Gentleman’s advice that people choose rail rather than air, we see rail as a major success story for the country. The Government are investing £88 million a week in rail travel, as we know. The public make their own decisions, and as rail operation has improved respective percentages for Manchester to London travel via rail or air have been reversed. However, that does not obviate the need for air travel to different parts of the world, or indeed different parts of the country, if necessity arises.

We are disappointed about what is happening at the moment, but we are confident that ultimately terminal 5 will be a massive addition to Heathrow and a matter of national pride. We all acknowledge that it is not there yet, but people are working hard to try to make sure that it is as quickly as possible.

While I sympathise with Her Majesty’s Government’s efforts to get those two private companies to run their businesses efficiently, is it not true that in fact the United Kingdom’s reputation suffers from such a major fiasco? Will the Minister press both BAA and BA to answer some simple questions? How much training was given to baggage handlers? What facilities were available for people to get to work efficiently and on time? What is the real timetable for putting things back into operation after these disasters? If we do not have the answers to those questions soon, not only will the problem continue but it will continue to make Heathrow a disaster area.

My hon. Friend, who as we all know chairs the Select Committee on Transport and is held in high regard throughout the whole House, identifies the fact that damage to Heathrow is damage to UK plc. That is the very reason why we support expansion at Heathrow; running at 98.5 to 99 per cent. capacity it does not serve the UK as well as it should. Without expansion the UK will continue to suffer and that will affect our economic ability to compete on the world stage.

My hon. Friend raises absolutely appropriate points in respect of analysis and a post-mortem into what went wrong. As I said in my original remarks, the priority at present is for BA and BAA to continue to work hard to correct what has gone wrong, but we shall want to see the lessons, to know why things went wrong in the first place so that we can be assured for the future. I know that my hon. Friend and her Committee will take a keen interest in these matters, and we will share as much information as possible with her as it arrives.

The Minister did not answer the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) about security, which, of course, is a Government responsibility. Will he confirm that his officials were able to bypass security at terminal 5 on a number of occasions? What weaknesses did they discover, what has been done about it, and were they tested again?

I apologise to the hon. Lady for not responding to that specific point. I tried to note down her questions, and I accept that I missed that one.

There have been reports of weaknesses in the security system, which were identified beforehand. I can assure the House, notwithstanding the fact that I am not likely to go into the detail of security arrangements from the Dispatch Box, that TRANSEC and the Department would not have given the green light to T5 to open if we were not satisfied that the security arrangements in place on 27 March were adequate to protect members of the public. We are proud of the security and protection that we afford the travelling public, and those issues that were identified as requiring attention were either addressed or being addressed, but they were not a reason not to proceed with the opening.

My hon. Friend will be aware that Heathrow is the busiest international airport in the world bar none, and that that project constitutes a £4.2 billion investment. I stand to defend my engineering colleagues involved in the project: they have done an outstanding job, and we draw on the best in the world. I accept the inconvenience that the problem has caused passengers, but does my hon. Friend accept my point, on behalf of the industry that I am proud to represent, that this is a teething problem that will pass? Lessons will be learned, and the technology that we have developed in relation to Heathrow will be sold to other parts of the world, which regard T5 as a major flagship project for avionics.

My hon. Friend’s professional background and expertise are well known in the House. I fully agree with her enthusiasm and confidence that these are teething problems but, none the less, they are serious for those individuals who have been delayed, whose flights have been cancelled, and who have lost their luggage. Notwithstanding the confidence of BA and BAA that they can sort the matter out given time, those problems ought not to have arisen, so they are trying to address them as quickly as possible.

I certainly hope that what we all believed and expected to be the case will come to pass, and that T5 will be the jewel in Heathrow’s crown. T3’s frontage and reception area have improved beyond recognition while this has been going on, and there is a new Virgin reception area, too. There have already been improvements at Heathrow, and they continue to be made. What happened in the past week is disappointing, but everyone is working hard to make sure that it is corrected as quickly as possible.

May I, too, pay tribute to the front-line BA staff whom I saw at Heathrow terminal 5 on Thursday? They were operating in exceptionally difficult circumstances, with little information and absolutely no sign of any senior management at that stage. Staff demoralisation is nothing new—it has been happening for years—and last week’s shambles was just a consequence of that.

Will the Minister impress on BA the fact that there is tremendous frustration, particularly in Scotland, that every time BA gets it wrong, it is always the domestic services, especially those to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen that are cut first? That is bad for Scotland, it is unfair treatment for Scottish passengers, and it must not be allowed to continue.

The hon. Gentleman outlines the fact that the situation is unacceptable both generally and to his constituents in particular, and I fully agree I have said repeatedly in the past 27 minutes that we are doing everything we can to assist and ensure that the situation is rectified. I would quibble with him, however, over one small point. Notwithstanding the efforts and endeavours of front-line staff, to whom I paid tribute, both when I replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and in my opening remarks, senior managers are working hard. When I was at Heathrow, I met Colin Matthews, Gareth Kirkwood and Mark Bullock, who had been working extended hours with ordinary staff members. They are responsible—they are the management—and were expected to be there, but they were working shoulder to shoulder with their colleagues, including volunteers, doing everything they could to put the situation right. I have no reason to doubt that that stretches through all levels and ranks in the organisations.

I was there last Thursday, and I think we should get a badge saying, “I survived T5”. Unlike the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), I, luckily, managed to get on a plane and take off. It was delayed by only an hour and a half, and I now realise how lucky we were. Notwithstanding all the problems with the baggage, there were other problems last Thursday, and I hope my hon. Friend will look into them. I must have been the first wheelchair passenger to enter the lift that takes passengers from to the gate down to the side of the plane. I know that I must have been the first, because when I asked the wheelchair services lady who came to pick me up where we had to go, she replied, “How would I know? This is the first time I’ve ever been here and you’re my first job.” That lift did not work, so we had to find another. There are obviously problems across the whole terminal that need to be looked into. I hope my hon. Friend will get it sorted. We had great hopes that terminal 5 would sort some of the problems that we have been facing from British Airways. That is why we are so disappointed and upset about what happened last Thursday.

I am disappointed to hear of my hon. Friend’s experience. A great deal of effort has gone in from the Department, BA and BAA to deal with mobility issues and to address the challenges that will be faced by people who have disabilities. To hear that there was a lack of preparedness is extremely disappointing, and I will make sure that I communicate that personally to the appropriate senior management.

Does the Minister accept that the shambles at terminal 5 raises serious questions over the further expansion of Heathrow? The issues that have been raised by Members across the House are ones that can be fixed, but they highlight wholesale problems—not just with the baggage system, but with lifts, the car parking system and a range of other things. What if BAA has got its calculations wrong not just about lifts, but about air pollution, public health or congestion? Those cannot be fixed by expanding the airport. Will the Minister assure the House that he will look at the post mortem and pause to consider whether he should plough ahead with the expansion and carry on regardless?

As I said, I am sure that we will look at the issues in depth on Wednesday, although that does not in any way make the hon. Lady’s question anything other than appropriate. I assure her that any information that was fed to us was checked by the Department. As I have said on several occasions today and previously, the documentation that was published by the Department for Transport as part of its consultation exercise is our documentation; we stand by the figures that we have published.

We fully recognise that the experience at T5 over the past few days does nothing to inspire confidence in the aviation sector, and we will have to work very hard to repair the credibility and the damage. However, as I have also said, the expansion of Heathrow is of fundamental importance to the economy of the United Kingdom. We believe that we have demonstrated that. It must take place and we have demonstrated how it can take place with the environmental protections that we have laid down in respect of emissions, access and noise. We are confident that, when we analyse the consultation—which, as the hon. Lady knows, is being undertaken at present—and publish our findings in the summer, our validation will be proved to be correct.

I was one of a number of Scottish colleagues who had the privilege of looking at the interior architecture of terminal 5 last Thursday. Once we had finished doing that, we did it again, because there was plenty of time. Does my hon. Friend agree that that shows how terminal 5, when it is fully functioning, is a vital economic asset to the whole of the UK—Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England, including London?

I am grateful that my hon. Friend admired what he saw last week, perhaps at greater length than he had anticipated. I, sadly, missed the official opening over which Her Majesty presided, as I was here, waiting to debate the private Member’s Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), but we did not get that opportunity. Sunday was the first chance that I had to see T5 open and completed since I went to see it when it was still a bit of a building site some three months ago. My hon. Friend is right; it is a magnificent building. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) and others said earlier, it is a feat of engineering. It ought to be something of which we are extremely proud. I am sure that we will be proud of it in due course, although, sadly, we are not able to express that admiration at present.

Fortunately, I fly to Dundee from London City airport, and I am truly grateful for that. However, I understand that one in six of all air journeys from Scotland—more than 3 million passenger journeys a year—go to Heathrow. It is a vital business gateway. I am sure that the Minister has the quotes from the business community immediately when the chaos happened. The Federation of Small Businesses Scotland said:

“It is an open secret that flights to and from Scotland are the first to be scrapped in order to clear the backlog”.

The Scottish Chambers of Commerce added:

“It seems once again that services to and from Scotland are suffering disproportionately.”

These things happen from time to time, so will the Minister make representations to BA and BAA that, should events such as these occur again, essential business services to Scotland from whatever airport will not be disproportionately affected in favour of other flights?

I should declare an interest; as the hon. Gentleman knows, London City airport is in my constituency. I am pleased that he was using it and I hope that he enjoyed the experience.

The question of flights and routes from Scotland to London airports is raised fairly regularly by hon. Members on the Government Benches, as well as by Opposition Members. I know how important those routes are, particularly to the business community in Scotland. Obviously, they are a matter for commercial decision, although there are some protected routes by virtue of criteria that are laid down. We will always listen to representations when concerns are raised, and the hon. Gentleman has stated that of which we are all aware.

You are very kind, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful, although slightly bemused—but thank you.

Last year, I raised this very issue with the Prime Minister. I said that it was absolutely necessary to cut delays at our national airports, particularly at Heathrow.

I see the Minister nodding, and I am grateful that he remembers that occasion. The Prime Minister said that he would take on board all the points that I made. In particular, he said that he would pass on to BAA his

“desire for proper staffing at Heathrow to make it easier and more convenient for people to undertake their journeys.”—[Official Report, 14 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 686.]

How was the promise kept? Why did it have so little effect? Will the Minister assure me that he will now get involved, on a detailed and regular basis, to stop this immensely harmful incident from doing any more damage to Britain’s industrial and commercial interests?

Like everybody else in the House, the hon. Gentleman knows that the Prime Minister is a man of his word. That promise would have been kept by the PM; I am sorry that I have not spoken to him directly about it. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister was no less disappointed than he or I at what unfolded at Heathrow last week and was no less embarrassed than those who were working at and operating Heathrow.

The matter is of national significance and importance; as many right hon. and hon. Members have said, Heathrow is absolutely pivotal to the UK’s economy. It is our major international hub and the gateway through which many of our business partners travel. If Heathrow is not functioning, the UK suffers. That is why we are committed to expanding at Heathrow; operating at 98.5 to 99 per cent. capacity is just untenable. I fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s criticism. The Prime Minister is personally involved, to make sure that the matters are addressed as quickly as possible. Furthermore, as I outlined previously, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has also been involved.

On the question of the Heathrow consultation, I should like to clarify that although, as I have said, we are confident of the analysis in the consultation document, no decisions have been made. The responses are being analysed and will inform final policy decisions. That is exactly what we have been saying since the consultation process started. The analysis is ongoing. We will report back to the House in due course, once the analysis has taken place. We hope to report by the summer, because Heathrow is far too important to Britain.

I have listened to my hon. Friend’s responses to the points raised by Members from Scottish constituencies, but there is a more serious issue in relation to some of the northern English airports. There is no competition between Newcastle and Heathrow. Air travel is vital for the economy nationally and even more vital for our regional economy. Can we have some competition, or better regulation, to ensure that flights between Heathrow and Newcastle are not disproportionately affected? At the moment, any time there is a problem, as with Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and, sometimes, Manchester, Newcastle flights are cancelled or badly delayed.

I can only sympathise with the points raised by my hon. Friend. I do not think that I can add to what I said to the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie). I understand and I am sensitive to the position, and I fully empathise, but these are operational matters, and airlines and airport operators obviously need to take account of customers’ feelings when problems arise.

I wonder whether the Minister recognises that the shambolic opening of T5 is just the latest in a series of operational mismanagement experiences from BAA and BA and other members of the aviation industry. In the past, they have used the excuse that lack of runway capacity has caused trouble at Heathrow. Does he recognise that it is time to be less gullible and not to take those statements, or the information that has been provided to him by the industry, at face value, and to understand that that is not the cause of the problem and that the whole expansion project needs to be thought through again?

I thought that Her Majesty performed a magnificent opening of T5 on 14 March. The terminal’s going live last week was obviously a completely different occasion. I have tried to answer the points raised by the hon. Lady in respect of the information, data, evidence and science that we have published in the consultation documents. It is our information, and we stand by those publications. This is a matter not of being gullible but of trying to protect UK plc.

The Minister will be aware that for transit passengers from the north of England and Scotland this whole scenario is an unmitigated disaster. I think that he said that 26,000 bags were still to be reconnected to their passengers. International legislation does not permit those bags to travel by passenger plane unless they are accompanied on the same flight by the passenger. How does he propose to get round the problem of reuniting the bags with the passengers?

The Minister did not respond to the question about rolling out the next set of improvements with the closure of terminal 2. Passengers using terminal 2 will be filled with horror by the prospect of having to go through terminal 5 when that happens.

I entirely endorse—

The hon. Lady raises an appropriate point. There is an additional security complication by virtue of passengers having been separated from their bags. As I said in my opening remarks, arrangements are in place to ensure that those bags can be reunited with their owners at the location to which they have flown. I am afraid that I cannot go into further security detail as to how that is being accomplished, but I can assure her that it is being done.

Since BAA is in a financially precarious position following the acquisition by Ferrovial, what are the Government’s responsibilities at Heathrow in the event that the situation should deteriorate further, leading to possible insolvency?

We are confident that Ferrovial and the investment in Heathrow is secure. We do not believe that it will go into insolvency or that there will be difficulty in its fulfilling the investment plans and the improvements to Heathrow to which it is committed.

Is not what we have here, as with Network Rail and the disastrous overrunning of the new year engineering works, the inability of managers at middle and senior management levels to manage projects effectively? Given that the Government will not have a second chance with the Olympics, may we have a major Government inquiry into why project management skills for some of our flagship projects have proved so woefully inadequate?

The hon. Gentleman raises the obvious point that we need to identify why these situations happen, what went wrong, and how we can prevent such situations from happening in future. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), we will be asking for those lessons to be communicated to us, and we will discuss the matter with BA and BAA in due course. I am sure that, as always, the hon. Gentleman will take a keen interest in these matters.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am conscious, as is the whole House, that you are extremely vigilant in seeking to protect the interests of the House to ensure that important announcements made by Ministers are made first to the House rather than to the media. This morning, the Ministry of Defence announced by way of a written ministerial statement that it has signed a contract with a consortium called AirTanker for the future strategic tanker aircraft. That contract was foreshadowed in 1997 as the largest private finance initiative the Ministry of Defence has produced, worth about £13,000 million.

The MOD announced in February 2005 that it had selected AirTanker as the preferred bidder, yet it was only today that it issued a written ministerial statement. In fact, there was a press conference to tell the press all about the matter at 2 o’clock last Thursday. I wonder whether you could advise me on what I might do, Mr. Speaker. I learned that there was to be such a press conference at 1 o’clock when I was attending a conference organised by the Society of British Aerospace Companies. I asked my office to check with the Ministry of Defence, and the noble Baroness Taylor sent me a letter, in which she said:

“Due to the rapid pace of the final stages in closing this complex commercial and financial deal, it has not been possible to follow the normal parliamentary protocols in making this announcement.”

However, the fact is that not only has this process been in gestation for 10 years, but the company concerned, Thales, produced a draft press release last Wednesday, in which there was a reference to the Secretary of State for Defence—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point of order. I strongly disapprove of press conferences on matters that should come to the House first. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I am going to look into the matter; I take it very seriously. I shall get back to him and, of course, the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I thank you very much for that? There will be occasions on which there are contractual difficulties, but in those circumstances Opposition spokesmen and others concerned ought to be advised by telephone—

Order. In a sense, the hon. Gentleman should not push his luck. The Speaker is agreeing with him, and when the Speaker agrees with him, he should leave it at that.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I believe that we are just about to move on to the housing legislation. I seek your guidance on what we might be able to do to extend the amount of time we have to debate it. Currently, given the limitations of time and the enormous number of amendments that have been submitted, we have 73 seconds per amendment. Is there anything that we can do to give the Government a kick so that we have enough time to ensure that the housing crisis is not compounded by a crisis of scrutiny of one of the most important pieces of housing legislation that we have ever discussed?

I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, but as he might know, certain things are within my powers, and certain things are outwith them. He should take up such matters with the usual channels. Housing is very important in my constituency, and I well understand how he feels.

I heard exactly what you said, Mr. Speaker, but further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), you were in the Chair when the Leader of the House said twice that, when significant numbers of Government new clauses and amendments were put forward on Report, she would look at whether there could be injury time, as it were. She repeated that last Thursday. I think that I am right in saying that there are 18 Government new clauses and 18 Opposition new clauses, but more Government amendments than Opposition ones. Have you had any indication, Mr. Speaker, that the Leader of the House is willing to come back to the House today, and would you allow her to come back as soon as possible to make a statement about proposed changes so that we do not have such a nonsensical procedural mess again?

The hon. Gentleman’s complaints strengthen the case that I made. This is a matter for the House and for the Leader of the House. He should be taking it up with her. As far as statements are concerned, the Leader of the House is always welcome to come and make statements, but that is up to her.

Housing and Regeneration Bill [Ways and Means]

I beg to move,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Housing and Regeneration Bill, it is expedient to authorise—

(1) provision about the fiscal consequences of transfer schemes, and

(2) consequential amendment of fiscal legislation.

The Bill abolishes three existing bodies—the Commission for New Towns, the Urban Regeneration Agency and the Housing Corporation—and transfers their responsibilities, liabilities and assets to two new bodies: the Homes and Communities Agency and the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords, or Oftenant. The two new bodies will operate only in England. Any existing functions and assets of the CNT in Wales will be transferred to Welsh Ministers.

Clauses 53 and 67 and schedule 6, which we will discuss later, provide for schemes under which properties, rights and liabilities can be transferred. In any statutory reorganisation, a tax charge might arise on the transfer of assets and liabilities between the predecessor and successor bodies unless specific provision is made to the contrary. It is general Government policy that such transfers should be tax-neutral—the transfers should not give rise to a gain or a loss. The new bodies should be entitled to any tax reliefs and allowances that applied to their predecessors immediately before the change. The Government amendments make such provisions and ensure that the reorganisation of statutory functions can take place without unwanted tax consequences.

The Government amendments also ensure continuity of trade, so that the Homes and Communities Agency and Oftenant are afforded the tax treatments that are currently provided to the Urban Regeneration Agency and the Housing Corporation. The ways and means motion authorises the relevant provision.

I do not disagree with the motion, but it is ironic that time is allocated for that one item but not so much for the rest of the Bill. How can we decide, given that we have not considered the detail of the Bill, some of which has a direct impact on what the Under-Secretary asks us to approve now? I seek reassurance from him that he is confident that we can get through all the amendments, because the Government are making massive changes to the content of the Bill and asking us to give financial approval before we have gone through it. Does he agree that approving the motion means, in a sense, putting the cart before the horse?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but I take issue with him on several matters. First, we are not fundamentally changing the nature and scope of the Bill, which is designed to improve the supply and quality of housing, linked with regeneration and community investment in England. It is also designed to ensure improved services for tenants.

Let me set out my approach to the rest of our deliberations today. I intend to be as brief as possible—

Order. The Under-Secretary can do that when we move on to the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Orders of the Day

Housing and Regeneration Bill

As amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

New Clause 11

Possession orders relating to certain tenancies

‘Schedule (Possession orders relating to certain tenancies) (which makes provision about possession orders and their effect on secure tenancies, assured tenancies, introductory tenancies and demoted tenancies including provision about the status of existing occupiers) has effect.’.—[Mr. Iain Wright.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government new clause 12—Shared ownership leases: protection for certain leases.

Government new clause 13—Service charges: provision of information and designated accounts.

New clause 1—Consultation principles—

‘(1) The Secretary of State shall, by regulations made by statutory instrument, set out a code of practice to govern local authority consultations with tenants concerning—

(a) a change of landlord, or

(b) a major change in the management of their homes.

(2) Regulations made under subsection (1) shall require the local authority to—

(a) place in the public domain all relevant information as is necessary for them to influence or control the management of their accommodation and environment including the resources available to the authority to spend on its stock, stock conditions surveys, the business plan of the proposed landlord, the transfer valuation, details of any land and property to be disposed of, and any other information on which the Offer Document and transfer proposal is based,

(b) ensure at the start of the consultation that all tenants are aware of their rights to access information as set out under paragraph (a),

(c) ensure that material it produces is objective, balanced, informative and accurate,

(d) provide the same level of resources for any tenant group who serves written notice on the authority opposing a proposal as that given to any tenant group making such a proposal so that they can put an alternative view to tenants,

(e) not deny any reasonable request from any group under paragraph (d) for lists of addresses and access to notice boards, meeting facilities and other relevant resources to enable all parties to communicate with those entitled to vote,

(f) give two months notice of—

(i) the start and end date of the ballot, and

(ii) how those eligible will be able to vote, and

(g) ensure that information regarding who has voted at any point in time is treated in confidence,

(h) not exceed spending limits for these consultations as may be determined by the Secretary of State and certified as proper by the District Auditor.’.

New clause 8—Subsidy arrangements: formula and exclusions—

‘(1) In section 80 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 (c. 42) (calculation of Housing Revenue Account subsidy) after subsection (3) insert—

“(3A) In determining a formula for the purposes of this section for any year, the Secretary of State shall take into account—

(a) the resources required properly to manage, maintain and repair houses and other properties within their respective Housing Revenue Accounts,

(b) research into these matters, and

(c) the resources required to enable respective authorities to acquire, rehabilitate and build new housing to be held within their Housing Revenue Accounts that contributes to meeting the need for affordable housing within their respective areas.’.

New clause 9—Orders for possession—

‘Section 7 (orders for possession) of the Housing Act 1988 (c. 50) is amended as follows—

(1) In subsection (3), at the beginning of the subsection, add “Subject to subsection (3A)”.

(2) After subsection (3), add the following subsection—

“(3A) Ground 8 in Part 1 of Schedule 2 shall not be used in possession proceedings brought by registered providers of social housing, as defined in section [79] of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008.”.

(3) In subsection (3), for “subsections (5A) and (6)” substitute “subsections (5A), (6) and (6A)”.

(4) In subsection (4), for “subsections (5A) and (6)” substitute “subsections (5A), (6) and (6A)”.

(5) After subsection (6), insert—

“(6A) If the court is satisfied—

(a) that Ground 8 in Part 1 of Schedule 2 to this Act is established; and

(b) that some rent is in arrears as a consequence of a delay or failure in the payment of relevant housing benefit, it shall not make an order for possession unless it considers it reasonable to do so.”.

(6) At end insert—

“(8) In subsection (6A) above—

(a) “relevant housing benefit” means—

(i) any rent allowance or rent rebate to which the tenant was entitled in respect of the rent under the Housing Benefit Regulations 2006 (S.I. 2006/213); or

(ii) any payment on account of any such entitlement awarded under Regulation 93 of those Regulations;

(b) references to delay or failure in the payment of relevant housing benefit do not include such delay or failure so far as referable to any wilful act or omission of the tenant.”’.

New clause 29—Sinking funds—

‘(1) The Secretary of State must, within 12 months of the date on which this Act is passed, make regulations regarding the terms of leases granted by local authorities for residential properties.

(2) The regulations made under subsection (1) shall provide that all leases granted by local authorities for residential properties shall be deemed to include provision for tenants to make contributions to a sinking fund to be used to finance any proposed works in relation to tenants’ properties.

(3) Regulations made by the Secretary of State under this section shall be made by statutory instrument.

(4) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.’.

New clause 31—Involvement of tenants in decisions on works—

‘(1) The Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 (c. 70) is amended as follows.

(2) In section 20ZA (consultation requirements: supplementary), for subsection (5) substitute—

“(5) Regulations under subsection (4) shall include provision—

(a) requiring the landlord to give reasons in prescribed circumstances for carrying out works;

(b) requiring the landlord to provide details of proposed works, including estimates of costs, to tenants or the recognised tenants’ association representing them;

(c) requiring the landlord to invite residential tenants or the recognised tenants’ association to propose the names of persons from whom the landlord should try to obtain other estimates;

(d) requiring the landlord to consult those tenants affected by the proposed works on—

(i) the specifications for any tenders issued in respect of the proposed works, and

(ii) all tenders received in respect of the proposed works;

(e) to enable tenants or the recognised tenants’ association to submit, within a specified period of time, a counter proposal in respect of proposed works, specifying alternative provision of the proposed works;

(f) requiring the landlord to—

(i) have regard to any observations made by tenants or the recognised tenants’ association in relation to the proposed works,

(ii) hold a ballot of the tenants directly affected by the proposed works on any counter-proposal that is supported by 25 per cent. or more of those tenants directly affected by the proposed works, and

(iii) adopt the counter-proposal if it is supported by a majority of tenants directly affected by the proposed works in the ballot;

(g) requiring the landlord to make available for inspection by the public at reasonable times and for a period of 10 years from initial publication—

(i) details of any proposed works and any responses to consultations on such works,

(ii) any counter-proposals that are supported by more than 25 per cent. of tenants directly affected by the proposed works, and

(iii) any requests to a residential property tribunal service for adjudication and details of the consequent decisions;

(h) in cases of dispute, for a leasehold valuation tribunal or other independent arbitration tribunal to make a determination in respect of proposed works or agreements upon application by a landlord, residential tenant or the recognised tenants association.”.

(3) In section 19 (limitation of service charges: reasonableness), after subsection (3) insert—

“(3A) If the relevant contribution of any residential tenant in any 12 months period exceeds £12,000, arrangements must be made by the landlord for such tenants to pay that contribution in monthly instalments not exceeding £250 for that period.”.’.

Amendment No. 5, page 113, line 14, in clause 280, leave out from ‘ballot’ to ‘or’ in line 15 and insert

‘in accordance with the code of practice set out in section (Consultation principles);’.

Amendment No. 145, page 114, line 7, in clause 281, at end add—

‘(4) Section 105 of the Housing Act 1985 (consultation on matters of housing management) is amended as follows.

(5) In subsection (2), after paragraph (b) insert—

“(ba) a proposed measure or policy relating to the matters specified in paragraphs (a) and (b) about which the Secretary of State has published a consultation document to which the landlord authority intends to make a written response.”’.

Government amendments Nos. 31 to 41.

Amendment No. 14, page 122, line 38, in clause 290, after ‘the’, insert ‘earlier of—

(a) the’.

Government amendment No. 42.

Amendment No. 15, page 122, at end insert ‘; or

(b) the completion of the sale’.

Government amendments Nos. 43 to 50.

Government new schedule 2—‘Possession orders relating to certain tenancies.

Government new schedule 3—‘Service charges: provision of information and designated accounts.

Government amendments Nos. 51 to 59.

You rightly pulled me up, Mr. Speaker, on my inappropriate and somewhat hasty answer to the point the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) made earlier.

Let me set out my general approach to the consideration of the Bill. Hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I will be as brief as I can in setting out the pertinent points relating to Government amendments. I want to ensure that the Bill gets as much scrutiny as possible on the Floor of the House. I also want other hon. Members to have time to raise important points and discuss important amendments.

In answer to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, I have to say that I do not believe we are changing the fundamental nature and scope of the Bill. The Government amendments result from close—forensic, I may say—scrutiny in Committee in January. We agreed to bring forward a number of things—I will talk in a moment about the importance of tolerated trespassers—and have tabled a number of minor technical amendments relating to the Committee’s scrutiny and deliberations. I should also like to give the House notice of a significant series of amendments and a new clause—new clause 27—regarding the standards, the direction and the relationship between the Secretary of State, Oftenant and registered providers in the regulatory framework. Notwithstanding my point about being brief, I want to mention direction and standards at some length.

I hope that you will bear with me, Mr. Speaker, while I make my final procedural point about the timing. The Minister must accept that we have a ludicrously short time in which to discuss an enormous number of amendments, as I am sure the spokesperson for the official Opposition agrees. Can the Minister therefore give us an assurance that, should we run out of time, he will not only meet us proactively to see what we can do to put things right in the Lords, but act informally to get feedback from all the many housing-associated organisations, which are extremely frustrated at not being able to provide us or him with sufficient feedback, given that we first saw the amendments only five days ago?

I reiterate the point that I have already made: we are not amending major parts of the Bill out of the blue. Many of the amendments are technical and complex, but the Bill has been through the Committee stage, which is important. I want to be as brief as possible, to give other right hon. and hon. Members time to speak, but let me first make the point again that the Bill has been through the Public Bill Committee stage. There was tremendously detailed clause-by-clause scrutiny, and I am satisfied that it is in a better state on Report, thanks to the deliberations of right hon. and hon. Members, than it was when it first started on 10 January.

I am grateful to the Minister for generously giving way. New clause 11 refers to the “status of existing occupiers”. Can he explain exactly how those occupiers will be protected when tenants have voted to stay with the council, rather than going with a housing association? How will those occupiers ensure that the finances are in place for the council to continue to maintain their properties properly, achieve the decent homes standard and deliver additional social housing units where they are needed, in constituencies such as Mr. Speaker’s and mine?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, which I will mention when I speak to Government new clause 11.

Just to be clear, so that we can save time later, can the Minister tell us how many Opposition amendments were accepted in Committee—so that we know whether the Bill was amended only where the Government wanted to amend it—and how many Opposition new clauses and amendments that are tabled for today are the Government willing to accept?

Those are two important questions. On the first, there was detailed—forensic, I would say—scrutiny of the Bill in the Public Bill Committee, thanks to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who played a sterling role. Despite taking to the field late in the day, he did an excellent job. In conjunction with the detailed and, importantly, forensic scrutiny of the Bill, there was an element of consensus in certain key areas, too, such as sustainable development, with regard to the Homes and Communities Agency, on which the hon. Gentleman tabled an amendment. He has tabled another amendment today—off the top of my head, I think it is amendment No. 229—which will become irrelevant, because we are bringing forward something else.

In response to the distinct questions that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) asked, I can say that we have shaped the Bill according to what we need to do and, taking a consensual approach, have brought forward measures on tolerated trespassers, sustainable development and, crucially, the regulatory framework for Oftenant, about which hon. Members in all parts of the House mentioned concerns, particularly the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). It is important that we should debate that.

The Minister will know that we had a good debate in Committee on all 242 clauses but, to our amazement, another 137 clauses have been tabled for today’s debate, which will last about four hours. How he can define that as forensic scrutiny of the Bill, I have no idea. As we were given just three days to get our heads around the incredible number of amendments tabled by the Government—for procedural reasons, it was only a couple of hours ago that we found out what we would be facing today—I call on the Minister at least to acknowledge that that is not a satisfactory way to go about taking the Bill through Parliament.

I take the point that the hon. Gentleman and others are making. I am proud of the Bill, so I am keen to make sure that it gets the scrutiny and deliberation that it deserves. I want to make sure that it receives sufficient attention. The hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey and for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) mentioned the hard work done in the Public Bill Committee; the Bill received a good deal of forensic examination there.

The amendments that we are introducing today concern tolerated trespassers, the Homes and Communities Agency, sustainable development, and directions and standards—for the Secretary of State, Oftenant and registered providers—relating to the regulatory framework that I mentioned. We have listened and learned; we listened to stakeholders and to right hon. and hon. Members. I want to ensure that we discuss the Bill. I deliberately did not table a programme motion because I wanted to avoid debate about procedure. I want to get on with the debate and ensure real scrutiny of the Government amendments that I am introducing. I would like to get on with the job.

I am not trying to delay the Minister—he knows we think he is a good bloke—but he is beginning to emulate the Prime Minister, in that he did not answer the question. The question is straightforward: how many Opposition amendments and new clauses were accepted in Committee?

I have had a hint, but it would be helpful if the Minister could tell us the answer. Also, how many of the new clauses and amendments tabled today—there are 98 Opposition amendments and 18 Opposition new clauses—are the Government willing to accept? That is a simple question. Is it one, 10, 20, 30 or none?

I would not like the Minister to be led astray, so before he answers, let me say that that is not the matter before the House. I would be grateful if the Minister dealt with the issue that we are considering.

I am grateful to you Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was anxious to answer the question that time, but I will treat your ruling with the seriousness that it deserves.

I will give way to my right hon. Friend, but first may I pay tribute to him on the Floor of the House? He did an amazing and sterling job in Committee, and made sure that the Bill is much better than it was when the Committee stage started, so I thank him for that.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for those kind remarks, and may I return the compliment by saying that I, for one, am extremely pleased that a significant number of Government amendments have been tabled today that build on issues raised by hon. Members in all parts of the House in Committee? The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) knows perfectly well that Opposition amendments are rarely accepted, because the way in which many of them are drafted makes it impractical to incorporate them in a Bill. He has been in the House long enough to know that the reality is that the key test is whether the Government respond positively to issues that have been raised, where there is a case for change, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on doing just that.

I am grateful for that contribution. My right hon. Friend makes the point well that we have been a listening Government when it comes to the Housing and Regeneration Bill. There were major concerns, particularly with regard to the regulatory framework. Accusations were made, and I hope to deal with that subject at length later in our proceedings—if I stop taking interventions, that is. The point was made that there are major concerns about the regulatory framework. There were accusations that the Secretary of State could policy-passport matters for registered providers, that there was no freedom as regards the corporate direction of the boards of registered social landlords, and that there could be micro-management on the part of the Secretary of State. We have listened and we have learned, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for helping to make that happen.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), who is not in the Chamber, made an important point about sustainable development and the Homes and Communities Agency; we took that on board. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire mentioned tolerated trespassers. New clause 11 deals with that subject, and I shall say more about it at some point.

The essential fact, which I must state very firmly, is that we are not introducing measures that were not discussed in Committee. The level of debate has been appropriate to the magnitude and stature of the Bill.

I am going to help the Minister to move on. I agree that the Government seem to have listened to some of the discussions that took place in Committee. I give credit to the Minister, who is a pleasure to work with because he does not always follow the line that is given at the beginning of a debate. However, in view of the terrible squeeze on our time, will he assist us by highlighting the interrelationship between the amendments tabled by me, by Conservative Front Benchers and by others, and the Government amendments? That would help us to see where the Government have adopted our thinking, and might avoid the need for us to argue a case for amendments that the Minister genuinely believes the Government have embraced in spirit—if not in terms of the exact wording—in their own amendments.

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. I shall try to make that clear throughout my speech.

I am aware that, having spoken for 13 minutes, I am still dealing with new clause 11. Given that, according to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, we have only 73 seconds to debate each amendment, I think I should now move on.

The new clauses and amendments deal with the tolerated trespasser doctrine. They will resolve the problem for existing tolerated trespassers, and will ensure that no tolerated trespassers are created in future. The changes will apply to secure, assured, introductory and demoted tenancies. The new clauses and amendments were tabled following a commitment that I gave in Committee, and in response to concerns expressed by Members in all parts of the Committee—I say that particularly to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire—and by stakeholders.

An important group of amendments centres on Government new clause 12, which will allow all affordable housing providers, not just housing associations, to offer shared ownership properties for sale without the risk of so-called early enfranchisement, in which the sharing owner acquires the freehold of the property before he or she has acquired 100 per cent. of the equitable interest in the house under the terms of the shared ownership lease. Let me emphasise again to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire that Members of all parties made points about affordable housing, the principles of shared ownership and, in particular, rural areas. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman and his party, I know that that last issue concerns the Liberal Democrats greatly.

Our proposed measures will end the lack of protection for non-housing association providers in current leasehold legislation from the risk of early enfranchisement, thus removing the disincentive for a variety of providers to offer shared ownership properties. Amendments Nos. 32 to 39 will help to ensure that all shared ownership properties, irrespective of the provider, can be retained for future purchasers in protected areas. As I have already hinted, I am thinking especially of rural areas where replacement has proved difficult and where we need to do more to retain and replenish the stock.

I am keen to hear all the important points that will be raised, so I will now be brief. Government new clause 13 and new schedule 3, along with the related consequential amendments Nos. 48, 49, 52, 54, 55, 57 and 58, establish new requirements for landlords to provide regular service charge statements containing specified accounting information. I risk incurring, at an early stage, the wrath of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell): I am ashamed to admit that I am a chartered accountant. I know how much my hon. Friend loves chartered accountants, but I think it important to ensure that we have specific provisions on accounting information.

I shall end my speech here, as I want to provide the maximum time for Members to raise important issues.

In response to what the Minister said at the beginning of his speech, may I say that it might have been politic if he had briefly apologised to the House for waiting until almost the last minute