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Communities and Local Government

Volume 491: debated on Tuesday 21 April 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Band D Council Tax

1. By how much band D council tax has increased in Henley in (a) absolute and (b) percentage terms since 1997-98. (269443)

Before I respond to the hon. Gentleman’s question, I would like to take the opportunity to apologise to the House for inadvertently disclosing some information this morning, just a few minutes before it was contained in a written ministerial statement to the House. I have apologised to the Prime Minister. I take this matter very seriously indeed, and I would therefore like to apologise to the House.

The average band D council tax, including parish precepts, in south Oxfordshire—Henley—has increased by £830, or 129 per cent., since 1997-98. In England as a whole, the increases in the same period are £726 and 106 per cent.

Given the higher rate of increase in my constituency compared with the position nationally, will the Secretary of Secretary now apologise for the pressure that she has put on council tax by the below-inflation grant settlements given to my district and county councils, by the unfunded additional burdens that she has put on to them, and by the pressure on the funding of core services through the way she is dealing with ring-fenced grants?

I have made one apology today, Mr. Speaker, and I certainly do not propose to make another in the terms that the hon. Gentleman has requested. I am quite astounded by his question in many ways. I am sure that he will know that under this Government there has been a 39 per cent. real-terms increase in grants to local government, whereas under his party’s Government there was a 7 per cent. real-terms cut in the last four years. He knows that in this current period there is almost an extra £9 billion for local authorities across this country to continue to provide support and help to their communities.

The Secretary of State mentioned the figures for England—an approximate doubling that is an average of 6 per cent. over the 12-year period. Is it not the case that during the period before we came into office, when council tax was still operating in the last days of the Conservative Government, the average annual increase was very much the same, at 6 per cent.? Does she think that perhaps Conservatives protest too much, or is it down to the fact that innumeracy is a prerequisite of being selected by a Conservative association?

My hon. Friend makes some very pertinent points about the funding of local government. Local authorities have to be aware of the costs of council tax to their residents, absolutely rightly, but they also provide a whole range of really important services, whether in adult social care, education, or recycling and the environment. This Government have enabled local authorities to continue to provide those services. I have to say, Mr. Speaker, that it is still the case that in local authority terms, Labour costs you £204 less than Tory councils.

I am sure that the whole house will welcome the right hon. Lady’s initial remarks. While she is in the vein of apology, will she continue that by apologising for her persistent habit of quoting figures and comparisons in terms of average council tax, given that that methodology has been dismissed by the Library as inappropriate—the different mix of dwelling values means there cannot be a like comparison—and has been described by the respected academic, Professor Tony Travers, as “not respectable”? Will the Minister resort to like-to-like comparisons of band D, which show that Conservative councils invariably cost less?

What people are really bothered about is what they pay. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that in relation to band D council tax, Labour increases are 2.8 per cent., Tory increases are 3.3 per cent., and Liberal Democrat increases are 3.2 per cent. Labour certainly does cost people less.

Gypsy Caravans

2. What estimate she has made of the number of Gypsy caravans which are illegally parked on (a) land owned by caravan owners and (b) other land. (269444)

The count of Gypsy and Traveller caravans in England undertaken in July 2008 showed that there were 2,240 caravans on land owned by Gypsies without planning permission and 1,750 caravans on land not owned by Gypsies. This demonstrates the need to provide more authorised sites for Gypsies and Travellers.

Last Saturday, a large group of Travellers moved on to a site at Hullavington in my constituency, which they own but for which they have no planning permission, and immediately lodged an application for retrospective planning permission. If the recent experience at Minety, also in my constituency, is anything to go by, they will be allowed to stay on that site, either permanently or at least temporarily, for the very reason that they are Gypsies. How can that be justified alongside the experience of my constituent, Miss Tina Johnston, in neighbouring Box, who is not a Gypsy but lives in a caravan on her farm? She has recently been thrown off the farm because she does not have planning permission; meanwhile, down the road, the Gypsies are being allowed to stay on the site because they are Gypsies. Surely there should be one law for Gypsies and for settled people.

On there being one law for Gypsies and Travellers and one law for the settled community, I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. There is one law for this country, and it is applied equally to Gypsies and Travellers and to the settled community. On the specific example that he gives, he will realise that, because of the Secretary of State’s role in the planning process, I cannot possibly comment. However, I can say in general terms that retrospective planning applications are a respected part of our planning process that is used for Gypsies and Travellers and for the settled community.

I recommend that people, whether they are Gypsies, Travellers or members of the settled community, work closely with their local authorities. There is not an automatic assumption that when there is development on land, planning permission will be granted. A comprehensive and co-ordinated accommodation needs assessment for Gypsies and Travellers will provide local authorities with much greater tools.

The recent report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission showed that reasonable progress had been made on providing enough authorised Gypsy and Traveller sites, but that the Government will not reach their targets by 2011 unless a greater effort is made. What does my hon. Friend suggest can be done to ensure that we reach those targets and thus prevent the problem of illegal sites?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question and pay tribute to her fantastic work in her role as chair of the all-party group on the matter. Good progress has been made, as she suggests, but it is very important that we have a degree of political consensus. It is in no one’s interests for Gypsies and Travellers to be set against the settled community. We need a comprehensive range of accommodation needs assessments in place to ensure that authorised sites are brought forward; otherwise, we will have community tensions and increased enforcement costs for local authorities and taxpayers. That is in no one’s interests, so I hope that Members in all parts of the House—and, crucially, local authorities—can work together to ensure that we bring forward those much-needed accommodation assessments.

May I put it to the Minister that his claims that we have a planning system that treats everyone equally are at odds with the recent experience of my constituents in Prince’s Risborough? Over the Easter weekend, Travellers moved on to land that they own that is both green belt and part of the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. They are now using retrospective planning applications to try to defeat efforts by the district council to enforce stop orders and see the land restored. It is this business whereby people who pre-empt the planning system seem to gain an advantage that arouses such indignation and resentment from people who play by the rules.

I reiterate many of the comments that I made to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). Retrospective planning applications are a fundamental part of our planning process and apply equally—I stress the word “equally”—to Gypsies and Travellers and to members of the settled community. [Interruption.] As with the hon. Gentleman’s point, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) knows that I cannot comment on specific matters, but he mentions green belt, and there is an automatic presumption against inappropriate development on green belt land. Gypsies and Travellers—[Interruption.]

Order. It must not be the case that when an hon. Member asks a question, he keeps interrupting the Minister. That is just not right.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. There is an automatic presumption against inappropriate development of green belt land. Gypsy and Traveller accommodation sites are classed firmly as inappropriate development in the planning guidance, and I imagine that the hon. Gentleman’s local planning authority will take that into account.

Does my hon. Friend agree that where local authorities provide good facilities for Travellers, including an adequate number of pitches, by and large Travellers will not go on illegal sites? Also, the local authority will gain from them by charging a decent rent.

As ever, my hon. Friend makes incredibly sensible points. She is absolutely right. The provision of more authorised sites reduces tension and enforcement costs and ensures that we have good community relations between Gypsy and Traveller communities and settled communities. The identification and provision of more authorised sites is the way to go to ensure that we can deal with this problem.

The Minister mentioned in an earlier answer the necessity for a qualitative needs assessment of Gypsies and Travellers. Does he agree that any assessment should take into account both health care and education and employment needs, and that any sensible assessment would conclude that Gypsy and Traveller sites need to be near dentists, doctors, hospitals, schools and employment? They should be near to where those facilities are available—not in rural villages where there is no public transport and no such services, miles from anywhere.

I agree with the hon. Lady—she is right about access to health care and other public services. There are huge disparities and inequalities between Gypsies’ and Travellers’ life expectancy and educational attainment, and those of the settled community. It is the Government’s job to try to help address that. Provision of sites close to health facilities such as dentists’ and doctors’ surgeries, and to good schools, is vital, but there are of course good schools, dentists and doctors in rural areas, too. Local areas and authorities are best placed to assess that.

Homeowner Mortgage Support Scheme

I am pleased to announce that homeowner mortgage support is now available to help home owners remain in their home if they fall on difficult times. It will enable eligible borrowers to reduce their monthly mortgage interest payments to affordable levels for up to two years to help them get back on track with their finances if they suffer a temporary loss of income. The scheme is part of the Government’s comprehensive offer of real help for home owners who are struggling to keep up with their mortgage payments.

Since the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the homeowner mortgage support scheme in December, more than 25,000 homes have been repossessed. Why has action taken so long? Will the Minister apologise to all those families who lost their homes unnecessarily, due to the Government’s incompetence?

As the right hon. Gentleman might have observed if he paid attention to the House’s agenda, we had to change the law to allow us to continue with the scheme, and then we had to put in place the detailed arrangements that underpin it.

As for apologising, I am, of course, sorry as always when people lose their homes, but the right hon. Gentleman should know that the scheme is not the only thing that the Government have done. The court protocol has been in place for some time; the legal desk advice that we have given—[Interruption.] It is no good the right hon. Gentleman shaking his head—35,000 families dealt with the legal desks last year. There is also the extra support for the Department for Work and Pensions’ enhanced mortgage interest scheme. The Government have done a whole string of things, but we wish to do more—and we are doing more.

I am concerned about families whose evictions are not likely to be averted by the scheme as it stands. Will the Minister consider a scheme whereby local authorities are empowered to take over as the mortgage provider, so that a problem of unemployment is not compounded by the tragedy of being made homeless at the same time?

We are always willing to examine any ideas and proposals, but my hon. Friend may be mistaken in thinking that there are people whom the scheme would not help, and who therefore need to rely on local authorities. In our proposals, the combination of lenders directly involved in the Government scheme—those who will implement it in a few days, when they have completed their administrative arrangements—and those who provide comparable help through their own sets of proposals, means that about 80 per cent. of lenders will take action along those lines.

The launch of the homeowner mortgage support scheme today is welcome, albeit belated news. What is the Minister doing to work with the Treasury to ensure that the Financial Services Authority requires lenders to publish information about how they will treat borrowers if they fall into arrears? Rather than simply issuing guidance to the court, does not the law need to be tightened so that the pre-action protocol can be enforced? Is that not the best way in which to ensure that repossession is the last resort?

We are prepared to consider whether there is a greater need, but our understanding is that the pre-action protocol is working quite well, and that applications for a court order have been turned down in several cases. The FSA and the financial services ombudsman will monitor the scheme’s operation and keep a close eye on its effectiveness. That is one reason for hoping that it will be effective in helping many thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of families to stay in their homes.

I welcome the announcement that my right hon. Friend has made. Can she say how home owners will be able to access one-stop-shop advice about the different schemes that the Government are bringing forward to support home owners who face difficulties at the present time?

A number of advice agencies are working with us, including Shelter, Citizens Advice, the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, National Debtline and Payplan. All are geared up to answer questions and to take people not only through the current scheme, but through the range of other help that the Government have already made available. I entirely share my hon. Friend’s wish to see that people are made aware of what can be done. The information is also now available on various websites.

The Prime Minister upstaged his own Queen’s Speech back on 3 December, announcing the mortgage support scheme by saying:

“Today I want to offer to families worrying about their mortgages…protection”.—[Official Report, 3 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 35.]

Yet five months later, that headline-grabber has still not helped a single family out there, so I repeat the call of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay). Will the Housing Minister use this Question Time to apologise to some of the 28,700 families whose homes have been repossessed since then, particularly given that the Prime Minister suggested at the time that the Government’s scheme would cover 70 per cent. of the mortgage market, whereas an analysis of this morning’s statement suggests that the scheme—the part that the Government have directly negotiated—will cover just 25 per cent. of the mortgage market? Is not the Minister once again in danger of raising expectations, only for them to be dashed when homes are repossessed?

I have had the benefit of seeing the press release that the hon. Gentleman issued on the matter, which has the benefit of being wrong in two instances and of calling the scheme a proposal without substance. All I would say to him is that only the Conservative party would think that a proposal that attracts the support of 80 per cent. of the mortgage market is a proposal without substance.

When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced our plans to go ahead with the scheme, he was extremely anxious, as was I—the hon. Gentleman will recall this, if he casts his mind back—to stress how important it is for people, first, to recognise that help can be made available; secondly, to go to their lenders for advice; and thirdly, to take independent financial advice. We thought it right then—and we think it right now—to draw people’s attention to those issues and, in particular, to the fact that there are already four or five other means of help available, but only to quite a narrowly defined group of people. That is why we thought it necessary to introduce the scheme, but of course it takes time to work up such details.

I am not familiar with the figures that the hon. Gentleman quotes, but they must, I think, be wrong. My understanding is that—[Interruption.] Well, they bear no comparison with any figures that have come from anyone else. I would simply say to him, first, that about 50 per cent. of mortgage lenders are participating directly in the scheme that the Government are offering and are able to take advantage of the guarantee that the Government have put in place. Secondly, in total 80 per cent. of mortgage lenders are either in the Government scheme or are offering provisions comparable to it. That is why we believe that it will be able to help many tens of thousands of people.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman, like the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), called on me to apologise to those who, despite the help that the Government have already made available, have lost their homes in the interim period. I am extremely sorry that those people lost their homes. As the House will know, in every year there are repossessions, despite, in this instance, help being made available by the Government. However, I am lost in admiration for the sheer gall of the Conservatives, who did not lift a finger to help a single family during the recessions of the ’80s and ’90s. All they did was to offer funds to buy up houses that had been repossessed, so we really do not need any lectures from them.

I very much welcome the scheme and the fact that it will help many thousands of people who otherwise might lose their homes. I also welcome the commitment to give publicity through the lenders, but could we also ensure that local councils are encouraged to give publicity? Finally, could we have a comprehensive monitoring arrangement put in place to look at the various schemes that help people in mortgage difficulties, and see whether some people might still fall through the various nets that are available, particularly private tenants, whose tenancies are put at risk when the owner of the property defaults on their mortgage?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will be relieved to hear that he shares the view of the consumer organisations, which have strongly welcomed both the scheme that the Government have put in place and the speed at which we have been able to do so. That is completely unprecedented—the Conservatives did not lift a finger last time, as I said, so no one has any experience of putting forward such a scheme. In fact, the only people who have so far not welcomed what the Government are doing are the Conservatives.

I entirely share my hon. Friend’s view: we are very concerned and we are continuing to pursue the issue, especially the problem of tenants who may well be continuing to pay their rent in the proper way, but whose landlord may be defaulting on the mortgage. We have already put provisions in place whereby there should be a greater period of notice, but I take the view—I am confident that my hon. Friend, and perhaps the whole House, will share it—that although having seven or eight weeks’ notice to quit because the landlord has not paid the mortgage is better than two weeks, it still means that the person is without a home. We are looking as a matter of urgency to see whether more can be done here.

Infrastructure Planning Commission

4. What her most recent assessment is of the effect on the Planning Inspectorate of the establishment of the Infrastructure Planning Commission. (269446)

About 30,000 cases were received by the Planning Inspectorate in 2008-09. Of those, only 34 would have gone to and been considered by the Infrastructure Planning Commission, had it been in operation, and only 12 of those would have been dealt with by the inspectorate, had they all proceeded to inquiry. That is less than 0.05 per cent. of the cases received by the inspectorate in 2008-09, so we believe that the impact will be minimal.

Given the likelihood that planning strategies will be in place for infrastructure, does the right hon. Lady really believe that only 12 planning applications will go in front of the IPC and that there will be only a minimal impact on the Planning Inspectorate? Is she really intending that so few planning inspectors should move from the Planning Inspectorate? Does she really believe that nobody will be hired to replace people in the Planning Inspectorate from local authorities? What impact does she expect that to have on housing, and why do not—

Order. Let me say to the Minister for Housing that if she answers only one supplementary question, that would be fine.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

If the hon. Lady, who clearly has a number of detailed questions about the work of the Planning Inspectorate, would like to write to me, I would be happy to reply providing more detail in response to the different issues she wishes to raise. We think that about 34 cases would have gone to the IPC. The House needs to recognise and take into account the fact that a completely new—and, we believe, much better—system is being put in place whereby policy statements will be made about the overall issues, and then individual applications will be assessed against those policy statements. That, we believe, will simplify and streamline the process. That is why we believe that it will have a beneficial impact—not the impact that the hon. Lady suggests.

Is it not in everybody’s interests to ensure that planning applications are dealt with as quickly as possible? When the IPC helps to achieve that, will it not have the knock-on effect of speeding up the present Planning Inspectorate?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. In so far as one can assess these matters, we believe that the average time of about 100 weeks for major applications should come down to about 35 weeks. Assessments have been made of savings of some £300 million a year as a result of a more streamlined system. The emphasis placed on pre-application consultation will, I believe, be beneficial to the constituents of every hon. Member. People will have a clear understanding of what might be being proposed at a stage when it is possible to influence the shape of those proposals.

The Infrastructure Planning Commission is set to cost taxpayers £15 million in the first year and £9 million for every year after that. Based on an estimate of 34 cases, that is going to be quite a lot of money per case. Given that even Sir Michael Pitt has admitted that it will be subject to legal challenges, how much taxpayers’ money does the Minister estimate will be spent on judicial review cases in the UK and further disputes in the European Court of Justice? I am sure that Members of all parties anticipate belt tightening in tomorrow’s Budget, so would not the best way to start be to remove a bit of quango flab, such as the IPC?

I am interested to learn that that remains the view of the Conservatives, because the business community has made plain—not least when the Planning Act 2008 was going through the House of Lords—that it totally disagrees with them. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) a moment ago, the assessment is that, on average, the establishment of the IPC will save around £300 million a year. The hon. Lady may think that of no significance, but I assure her that the business community does not.

Violent Extremism (Prevention)

5. What recent representations she has received on the Government’s programme to prevent violent extremism. (269447)

I receive a wide range of representations relating to the Government’s Preventing Violent Extremism programme, and my Department has regular contact with community groups from across the country as well as with the three advisory groups for young Muslims, Muslim women and the local delivery of our Prevent programmes.

When I last raised this issue, I asked the Secretary of State for an assurance that not one penny of Government money was being given to extremists or to violent extremists. She was unable to give me that assurance at the time, but the Department has now had a year to look into the issue. Can we possibly be given an assurance today that not one penny of Government money is being given to extremists. If not, why not?

The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that he has raised the issue before. I am delighted to be able to tell him about the range of work that has been done in the last 12 months. First, extensive guidance was published for all local authorities in June last year, setting out exactly the criteria according to which groups should be funded. We fund groups that stand up to tackle violent extremism and uphold our shared values. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that following a point of order raised by the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), I undertook to place in the Library of the House, by the end of April, full details—they are held in our Government offices—of the projects being funded.

Many people of different ethnicity live in my constituency. A number of them believe that they are seen as second-class citizens and are undervalued in the community, which has led to the view that that fuels violent extremism. Has the problem been drawn to my right hon. Friend’s attention over the past year, and if so, what is her Department doing to resolve it?

My hon. Friend has raised this matter in a typically sensitive way. As she suggests, young people in particular become radicalised for a range of reasons, some of which relate to social conditions in their areas in connection with deprivation and poverty. The Government as a whole are tackling those issues. My hon. Friend will be aware of the range of tremendously positive projects that are being undertaken with, in particular, young Muslims and women in our communities. I am afraid that we hear far too little about the huge range of community work being done by dedicated people to try to ensure that young people in this country have a positive sense of their identity in the future, regardless of their ethnic background, and feel properly valued.

As the Secretary of State has answered this question herself, may I first say to her that we believe she had no alternative to the course that she took in suspending relations with the Muslim Council of Britain?

Let me now return to the question. The House will have noted that, for the second time, the Secretary of State was unable to give my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) the guarantee that he seeks that extremists have not got their hands on taxpayers’ money. As I know from correspondence with her, the reason is simple: no system exists to check who receives the cash before it is given. That is frankly scandalous. Can the Secretary of State at least guarantee that when she publishes information on where last year’s Preventing Violent Extremism money went—she has promised to do so—she will publish the details of who received the money, down to the very last penny?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that there is no system for checking the allocation of those funds to community groups. There is a system, for local authorities, the police and a range of other organisations, to ensure that the funds are allocated to groups that uphold our shared values and are committed to standing up to tackle extremism.

I have told the hon. Gentleman that this is not a ring-fenced grant, for the very reason that we want the work to be embedded as mainstream work for local authorities, and to draw in funding from other sources to ensure that it can be done in a proper, comprehensive fashion. I have also told him that we will place the information in the Library. We have told local authorities that the grant is not ring-fenced, but because of its exceptionally sensitive nature, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), has written to local authorities saying that we will continue to monitor it extremely carefully. The hon. Gentleman must accept, however, that if we want this work to be embedded as mainstream activity, we must be prepared to make sure we are working in proper, effective partnership with our local authorities.

The Department’s funding for tackling violent extremism and enhancing community cohesion is welcome, but may I caution the Secretary of State that there is a growing feeling among certain ethnic minority groups, particularly the Sikhs, that her Department has not got the balance right and that it keeps throwing money at Muslims—we understand why—and is ignoring other groups? I urge her to look at that balance again; will she assure me that she will do so?

My hon. Friend is right that concern is sometimes expressed among a variety of groups, and I am therefore keen not simply to work with the Muslim community, because tackling violent extremism in our country is not an issue for the Muslim community on its own; we must all make sure that we have resilient communities. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are now doing much more work across a wider section of the faith community—the inter-faith week will be held later this year. I am also keen to do more to tackle far-right extremism. All of us want to create communities where hatred and division have no part to play.

Building Developments (Access)

6. What planning guidance applies in respect of access to public sector building developments by means of transport other than car. (269448)

Planning policy guidance note 13 on transport encourages access to public sector building developments by sustainable transport modes. It requires travel plans, which evaluate site access, for applications with significant transport implications. The transport options are then agreed with local authorities and transport providers as part of the planning process.

I am so grateful to the Minister for that reply that I almost want to sit down, but in my constituency the NHS is moving an out-patient facility from the centre of the largest town in the district to which 20 per cent. of people travel either on foot or by public transport to a small town whose bus service runs only once an hour and which is obviously inaccessible to most pedestrians. Will the Minister meet me to discuss what appears to be a flagrant breach of planning policy?

I would certainly be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. In respect of the provision of health facilities—or, indeed, of any major improvements to public services—a local planning authority would need to ask about the travel plans and travel assessments required to allow customers to use such facilities. I imagine that the local planning authority did that in this instance, but I look forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman shortly to discuss the matter.

Retained Firefighters

7. What representations she has received on the effect on retained firefighters of the abolition of the working time directive opt-out. (269449)

I have received a number of written representations about the potential impact on firefighters working a retained duty system of the abolition of the working time directive opt-out, including from hon. Members, Members of the Scottish Parliament, and the Retained Firefighters Union. I also had a meeting with the president and national general secretary of the RFU earlier this month at which the loss of the opt-out was discussed. I have also received representations from members of the Local Government Association fire services forum and others.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. In my constituency of Forest of Dean our fire service is provided solely by retained firefighters. I have had the opportunity to go on a training exercise with those based in Cinderford to see their excellent work. Given the importance of that opt-out, without which the Chief Fire Officers Association has said the retained service could not function, why have Labour MEPs been voting against retaining it, thereby letting down the people of my constituency and our country?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that retained firefighters do an invaluable job. He referred to his rural constituency, but there are 17 fire and rescue authorities where retained firefighters comprise more than 50 per cent. of the operational work force. The Government take the possibility of the opt-out very seriously. We are in conciliation talks with the European Commission, representatives of the European Parliament and the presidency, which represents the Council of Ministers, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the next round of conciliation talks is set for 23 April and we are keen to ensure we have the proper resilience arrangements in place by keeping the opt-out.

I am pleased to hear that the Government are at least trying to keep the opt-out, because it is vital in constituencies such as mine—fire stations in places such as Shepshed rely totally on a retained fire service crew, and they do a fantastic job. Can the Minister assure us that he will battle for that service? Can he also indicate to the House the likelihood of his being successful on 23 April? If he is unsuccessful, what further steps will we be able to take to ensure that our retained firefighters continue to do an excellent job right across the country?

Let me put my hon. Friend’s comments into context. He will be aware that, geographically speaking, 90 per cent. of the country is served by retained firefighters. We understand their importance and the role that they play, which is why we have been robust in the conciliation talks. He will be pleased to hear that, as I have said, the next round of talks will take place on 23 April, and that an agreement must be reached by the first week of May or the dossier and the amendments voted in December will fall.

The Minister is clearly trying to deal with this matter in a very sensitive and realistic way, but does not this whole issue of retained firemen—there are a number in my constituency and they play a vital and valuable role in the fire and rescue service—show that it is inappropriate for such matters to be dealt with on a Europe-wide basis, given that the culture and practices in this country can be very different from those in other countries of the European Union? Will he give a guarantee today that we will continue to exercise the opt-out?

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the UK Government will not accept any amendment that phases out the opt-out or implies that it will be phased out. This is a crucial priority not only for the UK Government, but for many other member states that use the opt-out and have been very important allies to the UK Government.

The Minister conveniently body-swerved the very direct substantive question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). The House will know that on December 13 Labour MEPs voted to abandon the UK’s opt-out from the working time directive—the Chief Fire Officers Association has said that such a policy would mean that the fire service could not function effectively. Does the Minister accept that as his party is completely divided on this issue and its MEPs are voting against our national interest, the UK’s negotiating position is weaker as a consequence of that split?

I am trying to take this point seriously, as I have been invited to do, but the idea of being lectured about European unity and MEPs by a Conservative Member involves breathtaking hypocrisy—

The UK Government are committed to defending the opt-out and other flexibilities in the common position agreed by the Council of Ministers last June. We would like an agreement to be reached—as I said, the next round of talks is on 23 April—but not at any price. I have indicated our views on the opt-out, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware from an earlier conversation between us of the respect that I have for retained firefighters. They do an invaluable job, and the fire and rescue authorities around the country would not be able to do their fantastic job without them.

House Building

9. What recent discussions she has had with representatives of the construction industry on the prospects for house building during the credit crunch. (269451)

The Department has regular dialogue with the industry, both through representative trade bodies and individual companies throughout the supply chain, as well as through participation in round-table meetings, seminars and other forums. The downturn in house building levels has featured regularly in those discussions, as have many other issues facing the industry.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in addition to the need to keep people in their jobs, it is essential that we maintain capacity in the construction industry, both in the north-east and across the country, so that when the upturn comes we can get straight down to building the quantity of quality new homes that this country will need?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. She may know that it has long been my view that one of the many mistakes made during the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s was not to prepare for the upturn, but to assume that when it came things would just sort themselves out. As a result, the construction industry lost so much capacity and so many skills that it was some 10 years before it recovered. That is why we are determined to provide the kind of help and support now that we hope can substantially shorten that period of recovery.

If the Minister is concerned about the future of the construction industry, what representations did she make to the Chancellor about including a cut in VAT on renovation and rebuild in the Budget tomorrow?

All I can say is that policy conversations between Ministers are best kept between Ministers rather than discussed across the Floor of the House, especially if one hopes that those policy conversations will bear fruit.

Topical Questions

My Department continues to focus on helping people through the recession through practical measures, such as our town centre strategy to try to fill up empty shops, and to build strong, cohesive communities where people want to live, work and bring up their families.

I understand that the ring-fencing of the Supporting People programme will be abolished shortly—which I welcome—and the money will be included in the base funding for local authorities. I urge my right hon. Friend to take this opportunity to ensure that that money goes to local authorities on the basis of measured need, rather than historical spending patterns.

My hon. Friend has a proud record of making the case for the allocation of resources on the basis of need and ensuring that we address deprivation in particular communities. I am pleased that he welcomes the un-ring-fencing of the Supporting People grant, for the very reasons that we debated earlier today. If we give more freedom and flexibility to local authorities, we often get better results from spending. I will certainly take notice of the points that he has made today about allocation on the basis of need and will report back to him fully.

T3. The Secretary of State will have sat in many Cabinet meetings and agreed that the best way to counter terrorism is through a global effort working closely with our allies. Under the circumstances, was she as concerned as I was to hear the remarks by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), attacking the use of Predator drones in Pakistan by the United States, no doubt in an attempt to curry favour with one minority or another? Will she remind him of the doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility? He cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds on an issue as important as that. (269435)

My hon. Friend has recently completed a worthwhile and useful visit to Pakistan, where he was able to see at first hand some of the pressures felt. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to work with our international partners to tackle the severe terrorist threat that this country faces, and it is not the case that my hon. Friend was seeking to distance himself from a particular policy. He was rightly drawing to our attention the need to ensure that we are aware of the pressures on a range of communities, both abroad and in this country, and are therefore able to prepare our response accordingly. I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that my hon. Friend shares absolutely our policies aimed at tackling radicalisation in this country.

T2. I am sure that the Secretary of State will be well aware of the economic pressures facing businesses, and I wonder what more her Department can do to encourage more flexible use of shop premises so that we do not see lots of empty shops in our town centres. (269434)

My hon. Friend has an excellent record, through her membership of the all-party small shops group, on making the case for our local town centres. She will know that last week the Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport and I did some joint work to try to find alternative uses for empty shops, such as for rehearsal spaces or arts activities. The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills is also interested in local, flexible, informal learning centres in our shopping precincts. We are considering standard legal documentation, temporary leases and other practical measures to give businesses real help during this difficult time.

T4. In rejecting last month the very modest proposals contained in the Taylor report regarding the impact of high levels of second-home ownership in areas such as mine—we are talking about a few areas of the country—the Government referred to the human rights of second-home owners. Given that last year three times as many properties were sold in my constituency to second-home buyers as to first-time buyers, what has the Minister to say about the human rights of the many thousands of families who have not yet got a decent first home? Will she keep the matter under review? (269436)

We always keep this matter under review. The hon. Gentleman will know that as a result of representations from Members from all parties who represent rural areas we have very deliberately set targets for the provision of more affordable housing, particularly in small settlements. I take his point entirely about areas in which second homes have a particular impact, but all I can say is that we considered the issue very carefully and we will continue to do so. So far we have found that the difficulties of definition and of deciding at what point such a policy would be triggered are insurmountable. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we continue to consider how we can overcome the impact of the lack of housing on local communities. We believe that that is the way forward.

T8. I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for the work that she has done on community land trusts. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and I have had a very good meeting with Sir Bob Kerslake of the Homes and Communities Agency. Will my right hon. Friend say a few more things about how we can make progress with that very important model of housing, particularly in rural areas, and ensure that my own Cashes Green site is developed as a matter of urgency? (269440)

I can assure my hon. Friend, and you, Mr. Speaker, that I was in no danger of forgetting my hon. Friend’s concerns about this issue in his constituency and, in particular, about the proposals to which he referred. He is right to say that the Government take very seriously and are very interested in the proposals for community land trusts. I am not surprised but glad to hear that he had a very constructive meeting with Sir Bob Kerslake. I can assure him that the Government are looking to see what further contribution such proposals can make to housing development.

T5. What advice would the Department give to the London borough of Croydon in terms of making a good case for the next set of three-year local government financial settlements? It is very clear that there is real stress on the budget, because the borough has seen the third highest increase in council tax in London while services have been reduced. We have a real dynamic to consider, as we are the host for the Border and Immigration Agency, and dynamic change is also happening with our population and our population make-up. (269437)

The first piece of advice is that the council should manage what it has got over this three-year settlement well. It should manage it efficiently and do more to tighten its belt, as everybody expects councils to do at the moment. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman’s council, like many others, will be interested in two areas of work that we have under way at the moment, working closely with local government. The first involves considering the future basis for deciding grants from central Government to local government, while the second involves improving the collection of population and migration statistics. Local government has a big role to play in that and can make a valuable contribution to that work. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will encourage his council to do just that.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments on flexibility for the use of empty shops, but I am sure that she would agree that it is best that those shops should not be empty, and that support should be given to our local small businesses, cafés and restaurants. More than 100 constituents and local traders have contacted me, concerned that a large supermarket has shown an interest in opening up in a marvellous area of small shops in my constituency of Hove. Is she considering possible secondary legislation so that the impact on the community and small businesses of such developments can be taken into account in such cases?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. What we also need to do is to try to support businesses so that the shops do not become empty in the first place. That is why we have small business rate relief and why we have allowed a lot of small businesses to defer their pay-as-you-earn, or—PAYE—tax. More than 100,000 businesses have taken advantage of that. My hon. Friend also discussed the impact of large supermarkets, and she will know that in our planning policy statement 6 on town centres, we have done a great deal of work to try to ensure that any possible impact on our town centres is taken extremely seriously when any development is proposed. At the moment, we do not have proposals for legislation, but she will know that the planning framework is crucial to ensuring that those development decisions do not damage the very important vibrancy of our town centres.

T6. I welcome the Government’s policy of restricting development in the green belt, on floodplains and on school playing fields that have been sold off by councils. What would the Minister say to Castle Point borough councillors who want to build hundreds of houses on a school playing field on Canvey Island that is in the floodrisk area and in the green belt? (269438)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the caution with which Ministers have to approach comment on planning issues, but we and the Environment Agency always take matters to do with flood risk and development on floodplains very seriously indeed. He may not be aware that a recent reassessment of protection against flood risk has conveyed the fact that we appear to be rather better protected, and for longer, than had been thought until recently. Perhaps, therefore, he may to some extent be able to reassure his constituents—who, like people everywhere in the country, are no doubt keen to get extra housing.

There has been a big increase recently in the number of people in my constituency losing their homes, so it is vital that more social housing be constructed and made available as soon as possible. However, new figures published in the past month or so show that my constituency has suffered one of the biggest increases in youth unemployment in the country. Will Ministers ensure that putting in place apprenticeships for young people is given a big priority when discussions are held with representatives of the construction industry and housing associations? Those apprenticeships are needed quickly if we are to alleviate some of the problems that exist now in my constituency.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which touches on an extremely important point. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing noted in an earlier answer, we need to learn the lessons of previous recessions and of past failed Governments in this respect. It is absolutely vital that we ensure that young people can get apprenticeships in the construction industry, and that we continue to stimulate local, sub-regional and regional economies with housing as a key feature. I should be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and to visit his area to ensure that what we are doing in terms of social housing in the north-west is appropriate.

T7. The European Commission has indicated that it is minded to uphold a complaint that I have made against East Sussex county council for breaking procurement rules in respect of its waste contract, and in particular of the hugely unpopular proposed incinerator in Newhaven. On this occasion, my concerns are naturally to do with the Tory council rather than the Government, but nevertheless I understand that the formal notification is likely to come to the Department for Communities and Local Government. Will the Secretary of State agree to arrange for me to have a short meeting with the relevant Minister before she sends a formal response to the European Commission? (269439)

Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State say when she intends to conclude the review of housing provision and support for survivors of domestic violence, especially in the light of the recent report entitled “Map of Gaps”? Moreover, it was reported recently that the Mayor of London intends to renege on his promise to provide support for victims of domestic violence, and that he will not provide the rape crisis centre that he promised in his manifesto. Would she like to comment on that?

I am perfectly happy to report back to my hon. Friend, who has a long record of campaigning for the support of women who are subject to domestic violence. She will be aware that an inter-ministerial working group is looking at a range of support measures to ensure that we reduce domestic violence—on which we have a very proud record—and that we give people the support that they need, where they need it. She also asked about the Mayor of London, and these are clearly very serious matters. I shall certainly investigate them, and come back to her with information as soon as possible.

T10. The “Real help for communities” project has just been announced, with 50 areas benefiting, including Bradford, Wakefield, Kirklees and Calderdale, but not a single penny for Leeds. Can the Secretary of State explain the criteria for the project and why Leeds is not to qualify for any real help for its communities? (269442)

I and my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench share our puzzlement with the hon. Gentleman’s question. None of us recognises the scheme he is talking about, but I am happy to meet him if he wants to lay out the detail. I think he may have the name of the scheme and the funding wrong, but I am happy to explore that with him.

May I ask my right hon. Friend to persist in her determination to involve more Pakistani women in the leadership of both community and mosque groups? Should there be resistance to that, such groups should not be in receipt of either Government or local authority money.

My hon. Friend has a very impressive record in being prepared to say sometimes difficult things on this agenda and I am proud of her for doing that. She will know that the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group is comprised of feisty, challenging women from all over the country, and they are absolutely determined that they will take their rightful place in the governance of mosques and the leadership of community organisations. My hon. Friend also makes the point that such values should be reflected in the groups that we sponsor and support through our funding. She is absolutely right.

Given that national parks are in effect local authorities by a different name and have power over the lives of thousands of British people, does the Secretary of State agree that at least some members of those national parks ought to be directly democratically elected?

The hon. Gentleman will know that I am quite a fan of direct elections, and I am certainly keen to ensure that there is as much democracy as possible in our political system. I have never believed that direct democracy is somehow challenging to other organisations. Having said that, I am sure that there will be debate about membership of the national parks organisations. I will certainly examine the issue to see whether it is possible to have more direct democracy in those organisations.