Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 502: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2009

House of Commons

Tuesday 8 December 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business before questions

Queen’s Speech (Answer to Address)

The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That Her Majesty, having been attended with its Address of 18th November, was pleased to receive the same very graciously and give the following Answer:

I have received with great satisfaction the dutiful and loyal expression of your thanks for the speech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament.

I also have to inform the House that the Address of 2nd December praying that Her Majesty will appoint Professor Sir Ian Kennedy to the office of Chair of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the right hon. Lord Justice Scott Baker, Jackie Ballard, Ken Olisa and Professor Isobel Sharp to the office of ordinary member of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority was presented to Her Majesty, who was graciously pleased to comply with the request. The appointments of Professor Sir Ian Kennedy, Jackie Ballard, Ken Olisa and Professor Isobel Sharp became effective from 3rd December 2009. That of the right hon. Lord Justice Scott Baker will become effective from 12th January 2010.

Beverley Freemen Bill [Lords]

Bill read a Second time.

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Private Rented Housing

We consulted over the summer on our response to the independent review of the private rented sector conducted by Julie Rugg. We received more than 250 responses, and I intend to publish a summary of them shortly.

May I ask the Minister about the next steps? Might they include measures to address the concern that is felt in my area and others that contain a large amount of rented private sector student accommodation?

They may include such measures. My hon. Friend will be aware that we have also consulted on proposals to strengthen local authorities’ ability to deal with houses in multiple occupation, which sometimes give rise to the concern to which she refers. She will have to be a bit patient and wait for my summary, which will be available shortly to her and to all other Members throughout the House who take an interest in the issue.

There are 8 million people in the private rented sector. At present, if a landlord’s property is repossessed, the first that such people know about it is when they come home to find that the locks have been changed. A succession of Ministers have promised to legislate. When will the Minister act? When will he take on mortgage lenders and keep his promise to tenants?

In fact there are 3 million households in the private rented sector, not 8 million, but the hon. Lady has a point. The number is rising, and last year it was up to about one in seven.

The hon. Lady is rightly concerned about the position of those who may be renting from landlords who are struggling with their mortgages, and who may not be aware that those landlords are having problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) proposes to introduce a private Member’s Bill, to which I am more than prepared to give every assistance and a fair wind because it constitutes exactly the sort of legislation that I think the hon. Lady wishes to see. I hope that, in the best tradition of private Members’ Bills, it will receive support from Members in all parts of the House.

May I suggest two measures that could be considered? First, the Government could try to persuade local authorities to become more proactive in dealing with the worst landlords, particularly through the use of discretionary licensing arrangements. Secondly, they could try to persuade institutional investors to invest for the long term in high-quality developments, and also in long-term management arrangements The properties should be built, and then there should be high-quality management.

My hon. Friend is a member of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, and is one of the House’s experts on these matters. He is right to suggest that local authorities have an important role which could be reinforced, allowing them to take action against the worst landlords who provide the worst housing, and we are considering doing exactly that. It is one of a number of actions that we need to take to bring the general standard of the private rented sector up to scratch.

As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), in May the Government pledged at the earliest opportunity to change the law and give tenants at least two months’ notice if their landlords’ properties were being repossessed. Here we are, six months later, and nothing has happened. Why have the Government not taken advantage of an amendment to the recent Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, and why did the Queen’s Speech contain no measure to deal with the problem? Do not the Department’s own estimates show that 1,200 people will be evicted at short notice in the next year simply because the Government have failed to act? We now understand that they will have to do so via a private Member’s Bill. Is that not the opposite to “Real help now”?

The hon. Gentleman recognises that primary legislation is required. Perhaps I can take it from his question that he and his party’s Front-Bench team will support the private Member’s Bill to be presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East—and if so, I warmly welcome that.

Thurrock Council

2. What recent discussions officials in his Department have had with representatives of Thurrock council on the posts of its chief executive and senior managers; and if he will make a statement. (304598)

Officials from the Government office for the east of England discussed the appointment of a permanent chief executive and other matters with the leader and senior managers of Thurrock council on 9 November. In addition, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), will in his role as Minister with responsibility for the Thames Gateway meet the leader of the council on 9 December—tomorrow.

Since 2004, there have been two permanent chief executives and three interim chief executives of Thurrock council, at enormous cost and loss to the taxpayer, and now there is an interim treasurer and an interim head of housing. There is a culture of paying off people to go away, without any real examination of that. Is it not time that there was publication and full disclosure of these top salaries in Thurrock council and other councils, and that a kick up the backside was delivered in order to get this dysfunctional council working properly?

I can tell my hon. Friend that the Audit Commission is conducting its “boomerang bosses” inquiry. I can also assure him that the Government have been taking a close interest in developments in Thurrock because of the matters he raises. We have put in a level of support through the Government office for the east of England and local government organisations, which are supporting the council and the interim chief executive. We are working closely with them to ensure that a permanent chief executive is appointed, and the Government office and the Audit Commission will continue to monitor whether more formal intervention is required.

Housing Transactions

3. How many completed transactions there have been under the (a) mortgage rescue scheme, (b) homeowners mortgage support scheme and (c) rent to homebuy scheme. (304599)

By the end of September, there had been almost 100 completions under the special mortgage rescue scheme and 1,800 rent to homebuy completions. Homeowners mortgage support scheme figures will be published later this month.

Even without the unpublished figure, which is presumably pretty bad, is this not a sad little tale? It is all hype, spin and nonsense. It is about spending taxpayers’ money to set up schemes that have benefited hardly anybody. Would the Minister care to apologise?

I am stunned. What on earth does the right hon. Gentleman say to the 100 families who are still in their own homes because of this special back-stop scheme? What does he say to the 1,000 families whose applications are in the pipeline? What does he say, too, to the 330,000 families who have had help across the range of advice from Government over the past year, which has helped them when they have been struggling with their mortgage repayments and helped them to stay in their own homes without running the risk of repossession, and which is testimony to the fact that this Government have been ready to act, unlike what happened in the 1990s? That is why repossessions are running at half the rate of the last recession.

As the housing market recovers and house prices rise, there will be a temptation for some lenders who have hitherto exercised forbearance to move to repossess properties. Will the Minister ensure that the measures that have been put in place to protect home owners are kept in place until we are completely out of the woods, in order to avoid a second spike of repossessions?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our experience tells us and our forecasts say that, as the economy moves out of recession during next year, the pressure on repossessions will increase. I can do better than she urges me: we will not only look to keep the current support in place, but we will extend and strengthen it. We are extending the campaign that allows people to get access to free advice. We are toughening up the rules in court, too. Through the Financial Services Authority, we are also looking at toughening up the regulations on lenders, so that any repossession is genuinely a last resort. In this way, we can get ahead of the pressures we anticipate for next year, and try to ensure that more families are able to stay in their own home, which is where they should be, despite the pressures of recession.

The Minister spoke of the need to extend and strengthen the schemes. Specifically, will the Department be looking at monitoring the impact that unsuccessful applications have on individuals? A constituent of mine took several months to make what was eventually an unsuccessful application. As a result, their personal financial circumstances were worse, not better. Does the Minister’s Department not need to understand that impact, so that it can be sure it gets the scheme right?

The hon. Lady did not mention which scheme she was talking about. I assume that it was the mortgage rescue scheme—

She might like to know that we have almost trebled the number of housing associations that are part of the scheme. We have a fast-track team in place that takes referrals directly from lenders and we are doing exactly as she urges—we are learning from the experience of the scheme so far and improving it so that it is better at providing the support that is needed. If the hon. Lady would let me have the details of her case, I shall certainly look into it.

The Minister is giving the House a lot of figures, so can we ask for one more? How many people to date have actually bought a home through the rent to homebuy scheme?

The hon. Gentleman might not have been listening when I gave my first answer. At the end of September, the figure was more than 1,800.

We are very grateful to the Minister for that answer. Perhaps he will be able to tell us in a moment exactly how much that cost per person, given that expenditure on the scheme was £115 million.

The mortgage rescue scheme was meant to help up to 6,000 households at a cost of about £47,000 each. Since it has helped only 92 households to date, that works out at about £3 million per person helped. Is that the value for money that we can expect from tomorrow’s pre-Budget report?

I am disappointed in the hon. Gentleman. He was on the shadow Treasury team for a while, and perhaps we have seen why he is now on this team. He confuses expenditure with budgets. Not only have nearly 100 families stayed in their own homes because of the mortgage rescue scheme back-stop, but some 1,000 applications are in the pipeline and more than 11,000 families have had help and advice directly from their local authority that is part and parcel of the scheme. That is only part of the help that we have put in across the piece to help home owners who are struggling with their mortgages to stay where they should be—in their homes.

Sustainable Communities Act 2007

The Government are committed to implementing effectively the Sustainable Communities Act. I shall update the House later this month on how we are progressing with local spending reports. The timing of decisions on whether local proposals should be implemented will depend inevitably on the number and complexity of the proposals shortlisted.

Given that the Local Government Association is due to submit its proposals by the end of the month, can the Secretary of State not simply commit to making a final decision by the Easter recess?

We need to look at the proposals once they have been shortlisted by the LGA. As the hon. Gentleman says, they are due—this is my understanding, although it is not in my control—before the end of the year. We then need to assess the complexity and practicality of the schemes that are proposed.

“Planning for Prosperous Economies”—planning policy statement 4—has a lot to say about sustainable communities and particularly about the viability and vitality of town centres. Will the Secretary of State say what the Government are doing to reaffirm a commitment to “town centre first” policies and adopt a presumption against out-of-town developments, which seem to be creeping back in, and whether there has been a definition of what is meant by “town centres”?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will know that some years ago the Government introduced the planning guidance to which he refers with the intention of protecting town centres. Further development of that guidance is under discussion, as he will know, but I assure him that we remain as committed as we ever have been to the effective protection of town centres from unplanned and badly planned out-of-town shopping developments.

Yesterday, the Government published a Command Paper, “Smarter Government”, in which the Prime Minister himself claimed to “put the frontline first” by allowing flexibility in local spending, yet nowhere in all 68 pages is there a single mention of local spending reports. Is it the Department for Communities and Local Government or, once again, the Treasury that has no interest in supporting this flagship policy of the Sustainable Communities Act?

The hon. Lady perhaps has not grasped the fact that the proposals for making data publicly available set out in the White Paper published yesterday are far more extensive and ambitious than those discussed when local spending reports were proposed. I made these points in a debate in the House just a few weeks ago. At that time I promised that, as we developed the work being led by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt and his panel of experts on making local data widely available, we would not drop our commitment to developing local spending reports in the interim. That is why I shall bring forward our proposals setting out where we will go next on local spending reports, as I promised, before the end of the year.

There are of course only five sitting days left before the Christmas recess, but we look forward to receiving that information. There might have been no reference to local spending reports in the document, but there was a clear reference to arm’s length bodies costing the taxpayer a massive £18 billion a year. What about asking those 750 quangos to reveal in local spending reports how much they spend, or would the Minister prefer taxpayers to be kept in the dark about how much money is wasted on central bureaucracy?

We have debated this point before. The hon. Lady regards the doubling of spending by the quango known as the Higher Education Funding Council as a waste of money, but I do not. I believe that it is represented by a significant investment in universities and by opportunities for young people and older people. It is right that we want to bear down on costs and on salaries that are too high. In our previous debate on this issue, I undertook to bring forward another report on local spending reports, because I took the point that it would be useful for local spending reports to give access to available data from organisations such as the funding council and the Learning and Skills Council. The hon. Lady is quite wrong to say that every penny that is spent by an organisation that funds our universities is wasted money, but she keeps saying that.

Regeneration (Liverpool)

Her Majesty’s Government recognise the importance of regeneration in north Liverpool. There has been significant investment in the area, including £34 million of housing market renewal funding, £40 million to support business and create jobs, £18.4 million of European regional development funding, and £8.6 million through the future jobs fund, creating 1,320 jobs. I am also pleased that the £5.5 billion Liverpool Waters plan is moving forward, as is the £150 million Project Jennifer redevelopment of Great Homer street. We will continue to support the regeneration of north Liverpool.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, although I barely recognise the picture that he paints. May I invite him to visit my constituency to see for himself the result of 10 years of malign neglect under Liberal Democrat council control? While he is there, will he advise us on how Everton and Liverpool football clubs could be used to lever in the kind of regeneration funding that is still desperately needed, notwithstanding the roll of honour that he has just related?

I assure my hon. Friend that the investments that I have described either are or have been taking place or are anticipated in the future. I shall welcome the opportunity, if it arises, to go to his constituency; I always welcome an opportunity to inspect the malign neglect of Liberal Democrat councils.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) has just made clear, the regeneration of north Liverpool is intricately linked to the regeneration of Kirkby. Will my right hon. Friend welcome the efforts that are being made by Knowsley council, Tesco, the Government office for the north-west, the Northwest Regional Development Agency and the Minister for the North West, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), to put together a modified application for the regeneration of Kirkby, which I hope will be presented to my right hon. Friend in due course?

I pay tribute to the efforts that my right hon. Friend has consistently made to support his constituency and regeneration. My decision on that planning application was taken on the basis of planning guidance, planning law and the conclusions of the inspector’s report. However, I am very pleased that, following discussions with me, the Regional Minister and others are engaging with the council and others to see what is the best way forward for the regeneration of Kirkby.

Houses in Multiple Occupation

Since the introduction of the licensing provisions for houses in multiple occupation, councils in England have received applications for about 30,000 HMOs, and have issued licences for about 20,000.

I thank the Minister for his response. Last year, I asked Denbighshire county council how many HMOs it had licensed in a three-year period. The answer was just 33. After pressure, it has agreed to apply for additional and selective licensing, and next year it will start on licensing 433, taking the council from the worst to the best in the country. What lessons has the Minister learned from the Welsh experience in increasing the number of HMOs that are licensed?

The whole House will have heard my hon. Friend and learned the lesson that local authorities that are prepared to tackle the worst landlords in their area, and to build up concentrations of HMOs that change its nature and character, are able to put in place additional licensing schemes. I am glad to hear about the successful campaign that he has run to persuade his council in that regard. That is precisely the way ahead, as we want councils to make maximum use of the provisions that are in place at present.

Landlord licensing is one solution, but the use classes order is far more significant in many areas with concentrations of HMOs. Will the Minister give me an update on the progress of the Government’s examination of that? Does he agree that restrictions on the number of HMOs in such areas will increase the balance of the community and be in the interests of all?

Indeed, and that is why our general policy is to promote mixed communities, as they tend to be better balanced and more stable. The hon. Gentleman asked for an update on our examination of whether changes to the use classes might help us pursue our objectives. At present, we are sifting the 900 or so responses that we have received to the consultation, and I hope to be able to update the House on this shortly.

Gas Storage Facilities (Planning)

7. What guidance his Department issues on the permitted distance between high-rise developments to gas storage facilities. (304603)

Government circular 04/00, “Planning Controls For Hazardous Substances”, provides that the Health and Safety Executive must be consulted on any proposed development near hazardous substances installations such as gasholders and that, in view of its acknowledged expertise, any advice from the HSE that planning permission should be refused should not be overridden without the most careful consideration.

Is my hon. Friend aware that planning permission was granted in Wandsworth for a 42-storey tower only 18 metres from a gasholder? That was against the HSE’s advice, which said that the risk from a fireball was “unacceptable” and 17 times higher than the level at which it would normally advise against. Is it not a matter of concern that planning committees have the power to disregard HSE advice even when it is expressed so strongly, and that it is so often left to public inquiries to assess the real risk to the public?

We are working closely with the HSE to ensure that local planning authorities are fully informed about the advice available to assess risk around major hazards, and to make that advice more accessible. I cannot comment on the specific planning application that my hon. Friend has raised, but an inquiry into the development of the Ram brewery site in Wandsworth is currently under way. The inspector will submit his report and the Secretary of State will determine the application as soon he reasonably can.

I well understand the concern of the residents represented by the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), but what does the Minister have to say about the fact that we in Britain have only 15 days’ strategic gas storage? That compares to 92 days in Germany and more than that in France. Elsewhere across the world we have large quantities of gas. What is Britain going to do to stimulate investment in gas storage, taking into account the concerns of residents such as those that have been raised?

That is probably a matter for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman is written to. However, the question that he ought to be asking his Front Benchers is why the Conservative party continues to refuse planning applications for wind turbines.

FiReControl Project

At the start of this debacle in March 2004 we were told that tried and tested methods would be used for IT, and that the project would be done and dusted by November 2007. There has been a little bit of slippage on the time scale, but is the Minister serious and does he stand by the words of his predecessors? Was the IT really tried and tested, because that clearly does not seem to be the case?

The case for FiReControl is absolutely compelling—[Hon. Members: “No, it is not!”] It is interesting, because I met representatives of the Chief Fire Officers Association only last week, which is as committed to FiReControl as ever. The idea that the Opposition are better placed to talk about national resilience in the context of the fire service than the CFOA is frankly laughable. FiReControl will improve national resilience and bring unprecedented levels of co-operation and interoperability—[Interruption.] That is a difficult word as well. For the first time, we shall have a national network with nine regional control centres, all of which will be able to operate at peak times in a way that we have never seen before.

Given the vast over-cost and the considerable delay, does the Minister believe that taxpayers are seeing value for money?

We would not have engaged in the project if we did not believe that it was value for money. All the major stakeholders believe that it is value for money. Sometimes I think that the Conservatives seem to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

The set-up costs of the FiReControl project are already £400 million over budget, the project is years behind schedule and the Local Government Association and the Chief Fire Officers Association—previous supporters of the Government on the project—are bailing out. In his written statement of 15 July, the Minister promised to underwrite all pre-cutover upfront costs of the project. Is he still in a position to meet that undertaking?

We are fully committed to ensuring that FiReControl is achieved as set out. The idea that there is a £400 million overspend is so far off the mark that it is frightening. The reality is that when rescheduling took place in July this year the cost went up from £380 million to £420 million. Those costs will all be reaped back from EADS via royalties and a reduced fee for FiReControl operations.

Public Service Delivery

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of local authorities in delivery of local public services. (304605)

Local government has improved significantly during the past decade. It plays a key role in local areas, ensuring that citizens receive high-quality public services from all local providers. In yesterday’s White Paper we announced increases in flexibility and reductions in bureaucracy, which will help fulfil that role more effectively. Tomorrow, we will see the first comprehensive area assessment results, which will provide transparent information, enabling citizens to hold local service providers to account.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but does he agree that in localities such as the Barnsley metropolitan borough council area the regional development agency plays a very important part in ensuring that the effectiveness of local authority services is improved, by being able to focus on the wider issues of transport and employment to help in creating the jobs that Barnsley needs so much?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That is exactly the role that regional development agencies play. In many other ways, they support growth and the improvement of public services, which is why the CBI, the House Builders Federation and many others are so appalled at Conservative proposals to abolish regional development agencies and the essential role they play.

Is the Secretary of State not completely right to say that local authorities have improved enormously over the past few years, because most of them are now Tory-controlled?

The reason why local authority services have improved is that real spending and real investment by central Government in local authorities has improved by 37 per cent. over the past 10 years. That is a sharp contrast with the 7 per cent. real-terms reduction when the Conservatives were last in power. Local government has improved because for the first time there has been comprehensive and effective inspection and accountability of those services, and I am proud of the role that this Government have played with local councils of all parties in improving the quality of services to local people.

Council Housing

10. How many local authorities (a) submitted successful bids in round 1 and (b) have submitted bids in round 2 of the Government's council housing new build programme. (304606)

Forty-nine local authorities were successful in bidding for grant to build new council homes. All are set to start on site, with 217 schemes, before the end of March, which makes it the largest council house building programme for nearly two decades. The deadline for round 2 submissions was the end of October, and I hope to make announcements on successful bidders early in the new year.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his excellent work in making resources available for council house building? However, he will be aware of speculation about the demand for those resources, so will he consider making a statement to support new bids for council housing where the demand for resources outstrips what has been allocated so far?

My hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about those matters, is right. The level of interest and the number of bids that we have had for the second round of the council house building programme has certainly been greater than that which we received for the first. When I announced the £1.5 billion of extra funding in the housing pledge, I made it clear that the four elements of that pledge, and the budgets allocated against them back in the summer, included the capacity to flex some of that spend between those parts of the programme, and I am certainly ready to do so if there is a good case.

This Labour Government have let down the poor in so many ways, but I shall not mention spiralling youth unemployment, falling educational standards or, indeed, failing public health. Instead, I want to ask why this Labour Government have built fewer affordable houses than were built in any year of the previous Conservative Administration. Why is that? Why have this Government let down the poor on housing?

May I say that this Labour Minister in this Labour Government is pleased to have been able to offer the hon. Gentleman’s Tory council money to build council homes, which are needed in the East Riding of Yorkshire just as they are throughout the rest of the country.

When the Mayor of London published his draft housing strategy, he tore up the commitment to make 50 per cent. of all new homes affordable, saying that his target of producing units would help us to deliver more affordable housing. Given that this week it has been announced that he will miss that target, too, will my right hon. Friend have urgent discussions about how we can deliver the much-needed homes to tackle overcrowding and homelessness in London?

The jury is very much out on Mayor Johnson and the pledges he made more than 18 months ago. In housing, more than any other area, there is a big shortfall if we compare what he promised in the run-up to his election with what he has been able to deliver so far to meet the very serious housing needs that exist throughout the capital.

Home Information Packs

11. What assessment he has made of the effect of home information packs on the housing market since their introduction. (304607)

We are currently working up proposals to evaluate the effectiveness of the HIPs programme, and we expect the results to be available in 2010. However, early independent research undertaken by Europe Economics and published in November 2007 concluded that the introduction of HIPs would not have a negative impact on the housing market.

Let me add my voice to the research, because all my constituents tell me that they find the HIPs to be—[Hon. Members: “All?”] Those constituents who raised the matter with me tell me that they find HIPs to be untimely, expensive, bureaucratic and, really, a waste of time. They quite like the energy performance certificates, so will the Government realise the error of their ways, realise what a waste of time—time, effort and money—the process has been, and scrap it?

The hon. Gentleman does not need to ask ludicrous questions like that to confirm to the House that he is not exactly the sharpest tool in the box. [Interruption.] However, thousands of jobs and hundreds of small businesses depend on the HIP process. Some 13,000 people—[Interruption.]

Order. I realise that there is some enjoyable badinage, but I actually want to get down the Order Paper and reach some questioners lower down. I know that Members will want to take that into account—rudeness notwithstanding.

Thousands of jobs and hundreds of small businesses depend on the HIP process. Some 13,000 people have invested thousands in training as energy assessors, so the Opposition need to explain why they would put all those jobs and all those businesses at risk, and the hon. Gentleman needs to explain to all the people in his constituency whose livelihoods depend on that process why he wants to put them out of work.

Does the Minister not realise that most house purchasers would far rather rely on searches and inquiries carried out on their behalf by a solicitor of their choice than by a home information pack provider, of whom they know nothing?

The Leader of the Opposition swans off to the Arctic to hang around with huskies, but the hon. Gentleman and the Opposition are showing today why nobody will take seriously anything they say about climate change. As a result of HIPs, 2 million home owners now have an energy assessment and energy recommendations that can help them to cut their fuel bills by up to £300 and reduce carbon emissions. Is it not extraordinary that even today, as the world gathers in Copenhagen, the Opposition are still committed to abolishing the HIP, which is one of the main ways of helping home owners to cut carbon emissions and tackle climate change?

Local Housing Development

13. What recent representations he has received from district councils on the effect of planning policy statement 25 on local housing development. (304609)

No recent representations of this nature have been received by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The tragic events of the past few weeks underline the importance of reducing flood risk to new development. Planning policy statement 25 provides a robust policy framework for local planning authorities to avoid, manage and reduce flood risk to new development, as endorsed by Sir Michael Pitt in his review of the lessons learned from the 2007 floods published last year.

Is the Minister aware that the Somerset levels are low-lying and very prone to flooding, both from the sea and from river water? Why, therefore, have the Government placed almost the whole of my constituency in flood zone 3, which will prevent almost all development, including housing development, while failing to provide funding or means for flood relief? Does the dull instrument on the Treasury Bench—

This is a very important issue. That is why we have produced a clear, strengthened planning policy statement, PPS25, to reduce flood risk to new development and to deliver safely, without exposing people to unnecessary flood risk, the level of house building we want to see. I am not aware of the particular circumstances in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but I would be happy to meet him to discuss that in more detail.

House Building Targets

14. What account the Government took of the economic situation in setting their targets for house building. (304610)

There has long been a mismatch between the supply and building of new homes and the demand for those homes. That mismatch led the Government to consider and set the house building targets in the first place. Clearly, the situation has got worse as a result of the global economic downturn, with the demand and need for housing continuing to grow and, particularly in the private sector, the level of building falling through the floor. That is why we stepped in over the summer to put extra money—£1.5 billion—into building the homes we need right across the country.

But surely the economic crisis and the subsequent fall in net immigration that we saw as a consequence has caused a reduction in forecast demand for new housing need. Can the Minister therefore now reduce the target for new housing need so that we can increase the protection of our green belt, which is most important to our constituents?

I said a moment ago that there was a long-term mismatch between the houses we are building and the demand and need for them. Taken over the long term, that continues. Migration is cyclical. It is a relatively small part, but a part nevertheless, of the projections of the need for housing in future. A bigger factor is demographic change in our own country, with the number of households increasing, people growing older and living for longer, and the need for greater mobility within Britain. We are trying to ensure that we can build the homes to meet those factors in future.

My right hon. Friend is right—there is a mismatch. The mismatch in Chorley is between lots of house building but no social housing; the council collects section 106 money for social housing but never spends it. What is he going to do to ensure that social housing is provided in the Chorley constituency?

I am disappointed to hear my hon. Friend’s report about his local council and the attitude it is taking towards affordable housing. I have to say that this is not the first time I have been disappointed to hear his reports about Chorley borough council. There is a great deal more that it can and should do to ensure that the affordable homes needed in his constituency are provided. It can play a much greater role in that, and I hope he will not cease in his campaign to try to ensure that it does so.

Flood Risk (Planning)

15. If he will require local planning authorities to act on objections by the Environment Agency to planning applications on the grounds of the risk of flooding. (304611)

Again, the terrible events of the past few weeks underline the importance of these issues. Our planning policy requires local planning authorities to re-consult the Environment Agency where the agency objects to a planning application on flood risk grounds. This is backed by a direction requiring planning authorities to provide the Secretary of State with the opportunity to intervene where the agency sustains an objection to major development proposals.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. I recently read a briefing which said that about a quarter of local authorities were ignoring Environment Agency recommendations against developments in areas prone to flooding. Does that cause him some concern?

This issue will concern many members of the public, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise it. We have made the Environment Agency a statutory consultee on planning applications in areas at risk of flooding. The figures I have suggest that in about 97 per cent. of cases in which the agency objects on flood risk grounds, the final decision is in line with its advice. I know how seriously he takes these matters, and I would be delighted to meet him to discuss in more detail the figures that he has.

Will the Minister go further and join in our calls to make water companies statutory consultees as well, to ensure that where there are major new developments, sewage can fit into waste water pipes to prevent future flooding?

I have not considered that issue, but I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady and talk about it in more detail.

Business Rates (Public Houses)

16. If he will conduct an impact assessment on the effect on public houses and other businesses of the 2010 business rates revaluation. (304612)

Regular revaluations are a statutory part of the business rates system and as such do not require impact assessments. However, we have carefully considered the impact of the 2010 revaluation on businesses, including public houses, and are introducing a £2 billion transitional relief scheme for the minority facing increases. An impact assessment of that scheme has been conducted and was published on 17 November. From 1 April, we will also offer extra help to individual public houses in rural areas by increasing their rateable value relief threshold from £10,500 to £12,500.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does she not agree that it is irresponsible not to conduct a full impact assessment on such policies, especially in the case in question? The distortions that accrue from using April 2008 property figures may bake property boom prices into business rates for pubs in urban areas and businesses next door to them.

The hon. Lady is quite correct to point out that the system contains problems, as it values properties backwards so that the 2008 values are reflected in the 2010 figures. That is exactly why the multiplier is set at a 17-year low of 15 per cent., and why we have implemented a transitional rate relief scheme this year and had an impact assessment.

Topical Questions

I want to ensure that councils are performing as efficiently as possible and making the best possible use of every pound of council tax. I am pleased to be able to confirm today that councils have forecast efficiency savings of more than £3 billion by March 2010, making good progress towards the target of £5.5 billion by March 2011. “Smarter Government”, published yesterday, sets out how Government will support councils in continuing to deliver improved services with improved value for money.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Many people in communities such as Southwark and Bermondsey live near major developments from which they get no necessary personal gain. Will he look sympathetically on the proposal to allow development gain money, traditionally called section 106 money, to be used to build or renovate housing for rent in the area affected?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. He will be aware that we are already committed to the development of a more flexible and strategic approach to development gain. We will introduce the community infrastructure levy to supplement and replace section 106, which will give local authorities greater flexibility in the use of development gain money.

T5. Can the Secretary of State tell the House what steps he is taking to reduce carbon emissions in the existing housing stock, particularly in houses such as those in my constituency in which there is no possibility of cavity wall insulation? (304627)

My hon. Friend is quite right to say, particularly in this week as we build up to the Copenhagen international conference on climate change, that we need to do a great deal more with our homes in future. More than a quarter of our total emissions in this country come from our homes, which requires us to design, build and plan to a new standard in future—I have set out in some detail the plans from 2016 on—and to undertake a national refurb programme, the details of which I and my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and for Energy and Climate Change are currently working on following the heat and energy saving strategy, which we published earlier in the year.

T2. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to protect agricultural land for future food use? If so, what steps will he take to prevent allotments being included in local authority development plans? (304624)

I think the hon. Lady would agree with me that local authorities need to be able to draw up appropriate development plans for their areas. I am not sure whether she is suggesting that we should specifically limit the way in which they approach these issues, but we are working with third-sector organisations in this area to promote the importance of allotments and to encourage local authorities to make allotment land available. I share with her the view that adequate provision of allotments is a very beneficial thing for local authorities to include in their local planning.

T6. The market in the historic market town of Chorley is under threat from a new Asda being built in the town centre. I welcome the Asda jobs, but I am concerned that this will have a dire effect on the market and the small independent retailers. What help and support can this Government give to ensure that markets will survive, along with the independent shops? (304628)

I know my hon. Friend has a historic market in his constituency—I think it dates back to the 15th century. It is not quite as old as Doncaster market, but it is still a very valuable one. Under the draft planning guidance—planning policy statement 4—it is possible for local authorities to look very closely at the effect that, for example, an out-of-town development would have on the market. Such effects could include social and economic effects, and perhaps consumer choice would be reduced. That, plus the ability to look much more closely, under the economic assessment duty that is being introduced, at what can be done to assist local markets better are new powers that are being given to local authorities. We also have a retail markets group, which I chair, which will be reporting to Ministers with more ideas as to what we can do.

T3. Following my earlier question, the Housing Minister responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) by saying that 1,800 homes had been purchased through the rent-to-homebuy scheme. That seems at variance with the written answer the Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) on 16 October, when he said that the number was zero. Has the Minister inadvertently misled the House and would he perhaps like to put the record straight? (304625)

I do not believe so. The right hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends on the Front Bench indicated their question on that matter earlier. If the right hon. Gentleman consults the record, he will see that in response to his original question, I said that up to the end of September, about 1,800 rent-to-homebuys had been completed—I did not use the word “purchased”. However, I have indicated to Conservative Front Benchers that I will check the record, particularly in relation to the second exchange between myself and the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman). If I made a mistake the second time around, I shall clearly correct it, but if the right hon. Gentleman consults the record, I think he will find what I have explained now, and I am grateful to him for the opportunity to do so.

T8. The most recent homelessness statistic published by the Department for Communities and Local Government shows a continued fall in the number of acceptances as homeless by local authorities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no such thing as a free lunch? Is he aware that in the case of approximately half the homelessness diversions in the private rented sector, we are substituting affordable social housing for astronomical rents in the private rented sector? Will he continue urgent discussions with the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions to make it clear that that is not actually a sustainable and efficient use of money over the longer term? (304630)

Indeed I will; my hon. Friend has been very forceful in making that point to me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, so we will certainly do so.

T4. In answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith), did the Minister say that the transitional rate relief will cover in full the increases proposed over the next five years, or does she finally accept that the increases will be unbearable for many businesses? (304626)

I certainly accept that it will not cover all of them, but in most cases it will cover a percentage of the increases. Also, under the business rates deferral scheme, businesses will be able to extend their payments over a period of three years.

T9. Further to the earlier answer given to me about the planning of town centre developments, the handling of much needed major commercial proposals for the heart of Coalville by Tory North-West Leicestershire district council has been an utter fiasco. Will the Minister press the Government office for the east midlands to respond to my urgent request for a call-in, because to describe the present position as a dog’s breakfast would be a grossly unfair slur on canine eating habits? (304631)

I hear the point that my hon. Friend makes. Obviously, call-in proposals are considered by Ministers on the basis of the case that is made, but he has made his views very clear this afternoon.

Does the Minister not understand that the transitional relief scheme will not mitigate the huge business rate hike for businesses in my high street, which face an increase of 120 per cent. in their liability? Is this not the wrong time to push through a revaluation based on 2008 inflated prices, when many of my businesses are struggling to cope in the recession?

May I suggest to hon. Members whose businesses are rightly concerned about business rate increases—there are increases, although the majority of businesses will see a decrease as a result of the 2010 revaluation—that they go on to the Business Link and the Valuation Office Agency websites and make the calculation, because there is a cap on the increases? For small businesses, the cap is 5 per cent. and on large businesses it is 12.5 per cent. If we take into account negative inflation, that drops to 3.5 per cent. and 11 per cent. I am very sorry that businesses are getting so concerned about this when measures are in place to help them with it.

What measures are the Department taking to protect council tax payers against botched asset sales such as those we saw under the previous Government, and which Plymouth city council has now embarked on with its sale of Plymouth CityBus? The figures appear not to stack up.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course the Government do not oppose asset sales per se, but they have to be carried out properly, in the public interest and with the values properly established to ensure that the council tax payer does not lose out. I hope that her council is not like Southampton council, whose leader said a few months ago that the council would privatise for ideological reasons. That is not the way to approach such an important issue.

In light of the economic downturn and the reduction in new homes being built, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of models such as the Milton Keynes tariff in delivering development for local communities?

We looked at this very carefully when we were considering proposals that were part of the Planning Act 2008 and the community infrastructure levy. Shortly, I will be able to set out final decisions and regulations to put that levy in place from 1 April. While the hon. Gentleman is right about the fall-off in building new homes for private sale, he is wrong about the reduction in building for affordable homes. Because of the action the Government have taken, that number is up.

The Electoral Administration Act 2006 made tens of millions of pounds in additional, unhypothecated funding available to the Department for Communities and Local Government for electoral registration. Can the Minister guarantee that all the money given to the Department for electoral registration was spent on that, and can he liaise with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that proper funding is available for that purpose?

A certain amount of money is given to the Electoral Commission to look at electoral registration, and that is closely monitored. On discussions with the Ministry of Justice, I shall pass on my hon. Friend’s comments and get back to him.

May I take the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), back to home improvement packs? Will he put his undoubted, enormous intellectual talent, of which you will be aware, Mr. Speaker, to answering a simple question, without resorting to his trademark personal abuse? What proportion of home buyers and sellers, when surveyed, responded that they found the HIP useful?

The hon. Gentleman spent half an hour dreaming up that question, which confirms the point that I made about him earlier. The figures to which he refers actually show that already, in such a short period, nine out of 10 buyers are using the HIPs and one out of three said that it had helped them to decide whether to make an offer. [Interruption.] That is a massive improvement on the figures shortly after the HIPs introduction—[Interruption.]

Order. I feel sure that the outbreak of disorder on the one hand, and the presence of the Under-Secretary and the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) on the other, are entirely unrelated.

Those figures are a big improvement on the position shortly after the HIPs introduction and show that the system is becoming more helpful to home buyers all the time.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance on a matter relating to the accuracy of the official record? In the debate on the Queen’s Speech on 25 November, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, when speaking about Government action, said, “It is bringing unemployment down.” There was some reaction in the Chamber, given that unemployment has been rising for many months. She did not resile from that statement, but the official record does not include those words. It includes a softer version. May I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on how I can ensure that the words that the Secretary of State said are the words that appear on the record?

I say to the right hon. Lady that I shall happily check the record, and I shall come back to her when I have done so. I am grateful to her for her point of order.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wrote to you on Friday about this matter. I seek assurances that no decision by the Members Estimate Committee, or subsequent decision by the House reliant on the MEC’s recommendations, will prejudice a Member’s right to challenge a final decision, relating to so-called paybacks or restitution, in a court of law or an employment tribunal, that no deductions from salary or allowances will be attempted in respect of those payments until its legality is demonstrated in a process that is independent of the House of Commons and its Officers, and that such deductions should not be made until a Member has had the opportunity to test the issue of repayment in a court of law or employment tribunal.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The matter that he raises on the Floor of the House this afternoon by this device is one that he has raised with me in correspondence. I am grateful to him for that. I can only say to him today that the issues of concern to him are properly matters for discussion in the Members Estimate Committee, which will meet next week. He can be assured that the concerns that he has raised with me will be relayed to colleagues on the Committee and will be considered.

Opposition Day

[1st allotted day]

Disability Benefits for the Elderly

I beg to move,

That this House recognises the vital support that attendance allowance and disability living allowance provide for people with disabilities; notes that these benefits are intended to meet the additional costs of living with an impairment or long-term health condition; further notes with concern that approximately 2.87 million people in the UK who receive disability living allowance or attendance allowance are not eligible for social care services; acknowledges that some 20,000 individuals have petitioned the Prime Minister and many more have petitioned individual hon. and right hon. Members to ensure that these benefits are secured; welcomes the Government’s announcement that disability living allowance for people under 65 years will not be scrapped; and urges the Government to ensure that attendance allowance and disability living allowance for people aged 65 years and over are secured and not abolished as part of any future reform of the social care system.

The House will no doubt be aware that the motion is in exactly the same terms as early-day motion 1.

The hon. Gentleman reminds me—I was going to say this anyway—that early-day motion 1 stands in his name and that of 105 other hon. Members. I claim no authorship of the early-day motion, as he will no doubt verify. He composed it no doubt. He might have done so with others, but he did not compose it in direct association with me. None the less, I was happy to sign it, and I and my colleagues agree with it.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am also grateful to the charity Scope, which provided the background. I readily put on the record the fact that Scope is the organisation that helped me. When the vote comes later, I look forward to seeing the 41 Labour MPs who have signed early-day motion 1 voting for what it says in the Lobby.

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has provided that confirmation and that he has referred to the cross-party nature of the support for his early-day motion, which is represented by all parties in the House. Because it relates to benefits, which are a United Kingdom matter, Members other than those from England alone have had occasion to sign it.

For some years we have made it clear that we need a consensus about how we can achieve sustainable and high-quality social care for the longer term. We have had years in which reports have come and gone, including the royal commission on long-term care, the long-term care charter, the Wanless report, which was produced for the King’s Fund, and the Green Paper, which was published in July. As I made clear to the Secretary of State at this Dispatch Box when he made a statement accompanying the Green Paper on 14 July, I am quite clear that I do not regard the Green Paper as providing a sufficient range of options on the basis of which we can take forward the future of long-term care and, in particular, the funding of it.

On page 15 of the Green Paper, the Government said:

“In developing the new system, we think there is a case for drawing some funding streams together to enable us to deliver the new and better care and support system we want to create. We think we should consider integrating some elements of disability benefits, for example Attendance Allowance, to create a new offer for individuals with care and support needs.”

When the Green Paper was published, it asked people a number of questions—Members will no doubt recall the questions that were set out in chapter 7—but none of them asked whether the organisations and individuals responding to the Green Paper thought that it was a good idea to transfer attendance allowance and other disability benefits into the funding of the national care service.

I do not know whether a Minister or the Secretary of State wants to let us know about this, but on the face of it, the implication of using attendance allowance as an example of disability benefits—in the plural—in the Green Paper is that other benefits would also be included. We have assumed, as have others, including disability organisations generally, that it would be wholly discriminatory and perverse for the attendance allowance to be withdrawn and incorporated into the funding of the national care service, and for that not to be the case in relation to disability living allowance for those beyond the age of 65. I will continue on the basis that we are essentially talking about those two benefits for that purpose, unless Ministers were to tell us otherwise.

With the exception of the “pay for yourself” option, each option in the Green Paper implies the integration of those disability benefits into the funding of the national care service. Notwithstanding the fact that the Green Paper did not ask a specific question about this, we know that many organisations and individuals who responded highlighted the implication that is set out in the Green Paper and responded to it. I therefore invite the Secretary of State to tell us what proportion of the Green Paper responses received up to 12 November supported incorporating attendance allowance and disability living allowance into the national care service. I wonder whether Ministers know the answer to that. [Interruption.] Apparently not.

Let me help Ministers on this subject. On the Downing street website, as we now know, there are opportunities to petition the Government on the subject, and 24,000 people have now signed such a petition—the sixth most popular petition on the Prime Minister’s website—expressing their opposition to the proposal. The Disability Alliance asked its members whether they supported the proposal to absorb attendance allowance into care budgets, and 93 per cent. said that they did not. The Parkinson’s Disease Society asked the same question, and 95 per cent. were opposed. Carers UK asked the same question, and 96 per cent. were opposed.

Age UK, which incorporates Age Concern and Help the Aged, said in response to the Green Paper:

“We oppose funding the National Care Service from Attendance Allowance…We do not feel that the proposals will provide a system that sufficiently replicates the very important role that Attendance Allowance plays in promoting independence.”

I note from the debate on the Queen’s Speech in another place that the Minister, when challenged on who supported the options in the Green Paper, quoted Carers UK in a general sense, but not its response to the Green Paper that stated:

“We are concerned and against the proposal to take Attendance Allowance and place it into local care budgets. We believe that this will disenfranchise and impoverish carers and their families.”

The Parkinson’s Disease Society said in response to the Green Paper that

“our findings warn the Government that scrapping Attendance Allowance and other disability benefits could be detrimental to the independence of people with Parkinson’s.”

Macmillan Cancer Support said that

“we are strongly opposed to the proposal…to merge the Attendance Allowance funding stream with current social care funding streams to pay for the new National Care Service.”

It is important for us to recognise why these organisations feel so strongly about this. The arguments against using this mechanism for funding the care service are compelling, not least because attendance allowance and disability living allowance were not introduced simply to pay for the costs of personal care. They were intended to compensate for the high living costs associated with disability, and not simply to provide for specific care needs.

The White Paper that introduced disability living allowance stated clearly that it was for

“better coverage of assistance with the extra costs of being disabled”.

There are also costs that are distinct from, and additional to, social care needs, as described in the Green Paper. That is precisely why disability living allowance and attendance allowance payments have never been calculated on the basis of what is required to provide for social care needs. Rather, they have been calculated on the basis of what might add to the overall cost of disability. They were never intended to provide enough to pay for a professional care service, and it would be wrong to take them as being designed for that purpose. If Ministers were to proceed in the direction indicated in the Green Paper, it would constitute a fundamental change in the purpose and definition of disability benefits.

There is ample evidence of the costs that those benefits go to meet, and they go far beyond being strictly associated with the costs of social care. The Green Paper describes the kind of personal needs involved. They include washing, help with eating and toileting, and so on, but what is provided for and supported by disability benefits goes far beyond that. The benefits are not just spent on direct care services; they have had a big impact on people’s lives. They pay for additional heating costs, different diets, and a whole range of support for informal and family carers.

The hon. Gentleman is raising some serious issues in a measured and thoughtful way, but is not that at odds with the way in which his party has approached this issue, in its scaremongering towards existing recipients? I have here a copy of the template for the press release for Conservative party candidates, which carries the words:

“(name), (position)—insert here—voiced (his/her) opposition”.

It says that

“an average of £3,400 a year will be snatched away from 2.4 million pensioners”.

Can he confirm that that figure refers to the current recipients of those benefits? Is it not the case that the Government have said that that money will not be snatched away?

Of course, the hon. Gentleman has never in his life issued a press release prepared by his own central headquarters. Age UK, which he will acknowledge is an organisation encompassing Age Concern and Help the Aged, has said:

“Without any detail in the public domain people are right to fear the worst”.

The problem with that—

No, I am answering the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb). I will come to this point and set it out in detail.

Ministers have said in the Green Paper that, within the national care service, they are proposing to withdraw these benefits from existing recipients and to provide what they describe as equivalent support. However, it is entirely unclear what equivalent support means in this context. The hon. Member for Northavon makes exactly the point that I am making. If one is currently in receipt of disability benefits and what one spends the money on includes—the Disability Alliance has conducted research on this—attending hospital or medical appointments, the cost of transport, support with housework and gardening, higher heating and water bills and a whole range of other things, only 24 per cent. of the money is actually spent on care services as such, so the fact that one is having this income taken away and having personal care services provided does not mean receiving equivalent support—it means receiving something different.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he needs a break, as he is not doing very well at the moment—he can check the Hansard. Let me inform the House that existing claimants in receipt of attendance allowance and disability living allowance would see no cash loss in their benefits during a transitional process to a new system. If he were part of a Conservative Government, is he saying that he would never rule out making any changes to AA or DLA for pensioners?

I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman did exactly the same thing yesterday: he came before the House and—

Order. I must say to Mr. Hope that there has been quite a lot of sedentary chuntering taking place. I know that there are strong feelings on these matters, but the effect of this sort of chuntering is to crowd out Back Benchers and I want there to be plenty of time for Back-Bench contributions, which I hope means mercifully brief Front-Bench speeches.

Yes, Mr. Speaker, I shall, of course, be as brief as the argument allows, but I tend to allow Members to make interventions and I am certainly happy to respond to them.

The Minister kept saying yesterday in response to questions that those who are currently entitled to these benefits would, under the Government’s proposals, receive the same “cash support”, but the amendment to the motion does not say that. It states that

“those receiving the affected benefits at the time of reform would continue to receive an equivalent level of support”,

which is the same language used in the Green Paper and the same language used by Health Ministers in responses to questions. There is a complete difference between those two things. If it is cash, what is the point of taking away a cash benefit from people in order to give them the cash back? If it is not cash and it is paying for the national care service, our precise point is that there will be a difference between what people use disability benefits to pay for now and what will be provided to them as personal care services under a national care service. There is a major discontinuity between those two things, which Ministers do not seem to understand at all.

Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), it is a full 20 weeks since the publication of the Green Paper and the start of the present campaign on attendance allowance and disability living allowance, so will the hon. Gentleman confirm the rumour that the leader of his party will sack the head of the section for opportunism and scaremongering in Tory party headquarters for tardiness and incompetence?

I am astonished at the meaning or purpose of that intervention. The hon. Gentleman signed early-day motion 1, and what we have tabled for debate on the Order Paper today is couched in exactly the same terms and it seems to me to be perfectly reasonable.

My constituents have a simpler concern than the one about how the Conservatives choose to organise their party. If the Conservatives form a Government, will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that my elderly and disabled constituents would not be materially worse off? I am more concerned about the sums, however delivered, than the process of delivery, and I am sure that my constituents are, too.

I think the hon. Gentleman is right that people are concerned about that, and I am glad that he also signed the early-day motion, which makes an important point. I do not know why the Government should think that our argument is just about those currently in receipt of attendance allowance and disability living allowance, as we are debating what should be the long-term future of social care. The Green Paper was not about what is going to happen in the next six months, but about what ought to happen in the longer term. I am looking to find out what should happen in the long term for obvious reasons. I am making clear on behalf of my party our belief that the continuation of disability benefits, such as attendance allowance and disability living allowance in their current form, will give current recipients of such benefits and those who will be recipients in the future an opportunity, on a non-means-tested basis, to gain access to cash benefits that will enable them to buy a wide range of services such as informal care, family care, support for travel and support for house improvements on the basis of their own personal choice and control.

I find it astonishing that today is the day on which the Department for Work and Pensions chose to publish a document relating to other disability benefits, entitled “Making choice and control a reality for disabled people”. It is clear from that document that the reason the Government did not include attendance allowance, for example, in the “right to control” policy is that it is already a cash benefit. People receiving a cash benefit gain personalisation and choice, but if a Government were to withdraw direct access to that cash benefit and distribute it through the national care service, by definition they would create a lack of personalisation.

I have always considered that to be an agreed common objective. It has been our objective since the 2006 White Paper, and the Government have also moved in the direction of direct payments and personal budgets for social care. More recently, they have moved in the direction that we urged them to follow, which included access to some aspects of health care as part of an overall personal budget. The point is that the budget is a cash budget, and there is an issue over how it should work.

On page 102 of the Green Paper, the Government say:

“We know that disability benefits such as Attendance Allowance are highly valued by the people who receive them, and that they give people control over how they spend their money to meet their care and support needs. However, we also recognise that there are inconsistencies of approach between disability benefits and social care within the current system. This is because the social care and disability benefits systems have developed in isolation from each other and these two largest portions of government care and support expenditure are being allocated on different bases. This can lead to inconsistent and unfair outcomes.”

To me, the issue seems perfectly straightforward. If there are two sources of support for people and if one relates to social care and is means-tested while the other is based on an assessment of need, is not means-tested and is in cash form, and if there are inconsistencies between the two in relation to the assessment, what is the answer? The answer is to adopt a common process applying to both the assessment of need for the disability benefits and the assessment of need for access to social care. The answer is not to abolish the cash benefits and combine them in a single system. The Government have said—and it is in the amendment—that there should be a single assessment process; I hope they mean that, as we have agreed, there should be a common assessment process.

On 14 July, in response to the Secretary of State’s announcement of a Green Paper, I said to him—I apologise for quoting myself—[Interruption.] It was right then, and it is right now. I said:

“I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree that we need national standards—some consistency of assessment. We have long argued for that, and of course there needs to be central Government support, but we do not need a nationalised social care service.”—[Official Report, 14 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 160.]

That seems to me utterly consistent with the view—which the Government have apparently supported, in rhetoric—that there should be personalisation, that whenever possible there should be cash budgets over which people have more control, and that abolishing access to disability benefits would be a retrograde step.

The hon. Gentleman has been making a powerful point about the advantage of cash benefits in giving individuals control. Does he accept that even if the Government concede that current recipients will continue to receive the cash, there will be a huge loss to future generations who will not receive it?

I agree that it is important to have in mind the longer term, and to bear in mind those who may be recipients of benefit and care support in the future. However, I do not think the Government have said—and they do not say it in the amendment—that current recipients will receive the same cash support. They say they will

“receive an equivalent level of support.”

Therefore, unless Ministers are willing to amend their amendment to the motion today, I am afraid that it simply does not answer this point.

My hon. Friend might care to know that the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) is a master of the lurid headline. His website reveals that he has issued press releases entitled:

“Docking alcoholics benefits fundamentally inhumane”

and

“New benefits scheme shunting ill onto lower support”,

as well as the astounding,

“Benefits changes will leave millions without social security”.

Therefore, so as far as lurid titles are concerned, the hon. Gentleman obviously knows his stuff.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point better than I could have done.

Part of the argument on this matter is that attendance allowance is effective; it works. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said much the same thing last month to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions:

“One of the things we have said is that Attendance Allowance provides very important support for an awful lot of people across the country in a way that they hugely value. In particular it gives people control; it gives them control themselves over the way in which they get support and it is a budget that they can spend themselves.”

The universities of Essex and Anglia Ruskin

“found no evidence that Attendance Allowance is paid long term to significant numbers of people who do not have accompanying health problems”.

When someone receives both the allowance and care services, the allowance itself is taken into account through the financial assessment.

Those people who use this allowance often do so to save some money to meet higher occasional payments, such as for a wheelchair. An Age UK survey of older people who received attendance allowance found that the allowance supports older people

“to live in their own homes for as long as possible with a reasonable quality of life given their health…it would be no exaggeration to say that Attendance Allowance transforms people’s lives.”

In summary, people use the attendance allowance and disability living allowance to help them, under their own control, to create a quality of life for themselves that helps them to remain independent. That is precisely in line with the policy we are all trying to pursue. It is clear that if one narrowly focuses only on care needs, we will miss out much that goes to constitute well-being, and there is no health without well-being, and there is no independence, without sustaining people’s quality of life.

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, and now that he has come to the core of his argument, I have to respond to him. His motion suggests that anybody in receipt of attendance allowance would receive no help from a national care service, and he is repeating that suggestion in the House, whereas in fact we are proposing to replicate the cash control in a new system so as to give people who would receive those benefits the same control and cash in the future. The central plank of the hon. Gentleman’s argument is therefore knocked away, and I would be grateful if he would acknowledge that his motion’s comments about no help for so many million benefit recipients are simply not true.

I am sorry, but the Secretary of State is completely wrong about that. We are not asserting that people will get no help. We are asserting that existing recipients will not get access to cash benefits in the form in which they currently do, and they will therefore be able to exercise less choice and control because this will be routed through the national care service, which will have its own parameters and will not necessarily enable them to spend that money in the same form as they can now. Ministers have not said in their amendment that current recipients would get cash. Besides, the point is not just about current recipients; it is about future recipients and future reform. The last part of the motion

“urges the Government to ensure that attendance allowance and disability living allowance for people aged 65 years and over are secured and not abolished as part of any future reform of the social care system.”

This therefore refers to “future reform.”

I am grateful for that clarification, but let me read to the hon. Gentleman from his motion. It

“further notes with concern that approximately 2.87 million people in the UK who receive disability living allowance or attendance allowance are not eligible for social care services”.

The crux of his argument is his scurrilous campaign to frighten those people and to suggest that they would receive no support under a national care service. He knows what he is doing—he is raising concern and, frankly, it is gutter politics.

That is rather astonishing, is it not, Mr. Speaker? We have never said anything remotely like that. We always make it absolutely clear that we are opposed to the scrapping of attendance allowance and disability living allowance and their incorporation into the Government’s proposed social care service. We want to give people access to cash benefits, personalisation and choice.

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, who was among the initial signatories of the early-day motion.

I hope that I can explain. The hon. Gentleman says that he said nothing like that. However, is it not the case that in your press release of 19 November, you vowed to

“fight against Gordon Brown’s plan”—

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Gentleman said, in his press release of 19 November, that he was leading a

“fight against Gordon Brown’s plan to scrap benefits for the disabled.”

Is it not disgraceful to suggest that anyone is planning to scrap benefits for disabled people?

The Government’s Green Paper is clearly intended to propose that disability benefits should be “scrapped”, which is the word I used, in order to fund a national care service. That is something that the Government have proposed. I know and respect the hon. Gentleman, but he is trying to find a way not to vote for the early-day motion that he signed.

I have not come to ask the House to endorse my press releases. I have come to ask the House to settle this issue. If it is the Government’s view—[Interruption.] No, I will not withdraw the motion. The Government should withdraw the amendment, which is clearly flawed, as they are saying that their policy is different from the amendment. If the Government believe that their policy would be consistent with our motion, they should vote for the motion. The debate is on our motion, not on something else.

Does the hon. Gentleman seriously believe that proclaiming that the Government are planning to scrap disabled people’s benefits is not causing enormous concern among the most vulnerable individuals and communities in our society? Should he not be ashamed of saying that?

I am not ashamed. We are doing the job that the Government should have done, which is to get out there and explain to people what is in the Green Paper. What is shameful is publishing a Green Paper, at the heart of which is the major proposal of the abolition of cash benefits and their incorporation into funding a care service. The Government are happy to put out a proposal that states, “Would it be a good idea if the Government were to pay a quarter to a third of your care costs upfront?” and people say, “Yeah, that would be a good thing. That would be very nice, thank you.” What the Government do not tell them is that, in the process, if they are in receipt of disability benefits, they will lose those benefits in order to pay for it. That is a completely different debate. Fortunately, we have organisations such as Age UK, Carers UK and the Parkinson’s Disease Society who went out—we did not do it—and said, “Have you seen what is in the middle of this Green Paper?” They argued against it.

If the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) and the Secretary of State want to put a stop to this now, they simply have to vote for the motion. Then the House will have spoken. There are a range of issues, including the impact on the overall income of pensioners. Some 40 per cent. of all attendance allowance recipients would be living below the Department for Work and Pensions poverty threshold if their disability benefits were removed. As for taking away a cash benefit and providing a care service instead, Ministers talk about equivalent support but they do not talk about equivalent support for future recipients. If the benefits were to be taken away and replaced by the care service, there would be a serious potential impact on the disposable income of many pensioners. Those issues are not explored in the Green Paper. There is no economic modelling associated with the Green Paper and no understanding of what the overall impact on people’s disposable incomes would be. There is no evidence about the relationship, in detail, between disability benefit recipients and those who would be the recipients of the national care service so that we can understand the implications for poverty and well being. I am afraid that that simply is not good enough.

The Government’s response has been first to deny that they are going to do that, then to get angry and now to engage in abuse. It is like when someone cuts you up when you are driving and then swears at you; first, we get injury from the Government and then insults. It is no good Ministers blaming people’s anxieties on us. The organisations that represent disabled people have been at least as voluble as we have been in making this point and in urging the Government to change their policy. We have been clear about the policy that we pursue, but we question whether the Government will be clear. Scrapping disability benefits to pay for the national care service would be a serious mistake and a retrograde step. It would undermine personalisation and control for care users, which they say they are in favour of, and it would undermine family and informal care as opposed to formal and council-arranged care. Members of the House who have followed the consultation on the Green Paper have the right to say no to that. Ministers should accept the motion and move on. That would not be such a big retreat after all the retreats that we have seen in recent months. I say to the Secretary of State, “Just do it. It will only be only painful for today, and tomorrow you will be in a better place as a result.” I urge Members on both sides of the House to help the Government to get off this hook. I commend the motion to the House.

I beg to move an amendment to leave out from ‘House’ to the end of the Question and add:

“welcomes the Government’s proposals to create the National Care Service, the first national, universal, entitlement-based system for care and support in England; notes that the proposals will deliver real benefits to people including wider provision of prevention services, a single needs assessment across England and information, guidance and advice for all; recognises that in 20 years’ time, 1.5 million more people will have care and support needs, whilst the number of people aged over 85 will have doubled; further notes that around 400,000 people will benefit from enactment of the Personal Care at Home Bill, which contains no proposed changes to disability benefits; acknowledges that the Government is considering responses to the Big Care Debate consultation before any decisions are made between a range of options for the National Care Service; understands that changes to disability living allowance for under-65s as part of the introduction of a National Care Service have been ruled out; and welcomes the reassurance that, if disability benefits for older people were to be reformed as part of the National Care Service, those receiving the affected benefits at the time of reform would continue to receive an equivalent level of support.”

Let me begin by saying that I welcome the debate, which deals with a subject that matters greatly to many people in this country. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions should be thanked for securing the debate, but I cannot stand the simplistic, petty and partisan manner in which the hon. Gentleman introduced it. So far, the approach has been nothing more or less than crude electioneering. The nasty party—the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary knows all about that—is back in all its glory, and it is showing its unpleasant side in the Chamber this afternoon. The debate deserves a higher standard of comment than that which the hon. Gentleman has given today.

Given what the Secretary of State has just said in his preamble to his speech, will he explain why 41 of his hon. Friends have signed early-day motion 1?

I am going to come to that point. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman right now that this debate raises difficult questions. If one seriously intends to embark on a reform of social care in England, one cannot, as the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) rightly said, reduce it to simple press releases that are designed for electioneering, in the crude, simplistic and crass way that the Conservative party seeks to do. The debate deserves better than that and is more complicated than that, and we would expect a better level of engagement from Her Majesty’s Opposition than they are offering.

I am listening to the right hon. Gentleman with interest, but I seem to remember that every time there is an election, we knock on pensioners’ doors and they confront us saying, “The Labour party has told us that you’re going to take away this benefit and that benefit.” That is the Government’s strategy in every election, so the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying that this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Is that the best the hon. Lady can offer? This is crude electioneering. She has just owned up to it in the House. She has said, “That is what we are doing; you do it, so why can’t we do it?” She has let the cat out of the bag.

Let me set out the important context to this debate.

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.

Let me set out the important context. Some 61 years ago, the House agreed to the establishment of the national health service to end the unfairness that the people with the greatest needs faced the highest costs and that the people who had the least were in danger of having their needs left unmet. Today, the same unfairness exists in social care. A person who happens to develop dementia in old age, rather than cancer or heart disease, is yet to find the freedom from fear that Nye Bevan promised as the goal of the NHS.

My right hon. Friend has brought us on to the very point that I was going to make. He referred to the difficult issues that the Green Paper raises. Is not one of them that so many elderly people on the standard level of attendance allowance cannot be persuaded to apply for the higher level, even though their needs would certainly make them eligible for it? Is not one of the other difficult issues that so many people with disabilities or incapacities of any kind do not get the care they currently need precisely because of the absence of a national care service? The analogy with the formation of the NHS is absolutely the right one.

My hon. Friend puts it very well. It is because the system has grown in a piecemeal way over the years that it has become confusing and in many ways a lottery. It varies very greatly around the country, according to the eligibility criteria operated by councils and a range of other things. That means that the system is a lottery, and the serious purpose that lies behind the Green Paper is to create a fairer care system for all, in which the people with the greatest needs have those needs met and society as a whole shares the risks and costs of providing that care. In creating such a system, we will provide a better standard and quality of care.

As I said, those who suffer the most face paying the most. It is an enduring unfairness that was not resolved in the post-war settlement, but it becomes more evident and urgent as people increasingly live longer. This House has failed to address the problem, but I do not believe that that can continue. In my view, all parties should commit to reforming social care in England in the next Parliament.

One in five people will need care that costs less than £1,000 during their retirement. One in five will need care that costs more than £50,000. In the worst cases, the sum can exceed £200,000. This cruel lottery leaves us with no way of predicting our risk and makes it hard to protect ourselves against it.

The Secretary of State mentioned England for a second time just now. Does he accept that, if something happened to attendance allowances, that would also affect Scotland, Wales and, potentially, Northern Ireland? Has he decided how that would be dealt with?

The hon. Gentleman will know that social care is devolved, but he is right to point out that any change to attendance allowance, which is a UK benefit, would have implications for Scotland. Of course we would work with colleagues in Scotland, and with the First Secretary, on making progress with any changes.

The current care system is piecemeal and complicated. Many do not know that care is means-tested. People face a battle to access the care that they need. When they succeed, the care can be of a poor quality, but not always. Resources are not channelled to where they are needed the most and, as we all know, carers often do not get the support that they need to make life tolerable and to enable them to provide the care and support that they want to to their loved ones, while also balancing other aspects of their life, such as work.

This much we know, and we know that the problem will become more pressing as the population gets older. When the NHS was created, there were eight working adults for every retired person. Today there are four, and by 2050 that figure will fall to just two. If the system is left unreformed, there are real questions about its sustainability in the long term.

I turn now to the Green Paper that we brought forward in July.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to identify the excellent work that carers do. Will he expand on exactly what the Government are doing to provide for carers, who in turn help elderly people to stay in their own homes?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. In years to come, this will be as important as Sure Start is in helping young mothers with children to balance work and home. That is something that we have discussed in our debates about child care. We must give people looking after elderly relatives quality support that they can draw down when they need it, because that gives them the ability to work and to balance work with caring for their relatives. If we cannot provide that support, there will be an economic consequence for the country.

We have taken steps to support carers, and my Department has made funds available from our budget to support respite care. My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue. A crucial part of any national care service is to provide quality support for carers so that life becomes tolerable and they can carry on with their work and other responsibilities, knowing that there is good-quality support for their loved one when they are not with them. For all those reasons, we brought forward a Green Paper.

Quality is really important to elderly people, and it takes two forms. It relates both to care workers—their training and their capacity to understand people’s care needs—and to when care is provided. Care should be given at times convenient for the person receiving it—when they want it rather than when it is convenient for the care agency. Are the Government eager to address and rectify that issue?

My hon. Friend is quite right, and that is why direct payments and personal budgets will lie at the heart of any proposed national care service. We want that level of control at the heart of any reformed system. She is also right to raise the issue of quality. Although there are good examples around the country, and many councils are doing their best, the system is stretched and—if we are honest—it is not systematically providing quality to people across the country. Many people who work in social care earn at or close to the national minimum wage, so in some parts of the country it is difficult to recruit care staff to provide the services that are so desperately needed. For all those reasons, and to put quality at the heart of the work force, we need to pick up the work on strategy in social care being done by the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), who has responsibility for care services. If we can do what we did successfully for the NHS work force, we shall develop a clear career structure, putting money behind training and development to ensure we have a high-quality, motivated work force. For all those reasons, the debate is important and complicated. It cannot be reduced to the level the Conservative party seeks—it is more complicated than that.

We have had a detailed debate on our Green Paper and the consultation has attracted a huge number of replies. Overwhelmingly, people support the principle that the system has to be reformed. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire did not say that, but it is what people are telling us. Of course there are difficult views about the nature and shape the reform should take, but people are agreed that worst of all would be to leave the system as it is, with more and more people’s needs unmet as we go into a future with an ageing population.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the key role of qualified social workers in that scenario? They will have the important responsibility of assessing the needs of elderly people and vulnerable disabled adults before considering the care package that is needed. As he knows, social workers do an excellent job but, sadly, they do not get praise for their excellent work.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That point came out strongly last week when the social work taskforce reported its conclusions. It pointed out the need to raise the status of social work as a profession and talk up the changes it makes in helping people to live better lives and give them more opportunities. The point was also well made by my hon. Friend, and we have to work hard to make it a reality. Everything in our Green Paper depends on those professional voices in social work. Helping people to unlock the benefits of personalisation and steering them through the system is crucially dependent on a motivated social work profession in adult services. Young people today want to make a difference. One of the biggest differences they can make is to go into social work, be it for children or adults. On both sides of the House, we need to work hard to communicate that message very strongly indeed.

Our Green Paper set out a vision of a national care service that is fairer, simpler and more affordable, underpinned by national rights and entitlements and personalised to individual needs. It set out a system with quality at its heart, whereby people get the care and support that they need. People would know exactly what to expect, what they were entitled to and what they needed to do to get it. The national care service is about helping people to live their lives the way that they want to. It is about putting the person’s needs and wishes first, and helping them to keep up relationships with family and friends, to live in their own home for as long as they can and, where possible, to continue to work and contribute to their community.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is absolutely no inconsistency in the reform of social care service and the Government’s priority of independence, choice and control for disabled people and older people?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The two systems are coming together. With the introduction of direct payments, we have seen council support beginning to replicate the benefits system, and the two systems have been slowly merging. Reform would continue and deepen that process, placing individuals with the most need in control of their budget so that they can draw down the support and care that they need. My right hon. Friend is quite right to make that point.

Every citizen would stand to benefit under that new system. As well as helping people who need care, the national care service is about changing the lives of the friends and relations who support them. Many carers in this country have told us about the daily battle they face to get the support that they need, and we want to end that battle by providing a reliable, transparent and accessible system that makes it easier for them to manage their responsibilities. We intend to publish a White Paper in the new year, setting out our proposals for the future of care and support, based on the replies that we have received to our consultation.

I turn now to disability benefits. The current care and support system is provided through a combination of local and central Government funding, personal contributions and benefits. It is complicated, it is not clearly targeted at levels of greatest need and it is not sustainable. In each case, the amounts are increasing. Local government expenditure on adult social care has gone up by more than 50 per cent. since 1997; and the total fees paid by people who use the services have increased significantly over the same period. Today, there are more than 1.5 million recipients of attendance allowance, amounting to expenditure of more than £5 billion a year; and there are more than 790,000 disability living allowance recipients who are over 65 years old, totalling expenditure of some £4 billion a year.

By 2026, we can expect that 1.7 million more adults will need care and support than is the case today, and the cost of disability benefits for the elderly could rise by almost 50 per cent. in real terms. Demographic and financial pressures on that scale cannot easily be met within the current unreformed system, so we have to find a better way to provide support to older and disabled people, and there may be a case for bringing together some disability benefits within adult social care. That is the argument that we are putting forward.

The Opposition’s motion refers to people who currently receive disability benefits but are not eligible for social care, and it is true that many people today do not get help from the state towards their care costs. However, that is precisely why this Government are showing leadership and looking at how we can best support care and reform services. As I said in my intervention, it is completely wrong to suggest that all those who currently receive disability benefits but do not receive support from social care services would lose out under a new system. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire made a big point of stating that he did not say that, but I am afraid that anybody who has picked up a Conservative party leaflet or a local newspaper recently will have been given a different impression from that which he has given the House this afternoon. He says one thing here and his party’s parliamentary candidates say quite another in constituencies throughout the country. If he is serious about this debate, he must get his story straight now. He needs to say here—at that Dispatch Box—the same thing as his candidates say throughout the country. I am afraid that he has been found out today, and he was very helpfully smoked out by the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb).

Does the Secretary of State realise that it is not only the Opposition party’s parliamentary candidates who are saying that? I shall quote another person, who says:

“And to top it off, unbelievably, they’re cutting disability benefits for the oldest and most vulnerable members of our society.”

That was the Leader of the Opposition, on “The Blue Blog”, on 19 November.

I agree with my right hon. Friend: it is unbelievable. Conservative councils up and down the country are cutting day centres and nursing homes for older people—cutting social services budgets—and then the Conservatives make that kind of opportunistic statement that comes from a deliberate misreading of the situation in order to give fuel to their candidates in constituencies around the country. Whatever the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire says today, the reality is what my right hon. Friend has just read out, and it is now on the record for all to see.

It is completely wrong to say that people will lose out under a new system. This is not about using benefits to support the existing system. We want to create a new care and support system that goes beyond that and is fit for the 21st century. We accept that that means we need to carry people with this reform. We also need to protect people in the interim. We have therefore categorically ruled out using disability living allowance for the under-65s. No other decisions about benefit reform have yet been taken. However, we have been absolutely clear that if disability benefits are reformed as part of delivering the national care service, those currently receiving benefit will not lose out financially. To put it simply, there would be no cash losers from this reform. That will remain the case for life. Existing benefits recipients will keep the cash and keep the control—it could not be clearer.

People like disability benefits because they provide a universal entitlement, they provide a cash budget that can be spent on the services that people want, and they support lower-level needs that help people to stay well for longer. Those three principles will all be important features of the new care and support system that we seek to introduce.

May I seek clarification from the Secretary of State? Is he referring to people currently over the age of 65 who are in receipt of benefit or those over the age of 65, who will in due course require benefits? Will they have those benefits secured as well?

The hon. Gentleman is right—I am talking about existing benefit recipients. We are saying that, in future, we propose having a new system of support for people with care needs, but it is not correct to say that that means that support will be withdrawn, which is the argument that the Conservatives are advancing. Our whole aim in this reform is to give more help and support to the people who need it most. We believe that at the moment the money in the system is not properly targeted at those who need most support. That is the difference between our two positions.

Will the Secretary of State clarify what he is saying? He seems to have changed the policy. The policy up to now, including in the Green Paper and as stated in the Government’s amendment, has been:

“if disability benefits…were to be reformed as part of the National Care Service, those receiving the affected benefits at the time of reform would continue to receive an equivalent level of support.”

He has just, in effect, replaced the words,

“an equivalent level of support”,

with the words, “the same amount in cash”—that is, no cash loss. That is a completely different policy—which one is it?

I am sorry, but “equivalent level of support” is pretty plain—it means no cash losers. It is an equivalent level of support: that could not be clearer. I have said very clearly that people will keep the cash and keep the control. We have said that all along, but the hon. Gentleman has been choosing not to listen because it did not suit the grubby campaign that he has been mounting for the past couple of weeks. We have made this absolutely clear. He may not like it, because it does not suit his purposes, but it could not be clearer.

As I said, the three principles in the benefits system will all be important features of a new care and support system. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire will stop chuntering, let me say that cash payments will be at the heart of a new system. The care services Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby, and I have been saying that every day since we launched the Green Paper. That is what

“an equivalent level of support”

means. The hon. Gentleman has chosen not to listen to that because it was inconvenient—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Secretary of State, but I must say to Ms Milton that there seems to be a competition among Front-Bench Members for the dubious accolade of chunterer-in-chief. [Interruption.] Order. I do not require any help from the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns)—he is often competing for that accolade himself

And we need no further intervention from him. I simply say to Front-Bench Members that they need to simmer down. It is good that there is a lively debate, but I want Back Benchers to be heard.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The point that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire seems to have missed is that we have said all along that cash payments will be part of the new system. I said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) a moment ago that in recent years, we have begun to see a merging of the local authority support system and benefits, with the introduction of direct payments. That is a trend that we want to continue. It is not about giving people’s benefits to councils, as the press releases accuse us of. People in the care system are already getting used to getting cash budgets, and the number of people receiving them has risen by 28.9 per cent. over the past year. Including carers, 115,000 people have received them, and our reforms will take the process further. Let me be clear: we will reform disability benefits only if we are certain that the new system can better support the needs of older and disabled people.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire is often good at taking a big position without any reference to what other people in his party say. His whole thesis today was to raise the spectre of the loss of benefits, and he gave the idea that any reform of benefits means somebody losing out and that we cannot possibly raise these issues without trying to cut support. However, I have before me a speech that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) made in Scotland on Monday 16 October 2006. It was a long and, I may say, quite good speech about how to provide better support to disabled people in the long term. I shall come to the crux of it, because it is important that the House hears the right hon. Gentleman’s peroration. He said:

“So there are the problems in the benefits system. It is too complex. It does not incentivise work sufficiently. And it relies too much on large government agencies…Our policy review is examining the option of a radical simplification of the benefits package for disabled people. I welcome the principle of Individual Budgets. But I’d like to go much further.”

It is unbelievable—he was giving exactly the same argument that we have been mounting, which underpins our Green Paper. [Interruption.] Hear me out, there is more. He went on to back us up even further, saying:

“Instead of the half-dozen different benefits a disabled person can receive—each with its different conditions and its own application form”—[Interruption.]

They are not listening now, are they? He said that

“we should be moving towards a single assessment process, and perhaps even a single benefit.”

There it is in black and white, in a speech, the same thing that we are talking about—the simplification of the support system, perhaps through a single benefit. Yet the Conservatives have brought the motion before the House today because, three years on from that, it suits their purposes to issue press releases and frighten disabled and older people up and down the country.

I am still utterly unable to reconcile what the Secretary of State is now saying about the Government’s change of policy with what is in the Green Paper. The use of disability benefits to pay for the national care service is intended to back what was clearly one of the preferred options, the partnership model. Page 109 of the Green Paper even has a helpful diagram showing how, under the current system, there is a big shift from people paying for themselves to people getting part of their care free. The Green Paper states that

“those who were on the lowest incomes would continue to get all their care for free.”

Is he really telling us that under the national care service as he proposes to introduce it, existing disability benefit recipients will continue to get the exact cash benefit that they currently get, plus their social care free? In that case, where is the money to come from to provide universal care for others?

Can the hon. Gentleman tell me what part of “no cash losers” he does not understand? Interestingly, just as I was coming to a rather sensitive and difficult part of my speech for the Conservatives, he got up and raised a different point. He did not like hearing what I was saying, did he, but he was quick to come back with a red herring. The policy is “no cash losers” and it could not be more simple.

That brings me to the Personal Care at Home Bill. There are still huge challenges in the care and support system. The Green Paper sought people’s views on how we resolve those and create a sustainable system for the long term. In our view, those with the greatest needs cannot wait, and we cannot stand still in meeting the challenge of rising costs. Currently, an estimated 80,000 older people in the highest need receive free personal care, but 40,000 pay part of their costs, and 50,000 pay all their costs.

No—I am making progress. Among younger adults, an estimated 90,000 receive free care, while 20 per cent. pay all or part of their own costs, so we want to start now with reform, by helping people to live independently for longer in their own homes for free, which is something they tell us they really want. Our Bill will do just that. It will end the postcode lottery in care for those most vulnerable members of our society. Let us not forget that many have already paid significantly out of their own pockets to fund their own care—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire says, “Second Reading on Monday.” We are putting forward reforms that support people in their entirety—support for older and disabled people—and I am very sorry that he considers that unimportant.

Does my right hon. Friend remember the scaremongering that took place when our party was introducing the Care Standards Act 2000? We were told that we would drive agencies and care home owners out of business, and that we would not raise standards or improve the quality of care. Some companies went out of business, but they could not provide q