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Topical Questions

Volume 504: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2010

My Department continues to work to create prosperous, resilient and cohesive communities. Today’s growth estimate demonstrates that we have been right to support families in the economy through the downturn. We had a plan for the recession and we have a plan for the recovery. Stepping up help for people to stay in their homes, the transformation of front-line services through initiatives such as Total Place, the opening up of local services and public data, extending scrutiny powers and the slashing of red tape all play a vital role in driving growth.

What about light pollution? Does the Department realise that excessive lighting not only blocks out the night sky, but is fantastically wasteful of energy? Will the Minister review the planning policy statements with a view to cutting out excessive lighting pollution and nuisance?

I looked along the Front Bench hoping to see one of the ministerial team thrusting themselves forward, but in the absence of that I acknowledge the importance of the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I welcome the recent announcement of the light pollution-free park in Scotland, and I will write to him with an update on the current planning powers on this issue.

T2. The Government have introduced a helpful package of measures to protect homeowners against repossession, and the Minister recently announced some additional measures to be rolled out, including in Milton Keynes. Can he give a little more information about the proposals for my constituency, which I think are being undertaken in conjunction with the citizens advice bureau? (312974)

I can, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend is right. The range of measures that we have put in place essentially to help people to stay where they should be during a recession—in their own homes—has led to 333,000 families getting help or advice from the Government in the past year. The initiative in her area is a combination of extra press and radio advertising, and in some areas face-to-face advice events to ensure that people know what help is available and are encouraged to take it up. We know that if people bury their heads in the sand, their homes and futures are much more at risk.

T4. The Labour charter trustees in Crewe have recently voted to increase their part of the council tax bill by 122 per cent. Will the Government’s proposed council tax revaluation make many of my constituents’ council tax bills even higher? (312976)

The council tax revaluations are obviously required by statute and undertaken by an independent body. In addition, we have made available a £2 billion transitional relief scheme for revaluation to assist where there are higher increases.

T3. Hard-working families in Chorley and across the country are struggling to pay their council tax bills, and it would only be right to look for a zero increase in council tax. Can we ensure that no time bombs have been built into authorities by miscalculations and playing around with the budgets wrongly, and does the Secretary of State have a view on this? (312975)

It has been suggested that there should be a two-year council tax freeze funded by central Government, but I have to say to my hon. Friend that the cost of such a policy would be £1,970 million in the first two years. Those who promise it cannot say how they will pay for it or when it would start. Even on their own dodgy, unrealistic and out-of-date figures, there is a £470 million hole in the Opposition plans.

T5. Last night, at a meeting of Croydon council, in response to four questions from independent members of the public and independent councillor, Councillor Cakebread, the council was unable to say how much remuneration councillors received outside their council employment and how many hours they worked. Given that Croydon has the highest basic rate of pay for councillors, will the Government give guidance to councils advising that when there are cuts to services they should make similar cuts to councillors’ salaries? (312977)

The remuneration of councillors is fully devolved to local authorities. Many have independent review mechanisms, rather than allowing the decision to be taken entirely by members. The hon. Gentleman makes the valuable point that, at a time when it is important to use every taxpayer pound as effectively and efficiently as possible, those authorities with particularly high levels of councillor remuneration may need to consider their policies.

T10. Further to the Secretary of State’s visit to Blackpool, when I and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) had an opportunity to show him much of the regeneration taking place in the town, has he had an opportunity to consider what role his Department can play in the exciting plans for Blackpool council to take over the winter gardens and tower as part of that regeneration strategy? (312982)

I know of the support that my hon. Friend has given to this project, which I understand is being looked at jointly with the regional development agency and the Department for Transport. It is an exciting project, and such regeneration is important. It is another example of the Government and local councils understanding that, in times of economic difficulties, it is important to intervene in such areas—unlike the approach of the Conservative party.

T6. Can the Secretary of State tell the House when he intends to comply with section 6 of the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004 and place before the House his statutory report, which is now 13 months overdue? (312978)

I thank the Minister for visiting my constituency last week and seeing for himself the Ridings school site, which the Tory council plans to demolish, against local wishes. Will he join me in sending a clear message to Calderdale council that such sites should not be demolished or sold off just to make a quick buck, but put to community use?

I was delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency last week. I was particularly interested in the project to transfer control of the former Ridings school to a community trust in some form. She knows from our discussions that I undertook exactly that exercise in my constituency back in the mid-1980s, taking over a former secondary school so that it could be run as a social enterprise by the local community. I am pleased to say that my Department’s asset transfer unit stands ready to provide support to local people, with business plans and guidance. I hope that her council is prepared to listen to the exciting ideas that local people have and that it can make them a reality.

T7. Local authorities up and down the country send out Criminal Records Bureau disclosure forms to anyone who wants to work in a school or old people’s home. How effective does the Minister think those forms are, given that they contain 66 questions of quite a detailed personal nature, including on personal bank details? No. 66 is “Do you have any unspent criminal convictions?” What confidence can we have that any unsuitable person— (312979)

Order. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady. I think that I counted two and a half questions, but we will have a reply now from the Minister.

It is extremely important that proper checks are carried out. I know that there is ongoing monitoring of the effectiveness of the checks that are carried out and the systems that are adopted. I am not completely sure about the hon. Lady’s point about unspent criminal convictions, but in general it is vital that proper checks are carried out, and we should all contribute to the debate about how we improve that. If she has any ideas on where specific changes should be made, I suggest that she contact the appropriate Department.

In Sedgefield there are many properties let out by private landlords, but a significant number are empty at any one time. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what progress we are making towards a national registration scheme for private landlords, to try to get rid of some of the rogue landlords in our communities?

The proposal for a national register of private landlords is only one of those that we are looking at to try to tighten up the activities of the worst landlords, who give the tenants to whom they rent their properties a bad standard of housing and service. The private rented sector is important to many people in this country, but it is our duty as a Government to ensure that the very worst landlords are stamped out.

Earlier, the Minister for Housing told the House that when local authorities decide to reject permission for infill and back garden land developments, they win in four out of five cases. However, does he not understand that councils tend to act defensively, granting permission because they feel compelled to do so by Government policy, as a consequence of which cases never get to appeal? Will he therefore give my constituents in Sutton and Cheam, Worcester Park, the assurance that his announcement last week really does afford them the protection that they want from predatory developments?

It does, and it is in the hands of the hon. Gentleman’s council to provide that protection for itself against appeal and, more importantly, for residents against unwelcome developments. If his council is falling back on Government guidance, it is failing to put in a place a local plan for policies that suit the area of Sutton. That is the council’s responsibility. The report that I published last week confirms on the basis of the research that where councils do that, they are in stronger position to protect local residents and deal with any appeals that might crop up.

Can I tell the Secretary of State that one of the hallmarks of this Government, whom I have been proud to support over 11 years, is also a downside: their obsession with reorganising that which they have reorganised? They insist on putting in layers of bureaucracy where they are not necessary. Can I urge him to stop putting the Thames Gateway development corporation under the Homes and Communities Agency? It is unnecessary and will cause bureaucratic inertia.

I fully understand and respect my hon. Friend’s concerns. The decision was taken after much consultation with all the stakeholders, and we have come to a consensus that we genuinely believe is in the best interests of the Thames Gateway, of the staff involved, and of regeneration in that area.

T9. Violent extremism needs to be tackled in all communities, including those who want to curtail freedom of religion, despite the protestations of the Minister for the West Midlands. Does the Secretary of State believe that the Government’s current policy on preventing violent extremism is working? (312981)

Yes. We need to accept that the task of strengthening the ability to resist the ideas of al-Qaeda-type extremists that are targeted at young people is something that we will have to sustain and develop. Looking back over the first two years of the Prevent programme, we are seeing an increasingly rich range of local initiatives up and down the country, all of which have as their outcome the idea that it is less likely that a young person in this country will get drawn into support for that kind of violent extremism. I believe that our programme, which we are developing all the time, is on the right lines. We continue to learn from best practice across the country and to strengthen the programme month by month.

The Minister will be aware that campaigners in areas of high student occupation, particularly in houses in multiple occupation, are looking forward to the Government’s announcement on use classes orders. When can we expect that announcement?

When Ministers set out new requirements for local councils in the field of information technology that involve the roll-out of new software, what account do they take of the effect on small district councils that have to hire consultants and spend hundreds of thousands of pounds as a consequence? Are these wise decisions to make in the middle of a recession, given their effect on hard-pressed taxpayers?

The Government’s approach to making the vast amount of data currently held by local authorities more freely available on the web in real time is crucial to the efficiency and accountability of local services. I would say to the smaller district councils, which defend their role vigorously, that they need to face the fact that they are going to have to share services and work collaboratively with other small district councils, in order to show that the autonomy that they value does not come at an unacceptably high cost to local taxpayers. They will have to deal with such issues by working with others to achieve the cost-effectiveness that everyone wants.

Despite the Government’s very good track record on supporting rough sleepers, I am alarmed at the number of people in London who are on waiting lists to get into a hostel, and at the number in my own constituency who seem to be in a constant circle of finding supported housing and then going back to rough sleeping. Can the Minister please tell me what further work is being done to alleviate the situation? Perhaps we could have a meeting to discuss the matter.

I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this matter. I have visited Stoke and met some of the organisations that provide services for homeless people, and I would be happy to go back to meet him and have a look at the problem in depth. I can tell him that, as a result of the record levels of investment that this Government have put in since 1997, however we calculate it, and by whatever measures we use, the numbers of rough sleepers have been cut dramatically—more than has ever been achieved in the past.

The Secretary of State has put forward an article 14 directive in relation to London Southend airport. It would be helpful to the local community if he could tell us roughly when he will make a decision on that matter, and whether there will be a need for a public inquiry. The sooner the better.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but he will understand why I cannot reply to his question this afternoon.

Order. I will come to points of order in a moment. I am sorry that a tiny number of colleagues missed out. My appetite for hearing colleagues’ questions and Ministers’ answers is insatiable, but I am afraid that we have to move on.