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Commons Chamber

Volume 504: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2010

House of Commons

Tuesday 26 January 2010

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Business Rate Revaluation

1. Which types of business he expects to experience the highest increase in rateable values as a result of the April 2010 business rate revaluation. (312948)

Business rates revaluation is carried out by the Valuation Office Agency, which is independent of Ministers. It will not raise a single extra penny for Government. Oil and gas producing properties, power generators and major sports clubs that have improved their trading position or invested significantly in their grounds are expected to see the largest increases in average rateable values. When the occupier of a property is a charity—for example, in the case of lifeboat stations—and might also see large increases, that occupier is protected by a mandatory 80 per cent. relief from business rates on any property that is occupied for charitable purposes. Local authorities may increase that relief to 100 per cent.

Local business know best how to create local growth, yet pubs and independent petrol stations in my constituency feel that RV rules are rigid, out of date and wrong. Does the Secretary of State not agree with the Labour Local Government Association group that business rates should be localised?

The hon. Lady raises questions about how valuations are carried out. I would be very interested to learn from her or from the Opposition whether they agree with me that having a valuation office that takes decisions on rateable values independent of Ministers or local councillors is the better way to do it. I would certainly resist any proposals that the rateable values of businesses in her constituency or mine be set at the whim of local councillors.

Independent petrol station retailers in my constituency are also facing huge increases in their business rates from 1 April. Although I agree with the need for an independent valuer, there appears to be no right of appeal against these revaluations until they are put in place from 1 April. Will my right hon. Friend look at that again and provide some form of redress for these retailers?

There is a right of appeal. What is more, I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the £2 billion transitional scheme that has been put in place. It is always the case, every five years, that the independent revaluation of business rates produces winners and losers. That is why we have a transitional relief scheme that means that the impact on rates bills can be no more than 11 per cent. next year and just 3.5 per cent. for small businesses. There is protection alongside the ability to appeal that my hon. Friend seeks.

The Secretary of State faces a very clear choice over the 2010 revaluation: he can either ditch it and allow all business properties to enjoy a small inflation-based decrease in property rates or push ahead with it, which will mean that four out of 10 business properties will see a rates rise. Many of those properties will belong to companies that struggled to survive the recession. What is more important and what is fairer—sticking with the revaluation or supporting these companies?

I am surprised if that is the position of those on the Opposition Front Bench—the hon. Lady is proposing to impose a rates increase on the 60 per cent. of businesses in this country that are set to have a rates reduction. I think that that policy should be much more widely known. Those businesses that expect to see their rates bills fall and to be helped in a recession will be amazed to find that the Opposition are proposing a rates increase.

Will the Secretary of State consider the position of the composting industry? Higher environmental standards have meant more indoor composting and therefore more buildings. Is there not a case for switching the valuation to one that is similar to the system for landfill sites, whereby valuation is based on tonnage rather than property?

I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, but I repeat to the House the point that I made earlier. There is a real choice for the House as a whole: either the Valuation Office Agency acts independently of Ministers—there is considerable case law over 100 years for how rateable values are to be established—or we move to a system whereby, with respect, the relatively micro-level choices that my hon. Friend sets out become decisions for Ministers. I think we would be worse off if the system of determining rateable values were handed to political ministerial control. With all the ups and downs of it and all the problems that arise with every revaluation, we are better off with an independent system than we would be if we brought the system under ministerial control.

Garden Development

2. What representations he has received from local authorities on the outcome of his Department's review of garden and infill development; and if he will make a statement. (312949)

8. What recent discussions he has had with local authority representatives on steps to reduce the level of infill development of gardens. (312955)

The Government have received no representations to date from local authorities on the outcomes of the review that I announced on 19 January.

Does the Minister accept that many local councils feel that planning policy statement 3 is just not working when it comes to garden grabbing? Is he aware that councils such as Lichfield find that the city is changing shape simply by virtue of the fact that lovely open areas and big gardens are being redeveloped? What changes can he make to PPS3 to stop this unhelpful practice?

I do not accept that and, more importantly, the independent research from Kingston university that I published on Tuesday last week did not accept it. I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the report, because it confirms that the problem is not widespread or national, and that local authorities already have the power to take steps to prevent development on garden land, if they choose. They are also able to reinforce their position if the matter goes to appeal.

For some months now, I have been working with Susan Fox from Longton in my constituency who has been campaigning against inappropriate developments in gardens and infill plots in her village. I have always told her that it is up to the Tory council in South Ribble to determine what happens, and she was planning to ask me to present a petition to Parliament. May I ask my right hon. Friend to restate the fact that the Tories on South Ribble council could, if they got their act together, put in place a planning policy to deal with the issue? There is no reason to blame the Government.

Indeed, and my hon. Friend may want to send the council copies of my statement to the House last Tuesday and of the Kingston university report. He may also want to draw attention to the fact that I have made it clearer in PPS3 that there is no presumption that previously developed land such as garden land will be appropriate for development. It therefore rests with local authorities to put in place a proper local plan that can cover concerns about garden land. It is for them to make the decisions, and to protect people against unwelcome development.

Infill is a problem, but so too is the situation in which a builder buys three or four houses with large gardens and replaces them with 30 to 40 flats, as has happened in Bassett in the Southampton part of my constituency. Local development plans have no influence, especially when it comes to appeals, so what can the Government do to protect areas against having their character ruined?

The hon. Lady is wrong on two counts. The independent research by the university confirms that, in four out of five cases, the planning inspectorate backs the local authority on appeal. It also says that local authorities are in a stronger position if they have in place their own local plan covering garden land. If the developer has gone ahead in the way that she describes, that is because the council has not put in place what it could and should have put in place.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a degree of bullying going on in areas such as the Bradford district? A person buys a detached house with a very large and sometimes beautiful garden but the neighbours object at the planning stage and so permission is refused. The owner of the house then allows it to go to wrack and ruin—I know two houses that are in a deplorable state—in the hope that the neighbours will then beg the local authority to give planning permission for the development to get rid of the eyesore that they have had wished on them.

The problem that my hon. Friend describes is slightly different from the one we studied in the research report. Local authorities have some fall-back powers to deal with extreme cases of the sort that she has described. If she would like me to, I shall write to her with details of those powers.

The Minister is simply in denial about how his policies give a green light for garden grabbing. Does he agree with the assertion that

“national planning policy guidance has made it difficult to resist development proposals on garden land, even where there is a detrimental impact on local character, and that this imbalance needs to be rectified”?

They are not my words, but those of the Secretary of State’s own council.

I know that the hon. Lady and some of her hon. Friends have pressed this case very hard over the past couple of years, but the research and the facts do not bear out her assertion or her concerns. This is a problem in some areas, but they are clearly in the minority. It is also clear, as the report confirms, that councils have the powers to deal with such matters where they present a problem for neighbours and are unwelcome in the local area.

Why cannot Ministers just admit that the blight of garden grabbing is the fault of this Labour Government? The Government, not councils, made gardens count as brown field for planning purposes. Is it not time for change—time councils had proper powers to protect neighbourhoods from inappropriate developments?

The hon. Lady is wrong again. The definition she takes issue with was set in 1985 and has not been changed since. It was reconfirmed in one of the Conservative Government’s Green Papers and in planning guidance in 1988, and again in 1992. That is not the problem.

The problem, I am afraid to say, is councils that have the powers but will not accept the responsibility of taking the decisions to protect local people and defending those decisions on appeal. If they had proper local plans in place, their hand would be strengthened in doing so. The hon. Lady would do better to address her concerns to her own councils, which are falling far short of what local residents expect of them.

There are a lot of crocodile tears from the Opposition about garden grabbing. May I give my right hon. Friend the facts on Chorley? In Lancaster lane, Whittle and Shaw Hill, garden grabbing has taken place. The first thing the Conservative council did when it was elected was lift the moratorium that gave protection in relation to all house building in the Chorley area. Does he not agree that it was duplicitous and wrong of the council to blame the Government, for it was the council itself that lifted the moratorium on house building?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point that illustrates precisely the general point that I am making: it is in the hands of local councils to decide local priorities, make local decisions and, in his case, demonstrate the difference in approach between a Labour and a Conservative local council in Chorley.

New Build (Migrants)

3. If he will estimate the proportion of houses to be built in the next five years which will be occupied by migrants. (312950)

We have no policy on the allocation of market housing, nor would that be appropriate. Foreign nationals who are eligible to apply for an allocation of social housing will have their housing needs considered against those of all other eligible applicants in accordance with the local housing authority’s allocation scheme.

I am not sure whether the Minister answered the question I asked, but may I push it further? The House of Commons Library tells me that 30 per cent. of new houses will be occupied by migrants coming into this country. Does he agree that if the next Conservative Government limited immigration to this country each year, there would be less need for houses and less need for overdevelopment?

It is important that I make it clear, as it would be unfortunate to introduce race to the debate, which perhaps ought not to be introduced, that the overwhelming majority of household growth in this country over the next five years will be indigenously fuelled by increased fertility, increased life expectancy and more people than ever living alone.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing for coming to York at the weekend, and also the Government for providing funding for new council housing in York. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that their money for housing projects—whether for private developers or for housing associations or councils—provides apprenticeships in the local area in the building trades?

It is crucial that every development has some apprenticeships attached to it. As Thames Gateway Minister, that is something I have encouraged. I am incredibly proud of the fact that we have invested £2 billion in housing growth, which will lead to many apprenticeships. There is £1.5 billion extra funding to councils and housing associations, which will build some 15,500 new affordable homes, with all the apprenticeships that will go alongside them.

Interfaith Projects

4. What funds his Department has allocated to interfaith projects in the last five years; and if he will make a statement. (312951)

Between 2004-05 and 2007-08, my Department granted more than £5 million to interfaith projects through the faith communities capacity building fund. In 2008, under the stewardship of my hon. Friend when he was Under-Secretary of State, we published “Face to Face and Side by Side”. Developed with faith communities, the document set out for the first time a national strategic framework for promoting interfaith activity, supported by some £7.5 million.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s reply. Does he agree that although the fund for preventing violent extremism has over three years been about £70 million, the overall faith pot has been about £15 million? Some of the best anti-radicalisation projects are also interfaith projects. Does he agree that this might be a good time to move some of that PVE funding and use it for more interfaith projects, which does not stigmatise any community?

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a good point. A few months ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that another £7.5 million would be put out there to ensure a multi-faith approach to implementing the Prevent strategy. Projects that are PVE-focused do not have to go down the community cohesion route. It is pretty obvious that they ought to go down the Prevent route.

Freedom of religion is one of the pillars of our liberal democracy and society. Does the Minister share my concern about those people—a small minority in the Islamic faith—who condemn as apostates those who leave the Islamic faith, and threaten violence and physical retribution for their doing so?

That is the kind of question that does not require a response. Everybody in the House would agree with that 100 per cent. Hatred of any sort ought not to be tolerated, and anything that moves to the physical would be illegal as well.

Affordable Housing (London)

The Mayor of London and the London boroughs are required to assess demand for affordable housing in London. The Mayor’s own figures show that about 18,200 new affordable homes are needed each year. I regret to say that his current plan proposes to build 5,000 fewer than that each year.

As my right hon. Friend implies, demand for affordable homes to rent and buy hugely outstrips the level of provision in the Mayor’s housing plan. Does my right hon. Friend share my astonishment that Boris Johnson has lifted the salary below which priority is given to people pitching for shared ownership schemes to roughly the equivalent of that of a Member of Parliament?

I do. When almost two thirds of London households have a total income of less than £30,000 a year, and when we are ready, as we are, to help those people who otherwise could not get into the housing market for themselves, it seems strange to want to lift to that limit and spread the Government help more thinly. I see that as clearly the wrong priority for London and the wrong priority for Londoners.

Has the Minister had time to see the powerful report from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, which calls for an assessment to be made by the Government of the impact of immigration on affordable housing and other housing, given the great pressure on demand? Has the right hon. Gentleman made such an assessment?

I recognise and pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman does on these issues, which I know he follows closely. The short answer to his question is no, I have not studied that report. I would be interested to know whether the Lords Committee studied the changes that I made recently to the policy under which councils allocate council and housing association homes, because that makes it clear that migrants are not entitled to be on waiting lists in general, and it has given local authorities more leeway to allocate homes according to local pressures.

Can my right hon. Friend explain to me why, when the wealthy and powerful suggest things like raising rents to market levels for council and housing association tenants, or taking away their secure tenancies, it is not seen as class war? Does it not amount to a loathing of council and housing association tenants on the part of the Tory party?

Such discussions and plans demonstrate a lack of commitment to affordable housing to meet the needs of people who, in many cases, otherwise would not be able to afford to bring up their family and live in the private rented sector and never would be able to afford or maybe do not aspire to move into the housing market for themselves. The truth is that public housing in this country plays a critical role in the lives of many millions of people, including 8 million current tenants, and any plans to raise rents or reduce the security that they have in their own home will be met with justified alarm.

Housing Stock

7. What his estimate is of the number of (a) new homes which will be built and (b) empty homes which will be brought into use in 2010. (312954)

The Department does not publish forecasts for house building. We are committed to reducing the number of long-term empty homes. We have strengthened the powers of local authorities to deal with empty homes when owners have failed to act.

Would Ministers be sympathetic to the request from local councils—such as mine in Southwark, where 43 per cent. of homes are social housing and one third are council properties—to be able to restructure their debts, often on properties that no longer exist? In Southwark’s case, the repayment figure comes to £43 million. If we are going to build more homes and refurbish homes, we need help so that we do not spend all our money paying off debts on homes that no longer exist.

That is exactly why we have published proposals to restructure council house finance debt, and I look forward to the Liberal Democrats’ support for those proposals.

Will my hon. Friend recognise that if we are to see housing numbers increase significantly, as we all wish, from the current difficult position, what is required above all is certainty and confidence in the future? That could be very seriously damaged by the ill thought out, uncosted and dangerous Opposition proposals for changes to the housing planning scheme.

My right hon. Friend, who is an expert on these issues and probably knows more about them—[Hon. Members: “Than you do.”] He certainly knows more about them than I do, and I am not at all—[Interruption.] He knows a damn sight more than Opposition Members, who want to drag race and immigration into discussions about housing. Opposition Front Benchers would gain some credit if they were prepared to distance themselves from the attempts by their Back Benchers to drag immigration into discussions about housing numbers.

I can tell my right hon. Friend that we are building many more homes now than we would have been if we had taken the Opposition’s advice and slashed spending this year and last, in the midst of a recession, because that would have strangled this recovery at birth.

Does the Minister for Housing stand by his comments to the Fabian Society, when he said that it was time to give up on the dream of home ownership? Does that have anything to do with the fact that home ownership is falling under Labour, and that house building is at its lowest level since the second world war—with, incidentally, social affordable homes now being built in smaller numbers than under any previous Government? Does not this Government’s appalling house building record mean that they have no choice but to abandon any lingering claim to be the party of aspiration?

I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of my right hon. Friend’s speech, because the hon. Gentleman has obviously not bothered to read it. In actual fact, there are almost 2 million more home owners now than there were in 1997, when the Government came to office. The Government have also overseen an increase in the supply of housing to almost 207,500 in 2007-08, which was the highest annual level of net housing supply in the past 30 years. As I said earlier, we are building many more homes now than we would have been if we had cut spending last year and this, in the midst of a recession, because that would have strangled the recovery at birth.

Sustainable Communities

9. What assessment his Department has made of the 199 proposals shortlisted and sent to it by the Local Government Association under the provisions of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. (312956)

The Government are currently assessing the 199 proposals shortlisted by the Local Government Association in its role as selector under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. Many of the proposals are complex and raise significant practical issues, but I am anxious to make progress on those proposals that offer practical benefits and new ways of meeting local needs.

Given that the latest statistics show that the recession is lifting, may I urge my right hon. Friend to prioritise those projects that propose local solutions to address the skills shortages in their locality? Local authorities know their own community best, and they are best able to deliver the solutions that are tailored to local need. That will help people to find jobs as the recession lifts.

That is a very practical suggestion from my hon. Friend, who, as Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, has taken a close interest in this Act. She is right; 199 proposals, each of which deserves proper consideration, represents a considerable work load for my Department. Her suggestion that we might look at the areas where we could move more quickly on issues of obvious priority and ability to deliver would be a sensible way for us to approach this big task.

Having listened to what the Secretary of State said, may I ask him to commit to a deadline for setting out his initial response to those proposals before the Easter recess, commit to a date for the next round of submissions, and support the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill?

The hon. Lady listened to what I said but failed to comprehend it. Let me be perfectly clear. The process involved asking the LGA to shortlist proposals, and in the end it shortlisted two thirds of all those put forward. Under the Act, each of those proposals deserves proper consideration by my Department. The hon. Lady needs to understand that the proper consideration of 199 separate policy proposals, many of which would require changes to primary legislation, is not the sort of thing that can be done by a Minister just running down a list and saying, “I fancy that one”, or “I don’t fancy that one.” I suggest to the hon. Lady that rather than having an artificial deadline, we need, as I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), to look at the proposals on which we can make progress and practical advances as quickly as possible. However, we will of course assess all the proposals that have been put forward, because that is what we are bound to do under the Act.

It sounds suspiciously as though the Secretary of State is trying to kick this issue into the long grass beyond the general election. What is so disappointing about this is that this legislation is a real opportunity to engage people on how public money is spent and public services are delivered in their area. If he misses this opportunity, he will be wasting a lot of public good will. Ultimately, the Total Place pilot shows that only 5 per cent. of total public spending at a local level is discretionary to local authorities. If the Secretary of State believes in the localist agenda, will he put our money where his mouth is?

I recognise the opportunities provided by the Act and the proposals that have been submitted, and that is why I want to make progress on those that we have prioritised. The hon. Lady has to be realistic. Policy is not made on a whim, or in five minutes by saying, “I fancy that proposal.” The LGA shortlisted far more proposals than anybody could reasonably have expected, and we now need to do the work that is required to assess them properly. Nobody would be more disappointed than those who put these proposals forward if they felt that they had been rejected simply in order to get a list out by the end of March. I think that we owe those people the respect of treating their proposals seriously and discussing them with the LGA, as we are required to do by law, but that may mean that it is not possible to do it by the end of March.

One of the specific groups of amendments that has been tabled has come from areas most adversely affected by a prodigious growth in student houses in multiple occupation. In my own city of Nottingham, only 2,000 of a total of 7,000 houses in multiple occupation are covered by the current licensing regime, and many of those seeking to avoid it are in the process of converting sheds and garages into living accommodation, with or without removing the up-and-over garage door. Will the Secretary of State give specific consideration to extending the current licensing regime to cover all HMOs and require planning permission for new ones?

Order. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but there is a developing tendency for the narrative to be longer than the question.

The short answer is that a number of the proposals received under the Sustainable Communities Act relate to policy discussions that the Government already have under way. On the particular issues to which my hon. Friend refers, I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing will want to make a statement in the near future.

I hope that the Secretary of State accepts that the large number of schemes submitted under the Act demonstrates the degree of public appetite that there is for this. However, does he also accept that there remains disappointment that the original provision in the Act was watered down by the reduction in scope in relation to the spending reports? Will he therefore do what 116 of his own Back Benchers have already signalled in an early-day motion and support the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) when it comes up for debate on 26 February?

We are looking at the issues raised by that Bill, and I believe that the Sustainable Communities Act is now part of the architecture of local government. Aside from party politics, I hope that the House will take me seriously when I say that some issues to do with the process have been brought to light by where we are at the moment, and we need to get them right in future to ensure that we have a cost-effective and efficient way of assessing realistic proposals. If we can do that, I see no reason why the Act will not form a permanent part of the local-national relationship in this country.

Home Information Packs

10. What methodology his Department plans to use to evaluate the effectiveness of the home information pack programme; and if he will make a statement. (312957)

13. What methodology his Department plans to use to evaluate the effectiveness of the home information pack programme; and if he will make a statement. (312960)

16. What methodology his Department plans to use to evaluate the effectiveness of the home information pack programme; and if he will make a statement. (312963)

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing said in response to a written question from the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), we intend to evaluate the effectiveness of HIPs by updating the HIP baseline research report, which was published in January 2007. A copy of that report is available on the DCLG website.

Whatever methodology the Department intends to use, is the Minister aware that Southend estate agents, without exception, believe that although HIPs may have been introduced with the best of intentions, in practice they have not worked out at all well and have damaged the housing market?

I do not accept that at all. Despite a difficult housing market, evidence shows that HIPs actually speed up sales. I am not sure whether there is a branch of Connells estate agency in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but its survey of more than 37,000 transactions showed that sales with HIPs go through an average of seven days quicker.

Why is the Minister in total denial? Nobody whatever thinks that HIPs work, and it would be sensible for the Government to knock them on the head before the election rather than have that albatross around their neck. For our part we are delighted that they are not doing so, but it is in his interests that he should.

As always, I am very grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s advice, but I can tell him that thousands of jobs and hundreds of small businesses depend on the HIP process and 13,000 people have invested thousands of pounds in training as energy assessors. The Opposition need to explain why they want to put all those jobs and businesses at risk. He needs to tell all the people in his constituency whose livelihoods depend on the process why the Opposition want to put them out of work.

The interim results of the updated baseline research report are not due to be published until this summer at the earliest. Given that no empirical evidence is therefore available to the Government about the impact of HIPs on the current housing market, why do they not listen to bodies such as the Law Society, which has said clearly that HIPs

“add a significant layer of costs for consumers but produce no discernable benefit”?

As a result of HIPs, more than 2 million home owners now have an energy assessment and recommendations in their energy performance certificate that can help them cut their fuel bills by hundreds of pounds and reduce carbon emissions. That is just one of the many benefits of the HIP process that we have introduced. I thought that tackling climate change was one of the big priorities for the new, modern Conservative party. So much, I suppose, for voting blue to go green.

I have to tell my hon. Friend that as a member of the Law Society of England and Wales, I tend to agree with it. We have to have energy performance certificates under European Union law anyway, and we would have the jobs because of that. Does he really think that for most people, a cost of more than £500 to save an average of seven days, according to the Connells survey, is money well spent? A lot of my constituents do not.

Obviously, I am very grateful to my constituency neighbour for his intervention on this issue. He is a great man, he really is.

The recent Office of Fair Trading consumer research on the HIP process showed that a third of buyers were influenced by the HIP and that they had found the new property information questionnaire the most useful component of it. As I said earlier, Connells estate agents surveyed 37,000 transactions and showed that HIPs sped up the process, which is good news.

Parliamentary questions have compelled Ministers to publish opinion research on HIPs done at a cost of £60,000. The survey of 4,000 buyers, sellers and estate agents showed, among other things, that there was minimal public knowledge of and interest in HIPs, that people considered them a waste of time, that buyers were not consulting them and that costs were being duplicated. When will the Government admit that their £500 million experiment has been a disaster, listen to consumers and scrap this discredited scheme?

As I said a short while ago, what the research actually shows is that in a short period, nine out of 10 buyers used the HIP. One in three said that it helped them decide which home to buy, which is a big improvement on the figures shortly after the introduction of HIPs, and shows that the system is becoming more helpful and useful all the time. The question that the hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Front Benchers must answer is why they want to sling out of work the thousands of people who have invested time and money in training to implement the process, and to cut the jobs of their constituents who depend on it.

Social Housing (Security of Tenure)

11. What recent assessment he has made of security of tenure for social housing tenants; and if he will make a statement. (312958)

Low-cost, long-term tenancies are the foundation for the lives of millions of social tenants, and we are committed to safeguarding that security.

Would my right hon. Friend like to offer reassurance to members of the Westfield tenants and residents association, who are somewhat alarmed to see comments made by the chief executive of the Tenants Services Authority, who said that in future, tenants in areas of high demand might lose that security? If so, will my right hon. Friend completely dissociate himself from the comments of the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council, who said that one problem with social housing was that it was hard to get rid of these people?

The comments that my hon. Friend attributes to the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council are very revealing—they reveal a deeply held prejudice against people in public housing. As for the comments of the chief executive of the Tenants Services Authority, it would be worth while for my hon. Friend to reassure residents in his constituency that matters of policy concerning the security of people’s tenure are for the Government, not the TSA chief executive.

Will the Minister be supporting the excellent Mortgage Repossessions (Protection of Tenants Etc.) Bill, sponsored by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), on Second Reading?

Waste Treatment Plants

12. What guidance his Department provides to planning authorities on dealing with contested applications for development of waste treatment plants. (312959)

General guidance on handling all planning applications is set out in our 2004 statement on general principles for the planning system. This reminds local planning authorities that they should determine each application in line with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but can his Department do anything further to ensure that planning authorities such as Derbyshire county council, which is now Tory-run, do not drag their feet when faced with difficult planning decisions, because that results in hundreds of people putting their lives on hold to campaign against, for example, an incinerator application?

I visited my hon. Friend’s constituency and I know what a fantastic local MP she is in representing her constituents. She will understand, I hope, that I cannot comment on the specific proposal that her constituents are concerned about, but I can tell her that we wrote to Derbyshire county council last October to ask it to get a move on with delivering its waste plan.

Does the Department’s guidance suggest that it is sensible to place a large energy-for-waste plant in an attractive rural area, clogging up local roads and causing all kinds of highway issues? If not, will the Minister encourage Devon county council to throw out the Viridor scheme for Lee Mill in my constituency?

The guidance shows that waste planning authorities should identify suitable locations for waste facilities in their local plans, and in doing so take into account our planning policies for waste.

Green Belt

All regional strategies, except that for the north-east, contain some targeted proposals for review of green belt boundaries in their respective regions. The purpose of the regional strategy is to consider where development should take place in the most sustainable way possible. Reviews of green belt are undertaken by local authorities, and the decision on whether to make changes is theirs. We remain absolutely committed to maintaining the area of green belt at its 2007 level, and to saying that changes to parts of the green belt should take place only in exceptional circumstances.

Following Guildford borough council’s judicial review of the south-east plan, what plans does the Minister have to remove the designation in that plan to build on the green belt in Guildford, in the light of the Prime Minister’s promise to protect the green belt? He has let the country down and he has let Guildford down.

I reject the latter point completely. The fact is that there are an extra 34,000 hectares of green belt land in this country because of this Government. I accept that the application of the sustainability appraisal process in relation to Guildford was flawed, and negotiations are going on between the Government and the litigants, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the matter any further.

Local Government Decision Making

15. What his policy is on the devolution of responsibility for decision making from central to local government. (312962)

Over the past decade, local authorities have gained significant powers, responsibilities and financial freedoms from central Government to enable devolution of decision making to local communities.

On 11 January the Government formalised and made available to local government new powers in relation to bus services which complement the concessionary bus pass scheme. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be perverse for a future Government who profess to believe in devolution to repeal those powers, which have been warmly welcomed by local government?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As the Minister who took the relevant Bill through the House, I know that Conservative Front Benchers opposed it—it is an important Bill that gives powers to local authorities to gain greater control over bus services—despite the fact that Conservative councillors wrote to the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and said that it was about time that she and her colleagues listened to what councillors were saying about the importance of bus services to local communities. The Opposition have also said that they would abolish quality contracts, which would be a kick in the teeth to councillors who want to ensure that they have good bus services for local people.

Is the Minister aware that her top-down planning policies mean that places such as Wokingham have to build on floodplain, leading to flooding of adjacent dwellings, because they are instructed to do so when they would not otherwise dream of it?

Considerable guidance is in place on building and floodplains. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, that guidance applies at various levels. It is important that councils are able to take decisions according to the situation that they face locally.

Topical Questions

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.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 24 November last year, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) used parliamentary privilege to say the following about the noble Lord Lawson of Blaby:

“I just wondered who is financing this body that Lord Lawson is setting up. We tend to find that such bodies are funded by the oil and coal industry and people like that. So I had a look and found that the Central Europe Trust Ltd is the body that he has set up and his clients are Elf, Total, Shell, BP, Amoco, Texaco—that is a lot of oil companies. From what I can see of it, it is not so much a think-tank as a petrol tank.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2009; Vol. 501, c. 426.]

That statement, while being surprisingly amusing for the right hon. Gentleman, is not correct. Indeed, if delivered outside the House, it would have been actionable. Lord Lawson has written to the right hon. Gentleman asking him to correct the record; he has not done so. If he had said that about any Member of this House, we would have been able to defend ourselves, in this House. That privilege is not available to a Member of the other place. I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that the statement is a reflection on a Member of the other place, which is prohibited, except on a substantive motion, by the rule enunciated in “Erskine May”, page 439. I ask you to rule on the matter.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving notice that he intended to raise a point of order. What I would say to him at this stage is simply this: I am happy to examine the passage in the Official Report in the light of his reference to the rule about casting reflections on a Member of the other place. That I shall do.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There must be an election on the way, as the courtesies normally applied in the House are not being observed by some hon. Members. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) visited my constituency to try to explain away why the Tory council wants to build hundreds of houses on our green belt and floodplain, but she did not inform me at all. She is the third senior Tory to do that. Do I smell panic?

Something tells me that the hon. Gentleman seeks to entice or inveigle me into a debate. He knows that that is not a proper thing to do. On his point of order—[Interruption.] I am grateful to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) for his chuntering from a sedentary position, but if he would allow me to rule on the point of order, I should be pleased to do so.

Everybody in the House knows that there is a long-established, important and generally respected convention that one Member visiting the constituency of another Member on public business should do that other Member the courtesy of offering prior notification. That is all that needs to be said. In these competitive times, I hope that those courtesies will be observed, and that it will not be necessary for us continually to return to this point.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I visit many councils each week and, normally, I faithfully inform the Member concerned, as I am sure Members will testify. In this case, I appear to have made a genuine mistake, for which I apologise. I hope that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) will accept that apology.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for such a prompt and courteous reply. I have the impression that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has noted and accepted it. A simple nod of the head will suffice.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The matter can rest there, and we can all now happily proceed in a constructive spirit.

Ambulance Response Times (Local Reporting)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require ambulance services to provide more accessible and localised reports of ambulance response times; and for connected purposes.

I thank all those Members across the House who have sponsored the Bill. I am sure that they would wish to join me in recording our gratitude to all those who work on the front line of our ambulance services for their valiant and valuable work on our behalf.

My Bill would help to bring greater transparency and proper accountability to bear on the performance of ambulance services across England, in an effort to assist ambulance trusts and primary care trusts in addressing deficiencies and variability in their current service, and to improve outcomes for patients. The seeds of the Bill were metaphorically sown in the town of Nantwich in my constituency, almost two years ago. In the face of what were called “operational decisions” by the North West Ambulance Service to downgrade and deskill the service provided by community first responder volunteers in Nantwich, a local campaign erupted in opposition, not least because to the local community the value of community first responders in helping to reduce response times and save lives by plugging the gaps that mainstream operations were unable to fulfil was all too apparent. Two years on, the campaign continues apace, testament in no small part to the unstinting commitment to his local community demonstrated by Nantwich community first responder Gavin Palin and to the resolve of local councillors in fighting for a better service.

This drawn-out saga has also raised serious doubts about the current performance standards required of ambulance trusts across England as a proper measure of outcomes for patients. Following the review of ambulance performance standards in July 1996, the categorisation of calls according to clinical urgency was introduced, whereby category A calls—those deemed immediately life-threatening—should receive an emergency response within eight minutes in 75 per cent. of cases. Category B calls—those classed as serious but not immediately life threatening—should receive a 19-minute response in 95 per cent . of cases. Category C calls—those neither immediately life-threatening nor serious—should be met through locally determined standards. Given that the number of ambulance call-outs has risen by over 100 per cent. in the past 10 years to 7.48 million in 2008-09, we should recognise that the national performance targets are robust, but rightly so.

However, the 1996 review also recommended that those standards should be based on health authority rather than ambulance service areas, as that would mean that standards could be related to smaller areas. That recommendation was not implemented, and so we remain in a regional rather than local response time system of performance accountability, despite the fact that the number of ambulance service areas has been reduced from 37 in 1996 to just 13 today. The report went on to say that there was a risk that the needs of smaller localities within larger geographical areas could be neglected. That is exactly what has happened in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies in other parts of the north-west and beyond.

Regional targets are distorting and disguising enormous local variations within a region, where local performance can be patchy all the way through to grossly substandard. If we take response times for 2008-09, the percentage of category A incidents that resulted in an emergency response arriving at the scene within eight minutes in the north-west region was 74.3 per cent., just below the national standard. Yet when the data are broken down into more localised figures, the picture is very different. For Central and East Cheshire PCT—it serves my constituency—the percentage drops to 65.2 per cent. For the CW5 Nantwich postcode, it falls further to 52.1 per cent. For the CW3 Audlem postcode, which crosses the border into the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), the percentage is just 14.3 per cent. or fewer than one in five life-threatening cases.

Even taking into account the inherent geographical difficulty of reaching more rural areas than urban areas, those are unacceptable responses. Without extracting the information through freedom of information requests, as I have done, the public have no meaningful way of establishing how their local service is performing and, in turn, as set out in the 1996 report, local communities are not provided with the freedom to adapt forms of response to local services and patterns of service such as the community first responders whom we have in Nantwich.

Such locally focused information should not have to be made public through the costly FOI process. Regional figures are already published and the North West Ambulance Service was able to respond within 24 hours to my FOI request for local response times, based on the fact that it already holds the information on its database. A senior North West Ambulance Service manager has told me that this information is available at the push of a button, so let us see it published online, on a monthly basis, by primary care trust and postcode area, at minimum cost. Where the call targets are missed by a significant margin, let us have an explanation as to why. That is already provided in Wales, so that people can identify the gaps and fill them by improving the local service through partnerships between the public, the voluntary sector and the emergency services.

The North West Ambulance Service and its chief executive, Darren Hurrell, are starting to understand the benefits of that approach. In the likely event that this Bill does not become law, I therefore hope that these proposals will form part of the common practice across the North West Ambulance Service and the other 12 ambulance trusts in England. I recognise that response-time requirements are not enshrined in primary legislation, and this mechanism of introducing new requirements on ambulance services may not be the most adept way of achieving my aim. Indeed, I am also acutely aware that there is a question as to whether response targets are an effective measure of patient care and outcomes, as what matters for the patient is not just the speed of response, but what level of medical attention is received on arrival, in transit and in hospital, and the quality of after-care service. I accept that fully, but I hope that my Bill will begin to address the absence of proper local accountability across the ambulance service and, in doing so, help to improve the outcomes for patients, wherever they happen to live. I commend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr. Edward Timpson, Mike Penning, Mr. Stephen O’Brien, Graham Stringer, Mr. Ben Wallace, Geraldine Smith, Alistair Burt, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Tobias Ellwood, Paul Rowen, James Duddridge and Mr. Lindsay Hoyle present the Bill.

Mr. Edward Timpson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 March and to be printed (Bill 55).

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is about the formal moving of the programme motion. Our understanding is that the programme motion appeared until very recently to be debatable, but at the last minute a new Order Paper seems to have appeared to explain that it is not debatable. I wonder whether it could be explained to the House why that is the case, because we would wish to debate it, in view of the fact that the Government have now changed the programming of this Bill on a number of occasions and we appear to be on a magical mystery tour without having any understanding of where we are going.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his point of order. My understanding is that under the Standing Orders the matter did not fall to be debated. What I can say to the hon. and learned Gentleman and, more widely, to the House is that the earlier Order Paper, of which he and others had sight and by which, therefore, inevitably, they were informed, was erroneous and the position was changed subsequently. [Interruption.] I am sure that the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) can understand the word “erroneous” and the concept embodied in it. [Interruption.] I need no further interruption from the hon. Gentleman, because I am responding to the point of order.

The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and others were guided by the old Order Paper; it was erroneous and was replaced by another. I do not know whether Secretary Straw wishes to respond to the point of order, but I feel sure that I am about to discover whether he does. If he wants to respond, he can. No, he is not going to do so. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield has raised his point of order. He has put his point very forcefully on the record.

Yes, Mr. Speaker, it is a wider point of order. The problem is that many Members of the House find the process extremely difficult to accept in any case. It would be helpful if the Government recognised that an explanation is owed to the whole House on matters of this kind.

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his further and wider point of order, which is now clearly on the record, and which will have been heard by Members on the Treasury Bench.

Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (Programme) (No. 4)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the Order of 3 November 2009 in the last Session of Parliament (Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (Programme) (No. 2)), as varied by the Order of 19 January 2010 (Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (Programme) (No. 3)) be further varied as follows:

(1) in paragraph 2, for ‘four days’ there shall be substituted ‘five days’;

(2) in the Table, for the entry relating to the fourth day of Committee there shall be substituted:

TABLE

Fourth day

Proceedings

Time for conclusion of proceedings

Clauses 29 and 30, Schedule 4, Clauses 31 to 34, new Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 3 (except any new Clauses and new Schedules relating to the tax status of members of the House of Lords).

The moment of interruption on the fourth day.

Fifth day

Remaining new Clauses and remaining new Schedules, Clauses 59 to 62, remaining proceedings on the Bill.

The moment of interruption on the fifth day.

—(Lyn Brown.)

Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill

[Relevant documents: Report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, Session 2007-08, HC 551-I and–II, and the Government response, Cm 7690. Tenth Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Session 2007-08, on Constitutional Renewal: Draft Bill and White Paper, HC 499, and the Government response, Cm 7688. Fourth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on Legislative Scrutiny: Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill; Video Recordings Bill, HC 249.]

[4th Allocated Day]

Further considered in Committee

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Clause 29

Ending of by-elections for hereditary peers

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

This provision will remove by-elections for hereditary peers from the current arrangements for membership of the House of Lords.

Before I discuss the clause, it may be helpful, with your indulgence, Sir Alan, if I explain that the programme motion as it appeared on the Order Paper until this morning was deemed to be debatable. I understand that an error was made in the Table Office. The Government had no knowledge of that, but having seen that the motion was debatable, we assumed that it was indeed debatable and were prepared for it to be debated. I think the House knows very well that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), and I are always happy to debate.

I ought to say that this is the only occasion during a long period as a Member of the House that I have ever known an error to be made by the Table Office. It is just one of those things. Also, if I may say so, the Standing Order was passed in 1998 and confirmed in 2004. There is a separate debate to be had—it is open to the House to have it—about how and whether the system of programming should be changed.

Order. I was indulgent to the Secretary of State because I thought the matter had been dealt with previously on a point of order in the House. I hope that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will not press the matter too far.

Of course not, Sir Alan. I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for giving way, and I accept entirely that this was a very rare error in the printed papers, but I also agree with him entirely that we should consider the matter, because it is anomalous that the House cannot decide its own programmes and order of business. We need to address that as a matter of urgency.

Thank you, Sir Alan. As I have said, the clause will end by-elections for hereditary peers. As existing hereditary peers pass away, they will not be replaced.

This is the background to the clause. Following the 1997 manifesto commitment, it was the Government’s intention to end the hereditary principle altogether. Legislation was brought before Parliament in the 1998-99 Session. In the event, and following great debates in the other place, a deal was struck, and it was originally agreed that 90 hereditaries, who in turn would be elected by their own peers, would continue to be able to sit as Members of the House of Lords. It was also agreed that the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain would continue to sit ex officio, and nothing in the provisions—or, I may say, any other provisions—is about changing that. It is not an issue today.

Subsequently, during the debates, the provisions to continue with 90 hereditary peers were further amended so as to provide for those by-elections—the subject of the clause. It is well known, and I am sure that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) will wish to remind us, that Lord Irvine said that this was an agreement and that it was for a transitional period to the next stage of reform. I paraphrase, but I think entirely accurately.

One issue that may arise is whether we are through that transitional period.

Allow me to continue before I get on to the main—[Interruption.] No.

I wish to correct the noble Lord Steel, who was in that House at the time, I think, and who has taken a great interest in the matter. In the debates on his Bill, which contained provisions almost identical to these, he said:

“It was clearly indicated at that time that this”—

the by-elections and the position with regard to hereditaries—

“was a temporary measure to last perhaps a couple of years. We are nearing the 10th anniversary of that temporary measure.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 February 2009; Vol. 708, c. 432.]

He went on to make a joke about celebrating 100 years of Asquith’s commitment to remove the hereditaries.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He may agree with me that whatever Lord Steel may say, the commitment that was given by Lord Irvine in clear and unequivocal terms—I shall quote only a small part of it—was that “the 10 per cent.”, namely the remaining elected hereditaries,

“will go only when stage two has taken place. So it is a guarantee that it will take place.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 March 1999; Vol. 599, c. 207.]

The right hon. Gentleman may agree that that and Lord Steel’s comments are on two completely different topics. The temporary arrangement may have lasted a long time, but why should Lord Irvine’s guarantee not remain good, seeing that stage 2 has not yet occurred?

I hope that I can convince the hon. and learned Gentleman why. We are not proposing in the Bill to end the right of the existing, albeit elected, hereditaries to sit in the Chamber. What we are proposing is in respect of by-elections. Some might argue that, after 10 years, we are very close to the second stage. I do not particularly take that point, because I want to come on to whether, 10 years on, it is sensible or acceptable in a modern democracy to continue with an utterly risible arrangement for election of hereditary peers with tiny constituencies.

I will also deal with the issue of party balance. I want to make it clear that, as those from other parties who have served with me on the cross-party working groups on the House of Lords will confirm, it is no part of the Government’s intention to use this provision to worst the Conservative party, which has the largest number of hereditary peers, or to shift the long-standing and explicit agreement that there should be a cross-party balance in the House of Lords.

A moment ago the Secretary of State described the by-elections arrangement as absurd. Does he not have even a twinge of embarrassment that his Government are responsible for devising it and then ensuring that it secured a majority in the House?

I do not think that even Lord Irvine would claim authorship of the arrangement, which was part of a deal that was struck. He agreed it—I remember it coming to Cabinet. In the end, we confirmed it in order to get the Bill through, but if the hon. Gentleman’s only point is whether that was Government policy, he often enough suggests that it is time to revise Government policy. My suggestion is that, given the practice that has followed with these by-elections, it certainly is. I shall explain that in a moment.

The Secretary of State has described the arrangement as utterly risible. Surely the whole point of creating, in his words, “an utterly risible arrangement” was that it would put pressure on future Governments to introduce fundamental reform. Once it is removed, there will be no pressure whatsoever. We will live with an appointed Chamber, perhaps for ever.

So that we understand what the Conservative party is seeking to defend, it is seeking to defend by-elections. There have been 10 in the past eight years, so we are not undertaking a huge reform. In any event, the other 90 hereditaries will remain until they pass away, and some of them are quite youthful, so it will take quite a long time before the grim reaper reduces the number or eliminates hereditaries altogether. Let us be clear about that.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. What has happened in the intervening 10 years? We set up a royal commission under the noble Lord Wakeham, which did great work but, itself, was relatively divided. My late friend, the former Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House, Robin Cook, as Leader of the House in February 2003 organised a debate and a series of votes on the future composition of the House of Lords, and those who were Members at the time will recall that every single proposition was defeated.

When I went on the customary transition from Foreign Secretary to Leader of the House, a well trodden path, I was given by Tony Blair—as the then Prime Minister generously said to me—not one but two hospital passes in addition to the normal responsibilities: one was party funding and the other was House of Lords reform. Anyway, we got the cross-party group going, and one Green Paper was published. That culminated in our debates of March 2007, when for the first time ever the Commons, on free votes, came to some very clear decisions. It rejected an all-appointed second Chamber; it rejected any mixed proportion of appointed and elected peers, up to but excluding 80 per cent.; and it voted in favour, first, of an 80 per cent.-elected Chamber and then, by a bigger majority, in favour of a 100 per cent.-elected Chamber, which has been accepted as the policy of this House.

I reconvened the working party, and we produced in July 2008 a further White Paper, which drew on a great deal of work, including that of the Wakeham commission, about how Members would be elected, the terms that they would serve and so on. Quite shortly, I intend to publish what will amount to the basic contents of a Bill fully to reform the House of Lords. Those contents are currently being drafted, so a huge amount of work is being done on the matter.

I am very interested in what the right hon. Gentleman has just said. I understand that he has to tread carefully to preserve a consensus on constitutional reform, but I am surprised that he is willing to wait for the transitional arrangements to continue, effectively, until the last hereditary peer dies. Does that mean that the Government’s policy is basically to shift responsibility for the transitional period from the Ministry of Justice to the grim reaper?

No. I understand why my words may have been interpreted in that way, but for the avoidance of doubt the hereditary peers would go when the new arrangements come in. Meanwhile, there is a glaring anomaly that we need to deal with.

Ending the membership of 90 per cent. of hereditary peers in the House of Lords is a remarkable achievement that no other radical Government have ever succeeded in doing, as we know, and the Government should accept the praise for what has been achieved. Leaving 10 per cent. of hereditary peers—92 in effect—in the House of Lords, sitting there only because they inherited their title, one of which goes back as I reminded the House two years ago, to the 13th century, however, is unfortunate and is clearly an anomaly. Many of us had hoped that the situation would not continue for so long.

I agree, and I thank my hon. Friend for his compliments, because he was a Member between 1966 and 1970, when Richard Crossman, the then Leader of the House, attempted a major reform of the House of Lords. That was scuppered by a cross-party alliance between Enoch Powell, who was then a Conservative, and Michael Foot. That proposed reform was not very good; the one before us is much better.

I shall give way to the two right hon. Gentlemen, but I want to make some progress before I do so—if they can hold themselves.

We suggest that the arrangements for these by-elections, and their results, are even less satisfactory than accepting the continuance of the existing 90 hereditaries. That is because those 90 could claim, and have claimed—I do not necessarily endorse this—some legitimacy because they were sitting there before and they were elected at the time as part of the deal. Ten years on, we have a ridiculous arrangement. It is worth taking the House through the circumstances of the 10 by-elections that have taken place. Of the two that involved the whole House, the first had 423 electors and the other had 348 electors. Since then, in all the rest, the total number of electors has been fewer than 50. The Conservatives usually manage about 50 electors, but they also usually manage between 30 and 45 candidates, which is absurd enough. [Interruption.] I am glad that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) recognises how absurd this is, given a moment’s examination.

When we come to the position of the Liberal Democrat party and the Labour party, it is utterly absurd that in the first election of a Labour peer following the death of Lord Milner there were 11 candidates, but—guess what?—only three electors. That makes Old Sarum appear to be a remarkably democratic arrangement. In the case of the Liberal Democrats in 2005, there were three candidates and only four electors. That is slightly better—30 per cent. better—than the Labour party could manage in terms of electors. However, is anyone seriously going to go out and argue on the stand publicly—

No, that was not the point of it—the point was that it was necessary to get this through with some degree of consensus, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who has now left his seat, has said; that is why people swallowed hard and accepted it. However, 10 years on, as the laughter from the Opposition Benches, including the Conservative Benches, acknowledges, this situation cannot continue.

Does not this underline the fact that if we are to have reform, we should have wholesale reform, which is what we were presented with? I happen to be opposed to that, but that does not matter two hoots—what matters is that we take this matter seriously. It does not matter what the Justice Secretary says—everybody outside knows that this is a tiny bit of reform that is party politically driven and that he is trying to explain away. Why does he not have the honesty to come forward with a proper reform, so that we can vote on it properly?

I am sorry, but it is not party politically driven. I am astonished that the Conservatives are apparently working themselves up to oppose something that, judging by their facial expressions, no one believes in any sense to be the case. As a Conservative, the right hon. Gentleman, of all people, should recognise that we do not necessarily have to do everything all at once. As regards constitutional reform, I have never argued that we should do everything all at once. This is a reform that we can undertake now. It is in the interests of the Conservatives to accept this—it is not remotely party political—and they will get themselves into a ridiculous position if they do not. Then we will have made small progress towards the ultimate goal of full reform, to which we and the Liberal Democrats are completely committed, not only in principle but as a priority. I very much hope to hear from the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) that he is committed to that, too.

We have had 12 years of a Labour Government with a big majority, but there has been no phase 2, because it has been too difficult. When does the Secretary of State believe there could conceivably be a phase 2, and what political circumstances would bring it about?

My belief is that there will be a phase 2 if we are re-elected at the next election, and there ought to be a phase 2 if any other party is. All three parties are signed up to the detailed proposals that were encapsulated in the White Paper that I published in the summer of 2008. There is some detail to which they are not signed up, as is made clear in the White Paper, but the basic principle of an 80 per cent. or 100 per cent. elected Chamber is in place, as is the detail of how it can be achieved. The relevant clauses, which are quite complicated, will be published. By the time of the election, the matter will have been the subject of four years of active work by all parties, officials and lawyers.

Some of us take a slightly different view. The Secretary of State has said that it was absolutely absurd to have hereditary peers, but to some of us it is absolutely absurd to have appointed peers as legislators.

The difference is that life peers are at least appointed on their own merit. Since the hon. Gentleman mentions the matter, let me deal with the provenance of some of the people who have been “elected” as hereditary peers in by-elections. Take, for example, the Earl of Stair. His is a Scottish peerage created in 1703 for the lawyer and statesman John Dalrymple, who was Secretary of State for Scotland until he was forced to resign for his responsibility for the massacre of Glencoe. That was how he got in the House of Lords, and it is only because of what his great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather did at the beginning of the 18th century that the current Earl could even stand as a candidate. Or take the original Earl of Glasgow, who was one of the commissioners who negotiated the treaty of Union. Everybody who negotiated the treaty benefited directly in some form or another, and in his case he was given a peerage.

That is not my objection in the least, and I am glad that they are Scotsmen. My objection is because life peers at least have to show some merit, whether or not they are party appointees. [Interruption.] Yes they do. They have to show more merit now, because of the House of Lords Appointments Commission.

I want to make some progress, but I will give way to the two hon. Members who are standing, beginning with the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield.

The Secretary of State asked a moment ago, rhetorically, whether we really object to this measure. He noted that we have treated it with some humour, and indeed it is a humorous topic in many ways. However, why should we not hold the Government to their promise? He cannot get away from the fact that the promise that was made in 1999 was exactly that, and he is about to break it. What possible justification is there for doing that?

I am sorry, I do not accept that for a moment. We can argue about how long the transitional period should be, but no one anticipated 10 or 11 years ago that we would be in this position. The hon. and learned Gentleman, who believes in the sovereignty of Parliament, should be the last person to claim that one Parliament should be able to bind its successors.

No; the hon. and learned Gentleman asked me a question, and I am giving him an answer.

Moreover, it must be true—the noble Lord Steel, who as far as I know believes in an appointed Chamber, has made the same point—that the principal arrangement in respect of which the original commitment was given concerned the 90 hereditary peers who were retained. The by-elections came later. Yes, we confirmed them, but the original deal was in respect of those 90 peers. Now we have the completely absurd, risible system of by-elections, which cannot continue.

I give way to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), as I said I would, and then I will make some progress.

The Lord Chancellor wishes to belittle the Earl of Stair and the Earl of Glasgow, but doubtless if they had been large-scale donors to the Labour party, they would have been welcomed as life peers for the remainder of their days.

The Conservatives would be quite happy to go along with clause 29, if the Lord Chancellor had been true to his word. We made it clear in a Division in the House almost three years ago that we wanted to see how phase 2 would pan out, with an 80 or 100 per cent. elected House. Had he introduced that at the same time as the clause, we would have had no objection whatever, but our objection is the only safeguard to ensure that there is going to be a proper phase 2. Without it, we could wait 100 years, as he and Asquith have pointed out, to get rid of the remaining hereditaries. The risk is that if we allow clause 29 to go through, within 30 or 40 years, there will be no further reform, and the Government will have got their way.

That is a kind of Trotskyist argument, if I may say so. The Trotskyists used to argue that running sores should be kept running to raise consciousness, and so hasten the revolution. My view is very different. I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at clause 29. All he would see is a measure for the abolition of the by-elections. There have been only 10 since the system was established, but they have become absurd.

I will give way in one second, but I want to make progress.

The first point raised by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster was not worthy of him. I have criticised the system by which a Liberal Democrat and a Labour peer were elected. We do not like the arrangements. I do not know whether any of those people were donors to any party, but I am sure they are all worthy. However, it would be far better—this is my last point before I listen to the debate—

Of course I am going to give way—I always give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman—but I just want to finish my sentence. I have not got to my last point, which is an explanation of why the measure is not to worst the Conservative party.

Before I ask my question may I just declare an interest? I am an hereditary peer and thus have a contingent interest in all this—[Laughter.]

I rise not only to support what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) has said, but to add this gloss: we are talking about not only a promise, but part of a deal—the Justice Secretary has conceded that. Had that deal and promise not been made, the previous measure would not have got through. In fact, the right hon. Gentleman is not only breaking a promise, but abrogating a deal that gave him a positive benefit, namely the measure that he would otherwise not have had.

First, that might have been a reasonable point if we were proposing to abolish all 90 hereditaries without putting anything else in place, but we are not. Secondly, when the noble Lord Irvine had to accept the amendment to the original proposal, which came later—the original deal was struck in May, but the amendment was made in October—he said:

“The transitional House will be of short duration, but let us proceed on the hypothetical assumptions that it might last for more than two or three years”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 October 1999; Vol. 606, c. 169.]

and so on. They were not talking about a whole decade and no one anticipated that.

I have already given way to the hon. and learned Gentleman and he can make his own points in his own way in a moment. I hope that I have spelled out just how ridiculous the current arrangement is.

My last point is whether any part of the measure is aimed surreptitiously at shifting the party balance against the Conservative party by the back door—it is a matter of record that there are very many more Conservative hereditary peers than Liberal Democrat or Labour hereditaries. The answer to that question is no. We have long been committed to the principle that no single party should have an overall majority in the Lords and that there should be broad parity between the two main parties, which there is. We are not going to undermine that principle.

The death of an hereditary peer can, like the death of a life peer, be taken into account in nominations of new peers, in exactly the same way as if the reduction of a party’s representation in the House had been caused by the death of a life peer. I am afraid that I have not met the Earl of Stair, but if he is a man of great merit and a Conservative—[Interruption.] He is a Cross Bencher, so let us take the Earl of Cathcart, whose title is of even greater original antiquity. If he is of great merit and commends himself to the leader of the Conservative party, there is no reason why he should not be at the top of the list for nomination by the party as life peer, subject to consideration by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. That is a sensible way to approach this issue. In that case, the leader of a political party—or HOLAC in the case of Cross Benchers—is measuring the relative merits of the candidates against others who have not been lucky enough to be born the son of a hereditary peer.

When the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) leaves this place, he will no doubt add himself to the electorate of the Conservative peers, and he may seek election if there is a by-election and if this provision is not accepted. On the other hand—I do not wish to damage his chances—he is of sufficient skill, experience and perspicacity to recommend himself to the leader of the Conservative party for nomination as a life peer, which would be far better. [Interruption.] It is not patronage. That would be better in terms of his legitimacy, as well as in terms of the legitimacy of an appointed House.

I cannot believe what I am hearing. The logic of what the Secretary of State says is that we should replace hereditary peers with appointed peers. Some of us think that we should get rid of the whole shooting match, because a revising Chamber is unnecessary. Surely the appointment process is just as besmirched as the idea of hereditary peers. Can he tell us how many Labour peers have been appointed because they gave considerable amounts of money to the Labour party?

The hon. Gentleman knows that we want to move to a wholly or mainly elected Chamber, and that will be for a future House of Commons to decide. I agree with his basic point that an appointed Chamber is not as good as an elected Chamber, but a Chamber appointed on the merits of the people who sit there—whether he happens to agree with them or not—is far better than a Chamber constituted on the merits of its members’ long-dead ancestors, the basis that the Conservatives are now trying to defend.

This is a modest reform. My answer to those who have suggested that