Skip to main content

Westminster Hall

Volume 506: debated on Tuesday 2 March 2010

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 2 March 2010

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Housing (London)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Watts.)

I rise to begin this important debate in the hope that a Minister will join us shortly. Nevertheless, given the importance of the issue, I shall begin and keep my comments as brief as possible to allow my hon. Friends and other hon. Members, who have a greater knowledge of the subject than me, to contribute. I will be grateful not only for their contributions, but for their interventions.

As this is a broad subject, I will give some structure to my contribution by confining myself to the leading issue. I say to the Minister, who is now in his place, that he has not missed a great deal because I have been introducing the subject gently.

The issue to which I wish to confine most of my comments is affordability. In saying that it is the key issue for housing in London, I do not mean to suggest that there are not other serious matters that need to be debated. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), for example, has a debate on the private rented sector in this Chamber later in the week. Moreover, there are issues related to owner-occupation. In particular, there are the problems that owner-occupiers may face during a recession and the steps that the Government have taken to alleviate them, with the consequence that repossessions are running at about 50 per cent. of those in previous recessions.

Those are all important topics, but given the social and economic position of London and, in anecdotal terms, the case load in my surgery and in my postbag—I suspect that the same is true for many other hon. Members here—the issue of access to housing and affordability is chronic in London, and also acute in that we now have a crisis.

I will say a bit about the scale of the problem and a bit about the Government’s response. However, the majority of my remarks will focus on the policy of the Mayor and the boroughs in London, which is going to give serious cause for concern. Such a policy is not alleviating the current problems of affordability, but worsening the situation. I will end my contribution with two specific questions for the Minister.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman’s contribution will tend to be fairly parochial—the same will be true of mine, if I am lucky enough to catch your eye, Mrs. Humble—but will he accept that there is a danger of perhaps being slightly over-partisan, although that does not necessarily come entirely easily to his nature? In commenting on the record of the Mayor, and no doubt that of the administration in Hammersmith and Fulham, will he also give some credence to the campaign being run by the Evening Standard, which somewhat worryingly refers to the lack of activity in this and related areas of poverty over the past decade or more in London and in the UK as a whole?

I welcome the campaign being run by the Standard, and I hope that is in the tradition of crusading social journalism, which is sometimes absent from the modern press. If my comments become parochial or partisan, I will put them in a wider context. What is happening in Hammersmith and Fulham is not simply an issue for my constituents and those who wish to live in affordable housing in the borough, but it is the blueprint for what many other boroughs—and, indeed, the Mayor—are now doing.

I have no qualms whatever in making this political. What is happening in Hammersmith and Fulham is being replicated across the whole of London, not least in my own borough of Camden, and it seems to me that the policies are those of the Conservative party. If they are allowed to run, the damage wreaked on some of the most vulnerable people in our city, not least children, will be astronomical.

I am grateful for that comment, because it puts our discussion into context. I will try to be moderate in my tone and precise in my comments because, at the end of the day, those in housing need or in social housing—either council or housing association housing—are interested not in party political squabbles, but in having a secure and decent home for the future. There is a political divide and it is important that we identify it, but we must do so in forensic rather than emotive terms.

I will briefly run through the statistics, which are probably familiar to many of us. We have 45,000 households in temporary accommodation in London, which is 75 per cent. of the national total. Despite concerted attempts—in some cases, quite unseemly attempts—by councils to discourage people from going on to the waiting list and to prevent people from getting access even to the queue for social housing, some 350,000 people are on that waiting list. London has a third of the overcrowded households in the country. Some 25 per cent. of households in Hammersmith and Fulham live in overcrowded conditions.

As for affordability, on the latest figures, private sector rents on average are £207 for London, compared with £81 for registered social landlords and £76 for local authorities. That factor in boroughs such as Hammersmith and Fulham, which has high land values, rises to a ratio of 1:4 between social rents and private sector rents. The average price for house purchase in London is £315,000. In Hammersmith, the price went down between mid-2008 and mid-2009 from £570,000 to £480,000. It is now rising again and is almost certainly above £500,000.

The ratio between average earnings and the average house price for London is therefore a factor of eight, and for Hammersmith and Fulham a factor of 12. Some 40 per cent. of households in Hammersmith and Fulham have a household income of £20,000 or less. A third of households in London have an income of £30,000 or less. I identified those figures from the many statistics that are available because they show that, for many people and the vast majority of people in housing need, social rented housing is the only option in London. That is not necessarily true in other parts of the country.

I welcome genuine low-cost home ownership when it is accessible to people on moderate incomes or is a way for people in existing social rented housing to get into a form of ownership, thereby freeing up other units. Increasingly and cynically, it is not being used in such a way. The overwhelming demand is for social rented housing.

The previous Mayor had a target of 50 per cent. affordable housing. Within that, 70 per cent.—35 per cent. of the total—was to be social rented housing. When Labour was last in charge in Hammersmith and Fulham four years ago, those figures were running at 40 per cent. social rented, 40 per cent. intermediate and 20 per cent. market housing on good figures for new build, which shows that with a lot of application it is possible, even in boroughs with high land values, to achieve very good levels of affordable social housing and rented housing.

The Greater London authority’s own figures show that the target of 18,000 affordable homes a year should, if we are to meet current need, break down such that 45 per cent. of that is social rented. Against that need, the Mayor’s response has been, first, to abolish targets; secondly, to have a shortfall of 5,000 properties on that target of 18,000; and, thirdly and most bizarrely, to raise the threshold for affordability to an income of £74,000 a year. I do not know by what definition that threshold is affordable.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is going to say that he would like to bid for one of those homes; he is probably in the right income bracket.

The hon. Gentleman may well be right about the income level. I fully appreciate his passion for this subject and I would agree that, in many ways, we have an absurd situation. It is particularly absurd, obviously, given the polarisation here in London. However, does he not accept that the erstwhile Mayor’s targets were providing some very perverse incentives for developers, who were just sitting on their hands waiting for a change in administration or a change in policy?

I fully accept that the current situation is a very undesirable state of affairs. None the less, the erstwhile Mayor’s targets simply were not working, which is why the current Mayor decided to do away with such targets. One of the problems, particularly in central London boroughs, was that, in essence, so little was being built, simply because those targets were unrealistic, given the market conditions.

I can understand the frustration that the hon. Gentleman has experienced over many years, both in this place and wearing a previous hat. None the less, having strict targets simply was not achieving anything, which is the main reason why we have gone for a much more flexible approach that will, I hope, pay certain dividends in the years to come.

The hon. Gentleman is the acceptable face of the Conservative party in London, but on this issue I have to say that I disagree with him absolutely. First, as the figures that I gave earlier show, it is possible to develop high levels of affordable housing. Secondly, if there were consensus between the major parties on providing for people in housing need, as there would have been 30 or 40 years ago, developers would not have the option of waiting for a change in administration or policy. I always found that developers were persuadable and that they would rather have a profit now than the possibility of a larger profit in the future.

Hammersmith and Fulham council is a very good example—in the past, Wandsworth council would have been a very good example, too—in that it has set out its stall as being “open for business”. What that means is allowing unrestrained development—essentially, saying to developers, “Come here and you can do what you want,” and beyond that, saying, “Actually, you can only do what you want if you also do what we want, and what we want is not to increase but to reduce the amount of social housing.” I will say a little more about that in a moment.

I will be gently critical of the Government and say that I do not believe that, in the first 10 years of the Labour Administration, the provision of new social housing had the same priority as the renewal of existing housing stock under the decent homes programme. That is understandable because the decent homes programme was dealing with existing tenants and leaseholders, because of the scale of the neglect during the previous 18 years, and because there are regional differences. This debate is about London, however, where the problems of affordability and access to housing are greater.

I am pleased to say that, with the change of Prime Minister, we had a change of policy towards housing supply, so I give credit to the Government for the £7.5 billion that they are now putting into affordable housing; the £300 million being put into new council housing, which is very welcome; the £500 million being put into the Kickstart programme, although there are concerns about quality in that programme; and the £1 billion going into housing via RSLs and the housing pledge. Those are all very positive developments. They are only the start, but they give me confidence that a new Labour Government would open a new chapter in the supply of housing and affordable housing in this country. Given what the polls are saying to us, perhaps that is something that we can now look forward to.

There has been an ideological problem. If one goes back to the 1945 Government and later Governments, including even some Conservative Governments, social housing would have been given the same priority in terms of improving people’s quality of life as health and education. Clearly, however, it has slipped down the agenda. I hope that it is now being put back where it should be.

Social housing is not only about the right to a decent home, which the Government have done an extraordinarily good job on, or about how people live; it is about where they live. In Hammersmith and Fulham, 32 per cent. of households are in social housing—either council housing or rented social housing—and that is in an area with the third highest land values in the country. I am very proud of that. I am very proud because it means that, economically, the city works; it means that people on low and moderate incomes who do essential jobs can have decent accommodation in the centre of the city; and it means that we have mixed communities. The great lie now being promulgated by the Conservative party is that getting rid of social housing encourages mixed communities, but the social housing in my constituency houses mixed communities—mixed in terms of tenure, people and income. That job is being done by the market, as well as by people choosing where to live, if they have that choice.

I do not want to put a gloss on that situation. There are big problems of poverty and disrepair and there are poor landlords, many of whom are RSLs and local authorities. At least 50 per cent. of my casework in surgeries relates to housing—mainly problems of overcrowding, disrepair and the like—but when I deal with that work, I always ask people if they like living where they are living. I do not think that one person in five years has said to me, “I don’t like living in Shepherd’s Bush,” or “I don’t like living in Hammersmith.” People want to live in vibrant inner-city areas; they like the fact that communities in those areas are mixed communities.

I fear that the effect of Conservative party policy in London is to create exactly what the Conservatives say they are not trying to create: mono-tenure, wealthy ghettos of the sort that we see in some other European cities, from which the poor are driven out to the outskirts of London or to beyond the M25. My local council leader’s favourite phrase is, “Sweat the asset.” He has a genuine resentment of people on low incomes living in areas with high land values. That is what that policy is about; it is about a raw type of capitalist, Thatcherite policy, which we have not seen in London for a generation.

In Camden—the borough that I jointly represent with my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson)—the Conservative council is selling off flats and houses that become vacant. I must say that it is doing so with the enthusiastic support of the Liberal Democrats, with whom the Conservatives are in coalition in Camden. The council is doing that despite the fact that there are 18,000 people on the housing waiting list. To reduce the stock that is available is a bizarre response to a waiting list of 18,000.

I take that personally because when I was the leader of Camden council, we bought up 6,000 properties from the private sector, so that we could give people security of tenure and take other people off the waiting list and put them into the vacant flats. If some people think that being in social housing is unpopular, all I can say is that during the time that I was council leader I did not receive one single communication, by any means, from anyone saying that they did not want to become a council tenant—

Order. I have to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, whose intervention has turned into a speech. I am sure that his hon. Friend understands the point that he is making.

It was indeed. My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to his own creditable record on housing, because exactly the same thing was done in Hammersmith in the 1960s and 1970s. What partly created the mixed communities in Hammersmith is what are called the “acquired properties”. If one walks down any Victorian terraced street in Shepherd’s Bush or Hammersmith, one will probably go past three or four houses and the first will be a housing association property, the second will be a private rented property, the third will be a council house and the fourth may be in owner occupation. One could not create that paradigm if one set out to do so, but that is what exists and I believe that it is now under threat.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I really must respond to the point made by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson). The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that the reason why Camden council has had to sell off properties is because his Government will not fund the council to do up the homes that are still the responsibility of the council. If the Government were prepared to honour the promise to provide decent homes for tenants in Camden, Camden council would not be in the position of having to sell off homes to fund that promise.

My flow is being interrupted, so I will let other hon. Members make their points in their own time.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) is exactly right. If the aim is to destroy affordability in housing, there is a raft of ways to do it. I wish I had an hour to catalogue the crimes, but I will try to end in 10 minutes.

Hammersmith and Fulham council has disposed of 13 homeless hostels, which constitute about 60 good-quality self-contained units of accommodation. Homeless families will now go into privately leased properties outside the borough, which will cost the taxpayer five times as much and destroy communities—but the council has a capital receipt that it can use to pay down debt. The council has sold by auction a number of the acquired properties that I mentioned. It has even gone to the extent of giving itself planning consent to convert large Victorian properties that have been divided into five units into single residential units, which can be sold for a couple of million pounds on the open market, so it is not even catering for the intermediate market, as it says it is. In addition, because it is selling by auction in a recession, it is getting a return of about 25 per cent. less than the taxpayer should get.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and apologise for missing the first part of his speech. Does he acknowledge that by selling off properties and forcing people into the private sector, where rents are very high, the burden is being passed on to the taxpayer through housing benefit? Housing benefit costs for private rented accommodation are roughly three or four times those for rents in the council and housing association sector. That is a monstrous waste of public money.

Absolutely. I will run through six ways in which affordable housing is being damaged in Hammersmith. Each of the examples is echoed across London and each one, as well as the social cost, usually has an economic cost for the taxpayer.

The first is disposal. The second is demolition, which is under way on several small estates. The third is handing back units: 250 newly built social housing units, of which 191 were socially rented units, have been handed back to a developer; the reason given was that there was no demand for them. The fourth is not bidding for available Government funds, whether for new council housing or through the Homes and Communities Agency to assist RSLs to build. Not a penny has been bid for—indeed, money has been sent back.

The fifth way in which affordable housing is being damaged in Hammersmith is by allowing planning applications for schemes that include no affordable housing. Developers who already have planning consent that involves an amount of affordable housing are cynically going back to the Conservative council saying, “Look old chap, things are a bit tight at the moment. Would you mind if we built that thing without any affordable housing after all?” The council replies, “No, no, we understand. Go ahead and do that.” I want the Minister to think about that, because it goes outside the guidelines of the Department for Communities and Local Government. If local authorities are giving permissions on the basis of the alleged economic hardship of developers and thereby eliminating affordable housing, the Government should take an interest. The sixth way is through the definition of affordability, which I have mentioned in the context of the Mayor. Deep cynicism is displayed in the fact that what is called affordable is not affordable in practice to any of my constituents in housing need. That is true of every unit that is so classified, and very few of those have been given consent over the past four years.

Those measures would be enough to reverse the good work done in the past to maintain and improve the quantum of affordable housing, but two further things are happening in Hammersmith and Fulham that have implications for the whole of London and beyond. First, there is an extensive programme of estate demolition that could reduce council housing stock by up to 5,000 units—a third of total stock—if all the schemes that have been mooted go ahead in the next few years. Eight estates, ranging in size from 100 to 2,000 units, are named in the local development framework for wholesale redevelopment. Two other schemes that were mooted have not been concluded only, I believe, because the developers approached by the council do not wish to go ahead at present. That shows what a topsy-turvy world we are in. The local authority is approaching developers saying, “We will give you planning consent to do exactly what you want—triple the density, build commercial developments—provided you do what we want, which is to demolish any affordable housing near the site.”

Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the Government’s pathfinder policy under which 16,000 homes in the north have been demolished and fewer than 4,000 built to replace them? Does he think that was a good idea?

I always fear giving way to the hon. Lady because her interventions are so off-beam that she insults the debate. There is nothing wrong with regeneration or rebuilding; I am talking about something very different. I am talking about a deliberate political and economic policy to remove Labour voters from an area, as Shirley Porter did, and to allow the unrestrained development of an area without any regard for the residents who are losing their homes or those who continue to live there—a policy the central objective of which is to reduce the quantum of affordable social housing, so that people on low and moderate incomes can no longer live in an area. That is happening in Hammersmith and Fulham and, no doubt, in Wandsworth. The hon. Lady represents a constituency in a borough that pioneered such policies 20 years ago. All Hammersmith is doing is copying the techniques used by Westminster and Wandsworth in the 1980s. She should apologise for what her party is doing, rather than make fatuous points.

We are discussing housing in London, where there has been an excess of demand over supply for as long as I can remember. The proportions are now critical. When the pathfinder projects started, they were dealing with the problem of excess supply. Many areas were blighted with huge numbers of homes that could not be rented or sold. Although circumstances changed quickly, the pathfinder policy was a rational response to a totally different problem from the one faced in the capital.

As always, I am grateful to my hon. Friend because she has more patience than I. Perhaps she would like to put on a seminar for the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, so that the hon. Lady can learn about housing policy.

The second thing happening in Hammersmith and Fulham is that the estates being demolished are picked not because they are in disrepair or because of over-supply, but for no other reason than that they sit on valuable plots of land next to existing development sites. Many of the developers I have spoken to say that they do not want to do it—they do not want the bad reputation or the political flak, and they do not want to negotiate with several hundred council leaseholders, or get immersed in the successful campaigns that tenants run to retain their estates. However, the price demanded by a council, which is both the landlord and the local authority, for developers to do what they want is that they destroy people’s homes and lives. That is unprecedented. Hammersmith and Fulham is an extreme case, but it is spreading to Westminster and Kensington and affecting what the Mayor of London does.

If there was any light at the end of the tunnel, one would say that this cannot go on for ever—people have to live somewhere and the state and local authorities have a responsibility to people in housing need. However, one should read the policy platform of Conservatives such as the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council and his acolytes, which was famously discussed about a year ago at a secret meeting, the details of which I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. They plan to go beyond the destruction of large numbers of individual homes. They plan to end what they would call the socialisation of housing and to achieve the withdrawal of the state from the housing market. There would be no security of tenure; the only form of tenure would be assured shorthold. Rents would rise by up to 400 per cent. to market levels, which would have implications for housing benefit bills in the short term. Capital investment in social housing would end. There would be an end to the local authority’s duty to the homeless.

That is not fantasy. It is spelt out in a document called “Principles for Social Housing Reform” ostensibly written by the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council—he is an important figure in Conservative local government and is head of the innovation unit—and put forward to the Conservative housing spokesman, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), and the chairman of the Conservative party, the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), as an example of what a Conservative Government could do. One can see how attractive the destruction of social housing would be. The policy is to retain less than 10 per cent. of stock for those who have physical or mental disabilities and are unable to go out into the market and find their own properties.

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that the meeting cannot have been that secret if he was able to obtain the minutes under freedom of information legislation. The document to which he refers is a broad discussion paper on a range of issues. Does he not accept that a key area that is ripe for reform is the idea that security of tenure of a council property can be passed down to the next generation? It seems incredible, not only to those living in social housing but, more importantly, to those who are not able to qualify for social housing, that tenure can be passed down through the generations in the way that the current legislation allows.

No, I do not agree with that. I agree that under-occupation, as it is called, can be addressed in a number of ways, but I do not believe that council tenants and housing association tenants should be treated as second-class citizens in the housing market. I am afraid that is what the hon. Gentleman’s party is proposing.

On that point and the principle at stake, is it not the case that if a tenant inherits tenancy—apart from perhaps a wife inheriting her husband’s tenancy—that tenancy is conditional upon that person moving to a property appropriate to their household’s size? It is important that we do not fall into the trap of assuming that three and four-bedroom houses pass down through the generations, even for households that no longer warrant them.

That is an excellent point. Briefly, I shall make three further points—I would like to go on longer, but I will not. First, despite the measured tone that we have heard from the Conservative Members today—although, of course, that may change—let me remind the House of what was said in the meeting I referred to. To give just a few of the many famous quotes about social housing from that meeting:

“Knock it down and start again.

It’s hard to get rid of.

Social rented housing was seen as a dead end rather than an opportunity to progress.

Only a very few people need some physical form of social housing...possibly less than 10% of national stock.

What is a poor person?

Define what social housing is for – not about giving somebody a £1m home for life.

We need to deal with the level of political risk. Not just people living in White City will vote against you, concerned citizens elsewhere will do so.

Funding is needed for the political problem of management.”

I understand why that meeting was kept secret: it is because those involved were plotting against the poor. It was exposed in the Evening Standard last year, and that is exactly what is happening.

The Conservative party had the opportunity to dissociate itself from that meeting last July, when my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing wrote to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) asking him whether he would dissociate himself from this and deny it. My right hon. Friend has written twice more and has not had a response. We can take that degree of silence as consent to the extreme policies that are being pursued in not just Hammersmith and other boroughs, but London as a whole. That is the blueprint for the Conservative’s policy on the 4 million social homes and the 8 million people who live in social housing in this country.

I will end with two questions for my hon. Friend the Minister. I understand that, because he has planning responsibilities, he cannot comment on individual schemes and programmes of regeneration, but will he at least give an undertaking that a Labour Government will protect and defend the rights of social tenants—their security and their rents? Will he ensure that the quality and quantity of social housing is not destroyed as the Conservative party wish it to be, but that it is increased?

Unfortunately, in some cases now, we are unable to offer that protection in Hammersmith and Fulham, so tenants such as those on the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates have organised to make use of legislation such as the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 to take over not just the management but the ownership of their homes. Will the Government introduce the regulations, which have not yet been published, under that Act that tenants need to take control of their lives? A mixed community of people who love their homes and the place where they live are threatened with the destruction of their lives by a greedy developer and an unscrupulous council. The remedy is there—it has been provided for them by the Government, with some foresight—but they need that final step to be taken. If that is done, they can take control, as other tenants have in the past, of their own lives and estates. I am sure they will do a much better job than the appalling one that their Conservative council is doing at the moment.

Order. Clearly, several hon. Members wish to speak. I hope to call Front-Bench spokespersons at 10.30 am, so if hon. Members can limit their contributions, I will try to get everyone in.

I will try to do so, Mrs. Humble. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) on initiating the debate. As he will know, I have raised my general concerns regarding housing provision in the capital a number of times over the past year in the House. However, I would be grateful if you allowed me to take a slightly more parochial approach on this occasion, Mrs. Humble.

An important local issue has been brought to my attention, which I wish to raise with the Minister with some urgency. I should add that the matter has profound consequences for the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). A couple of weeks ago, a member of House of Commons staff spoke to me personally about the future of the Millbank estate in my constituency of Pimlico, in which he has lived for many years. The freeholds of Millbank are owned by the Crown Estate, whose Housing Business Group provides about 1,300 homes in London as a whole. Having recently completed a review of its residential housing portfolio, the Crown Estate has decided to consult on the sale of its central London freehold ownership.

The Housing Business Group was historically set up to provide decent homes at an affordable rent in central London, which allows working Londoners to stand on their own two feet without state reliance. For that reason, Millbank houses a significant number of my constituency’s key workers—for example, nurses, teachers, bus drivers and, indeed, a number of parliamentary staff. A local vicar, the Rev. Philip Welsh of St. Stephen’s Rochester Row, has said that

“the current provision of affordable housing for key workers by the Crown Estate is a major contribution to social wellbeing, in maintaining a diverse and lovely local community in this part of central London, among them many long-established local families who give the place a sense of roots”.

The looming fear is that following any sale, rents will inevitably increase. That will push many residents out of their homes and destroy the strong community that has grown up on Millbank. I accept that that applies equally to the estates in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras and other seats.

I raise the issue today because although responsibility for the management of the estate rests with the Crown Estate’s board, the organisation is formally accountable to Parliament, and the Treasury is effectively the principal Government stakeholder. Indeed, the Treasury is kept informed of the Estate’s business plans and strategies. Although the property is, of course, officially owned by Her Majesty, the Crown Estate’s profits—some £227 million—are paid directly to the Treasury.

Only a couple of weeks ago, the chief executive of the Crown Estate, Roger Bright, came before the Treasury Select Committee to be questioned about the value that the Estate delivers to the taxpayer. Mr. Bright has recently had to deal with some hefty challenges, namely the £1 billion that has been wiped off the value of the Estate’s portfolio in the last tax year following the recession. It is thought that the sale of Millbank and its sister estates could raise up to £250 million. Many residents believe it is rather curious that the Crown Estate is proposing to sell Millbank at a time when property prices are well below their peak, but when the Treasury’s cupboard is relatively bare.

Following the discussion with my constituent in the House of Commons, I arranged to meet Paul Clark, the Crown Estate’s director of investment and asset management, to learn more about the Estate’s plans. Mr. Clark was keen to emphasise that no decisions have yet been made on the sale, but said that because of a lack of explicit management expertise in the provision of social housing, the Crown Estate has not been able to benefit from the economies of scale in the same way that London’s larger housing associations can.

The Crown Estate also feels that the returns from that stock over the medium to long term do not fit with its broader financial obligations. Mr. Clark explained that anyone who rented or bought their property under certain contractual arrangements will have those rights carried over. Those whose rents are set under the terms of the Rent Act 1977 will continue to have their rents set by a rent officer, and assured tenants will continue to have full security of tenure and their rents will remain subject to a rental ceiling.

Mr. Clark told me that he feels that the Crown Estate will only do a deal with a potential owner if a housing association is involved and, preferably, takes on an equity stake. He assured me at the meeting that the Crown Estate is going to great lengths to make any sale as smooth as possible for residents and, in doing so, is likely to penalise itself financially. Evidently, it is looking for potential new owners who have a long-term perspective on the sale.

I want to touch on several of the deep local concerns that remain. We will have a reprise of the matter in a little over 48 hours’ time when the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras will discuss it in the main Chamber, so I hope that the Minister will recognise that we are trying to work together across the political divide to represent the interests of our residents and that there is a strong feeling about the matter, which requires resolution.

The chairman of the Millbank residents association, Professor Ben Bowling, told me that many residents believe that the consultation period, which will finish before the end of the month, is little more than a sham. He feels, as do many residents, that the decision on whether to sell has already been made. He rejects the notion that the Crown Estate has no explicit management expertise, given that it has successfully provided residential accommodation for nearly a century. Indeed, until recently, most tenants have had good relations with the landlord, a point to which I can testify, given the absolute dearth of complaints I have received about them in the nine years I have been a Member. It has been stated that the provision of affordable housing is part of the Crown Estate’s core values of integrity, stewardship and sustainability.

There is deep disappointment that the decision to sell the residential estate seems to be driven entirely by financial considerations, with the importance of community and the duty to hard-working Londoners being cast aside. The residents’ suspicions, I fear, have been aroused by Mr. Clark’s history as the person who presided over the Church Commissioners’ sale of their affordable housing only a few years ago. In that case, despite prior assurances that a focused housing provider would provide benefits for tenants, rents rose astronomically after the sale, the key worker scheme ended and flats were then sold off.

The proposals are causing real concern among the excellent team of local Westminster councillors, including Danny Chalkley and Steve Summers of Vincent Square ward and Angela Harvey, Nick Evans and Alan Bradley of Tachbrook ward. They, along with local activist, David Harvey, are united in opposing the sale of the estate, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) will share those sentiments. They fear the damage that might be done to a cohesive local community and the uncertainty and distress being inflicted on individual residents. Until now the Crown Estate has been regarded as a highly valued landlord for its residents, but councillors and other local people are distressed that it is giving such a short consultation period when the uncertainty surrounding the decision will profoundly affect many people’s lives and homes. Local people are demanding some confirmation that no decision has been taken, as they believe that the Crown Estate is being pressed to sell the homes by the Treasury in a desperate attempt to raise money. I have now received a significant number of letters and e-mails from desperately worried constituents.

I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that everyone was suspicious that the Treasury was behind that in some way, but will he not confirm that the minutes obtained from the Crown Estate through the freedom of information request show that it has never even informed the Treasury of its intentions?

There have been too many references to secret minutes obtained through FOI requests, but I take on board the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I have heard from many concerned residents. Eileen Terry, a Crown Estate tenant since 1979, recently retired and is now on a fixed income, so large rent rises would force her to find another home. Angela Reape and her husband both work as nurses for the local NHS trust and so are vital key workers in the vicinity. Their three children, who were all born in the flat, attend local schools and the family has always said that it feels part of a close-knit community. They fear that their nurses’ salaries will not cover the rent for a home big enough for their children in Pimlico. Vincent Minney’s family have lived in Crown Estate property since 1945. His brother lives around the corner from him and he would not be able to afford market rents in the community in which he has lived all his life. As he says,

“not everything can be measured in pounds, shillings and pence”.

I started school in 1970, so I am as young as one can be to remember what that means—my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) is entirely oblivious to the notion of there being 240 pence in a pound. Perhaps we would all rather like that now, as it might make the financial situation rather easier.

The hon. Gentleman must forgive me, as I was just coming to the close of my speech.

What I have said chimes with a recurrent theme in other speeches I have made in the House on social housing. Too often social housing goes to people who have no real connection with an area, and I should hate that to happen in Millbank. I call on the Government to look at the proposed sale as a matter of urgency. Alongside hard-working local councillors, I am joining cross-party efforts to look at the matter. I know that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras is deeply committed and is doing fantastically effective work in his constituency, and the same applies to the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch. I hope that we can all work together to ensure that the residents’ voices are properly heard on that matter.

It is a pleasure to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) on securing this important debate. To allow other Members to speak, I will curtail my comments and not give them the benefit of my full contribution.

My hon. Friend said that he welcomes the change in the Government’s approach to social housing, as do I. Some of us have been campaigning on the need to get local authorities building houses again for a long time. The fact that we are investing £300 million in building council housing again and starting the biggest building programme for 20 years is extremely welcome. The economic downturn and its impact on the housing market make social housing even more important for many of our constituents. When I talk to people in my constituency, or to those in some of the larger houses who are now home owners, I find that the vast majority of them started out in social rented accommodation when they were young, either as family members or as tenants themselves, so the idea that being in socially rented accommodation is a dead end and is somehow a barrack of the poor, as it is referred to in some Conservative quarters, is completely wrong.

The housing market has changed and we will no longer see 100 per cent. mortgages, or even 125 per cent. mortgages, on the value of properties, so it will be even more essential that we have affordable rented accommodation for people to live in while they are saving the deposit that they will need to buy a house, which will take a considerable time in this housing market.

There is no lack of ambition to be a home owner and to make that choice; the issue is about choosing whether to remain a tenant or move on. That opportunity should be there for future generations, and I think that all parties have failed in that endeavour in the past, so I am delighted that that has changed. The Prime Minister has clearly indicated that he wants more social housing and has put the money in to make that happen. It is essential that that continues.

We have seen the documents from Hammersmith and Fulham council, and I will focus on that issue briefly to allow other Members to speak. We have been highlighting to council tenants in my constituency the threat that the document from Localis poses. It would take away secure tenancies and move rents to market levels. Tenants are extremely alarmed by that policy.

I draw attention to the two letters from the Minister for Housing, who wrote to the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), in July and again in September, asking him to distance himself from the policy and to state that it is not national Conservative party policy. The only response that we have had from him so far came during a visit to Hammersmith and Fulham on 5 January, when he stated:

“I believe in strong local government. It’s not my job to run Hammersmith and Fulham but when I look at this borough I’m very proud of what they have done.”

That is the only response to a challenge to distance himself from a policy that says to 8 million tenants up and down the country that they face market rents and losing their secure tenancies.

During a debate last week in the Greenwich council chamber, Tory councillors challenged the Labour party on scaremongering in respect of council tenants, yet all they were able to say was, “This is not the policy of Greenwich Conservatives.” They were not able to say that the policy is not national Conservative party policy. We have a group of Conservatives in Greenwich who are distancing themselves from their national party and their leader because they are so embarrassed by the policy.

In Greenwich, tenants have the third lowest rents in London—the average is around £80—but they would nearly triple to £225 if we were to impose market rents. It is not some maverick group of Conservatives that has come up with the policies, but the leader of the Conservatives’ innovation unit. The document was drawn up following a meeting at which virtually every leading exponent of housing policy for the Tories was present. The leader of the Conservatives has failed to distance himself from it and to deny that it is Conservative party policy.

On behalf of the tenants in my borough, I want to hear from the Minister today that they will have secure tenancies under a future Labour Government, that we will not go down the path of the folly of moving towards market rents and impoverishing 8 million tenants up and down the country and that we will make that a policy in the next general election and that tenants will hear it loud and clear.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) on securing this debate and on an excellent and wide-ranging speech. I also congratulate my Westminster colleague, the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). In many ways, he made the same speech and, despite his earlier intervention about security of tenure, his contribution, which I substantially agreed with, echoed exactly the themes that were drawn out by my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush and for Eltham (Clive Efford), who stressed the importance of maintaining affordable, decent social housing in all areas of London, and how such accommodation can sustain and maintain communities and, of course, underpin the economy by enabling people to live and work in central London.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster and others were absolutely right to raise concerns about the Crown Estate and the way in which it is proceeding. I and other colleagues who may not be present have similar concerns about the behaviour of the Church Commissioners. When they sold their estates a few years ago, they sold an estate in Maida Vale—Dibdin House—to a housing association that was partnered with a private development company. Maida Vale, which is a ward in Westminster that is generally fairly prosperous, has some social housing.

I took the view then, and still hold it, that if we are serious about maintaining mixed tenure in all areas, and if we do not want our social housing to be solely and exclusively concentrated in poor areas, we need to maintain homes at affordable rents in places such as Maida Vale and, indeed, Millbank. Therefore, it is deeply disappointing that properties formerly held by the Church Commissioners are now being sold and let at market rents that are way out of the reach of the people and families who lived in them when they were held by the commissioners. The mixed tenure that was in Maida Vale has been eroded.

It is completely extraordinary that people who seriously advocate mixed tenure on our large housing estates, which is something that we would all support, cannot apply the same logic to the wards or even the boroughs that are grossly under-provisioned with affordable housing for rent, whether they are the outer London boroughs that failed to provide social housing, even when the previous Mayor was encouraging them to do so—they are certainly failing to do so now—or more local areas.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush said, I am not at all uncritical of this Government’s housing policy. I applaud the decent homes initiative and the investment that went into it. Tens of thousands of tenants are grateful for the new kitchens and bathrooms and general upgrades to their accommodation, but we came too late to the issue of supply. It was only in the early years of the former Mayor’s leadership of London that we really began to turn around the supply in London, and that is carrying through because of the investment that was made in the early years of the current Mayor. We will have to see what happens in future.

We have failed to update the definition of overcrowding; we have failed to put overcrowded housing at the centre of housing policy, despite its critical importance; and we have failed to uphold the code of practice on placing homeless households with a local connection in the local area. That has caused enormous distress to families with long connections to Westminster who are commuting from east London and bringing their children into school every day because the local connection was overridden.

However, as my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush and for Eltham said, that is as nothing compared with, in some cases, lazy thinking on the part of some housing professionals, and, in other cases, poisonous ideological thinking that has emerged from some of the think-tanks and local authorities around issues such as ending security of tenure. It is easy to say that there is not enough social housing to go around and that one of the ways to deal with that is to end secured tenure to try to make stock available. Similarly, a parallel position emerged in a Westminster council document on overcrowding in London, which called for legislation to end the duty of local authorities in respect of homelessness, so that homeless households can be discharged into the private rented sector. Both those parallel policies fail to deal with some important related points.

Where do people in housing need with low incomes go? By definition, they cannot afford to pay or to buy; otherwise, they would not be in their position. Of the two catastrophes coming down the line, the first is cost, which has been mentioned. If homeless people are moved into the private rented sector—they are already being diverted by the Government’s homelessness strategy, which is an error that would be even more deeply ingrained by the policy in question—the public purse would have to pay for properties costing £400, £500, £600 or £700 a week when in some cases the property next door in a council block would be rented for £100 a week by someone with security of tenure. The cost would be burdensome at a time when, strangely, people will be looking at the housing benefit budget for cuts. Those two things cannot be squared.

However, even more worrying is the sheer damage that is done to families who are left to fend for themselves in the private rented sector. It is worth reminding ourselves that housing associations began precisely as a response to the failure of the private rented sector to provide affordable, decent accommodation. It is sad that a few of the housing association professionals are now advocating almost a return to the circumstances that brought housing associations about in the first place.

Finally, let me make one quick point: we have mixed tenure on many of our estates, and it is because of leasehold. My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of how much lobbying I have done for a better deal for leaseholders on local authority estates who face large major works bills. I ask him again, please, can we do something to assist households such as those on the Little Venice estate who will shortly be receiving bills for up to £55,000? Those are the people who we encouraged to buy. In many cases, they are working families or pensioners, and we have to do something to recognise the difficult situation that they are in.

Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush on this debate. It shows just how clear the divide is between our side, for all the faults in our housing delivery, and those who are advocating market rents and an end to security of tenure.

May I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) on securing this debate? It is good to see that it is so well attended. It is a great a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), who always makes a knowledgeable, thoughtful contribution to debates on housing. I have attended many such debates over the past 18 months to two years and she has attended almost all of those on London issues.

I agree with the hon. Lady’s point, which was picked up by many other hon. Members, about the threat to security of tenure. I was greatly alarmed to hear one of the housing associations advocate this policy at a fringe meeting at my party’s conference: it was roundly jumped on by almost everybody in the room. I wonder who supports that policy, beyond a couple of isolated housing associations and perhaps one Tory council. Perhaps the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), the Conservative party spokesperson, will tell us what her party’s policy is on the threat to security of tenure. There are not many other voices supporting that.

We had to hack into a website to get them, so it was quite difficult.

Among those who attended were David Cowans, the chief executive of Places for People, Anu Vedi, the chief executive of Genesis, and Kate Davies, the chief executive of Notting Hill Housing—three large associations operating probably in the hon. Lady’s constituency as well as mine. Frankly, these people should be ashamed of what they are doing to housing in London. They are all now advisers to the Tory party on exactly the policies that have been denounced in this debate. The housing association movement should remember what it is there for.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. One of his colleagues mentioned earlier what happens when people move away from affordable rented housing into the private sector: inevitably they have to claim housing benefit to pay their rent. Over the past couple of months, as we have seen, the scandal of the cost of housing benefit to the public purse inevitably results in a knee-jerk reaction from the Government and their capping the limit on housing benefit, rather than concentrating on increasing the amount of affordable housing. So we go round in a circle and never get anywhere.

Many people in my constituency say to me, “Look, I really want to work and want to be able to afford to go to work. I want to provide for my children. I’m qualified to work and have been offered a job but I cannot afford to work, because if I went to work I would lose my housing benefit and could not afford my rent.” This is not a sensible way to get people to contribute to the community.

I largely agree with what the hon. Lady is saying. Would she and her party support the principle of moving to a much tighter form of private sector rent control and increased security of tenure for tenants in the private sector? That is the fastest-growing sector in London at present and the greatest source of insecurity there.

I do not support such a policy, but I will say something about the private sector towards the end of my speech, if I have time.

Other hon. Members who have attended debates in which I have spoken will know that I feel strongly about housing, not just because it is my role in my party but because in my constituency 20,000 families are on the housing waiting list to get into affordable housing to rent. That number does not include the people who are already in such housing, although it may be unsuitable, on the wrong floor or overcrowded. A large percentage of people in my constituency are in housing misery. One in 10 children in my constituency are in temporary accommodation.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) mentioned the Evening Standard campaign. I wish that it had begun this campaign sooner, but I am delighted that it is campaigning on this issue in the run-up to the election. It is ironic that the Government spend a lot of money picking up the pieces of broken housing policy with regard to antisocial behaviour, education, health and employment. If they addressed the issue of affordable housing, they would not need to spend as much on other things to deal with the crisis caused by their failure to tackle the problem. We desperately need more affordable housing. We also need more housing in London: this is a basic supply and demand issue.

A number of hon. Members spoke about the Mayor’s targets, which are part of the issue, but it is also to do with the problems relating to section 106 not working well at a time when the economy is less buoyant, and with a failure of courage on the part of many councils. I have taken an interest in the Brent Cross Cricklewood planning development, which is not in my constituency but is on the edge of it and will have a big impact on the Cricklewood area. I was shocked that Barnet council approved that development with only 13 per cent. affordable housing. In fact, it is leaving that agreement to be renegotiated every year. I fear that the percentage of affordable housing will go down rather than up. Such multi-million pound developments really should contain a higher proportion of affordable housing.

While there is enormous housing need, there are also 100,000 empty properties in London. I do not want to run through all Liberal Democrat policy in the next three minutes—[Interruption.] We have so much housing policy that I would be here until around half-past 11, and I need to allow other hon. Members to speak.

I want to mention a couple of further points: the private sector, which the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush mentioned, and empty properties. We know that the economy will be tight and there will be huge restrictions on public sector spending over the next five to 10 years, whoever is in government. It is particularly sensible at this time to focus on getting more affordable housing, and more housing overall, back into the system in as economic a way as possible. I am baffled that we are prepared to leave so many properties empty, particularly in London, when so many people are in housing need. That is why we are pledging to put £1.4 billion into a mixed loans and grants scheme to bring 250,000 empty properties back into use. That will not solve the entire housing problem in London—nobody is suggesting that it will—but it is a commitment to invest and it will make a difference to those families who need a place to live and to streets with empty properties that blight the local community. It will also make a significant difference to the construction industry.

One problem during this recession is the huge loss of jobs in the construction industry. Even when we come out of recession and are able to begin building again, we will have no chance of meeting the need that is there because of the loss of skills in that trade. If we invested in bringing empty properties back into use now, that would create some 50,000 jobs in the construction industry, which would maintain that capacity. Therefore, as we came out of recession, we would have a chance of meeting the housing need in London.

It is crucial that we raise standards in the private sector, so that people at either end of the market have as much choice as possible. We will never be able to provide as much affordable housing as London needs, but there would be less need if the standard in the private sector were greater, if people felt that they had better choice and if those on benefits did not have access only to housing at the bottom of the heap. We need to create incentives for landlords to improve their property, which is why we have argued for a cut on VAT for renovation and rebuild and for landlords to be able to claim the tax back on the work that they do on the property against their income, rather than only being able to claim it back later when they sell the property. We should give them that incentive to hold on to the property and to be more professional and to invest in their property, so that the standards are higher.

It is also about giving people on benefits access to different properties. Any constituency Member of Parliament knows that most landlords will not take people on local housing allowance or housing benefit. A scheme called “Fast track” has been operating with great success in pilot studies in the south-east. That scheme is a mixture of advice and insurance, giving people access to much higher-quality private sector accommodation and giving families real choice, providing an alternative to the race to the bottom that we see at the moment.

I appreciate the time constraints on the hon. Lady, but will she acknowledge that phenomenal profits are being made from renting out former council properties, often at four times the rent that councils charged? It is not incentives that private landlords need; they need controls on them.

I am not in favour of rent controls because the distorting effect on the market would be immense. Perhaps the real issue is giving councils greater ability to control the freedoms on the right to buy, so that not so many properties—especially in areas such as London, where we are in dire need of affordable housing—are sold off and then used in the way suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

I wish that housing were a greater political issue during the election. I am grateful for Shelter’s campaign ahead of the election to raise awareness of the issue, but encouraging people who are in deep housing need and misery to vote is perhaps the most important thing that it can do. The Government have failed significantly to provide affordable housing for my constituents, and I have no faith in the Conservative party’s ability to provide for them. I desperately wish that people in housing need would shout louder now. Prospective Governments might then listen to them in the run-up to the election when they are looking for votes.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) on securing the debate. As London MPs, we all recognise how important housing is in London—not just in our own communities, but throughout the city. Housing is one of the most important aspects of people’s everyday lives, whether they are families stuck on a social housing waiting list, communities living in run-down areas that desperately need regeneration or young couples struggling to get on the property ladder. Housing concerns are relevant to everyone in the city, and increasingly so in recent years, unfortunately.

In some respects, there has been more consensus in the Chamber than I expected. I agree with many of the Labour MPs who have spoken that we have been let down during the years of the Labour Government. As has been said, there has been a lack of national political leadership from the Government for many years and, unfortunately, far too often and increasingly at local level.

I shall comment briefly on Hammersmith and Fulham, because the hon. Gentleman mentioned it, and then talk about the broader London housing issues and some specific aspects of waiting lists and empty properties. The reality is that Hammersmith and Fulham council has given a commitment to provide quality housing for council tenants, and has pledged to build at least 6,500 new homes by 2021, which is nearly one third more than the level set by the former Labour Mayor of London in his London plan. Of those extra homes, 50 per cent. will be affordable housing. There is a desire to ensure that there is additional housing in Hammersmith and Fulham for the people who need it most.

I would like to make progress.

It is ironic that today’s debate has in part focused on demolition when, as I said in an intervention, the housing market renewal pathfinder areas have lost 16,000 homes in the midlands and the north, including Victorian terraces. They are often demolished with little more thought than an inspector’s 10-minute visual inspection.

So far, just 3,734 new homes have been built as replacements, making the housing shortage even worse in those areas. In fact, far from helping to regenerate them, that demolition programme has increased deprivation in many of the targeted areas, and some social landlords seem to have deliberately managed areas down into decline to make the benefits of redevelopment from the programme more attractive. When the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions considered that major demolition programme, it said that it risks destroying

“the heritage of areas and”


“to replace it with neighbourhoods of lasting value.”

I will, Mrs. Humble, but I realise that I have touched a nerve. It is a scandal that 16,000 homes have been demolished and only 4,000 have been rebuilt to replace them when there is such desperate need for housing—not just in London, but throughout the country. That is relevant, and it shows the contradiction of the Government’s policies. House building nationally has fallen to its lowest since the second world war, with just 118,000 completions in England last year.

Under this Government, 250,000 fewer social homes have been built than would have been the case if we had maintained at the same level the run rate of social housing being built under the Conservative Administration. In fact, less social housing has been built every year under Labour than under the Conservative Government. Warm words in a debate are not enough. The reality is that there have been fewer social housing starts and completions, and that is unacceptable.

In London, action is being taken to address the problem, but figures released last week confirm that in England the statistics on net supply of housing produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government show that eight of the nine English regions saw a decrease in the number of net additional dwellings supplied in 2008-09. The only region to experience an annual increase in net housing supply was London, where the increase was 3 per cent. Indeed, the housing stock is also receiving a boost from the Mayor of London’s actions to bring empty homes back into use. Investment in that project has been trebled to £60 million, with 1,000 empty homes brought back into use in 2008-09.

The development of GLA-owned sites for housing provision has the potential to deliver up to 36,000 more homes, which we all agree would be welcome. Nationally, we need proposals to build more homes to benefit families in London and throughout the country, which is why we have discussed new initiatives. We believe that for six years a Conservative Government should match extra council tax generated by councils building new homes to encourage them to build more homes, especially affordable homes. That would provide 125 per cent. of council tax matching.

As we have heard, not only are fewer affordable houses being built under this Government, but people are increasingly struggling to afford those that exist, and the Government’s own advisory panel cited the increase in the deposit required from first-time buyers, which has shot from 16 per cent. of annual income in 2000 to 64 per cent. in 2009. Under the social homebuy scheme to enable tenants to own or part-own their rented property, sales have been far short of the predicted levels. The scheme was designed to help 5,000 households a year, but at the end of September 2009 only 328 sales had been completed. Its performance has been woeful, compared with the original hopes for it.

The feedback from many constituencies is that the various homebuy schemes on offer are complicated and people do not understand which one is right for them. There is a real need to streamline the system and to make clearer the path that people may take to get on the housing ladder through part-ownership.

In London, the lack of affordable housing has been particularly acute. Investment in affordable homes has been lowered with £350 million cut from the city’s top-up to the affordable homes fund, despite having 48,000 households in temporary housing. The Mayor is taking action and has pledged to build 50,000 new affordable homes throughout London by 2012. That will be the highest number of affordable homes ever delivered in one mayoral term, and it is set against the backdrop of the worst recession for decades.

To date, 20,000 of those homes have been built since the Mayor was elected in 2008. That project, I hope, remains on track to meet the 2012 target. In his first year in office, the Conservative Mayor built more affordable homes than the previous Labour Mayor managed in his final term.

Finally, I want to talk about waiting lists and overcrowding, which are a real concern across London and issues that I hear about in my surgery. The provision of sufficient and suitable social housing has been incredibly poor under this Government. The lack of social housing supply combined with the rising number of people in need of social housing has, as we have heard, led to a soaring number of households being on local authority waiting lists—up from 1.1 million people in 1996 to a staggering 1.8 million in 2009.

I sense crocodile tears. If that is so, will the hon. Lady condemn her colleague from Hammersmith and Fulham, who says that there are

“already too many socially rented homes in the area… We want to attract people who are very rich… We must stop our borough becoming a ghetto for… the urban poor”,

and that the long-term future for housing estates is to turn them into “decent neighbourhoods”? That is the real rhetoric of the Tory party, not the crocodile tears being shed here today.

I find it hard to disagree with the statement that the long-term objective is to ensure that council homes are in decent neighbourhoods. We would all agree with that, but the hon. Gentleman seems to be sensationalising it, which is counter-productive to a genuine political debate about what those decent neighbourhoods should look like and how to ensure that they function properly.

To finish my comments on overcrowding, the reality is that, in London, nearly 7 per cent. of households are in overcrowded accommodation. That is the legacy that we have after 13 years of the Labour Government. Nearly 7 per cent. of families in London live in overcrowded accommodation, and the problem is even more severe in social rented housing, where nearly 13 per cent. of families live in overcrowded conditions. That is up from just over 10 per cent. in 1995, and is a real indictment of the lack of building of social housing during Labour’s term of office, which I hope is coming to an end.

The Mayor has promised to halve severe overcrowding in social housing over this decade, with a move towards building larger and better designed family-sized homes. We believe that that is a better way to ensure that families have the space that they need.

In summary, a number of Labour Members have been highly critical of their Conservative councils, but they have been equally critical—rightly so—of their Labour Government. We need regeneration and redevelopment to help those communities, and we must have more social housing than we have had over the past decade and a half under a Labour Government. Unfortunately, we will get that only with a change of Government, when the Prime Minister finally has the nerve to call an election.

I am still laughing at the final point made by the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening).

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) on securing the debate. He is a fantastic advocate for his community, based on a foundation of 25 years’ service, hard work and delivery for the people he represents. We hope that that will continue for a long time.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) asked a series of questions about the Crown Estate and mentioned the work that he has been doing with my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson). As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the Treasury is taking the lead on that issue; we have received a number of representations and are in discussions with the Treasury. I am happy to talk to him about that in more detail, if he would like.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) is an acknowledged expert on these matters, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham on the commitment he has made to housing policy during his work with the Department for Communities and Local Government, and I am happy to assure him that we will not impoverish 8 million tenants.

Like my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), I want housing to be a bigger issue than ever before at the next election, so that we can win a mandate for more investment in social housing in the future.

It is always a pleasure to debate with the hon. Member for Putney, but she has disappointed me today. I was hoping to get an answer to the letter that was sent to the Leader of the Opposition about her party’s housing policies and the points that were made on security of tenure. Perhaps I will have to write to the hon. Lady directly about those matters to get an answer.

I want to pick up on one thing that the hon. Lady said, because the points that she made about pathfinders are complete nonsense. If she had visited—as I have—Stoke, Sandwell, Birmingham, Hull and Liverpool, she would have seen the work that is being done to assemble land in those areas and know the time that it takes to deal with owners and developers and to get developments under way. She would also see the huge contribution that the pathfinder programme makes to employment in the construction trade, the provision of skills and work in the community.

What is worse about what the hon. Lady said is the fact that it is completely the opposite of what the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) told a pathfinders conference that he spoke at in Manchester. If there is one big lesson that the Conservative party must learn, it is that it cannot say one thing to a bunch of stakeholders and another somewhere else—it will be found out.

From the hon. Lady’s comments today, we take it that the Tory party is not committed to continuing with this programme and that if, God forbid, it wins the election, the programme will be abolished. That would drive a nail into any hopes of rebuilding support for the Conservative party in those cities.

Let me pick up on some of the points that have been raised. All hon. Members who have spoken today mentioned the long-standing lack of social housing in London and other parts of the country, which has resulted in problems such as long waiting lists, lack of mobility and overcrowding. We have been working to address that in recent years, but the economic crisis has brought some of those problems into even sharper relief, with consequences for home owners, house builders and prospective buyers.

I will summarise some of the statistics that illustrate the scale of the problem. In September last year, there were 43,490 households in temporary accommodation in London, some 76 per cent. of the total in England. On 1 April last year, there were 354,000 households on the waiting list for social housing in the capital. There is concern in many parts of London about the options on offer once people are in social housing and need to move home, perhaps because their family has grown.

I am well aware of families who live in cramped and overcrowded conditions, and the impact that that has on their quality of life. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North that, like her, I want to see a solution to the problems that leaseholders in her constituency are facing. We are in discussions about that, and I look forward to meeting her again to discuss such matters.

The need for additional housing in the city, including affordable housing, is well documented. The GLA’s recent strategic housing market assessment estimated housing need at 32,580 homes per year. It also showed a need for 18,200 affordable homes per year in the capital, and within that, evidence points to an 80:20 split between social renting and intermediate housing. Put simply, the only way to resolve the underlying problem of housing in London is to increase supply, particularly the supply of affordable housing.

As hon. Members will be aware, the Homes and Communities Agency has been in operation for just over a year, with responsibility for housing and regeneration funding. By bringing those programmes together, the HCA is discussing regeneration and housing needs with each of the London boroughs, and it will be able to deliver better and more focused outcomes for places and communities.

We have responded to these problems. The Government are committed to investing £7.5 billion over two years—a commitment not matched by the Opposition—to deliver up to 112,000 affordable homes and about 15,000 private homes.

I am pleased with the money that was allocated, and I understand that the application on this round was grossly oversubscribed. Will the Minister give an indication of how much money will be available in the next round for new council house building?

I cannot give my hon. Friend that assurance today, but I can tell him that London is the biggest recipient in relation to the £7.5 billion that we have allocated and is receiving £2.8 billion of that money, which is 37 per cent. of the total. That funding includes the £1.5 billion housing pledge announced last year, which, as my hon. Friend says, is expanding the role of local authorities to deliver new homes.

A series of points has been raised, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush, and I will write to him in detail to answer those points. In conclusion, there is clearly a commitment by the Government on the need for more housing, particularly affordable housing in London—

Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon (Local Government)

It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. Although it is also a pleasure to see the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), I must say, with no disrespect to her, that many of us were hoping that the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination, who is responsible for local government, would be here to answer many of our questions.

The purpose of this short debate that I have been lucky enough to achieve is to persuade the Minister to withdraw the orders for the unitary proposals for Norfolk and Devon or, at the very least, to postpone them. Today in the House of Lords, the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee will be considering the Government’s case for these unitaries, and it may be that it will take our proceedings into account and delay the proposals.

Ministers’ recent decisions to allow unitaries for both Norwich and Exeter and a second tier for the rest of Norfolk and Devon are subject to a court hearing on 26 and 27 April. Interestingly, we have discovered that the process of the orders in both Houses may continue despite the court hearing at the end of April, so my first question for the Minister is this. What will happen if the orders are passed through Parliament and the courts find in favour of Norfolk and Devon county councils and reject those orders?

May I make a little progress and then of course I shall let the right hon. Gentleman in?

Let me briefly sketch in for hon. Members, most of whom know it, the background to the current situation. It goes back to October 2006, when the Government invited councils to submit proposals for unitaries. In March 2007 Ipswich, Exeter and Norwich submitted proposals for stand-alone unitaries based on their existing city boundaries. In July 2007, Norwich failed to meet the ministerial criteria, not least in relation to its current boundaries, and the boundary committee for England was instructed to consider the alternatives. That is a very important point because it is the start of the three-year process.

The proposal for Norwich on expanded boundaries was therefore one of those that the Ministers thought the boundary committee should consider. In February 2008, the Department instructed the boundary committee to consider new alternatives including Yarmouth and Waveney. The following July, the boundary committee proposed a single Norfolk including Lowestoft from Suffolk, with alternative proposals including a Greater Norwich and a Norfolk doughnut including Lowestoft, and a wedge merging Norwich, Yarmouth and Lowestoft. To say the least, the proposals just for the area that I am talking about are muddled. I say straight away that I am not examining the detail of the issues relating to Suffolk and Devon. Other hon. Members will wish to comment on that.

The hon. Gentleman has not so far addressed in what respect the proposals would damage the interests of his constituents. I can see why he may have a general argument about the unitary pattern for Norfolk—he is entitled to make that case—but which specific interests of his constituents would be damaged, in his opinion, if the order was agreed?

I am genuinely surprised that someone as experienced as the right hon. Gentleman, who has been an MP as long as I have and who has been a Minister, should assume that within the first two or three minutes I would get to the point that is coming later in my speech. I will be addressing that point and I am happy to take further interventions from him, but I am trying now to establish the chaotic way in which Government instructions were given to the boundary committee and the boundary committee then had to respond.

Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the chaos was completely self-inflicted by the Government and that one consequence has been the huge amount of money spent on senior local government management time and the legal cases—money that could have been better spent on hard-pressed local services?

Yes, I absolutely agree. Indeed, in September 2008, three Norfolk councils launched a High Court action against the proposals. In November, the High Court rejected a bid to halt the process but said that equal weight had to be given to all proposals. In March 2009, the boundary committee dropped Lowestoft from its Norfolk plans. In July 2009, three Suffolk councils launched a successful legal challenge, halting the process, but that was overturned by the Court of Appeal in December 2009.

On 7 December last year, the boundary committee published its final advice to the Government for single unitaries in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon. The Government had a six-week consultation period and, on 10 February, the Minister responsible for local government rejected the boundary committee’s advice and announced that Norwich would become a unitary on current boundaries and the rest of Norfolk would stand alone. Suffolk would keep the status quo, but the Minister urged local politicians to establish a constitutional convention to discuss the best form of unitary there. Exeter was to have a unitary on present boundaries, with the rest of Devon standing alone. Therefore, with the exception of Suffolk, the Minister’s final decision on 10 February was to go back exactly to the beginning—it was a matter of going forward into the past. All that money, time and effort were wasted.

I have in the past said a few harsh words about the boundary committee, but it has my deepest sympathy for the amount of nugatory work that it undertook. In some respects, one could not make this tale up. The whole process has, I believe, reflected the Labour Government’s determination to establish unitary proposals that would benefit the Labour party. That was the view in Norfolk and Norwich back in 2007. After nearly three years of work by the boundary committee, we are back to square one. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) says, a vast amount of money and effort have been expended, which in the past year, given the economic downturn, could have been better used for the benefit of our constituents.

From the very start of the process, I was sceptical about the Government’s intentions and did not believe that the proposals would benefit my constituents. I was fortunate enough to be able to initiate two debates on the unitary proposals for Norfolk, on 20 November 2007 and 9 July 2008. Rereading those debates, I have to say, with some degree of modesty, that I and others who opposed the Government’s process were proved absolutely right.

The Government’s final proposals for Norfolk and Devon have to be set against the five extremely strict criteria laid down in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. First, the proposals must be affordable—that is, it must be established that the change represents value for money and can be met from the councils’ existing resource envelope. Secondly, the proposals must be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders. Thirdly, they must provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership. Fourthly, they must deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood empowerment. Fifthly and finally, they must deliver value for money and equity in public services. Those strict criteria had already been questioned by local councils, MPs and outside experts. I will return in a moment to the failure to meet the criteria.

I do not want to prejudge what my hon. Friend will say, but does he not find it incredible that the then Secretary of State rejected both proposals in 2007 because they failed at least one of the five essential policy tests for implementation?

Yes, I agree absolutely and I shall expand on that point briefly in a few moments. I want to flag up the criterion on gaining local support to emphasise that the Government’s own legislation—the original Act—specifically excluded public consultation. They talk about the need for support by a broad cross-section of partners, but they never at any time decided to test public opinion in any of the three areas.

All the arguments against unitary proposals might have been brushed aside by Ministers had not letters exchanged between Peter Housden, the permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Secretary of State been placed in the public domain. We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), whose letter to the permanent secretary asking whether he was seeking a ministerial direction expedited that revealing correspondence.

We know from a written parliamentary question of 10 February, submitted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), that no direction had been asked for or given in the Department or its predecessor since 1997, so the Secretary of State’s direction is pretty unique. An article in the Financial Times suggested that there have been only nine such directions throughout Whitehall since 1997. What prompted the permanent secretary to write to the Secretary of State?

Does my hon. Friend find it as astonishing as I do that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport should have accused the permanent secretary and other civil servants in the DCLG of being biased, seriously mishandling the situation and deliberately leaking the documents to undermine Ministers? Does my hon. Friend not think, as I do, that that warrants an inquiry?

Yes, I find that incredible, given that the permanent secretary wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk—he may want to comment on this later—enclosing not only his letter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, but the reply.

What prompted the permanent secretary to write to the Secretary of State? In his letter of 8 February, the permanent secretary addressed the ministerial decision to allow unitaries on the current boundaries for Norwich and Exeter. He wrote:

“I do have concerns, principally about their value for money and feasibility”.

He noted that

“the original proposals for a unitary Exeter and Norwich do not meet all the five criteria (in particular they do not meet the affordability criterion) but you intend to implement them nevertheless”.

On the Secretary of State’s argument that a unitary Norwich and a unitary Exeter would eventually achieve economic gains, the permanent secretary wrote:

“The evidence for such gains is mixed and representations that you have received provide no evidence to quantify such benefits”.

The permanent secretary concluded:

“My clear legal advice is that the risk of decisions for a unitary Exeter and Norwich, and indeed for not taking action on Suffolk, being successfully challenged in judicial review proceedings is very high”.

On 10 February, the Secretary of State replied, spelling out the reasons behind the ministerial—that is, the political—decision and giving the permanent secretary a direction. The Secretary of State argued:

“We have given careful consideration to the circumstances in which there are compelling reasons to depart from the presumption that proposals that meet the criteria are implemented, and those that do not are not implemented”.

The Secretary of State kept referring to advice that he had received as the basis of his decision. Who gave that advice? It certainly was not the boundary committee or the permanent secretary. What was that advice? A Freedom of Information request looking into all the letters, e-mails and notes of telephone conversations in the Department would perhaps be revealing. I have in mind the names of one or two external people who might have given that advice. At the very least, the Minister should publish the advice.

The Secretary of State admitted:

“I accept that the Boundary Committee process did not produce evidence to quantify these benefits but nor did we think it right to set these potential benefits…to one side.”

That refers to the nub of the ministerial case that in the case of

“a unitary Exeter and a unitary Norwich, we consider that each would be a far more potent force for delivering positive economic accounts both for the city and more widely than the status quo two-tier local government”.

That partially economic and partially political argument overrides all the other evidence produced by the boundary committee and, indeed, previous ministerial advice.

I hope to enlarge on this later, but is my hon. Friend aware of the fact that most of Exeter’s predicted growth area—the airport, the Skypark and the business park—falls outside the current city boundaries and will be under the jurisdiction of the excellent Devon county council?

My hon. Friend is quite right. There are so many contradictions in the proposals. When I lectured Army officers, it was clear to me that the Army was very good at lessons learned, and that was true of both successes and failures. In terms of lessons learned, the current proposals would come under the heading of a big failure. Indeed, our friend Mr. Peter Riddell of The Times, who is a powerful influence in the Institute for Government, should use them as a case study of how not to conduct local government.

Despite recognising all the weaknesses in the ministerial case, the Secretary of State concluded:

“I acknowledge that the Minister for Local Government and I have been advised there is a high risk of successful legal challenge particularly to decisions to implement a unitary Exeter and a unitary Norwich”.

It is game, set and match, just on the basis of that exchange of correspondence.

Fifteen minutes into his speech, the hon. Gentleman has not identified one single respect in which the proposal for a unitary Norwich could damage his constituents’ interests. Will he address that?

As an old student activist, I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s concern that he is on a sticky wicket. I am about to do as he asks. I have already damaged his main case and I will happily expand, without taking too much time, on how the proposals will damage my constituents’ interests; indeed, I will tell him how they have damaged them over the past four years. I say that because he and Baroness Hollis have been two of the leading advocates of the proposals and any FOI request may well discover the heavy influence that they have brought to bear on Ministers.

Ultimately, the ministerial proposals come down to the vague assertion that a unitary Norwich and a unitary Exeter could be a potent force for delivering positive economic growth. In the case of Norwich, there is absolutely no evidence for that—indeed, the exact reverse is true. As somebody who was born and bred in Norwich, I say with great sadness that Norwich cannot meet the proposed criteria under a Labour council.

Under Labour, Norwich city council has been an unfortunate example of local government incompetence. Recently, it has effectively been put in special measures, with a chief executive drafted in. It gets low scores on nearly every criterion by which local government can be judged. Last year, the director of housing was sacked because of a housing scam. That is the example that the Government want to give us in terms of economic growth. I have sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman, who would have a much stronger case if Norwich city council was a five-star council that really would be an engine, rather than a sheet anchor, for the rest of Norfolk

What will happen to the rest of Norfolk—to my constituents and those of the majority of Norfolk MPs—under the Government’s proposals for a unitary Norwich? The Government do not know; it has not been spelled out. It is assumed that there will be working groups involving the current leaders of Norwich city council, who have avoided an election in May, and the leaders of Norfolk county council and the district councils.

There will be a widespread break-up of common services, which will cost more and lead to more duplication. My constituents will feel the impact in education services, because there will presumably be two directors of education and two education services. In outlying districts of my constituency and the constituency of Norwich, North, such as Spixworth, Old Catton and Taverham, that will cause major problems for parents trying to get their children into school.

What about support for children? We have a big enough problem now with cases of child abuse and, sadly, child murder. The one lesson that comes out of all the studies every year is that the existence of too many authorities is invariably a weakness. However, we are going to add another authority. I hang the proposals around the heads of those urging us to implement them as the worst kind of example.

Libraries, the fire service—everything will cost more in the short term. There will be more posts of one kind or another, and some people will do very nicely, but my constituents will not. Unless the Minister can argue that the proposed services—we do not, of course, know what they will be—will be the same as, if not better than, the services currently provided by Norfolk county council, I would certainly reject the proposals.

Ministers are keen to talk about empowerment and stakeholders, and the senior civil servant at the Department who is responsible for unitaries even has the title “Deputy Director, Local Democracy”, but there is no support of significance for the proposals throughout Norfolk or even in Norwich: there has been only a lukewarm response. There were approximately 1,424 responses to the Department’s consultation on the boundary committee’s proposals for a Norfolk unitary, held between 8 December 2009 to 19 January 2010. I accept that that is not a proper survey and the Government are not interested in holding a referendum on the question, but just on the Norfolk proposals, 85 per cent. of those who submitted comments wanted the status quo, 10 per cent. were in favour of a Norfolk unitary, and 3 per cent. wanted a Norwich unitary. Is that what local democracy is all about? I am concerned not just about the likely impact on my constituents, but about the impact on the people of Norwich. The proposal would not provide them with what they want. It would mean two or three years of chaos, confusion and reorganisation, to the detriment of constituents across the board.

I urge the Minister to withdraw the proposals. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who is our Front-Bench spokesman, says that in the event of our winning the general election, we would reverse the proposals. Most people in Norfolk would say amen to that.

I do not wish to detain right hon. and hon. Members for too long, because my colleagues are well represented here this morning and want to contribute. I shall talk about the economics of the matter; others will rehearse the political side and the influence of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is the Member of Parliament for Exeter. He has made extremely unfortunate remarks about the permanent secretary at the DCLG, which I agree should be looked into. Ministers simply cannot go around making accusations about senior civil servants, and the right hon. Gentleman should know better.

I am in despair about the idea of Exeter going it alone as has been proposed, and I can do no better than to quote paragraph 5.5 of the advice that the boundary committee gave the Secretary of State on unitary local government in Devon, in December 2009, which stated that

“were Exeter alone to become a unitary authority on its existing boundaries, and the remaining area of the county to stay two-tier, there would be serious questions over the ability of the two-tier area to function effectively as a unit of local government”.

That is one view. Another view is that Exeter alone would not be able to function usefully as a unitary. That is not only my view. It is also the view of Councillor Saxon Spence, the leader of the Labour group on Devon county council, who said:

“Regarding the Exeter proposal...I have made it clear it would require considerable financial support. I would not like to see the setting up of an authority without the capacity to deliver services, and I do think that there would need considerable financial underpinning...Times are not, perhaps, too promising.”

After 11 or 12 year of Labour Government I say “Hear, hear.” Times are not promising.

It is extraordinary that such an amount of money should be spent on something that I believe will not happen, when there are areas in all our constituencies that are crying out for funding for front-line services. I am concerned about the future of the Rolle college site in Exmouth, of Exeter college in Exeter and of Bicton college in my constituency, which is threatened with merger because of lack of funding from the Learning and Skills Council. Does the Minister, in her heart of hearts, think that the exercise provides value for money for the taxpayer? Given that the Conservative party has said it will not implement the proposal, is not it better, even at this late stage, to heed the advice of the permanent secretary and many bodies and accept that it should not go ahead?

Finally, let me comment on the idea that Exeter can grow, as a city and a vibrant economic entity, as a unity authority. Exeter is a great city and the capital city of our county, which is one reason many of us do not want it to be ripped out of the county. As I said in an intervention, much of the economic success on which it relies can occur only through the use of land that is now in East Devon. I am thinking of Exeter airport, the proposed new science park, the intermodal rail-freight terminal, the new business park and Cranbrook, the new town. The highways authority will continue to be Devon county council, outside Exeter. In other words, all the projected areas for growth in the area will remain under the jurisdiction of Devon county council, largely in East Devon.

A line between Exeter and that development will be an impediment for the constituents of Exeter and will be unworkable—unless Exeter’s plan is eventually to try to expand the city boundaries to include the airport and the surrounding areas of economic growth. However, we must take the proposal to be what we have been told, and on the face of it, the answer to the question of whether Exeter will be better off on its own, without that land, must be no. Will Devon county council function better without Exeter? The answer is no. Are the existing district councils working better? The answer is yes: enhanced two-tier working is working extremely well. East Devon district council works closely with South Somerset district council and is beginning to make economies for the taxpayers of East Devon.

I suspect that it will be as a result of freedom of information requests and a change of Government that we finally discover what has really gone on in the Department and what influence current and past Secretaries of State have had on Ministers. To make this decision so late in the day is a great shame, and it will be to Ministers eternal shame if they go ahead with it.

I apologise for having a cold today; I hope it does not spread to too many Opposition Members.

Perhaps I may begin with the fundamentals of the argument, which are that the case for unitary local government is very strong. It is accepted all across Scotland, Wales and urban England, and many other parts of England, for reasons of the efficiency, co-ordination, transparency and costs of government. That is the reason for the process. I am a strong supporter of unitary local government and think that it is generally the right way to go. It gives citizens greater purchase over the decisions of the organisations that take decisions about their lives, and is more efficient and effective. I could give myriad examples of the truth of that from the city of Norwich, and I think it is true elsewhere.

However, I have some common ground with the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) in that I concede that the process in the case that we are debating has been incompetent to a great extent. Both in the time taken and in its operation, it has been damaging. I found the decisions of the boundary committee at various stages incomprehensible. I think that all hon. Members in the House would probably agree that its original preferred option of a unitary Norfolk plus Waveney had no support at all, anywhere.

The process gives rise to serious issues, but I do not think that that extends to the final decisions, which will be debated in the House in due course. However, I must concede that the process has been time-consuming and has taken great energy and resource, and that that was very serious.

I do not associate myself with those who criticise the permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government. I knew Peter Housden extremely well when he was the deputy secretary responsible for schools and I was Secretary of State for Education and Skills. He is a civil servant of great integrity and experience of local government, and he will have had his own views on the matter, and expressed them. I do not think, however, that that concession on my part undermines the case for the Secretary of State’s decision and the way that he needs to take it.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is wrong, in the light of the remarks that he has just made, for a member of the Cabinet to accuse senior civil servants of bias, leaking information and seriously mishandling the situation for years? Does he not agree that Ministers should take responsibility for their Departments’ decisions, not pillory civil servants for their Departments’ mistakes?

I have not seen the remarks that the hon. and learned Gentleman refers to, so I will not comment on them. I agree that Ministers should take responsibility for their decisions. I have carried that through in my own political career; it is important not to offload on civil servants. That is one reason why I commend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for taking the decision that he has, having heard the advice and rightly exchanging correspondence with the permanent secretary. That is the perfectly correct process. The Secretary of State is entitled to make the decision that he has, and I am glad that he has done so.

Throughout this process, I have favoured a solution founded on a unitary Norwich based on wider boundaries, rather than on either one, two or more unitaries for the rest of Norfolk. I have always thought that that was more logical, and I hoped that the boundary committee would come to that view, because it would have been a preferable situation to the one we have at the moment. In that context, it is laughable to suggest, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk did, that all this is happening because of some process of political advantage. Any political aspects of it are certainly not advantaging the Labour party in Norwich, or anywhere else, and that is even more the case on a wider boundaries basis.

Anybody who makes such an allegation is perhaps not looking too carefully at the twin-hatters in their own constituencies—members of their constituency associations—who are collecting their two payments as district and county councillors. The hon. Gentleman should look carefully before making allegations about political interest in that regard.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, as a consequence of the proposals, the May elections are to be cancelled in Norwich, when there was every likelihood that the Labour party would be wiped out?

I do not concede that in any way. For a long time, Labour’s view in Norwich has been that it is better for local elections to coincide with general elections because turnout is higher in general elections, and that is what we, as a Labour party, generally favour. These orders take away the elections that would have coincided with the general election and replace them with a new election in a year and couple of months’ time—May 2011—which will not coincide with a general election, unless there are extraordinary circumstances. That is not in Labour’s interests. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be pleased about that.

The orders will also lead to the re-election of the whole of Norwich council. If the hon. Gentleman was concerned about the efficiency or otherwise of Norwich city council under Labour leadership over this period, I would have expected him to welcome the fact that within just over a year there will be a chance to have a whole-scale election of a new authority, in which his political colleagues can make those cases against Labour. I do not accept, therefore, the issue of political advantage in this context.

The position that the Secretary of State is faced with—I think we are faced with it, too—is whether we prefer the status quo or the proposal that he has, I am glad to say, made for a unitary Norwich on existing city boundaries. As I have said, that is not as good as a unitary Norwich on extended boundaries, but nevertheless it is significantly better than the status quo.

I have made representations. I wrote to the Secretary of State during the consultation that took place after the boundary committee recommendations were made, saying that I favoured going for unitary on current boundaries—no doubt that will be published in due course. That is my position publicly, privately and in every other way. Why? Because there are benefits to unitary local government, and they will affect and benefit my constituents directly.

We have an example in the centre of Norwich right now, in the proposals for urban pedestrianisation of Westlegate, which were blocked by the Tory county council and will now, I am glad to say, be carried through. Opinion in Norwich has been fired up by the decision of the Conservative county council to close two day centres in my constituency, turn off the street lighting in just about every street in the city between midnight and 5 am—based on the experience of rural villages—and cut out the money that comes to schools in particular difficulty in areas of poverty, which affects my constituency in particular. That is a string of Tory county council decisions that take no account of the needs and desires of the citizens of Norwich. That is why those citizens—I speak only for Norwich—believe that unitary local government is better for them, as indeed it is. It is more efficient, transparent and cost-effective, and that is why I support the order.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk talks about Norwich’s incapacity to take such decisions. If unitary councils such as Hartlepool, Darlington, Bracknell Forest and Halton, which are significantly smaller than Norwich, and ones of broadly the same size—Middlesbrough, Cleveland and Redcar, Blackburn with Darwen, Blackpool, and Reading—can take such unitary decisions, I do not accept that Norwich cannot. If there are arguments about the competence or incompetence of Norwich city council, let those arguments be resolved by the electors of Norwich in the election in May 2011. That is the right way to do it.

There has been no real test of opinion in Norwich. A survey was done about three years ago by the Eastern Daily Press, which showed a minority in favour. Neither the right hon. Gentleman nor I has any basis of opinion, apart from the replies that were sent in to the Department for Communities and Local Government, so any idea that there is popular support is questionable, to say the least.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that I am in a better position to comment on that than he is, as far as the city of Norwich is concerned. The challenge I put to him and his Front Benchers is that they look to the general election when it comes on 6 May, as I believe it will, because I, as the Labour candidate, and the Lib Dem and Green candidates will support unitary Norwich on current boundaries. I think that the Conservatives will not.

I note that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith) is not in her place, and I am not sure what her view on the situation is, but I would be interested to hear it because about 40 per cent. of her constituents are in Norwich—[Interruption.] She is apparently on a visit to Auschwitz. I did not know that. I respect that. It is obviously a good reason not to be here, and perhaps a better thing to do than be here. The argument that Norwich cannot run its own affairs is not warranted, however.

My final point is that I do not accept what the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said about the interests of his constituents being damaged by a decision about Norwich. He is entitled to make an argument for his own constituents, but it is wrong to say that a unitary Norwich on current boundaries damages his constituents. It leaves Norfolk county council with about 85 per cent. of its current responsibilities across the rest of Norfolk, and the argument that he has to make is that Norfolk county council, which is generally an efficient county council, will not be able to deliver services to the same level to his constituents in Mid-Norfolk when it is running 85 per cent. of the county compared to 100 per cent. I see no argument for that whatever; it simply does not stack up.

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his view that a unitary Norwich is wrong—he knows Norwich very well and can come to that view perfectly reasonably—but I do not believe that he can come to that view and at the same time claim to be speaking for his constituents. His constituents’ interests will not be affected one iota by unitary status for Norwich, and I hope that the Secretary of State’s orders go through Parliament and that he maintains his position on the matter.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the judicial review process, and I was amused that Norfolk county council decided to join with Devon county council to go through that process together, as though they were the same case, which they are not. They had to take solicitors from Tunbridge Wells to represent their case, rather than from the myriad effective law firms in Norwich. I do not think that they are on strong ground; they should not be. The change will advance the residents of Norwich, and I hope that it goes through.

Order. May I point out to those Members who wish contribute to the debate that I intend to start calling the Front-Bench speakers at about 12 o’clock? I would be grateful if speakers limited their contributions.

The Government originally set five criteria for unitary status: strategic leadership, neighbourhood empowerment, value for money, affordability and a broad cross-section of support. We have had many discussions with Ministers over the past four years about the proposal for a unitary Devon, or a unitary Devon minus Exeter. We already have unitary authorities in Torbay and Plymouth, and have made the case that unitary has not been a great success in Devon. Anyone who has witnessed what has happened in Plymouth and Torbay will admit that those areas do not have the critical mass to be totally successful. As we see at every election, that results in a change of—

My hon. Friend disagrees with me; he will no doubt make the case for Plymouth.

Ideally, we need a critical mass. In setting those five criteria, the Government were right to turn down previous applications, for a unitary Devon or a unitary Devon minus Exeter, because they simply did not meet the criteria. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) reminded the House, the Government have suddenly changed the criteria without giving any evidence of the analysis on why a change was necessary.

Ministers simply say that they are compelled to depart from the presumption that the five initial criteria are necessary, without acknowledging that there has been no analysis. That gives rise to the question, from those on the Opposition Benches and the members of the public we represent: why did they change their mind without the proper analysis? There must be another reason for suddenly rushing it through on the eve of a general election. It comes close to breaking the ministerial rules about making significant changes in the run-up to an election.

One therefore questions what is behind the change. There is clearly something behind the decision to which we are not privy but Ministers are. That not only raises concerns about the way in which the Government have conducted themselves over the matter, but it adds to our concern about what may be left in Devon if the Government are successful in making the change and if a future Conservative Government did not overturn it, as has been promised. There is no doubt about our discussions with Ministers. Indeed, a Minister who came to the Department straight from the Treasury considered the matter in some detail a couple of years ago, and decided that it clearly did not meet the criteria. He therefore turned down the latest proposal.

Those who have seen the details and the financial analysis have rejected the proposal, but suddenly all the rules have changed, and on the eve of an election the Government want to rush it through. There must be another objective to the outcome that the Government claim for it. It is not in the interest of the city of Exeter, nor is it in the interests of the rest of Devon.

My constituency surrounds Exeter, and covers both the Mid Devon and East Devon district council areas, but after boundary changes my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), will have responsibility for the East Devon council area, which includes the airport and the new town of Cranbrook. It is a carpetbagging exercise. It is essential, in the early stages, that Exeter should have the critical mass to make it viable.

I bring to the attention of the House some of the comments made in a letter to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments, by Sara Randall Johnson, the leader of East Devon district council. I totally endorse her comments. She said that

“the Government confirms that its ‘priorities today are…jobs and economic growth’. I would most certainly concur with this”—

as do I—

“and the acknowledgement that local government has an essential role to play in delivering these economic priorities…‘this role is of a significance that could not be contemplated in 2006 when the criteria were developed’.”

So say the Government.

The letter continues:

“It is a matter of record that even before 2006 local government in Devon was strongly focused on jobs and economic growth”.

For example, the Met Office relocated from Bracknell to Devon, and there has been an expansion of Exeter airport’s industrial base. There is also the proposal to go ahead with the new town of Cranbrook, virtually on the same site; that will be an enormous development in that part of the county in the coming years. However, there is no new economic growth in Exeter that was not apparent under the existing two-tier system. It has not stultified economic growth and it has not stopped major companies redeploying to the Exeter catchment area.

I represent that rural hinterland that the city of Exeter wishes to bring within its city boundaries. It is a travel-to-work area. Many of my constituents travel from the Mid Devon and East Devon areas to work in the city. In that regard, the city of Exeter, Devon county council and the two district councils have had a good working partnership—we often hear the word “partnership” bandied about. I am astonished that the Government wish to destroy that partnership in order to railroad through something that can only be politically motivated.

I shall be mercifully brief, Mrs. Humble. I refer to a letter of 10 February 2010 sent by the Minister’s Department to all Devon authorities that justifies the extraordinary decision to grant Exeter unitary authority status.

The Minister agrees with her predecessor that the case for Exeter does not fit the criteria, but none the less goes on to say that there are two compelling reasons for going ahead. Those reasons are not qualified, but she still finds two reasons to depart from normal procedure and grant Exeter unitary authority status. First, she refers to economic regeneration. She says that a unitary Exeter would be a far more potent force for delivering positive outcomes for the city and more widely than the status quo of two-tier local government. My hon. Friends the Members for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) both spoke about that.

My question to the Minister is this: what is the evidence for making that statement? If it is a compelling reason, surely it must be backed by evidence. However, no evidence is given in the letter. Indeed, it flies in the face of common sense and the experience of the last few years, as my hon. Friends have said. It is not a compelling reason. It is a blind leap of faith, and it is certainly not sufficient to set aside the normal criteria.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps the second reason is more compelling. The Minister says that a unitary Exeter could open the way for improvements to the quality of public services. She gives no evidence for that startling assertion, but she does not say that it will happen or why the Government are convinced about it. She says that it could happen, meaning that it may happen—meaning, of course, that it may not. What kind of compelling reason is that?

I agree with my hon. Friends. This extraordinary decision is not motivated by a desire to give the city of Exeter some kind of economic regeneration or to favour its status over the rest of Devon. It is a cynical political decision. Frankly, it is beneath the Government to stoop that low.

I like to give people a fair chance. Even after 18 years in the House, I have not come across such a political and cynical decision. It will not benefit the people of Exeter. It will be to the detriment of the rest of Devon. It should not proceed.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on introducing the debate.

I wish to speak for Suffolk and to consider the process of this extraordinary decision. In February 2008, the boundary committee began to consider a structural review for local government in Suffolk. In July 2008, it presented its first draft proposal. It bore no relationship to the historic entity of the county. For example, Lowestoft was taken out. In March 2009, the committee released a second set of proposals. A one-Suffolk proposal was formally made, but once again Lowestoft was excluded.

One of the first criticisms that come to mind over the idea of a unitary authority that covers the whole of Suffolk is that decision making would be remote. My constituents in places such as Brandon, Mildenhall, Newmarket and Haverhill would find the idea of local services being concentrated in Ipswich and the eastern part of the county of little appeal.

The boundary committee has been charged with considering the proposals for reform. According to the district and borough councils with which I have been in contact, it has steadfastly refused to listen to their concerns. The so-called three council alliance spoke of the committee being inconsistent by attempting to say that it is listening to and considering all proposals yet simultaneously refusing to engage in any dialogue about proposals other than its own. A poll commissioned by the three councils found an overwhelming rejection of the committee’s proposals. The people of west Suffolk are against the change.

The serious question is one of cost. The counter-proposal advanced by the three council alliance claims that more than £34 million savings of net outgoings can be made by the three unitary authorities. It has been estimated that the cost of transition and implementation for the one-Suffolk option, which would be an enormous unitary covering the entire county, would be at least £25.5 million. This is at a time when councils are under considerable pressure. In addition, there are the costs of the boundary committee. According to the answer to one of my past parliamentary questions, the boundary committee had spent £282,535 up to March last year, and budgeted a further £269,782 for the current financial year. What has been the result? The Government have ignored the recommendations of their own quango and announced that consultations will continue. Repeated reorganisations of public services cause considerable dislocation and a great deal of cost. The irresponsibility of such a move is made all the more acute by the fact that the Conservative party has made its position clear on the matter of reorganisation. We are close to a general election, and it is the height of irresponsibility to be proceeding on any basis at all. This should be a matter of party political consensus.

It is with weary alarm that I look at the current plans for local government and the controversy and in-fighting that is accompanying them. The Secretary of State has decided against the introduction of the so-called one-Suffolk council, or the boundary committee’s preferred alternative of an Ipswich-Felixstowe unitary authority, on the grounds that

“neither option is supported by the principal councils in the county.”

That sentiment is to be greatly welcomed. However, one wonders why such a decision was not reached much earlier, particularly when one considers the arguments that I have been proposing. It should be noted that the issue has been left up in the air. Forest Heath district council and St. Edmundsbury borough council said:

“The ministerial announcement that there will be a Constitutional Convention to determine the future shape of local government in Suffolk prolongs uncertainty and undermines management taking long term decisions.”

The drift, the uncertainty, the waste and continued expense of trying to fight an unwanted and uncalled for reorganisation that has run for years and failed to come to a conclusion, still rolls onwards to who knows what end. We simply could not make up such a fiasco.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to take part in this debate. I want to focus on the narrow issue of the correspondence between me and the permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) referred in his introduction. Since that correspondence, there has been an extraordinary and indefensible outburst from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw). I should like to hear the Minister, on behalf of the Government, condemn what was said and state, on the record, that civil servants have done nothing wrong in relation to such matters.

I wrote to the permanent secretary, Mr. Peter Housden, on 3 February. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I see permanent secretaries from various Departments twice a week, and have done so for the eight-and-a-half years that I have been a member of the Committee. I am familiar with the fact that one of the titles of the permanent secretary—it is the reason why the permanent secretary is the witness before the Public Accounts Committee—is accounting officer. Permanent secretaries are legally, as opposed to politically, responsible to Parliament for the effective, efficient and economic use of public funds.

This morning, I was at a seminar, which was chaired by the admirable Peter Riddell, at which a former senior Labour Cabinet Minister, who has only recently stepped down from the Cabinet, said, “Ministers are there to represent the public interest first and foremost in obtaining value for money in the use of public resources. That is their job. It is the job of accounting officers, of permanent secretaries, to stand behind them to make sure, if there is any falling short from that standard, that they notify it to the appropriate authorities.”

The right hon. Member for Exeter accused Mr. Peter Housden of being biased and said that he was not surprised that the documents had been leaked. May I say for the record that the documents were not leaked? They were sent to me in response to a letter that I had written to the permanent secretary. Mr. Housden copied them to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell. I can hardly think of a less likely way to leak something than to send a copy of what one is doing to the Cabinet Secretary. In his letter, which he also attached to the Secretary of State, he said that

“I am concerned that the approach you are currently proposing”—

that is the approach currently proposed by the Secretary of State—

“makes it difficult for me to meet the standards expected of me as Accounting Officer.”

Far from leaking the documents, he did the right thing.

As for seriously mishandling the situation, I have since had a letter from the Comptroller and Auditor General to whom I also copied the correspondence. It is a fact of the nature of requesting a direction from a Secretary of State that the permanent secretary will also send copies of it to the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General. In his letter, Mr. Housden alludes to that. He says:

“As I am required to do, I will send copies of your instruction and this letter, to the Comptroller and Auditor General, who will normally draw the matter to the attention of the Public Accounts Committee.”

In his letter to me, which I received yesterday by e-mail, the Comptroller and Auditor General said:

“The Accounting Officer has followed the correct procedure for raising his concerns about the value for money of the scheme by seeking a Direction from his Secretary of State and notifying me. In accordance with the provisions set down in ‘Managing Public Money’”—

which is a Treasury guidance document—

“I have notified the Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts of this Direction.”

[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]

In other words, there is no question but that the permanent secretary has acted properly.

The reason he acted properly is that he was concerned that the approach being proposed by the Government was improper, an indefensible use of public funds, unfeasible in the sense of being undeliverable, and almost certainly unlawful. In such circumstances, he did exactly the right thing. I see that Mrs. Humble has transmogrified into you, Mr. Jones, in the last couple of seconds, so I will address my concluding comments to you.

I repeat my request to the Minister to ensure that we all understand, on the record, that the behaviour of that civil servant has been in the finest traditions of the civil service rather than against them. We all understand that the career of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has, in some ways, been an anger management therapy and a working out of his feelings towards his former employer at the BBC, but that is not a reason to lash out at civil servants, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this debate. He, like many hon. Members, has pursued this issue throughout the process on which local authorities in many parts of the country have embarked. Some issues were settled earlier on to the satisfaction of some and the dissatisfaction of others. In these three counties, however, the process has been particularly poorly handled. It has dragged on, and the goalposts have changed repeatedly. The Government’s guidelines have been altered, and various bodies have been asked to examine a problem that is essentially of the Government’s own making.

The hon. Gentleman referred in his opening remarks to the chaos that has been generated by the process, and I agree with him. We have a process that effectively paralyses local government at a time when it faces hardship, particularly in the provision of services. Speaking both on behalf of my party and in a personal capacity, I wish to say that there is a logic to unitary local government. In some places, it works very successfully. We have just embarked on the process in my own area in Cornwall. The issue facing us today is not necessarily one of two-tier authorities or unitary authorities being better able to cope with the problems facing an area. It is about how one considers the process of change and whether local people or local organisations have been able to influence the debate on matters that deeply affect them.

It is perhaps also important to reflect on the fact that the areas where these issues were settled some time ago were sticking to the Government’s original timetable. Although the process may have been chaotic in the parts of the country that we are discussing today—the three counties of Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk—people in other areas may well look back and think differently.

Given what we have heard the permanent secretary say and given the fact that the Conservative party has said that it will not allow these changes to happen, does the hon. Gentleman not take the view that other hon. Members have taken today that now is not the right time for any of this change to go ahead?

My view is that, having had a process that has been dragged out and having had a timetable that has been altered on several occasions, it seems rather strange that we are suddenly having a conclusion brought with undue haste just before a general election. When issues remain to be settled, or even addressed, there is a very good case for looking at the process after the general election that we are likely to have in the next few weeks or months.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, in the case of Norwich, this process was initiated some years ago, when the Liberal Democrats ran Norwich city council and strongly supported the process? It remains the case that the Liberal Democrats in Norwich support the proposal of a unitary Norwich authority, based on current boundaries. I wonder whether he acknowledges that and whether he accepts that the case for these changes is being made not only by the Labour party, but by the Liberal Democrats and the Green party.

The point that I was making, in response to the previous intervention by the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), was about timing; it was not necessarily about the merits of an individual case, because those who are best placed to determine the merits of a case are the people in the areas concerned. So I am not seeking in any way today to wade in and intervene in local grief or local triumph.

My purpose in my contribution today is to say that the process has been handled incredibly badly and that, when something such as this change is happening, there is an opportunity to encourage local people to come forward, take a view and become involved in a process that may lead to more efficient local government in their area. However, there is nothing so frustrating for people who have taken part in such a process as feeling that it is a tokenistic exercise and that whatever they have to say will not be listened to and, in the great scheme of things, not count for very much.

We could perhaps draw a parallel with the regional spatial strategy process, whereby people have made an input to a document that, in theory, could have huge implications for a local area if those strategies are enforced for very long, which remains to be seen. Again, people who have responded to consultations, such as those on the RSS, have said that they have not felt that those responses have been taken seriously. One therefore wonders whether, on a future occasion when any Government are consulting on serious proposals such as these changes, people will be encouraged to engage with that consultation process, regardless of the merits of the proposals.

We started out with the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, which enabled the creation of further unitary authorities. As I have said, I am sure that some people in certain parts of the country will welcome such authorities, because there is a logic to unitary government and unitary authorities can be very successful.

We have had a bidding process, but, as I said earlier, it has had a tight time scale. There was huge pressure to bring forward bids from different areas, without people in those areas having an opportunity to discuss whether or not they felt that making a bid was the right thing to do. So county councils of different political complexions around the country put in proposals, and district councils did the same thing. In a lot of those areas, the bidding process became one whereby people were divided one against the other.

I suppose that it is quite natural for an authority’s officers and members to feel some loyalty to it and, when they are threatened with change in a very short time frame, to dig in their heels and say immediately that they want to preserve the status quo. Some of the bids were therefore perhaps not as imaginative as they could have been. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) referred in particular to issues in Torbay, where a small unitary authority has switched political control and where people are now experimenting with the elected mayor concept. Of course, we will see what happens in a future election there.

I noticed that the hon. Gentleman’s party colleague, the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), suggested on television yesterday that we get rid of the mayor of Torbay. I hope that he does not agree with that suggestion.

I have always had reservations about the idea of elected mayors. When I served as a local councillor, I always welcomed the fact that we had the opportunity to discuss things among ourselves and to work together as a wider group. Of course, I was a councillor under the old committee system, which I thought was very good and served many areas very well. Unfortunately, the Government have forced a narrow range of options on local government.

The people of Torbay will be able to respond to another point on a far more well-informed basis than I can. As the unitary authority there was perhaps struggling in some service areas, I wonder whether the bid for a referendum for an elected mayor was seen in that light. Consequently, whether or not an elected mayor will be the right solution for Torbay remains to be seen.

In response to the question put by the hon. Lady, I am not personally convinced that elected mayors are necessarily the best option. I would prefer a system under which more elected representatives have the opportunity to contribute. However, the problem with unitary authorities such as the one in Torbay is that they are small and it is very challenging for them to provide services. There could have been an opportunity to look at the wider issues relating to the existing unitary authorities. That idea was talked about at one stage, but because of the original timetable that the Government set, that proposal was set aside.

We have also had proposals for county unitaries or super-unitaries, which would perhaps struggle to provide services at the other end of the scale. They would be to remote from local people. Unlike some of the unitary authorities that were created last year, some of those bigger county unitary authorities will find it very difficult to engage with local people. That is why all these proposals were unable to command great support from the local community in each area.

We have had a process that was originally led by local authorities that were trying to get the best for their local areas from what was put on the table by the Government; we had inconclusive results; the boundary committee for England was then brought in to see whether it could sort out the mess that was left behind, and it proposed large county-wide unitaries and one urban authority in Suffolk. Again, those proposals did not seem to meet the needs or aspirations of local people and the local authorities that currently exist.

We are where we are now, and the Government have stepped in shortly before a general election to attempt to impose a solution, particularly in Devon, where they have attempted to impose a solution on Exeter. I understand that all the political parties that are represented on Exeter city council have supported a unitary authority. However, despite that support, there must be great concerns about the ability of a unitary authority of that size to deliver services effectively.

Furthermore, as other Members have already pointed out, there are knock-on effects for the surrounding authorities, too. I think that the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) tried, in effect, to build a wall around Norwich and to say, “These issues affect people in Norwich, but they don’t affect the wider Norfolk area”. However, that is not true. Quite clearly, there will be significant effects on the area surrounding Norwich.

I was trying to make the point that, if Members argue that there are effects on their own constituents outside Norwich, or for that matter outside Exeter, it is incumbent upon them to explain what those impacts are. I have not yet heard—not just today, but ever—any serious argument that the interests of the constituents outside Norwich or Exeter are affected negatively by the decision for Norwich or Exeter.

The right hon. Gentleman has made that point before, and it is clear that representatives of other parts of the areas affected feel differently.

May I invite the hon. Gentleman to suggest another reason why other constituents could be affected by these changes? For example, in my constituency, which immediately abuts the city of Norwich, when the unitary authority proves to be unviable—if it goes ahead at all—because it is too small and run by people who could not run a whelk stall, it will want to expand its boundaries, encroach upon our area and come after my constituents for higher council tax payments in return for a poorer service.

The hon. Gentleman has made the point that, if unitary authorities are created that are ineffective because of their size and their failure to reflect existing communities, we may well return to this issue later on. As I have said, there are other parts of the country where unitary authorities were created some time ago, and we may have had an opportunity to put those authorities right under this round of proposals.

What is on the table has clearly been hashed together rather quickly because of the approaching general election, despite the fact that more time has elapsed than under the Government’s original timetable. Other parts of the country where unitary status was achieved recently or where bids were unsuccessful might well have benefited from the constitutional convention approach that is being offered to people in Suffolk. Had that approach been offered at the beginning, it would have avoided much of the mess that we are in.

Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Jones. You have joined a lively debate and we are delighted to have you with us.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this important debate. He has fought valiantly to raise the cause of Norfolk throughout this lamentable process and is a trenchant advocate for the case against the Government’s behaviour. I am grateful to him for raising the issues.

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, in particular the serried ranks of my hon. Friends who represent the three counties involved. They have reinforced the arguments compellingly and I hope that in time they will forgive me for not dwelling on each of their contributions in detail.

The right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) spoke in favour of unitaries and I can understand why, coming from his perspective. Arguments can be made for either side and we will have to beg to differ on their merits. I make only two observations. First, there are compelling grounds for saying that what happens to the two cities will have an impact on the surrounding shire counties. My experience of 16 years in local government is that shared services cannot be disaggregated without a knock-on effect. There are issues relating to large cities that are the centres of shire counties, but this is not the right way to deal with them.

Both the cities that we are discussing are estimated to provide about 15 to 20 per cent. of the tax base and revenue for the surrounding counties. Because of the higher costs of delivering services in rural areas, removing them from the authority would be bound to have financial consequences for the surrounding areas.

Is the hon. Gentleman saying he believes that a Norfolk county council covering 85 per cent. of its current area would deliver significantly worse services?

No, I am saying that that would make life significantly more difficult for the efficient and admirable Norfolk county council, which is doing its best, despite having had bad funding settlements from the Labour Government, as has Devon. It cannot be said that there would be no knock-on effect from such a loss to the tax base. The leader of Devon county council calculated that the removal of Exeter could cause band D council tax to increase by about £200 per year. There are potential impacts on surrounding areas.

The other point that must be stressed is that the procedure has been utterly lamentable and is wholly indefensible; even the right hon. Gentleman conceded that it cannot be defended. The two that we are discussing are part of a round of unitary proposals that started in 2007. Like all the others, they had to meet the five clear criteria set out by the Government and the boundary committee. In July 2007, the then Minister for Local Government, the right hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), made it clear implicitly that the Norwich and Exeter bids were not capable of meeting the criteria. That was endorsed by the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears). They were right to say that the bids did not meet the value for money criteria. I recall that there was also concern about whether Exeter met another criterion.

The small unitaries were ruled out at the beginning of the process and alternative county-wide unitaries, which were objectionable on other grounds, were proposed. What has happened since then? Nothing has changed in the evidence base. What happened was that the Labour party lost a seat in Norwich. There has been a great deal of effective lobbying to get certain Members of this House off the political hook. The Municipal Journal described the situation thus:

“Unitary plans descend into a Whitehall farce.”

It is a shabby deal. The columnist, Mark Smulian, writing in the Local Government Chronicle, was spot on in invoking the ghost of Governor Elbridge Gerry. This process is scandalous gerrymandering; it has nothing to do with good governance and is being done for political purposes.

I feel sorry for only two people: the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), who is here to stand in for the Minister responsible for this matter and is picking up the tab for it, and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole), because it is apparent that Cabinet Ministers and former Cabinet Ministers manage to get unitary authorities, whereas Under-Secretaries of State get merely a constitutional convention and a talking shop. Life is unjust even in the workings of government.

As has been observed, Mr. Housden, the permanent secretary, has behaved with absolute propriety. The attacks on him are wholly unjustified and would be withdrawn by any reasonable person. As well as the passage of his letter that has been quoted, he made two other important points. Having concluded that the unitary bids still did not meet the Government’s original criteria, Ministers sought grounds to justify their departure from them. Mr. Housden wrote:

“My main concern about your proposed course has to be value for money for the public purse. It would impact adversely on the financial position of the public sector as compared with the alternative courses of action open to you.”

Mr. Housden then referred to the Ministers’ grounds for departing from the criteria, in particular the suggestion that the unitaries would be able better to achieve economic gains and regeneration potential:

“The evidence for such gains is mixed and representations that you have received provide no evidence to quantify such benefits. I also recognise your proposed approach may open the way for improved public services through the Total Place approach, but this will be dependent on the collaboration of all the councils concerned and as yet there is no clear evidence of the costs and benefits that may arise.”

The permanent secretary destroyed comprehensively the two grounds that the then Secretary of State and Minister of State gave for departing from the original criteria. There were no grounds to justify doing so. In passing, it is worth saying that shared service arrangements in all three county councils and a pathfinder scheme in one are already improving services. That has been done without any of this nonsense.

Mr. Housden went on to write:

“Moreover, any departure from the criteria when taking your statutory decisions also raises feasibility, as well as value for money, concerns. Whilst there is no statutory basis for the criteria, there is a legitimate expectation that they will be the basis of your decisions. Your proposed approach of implementing a unitary Exeter and Norwich, and not implementing a unitary council for Suffolk would be a departure from the criteria, and whilst I recognise you could adduce your reasons for this…my clear legal advice is that the risk of”—

these decisions—

“being successfully challenged in judicial review proceedings is very high. You have been advised that there is every likelihood of such judicial review proceedings being commenced.”

We now know that judicial review proceedings have been commenced. He went on:

“The probably nugatory expenditure which this would entail, particularly in the case of Exeter and Norwich, could only exacerbate the worries I have described about value for public money. And it would also put pressure on departmental resources, altering priorities.”

One cannot be much more damnatory than that, yet the Ministers still persist and do not come along to defend themselves in person.

The pros and cons of unitary authorities in local government can be argued in a decent fashion. However, what has happened in this process is not decent. That is why my party has said that, should it come into government, it would reverse the decision and put all of the documentation and advice into the public domain following any unsuccessful freedom of information requests. The proposal is a shabby gerrymander and is a disgrace to those who introduced it. I am sorry that Under-Secretary of State, who is not personally responsible, has to defend the decision today. The best one can hope for is that she takes the decision back and, at this very last minute, Ministers remove the shame they have brought upon themselves and abandon such an ill-conceived proposal.

I have only 10 minutes left and have a dreadful cold, which I am more likely to have got from the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) than my right hon. Friend for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), because we tend to spend quite a lot of time together one way or another.

I would like to record my gratitude and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) for giving us the opportunity to debate the very contentious issue of the unitary proposals for Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment with having to make do with a mere Under-Secretary of State in the unavoidable absence of the Minister for Local Government. However, as a Local Government Minister and as Minister for the East of England, I have taken a great interest in the proposals and, indeed, have heard some of the representations from both Exeter and Norwich.

I would like to try to deal with the “why now” question asked by so many hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning). The answer is Dickensian in its simplicity and content. The advice from the boundary committee about the process, which started in 2007, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned, was requested by the Secretary of State more than a year ago in February 2008. Thanks to a succession of judicial reviews, the advice could only be provided by 7 December last year. The delay therefore arose because of the law and, to some extent, from those who sought to use the law to delay the implementation of the proposals.

The Department received the advice a year and 10 months after requesting it. Someone once said to me that the Opposition’s only power is to delay. I do not think that that is true—although sometimes their behaviour makes me wonder—but a year and 10 months is a long time in the 60-month maximum life of a Parliament. Just because we are in an election year, the Government cannot stop making decisions or implementing proposals. It is perfectly reasonable of the Secretary of State and the Minister for Local Government to take the decision at this time, given the delay.

On the vexed question of how the decision was made and relations between Ministers and civil servants in my Department, first, it is a myth that, in some way, the Secretary of State and officials are at loggerheads. Nothing could be further from the truth. The process of seeking a direction is part of the normal administrative process that recognises that accounting officers—in other words, the permanent secretary—have certain responsibilities, which differ from those of Ministers, whose responsibilities do and should range more widely.

When the Minister says that what happened is part of the normal administrative process, is she saying that it is routine and occurs normally?

I am not saying that such a situation occurs routinely, but it is part of the normal administrative process for the person who is responsible for value for money to point out when a Minister has gone against specific recommendations by officials, which, in this case, we acknowledge that we did.

I have to make some progress. I regret not being able to give way, because the hon. Gentleman made some good points.

I wish to make it clear that it was proper of the permanent secretary, as accounting officer for the Department, to draw attention to the fact that Ministers had not chosen the option that appeared to deliver best value for money. However, it is equally proper of the Secretary of State to set out his reasons for taking the decision. In other words, all those involved behaved properly and there is no question of official advice being biased in any way.

I also want to dispel the myth that the correspondence between the Secretary of State and the accounting officer was somehow leaked; it was not. In accordance with the relevant civil service rules, those letters were, in fact, shared openly on the day Ministers made their announcement with the head of the National Audit Office and, subsequently, with members of the Public Accounts Committee.

The Minister is generous to give way. She mentioned a point that I raised about whether the advice that the Secretary of State received, which obviously contradicted the advice given by the permanent secretary, can be put into the public domain. This is the centre of the debate: the permanent secretary believes that the Secretary of State’s proposals do not meet the fundamental criteria. In his letter, the Secretary of State talks about advice that he has received. Can we see what that advice was?

The advice was in the form of the many representations that the Secretary of State, the Minister for Local Government and I received. I am not privy to other advice that the Secretary of State may or may not have received. The main reason for going against the criteria was the changed economic circumstances, as I think right hon. and hon. Members know.

Given that the Minister says nothing was leaked and that the permanent secretary behaved in an entirely proper manner, will she take the opportunity to apologise on behalf of her Government colleague, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, for his scandalous remarks?

I shall decline that opportunity, as I do not even know what remarks the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made. All I can reiterate is that officials and Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government behaved entirely properly and the letter was not leaked.

On the question of releasing advice to Ministers under freedom of information legislation, which the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk raised, we will, of course, be making available relevant material to the courts as part of a duty of candour. We will make all relevant representations available under FOI, but it is right and proper that certain correspondence between Ministers and officials should be withheld to ensure free and frank exchange of views. Section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 allows for that.

The assessment of the proposals, which was made in great detail by my right hon. Friends the Minister for Local Government and the Secretary of State, was difficult, because we had seven unitary proposals to consider. We had to measure them against the five criteria: affordability, a broad cross-section of support, strategic leadership, neighbourhood empowerment and value for money for services. Those criteria specify outcomes that should be delivered if the proposed changes to unitary structure are made. Accordingly, our assessments against the criteria involved making prospective judgments about the likelihood of the outcomes being delivered.

To cut a long story short—given the fact I have only two minutes left—in the end, Ministers decided that the economic situation in both cities merited going against the five criteria, and that the economic situation in a unitary Exeter and Norwich would be stronger because they had accountable self-governance. We did not change the criteria, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton suggested; they were central to our decisions, but there were compelling reasons why we went against them.

We also looked at the role that the Total Place initiative, which was launched in April 2009 as part of our operational efficiency programme, could play in bedding down the new unitaries. That initiative takes a whole-area approach to delivering public services in a geographical location and will be very beneficial indeed in the implementation of both the unitary proposals.

No-Fault Liability Scheme (Miners’ Knee)

In this short debate, I want to make three points. First, osteoarthritis of the knee is a painful condition. Miners who suffer from it are getting older and there is a need for a speedy scheme for processing their compensation. Secondly, and related to the first point, the National Coal Board and its successors knew from the 1950s that certain working conditions in coal mines caused the disease. Thirdly, I shall propose to the Minister a scheme structure that would reduce legal costs for both sides and, in particular, bring benefits to the sufferers of that painful disease.

The Minister is aware that in August 2008 the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council reported on osteoarthritis of the knee and recommended that it should be a prescribed disease in relation to working as an underground coal miner for 10 years or more in aggregate up to 1986, but that any service from that date onward should be specific to certain categories of work. The evidence shows that the risk of a miner developing osteoarthritis was more than double that for a member of the general population.

As a consequence of the IIAC decision, since 15 July 2008 miners have been able to claim an industrial injury disablement benefit award for the disability caused by the disease. I refer the Minister to some figures from the Department for Work and Pensions on the number of successful cases that there will be for industrial injury disablement awards. They suggest that the number is likely to be a little more than 10,000.

Several studies have been done on the development of osteoarthritis in miners. As the Minister will be aware, two significant British studies were done on osteoarthritis in coal miners in the 1950s, which showed that working underground was likely to result in the disease developing. A later study was done in Germany, and those three studies comprise the main evidence considered by the IIAC. I am using that information because it is pertinent to the point that I want to make to the Minister on how a particular scheme to deal with that compensation could be developed.

I accept that coal mining has changed dramatically since the 1950s. The NCB’s mechanisation programme had a positive impact on changing the profile of coal production in the industry. From the early 1980s, mechanical processes have been linked to create a semi-automated system of mining, but that was a transitional development, and during the stages of that mechanisation process miners were lifting heavier loads from a kneeling position than they had done in an earlier era.

The studies of the 1950s looked at the earlier era, which we might refer to as the hand-filled days, but the disease did not disappear when the hand-filled production process disappeared because the transition moved us to mechanisation and during that process miners lifted those heavier weights from kneeling positions.

The effect of that process was to create a common sight in mining communities: elderly retired miners either limping badly or walking with the aid of a stick. Many of them have had artificial knee joints fitted to assist their mobility. Indeed, a colleague here in the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), who was a coal miner before he entered this place, has been diagnosed with osteoarthritis and had one artificial knee joint fitted. He is waiting to be admitted to hospital to be fitted with a second joint, which gives an indication of how bad the disease can be.

When men suffering from the disease reach their 60s and 70s, which is the age most of them are, it becomes even more painful. That is why I believe that we cannot wait for a protracted legal process to conclude. Those men do not have a great deal of time left, so I suggest to the Minister that there is another way to move forward with the liability issue.

That brings me to the issue of dealing with that potential liability. I have no intention of getting into the arguments on the complexity of the liability, but I want to draw the Minister’s attention to the National Audit Office report, “Coal Health Compensation Schemes”, which was completed in 2007. Page 7 of that report sets out a table, “Lessons for the future”. The first point in that table states:

“When a potential new liability is identified”,

presumably by the Department,

“it must be monitored regularly and, taking account of how likely it is to come to fruition, sufficient action should be taken to manage the risks.”

I assume that that is being done.

I refer the Minister to the report by Stephen Boys Smith, a synopsis of which is provided in appendix eight of the NAO report. He was commissioned by the Department to review the coal health compensation schemes. One of his recommendations, as set out in the NAO report, is as follows:

“If the Government is ever in future faced with a comparable situation; either where it has to implement a court judgement imposing a liability to pay compensation, or where it believes it would face such a judgement if a legal case were completed; it should very carefully examine the alternative ways of proceeding.”

I suggest to the Minister that Stephen Boys Smith is pointing out that, where there is a potential liability, as in this case, which the Department will have examined closely along with the risks, the alternative to proceeding to court should be used. I shall point out in a few minutes how that might be done.

Stephen Boys Smith made certain recommendations to the Department, but it appears to be in a protracted legal battle. As the Minister is aware, the Department has spent around £6.5 million on legal advice for that case, and no doubt considerable amounts of money have been spent by the other side as well. It seems to me that we are moving towards a situation in which we will again spend lots of public money and ultimately accept that we must implement a scheme. I suggest to him that if that scheme is implemented and shaped by the courts, we will be in the same position that we were in with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. He mentions the amount of money that has already been spent on litigation. May I suggest that the company that is doing the work for the Government is the same one that cost them £10 million in respect of chest diseases and more than £3.5 million in respect of vibration white finger, both of which cases were roundly defeated, yet the Government are still taking advice from those people? Their track record is 2-0 and looks likely to become 3-0. If we can come up with a scheme, it will help not only the miners, but the Government.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, and I have no doubt that the Minister has taken it on board. As he knows, the COPD scheme came into being and started to be constructed following a High Court action in 1998. Here we are, 12 years after it began to be implemented, yet we have not made all the payments to claimants under the scheme. That gives an idea of how long it can take to deal with compensation. With the likely knee litigation, we do not have that time. That is the real reason why we need to look at implementation of a statutory no-fault liability scheme.

There are two other important issues that the Minister must balance before proceeding to court action. The first is the legal costs: as has been said, £6.5 million has already been spent, and the other side has spent a considerable amount as well. Bearing in mind that the DWP has estimated that the number who are likely to receive awards for industrial injury disablement benefit will be some 10,000, I suggest that we need to look at an alternative to spending a huge amount of money on legal costs.

There is an additional reason. The Minister must be aware that if he takes the case to court and to judgment, his range of options will be narrowed. In fact, what happened in the COPD case may well happen. His Department did not realise at the time that compensation would be opened up to the estates, and we could again have a situation where a case results in many more claims. As he is aware, two thirds of the 592,000 COPD claims were from estates. Like me, many of my colleagues do a Saturday surgery and find that, as we get to the tail end of the case, we are dealing with grandchildren who never saw their grandfather coming in to ask when their compensation payment would be made available. The Minister has to assess the possibility that his options will narrow if he goes to court.

We should look at a no-fault compensation scheme for miners’ knee that would make a lump-sum compensation payment to the miner or his widow quickly and without the input of lawyers. That could be done speedily using the expertise built up in the Minister’s Department and in the DWP’s IIDB—industrial injuries disablement benefit—scheme.

A statutory scheme could be devised that would not require the engagement of costly private medical services either, as happened under the COPD claim. Private companies provided medicals for people who were making claims, and the costs ran to a quite an amount. Just now, I cannot say how much, but the Minister will know that it was considerable. The basis of a scheme for miners’ knee could be the IIDB process. That could be the gateway, and I shall explain just how it could be done.

The Minister will know that the IIAC has set down the diagnostic criteria. They are in paragraph 71 of its August 2008 report, “Osteoarthritis of the knee in coal miners”. Criteria have been set down for the examination process, so we do not need the input of any kind of private medical service.

We would then move to a situation in which the IIDB scheme paid an award but also gave an assessment. Each man who received an award would get an assessment of his disability. I suggest that that could be the basis for a statutory no-fault compensation scheme. It would allow the Minister to ensure that a compensation payment was made only to the miner who had come through the industrial injuries disablement process, or to his widow. The payment would be relative to his age and his disability. A table is all that would be required, so the compensation scheme would be transparent.

Lawyers from both sides may be required to sit down with orthopaedic consultants to draw up the table, which would run from 0 to 100 per cent. The miner’s age at the opposite side and his degree of disability would relate directly to a sum of compensation that had been devised independently by his people sitting down with lawyers from the other side, both taking advice from orthopaedic consultants.

Such a scheme would be much preferred to a court scheme, because the court scheme, once shaped, would impose costs on the Department, as the Minister knows. There is no doubt that lawyers would be involved, as they were involved in COPD and vibration white finger, in filling in forms and, at the end of the day, collecting money for doing that. In many instances under the COPD scheme, the solicitor received a bigger award for completing the form than did the man on whose behalf he completed it. We do not want that to occur again.

I urge the Minister to move speedily to ditch his plans for a court battle and to introduce a statutory scheme that would benefit elderly miners who do not have a great deal of time left. Such a scheme would be less of a drag on the public purse. I urge him to move as suggested in the Stephen Boys Smith report and to introduce a statutory scheme for compensation for miners’ knee.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on securing the debate. I praise him for tenaciously and astutely arguing the case for miners and the mining industry as he does. I personally admire him for his fortitude and determination. He and I have discussed this issue both outside and inside this Chamber.

There cannot be many Ministers of the Crown who can say this: I have stood erect on the coal faces at Daw Mill in Warwickshire and Lea Hall in Staffordshire and seen the huge, magnificent, modern machinery that comes along and cuts out a whole line of the face; then, automatically, the props are moved forward to protect miners as they advance to clear the coal away. I have crawled on my hands and knees to the front of mines such as Newdigate in Warwickshire, Littleton at Cannock and Hem Heath in Stoke-on-Trent and seen miners in extremely difficult situations and constrained spaces working to get coal from small coal faces. I very much appreciate what my hon. Friend says about the pressure on their limbs—in this case, their knees.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that, in responding to this debate, I have to be mindful of the matters he raises that are subject to current legal proceedings. I am therefore constrained to a considerable extent in what I can say in response. I am, of course, fully aware of the concerns that he and other hon. Members who are here to support his argument have raised and their passionate belief that individuals involved should be compensated quickly and in a way that avoids the costs—particularly the solicitors’ costs—that we saw in previous compensation schemes. I understand and share those concerns, but the issue is not straightforward. It is important that we take fully into account the experiences of the past 10 years of the vibration white finger and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease respiratory compensation schemes, which are now, I am pleased to report, largely concluded; and, as my hon. Friend says, the numerous reviews of the Government’s handling of those schemes, including most recently those conducted by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee.

Before dealing with the details raised today, as far as I am able to do so, I want first to take the opportunity to put on the record the success of the VWF and COPD schemes, which are the biggest personal injury schemes in British legal history. More than 760,000 claims have resulted in more than £4 billion in compensation being paid to former miners and their families. The VWF scheme has been completed and brought to a conclusion in the High Court, and the respiratory scheme for COPD is almost complete. Fewer than 240 COPD claims have yet to receive an offer of compensation and we expect to settle all the remaining claims in this calendar year, although some claims may take longer if, for example, there is the additional complication of protected party status.

Those schemes were set up once the liability of British Coal had been established by the courts. They were designed to ensure that miners and their families received the compensation to which they might reasonably have been entitled had they pursued their claim in common law. I believe that that objective has been met and that the schemes have been a huge success.

My hon. Friend suggests that there should be a scheme for no-fault compensation. He knows there was previously a scheme like that in the industry for pneumoconiosis among coal workers. The National Union of Mineworkers and other mining unions successfully negotiated with the employer, the National Coal Board, for that scheme, which my hon. Friend says could be emulated today. On the basis that those arrangements provided a clear, practicable way forward then, his argument is understandable, but things have changed a lot in the 36 years since that scheme was negotiated in the industry.

First, negotiations took place when the unions were in a position to present themselves as negotiating on behalf of all miners and their families. Today, that is clearly no longer so. Secondly, that agreement was negotiated in the context that pneumoconiosis affects mainly coal miners. The reality is that osteoarthritis of the knee is very different: it affects many people in the population in many different jobs and is caused by many different factors, including family history and a variety of non-employment-related factors. On that basis, it is much more complex than pneumoconiosis.

I refer the Minister to the IIAC report, which prescribes the disease purely because the risk of a miner developing it is twice that of a member of the general population. There is not that much difference between the pneumoconiosis scheme and the one that I am proposing. If he is afraid that such a scheme might lead to two payments if a person goes on to take out a civil action, he could introduce a caveat whereby if a person decides to take a civil action after taking compensation payment from the scheme, there could be a clawback, as happens under the mesothelioma scheme.

The danger is not only that somebody has two bites at the cherry, but that other people who are no part of the scheme may still come in with litigation for the liability at common law.

Thirdly, the previous scheme was negotiated in an era when the legal profession, and more particularly the world of personal injury litigation, was very different from today’s. In the world of no win, no fee arrangements, any admissions made are likely to generate further litigation, even where a no-liability agreement for some might at first sight appear reasonable. For example, my hon. Friend mentioned the estates of miners. Putting aside the question why I should think it fair to exclude a miner’s claim when the miner has died and the estate wants to carry on claiming, if I negotiated an agreement that excluded them, there would be no reason why they should feel excluded from taking a case to court and still proving the liability at common law. Nothing would be gained, from my point of view, by making the agreement.

Nevertheless, let me say that the costs of the coal workers pneumoconiosis scheme did, and still do, prove significant. More than 91,000 claims have been made under that scheme since 1974, of which more than 83,000 have been successful in securing compensation. To date more than £154 million has been paid in compensation under that scheme. Put simply, we need to be certain of the reasons for reaching decisions. In my view, progression of the current litigation is the best way to achieve that clarity.

In our handling of these difficult issues, it is always important to remember that the Government are effectively standing in the shoes of the former British Coal Corporation as the employer. For compensation to be payable, it must be established that British Coal was legally negligent and/or in breach of statutory duty as an employer, and that the injuries suffered by their employees were caused by that negligence or breach. Furthermore, the Secretary of State’s powers under the Coal Industry Act 1994 to pay money out in respect of the liabilities of the former British Coal are dependent upon such liability being established.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone mentioned the cost of litigation and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) asked questions about the fees paid to solicitors. I am alive to those issues. The Department is fully committed to applying the lessons from the experience of the VWF and COPD compensation schemes, based on our operational experience and the reviews conducted by the NAO and the PAC.

The Minister will not be surprised that I am disappointed by what he has said so far. It is not just about the costs of litigation. What about the impacts on the public purse? He mentioned reports from the NAO. The Legal Services Commission has also done a massive amount of work. There has been a huge cost to the public purse in addition to the legal implications the Minister has advanced, including payments to solicitors and barristers. That must surely be weighed in the balance against the sensible scheme advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone.

I understand that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone mentioned the costs and the amount that we have paid to lawyers already for litigation on osteoarthritis of the knee. He is right. We have had to pay lawyers, particularly for document disclosure. He knows that disclosure is an important part of the process of establishing whether there is liability.

One key lesson learned by the Department in conducting the litigation is that we must understand the scale of potential claims for the compensation. Our estimates in the past for VWF and COPD were much lower than the amounts that were subsequently paid. My hon. Friend mentioned on a number of occasions some 10,000 claims for osteoarthritis of the knee. So far, under the group litigation order, there are about 900 claimants, and the claimants’ lawyers have mentioned to us another 1,000 claims. Putting the matter in a broader context, we handled more than 170,000 claims under the VWF scheme and more than 590,000 for COPD. Collectively, that totals more than 750,000 claims.

Let us draw on the experience of the DWP. Following the introduction of the industrial injuries disablement benefit for miner’s knee last year there have been more than 33,500 claims for the benefit to date. Claims are arriving now at the rate of 300 a week. I am pleased to report that more than 20,000 cases have been assessed and of those 9,234 former miners have already received payments of benefit. In addition, a further 6,085 have received an assessment of disablement, although their condition was not assessed as severe enough to give rise to a payment of benefit.

I welcomed the Department’s decision to pay industrial injury disablement benefit to miners suffering from osteoarthritis of the knee, following on from the recommendations of the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. My hon. Friend was a champion of that cause. However, the decision to introduce entitlement to benefit payments raises different issues to those involved in the litigation against the Department as the inheritor of the liabilities of the former British Coal Corporation. In particular, the IIAC report, which triggered the entitlement to claim benefits for miners suffering from osteoarthritis, fundamentally does not directly address the key issues in the litigation that the Department is defending, including establishing knowledge, taking reasonably appropriate preventive steps as the employer based on that knowledge, and the apportionment of other contributory factors, such as family history and other health factors.

It is important to recognise that recent medical knowledge now firmly demonstrates that osteoarthritis is caused by a range of factors, including family genetics and obesity, as well as employment-related factors. In my view it is therefore vital that, where such large amounts of taxpayers’ money may be at stake if compensation is to be paid, particularly in the current economic climate, liability is properly established through the court process. In concluding, I assure my hon. Friend—

NHS Expenditure (Reduction)

I am delighted to see the Minister in his place. I do not mean to imply that not all Ministers have his qualities, but I know that he is a receptive and thinking Minister. I am grateful that he will respond to my suggestions, which are intended to be helpful to the future of the national health service, which we all know is vital to our constituents and beloved by the large proportion of staff who work in it and the patients who receive treatment.

The extra money that has been provided has seen dramatic improvements, especially in cancer care, cardiac care and the increasing scope and success of the various treatments that are now available. A crisis therefore looms. The NHS Confederation estimates funding cuts of £8 billion to £10 billion in the next two or three years, and £15 billion in the next five years. The King’s Fund has produced a useful document, “Windmill 2009: NHS response to the financial storm”, which opens with the words:

“The health service is about to enter a new era. After years of unprecedented growth, it faces the prospect of unprecedented austerity.”

I want to talk about ways of addressing that challenge without widespread cuts. A high proportion of NHS expenditure is on staff, so if there are cuts, they are likely to be in the number of staff, which would not be helpful as the numbers in some areas are already inadequate. By lucky coincidence, my medical colleague on the Health Committee, the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate), started this debate on Friday last week, and I believe that the Minister responded to it. The hon. Gentleman made the point that it is estimated that increasing self-care of patients with minor ailments could save the NHS £2 billion.

I was joining the train at Kidderminster station at about the time when the ban on smoking in public places came in, and a member of staff who had drawn the short straw and was sweeping up the fag ends outside said, “We might be able to change policies, but it’s a job to change people.” That was extraordinarily perspicacious at that time, and it is absolutely true that it is extremely difficult to change people. We can easily write new policies, but we must change people and how they use the NHS.

The hon. Member for Dartford quoted the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, which has described five clear steps to ensure that self-care increases. Following on from that, a discussion paper that I found extremely useful was produced by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. It is headed, “The Human Factor”, and has a sub-heading, “How transforming healthcare to involve the public can save money and save lives”. It was drawn to my attention recently, and was written by Laura Bunt and Michael Harris, and published by The Lab and NESTA.

In this short debate, I can only point the Minister to that discussion paper, and give a brief flavour of it. The authors considered long-term conditions in particular, and how to change the way people cope with such conditions by educating them. I am thinking particularly of diabetics who, if they know how to control their disease, need much less help. The paper recommends a mixture of redesigning care with user involvement and more effective prevention. User involvement is crucial, and the NHS constitution has picked that up.

One public responsibility on patients from the NHS constitution is this:

“You should recognise that you can make a significant contribution to your own and your family's good health and well-being and take some personal responsibility for it”.

If NESTA’s suggestions were taken up and led to a 10 per cent. reduction in the cost of treating long-term conditions, that could save £6.9 billion a year, which is not to be sneezed at.

I cannot resist giving one of my favourite quotations. I do not know whether you have read Sir Walter Scott recently, Mr. Jones—I have only just rediscovered him—but one of his last novels was “The Surgeon’s Daughter”. He was writing about the burgesses of a Scottish borough and said:

“There the mothers of the state never make a point of pouring, in the course of every revolving year, a certain quantity of doctor's stuff through the bowels of their beloved children. Every old woman…can prescribe a dose of salts, or spread a plaster; and it is only when a fever or a palsy renders matters serious, that the assistance of the doctor is invoked”

What a lesson for all of us. Has the national health service limited people’s ability to look after themselves and spoiled them with the help that they receive. We must change that so that they have the help of medical and nursing staff—the clinicians—only when they really need it.

My hon. Friend has rightly, responsibly and caringly brought an important subject to the Chamber. He is approaching the matter from the viewpoint of taking personal responsibility, as well as that of clinical strategies, but he seemed to dismiss early in his speech the possibility of cutting staff. Will he address the possibility of cutting management teams because Government policy, defensive insurance strategies and so on have driven up the cost and number of management teams in the health service far too much?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I will not touch on that because this is such a short debate. In fact, very recently, reports in the papers have suggested that NHS trusts with more managers have performed better than the others. That must be taken into consideration.

I was drawn to this debate because of its interesting title, and the hon. Gentleman’s background. I want to make two brief points. First, is it not important that he and others are careful when using phrases such as “age of austerity” when it comes to the NHS, in case the wrong signal is given to front-line staff—nurses and others—who often work in hard-pressed circumstances and who need a continuing period of stability, building on the welcome investment to which he referred? Secondly, on his point about prevention, does that not underline the critical importance of community health initiatives, community nursing and nurses in our schools? Will he say a word or two about that?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who made many points in a short time. I cannot hope to address them all. On stability, I absolutely agree. I do not believe that anyone will try to reorganise the health service crucially in the near future, for which we will all be grateful.

Prevention is a huge subject, and I am afraid that I am taking that as read, because it is obvious that spending more money on prevention saves money in the long term. The huge problem is moving money out of acute care into prevention, but I am sure that the Minister will be well aware of that.

I have spoken about patients and the public, and what they should be doing to improve how they look after themselves. Now, I want to speak about the staff. I am the first to praise staff for their tremendous, hard work, but we must be realistic and ensure that they realise the problems afoot. I remind the Minister of the NHS Confederation’s paper, “Dealing with the downturn”, which was published in June 2009. It is useful because it lists first many bad ideas from history that do not work.

If waiting lists are allowed to grow, quality is diluted. Indiscriminate cuts in expenditure can focus on cost rather than on value, and pay could get out of line, training might be cut or we could fail to protect curative services. Those measures have all been tried and have failed. They are doubtful things such as centralising support functions, mergers, structural change or reducing staff. The document contains a useful quote about price competition, which states that

“this does not fit with patient choice. The risk is that providers can exploit this to obtain increases in prices – particularly when they have a monopoly. It can also lead to ‘a race to the bottom’ which reduces price and quality.”

I believe that that has been one of the reasons behind the poor quality of out-of-hours care in some places.

Let me move on to the more positive points in this document. There are several pages of suggestions of ways to do things differently in order to improve how services work and improve patient safety and quality of care. Some of those things will save money, such as the productive ward, which I am sure the Minister knows all about. I have seen that initiative in several hospitals that I have visited, and it is a scheme whereby all staff, from health care workers to the sister to the cleaners, get together on a regular basis and talk about how they are doing things. That can lead to obvious alterations, such as moving all the things that are necessary to set up an intravenous drip to one place, so that staff do not have to dash from place to place picking things up. That leads to improvements in ways of feeding patients, and can reduce wastage of time over meals. It can lead to nurses doing the nursing rather than lots of admin, so that they can spend more time with the patient.

The document mentions the difficult matter of treatment prohibitions. However, as the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has told us, relatively few treatments in use have no proof of effectiveness, so we cannot save billions of pounds by cutting out useless treatments. There is a mention of limiting the NHS package, which in my language is health care rationing. However, as is pointed out, that would require public debate and it would be difficult to sell to the public unless all other ways of saving had been exhausted.

Productive wards are an initiative from the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement, which sadly seems to have rather a low profile. That organisation was responsible for the better care, better value indicators, the first tranche of which came out several years ago, and I believe that there have been further tranches. The indicators compare the performance of the NHS with the performance figures for the top 25 per cent. regarding that treatment or method of carrying out a service. The productive opportunity from those indicators is, I am told, £3 billion—something worth looking for.

The King’s Fund “Windmill” report makes specific recommendations for the Department of Health, regulators, strategic health authorities, commissioners and providers, and there are two interesting appendices. Appendix B apparently fell off the back of a lorry; it is a leaked Department of Health memo with a long list of possibilities for the emergency strategy committee to consider. That is encouraging as it shows that people at the Department of Health are using their brains and getting their staff to work on those sorts of things. Appendix C is a useful classified summary of the various approaches taken to reducing costs, improving efficiency and perhaps increasing income.

In addition to the papers from the King’s Fund, NESTA and the NHS Confederation, I have had a host of letters over the past few days from organisations making suggestions. Action on Smoking and Health—ASH—points out the cost-effectiveness of measures taken to reduce smoking, which can be highly effective. The Royal College of Nursing mentions the huge benefits and cost savings from community nurses, particularly specialist nurses, who can save a vast amount of time and money. There were suggestions for isolated drug economies, and suggestions from the Alzheimer’s Society.

I will return to my initial point: we must first change people by making them more informed and responsible for their own health care, not only for minor ailments but for long-term conditions. We must then change the workings of the NHS and give staff at all levels the chance to suggest innovation and better ways of working. I am conscious that I have not spoken much about prevention; there is no time for that, although it is a crucial matter.

I conclude with something that Disraeli said towards the end of his first spell as leader of the country:

“There can be no economy where there is no efficiency”.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on securing this debate on what will be one of the most challenging issues for the health service over the coming decade. I understand that the Health Committee is looking at this subject, and I look forward to the evidence that it produces.

As the hon. Gentleman said, over the past 12 years funding for the NHS has increased substantially and is now—as we promised—broadly on a par with the rest of Europe. The NHS has expanded and improved beyond any recognition, and as a consequence we now have a more capable and resilient service. Patient care has improved significantly, far fewer people now die from heart disease and cancer, and waiting times are the shortest they have ever been. Despite what some newspapers claim, patient satisfaction rates are extremely high.

Those improvements have been recognised internationally. Last November, the Commonwealth Fund survey of primary care services ranked the UK first in almost every area. There has been a transformation in the NHS, which has moved from being pretty poor to being good, although it must still go further before it is great. If we want a great health service, we must continue to invest in it and ensure that we deliver improved care beyond that which we are delivering now.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the time of rapidly increasing budgets is coming to an end. The stimulus package that we and Governments around the world have put in place has avoided a second depression, but the cost of that will mean tighter budgets in years to come. I do not for a moment accept the argument that a crisis is coming, and neither do I believe that a great storm is coming. There is, however, a demand for good management and efficiency, and a need to ensure a clear focus on the priorities.

Should any manager happen to overhear the debate—saying something in the Commons is almost like trying to smuggle a message out—the message that came out in the Mid-Staffordshire inquiry and in the problems with out-of-hours doctors and a range of issues is this: the first priority for any manager in the health service is patient safety and the quality of care for patients. Managers must be aware of issues to do with finance and targets, but the priority must be to ensure patient safety and patient care.

Does the Minister accept that there could be a crisis if decisions were wrongly taken to slash and cut public services such as the health service in a devastating way? We should certainly avoid that policy. One way in which we could move forward is by addressing the amount of funding that is spent on NHS management.

I do not want to get sidetracked into a discussion about what is or is not management. A lot of figures are bandied about, which I sometimes worry about. Sometimes they refer not to managers but to staff who are necessary to ensure that a patient knows when their appointment is and can get there, and that the health service is properly administered. More than ever in the coming years, we need good-quality management and sometimes we have not had that in the past in the NHS, which is why we are mounting a programme to improve the quality of management in the health service.

As this is the season for giving way, I will intervene at this stage. I apologise, Mr. Jones, for not being here for the first 10 minutes of the debate. I am mortified that I was not here for my leader’s speech. The Government are to be congratulated on the amount of money that they have provided to the NHS and on the transformation that the Minister has spoken about, but will he acknowledge that there is a danger in being over-ambitious and trying to create rather remote hospitals as centres of excellence and in being too ambitious about how much we can move patients away from hospitals to polyclinics? When it comes to planning appropriate savings and improvements in health provision, managers and, indeed, Health Ministers should not be too ambitious about how such changes to management can be provided. That is a great controversy, as the Minister knows, in London and in south London as well.

Polyclinics in London—GP-led health centres in other parts of the country are a slightly different type of NHS institution—are providing a great opening for people. They offer extended hours and deliver the services that patients want. We have to accept that the NHS will not be frozen just as it is now. What we have to see, particularly in the years to come, is a resolute focus on quality and improving patient care within reasonable budgets. We need to ensure that managers in the health service are focused on that, which means innovation and change. Change will come to the health service, and the changes that we want to see will improve the quality of patient care.

We want to ensure that managers know that there is not a crisis. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) is right: sending the wrong message at this stage would be very dangerous. The NHS budgets are increasing this year by 5.5 per cent. and next year by 5.5 per cent., if the Government remain in power at least. We have said in the pre-Budget report that we are committed to protecting front-line NHS spending for the following two years, growing it in line with inflation.

However, the demand for health care from an ageing population, new technology and ever higher patient expectations mean growing pressures on the NHS budget. That is clear, so along with commitments on spending, we have set out the quality and productivity challenge that the NHS faces. In four years’ time, the NHS needs to be making efficiency savings of between £15 billion and £20 billion a year. Importantly, those are not cuts. Let me make that clear. The money will not be taken out of the NHS by the Treasury. After all, we are not Thatcherites. Importantly, those funds will be kept within NHS budgets. Our aim is that every penny of those savings will remain within the budgets, allowing us to realise our vision of continuing to improve the quality of care for all. Essentially, we envisage no cuts in NHS front-line funding.

In previous times of financial challenge, patients have borne the brunt through longer waiting times, reduced availability of drugs and treatments and, ultimately, poor-quality care. Managers lacking in imagination made slash-and-burn cuts. That approach is indefensible when the scope for improving quality and productivity in the system today is still great. Patients should not pay the price of poor managers who are unable to handle budgets. The Mid-Staffordshire lesson is a lesson for every manager in the system.

We need imaginative managers who will focus on the quality of care. I make no bones about it—I will name and shame managers who are making slash-and-burn cuts across the health service. Just in the last couple of weeks, I saw a press release from Gloucester hospital that deeply concerned me. I wrote to the managers at Gloucester hospital, expressing concern. They have said that the economic situation means that they have to slash a load of beds—a couple of hundred beds. That is nonsense. Thankfully, they have now decided that that sort of slash-and-burn announcement is unnecessary and needs to be looked at with care. It is a product of a lack of imagination by managers, and managers need to be very careful when they go down that route.

No, I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. I have only a few minutes left.

The vision of high-quality care for all is one of local clinical leadership, of empowered patients shaping their own health care, of prevention being as important as treatment, as the hon. Member for Wyre Forest said, and of unstinting demand for higher-quality care. We must not for one second consider stepping away from that. Improving quality can also reduce costs. Our record on reducing health care-associated infections demonstrates that. We have made great strides, reducing MRSA by 74 per cent. and clostridium difficile by 37 per cent. That has not only improved care and saved lives, but saved the NHS £240 million.

There are many areas with the potential to improve quality and increase productivity. In the time allowed, I shall give a few examples. Enabling all hospitals to meet the staff productivity currently delivered by the best could deliver annual savings of up to £3.5 billion. The hon. Gentleman talked about the productive ward programme. As a result of that, nurses in London were able to spend an extra 500,000 hours—500,000 hours—with patients, because they themselves have worked out ways in which they can improve the quality of what they do in productive wards to give that time to patients. We are talking about the equivalent of an extra 255 full-time nurses, costing about £7.5 million. So far, the productive ward has been introduced for only 12 per cent. of London’s wards, but the ideas that underpin the productive ward programme have also been applied in mental health wards and operating theatres and in the delivery of community services.

Pilots of productive community services have already produced promising results and suggest potential reductions of time spent: on travel by more than one fifth; on administration of referrals by more than 80 per cent.; on finding stock and supplies by two thirds; and on dealing with interruptions by more than half. That has led to an increase in time spent on direct patient care and, not surprisingly, staff morale has gone up by more than 90 per cent. That is the type of measure that can change the quality of care and save money. Reformed community services and transforming the care of those with long-term conditions, delivering integrated, efficient and people-centred care, has the potential to improve the quality of millions of people’s lives and to save up to £2.7 billion in the process.

The next area of our focus is improving health as well as treating sickness. That has the potential to save the NHS further billions of pounds. For example, screening by pulse palpation to improve detection of atrial fibrillation improves the quality of care by reducing the risk of stroke, and it avoids the costs associated with stroke and its complications, particularly through emergency hospital admissions.

The Government have made clear their intention to drive down the costs of management, back-office support and procurement across the public services. The NHS wants to find ways in which that can be done sensibly, rewarding good-quality management but also ensuring that innovation in management and administration is acknowledged in the health service and rewarded, too. All too often, managers who are innovative in how they run things and who deliver higher-quality care for patients are forgotten, because that is just the administrative side, not the flashy, operating theatre, medical style of care, but they too are contributing to the quality of health care. We need to acknowledge where good management has reduced costs and improved the quality of care through administrative changes, rather than just medical changes.

All this cannot be administered from Whitehall. Instead, we need to empower clinicians and their patients. It is through innovation, through looking for new ways to do things, assessing them and, most importantly, spreading them throughout the health service—the NHS is great at innovation, but it does not spread it—that we can ensure that we unlock productivity gains. To support that, we have published the best examples of quality and productivity improvement on the NHS Evidence website. That has already been seen by more than 10,000 visitors to the site.

The hon. Member for Wyre Forest highlighted the debate that we had the other day on self-care. That is an important debate and one that we need to take further, but we also need to give people more access to information about the care of their own health, both through the internet and through interactive television, which presents a great opportunity. Let us say that someone has a problem such as asthma. Interactive television can be useful for someone who is not perhaps as technology-literate as younger people often are.

We face a great challenge, but we can overcome it by improving the quality of care, reducing the costs at the same time and delivering within NHS budgets, while recognising that the highest priority of the NHS must always be patient safety and ensuring that we improve the quality of patient care.

Peripheral Arterial Disease

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones, for what I think is the first time. It is also a great pleasure to see the Minister here to respond to the debate. I will try to persuade her that we can avoid lower-limb amputations if the national health service works more holistically.

Amputations are in the mind of the general public for the tragic reason that many of our troops are returning home from war theatres—particularly Afghanistan—having undergone not only lower-limb amputations, but amputations of parts of their arms. However, the vast majority of amputations undertaken in the national health service are caused by peripheral arterial disease, diabetes or, quite often, a combination of both. Losing a limb is a tragedy for any patient, and their quality of life afterwards, particularly if they are elderly, can be extremely poor. Only half the patients who undergo a major lower-limb amputation as a result of such diseases live more than another two years. The number of major lower-limb amputations is still rising—there were well over 25,000 major amputations between 2003 and 2008. There is an urgent need to reduce amputation rates and to save more legs. The good news is that that can be done.

Peripheral arterial disease is a form of arterial sclerosis and is closely associated with stroke and coronary heart disease. The condition is caused by a narrowing of the arteries, usually in the legs. A symptom of the disease is intermittent claudication, which is a cramping pain felt in the calf, thigh or buttock during walking or other exercise. It is caused by poor blood flow and affects up to 870,000 people, or 5 per cent. of the population. Without proper blood flow, wounds cannot heal, which leads to infections, ulcerations and, tragically, to amputation in some cases.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to the House. He is going through the disease processes, but does he acknowledge that one of the greatest risk factors after genetics is smoking? Will he therefore welcome no-smoking day on 10 March, which will be run in community halls, schools and shopping centres across the country? Will he try to get the NHS to get more people to stop smoking?

I have been a great advocate of stopping people smoking, including people in my family, and I will refer a little later to smoking as a causative factor of narrowing arteries.

Diabetes is a major cause of peripheral arterial disease. Diabetics have an increased risk of developing the disease and account for up to 70 per cent. of non-traumatic amputations. The relative risk of amputation is 40 times greater for diabetics. Anther pretty stark statistic for right hon. and hon. Members to digest is that a diabetic who smokes runs an approximately 30 per cent. risk of amputation within five years—the point made by the hon. Gentleman.

We all know how the prevalence of diabetes is increasing to worrying proportions as a result of lifestyle and obesity. There are an estimated 3 million people with diabetes in the UK, and large increases in amputation rates are a possible unfortunate consequence of the growing number of diabetics. However, the good news is that, according to the International Diabetes Federation, 85 per cent. of amputations in patients with diabetes can be avoided, and that is the main point of today’s debate.

The impact of amputation on patients is stark and evident. Amputations also cost the country and the NHS large amounts of money. The amputation rate is between 5 and 6 people per 100,000, but the figures range broadly between strategic health authorities. I have just received the latest statistics on the numbers of amputations in England, which are broken down into the different kinds of amputations. The numbers are still rising.

Each surgical procedure costs between £10,000 and £15,000, which means an annual bill to the NHS of between £50 million and £75 million. However, that does not take into account the substantial costs of rehabilitation, the provision of prostheses and social care, and the social and economic impact on society. The wider cost of patients in employment with moderate-to-severe peripheral arterial disease can be measured in terms of working days lost through illness and disability. We should also consider the loss of taxation revenue to the Exchequer and the cost of benefit payments to ill and disabled people, which are likely to amount to hundreds of millions of pounds on the taxation bill.

Some 85 per cent. of amputations are preceded by a foot ulcer. The estimated cost of foot complications alone to the NHS is £256 million per annum. The past 20 years have seen major developments in the healing of foot and/or leg tissue loss, which have been driven by innovations in assessment and treatment, the development of modern wound-care dressing materials and the development of surgical and other, less invasive interventional treatments by vascular specialists. Despite that, the numbers of lower-limb amputations are still high.

At this point, I pay tribute to the work of the Circulation Foundation, the Vascular Society and the British Society of Interventional Radiology, whose members have done, and are still engaged in, excellent work highlighting the need to save people’s legs. Indeed, I recently hosted a parliamentary reception to highlight the subject. Groups such as the Lindsay Leg Club Foundation also do excellent work helping patients with leg and foot tissue loss through direct support and care.

Clinicians are only too well aware of the challenge of rising amputation rates. Put simply, patients are being seen by vascular specialists far too late, when amputation is the only option available. When a patient first goes to their general practitioner with mild symptoms of intermittent claudication, they are correctly advised to change their lifestyle and particularly to cease smoking and undertake some exercise. Medication with aspirin or statins can reduce clot formation and cholesterol levels and can help to limit disease progression. Other cardiovascular risks to which the patient is likely to be subject can be addressed at the same time.

Unfortunately, treatment by a vascular specialist is often seen as a last resort. However, revascularisation through an open surgical procedure or angioplasty, with or without a stent, can bypass or unblock arteries, improving blood flow in the lower extremities. Revascularisation can significantly add to the benefits of lifestyle change. Britain has one of the lowest revascularisation rates for legs in Europe and some of the highest amputation rates, which tells us a lot. If patients were referred to vascular specialists a lot earlier, they could get the appropriate treatment, and we could save a hell of a lot of legs.

We must increase awareness of peripheral arterial disease among health professionals and particularly among GPs. That is what I am trying to do today. A clear referral pathway from primary care to secondary care would help vascular specialists to see patients sooner. Peripheral arterial disease is not, however, a condition that involves just one discipline, which is why I mentioned an holistic approach at the beginning of my speech. A diabetic patient with foot ulcers and advanced intermittent claudication should be seen by a wound care specialist, as well as by a diabetologist and a vascular specialist—either a vascular surgeon or interventional radiologist.

Peripheral arterial disease requires a multidisciplinary approach. There are some great examples here in the UK where that approach is seen to be working and is already saving legs. An 11-year survey of diabetic amputation rates, conducted between 1995 and 2005 at Ipswich hospital, showed a significant decrease in lower-leg amputation rates following the introduction of a multidisciplinary foot team. Over the survey period, the incidence of all amputations fell by a staggering 40 per cent., and among people with diabetes by a more staggering 70 per cent. Similar outcomes have been achieved in Middlesbrough and Southampton, and there are probably other examples of best practice in this country of which I am unaware.

Although I have painted a generally bleak picture, I hope that I have shown hon. Members, and particularly my hon. Friend the Minister, that we can achieve great improvements through a co-ordinated effort and bringing services together. In the end, the improvements in care I suggest would lead to a higher quality of life for many patients and could be cost-effective overall, too. The Government have made great strides in improving survival rates and treatment for patients with coronary heart disease, and we know that the NHS, with a clear strategy, can achieve great things—there have been many examples of that in the past 10 years. Peripheral arterial disease is often seen as a poor relation to stroke and heart disease. I think it is high time that we should focus on peripheral arterial disease as well.

We can save legs and save money, even in an age of austerity. I am confident that, by learning the best practice from our European partners, which do much better than we do, particularly through early referral; by incorporating best practice from the UK; and by bringing into every hospital multidisciplinary collaboration between leading clinicians, we can reduce amputation rates, despite an ageing population and more patients unfortunately being diagnosed with diabetes. That view is shared by many consultants, some of whom I have talked to personally.

Such improvements in care fit perfectly with the drive in the NHS for better quality of patient care and improved productivity but, of course, it is also important to prevent the ever-increasing occurrence of diabetes. We need much more research to find out what is really causing the increasing prevalence of that difficult disease. Prevention is always better than cure, for the patient as well as the NHS. Now could be the right time for a national target to reduce Britain’s rising amputation rates. A national campaign to raise awareness, among not just health professionals—especially GPs—but the general public, seems justified at this time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon)on securing this important debate and commend him for his excellent work in the all-party group on diabetes, which is a sign of his commitment to reducing vascular disease. He said that he was seeking to persuade me, and as always the points he made were persuasive and well-informed. They shone a light on something that perhaps few have drawn attention to.

My hon. Friend has raised an issue that perfectly illustrates the challenge the NHS must meet in the coming years. His speech reminded me of a quotation. At the turn of the last century, George Bernard Shaw despaired of a society that

“will pay a surgeon to remove a leg, but nothing to save it”.

In this century, the NHS has changed and continues to change: it is not just a service for treating illness, but a national health service for the promotion of good health. Specifically, it is true that we must do more to save more people from the terrible tragedy of limb amputation. As my hon. Friend says, although peripheral arterial disease can have devastating consequences and affects a significant number of people, it is not often in the public eye. That is why I particularly welcome the debate and am grateful to him for drawing attention to the matter.

To give a wider context, under our five-year plan “From good to great”, the NHS must do three things: take a more preventive approach, stopping more people developing serious illness, as we have discussed; be more people-centred, organising services around the individual, and in particular managing long-term conditions in more effective ways; and put quality at the heart of everything it does—improving diagnosis, treatment and management of disease, and building stronger multidisciplinary teams to improve the care that a patient receives.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that peripheral arterial disease is a clear case in point. We must get better at preventing and diagnosing it and managing it at primary care level, and get better at joining up primary and secondary care, so that fewer patients end up facing limb amputation.

As to awareness, it is an unfortunate fact that by the time many of us get to 50, we will have some fatty build-up in our arteries, which can lead to peripheral arterial disease, or indeed to heart disease or stroke. A typical candidate for peripheral arterial disease might be over the age of 50 and would probably be a smoker—often male—and perhaps would have diabetes. Many GPs therefore come across cases fairly regularly, and in the early stages of the disease can treat it themselves with advice about blood pressure and the means to lower cholesterol levels. However, I accept the points that my hon. Friend raised about awareness. It is always good to ensure that GPs are brought into contact with the latest thinking about diagnosis and treatment.

I would like to add to the Minister’s list obesity, poor diet and lack of exercise, which are also causal factors.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will come on to the contribution that obesity can make, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East has already referred to.

The responsibility for the content of GPs’ continuous professional development lies with the royal colleges, as my hon. Friend knows. I confirm that, as a result of the debate taking place, I plan to write to them, raising his concerns and seeking their assurance that peripheral arterial disease features on the curriculum. I am sure he will welcome that.

As to improving the way that people live and their health, the sensible points that my hon. Friend made reminded me of the importance of reducing smoking and encouraging healthier lifestyles. We know that that is vital for reducing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. I was therefore very encouraged recently to hear that, as a result of our Change4Life campaign, more parents—indeed, we estimate that it is a million more mums—are shopping more healthily, putting better food on the table and encouraging their children, like themselves, to move forward. In other words, they are thinking more about their children’s diet and exercise, putting them on the road to better vascular health later in life.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned that the biggest risk factor in peripheral arterial disease is smoking. More than 90 per cent. of people with the disease are smokers—a shocking figure. It is clear that quitting smoking can not only prevent peripheral arterial disease, but can improve and stabilise the condition once it is established. Our ambition to halve smoking rates through the tobacco control strategy that we recently presented will therefore help to reduce peripheral arterial disease, as more people seek to quit and more people do not take up smoking in the first place.

My hon. Friend is right to make those links as, after all, many people would be shocked to hear that by smoking they could ultimately find themselves facing limb amputation, if peripheral arterial disease sets in.

Stopping smoking is perhaps the single biggest prevention measure for vascular disease, but there are other prevention strategies, particularly those linked with the coronary heart disease national service framework and the national service framework for diabetes, which will help to reduce the risk of peripheral arterial disease. The national service framework for diabetes helps to increase the rate of diagnosis, and with diagnosis comes better management of the condition.

I am glad to say that we can point to real progress in reducing vascular disease overall. The Government met their 2010 target on reducing mortality rates for cardiovascular disease five years early, and we have nearly halved death rates compared to the 1995-97 baseline, saving more than 34,000 lives in 2008 alone. The other important development is the NHS health check programme, which was launched last year. It is thought to be one of the most ambitious public health programmes in the world, with around 15 million 40 to 75-year-olds eligible for universal screening and assessment of their risk of developing vascular disease.

The programme will not only spot potential candidates for peripheral arterial disease earlier on—which, as we have heard, is crucial—but will help GPs and other health professionals to talk to patients about risk factors, helping them to adapt their lifestyles early on and prevent the disease.

Clearly, if people develop peripheral arterial disease, it is vital that they get fast access to the treatment that they need, as my hon. Friend said. I was glad to hear the compliments rightly given about the dramatic improvements we have seen in places such as Ipswich, Middlesbrough and Southampton, and I congratulate all the staff who have made that possible. We would like to see the same results across the national health service.

Last June, the Department of Health commissioned a primary care service framework for peripheral arterial disease, which is about giving primary care trusts support and guidance to improve the commissioning of services to diagnose and manage the disease. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence is developing a new specific guideline on peripheral arterial disease, which I hope my hon. Friend will welcome.

My hon. Friend emphasised the connection with diabetes, and he will therefore know that there is best practice guidance on improving the range and quality of hospital foot care services. That is vital for reducing the number of amputations linked to diabetes, including those brought about by peripheral arterial disease. There is also a considerable amount of work under way to improve support for people living with long-term conditions, which includes delivering more personalised care to help them to manage their own conditions more effectively, and wider use of personal health budgets.

We want to give patients flexibility and control over their treatment. By empowering patients, we will drive up the quality of care, encourage better integration across clinical teams and ensure that patients get the multidisciplinary treatment that my hon. Friend referred to as the best practice. Those are all good points that he rightly made on peripheral arterial disease.

Quality draws all this together. We have embarked on an ambitious quality and productivity programme, and over the next year the national health service will put huge energy into identifying the most effective and efficient, and the safest, treatment across the system. The leadership will be provided by the National Quality Board, whose role it will be to take decisions on prioritisation in relation to specific conditions, if that should prove necessary.

My hon. Friend made a call for a specific target to reduce lower limb amputations, and I absolutely understand why he has done so. In recent years, we have tried to move to a position in which we are improving quality throughout the NHS and making quality the organising principle. Linked to that, we have to set service-wide ambitions, such as our commitment to an 18-week maximum wait between GP and operating theatre, the new commitment to one-week cancer diagnosis and the commitment to a maximum four-hour wait in accident and emergency.

All those commitments are crucial to continuing the excellence of health care for patients and what they should rightly have, which should, of course, achieve improvements for everybody. We believe that the approach of setting more service-wide ambitions will ultimately be rather more effective than setting ever more, and ever more condition-specific, targets.

The conditions are right for the NHS to build on the work that has been done over the past decade to reduce and contain all forms of vascular disease and diabetes. It is clear, I agree, that we have to improve the treatment of symptomatic peripheral arterial disease, as my hon. Friend so clearly and rightly described. Above all, we have to do everything we can to prevent more people from developing the condition in the first place. That is where our primary focus will be, and it is why we continue to devote so much effort to programmes such as Change4Life and the NHS stop smoking services. We will, however, continue to take heed of the points that my hon. Friend has made, and I look forward to continuing improvements and a lessening of the number of limb amputations.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.