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Commons Chamber

Volume 511: debated on Thursday 10 June 2010

House of Commons

Thursday 10 June 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Garden Development

1. If he will bring forward proposals to increase the powers of local authorities to prevent infill and garden development. (1535)

Order. I think the right hon. Gentleman should have requested a grouping with questions 9 and 15.

You are absolutely right, Mr Speaker. I was just so happy to be here. I hope that I do not go on too long—[Hon. Members: “So do we.”] Well, I was not thinking of putting it to a vote.

9. If he will bring forward proposals to increase the powers of local authorities to prevent infill and garden development. (1543)

15. If he will bring forward proposals to increase the powers of local authorities to prevent infill and garden development. (1550)

Further to the coalition agreement, the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who has responsibilities for decentralisation and planning, gave notice to the House that we are changing planning guidance and that we have taken back gardens out of the definition of brownfield land. In addition, we have removed density requirements. The matter is now for local people to decide.

I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his welcome return to the Communities and Local Government brief. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister, not only for his recent work in developing the Government’s ambitious low-carbon economy programme, but for his long-term battle to give communities the power they need to stand up for themselves against inappropriate development.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his answer, but will he reassure the House and my constituents that he intends to repeal perverse rules that prevent local councillors from standing up for their constituents—

Order. I am sorry, but I must now cut off the hon. Gentleman. From now on, questions and answers must be briefer.

I think I got the gist; I think my hon. Friend was referring to predetermination and I am delighted to inform the House that it is our intention to repeal those regulations. That means we can give local councils the thing that Members of Parliament so desire—that councillors with opinions can actually vote on those opinions.

In Harrow East, the decision to safeguard gardens will be warmly welcomed, but another problem remains: unscrupulous developers whose planning application is turned down by councillors at local level, but who then appeal. What proposals are there to prevent the overturning of local planning decisions on appeal?

I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. We are determined to ensure that planning remains local, but of course an applicant’s right to appeal against a decision will remain.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new post. What estimate has his Department made of the impact of the potential changes to planning policy implicit in this question and the other changes his Government have announced, given that Savills, the respected commentators on housing, project that on current trends and patterns there will be a cumulative shortfall of more than 1 million homes within five years?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome. It is entirely typical of his courtesy that his was the first letter of congratulation that I received. However, I have to tell him that it seems perverse for the Labour party to be concerned about housing numbers. After all, last year the lowest number of houses was built since 1946. Under Labour, it would appear that more damage was done to the housing industry than the Luftwaffe did.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that, stretching back to the time of Herbert Morrison, the green belt is a great Labour achievement? Does he also recognise that the urban densification policy of the past 13 years has protected the green belt and regenerated our cities? Does the policy review announced today put in jeopardy all that good work?

I recall hearing our former colleague John Prescott say from this Dispatch Box that the green belt was a great achievement of the Labour party and that it intended to build on it. That indeed seems to have been the case.

I understand fully the concerns about garden grabbing, but I urge the Secretary of State to adopt a careful approach to how he intends to tackle the issue, because some infill is absolutely necessary in urban areas. Can he assure me that planning policy will be flexible enough to assist and not to detract from urban renewal in constituencies such as mine?

I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support of the coalition’s policy, and I thank him for being part of that consensus. He should understand that these matters will now be decided locally, and the Government think that the most sensible people to decide matters of density and particular applications are the local communities that must bear the consequences of those developments.

Financial Propriety Requirements

2. What ministerial directions in respect of an action likely to breach the requirements of financial propriety or regularity were issued to the accounting officer of his Department in the past 12 months. (1536)

Although there were no directions in the past 12 months due to propriety and regularity issues, two directions were issued to my Department’s accounting officer due to concerns that he had about the value for money of actions proposed by the then Secretary of State: one related to implementing unitary city councils in Exeter and Norwich; the other covered the purchase of Blackpool Leisure Assets. In the interests of transparency, I am today placing copies of both directions in the Library.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that he is aware that the First Division Association—the civil servants’ union—has reported that Ministers in the previous Government systematically ignored civil service value-for-money considerations. Can he give us an assurance that this Government will not do the same thing?

We are fortunate in having able and experienced civil servants at our Department, and we certainly want to listen to their advice. It is worth remembering that that direction not only ignored value-for-money considerations, but contradicted stances taken by the previous Government. We will seek value for money, and we will also seek to be consistent.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post. Can we debate Exeter and Norwich when the Local Government Bill comes to this House, although as these somewhat arrogant, high-handed and incompetent new Ministers have already lost a vote on it in the Lords before it even reached its Second Reading, we may never see it?

Does the Minister not understand that public investment through regional development agencies in towns such as Blackpool has been vital for business and jobs and should be in the future? Securing Blackpool tower and the Winter gardens for Blackpool and its millions of visitors was the right thing to do. What the House, the people of Blackpool and its Conservative council want to hear today is a promise from the Minister that he will not allow his colleagues in the coalition to undo the crucial deal that has been done. Will he give that assurance?

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the new regulations to stop having to build on gardens will also apply to local authority-owned gardens, not just to privately owned gardens—

Order. I must very gently tell the hon. Gentleman that that was the subject of Question 1, but we have moved on to Question 2, and we will now move on to Question 3.

Private Rented Housing

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. It is important that we strike the right balance between tenants and landlords. The current legislative framework, which I have been looking at closely, does exactly that. We therefore have no plans to take forward the previous Government’s ideas about further regulatory measures on this subject.

I thank the Minister for that answer. In light of the massive budget cuts announced in the Department, can he assure me that there will be no threat to the measures that the then Government introduced and, indeed, confirm that the Government have no plans to reverse the further powers that Labour has given to councils to introduce local licensing schemes, because in my experience, in my constituency, people want more regulation, not less?

In my experience, in my constituency and across the country, people also want a good supply of private rented sector property. Of course, getting that balance right is important. I share the hon. Lady’s concern about the extent to which homes in multiple occupation sometimes become a blight on an area. I confirm that we do not plan to overturn the rules that the previous Government introduced, but we will look at them in more detail.

We already face new planning applications for large-scale and inappropriate housing development in and immediately around my constituency. The Secretary of State’s letter to local authorities has been helpful, but what further steps should local authorities such as mine take to revise their housing growth figures, which now seem utterly outdated?

I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out that many communities feel put upon due to the regional spatial strategies and many other centrally imposed items. We will ensure—

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is seeking to respond to the question, but it is outwith the terms of that on the Order Paper.

What discussions has the Minister held with landlord organisations about possible changes to the capital gains tax regime as it relates to private landlords?

That is a matter for the Treasury, but the hon. Gentleman will not have to wait long because the emergency Budget, which has been made necessary by the previous Government’s profligacy, will be on 22 June.

Regional Spatial Strategies

We committed in the Queen's Speech to abolishing regional strategies. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to all council leaders saying that he expects them to have regard to that as a material planning consideration in any decisions they are currently taking.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and welcome him to his new position. Will he outline how the Government’s abolition of regional strategies will impact on the provision of Traveller sites of the kind that we already have in Dudley South?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s welcome, and I welcome him to the House. I know that he has always been a vigorous local campaigner.

The point behind abolishing the regional spatial strategies is that we believe that local communities should make decisions locally and should have the ability to put them into effect. It is, of course, important to make provision for Travellers, but such decisions should be taken locally.

I welcome the Minister to his post. Will he confirm that, as I set out in our radical planning paper “Open Source Planning”, the expectation is that abolishing regional spatial strategies will reinvigorate our planning system and move us away from the historically low level of house building that we have seen, which has so badly failed us?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I half expected to find a note on my desk from the previous Housing Minister apologising for the fact that there were no houses, but he did not get round to writing it.

I am glad that my hon. Friend draws attention to his role in what I think will be an important paper. He wrote in that paper that the present system

“imposes too many one-size-fits-all rules…Tragically, the very idea that development can benefit a community has…become a casualty.”

That is the reality of the system that we have been labouring under—literally “Labouring” under. The system does not work in practice or in theory; what kind of bankrupt system is that?

May I welcome the abolition of the regional spatial strategies? I referred in the previous Parliament to the system being akin to Soviet-style planning, and it certainly put constraints on the development of housing in my North Durham constituency. However, what will the Minister be doing on guidance and, more importantly, funding to ensure that the housing that is desperately needed in former mining villages in County Durham will be forthcoming?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for our policy, which enjoys a degree of consensus throughout the country, if not among some of his colleagues. It is important to recognise that when things are imposed from the centre, people tend to react against it. We need to provide incentives, including funding, so that the communities that host more housing get some of the funding that they need to provide infrastructure and other things associated with it.

With regional spatial strategies, did not local authorities at least have the chance to have some say about coming together on big strategic issues? Now, however, we presume that the hefty hand of the central controller at his expansive desk in Whitehall will be making all the decisions centrally.

I will forgive the hon. Gentleman for that remark, because he has been absent from the House for the past five years, but if a central controller had been operating, they had been doing so from Whitehall under the previous Government. The fact is that we want to allow local communities to co-operate. Co-operation is something that people should do co-operatively, rather than by imposition. Although we will encourage co-operation, we will not tell communities what to do from the centre.

Local Authority Funding

5. If he will review the extent to which the local authority funding formula accurately measures the funding requirements of local communities. (1539)

As my hon. Friend is aware, this is the last year of a three-year settlement. We will consult on our proposals for 2011-12 in due course. We are of course prepared to keep an open mind about options for change in the distribution of formula grant to local authorities.

I thank the Minister for his response. One ward in Elmbridge has double the national average of child poverty, yet we get back just one third of the national average of funding for local services. Will he consider the local funding formula as part of the local government finance review to ensure that it is based on a truly objective assessment of local needs?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. I know that, very swiftly after his election to this House, he was in contact on behalf of his constituents regarding a number of related issues. I assure him that, yes, the Government are committed to a review of the local government finance formula and that, within its scope, we will of course consider the points that he and others have made.

The Conservative party was elected on a promise to slash public services this year—the Liberal Democrats must answer for themselves—and huge cuts affecting local government have been announced today. May I ask the Minister why what he has proposed today is so unfair? Why is it that the impoverished northern mill towns, the ex-coalfields and the struggling seaside towns will take the largest share of the cuts? Why is it that the big cities—Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Birmingham—will take the largest cuts? Why is impoverished Newham to have a cut of £4.6 million and wealthy Richmond one of just £900,000?

I have no intention of taking lectures from a member of a Cabinet that left this country record levels of debt. Unless there are cuts, by 2014 we will be paying more in interest on the debt than we will in council tax, business rates, inheritance tax and stamp duty combined.

Regarding today’s written statement, does the Minister not accept that local authorities have been at the forefront of making efficiency savings—2% year on year—so to ask for a further 1% part way through the year, on top of the 2% to which they are already committed, will effectively mean cuts in local authority spending part way through the year of about 4% to 5%? Rather than being about efficiency savings, this is surely the first round of the savage cuts for local authorities that Ministers promised us.

The hon. Gentleman, who is experienced in these matters, well knows the dire financial straits the country is in and the need for all sectors to save money. However, he ought to put that in the context of what we have had to do because of the legacy of his party’s Government. We have taken steps to protect formula grant, to un-ring-fence a good deal of grant to give local authorities more financial flexibility and to remove burdens such as the expensive comprehensive area assessment inspection regime.

If the Government cut external funding based specifically on local authorities’ levels of deprivation—external funding available to Witney in Oxfordshire at 1.7% but to the city of Sheffield at 18.5%, for example—is it not inevitable that those in greatest need will take the biggest cuts?

Those in greatest need ultimately bear the burden of paying off the debt which this country has been left—[Interruption.]

Order. I know that these are high-octane exchanges, but the House must calm down, because people lower down the Order Paper deserve a chance to get in.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that, if we are to have sustainable, quality local government services, the first thing we have to do is get this country’s economic mess sorted out.

Standards Board for England

I thank the Minister for that answer and welcome him to his position. He brings enormous experience of local government to the post.

We all agree that £10 million could be better spent to better effect, but what rights of appeal will there be if the local process goes wrong or goes amiss, as it sometimes does?

I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome. He is right that a safety net is needed, and we are in discussion with our local government colleagues about the most appropriate way of moving forward.

Is the Minister aware that he is going to become the pin-up boy for every councillor in the country, and receive an enormous amount of fan mail? Will he ensure that the abolition takes place as soon as possible?

I would like to claim that, for my Liberal Democrat colleagues, I already was, but I am happy to be so for others as well.

Around the country, there are councillors of every political persuasion deeply frustrated by the fact that the Standards Board remains a burden and a threat to them. It costs £7.8 million, but it dealt with only 1,000 real complaints last year, which is £7,800 per complaint. The sooner we get rid of it, the better. That will be done on a statutory basis through the decentralisation and localism Bill.

Shorthold Tenancies

7. What his policy is on the provision of shorthold tenancies by local authorities and housing associations. (1541)

As our draft manifesto makes clear, we will respect the tenures of social tenants. The vast majority of social tenants have a very secure degree of tenancy.

Why did the Conservative manifesto commit only to “respect” the rights of social tenants, not to protect them, as the Minister has previously stated?

I made it pretty clear that we intend to protect the rights of social tenants. [Interruption.] They are already protected, as Members well know. It is important to say that there are a record 1.8 million families languishing on the waiting list—a number that nearly doubled during the 13 years in which Labour was in power. It is important that we respect those rights to tenure as well.

Interviewed in Roof magazine last year, the Minister made it clear that he was open to change in security of tenure for new tenants. Will he confirm that new tenants—people in housing need coming off the housing waiting list, as he described—will enjoy the security enjoyed by existing tenants?

As I have said, security of tenure is incredibly important, particularly for people in social housing, and we are keen to protect that. There are 1.8 million families languishing on that social housing waiting list, and it is right and proper that we look at the way in which we can reduce that list. It may include looking at tenure for the future.

Homelessness

That will be me then.

The most important thing is that there is an honest street count, but there has not been such a count up to now. We will introduce measures to take street counts into account. The last street count said that there were just 468 people sleeping rough in the entire country: it is nonsense, and we are going to get it sorted.

May I welcome my right hon. Friend eventually to the Dispatch Box? We have a fine record in Blackpool of inter-agency working to tackle systemic structural homelessness involving both the council and NHS Blackpool. Will he tell me, as part of his collaborative efforts in government, which Departments he will target and which thematic issues are important in tackling the rough sleeping that he has just described?

I will make sure that I am quick in reaching the Dispatch Box, to announce that Ministers across Government will be involved in helping with homelessness: there will be a named Minister in each of the key Departments to ensure that, at long last, there is some form of joined-up government to help to reduce the number of rough sleepers.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to one of the best jobs in government. All of us who are passionate about housing are disappointed that the new Government have downgraded housing and that the Housing Minister no longer attends Cabinet. On homelessness, does he accept that co-ordination is fine, but we need to build more new affordable housing to tackle the problem? Some £230 million of cuts this year is a bad start. When the £6 billion of cuts were first announced, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, told the House that the Government were

“putting more money than the previous Government did into social housing.”—[Official Report, 26 May 2010; Vol. 510, c. 160.]

Is that true or false?

I welcome my opposite number to my former position. I feel a little bit bad: I have taken both his offices and his car, and I have even got his red tie on today. But I can reassure him that we will do all that we can to undo the mess of the lowest level of house building since 1946, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned. Indeed, if one takes out the war years, it is the lowest since 1924. That is the heart of the problem with house building in this country. Leaving us with a bill—it is highly dubious whether £780 million of it is available to the Government—was not the smartest thing to do, and it means that we are in the position of trying to rescue house building in this country, and, in particular, affordable house building.

As a significant proportion of those who are long-term homeless are ex-servicemen and women, will the ministerial team also liaise with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that these people are properly supported as they make the transition from service to civilian life?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. It is incredibly important, right across Government, from the MOD to the Department of Health and the Department for Education and many other Departments, that there is proper co-ordination between Ministers. It has never been done before at ministerial level; it has always been left to the officials. We will have Ministers in charge of homelessness across the Government, including in the MOD.

Housing Revenue Account

The Government are committed to reviewing the unfair housing revenue account in England, and want a funding system that gives local communities more power and responsibility. I can therefore announce that I intend to continue with the review that was undertaken by my predecessor, which reports back to me on 6 July.

Is the Minister aware that Welsh local authorities returned more than £80 million to the Treasury as a consequence of the scheme last year, and that my home local authority, Carmarthenshire county council, which has retained its stock, returned £5.5 million in 2008-09? Does he agree therefore that the scheme does not provide a level playing field between local authorities and housing associations, and that it would be far fairer for moneys to be retained locally to increase investment in public housing, help Welsh local authorities to achieve the Welsh housing quality standards and help to create jobs in the local economy?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there are numerous problems with how the housing revenue account operates at the moment, in England as well as in Wales. The simplest answer that I can give him is that I agree, and we will continue the review.

Kettering council, on which I serve, collects £12 million a year from its council tenants, £3 million of which is handed straight over to Her Majesty’s Treasury. How is that fair, and will the Minister receive a representation from the council on this issue?

I would be happy to receive a delegation from the council on the issue. It is absolutely the case that it is not fair. I think that there is cross-party agreement that the housing revenue account has become increasingly unfair over the years. That must be fixed, in the interests not only of transparency and of the tenants within those authorities that are paying in, but of efficiency. I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues.

Social Housing

12. What steps he plans to take to improve the standard of social housing; and if he will make a statement. (1546)

It is an astonishing but sad fact that after 13 years of a Labour Government there is a backlog of £3.2 billion to bring decent homes to all social housing, and that is in the context of the previous Chief Secretary to the Treasury leaving a note saying that he was afraid that there was no money—or, as my brief says, future funding for the decent homes programme will be decided in the context of the Government's spending review.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his inept answer. Could he possibly tell me how he intends to find the money to help social housing? His party stood on a manifesto to try to help people who needed help, unlike the party that he joined in coalition, which did not give a toss about the poor people.

The coalition Government and the agreement make it clear that we have a firm commitment to dealing with social and affordable housing to bring housing up to standard. We have the job of making sure that we can do that in an affordable way while getting Britain back on its feet. The hon. Gentleman’s Government caused the problem; we are giving the solutions.

It is a question not just of the standards of housing but of the legacy. After the last couple of decades of development in social housing, there is a desperate shortage of three and four-bedroomed family houses. There are a lot of families in my constituency and throughout the country who are crammed into one and two-bedroomed houses. It is simply unacceptable. It has an enormous impact on their lives and children’s life chances. Will the Government be addressing that as well?

The question is about social housing, and of course my hon. Friend is right that we must have the right mix of accommodation in each local area. One thing that we are making clear is that local areas should take the decision, and that local bids should be made.

May I start by congratulating the new Minister on being appointed to work in my old office? He has a great team of civil servants, and it was a privilege to work with them. I congratulate also the new Housing Minister on his promotion, but it is a real shame that he, along with the Prime Minister and, this week, the Chancellor, should choose to use their first appearances at the Dispatch Box to give such inaccurate information about the housing pledge that the previous Government announced two years ago. The Housing Minister knows full well that the costs were agreed with the Treasury and would have been met with £340 million from capital under-spends in other Departments and £540 million in greater departmental flexibilities. If that had not been the case, the Government’s accounting officer would have prevented us from making the announcement. If that pledge—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman should resume his seat. I think that we have got the thrust of it. We are pretty clear.

Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman is wrong, and, as it will become clear when statements are made in the emergency Budget and elsewhere, we are putting the financial package back together again.

Affordable Housing

13. What steps he plans to take to increase the supply of affordable housing in areas of high demand. (1547)

We recognise that there is a continued need for affordable housing, and we remain committed to its provision. When we announced on 24 May the £6.2 billion of savings to tackle the deficit, we made available £170 million to safeguard the delivery of about 4,000 otherwise unfunded social rented homes, starting on site this year and prioritising provision for the most vulnerable. Decisions on future levels of funding for affordable housing will be made in the spending review.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Given his professed support for social housing, will he explain why the Homes and Communities Agency has put a moratorium on all spending on new council housing, including the site in central Bristol on which work was planned to go ahead?

As the hon. Lady will know, the moratorium is in existence until the emergency Budget is announced, and I cannot go much further than that at this point. However, the reason why there will be an emergency Budget, and the reason why there is a moratorium, is that there is not enough money to complete the programme that was put in train by the Opposition’s Front Benchers when they were in government.

Does the Minister agree that, although the previous Government made lots of pledges, the problem is that they never lived up to them?

Why did Ministers not make an announcement about the first £230 million of cuts to the affordable housing investment programme instead of sneaking them out on the Homes and Communities Agency website? Do they not accept that the hardest-hit areas are the poorest, and that the poorest families will be hit first? Given that the Prime Minister said this week that the Government’s cuts will be open, responsible and fair, can the Minister not see that that fails each one of those three tests?

I shall not be quite so quick to do so this time. The fact is that we have tried to do our work in a measured and careful way to protect the vulnerable, as the coalition agreement set out. That is what we are about. That is what we are doing.

Regional Spatial Strategies

As I said in my answer a few moments ago, we and, I think, many people in the country regard regional spatial strategies as undemocratic, bypassing local authorities. They are based on artificial regional boundaries and, by imposing on local people, have increased antagonism towards development. In other words, they have not worked.

Regional spatial strategies were a stick that was used to beat local authorities, but what will my right hon. and hon. Friends do on incentives? Do Ministers on the Treasury Bench still intend to allow those local authorities that encourage housing applications and grant planning applications for housing to retain the council tax receipts in respect of that new housing for a period, thus giving local councillors and authorities an incentive to bring forward housing schemes and new housing?

I could not put it any better myself. That is exactly our intention. This shows that if one works with the grain of human nature by, instead of bullying people and telling them what to do, allowing them to share in the success, then—miracle of miracles—we might have people who support development of all kinds in this country.

Affordable Housing

19. What estimate he has made of the effect on the number of affordable homes of planned reductions in spending under the Kickstart and national affordable housing programmes. (1554)

The national fiscal position is severe, and we have had to make some very difficult decisions on savings. That is why on 24 May we announced that the Government would be making £6.2 billion of savings this year. We have estimated that planned savings in the housing programme will reduce the number of affordable houses. That is why we brought forward another £170 million to ensure that 4,000 could be completed.

Thank you, Mr Speaker; it is an honour finally to be called by you. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”]

Order. People should not be so unkind. I know that the hon. Lady was not criticising the Chair—she would not do that.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I would never dare to criticise you, as you well know.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his new role. The residents of the Lupset estate in Wakefield are anxiously scanning the horizon for the sounds of his private plane jetting in to tell them which of their homes are going to survive the cuts to the decent homes standard. We are also very concerned about what calculation is made as regards the impact on the construction sector of the net cut of £60 million in the affordable housing programme. How will that cut affect the 1.8 million families he is so concerned about who are languishing nationally on the council lists?

Those of us on the Government Benches who care about things such as homelessness and affordable housing provision do not need to take lectures from a Government who, during their 13 years in office, produced less affordable housing than the Thatcher and Major Governments. The simple fact is that we want this stuff to go ahead, and that is why the £170 million has been brought forward. The reality is that if one runs the country like the money is never going to run out, one ends up in exactly this position. Rather than blaming us for it, it would be good to look closer to home.

Sunderland Point

20. What recent discussions his Department has had with Lancashire county council on levels of funding for community services in Sunderland Point, Morecambe. (1555)

Thank you for that answer. [Interruption.] Behave yourselves across the Floor there.

Sunderland Point is a community that must be protected at all costs. It is a very historic area of this country, and Lancashire county council should help in any way it possibly can. I hope that the Minister’s Department can help accordingly.

I am conscious of the sensitivities involved in Sunderland Point and the areas to which my hon. Friend refers. Predominantly, the works there are dealt with by the Environment Agency, but Lancashire county council would stand ready to assist as far as it can.

Local Authority Funding

As my hon. Friend will know, and as I said in relation to an earlier question, this is the third and final year of a settlement. Yes, we will be consulting in relation to future funding arrangements, and that certainly includes a willingness to consider any options that may be put forward.

Will the Minister confirm that the plans we set out in our manifesto to make the funding formula more transparent—[Interruption.] Excuse me—I would like Opposition Members to listen. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will start again.

Will the Minister confirm that the plans to make the funding formula more transparent and independently audited are still intact? That is a matter of great concern in my constituency of Devizes and all the Wiltshire constituencies, because we receive the lowest amount of funding from central Government of any unitary authority.

I can confirm that the Government remain committed to a review, and we are more than happy to examine the points that are raised.

The Minister seemed to suggest earlier that the poorest communities would bear the brunt of the cuts. What is he doing to protect the poorest communities, such as those in Halton, from the cuts?

The important thing that we have done is to protect formula grant, which is the largest single grant paid to local authorities. As I said, we have given local authorities considerably more leeway in how they use those moneys by ring-fencing a significant number of grants and removing significant burdens such as the inspection regime, which is estimated to cost local authorities something in the order of £2 billion a year.

Topical Questions

I and my ministerial colleagues have already announced new powers for councils to resist unwanted garden grabbing; the abolition of Labour’s cumbersome comprehensive area assessments; the vetoing of a proposed salary package of nearly £250,000 for the chief executive of the Audit Commission; a new era of town hall transparency for councils to be able to show the people of this country the money; the burying of John Prescott’s regional spatial strategies and the unwanted regional assemblies; the abolition of the red tape of Labour’s home information packs; and the end of Labour’s hated bin taxes.

I am shocked that in that list, the Secretary of State did not refer to the cuts announcement that he has just made in his written statement. I have just calculated that in his plans, 90% of cuts in the diverse and deprived town of Slough, which I represent, will land on education and children’s services and community safety initiatives. If someone is not protected or dies as a result, whose fault will it be, Slough council’s or his?

If the hon. Lady is complaining about a 0.91% cut, goodness knows what she must have said about Labour, which allocated cuts of £50 billion, and the effect that that would have had on communities. If the hon. Lady wants to make complaints about anybody, she should look to herself.

T3. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether the Government intend soon to go ahead with their policy of giving the power of general competence to local councils, which my colleagues and many councils will warmly welcome? (1563)

I am very pleased to confirm to my hon. Friend that that is exactly what the Government intend to do, and the matter will be included in the new localism Bill.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his post. He and I have known each other since we worked together at the British Youth Council, which will give the House some idea of how long ago it was. I wish him well in his new role and hope that he does a great deal better in the months ahead than he has in his first month, because has he not failed to defend his Department, meaning that local communities and local services will bear the biggest share of the cuts, and introduced a package of cuts to services and housing that will fall unfairly on the communities with the greatest need? He needs to do better than that. He has failed in his job so far, and he will have to be a great deal more careful in what he does in the future.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his words of welcome. We have indeed known each other for a very long time, but at least he is still recognisable from his photographs from those days, unlike myself. I wish him well in the forthcoming elections to the shadow Cabinet.

The right hon. Gentleman operated an extremely effective burnt earth policy within the Department. He left a legacy in which the cupboard was bare. All that was missing was a note of apology. The cuts that we have had to make have been imposed on us by him. We have managed to ensure that formula grant has not been touched and that no authority will face a revenue cut greater than 2%. That is much better than the £50 billion of unallocated cuts that was the legacy left to our Department.

T4. I understand that, notwithstanding the announcement that the Standards Board will be abolished, the big cheeses of that organisation have written to chief executives of local authorities asking them to supply more business in the form of complaints against accountable and elected representatives. Has the Treasury Bench considered making an example of this quango for its impertinence? (1564)

I have already told the House that the cost of dealing with every successful complaint is approaching £8,000. The hon. Gentleman is right that something needs to be done about that quickly. We have indeed, in the proposals that the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) was criticising a few moments ago, drawn back on spending by that quango. As soon as legislation permits, we will get rid of it completely.

T2. Can the Secretary of State explain to people in Chesterfield, who suffered so badly from unemployment under the last Conservative Government, why one of the first measures that he has taken is to move £160,000 out of the working neighbourhoods fund? That money was being well spent by our council helping unemployed people back into work. Was not the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), right when he said that the poorest people will bear the cost of the cuts under this Conservative Government? (1562)

The hon. Gentleman’s council faces cuts of 1.36%. If his council cannot cope with that, it should ask him why the Labour party spent the country’s money without making adequate allocations and why the then Government planned cuts of £50 billion, of which local government’s share would have been about £13 billion.

T5. The coalition programme for government pledges to incentivise local business growth. Will that involve giving local authorities back a greater share of the tax revenue raised locally from business rates? (1565)

It is our intention that areas that promote business within their communities should benefit in some way from doing so. The manifesto and coalition agreement make it clear that that is our intention.

T6. Because this Government have deliberately chosen to cut the budget for housing, and that will have an inevitable effect on jobs and training in construction, does the Housing Minister now regret his words in opposition that it would be ridiculous and counter-productive to insist on apprenticeship training in publicly funded housing schemes? (1567)

The hon. Gentleman knows about the huge deficit—£780 million was promised from other budgets but never existed—and building homes with imaginary money is not possible, so compromises need to be made. We have said that £170 million will go to support 4,000 homes—as the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) said—and 3,500 jobs.

T7. I very much welcome the ending of the regional spatial strategy. My constituents, who are fighting inappropriate proposed developments in Micklethwaite and Menston, would like to know more detail about how the Government’s new planning policy may enable them to fight off those developments. Will the Minister visit Shipley and meet local residents to discuss with them how the Government’s new planning policy may help them in those particular cases? (1568)

My hon. Friend extends an enticing invitation that I will be delighted to take up, so that I can meet his local community and tell them that they are now free to set community plans in accordance with their interests without any fear that those plans will be revoked by national, unelected officials.

The mantra that it is all down to the last horrible Labour Government that there is no money will not wash if this Government make the poorest people in our country pay. When the Secretary of State took office, he inherited one of the biggest council housing building programmes for 20 years. Will he guarantee that council housing will form part of his future affordable housing strategy?

First, after one month, frankly it will still wash; and, secondly, over 13 years, while in government, the Opposition built on average half the level of affordable housing per year of the previous two Conservative Governments, so we will be proud to put the situation right again.

T8. I apologise for asking this question earlier. On regional spatial strategies, what advice can the Secretary of State give to local authorities such as mine in Swindon about revising housing growth figures that now seem utterly outdated? (1569)

My understanding is that, in the hon. Gentleman’s part of the world, the plan has not yet been submitted to the inspectors, so he should be able to go back and tell his councillors that they now have the opportunity to put forward plans that are in keeping with the needs of his area.

Can the Minister give Bolsover council an assurance that the plans concerning the 108 prefabricated Tarran bungalows occupied mainly by elderly people will receive the go-ahead? We already have the plans. There were plans to get rid of 20 in the first tranche, and to get rid of the lot in the future. We received a nice letter from the then Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey). Surely, in a deprived area, this Government will not cut those plans to replace the prefabricated bungalows for elderly people in Bolsover.

I am sorry that, after 13 years of a Labour Government, people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are still living in prefabs—I can recall them from my youth. I do not know about the particular scheme, but I will ensure that he is written to.

I welcome the answers given to questions 1 and 4 earlier. What advice and guidance will be given to local authorities, and particularly the Planning Inspectorate, when dealing with applications prior to the new legislation going through?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the Planning Inspectorate to inform it that the Government’s stated policy on such matters is now a material consideration when it reviews applications that have been made and gone to appeal.

This morning, the Minister for Housing stated that he did not wish to overturn the use classes order changes concerning houses in multiple occupation, but that he would look at them in detail. During the election, he stated that Southampton city council should have all the powers it needed to deal with homes in multiple occupation. It has all the powers it needs as a result of those changes. Is it therefore his intention to water down those changes as a result of looking at them in detail?

As I said, I recognise the scale of the problem, and we will ensure that councils in areas such as Southampton maintain those powers. My only concern is to ensure that we do not have a system in place for homes in multiple occupation that is so overarching that it applies to areas where HMO students are not a problem.

Has the Secretary of State had a chance to estimate the change in the number of unauthorised Traveller sites since Labour came to power in 1997?

By a weird coincidence, I happen to have with me the figures for unauthorised sites—because my hon. Friend’s question was on the Order Paper. The number of caravans on unauthorised developments has increased from 887 in 1997 to 2,395 in 2010, which is an increase of 170%.

How can the Secretary of State reconcile his pre-election commitment to localism with his subsequent ministerial diktats, and why did he snub the Conservative-dominated Local Government Association over his Government’s cuts programme?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The first person who came to see me was Dame Margaret Eaton from the LGA. It has been informed throughout the process, and we have a very constructive relationship, not surprisingly because the Government intend to pass substantial powers down to local authorities. That represents a new constitutional settlement in which local people have power.

Is the Minister aware of how many messages of support I have received today for the plans to allow council buildings to fly the England flag during England games, and will he tell us more about what he intends to do to allow that to happen?

In line with the localism that we have just discussed, this is, of course, a local matter. However, I hope that local authorities throughout England will take the logical and sensible approach, and be proud of the nation’s being able to come together to celebrate England’s—we hope—great success, and we encourage them to do so.

The recently announced cuts of £230 million to the Homes and Communities Agency include £50 million of cuts to housing market renewal, of which Liverpool has to take the burden of £4 million. Will the Secretary of State give his assurance that there will be no further cuts to vital housing market renewal projects, including those in Liverpool, Wavertree?

I have visited many of the housing market renewal areas, and we are passionate about ensuring that they can go ahead. In all the cuts that have been made, those in areas such as housing market renewal are the most concerning of all. Again, we have to get the budget deficit under control, but we will consult the areas involved to try to ensure that the impact is minimised. I look forward to a time when the economy is back on its feet again and we can really help the most needy communities in this country.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the great failures of the previous Government was to wrap local authorities up in a bureaucratic top-down performance-management regime from which local government needs to be liberated?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why we have indicated our intention to get rid of the CAA regime, which has been estimated to cost the sector in the region of £2 billion. That is why we are committed to abolishing the Standards Board and why we want to give genuine power back to local authorities.

There is a need for a more strategic view of how we can have Gypsy and Traveller encampments around the country, as well as in specific regions, but how can we do that when the Government have just cut the budget for the Gypsies and Travellers programme by £30 million?

It is certainly our intention to encourage local authorities to have Gypsy and Traveller sites, and we will be announcing an incentive scheme. This is an important issue, and I want to ensure that we treat Gypsies and Travellers with respect. However, the hon. Gentleman must understand that we are in this position only because of the inheritance that we received. We had to take that money out, and if we had not done so, the prospect of our being able to provide sensible accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers would have been diminished, because of the profligacy of the Labour party.

Speaker’s Statement

Nominations for Chairs of the 24 Select Committees set out in Standing Order No. 122B, as amended by the Order of the House of Monday 7 June, closed on Tuesday 8 June, and elections were held by secret ballot on Wednesday 9 June. No ballot was necessary for eight Committees for which a single nomination had been received as follows:

Committee

Elected

Culture, Media & Sport

Mr John Whittingdale

International Development

Malcolm Bruce

Justice

Sir Alan Beith

Northern Ireland Affairs

Mr Laurence Robertson

Procedure

Mr Greg Knight

Scottish Affairs

Mr Ian Davidson

Transport

Mrs Louise Ellman

Welsh Affairs

David T. C. Davies

In the contested elections, the following candidates were elected:

Committee

Elected

Business, Innovation & Skills

Mr Adrian Bailey

Children, Schools & Families

Mr Graham Stuart

Communities & Local Government

Mr Clive Betts

Defence

Mr James Arbuthnot

Energy & Climate Change

Mr Tim Yeo

Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

Miss Anne McIntosh

Environmental Audit

Joan Walley

Foreign Affairs

Richard Ottaway

Health

Mr Stephen Dorrell

Home Affairs

Keith Vaz

Political and Constitutional Reform

Mr Graham Allen

Public Accounts

Margaret Hodge

Public Administration

Mr Bernard Jenkin

Science & Technology

Andrew Miller

Treasury

Mr Andrew Tyrie

Work & Pensions

Miss Anne Begg

The full breakdown of voting in each contest, indicating the votes attributable to each candidate after each redistribution of the votes of eliminated candidates, is set out in a paper available from the Vote Office. The Members so elected take up their positions formally when their Committee has been nominated by the House. I congratulate all the right hon. and hon. Members concerned.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 14 June will include:

Monday 14 June—General debate on UK policy on the middle east, followed by general debate on emerging economies.

Tuesday 15 June—The House will be asked to approve motions relating to the establishment of a Back-Bench business committee, September sittings, private Members’ Bills, deferred Divisions, Select Committee sizes and sittings of the House.

Wednesday 16 June—Opposition day [1st Allotted day]. There will be a full-day’s debate on Government support for industry. This debate will arise on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 17 June—General debate on building a high-skilled economy.

The provisional business for the week commencing 21 June will include:

Monday 21 June—General debate on strategic defence and security review.

Tuesday 22 June—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

Wednesday 23 June—Continuation of the Budget debate.

Thursday 24 June—Continuation of the Budget debate.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall will be:

Thursday 24 June—A debate on the future of local media.

May I offer my congratulations to the new Deputy Speakers who were successful in the ballot this week: the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr Hoyle), my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) and the right hon. Member for Bristol South (Dawn Primarolo)? May I wish them every success in carrying out their important duties and pass on the thanks of the House to those they replaced for the undoubted service they offered over many years? May I also pass on my congratulations to those Members who you, Mr. Speaker, have just announced as having been successfully elected as Chairs of Select Committees? This is undoubtedly a landmark in the history of the House. I warmly congratulate those who have secured the approval of their colleagues to undertake the vital task of scrutinising Government Departments. This is an important reform—part of a process of transferring power from the Executive to the House, which I intend to progress in my role as Leader of the House.

I thank the Leader of the House for setting out the forthcoming business and I add my congratulations to the new Deputy Speakers and the new Chairs of Select Committees.

With regard to Tuesday’s business, the Government have today tabled proposed new Standing Orders on the new Back-Bench business committee. Frankly, however, no proper consultation took place with the Opposition on the detail of those before they were tabled. Would it not be right for the new Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, whose Chair has just been announced, to look at those before they are debated by the House? I hope the Leader of the House will give a detailed response to that.

Business questions always provide a good opportunity for the right hon. Gentleman to bring us up to speed on how his leak-prevention strategy is going. Last week, he said it was going splendidly, but I am afraid that I must draw his attention to what he might regard as a slight seepage rather than a leak, although it is nevertheless alarming. The BBC seems to have been told by “sources” that the Liberal Democrats are doing a deal with the Government so that they continue to receive Short money, which was designed specifically for Opposition parties. On top of that, the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) has been elected deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats. Many congratulations to him; he was here a minute ago. In his manifesto, he said

“For those departments where there is no Liberal Democrat minister, we should have a shadow secretary of state in the Commons… For those departments where there is a Liberal Democrat minister and a Conservative Secretary of State, then there should be a Liberal Democrat lead spokesperson in the Commons… For those departments where there is a Liberal Democrat Secretary of State, there should be a Liberal Democrat MP outside of government with particular responsibility for that department's business.”

There was a time, I believe, when the Tory and Labour parties agreed that the Liberal Democrats tended to say one thing but do another. This has taken that to a whole new level. The Liberal Democrats say that they are in opposition, but actually do government. The new deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats cannot have it both ways, and I hope that the Leader of the House can assure us that there are no such shenanigans going on with the Short money.

Will the Leader of the House ask the Justice Secretary, when he comes to the House for Question Time on Tuesday, to put right the comments made by the Home Secretary during the Queen’s Speech debate on Monday? As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the British crime survey, which is widely recognised as the most effective way of measuring long-term crime trends, shows that under the Labour Government crime fell by a third. Violent crime fell by 41%, burglary by 54%, and car crime by 57%. Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Home Secretary to explain why she is still trying to avoid using the survey? Of course, the Tory party has form in this regard: the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) was rebuked by the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority for damaging public trust by manipulating crime figures. Not only is the Home Secretary in danger of misleading the House, but she is being very unfair to all those who worked so hard to reduce crime under the Labour Government.

I do not think the Leader of the House was in the Chamber to hear the Adjournment debate initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who spoke eloquently and effectively about the Conservative-Liberal Democrat proposals for defendant anonymity in rape cases. The response of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), was frankly disappointing, and showed very little understanding of the message that he was sending to rape victims. He did say, however, that the Government wanted informed contributions, and would consider all the options before formulating the proposals.

Given that legislation is not ready in a number of cases, and that we are having a number of general debates, may I urge the Leader of the House to allocate one of the future general debates to discussion of this important issue? If the Government are serious about listening before the proposals are presented, I really cannot see why Government time cannot be allocated to it.

I was disappointed by the right hon. Lady’s first request. She asked for the establishment of a business committee to be delayed yet further. The reason that the matter is on the Order Paper for next Tuesday is that the previous Government failed to make progress. We are honouring a commitment made in the last Parliament by me and by my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, to set up a Back-Bench business committee as soon as possible. Referring the matter to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee would simply redo the work of the Wright Committee, and would further delay the establishment of a committee on which I want to make progress. What we are doing is relinquishing the grip of the Executive on the agenda of the House, and giving Back Benchers the power and the time to schedule debates on the matters that they believe are important. When we reach the debate next Tuesday, I hope the House will seize the opportunity with both hands and make real progress with parliamentary reform.

On the right hon. Lady’s second point, there has been no leak. I make it absolutely clear that Short money is available to Opposition parties. The Liberal Democrats are a party of government and therefore Short money is not available to them. I have no ministerial responsibility for what the newly elected deputy leader of the Liberal party wants to do in rearranging the internal machinery of that party.

So far as the Home Secretary is concerned, I was present when she made a fantastic speech to wind up Monday’s debate, in which she dealt with all the issues regarding crime and crime statistics and set out some robust policies from the Government to deal with crime.

Finally, on the Adjournment debate, I was not present but I have read it. The issue is serious and we want to get things right. We agree entirely with the Stern review that serious consideration of the issue is needed, but there is ample time to debate it because no legislation on it is proposed for this Session. One of the objectives of setting up a Back-Bench business committee is to enable it to respond to requests for debates on important issues such as rape, so that they can be debated without the House continuing to be wholly dependent on the Government to find time to debate them.

May I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to early-day motion 188 in my name?

[That this House looks forward to the 2010 Trooping the Colour ceremony on Saturday 12 June 2010 to mark the Official Birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; notes with pride that the flags of all the nations of the Commonwealth are always displayed in and around Horse Guards Parade for this great occasion; calls on the Government to ensure that the flags of all Her Majesty's Territories are also flown in time for the ceremony, including Her Majesty's Crown Dependencies of the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark, together with Her Majesty's Overseas Territories of Anguilla, Bermuda, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands, St. Helena, Ascension Island, Tristan da Cuhna, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands.]

My right hon. Friend will recall that on numerous occasions under the previous Government, I raised the issue of the failure to fly the flags of the British overseas territories and Crown dependencies on the occasion of Her Majesty’s birthday parade Trooping the Colour. Will the Government change that policy and ensure that the flags will fly this Saturday, and will he ask the relevant Minister to make an urgent statement on this before Saturday?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, but he presents me with a challenging time scale if he wants me to do something by Saturday. He will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said from the Dispatch Box yesterday, and I hope that he draws heart from that. I will raise with the appropriate authorities my hon. Friend’s robust request, which is backed up by others who have signed his early-day motion, and I will make sure that he gets a response.

Will the Leader of the House tell us when we can expect a debate on the revised police grant? As he will know, a £125 million in-year reduction has been made to the grant I agreed as the relevant Minister in only February of this year. I am anxious to explore how the Liberal Democrat promise of putting 3,000 extra police officers on the street is matched by the Conservative Government’s cut of £125 million.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will have seen today’s written ministerial statement on the subject. He will find that it says that the matter is subject to the approval of the House.

The coalition agreement says:

“We will bring forward the proposals of the Wright Committee for reform to the House of Commons in full”.

Does the Leader of the House understand the concern of many MPs that the motion he has put forward does not represent the Wright reforms in full, particularly in the loss of days in the Chamber for Back-Bench business? Will he be open to representations on the issue with a view to improving the motion on the Order Paper?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. If she reads the Wright Committee report, she will see that it says right at the beginning that the proposals need to be implemented “in stages”. There is a real issue with moving straight to having 35 days in the Chamber: there would be implications regarding the amount of time for which the House sits and, more seriously, it would run the real risk of squeezing out time for the Report stage of Bills—an issue that concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope that we can debate the matter more extensively on Tuesday, but I can say that at least 27 of those 35 days will be on the Floor of the House. That is an improvement on the 12 days for set-piece debates that we have at the moment.

I have recently received a letter from my local Age Concern expressing its deep concern about the axing of the future jobs fund. When can an early debate on the issue be timetabled?

The hon. Lady might have seen today’s written statement from the Minister with responsibility for employment, which sets out our strategy to move away from the current raft of different schemes, many of which do not provide good value for money, to a single work programme this time next year. We have set out our strategy. There is a debate on poverty that she might be able to use ingeniously to raise the issue. There are 5 million people on out-of-work benefits. We inherited a situation with rising long-term unemployment and we genuinely believe that the single work programme that we are introducing, with a tailor-made package for individuals, is a better way forward than the raft of regimes that we inherited.

Given that Labour left university funding in a mess and problems persist with the Student Loans Company, but record numbers are applying for university places, may we have a general debate on higher education in the near future?

My hon. Friend makes a forceful case. He will have seen the thoughtful speech that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science made today. It would be good if we could find time for a debate on those issues. Of course, we will need to hold a debate in any case when we have the report from Lord Browne, who is considering future funding for higher education.

I listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about the Liberals applying for Short money. Every parliamentarian knows—including hon. Gentlemen sitting behind the Leader of the House; we all believe the same thing—that the Liberal Democrats are all things to all men. The right hon. Gentleman rightly said that no money is available for them. May I press him to say that no money will be available for them? In due course, if there is to be a change, will the Conservative Government also apply for that money?

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement that we will get the Back-Bench business committee, but I am concerned that the proposals of the Wright Committee, on which I sat, will not be implemented in full and we will not get the full 35 days. Will he reassure me that, if the business committee recommends that the remaining eight days in Westminster Hall should be transferred to this Chamber, the Government will accede to that request?

I take the opportunity of congratulating my hon. Friend on his election to the Chair of the Treasury Committee. There is a resolution on the Order Paper, asking for a review of the scheme at the end of the Session. I am happy to have that debate. It is important to have it with the business committee because the more days we have in the Chamber, the greater the pressure on Report stages or on the House to sit for longer into August. We need a sensible debate between the business committee and the House about how exactly we re-engineer the House’s time to get the best possible outcome. I do not rule out having more than the initial 27 days, moving up to 35, but I want the House to be aware that there are real problems with putting a quart into a pint pot.

Some £5 billion has been wiped off BP’s share price this morning as a result of the US Administration’s seeking to restrict dividend payments. May we have an emergency statement from the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister about the crisis that engulfs BP? With the company paying £1 in every £6, a serious crisis faces millions of pensioners in the UK. We need to say to our US allies that, yes, a British company made the mistake, but if it had been subject to a regulatory regime in the UK, it would not have been able to do that, and that the world’s insatiable appetite for oil is responsible, not British pensioners.

The hon. Gentleman makes a forceful point. My understanding is that there are more American than UK shareholders in BP. Although the company is called British Petroleum, the dividend policy has as much impact in the United States as it does here. What happened in the gulf of Mexico is a human and environmental tragedy. The Government will do everything possible, in consultation with BP and the American Government, to help in whatever way we can. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s question will have been heard by the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor—all those who may be having a dialogue with the American Administration.

Right hon. Members and hon. Members have entered into contracts of employment with their staff. We are legally obliged to ensure that their terms are obeyed, but they were imposed on Members by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Does the Leader of the House agree that that is unjust, unfair and potentially a legal minefield?

My hon. Friend raises an issue that, I know, is of concern to all hon. Members. Earlier this week, the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House and I held a meeting with the acting chief executive of IPSA. It was a constructive discussion and we outlined several possible solutions to the problems that confront hon. Members. There is a debate in Westminster Hall for an hour and a half next Wednesday, when my hon. Friend may want to raise the matter again.

Will the right hon. Gentleman agree to a debate on the consequences of the moratorium on and eventual cuts in social housing, which were discussed earlier, on urban regeneration, and the practice that that encourages in registered social landlords to engage in property speculation by sitting on land that they are not developing, thus leaving it empty?

Will the Leader of the House also ensure that his ministerial colleagues agree, as a matter of urgency, to a meeting with me and the Save our Stow campaign to ascertain what can be done to prevent the iconic Walthamstow dog track from being left derelict, given the persistent commercial interest in restoring it and the 500 local jobs that represents?

I will pass on to my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for housing the request for a meeting. The hon. Lady may have just attended Communities and Local Government questions, when social housing was raised.

Perhaps a half-hour Adjournment debate on the future of the Walthamstow greyhound track is a suitable opportunity to share with Ministers the hon. Lady’s concern about its future.

May we have a reaffirmation by Health Ministers of the statement made in opposition that fluoridation would not be imposed on Southampton and Totton without the approval of the majority of the people concerned, given that South Central strategic health authority has put aside £400,000 to fight a court case, despite opposition to fluoridation from 72% of the community?

The coalition Government have no plans at this stage to change the legislation under which the health authority is proceeding with its plans to add fluoride to the water in Southampton and the surrounding district. My constituency verges on that district, and I am aware of the strong local feelings and the unhappiness among some people about the consultation exercise that was undertaken before the decision was made to go ahead. However, I would mislead my hon. Friend if I said that we were planning to do anything in the short term to change the legislative framework in which the decisions are made.

May we have an urgent debate to clear up the mess that is Government policy on further powers for the Welsh Assembly? Yesterday, the Prime Minister was unable to tell us whether he was in favour. The Deputy Prime Minister told my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) that he was in favour, but that was a slip of the tongue, and it turns out that, he, too, did not know. In the main, Liberal Democrat Members are in favour and Tory Members are not. Is all that any surprise when we have the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), who does not even know who the First Minister in Wales is, as Secretary of State for Wales?

The hon. Gentleman will have heard what the Prime Minister said yesterday. The referendum cannot be held in October because the outgoing Administration made no preparations for it, so it will be held next year. How people vote in that referendum is a matter for the people of Wales.

Many of my constituents were outraged when my predecessor, who was elected as a Conservative, defected to the Labour party and did not stand down to cause a by-election. Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on whether hon. Members should be required to cause a by-election if they defect to a different party from the one on whose manifesto they were elected?

My hon. Friend says that many of us were outraged. I think that many people in the Labour party were rather surprised when that transition happened. He proposes a major constitutional reform of the role of Members of Parliament and their independence, and I do not think we should embark on that without thoroughly considering the implications. At the moment, we have no plans to do that.

Does the Leader of the House agree that, in this week of world oceans day, it has been strange not to have a debate on the state of the world’s oceans, particularly given the current state of the gulf of Mexico? Will he make time for such a debate so that we can consider the marine recovery strategy that international legislators agreed at the global forum in the House of Commons earlier this week?

The hon. Gentleman, who has a long-standing interest in the matter, makes a forceful case for a debate. Without giving any commitments, I agree that it is the sort of issue we ought to look at, and against a background of other demands I shall see what I can do.

May we have a debate on overseas territories? Perhaps then we could discuss the ongoing financial crisis on Ascension island, whose only school is facing closure. The cause is an internal dispute between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence, and although it is very much a legacy of the last Government, will the Leader of the House join me in pressing Ministers to make an early resolution of the problem?

It sounds to me as though the matter might be a suitable candidate for a debate in Westminster Hall, where my hon. Friend will be able to raise his concerns at greater length.

In response to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on affording anonymity to those accused of rape, the Prime Minister said that proposals would be brought forward, enabling debate. That led me to think that the Prime Minister believes that the debate should take place in Government time, in the House. Given the grave anxiety that the proposals are causing not only in the House, but in the wider community, the sooner that debate can take place, the better. Will the Leader of the House commit to holding such a debate, and very soon?

I heard what the Prime Minister said:

“we are promising…to bring proposals forward so that they can be debated.”—[Official Report, 9 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 329.]

When we introduce the proposed legislation, that will be the opportunity for debate that my right hon. Friend referred to. However, I recognise the serious concern of Members on both sides of the House and it may be possible before we set up the Back-Bench business committee to find time for a further debate.

May I supplement the question put last week by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds)? I would like a debate in the House to reconsider the question whether a Member who was elected to the House should be able to use its facilities, and possibly take allowances from the public purse, without him or her taking the Oath of Allegiance.

Indeed. This reply may not make my hon. Friend’s pulse race. Nevertheless, issues about allowances are no longer a matter for the House. Issues about allowances, including to Members who may not have taken their seats, are now a matter for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.

Given that the Department for Communities and Local Government has just announced the end of ring-fencing for stroke strategy money, can the Leader of the House arrange for any Department of Health advice on the increase in disability and the number of hospital admissions that that is likely to cause to be placed in the Library? Will he allow time for a debate on the stroke strategy in Government time, given that stroke is a major cause of death and disability?

I am in favour of giving local government the maximum freedom to use its resources intelligently, without constraining its decisions by directions from central Government. I have no doubt that the hon. Lady and her colleagues who share her views will be able forcefully to make the case to the local authority in her area about the importance of providing resources for those who suffer from stroke.

The new chairman of the Sentencing Guidelines Council has called for hefty cuts in sentences to people who plead guilty to the police, which does not bode well for his term in office. May we have a debate about the Government’s approach to sentencing? Given that people already get a considerable discount for pleading guilty and prisoners are automatically released halfway through their sentence, many of my constituents would like the Government to move towards ensuring that prisoners are serving their sentence in full, rather than softer sentences or letting people out of prison even earlier.

That is a typically robust proposition from my hon. Friend. On 15 June there are oral questions to Justice Ministers, which may be an opportunity for him to raise the matter again.

May we have an urgent debate on the importance of diversity in news broadcasting in the UK? There is real concern in Wales, Scotland and the regions of England about the Government’s decision not to proceed with pilots for regional news programmes. What is the Government’s position and how will they ensure the diversity in news broadcasting that is so important?

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious issue and I think it best that he comes along on 21 June and puts the question to Ministers from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The September G8 in Canada will pay particular attention to how the international community takes forward the millennium development goals. Between now and the rise of the House for the summer recess, will my right hon. Friend try to make time for a general debate on international development so that both sides of the House can reinforce the need for the international community to take forward the MDGs, as set out in early-day motion 179?

[That this House recognises the important contribution and commitment the UK has made to the progress of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); welcomes the Government’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent. of gross national income on overseas aid and to enshrine this commitment in law; further recognises that development benefits often remain out of reach of those who are poorest, most marginalised and affected by conflict; acknowledges that many of the MDGs are off track, especially those relating to maternal, infant and child health; further acknowledges the importance of the G8, G20 and MDG Review in mobilising the international community to achieve the MDGs; and trusts that the Government will show strong international leadership in encouraging others in the international community to work towards an MDGs’ rescue plan with clear political and financial commitments, and with every G8 country providing solid national commitments and timetables.]

My hon. Friend makes a forceful case. I will see whether between now and the summer recess we can arrange a debate along the lines he has proposed.

I thank the Leader of the House and his deputy for bringing forward with great expedition the proposals for a Back-Bench business committee. Sadly, that stands in contrast to the delay we experienced over the last year or so. Before we have too much of a love-in, however, I must tell the Leader of the House that there are a number of omissions in the decision of the whole House last year about how the committee should be constituted. To maintain consensus next Tuesday, and to keep all Back Benchers behind his proposals, will he meet me and a number of interested colleagues from all parties to discuss serious amendments, which we can table tomorrow?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I congratulate him on his election to the chairmanship of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform.

The debate on Tuesday is House business, and it will be for the House to decide whether it wants to proceed with the motions I have tabled or agree to amendments. Amendments to some of the motions have already been tabled. I should be more than happy to see the hon. Gentleman after business questions if he is available, to explain why we have constructed the motions as we have, why this is not the last word on implementing Wright, and why I believe that on Tuesday we should take an important step forward and build on it.