House of Commons
Thursday 15 July 2010
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Home Information Packs
The suspension of HIPs has given a much needed boost to the housing market. Reports from the industry suggest that the number of new homes coming on to the market has increased by more than one third since HIPs were suspended. We have also estimated that abolishing HIPs could save consumers just short of £900 million over the next 10 years.
Estate agents in Erewash have conveyed to me their relief at the home information pack scheme being abolished. Indeed, one estate agent has just described the scheme to me as being a complete barrier to people selling their homes. Can the Secretary of State inform the House whether that sentiment is shared by other people working in the housing sector across the country?
I am all for spreading as much joy and happiness, and indeed love, as I can, where’er I go. It was clear even from the trials that HIPs were going to be a real mess. We now need to look to the future and at what can be done to speed up transactions. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing is looking at ways to speed up the introduction of e-conveyancing.
Why has the Secretary of State decided, alongside the abolition of HIPs, that energy performance certificates should no longer be required at the point when a house is initially viewed for purchase? Does he intend to downgrade the importance of those as well?
Gracious, no—indeed, under our green deal, energy certificates will perform a much more important role. They will be about bringing the price of energy down and ensuring that somebody with a house that has a good energy certificate does well, because we want to get houses on to the market. We will insist that the energy certificate be commissioned and in place before the sale takes place. It is about speeding things up—the hon. Gentleman is not familiar with that idea. We are in favour of house sales, not bureaucracy.
I am glad to hear that the right hon. Gentleman thought deeply about the consequences of removing the home information pack arrangement, but in his careful and calculated assessment, did he work out the number of people whose jobs might be affected? Clearly a number of people across the housing market professions have been gearing up to work in that area and will now no longer have that employment. How many people?
When the hon. Gentleman was in another job, during his brief interregnum between spells in this place, he used to advise me solidly to cut away waste and speed things up, and I have followed that advice. HIPs were just part of a service that was provided. We have just heard from the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) about energy certificates, and a number of such services are available.
It has to be said that it is not as though the removal of HIPs came as a shock. It appeared clearly in the manifestos of the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats, and in the coalition document.
The current legislative framework delivers the right balance of rights and responsibilities between landlords and tenants, so, as I announced to the House on 10 June, we have no plans to add to it, whether through a national register for landlords or the regulation of managing and letting agents.
Why is the Minister so indifferent to the rights of private tenants? Is not he worried that weakening local authorities’ powers will give a green light to rogue landlords and lead to a surge in the number of houses in multiple occupation? I ask him in all sincerity to think again about ditching the plans to give private tenants greater protection—or is he happy to usher in a new era of Rachmanism?
The hon. Gentleman may not have been here when I last addressed this subject, but I am keen to protect tenants’ rights and to ensure that sufficient landlords can operate in the market and are not regulated out of it, thereby making rents more expensive for the very people who want to go into the private rented sector. I looked long and hard for and asked in the Department about the supposed landlords register that the previous Government announced. I could not find a scrap of paper about it, leading me to conclude that it was more a case of a press release than a policy on a landlords register.
There are almost 11,000 private tenants in my constituency, many of whom are students, including overseas students, who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by rogue landlords—there are numerous examples of that. Does the Minister agree with the Association of Residential Letting Agents that tenants deserve protection, and that regulation is required to drive up standards?
I agree absolutely that tenants deserve protection and that regulations are, of course, required. However, perhaps the hon. Lady would like to reflect on the fact that we have been in government for two months whereas her party were in government for 13 years. There must be a good reason why the previous Government did not regulate the industry further in that time, and there is: many different powers are available to local authorities to ensure that they look after residents. Those powers now include HMO-ing, and we will ensure that they apply in areas where local authorities want them, but we no longer need the bureaucracy of their applying nationwide.
Business Rates (Small Businesses)
We are doubling the level of small business rate relief in England for one year, from 1 October 2010. More than 500,000 businesses in England are expected to benefit, with approximately 345,000 businesses paying no rates. That will be a valuable reduction in fixed costs for new and existing small businesses.
I am aware of my hon. Friend’s campaign and I pay tribute to his work for small businesses in his area. The Government propose to introduce a business growth bonus, which will reward local authorities for giving planning permission for new business premises. We are also examining ways to enable local authorities to discount the business rate, and we will ensure that in areas where business rate supplement is considered, businesses have a proper opportunity to vote on it in a ballot.
Local councils’ powers to help small businesses in their areas and to help areas in need of economic regeneration, such as the town of Bedworth in my constituency, are limited. Does the Under-Secretary agree that local councils need more powers, such as the ability to vary business rates within a borough or district to create local economic regeneration zones, to help new and existing businesses invest in struggling towns and villages?
That is precisely why the Government propose to introduce the opportunity to discount the rate, to consider the way in which business rate supplement operates in an area and, above all, to ensure that, at the same time as we create the ability to attract housing into an area through our council tax incentive, we give an equal incentive—the business rate growth incentive—to provide jobs and business in an area.
Given that, regrettably, the Government are downgrading benefits to the consumer prices index rather than linking them to the retail prices index, will they be helping small businesses by linking business rates to CPI rather than RPI?
The most valuable assistance that we have given is ensuring an extension of the business rate relief. Moreover, we are assisting small businesses in particular and we have increased the threshold for empty property relief this year to £18,000—all of which the previous Government signally failed to do.
The Government often tell us that hard choices must be made in these difficult economic times. May I ask the Minister about port rates? The Labour Government recognised the difficult position of ports businesses that were faced with backdated rates by giving them eight years to pay. In those circumstances, how does the Minister justify spending hundreds of millions of pounds entirely wiping out the legal rates of those businesses, when other public services for which he is responsible are suffering? Is not that a pretty disgraceful piece of pork-barrelling, given that the measure is aimed at what were Tory target seats in the last general election? People up and down the country who face their services being cut will ask why that is a priority in these difficult times.
I think it is a better use of money than £2 million for the furniture in Eland House, if I might say so. With respect, the right hon. Gentleman neglects the fact that his Government’s policy was roundly condemned by the cross-party Select Committee on Communities and Local Government as being wholly inadequate, and condemned by a number of his hon. Friends who represented port constituencies.
The right hon. Gentleman’s policy neglected to reflect the reality that a discount for eight years did not remove the book liability that fell on ports businesses. That drove a number of them into balance-sheet insolvency, which in turn created cash-flow difficulties with their banks and actually put some out of business. The Government are keeping jobs in port constituencies and communities, and I am very proud that we are doing so.
Regional Spatial Strategies
The Government issued advice to local authorities on 6 July. Following the revocation of the regional spatial strategies, planning for major development areas is for local communities to determine, free from interference from unaccountable regional quangos. If local authorities wish to retain policies on strategic development areas, they are free to do so in their local plans.
I thank the Minister for his answer. As well as freeing local communities to make real decisions for themselves about where they live, will he also ensure that the time-wasting, box-ticking, intrusive and expensive, inspector-led and Government office-led compliance process that went with those central diktats, is also consigned to the dustbin?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and for the benefit of Members, I am today placing in the Library of the House two items. The first is the documents associated with the south-east regional plan, which consists of 3,000 pages and weighs 2 stone. That has been replaced by the second item, which consists of six pages of guidance weighing 1 oz. If anything encapsulates the difference between this Government’s approach and the previous Government’s approach, it is that we are freeing local authorities from that burden.
Does the Minister recognise that under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, the local development plan, by which all planning decisions in an area should be determined, is defined as comprising two elements: the local development framework and the regional spatial strategy, which have equal status. Removing one at a stroke, as the Government propose, leaves most people who think about this subject very fearful that the Government are creating a situation in which the local development plans will be unfit for purpose and there will be litigation and protracted delay, all of which will lead to the halting of necessary development. How do the Government justify that?
The right hon. Gentleman is behind the times. The regional spatial strategies have been revoked: they are not about to be revoked, they are no more, they are dead, they no longer exist, they are ex-strategies. When it comes to spatial planning—[Interruption.] The strategies have been revoked under current legislation. It is entirely possible for progressive local authorities to co-operate, as they are, for example, in Essex, Manchester and Worcestershire, to ensure that cross-border issues are properly dealt with. That is exactly what they are doing.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he extend his guidance to planning inspectorates, so that emerging regional spatial strategies that have not yet been adopted, and indeed emerging core strategies that existed merely to comply with RSSs, are considered immaterial by inspectors?
I am pleased to confirm to my hon. Friend that we have indeed done that. It is worth pointing out that because of that great panoply of regulation and imposition, only 18% of authorities had actually adopted a regional strategy, years after they were first required.
I do not know whether the Minister is aware of or concerned about the damage that his changes to planning policies are already causing, but has he had the chance to read a well researched article in the Financial Times at the weekend, which showed that 7,500 houses in various schemes have already been cancelled as a result of those changes? Is it not the case that the Government’s policies are already proving damaging to the house building industry and bad for everyone in desperate need of a home?
I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, who chairs the Communities and Local Government Committee, but I do not know where he has been for the past few years. He should know that the number of house completions has been at an historic low—the lowest since the second world war. Our intention is to increase house building by removing the imposition that sets people against development. It is a disastrous situation when people are against developments. By allowing people to create communities in the way that they want and to share in the economic benefits of that, we can take the poison out of the planning system.
Non-departmental Public Bodies
We will definitely take steps to reduce the functions and cost of the Department’s quangos. We are reviewing each of our 27 quangos—a number that astonished me—in the context of the Public Bodies Bill. We are committed to increasing accountability and to reducing their number and costs and the overlap of their functions with local authorities. Announcements have been made on the Infrastructure Planning Commission, the Homes and Communities Agency, the Standards Board and the National Housing Planning and Advice Unit. A review of the Tenant Services Authority is also under way.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. When I am talking to the leader of my local council—Wandsworth, a top-rated council—one of the great frustrations expressed is about the number of plans and strategies that senior officers are compelled to write in areas such as youth offending and adult social services, when their time would be better spent delivering those local services. May I have some assurance that we will determine what strategies are needed locally rather than centrally?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I was looking at some of the figures for the Homes and Communities Agency, which delivered—or at least assisted in delivering—55,000 houses at a cost of £80 million, which is £1,500 on the price of every house built. Local authorities have building inspectors, planning officers and auditors, and much of the activity is clearly duplicated and wasted. We have cut the comprehensive area assessment and the regional spatial strategies, and we are giving local authorities the opportunity to take the decisions themselves, with the experts that, in most cases, they already employ. We must cut out the duplication and nonsense that flows from the system set up by the previous Government.
The whole point—or at least a significant part—of what we are doing is based on restoring accountability for the decisions that these bodies have been taking. In some cases, we are ensuring that functions return to the local authorities, where they should have been. If we take, for example, the Standards Board, it cost £8,000 per complaint upheld. We are saying that we can sweep that away completely and restore the monitoring of standards to local councils; in addition, we are getting support from our colleagues in local government to provide a peer review process at a much reduced cost.
The Department’s biggest agency is the Homes and Communities Agency. That has had not one, but two cuts to its budget this year in just two months—more than 10% of the money agreed and set aside to build new, affordable housing. Why was it that no Minister made a statement in public or to this House about those cuts? The details were snuck out on the HCA website. Will the Minister confirm now to the House that the £450 million cut in the HCA’s budget this year will mean that nearly 6,000 new affordable homes will not be built and 5,000 house building jobs will go?
I have a lot of respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but when it comes to counting, he is not quite so good. We need to understand the dire situation this country was in. Emergency action was essential. However, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing will shortly be able to give details of all the developments that will go ahead, now that we have had a chance to assess the financial situation fully.
I shall give the Minister the chance to put the record straight. There was no black hole and no house building commitments were made without the money having been agreed and set aside, as he and other colleagues have claimed. If there had been, I would have received an accounting officer’s letter, but I did not. Will he confirm, therefore, that there was £540 million in the Department’s budget last year that we planned and agreed with the Treasury to spend this year on affordable housing, and that it has been cut back by a further £220 million? Will he now admit that his Ministers and team have not had the strength to stand up to the Treasury and have not had the courage to come to the House to tell us about the cuts they are making?
I read in the newspapers that it was the previous Chancellor who could not persuade the Prime Minister of the day that he needed to stop borrowing and start tackling the deficit—but of course, that might have just been a press report. As I understand it, the housing pledge that the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) brought to the House was for £1.5 billion. We have now authorised the release of £1.25 billion of that pledge. There will be housing built on a scale that the Labour party never achieved while in power.
Government Office for the North West
The coalition Government’s programme for government, published on 20 May, stated that
“we will abolish the Government Office for London and consider the case for abolishing the remaining Government Offices”.
We are currently discussing this with interested parties, including the trade unions.
The north-west employs more public sector employees than any other region in the country apart from London. Although I welcome the Government’s plans to expand private enterprise in our local economy, assisted by the regional growth fund and local enterprise partnerships, will the Secretary of State explain how his Department plans to cushion that transition towards private sector enterprise, so that the people of the north-west and Merseyside can keep their jobs and continue to contribute to economic growth?
The north-west of England is, of course, a vibrant area full of people of enterprise. As my hon. Friend rightly says, the regional growth fund will provide targeted support to areas of deprivation, unlike the regional development agencies, which simply move one form of public money around to another public body. We will ensure that private investment is brought in and, in addition, we will have the local enterprise partnerships. She will also be aware that we will give national insurance incentives for firms in the north to create jobs, and extend small business rate relief to them. There will be diverse other measures.
With the scrapping of the regional development agency and now—so we understand—the Government office for the north-west under threat, what voice will there be for the north-west to secure co-ordinated investment for the region, in both towns and the rural areas?
Would not scrapping the Government office for the north-west mean north-west local authorities having to go cap in hand to each Whitehall Department? Would not such a diktat be of a piece with the Secretary of State bludgeoning the Business Secretary over scrapping regional development agencies? What has he to say to the former Tory leader from Trafford, Councillor Susan Williams, who asked:
“Where is the voice of the NW to government?”
and then said that it was in “a void”? Would he not leave north-west local authorities swinging in limbo, with their economies disrupted by his cuts and no north-west body promoting major regenerational transport projects? Is not his localism just a fraudulent—
All planning decisions should be democratically legitimate. Following the revocation of the regional spatial strategies, local communities will determine most planning applications. For major infrastructure projects, decisions will be taken on the basis of national planning statements, ratified by this House, by Ministers accountable to this House.
One of the things that have brought together communities in Daventry is their campaigns against wind farm developments. Does the Minister accept that disempowering local communities is profoundly counter-productive and actually deepens planning disputes, rather than helps to resolve them?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. If we want to increase the contribution from renewable energy in this country—as we do—we should look at what happens on the continent, where they do not have the poison in the planning system I mentioned. Those countries have community-owned renewable energy developments and they allow people to share in the proceeds. That is exactly what we will do.
Anyone reading Question 8 on the Order Paper could be forgiven for thinking that what many Tories and Liberal Democrats would like is a never-build-anything-anywhere policy. What assurance can the Minister give me that the natural nimby inclinations of so many on his Benches will not result in fewer affordable homes and fewer jobs being provided in Lewisham East, where they are so desperately needed by my constituents?
The hon. Lady may not have noticed, but the effect of the previous Government’s policy was to reduce housing development, so that virtually none happened. The strategies that we have talked about—the targets imposed—have deluded her into thinking that targets are the same thing as building. However, things have not happened that way and she should wake up to that.
Housing Market Renewal
The housing market renewal programme was included in the £6.2 billion of savings from Government spending in this year, as announced on 24 May. The Regenerate Pennine Lancashire pathfinder has been consulted on the reductions in my hon. Friend’s area.
Although I welcome the HMR pathfinder programme, which has delivered massive housing regeneration in many areas across the UK, including my constituency, will the Minister look into both the system of passporting proposals for regeneration and the funding stream, following Government approval, from the HCA to the local authorities? The present delivery quango, which sits between the HCA and the local authorities, top-slices an average of 10% of the funds available, which equates to approximately £40 million for 2008-09, while delivering little benefit on the ground—
I thank my hon. Friend, who I know has done a lot of work in looking at the administrative costs of the process. One of the things that we will be examining closely is how those costs can be reduced and how local authorities can have more control over the process.
The hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) raises an important question, but what is the Minister’s answer to the current Lib Dem leader of Burnley council, who has said of this Government’s financial settlement:
“We are a deprived borough but once again we are suffering. I am disappointed and sick of us being kicked by budget cuts in Burnley”?
Is it not the case that the Minister has ensured that it is the poorest and most deprived councils in this country that are suffering the most?
I am disappointed with that. What the Opposition have not appreciated is that my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley made the very fair point that far too much of the money is top-sliced and siphoned off, and does not produce the renewal that it is supposed to. That is what we are committed to putting right.
Travellers (Local Authority Powers)
The Government will ensure that, where local authorities have made appropriate provision for authorised sites in their area, reflecting genuine local need and historic demand, they will have stronger enforcement powers to deal with unauthorised encampments. We are reviewing how this can be achieved.
Under the last Government, illegal sites and caravans were increasingly tolerated, with councils deciding not to seek their removal. Will the Secretary of State please reassure me that Travellers will no longer be allowed to breach the planning rules that law-abiding home owners have to abide by?
We have to remember that a significant number of Gypsies and Travellers are themselves law-abiding citizens. What we want to see is fair play within our planning system. The overwhelming majority of Travellers abide by the rules, but we will ensure that those small minorities that do not are no longer encouraged to do so by the law.
Twice in the last year, Travellers have smashed through gates to invade Plock court—an important green space on the edge of my Gloucester constituency. The process for moving Travellers on from public land is much longer than for moving them on from private land. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this disruption could be significantly reduced if the law for both were aligned?
We shall look towards speeding up the process, but it is important to understand that the operation of the law at the moment is predicated not on seeking easy resolution, but on conflict. What we are threatened with as a result of the planning laws having been allowed to slip is a genuine attack on social cohesion. Doing something about that is a priority for this Government; that is why we seek to ensure fairness for all.
It was never intended under the previous Government and nor is it intended under this Government that all provision for Travellers should come out of public funds. I am more concerned, I have to say, about health and education issues relating to Gypsies and Travellers, which have been allowed to lapse so woefully under the previous Government.
The Secretary of State said that many of these Travellers are law-abiding people. That may well be true, but many of them are not. I am not worried only about Travellers on illegal sites. What about the so-called Travellers—even though they stay in the same place all the time—on legal sites who still create a huge menace to the local community? What can my right hon. Friend do to make sure that local authorities have the power to deal with these people, rather than pussyfooting around with them as they tend to do?
It is certainly our intention to ensure that planning regulations are properly enforced, but we are also seeking to increase social cohesion so that people, no matter what their background, are welcome in all communities. A deal has to be struck whereby we can assure the public that everyone is going to be treated fairly, in return for which we expect people to be treated fairly.
Ministers from this Department regularly meet their colleagues from other Departments. We are looking closely with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions at how to support implementation of the recently announced changes to housing benefit.
I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s considerable knowledge and interest in housing and matters of homelessness, which we have regularly debated. I can provide the assurance that this Government will take issues of homelessness and protection very seriously. I have recently set up a cross-ministerial working group for the first time to bring Ministers together, and we also have a discretionary fund, which we are expanding to £40 million to assist in this way.
Does the Minister accept that while we of course want to stop rip-off landlords from exploiting the state and tenants and to stop preventing people from getting back to work because their rents are too high making it impossible for them to come off benefits, we also need to ensure that no vulnerable person becomes homeless as a result of the changes? Will he and his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions meet a cross-party group of London MPs to ensure that the policy has the right objective and not an unfair one?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the policy needs to protect the most vulnerable and to introduce fairness into the system. The expansion of housing benefit to £21 billion—a 50% expansion in the bill—over just a 10-year period is unsustainable; it is more than the police and universities budgets put together and it simply has to be brought into line. It is not fair that people can be in receipt of £2,000 a week to live in areas of London that other people are unable to live in when they work. I am quite certain that Ministers will be very happy to meet such a group.
Third Sector (Funding)
Councils have complete flexibility in where they find savings to ensure that costs are reduced while they continue to support key front-line services. The voluntary sector is an important part of that.
I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, but is not the reality that, as in Chesterfield, many of our voluntary sector organisations rely on core funding from the local government sector, and that the cuts in the local government sector will inevitably lead to a reduction in that core funding that will fundamentally undermine any possibility that the voluntary sector can play a part in this big society?
Well, it is not inevitable. I have just said that councils have complete flexibility in how they set priorities, and local authorities will need to prioritise. I say to the hon. Gentleman and the whole House that just as Ministers here have made sure that the £6.2 billion reductions hit just as hard at the centre as on local authorities, so local authorities need to have the same regard for the voluntary sector.
The voluntary sector in my constituency is, as I imagine is the case everywhere, extremely anxious about the impact that reductions in local government funding will have on the service they can provide, and nowhere more so than in relation to infrastructure. What is the Minister’s attitude to infrastructure bodies and how does he believe they should be funded?
I certainly understand that anxiety. The whole country is anxious about the financial circumstances we face, both in the public finances and in the voluntary sector, and it will be extremely important for partners to work together, including local authorities and the voluntary sector, to overcome those difficulties in the very difficult circumstances we face.
Local Authorities (Administrative Burden)
We have already scrapped the comprehensive area assessment and regional spatial strategies, as well as removing ring-fencing from more than £1 billion of local government spending. We are currently inviting local government to identify the statutory guidance, legislation and regulations that it thinks should be removed, and we will go much further by introducing a decentralisation and localism Bill later in the year.
One consequence of reducing the administrative burden on local councils and freeing them to take more decisions locally will be to allow them to offer different levels of services from their neighbours. Does my hon. Friend agree that far from being a bad thing, that will allow good councils to differentiate themselves from bad councils and allow local council tax payers the ultimate decision on the type of council they desire?
But what does the Minister say to local authorities such as mine that face a larger burden of in-year cutbacks than neighbouring authorities? What does he say about the additional burdens that he has put on to them by forcing them to cut previously agreed budgets with voluntary sector organisations and local services, meaning more expensive ways of managing their budgets?
First, the hon. Lady forgets the financial situation that we inherited—that is fundamental. Secondly, because we have removed ring-fencing and reduced the percentage of ring-fenced funding, we have made sure that local authorities have more flexibility in how they save money. Thirdly, despite our dire financial inheritance, we have ensured that no local authority would have to make a reduction of more than 2%.
Regional Spatial Strategies
I have received a large number of letters and e-mails, the vast majority of which have welcomed the end of top-down targets and the return of planning decisions to local communities so that they can shape their own areas.
I thank the Minister on behalf of residents in West Worcestershire. I can assure him that councillors in my local area feel the same way. What advice would he give to them about developers who are now taking things that were rejected on the basis of the Pickles letter to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate?
I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that Mrs Pickles’ letters have far more impact.
I am sure that the whole House will wish to pay tribute to the two firefighters, Alan Bannon and James Shears, who gave their lives in April in the line of duty and whose memorial service was yesterday.
Since last month’s oral questions, I have waged war on the TLA—the Whitehall menace of the three-letter abbreviation. We have abolished the CAA, the IPC, the RDAs and the RSSs. We are giving powers back to local people, replacing bureaucracy with democratic accountability. We will be working with councils to deliver an era of town hall transparency. My Department will practise what it preaches and we will be publishing online our spending over £500. I am sure that the shadow Secretary of State will be pleased to know that we will be opening the books from April 2009.
When the RDAs are scrapped, will some of the money saved be available to help fund local enterprise partnerships? For far too long, Banbury has been at the edge of three RDAs. We want a local enterprise partnership which puts Banbury where it rightly belongs—at the heart of England.
I have always felt that Banbury was indeed at the heart of England. Of course, the local enterprise partnerships will give an opportunity for local authorities, business and academic institutions to coalesce around a genuine economic area. We will ensure that they have an opportunity to bring prosperity to that very fine town.
I start by thanking the Secretary of State for his recognition of the two firefighters, Alan Bannon and James Shears, who died fighting the fire in Shirley Towers. Alan Bannon was a constituent of mine, as the Secretary of State knows, and I am grateful to the fire Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), for attending the memorial service yesterday. It was appreciated by everybody connected with the Hampshire fire and rescue service.
On Tuesday this week, the Local Government Association showed that the arbitrary and incompetent decision to suspend the Building Schools for the Future programme has cost local council tax payers in England £162 million in spending on much-needed school projects which will not now go ahead. What efforts did the Secretary of State make to persuade the Secretary of State for Education not to cut that programme? How does he intend to stand up for local councils and prevent his Department becoming the ministry of waste—wasted council tax payers’ money on suspended schools projects, wasted council tax payers’ money as a result of the cuts that he has brought in this year, and wasted money on the opportunity to build new homes?
I hardly think that the former Secretary of State is in a position to talk about waste. We have already understood that he has virtually become the patron saint of internal decorators within the Department; £2 million was spent on furnishing at a time when councils were crying out for help. I did indeed speak to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, and I was shocked to discover the amount of waste that was within that programme. I was shocked to discover that the achievement of that programme seemed to have made a single consultant a millionaire. Labour Members seemed quite happy to waste other people’s money, but I assure them that this coalition Government are about saving money and are on the side of local councils.
We are getting rid of the Soviet-style planning system—repealing Gosplan—precisely so that local communities such as my hon. Friend’s can get together in the right way. For example, there is no sense in linking his area with Hertford because that is not a natural economic area and it is difficult to plan employment in such a way. His community is now free to liaise with neighbouring authorities, as it always should have been.
The Government are already hitting hard new deal programmes that were designed to help some of our most deprived communities in areas such as Aston, which is in my constituency. Is it true that the plan is now to cut off funding from the middle of the financial year—from this October—thereby sacking staff and damaging some of our most deprived communities?
I wanted to answer it all the time.
This is about ensuring that local government finance is delivered fairly and straightforwardly. Given that we have been a bit slow in answering the hon. Lady, it is incumbent on me to say that if she wants to come and see me—or I can come and see her—I will give her a full answer.
T3. My constituency is home to Transition Town Totnes, which has a great interest in sustainable development. If the planning process for community land trusts is to be streamlined, provided that 90% of residents are in favour of a proposal, will the Department clarify how that 90% figure will be ascertained and how the low-carbon building agenda will be upheld so that we meet our commitments to cut emissions? (8528)
I will gladly answer my hon. Friend, Mr Speaker.
The 90% threshold is subject to a simple referendum of the people in the local community, parish or village. The idea is that the judgment should be made through the ballot box by those who go to vote. The buildings themselves will be judged against the criteria of sustainability codes 1 to 6, and the sustainability levels that will be required will be exactly the same as those for all buildings by 2016.
Will Ministers tell me what steps they are taking to ensure that local government regeneration projects in Halifax will still go ahead now that Yorkshire Forward has been abolished? How will the Department address that shortfall?
Of course, we will be bringing those regeneration projects closer to the decisions, so I hope that the hon. Lady will have a big say on them. We are kind of hoping that we will be able to involve the private sector so that we are not just moving one amount of public money across to another receiver of such money.
T4. Many of my constituents continue to be concerned that despite the exciting moves to localise planning decisions, developers and councils still will not listen to them. What reassurance can Ministers give to local communities that they are really back in the driving seat? (8529)
They are back in the driving seat. Everything that is needed to make plans that respond to local communities is in place. The process will be buttressed by strong financial incentives. I would expect that councils such as those in my hon. Friend’s area will want to take up these powers in the interests of his constituents.
Some 50% of the housing stock in several parts of my constituency is in the hands of private landlords. The previous Government introduced selective licensing and other regulations to try to clamp down on private landlords. Surely the next step is a national register for private landlords, so why will the Government not go ahead with that?
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, if the next step was the registration of private landlords, why was that not done in the past 13 years? The simple answer is that many landlords in this country are just individuals who have literally one or two rooms to let. Introducing yet another database to try to regulate that would not have been the answer. HMO-ing is part of the answer. That need not be blanket HMO-ing across the whole country, as introduced by the outgoing Government on 6 April; we will make sure that HMO-ing is effective and used only where required.
T5. Today, ECPAT—End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes—has, in association with The Body Shop, launched a nationwide petition calling for guardianship for children who have been trafficked. Does the Secretary of State agree that that would help stop the scandal of child sex slaves who have been put into local government care being re-trafficked? (8530)
My hon. Friend draws attention to a new and important responsibility that the Department is assuming. I am keen to work with Members across the House on developing appropriate policies. I look forward to discussing that with him.
It is always popular for any Government to say that they will have a bonfire of quangos, but does the Secretary of State realise that removing the Government office for the north-west removes support for the voluntary and community sector and centralises power in Westminster? That is hardly “big society”; it is much more “very big Westminster.”
I readily understand that the hon. Lady has the disadvantage of being a Labour MP and is therefore incapable of understanding that this Government will give away power, or of understanding that localism will involve a constitutional shift in this country. We aim to give the people in towns and villages in the north-west more power. We will not repeat the mistakes of the Labour party by taking more power into Westminster.
T6. In my conversations with planners and others over the past week, there seemed to be some question as to whether the recently announced changes to the definitions of brownfield land and densities in planning policy statement 3 prevent so-called garden-grabbing. Will the Minister please confirm that local councillors in Meon Valley and elsewhere are now free to amend their planning policies on garden-grabbing in any way that they want, in whatever time frame they choose? (8531)
The Housing Minister has just put forward a written ministerial statement that allows the hundreds of park home residents in my constituency access to the Residential Property Tribunal Service, and that is very welcome. Will he meet me to discuss how he plans to implement the consultation outcomes, which specify that there should be a strict personal specification of “fit and proper person”, with regard to park home site owners? Will he meet me before the recess?
I will be delighted to meet the hon. Lady before the recess. She is right to say that the issue of park home regulation is complex. I did indeed put forward a written ministerial statement yesterday, which clearly outlined that we should be able to move to the tribunal service to prevent park home owners from having to refer to the courts, with all the cost and time that that entails. I share her concern and will be happy to meet her.
T8. May I take my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State back to the issue of illegal Traveller sites? I face a real problem with such sites in my constituency of Stratford-on-Avon. I was pleased to hear him confirm that he will consider legislation to give councils more power to deal with that blight. May I push him a little further, and ask when the people of Stratford-on-Avon can expect that legislation? (8533)
Of course, the main proposals will be in the localism Bill, which we hope to bring before the House this calendar year. We will, of course, also look carefully at planning guidance, but as I am sure that you will appreciate, Mr Speaker, I want to try to tackle the issues together in one go, rather than in a piecemeal way.
We constantly have discussions with our colleagues in DECC, and we are absolutely determined to meet those renewables targets. Unless we bring in a system whereby communities can share in the benefits, we are unlikely to meet those targets, so we are urgently changing the system in order to get communities behind these things.
The coalition’s policy of letting local authorities plan for local housing need is very welcome, but the previous Government’s requirement of them to display five years’ supply of land for housing need before they could fight off overdevelopment on green spaces was lopsided, unfair and unsustainable. Will Ministers meet councillors and campaigners from Gloucestershire to hear the case for abolishing it?
Is it not extraordinary that, although hon. Members started today’s proceedings with Prayers, as they have done for 450 years, the Labour council in Enfield has followed the Labour council in Leicester by banning council prayers? Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that, under this Government, we will not marginalise faith in general and Christianity in particular from the public sphere and the big society?
There is a place for faith in our society, and if one looks throughout the United Kingdom one finds that people of faith have played a huge part in our society. As it happens, immediately after this Question Time I am going across to Lambeth palace to meet the Archbishop.
One estimate is that 200,000 people will be made homeless as a result of the changes to housing benefit, and at the same time funding for social housing is being pulled from areas such as Sunderland. Will the Minister provide additional funding to local authority housing departments to deal with the significant increase in people who will be going to see them to register as homeless?
I thank the hon. Lady for that. She is absolutely right to point out that there are pressures in the system, which have been created by a £155 billion deficit and a housing benefit bill that has spiralled to £21 billion. Unlike the previous Government, however, we are taking steps to change that situation and, in particular, introducing a £40 million fund that local authorities will be able to use to ameliorate the effects of some of the changes that are now coming in.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 19 July will include:
Monday 19 July—Second Reading of the Academies Bill [Lords]. At 10 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.
Tuesday 20 July—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill, followed by conclusion of proceedings on the Finance Bill (Day 4); to follow, the House will consider a motion relating to information for Back Benchers on statements. The subject for that debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Wednesday 21 July—Proceedings on the Academies Bill [Lords] (Day 1).
Thursday 22 July—Proceedings on the Academies Bill [Lords] (Day 2).
The provisional business for the week commencing 26 July will include:
Monday 26 July—Conclusion of proceedings on the Academies Bill [Lords] (Day 3).
Tuesday 27 July—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee. The House will not adjourn until the Speaker has signified Royal Assent.
Colleagues will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the summer recess on Tuesday 27 July and return on Monday 6 September.
The House will rise again for the conference recess on Thursday 16 September and return on Monday 11 October.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 22 July will be:
Thursday 22 July—A debate on national lottery reform.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business and very much welcome the first debate that the Backbench Business Committee has initiated, on ministerial statements. I am very hopeful that it will provide an opportunity for Back Benchers to examine closely the right hon. Gentleman’s leak prevention strategy.
As the Leader of the House knows, we Opposition Members had high hopes that he would be able to solve the mystery of why Conservative and Liberal Democrat Secretaries of State seem addicted to leaking major announcements to the media rather than announcing them to the House. I had such confidence in the right hon. Gentleman’s investigative powers that I even likened him to Sherlock Holmes; after the events of this week, however, I am afraid that it is more a case of Inspector Clouseau than Sherlock Holmes.
I fear that the leak prevention strategy will have to be consigned to the dustbin of history unless drastic action is taken. After all, the Secretary of State for Health gave at least three interviews to the media, including an appearance on “The Andrew Marr Show”, before coming to the House to announce his £80 billion gamble with the NHS. This morning, we heard the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills making a major televised speech on the future of higher education policy. He did make an apology, it is true—not for ignoring the House of Commons, but for the fact that details of his policy had been leaked. He shrugged that off by saying that leaks are part of public life.
When the Labour Government launched a review of student finance, there was extensive involvement of the Opposition, including an agreement on the review’s terms of reference. We have seen none of that in the run-up to today’s announcement. The Business Secretary is trying to say that the policy is not really new, but the coalition agreement said explicitly that the Government would wait for the Browne report before reviewing future policy. Surely the future of student finance should be about what is best for students and universities, not what keeps the peace in the coalition.
Can the Leader of the House say when the Business Secretary will come here to tell us exactly what his proposals mean? Will he undertake to remind Secretaries of State that Evan Davis, James Naughtie and Sarah Montague, admirable though they are, are not Members of Parliament, and that John Humphrys is not the Speaker? It would be handy if Cabinet members understood the distinction between a BBC studio and the Chamber of the House of Commons.
I am not sure whether the Leader of the House is expecting to have to make time in the House for any more apologies over the next week or so, but perhaps he will consider dividing Prime Minister’s questions into 15 minutes for answering questions and 15 minutes for apologising for all the misleading statistics that the Prime Minister has been using and all the questions that he has been dodging. That could include, for example, apologising for using figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility, which Sir Alan Budd said was inappropriate. The Prime Minister could apologise for telling Parliament that violent crime had doubled under Labour, especially as Sir Michael Scholar, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, has made it clear that there is no basis whatever for that assertion. Today’s figures show that crime is at its lowest level since records began, thanks to the Labour Government.
The Prime Minister could also apologise for dodging the question—not once, but three times—on whether the Government were going to abolish the two-week cancer guarantee. Can the Leader of the House tell us when the House can expect a proper answer, in this Chamber, on that guarantee—not in interviews to the media or in unattributable briefings from Downing street, but in a clear statement to Parliament about a guarantee that he surely recognises saves lives? Patients, doctors and nurses need to know whether the guarantee is in place and they deserve an apology from the Prime Minister because he has kept them in the dark about it.
There is quite a lot there to respond to. On the Backbench Business Committee, I welcome the debate that is taking place on Tuesday, but I have to say to the right hon. Lady that it is no thanks to the Labour Government that we are having that Committee at all. At the end of the last Parliament, they consistently refused to make the time available to establish the Backbench Business Committee. If we are in apology mode, it would have been appropriate for her to have apologised for the failure of the outgoing Labour Government to set up that Committee.
I welcome that debate and hope that it will be well attended. There is a serious issue for the House about how we get the balance right between what Ministers can say outside the House and inside the House. The motion rightly refers not only to the past few weeks, but to a period that includes the last Labour Government. I welcome the proposal in the motion that the process should be looked at by the Procedure Committee to see whether we can come up with a sensible concordat that is acceptable to the House and liveable with by the Government, and that enables us to have a set of rules that we can all observe.
On health, if the right hon. Lady looks at the coalition agreement, she will see that much of what was in the Health Secretary’s statement on Monday was in that agreement. The proposals had been been mentioned in Health questions and in debates in the House. There was no leak of the health White Paper.
As for the Business Secretary, he went out of his way to explain that there was no policy change. I watched his speech on television, and he made it absolutely clear that he wanted Lord Browne, who is conducting a review, and whose terms of reference were set up by the outgoing Labour Government, to include the option of a graduate tax. There has been no policy announcement. When the Government have a policy on how higher education is funded, the House will be informed and there will be an opportunity to cross-examine the relevant Secretary of State. However, there has been no policy announcement whatsoever on the funding of higher education.
I think that the right hon. Lady will find that Sir Michael Scholar has had an opportunity to admonish those on both sides of the House about misuse of crime statistics. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is considering how crime statistics should be collected and published in future, and we are working with the UK Statistics Authority and others to consider the matter carefully. I welcome the reduction in crime—a trend that started in 1995 and has been replicated in many other western European countries—but the level of crime is still too high, and we must drive it down.
The right hon. Lady asked about the cancer guarantee. The revision to the NHS operating framework in June removed targets on the NHS that were without clinical justification. The cancer waiting time targets are clinically justified and have been retained.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Will the Leader of the House speak to the Home Secretary about bringing forward a Bill to stop illegal clampers, who are responsible for a blight on our country that is spreading like wildfire through all constituencies and causing great grief to constituents?
I think that my hon. Friend speaks for Members on both sides of the House. At my advice bureau last Saturday, I discovered that the owner of an Indian restaurant who had advised his customers not to park in the car park, where they might be clamped, had been taken to court by the car-clamping firm and sued for loss of trade. Happily, the restaurant owner won the case, but it underlines the need to have another look at the regime that governs car clampers.
The Prime Minister made a statement on Afghanistan last week. We want to keep the House regularly informed on progress in Afghanistan, and I hope that there will be an opportunity, if not before the House rises, then perhaps when we come back, for a further update on the progress being made, including in relation to the hon. Gentleman’s point.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the coalition Government have cancelled the proposed 2010 review of the smoking ban? In view of that, may we have an early debate in Government time on the effects that the smoking ban, in its current form, is having on our pubs and clubs, which are still closing at an alarming rate?
I should have known that that had been announced, but I have to say to my right hon. Friend that I was not aware of it. I will raise his point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and ask him to take the matter up in the appropriate place.
Can the Leader of the House explain why we are rushing through the Academies Bill when no consultation has taken place with parents, with governor groups or, in particular, with staff? The consultation period will apparently be during the school holidays when people either will not be in the country or will not be getting paid. Surely there is no need to rush this through, so why is that happening?
I believe we have offered the House adequate time to deal with the Bill. It will be taken on the Floor of the House and additional time is being made available for Members to discuss it. It has also been through the other place, so there have been opportunities for the public to comment on it since its introduction there.
Will the Leader of the House require a Minister from either the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills or the Treasury to come before the House to answer questions about why the South West of England regional development agency, which is due to be abolished, has announced this week the halting of vital economic development projects in the European convergence programme in Cornwall in spite of the fact that no UK Exchequer money is required for those projects to proceed?
I understand the importance of those projects to the south-west, and of course I will make inquiries as to why they have apparently been abandoned, particularly if, as the hon. Gentleman says, there was no call on Exchequer funds to enable them to go ahead.
Eighty hours of rioting; a pipe bombing; three police officers shot; 80 police officers injured; the attempted hijacking of the Belfast to Dublin express railway—when will the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland come to the Dispatch Box to speak about what he and the House can do to help bring calm back to the streets of Northern Ireland, and when will the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs meet to help address those matters so that the House can play its part in the affairs of part of the United Kingdom?
I understand the anxiety that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. The violence that has happened in the past three days is wholly unacceptable and has no place in a modern, progressive society, and the people responsible must not be allowed to drag Northern Ireland back into the past. Many of the issues that he refers to are of course devolved and not the responsibility of the Secretary of State. It is important that those who try to create and exploit community tensions are not allowed to put the future at risk. I welcome the statement made by First Minister Peter Robinson, who has said:
“There is no excuse and no place for violence in a civilised society”.
The hon. Gentleman will also have seen the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who said:
“The Chief Constable and the Justice Minister should be justly proud of the incredibly brave men and women of the PSNI who held the line last night in the face of a sustained and violent assault”.
We recently had an excellent debate in Westminster Hall on supporting carers, but sadly had time only to touch on the important issue of dementia. Given that one in three people will die from dementia, will the Leader of the House consider holding a debate specifically on supporting the social care and welfare of those suffering from it?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and congratulate her on her election as vice-chair of the all-party group on dementia. Raising the quality of care for people who suffer from dementia is a priority for this Government. Some £8.2 billion is being spent, but we need to ensure that it is spent effectively and that we break down the barrier that has often existed between health on the one hand and social care on the other. We are in the process of scrutinising the provision of dementia services across the country. The results will be available in October, and those data will drive forward action to accelerate improvements in dementia care.
On 5 July, the Government announced through a written ministerial statement a further £1 billion of in-year cuts to education capital. I asked the Education Secretary about that on 12 July, and I have found out that last night, the Department published the detail of those cuts on its website. May we have a debate in Government time before the recess so that all hon. Members can work out and talk about the effects that those education capital cuts, which are being made to fund the free schools programme, will have on the education of the children in our communities?
I understand that there will be a debate in Westminster Hall next Wednesday on Building Schools for the Future, so I hope the hon. Lady will have an opportunity to raise her concern. In the meantime I will alert Ministers in the Department for Education of the particular concern that she has mentioned.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As he knows, the Mayor of London is taking action to clear the square, and I understand that the decision of the Court of Appeal will be announced tomorrow. Any enforcement action will then be down to the enforcement officers of the court. We have to strike a balance between the right to protest and the imperative to maintain what I think is one of the key heritage sites in the whole world, namely Parliament square, with the Houses of Parliament, Westminster abbey, Whitehall and the Supreme Court around it. My own view is that the square is defiled by a shanty town and we should try to restore it to the green that used to be there.
Three weeks ago, in response to a question, the Leader of the House spoke about meetings between the Deputy Prime Minister and Sheffield Forgemasters. I have received a letter from the Deputy Prime Minister, who is keen to get rid of any confusion. Has he also contacted the Leader of the House to enable him to correct the record? When does the Leader of the House expect the Deputy Prime Minister to correct what he said about meeting the chief executive of Sheffield Forgemasters?
A few days ago, there was a report that a Cabinet Minister, no less, had compared the cost of Britain’s future aircraft carriers with the number of children who could be educated worldwide for that money. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence, explaining the role of Britain’s armed forces in general, and the Royal Navy and aircraft carriers in particular, in humanitarian intervention worldwide and the protection of our interests at home and abroad, and the fact that the Royal Navy has an important function to fulfil that should not be offset against other causes, no matter how worthy?
My hon. Friend makes a forceful point. He knows that traditionally several debates take place about our armed forces, which will now be the responsibility of the Backbench Business Committee. He will have heard that I have not announced a debate on the particular important issue that he raised between now and the summer recess. Doubtless, the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee has noted that as a bid and there will, of course, be opportunities to cross-question Defence Ministers, though I see that will not happen until 13 September.
Given that I failed to get an Adjournment debate, will the Leader of the House allocate time to discuss the widespread concerns raised by hon. Members about the structure, scope and future funding of the independent panel reviewing documentation about the Hillsborough disaster in 1989?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not been successful in getting an Adjournment debate on that subject. I can only suggest that, if he continues to apply, his number may come up one week. I am afraid that I cannot find time between now and the summer recess, but if Tuesday 27 July follows the usual pattern, and there is an Adjournment debate during which various subjects are raised, he may find it possible to share his concern then and press Ministers for the information that he wants.
I think that somebody made the same suggestion 10 years ago, and we legislated but it did not work. That is why we are where we are. It makes sense to await the Court of Appeal decision before considering fresh legislation. In the meantime, Mr Haw is allowed to continue to protest, so long as—speaking from memory—he remains on the pavement. Whether it would be appropriate to legislate just to deal with Mr Haw is something on which the House would like to reflect.
Given that the Minister for Police told the House that he did not expect any police officers’ jobs to be lost through the cuts but that the former chief constable of Gloucestershire is reported to have said that thousands of police officers’ jobs will be lost as a result of the cuts, may we have a debate on the Government’s dodgy assessments?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, we had a debate yesterday on precisely that subject. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Police drew attention to the failure of the previous Home Secretary—now the shadow Home Secretary—to make any commitment about retaining police numbers. He was asked on 20 April if he could guarantee that there would no reduction in police numbers and he said no.
So that areas already hard hit by the Labour party’s broken promises on moving public sector jobs to the north do not suffer any more, may we find time for a debate on the distribution of Royal Mail jobs, particularly when we have a melée of a debate about privatisation, so that the 600 workers for Crewe’s second largest employer get the attention that they deserve?
I commend my hon. Friend’s actions to protect local jobs and I have read his comment on ConservativeHome, which records his concern about the Crewe sorting office. I have no time for a debate between now and the summer recess, but legislation about Royal Mail has been trailed in the Queen’s Speech, and that may give him an opportunity to press for the assurances that he seeks.
There are growing concerns that, despite declaring himself the fourth Minister in the Department of Energy and Climate Change as a symbol of his personal commitment to tackling climate change, the Prime Minister is already looking for a pretext to row back from the obligation to get the renewable heat incentive up and running by next April. Will the Leader of the House ask the Prime Minister whether he will come to the House to make a statement to assure us all that there is no rowing back, and that the obligation will be fulfilled? It is crucial for our renewable energy target.
May I ask my right hon. Friend for a debate, for which legislation clearly provides, but that he seems not to wish to have on the Floor of the House, namely on motion 16 on the Order Paper about the new members of the Electoral Commission? Motion 8 on delegated legislation in his name seems determined to remove the subject from the Floor of the House of Commons, where it was originally intended to be debated. May I invite him to reconsider so that we can have a debate about the new Electoral Commissioners?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Clearly, we want to make progress on appointing the new members of the Electoral Commission. Of course, the House is entitled to scrutinise the proposals that are on the Order Paper, either by debate on the Floor of the House or through the appropriate Committee.
Given that many people in the country are having to take a pay cut, and that the coalition Government wish to reduce the cost of politics, will the Leader of the House look at early-day motion 453?
[That this House recognises that the economic situation means that many people are taking pay cuts; acknowledges that the Government has stated that it wants to reduce the cost of politics; appreciates the work that Select Committees do but notes with alarm that there are 35 such committees where the Chair can receive £14,582 a year on top of their Parliamentary salary, a total of £510,370 a year; and believes that this cost is becoming untenable.]
Will the right hon. Gentleman consider holding a debate on the fact that Select Committee Chairs are paid £14,500 over and above their MP’s salary? No matter how good a job Select Committees do, that might be an opportunity to review whether such payments are tenable under the current economic circumstances.
We had quite a long debate about that in the previous Parliament, and the House decided that it made sense to have an alternative career structure in the House so that the Government did not hoover up all the talent on the Back Benches. A salary for Select Committee Chairmen was seen as part of the development of an alternative career. We have no plans to change the remuneration of Select Committee Chairmen. Speaking from memory, I think that that is now a responsibility of the Senior Salaries Review Body.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I propose to respond to the debate myself—I am not sure that that goes quite as far as she hoped. It would be impertinent of me to suggest that you might want to be in the Chair to mark that historic occasion, Mr Speaker. If that is an impertinence, I apologise. However, it is important that Back Benchers of all parties show support for the concept of a Back-Bench Committee choosing its own subjects, and demonstrate that support by attending and seeking to take part in the debate.
For understandable reasons, the Leader of the House may not be aware of the growing international concern about the health of democracy in the Maldives. Opposition Members of Parliament there have been arrested, the judiciary are on strike and the army has been deployed on the streets of the capital. Will he speak to colleagues in the Foreign Office and invite them to make a statement—written or otherwise—on what they are doing to encourage a return to proper democratic processes in the Maldives?
The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point about what is happening in the Maldives. I will communicate with the Foreign Secretary and see whether there is any way he can communicate to the House the action that the Government are taking in response the serious concerns that he expresses.
Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 454 on the cost of Government conferences?
[That this House notes that the Department for Work and Pensions spent £115 million on management conferences and external meetings between 2000 and 2010; further notes that most departments have refused to supply similar figures in answer to written questions, arguing that statistics on conferences are not collated centrally and could be obtained only at disproportionate cost; believes that the British public have a fundamental right to know how their taxes are spent by Government departments, and that Freedom of Information requests are being sent to every department which has refused to answer; and finally notes that the £115 million spent by the Department for Work and Pensions under the previous administration on management conferences and external meetings appears to be a gross waste of taxpayers’ money, given that the public debt increased to over £900 billion in early 2010.]
May we have an urgent debate on Government waste, given that the Department for Work and Pensions revealed to me in a written answer that it spent £115 million going to conferences in the past 10 years?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for identifying areas in which central Government can reduce the cost of administration. I see that his early-day motion does indeed identify some very large sums of money that have been spent on conferences and external meetings. I will communicate with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General and get a response on the issues my hon. Friend raises.
We have heard warm words from both coalition parties about mutualism and how to involve communities. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the role of football and other supporters trusts, and the Government’s attitude towards them, given the uncertainty in the written answers I have so far received from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport?
The European investigation order would allow police and prosecutors throughout Europe to order British police to collect and hand over evidence. Fair Trials International and Justice are concerned that the measure would put great pressure on our hard-pressed police forces. Britain has until 28 July to decide whether to opt in or, like Denmark, to opt out. Will the Leader of the House indicate when the Government’s decision will be made, and will the House have an opportunity to debate the measure in advance?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He says that the Government must decide by 28 July what action to take. I will certainly ascertain from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Home Office, whichever Department is the appropriate one, what action they propose to take in response to my hon. Friend’s question.
The Leader of the House may be aware of a campaign that I have been running for about 12 months on the need for a fair deal for service people returning from theatres of war. In that regard, the Government have acknowledged that much more needs to be done. I have applied for Adjournment debates, but so far I have been unlucky. May we have a debate in Government time on this very important issue?
Again, I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has been unsuccessful in the ballot, but he may have an opportunity on the last Tuesday before the recess to raise his concern. The Government take seriously our responsibilities under the military covenant. The issue that he raises may fall within that, and I will share his concerns with the Defence Secretary.
May we have a debate on the House of Commons Library? I understand that it intends to stock only one copy of Lord Mandelson’s new book, which I suspect will have to be chained to the wall. Many colleagues on both sides of the House will want to know which members of the Cabinet of the previous Labour Government thought which other members of the previous Labour Government were mad, bad and dangerous, so will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Library has a sufficiency of copies of the book so that we can all read it before the recess?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We are of course trying to cut the cost of politics, and I am not sure whether buying many copies of Lord Mandelson’s book is compatible with that policy. I was interested to read today in The Guardian, which costs a lot less than Lord Mandelson’s book, this paragraph:
“Darling told…Brown…he was being ‘ludicrously over-optimistic, not only about growth prospects, but also about Britain’s ability to support such a large and expanding deficit’”.
I entirely agree that all Members of the House should be aware of that and other relevant paragraphs.
Yesterday during Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister, in common with all Ministers in his Government, presented an image of housing benefit claimants living in vast properties and paying rents of £1,000 a week. He and the Government must know that nothing could be further from the truth. May we please have an urgent debate in Government time on the Government’s monstrous housing benefit proposals? If they are not reconsidered, they will not save any money but they will certainly put thousands of families on the street.
I understand the hon. Lady’s concern. As a former London Member, I know the price of rents in the city. I am not sure whether she was at Communities and Local Government questions, which has just concluded, but I understand that London MPs have been offered a meeting with the Minister for Housing to discuss exactly the issues she raises. I very much hope that she can attend that meeting.
I hope the Leader of the House agrees that a modern Parliament should be family friendly. When will he be in a position to publish the dates of the Christmas and February breaks so that those of us who have children can align our breaks with school holidays?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He makes an ambitious request, because it was only a few minutes ago that I announced the dates of the summer recess and that of our October return. I understand his impatience. We want to give the House and those who work here certainty on the dates, and I will announce the dates of the Christmas recess as soon as I can.
The Leader of the House is an admired Member of the House, and he acknowledged this morning that crime fell under the Labour Government. I am very grateful to him for putting that matter right, but he also said that Sir Michael Scholar had admonished the Prime Minister for misrepresenting the crime figures. What action does he intend to take on that? Is he embarrassed by the Prime Minister’s mistake, or are we to assume that there is a deliberate strategy to misrepresent independent statistics?
I return the compliment: the hon. Gentleman too is a much-admired Member of the House. If he looks at exactly what I said in response to the right hon. Member for Doncaster Central (Ms Winterton), he will see that I did not use the words he says I used. He very much paraphrased what I said, if I may say so. I believe I said that Sir Michael Scholar had admonished both sides of the House for misuse of statistics.
In response to the hon. Gentleman’s question, I would say that the credibility of crime statistics is an issue. At various times, various parties have used whichever set of statistics has best suited their case. In order to bring that debate to a satisfactory conclusion, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is engaged in a dialogue to find an agreed set of statistics that commands public confidence and represents what is happening in the real world.
Will the Leader of the House grant a debate on companies that buy up freeholds for properties, and then use clauses within them to force all leaseholders to insure their properties through a sole provider at an extortionate rate, or buy out the freehold? That is becoming an increasing problem in my constituency, particularly in the town of Nelson, where companies are buying up old ground rents, invoking those clauses and sending threatening letters to my constituents.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who raises an important issue. He will know that when leaseholders have reason to doubt the reasonableness of an insurance premium, they have a right to go to the leasehold valuation tribunal, which can resolve the matter. In the meantime, he might like to refer his constituents to Lease, which is an independent, Government-funded organisation that gives advice to leaseholders who face the sorts of problems facing his constituents
After the tragic events in Cumbria and Northumberland, may we have a debate on firearms? As the Leader of the House might know, this week the BBC obtained statistics showing that 1,000 under-18s have shotgun licences, and that people as young as 10 can obtain one. When can we have a debate on that important issue?
After my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made her statement on Cumbria, she indicated that it would be appropriate to have a debate on firearms legislation. I think it would make sense to await the outcome of the police report on the Cumbrian incident, but I hope a debate on firearms will be possible when we have all the relevant information.
Will the Leader of the House reconsider his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab)? The European investigation order allows foreign authorities to give instructions to the British police and allows foreign police forces to operate within the United Kingdom. That is a matter for decision by the House of Commons, not simply for notification by a Department of State.
I understand my right hon. Friend’s concern. I think I said in response to my hon. Friend that I would contact the relevant Department and see what action the Government propose to take or recommend to the House before 28 July, which I understand is the operative date.