House of Commons
Monday 17 January 2011
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Government are committed to reducing radically the burden of regulation on local government. We have already freed councils from the top-down controls of the comprehensive area assessment and local area agreement targets. The Localism Bill will go further, scrapping regional strategies and housing targets, the Standards Board regime and the duty to promote local democracy.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s reduction of local government paperwork. Not long ago, in order to meet Official Journal of the European Community requirements, Gloucester city council had to spend more than £300,000 on a tendering document for the redevelopment of King’s quarter. In this time of financial difficulty, does he agree that it is time for the European Commission to reduce the number of local government tenders that must follow OJEC rules, and so save taxpayers’ money in Gloucester and elsewhere?
My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. In fairness to the European Commission, it also recognises the problem and is undertaking a comprehensive evaluation of public procurement legislation. I also know that the Local Government Association feels strongly on that; its snappily titled, “The impact of EU procurement legislation on councils”, highlights the specific difficulties faced by local councils. I agree with the LGA and the EU. I met Commissioner Hahn last summer and urged him to ensure that a similar light-touch approach is taken to the administration of the European regional development fund.
The Localism Bill, which we will discuss later, has more than 140 new order-making powers for the Secretary of State. Is not that the Government saying that there will be new freedoms and powers for local communities and then being very prescriptive about how they should operate? Why is it necessary to have among those new orders and powers a raft of regulations imposing non-elected mayors on places such as Sheffield, where there is no demand for them from either the council or the public?
I do not recall the hon. Gentleman making those points about the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, which contained a much smaller number of clauses and yet had 87 pieces of regulation. What we are doing is entirely necessary to liberate local government from the hand of central Government and is deregulatory by nature. As a friend of local government, he should be congratulating us and perhaps showing some contrition for his failure over the 2007 Act.
Local Authority Spending (Online Publication)
Our latest assessment is that at least 193 local authorities have published their spending data online to date. Another 10 are about to publish those data on their websites, but that figure is changing daily—pleasingly, upwards.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on that initiative. As Parliament knows to its cost, transparency is the best way to restore confidence in Government, and for that matter in local government, but any policy must be judged by its outcomes. Is there any sign that that initiative has changed behaviour in any way in local government?
As my hon. Friend will know, my Department has published those figures, and that has certainly changed our attitude. There is no possibility that, as under our predecessors, we will order lots of expensive Parisian sofas, a peace pod or special, high-quality chocolates for the Secretary of State—Mrs Pickles is probably pleased about that. We recognise that we must account for every single penny.
When councils publish details of any spending over £500, will they also publish the date on which the decision to initiate that spending was taken, so that the public can see clearly when it was taken so that accountability is not misplaced when administrations change?
We will fairly soon be publishing guidance on what is expected. We were clear that we were keen to see the raw data out there. My hon. Friend should easily be able to obtain such information through freedom of information or by writing directly to the authorities. It is important that local authorities are accountable, as we are, for the money that they spend. I look forward to seeing more local authorities publishing their spending online.
I congratulate King’s Lynn and West Norfolk council and Breckland council on being in the vanguard of councils publishing their expenditure online. Will the Secretary of State confirm how important this initiative is for transparency and for taxpayers to know how their money is spent?
May I draw the attention of the Secretary of State to an editorial in that august newspaper, the Burton Mail, which said:
“Eric Pickles deserves credit for requiring councils to publish every item of spending above £500. Mr Pickles’ requirement is about strengthening democracy.”?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a similar approach should be taken to councillors paying expenses? Will he join me in condemning those Opposition Members who are calling for more pay for councillors at this difficult time?
I am glad to know that I am going down well in Burton. Information about councillors’ expenses has for some time been available from councils, but I hope the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) will take the opportunity some time to say that Lord Beecham’s request for extra remuneration for councillors at a time of crisis is singularly inappropriate.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, a number of other Departments have taken that initiative. I look forward to seeing the whole Government follow where councils lead—[Interruption.] I am relaxed about that. It is up to individual Departments, but there are already a number that publish expenditure above £500.
Does not the Secretary of State realise that that is an absurd bureaucratic regulation? Durham county council has calculated that it will take two full-time officers to fulfil that requirement, at the same time as the Secretary of State is cutting £100 million from the budget. [Interruption.] What is the purpose of such pointless posturing?
I confess that I had difficulty hearing the hon. Lady for all the gasps of disbelief. Only if Durham is using an abacus for calculation or providing the information on vellum is that likely to happen. In most councils and in my Department it happens automatically. With a simple spreadsheet, it is very easy to do.
The Government are making an extra £650 million per annum available over the next four years to help principal local authorities in England to freeze their council tax in 2011-12, and will take action against excessive increases. The Localism Bill provides for local referendums on excessive council tax rises in future years.
At a time when so many household bills are rising, will the Minister join me in sending congratulations to Wychavon district council and Malvern Hills district council, which have worked so hard to share services and to keep council tax rises down for local residents?
My hon. Friend is right. In the past week or so since the finance settlement, I have had a procession of council leaders coming to see me, usually with their chief executives, to plead that they have no money left. One came this morning, and notably brought the chief executive who is being paid £180,000. I pay tribute to those local authorities that have taken the necessary steps and are therefore able to take advantage of the council tax freeze.
The elderly, vulnerable and least well-off constituents of mine in Dover and Deal and I am sure across the country will welcome the Government’s efforts to freeze council tax. May we have an assurance from Ministers that we will never again return to the dark days of the past, when council tax doubled under the previous Labour Administration?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that between 1997 and last year council tax rose by 109%, so the elderly, the frail, the most vulnerable and those with fixed incomes had absolutely no defence against what was happening when the current Opposition were in government. I am very proud to say that £650 million is being made available for this important priority: a 0% rise.
What can be done to stop local authorities withdrawing services, such as libraries and lavatories, and expecting town and parish councils to take them over, thereby increasing the local precept? People will not benefit from the Government’s support to protect them from council tax bills rising if the local precept rises instead.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Unless an authority has already merged its human resources, legal services and planning departments and cut the chief executive pay that Opposition Members are so keen to defend, there is no excuse for trying to charge more for those services, or indeed, as my hon. Friend points out, for trying to shove them off on to, perhaps, parish councils.
Since Bolsover district council has managed to hold its council tax steady for a few years, and since none of its executives get the kind of sums that have been referred to, will the Minister repay the compliment by allowing it to deal with the 108 prefabricated buildings that have been there since the end of the second world war? The council needs to replace them and pensioners need new accommodation, so will he get the show on the road?
The hon. Gentleman knows, because he has raised this issue with me before in the House, that the decent homes programme continues, and last week’s settlement, on top of the spending review, makes it very clear that £2.2 billion is available for decent homes—which, I understand, subsequent to our previous exchange in the House, his council is in line for.[Official Report, 27 January 2011, Vol. 522, c. 4MC.]
In a flight of fantasy and a moment of mental dysfunctionality, the Secretary of State and the Minister have proclaimed again and again that there is no need for front-line services to be cut if salaries are reduced, services are shared and there is greater efficiency. What will the Minister say to the Liberal Democrat-controlled Sheffield city council when, in cutting £70 million, it devastates services and decimates jobs in my city?
It is very important to get out to all local authorities across the country the message that the most vulnerable people should be protected in this spending settlement. That is an important point, because one of the principal ways in which vulnerable people are protected is through the Supporting People programme. Its budget has been pretty much kept intact. I will send out the message from the Dispatch Box now that the reduction in Supporting People is just 2.7% per annum, so there is no reason for local authorities to use that as an excuse to cut services to vulnerable people.
The Minister must accept that, far from supporting local authorities, the unprecedented cuts that his Government are inflicting will lead to diminished services, massive job losses and lower economic growth in the private sector. Will he at least concede that in the context of these massive cuts and the abolition of area-based grants, the £650 million that he is offering to freeze council tax is nothing more than a gimmick? Can he tell the House how he justifies sacrificing the country’s most deprived communities to indulge the Secretary of State’s penchant for attention-grabbing publicity stunts?
That was an interesting pre-written question, which seems to have ignored what we have established from the Dispatch Box today: that £650 million will lead to a 0% council tax rise in virtually every authority in the country. Although the hon. Gentleman says that that is of no consequence at all, I can tell him that for the pensioners in my constituency, his constituency and in those of my hon. Friends it will matter a great deal.
Local Authority Employment (Halifax)
The Government monitor public sector job losses at the local level. The £1.4 billion regional growth fund has been set up to help generate private sector job growth, particularly in places that have been over-reliant upon public sector employment.
The majority of public sector workers in Halifax are middle and low-income earners who have worked loyally for the council for many years. Will the Minister put on record exactly from where he sees new jobs coming to my constituency, which needs and relies on a strong public sector?
I am sure that the hon. Lady will therefore welcome the latest Office for Budget Responsibility forecast, which predicts a total employment rise in 2011 and 1.5 million new private sector jobs being created. I hope that her council will work with the local enterprise partnership and the regional growth fund to achieve those jobs in her area.
Halifax will be hard hit by council cutbacks. Halifax council believes that for every job that goes in local government, one will go in the private sector, and that the voluntary sector will also be hard hit. Does the Minister accept, therefore, that this Government are cutting too far, too fast, with no plan for growth and rapidly rising unemployment, and that once again, for this Conservative-led Government, as in the 1980s, unemployment is a price worth paying?
Formula Grant Funding (Deprived Areas)
7. What assessment has been made of the likely effects on local authorities in areas of deprivation of reductions in formula grant funding. (33551)
We have delivered a fair funding settlement for local authorities that takes into account the particular circumstances of each area. Our proposals ensure that no authority sees a reduction in revenue spending power greater than 8.9% in each of the next two financial years.
The Minister apparently does not understand, or does not care about, the scale of the challenge facing constituents in deprived areas such as Sunderland. Does he seriously expect my constituents to be grateful for the hammering that they are taking in order to protect affluent areas such as Surrey?
I share the hon. Lady’s disappointment that the financial situation we face means that every part of the public sector has to take pain in order to put things right. The formula grant for Sunderland is £562 per head, and that means that for every £1 going to the less dependent authorities, Sunderland is getting £4.50. Her reduction of 8.9%, and of 4% next year, will in fact be an improvement because of the new homes bonus amounting to more than £500,000 this year.
I welcome the Department’s review of formula grant damping in time for 2013. Will the Minister consider the impact of damping on Norfolk county council, which next year will receive more than £20 million less than if the formula grant were given out on the basis of assessed need only? Will he ensure that from 2013 Norfolk gets a fairer funding deal as a result of this review?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The local government finance review will start later this month and will indeed produce a new determination of funding for local authorities that gives them much more freedom to spend and raise their revenue, starting from 2013.
In his appearance before the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, the Secretary of State said that there was no need for local authorities to make cuts to front-line services, yet only last week the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association said that
“the level of spending reduction that councils are going to have to make goes way beyond anything that conventional efficiency drives, such as shared services, can achieve.”
If the Secretary of State and his team disagree, will the Minister tell us how many local authorities will be able to meet their budget cuts without cutting either jobs or front-line services?
It is obviously for every local authority to take its decisions on what services it supports with the money it has available. Councils will have much more freedom and flexibility, with the money that they do have, in making choices in future. It is for them to decide on their priorities.
I will take that as meaning none. As the Minister knows, in the real world, these huge front-loaded cuts cannot be made by efficiency savings alone. The Secretary of State and his team have said on many occasions that the settlement is fair. He said that it is progressive and that it protects the most vulnerable. The House of Commons Library has confirmed that the top 10% of most deprived areas are being hit with cuts four times worse than those in the best-off areas. To put it another way, while people in Hartlepool will lose £113 per head, residents in Wokingham will lose only £4 per head. Does the Minister still think that that is fair?
I say to the right hon. Lady that we have adjusted her formula grants to put a greater emphasis on the importance of deprivation—from 73% to 83%. Our banded floors mean that the percentage loss of formula grant for Hartlepool is lower than for Wokingham.
The coalition Government have taken immediate action to help communities to protect green spaces. Three measures stand out: the decision to take gardens out of the definition of brownfield sites; the abolition of the density targets that prevented family homes with gardens from being built; and the measures in the Localism Bill, which will be debated this afternoon, that give communities the right to have neighbourhood plans that protect valuable green spaces.
In 2001, the then Secretary of State for Transport imposed planning restrictions that required councils to limit the number of parking spaces allowed in new residential developments, and set high parking charges that kept shoppers from the high street. What is the Secretary of State doing to end the war on motorists waged by Labour?
I think it was the same Secretary of State for Transport who set a target to reduce the number of journeys made by car, but, of course, the numbers went in the opposite direction. Everyone knows that if people are banned from having garages and driveways, as under those planning changes, it means not that people will not have a car, but that they will drive around looking for a precious parking space, annoying their neighbours and making people oppose development. We have therefore scrapped those maximum parking standards.
New Homes Bonus
The new homes bonus commences in April 2011 and will match fund the additional council tax raised for every new home that is built or brought back into use. It will continue for six years.
I thank the Minister for that reply. We all want new homes. However, Labour-run Kirklees council has just launched a local development framework-style consultation process for 28,000 new homes. Many constituents are worried that it will mean the bulldozing of beautiful countryside in the Colne and Holme valleys. How can he reassure my constituents that local people will have a democratic say in developments in their area?
The good news is that local people will, at last, be in charge of development in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Rather than targets being dictated from Westminster and our telling his constituents what should be going on, the balance will be in local hands. From April, his local authority stands to gain about £1.3 million through the new homes bonus. Local people will decide the pace and scale of growth, and the benefits that they want to derive. I trust them to do that more than I trust Ministers to do it from here.
What plans does the Minister have for neighbourhoods such as Picton and Kensington in my constituency, where housing stock had been planned under housing market renewal, the existing stock demolished or vacated, and then the funding taken away?
The housing market renewal programme was responsible for demolishing a large number of homes—so many that there are fewer affordable homes after the 13 years of the previous Government than there were when they got into power in 1997. There was something wrong with that programme and there is now an enormous funding problem. It will be for the local community and local authority to get together with the local enterprise partnership and pull together the various funding streams, which will include the new homes bonus because those homes are no longer there. When they are rebuilt, the local authority can benefit. I extend an offer to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the circumstances of the housing market renewal.
Rural villages in my constituency and across Britain have seen a policy of decline by neglect over the past 13 years, and people there are excited by the proposals for local housing in the Localism Bill. Can the Minister provide some reassurance that when small pockets of housing around a village are approved, some of the bonus will come back into the local community?
My hon. Friend will be reassured to hear that under the community right to build, which is one of the proposals in the Bill, local communities will be able to vote for additional homes, for example in a village that is trying to keep the post office and the local school alive. They will be able to do so without so much of the bureaucracy that there has been, and without the regional development agency telling them that their village is not where it wants homes to be built. It will happen on a local neighbourhood scale, so communities will be very much in control. They will own the housing trust that builds the homes and will be able to ensure that those homes stay in local use for as long as they like.
I need to draw the House’s attention to an entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford). To avoid any misunderstanding, I add that he is my partner.
It is eight months since the Minister entered office and asked us to judge him on his record of delivering housing. What has happened since then? Planning permissions have fallen off a cliff, we have the worst record of house building since 1923 and now 21 Tory council leaders in the south-east say that the new homes bonus will not deliver the homes that are needed. Does he agree with them, and what is his time scale for reconsidering the level of the bonus if it does not work, as they fear?
I am grateful to the shadow Minister for pointing out that I have now been in the post for eight months, because that happens to be exactly the time for which my four predecessors, including the current shadow Secretary of State, stayed in office.
House building had fallen to 1923 levels under the previous Government, with their top-down planning and regional spatial strategies. I am confident that the fact that we have scrapped that structure and introduced the new homes bonus, which, as we have heard today, is about to start paying out significant sums, will reverse the fall in house building and affordable house building that we so tragically saw under the previous Government.
The Localism Bill does have implications for the national planning framework, which will be developed in conjunction with the Bill. Currently, national planning guidance runs to 900,000 words, which is the equivalent of two copies of “War and Peace”, and it is completely inaccessible to people in local communities up and down the country. We will replace it with a slimline, powerful version that people can use.
I thank the Minister for that very clear answer, but may I take the matter a little further? Obviously the new homes bonus is being introduced, as we have heard, along with the right for local people to decide on housing levels. In my experience, understandably, very few people want many homes built close to them. How can the Government ensure that there is not a conflict between those two policies?
My hon. Friend asks a very important question that goes to the heart of the purpose of the Bill, which is to deal with the problem that the number of homes being built has fallen to a low last seen in the 1920s. The reason for that is twofold. First, communities do not get to share in the benefits of new building, and specifically do not get the infrastructure that is required. Secondly, if people are excluded from having a say in the look and feel of development in their area, no wonder they are opposed to it. If we allow people to have a say and have a stake, we can start to turn around the planning system.
Local neighbourhood partnerships provide local community groups and people with a feedback mechanism to influence planning and other local government decisions. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s decision to scrap those partnerships flies in the face of the stated aim behind the Localism Bill of pushing power down to local people?
The Localism Bill lays out our proposals for the radical reform of the planning system, making it more effective at the local level, reducing the need for appeal, and supporting economic recovery. It does not include a third party right of appeal because the coalition considered it, but believed that the better route, as the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) just said, is to give communities greater control over what is considered to be appropriate development for their areas at the very beginning, through our neighbourhood planning system.
It would not be so bad if life in the real world were like that. Developers always have the advantage. They have to win only once, but objectors must win every time. A developer can go to appeal; opponents cannot. When a local authority and a developer sing from the same song sheet—in Colchester, the local authority and Mersea Homes jointly wrote the song sheet—there is a serious problem for the local parish council and local residents. I urge the Minister to take that on board and to think again.
I would understand my hon. Friend’s point if no other changes were being made to the system, but we are addressing precisely the point that he makes. In some areas, people currently feel disfranchised by the system. We are enfranchising them by enabling them, through the neighbourhood plan—if approved by a referendum—to prevent unwanted development in their area.
The Conservative party and its coalition partners pledged in their pre-election material to introduce a third party right of appeal, so may I congratulate the Minister and his partners on accepting the fact that that was one of the more barmy proposals among many others? Can I look forward to a series of further U-turns on other unrealistic propositions in the Localism Bill?
The right hon. Gentleman is aware that both coalition parties thought that a third party right of appeal was well worth looking at, and we did so carefully—it was not lightly dismissed. The system that the previous Government left in place resulted in people feeling aggrieved. We have concluded, however, that the best means of reducing that grievance is not through the third party right of appeal, but by front-loading the system and giving residents and communities far greater control over development at the beginning, which is swifter and more cost effective.
Role of Central Government
The Government’s localism and decentralisation agendas are focused on passing powers to the most local level possible. The local growth White Paper set out our plans to enable authorities to retain locally raised business rates and to give councils a real incentive to go for growth. The Localism Bill, which is before Parliament, includes a number of measures that are designed to reduce the dependency of local authorities on central Government, including in particular a general power of competence for local government.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He will know that my constituency includes the retail and commercial hub of Croydon town centre. Achieving the full localisation of business rates would give the council a very strong stake in the health of the local economy and massively reduce dependency on central Government. Will he look at that idea as part of his long-term review?
The Government are clearly looking to ensure that local authorities get the benefit of the economic decisions that they take. The key to that is the localisation of business rates. Clearly, were we to apply that to the City of London, it could pave the pavements with gold, so there must be some way of applying that measure to areas that are not as fortunate as, for example, Croydon, but I look forward to my hon. Friend’s submissions to the review.
Good local councils in areas of greatest need use their grant funding effectively to support people with disabilities, people who need care or housing, and children with special educational needs. Will the Secretary of State therefore tell the House what he is doing to help such councils beyond imposing the heaviest cuts on them and trying to stigmatise their work with the language of dependency?
As the hon. Lady knows, this was to be the year of the big cuts. Had the Labour party won the election, they would have imposed such cuts, and my job as Secretary of State was made considerably easier because I inherited a lot of the plans that Labour had prepared. She will also know that this Government have ensured that the most dependent councils face the smallest cuts, and that we have put in £6.5 million for Supporting People and transferred nearly £1.5 billion from the health service to help to support people. We have protected the vulnerable, and we expect sensible and responsible local authorities to do the same.
One council radically reducing its dependence on central Government is my council of Hammersmith and Fulham. Thanks to four years of successive council tax reductions, there has been an accumulated saving to the average council tax payer of £1,799. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Hammersmith and Fulham council on reducing its dependence on central Government and delivering exemplary value for money for its local residents?
Hammersmith and Fulham council is indeed the apple of my eye. I recall visiting it in opposition and watching that first budget go through. First, the Labour party said that those were ridiculous cuts that would destroy services. Then it said that it would reduce council tax even further, but it ended up abstaining.
Social Home Builds
In the spending review we announced almost £4.5 billion investment in new affordable housing to deliver up to 150,000 affordable homes. We are giving housing associations more flexibility on rents and use of assets, thus increasing their financial capacity, and our aim is to deliver as many homes as possible through our investment and reforms. The actual number of homes started and delivered in each year is dependent on agreements between housing associations and the Homes and Communities Agency in consultation with local authorities.
I congratulate the Minister on his optimism, but I am afraid that I do not share it. In my constituency, the former Catford dog track has lain derelict for the past seven years. It is a site owned by the Homes and Communities Agency and has planning permission for a scheme that includes 313 affordable homes. Given the Minister’s stated commitment to affordable housing, will he agree to meet me to discuss options for how we can get appropriate development on this site?
Our experience in rural Broughton Gifford in my constituency is that a parish council can promote an exception site to use land efficiently to meet local housing need. This was possible under existing legislation, but took several years. How will the Minister’s proposals for a community right to build help such enlightened rural parishes?
In spring 2008, the Homes and Communities Agency gave the flagship Conservative council of Westminster grants to build 500 new homes. Three years later, significantly fewer than 50 such homes have been built. Will the Minister tell me why?
The Localism Bill gives enforcement powers to local councils specifically to prevent people from preventing enforcement against them by applying for retrospective planning applications.
I thank the Minister for his response. Unfortunately, in my constituency the council has become well known for failing to enforce planning conditions. Given that we are encouraging local people to take a greater interest in local matters, does he not agree that local authorities must commit to strict enforcement of planning controls?
One of the great advantages of localism and the Localism Bill is that it will be crystal clear that local authorities are responsible for these decisions, and I hope that in every part of the country local people, through the ballot box, will bring pressure to bear on councils that fall behind others.
Fire Services (Bassetlaw)
Decisions on the provision of fire services are taken by individual fire and rescue authorities, as part of their integrated risk-management planning process, which assesses and mitigates risks to local communities. No formal assessment of Nottinghamshire fire and rescue authority’s local decisions has been made by central Government.
The fire service in my area is not adequate; it is excellent. I would therefore like to know why the Minister is cutting the Nottinghamshire fire service budget by so much, thereby endangering those standards of excellence and possibly leaving the people of Retford in my constituency without proper fire cover—cover that they have had for 100 years and that they deserve in the next 100 years.
Spending for fire and rescue authorities has, in fact, been protected and back-loaded because they are front-line services. Nottinghamshire is making proposals that it intends formally to consult on, I understand, at the end of February. The proper course is for the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to enter that consultation then.
Working Neighbourhoods Fund
An equality impact assessment on the completion of the working neighbourhoods fund has been carried out and published on the Department’s website.
The Minister’s answer gives me no assurance whatsoever. The working neighbourhoods fund funds a project in my constituency called Newcastle Futures, which has supported more than 6,000 people into work and training since it was set up in 2007. That is 6,000 lives changed for the better. Now Newcastle Futures fears for its future. What assurance can the Minister give that such important projects will continue to support people into work and training?
For every pound going to the richest authority, £4.80 goes to Newcastle. It is for Newcastle to take those decisions. However, I also want to draw the hon. Lady’s attention to last week’s announcement about the formation of the local enterprise partnership, which covers Newcastle and provides the authority with a chance of accessing regeneration funding.
Since we last met for oral questions, my Department has introduced new powers to protect community pubs, supported local high streets by scrapping Labour’s petty Whitehall parking rules, championed human rights by reining back on draconian powers to seize private property, and given councils an incentive to put empty homes back into productive use. Today we move forward with the Localism Bill, which will scale back England’s over-centralised state and deliver devolution for the people, giving power to local councils, communities and local people. Other items were contained in a written statement that was laid before the House last week.
My local authority, Dudley council, received notification last week that existing projects financed by private finance initiative credits will no longer be allowed to access that funding stream. In our case, that amounts to a sudden cut in funding— £10 million over the next decade—for an important information and communications technology programme in 120 schools. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of my local authority urgently to discuss the matter?
I can confirm the message that I left with my hon. Friend’s office at the end of last week: I am very happy to meet her as a matter of urgency to discuss the matter.
T3. On his recent visit to the north-east, the Prime Minister claimed that his West Oxfordshire council was facing much higher cuts—23% over two years—than anywhere in the north-east. However, that cut of 23% amounts to £775,000. In comparison, Durham county council, which covers my area, is facing cuts of more than £60 million—that is, £28 million in formula grant, plus £32 million in area-based grant. Will the Secretary of State accept that my constituents will struggle to understand this particular concept of fairness, and that, regardless of percentages— (33572)
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman gets out much, but West Oxfordshire is a very small place, and Durham is a lot bigger. Durham has reserves of just short of £93 million, and it receives formula grant at £459 per head, a sum that the people of West Oxfordshire can only dream of.
T2. Last year, London Councils spoke for many when it said that Labour’s local funding formula“lacks transparency and is inherently unstable and unpredictable, generating fluctuations…that defy logic.”Will my right hon. Friend review that formula and base it on real need, so that more taxpayers get what they pay for? (33571)
It is certainly our intention to review the formula and to try to place it on a fair basis. When I had the opportunity of dealing with it, one of the relatively small things I was able to do was to move the relative needs component up to 83% from 73%. That is why the settlement has been so progressive this time.
T4. The Save Spodden Valley campaign in Rochdale has spent the past six years fighting a planning application to build 600 homes on the former site of the world’s largest asbestos factory. Last week, the council rejected the application, not least because of Save Spodden Valley’s excellent campaigning, to which I pay tribute. Given that planning aid is to lose Government grant, is the Minister confident that local groups will be able to stand up to multi-million pound planning applications on their own? (33573)
I have good news for the hon. Gentleman. The Localism Bill, which we will debate this afternoon, will give the power to local communities such as his own not to have to be dragged through the appeals system in the way that he has described, but to say once and for all how they want their communities to look and feel. I look forward to welcoming him into the Lobby this evening.
T6. Does the Secretary of State agree that the final decision on major infrastructure projects should be a political one, and not one made by an unelected quango? Given that Britain is 33rd in the world in terms of infrastructure, according to the World Economic Forum, does he agree that he should make it a priority to discuss this matter with other Cabinet members? (33575)
We will do more than discuss it; we are going to act on this. It is important that we have a fast-track process for infrastructure investment, but it is also crucial that it is democratic. If people do not have confidence that those who take the decisions can be held to account, there will be no faith in the system. The Localism Bill will deliver the reforms that my hon. Friend seeks.
T5. In defining localism, if the Secretary of State were to get a planning application appeal on his desk regarding a development that 12,000 local people were in favour of and that would create lots of jobs, and that only two people, and the Tory council, were against, which side would he be on? (33574)
T8. The interim report of the Zero Carbon Hub suggests that achieving zero-carbon homes by 2016 will depend on what it calls “allowable solutions”, potentially off-site. How will the Minister ensure that such measures are local and tangible, and therefore more credible than existing offers for carbon offsetting? (33577)
Ensuring that our homes are zero carbon is a fundamental part of what the coalition agreement asks us to do, and this Department is strongly committed to that. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and the Housing Minister has made it clear that we are going to make detailed proposals shortly.
T7. The chief executive of Barnardo’s has warned about young people being groomed in every town and city. Given the cutbacks in policing services and the cuts in local government that will impact on children and young people’s services, can any Minister stand at the Dispatch Box with his hand on his heart and say that that apprehension will now be eased? (33576)
I certainly hope that that will be the case, because that kind of behaviour is wholly unacceptable, and I am sure that Members on both sides of the House have been shocked to hear of that process. However, given that the hon. Gentleman’s local authority has £108 million in reserve and receives £714 per head, while areas such as Surrey receive £170, it should be in a very good position to prioritise such matters.
T9. The Department for Transport has established that where lower tier authorities provide additional funds for concessionary travel, this amounts on average to 12%, yet the Department for Communities and Local Government budget proposals seize all that money and redistribute it to upper tier authorities. Will the Minister agree to meet Kettering borough council, of which I am a member, to discuss how this serious mistake can be corrected? (33578)
Of course we will meet Kettering borough council. The closing date for consideration of evidence is today, but I believe that Kettering has submitted evidence. We, of course, will look very carefully at any evidence of statistical mistakes that might have been made.
T10. We heard earlier that the levels of house building in the last year of the last Labour Government were the lowest since 1924, which is a disgrace. How will the Minister reverse that trend and ensure that house building increases adequately to meet the demand, particularly for social and affordable housing? (33579)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: that low record of house building was a disgrace. We need to do a range of different things, starting with the new homes bonus, followed by ensuring that there is affordable rent, that affordable homes are built, and that the planning system is liberated. There are also many measures in the Localism Bill, which we are debating later today. A whole raft of things needs to be done to get the situation fully under control. We look forward to the Opposition’s support for making that happen.
A theme of Ministers’ answers has been the differential between the grants of different local authorities, with poorer authorities getting more than prosperous authorities. Is it a higher priority for Ministers to equalise those grants or to get rid of the inequality that has given rise to higher grants going to poorer areas?
We have increased equalisation. We have done three things. We changed the relative needs component from 73% to 83%; we introduced banded floors so that wealthier authorities have a greater percentage cut; and for those falling outside that, we introduced transitional relief. A new form of local government finance should, I think, start to concentrate on those areas of higher dependency, as far as the central grant is concerned, so that we can get them out of that dependency, increase growth and increase prosperity.
It remains a scandal that a loophole in planning law allows a freestanding pub or other community facility to be demolished without planning permission, thereby denying the community any say whatsoever. May I ask my hon. Friend the new community and pubs Minister if the Government are minded to support the Protection of Local Services (Planning) Bill on Friday or will they incorporate it into the Localism Bill instead?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his congratulations on this interesting addition to my responsibilities. I am discussing with the Bill’s sponsor the best means by which to collaborate sensibly to achieve the objectives of protecting important local services such as community pubs.
I am sure that the Secretary of State would acknowledge that under successive Governments Manchester has proved to be a resilient and successful city. Even so, it faces higher than average levels of unemployment. What possible justification does he have or can he offer for axing the £7.7 million working neighbourhoods fund and giving that money to parts of the country that already have relatively high levels of employment?
Staffordshire Moorlands district council has entered into an arrangement with neighbouring High Peak borough council to share management services. Does the Secretary of State agree that innovations like these can help save taxpayers money while protecting front-line services?
I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local authority. Sharing services is surely the way forward. Nowadays there is no real excuse for having separate management teams, separate chief executives and expensive, well-paid officers to fill every position. Sharing can prevent the cuts from falling on the most vulnerable and needy members of society, and I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local authority on doing exactly that.
Given that today is the last day for representations to be made in the formal consultation on the grant settlement for local authorities, will the Minister assure me that he will take seriously the representations from Stoke-on-Trent and its Members of Parliament during our welcome meeting with him last week? We cannot afford these cuts.
I thank the hon. Lady and her colleagues from Stoke-on-Trent who came to see me last week. I assure her that her words and theirs were clearly heard, and that they will be taken into account along with all the other representations that we have received.
Authorities such as Manchester city council, run by Labour, are publicising front-line job cuts while retaining their Twitter tsars. Meanwhile, other local authorities, such as Leicestershire county council and North West Leicestershire district council, are being diligent. They have cut their management, protected front-line services, and kept council tax low. Is it right for such diligent local authorities to be punished in the next spending round because of the profligacy of councils run by the Labour party?
My hon. Friend is right. It is for local authorities to work out where to make their savings. I should add for the record that it is not clear whether the Twitter tsar was eventually employed, although the post was certainly advertised. I should also point out that when authorities talk of job reductions, we do not know whether they are including positions that were already vacant.
Last year the Prime Minister asked local authorities not to do the easy thing by cutting the budgets of voluntary bodies, but week after week representatives of such organisations come to my surgery and tell me that their budgets have been slashed and that they cannot continue to do their work. Does the Secretary of State share my concern about Nottinghamshire county council’s failure to heed the Prime Minister’s advice?
When Ministers consider representations about varying the provisional spending formula for councils, will they take seriously three issues above all: the effect of front-loading the settlement, the effect of any staff costs resulting from the settlement on councils without many reserves, and the need to ensure that the population figures are accurate and up to date?
We will use the most up-to-date information we have. I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point about front-loading; we did much to mitigate its main impacts in the settlement. We are continuing to examine all aspects of the settlement, and we will of course ensure that the most vulnerable are protected in the process.
In answer to an earlier question, the Secretary of State said that he looked forward to a time when local authorities would be able to retain business rates raised in their areas. With that in mind, can he tell us what proportion of the money distributed to authorities through formula grant is raised through business rates?
Virtually all equalisation comes from business rates. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point and we will consider it carefully, but before we can move to a system of that kind we must be able to offer a degree of stability. Business rates are notorious for their movements during the economic cycle.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Tunisia and the Government’s assistance to British nationals.
I welcome this opportunity to update the House on recent events in Tunisia and on what is being done to assist British nationals there.
The House will be aware that, following a month of protests over Government corruption and the lack of political and economic reform, a state of emergency was declared and President Ben Ali left Tunisia for Saudi Arabia. I hope that the House will join me in expressing our sympathy to all those whose friends and relatives have been killed or injured in the disturbances.
The Speaker of the Tunisian House of Deputies, Fouad Mebazaa, has been appointed interim President in line with the constitution, and he has asked Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to form a Government of national unity. Talks continue with opposition parties and with civil society to try to agree a way forward, and we hope that there will be an announcement on the new Government later today.
When the situation deteriorated, an estimated 5,000 British nationals were in Tunisia, most of them tourists on package holidays. We changed our travel advice to “all but essential travel” on 14 January, since when more than 3,000 British citizens have left Tunisia; many of them were able to leave on additional flights laid on thanks to the swift response of tour operators, and we believe that approximately 1,000 British nationals now remain in Tunisia. That number is largely made up of long-term residents, as well as dual nationals and some independent travellers. Many of those still in Tunisia do not wish to leave and have told our consular staff that.
Despite exceptionally challenging conditions, the embassy is working to help to resolve the crisis and to provide support to British nationals in Tunisia. We have sent a six-person rapid deployment team from London and two members of staff from elsewhere in the region to reinforce embassy staff in Tunis and to provide constant consular assistance. We have established a 24-hour hotline in Tunisia and in London that people can ring for help and advice, and we have staff at Tunis airport who are liaising with airlines and seeking to help British travellers with medical, passport and other consular issues.
Our embassy staff remain in regular contact with our network of wardens across Tunisia, better to understand the evolving picture around the country and keep those British citizens that we are aware of informed of updates as the situation evolves. We are keeping those British nationals who have registered on LOCATE updated on developments through regular e-mails.
I spoke to our ambassador in Tunis earlier this afternoon. He informed me that his staff are now receiving very few consular calls, and those who are calling are mostly asking for updates on the security situation. We continue to advise against all non-essential travel to Tunisia. We advise anyone in the country who does not have a pressing need to be there to leave by commercial means. The airports are operating, and airlines are flying into and out of Tunisia. Those who are still in the country should respect advice or instructions given by the local security authorities and tour operators and avoid rallies and demonstrations. There is no indication that British nationals are being targeted by looters or rioters, but given the unpredictability of the situation there is always the chance of their being caught up in incidental violence, and our advice is that if any British citizen is in doubt about the safety of his or her location they should stay in their accommodation.
At the political level, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been working with partners, including especially those in the European Union, to promote a peaceful outcome and longer-term political reform. As soon as possible, we will be seeking to engage the Tunisian authorities to help with this. We encourage all involved to do what they can to restore law and order, and we call for the full inclusion of all legal political parties in the formation of an interim Government.
The change in Tunisia in the past few days has been profound, but it is not yet the political reform that many Tunisians hope for. The authorities should not ignore the voice of the Tunisian people. The British Government will work with partners to try to ensure an orderly move towards free and fair elections and an expansion of political freedom in Tunisia. There were extended EU discussions on Friday. We have been calling for a speedy and substantial offer of EU support to underpin the move to free and fair elections, which will be critical in re-establishing calm and security in the country.
Today, the High Representative, Baroness Ashton, has issued a statement, saying:
“The EU stands ready to provide immediate assistance to prepare and organise the electoral process and lasting support to a genuine democratic transition.”
We shall continue to provide the help and advice that British nationals need and expect, and to engage with and support Tunisia, as it works for peace and security.
I thank the Minister for his statement and join him in expressing condolences to those who have lost family or friends in these difficult circumstances. Even after President Ben Ali’s departure, which brings to an end a repressive regime, the situation in Tunisia remains tense and uncertain, with prospects for only a fragile interim Government; outbreaks of looting are taking place, alongside continued legitimate protests.
May I ask the Minister about consular support and future Government policy on Tunisia? The Opposition welcome the considerable work done by many of the tour operators to evacuate thousands of people over the weekend. However, I am concerned that the Government were slow off the mark in responding to this situation. On Friday, the Minister responsible for consular policy told the BBC that
“We are not at that moment advising that people make an effort to leave Tunisia.”
Yet a state of emergency was announced that afternoon, following seven days of violence, and tour operators were already bringing British nationals back to the UK. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office did not publicly change its travel advice until Saturday, and the rapid deployment team did not leave the UK until Sunday. British holidaymakers in Tunisia were put in a very confusing and alarming position. They were told by Ministers that they did not need to leave, just as their holiday reps were telling them that there would be emergency evacuations. Does he agree that the Government were too slow to act?
How many British nationals does the Minister believe will still be in Tunisia following today’s flights? Is he confident that sufficient help is in place for independent travellers who wish to return and still need assistance? He will be aware that British Airways has advised its customers that the next return flight to the UK is not until Wednesday, so will he join me in urging BA to provide additional capacity for its passengers tonight or tomorrow? Many tour operators are not yet offering refunds or alternative holidays for people who were due to travel to Tunisia after Wednesday this week. If it is too dangerous to travel there, it is surely unfair to expect holidaymakers to cancel and incur the full financial cost, so I urge tour operators to extend the scope of their refund offers. May I ask the Minister to meet major tour operators to deal with this crucial issue?
Finally, on the Government’s approach to the broader situation, will the Minister tell us whether the Foreign Secretary has spoken to the interim Prime Minister? The ending of the authoritarian regime must be a turning point for a country that, for too long, was under a repressive Administration that denied the Tunisian people their basic democratic freedoms and economic opportunities. I agree with many of the Minister’s points about the importance of Tunisia having free, fair and democratic elections to establish a sustainable and legitimate Government, and I welcome the work being done in the EU. Will he continue to press the EU to support elections, including with possible election observers and practical assistance? The Government have been slow off the mark this week, but we look forward to their being swifter in their response in future.
The fact that the great majority of British citizens in Tunisia have been able to leave swiftly, with consular support and advice, indicates that the Government’s response has not been lax in the way the right hon. Lady describes. Clearly, as with any such event that makes sudden demands on our consular services, we will examine any lessons that need to be learned from this episode, but I am sure that she will want to join me in recognising the work and commitment of consular staff, both those UK-based and those locally recruited and working in our embassy in Tunis.
The right hon. Lady asks how many British citizens are still in Tunisia, and our best estimate is about 1,000. One thing that our network of wardens will be doing is trying to find out, by making contact with expatriates and dual nationals in particular, exactly what the remaining numbers are and how many wish to leave. I have been advised by the embassy in the past couple of hours that some holidaymakers are telling us that they would prefer to stay in Tunis to see whether there is a chance of resuming their holiday, in the hope that things calm down there.
I would welcome British Airways or other airlines making additional provision to bring back independent travellers, but that is a commercial matter for them. So, too, are the relationships between customers and tour operators regarding possible refunds for holidays that have had to be cut short or cancelled. As the right hon. Lady and I both know, most decent travel insurance policies will have a clause that provides for reimbursement in the case of such an event. I am sure that those companies will be in touch with their customers as soon as possible to try to reach amicable outcomes. My colleagues in the Department for Transport are in frequent touch with the travel industry, but such matters are best addressed, if possible, between companies and their individual customers.
I should add that we are actively working with the Ministry of Defence on contingency plans should an evacuation of British nationals be needed. At the moment, our judgment is that that is not necessary, but I want to reassure the right hon. Lady and the House that we are not simply sitting back and assuming that things will improve. We have contingency plans in place should matters get considerably worse.
Finally, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary hopes to speak to the interim leadership of Tunisia as soon as possible. I am sure that the right hon. Lady will understand that the leadership’s first priority is to try to set up the much-needed Government of national unity. I hope that it is successful in that endeavour.
I was in Tunisia just a few days before this latest outbreak of violence. A constant theme when I talked to people there was the dreadful state of their economy and, above all, the massive unemployment among graduates, particularly among female graduates. Does the Minister agree that if we achieve political stabilisation one of the greatest contributions the United Kingdom and other EU member states can make is to grow trade with Tunisia and improve prosperity for the people, who are in dire need?
My hon. Friend identifies an important problem that faces not only Tunisia but many other countries in north Africa and the middle east: the dismayingly high and enduring unemployment among young people. The problem is made even starker when we consider that young people under 26 or under 30 make up, in most cases, about 60% of the population of those countries. Trade and investment are an important way of giving people in those countries hope of a better future, but investment and trade will be more likely if business has confidence that the rule of law and political stability apply. I think that reforms to governance, greater political freedom and an independent system of courts and judiciary go hand in hand with the economic reforms and improvements that my hon. Friend seeks.
Does the Minister agree that although the toxic combination of high unemployment and corruption brought about the huge demonstrations and the downfall of the President, at the same time the World Bank and International Monetary Fund supported and approved of the economic strategy adopted by Tunisia? Is it not time to recognise that these tired old models create awful problems for young people, leaving them unemployed and leading hopeless lives? Does the Minister not recognise that there must be some change in economic thinking?
There must be sensible economic and political reforms, so that those millions of young people feel that they can have a say in how the society in which they live develops and is shaped. That is why the European Union’s assistance for Tunisia is, for the most part, assistance with reform, particularly the reform of governance. It is also why the British Government have established a human development fund, which will seek to assist those sovereign countries—we cannot just go and tell them how to organise their affairs—the stability of which we want to continue, to engage in the reforms that will make them more stable societies in the longer term.
I strongly welcome the work being done by Foreign Office officials to support British nationals in Tunisia, but it is not the only middle eastern country that faces rising food prices, high unemployment, corruption and questionable levels of political freedom and human rights. What preparations and contingency plans are our embassies in other middle eastern countries putting in place to make sure that they can provide swift support to UK nationals should the protest and unrest spread to other countries?
We have contingency plans in London for the rapid deployment of additional staff in the event of exceptional and urgent need for consular services anywhere in the world, not just in the middle east. I would not like to speculate on where the next demand on our consular services might come; it might be from some other part of the world entirely.
The Minister rightly talks about immediate need, particularly with English nationals being over there, and in the longer run Britain and the European Union certainly have no interest in an unstable Tunisia. In that context, will he make it quite clear that the EU will support the process of establishing a free and fair election and will make sure that monitors are available from within the European Union to guarantee that not only the world but the people of Tunisia know that the elections are free and fair?
The hon. Gentleman, who speaks with considerable experience of election-monitoring work, is right. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has discussed this very issue with the French Foreign Minister in the past couple of days, and our Government and other European Governments have been making that point to Baroness Ashton and her team. When the hon. Gentleman reads her statement, he will see that one thing she is offering is robust EU support for election-monitoring work.
It is very clear that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and similar organisations are attempting to capitalise on the current situation. What assessment has the Minister made of that and of any potential threat to the United Kingdom, given the porous nature of our borders with Europe and the clear and present danger posed particularly to France, Spain and Italy?
The advice that I have received to date is that there is no evidence that extreme groups that are linked to or similar to al-Qaeda have played a significant part in the uprising inside Tunisia. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend is right to say that we need to be on our guard against the spread of extremism and terrorism throughout the entire Maghreb. That is yet another reason why we should support reforms, ensuring enduring political stability in those countries in the future and that people in those countries do not believe they should turn to terrorism because they have no other way of seeking to change the society in which they live.
The Minister will know that for the past 10 years leaders at EU Council meetings have banged on and on about the Maghreb but done absolutely nothing to make sure that there is economic stability and democratic advance in any of those countries. Will he go back to the next Foreign Affairs Council of the EU and say that it is time that we met our commitments from 10 years ago in relation to some of those countries? Otherwise, the future will be no better than the past few weeks.
The hon. Gentleman is right to imply that the relationships with the Mediterranean governed by the Lisbon process and the Union for the Mediterranean have not delivered the positive results we all hoped for. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I will certainly want to highlight, at the next Foreign Affairs Council, the need to learn lessons from this experience with Tunisia and the need for Europe to get its act together more effectively in terms of its relationships with our southern neighbours.
Is there not still a danger that Tunisia will move out of the frying pan of dictatorship and into the fire of Islamism? What specific steps are the Government taking to ensure that al-Qaeda and Islamists do not step in to fill the vacuum?
As I said earlier, the advice that I have received up to now is that the risk of violent extremism to which my hon. Friend refers is not as great as has been made out in some parts of the media. It is much more an uprising by people who have been frustrated by many years of political repression and whose feelings have been aggravated by economic hardship. Nevertheless, I assure him that the British Government will be alert to any risk that extremist groups could try to seize an advantage from what has happened in Tunisia, and we will take whatever steps we can to ensure that they are unable to do so.
I thank the Minister for the reassurance that he has given about constituents who are in Tunisia and welcome the fact that he has emphasised the EU. Tunisia, of course, is part of the EUROMED process, and a number of projects have been sanctioned by the EU concerning migration, development and policing. As the hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) said, we might be unable to resolve the current issues there, but can we be ready with plan B, so that we can continue with those initiatives, which are important to the whole of the north Africa rim?
The right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that those are important issues not only for Tunisia, but for every country along the north African coast. Certainly, when I have talked with ambassadors from those countries in London, they have expressed concern about the risk that not only extremist groups, but those involved in people trafficking, drug trafficking and other forms of organised crime might use their territories as through-routes to try to penetrate Europe. We want to work with those countries, which are independent sovereign states, to ensure that they are able to improve their governance in the way the right hon. Gentleman describes. It is in the interests of Europe and of those north African countries that they are able to do so and move forward on the basis of greater respect for human rights and enduring political reforms.
Does the Minister agree that when such situations arise, organisations such as the BBC speculating about which country will be next to fall is not only unhelpful to the status of the Government and of Parliament, but concerning to people in those countries and their families here at home?
I congratulate the Minister on his considered response to the emerging crisis in Tunisia. Clearly, a large number of British nationals are still there, and a large number of British nationals in this country will have relatives, property, assets or businesses there, so what advice and help is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office giving them on the protection of their businesses and relatives?
I would advise anyone with such concerns to contact the Foreign Office helpline, in either Tunisia or London as most appropriate, and we will then seek to provide what support we can from either our embassy in Tunis or through our network of wardens around the country.
Many in the House would like to express their sympathy to those in Tunisia who took to the streets and, as they reached for freedom, paid the ultimate price. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the right way to stop the violence, to push back against al-Qaeda and to create the basis for stability and elections is to support the interim Government behind Prime Minister Ghannouchi? Will my right hon. Friend use his office to persuade those in Arab states to lend their support to this change as well?
The last point that my hon. Friend made was a particularly good one—that it is important that other Arab countries row in and support the new Tunisian Government when one is formed. The most important thing, though, is that a Government of national unity can be put together who genuinely command widespread support among the Tunisian people and among civil society in that country. That offers the hope of a breathing space and a measure of peace which can provide the basis on which to move forward towards free and fair elections and longer-lasting political reforms.
I congratulate the Minister on presiding over such a swift response to the crisis. May I embellish the question about other Arab states? Will my right hon. Friend and his colleagues encourage other European countries to help in a project to encourage good governance in those states?
The European Union has relationships with a number of Arab states, both in north Africa and in the Levant, which feature discussions about human rights, the rule of law and democratic reform. I agree that we need to intensify those discussions. All those countries are sovereign states. They will want reforms that are true to their own traditions, histories and ways of life, but it is in the interests of all that they are able to bring forward reforms that satisfy the aspirations of their own people. That is what our bilateral human development fund is intended to do, and it is important, too, that European Union effort is carefully designed to meet the objective that my hon. Friend describes.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Twenty questions were called today at oral questions. Last Monday 23 questions were called. It is now commonplace at business questions for all those standing to be called; that was once a rarity. As there has been a huge increase in the past 12 months in the number of urgent questions, topical questions, oral questions and business questions that are dealt with, is it not right that we should ask the Procedure Committee to examine why that has happened and why Back Benchers’ opportunities for holding the Executive to account have been greatly multiplied, so that we can have a report, and so that we can ensure that this process continues and express our gratitude to the persons or person responsible?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. It is, of course, not a matter for me specifically to request the Procedure Committee to conduct an inquiry. It is entirely open to the hon. Gentleman who, as I have remarked before, is the author of a well-read tome on how to be a Back Bencher, to make that request of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight). I note with interest and appreciation the observations that the hon. Gentleman has just made.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am glad to see the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) in her place. Had she not arrived, I might have raised a point of order myself to allow her to get here.
The present situation is not Labour’s fault. I do not blame the Opposition for the excessive centralisation that has come to characterise government in this country. Command and control is, of course, naturally appealing to the Opposition, but in fairness, they only accelerated an existing trend. If they boarded the moving train of centralism, there cannot be any doubt that they drove it to its terminus: grand centralist station. So the Labour party is not entirely to blame; it is just mostly to blame.
The Bill will reverse the centralist creep of decades and replace it with local control. It is a triumph for democracy over bureaucracy. It will fundamentally shake up the balance of power in this country, revitalising local democracy and putting power back where it belongs, in the hands of the people. For years, Ministers sat in their Departments hoarding power like misers. Occasionally, grudgingly and with deep resentment, they might have loosened their grip on the reins of power, only to tighten it almost immediately. Uniquely, they managed to fulfil the wildest dreams of both Sir Humphrey Appleby and Mr Joseph Stalin. That strangled the life out of local government, so councils can barely get themselves a cup of tea without asking permission. It forced a central blueprint on everything from local public services to housing and planning, regardless of what local people want or need. It left councillors hamstrung, front-line public servants frustrated and residents out in the cold.
The reasoned amendment owes much to the pragmatism of St Augustine: “Oh Lord, make me a localist—but not just yet.” Preserve us from the wickedness of delegated powers. Yet, as I said earlier today to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), I do not recall those concerns being raised by the current Opposition during the passage of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, which in a mere 176 clauses, contained 86 delegated powers. The number of such powers in this Bill is, therefore, entirely the norm and entirely in keeping with the way in which legislation has been put together, with one important difference: this is a deregulating Bill.
I hope that my right hon. Friend does not miss the opportunity to mention the great pilot of centralisation, John, now Lord, Prescott, who, in moving from the social status of waiter to that of a passenger on cruise ships, was so damaging to local government.
I have to say that I have great affection for Lord Prescott, and I am particularly enjoying his current advocacy of insurance on television.
The Bill is based on a simple premise: we must trust the people who elect us and we must ensure that we trust them to make the right decision for their area. To misquote Clint Eastwood: “A Government needs to know its limitations.” We do not have all the answers but we have to have the courage to encourage local solutions. The Bill is made up of four main elements: London governance, planning, localism and housing. The London element is relatively straightforward and redistributes power away from quangos and back to elected officials and communities. The settlement has been agreed by the Mayor of London, the London assembly and the boroughs, and it is based on consensus across the political parties. I would like to pay tribute to the constructive way in which the Mayor, the assembly and the London boroughs, regardless of their political persuasion, have worked together on these arrangements.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was distracted by something in the Chamber more interesting than my speech, but I have already dealt with that. I politely pointed out that in previous, much smaller Bills introduced when the Labour party was running these matters, the proportion of delegated legislation was much higher. I am here to be helpful.
As a London Member of Parliament, I welcome the part of the Bill that delegates considerable extra powers to London government across the board. We tried to bring in many of these things during the passage of the Bill that set up the Greater London authority in the first place. Will the Secretary of State continue, over the course of this Parliament, to take the attitude that, where possible, we can continue to devolve power both to regional government, which is what the GLA is, and to local government?
I wish that my right hon. Friend had not used the R-word, but it is certainly my intention that this is part of a continuous process of devolution. He is quite right. There was a lot of cynical suggestion that the London councils and the Mayor would not be able to reach an agreement, and it is to their credit that they have managed to do so.
As I understand it, the Secretary of State’s chief argument in favour of the Bill is that local people should be free to determine how they receive services within their own area. Does he believe that the frequency and arrangement of refuse collection services should be left entirely to local decision, or might he occasionally be tempted to intervene in this?
Of course refuse collection is a matter for local people. We have ended Labour’s bin taxes, and there will no longer be an incentive to have a fortnightly collection. If, on that basis, councils want to continue to have fortnightly collections, then good luck to them in facing their electorates. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, who is in some ways my hero—I am sorely tempted to take down one of my pictures of John Wayne and replace it with one of him—because he is an example of someone who had enormous vitality and ideas regarding the finance of local government and was continually ignored by his own side. I hope to take up the baton that he so sadly dropped.
Within the ethos and context of localism, how are we going to deal with the scandal of 129 local government executives earning more than the Prime Minister? Perhaps they should have to go back to their local people and ask permission before they are paid such outrageous salaries.
My hon. Friend makes a very moderate and reasonable point. I have suggested to chief executives that in order to demonstrate that they are on the side of the workers, they should take a 10% cut if they are earning more than £200,000 and a 5% cut if they are earning more than £150,000. In future, under this Bill, such remunerations will not be arrived at through cosy little deals between the leader and the applicant but must come before the full council, which will have to endorse them. I am pretty sure that common sense will rear its head and we will no longer see this ridiculous creep in the sums of money for chief executives, who will be more cognisant of their responsibilities.
Councils have been drowning in red tape and rules and paralysed by a culture of centralism. Those that want to break the mould and innovate continually run the risk of legal challenge. The Bill will restore town halls to their former glory. There was a time when local councils really were the centre of a community—when the local councillor was revered and honoured as a local person of importance and local government got things done, improved public health, cut poverty and ended slum housing. That is the sort of courage and ambition that we need in councils today.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his generous comments about local councillors. I am sure that they apply to councillors of all political persuasions. My experience is that councillors want to be involved. Does he agree that one way of involving them is to encourage the abolition of the cabinet system in local government?
The cabinet system has many advantages, but it means that a number of councillors are denied the opportunity to be involved. We do not take a strong view on that matter, but the Bill will enable councils to go back to the committee system if they want to do so.
The Bill will give councils the powers and authority that they need. It will be a shot in the arm for local democracy. It will give councils a general power of competence. That is probably the single most important item in the Bill. It will turn convention on its head. It differs from a general power of well-being in one vital respect: instead of local authorities having to find a statute that allows them to act, the fun-loving legal advisers will have to find a statute that prevents them from taking action.
We know that the Labour party considered a general power of competence, so what held them back? Apparently, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) once argued that councils should not be allowed a general power because it would allow Islington to build a nuclear bomb. He is a much-respected Member of the House and his worries should be taken seriously. I have good news. The residents of Islington and the rest of us can sleep safely in the knowledge that the Radioactive Substances Act 1993, the Nuclear Explosions (Prohibition and Inspections) Act 1998 and the Nuclear Safeguards Act 2000 will prevent Islington council from obtaining weapons of mass destruction. In short, the power of general competence for councils does not simultaneously abolish all other laws of the land.
The Secretary of State advocated the power of general competence as a means of increasing the freedoms of local authorities. However, clause 5(3) states:
“The Secretary of State may by order make provision preventing local authorities from doing, in exercise of the general power, anything which is specified, or is of a description specified, in the order.”
Does that not completely negate the supposed freedoms?
I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s statement, because he and I have previous. When he was engaged in a respectable profession before returning to this House, I recall him advising me on these issues. His advice was that these things should not be absolute, and that the Secretary of State needs to retain residual powers just in case. He should not castigate me for taking the advice that he gave all those years ago— nice try.
The Secretary of State said that the current power to do anything that is in the interests of economic, social or environmental well-being is too narrow and that his general power of competence will extend the ability of councils to take action. Will he give practical examples of issues that do not fall within economic, social or environmental well-being, on which councils will be able to act? I am sure that the House wants to be enlightened on how large the power is. Before the election, he said that he wanted to give councils the power to do anything other than raise taxation. Is that still his intention?
The right hon. Lady makes a reasonable point. She will be aware of problems with London authorities’ insurance, and the general power of competence will deal with those. However, the question is: what is the difference between the general power of competence and the general power of well-being? The truth is that there is not much difference, and we welcomed the intention to introduce the latter, but only about 17% of authorities have done so. The reason for that is the innate conservatism of those providing legal advice, so councils have tended to err on the side of not introducing it.
The reason why the general power of competence is so important is that it turns the determination requirements on their head. All those fun-loving guys who are involved in offering legal advice to local authorities, who are basically conservative, will now have to err on the side of permissiveness. That is a substantial change, and I would have thought that there would be no difference between the parties on that matter. I believe that a general power of competence is better than a general power of well-being, because the latter had to be invented as a concept whereas the former is well accepted by local authorities throughout the world, which understand exactly what it means.
The Bill will let councils decide the best way to organise themselves, whether through cities having mayors, through local council executives or through the committee system. On the subject of mayors, I am delighted to report to the House that Lord Adonis will begin a tour of 12 English cities, talking to local people about the prospect of having a mayor. I look forward to his report. The Government are grateful that that distinguished former Cabinet Minister is undertaking that important work.
The idea is basically to get ready for the mayors. I want to make it absolutely clear that if the people in those authorities decide that they do not want a mayor, the powers will disappear. However, it was felt that if we were to move towards referendums, the people of the cities involved should have an indication of the powers and freedoms that they would get if they had a mayor.
I think it was Lord Adonis, when he was dealing with high-speed rail, who made it clear that it was easier to deal with mayors in London and other parts of the country than to deal with council leaders. Cities such as Birmingham—I understand that one of our former colleagues, Clare Short, has thrown her hat in the ring as a potential mayor there—are as important as Boston or Barcelona, and they have a part to play on the world stage. I believe that mayors can enhance that role.
The Bill pushes power out as far as possible into communities and neighbourhoods, into the hands of individuals and community groups. For too long, local groups, community associations and even ordinary men and women on the street with a good idea and a desire to make their neighbourhood a better place to live, have been ignored and left out. They have no rights and no chance to have their voice heard. It is hardly surprising that even the most dedicated activist gets frustrated, let alone a concerned mum who just wants to see her street kept clean or a group of friends who are worried about a local pub that is under threat. We are giving people new rights, powers and opportunities to act on the issues that matter.
The right hon. Gentleman knows my town of Huddersfield very well. Since the election, local community groups have been falling by the wayside in political and community activity. They have lost their funding, including seed funding, and third sector and community groups are in a dire state. What will the Bill do to rejuvenate the third sector and create a renaissance in it?
Voluntary groups in Huddersfield, which I know and love very well, are very keen on those powers. They will have a power to challenge and a power for a proper partnership that is not hand-to-mouth and based on grants and handouts. In such partnerships, sensible local authorities will work hand in glove with voluntary organisations to provide better services for their population.
Let me give another example. People will be able to veto excessive council tax rises. Instead of the Secretary of State making that decision, local people will balance service needs against the level of council tax. They will be able to protect and improve—and even run—the public services on which they rely, and ensure that much-loved local assets are kept for the next generation. Those rights will give community groups the oomph that they need. People will have a genuine stake in their community and a reason to get involved, secure in the knowledge that the power to change things is in their hands.
This is a truly radical Bill from a truly radical Secretary of State. It brings closer to reality the dream of government for the people, by the people and of the people that shall not perish from this earth. In my constituency, people want to buy the port of Dover. People in other constituencies want to buy forests and other such community assets. Will the Secretary of State and the Government consider going faster, deeper and wider, so that we have a community right to buy from central Government as well as from local government?
My hon. Friend tempts me to become a bit Maoist in these matters, but we will certainly consider what he says and look towards giving greater powers to local people.
The Bill will return the planning system to the people. Targets do not build homes, and regional plans do not get communities involved. Today, we have an adversarial, confrontational system, fomented on mistrust and a sense of powerlessness. It is simply not working. The Bill will therefore create genuine neighbourhood planning, by which the community will develop in ways that make sense for local people. Instead of instructions being handed down from on high, the Bill will offer incentives to invest in growth. Instead of unelected commissioners making national decisions on important national infrastructure, those choices will again be down to democratically elected Ministers in this House.
There is a genuine worry among the infrastructure industries, particularly the utilities, about the current interregnum. When will the Secretary of State issue guidance on major infrastructure processes? When will the words used by the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) be fulfilled? In Question Time, he spoke of a fast-track political process, which might give some certainty for investors and some knowledge of how the system will actually work.
I am happy to reassure the right hon. Gentleman that there will be no gap in the system, and that the utilities are very much in favour of what we are doing. In terms of general national policy statements, we will move at pace, because as he rightly identifies, infrastructure, particularly in respect of the utilities, is immensely important.
The Bill will give councils and communities the power that they need to tackle the housing challenges that they face. The coalition Government have inherited a deep housing crisis. Five million people languish on waiting lists, and many of them have no chance whatever of being allocated social housing. It is a failing that hundreds of thousands of families live in overcrowded conditions while other homes are under-occupied, and that in half of all families who live in social housing, no one works.
The Localism Bill will create a much fairer and more flexible system. Councils will have the discretion to help families meet their needs in the most appropriate way, and we have of course made sure that there will be appropriate protections for the most vulnerable families. However, there are also many families who simply need a short-term helping hand—and councils will now be able to offer just that. I remind the House that we are only talking about new entrants to the system; existing tenants are unaffected. We are also reforming council house financing, building on proposals from previous Governments, but with a more generous offer. All councils will have more money to manage their stock.
Finally, the Bill represents the final nail in the coffin for the most illogical and unpopular measures of the previous Government: it will get rid of bin taxes, home information packs, the outdated port tax, and the sort of bonkers bureaucratic measures that we get when decisions are taken far away from the people they affect—the sort of measures we will not see anymore. The era of big government is over. Look where it got us: uneven and unstable economic growth; frustrated front-line workers slavishly following the rulebook to the letter; and residents and community groups left powerless to solve their problems.
One of the scandals of recent years is that councils have been allowed to run up astronomical debts. My former authority, where I served as a councillor—Hammersmith and Fulham council—is trying to reduce its historical debt of £133 million, which costs taxpayers £5 million a year in interest payments before a single street is even swept. What safeguards are in the Bill against councils running up excessive debts?