House of Commons
Thursday 5 May 2011
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I want to praise the effective firefighting by Green Watch of the London fire brigade, particularly led by Mill Hill fire station, at the incident on the M1. I also want to praise the Highways Agency and Connect Plus for doing so much work underneath the bridge, which I saw myself.
That section of the M1 is under a managed contract agreement with Connect Plus. The contract indicates that there is a repair and insurance responsibility to the contractor, and no costs will be borne by the Department for Transport.
The incident occurred over the busiest weekend at Wembley stadium, where the FA cup semi-finals were taking place. It affected three of the teams quite severely—although it did not affect Manchester United fans from Surrey very much. [Laughter.] Members got it in the end. It also caused traffic congestion on the M40 and throughout my constituency. What action will the Minister take to ensure that across the country there is appropriate storage under motorways in future?
For most of that weekend I was underneath the bridge once the fire was finished and while remedial work was done to install 250 tonnes of steel to secure the bridge so that it could be reopened. The Secretary of Sate has already announced a review of what works can be done and what can be stored under bridges. When that review reports in the next few weeks, we will look carefully at its findings.
After 17 years of using the M1 between Rotherham and London, I know that it is always under repair on one stretch or another. Is part of the problem that the M1 is used as a suburban rat-run around the big conurbations? Might we not consider introducing a motorway vignette, so that people who use the motorways pay a little extra, we help reduce the deficit and we discourage the urban-dwellers around the M1 from using it as an ordinary road?
In 13 years of a Labour Government, they rejected plans for doing that, and so have this Government. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman can blame the M1 for a fire that was underneath it, which reached a temperature of up to 1,000 degrees and buckled the reinforcement bars. The Highways Agency and Connect Plus did a fantastic job. It is sad that there was so much disruption, but they did the work as fast as they could.
I associate myself with the Minister's comments about the Mill Hill firefighters, who worked so hard at the location and in helping local residents. For many years, the councillor for the Hale ward on Barnet council, Councillor Hugh Rayner, has been supporting local residents on Ellesmere avenue in their calls for the scrapyard to be moved from its site under the M1. Does the Minister agree that while we should not act in a knee-jerk fashion and remove all businesses from under railways and motorway arches, we need to look carefully at what activities can be undertaken safely underneath motorways, and take action to ensure that inappropriate uses are eliminated?
It was a pleasure to meet my hon. Friend at the incident and at the site and it was a real pleasure to see the councillor responsible as well as the representative of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. I also visited and praised Green Watch at the station.
It is important that the review looks carefully at what can and cannot be done under railway arches and roads. Different railway arches can have different structures. Once the review is forthcoming, we will look at it very carefully.
Crossrail is at a relatively early stage of construction and the cost will be finalised over time. However, at this stage, we expect that the project will cost no more than £14.5 billion.
I understand that the Government have cut £1 billion from the Crossrail project, which will mean that its opening will be delayed until 2018, and that only part of the route will be open. Will the Minister confirm for me today when the whole of the planned route will be open and which bits will not be open in 2018? When will I be able to travel from Stratford to Heathrow?
There will be a phased opening of services from 2018. We have lengthened the delivery time following an engineering-led review, which did a great job in reducing the cost of the project while still enabling the full benefits to be delivered according to the original scope. We shall make an announcement in due course on the timetable for the phasing in of services from 2018.
I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party Crossrail group. My constituents in Ilford will benefit enormously as a result of the improvements brought about because three stations in my constituency are on the Crossrail route. However, there is considerable disappointment on Redbridge council at the fact that, as a result of the cost-cutting exercise, the plans to remodel and rebuild Ilford station will not go ahead. The Minister has been invited to meet Redbridge council and visit the area. Is she likely to come to Redbridge in the near future to discuss that with my council?
I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has always done on Crossrail. The whole House will welcome confirmation that Crossrail has gone ahead; despite all the scare stories from Labour in opposition, the coalition is pressing ahead with it. We have made some savings on some stations. The plans for their redevelopment are less ambitious than they were, but they will still perform all the transport functions that were included in the plans’ original scope. Crossrail and the Department for Transport remain happy to work with local authorities to facilitate extra improvements that local authorities might want to fund and deliver to regenerate the surrounding area.
Dartford-Thurrock Crossing (Tolls)
I hope shortly to announce and publish the consultation which I know my hon. Friend is waiting for on the revision of the road user charging regime for the Dartford river crossing.
I thank the Minister for his reply. A few months ago, he announced his intention to remove the barriers at the Dartford crossing. My constituents would like the tolls removed altogether, of course, but we recognise the need to maintain revenue. The barrier removal will reduce congestion significantly. When he brings forward his proposals, will he include plans to make sure that foreign lorries are charged for using the crossing? Haulage is a big constituency interest for me, and my hauliers are at a competitive disadvantage compared with European suppliers.
I fully understand the concern that if we go to free-flow tolling in Dartford, or any other part of the country, everybody who uses the road should pay, including foreign truckers and foreign vehicles. Some 20% of trucks that go through Dartford are foreign-registered, so we are very conscious of the issue and will make sure that we work on it.
The Government published “Reforming Rail Franchising: response to consultation and policy statement” on 19 January this year. In it we set out, among other things, our commitment to longer franchises, less prescriptive service requirements, and the transfer of stations to train operators. The Department is now considering, within the framework, the detailed invitation to tender for the intercity west coast franchise.
Since the Adjournment debate on South West Trains, I have received thousands of letters and e-mails from long-suffering passengers around the country who are having to put up with suburban trains on mainline routes. Is it not time that we had minimum standards of comfort set out in rail franchise agreements, and should not companies that ignore such concerns not have their franchises renewed?
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s campaign on that point, but the simple fact is that on many of our suburban railways, particularly those going into London, we have limited capacity. Trains are already at maximum length, and the number of train paths is already at the maximum capacity of the railway. Taking out seats to make them larger, which I think is my hon. Friend’s point, would simply mean more commuters standing, and those commuters who join the train closer to London are vehemently against that, so the Government have no plans at the moment to specify the size or configuration of seats in commuter trains.
Will the Secretary of State expand for us on the benefits that he expects passengers to get from changed patterns of franchising? In particular, will they benefit passengers in Wiltshire, especially those who would like to travel on the proposed trans-Wilts railway, which would improve considerably our north-south travel patterns in the county?
As my hon. Friend will have anticipated, I specifically had passengers in Wiltshire in mind when we designed our franchising proposals. The key thing is to drive down the cost of our railways. We have to make them more efficient, and we have to close the productivity gap between them and competitive railways in Europe to relieve the pressure on both the taxpayer and the fare payer. The changed franchise specifications will give train operators incentives to drive down costs—something that, frankly, they have not been incentivised to do under the current system.
The Secretary of State made a point about less prescriptive service requirements, but will he give a guarantee that stations such as Runcorn mainline station and Widnes station in my constituency, which have seen a significant increase in passengers in the past five years, will not, as a result of his reform of franchising, have a reduction in the number of stopping trains?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and our intention is to maintain services while creating sufficient flexibility at the margin to allow franchisees to operate their businesses in a way that makes them more efficient. That is a complex balancing act. Nobody wants train services to be reduced as a consequence, but if we are absolutely prescriptive about the timetable, down to officials detailing the precise time of every train stop at every station, the scope for improving the efficiency of our railways will be severely limited. It is a balancing act, and we are determined to get it right.
Is not the point, certainly on intercity franchises, that the concentration is on improving journey times for long distances, which has an adverse effect on small commutes, for example from Chester-le-Street in my constituency to central Newcastle, which is only a 10-minute commute, but is a well-used service? As a result of the way in which franchises are structured, fewer trains are stopping to carry commuters on that vital route.
The hon. Gentleman is right. We need to get the balance right between long-distance intercity services, where stops disadvantage long-distance travellers, and short-range commuter services. In many cases, it is not appropriate for long-distance intercity trains to have a service pattern that is organised around the local commuter travelling pattern. We need local commuter trains to deliver that.
These are complex issues. Our view is that train operators are best placed to deliver services to their users in a system that incentivises them to deliver the services that passengers want. That system has not existed hitherto under the revenue-sharing arrangements in which the Government collect most of the additional revenue taken at the fare box by the train operator. Putting those incentives back in place will deliver better services and greater efficiency.
Will the new rail franchising arrangements enable the Secretary of State to take steps to ensure that fares do not rise at the huge rates that we have seen recently, but begin to level off? Will he also make sure that it is simpler and easier for people to understand what they ought to pay for a particular trip?
The hon. Gentleman makes two good points. First, the fare system is incredibly complex and, secondly, passengers face high fare levels—we fully appreciate that. The only way in which we can tackle high fare levels is to make the railway more efficient. We are determined to do so, and we will receive and publish shortly the report by Sir Roy McNulty on value for money on the railways, which will make proposals to achieve that objective.
I am glad that the issue of fares has come up, because on 9 March the Secretary of State attended a presentation on the findings of the rail value-for-money review, which he will publish later this month. I have a leaked copy, which includes a recommendation that in future rail franchises should have
“more freedom to set fares”.
Does he stand by what he told the House on 27 January, when he said that the objective of the review was
“to reduce the burden on both the taxpayer and the fare payer”?—[Official Report, 27 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 426.]
Yes, absolutely—that is the key objective of the McNulty review. The hon. Lady will know, if she wants to look at this objectively, that we have severe crunch-points on our rail system, where the current pattern of fares is driving perverse behaviour. The 18.59 train north from Euston on a Friday evening is virtually empty, but the 19.01 train is packed, with people standing, and the police preventing others from joining the train for safety reasons, and that is because of the way in which the fare structure works. We must be able to use the pattern of fares to address crowding, and to avoid the perverse incentives that have been created.
Can the Secretary of State explain some quotes in the document that suggest that he will allow franchisees to do what they want with fares? For example, the document states that he needs
“to consider in letting future franchises: more freedom to set fares”
“encourage TOCs to take a more commercial approach to fare setting”.
There are other such quotes in the document, which seems to suggest that he will allow train operating companies to charge whatever they want.
Would my right hon. Friend explain why passengers in the Greater Anglia franchise area face the possibility of having three different train operators within 18 months, which is likely to cause confusion to them and to staff? The only beneficiaries would appear to be the companies that supply the paint to change the carriages.
The decision was taken to let a short management contract for the East Anglia franchise because it is our intention to let a longer-term contract and we wanted the opportunity to incorporate the findings of the McNulty review into the franchise specification before doing so.
The south-east airports taskforce is looking at ways to improve efficiency, tackle queues and reduce delays at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. It is due to report in July.
I commend the Secretary of State and the Minister for their active and robust campaign to improve the passenger experience. I think that it has improved in recent months, particularly at Heathrow, but I polled my constituents and many of them disagree. Greg Taylor said:
“Compared to Asian airports…Heathrow is a disgrace”,
and James Max complained about
“bad baggage reclaim…expensive food and parking…poor public transport”.
How can my constituents get more involved in the process of improving the experience at Heathrow and other airports?
My hon. Friend is right to give credit to Heathrow for real improvements over recent years. Although terminal 5 started pretty badly, it is now a high-quality facility, and the airport will be investing in a major redevelopment of other terminals, hopefully to bring them up to the same standards. But more needs to be done, which is why we will modernise the airport regulatory framework to put passengers at the heart of the system, to give the Civil Aviation Authority the power to intervene where airports fail their passengers, and to incentivise the sort of investment in improvement, to baggage handling and terminals, for example, that his constituents clearly want. We are also introducing a new consumer panel at the CAA to improve passengers’ ability to influence the regulation of the airport.
The Government have already introduced the continuous insurance enforcement scheme that will come into force in late June, which says simply that everyone who intends to drive a vehicle on the road must be insured and that a vehicle must have a valid statutory off-road notification if there is no intent to drive.
Uninsured drivers are the scourge of our roads, adding to the insurance premium of the law-abiding motorist. With a fixed-penalty sanction against uninsured drivers of £200 and an average motor insurance policy premium of £892, rising to £2,431 for young drivers, is it not time to consider increasing the fixed-penalty fine to ensure that it is proportionate to the cost of motor insurance, to incentivise those who think that it is right to drive uninsured?
It is estimated that 1.5 million people drive without insurance, which is a huge cost burden to those who do insure, and there is strong evidence that those who are uninsured are likely to commit other driving and criminal offences. However, I assure my hon. Friend that we are looking closely at that.
One of the biggest incentives to drive illegally is the premium imposed by insurance companies. There are various schemes to try to reduce those costs, particularly for young drivers who are a problem in this regard. GPS can measure journey times, the hours of the day when people travel, and who else is in the car. Is the Department in negotiation with insurance companies to progress such schemes so that young people can afford insurance premiums and avoid driving without insurance?
Yes, we have frequent discussions with the insurance industry, but I must stress that being insured is not a choice; it is a legal requirement. We are trying to drive down the cost, which is partly the result of uninsured drivers driving up the cost of those who are insured, creating a perverse incentive, and partly the result of fraud, which is a massive issue that the Select Committee considered and to which I gave evidence. We are working with the insurance industry on some of the measures referred to by the hon. Gentleman. It is also important when requesting an insurance quote to tell the truth, for example about the number of points on one’s driving record, so that the insurance is not invalid when a claim is made.
I am sure that the Minister will want to commend the automatic number plate recognition scheme, which the police use effectively in west Yorkshire to catch people driving without insurance. However, does he agree that their efforts are undermined by the courts which give derisory fines to people caught driving without insurance? The fines that they give mean that, for many people, crime does pay.
ANPR is a huge move forward in how we catch more people who drive without insurance. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), we are looking at the issue and working with other Departments to ensure that the punishment fits the crime.
Uninsured drivers contribute significantly to the number of crashes, deaths and serious injuries on the roads. When will we see the long-awaited road safety framework document, and will it address that issue? Does the Department intend to continue publishing targets for the reduction of deaths and serious injuries on our roads?
The hon. Gentleman used to have the job that I have the honour of doing these days, and he knows full well that the Government will publish the road safety strategy as soon as we can; he will have to wait for what is in it. He made a point about targets. If we are not careful, if we set targets the easy option is always the way forward. We have the safest roads in the world and we intend to keep them that way, but we are not going to set arbitrary targets and just say, “We have met that target, so we can ignore the harder option.”
High Speed 2
We are part-way through a programme of 30 public roadshows along the line of the proposed London to west midlands route, and we have held regional seminars across the country. The programme was suspended for the duration of the election purdah period, but will resume next week. The consultation process finishes on 29 July, and I expect to announce the Government’s response later this year.
Today I will be heading back to my constituency for the final afternoon of campaigning, and many colleagues will be heading back to theirs. I will be travelling on the excellent Chiltern line service from Marylebone. However, many constituents are concerned that high-speed rail will lead to a loss of conventional rail services, as has been the experience in other countries with high-speed rail networks. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that the Department for Transport is taking those concerns seriously and what impact will there be on such highly popular local networks?
As I look around the Chamber, it seems to me that one or two Members may have travelled back for the final afternoon of canvassing and campaigning already.
My hon. Friend could not be more wrong. One of the huge benefits of building a new, dedicated high-speed line will be the released capacity on the existing conventional lines—the east coast main line, the west coast main line and the midlands main line. Those lines will be capable of being reconfigured to deliver better longer-distance and short-distance commuting services and more freight paths for freight trains, taking more freight off the road and getting it on to rail. That is one of the big wins of a dedicated high-speed line.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that the published plans include a link from Old Oak Common via a tunnel round to the north of St Pancras station, connecting directly to the High Speed 1 line. It will be possible to run trains from the midlands and the north of England, directly through that tunnel, to the High Speed 1 network and onwards to the channel tunnel.
On 24 March, we wrote to all local highway authorities informing them of their share of an additional £200 million, which we have made available for repairing damage to their road networks following the severe winter weather at the end of last year. The funding was paid to authorities on Monday 28 March this year.
I thank the Minister for his reply and for the generous grant of £2 million recently received by my local authority of Cheshire East. However, the council has a £100 million shortfall in planned maintenance of its highways network, and it is unable to commit funding to upgrade junction 17 of the M6, which is in my constituency and frequently causes major traffic problems. Can the Minister offer any help to the local authority as it tries to address the problem with partner organisations?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her welcome for the extra funds made available. It is worth putting on record that we have committed £3 billion for highway maintenance over a four-year period in addition to the £200 million that was announced this year, so despite the difficult economic circumstances, we are prioritising moneys for highway maintenance. I am not aware of the particular junction, but if my hon. Friend writes to me with further details I will happily get a reply to her on the matter.
Barking/Gospel Oak Line (Electrification)
We are committed to further electrification of the railways. However, electrifying Gospel Oak to Barking is not currently a strategic priority as a number of other schemes have stronger and more developed business cases.
May I persuade the Minister that it is a priority and that the matter is of national as well as London importance? The Barking to Gospel Oak line is the only part of the London overground network that is not electrified, therefore running trains on it with diesel power is more expensive. Secondly, because the line is on a major freight route from the east coast, there has to be a change from electrified haulage to locomotive trains on that section. It would be of great benefit, both nationally and in London, if the line were electrified. Will the Minister look at it again and will she meet the secret group of Barking to Gospel Oak line MPs who would, I am sure, support the points I am making?
I am happy to meet the group, as the hon. Gentleman asks. The problem is that electrification would be expensive, because tunnels, bridges and viaducts are close to habitation, and the passenger benefits would be quite limited because the route is already running brand-new diesel trains. The performance benefits—journey-time improvements—delivered by electrification would be limited. The combination of high cost and limited passenger benefits means that the scheme is well behind others, such as the midland main line, the Great Western line and the Wales valley lines in terms of best value for taxpayers’ money.
May I unveil myself as a member of the secret group of North London line supporters? I look forward to the Minister meeting us. I hope she will meet us on the line itself, so that she can experience some of the problems that my constituents face—we promise not to make her wear an invisibility cloak—and so that she can understand some of the challenges we face in London because the line is not electrified. Problems with the freight line affect homes in Waltham Forest and other parts of north-east London, so I hope she will accept our invitation. We look forward to showing her our patch of north-east London.
Meeting on the line itself might be a little difficult.
On the freight points, the problem is that freight trains use many parts of the network that are not electrified, which is why the majority of freight trains are diesel. There is a real possibility that even if the line were electrified, the freight trains running over it would still mainly be diesel. I am afraid that the freight issues do not address the business case problems. We have limited funds; unfortunately, we have to make difficult decisions on priorities and although I am happy to listen to representations from the group, for the moment I continue to believe that other schemes have priority because they have a better business case.
2012 Olympics (Transport Network)
I have lead accountability within Government for transport preparations for the London 2012 Olympics. I am a member of the Cabinet sub-committee on the Olympics, which meets regularly and is also attended by the Mayor of London and representatives of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games and the Olympic Delivery Authority.
My officials and I have regular discussions with the Mayor and his officials in the Greater London authority and Transport for London on transport during the Olympics. Transport for London works closely with the ODA, which has statutory responsibility for transport planning for the games.
As the Secretary of State mentioned, a number of organisations are involved in the planning and delivery of a successful transport network for the games—LOCOG, the ODA, the Mayor of London and Transport for London. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what efforts have been made to co-ordinate planning across those groups to ensure that we can manage the huge numbers of athletes and spectators? Does he feel that appropriate measures have been put in place to keep London moving during that critical time?
As I have already described, there is a mechanism for bringing all those groups together through the Cabinet Olympic sub-committee, which is very effective. During the games, the Transport for London control room in central London will be the main control room for managing the transport networks.
The required measures are being put in place, but my hon. Friend is right to say that it will be challenging to manage down background demand for travel in London to allow sufficient capacity for the games family—the athletes, spectators and sponsors—to travel around. That is a big challenge, which we will face in the next 12 months—I am under no illusions about the size of it.
Since the previous departmental questions, I have published a scoping document about our planned development of a sustainable aviation policy. I have allocated £200 million for pothole repairs to individual local authorities, and announced the allocation of 20 additional rail carriages for commuter routes serving the Leeds area. We have also announced the go-ahead for the long-awaited Swindon to Kemble track redoubling, and the Ordsall chord in Manchester, linking Victoria and Piccadilly stations.
Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning as obscene and irresponsible the proposed six days of tube strikes by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers next month over only two individual employees? Will he also condemn Labour’s candidate for London Mayor, who has signally failed to condemn the action, and, indeed, his deputy, who even appears at RMT protest meetings?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that the series of strikes is highly irresponsible. As I said last night, no one in the Government is spoiling for a fight with the unions, but the unions appear to be spoiling for a fight with London. I say to the RMT and other unions that that sort of irresponsible strike action, when an alternative, proper remedy—an ongoing employment tribunal—is available, only strengthens the hand of those, including the Mayor, who call for tougher industrial relations laws.
As the Secretary of State will know, today marks the closing of the consultation on his plans to axe more than half the UK’s coastguard stations, leaving just three offering 24-hour cover. Yet, in a letter to me this week, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency stated that the consultation,
“will be reopened in the Summer”.
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the consultation closes today, as the letter says, “for the first time”? Given that it is increasingly clear that the policy is a shambles, why does he not just abandon the ill-thought-through proposals, which will leave our coastline a more dangerous place?
What a wonderful piece of opportunism. I can confirm that the consultation closes today. Of course, the previous Administration originally made the proposals to modernise the coastguard. We have listened carefully to the representations, and some very sensible representations have been made about how the reconfiguration might be managed to protect more of the local location of services. Once the consultation is closed, we will publish a summary of the findings and make our response to it.
I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter. I have given the issue careful consideration, but she will know that changes to the franchise, which require extra subsidy, would be difficult to approve in the current fiscal climate.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that there is strong cross-party support in the House, not only for British manufacturing in general, but in particular for the sole remaining British train maker, which eagerly awaits the award of the contract for the Thameslink line? What is the timing for that?
T5. In Rugby, a significant number of vehicles on our roads have been brought into the country by foreign workers, and they remain registered in their home countries. When I raised the matter with the Minister, he advised me that such vehicles can be used for six months in a 12-month period, or until the visitor takes up residence. However, there is currently no database for tracking such vehicles as they enter and leave the UK. That means that the owners of many vehicles use UK roads without contributing to the costs of maintaining them. Will the Minister consider a review to rectify that? (54178)
I am well aware of this issue, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising it. I corresponded with him recently on the matter. All vehicles on all roads in the UK should be safe, whether they are UK-registered or foreign-registered, and if they are not, they will be clamped and removed from the road. However, a database is an issue and something we are considering.
T3. Does the Secretary of State realise that his earlier answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) will have raised deep concerns in parts of the north-west, not least in Warrington, which is hugely dependent on its transport links to boost and develop its economy? Is he prepared to give an assurance to the House that any new franchise arrangements will not reduce the number of intercity trains stopping at Warrington Bank Quay? Yes or no? (54175)
I do not want to say, “Calm down”, but I would like to say that I am sorry if I have set a hare running. I was trying to say to the hon. Member for Halton that we are very much aware of the risk that making franchises less prescriptive could lead to reductions in train services, and we are not prepared to accept that, so I can assure the hon. Lady that under the new west coast franchise, the same number of station stops at Warrington Bank Quay will occur as under the present timetable.
I warmly welcome the creation of the sustainable local transport fund. I hope that the Minister is aware of the exciting trans-Wilts rail proposal, of which we heard earlier, developed by the community rail partnership, which has demonstrated the strong support of local businesses and MPs. Can he confirm that he would welcome a bid from Wiltshire council to that fund, and that it would be given serious consideration?
I am pleased with the number of bids we have received so far for the first tranche of the local sustainable transport fund. A number of imaginative bids have come in. There is a further bidding round, however, and I would welcome any suggestions that could improve the co-ordination of transport across modes.
The Government have no plans to increase the regulation on the industry, which is already severely regulated. The Transport Select Committee has considered the matter carefully. Ambulance chasers, as I referred to them in the Select Committee—some parts of the industry did not like that—are a fact and are driving up costs. Claims must be proportionate. Everybody injured on the roads should be able to claim, if it was not their fault, but there should not be an industry out there trying to make disproportionate claims against other insurers.
Wycombe air park will be subject to various security requirements in connection with the Olympics. I learned this week that those arrangements will threaten the survival of Booker gliding club. Will the Minister meet me to try to find a way forward for that valued resource?
I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this important issue. We are very much aware of concerns about the imposition of airspace restrictions in relation to the Olympics. We believe that restrictions are essential to maintain security for such an important event, but we are always prepared to consider refinements to see whether we can respond to concerns expressed.
Will the Secretary of State commit, as the previous Labour Government did, to legislate for a high-speed rail line all the way to the north, and in so doing convince the sceptics that the Government have a credible economic policy that would benefit all the regions?
As I have said many times at the Dispatch Box, the Government’s programme is for a Y-shaped network that will take the high-speed railway all the way to Manchester and Leeds. I am aware of the scepticism among some Members and others outside the House about our commitment to that programme. I have discussed this matter with Members of all parties interested in securing this programme, and I have given a commitment to find a way of getting into the first hybrid Bill a commitment to the Y-shaped network sufficient to reassure those Members. However, it simply is not practical from a parliamentary point of view to have a single hybrid Bill dealing with the whole line, so it will have to be done as two hybrid Bills. We will ensure that the first Bill contains a commitment sufficient to satisfy the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends.
Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that a meaningful consultation will take place with rail user groups before any of the existing rail franchises are renewed? I am thinking in particular of Southeastern, which has just had its current franchise extended by two years, despite an appalling performance record on the north Kent coastal line and repeated customer complaints.
When we issue new franchises, we carry out a detailed consultation process. We will be doing that when the current Southeastern franchise finishes. No consultation was carried out in relation to the continuation review, because this was a contractual term of the franchise that was agreed by the previous Government, which meant that an automatic extension was granted if targets were met by Southeastern. Those targets were met; we had no choice—the extension had to go ahead. In those circumstances, a consultation was not appropriate.
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Hate crime is an issue that the Government take extremely seriously. Until recently, many crimes were not recorded centrally, making it difficult to assess trends. That is why the coalition programme for government included a commitment to better recording of hate crime against disabled, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Police forces started formally collecting the relevant data in April, and from the summer of 2012 we will have the complete picture of statistics, which will show the pattern of local trends in hate crime and help the police to target their resources more effectively.
Yes, there is significant under-reporting. One of the actions that the Government have been taking is to work with key voluntary sector partners to encourage greater reporting. That includes, for example, the development of third-party reporting centres, because a great number of people do not report hate crime as they believe that it is not serious enough and they do not want to go directly to the police. Third-party centres will be able to pass reports on to the police.
On the Minister’s last point, I agree with her that there is a serious problem of under-reporting. Last year 11,000 racist or homophobic hate crimes were reported; I suspect that many thousands more were not. Will she talk to the Metropolitan police about increasing its resources specifically for an advertising campaign to report hate crime, so that young people in schools and in communities that do not normally associate with the police are made aware that they can get help, relief and justice for hate crimes committed in this city?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the importance of getting that message out. I am happy to talk with the Metropolitan police, as there is indeed a great deal of under-reporting. There are certain sectors that lack knowledge or understanding of how or where to make reports. The police have set up a website called True Vision—just google “hate crime” and “how to report”—because the internet makes hate crime much easier to report where there is that lack of accessibility.
Disabled People (Equality)
Most of the Equality Act 2010 came into force last October. It contains additional protections for disabled people, providing a strong framework for equality. However, this issue is not just about legislation; it is about improving attitudes too. We are addressing it through, for example, our work on the 2012 games legacy commitment, the introduction of the right to control and proposals for additional support for disabled people who want to take up elected office, as well as by removing the barriers that disabled people, including veterans, face in accessing the services and support that they need.
The hon. Lady will therefore be aware of the disabilities faced by many veterans, both young and old. Can she tell the House what discussions she has had with the veterans Minister about ensuring that those brave men and women are not put at any disadvantage because of disabilities that are the result of their service to this country?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in this issue, and he is not afraid to speak out on it. We recognise the problems that veterans and their families face. That is why we have set up a covenant taskforce to find innovative solutions to the problems facing former service personnel and their families. That, coupled with the existing benefits available for veterans—including the war pensions scheme and the armed forces compensation scheme, as well as those benefits that are available to the broader public—will help in recognising what he rightly says is the great debt of gratitude that we owe to that important group of people.
Is it not an absolute farce that the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is given taxpayers’ money to go round lecturing the rest of the country about equal pay for people with disabilities, itself pays non-disabled people more than people with disabilities?
The Minister will be aware that, next week, members of the hardest hit coalition will be lobbying their MPs. Richard Hawkes, the chief executive of the disability charity Scope, has said:
“The government has not delivered on its promise to support disabled people into work, penalising those on ESA and jobseekers’ allowance who have worked and paid national insurance in the past and who now cannot rely on getting the support they need when they need it, in an increasingly difficult employment market. Disabled people and their families do not have ‘broad shoulders’, so why are they bearing the brunt of these cuts?”
Does she think that cutting the support to help disabled people to find work will promote equality for disabled people?
I think I need to take issue with the hon. Lady’s statement about the number of disabled people who are getting into work. More people now have access to schemes such as access to work, which provides invaluable support for disabled people to get into employment, and the Government have already launched the Work Choice programme, which gives specific support to severely disabled people. That, coupled with the work by the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on the Work programme, represents an admirable package of support for disabled people, although we will of course strive to do better.
Earlier this year, we announced our intention to remove the ban in England and Wales on civil partnership registrations being held on religious premises. A consultation document seeking views on the practical changes needed to implement that provision was published on 31 March. We believe that this voluntary provision is a positive step forward for same-sex couples and for religious freedom.
Does the Minister agree that, when it comes to equality before the law, there can be no such thing as “almost equal”? Bearing that in mind, what further steps will the Government take to end the inequality in marriage and civil partnership rights between straight and homosexual couples?
Yes, I agree that “equal rights” means “equal rights”, not “similar rights” or “nearly but not quite as good” rights. Having listened to stakeholders, it is clear that there is a genuine desire among many of them to move forward to equality between marriage and civil partnerships. Over the summer we shall start a discussion with all those with an interest in the matter on how legislation can develop.
The Government are committed to increasing the number of women and men setting up businesses. If women set up businesses at the same rate as men in the UK, we would have 150,000 new business start-ups each year. We are encouraging the establishment of small businesses through excellent initiatives such as the new enterprise allowance, which will provide mentors and financial support to help the unemployed to become self-employed.
A constituent of mine has told me that she has built up a successful small business, working round her caring responsibilities over a number of years, but that she found the step to taking on an employee very daunting, given the complexity of regulation and legislation involved. Is there more that we can do to help people in that situation?
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point about the benefits and flexibility for women of establishing a business or being self-employed. She also makes an important point about getting rid of red tape and bureaucracy, which are barriers to people who are either growing their businesses or setting them up in the first place. That is why the Government have launched the red tape website, which enables people to challenge regulations. The Equality Act 2010 appears on the website. It is not the Government’s intention to abolish the Equality Act. We are putting it in place, but we want to hear from businesses how we can do regulation better to ensure that they can improve their businesses and employ more people.
I know that the right hon. Lady shares my concern about the lack of women at the top of business. Will she do as Lord Davies recommended, and insist that companies disclose annually how many women are on their boards in senior executive positions, and how many women are employed throughout the whole organisation?
I am grateful to Lord Davies for his report and his excellent proposals. We are working with business to ensure that that will be done, particularly encouraging larger businesses to set the trend so that it can then cascade down to others. I have written to my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary to ask how we can get the same message out to private as well as public sector companies. I am pleased to say that the Home Office is setting a good example in that of the four non-executive directors on its supervisory board, two are female.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. It is necessary to look at the career advice given to girls to ensure that they are aware of all the opportunities open to them. That will help to increase their ambition about the sort of careers they can go for, and it is also important in respect of equal pay to let them know the financial consequences of the career decisions they make.
The right hon. Lady will know that the regional development agencies did some excellent work across the country, helping women to support and start their own businesses, but those agencies are now being abolished. Women and small businesses are also being hit by the cuts to child care tax credits, cuts to Sure Start places and child benefit, while a Netmums survey found that one in five mums say they will have to give up work as a result of what is happening to the child care tax credits alone; many are extremely angry as a result. Women are also being hit twice as hard by the Government’s tax and benefit changes. Has she raised these concerns and this anger from women with the Prime Minister—or did he just tell her to “calm down, dear”, too?
On that last comment, I have no intention of suggesting that the right hon. Lady should calm down on this matter. She makes a point about what the Prime Minister said, but when I heard it, I immediately thought of Michael Winner. Sometimes I just think Opposition Members need to get a bit of a sense of humour. On the issue of women and the regional development agencies, we are abolishing the latter for extremely good reasons and putting in place local enterprise partnerships, which will ensure that opportunities are opened up for all businesses at local level. Through initiatives such as the desire to extend the right to flexible working and flexible parental leave, we are going a great deal further than the last Government in ensuring that there are opportunities for women in the workplace.
The Government’s aim is to achieve lasting growth in employment by tackling the deficit that we inherited from the last Labour Government, improving the competitiveness of the economy and encouraging the growth of new business. We aim to ensure that women are well placed to take advantage of the jobs created by a successful economy through universal credit and the Work programme. We are also reforming the welfare system to ensure that work pays and that women are provided with the support they need to fulfil their potential.
Let us see whether we can get an answer to the question asked earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). Does the Minister believe that cutting the child care element of the working tax credit will make it easier or harder for women to gain employment and stay at work?
The hon. Lady will be aware of the decision by her Government to increase the child care element of the tax credit from 70% to 80% in April 2006. What is now clear to everybody is that that was a decision this country could not afford. We have already made it clear that with the universal credit, we have an opportunity to ensure that child care support gets to those who need it most. We will invest at least the same amount of money in child care as under the current system and we will aim to provide support for those making their first moves into work. I am sure that the hon. Lady, like me, wants to ensure that women who have taken time out to have a family can have access to child care to get back into work, if working fewer than 16 hours. I am sure she would like to support that.
Does the Minister recognise that decisions made by local councils such as the Tory one in Derby to close Sure Start projects is another example of where women are losing out and finding their opportunities for employment much diminished?
Like the right hon. Lady, I am a huge supporter of Sure Start. The Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), has ensured that funds are available to maintain the network of Sure Start centres. That is certainly happening in my county of Hampshire, where savings are being made in the management structures behind the front-line services, and I urge all councils to take a similar approach.
We are consulting on two options for reform to make the state pension system simpler and fairer for those—including many women—who have historically experienced poor pension outcomes. We will publish a full assessment of impacts when more detailed proposals for reform are published.
We are spending the budget that was already planned for state pension expenditure in what we consider to be a better way. There will be a simpler system, which will reward saving and be fairer to women in particular. Some of those with the highest earnings who would have received higher earnings-related pensions will ultimately receive smaller pensions than they would have otherwise, but we think that the system will be fairer and simpler.
I too have received correspondence from several constituents about the proposed changes in the state retirement age. What assurances can the Minister give that their concerns will be listened to, and that the Government will take all possible steps to ensure that women are not disadvantaged?
We are already listening to representations. Although more rapid equalisation inevitably affects women more than men, it affects men as well through the impact on the state pension credit age. However, I can encourage the hon. Gentleman by telling him that the new single state pension, if we proceed with it, will be of particular benefit to women, including those affected by the change in the state pension age.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the question of fairness. However, people are living longer, and in a state pension system in which no money is put aside to pay for pensions, someone must find that money. We do not believe that it would be fair for all the cost to fall on today’s workers and today’s firms. There is a balance to be struck.
Pensions (Gender-Reassigned Women)
In order to meet our obligations under European Union law, a specialist team is being set up to determine equal treatment claims in line with the Court of Appeal’s decision on the payment of pensions to gender-reassigned women.
The Minister will be well aware of the case of my constituent Bernadette Rogers, who, with the help of both her former and her current Member of Parliament, has been fighting the anomaly in the system for quite a long time. Will he agree to meet me, and her, to try to sort the problem out once and for all?
My hon. Friend and his predecessor, Lord Boswell, have been very assiduous in taking up the case of Bernadette Rogers. I discussed her case with officials earlier this week.
I am always happy to meet hon. Friends, but we believe that we can resolve Ms Rogers’s case in the very near future. I will write to my hon. Friend shortly giving the final details of how that is done, and if he and Ms Rogers are not happy with that response, I shall be happy to meet him at that point.
Business of the House
Monday 9 May—Opposition Day (unallotted day—half day). There will be a half-day debate on the future of the NHS which will arise on an Opposition motion, followed by a motion to approve an instruction relating to the Welfare Reform Bill, followed by a motion to approve a European document relating to trafficking.
Tuesday 10 May—Second Reading of the Energy Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 11 May—Remaining stages of the Education Bill, followed by motion to approve a European document relating to the draft directive on common consolidated corporate tax base, followed by a motion to approve the charter for budget responsibility.
Thursday 12 May—Motion relating to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, followed by a motion relating to reform of the common fisheries policy.
The subjects of both debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 13 May—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 16 May will include:
Monday 16 May—General debate on the middle east, north Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Tuesday 17 May—Motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution relating to the Localism Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Localism Bill (day 1).
Wednesday 18 May—Remaining stages of the Localism Bill (day 2).
Thursday 19 May—Business nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall will be:
Thursday 12 May—Debate on education performance.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply, and I welcome the further foreign affairs debate that we are going to have.
The House will be aware that heath and forest fires are affecting a number of parts of the UK so, as well as thanking those who are working so hard to contain them, does the Leader of the House anticipate a statement?
On the length of this Session, the right hon. Gentleman was uncharacteristically dismissive in responding to my question last week about when it will conclude. Previously the House has always had a pretty good idea when the next Queen’s Speech would be, so may I urge him again to let us know as soon as he has worked it out?
At business questions last week, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) asked about the comments made last autumn by Baroness Warsi about the general election. Let me remind the House that she said that there were
“At least three seats where we lost....based on electoral fraud.”
When asked to identify the seats, she replied:
“I think it would be wrong to start identifying them”.
The Leader of the House said that my right hon. Friend had received a “reply” to those allegations from the appropriate Minister. I have read the letter and it does not give one, and my right hon. Friend has now written to both that Minister and the Leader of the House to seek a proper response. However, given that a member of the Cabinet has made an accusation of electoral fraud, can the Leader of the House confirm for us today that Baroness Warsi has passed, either to the Electoral Commission or to the police, the information that she must have had to have made those very serious allegations in the first place?
May we have a statement on the role of OFFA—the Office for Fair Access—in respect of the setting of university fees? Last weekend its assistant director was very clear. He said:
“We are not a fee pricing regulator; that is not our role...we wouldn’t say to an institution we would only allow a fee of ‘X’ or ‘Y’”.
That statement completely contradicted what the Prime Minister told the House on 30 March, which was that
“the Office for Fair Access will decide whether universities can go to that £9,000 threshold.”—[Official Report, 30 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 334.]
Now that this has come to light, when will the Prime Minister come to the House to apologise for giving Members incorrect information about the powers of OFFA?
May we have a debate on the breakdown of collective Cabinet responsibility? After his threat to sue ministerial colleagues last week, we read that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change this week used the Cabinet meeting to launch a blistering personal attack on the Prime Minister over the content of the no campaign leaflets. He also said this over the weekend:
“To attack your political colleagues in a coalition...for accepting the compromises necessary to allow the Conservatives to implement some of its policies is...outrageous.”
Well, where exactly do we start on that? First, it makes it sound as if the Lib Dems are helpless victims, rather than willing participants. If, however, that is the case, can we have a list so that we know who to blame in future and for what? Secondly, a Cabinet Minister was openly criticising the man who appointed him and it appears that the occupant of No. 10 is completely powerless to do anything about it. I wonder whether the Prime Minister feels that the most annoying man in British politics is now, in fact, the Climate Change Secretary.
Thirdly, we now have no idea who speaks for the Government, so can we have statements on the following matters? Is the Health and Social Care Bill in suspension or not, and if so, for how long? Does the Prime Minister agree with the Deputy Prime Minister’s comment this week that piloting the idea of police commissioners would be “entirely rational”? What exactly is the Government’s policy on the outsourcing of public services? First we were told that that was the future; now we read in a leaked document this week that they are pulling back because it would be politically “unpalatable”. Who is right about internships and family friends? On Tuesday the Deputy Prime Minister told the “Today” programme that Government policy is to end informal internships, yet on the very same programme his boss, the Prime Minister, contradicted him, saying that he has his neighbour coming in for an internship.
As we approach the first anniversary of the coalition, is not the truth that it is already beginning to fray at the edges as both partners realise that a marriage of convenience is no substitute for voting for what you believe in? And on that subject, may I tell the Leader of the House that many people are looking forward to voting for a Labour alternative to this shabby coalition today?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that response, which deserved a far wider audience on the Labour Benches than it received today. While the Leader of the Opposition still struggles to be identified by the “Today” programme, the shadow Leader of the House has at least managed to define himself in these sessions as a sort of Rory Bremner without the accents. The fact that he rarely turns his creative energies to the business before the House for the next week is, I think, a welcome acknowledgement that so far as the running of the business of the House is concerned, I enjoy his full confidence and support.
I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman said about the current affairs debate. It shows the value of business questions that when serious propositions are made by the right hon. Gentleman and Members from all parties, the Government can respond to the views of the House and in some cases find time for a debate.
On heathlands, the Government will want to keep the House in the picture, whether by written ministerial statement or otherwise, and I take on board the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.
As for the Easter recess and when the House might rise next year, the right hon. Gentleman is well ahead of the game. I think I first asked about last year’s Easter recess in October the year before. I went on asking and—I have had to refresh my memory on this point—it was 12 days before the Easter recess in 2010 that I actually got the date from the then Government. For him to ask some 11 months in advance is, I would gently suggest, a little premature.
On the matter of the correspondence between my right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio and the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), as the shadow Leader of the House knows a reply was sent by the Minister responsible for constitutional reform. If a reply has been sent by the right hon. Member for Warley, it will of course get a proper response, which will include the specific questions that the shadow Leader of the House raised.
I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that OFFA will decide whether a university can charge £9,000, so my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was absolutely right. Universities can charge that figure only if OFFA is satisfied that the necessary arrangements have been made, for example, to secure access for those on lower incomes. There is no clash there.
Finally, on the whole business of collective responsibility, I am amazed that the right hon. Gentleman should seek to raise this when he is speaking for a party that since losing power has deluged high street bookshops with inside accounts from all the main players, giving us the grisly details of the spats, feuds and briefings within the then Cabinet. Things do not sound much better in the current shadow Cabinet, with one Brownite insider reported as saying that the Leader of the Opposition’s team is “terrified” of the shadow Chancellor and shadow Home Secretary because;
“They think they're going to come and try and kill him. And the reason they think that is because they will.”
The truth is that the tensions within one party that sits on the Opposition Benches are much more damaging than the understandable tensions between two parties during a referendum campaign and local elections. From next week we will be back in business, working together in the national interest to get the economy back on its feet. Our divisions will heal, but Labour’s never will.
I am sure that the prospect of yet another Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority debate next Thursday fills the Leader of the House with the joys of spring. However, as he will be aware, there is one piece of unfinished business. Although there will be no determination of any salary until April 2013, will he ensure that he will trigger the mechanism that puts the power for setting salaries into the hands of IPSA, so that it can do its preparation work in advance of that deadline?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. We have not seen the motion that we will debate next Thursday, although we have received a general indication of the subject. I hope that the House will stand behind the principle of independence and transparency that was agreed in the previous Parliament and to which I very much hope we can adhere. I can confirm that I shall trigger very shortly the transfer of responsibility for fixing MPs’ pay from where it rests at the moment to IPSA.
The education maintenance allowance reduces poverty and promotes equal opportunities. We learn from the recent equality impact assessment on their replacement that the administration of the new bursaries could open up the possibility of unintended discrimination on the basis of disability, gender, ethnicity or the other characteristics against which discrimination is outlawed under equalities legislation. Will the Secretary of State for Education come to the House and make an urgent statement to tell us what he is going to do about that?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education made a statement about the replacement regime for EMA a few weeks ago, and that statement was generally well received and the sum of money allocated was higher than many commentators had thought. It is no part of our agenda to discriminate in any way against the groups that the hon. Gentleman mentions. I will draw his comments to my right hon. Friend’s attention and invite him to respond appropriately.
May we have a debate in Government time on the Winsor review? Like many other hon. Members across the House, I have received letters from serving police officers, and such a debate would help to clarify the situation. I understand that all parties agreed that it was appropriate to consider police overtime and shift patterns.
It would be helpful to hold a debate, possibly in Westminster Hall, on the Winsor review. It would be an opportunity for hon. Members on both sides of the House to clarify their position. I understand that an Opposition spokesman told the House in December that £500 million to £600 million of the £1 billion that the previous Government were planning to save in the police service was to come from changes in overtime and shift patterns, so I very much hope that there will not be widespread opposition to some of the proposals in the Winsor review.
May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to column 305WH of yesterday’s Hansard? As he will see, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) said that he had deliberately not asked his Department to produce documentation on the Government’s plans to privatise some of our hospitals. He has done that to avoid ministerial accountability. May we have an urgent debate on that issue?
Will the Leader of the House look favourably on any request to debate the successes of the coalition in its first year in government, particularly the pupil premium and the increase in the tax threshold, and give us the opportunity to debate the remainder of the Government’s programme and how we will address the poisonous legacy that was left to us by the previous Government?
The Government would welcome with open arms any opportunity to debate the successes. My hon. Friend reminds the House that 1.1 million people have been taken right out of tax and that a number of other measures have been introduced—for example, to safeguard the interests of those who have retired with a triple lock on pensions, and the other measures announced in the Budget. We had an opportunity in the two days that we spent on the Finance (No. 3) Bill to talk about some of those issues, but if we can arrange it, I would welcome any opportunity to continue with that agenda. I remind the House that we are still paying £120 million a day in interest on the debt that we inherited from the outgoing Government.
Will we have a statement following the outcome of today’s referendum? Even before the polls have closed, the Deputy Prime Minister is under attack for breaking yet another pledge. He said that he would not get involved in the yes campaign, but when he saw it ahead in the polls he became involved, and it suffered from dead Clegg bounce—and now it looks as if it will not succeed today. So can we have a statement—and can it be made by the Deputy Prime Minister, because we really want to take in earnest whatever is said from the Dispatch Box?
May we have a debate in Government time on the potential for further efficiency savings in local councils? Many councils, such as my local council in Wiltshire, are both cutting costs and investing in front-line services, and it is perverse that other councils—often Labour councils—are sitting on huge cash piles and making cuts for entirely political reasons.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I would include in her category of well-performing councils Test Valley borough council and Basingstoke and Deane borough council, in which I have an interest and for which I hope to vote later today. She is right to contrast the performance of some councils that have decided to protect front-line services and other councils that are sitting on huge piles of reserves and have chosen instead to make cuts in front-line services. People have an opportunity today to choose which of those alternatives they prefer.
I do not know whether the Leader of the House has seen early-day motion 1585, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), which expresses deep concerns about the east coast main line decision to award a customer call centre contract, currently based in Newcastle, to Intelnet Global Services, with the possibility of transferring jobs to Mumbai.
[That this House is deeply concerned at the decision of the state-owned East Coast Mainline to award its customer call centre contract, currently based in Newcastle, to Intelnet Global Services and ATOS Origin, who have operations in Plymouth, Wolverhampton and Mumbai, India; is appalled that this loss of jobs, which is yet another blow to the economy and communities of the North East of England, will also see jobs exported overseas to India; believes it is completely unacceptable for a government company to transfer work abroad and calls on the Secretary of State for Transport to intervene to prevent this; further believes that this episode once again demonstrates the failure of fragmentation and sub-contracting in the rail industry; and calls for an urgent industry-wide assessment of the benefits to the passenger, taxpayer and economy of bringing all railway services in-house.]
A lot has changed in the past 12 months in terms of coalition policy, but is it now the Government’s policy to export British jobs to India?
Is my right hon. Friend aware that early last week potholes in Parliament square were filled in and areas of damaged tarmac in and around the square were resurfaced? Can we have a debate to see what we can do to encourage more royal weddings to take place, preferably around the country, including East Yorkshire, so that the rest of us can have an adequate road surface to drive on?
I am sure that Buckingham palace will have taken note of my right hon. Friend’s question—and I believe that there is to be another royal wedding later in the summer. I heard with interest his question about potholes a few moments ago in Transport questions. As a cyclist who cycles around Parliament square, I welcome his interest in my welfare.
Earlier this morning the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued two written ministerial statements, one of which relates to the fact that in January it discovered a large number of documents relating to allegations concerning Kenya and the Mau Mau, and that it had appointed Anthony Cary, the high commissioner to Canada, to carry out an internal investigation. The written statement says that that report is available in the Library, but I have been to the Library and the Vote Office several times this morning and it is not available. This is not the first time that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has made statements in the House saying that information is available when it is not. Indeed, I raised this in the House a few months ago. Will the Leader of the House have an urgent discussion with the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs about the fact that his Department is not treating Members of the House with the respect that they should?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have the written ministerial statement in front of me, and as he rightly says, it states:
“I have today deposited in the Libraries of both Houses the findings of that investigation.”
If that is not the case, it will be drawn to the attention of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office within minutes, and I very much hope there will have been a response by the time business questions have ended.
May we have a debate on the operation of the construction industry scheme? At a time when many small and medium-sized enterprises still find it difficult to obtain credit from the banks, the scheme often results in businesses being thousands of pounds out of pocket for up to a year. That no doubt benefits the Treasury but it is putting real jobs at risk.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. As a former Minister with responsibility for the construction industry, I am aware that that industry training board survived when many others were abolished. I will share his concern with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and for Business, Innovation and Skills, both of whom have responsibility for the construction industry, and I will ask them to reply to him.
I do not know whether you, Mr Speaker, or the Leader of the House have received this extraordinarily impertinent letter from the Speaker of the Libyan Parliament, saying that there is a clear process of political reform and social development under Colonel Gaddafi and that we as MPs should all support it. That will be discussed in the foreign affairs debate, which I welcome, but will the motion be amendable, so that the House can consider seriously the views of those of us who think the time has come to put an end to the sacrifice of British soldiers in Afghanistan, particularly following the welcome disappearance of Osama bin Laden?
The answer to the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question is no, I have not received that particular communication. The debate on Monday week is a general debate on the middle east, Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan, so we plan not to table an amendable motion but to have a “take note” debate, which is in the tradition of debates that the House has held on foreign affairs issues.
Further to the representations made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) about the Winsor review, may I ask for a debate on front-line policing? We have heard lots of rhetoric from the Opposition about so-called cuts, when the real issue that we should be considering is how to redirect resources from the back room to the front line.
It is worth reminding the House that for every £8 we plan to save this year the Opposition were planning to save £7, so it is difficult to reconcile their criticism of our spending plans with their commitments. I would welcome such a debate on policing. When confronted on the “Andrew Marr Show” at the end of March, the shadow Chancellor said that they would have made cuts in policing. I think that a debate on policing would clarify what the real issues between the two parties are and, if the Opposition do plan to spend more on police, where they would find the necessary savings from other parts of the budget.
May I follow on from the question asked by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House about the disastrous Health and Social Care Bill, and ask the Leader of the House what discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health about what a “pause” means? Does it mean that there is a pause in the Bill’s progress through the House or in what the Bill proposes to do? That is still not clear. We find that the changes involving primary care trusts and consortia are still taking place, as we speak. For the benefit of the House, will the Leader of the House tell us what “pause” means in the Government’s language?
The hon. Gentleman will know, looking ahead for the next two weeks, that I have not announced further consideration of the Health and Social Care Bill, and he will also know that a number of meetings have been arranged between Health Ministers and those in the medical profession to listen to concerns and inform the debate before the Government respond. When that process has been completed, we will have the remaining stages of the Bill. I remind the hon. Gentleman that when his party was in government, its Postal Services Bill disappeared completely off the radar; that is certainly not our intention for the Health and Social Care Bill.
May we have a debate on the hours that the House sits so that Members can determine the full cost, including necessary staff travel, when the House sits, as it did this week, past 4 o’clock in the morning, only to run out of steam early the following day?
As my hon. Friend will know, the Procedure Committee has started an inquiry on our sitting hours, the sitting week, and indeed the whole Session. I very much hope that he will find time to respond to the questionnaire, if he has not already completed it, and perhaps to give evidence to the Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight). The House did indeed sit late on Wednesday morning, and if my hon. Friend looks at the time taken by Opposition spokesmen he will see that there were two speeches that lasted one hour each; having read them, I think they could usefully have been condensed. My view is that we could have completed half the consideration in Committee on Tuesday by 10 o’clock, and the other half on Wednesday by 7 o’clock, and I am sorry that, for whatever reason, the House was not able to agree a more sensible approach to the remaining stages of the Committee of the whole House on the Finance (No. 3) Bill. That is one of the factors that my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, who is in his place, will take on board in his report.
May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for International Development on the criteria used for giving overseas aid, so that we can tease out why we are still giving money to India despite the fact that it spends $35 billion a year on defence and $750 million a year on a space programme, and has its own overseas aid programme, and why we are giving money to Pakistan, which may well have been harbouring the world’s worst terrorist?
Pakistan would be a perfectly appropriate subject to raise in the debate on Monday week. I remind my hon. Friend that some 17 million children do not go to school in Pakistan, that it has areas of real deprivation and poverty, and that it is in this country’s interests to have a strong, democratic, well-resourced Pakistan as an important ally in the fight against terrorism.
I hope that you will bear with me for my question, Mr Speaker. There has been much public discussion about the increasing use of super-injunctions and the ability of judges, rather than elected parliamentarians, to decide policy. Is the Leader of the House aware of the anomaly this creates if, as has been rumoured, a Member of this place seeks a super-injunction to prevent discussion of their activities? May we therefore have a debate on the use of super-injunctions, and not leave the issue to the Joint Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill, which cannot address these concerns?
My hon. Friend raises the very important question of how we balance, on the one hand, an individual’s right to privacy, and on the other hand, freedom of expression and transparency. The Master of the Rolls is currently conducting an inquiry into this very subject, particularly the use of super-injunctions and other issues relating to injunctions that bind the press. The Government will await the report from the Master of the Rolls’ committee before deciding what the next step should be. It may then be appropriate for the House to debate this important issue.
The Leader of the House will be aware that the issue that I am about to mention was raised at Transport questions but not really clarified. May we have a statement from the appropriate Minister on actions that the Government will take to minimise the disruption in London caused by the RMT tube strikes? Can we then have further measures from the Government at least to raise the bar to prevent small minorities from causing strikes, and if possible to outlaw them, in emergency services?
I understand the anxiety that my hon. Friend expresses about the disruption to London and the loss of money to London as a result of the strikes called by the RMT, and I very much hope that they can be resolved through the usual channels—through ACAS. The Government are not seeking to pick a fight with the trade unions; we have no plans to introduce fresh legislation on employment laws, but we do keep the matter under review, and I very much hope that trade unions will not resort to strike action until every other opportunity has been examined. In this particular case, I am not convinced that they have done that.
The Leader of the House will be aware that the Special Olympics world games will start in Athens on June 25. I hope to be there for the opening. Is there a way in which we in the House can celebrate the achievements of the learning-disabled athletes whom Special Olympics Great Britain is sending to the games—before the games, so that we can send those athletes off to represent their country in the most appropriate of fashions?
That is a welcome suggestion. I suggest that my hon. Friend apply to the Backbench Business Committee or Westminster Hall for a debate, before June 25, when he plans to attend that very important event. The pairing Whip has taken notice of his public request to be slipped.
May we have a debate about the decorum of senior Members of the House participating in other elections? Did my right hon. Friend notice the extraordinary sight of the Leader of the Opposition appearing at a campaign rally with a Labour council candidate sporting a T-shirt in appallingly bad taste, which said:
“A generation of trade unionists will dance on Thatcher’s grave”?
I believe the Leader of the Opposition has recognised that that was an unfortunate conjunction, and has expressed regret and said that in future those T-shirts should not be worn by anyone representing that political party. There is a message there for us all. We should be very careful who we are photographed next to, and take note of what they happen to be wearing at the time.
[25th Allotted Day]
Social Housing in London
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of social housing in London.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for making it possible for this debate to be held. Social housing in London is obviously a crucial issue. I appreciate that Members outside London are busy with the elections in their communities and therefore cannot take part in the debate.
The points that I want to make are probably incredibly obvious ones about the desperate situation of many people facing housing issues in London. I imagine that any London MP of any party would confirm that housing is the biggest single issue that we all face. The vast majority of our constituency casework is housing-related in some way, and the wider implications for society in London are often housing-related as well.
Housing issues in London are not new. It is the capital city. It has been a very fast-growing city. It had an unenviable reputation in the 18th and 19th centuries of being the fastest-growing city in the world when huge quantities of very poor-quality buildings were thrown up. A whole industry developed of slum landlords. The great social reformers of this country often started their work in the east end of London. I think of Charles Booth, Angela Burdett-Coutts and so many others, who did so much to try to improve the levels of housing stock. In the 19th century, there were serious reforming moves. Housing charities were set up to improve conditions, but they were always in competition with the viciousness of the private sector market, in which excessive rents were charged, with the potential to make huge profits.
How did London’s housing stock ever improve? The answer is a combination of things. There were the campaigns of the great social reformers, there was a growing social consciousness but, above all, there was the development of council housing in the early 20th century. I get very angry when I read in some of the weekend intelligentsia-related newspapers that council housing is a thing of the past, or that council housing models are outdated. Council housing made it possible for millions of people in London and throughout the country to live in decent housing and bring up their children in a safe, secure, affordable environment—something that we all aspire to.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but does he recognise—I see it particularly in my constituency and other inner-London areas—the importance of what has been done by many philanthropists, the most obvious of which is the Peabody Trust, whose house building and flat building programmes have stood the test of time? They remain some of the most exciting and sought-after social housing in many of our constituencies, 120 or 130 years after they were first built.
The hon. Gentleman is referring to George Peabody and the Peabody Trust, which has a very large number of properties in his constituency, that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) and many others. The Peabody buildings were of very good standard—very high quality—and they have stood the test of time. It pains me to the quick when I see the Peabody Trust and others being forced, because of their financial situation, to rent at commercial rents or sell off properties that were built for people in desperate housing need. That is not what George Peabody or others wanted to do, and we should look at that.
In my constituency there is a block called Parnell house, which was built in 1848, before George Peabody. The Peabody Trust took it over some years ago and has run it fairly well, but recently has started selling into the open market flats that have been social housing since 1848. That does not really help people in desperate housing need.
It seems a sad reflection on the great revolutions of 1848 that we should expunge them on the altar of the housing market in 2011. I shall return to council housing in a moment.
There were consistent campaigns and demands for security of tenure for people beyond council housing. Council housing has traditionally provided the most secure form of affordable tenancy and has provided for effective, stable communities. I commend those councils—I choose Camden because my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras was leader of the council—which did a high level of building when they were able to. They also adopted a planning policy that has ensured that there are stable, mixed communities stretching right into the Camden part of central London—working-class communities alongside the business areas of central London. We should be proud of that record in this city, and I would like to see it reflected in all parts of London. The same does not apply in the case of Kensington and Chelsea and—I hesitate to say it with the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) present—in Westminster where the policies have been different. I think one should commend boroughs such as Camden.
While I accept that the policies are somewhat different, and I suspect that most of my residents in Westminster are rather glad of that, there is a more serious point to be made. The hon. Gentleman rightly refers to stable, mixed communities. Does he not recognise that the London market has become ever more polarised? London is not just a capital city but a global city. That polarisation means that, for want of a better phrase, the squeezed middle is an ever bigger group in London. There are those who simply cannot afford to get on the ladder even if they are earning multiples of the average weekly wage and there are those who are so impoverished that they can qualify for social housing. In my constituency the Peabody Trust is trying to create a mixed community, by ensuring that there are in those communities, for want of a better term, yuppies—relatively well-off people in their 20s—who may only be short-term tenants, for three or five years, until they are in a position to afford their own home.
The hon. Gentleman touches on an important point. In my borough, there are 15,000 names on the list of people who have applied for, and need, council housing, but only 5,000 of those are on the list of those who are able to bid—in other words, to make an application. The number of those who are likely to be successful is probably very small indeed. Single people in London cannot, for the most part, even get on a housing list.
Some 30% of people in my constituency are in private rented accommodation. A large number of them are young, single people who pay extraordinarily high rents, although they are not necessarily particularly well paid; they are earning between £18,000 and the low twenty thousands a year. They are probably spending 60% or 70% of their take-home pay on housing. That is an extraordinary figure. I do not have the comparative figures for the rest of Europe, but having talked to friends and colleagues about the issue, London seems to be one of the most expensive places in the world to live, in relation to income levels.
If we do not address the whole problem of the cost and supply of housing, London will become a divided city, and the people who do all the vital jobs in the ambulance service, hospitals, the Post Office, gas, electricity, road maintenance, and street cleaning—the people in all those essential professions—simply will not be able to live in London. It is extraordinary how fast social changes are happening in London. I met a street-sweeper in the borough who commutes in on a 45-minute train journey because he cannot afford to get a place anywhere near the borough. I see Labour colleagues nodding. I suppose that we all support the principle of housing for special grades of workers—priorities for nursing, the police and so on. There is a point to all that, but the real point is the general question of the supply and affordability of housing.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so generous in giving way. I would like to associate myself with what he just said, and I think many other Conservative MPs with London seats would, too; it is a problem that we all feel acutely. For some years, that stark divide in pockets of inner London has been part and parcel of our concerns on housing, but he is right to say that there has been phenomenally rapid demographic and other change. The phenomenon that he identifies now applies virtually throughout London, including in what might in the past have been regarded as the leafier suburbs of outer London.
Absolutely. London is a rapidly changing city, and that is, in many ways, part of the joy and attraction of it, but it falls to local government—to boroughs, the Mayor, and the Greater London authority—and central Government to recognise that if we want London to remain a successful, cohesive, coherent city, we have to address the issue of the provision of social housing in London. Otherwise, we will be looking at a city moving into decline, with greater division. It is a very serious issue.
I think about exploitation, the apocryphal stories of what Rachman did in the 1950s and ’60s in Notting Hill, and what was done by various other appalling people who used the rapidly rising property prices to winkle out tenants so that they could resell the buildings. I am not saying that the problem has quite come back to those levels yet, but excessively expensive private rented accommodation that becomes unaffordable for poorer people leads to landlords not maintaining, supporting, improving or looking after properties, and virtually forcing people out of them so that they can rent them out at a much higher rent. Later, I shall make some points about the need for intervention in the private rented sector, because in many ways, in London there has always been a conflict between the social desires of many people to ensure good-quality, decent housing on the one hand, and the pernicious effect of the property market and rapidly rising property prices on many people across London on the other hand.
On inequality, my borough of Islington commendably established in May last year a fairness commission, which has been taking evidence at very well-attended public meetings in community centres, schools and so on across the borough over the past year. It had a very effective final meeting last week, in which a whole paper was put forward on how public policy issues can be addressed. I quote a short part of the section on housing:
“Ensuring that the allocation process for social housing is transparent and effective is essential for addressing fairness in housing. Islington has more than 12,000 people on the housing register but only 5,000 households whose level of need is sufficient for them to qualify for Choice Based Lettings.”
The paper goes on to make recommendations on improving efficiency, changing the allocation system and under-occupation. That underlines the point about the need for new house building.
There is also a problem about the number of people living in private rented accommodation who are in receipt of housing benefit in London. As I say, 30% of my constituents are in private rented accommodation, and the number is rising fast. The proportion of owner-occupiers is now below 30% and falling. Nationally, the figure is falling a bit; in London, it is falling faster, and in inner London it is falling very fast indeed. In the next five to 10 years, we will probably get to the point where 25% or even 20% of housing in inner-London constituencies will be owner-occupied. The majority of new tenancies are not social tenancies, but private rented tenancies.
People who receive or are entitled to housing benefit are suffering grievously because of the Government’s announcement on how they, in their infinite wisdom, will meet the problem of the increasing costs of housing benefit—and those costs are huge. I do not deny people’s right to apply for housing benefit, but there is a public duty to question the cost of that benefit. That duty should fall on the question of how much rent is paid to landlords, rather than result in the punishment of the tenants in the properties.
The London figures show that local housing allowance rates in my borough are £245 a week for one bedroom, £290 a week for two bedrooms, £340 a week for three bedrooms, and £400 a week for four bedrooms. To some people, that sounds an awful lot of money, and it is, but the reality is that many people in desperate housing need are living in private rented accommodation that is paid for by housing benefit. On the anniversary of their application, all those housing benefit payments will be reviewed and—there is not much discretion available to the local authority—housing benefit will be reduced, which causes a terrible problem for the people in receipt of it.
I shall give the example of a constituent whom I know well, but I will not give their name as that would be invidious and wrong. In November 2010, the local housing allowance for the four-bedroom property that they live in was £700 a week. That is to be reduced to £400 a week under the housing benefit changes. There is no way that that family can find the difference. They have lived in the property for a very long time. They have children in local schools, they are very much part of the local community and they have caring responsibilities and all the things that go with that. They will be forced to move, which is damaging to them, the children, and the local community.
My hon. Friend makes some very important points. The knock-on consequence of those people being forced to move is that they will look to relatively cheaper private rented accommodation in outer-London boroughs, including Redbridge, where we have thousands of people on the housing list and almost no social housing. We have a lot of private rented properties, but in some cases they have appalling landlords and terrible letting agencies. The local authority has stopped using them, but inner-London boroughs will have to use them. They will send people out, and those people will need school places. Hundreds of young children in my borough cannot get a school place at the moment. This is the wrong policy at the wrong time, and it will have terrible consequences.
I can only agree. If the problem were limited to housing benefit in the private rented sector, that would be bad enough. However, in parallel with the cut in housing benefit payments, the Government have refused to introduce rent controls or even countenance the idea of controlling private sector rents. I hope that we will deal with that when we return to government in 2015 as a new Labour Government—not “new Labour”, but a newly elected Labour Government; I do not want anyone to think that I have changed my ways.
Possibly, yes. I would like that Government to bite the bullet, just as Harold Wilson’s Government bit the bullet in the 1960s and 1970s, and were prepared to introduce rent controls and security of tenure in the private rented sector. That policy area needs to be developed.
Another important issue is the increase in the notional rent levels for local authorities and housing associations to 80% of market rates. That has had absolutely devastating effects on the affordability, or otherwise, of council properties in areas where councils choose to charge 80%. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) intervened on me, I shall cite the case of his borough. The average income in Redbridge of non-housing benefit tenants is £381 a week, and the average weekly rent is £102 a week. The median market rent of 80% of 2010 levels is £160 a week, so tenants in Redbridge are looking at a £60 a week rent increase, which is pretty bad, and I question the affordability of paying £160 a week on an average income of £381 a week.
Other boroughs are in a far worse situation. In Kensington and Chelsea, average income for non-housing benefit tenants is £370 a week, and current average rent is £113 a week, with 80% of market levels at £440 a week—in other words £110 a week more than such a tenant earns, so totally unaffordable. The borough with the lowest average income in London is Barking and Dagenham, where income levels in 2010 for non-HB tenants were £329 a week. Current average rent is £91 a week, and 80% of market rates is £148 a week. Even in Barking and Dagenham, which is regarded as “the most affordable place in London”, we are looking at 50% of pay going on rent alone in the public sector, never mind the private sector. The figures are available for every borough, and they make very grim reading indeed. The discretionary payments to London authorities to try to ameliorate the change to housing benefit should be much greater and more permanent, and the Government and the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government should look at rent controls and security of tenure in the private rented sector.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for the social housing policy that Opposition Members strongly support, and I know that some Government Members do, too.
In Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest boroughs in the country, 80% market rents around Canary Wharf, which sits right in the heart of my constituency, are astronomical for ordinary people. If local authorities and housing associations apply the 80% threshold, they will drive local people out of the area where their families have lived for generations. In the case of the Bangladeshi community, for example, that area constitutes their arrival point, so they will no longer be able to stay within the bounds of their own community.
Absolutely, and I endorse what my hon. Friend said. The average for Tower Hamlets is £248, but if it is assessed on an extremely local level—housing around Canary Wharf or at the edge of the City of London around Spitalfields—rent will become astronomically expensive and there will be rapid social cleansing.
What happened with Lady Porter in Westminster some years ago was regarded as appalling and disgraceful, and was social cleansing. People are coming to me for advice—and I am sure this is true for all London MPs—in desperation, frightened after what has happened, scared of where they are going to go and worried about the disruption of their children’s lives as they are forced out of private rented accommodation. We cannot sit back and watch the private rented sector grow rapidly in London without a greater sense of responsibility and intervening to protect people living in that sector.
What is the solution? Clearly, it ought to be the building of more homes for rent. I remember the halcyon days when my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) and I were members of Haringey borough council, and we berated the council leadership—we did a lot of that; they probably deserved it—for not building more council housing. However, I take it all back and apologise. In 1979, Haringey council built 1,000 council house dwellings. Other boroughs did broadly the same. A lot of that building was very good; a lot of it was homes with gardens; a lot has become very nice properties which, because of right to buy, have been sold on and have become very desirable properties indeed. I do not have a problem with people living in desirable properties—I am glad that they do—but I want everyone to be able to do so, with some security, and I want children to grow up with enough space, preferably with a garden. The achievements by many London boroughs at that time are something that we should applaud and seek perhaps to repeat, because there is a desperate need in London.
My hon. Friend mentioned 1979, which has a resonance for many of us, because it was the year in which Mrs Thatcher was elected. If we look at the history books, we see that in 1980 she made massive cuts to housing investment programme capital funding. Does that have anything to do with the problems suggested by my hon. Friend?
The cuts in the Budget are even greater than those made by Margaret Thatcher’s Government in the 1980s. I remember very well the points that my hon. Friend made, because at the time, I watched housing demand rise and new build virtually disappear. The only surviving new build for affordable rent was undertaken by housing associations. I was disappointed that the Government who came in in 1997, who invested a great deal in improvements to existing council stock and who did a lot about homelessness and housing rights, did not in the early days do anything like enough to invest in new house building. I hope that that is something that we will not repeat when we return to office in 2015, because I want to see a process of new build.
It is difficult for local authorities to undertake new building at present, but I want to pay tribute to Islington council and James Murray, the executive member for housing, as they have managed, despite all the difficulties, to squeeze £10 million a year out of the council budget to invest in new build for rents at existing levels—not the 80% level. I applaud them for doing so. I want other boroughs to do so, and I want the Mayor of London, whoever it is—this Mayor or, hopefully, Ken Livingstone in future—to use his powers to return to building for social housing need, which has a huge benefit for people across London.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He is making a thoughtful speech, and I hope that he will forgive me if I return to a point that he made earlier and the general thrust of his concern about the private rented sector. Does he share my worry that one of the difficulties in housing policy, going back to the institution of rent Acts in the first world war, is that too often it has just been an Elastoplast in trying to solve the most recent problem, which has been looked at in a small way? Does he have any thoughts about the huge explosion in the buy-to-let market, which is one reason why there has been an enormous increase in the private rented sector in his constituency? As London is a global capital, a huge amount of foreign money is coming in to buy up large blocks of flats and other properties. Do we need to look at that, and what suggestions can he make about the way forward?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that extremely valuable point. In London, at one end of the scale, somewhere near Hyde park, there is the world’s most expensive apartment. I cannot remember the exact figure, but it was around £1.5 million for a very small apartment. I checked my own mortgage capability and I did not seem to get anywhere near to it. At the other end of the scale are former council flats or houses that have been bought under right to buy, sometimes with the assistance of fairly disreputable or dodgy people who offer money to help people undertake that, which are then rented out, on housing benefit, at levels 200% to 300% higher than the neighbouring council rent. That makes me extremely angry every time I come across it, because they were built by the taxpayer for people in housing need and now we are allowing someone to make a great deal of profit out of them.
There are a number of ways to try to deal with that. One, which seems worth considering, is that a sitting tenant who buys a former council property under right to buy should be allowed to rent it out only at council rent plus 10%, taking away the incentive to do that. There are other incentives to consider, but we must be serious about this. The new build that councils and housing associations want to undertake at the moment can be funded under the Government’s new regime by doing what Islington is doing, which is scraping around to find what is a modest amount of money compared with the need, but nevertheless welcome, or by raising rents to 80% of market rates and using that for investment in new build, which makes housing association or council places unaffordable for those who desperately need them. As a result, people who are offered a council place will be unable to accept it, particularly if they are in work, which is regrettable. Housing associations are being told to build for sale and for commercial rent, and if they have any money left, to build a bit for social renting.
I seem to remember housing associations being founded on the principle of self-help to provide secure, good-quality accommodation for people in housing need. I am now being told by their chief executives that they are in a bind, which I understand and which is not of their making, and have to go down the road of becoming essentially house-building companies, where there might be the equivalent of a section 106 add-on with a bit of social housing at the end of it. That will not solve London’s housing problems.
The issue in London today is: what is housing need? I know it sounds absurd—the hon. Gentleman was one of the first to ridicule the current Mayor of London when he talked about people on £60,000 a year being in housing need—but this is part of the problem. Many people working in our constituencies simply cannot afford to live anywhere near, not even central London, but London as a whole, and have to commute long distances despite earning multiples of the average. They surely also have a housing need, and it is that housing need in the modern day that many of our social housing providers are trying to recognise in balancing their responsibilities to ensure that we have proper community cohesion within central London.
Obviously people on what are seen as relatively high incomes do have housing needs and are paying, as I outlined earlier, incredibly high levels of rent in order to survive, as a result of which they cannot save and therefore, even if they wanted to get into the owner-occupied market, simply could not do so. A young couple or single person in London earning £25,000 a year and paying £500 a week for a flat has only a limited ability to save and so will stay in the private rented sector for a very long time, if not for ever. People who do buy into the owner-occupied market usually rely on modest levels of inheritance to put down the deposit to do so. We are making housing unattainable for people on relatively high incomes, as the hon. Gentleman points out.
The definition of “affordable” in Hammersmith and Fulham now goes up to £80,000 a year, and I am sorry but I do not accept that that is reasonable. Let us put one myth to bed today, and that is that Boris Johnson is in some way committed to affordable housing in London. His own figures show that there will be fewer than 2,000 affordable housing starts this year and none next year.