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Topical Questions

Volume 537: debated on Monday 5 December 2011

Today I am giving more details of extra help for small businesses with their rent bills. We are cutting taxes for small shops and firms.

I recently met the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi to discuss aspects of Inter Faith Week, including our £5 million Near Neighbours initiative, which will support the work of local faith groups in building a stronger society.

Last week we paid more than £400 million in new homes bonuses, rewarding councils for delivering 160,000 more homes in the last 12 months, and we have announced that we will be addressing any loss of bonuses in areas affected by last summer’s riots.

I have met members of the Gurkha Justice Campaign and Joanna Lumley to discuss our new £1.5 million fund which will help to ensure that Gurkha veterans who fought for our country are treated with the dignity and respect—

Order. The Secretary of State’s answer is of great interest, but I am afraid that it is far too long. Blue pencil is required.

It is good to know that the Secretary of State is earning his salary. He has clearly had a very busy couple of weeks.

In recent years, the partnership between MacMillan Cancer Support and the Citizens Advice Bureau has provided thousands of cancer sufferers with crucial benefits advice, but unfortunately the service is being cut throughout the United Kingdom. That includes the Lanarkshire service, which is based in Airdrie. Does the Secretary of State agree that, as the local authority cuts imposed by this Government and the Scottish Government take hold, this essential service cannot be allowed to disappear, and will he consider ways in which the Government can support it financially to enable it to continue?

Obviously I am concerned by what the hon. Lady has said, but, with respect, I am responsible for English local authorities. I suggest that she address her question to the Secretary of State for Scotland or to the Scottish Executive.

T2. The new homes bonus and the proposed changes in business rates provide a real opportunity for local government to develop its own tax base. Will the Secretary of State consider granting further additional tax-raising powers to local government to give it more financial independence? (84519)

We have no plans to increase taxation—the coalition is about reducing taxation whenever possible—but if an authority opts for a mayoral system, there will be additional financial freedoms from which residents can benefit.

Last November the Secretary of State said that he was determined to give small business a helping hand. The most direct way in which he can do that is through his own Department’s budget. Will he explain why, just when times are getting tougher for businesses, the Department’s spending on small businesses in the last six months was 64% lower than it had been in the previous six, while its spending on large firms rose by 22%? How is that a helping hand?

We are offering small businesses a holiday from business rates, but the Government have a responsibility to guarantee procurement and good value for the taxpayer. The right hon. Gentleman needs to understand that he and his Government left the country in a hole, and that he and his Government were planning additional costs for local government in the form of an extra £2 billion worth of cuts. He does not have a leg to stand on.

T3. Dudley council has been selected as the dissemination hub in the black country for support to troubled families. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress of the national unit for troubled families and confirm when local authority hubs may be able to proceed to implementation? (84520)

We are encouraged by the work that Dudley and other councils have put into developing the dissemination hub proposals. However, with the establishment of the new troubled families team under Louise Casey, it is only right that the team undertake a root-and-branch review of the programme to support and challenge troubled families, and that does include funding issues. The exception is the grant to community budget phase 2 areas, including Dudley, to help to develop a community budget project plan. That grant was paid as part of the November early intervention grant.

T4. In the light of the Chancellor's statement on the regionalisation of public sector pay, how much more should a dinner lady in Tunbridge Wells be paid than one, say, in Barnsley? (84521)

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that a high degree of regional pay exists in local authorities and the difference between grades is considerable. That is due not just to London weighting. Let me give him an example. A finance officer in London will receive just short of £27,000. In the east midlands, they would receive £20,000 and in the south-west they would receive £22,000. A refuse collector will receive £21,000 in London and £16,000 in Yorkshire and Humberside. So the hon. Gentleman needs to understand that regionalisation in pay has existed for a long time in local government.

T5. Will the Secretary of State agree to visit Conservative-controlled Kettering borough council, of which I have the privilege to be a member, to congratulate it on its pledge to freeze council tax for the next four years while maintaining all its front-line services and its entire grant to the local voluntary sector? (84522)

I will be happy to take my hon. Friend up on that offer. Kettering is a very good example of how councils can ensure that front-line services are protected, and of course we have been ensuring that we assist councils by freezing council tax again for a further year.

T6. If the Government are determined to sell off social housing at an increased discount, as we have heard this afternoon, will the Department pay for that discount, or is the Secretary of State going to steal that money from the local area, where it could be used to provide increased social housing? (84523)

As I have explained several times, the intention is that homes will be built one for one, on the basis of every home that is sold. How that will operate and whether the money will stay locally or be returned via the Homes and Communities Agency will of course depend on what is appropriate in different areas and we will consult on that. There is obviously a Welsh dimension to this and we will talk to the Welsh Assembly, too.

T7. In South Lakeland, more than 3,000 families are on the housing waiting list and more than 3,000 second homes stand empty most of the year. Will the Minister acknowledge the deep injustice that that entails and consider allowing councils to charge double the council tax on second homes in the most blighted areas? (84524)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and I certainly acknowledge the seriousness of the problem in his constituency, in the south-west and in other holiday areas. We are consulting on council tax discounts and the empty homes premium. I am sure that he will be alert enough to submit, on behalf of his local authority, a suitable consultation response.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the interest that he has taken in regeneration in Tottenham, but is he aware of the Mayor’s outer London fund? A nasty rumour is circulating that it is a sop to outer London boroughs in preparation for the election. I hope that Tottenham will get the lion's share of that money.

I am pleased to be able to tell the right hon. Gentleman that I have a copy of his book, and a jolly good read it is too. We expect Croydon and Tottenham to receive approximately £10 million each from the London enterprise fund, but the exact breakdown has not been decided yet, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will have something to say on that. In recommending the book, I would draw Members’ attentions to the insightful point that

“Labour’s greatest dereliction of duty in government was social housing.”

I am sure we can all agree on that.

The Secretary of State will, no doubt, read the tome over the festive season, and we look forward to hearing about that in due course.

T8. About £170 million of European regional development fund money for Yorkshire and the Humber is still unspent. How is the Secretary of State’s Department helping to unlock that, and will he meet me to discuss how we can unlock it faster? (84525)

I will certainly meet my hon. Friend. I am sure he understands that we have had to revisit the administration of the fund, as it was plagued by a legacy of poor administration under the previous Government. We have overhauled the management of the schemes and, in recognition of the work the Government have done, the Commission has lifted an interruption—in other words, a non-payment—which it had previously placed upon the programme. We are also keen to make sure the scheme is properly aligned with policies such as the regional growth fund.

T10. The Minister is far too complacent about the glacial progress in respect of the European regional development fund. Over £1 billion lies unallocated because the Department has been unable to find an unlocking mechanism via the Homes and Communities Agency. Will he urgently present to the House for scrutiny a proper, detailed plan on how he intends to deliver this money to the regions for which it was intended, before it is lost to them for ever? (84527)

It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman, a Labour Member, to lecture anyone about the administration of the fund, because his party’s stewardship of the fund was condemned by the European Union, which called for a stop to payments as it did not believe they would be properly dispensed, and which made sure that councils, including some in the hon. Gentleman’s area, had to pay back money under what were called financial directions under the 2000-06 programme. That was all thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s party’s foul-up of the system.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on standing up for freedom of speech and freedom of religion by allowing councils to choose whether to hold prayers? Is it not the case that if mainstream parties do not stand up for this country’s Judaeo-Christian culture, heritage and traditions, unpleasant parties will?

Several centuries have passed since Queen Elizabeth I said she did not wish to have a window into the hearts of people with regard to religion. We belong to a society that should show respect to all religions, and those who do not want to participate in prayer before the start of proceedings should follow our example. Here Members can simply make themselves absent, but are still able to participate fully in the Chamber.

In respect of union representation, has the Secretary of State had time to read the 2007 Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform report showing savings for society of up to £371 million in reducing the number of days at work lost and up to £207 million in reducing work-related illnesses? Will he carry out his own assessments before embarking on some mad, bad, dangerous anti-union legislation?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. Far from being anti-union, we are very pro-union, but what we are not terribly in favour of is unions being paid by the state to follow their activities. That seems to me to be an utterly moderate and reasonable view.

Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents that, under his stewardship, DCLG Ministers and civil servants will not pay for expenses such as trips to casinos in Sydney, Australia by putting them on to Government procurement cards paid for by taxpayers’ money, as was allowed when the now Lord Prescott was in charge of the Department?

We have closed down many of the procurement cards. They did not provide value for money. We are also publishing all spending of over £500 a month, cutting down the number of cardholders from 210 to 33, cancelling cash withdrawal facilities from the cards, and introducing new internal checks and audit trails for pre-approvals. We must remember that this is the public’s money, and those given the privilege of a credit card on the public expense must not use it as their flexible friend.

Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge the debt that the Thatcher Government owed to the policies advanced a decade earlier by the Labour councils in Newport and Leicester, which believed that the experience was that rent is theft?

In reply to the question about elected mayors from my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) rightly pointed out that it is possible for constituents to petition for a referendum, but he will be aware of the considerable resistance within local authorities. Will he assure me that if that proves to be a continuing problem, he will look further at means to deal with it?

I am convinced that the leadership that a mayor can provide can turn around the prospects of cities and towns across the country. I would encourage my hon. Friend, who has formidable local leadership skills, which I have witnessed, to mount the campaign that he talks about.

At these questions on 31 October, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) about a secret private meeting he attended about house building on a former asbestos factory site in my constituency. Extraordinarily, he refused to answer and his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), answered on his behalf. On 2 November, straight after those questions, I wrote to him for answers to these questions but after a month I still have not had a reply. When are Rochdale residents going to get an answer to these questions about this secret private meeting —why does he not answer now?

Calderdale council, which pays £80,000 per annum directly to unions for representatives for its work force, is looking into withholding the equivalent of one day’s pay because of the recent strikes. Will the Secretary of State advise us whether he is aware of many other local authorities that are doing the same?

In these stringent times, all local authorities are seeking value for money. I certainly believe in the principle of people being able to withdraw their labour. That is a very important freedom that we have in this country, but it should not be without cost; it makes it so much better if people thereby lose money.