House of Commons
Monday 5 December 2011
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Housing starts over the six quarters since the Government were formed are up 24% when compared with the previous six quarters under the previous Government. However, we recognise the scale of the challenges ahead and have introduced a radical and wide-ranging set of policies in the housing strategy.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but, despite his Government’s promise to build more homes than Labour, the actual figures are a 7% decrease in housing starts, a 6% fall in net supply in the past year and a 99% fall in affordable housing in the past six months. How does the Minister intend to rectify that?
We can all play with figures, but I would have thought that the only accurate indication—[Interruption.] Well, I would have thought that the actual indication on which everyone in the House could agree would mean taking the period since we have been in power and comparing it with the same period beforehand. If we do so, we discover that housing starts are up by almost one quarter, which of course is in stark contrast with the record under the previous Administration, when the number of affordable homes reduced by 200,000.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Crawley borough council, which for the first time in decades has started building new social and affordable housing and, indeed, has plans to build a further 1,000 units over the next few years?
I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local council on that, and he will know, because I have written to him and to all Members, that the new homes bonus provisional allocations have just been announced—with £430 million and, for the first time, a recognition of the number of homes that have been built at an affordable level. We are undoing the mess that was left by all those years of a lack of affordable house building in this country.
I draw attention to the interest declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Minister says that he wants to compare the period in which the current Government have been in power with an equivalent period under the previous Government, but he seems to be under an illusion that the current Government came to power on 1 April 2010. They did not. Will he now stop trying to take credit for housing that was built during the period of the previous, Labour Government and show respect for statistical honesty and truth, which we in this House regard as important?
Modern, purpose-built student accommodation often resembles blocks of flats. It can reduce the need for ordinary family homes to be turned into houses in multiple occupation and, sometimes, mean that HMOs can be returned to family accommodation, so in future will councils be allowed to count such flats towards the delivery of their core-strategy housing targets?
My right hon. Friend asks an important question, and it is true that in the past housing built for students was not included in the old-fashioned targets, which led to the lowest house building since the 1920s. I am pleased to let him know that under our new system the answer is yes, they are included, and what is more they attract the new homes bonus as well.
The Government’s own statistics show the number of new homes down by 6%, homelessness up 10% and, now, a catastrophic collapse in affordable house building over the past six months—of 99%. So few new homes have been built that the Housing Minister could visit them all in the next six weeks. Does he accept that this is a direct consequence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s £4 billion cut in housing investment, and that this sorry record of failure demonstrates that the Government’s housing policy, like their economic policies, are hurting, not working?
No, I do not accept a single word of that. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman, who is the sixth Labour Housing Minister or shadow whom I have faced, that actually the figures for those in temporary accommodation are down by 4%, and that homelessness is at its lowest level for 28 of the past 30 years. On the specifics of the numbers, I know that he is keen to twist official statistics to try to represent whatever he wants to show, but the truth is that I could not possibly visit 92 different providers, which I can now reveal to the House have agreed to build 70,000 units at a cost of £1.4 billion. That is far in excess of anything delivered by the previous Administration. I know that he has not been in the job for long, but many of his predecessors are on the Opposition Back Benches, so he could consult them and ask how we ended up with 200,000 fewer homes.
Local spending decisions are of course a matter for local councils, but there is no excuse for targeting the voluntary sector disproportionately. The Government are working closely with the third sector to assess capacity and to provide support—for example, through the transition fund and Big Society Capital—and we are looking together at opportunities for the voluntary and community sector to benefit from local authority commissioning.
The simple fact is that third sector organisations are facing savage cuts because of this Government’s local government settlement. How is the Minister going to advance the big society agenda with such savage cuts to the third sector? Will he help councils such as Telford and Wrekin, which has adopted the co-operative council model and is trying to work in partnership with voluntary organisations but is facing serious financial problems?
The hon. Gentleman represents the area of Telford, and Telford council has had a reduction of 4.2% in its spending power this year. In September, the Government published their best value guidance, which advises councils such as Telford not to make disproportionate cuts in the voluntary and community sector. A 4.2% cut in that sector might be considered proportionate, but more would not. The Government put the highest value on the voluntary and community sector and believe that it is the foundation of a healthy civic sector; that is why we are protecting it.
Last year, Blackpool received from the Minister’s Department one of the worst funding settlements in the country—a cut of up to 14% on top of the area-based grant cuts. That meant that the new Labour council inherited a youth budget that had been slashed from £2 million to £1 million, which has created havoc in the co-ordinating work and activities of voluntary and third sector organisations in my constituency. If the Minister’s Department can dream up £500 million schemes like Growing Places on questionable formulae, surely it is not beyond the wit of the Department to dream up some extra funding for these organisations.
The hon. Gentleman has got his figures slightly wrong. The reduction in Blackpool’s spending power was 7.3%. If it adheres to the best value guidance that we have issued and does not make a disproportionate cut, then that should be the limit of it. I remind him that only last week his council was allocated £1 million from the new homes bonus. We are also continuing the funding of Supporting People, which will provide £6.5 billion of funding throughout this spending review period, and that is available for his council to spend.
There are 900,000 charities, voluntary groups, co-ops, mutuals and social enterprises in the country, three quarters of which have never applied for or received any funding from local government or from central Government. Of course, that means that some 200,000 do get help to provide services for the public. That is why we have the transition fund to support those organisations—it has already made grants to more than 1,000 of them—and why the Office for Civil Society has a budget of over £400 million to support the civic and voluntary sector over the spending review period.
This may not be an issue of funding but of the need to jolt local bureaucracies into being more creative in engaging with our social enterprises and local third sector organisations. Now that we are seeing, I hope, the passage of the Bill on social value promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), may I urge the Minister to work more aggressively with his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who is responsible for civil society, so that we can have more creative local authorities that engage with civil sector organisations?
It is pretty clear from the Minister’s responses that he has completely lost touch with reality. We all know that this Government have singled out local authorities with the greatest need for the highest cuts. If the Minister would care to come down from his ivory tower and join us in the real world, he would admit that the big society is a big con leading to a big unfair society. How can he possibly justify a system that leads to huge variations in funding cuts to charitable organisations? For example, the north-west region is losing nine times more per capita than other parts of the country.
The hon. Gentleman has got his facts wrong. He needs to look at how much money the Government grant system provides per resident in those authorities. He will find that it is far higher than in the south, for the very good reason that those areas need such support to a greater extent. That is why I was able to report the reductions in spending power for the authorities that I did. I remind him that a large number of local authorities have succeeded in protecting the voluntary sector in their area. There is no inevitability about the events that he is characterising.
Trade Union Officials
All local authorities need to make sensible savings to protect front-line services and keep council tax down. Councils should be reviewing the merits of publicly funded full-time union officials. Those are non-jobs on the rates and it is wrong that council tax should be used to subsidise trade union activity.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Given that union leaders and officials are full-time politicians in all but name who receive more than £113 million of taxpayer funding each year, will my right hon. Friend join me in calling for the implementation of a register of interests for union leaders, thereby subjecting them to the same level of public scrutiny as all other politicians?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I was shocked to hear what he said, because I was not aware that trade union officials did not have a register. I would have thought that in this age of transparency, we should urge them to do that. I know that Opposition Front Benchers are keen for everybody else to have such restrictions. Why should trade union bosses not be a little more open about their funding and their interests?
Redditch borough council recently told the TaxPayers Alliance, in response to a question, that one person in Redditch was given “reasonable time required” to carry out union duties. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that Redditch taxpayers are unable to conclude what may or may not be reasonable?
I am very pro-union and I think that it is important that we do give time off. However, I am not entirely sure that ratepayers should pay for that. It should legitimately be paid for through trade union activities. In that way, we could all recognise the enormous value that trade unions give to this country.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, I will not be shouted down. According to the TaxPayers Alliance, Staffordshire county council, which covers my constituency, subsidised the unions to the tune of £281,000 or the equivalent of 10 full-time members of staff. Does the Secretary of State agree that such subsidies should be subject to a council vote and that any councillor whose election campaign is bankrolled by the unions should have to declare an interest?
This is money that is being taken away from the front line when times are tough. I am shocked by the amount of money that Staffordshire is spending. On whether Labour councillors who are bankrolled by the unions should declare an interest, it is very clear that the Localism Act 2011 abolished the Standards Board but created a new criminal offence of not declaring interests. There is a reasonable case for saying that if one is bankrolled by the unions, it is a prejudicial issue and the sensible thing would be to withdraw from the proceedings.
Will the Secretary of State disown this attack on the most basic and benign feature of trade union work—day-to-day support for staff from their colleagues who volunteer to act as union reps? These are the unsung heroes of Britain’s volunteering tradition, the workplace wing of the Prime Minister’s big society. They save employers and the Exchequer millions of pounds by cutting the number of tribunal cases, cutting the number of days lost through illness and improving the take-up of training. [Interruption.]
I think I got most of what the right hon. Gentleman said. I am very pro-trade union, and he is absolutely right. He is a very senior Member, and he puts his finger on the nub of the matter. They are volunteers, and the nature of a volunteer is that they are not paid by the council. I am very much in favour of all facilities being available to trade union officials, but I do not want them to be paid for on the rates.
Of course I recognise that. My great-grandfather was one of the people who helped found the trade union movement. The most important thing that the hon. Gentleman needs to understand is that there is more facility time in the public sector than in the private sector, and there are fewer strikes in the private sector than in the public sector.
There is a legal right to time off for trade union duties. Are we not seeing an outright attack on trade unionism? The Secretary of State well knows, because he has had the opportunity to negotiate with unions in his distinguished career in local government, that trade unions are a force for good. I wonder whether his coalition partners support him in his endeavour.
Indeed, I have had many opportunities to negotiate with trade unions, and I have enjoyed every single moment. However, the important point to consider is what is voluntary and what it is legitimate for the taxpayer to pay for. For example, my Department and a number of local government bodies collect the trade union fees, and they are paid in directly. Where there is a political levy, we are putting public money into the coffers of the Labour party. If it were going to the Conservative party or the Liberal Democrats, that would be regarded as something of a scandal.
Adult Social Care
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has held a number of discussions with the Secretary of State for Health on that issue. In recognition of the need to reform the system that we inherited, the Government have said that we will bring together our proposals in a White Paper in the spring. We are providing an extra £7.2 billion over the next four years to protect access to services that support vulnerable people.
The recent report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission exposed the poor quality of care of some home care providers. I have received complaints from constituents that reinforce the report’s findings. Funding has been a problem for a long time, so will my hon. Friend discuss further with the Secretary of State for Health the diversion of more money from health to social care, on top of the £648 million already announced?
As I said, it is appropriate that we consider the matter in the context of the White Paper that is to come out in April. The report is valuable, and the Government as a whole will want to consider its recommendations carefully. I point out to my hon. Friend that the £648 million in this year will be followed by another £622 million in the next. That £1 billion coming from the Department of Health is matched by £1 billion coming from the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Why does the Minister not admit that the Secretary of State’s ambition to be the biggest axe man in Whitehall has been achieved on the backs of elderly and vulnerable people? Because of the Government’s slash and burn policy, 70% of councils are having to cut social care, leaving old people to choose between help with washing and help with eating. The cost in wasted lives is incalculable, and the cost to the NHS through more delayed discharges and more emergency admissions will run into millions of pounds. Why does he not now admit that the Government’s policy is not only uncaring and out of touch but economic madness?
The hon. Lady neglects to recognise the fact that the Government have assisted local councils in the greatest need by increasing the weighting given within the settlement to the needs allowance and by introducing a transition grant to assist those that are most dependent on public money. She fails to recognise that this Government are attempting to sort out the economic mess that she and her colleagues left behind. Finally, she fails to recognise the observation of the head of the No.10 policy unit when she was in government that the
“long-term funding of social care was the largest piece of unfinished social reform under Labour.”
We are sorting out her mess.
Notwithstanding the very welcome move to bring health and social care funding together and the extra money this year, councils across the south-west are struggling with the increasing burden of social services funding, particularly for adult care. Does the Minister share my concern that services to those with lesser needs is being cut, but that that is storing up more problems for the future? Will he consider making it easier to invest to save, so that we can have important interventions now rather than later?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point and I would be happy to meet her to discuss those matters in more detail. On the other hand, we need to give adequate flexibility to local authorities to prioritise their spend to reflect local needs and pressures, but I will happily discuss the matter further with her.
Local Authority Spending
Per capita spending by local authorities is estimated to be £1,170 in 2011-12, a change of 4.4% on the previous year, and per capita spending power by local authorities is estimated to be £1,118 in 2012-13, a change of 3.6% on the previous year.
The hon. Lady neglects to recognise the fact that local authorities in the greatest need get on average three times more funding than those that are better placed. In terms of regional comparisons, I observe that the change in spending power in her region is exactly the same as it is in my region in Greater London.
Last year, the Secretary of State claimed that front-line services would not have to go because of his spending cuts. We now know that that is not the case. More than 100,000 jobs —people who serve others—have already disappeared from councils and there are more to come. How on earth is it fair that twice as many women as men have lost their jobs working for local councils? Is that not another sign that women are paying the biggest price for the failure of the Government’s economic policy?
It is a pity that the right hon. Gentleman did not refer us to the £48 billion of reductions that were planned when he was a member of the Cabinet and that he did not apologise for the £120 million we are wasting in interest on the debt that he left behind for us. It is a pity that he does not recognise that this Government have supported the most vulnerable councils in the ways that I have indicated previously, including with the transitional grant to which I referred. It is also a pity that he does not recognise that workplace issues can best be dealt with flexibly if they are left to local authorities rather than to micro-management.
The Localism Act 2011 will give councils more powers to tackle unauthorised development, such as stopping the abuse of retrospective planning permissions. We are reviewing what further steps can be taken to increase council powers to tackle unauthorised development and occupation. High-profile cases such as Parliament square and St Paul’s show that the current system is far too slow and that councils need stronger powers to protect local amenities.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that local authorities apply their powers consistently? Residents such as mine in South Ockendon find it very irritating that they have to abide by the council’s planning regulations while unauthorised encampments nearby are able to flout them with impunity.
My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. It is important that everyone in this country is equal before the law and that the law is used against those who seek to abuse their position. After the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill received Royal Assent, my Department started to work with the Home Office to produce guidance for local authorities that want to make byelaws that provide for the confiscation of property. Such byelaws will allow for the removal of tents in Parliament Square.
In my constituency of North West Leicestershire, we often find that illegal Traveller encampments are located on the very edge of our district, or straddle land with another bordering council. That can lead to unnecessary delays and confusion while councils decide who is responsible for the site. Is the Secretary of State aware of that problem? If he is, what steps is he taking to ensure that councils co-operate to ensure that such encampments are removed as quickly as possible?
I am aware of the problem, which illustrates how existing planning procedures that were introduced under the previous Government are flawed. It is important to have equality between Travellers and the settled populations. There is now a duty on local authorities to co-operate. I know of a number of successful incidents in which local authorities have worked in consortiums to deal with this problem. Enforcement will be quicker. Stronger powers under section 62 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 can be used when there is a vacant pitch or an alternative site in a nearby local authority.
School Crossing Patrols
We have no current plans to introduce legislation, but local authorities should not be cutting essential front-line services like safety crossings outside schools. Councils can make sensible savings by reducing senior salaries, rooting out waste, sharing back office functions and spending smarter.
Does the Minister agree that local authorities such as Manchester City council should not be trying to pass on the cost of providing crossing patrols to local schools because schools should be using their additional pupil premium funding to improve educational attainment?
Only last week, my hon. Friend’s own local authority was notified of a £4,600,000 new homes bonus payment and it already has £100 million in its balances. I agree that it is right for that local authority to look carefully at its spending priorities before it seeks to offload duties on to others.
The safety of children is paramount, but if the Minister were inclined to legislate, would he agree to place the highest priority on those school crossings that were in the most dangerous areas? That is precisely what Manchester City council has done today in confirming that all high-risk school crossings will continue and that strenuous efforts will be made to ensure that funding is in place for all medium-risk crossings as well.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating Mark Pickering, the head teacher of Clanfield junior school in my constituency, who, twice in the last six months, has patrolled the crossing himself because of a lack of staff from Hampshire county council. The money is there, but the volunteers are not. Does he agree that legislating on this proposal might be a little heavy-handed?
I certainly think that it is something of a paradox that, in these current times, it is difficult to recruit people for these jobs. However, having raised this issue in Parliament, I am sure that there will now be a flood of volunteers who are keen to offer their services.
The hon. Lady will know that I take a keen interest in this subject. We have protected the entire homelessness grant—£400 million—over the spending review period and, having revised how homelessness statistics for people sleeping rough are calculated, we found that the correct count was more like 1,700, rather than the 400 previously claimed.
I thank the Minister for that answer but my local homelessness charity, Framework, recently reported a sixfold increase in rough sleeping in Nottingham over the past year. How does he respond to chief executive Andrew Redfern’s warning that the Government’s deep cuts and welfare changes risk undermining Framework’s 10 years of success in tackling homelessness?
I am genuinely concerned to hear that, but I have the statistics for the hon. Lady’s local authority and they show that levels of homelessness have fallen over the past two years. She will be pleased to hear that the homelessness grant to her local area rose from £400,000 last year to £636,000 this year. If her local authority is not correctly returning information on the number of homeless people, I would be grateful if she could chase it up. It is one of our absolute priorities, and I am pleased to say that homelessness remains at its lowest level for 28 out of the past 30 years.
Under the major infrastructure regime, applicants are required to consult the community before a planning application can be accepted. The Localism Act 2011 will extend this requirement to applications to local authorities.
I thank the Minister for that reply and for outlining the consultation process that local authorities should follow. Will he instruct Calderdale council to hold a full consultation on the future of Halifax central library so that the thousands of local people objecting to its proposals can have their say?
I know that the hon. Lady has taken a great interest in the library. I cannot comment on particular applications but she will understand from my comments that I consider it important that all applicants, especially on issues of major importance, should engage with the community from the outset. That is good practice in this country and across the continent, and it is why the Localism Act will make it a requirement.
My hon. Friend will know that one of the most important parts of the regime is the requirement for major infrastructure applications to demonstrate that consultation with the community has taken place? That is why we are extending some of those provisions to the local authority regime.
Right to Buy
The right-to-buy scheme was a transforming policy that enabled 2 million people to own their own home, so we will shortly consult on proposals to reinvigorate the right to buy, offering tenants discounts that will once again enable them to purchase their homes.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Nothing did more for social mobility in this country than the right-to-buy scheme and those 2 million families who got to own their own home. Sadly, the number of homes purchased under the right-to-buy scheme dwindled to about 2,600 last year because the discounts were cut so much. We will consult, we will ensure that those discounts are raised and, critically, we will replace each home sold under the right-to-buy scheme with another affordable home for rent.
I declare an indirect interest as previously recorded by Hansard.
In his autumn statement, the Chancellor studiously avoided, like the Minister has done in the past—although I note his comment today—using the term “like-for-like replacement” of affordable housing. The chief executive of Plymouth Community Homes has stated publicly that he will probably have to sell two, perhaps three, discounted homes to build one in the same area. Will the Minister tell us whether his like-for-like offer, about which his own Back Benchers are sceptical, refers to a property in the same area and of the same size, and will he explain how that will be tracked?
I am sorry that the hon. Lady is no longer my opposite number. When she was, I explained that it is now possible, through the affordable rent programme, to build a home for affordable rent by investing less public money than previously—that is, of course, because the rent is at an intermediate level. However, it is also supported by housing benefit, which means that rather than seeing a net reduction of 200,000 affordable homes for rent, as happened under the previous Administration, we will be building more of them.
The Localism Act 2011, which was passed two weeks ago, allows new powers to be devolved from central Government to cities. Each city has been asked what additional powers it would like to take on under this new provision. I can announce to the House that I am today laying before Parliament draft orders, to be made under the Localism Act 2011, that would, subject to the approval of both Houses, provide for mayoral referendums to be held on 3 May 2012 in 11 cities: Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield.
I thank the Minister for that response. I very much support the consultation, which I see as part of the Government’s continuing localism agenda. However, I am a little concerned that the emphasis seems to be on elected mayors for the large cities. Does he have any plans for smaller cities to hold referendums on elected mayors?
I am grateful for that question from my hon. Friend, who is a passionate advocate of the mayoral system. He will know that the coalition agreement committed us to introducing referendums for the largest cities, but it is possible for other cities, including his own, to have referendums too, either by resolution of the council or through a petition, which would need to be signed by about 4,000 electors in Carlisle.
High Street Development
The Government strongly believe in supporting town centres and are committed to following a “town centre first” policy. The draft national planning policy framework requires councils to pursue policies to support the viability and vitality of town centres. We are now considering all responses to the consultation.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he consider repeating Labour’s empty shops initiative to enable councils to pursue innovative uses for empty units, such as using them for cultural, community or learning services, rather than leaving them empty?
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. One of the proposals that we are consulting on is the so-called “meanwhile use” of empty properties, so that they can be brought back into use quickly, without needing a full planning application. That can bring shops and other premises back into use and keep high streets vibrant.
Councils should help town centres to realise their potential. Wiltshire council, however, faces developer interest in out-of-town sites. What advice can the Minister give to local authorities attracting such interest before their local plans, the core strategies or the national planning policy framework are agreed?
The “town centre first” policy has been very successful in directing development to town centres, and it is important that this should continue. The national planning policy framework is being consulted on, but our commitment to the “town centre first” priority, with all the tests that it requires, is firm.
At a time when many of our high streets are struggling and are in danger of losing further jobs—let us remember that a massive 25,000 full-time jobs have gone from the retail sector in the last year alone—are the Government altering the sequential test for town centre development in the draft NPPF, thereby risking more greenfield development at the expense of our town and city centres?
No. Our commitment to the “town centre first” policy—which was introduced by our right hon. Friend John Gummer when he was Secretary of State for the Environment—continues. It has been very successful. We want development in town centres, rather than out of town.
On 21 November we published our housing strategy, which sets out an ambitious programme to support home ownership, including for 100,000 prospective buyers with small deposits and, of course, through the right to buy, which we discussed moments ago.
As my right hon. Friend said earlier, one of the greatest vehicles for social mobility—including on the estate where I grew up—was the opportunity for families to be the first in a generation to own their own homes. In addition to the right to buy, what measures, including accessing finance, are the Government introducing to create greater home ownership?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the right to buy empowered many families, and it will happen again. However, it is also the case that a whole generation is now locked out by record high house prices—seven times average earnings. To help bridge that gap we are backing an industry-led mortgage indemnity scheme, which will mean people again being able to get 95% mortgages, which operated very well in this country for many decades.
There is a real fear that the Minister will fail to achieve anything like the number of first-time home buyers that he expects to achieve through the right-to-buy programme. Another major problem is the increase in stamp duty that has resulted from his ending of the stamp duty holiday. Will he tell us how many home buyers will lose out for that reason?
As has been said so many times from the Dispatch Box—but it has still not been heard—the country was seriously in danger of going bust. To do nothing about that, to add to the deficit, and to assume that the solution in every instance is to spend more money or introduce an additional programme to enable it to be spent, is not the answer. The answer is to help people to bridge the gap. The introduction of 95% mortgages through the mortgage indemnity scheme is an innovative move that is backed by the industry and the Government, and I believe that it will help up to 100,000 people over a very short period.
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—
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?
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)
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the strategy for UK life sciences that the Prime Minister is launching this afternoon at a leading life sciences conference. The life sciences industry is one of the most promising areas for growth in the UK economy. It has consistently shown stronger growth than the United Kingdom as a whole, and it accounts for 165,000 UK jobs and totals more than £50 billion in turnover. Pharmaceuticals alone account for more than a quarter of our total industrial research and development spend. Global pharmaceutical sales are predicted to grow by up to 6% a year in the coming years, and in emerging economies medical technology is achieving growth rates of more than 12%. A flourishing life sciences sector is essential if we want to build a more outward-looking, export-driven economy. The partnership between industry, the NHS and our outstanding universities is not just essential to economic growth; it will benefit millions of future and current NHS patients, fuelling the more rapid development of cutting-edge treatments and earlier access to those treatments for NHS patients.
Like many industries, the life sciences industry is undergoing rapid change. The old “big pharma” model of having thousands of highly-paid researchers working on a pipeline of blockbuster drugs is declining. A new model has emerged—one that is more about collaboration, the outsourcing of research and early clinical trials on patients. Excessive regulation can mean that the uptake of new treatments and technology is slow. That is a challenge felt acutely by an industry that sometimes feels that the return is not there quickly enough to satisfy investors. It is felt even more acutely by patients, who understandably expect that they should be able to access the latest and most effective treatments, and that new innovations in care should be adopted rapidly by the NHS.
We have a leading science base, four of the world’s top 10 universities and a national health service that is uniquely capable of understanding population health characteristics, but those strengths alone are not enough to keep pace with what is happening. We must radically change the way we innovate and the way we collaborate.
The life sciences strategy we launch today, alongside the NHS chief executive’s review on innovation, health and wealth, sets out how we will support closer collaboration between the NHS, industry and our universities, driving growth in the economy and improvements in the NHS. All the documents have been placed in the Library.
Among other key measures, we will set up a new programme between the Medical Research Council and the Technology Strategy Board to bring medical discoveries closer to commercialisation and use in the NHS. There are many medical products being developed to treat patients and the cost of developing them is high because they take a long time to develop and test. Investors want to see at least some evidence that the products might work in people and robust validation of the quality of the research and development work being undertaken, as well as of the capability of the company to bring the product to market, before they will finance the development of the products. That means that some of the best medical innovations are not making it through to patients. We are already providing investment to address that, but we believe that we can do more to support the development of these products across funding organisations and the successive stages of product development, which will support the development of promising innovations and help to increase the number of treatments made available to patients. We are therefore introducing a £180 million catalyst fund for the most promising medical treatments.
It can take more than 20 years from the first discovery of a drug until patients can be prescribed it by their doctor and we have already taken steps to address that. Through the National Institute for Health Research, we are investing £800 million in new research centres and two major translational research partnerships that will help cut the time between the development of new treatments and their application in the NHS—from the bench to the bedside.
Now, we are going further. As part of a major drive to improve innovation and access to medicines in the NHS, we are announcing proposals on a new early access scheme that could allow thousands of the most seriously ill patients to access new cutting-edge drugs up to a year earlier than they can now. Through the early access scheme, the medicines regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, would provide a scientific opinion on the emerging benefits and risks of very promising new drugs to treat patients with life-threatening or debilitating conditions for whom there are no satisfactory treatment options. That will mean that seriously ill patients of any age who have no other hope of being treated or having their life extended could benefit from drugs more quickly, around a year before they are licensed.
We must also ensure that we make better use of our unique NHS data capability. It is often said that the NHS is data-rich but information-poor. As a national health service, it contains more data about health than any other comparable health system in the world, but neither the NHS nor scientists developing new drugs and treatments have always been able consistently to make good use of the data or to use them to drive further scientific breakthroughs.
We have seen how powerful the release of data can be. For example, South London and Maudsley NHS Trust and the Institute of Psychiatry now have access to a database covering 250,000 patients. It includes their brain scans, medical records and notes—a wealth of information, all consented to and all anonymised, that is helping them find new answers in the fight against dementia.
We need powerful data-handling capacity and the skills to write the software to mine them. That is why we are investing in e-infrastructure, which will provide secure data services to researchers. The clinical practice research datalink is being introduced by the MHRA in partnership with the NIHR and will provide a specialised service to the research and life sciences communities. Let me reassure the House that we will take all necessary steps to ensure safeguards for patient confidentiality.
We will also make sure that more UK patients get the opportunity to take part in national and international clinical trials and play a much greater role in the development of cutting-edge treatments. We believe that patients should have the right to access new treatments and be involved in research to develop new medicines.
We have responded to calls from research charities and clinicians for Government to get patients more involved in supporting research. A recent Ipsos MORI poll in June found that 97% of people believed it is important that the NHS should support research into new treatments and, in addition, 72% would like to be offered opportunities to be involved in research trials. We will therefore consult on changing the NHS constitution so that there is an assumption, with the ability to opt out, that data collected during a patient’s care by the NHS may be used for approved research.
That would make it clear that researchers and companies with new and potentially life-saving medicines could access the data of patients and could approach patients whom they feel could benefit in order to discuss their involvement in research studies. This would encourage growth in the life sciences industry as more people and more detailed data would be available for the important trials and research needed to get breakthrough treatments used more widely.
Additionally, we have set out actions to improve incentives for investment in innovation and to reduce regulatory bureaucracy. With the creation of the Health Research Authority, we will streamline regulation and improve the cost-effectiveness of clinical trials. As the NHS chief executive’s review of innovation has shown, the NHS needs to be quicker and smarter in adopting new technologies and approaches to care that can both save more lives and cut costs.
Sometimes, it is a question of evidence. Until recently, we could not say with certainty that telehealth could keep people out of hospital and save lives, and there was understandable reluctance among parts of the NHS and councils to invest in untried technology. However, as early results from the whole system demonstrator pilots show, the potential of telehealth is nothing short of remarkable, with dramatic reductions in mortality, in hospital admissions, in emergency visits and in the number of hospital bed days. To make the most of this, we will support the NHS and work in partnership with industry and councils dramatically to spread the use of telehealth over the next five years. In doing so, we are looking to transform the lives of 3 million people in this country.
We will become a global leader in the management of chronic and long-term conditions, generating massive opportunities for UK companies developing this technology. It will be innovation in practice and we will foster other proven innovations such as fluid management technology techniques that were developed for use in high-risk surgery and critical care to help clinicians administer fluids and drugs safely. In March 2011, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence published guidance recommending that this technology should be used for patients undergoing major or high-risk surgery. Currently, it is used for fewer than 5% of applicable patients despite evidence showing that it could benefit 800,000 patients and save the NHS £400 million. We will launch a national drive to make sure that fluid management technology is used in appropriate settings across the NHS. That is one example of many.
The innovation review sets out how we will address all the barriers to innovation in the NHS, whether they involve culture, leadership, training, use of information or lack of incentives and investment. We will also introduce a NICE compliance regime that will mean that medicines approved by NICE will be available on the NHS much more quickly. The plans set out in today’s strategies will help to drive the development of new technologies to diagnose and treat the most complex diseases in this country for the benefit of NHS patients. This is a strong package of measures that will support economic growth and innovation in the NHS and will drive significant improvements in patient care. I commend this statement to the House.
May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement and start by setting out two points of common ground with the Government? First, we too have pride in Britain’s life sciences industry and its strength. We agree that the industry needs Government support and focus if its potential to contribute to the country’s industrial future is to be maximised. Secondly, we agree that there are huge potential benefits to British patients from closer collaboration between the NHS and the industry. We all want patients to have the quickest possible access to the latest life-saving and life-enhancing treatments.
It was for those two principal reasons that Labour, when in government, prioritised the life sciences sector and established the Office for Life Sciences. In Lord Drayson, we created a life sciences Minister who was a contact point for the industry—someone of huge experience and with real personal commitment to the industry. One of our criticisms of this Government is that they have allowed the momentum that Labour had established in promoting the industry to fall away. Progress has stalled because of the Government’s failure to understand that economic growth needs a proper partnership between the public and private sector and because of the combined effect of a number of their policies. Such policies include: damaging 15% real-terms cuts to the science budget; the loss of the regional developments agencies, many of which were heavily involved in this area; cuts to regional investment; and the destabilising effect of the unnecessary reorganisation of the NHS, particularly the disintegration of the strategic health authorities, which played a role in promoting research. The unexpected closure of Pfizer earlier this year exposed a Government asleep at the wheel and was a wake-up call, and now we see a Government playing catch-up.
Although we welcome their belated recognition of the importance of the sector, there are sensitive issues involved and Ministers need to tread carefully so as not to undermine public trust. What they are fond of calling red tape are, to others, essential safeguards. Some areas will always need proper regulation and the use of patient data is most certainly one of them. As we have heard from patients groups today, some have been caused real anxiety by this media-briefed statement from the Government and the lack of accompanying detail.
Ministers need to be aware that people with terminal illnesses and long-term conditions will react differently from others to a statement of this kind, so for them we seek direct assurances today from the Secretary of State that he failed to give in his statement. Will all patients have the ability to opt out of the sharing of their data, even in anonymised form? Surely that fundamental principle of consent should form the bedrock of any new system, and that control of data should be possible in today’s information age. If the Secretary of State cannot give that assurance, why not? How can he justify that?
Did patients’ representatives walk away from the Department of Health working group on these important matters and, if so, why? One representative said on the radio this morning that the whole process “stinks”. Does the Secretary of State not accept that he and his Department will need to do better than this to uphold public confidence in the process or risk undermining trust in the whole principle? What safeguards will there be to ensure that patient data are stored securely? Does he not need to articulate a more positive statement of patients’ rights in this important area, rather than the loose opt-out he proposes in the NHS constitution?
Is it the case that the anonymity of data cannot always be guaranteed? If so, what are those circumstances and, again, why not? Even within anonymised datasets, particularly dealing with small numbers of very specific conditions, it is possible to identify individual patients. What steps are being taken to guard against those risks? Will the Secretary of State give a categorical assurance that data cannot be used for purposes other than research—passed on to third parties or used by the same company to target people for other products and services?
Today’s announcement also needs to be considered in the context of the Government’s reorganisation of the NHS. Does not a more market-based health system with a greater number of private providers create much greater challenges for the control of data? I had many dealings with senior figures in the pharmaceutical industry in my time as a Minister. They were clear that it was the national structure of the NHS, and the ability to collaborate and share information across a whole health system, that was a huge attraction to the industry and a competitive strength for this country.
Does not the Secretary of State’s Health and Social Care Bill risk turning the NHS into a competitive market, where collaboration is discouraged in an any-qualified-provider free-for-all? So how can he guarantee that that competitive strength will be there in the future and will continue to be used by the pharmaceutical industry? Although he will not admit it today, were not many of the measures he has announced, particularly the expansion of telecare, made possible by the steps that we took to invest and modernise NHS IT?
More broadly, this announcement raises questions about the Government’s policy on the involvement of the private sector in the NHS. The Government need to set out what, if any, limit they see on the involvement of the private sector in the NHS. The Prime Minister has said that he wants the NHS to be a fantastic business. Let me quote from a recent leaked document on NHS commissioning, “Towards Service Excellence”. It says:
“The NHS sector . . . needs to make the transition from statutory function to freestanding enterprise.”
It is no wonder that, on the back of these worrying words, the British Medical Association has adopted a position of outright opposition to the Secretary of State’s Bill. Our worry is that, in their desperation to develop a credible industrial strategy, Ministers seem ready to put large chunks of the NHS up for sale.
Patient data are not the Secretary of State’s to give away. The NHS is not his to sell. The truth is that the Government are running huge risks with patient confidentiality and patient safety by opening up the NHS to the private sector and reorganising at a time of financial stress, but we do not yet know the full scale of those risks.
The great irony is this: while Ministers are happy to offer up other people’s data, they continue to withhold the NHS risk register, which shows the risk they are running with our NHS. Is that not why people are increasingly asking what the Secretary of State has to hide?
I am afraid that the last sentence was not really worth it, Mr Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman, while talking about things that were completely irrelevant to my statement, asked a number of questions. Will patients be able to opt out? Yes. It is clear that they will be able to opt out, as I have said. Are there risks relating to a small number of patients being identified? No. As he should know, and as has been done in relation to the general practice research database, where there are small populations of patients in which it might be possible to indentify individuals, or where a small number of patients have very specific sub-sets of conditions and there is a risk of identification, it is perfectly possible to ensure that that information cannot be accessed through the database. We have made it clear that data would be not only anonymised—in fact, it would be double anonymised—in order to ensure that it cannot be recreated, but viewed in such a way that will make it impossible to identify from the circumstances of the data where the patient comes from.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the database must be used for approved research or could be used for other purposes. It must be used for approved research and cannot be used for other purposes. It is not a database that people, whoever they may be, whether from universities or pharmaceutical research companies, can simply access in order to go mining for information; they must do so only through the MHRA and for approved research purposes.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked—frankly, I think it is irrelevant—about the extent of the private sector’s role. Unlike his predecessor, Patricia Hewitt, who was Secretary of State when he was a Health Minister, and who said that she was aiming for 10% or 15% private sector involvement, we are not looking for a specific level of private sector involvement or creating a free market in the NHS. It will continue to be a national health service with the national characteristics that we would expect, funded through taxation and available to all based on need, not ability to pay, and in this context it will continue to be a national NHS. The simple fact that, among other measures in the life sciences strategy, we are able to show how we can bring data sets together, including the general practice database, the hospital episodes statistics, the cancer registries and so on, in order to show the power of data across the whole NHS to support research for new treatments is a complete vindication of the fact that it will be a national health service—that it will change in that respect and that patients will benefit from both the national health service and the research that comes with it.
May I be the first warmly to welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and to make a bid for the catalyst fund for regenerative medicine, which not only offers great hope for the future but is providing life-saving treatment through umbilical cord blood? I refer him to the recommendation the UK stem cell strategic forum made last year for collaboration between universities, hospitals and farming industries to make greater use of the application of cord blood now and in future.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and heartily welcome his support for the opportunities in regenerative medicine. I was fortunate enough to meet at the UK Stroke Forum last Thursday, among those exhibiting, a company that is based in England but undertaking trials and research activity in Scotland and is looking precisely at how it can use foetal-derived stem cells for regenerative purposes. The right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) talked about Pfizer. In my constituency, it has been one of the companies leading the development of new regenerative medicine techniques. That is clearly one of the areas that this country has tremendous potential in developing. The technology innovation centre for regenerative medicine was announced in the “Plan for Growth” published alongside the Budget earlier this year, and I hope that it will be one of the areas in which we will see those developments.
The Health Committee, in its report on the electronic patient record, published in September 2007, stated that the highly detailed data captured had “outstanding” prospects for new and improved research, but it also asked that the best balance be found between
“the opportunity to improve access for research purposes with the ongoing need to safeguard patient privacy”.
Do the Government believe they can get that right, so that we can go ahead and use the enormous amount of data that we have in this country to improve health care for patients not just here, but throughout the world?
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman is here and able to ask that question, because he was the Chair of the Health Committee in September 2007, when it stated that the secondary use of data in the NHS was “vital” for the development of the NHS, including for research use. I hope that he is one of those who recognise that what we are setting out in the life sciences strategy—in particular, with the clinical practice research datalink—will enable precisely all those secondary uses for research to be developed.
As the Secretary of State will know well, the Cambridge area is world leading in life sciences, both in academia and in industry. This strategy, and the investment to go with it, is very welcome indeed and will, I am sure, support a lot of activity in Cambridge and in South Cambridgeshire. There is one slightly sour note about private data, however, so I hope that the details will be published of exactly how the steps to which the Secretary of State referred will be taken to protect that, but, on clinical trials and what will happen to regulation, will he implement in full the recommendations of the Academy of Medical Sciences?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He and I share a vigorous and vibrant life sciences sector, and I hope that the strategy that we have announced today will be taken up rapidly in our constituencies. He asks about the Academy of Medical Sciences. Back in the “Plan for Growth” in the Budget, we responded precisely to that point, and on 1 December, as a consequence of the positive response to what the academy said, I brought into effect the Health Research Authority to ensure that we simplify the process of approval for clinical trials. Through the National Institute for Health Research, as we said earlier in the year, we are seeking to arrive at a point where there is a maximum of 70 days for the first recruitment of patients to clinical trials, and that will get us into an internationally competitive position.
May I ask the Secretary of State a further question about the rights of people to opt out of the scheme? Will he extend the right of opt-out for those people who refuse to participate in the scheme to include a refusal of the advantages that come from sharing such information, which will be gained by the generosity of spirit of their fellow citizens who participate?
I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but the ethical approach is for everyone to have access to the latest and best available treatments through the NHS. That is the principle that we apply, but we should be aware that, although we offer people the right to opt out, we have seen—for example, in relation to the general practice research database, where patients have the equivalent right to opt out, and in two pilots conducted on the proposals that we have announced—that the rate of opt out is 0.1%.
I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, as this strategy will reduce the delay between discovery and dispensing and, undoubtedly, bring great benefits to patients and to our pharmaceutical industry, but in return will he ask the industry to go further and publish negative trial data, as well as positive trial data, as a gesture to improve the quality of research data?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. The industry has done quite a lot in recent years in publishing more data, including data that do not necessarily support the positive case that it is looking for, because all of us, and especially those working in the field, learn a great deal and, sometimes, as much from clinical trials that produce a negative result as we do from those that produce a positive result. So, I will certainly take her point away, explore it with my colleagues and write to her if we can take further steps in that direction.
Are the patient data proposals to be England-only or UK-wide? If so, what is the relationship with projects such as the SAIL—Secure Anonymised Information Linkage—database in Swansea and Biobank? I foresee some ethical problems, as Biobank operates specifically on a voluntary basis with a written, sought-for consent. Does the Secretary of State see that there might be some problems there?
I am grateful for that question. What we are setting out is hosted by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which will be able to link datasets for which it is responsible, which do, in some cases, have a UK basis rather than an England-alone basis.
My hon. Friend might like to know that while initial and very positive steps were taken in Scotland —for example, in Lanarkshire—we have now undertaken, through the whole system demonstrator pilots, the world’s largest randomised control trial of telehealth technology, and that gives us a strength from which we can develop telehealth systems that is unparalleled anywhere in the world. In so far as there is a capacity to provide telehealth systems and provide for their use across health care systems, I suspect that we shall shortly see England overtake Scotland in that respect. It is a form of competition that I am perfectly happy to be engaged in—and if the Scots can do better than us, then good luck to them. However, we are showing, through these pilots, how we are ready to go at developing something of great benefit to patients.
It is good to see that the Secretary of State is now on the same side of the debate as me regarding NO2ID and similar issues. Nevertheless, there is an important issue about ensuring the greatest public buy-in to the issue of data sharing, and careful work is needed on that. May I specifically ask him about the catalyst fund? To what extent is this new money? Can he assure the House that money from patient care is not being transferred into the catalyst fund? Will the Technology Strategy Board be able to control its use, or will it be directed by Government?
In the first instance, the £180 million to which I referred consists of £90 million from the Medical Research Council, which is new money within its existing budget but not at the expense of any other programmes. The other £90 million is provided by the Treasury to the TSB and is new money. None of this comes out of any NHS resources. The implementation will be led by the Medical Research Council, so to that extent it will not be driven by Government.
There is always that risk because, as my hon. Friend entirely knows, international competition is intense, particularly in the pharmaceutical sector. Following the measures that were announced alongside the Budget in the plan for growth, not least the availability of the patent box from April 2013, it is clear from discussions that my right hon. Friends and I have had with many of the boards of leading international pharmaceutical companies that the United Kingdom is now becoming a better location for investment in pharmaceutical activity than used to be the case. Those companies look very positively at the steps we have taken on regulatory activity and clinical trials, at the steps we are taking on promoting innovation through the value-based pricing system, and in particular, understandably, at the tax measures that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced, especially on the patent box.
The Secretary of State’s statement raises a number of important ethical issues. Will he take a close look at the emerging proposals for a medipark that is close to Wythenshawe hospital and part of Greater Manchester’s airport city enterprise zone? This has tremendous potential to attract investment from global bioscience and pharmaceutical companies, which would make a massive difference in my constituency and way beyond that. Will he look to see what support can be offered?
I will gladly do so. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the designation of an academic health science centre in Manchester has supported many developments. We want to go further. In today’s life sciences strategy, we are making it clear that not only do we want to maintain the academic health science centre designation as a world-class designation for comprehensive research centres, but we want to go further and ensure that such centres are used to diffuse and spread innovation across the NHS more effectively. Next spring, we will set out how we will enable academic health science networks to be designated. That will happen during 2012-13. I will happily look at the circumstances in south Manchester and at how this matter will apply there. I hope that partnerships will be forged between the NHS, universities and the private sector of the kind that he and I know will be successful.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a world of difference between streamlining regulation, to use his phrase, and the picture of the indiscriminate abolishment of regulation that the Opposition tried to create? Such streamlining is essential to cut the time from invention to adoption.
I am clear, and I know that my hon. Friend agrees, that we must ensure that the regulatory processes are effective and that the medicines that are available in this country are of the necessary quality, safe and effective. However, we must not allow the delays that are inherent in some of these processes to prevent information from being provided on the basis of which clinicians, with the active, informed consent of patients, can access what they regard as potentially effective medicines. In the overall context of patient safety, we do patients a serious disservice if we know that there is a potentially effective medicine available and do not give them the first possible opportunity to access it.
The Secretary of State says that his proposals reflect his commitment to the national health service. If GPs will be commissioning treatments, how will he ensure that they commission new and more effective treatments that might be more expensive?
As the hon. Lady will know, the Health and Social Care Bill that is being considered in another place will, for the first time, place a direct legal duty to support innovation on clinical commissioning groups. That will be supported by the process of commissioning from the acute sector, in which the quality increments in the tariff will directly drive innovations in best practice.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. These proposals are vital for the competitiveness of life sciences and pharmaceuticals, which are vital for the UK and for the local economy in Macclesfield. Will he tell the House how these steps will reduce the time that is taken to establish clinical trials, which has been a barrier for far too long?
The principal impact that we are having relates to the National Institute for Health Research, which, through its contracts with the NHS and other partners, is driving the time to the first recruitment of clinical trials down to 70 days. That will get us to a competitive position. We are also working in partnership with the pharmaceutical industry, for example to look at how some of the new stratified medicines will be available. Today, we are entering into partnership with AstraZeneca, which is close to my hon. Friend’s constituency, to understand what specific compounds are likely to be of benefit to some subsets of the population with cancer through the use of targeted new medicines.
As the policy rests on the trust in the regulatory body that was tardy in protecting patients against the adverse side effects of Vioxx and Seroxat, is it not time that we had a fully independent MHRA and not one that is funded entirely by the pharmaceutical industry? As big pharma pays the piper, is it not possible that it will call the tune for its own commercial interests?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is wrong about that. The MHRA operates, in scientific and expert terms, in an independent fashion. In so far as it is accountable, it is accountable to me as Secretary of State and to this House. It is not accountable to the pharmaceutical industry. If he is proposing a major transfer of costs from the pharmaceutical industry to the taxpayer, I am afraid that I do not agree with him.
I warmly welcome the commitment to telehealth and the expansion of it over the next five years. Does the Secretary of State agree, however, that that represents a step change for patients? Will it be the responsibility of councils and stakeholders to demonstrate the value and benefits of telehealth to their patients, so that there is full buy-in?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The figures from the evaluation of the 6,000 or so patients who have participated in the three pilots in Cornwall, Kent and Newham suggest that if telehealth is appropriately and properly provided, there are benefits. There was a total reduction of 45% in mortality, about 21% in accident and emergency visits, about 15% in planned admissions and bed stays in hospital and about 8% in costs. Those are dramatic benefits, but the most important aspect is the empowerment that telehealth gives patients so that they can be at home and be confident about their care, rather than be prey to rapid crises leading to admission to hospital.
Is this whole idea not being driven by the pharmaceutical industry in order to make money? In the real world, when I have been in hospital in these past 10 or 15 years for all sorts of different problems, all of us have relied on the care and attention of the doctors and nurses. There was an increase of about 30,000 doctors and 80,000 nurses, because we put a lot more money in. I did not meet anybody at all who ever said to me, “I’ve just been given some drugs to look after my heart, but I don’t like them and I want something else”. The whole thing is a money-making exercise by the pharmaceutical industry, which has friends in the Tory party. We are supposed to be short of money in this country and in the health service. What we really need is to stop sacking nurses, which will make it a lot better.
The hon. Gentleman will have to talk to the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), who claimed to be the friend of the pharmaceutical industry. The truth is that we should all be friends of it and support it. Why? Because it has the capacity to bring in new medicines and new treatments that are to the benefit of patients. From my point of view, it is not about the profitability of the pharmaceutical industry, it is about working with those who have the greatest potential to bring investment to this country for economic benefit and, more importantly, to improve benefits for patients. The hon. Gentleman, who has no doubt been the beneficiary of many therapeutic improvements generated by investment in the pharmaceutical industry, should not decry it.
Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point.
May I say gently to the Secretary of State that we are enjoying the full product of his lucubrations, but I think just a snapshot will do. We can get by with that. [Interruption.] The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), can look it up in his dictionary later. That is fine.
Key to the strategy announced today is the ability to translate primary research into early adoption and commercial outcomes. Does the Secretary of State agree that Edinburgh’s BioQuarter is uniquely placed to do that, as it already shares a campus with the state-of-the-art royal infirmary of Edinburgh and is hopefully soon to be joined by the excellent sick children’s hospital, providing a base for the commercialisation of the innovative work being carried out by Edinburgh’s universities?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and far be it from me to comment further. He explained very well the benefits associated with investment and developments in Edinburgh and how the universities, the pharmaceutical industry and the NHS are working together there. That is also happening in locations in England, and across the United Kingdom we are providing real opportunities for international investment in biosciences.
During my time working within the hospice movement, it was my privilege to meet many patients and families. They naturally wanted everything at their disposal that would extend patients’ lives or at the very least make them more comfortable. At times, they would feel frustrated that patients in other countries benefited from drugs before they could, even though they were invented here. What is the Secretary of State doing to try to rectify that problem?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point from his personal experience. It is precisely because we recognised that patients in Britain were not getting access to the latest cancer medicines as quickly as patients in other countries that we were clear at the election that we would introduce a cancer drugs fund. Since the introduction of the fund in October 2010, more than 7,500 patients have accessed new cancer medicines through it. The early access scheme that I have described will go even a step further in anticipating the successful, efficacious introduction of new medicines in a way that allows patients and clinicians sometimes to access medicines even before the point at which they are licensed.
As a graduate in biological sciences, I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to life sciences in this country. In my opinion, there has been too much of a disconnect between vital research at universities and in the private sector and the NHS. How will the Secretary of State ensure that the biggest beneficiaries of the release of these valuable data are UK patients and universities, and UK-based companies?
I would instance two things in that respect, the first of which is the developing collaborations that were started under the academic health science centres and that will be continued through the networks that we want to extend. Those partnerships are specifically designed—£800 million was allocated in August, based on a competition—to enable the translation of discovery into new medicines in this country.
Secondly, the £180 million catalyst fund, which the MRC and Technology Strategy Board will implement, is specifically designed to take those ideas—the MRC says that it has some 360 such potential developments in medicines and treatments—through to the point at which they can be developed. Of course, that will be in this country.
Given that Northamptonshire has one of the most rapidly growing populations of patients in older age of anywhere in the country, I am sure my constituents will welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment that this country will become the global leader in the management of chronic and long-term conditions. We want to realise that praiseworthy ambition, but how far behind the curve are we at the moment?
The answer to that question varies depending on which conditions one is talking about. When one looks at the OECD “Health at a Glance” data that was published on 23 November, one sees how relatively poor are our mortality outcomes in relation to respiratory and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. By contrast, we are slightly better than average in relation to diabetes. However, I have seen for myself how well patients with COPD can manage their conditions at home. For example, they can see their blood oxygen levels day-by-day and have supplies of medicines at home, including steroids. They can therefore anticipate and deal with any exacerbations of their condition so that they do not end up in an ambulance going to hospital late at night.
From earlier access to potentially life-saving medicines through to releasing the power of information in the NHS, there is much to welcome in this statement. Given the importance of techniques such as pseudonymisation, how satisfied is the Secretary of State with the priority afforded to developing the informatics capability of NHS staff?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, to which I fear I do not have time to respond fully. One thing that I hope we can do as a consequence of abandoning the previous Government’s failed NHS IT structure is empower many individual hospital trusts and general practices once more to develop their own informatics expertise, which will stretch beyond IT infrastructure to the positive uses of data and information for the benefit of patients.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Great progress has been made, principally as a result of your work, in ensuring that exchanges in this House at question times are briefer and pithier than previously, but there is one area of weakness. May I suggest that it might be a good idea if you organised a seminar for Ministers on the existence, purpose and use of the full stop?
It may be for the convenience of the House to know that the Backbench Business Committee recommended that there should be a division of time between the two subjects such that the second debate will start at or around, but certainly not significantly later than, 7 o’clock, and possibly a little earlier.
I beg to move,
That this House expects Ministers to make all important announcements relating to government policy to Parliament before they are made elsewhere on all occasions when Parliament is sitting; considers that information which forms all or part of such announcements should not be released to the press before such a statement is made to Parliament, as recommended in the First Report from the Procedure Committee, on Ministerial Statements, HC 602; and further considers that hon. Members who believe the protocol has been breached should first report this to the Speaker for his judgment and that in the case of a minor breach the Speaker may take appropriate steps but in more serious or more complex cases he would refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges for further investigation.
The motion is in my name and that of hon. Friends on both sides of the House, but primarily it is in the name of the Backbench Business Committee. Mr Speaker, the motion is in defence both of your advice to this House on many occasions and of the ministerial code.
On 20 July 2010, the Backbench Business Committee held its first debate on the Floor of the House. It chose ministerial statements as its subject because it is an issue that comes to the very heart of the effectiveness of this Chamber as part of Parliament holding the Executive of our great nation to account. We are probably all in agreement that whenever the House is sitting, Her Majesty’s Government should make announcements of policy first to this House. For those who are not familiar with every word, dot and comma of the 2010 ministerial code, as published by the Cabinet Office, let me remind them of what paragraph 9.1 says:
“When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament.”
I am happy to report that Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike are unanimously agreed on the importance of those strictures.
That is a very good question. We will probably discuss that very point during the course of this debate. In my own humble opinion, I think that “in session” means when Parliament is sitting—by that I mean sitting days versus non-sitting days. When there is a sitting day, it is my view, and I suspect that of lots of hon. Members, that Her Majesty’s Government should be making announcements to Parliament first. That may require the Government to contain themselves so that they release that information on the Floor of the House in the afternoon rather than on the “Today” programme in the morning.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly important for this Government to abide by the conventions that he has described, given that both he and I, having served in previous Parliaments, can remember countless occasions when we and our fellow Members of the parliamentary Conservative party stood to make points of order to remonstrate about the fact that Labour Ministers had continually broken these conventions?
The hon. Gentleman refers to “both major parties”, so perhaps he is not aware that some of the worst incidents in recent months have involved people such as the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, whose statements have been tweeted to The Guardian.
That is a helpful intervention—I shall refer my remarks to all three major parties, if that is better.
All Governments, whether this Government, the previous Government or the one before that, have leaked information, and that is not how our great House of Commons ought to be treated.
No, I cannot. This increasingly has become standard practice, but it is fair to say that it has got worse over the past five, 10 or 15 years. I am sure, however, that it was prevalent before.
Today, we have a golden opportunity that is, in many ways, unique: for the first time, thanks to the Leader of the House and other Ministers of the Crown, we have the Backbench Business Committee, which has been able to bring this motion to the Floor of the House for resolution tonight. Although hon. Members in past decades will have been frustrated by how the Government of the day leaked information, this is the first time that the House has had the opportunity to do something about it.
I might be slightly naive but although there may be incidents of Governments leaking information, there are probably an awful lot more incidents of information being leaked without Ministers’ knowledge. We have to distinguish between deliberate leaking and the response to a leak that could be sensitive and might require a Minister to go to the press, on the radio or in front of the television cameras before making a statement to Parliament.
My hon. Friend makes a good point but at the end of the day we have something called “ministerial responsibility” and the ministerial code.
Tonight’s motion allows us to draw a line in the sand. I am not naive enough to believe that it will stop all Government leaking completely, but were we to pass the motion, it would be an effective weapon in the House’s armoury against an over-mighty Executive. I want to praise the work of the Procedure Committee, led by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), which, after our debate on 20 July 2010, worked extremely hard on this issue and produced an excellent report and a series of first-class recommendations. Every word in the motion comes from the recommendations in that excellent report.
I shall quote from the summary of the Committee’s report—its first of the Session—which sums up the issue extremely well:
“Parliament should be at the centre of national debate. Too often details of important government statements appear in the press before they are made to Parliament. Such leaks adversely affect the ability of Members of Parliament to scrutinise the Government on behalf of their constituents. At present, it is the Ministerial Code that sets out the requirement that important announcements be made to Parliament first. However, the Ministerial Code is enforced by the Prime Minister and not by Parliament. We do not believe that it is acceptable for the Government to regulate itself in this way. The House must be responsible for holding Ministers to account when they fail to honour their obligations to Parliament. We therefore propose that the House should have its own protocol which states that the most important government announcements must be made to Parliament before they are made elsewhere.”
The Committee goes on to recommend:
“Such a protocol must be enforced if it is to be effective. We recommend that complaints by Members that the protocol has been breached should be made to the Speaker. Where a case is not clear-cut, or when the alleged leak is particularly serious, the Speaker should be able to refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges for an in-depth investigation.”
I agree with every word of the Procedure Committee’s recommendations, which sum up the issue extremely well.
Mr Speaker, on your first election to your high office, you said that
“when Ministers have key policy statements to make, the House must be the first to hear them, and they should not be released beforehand.”—[Official Report, 24 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 797.]
You could not, Sir, have been clearer. I commend you on the large number of urgent questions that you have accepted, tabled by Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike, holding the Government to account when they have not properly released information to this House first. However, it was your predecessor, Betty Boothroyd—Speaker Boothroyd, as she then was—who said in her farewell address:
“This is the chief forum of the nation—today, tomorrow and, I hope, for ever.”—[Official Report, 26 July 2000; Vol. 354, c. 1114.]
This is our chance to say: are we going to hold Her Majesty’s Government to account for the principle, which they uphold in their own ministerial code, that it is this Chamber, where the elected representatives of the British people are gathered together, that should be the first place to hear of major new Government policy initiatives? Should it be “The Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday, the “Today” programme on Radio 4 in the morning or ITV’s “Daybreak”; or should it be the Chamber of the House of Commons? Would it not be wonderful to see the Public Gallery full of journalists eagerly anticipating the Government’s latest policy announcement, made here first, on the Floor of the House? Instead of which, under this coalition Government, the bad practices of the Blair Government and the Government before them are being increasingly enhanced, such that hon. Members are often the last to hear of new Government policy initiatives, not the first. When our constituents contact us to ask, “What’s the Government initiative on this?”, we are often the last to know, so we cannot respond.
However, it would also be an effective tool against the over-mighty arm of the Executive if the ordinary representatives of the people—not unelected and unaccountable journalists, hard working and well intentioned as they may be, but we the people gathered here in this tremendously prestigious place—were the first to have a go at putting questions to the Ministers of the Crown. We have the honour to represent our constituents. We can use this opportunity tonight, by passing this simple motion, to say to the Government: “Uphold your own ministerial code and let the people’s representatives know first whenever any new major Government policy announcement is made.”
I warmly commend the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) not only on the motion, but on the work that he has done on this issue since he was first elected. There are many others who count among the saints on these issues; there are also many who count among the non-saints. Contrary to what was said by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley), who is sitting next to him, the truth of the matter is that, in practice, many Ministers, and in particular their special advisers and those organising “the grid” at No. 10 Downing street, spend a great deal of time deciding when it is best to announce something. If it is unremittingly good news, they do it in Parliament; if it is unremittingly bad news, they try to hide it in a written ministerial statement to Parliament; and if it is a bit streaky—a bit of good, a bit of bad—they will do it outside Parliament, before the House has sat, so that the difficult bits are forgotten and they can get away with the good briefing that they have organised.
I had thought that the hon. Gentleman would say that, but I must confess that when I was a Minister, I was never in charge of anything that was interesting enough for anyone to make any announcements about it. I suspect that even if I had wanted to make an announcement, I should have been in difficulty.
The hon. Gentleman was Minister for Europe.
That is true, and the Europe directorate of the Foreign Office is punctilious in ensuring that announcements are made to the European Scrutiny Committee first. Indeed, many matters go to the Committee with several months of warning before they become public anywhere else in Europe, and I think that is right. However, when I was Deputy Leader of the House I tried my level best, as did many others in Government, to make sure that we adopted such a process.