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Topical Questions

Volume 543: debated on Monday 30 April 2012

I have been reviewing my Department’s plan to abolish the Audit Commission. Ministers have told the House previously that the abolition would save £50 million. I am afraid that was wrong: the revised estimate suggests that the abolition will save taxpayers not £50 million, but £650 million over five years. Combined with the scrapping of 10 other quangos, from the Standards Board to the Government offices for the regions, the reductions in my Department’s running will save £1 billion of taxpayers’ money.

Empty homes are a big problem in Pendle, so I welcome the £100 million of funding to bring empty homes back into use as affordable housing, and the additional £50 million to tackle some of the worst concentrations of empty homes. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is far more than Labour did in its 13 years of power?

The Labour party’s idea of a housing policy was to demolish perfectly good houses. We felt it was important to get houses that had been left unoccupied back into business. That is why the scheme is available through the new homes bonus, and it is also the reason for the reforms to get clusters of unoccupied houses back together, which the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) spoke of earlier. We are determined that what are perfectly good houses, in areas where communities have lived together for many years, should be brought back into circulation.

Conservative councillors must have been very encouraged over the weekend to read the Secretary of State’s admission in The Sunday Times that lots of them are going to lose their jobs come Thursday. Families are struggling because of the failure of the Government’s economic policy, but at least they know that council tax is lower in areas with Labour councils than in Conservative ones. Would the Secretary of State like to congratulate Labour councils on their achievement?

I congratulate the shadow Secretary of State, not only on attending his son’s wedding last week, but on continuing the trend of fiddling figures. The only way he can get at those figures is to ignore all the district councils. In band D, the Labour party continues to be £62 more expensive than the Conservative party.

I know that the Secretary of State does not really do detail, but I would have thought that even he could work out the figures for himself. The band D council tax rate is £81 lower in Labour areas than in Tory areas. He has made great play of trying to keep council tax down, but as we heard earlier, because of his legislation, his plan next year is to increase the council tax paid by a lot of people who are on low incomes. Does that not show that, far from us all being in it together, the Secretary of State is determined to dump some people in it more than others? Is that not the real reason why he has thrown in the towel before polling day?

I understand that the right hon. Gentleman has form on council tax. When he was deputy leader of Ealing council, it increased by 65% in one year only, although we should not be surprised, because council tax has doubled under Labour. However, I repeat: the only way he can arrive at anything close to those figures is by ignoring every single district council in the country. As the small print of his figures clearly shows, he has ignored a third of councils in order to arrive at those ridiculous figures.

T2. Does the Minister believe that the BBC’s recent coverage of Newham’s housing policy was fair and accurate? (105739)

I do not believe that the coverage was fair, balanced or timely, given that the election for the Mayor of London is taking place in Newham exactly a week after the coverage. Given that the BBC chose not to mention to any Department that it was running the story, it is impossible to understand how it thought it could be running a fair and balanced story.

T4. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Minister for Housing and Local Government that Birmingham’s claim to have only nine rough sleepers is ludicrous? Furthermore, is that the only thing that he finds ludicrous about the antics of those who are running Birmingham city council? (105742)

There is a wider point about the homelessness and rough sleeping numbers, which is that before this Government came to power, the figures were simply inaccurate. The majority of authorities did not return the relevant numbers. The change now is that we have required every local authority to send in its numbers and regularised the way in which rough sleeper numbers are collected, so that we can properly focus resources on tackling the scourge of rough sleeping.

T3. In Crewe, I have been helping a community of elderly residents at Linden Court after the local housing association attempted to move them out on just a few months’ notice in order to redevelop the site. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State use his good offices to encourage housing associations to treat the elderly with the care, courtesy and respect that they deserve, particularly those whom they are considering moving out of their homes? (105740)

I am not sure that I need to use those powers, because my hon. Friend has used his considerable influence and I now understand that the housing association is having a rethink and looking into other ways of dealing with Linden Court, which I visited with him a few years ago. It is important that, when elderly persons are being moved out of their homes, they should be treated with enormous dignity, and local authorities and housing associations need to go about that task at a leisurely pace.

T7. An antisocial neighbour, whether the tenant of a private landlord, a social landlord or a public landlord, can not only make their neighbours’ lives a misery but destroy a whole estate. On that basis, rather than reducing the role of communities through local councils, why does not the Government give them real powers to ensure that they can deal with antisocial neighbours? Instead of calling it “getting rid of red tape”, we could talk about doing something positive. (105745)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is why we are proposing to criminalise certain types of antisocial behaviour and ensuring that previous offences can be taken into account. For example, if someone engaged in antisocial behaviour in someone else’s community during the riots, that should clearly count against them when it came to their own housing situation.

T5. Many of my constituents believe that there should be less, not more, influence on our daily lives from the European Union. Will Ministers therefore take a vigorous stand against the EU proposal that the EU flag be flown permanently above 1,000 of our public and private buildings? Our country’s flag is the Union Jack. (105743)

This obligation is likely to be placed on us because of our control of the European development funds. We are currently under an obligation to fly the EU flag for one week a year. It seems to me that the flying of a flag should be a joyous act, rather than one imposed by another authority. The idea that we should be fined for not flying the EU flag is utterly ridiculous and a sign of a lack of confidence on the part of our EU partners.

T8. In the national press today, there are at least three reports of dramatic increases in bed-blocking. Bed-blocking occurs when patients cannot be discharged from hospital because social care packages have not been put in place by hard-pressed local authorities. This is now costing the taxpayer about £600,000 every day. Is not this more evidence of this Government’s failed policies on social care in local government? They are cutting too far and too fast. (105746)

We have put in an extra £7.2 million, but the hon. Gentleman makes a reasoned point. I feel that the reforms in the national health service and giving local authorities more responsibility for health should enable us to get a much better and much more closely co-ordinated and integrated process. The movement from hospital into care or into a person’s home needs to be better organised. The Government will certainly produce a White Paper soon to deal with this. I hope that it will meet some of the problems that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

T6. Ahead of the London elections, do Ministers share my concerns over alarms raised by local councillors in Tower Hamlets about alleged voting fraud? What steps are being taken to ensure the integrity of the ballot? (105744)

I do share my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I share the concerns of six Labour councillors who wrote to the Electoral Commission on Monday last week, pointing out serious worries about electoral fraud. I think the Electoral Commission should have picked this up sooner—back in February, when two Labour Members of Parliament complained about this. I have written to the Electoral Commission today to propose that it moves a lot faster and ensures that the police are present, as required, on polling day.

It is increasingly difficult to find housing in Newham within the rent cap that the Government have set. Instead of criticising the BBC for exposing what is happening, will the Minister take action to improve matters?

The right hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear that immediately that the Newham story was flagged up, we went on just one website to search for properties and we could find within the Newham cap of £15,000 rent a year—not the £21,000 maximum cap—1,000 properties available in Newham or within five miles of it. That is why it is a disgrace that the council was considering sending people halfway across the country.

T9. My right hon. Friend the cities Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), will have noted, not least from the Centre for Cities annual report, that progress in Gloucester is encouraging on a number of fronts, including the regeneration of major sites and the expansion of our specialist training company to provide apprenticeships and skills for our thriving small and medium-sized enterprises engineering centre. Gloucester would be delighted if the Minister could visit the city to look more closely at some of our successes and our challenges. (105747)

The reason why Newham council is thinking of sending tenants to my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent is as a result of the massive failure of house building under the Tory Mayor of London. What assurances can the Minister give my constituents that they will not face an unplanned influx of residents because of Tory failings in London?

That is simple. This Mayor has delivered 50,000 affordable houses for rent, outperforming the previous Labour Mayor. If constituents vote for him again, he will deliver even more next time.

Has the Secretary of State had the opportunity to compare the track records on council tax for the current Mayor of London and his Labour predecessor?

It is a very straightforward comparison. Each year under Ken Livingstone, the council tax went up; each year under Boris Johnson, the council tax was either frozen or went down.

Does the Secretary of State intend to continue with his Department’s consultation on home improvements and related energy efficiencies in the green deal, or is he proposing to scrap it in the light of the advice from a No. 10 spokesman who said that the proposals were bonkers and would not happen?

We are currently considering all applications during the consultation. We will be looking closely at that and we will ensure that we do not place an undue burden on the public.

Those on the housing list whose change in situation, such as having an extra child or additional medical needs, means they meet the criteria for higher banding of need for housing, or those who change the nature of their request, such as for a new location, have to restart their time on the housing list. Does the Minister think that that is fair, as it prevents us from collecting accurate data?

What is required is for local authorities to have a far greater say in the way their housing lists are run. That is why I am pleased to be able to report to my hon. Friend that that is exactly what is being proposed through the Localism Act—and it is exactly what is about to come into force.

We have engaged in a number of discussions with the assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They have been very constructive, especially at officer level, but it is still up to individual constituent parts of the United Kingdom to decide whether to implement the proposals.

The last Government shamefully ran down the right-to-buy discount. Does the Minister agree that that acted as a brake on the aspirations of those who wished to join what we Conservatives call the great British property-owning democracy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The right to buy, which enabled 2 million hard-working families to buy their own properties, was disgracefully run down, so that only 3,000 a year could take advantage of it under the last Administration. The right to buy is back, however: there is a £75,000 discount, and for every home that is sold another is built. That is the way in which to meet hard-working families’ aspirations in this country.