House of Commons
Monday 30 April 2012
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Canterbury City Council Bill
That so much of the Lords Message [23 April] as relates to the Canterbury City Council Bill be now considered.— (The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 8 May.
Leeds City Council Bill
That so much of the Lords Message [23 April] as relates to the Leeds City Council Bill be now considered.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 8 May.
Nottingham City Council Bill
That so much of the Lords Message [23 April] as relates to the Nottingham City Council Bill be now considered.— (The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 8 May.
Reading Borough Council Bill
That so much of the Lords Message [23 April] as relates to the Reading Borough Council Bill be now considered.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 8 May.
City of London (Various Powers) Bill [Lords]
That so much of the Lords Message [23 April] as relates to the City of London (Various Powers) Bill [Lords] be now considered. —(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 8 May.
City of Westminster Bill [Lords]
That so much of the Lords Message [23 April] as relates to the City of Westminster Bill [Lords] be now considered.— (The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 8 May.
Transport for London Bill [Lords]
That so much of the Lords Message [23 April] as relates to the Transport for London Bill [Lords] be now considered.— (The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 8 May.
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Empty Homes (Northumberland)
I have allocated £150 million to bring empty homes back into use, and £160,000 has already been committed to a project in Northumberland, subject to contract. In addition, of course, Northumberland has received a reward of £630,000 through the new homes bonus for bringing 256 long-term empty homes back into use.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, and I draw his and the council’s attention to the publication, two weeks ago, of the national planning policy framework, which sets out the importance of making sure that all such plans are founded on the principles of sustainable development. Of course, the Government want to encourage every local authority to focus on land of the least environmental quality, and that, of course, includes brownfield sites.
In Newcastle, which is right next to the constituency of the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), 99% of empty homes are in private landlords’ hands, so why are the Government increasing from six months to two years the amount of time that a property has to stand empty before the council can issue an order to bring it back into use?
A high proportion of the 280,000 long- term empty homes are indeed in the private sector. That is why we have provided funding to support bringing them back into use for social homes, and a second round of funding where there are clusters of empty homes, which will be helpful in those areas. As for the orders that the hon. Lady referred to, only about 50 homes in the whole country have been subject to that procedure in five years. It is not a very effective measure, but it should be a back-stop, which is why we have put in place a new two-year limit.
Is my hon. Friend aware that one category of accommodation that is now often empty is bedsitting rooms in sheltered accommodation for the elderly? We have an example of that in Wooler in Northumberland. Does he recognise that it will be necessary for us to create more suitable accommodation for elderly people, both to enable such properties to be taken out of use permanently, and to meet the requirements of an ageing population?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and draw his attention to the national planning policy framework. In drawing up its housing strategy, Northumberland unitary authority must take account of the needs in its area. Of course, the Government are funding a social and affordable homes programme, which will deliver 170,000 affordable homes by 2015. I very much hope that housing providers in Northumberland will be bidding for money from that fund in a suitable way.
Fire and Rescue Services
5. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of funding reductions on the operational activities of fire and rescue services. (105717)
Operational matters are best assessed at the local level. It is for each fire and rescue authority to determine the operational activities of its fire and rescue service through its integrated risk management plan, which is subject to consultation with the local community.
I am extremely proud of the Cleveland fire service, which looks after the area of highest industrial risk in Europe. Its proactive work in Teesside communities has driven down house fire numbers, which have gone down and down, and it has excellent working plans with local companies. I am told that owing to the drastic agenda being pursued by the Tory Government, Cleveland has lost or will lose 180 firefighters. The Government are playing with people’s lives so I would like to know what the Minister’s message is to people in my communities, and who he will blame when there is a tragedy there.
The Cleveland fire service does excellent work. The risks that it deals with on its territory are recognised by the fact that its funding per head of population by formula grant is the highest in the country and more than twice that received by many authorities in other areas.
It is estimated that South Yorkshire fire and rescue service will lose 100 firefighters’ jobs. It is all very well for the Minister to say, “We’ll pass the budget cuts down and somebody else has to take the responsibility.” What happens if response times increase in South Yorkshire and the people in South Yorkshire, who are not a party to the decision that has been taken by the Government to cut the budgets, feel unsafe in their beds at night?
Response times are dealt with through the integrated risk management plan. I say gently to the right hon. Gentleman that the reductions in expenditure of formula grant to the fire service are less than those for local authorities as a whole. They are part of the deficit reduction strategy, and he might like to reflect that part of the deficit caused by the Labour Government was the better part of half a billion pounds wasted on the aborted FiReControl project, which did nothing to keep anyone safe.
Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service has already made significant savings, including cuts of 28% to back office staff, but we are facing deep front-line cuts. May I urge the Minister again to look carefully at the situation faced by metropolitan areas such as Tyne and Wear, and ensure that he brings forward a funding settlement that is fair?
I have met representatives of metropolitan fire and rescue authorities and meetings continue to take place at an official level, and we will meet representatives of any fire authority, regardless where in the country they come from. In Tyne and Wear, the formula grant per head at £29 is significantly above the average, which reflects some of the risks. In fact, the formula was updated by this Government to give a greater weighting to population density.
I refer the Minister to the answer he gave a few moments ago to my hon. Friends in relation to risk assessments. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the excellent report that was carried out on fire deaths and injuries by the County Durham and Darlington fire and rescue brigade, which showed that poor health, social issues and deprivation are key contributory factors to high levels of fire risk. We are losing 40 firefighter posts, so what risk assessments were carried out before cuts to central funding were made to the Durham and Darlington fire and rescue brigade?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he has not grasped the point that the risk assessment is dealt with at a local level by the integrated risk management plan, which is consulted upon with the local community and then approved by the fire authority. Durham’s funding per head has been maintained over two years at a steady level of £21 per head. It is worth saying that all metropolitan fire authorities have had increases in their capital grant of 50% to 80%, which is significantly more than under the previous Government.
Two hundred firefighter posts are being lost in Greater Manchester, but Cheshire and Essex are getting a 2% increase in their budgets. As there is a greater risk of fire, civil disturbances and industrial incidents—and in my constituency motorway incidents as well—in the metropolitan boroughs, how can the Minister possibly justify such a huge cut to the metropolitan authorities and an increase to the leafy counties?
I was just looking at the figures that the hon. Lady gives me for her authority. It is worth observing that Greater Manchester is funded at the rate of £26 per head in formula grant. Cheshire, which was referred to, gets only £18 per head in formula grant, so I do not think she is giving a fair comparison.
At Castle Donington in my constituency there is a monument to the waste and profligacy of the previous Government with regard to fire services: a £14 million unused regional FiReControl centre that is still costing the taxpayer £5,000 a day. Particularly galling is the fact that Leicestershire has the lowest funded fire authority in the country. Will my hon. Friend remind the House how much the previous Government wasted on regional FiReControl centres?
The figure that the Public Accounts Committee of this House gave was not less than £469 million, and I observe that in one year, 2010, the Labour Government spent £69 million on consultants, which is broadly the amount that the fire services have contributed to deficit reduction over two years.
Will the Minister congratulate Dorset fire and rescue service on its work in co-ordinating its efforts with the police and ambulance services in preparation for the Olympics? However, there is a worry that the improved resilience infrastructure will fall away after the Olympics. Will he do what he can to ensure that the much-needed blue light improvements are not dismantled after the games?
I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will seek to do that. I have had the pleasure of visiting Dorset fire and rescue service and am impressed by the joint working that is being done. The Government, in all Departments, are anxious to continue improving interoperability.
I have to say that I am a little puzzled by the Minister’s responses this morning—[Hon. Members: “This afternoon.”] That reinforces my puzzlement, as his answers have been so confusing. The point is that the Prime Minister, prior to the general election, gave a solemn pledge that he would veto any ministerial plans that involved cuts to front-line services, yet in the Minister’s Department we have seen thousands of firefighters losing their jobs, dozens of fire stations closing and response times going through the roof. As a consequence, he is putting the safety of the public at risk. Did he forget to tell the Prime Minister about his cuts, or is this simply another broken prime ministerial election pledge?
A lot of fire and rescue authorities are making the savings not by cutting firefighter posts or reducing fire stations, but through shared operations, better joint working and, interestingly, amended shift practices—one thing that the hon. Gentleman seems to have taken on board rather literally.
Council Tax Benefit Localisation
An impact assessment is on my Department’s website. These reforms will give councils a greater stake in getting people back into work and will help to reduce the budget deficit. The Government are committed to supporting the most vulnerable in society and have been clear that pensioners should be protected and changes should support work incentives.
At a meeting on Friday local authorities from areas of high need, such as Chesterfield, Bolsover and North East Derbyshire, were still bemoaning the fact that they have just suffered a 19% cut in the money they receive from central Government. This proposal will mean another £500 million cut in areas of high need, which is equivalent to 10% for all those local authorities. It is high time the Government started listening less to press barons like Murdoch and more to the democratically elected voices in local government.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is letting his phobias get the better of him. No local authority has faced a reduction in its spending power of more than 8.7%, and the figures he talks about are not real at all. I know that he did not always support the Labour Government’s policies, but he was right behind them on building up the deficit. He now needs to get behind this Government in tackling that deficit.
Of course, it has been very beneficial to those on low incomes who are paying council tax and those who rely on council tax benefit support. I think that the Government should be commended for the action they have taken, and it is astonishing that some Members on the Labour Front Bench condemned the introduction of this proposal.
May I draw attention to my interest as declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests?
I remind the Minister that we are talking about cuts in council tax benefit, that the Government’s own proposal is for a 10% cut, not 8%, and that that will translate into a 16% cut for those who will bear the burden because of the protection of those over pension age, but extraordinarily, if the Government believe in what they are doing, why have they been so embarrassed as to have done nothing for the past three months? We have been waiting for Report stage of the Bill leading to the introduction of those changes, but it has been parked. Where has it been?
The Government’s own figures show that a cut of 16% in council tax benefit will cost the poorest families more than £161 a year, but does the Minister accept that, in fact, the cuts are likely to be far higher than that, up to 25%, depending on the number of pensioners in a local authority area? Does he think that this postcode lottery for the poorest families is fair? How can the Government justify cutting the incomes of 1 million struggling families while increasing the incomes of millionaires?
The hon. Lady of course is completely off track. In reality, local authorities will have choices about how they manage the reduction and be able to choose, through the design of their scheme, whether some awards should be reduced. They can manage the reduction by reconfiguring the funding of other services, through efficiency savings, by using reserves or with flexibility over the council tax, which the same Bill before Parliament gives to local authorities.
Devolving Power to Cities
For more than 100 years power has been remorselessly sapped from our great cities, and I am determined to restore power to them. The Localism Act 2011 gave a general power of competence; our city deal programme devolves more powers; and this week’s mayoral referendums will allow local people to decide how their cities should be led.
Last week Bristolians heard about the resignation of Barbara Janke, the city council leader, making it six changes of leadership in the city in the past 10 years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such chopping and changing makes a strategic vision for the city very difficult, and that what Bristol needs to fulfil itself is the vision, accountability and stability of an elected mayor?
I do agree. I have the greatest respect for Councillor Janke, but six leaders in 10 years is no way to run a city as great as Bristol. The leaders of Liverpool, Leicester and Birmingham city councils have all said that they could lead their city better as an elected mayor. The mayoral referendum offers an historic choice to the people of Bristol: they have the chance to make it a turning point in the city’s history.
At the most recent meeting of the Liaison Committee, the Prime Minister, in a response to a question that I asked, said that
“I can absolutely assure you that on the city deals…we can do those deals with individual cities whether or not they are going to have a mayor.”
Yet, in the Yorkshire Evening Post on Saturday, the Minister agreed that there were powers that the Government would be happy to give to an elected mayor, but not to a traditional council. Does the Minister agree with the Prime Minister that powers can be devolved to cities irrespective of whether they have an elected mayor or an elected council leader, as long as they have strong governance arrangements?
The hon. Gentleman and his Select Committee on Communities and Local Government know that I am always and everywhere keen to devolve power to local government, including to cities. What we have said to conclude our city deals is that there has to be stronger governance, and the case of Bristol demonstrates that. When there is a revolving door of leaders, it is impossible to have the necessary accountability, so there needs to be stronger governance, and an elected mayor meets that model.
If the Minister is so convinced of the benefits of elected mayors, why did he require dictatorial powers to force local authorities to hold elections? Would it not be fairer to have a yes/no question, rather than one loaded so much in favour of elected mayors?
My hon. Friend will know that the Electoral Commission set the question. In fact, the terms of the referendum are very similar to that which the previous Government introduced in London to give the people of London a chance to vote on whether to have a mayor. I think that most people in London conclude that it has been a success.
Why does the Minister persist in selling his reforms as introducing London-style city governance in other large cities in England? If he genuinely believes in London-style city governance, why will his proposed mayor of Manchester be responsible for governing only one tenth of the city region?
The election is based on the current boundaries of Manchester, and that seems perfectly reasonable. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is asking me to abolish the councils that exist in Greater Manchester. Salford, which is part of Greater Manchester, will have a mayor who will be elected on 3 May, and the people of Manchester have a choice as to whether they want to join it.
Excessive red tape in the sector would push up rents and reduce choice for tenants. That is why we are streamlining licensing processes for houses in multiple occupation and scrapping plans for an expensive and counter-productive state register of every landlord. This afternoon I am chairing a taskforce on rogue landlords in order to try to drive them out of the market.
One way of alleviating the regulatory burden on landlords but also improving safety and security for tenants would be to provide a simple standardised document containing all landlord and tenant responsibilities, from fire safety to antisocial behaviour. The planning system is about to benefit from a process of simplification. Will the Minister do likewise with the private rented housing sector?
I am pleased to report to my hon. Friend that standards are certainly improving in the private-rented sector. For example, satisfaction levels are higher than in the social sector and rates of energy performance are better than in the private sector. I like the sound of his idea, and I will certainly have a look at it. It sounds as though it might be comparable with a template lease, and it is worth further consideration.
There are now more than 1 million families with children whose home is privately rented, and Shelter says that a third of them cut down on food to pay their rents and they can all be kicked out with less than a month’s notice. Why are the Government so out of touch with the pressure that people face that they are denying even the basic security of a legal right to a written tenancy agreement?
The right hon. Gentleman, who knows a thing or two about housing, is absolutely right to indicate the pressure in the system caused by more than a decade of building far fewer homes than are required, which has led to rents rising very quickly. There are now some signs that rents have started to moderate. The English housing survey shows that rents rose at a slower pace than inflation; LSL Property Services shows falls for the third month in a row; and Professor Michael Ball reports that they fell by a tenth in real terms between 2008 and 2011. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, following on from the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders), to suggest that we must always drive for improvements, and that may well include looking at leasing documents.
High Speed 2 (Property Bonds)
The Government’s approach to compensation for property owners was set out in the HS2 document, “Review of Property Issues”, which was published on 12 January by the Secretary of State for Transport, who, together with colleagues, was consulted in the usual way before publication.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Does he agree that as there have already been two years of property blight, which potentially remains until 2026, whereby people are unable to sell their houses normally, it might be necessary to consider a property bond to normalise the property market? Will he reassure me that if that were the case, his Department would not veto such a decision on the grounds that it might create a precedent for other national infrastructure projects?
My hon. Friend, who is a great campaigner on this issue, knows from the answer that the Transport Secretary gave her in the previous session of oral questions that my right hon. Friend recognises the impact that the plans for HS2 are having on residents along the route of the line and has given an assurance that she will make sure that the package is fair to all those residents.
Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Fire Authority
On 31 January, I met representatives from Cambridgeshire and Peterborough fire authority, together with representatives of Suffolk fire and rescue authorities, to discuss their interest in the control centre building in Cambridge and funding matters. They also discussed their bid for joint control working. On 8 March, there was a follow-up meeting at official level.
I thank the Minister for those comments. Fire services such as ours in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, which are already low cost and largely have retained firefighters, are extremely vulnerable to excessive funding reductions. Beyond a certain point, there is no alternative other than the withdrawal of appliances and station closures. I accept the need for some savings, but there is still a lack of clarity about how much the service will have to save. Will the Minister meet me, staff from the authority and the service and other local MPs, who are also concerned, to discuss how much funding will be made available in future?
The overall reduction in funding to Cambridgeshire and Peterborough fire authority is 1.5% of its spending power. I am glad to say that the joint bid with Suffolk to improve fire control room services was successful, and that it will receive £400,000 in revenue and £180 million in capital funding. I am always happy to meet hon. Members to discuss the circumstances in their constituencies.
I am humbled by your confidence, Mr Speaker, in my ability to speak about the funding of Cambridgeshire—and Suffolk, which the Minister also mentioned in his response to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert). In his discussions with those two county authorities, and others, did the Minister consider their funding of the fire service college, which is about to be privatised? How will he maintain control over the college and can he assure hon. Members about its future?
I will happily answer that at an appropriate moment, but I doubt whether I shall be in order if I try to do so now. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s interest in the fire service, but the discussions were about joint control room bids—a facility made available to all those interested in bidding. As he will recognise, the need to have such discussions about the future of joint control rooms arose partly because we were stuck with 30-odd-year leases on control rooms that were not usable because the previous Government never delivered the IT to go inside them
For the avoidance of doubt, the fire service college is in the Cotswolds rather than the Fens.
Will the Minister support me in saying that we should pursue further shared and combined services with other fire authorities on, for example, payroll, administration and human resources rather than moving immediately to front-line cuts such as the closure of Stanground or Dogsthorpe fire stations in the city of Peterborough?
I agree with my hon. Friend that there are sensible means of meeting deficit reduction targets, without having an impact on stations and staffing. I pointed that out in a letter to the shadow fire Minister, the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), in December 2010. References to shared service, joint working, joint procurement, flexible shift patterns and working patterns are exactly the sort of issues that go-ahead fire authorities are taking on board.
I published the Government response to the Portas review on 30 March. We have accepted almost all Mary Portas’s recommendations, and added some of our own.
I am proud to champion Leyland’s bid to be a Portas pilot, which will focus just as much on invigorating community spirit as on invigorating the high street. Does my right hon. Friend agree that local town teams can best support the regeneration of the high street and our town centres through full engagement with every level of the community, as Leyland in my constituency has done?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There have been a remarkable 371 applications by town teams to become Portas pilots. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her incredible work, which will doubtless be noted in the Leyland Guardian when it is next published, and wish her every success.
Does the Minister agree that out-of-town shops can attract shoppers away from high streets? Will the Government consider introducing the opportunity for local authorities to impose car parking charges, even on privately owned car parks, for out-of-town shopping?
It is, of course, the case that the balance between out of town and town centre has a considerable impact. It is for local authorities to make those decisions. In the national planning policy framework, we set out a clear town centre first policy, but ultimately local authorities need to make decisions about parking. I strongly suggest to local authorities that it would be advantageous to them—Mary Portas backs up the point—to think carefully about the parking charges in town and concentrate on reducing those to make town centres more popular.
A useful tool to support high street shops and town centres is the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Act 2010. The Act was passed more than two years ago. Can the Minister let the House know when the regulations that support that excellent legislation are likely to be laid so that local communities can take full advantage of it?
I wonder whether the Minister agrees with me and Mary Portas that the clustering of betting shops in high streets is becoming a real problem. It means a lack of diversity in high streets and, in the case of Deptford high street, much antisocial behaviour. Why will the Government not give local authorities more and better powers to deal with that menace?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right that the balance of shops is often very important. The Government said in our response to Mary Portas that we were carrying out a use class order review, which is ongoing. The right hon. Lady’s local authority, and those of all hon. Members, already have more options than they perhaps realise through article 4. They would certainly want to work with town teams to make the best possible progress.
12. What recent assessment he has made of the rate of house building. (105725)
In 2011 just over 98,000 new houses were started—25% up on the numbers from 2009—and we are building 170,000 homes for affordable rent in the next three years.
In London, private rents are rising and families are being forced to move away from relatives, and children from their schools. With 360,000 Londoners on social housing waiting lists, why did construction start on only 56 new affordable homes in the latest six-month period? When will the Minister take his responsibility seriously, and how will he address this grave problem in London?
It is important to give accurate figures in the House. Once again, the most comprehensive and accurate figures available must be those from the English housing survey, which demonstrates that rents have been not rising, but falling. Her Majesty’s Opposition refuse to accept those basic facts and keep repeating incorrect information about rents. They ignore the fact that under this Government, homelessness right now is at half the average level that it stood at in 13 years under Labour.
The Government cancelled housing market renewal, and only 210 houses were built in Oldham last year—for the Minister’s information, those are independent figures—which is the lowest level in seven years. Fewer than half those houses were affordable homes. With nearly 6,500 households on housing waiting lists in Oldham and 1.8 million nationally—that is also an independently validated figure—when will the Government get a grip on housing?
Here are the facts: the housing market renewal programme in places such as Oldham and elsewhere destroyed 10,000 homes in this country, but by contrast, the previous Government built only 1,000 through that pathfinder programme. That is what destroyed housing in this country. By contrast, through the demolition of the housing market renewal programme, this Government are building 170,000 more homes for affordable rent in the next three years. That will be more than were built in 13 years when affordable housing numbers declined under Labour.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the massive housing developments proposed under the old top-down system for Barwell and Earl Shilton in my constituency? There are to be 2,500 houses for each town, which is a 25% increase. Does he agree that meaningful consultation is absolutely vital, and that simply putting a notice up on a church wall or placing an advert in a free sheet is inadequate?
It is essential that there is proper consultation. Ending the top-down targets that the regional spatial strategies represented is absolutely the right thing to do, and will lead to more building in the longer run, simply for the fact that local communities will take responsibility and ownership, and, of course, take up the new homes bonus, which, I notice, Opposition Members have yet to return to the Treasury.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in recognising the work that Boris Johnson has done in London on housing? There are 50,000 more affordable houses in London, with more than 1,600 of those in my London borough of Hounslow. He has promised to bring another 55,000 houses to London if he wins on Thursday. What can my right hon. Friend do to help him to deliver them?
Unlike his predecessor, Mayor Boris has been a champion for affordable housing in London, and indeed it seems very likely that he will have delivered 50,000 homes for affordable rent. It is worth bearing in mind that fewer than that were delivered throughout the entire country under 13 years of Labour.
The Housing Minister said that house building would be the gold standard on which this Government would be judged and that what brought him into politics was homelessness, yet we know from figures released today that house building is down 26% on average compared with what was achieved under a Labour Government, and that homelessness has risen by 23%. With millions in desperate need of a decent home at a price they can afford, will he now accept that his housing policies, like the Government’s economic polices, are hurting, not working?
The whole House has noticed that there have been no housing policies from the Opposition since the election. Housing starts in England in 2011 were up 25% compared with 2009, and in the same period the value of new housing construction was up 33% and construction orders were up 35%. Not for the first time, then, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has got his figures plain wrong.
I warmly welcome the public debate that the hon. Gentleman has led with the Local Government Association. He and I share a strong view that we must disperse power in our society. The Localism Act 2011 is an important step in that direction, but I regard it as a point of departure rather than a destination, and I encourage every council to respond to his report.
The Minister will know that there is a strong and growing all-party campaign in the House and outside for statutorily defined independent local government. Does he think there is something in the DNA of the British people that means that, unlike the Italians, Germans, Americans, Canadians and everyone else in a western democracy, they are incapable of deciding how to run their own affairs locally and need Whitehall to tell them how to do it?
Like the hon. Gentleman, I think that exactly the opposite is the case and that our towns, cities and communities across the country will prosper when they have the opportunity—and, indeed, the right—to do things their way, rather than the way Whitehall dictates.
The Minister’s determination to devolve political decision making to the lowest possible level is extremely welcome. Can he, for example, think of any circumstances under which he would dictate to a local city or local authority what flag to fly outside the town hall?
Our planning reforms have simplified the system and put power into the hands of local communities to deliver the growth they need. Thanks to the excellent work of the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who has responsibility for planning, our reforms arrive at a balance between economic activity, the environment and heritage.
Is the Secretary of State aware of a pioneering partnership in my constituency that is getting built not only a much-needed bypass but thousands of vitally needed homes? Does he agree that this is a case of where Central Bedfordshire leads today, others should follow tomorrow?
I congratulate my hon. Friend’s authority. This was the kind of thing we wanted to do when we embarked on the reforms. None of this would have been possible without the general power of competence or devolving local authority finance. It represents the future of local authorities.
I am sure the hon. Lady will be pleased to know that our planning reforms were welcomed by the North East chamber of commerce, which saw, as perhaps she will come to see, that the reforms are a liberation and will enable a good partnership between local enterprise partnerships and local authorities. They will enable them to work together with people in the north-east for the people of the north-east and will release them from some of the burdens that her Government left on the people of the north-east.
The Government believe that planning decisions should be taken in, and by, local communities, and so use their call-in powers sparingly. Essentially, the powers are used when matters are of national significance.
The planning inspector’s decision on the Kelmarsh wind farm in my constituency helped to spark a massive campaign against onshore wind in this place and beyond. In such cases, how long does the Secretary of State legally have to recover or call in decisions, and what is the Department’s policy in this area?
My hon. Friend will know that I cannot comment on a particular case—the quasi-judicial status of ministerial decisions is well understood at the moment. Once a decision notice has been given, that is the end of the Secretary of State’s discretion in the matter.
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.
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.
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.
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)
It would give me the greatest pleasure to visit Gloucester, especially in the company of my hon. Friend.
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?
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?
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.
Ministerial Code (Culture Secretary)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will refer the conduct of the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, in respect of his dealings with News Corporation, to the independent adviser on ministerial interests.
I answered questions on this issue at Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, and the Culture Secretary made a full statement, but let me set out the position again.
I set up the Leveson inquiry last summer to investigate the culture, ethics and practices of the media, and the relations between the media and the police and the media and politicians. It is a full, judge-led inquiry, with evidence given under oath and full access to papers and records. No Government before have ever taken such comprehensive action. It is this Government who are putting these issues properly on the table and getting them dealt with.
Let me deal with the three issues raised in the question: the conduct of the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, the nature of the inquiry that is needed to get to the bottom of these issues, and the wider issues surrounding the relationship between politicians and the media.
First, let me deal with the issue of the Culture Secretary. As was made clear in his statement last Wednesday, in every respect with regard to the News Corporation bid, the Culture Secretary asked for independent advice and acted on it. He was not required to ask for or to follow such advice, but he did so. He acted fairly and impartially, and in line with the advice of his permanent secretary. Indeed, as he said in his statement to the House on Wednesday, he acted against the interests of News Corporation on four key decisions: on being minded to refer the bid to the Competition Commission, on refusing to accept News Corporation’s undertakings without taking advice first from the OFT and Ofcom, on extending the consultation, and on going back to Ofcom for further advice about the impact of phone hacking. I have seen no evidence to suggest that, in handling this issue, the Secretary of State acted at any stage in a way that was contrary to the ministerial code.
As for the Secretary of State’s responsibilities towards his Department, let me say this. The permanent secretary to the Department approved the approach that his department took to the quasi-judicial process, which included a small number of people acting as contact points with News Corporation, as is required and normal in such a process. The permanent secretary has stated that he was “aware” and “content” for contact to be made between the Culture Secretary’s special adviser and News Corporation. However, it is quite clear that that contact became improper and inappropriate, and went beyond the requirements set out by the Secretary of State or the permanent secretary. That is why the special adviser resigned, and he was right to do so.
There are correct procedures to follow in this regard, and they need to be followed scrupulously. That is why last week I asked the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, and the head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, to write to all Departments clarifying the rigorous procedures that they should have in place for handling cases of this nature.
That leads to the second issue: the nature of the inquiry, or inquiries, best suited to getting to the bottom of this issue. I consulted the Cabinet Secretary, and decided that it was right to allow Lord Justice Leveson to conduct his inquiry and not to commission a parallel process to establish the facts. Let me repeat that what we have is a judge-led inquiry, witnesses required to give evidence under oath, full access to papers and records, and cross-examination by barristers, all live on television. There is nothing this tough or this rigorous that the civil service or the independent adviser could provide. Of course, it is not for Lord Justice Leveson to determine whether a Minister has broken the ministerial code. That is an issue for me, and I will deal with it properly. [Interruption.]
I will not wait until the end of the Leveson inquiry to take action if action is needed. If new evidence emerges from the Leveson inquiry that the ministerial code has been broken, I will either seek the advice of Sir Alex Allan or take action directly, but the key point is this: in order to do this, it is neither necessary nor right to have a parallel investigation that could duplicate, cut across or possibly pre-empt what Lord Justice Leveson is doing. Lord Justice Leveson offered his own view on Wednesday, when he said that
“although I have seen requests for other inquiries and investigations…it seems to me that the better course is to allow this Inquiry to proceed.”
I agree with him entirely.
Let me briefly turn to the bigger picture. I am, and always will be, a fierce defender of the freedom of the press in this country—it is one of the central pillars of our democracy—but the relationship between politicians and the media has been too close for decades. The Leveson inquiry, which this Government have set up, gives Parliament and politicians of all parties the opportunity to get this right for the future. Already we have introduced transparency about the meetings we have with the media. Everyone can see which proprietors or editors I meet, whether publicly or privately.
Like other party leaders in our country for decades, I have tried to convince media outlets to support the policies of my party and, now, my Government, but let me be clear: there was not—there never has been—any grand bargain between the Conservative party and Rupert or James Murdoch. Indeed, look for one moment at the number of meetings Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had with Rupert Murdoch when they were Prime Minister: Blair seven; Brown 13; me four. The idea that there was some agreement that, in return for their support, we would somehow allow this merger to go through is simply not true. I have to say that if that was the case, while I respect him deeply, what on earth was I doing making the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable) the Business Secretary responsible for this? [Interruption.] The proprietors of News Corporation have denied under oath at the Leveson inquiry—[Interruption.]
The proprietors of News Corporation have denied under oath at the Leveson inquiry any type of deal, and I will do the same.
Let me make this last point: unlike the Labour party, we were not trying to convince a centre-right proprietor of a set of newspapers with solidly centre-right views to change the position of a lifetime. We were arguing a simple proposition: that the last Government were irresponsible, exhausted, bad for our country and ought to go.
While I have said that the relationship between politicians and the media has been too close, I note that none of the Members on the Labour Benches have disclosed any of the meetings they had with News International or other newspaper executives while in office. While the country wants to hear about jobs, investment, living standards and the great challenges we face, like debt, they just play one-sided party politics. Instead of endlessly trying to use the Leveson inquiry for party political purposes, is it not time they were honest about what they did in government and faced up to the real mess they left this country in?
The reason why it was essential for the Prime Minister to come to the House today is that the Culture Secretary is in clear breach of the ministerial code—and the Prime Minister stands by and does nothing. He asks why this matters. It matters because we need a Government who stand up for families, not the rich and powerful. He is failing that test. Playing for time, he says we should wait for the Leveson inquiry, but Lord Justice Leveson could not be clearer. This is what his spokesperson said: “the simple fact is” that Lord Justice Leveson
“is not the arbiter of the ministerial code, whatever anybody else is saying. There is somebody else who has that role…Alex Allan”.
Lord Justice Leveson is doing his job; it’s time the Prime Minister did his.
Can the Prime Minister confirm that there are no fewer than three breaches of the ministerial code by the Culture Secretary? First, in the House on 3 March the Culture Secretary told the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that
“all the exchanges between my Department and News Corporation”—[Official Report, 3 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 526]
—were being published. But he has now admitted that he knew, when he gave that answer, that there were exchanges that he himself had authorised between his special adviser and News Corporation. Yet none of those exchanges was disclosed, and we have 163 pages to prove it. The Prime Minister does not need to wait for the Leveson inquiry. Will he confirm to the House that this was a breach of paragraph 1.2 c of the code, which says that Ministers must provide full and accurate information to Parliament?
Secondly, on 25 January the Culture Secretary gave a statement to the House. We now know that two days before that statement, News Corporation was given confidential inside information—and this when the Culture Secretary had a constitutional duty to act in a quasi-judicial manner. The Prime Minister does not need to wait for the Leveson inquiry; will he confirm that that breaches paragraph 1 of the code, which requires the Minister to act with the “highest standards of propriety”, and paragraph 9.1, which says that Parliament must be told first?
Finally, the Culture Secretary would have us believe that his special adviser was on a freelance mission—six months of daily e-mails, texts, leaks and the leaking of confidential information about what opposing parties were saying. On one of the biggest media bids for decades, is the Prime Minister really reduced to the News of the World defence—one rogue individual acting alone? If the Culture Secretary really was that clueless about the biggest issue facing his Department, he should be sacked anyway.
The central question that the Prime Minister must answer, in view of three clear breaches of the ministerial code, is: why will he not refer the matter to the man whose responsibility it is—Sir Alex Allan? The Prime Minister is defending the indefensible, and he knows it. He is protecting the Culture Secretary’s job while up and down the country hundreds of thousands are losing theirs. We all know why the special adviser had to go to protect the Culture Secretary; the Culture Secretary has to stay to protect the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has shown today that he is incapable of doing his duty—too close to a powerful few, and out of touch with everyone else.
First of all, 15 years of secret meetings, pyjama parties, christenings and all the rest of it—and not one word of apology. Let me answer, very directly, the three points that the right hon. Gentleman made. First, he spoke about the response to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). If the right hon. Gentleman had done his research, he would have seen that the Secretary of State set out in full the proper answer to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) in September 2011. If you are going to make these accusations, get your facts right before you come here.
On the second issue, the right hon. Gentleman raised specifically the information provided to News Corporation, and was completely wrong. On that, the special adviser has said:
“While it was part of my role to keep News Corporation informed throughout the BskyB bid process the content and extent of my contact was done without authorisation from the Secretary of State.”
So the second accusation is completely wrong.
The third accusation is also about the special adviser and the ministerial code. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State took responsibility. He came to the House, explained what had happened and gave a full account of himself. While we are on the subject of Ministers taking responsibility for their special advisers, can anyone remember a Minister taking responsibility for Charlie Whelan? Can we remember anyone taking responsibility for Damian McBride? What a lot of self-serving double standards we have had from the Labour party.
Let me just make two further points. The right hon. Gentleman says that this is an issue of judgment about what steps to take. Let us examine, briefly, what the judgment of the deputy leader of the Labour party was. She was asked very specifically, “You called for the Secretary of State’s resignation within 23 minutes of the evidence being provided to the Leveson inquiry. Did you read that evidence?” She said, “No, I didn’t need to.” She was asked, “Why didn’t you need to?” She said, “Because I heard the evidence of James Murdoch.” So that is it: he is Labour’s arbiter of standards and the ministerial code. What complete nonsense.
I am not belittling this issue. It is a serious issue, but it is not as serious as the eurozone, the jobs, investment and debt that we have to deal with. It is time we focused on that. Let me just say this to the right hon. Gentleman: endlessly questioning the integrity of someone when you do not have the evidence is bad judgment, rotten politics and plain wrong. We have learnt something about the Labour leader today and I think it is something he will regret.
I hope that the Prime Minister accepts that for more than 25 years every Liberal Democrat leader and colleague in both Houses has sought to break the insidious relationship between Labour and Tory Governments and the media. We therefore welcome the Leveson inquiry, which is doing an excellent job. If the Prime Minister accepts that that gives confidence to the public, will he also accept that referring this matter next month to the independent adviser will also give confidence to the public and that possibly, in the future, that should be done independently and not at the discretion of the Prime Minister of the day?
First, I very much agree with what my right hon. Friend says about the opportunity provided for the Leveson inquiry. I think we should be frank: the relationships between the media and the police, and between the media and politicians, and some of the ethics and problems in the media, have not been dealt with properly under Governments both Labour and Conservative, and this gives us an opportunity to deal with the matter. On the specific issue of the Secretary of State, what is more robust than a judge-led inquiry, with Ministers under oath—holding the Bible, speaking under oath and answering questions? That is the point on which we have heard absolutely no answer from the Labour party.
On Wednesday, the Secretary of State told this House that the permanent secretary had “agreed”, “authorised” and “approved” the role of Adam Smith. On Thursday, the permanent secretary refused 10 times to confirm to my Committee that that was the case. On Friday, he then wrote to me stating merely that he was “aware and content” with Adam Smith’s role. Either the Secretary of State failed to provide full and accurate information to Parliament or he failed to require his civil servant to provide full and accurate information to a Select Committee of Parliament. Both are breaches of the ministerial code—[Interruption.]
I did watch some of the permanent secretary’s appearance in front of the right hon. Lady’s Committee, when he thought he was going to be discussing the Olympic Games. What he said, over and over again, was that he backed what his Secretary of State had said at this Dispatch Box. When asked to clarify it, he made it absolutely clear that he agreed the arrangements within the Department, as I said in my statement, and he was aware of and content with the role of the special adviser. I know that the right hon. Lady sometimes allows her Committee to drift into these areas, but I am afraid that she is completely wrong.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is an urgent need to restore public confidence in the process that led to decisions in this matter and that to achieve that an inquiry needs to be held, in the open, in which witnesses give evidence in public, subject to cross-examination and under oath? Will he confirm that if at the end of that process there remain questions to be answered, he will refer the matter to the ministerial adviser—or it might be appropriate that it be looked into by a Select Committee of this House?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. I agree with him. Having seen some of the Leveson inquiry on television, I know that it is immensely powerful that people are questioned under oath, that all the documentation is carefully gone through and that questions on that documentation are properly followed up. As I say, that is far more robust than anything the independent adviser or the civil service could provide. As my hon. Friend says, I am not waiting for Leveson to complete his investigations. If at any stage information comes out that shows that anyone has breached the ministerial code, of course I will act. That is the right approach and I think people should respect the integrity of the fact-finding mission in which Leveson is engaged. It does not remove from me the necessity to police the ministerial code; that is my job and I will fulfil it properly.
One of the clear duties on any Secretary of State, for which they in turn are responsible to the Prime Minister and not to Lord Leveson, concerns the conduct of their special advisers. Given what the Prime Minister knows already about the palpable dereliction of duty by the Secretary of State in supervising that adviser, does he not believe that there are matters under the ministerial code that now merit investigation by the independent adviser? No one understands why he is seeking to shelter behind the smokescreen of Lord Leveson’s inquiry when the duty to have this investigation is on him.
I respect hugely the right hon. Gentleman and his experience in government and I think he would know that I consulted the Cabinet Secretary, asking the question, “What is the right process to follow to ensure we get to the truth and we deal with this issue?” The right process to follow is to allow Lord Leveson to find the facts of the case and if at any stage there is a question of the ministerial code being broken I can act. The ministerial code in respect of special advisers is absolutely clear: Ministers are responsible and they have to take responsibility, and that is what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did when he came to the House.
Given that the role of the adviser on the ministerial code is purely to advise the Prime Minister on whether a Minister’s actions are in breach of that code, and not to investigate or establish the facts of those actions, is it not sensible to allow the Leveson inquiry to establish the facts and, in the unlikely event—in my view—that it discovers that there is a prima facie case to answer, then to refer it to the independent adviser on the ministerial code?
My right hon. Friend is entirely right. It is worth examining for a second what would happen if the independent adviser was commissioned to set off down a process of factual discovery. He would have to look at all the information that is about to be provided and is being provided to the Leveson inquiry, which would literally duplicate the findings of fact and would literally be prejudging what the judge himself will be judging.
The Prime Minister has just claimed again that in relation to the BSkyB bid, the Government sought independent advice and followed it “at every stage”. Will he confirm that on 31 December 2010, Ofcom advised the Government to refer the bid to the Competition Commission and that the Government did not do that, so what he has just said to this House—they both said it last week—is simply not true?
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that he ought to know that we were acting in accordance with a law passed by his Government, the Enterprise Act 2002. That Act requires consideration of the company’s representations in terms of reference to the Competition Commission. If that is not taken into account, the matter could be subject to a judicial review. What I said, and what the Secretary of State said, which is that each stage he took independent advice and followed that advice, is correct.
I do think this is right. Perhaps we can recognise, if we go back over 10 or 20 years in politics, that it is frankly the easiest thing in the world for a Prime Minister to stand at this Dispatch Box and say to a member of the Cabinet, “Oh, it’s all getting a bit difficult—off you go.” I think it is important to get to the facts—to get to the truth. That is what I believe in doing. It is called natural justice, and we should have some more of it.
The Prime Minister is well aware that for many years now, the machinery has been in place for investigations of breaches of the codes of conduct for Ministers and for Members of the House of Commons. Why does the Prime Minister not implement that, as opposed to going to a third party?
Again, I say, “Can you think of a process that is more robust than a Minister having to provide, under oath, information to an inquiry, and answering questions under oath, knowing all the time that if anything in that information in any way breaches the ministerial code, it can trigger another judgment?” That is what is happening. That is what I agreed with the Cabinet Secretary, a civil servant of impeccable standing, and I am absolutely convinced that it is the right approach.
This morning, I checked with my office in Wellingborough to see whether there were lots of complaints about the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and Mrs Bone said that there were hundreds and hundreds. They all wanted to know why Harry is not to become the England football team manager. There was not a single complaint about the Secretary of State. The message that Mrs Bone wanted to give was “Let the Prime Minister get on with running the country and solving the economic crisis.”
As ever, Mrs Bone is spot on, and I am sure that there are many like her, round the country, saying to us, “This is important—don’t belittle the issue—but there are many more important issues about jobs, living standards, and dealing with the debt that you should be getting on with.”
Does the Prime Minister not accept that all his problems spring from his original misjudgment? Having taken responsibility for the News Corp bid for BSkyB away from the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills because he had expressed antipathy towards News Corporation, it was stupid of the Prime Minister to hand that responsibility over to the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, who was already on record as being in favour of the bid.
I am afraid that I do not accept that at all. To be fair to my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable), it was not just antipathy; he was recorded saying that he wanted to destroy the business. He could not carry on running that part of his Department. I sought advice from the Cabinet Secretary, and the Cabinet Secretary sought legal advice from the Cabinet Office. The view came back that it was appropriate to ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport to fulfil that role.
I was at the meeting of the Public Accounts Committee at which, according to the Prime Minister’s statement, the permanent secretary said that he approved the approach taken by the Department in relation to using Adam Smith as a conduit. That is not what the permanent secretary said. He said:
“The Secretary of State made a full statement to Parliament…and he has made it clear that he is providing full written evidence and looking forward to providing oral evidence to the Leveson inquiry.”
Given that the terms of reference of the Leveson inquiry make no reference at all to the accountability of Ministers to Parliament, how can Leveson deal with the concerns that have been expressed?
Let me be absolutely clear about what the permanent secretary has done and approved. He approved the approach taken by the Department to the quasi-judicial process relating to the BSkyB bid. This included a small number of people—including Adam Smith, the special adviser—acting as a contact point with News Corporation. It is normal—indeed, required—in such a process to have contacts, and the permanent secretary has made it clear that he was aware and content for Adam Smith to be one of those points of contact. You can keep digging into this area, but I am afraid that it is not getting anywhere.
Will the Prime Minister tell us whether he, like previous Prime Ministers, has ever phoned the Murdoch empire to offer his services as a godfather, or perhaps offer No. 10 for a pyjama party? If not, does he think that what we are seeing is a call for openness, or more naked opportunism than one would find on page 3?
My hon. Friend puts it well. The point is this: I am perfectly prepared to admit that the relationship between politicians and media proprietors got too close. What is interesting about the Labour party is that it has not revealed any of the meetings that it had while it was in government, whereas we have been completely transparent.
The Prime Minister has insisted on the Leveson process to decide the fate of the Secretary of State, and he will be judged by that. May I ask that he assist the inquiry by providing the Leveson team with the private texts and e-mails of Treasury special advisers to Mr Frederic Michel and Graham McWilliam of BSkyB?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the principles of fair play and natural justice dictate that accusations made about the Secretary of State at Leveson should be determined only after the Secretary of State has had the opportunity to give his side of the story at Leveson? Does he also agree that the motivation for this urgent question today has more to do with the failure of the Opposition to engage on the issues before the people of London and the people of Britain at the ballot box on Thursday?
The one fact that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State cannot get away from is the fact that James Murdoch knew precisely, word for word, what the Secretary of State was going to say before he said it, before the House knew on three occasions and before commercial operators in opposition to Murdoch knew it. Is that not a clear example of collusion between the Government and of a shabby deal between the Prime Minister and the Murdochs?
While we are on the subject of people who say things before they should, I would have thought that when the hon. Gentleman stands up in the House, he should make an apology. He stood up last week and claimed a whole series of facts about meetings that I had had with Rupert Murdoch based on privileged access that he had had—and he is not denying it—to this inquiry, and the facts turned out to be wrong. A man of honour would stand up and apologise.
The press have a proud and historic role in British politics and it is right that political parties communicate their policy to the nation, but does my right hon. Friend agree that that is in stark contrast to a political party that thinks that national politics should be directed by the highest union bidder?
Order. Most questions have focused on the terms of the urgent question. I have sadly to tell the hon. Gentleman that that was a million miles away from it and does not require an answer. It was completely out of order. We will take another Member who, I am sure, will be in order—[Interruption.] Order. I do not require any sedentary chuntering in the background.
Can my right hon. Friend provide any information about the last time a proposed takeover bid was given the same level of scrutiny and independent advice as the BSkyB bid has been given?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. The scrutiny that that was given, the process, the transparency—that was a proper process. As my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary has explained, on four occasions he took steps that were not welcomed by News Corporation, but in everything he did, he was open, transparent and taking independent advice.
Why is the Culture Secretary getting better employment rights than the rest of the workers in Britain? Is it possibly because the Prime Minister knows that as long as the Culture Secretary is in the firing line, it prevents the bullets from hitting him, the Prime Minister?
I welcome the open and thorough process that Lord Justice Leveson will be engaged in. I also welcome a Prime Minister who will be personally responsible for ensuring that his Government adhere to the ministerial code of conduct. Will he also make the decision that his Ministers cannot make, and require Lord Justice Leveson to report on his inquiry directly to him?
The point about the Leveson inquiry is that its report will clearly be a major political, media and regulatory event. He is effectively reporting not only to all in the Government, but to everyone in Parliament, in politics and in public life who care about this issue. I do think—I do hope—that all parties will be able to engage in this, because we have an opportunity to deal with issues of press regulation and relations between politicians and the media that have not been right in our country but that, frankly, we will only get right if we work on a cross-party basis.
As the only defence that the Secretary of State has is based on the fiction that the only way Ministers communicate with their special advisers is by e-mail, why has the Prime Minister forgotten the lesson of the David Mellor scandal, which is that a resignation delayed is a disgrace multiplied?
If the hon. Gentleman is really concerned, as I am, about making sure that all the information about this is properly looked into, what is preferable: a civil service-run process where you can look at papers and ask questions, or a judge-led inquiry with Ministers answering questions under oath where all the documents have to be revealed and the whole thing is pursued properly by a team of barristers who are expert at finding out the facts? This is why I do not really understand where the Opposition are coming from. If they want full factual disclosure before making a judgment about whether any ministerial codes were broken, this must be the most robust process.
In a previous scandal affecting Damian McBride, a very respected Member of this House, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), suggested that the then Prime Minister could not take responsibility for every single initiative or text from advisers in No. 10. Will my right hon. Friend say why he thinks the situation is any different now?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Taking responsibility for a special adviser means coming to this House and explaining what has happened. In this case the special adviser resigned immediately and gave his reasons for resigning, so on that basis I am very confident that my right hon. Friend has not broken the ministerial code.
The permanent secretary will not be giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry, so when will parliamentarians have the opportunity to question him on the role he played? This is a very important issue, and DCMS has been used to these issues before, so when will parliamentarians have the opportunity to know exactly what the permanent secretary’s advice was and when it was given, and is the Prime Minister not shocked that the key person was the special adviser?
Let me answer all those questions. First of all, it is up to Lord Justice Leveson whom he calls to his inquiry. He has full access; he can call any civil servant, any politician—anyone he wants. That is the first point. The second point is this: in this House, our Select Committee, excellently chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), is able to call, whenever it likes, whatever civil servants it likes and to ask those questions. On the issue about the way the Department ran the quasi-judicial process, yes that is why the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, has written to all Departments to make sure that rigorous processes are followed in all quasi-judicial cases.
Is it not obvious that the real reason the Prime Minister is so reluctant to refer this matter to the independent adviser on the ministerial code is that, if the Secretary of State were forced to resign as a result, the Prime Minister would find himself on the front line and having to answer for every future revelation about the covert links between the Murdoch empire and the Conservative party? In those circumstances, is it not inappropriate that the Prime Minister, who has a vested interest, should take this decision, rather than Parliament, based on a substantive motion and a vote in the House?
The right hon. Gentleman could find any sort of complicated, circuitous explanation he wants, but he could always go for the simple one, which is that, having consulted the Cabinet Secretary and listened to the views of others, the best way to find out the facts is to allow Leveson to run its course. That does not in any way excuse me from exercising my duties under the ministerial code. That is the answer. Sometimes the simple explanation is actually the right one.
My hon. Friend is right. It is important that that dialogue is carried out appropriately. In this case the special adviser did not act appropriately or properly, and that is why he resigned, but I do believe that it raises some wider issues, and that is why I asked Sir Jeremy Heywood to write to all Departments to make sure that in any quasi-judicial matters we get it right.
People in Wales will compare the privileged access that Mr Murdoch and his friends had to the Culture Secretary with the cavalier way in which the right hon. Gentleman treated campaigners for public sector television in Wales. That is a small matter in the grand scheme of things, but is it not just another example of his double dealing and double standards?
I do not accept that, because I think that we have done right by S4C and that broadcasting in Wales is a great success. Let me just make this point, which perhaps will get some all-party agreement. All media companies have their great causes and lobbies, and I would say, after seven years of being leader of the Conservative party, that one gets as much pressure from the BBC, from regional newspapers and from other papers about things that they are concerned about. It is worth putting that on the record.
Having had a statement less than one week ago, and with the facts having remained unchanged since then, does the Prime Minister agree that, rather than listening to flip-flopping from the Leader of the Opposition, we should remember that just a week ago he himself said, quite rightly, that we should let Leveson do its job?
That is exactly what the right hon. Gentleman said. Let me just remind him. He said:
“I think…it’s right that the Leveson Inquiry takes its course.”
That is what he said—just a week ago. The trouble is that he was bounced by the deputy leader of the Labour party, who thought that this issue would get a good headline, 23 minutes after the evidence had come out, and because he has no judgment he backed it.