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Commons Chamber

Volume 559: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2013

House of Commons

Wednesday 27 February 2013

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Economic Policy

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effects of the Government’s economic policies on Wales; and if he will make a statement. (144371)

3. What recent assessment he has made of the effects of the Government’s economic policies on Wales; and if he will make a statement. (144373)

5. What recent assessment he has made of the effects of the Government’s economic policies on Wales; and if he will make a statement. (144375)

11. What recent assessment he has made of the effects of the Government’s economic policies on Wales; and if he will make a statement. (144382)

Before answering the question, I wish the House dydd gwyl Dewi da or a very happy St David’s day for Friday.

The Government are committed to delivering the plan that has cut the deficit by a quarter and given us record low interest rates and a record number of jobs, benefiting families and businesses in Wales. Moody’s decision to downgrade the UK Government bond rating is a reminder of how important it is to fix the country’s finances and a warning to those who think that we should simply borrow more.

What is good for the economy of north Wales is good for Merseyside and what is bad for that economy hurts us too. The fact that 1,240 more people are in long-term unemployment in north Wales than a year ago does not give me hope for the economy of my constituency. What is the Secretary of State going to do about that?

The hon. Lady is entirely right that the economies of north Wales and Merseyside are inextricably linked. The Government have created more jobs since we came to power. The rate of employment has increased by 1.6%. She should bear it in mind that the Welsh Assembly Government are responsible for economic development in Wales. They should therefore align their policies closely with those that this Government are pursuing.

Will the Secretary of State admit that his economic policies are failing Wales disastrously? His new jobs are a mirage. One new worker in 10 is underemployed. They are part-timers seeking full-time work or temporary workers who want a proper job. There are underemployed breadwinners who are struggling to put food on the table and heat their homes. That is contributing to the 200,000 children who are living in poverty in Wales. Why does he not apologise for that shameful record?

I will take no lessons from the right hon. Gentleman, whose party oversaw the trashing of the British economy and was responsible for the mess that we are having to clear up. The Government have created more than 1 million private sector jobs since we came to power, against the international trend, and we are proud of that.

The loss of the triple A status is a stark reminder of how important it is to develop sensible policies to fix the economy. I remind the hon. Gentleman that Moody’s recognises that the UK’s creditworthiness remains extremely high and points to the strong track record of fiscal consolidation. Were it not for that, we would be on a negative outlook, rather than a stable one.

I am glad to see that the Secretary of State is reading from a script today. No doubt, he is not trusted to make off-the-cuff comments again. I wish him a dydd gwyl Dewi hapus. What will life be like from April, after dydd gwyl Dewi, for the 170,000 working families who will lose their tax credits thanks to his Government, who prefer to give the money to millionaires?

After April, many more families in Wales will benefit from historically high levels of employment and lower taxes. I remind the hon. Lady that since we came to power, 1.1 million people in Wales are paying less tax and 109,000 people are paying no tax at all.

The house building industry is extremely important in Wales and a major driver of economic recovery. I was therefore disappointed to read today the comments of Steve Morgan, the chairman of Redrow plc, Wales’s largest building company, who says that the Welsh Government’s housing policies are potentially “catastrophic” for the industry, with the new regulations made in Cardiff likely to add £11,000 to the cost of a three-bedroom house. At a time when Welsh builders need work and Wales needs more homes, that cannot be right. I consequently urge the Welsh Government to align their policies with those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Although unemployment in the Vale of Glamorgan is well below the national average, Barry still needs to attract private sector investment. Ten years ago, Barry was left out of the assisted areas map, which sadly has led to its increased decline. Will the Secretary of State work with the Welsh Government to ensure that Barry receives assisted area status this time around?

The Wales Office is in discussion with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Welsh Government about the assisted areas map for 2014 to 2020, but the decision on which sea areas are awarded assisted area status will be determined by the Welsh Government, subject to criteria set by the European Commission. I am sure they will listen to what my hon. Friend has to say.

No coalition Government policy has a greater economic impact on Wales than increasing the spending power of the poorest through raising the tax-free allowance. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how many people the coalition Government have lifted out of paying tax in Wales over the past two years?

As I have just mentioned, 1.1 million people in Wales are paying less tax as a consequence of policies pursued by this Government, and 109,000 are paying no tax at all. That must be good news for the people mentioned by my hon. Friend.

The Welsh economy benefits from students from developing countries attending our excellent universities. Following the Prime Minister’s visit to India, will the Secretary of State join our universities in telling students from India, China, Malaysia and Indonesia that Welsh universities are open and that they would be welcome to study there?

Higher education is a major export earner for Wales and, of course, for the United Kingdom as a whole. During his recent visit to India my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear that there is no arbitrary limit on the number of students who can study in the UK, provided they have the necessary qualifications and can speak the language. They are more than welcome to come to the UK.

Last week the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned that Wales faces a decade of destitution as a result of policies pursued by this Government, and the Welsh Government said that £600 million is being taken out of the pockets of ordinary Welsh people. Is the Secretary of State telling the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues what people are saying about his Government in Wales, or is he just there to cheerlead for policies that are hammering his country?[Official Report, 28 February 2013, Vol. 559, c. 7-8MC.]

If this Government were to pursue the policies advocated by the Labour party and try to fix a debt crisis simply by borrowing more, the plight of the individuals whom the hon. Gentleman mentions would be infinitely worse. So far we are providing 109,000 additional jobs for the people of Wales, and we are reducing their tax bills and doing our best to ensure that they get sustainable private sector jobs. The hon. Gentleman has no answer to that.

Universal Credit

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the roll-out of universal credit in Wales. (144372)

7. What recent discussions he has had with Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the roll-out of universal credit in Wales. (144377)

The Wales Office has regular discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions on the roll-out of universal credit in Wales to ensure its successful implementation.

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), recently told me that there would be “no big-bang effect” on the finances of housing associations and landlords across Wales as a result of the Government’s policy. Yet Moody’s has placed housing associations on downgrade review, not just this Government, and the NHS is warning of a massive increase in rent arrears. When will he and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions get a grip before there are devastating impacts across Wales?

I simply do not accept much of the scaremongering from the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. We are in close discussion and consultation with housing associations and local authorities across Wales that are key stakeholders. We expect 200,000 households in Wales to see an increase in their average entitlement of around £160 per month as a result of universal credit.

Seventy per cent. of council tenants in Crumlin in my constituency will lose out because of the bedroom tax and the roll-out of universal credit. With council services stretched to the maximum, is the Secretary of State concerned that vital services will be cut locally across Wales, as well as homelessness increasing?

I will make the same point to the hon. Gentleman: the Government simply do not accept the catastrophic scenarios that Labour Members are trying to communicate. Universal credit will be a major tool in creating new incentives to work and raise employment levels in Wales. Let us not forget that Labour’s legacy in Wales was 200,000 people who have never worked at all. He should feel angry about that.

Disarray on universal credit means that children in Wales still do not know whether they will lose their free school meal entitlement, and some families in Wales will be better off not seeking more work because they would have to earn an additional £1,500 per child to make up for the loss of school meals. What is the Minister doing to safeguard free school meal entitlements for children in Wales?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. The Government take seriously concerns about high child care costs. On her specific point on passported benefits, of which the free school meal is one, we are in close discussions with Welsh Government Ministers. We are making good progress on resolving the outstanding questions. I will write to her with further information.

Superfast Broadband

The Government have demonstrated our commitment to superfast broadband by providing £150 million across the UK to fund super-connected cities including Cardiff and Newport, and almost £57 million to the Welsh Government to ensure that broadband access is available to homes and businesses in the hardest-to-reach parts of Wales.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Government’s aim is to provide a truly modern digital infrastructure that does not leave behind rural communities in Wales—and, for that matter, in Macclesfield?

The Government have allocated £530 million to stimulate commercial investment to roll out high-speed broadband in rural communities and £150 million to improve mobile coverage where signals are poor or non-existent.

Even though there is a lot of rain in Swansea, the council wants to create a new cloud over Swansea—a wi-fi cloud. Will the Minister meet me and the council to discuss the prospect of super-connectivity for Swansea in the forthcoming Budget, so that the sun continues to shine through the clouds, and we can bathe in the glory of being League cup winners?

I commend Swansea for their wonderful win in the League cup final. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am always happy to meet him. If he would like to contact my office, I will be pleased to do so again.

This Government are committed to broadband, but does the Secretary of State share my bewilderment—and that of many of my businesses and farmers in the Ceredigion constituency—at the Welsh Assembly Government’s curious prioritisation, which means that some rural and hard-to-reach areas of Wales will not benefit from broadband initiatives for two years?

It is good to see my hon. Friend speaking up for Ceredigion on Ceredigion day. A number of colleagues have commented on the choice of areas for the first roll-out. Suffice it to say that Broadband Delivery UK is keeping a close watch on how that develops, and I will speak to it on that very issue.

Because of the lack of coverage on main-line televisions, many of us had the great joy at the weekend of watching Swansea’s triumph on broadband. Will the Secretary of State assure us that the future triumphs of Newport County, Cardiff City and Wrexham will be available on broadband?


6. What discussions he has had with Ministers in the Welsh Government who have partial responsibility for justice and law and order. (144376)

I have meetings with Ministers in the Welsh Government on a wide range of issues, including justice and law and order, although they are of course not devolved.

I will wish the Secretary of State a happy St David’s day on St David’s day and not today.

There is an all-Wales legal circuit, four excellent police forces and an all-Wales probation trust. It is high time that we devolved justice and policing to Wales. The Secretary of State will know that there is a huge clamour of enthusiasm for this move. I hope he will join it.

I understand that Plaid Cymru has made its submission to the Silk commission, which will no doubt consider those proposals. It will report in spring next year. The Government have shown our commitment to devolution of policing by creating the office of police and crime commissioner, which brings policing as close as possible to the policed public.

I heartily disagree with the Secretary of State on that—police and crime commissioners are nothing of the sort—but the obvious point is that laws in Wales are diverging naturally from those in England, including in administrative law, family law and criminal law. It is high time that the legislature in Wales had its own system. Otherwise, it will probably be the only legislature in the world without such a system.

I hear the right hon. Gentleman’s point. No doubt the Silk commission will hear it too, and will take it into account when deciding whether the matter should be taken forward.

The Welsh Assembly may be able to prevent parents from having their children educated in England and prevent patients from being treated by the excellent English national health service, but they will not be able to stop criminals crossing the border and breaking the law in England, or vice versa. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be a disaster to devolve policing and justice to the Welsh Assembly?

My hon. Friend has made his point in his customary restrained manner. No doubt the Silk commission is listening very carefully to what he has to say. He has 48 hours in which to make his submissions. I encourage him to do so.

In his discussions with Welsh Ministers, has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to look at the costs and implications of a separate legal jurisdiction in Wales? Can he tell the House whether he favours such a separation?

Tempted though I am, I will not second-guess the work of the commission. I will say, however, that the UK Government will make their own submission to the commission this week, and it will be published next week.

Army Recruitment Offices

8. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on the closure of the army recruitment offices in Wales. (144378)

I have discussed this issue with the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). I was also pleased to support him when we debated this topic in Westminster Hall earlier this month.

Wales punches above its weight in recruitment to the armed forces, but Government outsourcing means that half its careers offices will be closed. What assurances can the Minister give that the Army will still be able to recruit from all parts of Wales, including the valleys, after these closures?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; Wales has traditionally been a healthy recruiting ground for excellent soldiers for our armed forces, and that will continue to be the case under the new partnership between Capita and the Army on recruitment. There is a long-term trend of young people using the internet to access careers advice, and that is exactly the same with defence careers. However, this is not just about an online service, but about mobile teams getting out into the communities to enable face-to-face contact between men and women in uniform and young people who show an interest in a career in the armed forces.

Prisons (North Wales)

9. What discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues and others on building a new prison in north Wales; and what progress has been made. (144379)

The Ministry of Justice is carrying out a review to examine the feasibility of constructing a new prison. I am pleased that north Wales is being considered as a possible location and reiterate my strong support for locating a new prison in the area.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response, and I warmly welcome the possibility of a so-called “super prison” in north Wales. Does he agree, however, that while further public sector investment in north Wales is welcome, it should not detract from the need to rebalance the Welsh economy and ensure that we move away from the dependence on public sector pay in Wales?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. The new prison would provide approximately 900 new jobs of high quality, but its economic impact on the area would be approximately £17.5 million, which would itself be a stimulus to the private sector. The new prison is widely welcomed in north Wales.

The Secretary of State said that the Ministry of Justice was reviewing the possibility of a prison in north Wales. Has the Wales Office itself identified sites? I believe, and he believes, that this would boost economic activity in north Wales. It would be good for the economy as well as the justice system.

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that this would be of massive economic benefit. My hon. Friend the Minister discussed this with the relevant Welsh Minister last week, and I have also had discussions with my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor.

Under-occupancy Penalty

10. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the under-occupancy penalty on social housing in Wales. (144380)

12. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the under-occupancy penalty on social housing in Wales. (144383)

Information on the expected impact of the social sector under-occupancy measure is provided in the impact assessment prepared by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Local authorities in Wales need roughly 550 new couples every year to volunteer to be foster parents. Is it not a ludicrous own goal to include potential foster families in the bedroom tax? Before Government Members start complaining about the term “bedroom tax”, let me say that I heard the Prime Minister use it. It looks like a tax, it feels like a tax and it is unfair on those who are going to have to pay it.

The hon. Gentleman describes a reduction in Government expenditure as a tax. Opposition Members confuse their debt with their deficits and they spent 13 years describing out-of-control public spending as investment. I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on 5 February when he said that people who suffer from low levels of financial literacy struggle to make correct budgeting decisions. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and his party are proof of that.

The right hon. Lady’s question has been grouped. Her moment is now and we should hear from her.

I shall take the moment, Mr Speaker.

One immediate measure that would protect the most vulnerable people would be to exempt those on disability living allowance from this tax. Will the Minister urgently review this policy?

Let me start by wishing the right hon. Lady well with the important job that the Prime Minister has asked her to do on complaints in the NHS. I know that she has the respect and support of the whole House.

I understand the concerns among the disabled community about the implementation of this measure, but we are making substantial resource available for local authorities to assist with the difficult specific cases, among which I expect the disabled to be included.

Can there be any justification for treating tenants on housing benefit in social housing differently from tenants on housing benefit in the private rented sector, and how can it possibly lie in the mouth of those who changed the law on housing benefit for those in the private rented sector to complain when we extend exactly the same provisions to those on housing benefit in social housing? Have I missed something?

My hon. Friend highlights very well the total incoherence of Labour’s position. It is even harder to justify maintaining a subsidy for spare rooms given the country’s financial condition and the need to reduce the deficit and restore financial budgetary discipline.

I draw the House’s attention to the motion this afternoon and encourage right hon. and hon. Members to participate in the debate and to join us in the Lobby.

DWP Ministers tell me that no assessment has been made of the flexibility of the housing market in rural Wales in order to respond to the bedroom tax. Has the Under-Secretary made any such assessment?

There are different types of housing stock throughout Wales, but one problem facing the whole of Wales is that of overcrowding and long housing waiting lists. It cannot be justifiable that, at the same time as people are receiving housing benefit for spare rooms, in the same streets and on the same housing estates there are houses with three or four children in the same bedroom.

How on earth can the Minister defend a policy that is unfair and unworkable and will penalise the disabled, forces’ families and foster parents in Wales? Does he deny that his Government’s own impact assessment shows that Wales will be harder hit than anywhere else in the UK? Is there not a single issue on which he and the Secretary of State will stand up for Wales?

There is nothing caring, compassionate or progressive about walking away from our responsibility to fix the deficit and the debt. If we do not do that, the very people we will hurt in the future will be the poor and the vulnerable—the very people whom we all came into politics to defend.

Wales Tourism Week

Wales Office Ministers will undertake a range of visits to attractions across Wales to celebrate Wales tourism week and to raise awareness of the tourism industry’s vital importance to the Welsh economy.

The Minister will know that catering and hospitality are vital parts of the Welsh tourism industry. With that in mind, will he welcome the creation of the Tenby hotel school and all the good it will bring to the whole of Wales? When he is next in the county, will he pay us a visit?

I welcome that question from my hon. Friend. I will next be in the area this weekend—he and I have the pleasure and privilege of representing the most beautiful part of the United Kingdom. I very much welcome the new development he has announced; it will be a major boost to tourism not just in Pembrokeshire but across Wales.

I call Mrs Helen Goodman. No? Well, everybody is here. We are ready. Let’s get going. Questions to the Prime Minister.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Does the Prime Minister agree that it is totally unacceptable for Members or prospective Members of this House to say anything that supports terrorism?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Frankly, it is absolutely staggering that someone is standing for public office who has said this:

“In October 1984, when the Brighton bomb went off, I felt a surge of excitement at the nearness of Margaret Thatcher’s demise. And yet disappointment that such a chance had been missed.”

Those are the words of the Labour candidate in the Eastleigh by-election. They are a complete disgrace and I hope that the Leader of the Labour party will get up and condemn them right now.

Three years ago, the Prime Minister said that

“the first priority of any government has got to be keeping UK plc’s credit rating. That’s got to come first. It’s the only responsible thing to do.”

How is that going?

Is it not amazing that the Leader of the Opposition will not condemn someone who apparently speaks up for terrorists? Is that not absolutely disgraceful? He will have a second chance when he gets up again. The decision by the ratings agency is a reminder of the debt and the deficit problem that this country faces and, frankly, it is a warning to anyone who thinks we can walk away from it. It is absolutely vital that we continue with the work of this Government, who have cut the deficit by a quarter, with a million extra private sector jobs and interest rates at record low levels. I note that it is still his policy to address excessive borrowing by borrowing more.

I was asking about the country’s credit rating. The right hon. Gentleman used to say that our credit rating was

“the mark of trust in our economy”,

and that it was

“right up front and centre”


“our new economic model”.

His manifesto that he published at the general election said that safeguarding Britain’s credit rating was the very first of his “Benchmarks for Britain”, against which

“the British people…can judge the economic success or failure of the next government.”

So does the Prime Minister accept that, by the first test he set himself, he has failed?

If there is a problem of excessive borrowing, why is it the right hon. Gentleman’s policy to borrow more? That is the question that he simply has to answer. If he wants to listen to the credit rating agency, I will tell him that Moody’s said:

“Moody’s could also downgrade the UK’s government debt rating further in the event of…reduced political commitment to fiscal consolidation.”

On this side of the House, we know that that is the vital work we have to do. Will he finally now admit that he is in favour of more borrowing? Admit it!

You, Mr Speaker, always know when the right hon. Gentleman starts asking me questions that he cannot answer questions about his own record. The part-time Chancellor said that it would be a “humiliation” for Britain to lose its triple A credit rating. I know that the Prime Minister is not big on humility, but his manifesto did promise that he would be “accountable and open”, so let us give him another go. A simple question—yes or no: has not he failed the first economic test that he set out in his manifesto?

I am not arguing for one moment that the rating agency does not matter—that is the right hon. Gentleman’s argument. His argument is that the rating agency does not matter and that the answer to debt is to borrow more and not to take any responsibility for the mess they left. It is this Government who have cut the deficit by a quarter, who have a million extra private sector jobs and who have low interest rates that are vital for the future of the economy. Economies that maintain their triple A rating are those of countries such as Canada and Germany that fixed the roof when the sun was shining. Let me ask him again: why does he not admit that his answer to extra borrowing is to borrow more? Have another go: admit it!

Any time the right hon. Gentleman wants to swap places, I will happily answer the questions. He talks about borrowing. I do not know when he last checked, but the deficit is rising, not falling, this year—and, because of his failure to grow the economy, he is borrowing £212 billion more than he planned. Now, let us turn to the reasons for the downgrade. May we take it from his answers so far that he really believes that this loss of the country’s triple A status, which he set as the test, has nothing to do with him?

I am the one saying that this credit rating does matter. It demonstrates that we have to go further and faster on reducing the deficit. The very fact that the right hon. Gentleman will not answer the question about wanting to borrow more, which the country needs to know, means that he will never sit on this side of the House. If he wants to look at what is happening in our economy, is it not interesting that he does not mention the other economic news from last week, which was 154,000 extra people in work and more people in employment than at any time in our history? Youth unemployment is down since the election; unemployment is down since the election—that is what is happening in our economy, but the right hon. Gentleman cannot recognise it. When is he going to admit that we should never listen to someone who sold the gold, bust the banks, racked up the deficit and cannot say sorry for any of it?

I think we can take it from that answer that the Prime Minister cannot accept the simple fact that he has failed on the first test he set himself, and it is his fault—it happened on his watch. Borrowing is rising, even after all the pain of the tax rises and all the spending cuts because the part-time Chancellor’s plan is failing. The truth is that they are the last people left who think that their plan is working and that the failure has nothing to do with them. We have 1 million—[Interruption.] The Education Secretary calls out, “That’s not true”, so perhaps he believes it, too, but behind the scenes he is briefing against the Chancellor. Perhaps they should swap places. We have 1 million young people out of work, the deficit is rising not falling and the economy is flatlining. What further evidence does he need that his plan is just not working?

Let us examine the points the right hon. Gentleman has just made. He says the deficit is up, but it is down by a quarter since the election. He says that we do not have support for our plan, but the CBI—the biggest business organisation in the country—says we have the right plan for growth. He complains about the level of unemployment, but it is down since the election and we have a record number of people in work. Those are the facts. Now let us look at the right hon. Gentleman’s policy. Let us examine the fact that the New Statesman, the in-house magazine of the Labour party, says that his

“critique of the government’s…strategy may never win back public trust”,


“proposals for the economy will never convince”,

and his

“credibility problem will only become magnified as the general election approaches”.

That is not Conservative central office saying it, but the New Statesman.

With the greatest respect to the New Statesman, the Prime Minister is scraping the barrel by quoting that. All we have heard today—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Zahawi, you are an excitable fellow; this is not very statesmanlike. Calm yourself; you will get better over time.

All we have heard today is a Prime Minister who refuses to accept that he has failed on the central test he set himself. He has failed to meet that first test. It is not just our credit rating that has been downgraded. We have a downgraded Government, a downgraded Chancellor and a downgraded Prime Minister.

The right hon. Gentleman says that the New Statesman is scraping the barrel, but it was the only newspaper that endorsed his leadership. In this Oscar week, perhaps the best we can say is that Daniel Day-Lewis was utterly convincing as Abraham Lincoln, and the right hon. Gentleman is utterly convincing as Gordon Brown: more borrowing, more spending, more debt.

In the 10 years for which they have run Harrogate borough council, the Conservatives have cleared the £19.6 million of debt left by the Liberal Democrats and, in doing so, have delivered a four-year council tax freeze. Does the Prime Minister agree that that shows the wisdom of tackling debt, and that any urges to borrow more and more like the Labour party constitute the road to ruin?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is worth recognising that when it comes to finding efficiencies and finding value for money, local government has an excellent record. We really should say that in this place. Local government has a good record of paying down debt, dealing with deficits, and being efficient. One of the benefits of that is that it reduces debt interest charges, which is something on which we must focus in this Government and in this country.

Q2. Next month, a big event—alongside the Budget—will be the rugby champion, Wales, playing England at the Millennium stadium. Does the Prime Minister have the same confidence in England’s winning the triple crown as his Chancellor had in our retaining the triple A credit rating, and, as team manager, does he intend to change his economic team to avoid further humiliation and a triple-dip recession? (144287)

There is a difficult record of Prime Ministers’ endorsing various rugby or football teams, so I do not plan to do that. All I will say is that I am very proud of the fact that, on St David’s day, the Welsh flag will be flying above Downing street, as it should be—and, when it comes to the rugby, may the best team win.

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that since—in common with the United States and Japan—we lost our triple A status, the cost of our international borrowing has actually fallen?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. While I do not deny for one second the importance of the rating agencies, the most important test of credibility—a test that is faced day in, day out in the markets—is the rate of interest at which people borrow, and the rate of interest at which we borrow is still at record lows. It has gone down since the election, whereas it has gone up in many other countries, but if we listened to the Labour party, it would go up again.

Q3. The Prime Minister will be aware of the increased need for food banks in constituencies such as mine, which has been brought about by his Government’s failed policies. Will he sign my petition calling for action so that no family in the United Kingdom will go hungry as a result of his policies? (144288)

I will certainly look at the hon. Gentleman’s petition, but let me point out first that the use of food banks increased tenfold under the last Labour Government and, secondly, that a very important change that we made—requested by the Trussell Trust, which does so much to promote the work of food banks—was allowing them to be advertised in jobcentres. The last Government did not do that, because they were worried about the PR. Well, we put people ahead of public relations.

This week, the generation who fought in the Arctic convoys and Bomber Command and who died in the second world war have finally been recognised. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is right and proper for us to remember the 3,000 sailors and 55,000 members of Bomber Command who gave their lives for this country’s freedom?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. I am sure that there will be support throughout the House of Commons for all who took part in the Arctic convoys and all who served in Bomber Command.

It is not enough for us to have the excellent memorial to those who served in Bomber Command, in Green Park. It is right for us to have the medal for those who served in the Arctic convoys, and the clasp for those who served in Bomber Command. I have been stressing to Government colleagues how important it is for us to get on with handing out those medals and clasps as quickly as possible, because, tragically, we are losing more and more of the people who served all those years ago. They deserve their medals and their clasps, and I am proud that, under this Government, they will get them.

Q4. Mr and Mrs Goodwin live in the Caerphilly borough. They are both registered blind, and rely heavily on their guide dogs, family and neighbours. Life is not easy for them, but from 1 April it will become even more difficult, because they will have to pay the Government’s bedroom tax on the home in which they have lived for 26 years. What justification can there be for that?


I will look at any individual case, and the Department for Work and Pensions will look at any individual case, but may I first make the point that this is not a tax? A tax is when someone earns money, it is their money, and the Government take some of it away. Frankly, the Opposition have got to engage with the fact that housing benefit now accounts for £23 billion of Government spending. That is a 50% increase over the last decade. We also have to address the fact that we have 250,000 families in overcrowded accommodation and we have 1.8 million people waiting for a council house.

The right hon. Gentleman is shouting “Shameful”, but let him listen to what Labour’s Housing Minister in the last Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), said:

“We have reiterated time and again in this Committee the need to ensure that houses that are too large for people’s current needs are allocated accordingly.”––[Official Report, Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 31 January 2008; c. 697.]

That is what Labour said in Government. Now that it is in opposition, all we get is rank opportunism and irresponsibility.

Unemployment in Yorkshire is at its lowest level in two years, businesses in Yorkshire have full order books, and the head of the CBI has said that the Yorkshire economy is “turning a corner”. Will the Prime Minister therefore ignore the poor advice from the Labour party?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. The British economy has been through difficult times, not least because we are recovering from a massive boom and bust, a massive banking bust and the deepest recession since the 1930s, but if we look at what is happening in terms of employment and new business creation, we see an economy that is rebalancing, and we need to encourage that rebalancing and that business growth.

Q5. The Prime Minister has stood idly by while hard-pressed families in Salford and Eccles and across the country have faced soaring energy bills, which are now over £1,400 a year. Last October the Prime Minister promised to take action, and I think the whole country wants to know what he is going to do now to keep his promise to those families who are struggling to heat their homes. (144290)

We are legislating to make sure that energy companies put people on the lowest tariffs. When that Bill comes before the House of Commons, I hope that the right hon. Lady will vote for it.

Will the Prime Minister withdraw the National Health Service (Procurement, Patient Choice and Competition) Regulations 2013, which seem to contradict assurances given in the other place that this coalition Government will not privatise our NHS?

I urge my hon. Friend to look very closely at those regulations, because he will find that they are absolutely in line with the principles that the last Government put in place, and withdrawing them would actually lead to more competition in the NHS, rather than managed competition, managed by Monitor. I therefore think what my hon. Friend wants us to do would achieve the exact opposite of what he seeks.

Q6. The Energy Secretary, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Committee on Climate Change, the Chair of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change and a group of over 35 businesses, non-governmental organisations and faith groups are among those in this country who back the inclusion in the Energy Bill of a target to decarbonise the power sector by 2030. Will the Prime Minister explain why his Government have failed to include such a target in the Bill? (144291)

We do not believe it makes sense to set a target range for 2030 in advance of setting the fifth carbon budget, which covers the period 2028 to 2032. We will be taking a power in the Energy Bill, but setting it in advance would not make sense.

In 2008 Labour commissioned three reports on the state of the NHS, to celebrate the health service’s 60th birthday party. We now know those reports were damning and raised issues such as there being a dangerous target culture, which was also raised by Francis five years later. We also know those reports were suppressed by the Labour Government. Had they not been suppressed, thousands of lives could possibly have been saved. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling for an investigation into who was responsible for suppressing those reports?

I note what my hon. Friend has said, and I will look carefully at the issue she raises. The whole point about the Francis report is that we should use this as an opportunity to say, “Yes, of course we support the NHS and its founding principles, but not everything in the NHS is right.” Where there is bad practice and where things are going wrong, we need to shine a very bright light on it and make sure not only that we deal with it but that we hold people to account.

Q7. Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) on the new regulations laid on 13 February, the Government gave categorical assurances that GP commissioners would not be forced to put health services out to competitive tendering, but the regulations go completely against that. What is the Prime Minister’s excuse for this? (144292)

GP commissioners are not forced to put services out to competitive tender. We have GP commissioners, and the point is that it is going to be doctors making the decisions about whether they want to expand choice and diversity in the NHS. What is the hon. Lady worried about? What is the Labour party worried about? Is it not the case that lots of voluntary bodies, charities, the hospice movement, organisations like Mind and Whizz-Kidz in Tower Hamlets, which provides an amazing service for children with wheelchairs, are already involved? What are we frightened of in allowing doctors to say, “Let us have some diversity, let us have some choice and let us make sure we are on the side of patients”?

Two and a half years ago, nine-year-old Cerys Potter from the Vale of Glamorgan became the ninth person to die in an incident while on a rafting exercise on the Dalaman river. There appears to have been a blatant disregard of common sense and health and safety standards. Cerys’s parents have campaigned tirelessly for a criminal investigation and improved standards, and have even funded witnesses to travel to the Turkish courts, but their efforts have been frustrated, for what appear to be bureaucratic reasons. Will the Prime Minister work with the Turkish authorities to gain justice and to help to warn people of the risks of white-water rafting in Turkey?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this tragic case of a nine-year-old constituent of his, Cerys Potter, who died in 2010 in Turkey. I want to send my sincere condolences to the family in these terrible circumstances. I know that he has been speaking to the Minister for Europe about this case, and that our embassy in Turkey is monitoring the case and can again approach the Turkish authorities and ask them to keep the Potter family fully informed of any progress. I am sure that the Foreign Office will have listened very carefully to what my hon. Friend has said today, standing up for this family’s interests.

Q8. A vulnerable constituent of mine is near pension age and has lived in the same house his whole life. His parents have now died and he is willing to be re-housed but cannot find an alternative. He now faces homelessness because he simply cannot afford the Government’s bedroom tax. Can the Prime Minister explain why he has prioritised a tax cut for millionaires while devastating the lives of vulnerable people? (144293)

The point I would make to the hon. Lady is that 250,000 families live in overcrowded accommodation and 386,000 people live in under-occupied homes. There are 1.8 million people who would love to have a council house but cannot get one. Of course we need to build more social homes, and we are doing exactly that, but in the meantime we should do everything we can to make sure those homes are used in the most efficient and fair way. That is what our changes will help to achieve and that is why they deserve our support.

We were all hugely inspired by the wonderful Paralympic games in London last year, which were a triumph not only for sport but for perceptions of disability. Will the Prime Minister welcome the “Generation Inspired?” report, which is going to be presented today to No. 10 Downing street by Hannah Cockroft MBE, as a great opportunity to use the games legacy to improve the lives of young disabled people?

I will certainly welcome the report that my hon. Friend mentions. I thought that the Paralympic games were an absolute triumph for Britain in the way they were put on and in the way the auditoriums and stadiums were full for almost every event. I thought that was a great testament to the generosity of the people of this country and their enthusiasm for Paralympic sport. The most important thing is the change in perception about what disabled people are capable of—that is a real gift and it is something we should encourage.

Q9. The Prime Minister supports an exemption to the bedroom tax for the families of prisoners but not for people with cancer, for people with disabilities, for foster parents or for armed forces families—why? (144294)

As the hon. Lady knows, as part of this measure there is a £50 million fund to support people directly. We have addressed specifically the point about armed forces families, and when people leave the home they will be more than compensated for any costs under the under-occupancy rules. I come back to the bigger picture: housing benefit is up 50% in real terms and now accounts for £23 billion of public spending. If the Opposition come to the Chamber week after week and say no to the benefit cap, no to a cap on housing benefit, no to restricting the growth of benefits and no to our under-occupancy measures, people will simply not believe that they have any plans whatsoever to deal with our deficit. You know what? They would be right.

The education reforms pursued by the Government have been embraced by schools in Bedfordshire, not least, excitingly, by Tony Withell and his great staff at Wootton upper school in pursuit of a science, technology, engineering and maths academy. This week, however, there has been a blip. Fernwood school in Woburn Sands was offered free school status 14 months ago as part of the Barnfield Federation, but last week that offer was removed without the school knowing why. Will the Prime Minister use his offices to implore the Department for Education to let me know the reason as soon as possible, as there are 110 very agitated parents and I need to help them frame an appeal?

I would join in that strong support for the free schools movement. It is a remarkable advance, and within just two and a half years we now have 101 free schools open and many more in the pipeline. I know that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary was listening very carefully to what was said about that specific proposal. It is obviously important that we vet proposals to ensure that they are strong educationally, that they have parental support and that they will raise standards in the local area, but I strongly support the free schools movement and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be in touch.

Q10. My local authority has done some pioneering work over the years on improving public health and has recently asked adults to refrain from smoking in children’s play areas. Does the Prime Minister agree with me, with his own Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), and with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), who has a private Member’s Bill on the issue, that we should go a significant step further and introduce a ban on smoking when children are present in vehicles? (144295)

We should look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman and others have said. We are looking across the piece at all the issues, including whether we should follow the Australians with the ban on packaging and what more we can to do to restrict smoking in public places. There has been a real health advance from some of the measures that have been taken. We must consider each one and work out whether there is a real public health benefit, but he makes a good point.

It is 22 years since the landmark Medical Research Council report made a direct link between folic acid use by childbearing women and the prevention of neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Scores of countries have fortified their basic food stuffs, but the policy in this country is mired in bureaucracy between the Food Standards Agency, the Department of Health and others. Will the Prime Minister reassure the House that he will do everything he can to unblock the logjam to prevent the entirely preventable conditions of hydrocephalus and spina bifida?

I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend has said. It is certainly true that the levels of conditions such as spina bifida have come down and that folic acid has an important role to play. I shall look at the specific points he makes and the bureaucratic problem he identifies and perhaps get the Department of Health to write to him about it.

Q11. With respect, I make no apology for returning to an issue that my colleagues have raised. A letter from my constituent reads:“I am disabled, wheelchair dependent; suffer from brittle bones, require day and night assistance from Social Services and therefore I need a spare room on health grounds. I feel suicidal about this bedroom tax.” Will the Prime Minister, in consultation with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, agree to put the needs of disabled people first and revisit what is turning out to be a disastrous policy for hundreds of thousands of disabled people and their families? (144296)

This Government always put disabled people first; that is why we have protected disabled people’s benefits. On the specific issue the right hon. Gentleman raises, there is a £50 million fund to support people who are affected by the under-occupancy measure. Disabled adults will have access—[Interruption.] The Opposition do not want hear it, but this directly answers the point. Disabled adults will have access to the discretionary housing payment scheme and it will remain for local authorities, including the right hon. Gentleman’s, to assess the individual circumstances. It is worth making the point again that there is a £23 billion budget, which has increased by 50% over the past decade. We have to do something about the growth in the housing benefit bill, but all we hear is irresponsibility from the Opposition.

Q12. Who would have thought, when some of us voted for just a common market all those years ago, that the EU would now be interfering potentially in what benefits we should pay to Romanians and Bulgarians before they have made any contribution to our society? Is it any wonder that people feel disillusioned and powerless? Is not the good news this: who is more likely to vote to give people a genuine choice in a referendum—a Liberal or a Conservative MP for Eastleigh? (144297)

I am delighted that my hon. Friend managed to slip that point in at the end. I urge any hon. Friends who are not there already to make their way to Eastleigh this afternoon and support Maria Hutchings in the by-election campaign.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We need to look through every aspect of how we welcome people to our country, because while we must be fair, we must not be a soft touch. I am making sure that we look at our health service, housing, benefits, legal aid and everything else, so that we have proper and tough controls on people who want to come and live here.

Q13. The Treasury was required to approve the settlement made with the dismissed former chief executive of my local hospitals trust in February last year. If the Prime Minister believes in openness in the NHS, why have his Government allowed the size of the pay-off to be kept secret? (144298)

I will look very closely at the case the hon. Gentleman raises. I know there have been particular issues around foundation trusts in the area he represents, and I will make sure that the Health Secretary looks into the matter and writes to him about it.

Q14. Recently, large numbers of my constituents have taken a great interest in political campaigning in the neighbouring county. My belief is that it is always best when local people have a strong independent voice, particularly if they are in favour of controlling immigration, making welfare fairer and an in/out referendum. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the people of Eastleigh would be well advised to vote for Maria Hutchings tomorrow? (144299)

I thank my hon. Friend for his hard work and for the ingenious way he managed to get that question in order—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) should not keep yelling from a sedentary position “Sarah Palin”. She at least is not a candidate in the Eastleigh by-election.

If you have any luck in getting the hon. Member for Rhondda to shut up, Mr Speaker, do let us know how it is done.

Thank you very much for that, Mr Speaker.

Perhaps we should end Prime Minister’s Questions on a similar note to that we began it with, by recognising the appalling views of the Labour candidate in Eastleigh. About the Falklands war—one of the proudest moments in this country’s recent history—he said:

“I settled on the…convoluted position of wanting Great Britain to lose a war for the good of Great Britain”.

This candidate, endorsed by the leader of the Labour party, shows a shocking lack of patriotism and national pride.

Q15. The Prime Minister has run away from the question whether he will personally benefit from the millionaires’ tax cut. It is a simple question: when the top rate of tax is cut from 50p to 45p, will he personally benefit? (144300)

The top rate of tax under this Government will be higher than in any year under his party’s Government. That is the change that we are bringing about. When they introduced the 50p rate, they lost £7 billion in tax revenue. They are not only socialists but incompetent socialists to boot.

Point of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following the advice you gave on Monday about the nature of oral questions and oral answers, and the need for us to rebuild public confidence in politicians, will you do what the Leader of the House has refused to do, and arrange a seminar to explain to Ministers the precise meaning of the word “question”, the precise meaning of the word “answer”, and the need for a link between the two?

The hon. Gentleman makes an ingenious suggestion, but it is not one to be taken forward by the Chair. However, it might constitute an additional paragraph in the next edition of the well-thumbed tome, which he penned, “How to be an MP”, with specific reference to the discharge of Back-Bench duties. I look forward to acquiring in due course my copy of that volume.

Local Authority Devolution and Powers

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Government to publish a list of the powers of local councils and a code of conduct defining the degree of autonomy attached to those powers and areas where a council may act autonomously; to create a mechanism to identify and adjudicate on breaches of the code by either central or local government; and for connected purposes.

Given where we are in the parliamentary timetable, one would have to be wholly ignorant or severely optimistic to assume that the Bill I propose stands any chance whatever of becoming law—this year. Although as a Lib Dem I am equipped by necessity with boundless reserves of cheery optimism, I have no expectation of seeing the Bill mature into legislation. So confident am I of seeing it strangled at birth that I did think of calling it the “Local Government and Futile Measures Bill”, only to realise that the additional phrase probably applied to much of the legislation in this place. I am far from disheartened, however, because such events, apart from seeming a piece of typically British, eccentric constitutional indulgence, or useful occupational therapy for Back Benchers, can have an effect, by putting, or keeping, on the agenda important key themes. My last foray in this role was an attempt to introduce a Bill to enhance, or provide, democratic accountability for NHS services. The Government have now actually done that, although I would like to think that my proposals, which involved the creation of no new institutions or structures, offered a more elegant, less expensive and less complex solution than that contrived by the Government in the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

Our system is based on the supremacy of Parliament, and my Bill draws attention to the fraught relationship between local and central Government. Parliament, Brussels notwithstanding, has unfettered power, or what Lord Hailsham referred to as elective dictatorship. Local government also has powers, but they can be increased, decreased, removed or added to, fettered or unfettered, by us in Parliament. Governments often promise—I have heard them do so—to liberate or empower local government, but the liberation of local government by central Government often resembles Stalin’s post-war liberation of eastern Europe, as it simply allows discretion to decide on how to implement unpopular policies, thereby sharing or deflecting the blame.

Largely, and insistently, central Government retain all their rights to interfere in any area, at will, with little or no notice. I am not making a party political point; it is not in the DNA of central Government, irrespective of who is in power, to give away power that matters, and one can understand why. Local government deals with huge areas of national importance—education, social care, transport, the environment, the economic vitality of communities—and Ministers simply cannot be uninterested in what local government does or how it does it, so they keep in reserve, understandably, a range of powers, regulations and incentives to influence how local government performs. Parliament will not have its will crossed—it is, as they say, an elective dictatorship. The Bill aspires not to change any of that, but strives more modestly to stop elective dictatorship becoming or turning into elective tyranny.

There are in this Chamber bold constitutional visionaries, such as the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who propose a full constitutional settlement reserving to local government a whole set of autonomous powers, safeguarded by commissions, the Lords and a Bill of Rights; a constitutional demarcation between the powers of local and central Government, including revenue-raising powers. The Justice Committee—my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) is familiar with this—having surveyed all the evidence available scrupulously, has called for a new constitutional settlement, a new code. There is a glimmer in the eye of the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who chairs the Communities and Local Government Committee, to produce a report on precisely that subject.

My aim is the more modest one of preventing elective dictatorship from becoming elective tyranny, because tyranny is the arbitrary, whimsical and indulgent use of power. The distinction is rather helpfully illustrated by the exemplary behaviour—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) has got there ahead of me. It is illustrated by the exemplary behaviour of our current Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Only someone as gifted as him in the art of irony could possibly have introduced a Localism Bill—with over 100 new powers ascribed to himself. Only someone with a feel for the truly comic could wring £250 million out of the Chancellor in hard-pressed times in order that statesmen can interfere with the nation’s bins and council collection times, or could instructively chastise and threaten councils that have set their council tax exactly within the limits he himself laid down. As he himself has said, he takes liberties, but presumably only to demonstrate through a process of reductio ad absurdum how little power local government really has and how it can be removed, changed or denatured by the whim of Whitehall.

Taking liberties is not necessarily a good thing. My Bill seeks to mitigate that, first by requiring every Government to lay down in advance through a defined code their understanding of the respective powers of local and national Government, the areas of genuine autonomy, and specify devolved powers. That could be done, fully taking into account national needs, with or without consensus. However, that having been done, and there having been defined separate spheres of action—the rules of the game—everyone must stick to them, with an appeal to a judicial or quasi-judicial body when that understanding is breached by either party, or ridden over roughshod to suit the mood of whoever holds the reigns of central or local government.

The Bill simply aspires to put in place a guarantee of reasonably predictable behaviour, a self-denying ordinance. The Government could still dictate and legislate for a different relationship, but they would not be able to interfere arbitrarily. In fact, having to make it clear that they are not doing that is wholly to the good. They could not act on the spur of the moment. They would simply be denying themselves the opportunity to create havoc, either financial or administrative. There is fairness in that, because the previous Government insisted that local councils, when making major strategic decisions, give the population ample advance notice and engagement through publication and consultation—a kind of “no big surprises” rule. All that I expect through the Bill is that Whitehall would show similarly helpful self-discipline, particularly because councils, unlike Whitehall, have to balance their budgets annually and cannot cope too easily with handbrake turns in policy.

It seems to me that having to make clear Whitehall’s interest in interfering, as it does, with council’s planning policies, housing targets and borrowing arrangements, which are all contentious areas, and having to make a case and then abide by it, could hopefully throw up a plethora of anomalies and unjustifiable restraints and perhaps expose the dead-weight influence of state bureaucracy accrued over a fair period, which cannot be a bad thing. It might, in the process, rid me of an abiding and disturbing image of the Secretary of State as a languid eastern potentate or sultan governing by mood or arbitrary decree, and it would hopefully put the fraught relationship between local and central Government on a business-like footing. This issue, which has been raised in various parts of the House and in a number of different places, will not go away, unlike my Bill, which I commend to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Dr John Pugh, Mr Graham Allen, Sir Alan Beith, Mr Clive Betts, Paul Burstow, Rosie Cooper, Martin Horwood, Stephen Lloyd, Dan Rogerson, John Stevenson and Mr David Ward present the Bill.

Dr John Pugh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 April, and to be printed (Bill 141).

We come now to the main business, Opposition day, 18th allotted day, which is a debate in the name of the Scottish National party on housing benefit and the under-occupancy penalty. To move the motion—

I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman. The motion is in the name of the Scottish National party, but it is also in the name of Plaid Cymru—[Interruption]—and of the Green party. It is indeed truly a joint motion: not a complete novelty, although relatively unusual, and very welcome. I stand corrected. To move the motion, I call Mr Angus Robertson. [Interruption.] No? Well, that is what I was briefed; I am following what I have been told. The hon. Gentleman is displaying a self-effacing modesty with which he is not always associated, but he is playing second fiddle today. I call Dr Eilidh Whiteford.

Opposition Day

[18th Allotted Day]

Housing Benefit (Under-occupancy Penalty)

I beg to move,

That this House deplores and opposes the Government’s introduction of the housing benefit under-occupancy penalty; believes it to be unjust and unworkable; notes growing public anger at its introduction; believes that the Government is showing a reckless lack of care and attention to the consequences of its introduction for low-income households affected by disability; further believes that it will adversely affect, amongst others, families of service personnel, foster families and those struggling with the effects of family breakdown; notes that some parts of the UK will be disproportionately hit because of the mismatch between the available social housing stock and the needs of tenants; further notes that according to the Department for Work and Pensions’ Equality Impact Assessment, 63 per cent of the 660,000 claimants affected by the under-occupancy penalty or their partners are disabled; believes that the measure unfairly penalises tenants in rural and inner-city areas; further believes the under-occupancy penalty will fail to meet its stated objectives; and calls on the Government to abandon this policy immediately.

In just a few weeks’ time the Government’s notorious under-occupancy penalty, or bedroom tax, is set to come into effect. Across the UK, it is going to cut for tenants by an average of £14 a week, or over £700 a year, the housing benefit of an estimated 660,000 low-income households who are deemed to be living in a home bigger than their needs require. The measure is causing anxiety and anger in equal measure. It follows hard on the heels of punitive cuts to tax credits that have already slashed the budgets of low-income families, and it compounds the real-terms cut to the safety net of social protection for people who are unable to work because of sickness or disability, and for those rendered unemployed or under-employed by economic circumstances well beyond their control. This bedroom tax is a further assault on the precarious finances of the people who are already bearing the brunt of the Government’s austerity measures, which, as we have seen this week, simply are not working. The under-occupancy penalty is inherently unfair and inherently unworkable.

When we discussed this issue in Westminster Hall a few weeks ago in a debate led by the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), not a single Government Back Bencher rose to defend the policy, and it is deeply disappointing that they are so thin on the ground today. I can only assume that too many MPs have been lured by the charms of Eastleigh, but I am not really surprised that they are reluctant to put their heads over this parapet.

Does the hon. Lady see any justification for treating tenants on housing benefit in social housing any differently from tenants on housing benefit in the private rented sector? The previous Government introduced exactly the same changes for tenants on housing benefit in the private rented sector. Did the Scottish National party or Plaid Cymru object or call a debate when those changes were made? If not, why not, and what is their logical justification for opposing these changes today?

The hon. Gentleman has exposed at this early stage one of the big red herrings in this debate, namely the argument that the private rented sector is comparable to the social rented sector. We already spend significantly more on supporting people in the private sector than on those in socially rented accommodation, which is significantly cheaper. I hope to return to that point later, but it is very helpful to have been able to nip that argument in the bud at the outset of this debate.

I am glad that the hon. Lady has exposed the fundamental flaw in the argument of the hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry). One form of accommodation is based on size and the other on price—it is like comparing apples and pears.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The key thing is that the under-occupancy penalty will hit hundreds or thousands of people in every constituency. We will all meet constituents affected by it, many of them among the most disadvantaged members of the community. Let us make no mistake: the people on the front line of this policy are the disabled and those who care for them.

Did the hon. Lady, like me, hear the Prime Minister say during Prime Minister’s questions that he would personally look at cases brought to his attention? Will she join me in urging all those people in this country who are faced by this to write individually to the Prime Minister?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Just a few minutes ago the Prime Minister said that he would look carefully at individual cases. I feel a little bit sorry for whoever keeps his correspondence in check, because the Department of Work and Pensions equality impact assessment shows that two thirds—66%—of the households affected by the bedroom tax are home to someone with a disability under the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

A higher proportion of those who might write to Dave will be people from rural areas who will simply have nowhere else to go. This iniquitous, unfair, disastrous tax will do for the Conservative party what the poll tax did for it.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point on the differential impact between rural and urban areas. I hope I will be able to address that later.

Perhaps it should not surprise us that sick and disabled people are over-represented among those who rely on housing benefit, given that many of them will have been assessed as unfit for work, while others who are in work are more likely to be working part-time or in low-paid and insecure jobs. The numbers are a damning indictment on the Government’s attempts to balance the books on the back of disadvantaged people. In Scotland the picture is even more stark—79% of disadvantaged people in Scotland affected by the bedroom tax are either disabled or living in a house with someone who is disabled.

Is the hon. Lady aware of Govan Law Centre’s petition to the Scottish Government to amend section 16 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 to ensure that people subjected to the bedroom tax will not be evicted due to those arrears?

I am aware of it and I intend to turn later to the specifics of the situation for social landlords and for Scotland.

Not just now, but I will in a moment.

Last week the chief executives of seven charities—Carers UK, Disability Rights UK, Contact a Family, the Carers Trust, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, Mencap and Macmillan Cancer Support—wrote to the Chancellor to ask him to exempt carers and disabled people from the bedroom tax in recognition of the contribution that carers already make and in order to protect them from further financial hardship. In response, the Work and Pensions Secretary said that he would look again at the impact of the policy on disabled people, but having considered the wholly disproportionate impact on disabled people and their families, he is ploughing on regardless. It is callous and reckless and will cause untold distress and hardship. The Government really need to think again.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Does she accept that, with 2 million households on social housing waiting lists in England alone and 250,000 families living in overcrowded accommodation, it is simply unfair for people to live in houses larger than their needs?

The problem of under-occupation will not be solved by shuffling people around. That will do absolutely nothing to resolve the underlying problems, which I think we all know are related to the supply of affordable housing.

I congratulate the hon. Lady and her colleagues on their choice of subject for this Opposition day debate. Does she agree that one of the problems is the complete mismatch between the stock that housing association and councils have and what people need, and that there are simply not enough properties for people to move to?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right—her point is at the core of the debate. Before I turn to that point I want to say more about the issues facing disabled people.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being very generous. I have been listening carefully to her comments on those in social housing, but what does she have to say to the 2,000 people on waiting lists in Reading who hope to get into social housing?

I say to the hon. Gentleman that perhaps those people in Reading would like to look north of the border, where building social housing has been the long-term solution to tackling the lack of affordable housing. This problem will not be solved by taking housing away from one needy group and giving it to another. As I have said, there will be a disproportionate impact on disabled people and most of the people affected by this policy are already among the most disadvantaged in our communities.

No, I want to make some progress. I say to the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) that the real challenge for local authorities is how to house people who are likely to be on very low incomes. If people who are older or who suffer from ill health are moved out of their homes, that will create another headache and push people into more expensive private rented accommodation.

I am keen to make some progress; I will take interventions later.

To return to the point made by the respected charities, one of which I used to work for, they make a compelling case that exposes just how socially destructive and counter-productive the bedroom tax will be for disabled people and their families. The Government’s stated objectives for the under-occupancy penalty include incentivising tenants to move to smaller homes. Moving house is stressful and expensive for everyone, even when it is a welcome move. How much more stressful and difficult must it be for disabled people with very little money?

Pressuring people to relocate will not just move disabled people away from their informal support networks—the friends and neighbours who help them live in the community—but it will potentially move them away from support services provided by their local authority. Moving to a new house in a new area may require a new assessment of needs, delays in providing replacement services or, indeed, changes to the eligibility for services. That all creates unnecessary disruption and expense that could quite easily be avoided.

The hon. Lady is right to call this bedroom tax callous and reckless. It is also heartless. Does she agree that the Prime Minister is wrong to hide behind the fig leaf of the discretionary payments fund, as he did earlier today? The National Housing Federation says that £50 million will help make up the shortfall for only 73,000 disabled people, leaving more than half of those on disability living allowance who are affected without any support at all.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, who makes a very important point. I have no doubt that, in some cases, the under-occupancy penalty will jeopardise the arrangement that unpaid family carers have made to allow them to continue to care for a loved one in their own home.

Is my hon. Friend also aware that the homes of people who have had them adapted to meet specific needs may now be deemed too large, so they may be forced to move out and a social landlord might have to pay to adapt another house for them? Is that not a daft way to proceed?

It is utterly daft. I have seen cases in my own constituency where relatively minor changes to local authority support services have destabilised the balancing act performed by families who provide care while juggling work and family commitments. I have met far too many family carers who are already at the end of their endurance, compromising their own health and well-being to continue to care. When carers cannot cope any more or their own health breaks down, the human cost is immense and the financial cost of primary health care spending and the need for expensive care packages are incalculable. The bedroom tax undermines the ability of families to continue to care.

Given that this policy will lead to greater homelessness and evictions, which are not only massively painful, but massively costly, does the hon. Lady agree that it is not just cruel, but counter-productive and another attack by this Government on the poor?

The hon. Lady is making a really good speech and she has support from across the Opposition Benches. In my view, the policy is thought through. However, it is not about fitting people in according to their housing needs or about under-occupation; it is about cutting people’s benefits by ensuring that people pay the difference. The Government know that people will have to pay the difference because they cannot move.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

It is helpful to return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mr Weir) about homes that have been adapted. We estimate that at least 16,000 homes in Scotland that are affected by the bedroom tax have been adapted. We are told by the Government repeatedly that an extra £50 million in discretionary housing payment has been allocated to local authorities to plug the shortfall in rent so that those in adapted homes do not have to move.

Let us do the sums. The additional discretionary housing payment amounts to only 6% of the total shortfall across the UK. In Scotland, it amounts to a paltry 4% of the shortfall. That means that even if Scotland’s entire discretionary housing allocation—not just the extra bit, but the entire allocation—was focused solely on those disabled people living in adapted homes, it would not cover the gap in tenants’ incomes left by the bedroom tax. This is a shameless attempt to penalise physically disabled people. They are being asked to carry the can for this dog’s breakfast of a policy.

My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. Does she not think that it is appalling that the architect of this pernicious tax, this equivalent of the poll tax, the Secretary of State, is not replying to this debate, but is leaving it to his Liberal apparatchik? The Secretary of State should get to his feet in this debate to defend this ridiculous tax. Why is he not doing so?

I share my hon. Friend’s disappointment that the Government have not listened to the pleas of disabled people and carers’ organisations. The problem is that the policy has not been properly costed or thought through and will cause chaos, hardship and distress.

I want to make a little more progress, because time is wearing on.

The disabled people in adapted homes who are forced to move into the private sector will undoubtedly find it hard to find accessible properties. Landlords in the private sector may also be less than happy about adaptations being made to their property, whether they be handrails, ramps, stair-lifts or bathroom alterations. What an unnecessary waste of public money at a time when local authorities are struggling to meet demand.

The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. She made a very good point about the cost of private rentals compared with social rentals. Is it not time that we started to regulate private rentals in Scotland so that we are not subsidising landlords, which is the route to increases in housing benefit?

It is clear that rents in Scotland are not out of control as they are in London. Many of the problems with housing benefit have been fuelled by the vast over-inflation of the rental market in London and the south-east.

It is important that we remember that some of the disabled people who are subject to the bedroom tax are the same people who will lose their disability living allowance when it becomes the personal independence payment or whose support will be reduced significantly, and that some may lose their employment and support allowance, particularly if it is time-limited. Nevertheless, all those people will still have to deal with the same impairment or long-term health condition that they had before, and will still face the same physical, economic, attitudinal and communication barriers when they attempt to access the labour market and get on with their daily lives.

The Government have paid no heed to the cumulative impact of their measures on disabled people—a cumulative impact that will have disastrous consequences for thousands of people.

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. May I draw her back to fundamental principles? I am listening to the argument that she is making with interest, but there is one fundamental point that the architects of the motion do not address. Is it accepted that the housing benefit bill, which is rising, needs to come down—yes or no?

The reason that the housing benefit bill is so high is that we have had a recession that has pushed people out of employment. One of the trite suggestions that we have heard repeatedly from the Government in trying to defend this indefensible tax is that people should just pick up a few extra hours’ work here or there to meet the bedroom tax. Since the start of the financial crisis, underemployment has soared. Millions of people have seen the prospect of overtime vanish and their working hours cut. According to the TUC, there are 3.3 million people across the UK who are working part time, but who want to be working full time. That is twice the pre-recession level. When we look at the steep rise in housing benefit, we therefore have to look at the inflation in the housing market in some parts of the country and at the underlying economic drivers of unemployment and poor economic performance.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) spoke about saving money. He appears not to realise, as I am sure does my hon. Friend, that if there was a proper balance of property, with those who are over-housed and those who are under-housed getting an appropriately sized property, the Government would save not one penny. He is therefore wrong. This policy is not about saving money, other than by directly punishing the poor.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The under-occupancy penalty will apply to people who are in work and people who are out of work. It takes no account of the fact that a large proportion of the people affected are simply not available for work. The people who move into the low-rent homes may or may not be paying the rent, but it will certainly not save any money.

Has it occurred to the hon. Lady during her excellent speech that not a single Government Member has criticised the bedroom tax in any way? Does that not reflect the manner in which the Government are conducting themselves towards the most vulnerable people in society?

The hon. Gentleman is right. As I said earlier, it is deeply disappointing that there are not more people here to defend the Government’s policy and to debate the issues.

I applaud the strength with which the hon. Lady is setting out the case for the victims of this drive-by hit on the housing benefit budget throughout the UK. Does she recognise that there is an added complication in Northern Ireland? Given the geo-communal tensions and difficulties in Northern Ireland, a measure that sends out the message, “You shouldn’t be living there, you should move,” is fundamentally unsettling, not just for individual communities, but for community relations.

As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes a powerful and important point. The disproportionate impact of the measure on different parts of the UK has not been thought through. The impacts on Northern Ireland clearly deserve a great deal more attention—certainly more attention than I am able to pay them this afternoon.

I congratulate the hon. Lady and her colleagues on bringing forward this timely motion. The divisions referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) have been deepened because the Minister for Social Development in Northern Ireland handed back £15 million in the last monitoring round, rather than investing it in the provision of new-build social housing. That contrasts with what my party did when it held that portfolio.

The hon. Lady makes an important point. It is helpful that the Secretary of State is here to hear it. I hope that he will look again at the implications of the policy for Northern Ireland.

Foster carers are also likely to be adversely impacted by the bedroom tax. Foster carers are not routinely included in housing needs assessments, and the allowance that they are paid to cover the costs of meeting a child’s needs does not include a component for housing costs. The Government expect local authorities to support foster carers out of the heavily over-subscribed discretionary housing payments pot. However, as we have already seen, that money will not even cover the most pressing needs of disabled people in specially adapted homes.

Foster carers do an important and difficult job. Children requiring foster care have, almost by definition, been through traumatic experiences and are likely to require more intensive care and attention than other children. For that reason, many fostering services insist that foster carers do not take on other work outside the home. Moreover, more than half of foster carers do not receive a fee for fostering. The Fostering Network is afraid that the bedroom tax will exacerbate existing difficulties in recruiting foster parents. Given the already extreme shortage of foster carers, the Government need to look again at how the system will work in practice.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. On Monday evening, the House debated the Children and Families Bill, which contains some good measures on speeding up and streamlining adoption. One point raised was that unless the fostering section is reconsidered, the whole thing will collapse. Once again we see that this measure has not been properly thought through.

My right hon. Friend makes a timely point given the debate that took place in the House earlier in the week.

The hon. Lady is making a wonderful speech on this dreadful bedroom tax. Perhaps she will also consider another group involved in caring for children—parents who have split up. Access agreements made by the court for two people in my constituency are based on the fact that they have an extra bedroom. The Government are essentially saying to them, “Find the money for the extra bedroom or lose access to your children.”

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Families going through a break-up often face some of the most complex and difficult situations for people to resolve, and we know that the cost of children growing up without a parent can be considerable both in social terms and because of the impact on the individual who is separated from a parent. This legislation will make it more difficult for non-resident parents to stay in touch and maintain proper contact with their children, and that is reprehensible.

Does the hon. Lady agree that because of variations in unemployment rates and the composition of the housing stock, and because the characteristics of tenants vary between areas and the other considerations hon. Members have raised, this issue should be one of local discretion based on local conditions and phased in only when matched by a programme of social house building?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will want to make a speech to set out that case later this afternoon. I would like to see decisions on these policies, including the budgets, devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman’s contribution about what works well for England.

Will the hon. Lady use her eloquence and influence with the Scottish Government to ensure that they have a no-evictions policy?

Again, I will come to that and consider some of the structural issues in a moment. First, however, I want to mention pensioners who so far have been excluded from the under-occupancy rules. That is important because many older people who are technically under-occupying are extremely anxious about the bedroom tax and frightened that it will force them to move. We must make it clear that they will not have to do so at this stage. Once universal credit is introduced, however, people of pension age who have a younger partner of working age will be subject to the bedroom tax, and again, they will be forced to move into smaller, more expensive, and often less suitable homes. That is a false economy for the Government and will have a great human cost for older couples.