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Topical Questions

Volume 563: debated on Monday 3 June 2013

My Department has been making progress in accelerating housing supply, supporting local government and introducing new protections for tenants of mobile homes. A detailed written statement is being provided for the benefit of Members.

The whole House will have been shocked by the appalling murder of Drummer Lee Rigby and the impact that this will have had on his family and on the local community. The Prime Minister will shortly outline the Government’s further actions to tackle extremism, but the response to that attack has brought communities and the nation together. The public are firm in their support for the armed forces and we have seen British Muslims stand shoulder to shoulder with other faiths in their condemnation of this brutality. This Department and this Government will continue to challenge the politics of division, for we are stronger as a community and as a nation when we stand together.

I think the whole House will want to associate ourselves with the Minister’s comments.

However, the Minister’s response to my earlier question was disappointing. I am sure I am not alone in that view, and that millions of carers and people who need care will be disappointed. Given that the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services has said that the pressure on adult social care will get much worse with another £800 million being taken out of the system over the next 12 months, why are the Government so complacent, and why are they not prepared to commit to using the underspend from the NHS—£1.2 billion—to invest in social care? That is needed now.

With respect to the hon. Lady, we have, as part of the £7.2 billion funding for adult care services, transferred some £2 billion or more from the health service budget to make sure that that joined-up thinking takes place. When one looks at the evidence, it is clear that 78% of the savings made are not on front-line services, but are efficiency savings.

T3. The localism agenda is welcome, but what can my hon. Friend say to communities in my constituency, such as Collingtree, whose preference for the location of 1,000 new homes is being undermined, or Helmdon and Sulgrave, whose recent judicial review overturned a wind farm proposal, yet the developers are straight away having another go? (157185)

On wind farm developments, the Government will be making announcements shortly. On housing developments, the key is for every local community to produce a plan—either a local plan or, even better, a local plan and a neighbourhood plan. That is the way for local communities to get control over the developments that take place in their area.

May I join the Minister in condemning the cowardly killing of Drummer Lee Rigby, and express from the Opposition Benches our deep condolences to his family and his friends on their terrible loss? I echo the Minister’s remarks about my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford). I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the phone conversation that we had the following day, and he and the Government have the full support of the Opposition for the efforts that he and all of us must make to counter the causes of that kind of hateful extremism. Will the Minister tell us what steps he and his colleagues in the Department now propose to take to do this?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for those remarks. When people see the House of Commons in unity in this purpose, it is a very important signal that we can and should send. We, with the rest of Government, have been actively involved from the moment this dreadful news broke, looking specifically at local programmes and we will clearly be working with the new taskforce that the Prime Minister will comment on shortly. That will be not only about looking at radicalisation, but how we strengthen communities further. I cite to the right hon. Gentleman the excellent work of Show Racism the Red Card, which has helped some 9,000 young people learn why inclusiveness is crucial.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Getting people to meet one another is the best way to counter extremism, but, as we know, some people have used this tragedy to try to stir up trouble, and we have seen a number of shameful attacks on mosques that have caused great fear in the Muslim community. This clearly must be one priority for the Government’s extremism taskforce that met for the first time this morning. Will the Minister tell us what specific action was proposed at that meeting to stop such attacks happening?

With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, it would be unwise of me to pre-empt the statement that the Prime Minister is about to make on behalf of the Government, but we are actively engaged in ensuring that communities—those of faith and those not of faith—come together in a range of different activities, so that we can make sure that we bring our communities locally, but also the country, together more closely.

T4. The Government are consulting on the draft environmental statement for HS2, a project that will adversely affect local communities along the proposed route. The Chilterns, a supposedly protected area of outstanding natural beauty, will be adversely affected, both in my constituency and, I believe, in yours, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister therefore outline his Secretary of State’s strategy for defending those communities and their local environment, and tell us what role he will play in the development of the environmental statement? (157186)

As I think my right hon. Friend will know, a consultation is in hand, and this is something that must be dealt with not only by a single Department but right across Whitehall. I would certainly welcome any local comments that she feels would add to that deliberation.

T5. Businesses, newspapers and all local authority leaders are joining forces to launch the NEvolution campaign in a bid to win greater financial freedoms to support the regional economy. In the absence of the Secretary of State, will his Ministers pledge their help and backing to this ground-breaking campaign? (157187)

It was interesting to hear what some of the local authority leaders had to say when I met them. It is great to see anything that is developing more local accountability and, therefore, driving local economic growth. We supported that through the Localism Act 2011 and the changes that we made this year in the business rates retention scheme.

T6. My hon. Friend may be aware that the urban planning design of Milton Keynes is being exported to China, which is looking to model two new cities on our successful design. Will he continue to work with UK Trade & Investment to help us to explore further export possibilities? (157188)

I think that we all want to applaud British design, particularly in the development of new towns and garden cities, especially the great city of Milton Keynes. This is something that we should take pride in, and I am sure that the good people of Milton Keynes will do so.

T7. The Minister may have read my Select Committee’s recent report on greater independence for local government. Ministers and politicians of all parties work hard to devolve power, yet the Whitehall culture always seems to suck power back into the centre. What does he propose to do about that as some good advice for future Governments? (157189)

We have had a number of conversations on the issue since the report, the launch of which I was pleased to attend. It contained many interesting points. A big issue is for local government itself to take advantage of the powers given by the Localism Act, particularly the general power of competence to drive the agenda locally. From the centre, we are working on the whole place community budgets and the new network to make sure that we get government working across the public sector, particularly driven by the local areas and by local people for local people.

T10. Will Ministers confirm that it remains the Government’s policy that the development of brownfield sites will take precedence over building on green fields? (157192)

T8. Following briefing that new legislation will require private landlords to check the immigration status of tenants, and a reported row between the Communities Secretary and the Prime Minister, in which the latter apparently turned puce, a Whitehall source said that the Government would just be targeting the regulation at high-risk areas. How would the Minister define a high-risk area of private renters? (157190)

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but all that press speculation is nonsense. The Government are clear. We want to make sure, as good landlords already do, that no one is living in the private rented housing sector in this country illegally. We are going to put forward some straightforward but effective measures. We will of course consult on them, and they will build on the important work that we are doing already to crack down on the minority of rogue landlords who exploit the vulnerable through programmes such as beds in sheds.

Firefighters in Bradford on Avon and Chippenham now expect to work to the normal pension age of 60, but they are concerned that they may fail the VO2 max capability test before that time. Where that is the case, at what age will those firefighters be able to draw their pension?

The vast majority of firefighters will be able to regain any lost fitness levels through remedial fitness training, but alternatively they can access their pension from the age of 55 with an actuarial reduction.

T9. Do Ministers share my concern about the impact of welfare changes on housing associations? The Wythenshawe community housing group in my constituency estimates that rent arrears will go up by about £1 million this year following the introduction of the bedroom tax. Do Ministers agree that when universal credit comes in, any claimant already in rent arrears should have their housing costs paid directly and immediately to their landlord? (157191)

I do not share the right hon. Gentleman’s fears, but I am always happy to listen to individual circumstances such as the one he refers to. Where we are reducing the spare room subsidy, we are doing it for an important reason—there are currently 1 million spare bedrooms in this country, and we have a quarter of a million people living in overcrowded accommodation. It cannot be fair to allow that situation to persist.

The Planning Minister is aware of an unacceptable planning application in Micklethwaite, in my constituency, which has already been rejected by the local council, the planning inspector and the Secretary of State, but which through legal proceedings has gone back to the Secretary of State for redetermination. A decision was expected by now. Will the Minister tell us when we can expect that decision from the Secretary of State, and, even better, confirm that he will once again reject that unacceptable proposed development?

My hon. Friend has been indefatigable in his representations on the issue. He knows all too well that I cannot say anything about it, but he has made his representations here, in his constituency, in the Tea Room and almost everywhere else.

If a fire brigade is “spun out”, to use the Government’s terms, what procurement route could be taken to prevent tendering to the private sector within a three to nine-year window? If the Minister cannot say, why are he and the Government actively funding the process as a stepping stone from mutualisation to privatisation?

I can only repeat what I said earlier and what I said to the hon. Gentleman in the debate on the matter in the House. We will not allow any change that allows for privatisation of the fire service. I am disappointed that the Labour party seems to be working against the mutuals and co-operatives that the Labour-led Cleveland fire authority is putting forward.

Despite a 3.7% increase in Bury’s council tax, taxpayers were denied a referendum because of the small print in the rules governing when a referendum must be held. Will the Minister confirm that those rules will be looked at again to make them clearer, so that council tax payers know for certain when they will and will not be given a referendum?

My hon. Friend asks a very reasonable question. He is absolutely right that we had that situation with a few councils, and we are looking to deal with it as part of the audit Bill that will come before the House later this year.

We look forward to the Prime Minister’s statement on Woolwich, but when the extremism taskforce is put together, will the Minister look at the lessons learned from Bradford and west Yorkshire following the 7/7 bombings? I know he will be pleased that the whole Bradford community has condemned without fail what happened in Woolwich, and that is a great thing. Some great lessons were learned in Bradford and some great work was carried out, and perhaps we can share some of it with the new taskforce.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we can always learn from problems that have occurred in the past. The Prime Minister’s statement will make clear the whole Government’s approach, but this Department is absolutely committed to ensuring that we have genuinely inclusive communities.

Will my hon. Friend look again at how inflated claims for compensation in the case of article 4 directions can deter their proper use by local authorities, as in the case of the Porcupine pub in Mottingham, in my constituency?

My hon. Friend knows a lot more about article 4 directions than I do, from his experience as a Minister in the Department, and he will know that we are undertaking a review of how they work so that they are properly usable by local authorities.

If the Government are serious about increasing housing supply, will they look again at lifting the current cap on council borrowing for house building, and at providing direct capital spending to allow councils to build a mass programme of affordable housing?

We are looking at the point the hon. Lady has raised, and an announcement will be made on 26 June.

The Minister was right to remind the House that under the previous Government, house building dropped to its lowest level since the 1920s. Given that in Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and Belgium more than 50% of new homes are self-builds, what steps is the Minister taking to remove barriers to self-builders in this country?

We are ensuring not only that plots are available, but that finance is available. That is why we have in the pipeline nearly 800 plots available for my hon. Friend’s constituents, and indeed nationally.

One of this Government’s first acts was to get rid of proposals to have a register of private landlords. In many discussions I have had with residents—including at the Hackney housing summit that I hosted recently—it has become clear that there has been a real need to improve landlords, but without knowing who they are we cannot do that. Will the Minister look again at the issue? Again, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The simple answer is that no, we will not. The hon. Lady will be well aware that when her party proposed such a register, the impact assessment showed that it would cost £300 million a year, and that money would be put on to the rent of people seeking to live in those properties.

How many of the savings made in the Minister’s Department have received positive representations or support from the Labour party?