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Topical Questions

Volume 566: debated on Monday 8 July 2013

To change the civil service culture of more regulation and more spending, I have today announced a new scheme where civil servants will be rewarded with high street vouchers for saving taxpayers’ money. I am sure the whole House will want to congratulate firefighters on their excellent job of tackling the Smethwick blaze last week. Given its exceptional scale, I can announce that we have activated the emergency response Bellwin scheme, so we can give West Midlands fire service the support it needs.

The new homes bonus is an effective tool in encouraging local communities to create new homes, but it benefits equally authorities that initially opposed new housing, after development consent is granted on appeal. It is important to support communities that, through their local plan, demonstrate a positive attitude towards development, so does the Secretary of State agree that such authorities should receive an enhanced level of new homes bonus?

My hon. Friend introduces a whole new concept of worthy and unworthy councillors, and that is perhaps a step too far. I am comfortable with the thought that when people object to me as Secretary of State, I can point to my hon. Friend who is a much harder man.

I join the Secretary of State in commending the fire service for how they dealt with that very difficult fire.

Thousands of people on low incomes are now getting council tax summonses because of the Secretary of State’s new poll tax. The Sunday Mirror reports that Peterborough city council, for example, has issued double the number of summonses for non-payment compared with last year. Why does he think that so many people are finding it so difficult to pay the bills that he has imposed on them?

Let me be absolutely clear: these are local authority schemes. In some parts of the country, people on low incomes are not receiving anything additional. These are schemes put together by local authorities, and it is up to local authorities to defend them.

It will not quite do for the Secretary of State to introduce the legislation, cut the money, and then attempt to pass the buck to local authorities up and down the country. The truth is that he is out of touch with what is happening to people on low incomes.

Let me try another question. One of those summonsed is a single parent called Charlotte, who has been asked to pay £141.66. She told the newspaper:

“My priority is finding money to get food for my child.”

What choice does the Secretary of State think she should make?

We have placed before local authorities discretionary help to use in such circumstances. The most interesting thing is this: that money has gone unclaimed. This is a local authority scheme, and it is up to the local authority to defend it.

T2. It is good news that East Sussex county council has begun a £6 million investment in Hastings library, bringing in the new children’s library, bringing the registrar down into the library and buying the new building next door. Does that not show that a well-run county council, such as Conservative-led East Sussex county council under Councillor Keith Glazier, can achieve investment in vital libraries where it needs to? (163451)

I had the opportunity to meet Keith not so long ago. It is clear to me that East Sussex county council is revitalising a part of the country that has been neglected for such a long time, and it should be congratulated on that.

T4. When asked about the mutualisation of Cleveland fire authority, the fire Minister told the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government on 15 May: “they are not progressing with it.”However, the latest freedom of information request to the authority was refused on the grounds of “commercial interest” and because matters are “still subject to consideration”. Who is telling the truth, and are the Government still funding this process? (163454)

I think the point I was making before the Select Committee was to clarify the fact that this Government will not be doing anything to allow for privatisation of the fire service, despite the claims of the hon. Gentleman’s shadow fire Minister, who is trying to scaremonger.

T3. Independent analysis by Ernst and Young of the four community budgets pilots show that savings of between £9 billion and £20 billion are possible over five years if the scheme is rolled out across the country. What plans does my hon. Friend have to do just that? (163452)

My hon. Friend is quite right: the community budgets pilots have shown huge potential savings to this country and, as I said earlier, better services for residents. We are now rolling out the new network. Last week we announced the first nine authorities to take part. They are looking at bringing together the public sector not just to save money, important though that is, but to give better services in this country—something that the previous Government continually failed to do.

T7. In North Tyneside, the new Labour administration has inherited a £21 million budget deficit from the former Tory mayor. With Government cuts, that comes to £44 million. As the Secretary of State finds his Department £271 million in the red, has he any tips that could help North Tyneside council to balance its books? (163457)

T5. In the spirit of reducing red tape, will my right hon. Friend look again at the rules that the Homes and Communities Agency issues on the minimum size of houses that attract affordable housing finance? Frankly, these houses are rather large. One of two particular cases was that of a property built 6 inches too narrow, which was not allowed to be taken into social housing because of that mistake. (163455)

Let me assure my hon. Friend that we have recently undertaken a review of housing standards, not least to try to reduce the plethora of different standards, which are burdensome and expensive. Space and room size have been considered. We will be consulting on the outcome of the review in the near future.

T8. The Department’s affordable rents policy is putting housing benefit expenditure up. Over at the Department for Work and Pensions, Ministers are trying, unsuccessfully, to cut housing benefit. Meanwhile, the cuts in housing benefit that they are making have resulted in an 86% increase in homelessness applications in my borough of Westminster. Does the Department ever speak to the Department for Work and Pensions, and if so, could they not possibly agree on a single policy, rather than two contradictory ones? (163458)

We have a clear policy, which is to ensure that we reverse the loss of social housing that we saw under the last Labour Government and that the social housing sector is managed better than it was in the past. Labour needs to realise that there are a million spare bedrooms in the social housing sector and a quarter of a million families in overcrowded accommodation. They would love the luxury of a spare bedroom. We are prepared to make those reforms; the hon. Lady’s party is not.

I don’t know why the hon. Gentleman has resumed his seat. I was merely looking at him and listening attentively, as always.

Anything to catch your eye, Mr Speaker. My constituents welcome the scrapping of the last Government’s guidance on diversity and equality in planning, but many residents in places such as Nazeing are concerned that Travellers can apply for retrospective planning permission. Will my hon. Friend come to my constituency, meet with local residents and reassure my residents who feel the planning system is biased against them when it comes to Travellers?

One knows when one has been Tangoed. I will of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, but I can give his constituents this reassurance: in the Localism Act 2011 we abolished the ability to have retrospective planning appeals and enforcement at the same time. I think that will help the residents of Nazeing.

I should just say to the Secretary of State that I thought the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) was the man in the mustard suit, but the Clerk, who is the fount of all wisdom, advises me that its colour is tangerine.

T9. Despite the Government’s rhetoric on early intervention, Sunderland council’s early intervention grant is 47% lower than it was in 2010, while the Secretary of State’s council in Essex has had a cut of just 36%. Can the Secretary of State tell us by how much more the Government will cut Sure Start and other early intervention programmes over the next two years, and whether these disparities in cuts will be reversed or entrenched? (163459)

The hon. Lady should look to the extra money with regard to troubled families—Sunderland has done a remarkably good job in identifying the families concerned—and the fact that we have recently announced an extra £200 million to extend that programme.

Does the Secretary of State agree that local authorities should seek and welcome further cuts by reducing the amount of times grass is cut and encouraging wild flowers in appropriate locations?

That can also be a cut the other way, as I recall a local authority that did what my hon. Friend said, but when it came to cut the grass again, it found it had grown so high that it was not able to use its machinery.

As the Member of Parliament for Smethwick, I welcome and endorse the Secretary of State’s remarks about the superb performance at the Smethwick fire by the West Midlands fire service and its firefighters, and I also welcome the extra payment under the Bellwin scheme, but is the Secretary of State aware of reports that during the first night of the fire only one West Midlands fire engine was available for the whole of the West Midlands county? Will he therefore reconsider the general cuts to West Midlands and other metropolitan authorities?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and the Secretary of State and I both spoke to the chief fire officer last week. The fire service did a fantastic job, but it is very disappointing that the chairman of the fire authority tried to play political games in the aftermath of this tragedy, because it is simply not true to say that only one vehicle was available. The mutual scheme between the different authorities, including Staffordshire, Herefordshire and others, worked extremely well, and a large number of engines were still available for use, and he should be getting on with doing his job instead of playing politics in that fire authority.

Does my right hon. Friend think it might be a good time to review the rules on the declaration of councillors’ interests, given that it is now compulsory for all Labour council candidates to be a member of a trade union?

I am shocked to hear that information. People will now wonder whether councillors are working for their residents or their trade union bosses, and I shall review the situation as a matter of urgency.

May I give the Minister another chance to answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) and give him another example? Fifty-one per cent. of council tenants in my constituency are in rent arrears because they cannot afford to pay the bedroom tax. There are no smaller properties for them to move into, so what are they supposed to do?

Let me repeat to the hon. Lady the information we gave earlier: we have already provided £350 million in discretionary housing payments to local councils. [Interruption.] Hon. Members are saying from a sedentary position that it is all gone, but may I remind them that last year more than £11 million of discretionary housing payment was not used by local councils? They could use it more efficiently.

Sandymoor free school in my constituency has had its planning permission refused by Unite-backed Labour councillors who are acting against the local authority planners’ recommendation for approval. Will my right hon. Friend look into this matter urgently so that the school can continue serving my constituents without local authority and trade union interference?

The destructive hand of Unite appears to be going now through the planning system. We look at these things in a quasi-judicial way, and I will look at any application for an appeal with a completely free mind.

I may have missed the answer that the Secretary of State gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) about what Charlotte should do, so perhaps he could just tell me: should she feed her child or should she pay her council tax?

The hon. Gentleman has to face up to the fact that these are local authority schemes, there is a hardship fund in place, and we expect local authorities to deal with these matters and not to send their spokesman here to shroud-wave.

We need more social housing and more affordable housing, but does the Secretary of State understand the anger in north Leeds at the fact that Labour-run Leeds city council is bringing forward plans to concrete over much of our green belt with hundreds, if not thousands, of new homes?

The protections in the national planning policy framework for the green belt are very, very clear and very, very strong. Only in exceptional circumstances can development take place on the green belt, and the local authority will need to consult extensively with the local community to gain its support for any proposed change in the green belt.