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Topical Questions

Volume 571: debated on Monday 25 November 2013

I would like to bring the House up to date on the progress my Department has made on the issue of troubled families, and in doing so I recognise the support that this work has received from Members from right across the House. Our dedicated programme is on track and is working, with the lives of 22,000 families already turned around and councils continuing to work with 62,000 other families to reduce youth crime, tackle truancy and help to get jobless adults back to work. Those results show that these problems can be dealt with through a no-nonsense, common-sense approach, bringing down the cost to the taxpayer at the same time.

People buying homes in Kingswood in Hull under the coalition’s Help to Buy scheme, advertising for which is plastered all over the area, were shocked to hear the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister with responsibility for tackling flooding, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), confirm to me last week that the Government’s new flood insurance scheme excludes homes built after 2009 to discourage home building in flood-risk areas such as Hull. Does this Secretary of State think that it is advisable for my constituents to buy homes under the Government’s Help to Buy scheme, given that they will not be able to get affordable flood insurance?

In terms of building houses and the Help to Buy scheme, it has to be a viable proposition. I will certainly liaise with the hon. Lady, because I know Hull very well, and will look specifically into her worries about this matter and liaise with my colleagues in DEFRA.

T2. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), has visited Mid Suffolk district council and seen the huge efficiency savings it has generated by sharing services and cutting management by 50%. Will great performance on saving money be recognised in the coming financial settlement and will particular regard be paid to rural district councils in respect of that? (901239)

Having reduced my own Department’s spending by 60%, I regard 50% as a good start. The advantage of that is seen not just in the settlement but in the good running of the authority, so I commend my hon. Friend’s authority for its magnificent work.

The Secretary of State has rightly talked about the importance of local authorities keeping down council tax in these tough times for many people—although he has imposed an increase on those on the very lowest incomes—but when it comes to business rates, which he set, he pursues a completely different policy. In the past two years, he has been quite happy to see struggling businesses hit by increases in business rates of 5.6% and 2.7%. What does the Minister say to owners of small businesses who feel that that is both damaging and unfair?

The right hon. Gentleman’s question gives me a chance once again to re-establish the fact that the Government have made no real-terms increase in business rates; there has only been an inflationary change. Moreover, we have helped small businesses by trebling the small business rate relief from £300 million to £900 million a year.

That answer will not reassure the owners of small businesses. The Minister talks casually about an increase in line with inflation, but the takings of many of those businesses have not gone up in line with inflation because of the state of the economy. They will also not be reassured because, as things stand, next April will see a further rise of 3.2%. Since he has not been able to tell the House what further help he will give to small businesses, is it not time that the Government looked at our plan, which is a commitment to cut and then freeze business rates over a two-year period? That could help 1.5 million small businesses, which is many more than he is helping at the moment, and save them an average of £450.

I appreciate the fact that the Opposition are talking about business rates, but they have not mentioned that they plan to put up corporation tax, which this Government have reduced to its lowest level to make us more competitive than at any time under Labour. The right hon. Gentleman also still misses the point. Small businesses benefit from small business rate relief, which we trebled from £300 million under Labour to £900 million. Furthermore, a third of a million businesses do not pay business rates under this Government and have not seen the increase that he outlined.

T3. Today marks the 15th anniversary of the Council of Europe’s framework convention for the protection of national minorities. Will the Minister update the House on when the Cornish, with our own language and distinct identity, history and culture, can expect to be included within the framework? (901240)

As a Welshman, I entirely sympathise with what my hon. Friend says about our Celtic cousins. We had a good meeting on the Cornish language and I have written to colleagues reminding them of the Government’s responsibilities in that area. As for the Council of Europe framework, the UK will make a submission in May 2014 and will invite Cornwall council and others to contribute to it.

T4. A recent survey by Community Care has found that many local authorities are raising their thresholds for intervention in cases of child protection, and many social workers fear that they are not able to provide the appropriate level of support and intervention to children in need. Given that we are continually concerned about cases of child abuse, and that every Government have rightly said that they are committed to ensuring that such cases do not occur again, will the Government look seriously at providing extra funding to local authorities, which will have to make cuts next year and the year after, so that we do not see more child deaths? (901241)

Even in difficult times, the Government have managed to increase funding to vulnerable areas. If the hon. Lady has an authority specifically in mind—[Interruption.] I do not call £3.8 billion from the health budget to deal with vulnerable people a trivial sum. I am surprised that Labour Front Benchers mock that. I know that this is a reality, but if the hon. Lady has specific authorities in mind that are increasing the threshold, given the effect that that has had on a number of authorities where things have gone terribly wrong, I will look into it for her.

T7. What steps is the Minister taking to implement existing planning permissions, particularly on brownfield sites? (901244)

I have good news for my hon. Friend. Of those units that already have planning permission, building has started on 49% of them. Now, 72% of the rest are moving towards making a start, up from 58% at the end of 2011. That means that only 23% are now on hold. We have made funds available through the Get Britain Building investment fund and the local infrastructure investment fund to help get stalled sites moving.

T6. Some moments ago, the Housing Minister said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) that the new homes bonus is not a payment for building new houses. Will he explain what it is for? (901243)

T8. It has been widely reported in the press that Ministers have been instructed by a higher authority to get rid of the green nonsense, or words to that effect. Could that welcome advice be imparted to the local authority leaders who insist on employing an army of climate change and sustainable development advisers at great expense to council tax payers? (901245)

The Government do not keep a register of unusual posts in local authorities. Although we are committed to sustainability and reducing our carbon footprint, and although it is up to local authorities who they employ, I would expect them to be sensible about that in these difficult times.

Let me tell the Secretary of State that since April the arrears of those tenants in Wythenshawe in my constituency who are affected by the bedroom tax have increased by £500,000 and that more than 1,000 families have fallen behind with their rent for the very first time. Will he take this opportunity to apologise to my constituents for the hardship that policy has created?

Why did the right hon. Gentleman never raise that question when the problem affected private tenants in his constituency? Why was he so callous about their plight? We have put aside sums of money to deal with the hardship, but only a handful of local authorities have applied for it as they are more content to use the poor as a battering ram against this Government. He should be ashamed.

T9. Houses in multiple occupation can play a vital role in helping hard-working young people who are just starting out on their own. Will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that there is discretion so that council tax is levied on the entire houses that these young people live in rather than on the individual rooms they occupy? (901246)

My hon. Friend’s arguments are very persuasive. Indeed, he has spoken to me about this subject. I am prepared to consider the technicalities of it.

I am sure that the Secretary of State expects all councils to secure the best return for asset sales. Will he therefore condemn Liberal Democrat-controlled Stockport council, which, in July, flogged off the listed North Reddish schools for a paltry £205,000 only for the new owners to have put the same buildings on the open market in recent weeks for £750,000?

T10. Given that large numbers of local authorities, such as Plymouth city council, have transferred their housing stock to housing associations, how does my hon. Friend the Minister propose to make those housing associations more accountable to their tenants rather than just being answerable to their board and to the Homes and Communities Agency? (901247)

We have done it already. In the Localism Act 2011, we changed how housing associations were regulated, giving back power to tenants to hold their landlords to account.

Will the Secretary of State reassure local authorities that they will not need to spend millions of pounds of much-needed funds on duplicating IT equipment because of the end user devices security guidance issued by CESG? Will he look into that and reassure local authorities that they will not need to spend that money?

This is something that we are looking at, and I am happy to keep the hon. Gentleman up to date with progress.

My constituents are rightly concerned about opportunistic developers. Does my hon. Friend agree that if a local authority’s core strategy has passed its examination hearings and its site allocations process is out to consultation, at this advanced stage it would fly in the face of localism for a planning application to be approved at appeal?

After a local plan in draft form has been submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for examination, it is clear in planning guidance that the policies in it can carry weight in decisions on applications that come forward.

Earlier the Minister said that the bedroom tax was about aligning rules in the social and the private sector, and the Secretary of State indicated the same. Do they not understand that the demographics of the social and private sectors are very different, and that social housing houses some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, including the 400,000 disabled people affected by this? Does the Secretary of State not think the policy should be aligned with fairness by abolishing the tax?

The hon. Lady needs to look at the matter carefully. Exactly those kinds of people are housed in the private rented sector.

My right hon. Friend will know that there appears to be a growing desire on the part of developers to carpet rural Lincolnshire with wind turbines, most recently at Temple Hill in my constituency. What advice can he give those of my constituents who for very good reasons properly oppose the siting of these turbines in their local communities?

Although I cannot comment on individual cases, we have put regulations before the House today which demand that developers speak to local communities. Also, as I have said before, communities should make sure that their local council has a robust local plan.