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Topical Questions

Volume 585: debated on Monday 8 September 2014

May I join you, Mr Speaker, and Opposition Members in expressing my sadness at the death of Jim Dobbin? As you rightly said, he had a very distinguished career in the health service before becoming a Member of Parliament, which demonstrates what someone of a more mature age coming into this place for the first time can give us. He was a charming man and always very courteous, and Government Members will miss him deeply.

I am sure the whole House would like to congratulate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the wonderful news this morning that they are expecting a second child. We wish them well.

My Department is announcing the first wave of funding for the builders finance fund, which will help to kick-start the building of 13,000 homes on 160 small sites across England that stalled because of Labour’s housing crash. Thanks to our long-term economic plan, housing construction is up and Britain is building again.

Jim Dobbin was indeed one of the nicest and kindest men in Parliament, and we will miss him greatly.

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has made it plain, both in letters to local authorities and by withdrawing the subsidy, that large and industrial-scale solar farms like those discussed earlier are simply not acceptable on greenfield agricultural sites. However, planning regulations do not so far reflect the robustness of the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s determination. Will the Secretary of State either write to local authorities or change the planning regulations so that the Planning Inspectorate and local authorities will take account of what DECC is saying on the subject?

The short answer is yes. I was struck by what Members said, and this country clearly needs a robust and sustainable housing policy with regard to energy. We need a degree of reality and reasonableness in this approach. We have made a number of ministerial statements on the matter. It is excellent to see these solar panels on the roofs of houses, but we do not want them taking away valuable agricultural land. I shall look carefully at what my hon. Friends and Opposition Members have said, and we will work with fellow ministries and produce a statement soon.

I join the Secretary of State and you, Mr Speaker, in expressing our profound sadness at the death of our good friend and colleague Jim Dobbin. Jim served his constituents and this House with distinction. He was a passionate defender of the national health service, for which he worked for many years, and a campaigner against global poverty. His integrity and his decency shone through in everything he did. All our thoughts are with his wife Pat and their children in their great loss.

I also join the Secretary of State in passing on our congratulations to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Over the summer, the nation has come fully to realise the scale of the grooming and recruitment of young British Muslims to go and commit atrocities in the name of the so-called Islamic State. Every single one of us has responsibility to tackle the causes of this radicalisation, and the Secretary of State particularly so. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore tell us what specific steps he and his Department have taken to counter this threat?

The right hon. Gentleman will readily understand that when we came to office, the Prevent strategy was moved to the Home Office. We have concentrated on the matters that bring people together and encourage communities not to be isolated. We have spent the best part of £45 million on that endeavour, on things ranging from “English First”, which ensures English is taught in perhaps unusual places—trying to target young mothers, for example—to putting a lot of money, about £10 million, into the recruitment of detached youth workers to appropriate organisations. We have also funded groups that work together, whether it be in mosques, churches or synagogues. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that we all have an obligation in this regard. Speaking as someone brought up in a multicultural city, I think this issue goes far deeper than funding streams. It is an extraordinary sight to see someone born and brought up in this country participating in atrocities in the middle east. I pledge the Government, along with the Opposition, to work hard on this—

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his reply. Given what he said, however, why does he think that last month the widely respected counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam criticised his Department’s failure to produce a proper strategy as “catastrophic”? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that much more needs to be done across government and the country to protect our young people, including confronting head-on Islamic State’s repugnant ideology, its promoters and apologists here in the United Kingdom and its utter contempt for our democracy and way of life? As he does so, he will have the full support of the Opposition.

I am grateful. We came to the conclusion early on not to fund some of Quilliam’s work, which might well have clouded its judgment. I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support. Quilliam’s criticism does not reflect what my Department, working closely with the Home Office, is doing, but as I say, I am grateful for his support.

T2. The Rural Services Network has expressed some concern about the unintended consequences of removing section 106 obligations on small developments and its effect on raising land values, making it more difficult to provide affordable housing in small rural communities. Will the Minister meet me on this issue as well so that I can be reassured? (905225)

T4. Last week, in a statement on child exploitation in Rotherham, the Home Secretary said that the Secretary of State was “minded” to commission an independent investigation of what had happened there. Will the Secretary of State update the House on his thinking, and tell us whether it would be within the remit of those conducting such an investigation to look into the accountability of officers who work for Rotherham now or have done so in the past, and their responsibility for anything that happens in this regard? (905228)

I hope to make an announcement very soon. There has been a delay because I want to ensure that the person that I should like to lead the inquiry is able to clear their diary.

I think that the fundamental question does revolve around governance, accepting responsibility and ensuring that there is a chain of command, so I take what the hon. Gentleman has said very seriously, and I think he is on the money.

T3. Will the Secretary of State update the House on plans to support my constituents who were victims of flooding in the summer of 2013 and who missed out on the compensation scheme that was afforded to the people of Somerset? (905227)

My hon. Friend has raised a very reasonable point. We are working with other Departments to identify funds for that purpose, and we hope to make an announcement very soon.

T6. The Secretary of State commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct an examination of the finances of Tower Hamlets council. Tower Hamlets council will be paying for that audit. Will the Secretary of State update us on how long it will be before the auditors report? (905230)

We are talking in terms of a matter of days. I understand that the consultants have finished their report, but the facts will have to be checked with Tower Hamlets, and only when that process has been completed will I be briefed on it. I shall then have to make a “minded” statement, because Tower Hamlets will obviously have the right to respond before I make a final statement to the House.

T5. This Saturday I shall be cleaning up Gosport with my local litter action group. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Thank you so much.In the light of the recently launched inquiry into litter by the Communities and Local Government Committee, will the Minister join me in commending the litter action initiative, which involves community volunteers from all over the United Kingdom working to keep their local streets clean? (905229)

I fully commend the work of the group that my hon. Friend is supporting. The local authority of which I used to be a member identified that £6 million had been spent on picking up litter. How many more elderly people and individuals in schools throughout the country could we have helped with that money? How many books could we have bought for libraries? This is about a lack of responsibility on the part of individuals, which needs to be addressed and challenged.

Ministers will be aware that, during the lifetime of this Government, the grant that Knowsley council will receive has been reduced by between £65 million and £74 million. Given that half the total amount spent by the council is spent on adults’ and children’s services, will the Minister consider reintroducing the council tax resource equalisation adjustment in order to mitigate the worst effects of the cuts?

Council tax nearly doubled under the last Government. This Government have effectively reduced it by some 11%, but that does not detract from our responsibility to look after elderly people, which is why we are providing a £3.8 billion package to support them.

T7. Over the summer, a disabled pensioner in my constituency received a parking penalty notice after his car had suffered a puncture. His car was pushed to the side of the road by good Samaritans, and when he got out of his car to go into the premises of a firm to find some people to help him to change the tyre, a traffic warden came along and gave him a parking ticket. Ealing council refused to cancel the ticket. [Laughter.] The council has exercised no discretion at all. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is outrageous? (905231)

I must say that I was very shocked to hear the laughter from the Opposition Benches. I think it is a disgrace that the full panoply of the state should fall on a disabled person in this way. I urge Ealing council to look at the file again right now, to rescind the parking ticket, and to treat that disabled person with a degree of respect.

Will the Minister make dealing with flooding a statutory duty for all fire services, or at least undertake to consider doing so, and then report to the House?

I have had an opportunity to see this very close up and am very firmly of the opinion that the way in which this is dealt with now, through gold command, and with the firefighters, the Environment Agency and the police working together, is by far the best system.

T8. May I welcome the massive support the Department has given to coastal communities like mine in Dover and Deal, and the great backing to high streets, of which Deal’s is officially and definitively the best in the country? (905232)

I congratulate my hon. Friend and his constituents on what they have managed to secure themselves in terms of on local growth. Deal is a fantastic example of a thriving high street, which I myself visited only a few weeks ago. It is already award winning, but I wish it good luck in the great British high street contest, which it has entered. I look forward to visiting Betteshanger park sustainable energy centre, which has secured £2.5 million of coastal communities funding to bring together business, education, heritage, green technology and tourism.

Can we be sure that small local businesses are benefiting from the scheme whereby councils can come together and cluster to provide services and procurement?

I can see no reason why not. In terms of procurement, my Department has looked at helping small and medium-sized firms, and I think it is very important that local councils support local businesses.

Somerset county council is reported to be paying one officer £318,500 through a limited company owned by him and his wife, his deputy £275,000, and has 15 other posts paying over £96,000. At the same time it says it has not got the money to run our services. Does the Secretary of State think that is right?

Obviously, the possibility of applying for the job is something one would not rule out. I think that is an absolutely outrageous use of public money. People should pay their taxes in a normal way, and it is an abuse of process for that to have happened.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Tory leader on Croydon council has been forced to resign in disgrace after he was exposed last week for secretly taking £10,000 in extra allowances before the council elections in May? Will he reassure the House that no other Conservative councils have set up allowances schemes that allow them to boast in public that they have frozen their allowances while leaving them free to claim the increases retrospectively after the polls have closed?

I do not mind whether somebody is Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Independent or UKIP—if they are on the fiddle, they deserve to have their collar felt, and that behaviour was completely unacceptable.

The Hertford road in Enfield is a struggling, though viable, shopping parade. Does the Secretary of State agree that Enfield’s Labour council’s obsession with mobile CCTV cameras in the area is simply a demonstration of its wish to raise fines and not support local businesses, and will he offer assurances to help out?

We now have a huge amount of evidence of what prevents local growth, and over-zealous parking restrictions are top of the list. My hon. Friend’s remarks are absolutely correct. We need to be giving support to local traders, listening to them and removing these obstacles to help our high streets thrive.