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Topical Questions

Volume 589: debated on Monday 15 December 2014

Some 180,000 homeowners have bought or reserved a property during this Parliament through one of the Government-backed schemes. Our support for home ownership also prompted a sharp increase in house building to a six-year high. Today we are setting out the next step of our long-term economic plan to improve the housing market. The starter homes programme will offer 100,000 first-time buyers the opportunity to buy a new home with a 20% discount.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that statement. Has he received much communication from some of our smaller councils—town and parish councils—about the pressure they are under from vexatious freedom of information requests, inappropriate pressure from members of the public, and sometimes problems of resolving their difficulties with a monitoring council, such as those between Arlesey and Central Bedfordshire in my constituency? Does such a problem arise rather more often these days?

It is not a general problem, though we have come across it. I know that my right hon. Friend is very disturbed by it. The best way to avoid freedom of information requests is to be open, straightforward and transparent, and sometimes some authorities are not. But there can be no excuse for persecuting a public official. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 lays down guidance with regard to vexatious claims. I understand that my right hon. Friend intends to write to me and I will look at the case very carefully.

May I start by expressing the Opposition’s concern about the situation in Sydney today? Our thoughts are with all the people who appear to have been taken hostage and with their families.

We are all aware of the threat posed by Islamism, the extremist ideology that wrongly claims to be informed by Islam and which attempts to recruit and radicalise our citizens. Can the right hon. Gentleman update the House on what his Department is doing with faith groups to help identify and deal with the sources of extremism and radicalisation in our communities?

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for his statement about events in Sydney. Our primary thoughts must be with the hostages, but I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will be as heartened as I am by the response to the worries expressed by Muslims in Australia about travelling on public transport, and the “I’ll ride with you” campaign, whereby Australian citizens are standing by the Muslim community and ensuring that Muslims feel they are good Australians.

We have spent about £45 million on integration projects since 2010 and an extra £11 million to support 29 projects this year, but I expect the right hon. Gentleman is more concerned about work with specific groups. Indeed, we have given priority to working with groups in east London, east Birmingham and along the M62 corridor. We work closely with them and with various other groups in the spirit of “not in their name”, to show that we recognise the full strength of the Islamic community’s love of peace.

Interfaith dialogue of the type that the Secretary of State describes with mainstream religious groups is important. The problem is that radical Islamists are not part of it, and Muslim communities are just as keen as others to know what he is doing to help them identify, isolate and deal with the conditions in which such an ideology develops. Does he agree that it is now time for his Department to focus its efforts on helping families to stop the radicalisation of their children and on promoting greater mutual understanding so as to undermine the corrosive effects of Islamism, which so damages our values and our democracy?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I intend to put out a written parliamentary statement that lays out the full breadth of what we have been doing to deal with this issue. The empowerment of women and of families in knowing what is going on on the web is a recognition of how things have changed. Those who expect this to come out of the mosque are living in a past world. This battle is fought on the internet and by modern methods of communication. Of course, as always, I will keep the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends completely informed about what we do.

T2. My right hon. Friend will be aware that Labour Front Benchers appear to have a plan to impose a homes tax on people earning more than £42,000, and this is causing great concern to my constituents in Wimbledon. I note that all Labour’s mayoral candidates for London have disowned the plan. Does he agree, first, that this tax is inequitable, and secondly, that our Government would never impose such an inequitable tax on my voters? (906600)

We certainly have no intention of persecuting the good people of Wimbledon; nor do we intend to make people suddenly find themselves in a mansion that they did not realise they owned. These are people who bought a property a few years ago and whose incomes have not gone up, but now Labour apparently wants to take £3,000 or £4,000 from them every year.

T3. Those who risk their lives to protect us deserve a decent pension. Will the Minister explain why firefighters have recently been on strike in England, but not in Scotland or in Wales? (906601)

I am afraid there are some myths about what is happening in the other nations. Industrial action is taking place in the other nations; they have not settled. In fact, many aspects of England’s scheme are better. We will have a full debate on the issue this afternoon, when I hope that we will able to put some of the myths to bed.

T4. Langho, one of my pleasant villages in beautiful Ribble Valley, has recently had three hideous wind turbines imposed on it by appeal, against the wishes of local people, the local council, and, indeed, me. Will the Minister assure us that, in future, planning inspectors will give far more weight to localism and to the views of local people before deciding to impose hideous industrial furniture on a local community? (906602)

It would be inappropriate to talk about a particular case that is still live in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I will say, however, that the Secretary of State has given clear guidance about pre-application consultation with communities. There are guidelines about protecting landscape and heritage, and the Secretary of State is able to recover applications if he believes that we need to test those guidelines. The best thing that my hon. Friend’s constituents can do is to ensure that they have a strong local plan in place that determines renewable sources of energy.

T6. The Minister just praised firefighters from Staffordshire. I met them again last week, and they, like me, cannot understand why the Government, at this eleventh hour before the debate later today, will not agree a negotiated settlement on the firefighters’ pension scheme regulations. Why are the Government not taking account of the Williams report, why are they peddling the myth of redeployment, and why cannot we have a fair pension for those having to retire early on health grounds? (906604)

Again, the hon. Lady needs to be aware of the facts. We are taking account of the Williams report. We are putting in place protections that firefighters have not had before, including for those on the 2006 scheme, which requires them to work until 60. They are entitled to ill health retirement, as before, on an enhanced basis. Those who are unable to retain their fitness as they age—this is specifically for older workers—will get another role or an unreduced pension. [Interruption.] Those are the facts. If there is no operational role, they will get an unreduced pension. We need to get that message out to firefighters, because they are going to be making decisions about their financial future based on their understanding of the scheme, and it would be quite wrong to mislead them on that.

T5. Small independent shops are the lifeblood of our high streets and I am glad to say, with Christmas just around the corner, that Worcester’s independent retailers say they are seeing increased footfall and that they are looking forward to their £1,500 discount on business rates next year. Will the Minister confirm that reforming business rates and discounts to small businesses can, alongside cuts to job taxes, help small businesses drive the economic recovery? (906603)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. May I take this opportunity to congratulate Worcester on being a finalist in the great British high street competition? In addition to the discount he mentioned, the autumn statement also doubled small business rate relief for a further year and maintained the 2% cap on the inflation increase for next year. I am sure that all those things will help Worcester potentially to take the prize next year.

T9. When a useless Government Minister is sacked, including by the electorate, they get a huge pay out and a massive pension. Why is there one rule for the politicians and another rule for the firefighters? (906607)

We will debate this issue this afternoon, but I stress that we need to stick to the facts of the case. Many things about the regulations that came into law last week are an improvement on some of the schemes. We have addressed genuine concerns about people working until they are older. I hope this afternoon will provide us with the opportunity to get those facts on the record. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the previous scheme will finish at the end of this financial year, so if the regulations were revoked firefighters would be without a pension scheme and they would lose all the protections they currently enjoy.

T7. This Government have introduced measures that cap the amount that councils can charge leaseholders for repairs to their properties and homes. In my constituency, some residents of Merridale court are being charged up to £12,000 by Wolverhampton Homes, with bills that have come all at once rather than spread over a period of time. Do Ministers think it is fair and reasonable that those pensioners should have to pay those fees? (906605)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking on the case on behalf of his residents. He is absolutely right that we should ensure that taxpayers’ money is well spent and that residents should be protected from any erroneous or over-the-top charges, as Florrie’s law, which was introduced in August, seeks to do. I would go further and say that, if those Wolverhampton residents do not feel they are being dealt with properly or appropriately, I would encourage them to go to the Leasehold Advisory Service, which can consider the first-tier tribunal to review their cases.

Does the Secretary of State recall that I asked him during the previous Question Time to give an early decision on the Coventry gateway project and that I followed that up with a letter? I have not received a reply to either request. I am sure he means no discourtesy, but could he tell us when we might expect a response, because a lot of jobs, business rates and development in the south of Coventry depend on it?

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not replying earlier. He will understand that the issue is very much tied up with adjoining authorities. A number of schemes are currently being negotiated under various growth deals and I hope the Government will be able to make a decision fairly soon.

T8. The Secretary of State has made localism his thing and he has come across very strongly as the champion of the people. Will he ensure that the people’s voice is heard and listened to when the first wave of hydraulic fracking applications go through, and will he insist that the Government follow the precautionary principle so that all environmental and health concerns will be addressed before an application is granted? (906606)

I thank my hon. Friend for standing up to make sure that the process is followed correctly. Obviously, the planning process is quasi-judicial and planning authorities must go through the full process. I will make sure that the chief planning officer keeps an eye on what is happening and ensures that the process is followed, and I will keep an eye on the case myself.

As I understand it, we will get an announcement later this week about the local government financial settlement for next year, which could involve a 10% reduction in local authority spending. That is as big a cut in one year as central Government Departments have faced throughout the whole of this Parliament. Will the Secretary of State, in the interests of transparency, give an assurance that he will come to this House and make an oral statement, rather than hide behind a written statement as he did last year?

The hon. Gentleman’s recollection is wrong: we made a statement from this Dispatch Box. We cannot anticipate what the business managers of this House will do. We will take the hon. Gentleman’s words into consideration.