House of Commons
Thursday 18 December 2014
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Energy and Climate Change
The Secretary of State was asked—
UK Energy Sources (Subsidy)
1. What steps his Department plans to take to reduce the overall subsidy to UK energy sources. 
The Government recognise the hon. Gentlemen’s point regarding the impact on taxpayers and consumers of Government support for renewable and low-carbon energy. However, Government policies are also aimed at reducing bills. Without Government policies, particularly on energy efficiency, bills would overall be on average around £90 higher this year.
Yesterday the Prime Minister confirmed that he is happy to see the levy control framework increase to £371 per year per household by 2020. At a time of falling oil prices and at a time when the shale gas revolution holds out the tantalising prospect of cheap energy, is not the Department carrying on subsidising windmills unnecessarily, and are we not making policy on the basis of outdated assumptions that need to revised?
We recognise the importance of keeping bills down for consumers, particularly when times are difficult, but this Government’s initiatives are to help reduce bills and our support for renewables is unquestionable. We feel it is essential to have some subsidy to get renewables going. I note that the hon. Gentleman is a big supporter of solar. Those costs have come down and our support has consequently come down. We expect it to reach grid parity by 2020. We are optimistic that wind farms are also beginning to come down in cost, and we have seen a 10% reduction in the support for them very recently.
Does my hon. Friend agree that linking oil prices to energy, and particularly heating bills, is nonsense given that we do not have any oil generation to speak of that generates electricity here in the UK—there is only maybe a tenuous link with heating oil? We should be focusing on driving down the cost of home-grown energy, particularly clean energy.
As always, my right hon. Friend makes an important point. Renewable electricity is essential, and I hope his Christmas tree lights burn even brighter this year, because 15% of that will indeed be from renewable energy, which is twice as much as under the last Government.
At a recent conference, a Treasury official, when asked about the levy control framework, said:
“A priority for the next Government is to review what should happen after 2021.”
He also said that he would hope to get clarity early in the next Parliament about what should happen, rather than towards the end of it, and that:
“We shouldn’t sprint towards a cliff edge.”
Is that the Minister’s position on the levy control framework, or is she sitting there doing nothing about it?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that those decisions are largely for the next Government. However, the levy control framework is an important part of controlling our expenditure. It is a classic example of the competence under this Government, as opposed to the chaos under the last, who had no levy control framework at all.
The Prime Minister said at the Liaison Committee this week that his party would scrap subsidies for onshore wind after 2015 and he did not expect any more to be erected without subsidy, but onshore wind is one of the cheapest forms of green energy. Does the Minister not agree that an essential part of trying to reduce energy bills is having onshore wind as part of the mix?
Onshore wind has been an important part of the mix and, of course, we have more onshore wind in this country than in the rest of the world, so I think that it may be time for us to spend our scarce resources on other types of renewables to ensure the best return for taxpayers.
One of the technologies we provide support to is carbon capture and storage. Is the Minister aware that UKIP is opposed to carbon capture and storage? It has described it as “expensive, difficult and pointless”. Does she agree with me that UKIP’s policy would mean that there is no long-term future at all for any of Britain’s coal mines or coal-fired power stations?
I share the right hon. Lady’s views on this. Carbon capture and storage is indeed an important part of our energy mix and an important part of supporting all energy sources in this country.
2. What recent steps he has taken to help households with energy bills. 
6. What steps he is taking to help households with energy bills. 
9. What steps he is taking to help households with energy bills. 
14. What steps he is taking to help households with energy bills. 
15. What steps he is taking to help households with energy bills. 
Mr Speaker, with permission I will answer this question with questions 3, 7, 10, 15 and 16.
There are three main ways in which we help people with their energy bills: first, with money, to help vulnerable customers with their energy bills with policies like the winter fuel payment, the warm home discount and cold weather payments; secondly, by helping people save energy and so cut their bills with policies like energy efficiency, product regulations, the energy companies obligation and the green deal; and, thirdly, by making our energy markets more competitive, where our reforms have seen the market share of smaller independent companies grow from less than 1% in 2010 to 10% today, enabling people to save hundreds of pounds on their bills by switching supplier.
Order. The Secretary of State may have been reading from an old list. It is important to have an updated list, and he ought to be able to look to people to provide him with an updated list. This is very unsatisfactory. The grouping is with 6, 9, 14 and 15. We really must get these things right.
The price of oil has been coming down quite dramatically in recent weeks. This opens up the prospect of lower prices, particularly for people who live off the gas grid. What is he doing to ensure that companies selling to those consumers bring their prices down to help them with their heating bills this winter?
First, Mr Speaker, I apologise for not getting the list of questions right. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) makes a good point. We expect heating oil companies to pass on the savings they are making. They do not hedge in the way that electricity and gas companies do in relation to the long-term forward markets; I understand that heating oil forward purchases are done on a much shorter time scale. We would therefore expect reductions in the price of oil to be fed through much more quickly.
It is all very well to talk about making the energy companies reduce their bills, but does the Secretary of State not agree that it would be a lot more effective if the regulator had the power to force them to bring prices down, as Labour is proposing?
Actually, it was the last Labour Government who got rid of price regulation from the regulatory tool book. This Government have supported the referral of the energy market to the independent competition authorities. That is a policy that the last Government—and the present Leader of the Opposition when he was doing my job—failed to pursue.
Does the Secretary of State share my concern about the annual fuel poverty statistics report, which shows that the fuel poverty gap—the difference between people’s bills and what they can afford—has grown to £480 in 2014? That is a shockingly worrying statistic, and the real story behind it is being told in the homes in our communities. Does he agree that it is now time to back Labour’s energy market reforms?
Fuel poverty needs to be tackled thoroughly, which is why we are bringing forward ambitious fuel poverty targets and a new fuel poverty strategy. Opposition Members should note that fuel poverty has actually fallen under this Government, whereas it rose under the last Government. That suggests that we should not be taking advice on energy policy from the Labour party.
Households with a disabled member have high fuel poverty levels, but working-age disabled people are not always able to access warm home discount schemes. In bringing forward a fuel poverty strategy, what will the Secretary of State do to ensure that that vulnerable group is protected?
We have a whole panoply of measures to help vulnerable people, as I set out in my original answer. Some of the wider policies that we are implementing, particularly those relating to competition, are helping people across the board. We are in discussions with other Government Departments, particularly the Department for Work and Pensions, in relation to the point that the hon. Lady has raised.
It is not just heating oil prices that have fallen. Wholesale gas and electricity prices have fallen significantly in the past year, yet consumers have seen little reduction in their bills. Does the Secretary of State now regret voting against Labour’s motion on 18 June, which would have given powers to the regulator to ensure that when wholesale costs fell, the reductions were passed on to the consumer?
It is interesting to look at the history of wholesale prices coming down and reductions not being passed on. There were much greater falls in wholesale costs when the Leader of the Opposition was doing my job, and they were never passed on. This Government have taken action by giving consumers far greater choice. They can now switch from companies that are not offering them a good deal and, in some cases, cut their bills by hundreds of pounds.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way for the Government to keep energy bills down is to stop subsidising working windmills? We are now subsidising those that are providing energy when the windmills are not working. Instead, we should get cracking with fracking.
That is a good soundbite, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that his understanding of how these things work needs a little work. It is important that we have an energy mix. That encourages greater competition as well as enabling us to tackle all our energy objectives, including keeping bills down and ensuring that we cut carbon and have secure energy.
The Minister is right to say that the number of households in fuel poverty has fallen every year since this Government came to power in 2010. However, those who are affected the most are the poorest families living in energy-inefficient homes. Will he tell us what steps are being taken to help that vulnerable group of people?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; energy-efficiency should be at the heart of our policies. Our new fuel poverty target is focused on energy-efficiency for the very reasons he outlined. I can tell him, and announce to the House today, that up to October this year the green deal and the energy companies obligation have together led to more than 1 million energy-efficiency measures being installed, producing permanent reductions in energy bills, this Christmas and every Christmas.
I wish to place on the record the contribution of the warm home discount scheme to Thirsk, Malton and Filey. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would have been particularly ill-advised to have frozen energy prices at the time a certain party was recommending that policy?
Indeed, one danger of the regulatory approach is not only that it discourages investment and reduces competition, but that one can freeze prices at a high level. The benefits of competition and falling wholesale prices will mean that bills will come down—indeed, people can save on their bills through the competition we have stimulated.
Members on both sides of the House recognise that some of the households with the highest bills are in the private rented sector, where we simply have to raise standards. We want to go further than the coalition, but the Secretary of State has repeatedly assured us that the coalition Government will act to improve the very worst homes by 2018. May I therefore ask him, straightforwardly, whether this Government will introduce the regulations on the private rented sector before the end of this Parliament? If not, why not?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s view that it is very important to get energy-efficiency in the private rented sector—something that the previous Government failed to act on. We have legislated in the Energy Act 2011, we have consulted on this and we will be making proposals.
I call Mr Tom Harris. He is not here. I call Mr David Jones.
4. What assessment he has made of the potential contribution of tidal lagoons to the UK’s energy supply. 
19. What recent assessment he has made of the potential of tidal power as an energy source. 
Tidal energy offers huge potential. Tidal lagoons alone could provide for up to 8% of the UK’s energy needs. To help with progress of tidal deployment, as part of the autumn statement, we announced a commitment to starting closer discussions with Tidal Lagoons Ltd to establish potential at Swansea bay. In addition, we have made a number of studies of UK tidal potential.
I call Tom Harris. Sorry, I meant Mr David Jones. There is a similarity.
Others have remarked upon it, Mr Speaker. It is good news that the Government are in discussions with the proposed developers of the Swansea tidal lagoon. Does my hon. Friend agree that proposals for a much larger lagoon at Colwyn bay also merit serious consideration? Does she also agree that a chain of lagoons along the west coast could make a huge contribution to British energy security?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. As he rightly says, tidal power provides a huge opportunity for the UK. My Department has started to explore the potential for a future lagoon programme and is aware of proposals for the tidal lagoons at Colwyn bay. Any such scheme will need to demonstrate strong evidence of value for money, economic benefits, energy saving and environmental impact mitigation before the Government could take a view on its potential, but I share his enthusiasm.
May I say merry Christmas to everyone, Mr Speaker? That should help climate change because I do not have to send out cards now. How are the Government’s talks on the Swansea tidal lagoon, which were announced during the autumn statement, progressing? As part of the studies that the Government are undertaking, are they working with the Welsh Government to look at proposals for a possible tidal lagoon, again on a larger scale, between Cardiff and Newport?
May I also exchange Christmas greetings with the hon. Gentleman? We are doing our best to progress with the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. He will be aware that there is only so much the Government can say at this stage, because there are other issues to consider. We will continue to keep an open mind to as many opportunities as possible, as long as we can reassure ourselves that there are clear economic benefits.
Energy Companies Obligation
7. What progress his Department has made on the energy companies obligation initiative. 
The latest Department official statistics show that we are getting closer to reaching our target of delivering energy-efficiency measures to 1 million homes. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we have already reached 1 million measures. In addition, legislation came into force in early December to help simplify the scheme and reduce costs. This has enabled energy suppliers to cut energy bills by £30 to £35 this year. The scheme will also be extended from March 2015 to March 2017 to provide greater industry certainty and enable us to reach an additional 840,000 homes.
I thank the Minister for her reply and welcome the news that the scheme will be extended to March 2017. Will she explain what is being done to make the scheme easier to understand and to access?
We are constantly reviewing ways to make the scheme easier and more accessible to people. We have different schemes that will add to its value. Some communities are working with our green deal communities fund in conjunction with the energy companies obligation to ensure that they reach and engage with people street by street. We want to have the widest reach possible, which includes not just the easiest to reach but the most vulnerable.
With more than 2 million people sadly still in fuel poverty, why is more than half the money being spent on this scheme going to people who are not in fuel poverty?
May I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the changes to ECO clearly did not change at all the targets to help vulnerable people. Although we made the changes to reduce the amount on the bills, we have continued to focus on vulnerable people and will continue to do so as a priority.
Will the Minister confirm that as a result of the changes to the energy companies obligation, nearly half a million homes will not be able to receive that financial assistance to upgrade their energy units to get cheaper bills?
As I just said, the Government are absolutely committed to helping the most vulnerable. Although we reduced the charges on bills to look after consumers and taxpayers generally, we were absolutely clear that the most vulnerable people would not be affected. The section of the ECO that is dedicated to helping the most vulnerable people remains in place and continues to provide support.
Onshore Oil and Gas Exploration (Scotland)
8. How many licences for onshore oil and gas exploration in Scotland have been granted by his Department in the last five years. 
In the past five years, the number of onshore licences for oil and gas exploration that have been granted in Scotland is zero.
The Minister is aware that the Smith commission has recommended that the powers in relation to unconventional oil and gas be transferred to the Scottish Parliament where planning permission already rests. Will he press for an early transfer of those powers?
As the hon. Gentleman says, the Scottish authorities already have control of planning for onshore oil and gas, and the Smith commission recommends that the licensing of onshore oil and gas underlying Scotland be devolved, whereas the licensing of offshore oil and gas will remain reserved. The proposals to bring this matter forward in a Scotland Bill are ongoing, but as he knows, the Infrastructure Bill is also going through this House as we speak, and we will look at the proposals for how we can make this agreement real.
When my right hon. Friend hands out licences, particularly in Scotland if it remains his power, will he make it clear that those who claim that hydraulic fracturing is a novel and dangerous process are talking nonsense? Far from being novel, 2.5 million wells have been fractured. Far from being dangerous, nobody has been poisoned by contaminated water, and no building has been damaged by the minute tremors, which are one thousandth of the power of natural earthquakes in this country.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful argument. Of course the regulatory regime for onshore oil and gas extraction in the UK is very strong. Onshore oil and gas extraction has been going on for many, many decades and hydraulic fracturing has been used onshore over many decades in the UK. We will continue to try to make the most of these huge reserves underneath the UK and do so in a careful and cautious way.
Ah, a lion to roar. Mr John Robertson.
The Minister will be aware that the price of oil has come down, which means that there will be a lack of investment in the North sea either side of the Shetland islands and into the Atlantic as well. What will the Government do about the jobs shortages that are starting to come through the system, and how we will maintain the reduced prices for customers?
One of the advantages of onshore oil and gas exploration is that the jobs offshore often require similar skills sets, so there is the potential for crossover. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Wood review is being implemented to improve the regulatory regime offshore to ensure that it is more flexible and that we can get maximum economic recovery from under the North sea. We are also reviewing the fiscal regime to ensure that we incentivise the production of North sea oil, which is good for the whole of the UK.
As the Minister is aware, planning powers and the permitting regime that takes place through the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, which is responsible to Ministers in Edinburgh, mean that no fracking can happen in Scotland without the approval of the SNP in Holyrood. It is a matter for them and, frankly, they should stop trying to distort that debate by suggesting that it is not. Following submissions made by me and others, the cross-party Smith agreement included commitments not just on licensing but to devolve underground mineral access rights, which are effectively a secondary aspect of the planning process, to Scotland. Labour has tabled an amendment to the Infrastructure Bill, which is now in Committee, to make that commitment good now. Will the Minister commit to supporting that amendment, which will help make clear and consistent, beyond nationalist distortion, where responsibility for such matters lies?
We are absolutely clear about the policy: Scotland will be responsible for onshore oil and gas exploration. That will include not only planning, as is the case now and which is an effective veto, but the positive aspects of licensing. It is a matter for the Scottish Government now, and in the future it will be unambiguously a matter for the Scottish Government. We are carefully considering whether that is done through the Infrastructure Bill or through a future Scotland Bill, but we can put beyond any doubt the clear commitment of the two Front Benches of the major parties in the UK that the onshore exploration of oil and gas is a matter for the Scottish Government in Scotland.
11. What recent assessment he has made of trends in levels of investment in clean energy. 
Since 2010, an average of £7 billion a year has been invested each year in renewable electricity production, double the £3 billion a year in the previous Parliament.
In recent months, the UK has slipped to seventh place in the EY attractiveness index for investment in renewables. EY labelled the Government’s actions as
“policy tinkering and conflicting signals”
“too much for investors to handle.”
Does the Minister recognise that mixed messages are coming from his Government and that that is a major reason for his failure on investment?
I do not think that the hon. Lady listened to my answer. The amount of investment in renewables is more than double that in the previous Parliament, so it is difficult to answer the rest of the question when it is based on a complete misconception of the facts. We have a clear policy to tackle carbon emissions and ensure that we meet the UK’s international obligations on carbon alongside the lowest possible reasonable cost to consumers and ensuring the security of energy supplies. In the past year, 15% of our electricity has come from renewable sources, double the amount under the previous Government. We are making progress, but we must do it in a way that keeps costs down.
Since we are quoting EU league tables for energy, will the Minister confirm that in 2010 only two EU countries had less renewable energy than us—Malta and Cyprus—and that he has no intention of allowing that situation to occur again?
Absolutely. The previous Labour Government insisted on higher bills and there was very little in the way of renewables. We have tackled the higher bills and bills are falling—they have not been frozen at the high levels at which the Labour party proposed. We have also ensured that we have renewable electricity, because it is secure and it is domestic, and we have done that in a way with as low a cost as is reasonably possible.
Investors in renewable energy will have been very interested in the Minister’s answers but will have been dismayed this week to hear the Prime Minister attack onshore wind, the cheapest large-scale form of renewable energy, in the Liaison Committee. He said
“let’s…put them into the planning system and if they can make their case, they will make their case. I suspect that they won’t”.
With the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr Pickles) as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, I share the Prime Minister’s pessimism. The Secretary of State has intervened in more than 50 onshore wind applications, which could have powered some 275,000 homes. Does the Minister agree that instead of listening to local communities, as they should be, this Government have taken Whitehall intervention in the planning system to unprecedented heights?
The Opposition have an extraordinary contradiction at the heart of their questions. The Prime Minister is clear that onshore wind should not be subsidised because increasingly it is a value-for-money proposition. The idea that we should subsidise more heavily something that is increasingly approaching grid parity seems bizarre, and the idea that that should be done without proper planning consideration is bonkers.
13. What recent assessment he has made of the UK’s energy security. 
17. What recent assessment he has made of the UK’s energy security. 
The UK remains the most energy secure country in the European Union and is ranked fourth in the world by the US chamber of commerce. On electricity security of supply, we are successfully implementing short, medium and long-term policies to overcome the legacy of underinvestment that we inherited, so we will keep the lights on. From National Grid’s supplemental balancing reserve to the capacity market auctions this week through to the £45 billion investment in the UK’s electricity generation networks in 2010, this Government have delivered on energy security for the UK.
Meeting our security of supply challenge requires stable investment, and investors need confidence in the long-term direction of Government policy. After 2020, when the levy control framework expires, that confidence evaporates in this Government’s current road map, so will the Secretary of State give the industry a big pre-Christmas present by finally committing this Government to a 2030 decarbonisation plan to give the sector the certainty it needs?
I have done a lot better than that. Through UK leadership in the European Union, we now have European Union 2030 targets, which are among the most ambitious in the world. The UK led that and that gives confidence to the sector not just in the UK, but across the whole European Union.
The Secretary of State was right earlier when he said that to get energy security we need a proper rich energy mix, but is he as disappointed as I am that the most predictable of energy sources, tidal energy, has not progressed beyond the demonstration schemes and into commercial energy projects, including Siemens in my constituency? Will he meet me and a delegation from the Anglesey Energy Island to see how we can progress so that national needs can be met by local sources?
I will always be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman. Although there have been some setbacks with Marine Current Turbines being put up for sale by Siemens, there are some positive signs—for example, MeyGen in the north of Scotland is the world’s first tidal array, and we are very proud of that. Moreover, I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that we are intensifying our negotiations with Tidal Lagoon Power over Swansea bay.
Energy Bills (Low Carbon Energy)
16. What estimate he has made of how much subsidies for low-carbon energy will add to domestic energy bills over the next 20 years. 
The impact of our policies on average household energy bills in 2020 is to cut them by 7%, compared with those energy bills without our policies. That is equivalent to an average saving of £92. The impact estimated for 2030 is to cut bills by 4% or £62 per annum.
The Committee on Climate Change has said that households already pay an average of £45 a year to support low-carbon power, and that will rise to £100 in 2020 and £175 in 2030. Can the Secretary of State confirm that those figures are true? Does he agree that there is nothing more nauseating than hearing people in this House on the one hand calling for lower energy prices, and on the other hand calling for more climate change policies and renewable energy, which are the one thing that increases prices? Is it not time that we had more cheaper energy and less greener energy?
I expect any figures from the Committee on Climate Change to be correct, but of course the ones my hon. Friend quotes do not tell the full story of our policies, which was told by my response to him. My hon. Friend just does not get the green energy opportunity, but in the spirit of Christmas let me cheer him up by telling him that the green energy savings I mentioned come partly from regulations—the type of Government intervention he dislikes so much. Worse still for my hon. Friend, his constituents are saving money, thanks to green regulations from the European Union.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
The most significant development for my Department since the last DECC oral questions has been the climate change agreement secured in this year’s talks in Lima last week. British leadership on the European Union’s position on climate change helps to secure an ambitious 2030 target for EU cuts in greenhouse gases. This European leadership has been significant in accelerating political momentum into the Lima talks and beyond, through to the crucial Paris summit on climate change next year.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on what happened in Lima. Let us hope that when we get to Paris we can solidify all the things that were talked about.
Secretary of State, I sent your Department, Ofgem, the chief executive officers of the big six companies and many other interested groups a copy of a report that I did for the Energy and Climate Change Committee on how to help the safety of vulnerable people at times of need. Everyone except your Department and Ofgem has replied: why? All the others have contributed to a voluntary code of practice, and I am happy about that. Why cannot DECC and Ofgem put people before political point-scoring?
I do not have a Department and I have not failed to reply, but if someone has I am sure he or she will take responsibility.
Let me give the hon. Gentleman a Christmas present—I will ask for his report to be put in my Christmas Red Box.
T2. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the marine energy sector has recently had bad news with the proposed sale of Marine Current Turbines by Siemens and Pelamis going into administration. In the light of fierce competition from France, which has signed partnership agreements to develop two schemes off the Brittany coast, what is he going to do keep the UK at the forefront of this, and will he promote opportunities such as those off Lynton and Lynmouth as a way of doing so? 
My hon. Friend is right to say that we have had some disappointing announcements on Marine Current Turbines and Pelamis, which is unsettling for those companies and the families involved. However, there has been some good news: as I said to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), MeyGen is the world’s first tidal array project, and I think that the Lynton and Lynmouth demonstration zones will be able to take forward further tidal arrays. The fact that we are looking very intensively into tidal lagoon power is a real shot in the arm for the tidal industry.
May I take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Speaker, and all hon. Members a very happy Christmas? May I also wish the Secretary of State good luck, as I understand he is appearing in pantomime this Christmas? I am sure that we all want to wish him the best of luck. It is good to know that the Liberal Democrats are beginning to think about their career options after the next election.
Oh no, they’re not!
I understand that he is playing a drunken monk in “Robin Hood”.
The best way to help households permanently to cut their energy bills is to make their homes more energy-efficient. According to the Government’s own figures, 5 million households would still benefit from cavity wall insulation and over 7 million would benefit from loft insulation. Why, then, has the number of households getting loft and cavity wall insulation fallen by more than half compared with last year?
First, Mr Speaker, may I wish you, the right hon. Lady and all other right hon. and hon. Members a happy Christmas? I am afraid that those who wanted to buy a ticket for the pantomime at the last moment will be disappointed, because I appeared with St Paul’s Players in Chessington two weeks ago; I should have given more notice. It was “Robin Hood”, and some of us originally from Nottingham believe in some of those principles.
The right hon. Lady asked a very important question about energy efficiency. She will know that our approach has been to go after measures not only on loft insulation and cavity wall insulation—which are very important but declining in terms of availability and options because so much has been done—but on solid wall insulation, which is more expensive but vital for tackling fuel poverty and climate change.
The Secretary of State does not want to admit it, but the reason so few households are getting help is that the Government caved in to the energy companies and cut the number of households they have to help. The chaos does not stop there. The latest round of the green deal home improvement fund for solid walls opened last Wednesday and closed the very next day. This is not just incompetent but wasteful. Instead of just giving money away, we could make the funding go further, in a fairer way, if it was used to support zero-interest loans for energy-efficiency, as we have proposed in our green paper.
The right hon. Lady picks an odd day to ask about energy-efficiency when we have announced 1 million energy-efficiency measures through the green deal and the energy companies obligation. The solid wall part of the green deal home improvement fund had to close early because it was so popular and successful, so for the right hon. Lady to criticise that is remarkable. All those people who will benefit from that measure will note her words.
It is good of the hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) to drop in on us. We are grateful to him.
T3. Energy experts believe that by 2030 we will need an additional 25-30 GW of gas capacity to meet our needs. What does my right hon. Friend have in mind to meet that extra provision? Will it include 15-year contracts for new entrants and not contracts discounted to one year? 
My hon. Friend is right that we need investment in our energy infrastructure, including gas-powered fire stations. The capacity market auction on which many of those investment decisions will be made is under way this week and is continuing today to get the best possible value for money for energy consumers. It would be insidious of me to comment on an auction while it is under way. [Hon. Members: “Invidious!”] It would be invidious of me as well, so I will not comment, but my hon. Friend makes a critical point that it is vital to get new energy generation investment.
If the Minister could provide us in future with the energy efficient version of his reply, that would be extremely beneficial. I think with practice he will get there.
T5. As has been said during these questions and earlier this week, fracking is a hot topic of debate, particularly in Scotland, which is surprising, because the Scottish Government have an effective veto. Will the Minister confirm again that he and his Department are powerless to overturn a Scottish Government decision if they decide to deny planning permission for any fracking project? 
As I said earlier, there have been no licences in the past five years for onshore oil and gas production in Scotland. Planning is a matter for the Scottish authorities and we are clear in our response to the Smith commission, which all parties signed up to, that licensing will also be a matter for Scotland. Onshore oil and gas exploration is a matter for the Scottish Government. If they do not want it to go ahead, it will not, and if it does go ahead, it will be a matter for them.
It is very good also of the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) to drop in on us. I do not know whether he is aware, but he has a question on the Order Paper and we want to hear him. It is a topical question—anything the hon. Gentleman likes. I will give him a moment or two more to dream something up. Come on, Mr George—let’s hear you!
T4. Thank you, Mr Speaker. I apologise: I was in conversation. On renewable projects, particularly large-scale solar and large-scale onshore wind, is the Secretary of State making sure that community benefit is being assured in terms not just of the energy created, but of the share in the resource? 
It was a very good question; it was not about the money resolution for the Affordable Homes Bill, either.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. In our community energy strategy and our work with both the solar and the onshore wind industries, we have stressed the importance of community benefits, and that is having a marked effect. We have enabled that through voluntary protocols, community benefit registers and the like. We have accepted and are taking forward the report of the shared ownership stakeholder group, which has also shown that people can be directly involved and have a stake in local renewable energy projects.
T7. Following the story in The Sun today, may I congratulate the Secretary of State on slapping down his jobsworth official by wishing us all a merry Christmas, and may I reciprocate those wishes? May I also take him back to the reply given to me at the last Energy questions by the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), who claimed:“There will be no blackouts this winter”?—[Official Report, 6 November 2014; Vol. 587, c. 951.]Does the Secretary of State agree with her? 
T6. May I correct my right hon. Friend the Minister of State on one point? Other than one example, there has been no deep well fracking for shale gas in this country. In Fylde, self-regulation and self-monitoring were proved disastrously wrong. Will he give the House a commitment that there will be no self-monitoring or self-regulation but a very cautious approach, and that the regulatory authorities will monitor seismic and other aspects of fracking at depth for shale gas? 
There is a very strong regulatory regime for oil and gas extraction onshore, whether through conventional means or hydraulic fracturing. In fact, in the autumn statement just a couple of weeks ago, another £5 million was set aside for independent monitoring, just as my hon. Friend asks. I can give her the assurance that this will be done in a safe and cautious way.
Several hon. Members
Order. There is now a spontaneous and heavy appetite for topical questions, which I am keen to accommodate.
T8. The green investment bank has been a great success, leveraging in over £5 billion of investment in renewables and other green jobs. Does the Secretary of State not agree that the bank would be an even greater success if it had the power to borrow on the open market, as the Opposition have proposed, and the ability to focus more on energy-efficiency projects? When will he speak to the Business Secretary and the Chancellor to make sure that it gets those powers? 
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman agrees with us that the green investment bank has been a huge success. We have seen it develop further, and we are keen to see it develop still further. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary and I are in agreement that our manifesto will say that the bank will be given borrowing powers.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the important role he played at Lima, along with our excellent team of negotiating officials, but does he agree that there is much more to do? Perhaps the single most important thing that the UK could do in the coming year, in the run-up to Paris, is to demonstrate to the world that a country can grow its economy strongly—we have strong economic growth—at the same time as reducing emissions.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am grateful for his comments. One of the reasons I set up the green growth group in Europe was to push the argument that a country can grow and go green, and that argument has been won in the debate in the European Union. He may be interested to know that in Lima we worked with Latin American countries—particularly Peru, Costa Rica, Colombia and Mexico—because our Latin American friends now want their own green growth group.
The Secretary of State reels off statistics about home insulation, rather like a Soviet-era apparatchik talking about tractor production. Thousands of homes in Jaywick were promised home insulation at the beginning of this year. Why, at the end of the year, have only a handful of homes had that insulation, and why has the promise that more homes would get it evaporated?
I have to say that we have a very good record on energy-efficiency, as today’s announcement of 1 million energy-efficiency measures from the green deal and the ECO demonstrates. I do not know about the particular example in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I can tell him that because of some of the changes we made to the ECO this time last year, some energy- efficiency schemes have not gone ahead, but what has gone ahead is a £50 cut, on average, in people’s energy bills.
Does the Secretary of State think it is fair that at the public inquiry into the Navitus Bay offshore wind park, the applicants have in the middle of the inquiry put forward a separate and different application? It is now being considered alongside the original application, which has not been withdrawn. Is that not oppressive and a breach of the principles of the rule of law?
I am surprised that my hon. Friend, who has great experience in the House, should ask a Minister to comment on a live planning inquiry.
Even after the bodged, late and partial mitigation of the carbon floor price, it remains a tax on UK manufacturing that is unilateral to this country. When will the Government come forward with an energy policy to support our UK manufacturing that matches the best in Europe?
I am slightly disappointed by the hon. Gentleman’s tone because he has been supportive of the energy-intensive industries package that we secured at the Budget. It of course has to undergo state aid clearance, but it is pushing as far as is possible within EU rules. We need to ensure that we land that deal in Europe. At the same time, we have frozen the carbon price floor, so progress is being made.
It is disappointing that there has not been a ministerial statement about Lima this week, particularly given the warning from the Union of Concerned Scientists that the negotiators have left too many contentious issues unresolved before the deadline in Paris. Will the Secretary of State advise us why the deal is so good?
In fact, if one follows the details, one finds that we secured more than we expected to on going into the Lima summit. The reason is that there were some good negotiations, particularly on the information that countries will have to supply in what are known as—I am sure that the House will have followed this closely—their intended nationally determined contributions, which will be announced in the first quarter of next year. Nailing that down was the key issue in Lima and we did so.
As the Secretary of State will recall, the Prime Minister said recently that now that 10% of power is supplied by onshore wind, onshore wind should seek its passage through the planning process. I am sure he is aware that in terms of operational schemes and schemes that have planning permission, it makes up far more than 10% of the system already. Does he propose to put the Prime Minister right on this, or does he intend to rescind planning permissions so that the Prime Minister does not look silly?
I am slightly confused by the hon. Gentleman’s question because he misquotes what the Prime Minister said on Tuesday. The fact is that onshore wind supplies just over 5% of our electricity today. By 2020, with the onshore wind farms that are in the planning stage and with the assumption that some will not get through, we expect to get to about 10%.
It is odd that we have nearly got to the end of DECC questions and nobody has mentioned nuclear power. To redress that, will the Secretary of State confirm that Hinkley Point C is going ahead at speed, and that the generation of power stations after Hinkley Point C at Sellafield, Wylfa and Sizewell are doing so as well?
That is certainly our policy. We have managed to agree commercial heads of terms, as my hon. Friend knows. We have received state aid clearance for Hinkley Point C. We are in final negotiations with EDF and it is putting together its consortium of investors. We are not at the point of a final investment decision, but we are getting closer.
What is the Secretary of State’s position on fracking, particularly following the news that New York state has decided to ban it?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like every Government to follow everything that New York state does, but we are an independent country and we make our own decisions. He will know that the Government’s policy on fracking is to support it through a robust and strong regulatory regime to ensure that health and safety and environmental concerns are fully taken into account, but also that we can exploit this important resource.
When people voted for the Climate Change Act 2008 in the last Parliament, we were told that if we passed that legislation, every other country would follow suit. Have not the Lima negotiations proved that to be a complete and utter load of old cobblers, like much of what the Secretary of State says? If what I am saying is wrong, why, in a recent Westminster Hall debate, did Labour MP after Labour MP, many of whom voted for the Climate Change Act, complain that it was doing untold damage to the steel industry?
I think that my last answer to the hon. Gentleman, in which I recommended EU product regulations as very effective in reducing his constituents’ bills, must have annoyed him a tad. The UK’s leadership on climate change is acknowledged not just in this country or in Europe but around the world. We are taking forward the climate change negotiations successfully and I look forward to a successful agreement in Paris. The one thing that we have to achieve next year is to ensure that the deal is ambitious enough.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the Energy and Climate Change Committee has produced a report on small nuclear reactors. May we have a quick response from the Government very early in the new year? When we produced a report on fracking in 2010, it took three or four years before it became a flagship policy of the Government. We could go on to lose the opportunity.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is ongoing work on the commercial feasibility of SNRs. There was a further small package in the autumn statement to take that work forward, and we are working internationally to see whether the technology can become feasible.
Will the Minister set out what financial benefits will be available for local communities where shale gas sites are situated? Will he confirm that it will be local communities that benefit, and that it will not be possible for councils to pocket the cash and use it elsewhere?
Absolutely. The industry is committed to ensuring that there is a contribution to communities for exploration, but also that a minimum of 1% of production revenues goes to local communities. Some companies have said that they will put more than that minimum into local communities. It is crucial that the communities from under which gas can be extracted benefit from that extraction.
Analysis by climate change scientists of pledges made by Governments at Lima shows that the world is currently at risk of experiencing about 3° C of global warming. What can be done to reduce the global ambition gap on emissions by the time of the Paris summit, so that we do not cross the 2° C threshold?
The hon. Lady is right that there is a real risk that when all the countries make their pledges next year, we will be some way short of what is required to keep global temperatures below the limit of a 2° C rise, which is what scientists say we need to achieve. We are doing a lot of work, not just in this country but in Europe and beyond, to see what can be done. There are pre-2020 measures that we should focus on, because the treaty would not come into effect before then. That is one reason why, when we negotiated the EU 2030 package, the phrase “at least” 40% was important—it gave us a chance to raise our ambition levels in Europe if we can persuade others across the world to do so.
The villagers of Shepherdswell in my constituency are concerned about plans for onshore gas exploration there. They are adjacent to an area of outstanding natural beauty, so will the Minister restate the guidance on that matter?
Absolutely. My first act in this job was to strengthen the planning guidance and rules on the extraction of onshore oil and gas in national parks, AONBs and other places. That is an important reassurance to those who live in the most beautiful parts of our country that planning considerations for onshore oil and gas will be extremely tight.
Many offshore wind developers have expressed concern that owing to the structure of the current contracts for difference allocation round, only one development will be given a CfD, imperilling many of the others. Can the Secretary of State give them any reassurance that there will be greater consideration of offshore wind in future CfD allocations?
First, it is worth putting it on the record, as it is Christmas, that Britain leads the world in offshore wind, with more offshore wind farms installed than in the rest of the world combined. In the current round of CfD allocations—of course, it has not been completed yet, so I cannot talk about the details—we have ensured that we have sufficient allocation for offshore wind, but we have also ensured that the levy control framework includes further allocations for it, so that the consumer can benefit from dropping prices.
The Secretary of State has mentioned the cuts in the energy companies obligation. When those cuts were made, Ministers made it clear that it would not be acceptable if energy companies did not pass them on to consumers. Will the Secretary of State explain why 4 million households have still not received the full saving and what he intends to do about it?
I do not recognise the figures that the hon. Lady gives, and I have to tell her that the energy companies obligation is one of the most successful energy efficiency policies ever implemented. A huge number of steps are being taken, and I hope that any future Government will continue and build upon them. We have given the industry much greater stability—it has never before had three years of reassurance about the future regime, which we gave it last year.
Ah. I have been saving the hon. Gentleman up.
The Government claimed that the green deal would be the largest home improvement programme since the second world war. If that is correct, will the Secretary of State tell the House why fewer than 3,500 homes have had work done?
The hon. Gentleman’s figures are, shall we say, inaccurate. Our analysis shows that large numbers of people—getting on for 350,000—have had green deal assessments, and more than 80% of those have either gone on to have that work done or plan to have it. There are now nearly 8,000 green deal finance plans, and that number is increasing. Although I will happily admit that the green deal has not been as successful as we had hoped, we have learned a lot of lessons and a lot of measures have been taken because of the green deal.
A and E and Ambulance Services
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on the performance of accident and emergency departments and ambulance services, and what plans are in place to help them cope with winter pressures.
I welcome this opportunity to come to the House and confirm NHS plans to support A and E and ambulance services over the challenging winter period. First, we must recognise the context. The NHS always faces significant pressures during the winter months, and with an ageing population we have 350,000 more over-75s than four years ago. As a result, more people are turning up at our A and Es, with attendances up 5% on last year, and a greater level of sickness among those who turn up has led to an increase in emergency admissions of nearly 6% on last year. That picture is reflected across the home nations, with A and Es in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as England, missing key performance standards as a result.
In England, where performance has been relatively better than in other home nations, we have been preparing for this winter for more than nine months—indeed, I chaired my first meeting to discuss the issue on 17 March. On 13 June we gave the NHS an additional £400 million for winter pressures. That was topped up in autumn by £300 million, making a total of £700 million to ensure that local services had the certainty of additional money and time to plan how it should best be used. That funding was provided earlier than ever before in NHS history, and was possible because a strong economy has allowed us to make year-on-year real-term increases in NHS spending. That funding will pay for the equivalent of 1,000 more doctors, 2,000 more nurses, and 2,000 other NHS and care staff, including physiotherapists and social workers. It will fund up to 2,500 additional beds in the acute and community sectors, and provide £50 million to support ambulance services.
We are also progressing with a long-term plan to reduce pressures on A and E. We are providing £150 million through the Prime Minister’s challenge fund to make evening and weekend GP appointments available for 10 million people, and more than 4 million people are already benefiting from that. Our better care programme integrates, for the first time ever, health and social care services in 151 local authority areas, with plans starting in April to reduce, on average, emergency admissions to hospitals by 3%. The Five Year Forward View is funded by an additional £2 billion of new money announced in the autumn statement—we have a long-term plan for our NHS, just as we do for the economy.
The winter will be tough, but a number of changes made over the last four years will put us in a much stronger position. Since 2010, the NHS has nearly 1,200 more A and E doctors, including 400 more consultants, almost 600 more registrars, 1,700 more paramedics and 17,200 more clinical staff overall. Our A and E departments are seeing and treating around 2,000 more people within four hours every day, and our ambulances are making nearly 2,000 additional emergency journeys every day. The Care Quality Commission has confirmed that compassionate care in A and Es has improved over the last two years, and according to patients the NHS is getting record scores for the safety of care, and for treating people with dignity and compassion.
I will conclude by thanking hard-working NHS staff across the country for the outstanding care that they continue to deliver under a great deal of operational pressure. On behalf of the whole House I also thank the 70 NHS front-line volunteers who will be making this country safer by spending their Christmas in Sierra Leone on the front line in the fight against Ebola. They are the bravest of the brave and make our entire country proud.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I of course echo the sentiments he expressed about NHS staff and volunteers fighting Ebola.
I have to say, however, that I heard a good deal of misplaced complacency in what he had to say. Winter has not begun in earnest, but there are already signs of A and Es and ambulance services being stretched to the limit. Last week, a record number of people waited more than four hours in A and E and on trolleys. Ambulance response times are getting worse across England, with some 999 calls taking hours. Overnight, news has emerged of an 82-year-old man who waited more than three hours for an ambulance to arrive at his nursing home. He then waited a further 19 hours on a trolley in a corridor. That is appalling, and there are fears that things will get worse when the House is in recess.
Given that, it should not be for me to drag the Secretary of State here today to explain what he is doing to prevent a full winter crisis in the NHS. The question he did not answer, but must answer today, is this: does he have a winter plan? If he does, will he publish it? People working in the NHS need to know what is in it. [Interruption.] He seems to suggest that he has one, but let me quote Dr Mark Porter, chair of the British Medical Association. He criticises what he calls the
“total failure by government to come up with a meaningful plan”.
The Secretary of State will have to reassure Dr Porter.
The Secretary of State mentions money, but is it not the case that £300 million of it was allocated only in November? Does he really think that that gave the service enough time to plan? Dr Clifford Mann, chair of the College of Emergency Medicine, does not think so. He says:
“Had these funds been used back in summer and early autumn we might have more resilience in the system now.”
Dr Mann also questions where this money has gone, saying “very little” has been seen by front-line A and E staff, and instead
“a lot of it has gone to shoring up balance sheets in acute trusts”.
Is that true? Will the Secretary of State provide of full breakdown of how that money was allocated and has been spent to date? Were any conditions attached? I am sure he will claim the money has been used properly, but, if that is the case, why is the NHS already under so much pressure?
Over the break, hon. Members will want to monitor the situation in their local hospitals very closely. However, we have learnt that from tomorrow the publication of data on A and E will be suspended for three weeks over the crucial Christmas period. That is simply unacceptable. Given that we know the figures are still being collected, there is absolutely no reason why they should not be published. The Secretary of State rightly puts a premium on transparency. Will he today order an end to the news blackout and instruct NHS England to maintain weekly reports?
I have visited a number of acute trusts in recent days and they all say that the pressure on A and E is critically linked to the severe shortage of places in nursing and residential homes and cuts to social care. The sad truth is that today a record number of older people are trapped in hospital. They are well enough to go home, but do not have the support to do so. When are the Government going to wake up to the very real crisis in social care and the fact that it is dragging down the NHS?
Finally, no one can predict what this winter will hold, but the warning signs are there and the NHS needs to plan for all eventualities. What discussions has the Secretary of State held with other Departments, and do the Government have a wider contingency plan for the NHS?
This is a serious situation. If patients and staff are to have confidence, they need better answers than they have had so far. I hope the Secretary of State will start providing them now.
First, may I thank the shadow Health Secretary for bringing this matter to the attention of the House? As a former Health Secretary, he knows that operational pressures are one of the biggest challenges facing any Health Secretary. Indeed, he had many examples of very, very poor care on his own watch and he is absolutely right to give the House a chance to hear more about our plans for winter.
The shadow Secretary of State asks whether we have a plan. It seems to me that he prepared his comments before he listened to the statement. We have put in more money than ever before. Plans were announced in June. NHS England had a press conference in which it went through the plans relating not just to the £400 million, but the extra £300 million that was agreed in September and allocated through October. That is a record amount. Let us consider what is happening in his own constituency. In Wigan borough, since 2010, because of spending that he opposed, Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust has taken on 78 more doctors, 149 more nurses and 209 more clinical—[Interruption.] He says, “Does this help?” These are extra doctors and nurses on the front line, helping patients in his own constituency.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about care homes. The £3.3 million going to help his own constituents with winter pressures is to monitor the mental and physical health of patients in care homes and to help reduce the number of emergency admissions. We have a winter plan that is working in his own constituency to help improve the lot of his constituents. He needs to acknowledge that.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the publication of figures over Christmas. We have never published figures over the Christmas period because it would mean forcing NHS staff to work over Christmas, whereas, where possible, we would like them to be able to go home for Christmas, just like Members of this House. When he was Health Secretary, did he publish performance or weekly A and E figures over Christmas? He did not. He did not publish them at Christmas or Easter; he did not publish any weekly A and E figures at all, so to come to the House and call it a news blackout says to me that he is more interested in political opportunism than in care for patients.
It is disappointing that the right hon. Gentleman did not take this opportunity to disown his own leader’s instructions to weaponise the NHS. The NHS is not, and never should be, a political weapon. This is what third parties say. Dr Mann, president of the College of Emergency Medicine, whom the shadow Secretary of State mentioned, said yesterday that
“the system is under pressure but it’s working pretty well”.
The Foundation Trust Network said:
“NHS providers prepared for this Winter earlier and more fully than ever before”
and that—he should listen to this bit—the
“NHS needs support not criticism”
please. The NHS Confederation said the NHS was pulling out all the stops on urgent care and A and E, and that earlier planning and extra money were helping.
The right hon. Gentleman wants to draw comparisons. Nine out of 10 people are being seen within four hours in this country, which is a higher proportion than in any country anywhere in the world that measures A and E performance—faster than Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Scotland, Northern Ireland and, yes, faster than Labour-run Wales. Eight people out of every 100 wait more than four hours in A and E in England; in Wales, that figure is 15 hours. He should concentrate on saving the NHS in Wales, rather than running it down in England, where it is doing so much better.
Finally, if the right hon. Gentleman is worried about poor care, why is he still saying it was wrong to have a public inquiry into Mid Staffs? This is what Julie Bailey, the Mid Staffs campaigner, said this week about his comments:
“It is very worrying, because if he becomes Health Secretary again at the election it is clear we would go straight back to the old days of covering up.”
The NHS is performing well under great pressure. He should commend the efforts being made by front-line staff, not undermine them by trying to turn the NHS into a political football.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the staff of Broomfield hospital in Chelmsford and the GP surgeries in mid-Essex on the fantastic job they are doing to look after patients in difficult circumstances because of the significant increase in the number of patients needing and accessing care? Furthermore, does he agree that it is rather demoralising for staff and sad that Labour seeks to turn the NHS into a party political football simply—
Order. The Secretary of State does not need to concern himself with Opposition policy, as I think the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), on his good days, knows. The Secretary of State should focus on a brief statement of the Government’s policy, for which we will be grateful.
I can confirm that the Government’s policy is to root out poor care wherever we find it, not to cover it up and conceal it for party political purposes.
The College of Emergency Medicine gave the Secretary of State a 10-point plan in 2013. Will he say which of those 10 points he has enacted?
We have enacted, or started to enact, every single one of them. Some of them take a bit longer—the contracts for A and E consultants, for example, which we want to ensure are attractive enough to encourage people to want to become A and E consultants. I am pleased to say that we have made some progress on that and are now getting the recruits coming into A and E that we want to see. Other things are starting to happen this winter—more co-location of GP services at A and E front doors and better discharging procedures from hospitals. We have been working very closely with the College of Emergency Medicine, which has been a great help to us in devising these winter plans.
Last Friday, my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) and for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and I met leaders of the health and social care system in south-east Hampshire to discuss how it is dealing with the operational challenges it faces. May I commend to my right hon. Friend the model it is using—of working together to prevent unnecessary admissions, ensuring a safe and speedy assessment of those who turn up at A and E and also issuing a prompt discharge of those who are medically fit to return to their own homes?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I commend what is happening in his constituency. He will be pleased to know that this is beginning to happen all over the country. The heart of the long-term solution is to have people in the social care system, people in primary care and people in hospitals to see themselves as part of one system, in which people are properly flowing between different parts of the system in the way that is right for them, ignoring organisational or institutional barriers. Where that happens, we are making good progress and we are getting the right performance in A and Es.
Last week, the chief executive of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust told me that it had a ward of patients that it was unable to discharge into the community. This week the Care Quality Commission ranked the A and E unit at St Mary’s as being inadequate owing to a lack of bed capacity and physical capacity in the ward. Yesterday the London ambulance service had to call in emergency help because it is under such pressure. What is the Secretary of State doing to turn around the crisis in central London’s health service? Will he remind us again why it made sense to close two west London A and E units in the middle of an A and E crisis?
It is funny how the hon. Lady talks about the closing of A and E departments without talking about the opening of A and E departments and the improvement of facilities. The plans for north-west London involve significant improvements, including weekend opening of GP surgeries, which is one of the key things that the shadow Front-Bench team has talked about as something that will help A and E departments. As for what is happening specifically, I was disappointed with the CQC report about the A and E at St Mary’s, but I gently say to her that it was this Government who set up an independent inspection regime with a chief inspector who gives the public information in a way that they did not have before. I think that is the biggest spur to making sure that the right changes are made quickly.
The general public will not have been impressed with the political posturing from the shadow Secretary of State. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a significant number of people who go to A and E should not be there, and as part of his long-term NHS planning, does he agree that if first aid were taught as part of the national curriculum, fewer people would go to A and E?
I commend my hon. Friend for championing this cause. He is absolutely right that we need first aid. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy)—I am not sure he is here—is a first responder, and I want to commend him for the work he does in that respect, because it makes a big difference in emergency situations if we can people to patients more quickly.
The CQC report into Imperial, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) referred, found poor standards of cleanliness, too few nurses and thousands of patients awaiting surgery. It is the third CQC report in west London in four months, and it has found five major hospitals as requiring improvement and three A and E departments inadequate. The only one that is not inadequate—Charing Cross, which is good—is the one the Secretary of State wants to close. Waiting times are down to some of the worst in the country, yet they used to be among the best. We in west London do not recognise what he is saying. After two years of refusing, will he now meet me and other west London MPs to talk about the crisis in west London health care?
On the contrary, it is the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who do not recognise what he says or all the scaremongering leaflets about what is happening to NHS services in north-west London. We have plans to open two brand-new hospitals; we have weekend opening of GP surgeries; and we have big improvements happening in A and E departments. Let me gently say to him that, along with his Front-Bench team, he voted not to have a chief inspector of hospitals who could provide independent information about the quality of services. Now that he is quoting that information, I hope he realises that that was a mistake.
Clinical commissioning groups and hospital trusts throughout the country, including those in Oxfordshire, are working very hard to ensure that they can triage people at the entrance to accident and emergency departments, so that those who need primary care get primary care and those who need A and E services get A and E services. Was the urgent question not simply a new form of political ambulance-chasing?
What my right hon. Friend has said about what is happening in Oxfordshire is very important. I commend the efforts that are being made there, as well as those that are being made in so many other parts of the country. It is interesting to note that all the questions that are being asked by those on the Government Benches are about the details of how we can help the NHS to get through the winter, while on the Opposition Benches it is all about politics. I think we know which side cares about patients the most.
There have been serious problems with ambulance response times in Clacton. I recognise that the ambulance trust is addressing some of them, and I recognise that the Secretary of State is taking genuine steps, not least in establishing proper inspection systems, which is fantastic. However, many of the problems have been connected with turnaround times at Colchester hospital’s A and E department. Would it not be helpful if patients could access primary care via GPs in the first place rather than being forced to go to A and E departments? Emergency care would be then accessible in emergencies.
The long-term solution is to provide more GPs and GP capacity, which is why we plan to train 5,000 more GPs over the course of the next Parliament, but that will take time, so we need to find shorter-term solutions. We are working with the Royal College of General Practitioners to establish what can be done in the short and medium term.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that hoax calls are one of the causes of the pressures on the ambulance service, and that those responsible should always be prosecuted and dealt with in the most severe manner possible?
It is totally unacceptable for people to create extra pressure on ambulance services when they should not be doing so. One of the encouraging aspects of the better care programme is the fact that we are starting to analyse the ambulance service, the local NHS and the social care system in order to establish where the highest volumes of ambulance calls are coming from and sort out the problem.
Two weeks ago, along with other Members of Parliament, I met executives of the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which, as I am sure the Secretary of State agrees, is an outstanding trust that invariably meets its care and financial targets. However, we were told that even that trust was not meeting its A and E targets. Would the Secretary of State care to reflect on the fact that if a trust as good as the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals trust is experiencing those problems now, there is a real prospect of crisis in the NHS this winter?
I agree that that is an excellent hospital, and I commend the leadership of Sir Andrew Cash, its chief executive. I have been to the hospital myself; it was absolutely spotless, and I was very impressed by what I saw.
The hon. Gentleman is right. What we cannot do, given the pressures faced by the NHS, is start pointing fingers at individual hospitals, because even well-run hospitals are experiencing a high level of pressure. Hospitals tell us that the solution is often not in their own hands. It is a question of the number of people who turn up at the front door and the number of people whom they are able to discharge at the back, and if neither of those problems is sorted out—which will require proper links with the rest of the local NHS—there will be further problems. The system resilience groups that are now working throughout the country are trying to deal with the issue.
I praise the clinical and other staff at Worthing and Swandean hospitals, and at Rustington’s Zachary Merton hospital. Could hospitals and GPs in each region or locality get together with care homes and nursing homes and establish, with the help of paramedics and members of the ambulance service, which people should be taken to hospital and which people should remain at the nursing or care homes? Too often, people in old age are taken to hospital when that is inappropriate.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I commend the care at Worthing hospital. As he will know, I try to go out on the NHS front line and take part in a shift most weeks, and the very first hospital I went to was Worthing hospital, where I thought the care was excellent. He is right that it is about close working; people in care homes who end up going to A and Es when they could have been better looked after at their care home is probably top of the list of admissions to hospital that we could avoid, because we know the vast majority of those people will end up being admitted to hospital if they arrive at an A and E. That is often not the best thing for people with late-stage dementia, for example, so my hon. Friend is absolutely right and I want to reassure him that that is a big focus of our efforts this winter.
Mrs J, an elderly constituent of mine, waited two hours following a fall for an ambulance that should have reached her in 30 minutes. The Secretary of State will be aware that there have been similar cases, not least the one described to the Deputy Prime Minister by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) at Prime Minister’s questions last week. Two calls were made to the North West ambulance service in respect of Mrs J, and one was received from NWAS one and a half hours after the first report, explaining there would be a delay in getting an ambulance to her because of pressures in the system. While it is welcome that the family and carers were kept informed about what was going on, is it not a symptom of terrible pressures in the system that routine operating procedures now have to include call-backs to explain delays?
The hon. Lady is right, and there is particular pressure in the ambulance service across the country. We are putting in £50 million of winter-pressures money to help address those issues. Where there are unavoidable delays because of other emergencies at the same time, it is important to get the communication right, and I do not think we do that as well as we should. There are times when we could give more specific information about the likely arrival times of ambulances, according to the algorithms used by 999 and 111 call-handlers. That would keep the public better informed. That is something we are looking at.
West midlands ambulance paramedics and staff do a brilliant job under great pressure at the moment, but one thing that the head of the ambulance service has mentioned to me is the difficulty in planning ahead to provide more vehicles and staff because some of the funding—not particularly the winter-pressures funding, but funding around Stafford hospital—is on a short-term recurring, rather than a long-term, basis. Might the Secretary of State look into that and see how it could be made long term, so that instead of paying lots of overtime, we could recruit and train more paramedics?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to that issue. One issue that has been debated often in this House is the money we waste in the NHS on locum staff, who are much more expensive than full-time staff. One of the ways we can deal with that is through something I announced in my response to the extra money in the autumn statement on our long-term plan for the NHS, which is to give multi-year commissioning contracts and multi-year tariffs to trusts, so that they can have a longer-term horizon. Too often the planning horizon is just for the next year. Indeed, I think there is a discussion to be had about whether this winter pressures money we put in every year to help could be better integrated in NHS core budgets, as a way of making sure we get the best use of that money.
North-East ambulance service is now the eighth out of 10 ambulance services to be moved to operational level 4 as a result of winter pressures—while temperatures are 12° C and above. In my area, the local hospital trust is £91 million in deficit and the Government have gone into a process of closing minor injuries units in Guisborough hospital and Brotton hospital and walk-in centres in Skelton and Park End. Does the Health Secretary believe any of those factors might be adding to winter pressures, or am I just scaremongering and being political?
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the facts, rather than being political, he will see that in his constituency there are more doctors and nurses and more front-line clinical staff than there were, and he will find that more people are getting operations and more people are being seen at A and E departments than when his party was in power. That is why, I am afraid, it is very political. I notice that on the day when the Labour party is saying that there is a big issue with winter pressures in the NHS, fewer than 10 Labour Back Benchers are present—fewer than 10; that is how seriously Labour is interested in this issue. Is it not really about the politics?
Having accompanied the London ambulance service on a shift at the Mill Hill depot in my constituency, I have seen the unrealistic demands placed on the ambulance service. Fiona Moore, the medical director of the London ambulance service, has said that more than 6,000 calls were made in the capital over the Christmas period last year in connection with alcohol-related incidents. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is unacceptable and that it places an unfair burden on the service?
I do. I thank my hon. Friend for going out with his local ambulance service. Indeed, I want to thank the many Members on both sides of the House who go out and see what is happening on the NHS front line. The problem that my hon. Friend raises is exactly the kind of problem we are trying to address. I do not want to pretend that all these problems can be addressed this winter. Part of the issue is that the quickest way to see a doctor is to go to A and E, where the average waiting time to see a doctor is only half an hour across the country. That is the fastest time anywhere in the world. We need to find better out-of-hospital alternatives, and better alternatives to calling an ambulance, if we are to reduce the pressure on the emergency services.
It was reported recently that Bristol’s Southmead hospital was the third worst performing hospital in the country on emergency targets, with only 84% of cases seen within four hours. NHS England temporarily withheld £1.35 million to cope with extra winter demand while a believable improvement plan was produced. Clearly, 84% is nowhere near acceptable, particularly as we approach winter. What can the Department of Health do to ensure that Southmead hospital improves its performance?
We are doing a number of things. I have spoken to people in the Bristol area about what we need to do to improve the situation there and I assure the hon. Lady that we are focusing on it. It is partly why we are putting in £700 million this year to help hospitals to cope with those pressures. We have a brand-new hospital in Bristol as well, and it has had some teething problems, but I am confident that the staff there are working incredibly hard to turn the situation around.
In Dover, we are looking at ways of reducing the pressure on A and E through the Prime Minister’s “8 till 8” challenge fund, and at upgrading the minor injuries unit to create a local emergency centre. Is that not a more fruitful thing to do than simply revelling in the winter problems in the NHS, as the Opposition have been doing?
My hon. Friend is right. The NHS wants to know that it has a Government who have a long-term plan for the NHS, who are prepared to fund that plan and who have thought about the long-term solutions. Better access to GPs is one of the key things, as is access to a GP who actually knows about the patient and their condition. Sadly, we lost named GPs following the changes to the GP contract in 2004, but I am proud to say that, from next April, we will be bringing them back.
The Secretary of State has accused Opposition Members of political scaremongering. Perhaps I should refer him to the Public Accounts Committee’s report on out-of-hours services, which showed cost-shunting to the ambulance service by out-of-hours providers, and to our recent hearing on A and E, which revealed an incredible waste of public money and a lack of joined-up thinking. That is not scaremongering; those are facts from the National Audit Office being interpreted by Members from all parties.
Yes, and those are the facts that we are acting on with our winter plans. We are trying to reduce the amount of money spent on locum staff and to increase flow going into and out of A and E departments. There is a huge amount of practical things that can be done. I have absolutely no problem with dealing with constructive suggestions from both sides of the House on how we can help A and E departments to get through a difficult winter. It is unacceptable, however, constantly to turn this issue into a political football, when everyone knows that the pressures of an ageing population are making life very difficult for NHS staff and that those staff have a Government who are doing everything they can to support them.
I welcome the extra money for the NHS this winter, but what more can the Secretary of State do to improve awareness of and confidence in the 111 system, in order to stop people going to A and E when they do not really need to do so?
My hon. Friend asks an important question. The 111 service is one of the elements of the long-term solution that we have not touched on much this morning. There are definitely things that we can do to make the service better. For example, if someone is put through to a GP, that GP could, with the patient’s permission, access their medical records. That would give the GP access to information about the patient’s allergies, their medication history and other key information that would help the GP to give better advice. I am pleased to hear from NHS England that, by the end of this year, a third of 111 centres will be able to access GP records with the patient’s permission.
Will the Secretary of State join me in praising the Fosse Way first responders and the staff of the East Midlands ambulance service, whom I will be going out with over the Christmas period? The East Midlands ambulance service has its problems, with the last Care Quality Commission report finding it was failing on four of the six major measures, and any support he can give the service will be much appreciated by its new leadership. Does he agree that Nottinghamshire residents will be surprised to hear of the Opposition spokesman’s interest in ambulance services, given that we in Nottinghamshire trace the failings of our service directly back to the last Labour Government’s decision to regionalise the ambulances services, which took an excellent ambulance service down to a failing one within five years?
Interestingly, the Opposition, who are trying to make so much of this, have actually run out of questions in an urgent question on a matter that they said was very urgent. I commend my hon. Friend’s interest in the east of England and I reassure him that we discuss it most weeks in my Department, because two of my ministerial colleagues are covered by the east of England ambulance service and we are very conscious of the problems there. The situation is getting better but there is a long way to go.
My right hon. Friend is fully aware, because he attended the Health Committee last week, that accident and emergency services do not operate in isolation. So does he not agree that integrating not only in-hours and out-of-hours GPs, NHS 111, ambulances services and minor injuries units, but social services, mental health services and dental services is essential to ensure that we have fewer avoidable A and E admissions and that we therefore reduce the pressure we are debating today?
I do agree. The first thing we could do as a step towards that is properly integrate out-of-hours care, linking out-of-hours GP services, A and E departments and 111 departments. Obviously, that needs to be linked into the in-hours GP care that people will give. I wish to commend the efforts being made in Cornwall to improve A and E performance, which has been getting better in recent weeks. We are all very encouraged by that, because there have been a lot of challenges in that area.
I thank the Secretary of State for the personal support he has given to Medway Maritime hospital, particularly the extra £5.5 million given to the hospital to improve its A and E services. Will he confirm that hospitals in special measures and in challenging circumstances will receive any additional resources they need over the coming winter months?
We absolutely will make sure that we give Medway what it needs. I wish to thank my hon. Friend for his tireless campaigning to improve the situation, as it is very challenging there at the moment and he has taken a responsible attitude towards it. It is really important to praise the staff at the hospital, who are working very hard, and to reassure his constituents that although there are many improvement to be made, there is a lot of excellent care in that hospital and we all want to get there as quickly as we can.
When I visited the A and E department of the University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust in Coventry, I saw some hard-working, dedicated staff dealing with many patients who had chosen to be there, rather than making an appointment with their GP, because that was easier and more accessible. Does the Secretary of State agree that much of the challenge of getting to see a GP arises from the GP contract negotiated by the previous Government?
We know that there were some serious problems in that contract. Interestingly, the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) was talking about integrated care, but we used to have named GPs who were responsible for the entirety of someone’s care—the GP’s name was on that person’s medical record. That was abolished in 2004, which was a very big mistake—we absolutely want to put it right.
When the Opposition use the NHS for political point scoring it can undermine the efforts of staff and cause unnecessary anxiety to constituents. A previous example of that was on 26 November when at Prime Minister’s questions it was suggested that Scunthorpe general hospital was turning away emergency cases, which was not the case. That necessitated the shadow Secretary of State’s office ringing the chief executive to clarify the situation. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to thank the staff at Scunthorpe’s hospital and reassure my constituents that it is open for business?
I am happy to do that. Staff will have been extremely disappointed at the efforts of the Labour party to try to turn into some sort of political football the services that they offer under a lot of pressure and with much hard work. Members of the public just need to look at the Chamber right now, and they will see which party believes in the NHS and which party does not.
Tomorrow I will be visiting the Worcestershire Royal hospital, part of the Worcestershire Acute Hospitals Trust, in which there are 144 more nurses, midwives and health visitors as a result of investment by this Government. Hospital staff tell me that winter pressures are added to by the number of long-term dementia patients who are staying on wards. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to keep increasing investment in that area to ensure that we get better dementia care?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the most heartbreaking things is to see someone with advanced dementia arriving in an A and E department. People do not know anything about their medical history and the best care that they need, and it becomes very difficult for the hospital to discharge them in that situation. Having proper personalised care wrapped around those individuals will normally mean that hospital is not the best place for them to go. Indeed, to echo the comments that have already been made, the key to that is knowing where they would like to die. Very often it is not hospital, so we need to be much better in that regard.
Will my right hon. Friend examine the discharge situation in Gloucestershire Royal hospital? We had an instance this week of which he may be aware of clinically fit patients not being able to be discharged. We have some excellent community hospitals in Gloucestershire. Will his Department examine that problem to ensure that all branches of the NHS—the acute trust, the care services trust and the commissioning group—work closely together to avoid that problem becoming a real issue in the new year?
I thank my hon. Friend for championing care for his constituents. Let me reassure him: I had a meeting on that very issue on Monday. It is important that the NHS community care sector plays its role alongside the social care sector in making effective discharge possible.
I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words about first responders. I will be on duty tonight, as will thousands of first responders in Yorkshire ambulance service, Lincolnshire ambulance service and throughout the country, responding to cardiac arrest, respiratory disease and so on. On the matter of community service, what are the Government doing in the light of the Royal College of Nursing saying to us at a Health Committee a few weeks ago that a failure to invest properly in community services 10 to 15 years ago is having a major impact now on our hospitals?
My hon. Friend is right about that. Just as this Government have taken a very robust attitude towards poor care in hospitals—we now have 6,000 more nurses on our hospital wards following the Francis report—we need to take an equally robust attitude towards what is provided in people’s homes, to make sure that we have proper care. It is a false economy to cut back on out-of-hospital care to pay for hospital care, as we need both.
An absolutely delicious intellectual beauty parade. Mr Martin Horwood.
Mr Speaker, your festive generosity equals only that of Father Christmas.
Gloucestershire hospitals have been under severe pressure in recent days, but is not one complicating factor that, in Gloucestershire and elsewhere, every unplanned GP admission to hospital goes via the emergency department? Although such cases may be relatively urgent, they are not necessarily what most of us would understand as an accident or an emergency.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that point. There has been a lot of support for the NHS today from Liberal Democrats. If they are ever considering which is the best partner to back the NHS at any hypothetical time in the future, they should know that there is only one party that can provide the strong economy to fund a strong NHS.
My compliments of the season to you, Mr Speaker.
May I draw attention to the fact that people with mental health problems have double the attendance rates in accident and emergency departments compared with the general population? Given that fact, is it not strange that successive Governments have not invested in the evidence? If we invest in liaison psychiatry, we can reduce the numbers needing to go to A and E and give them better results as well. Is it not time that this Government did that and did it even more than they are planning to do?
Yes, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I can reassure him that we are investing more in liaison psychiatry both this year and next year. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), has particularly championed that, as it is a very good way in which to reduce pressure on A and E departments.
UK Anti-corruption Plan
(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister to make a statement on the Government’s anti-corruption plan.
I am delighted to tell the House that we are today publishing the UK’s first anti-corruption plan. The Government are doing more than ever before to tackle the blight of corruption here and around the world and the new cross-government plan sets out 60 actions for Government and partners over the year ahead. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), for their work on this issue.
The new anti-corruption plan sets out how we will build a better picture of how corruption affects society and the economy; strengthen our legal and operational tools and activity; enhance our law enforcement response; deny use of our financial system to those trying to abuse it; and step up efforts internationally. I will deal with those points briefly and in turn.
First, it is crucial that we know better the breadth of corruption and how it affects the economy. It is clear that corruption harms prosperity and undermines societies where it is rampant, so we are establishing a new intelligence capacity based in the National Crime Agency with a global reach to investigate and collate evidence in a single place and to make that information available to investigators, potentially worldwide. We will merge the resources currently split between the City of London police, the Met and the National Crime Agency into a new international corruption unit based in the NCA and we are considering what further funding can be directed to support and enhance this work.
We are strengthening our operational tools and the legal framework. We are currently legislating for a new offence of police corruption and operationally pooling investigators who have previously been split among difference forces and agencies. Through the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill we are leading the way on establishing the first public central registry of beneficial ownership, recording who owns companies registered in the UK. That will help law enforcement agencies to remove the corporate veil that too often is used to cover up corrupt activities.
Britain will be the first country in the EU to provide transparency to payments made by multinational companies in the extractives sector and, finally, we will step up our efforts internationally. We are working with partners around the world to build on the G8 commitments at Lough Erne to drive this agenda internationally and strengthen the global system. Britain will lead the way in her historic role of providing the secure, transparent and fair basis of law to govern how we do business, to stamp out corruption at home and abroad so that all can prosper in a truly free economy where the legitimate hard-working business cannot be undercut by the dishonest and the corrupt. For centuries, Britain has played this role and we must do so again. I commend the anti-corruption plan to the House.
I thank the Minister for his statement. The plan is welcome and includes a number of welcome measures, such as action 47, which changes the legal test that applies to restraint orders. Will the Minister confirm that there are a number of notable omissions? For example, the plan does not address the introduction of unexplained wealth orders. Does he accept that 38 days to prove that a complex international transaction is corrupt is a pernicious time limit?
Does the Minister accept that the plan is silent on limited liability partnerships used as shell companies? Does it address the lack of judicial powers identified in the recent judgment from Lady Justice Gloster? The Minister mentioned resourcing, so will he confirm how many people have agreed to transfer to the new unit, given that the police do not have TUPE powers and that it has been suggested that only two of the 35 had agreed to that transfer?
Will the Minister address the fact that the plan refers to a review of the regime on suspicious activity reports, when the issue is what happens when SARs are reported? Out of the 316,000 reported, only 110 were subject to investigation by the proceeds of crime unit. Why does the plan appear silent on that issue? Will he also address issues such as beneficial ownership? The Prime Minister has given welcome leadership on beneficial ownership, but the plan seems to ignore the fact that about 45% of London property over £2 million is owned by offshore companies. It is silent about the time scale on the overseas territories, other than pushing it back to the end of 2016.
Finally, the Minister wrote a very good book—I am sure it is still available in all good bookshops—calling for much tougher sanctions against those in banks guilty of regulatory breaches. Why, when he proposed criminal sanctions in his book, does the plan stay silent on the fact that the biggest fine in the past decade, on a money laundering reporting officer, was £17,500? Was my hon. Friend’s plan not an opportunity to preach about what he wrote?
That is the second time in two days that somebody has referred to my book, which I thought was long forgotten. I am delighted not to have to promote it myself and that others are doing so for me.
My hon. Friend raises a series of important points. This is the first UK anti-corruption plan that brings together actions across government. It takes significant steps forward, but nobody would say that the job is complete. Everybody would say that there is further work to do, and I look forward to working with him and other right hon. and hon. Members to do that. Ultimately, we have to balance the need for transparent and non-corrupt contracts with the fact that Britain gains great advantage around the world from having the legal system on which many, many international contracts are based. So we need to draw up the plan carefully and sensibly, but at the same time firmly.
On overseas territories, I can confirm that conversations are under way with overseas territories to ensure that progress is made, and we are indeed making good progress. On the transfer of new units, the two units in the police that have the biggest impact on corruption are in the Met and the City of London police, and both of those units will be part of the National Crime Agency. We are undertaking an additional piece of work to review how much further we need to go in the institutional arrangements. For too long all the work on anti-corruption was split between a multitude of forces and agencies. I am sure my hon. Friend would agree, as he was previously an investigator of such activity. Instead, that work is being brought together in the NCA.
On the point about the number of alleged offences taken forward, the purpose is precisely to raise that number. I hope that further action will be taken. On beneficial ownership, following the Lough Erne agreement, the clauses being considered in the other place, which went through this House in the autumn, are among the most advanced in the world in making sure that corporate transparency is the order of the day—the standard practice. We will see how those clauses bed down. I have no doubt that in years to come we will want to review the effectiveness of those clauses to make sure that they are used appropriately and that the functioning of the register works. Crucially, we must make sure that we continue to drive forward the actions in the UK that have relevance around the world to make sure that we stamp out corruption wherever we find it.
If staff in my office are watching this exchange, may I say to the person assigned to give me a “secret Santa” gift that I would prefer not to receive the Minister’s book?
We know that corruption can do huge harm. The cost of corruption in Africa has been estimated at £100 billion and the EU estimates that the cost to Europe is £120 billion a year, much of it incubated here in the United Kingdom. That is why the UK must pledge to do its part in cracking down on corruption. We welcome the steps that the Government have taken so far and we welcome today’s plan, although the House has been waiting since June for it to be published. I pay tribute to the all-party parliamentary group on anti-corruption, which has done so much to push the agenda forward.
The Labour Government introduced the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 and the Bribery Act 2010, which allows for the criminal prosecution of any organisation
“which is incorporated under the law of any part of the United Kingdom”
for the failure to prevent bribery. I have a number of questions for the Minister about the plan and his statement.
What resources will be available for enforcement of the new action plan beyond the pooling of existing resources? The plan states that a new central bribery and corruption unit will be created within the National Crime Agency by bringing together resources from the NCA and Department for International Development-funded units. In June 2014 it was reported that the budget of the Serious Fraud Office, the agency previously responsible for investigating and prosecuting the most serious cases of fraud and bribery, had fallen from £52 million to £32 million, so what resources will be in place?
When will the new inter-ministerial group meet, who will make up its membership, and, vitally, how will it report back to this House?
What impact will the action plan have on DFID and on UK aid recipients? Will the Government take steps to make aid recipient countries publish asset declarations for their publicly exposed persons—a matter that was raised by the APPG? What discussions has the Minister had with the British overseas territories, which are a huge component in this issue?
Given last month’s Financial Conduct Authority report which concluded that most small banks have significant problems with anti-money laundering provisions, what measures are in the plan to deliver a more focused money-laundering regime?
Finally, will the Minister join me in wishing everyone in the House a very merry Christmas?
I think the hon. Gentleman and members of his office would benefit from reading my book, because it is all about why the worst financial crash in the history of the world happened on Labour’s watch. Labour Members have a few lessons to learn.
The hon. Gentleman rather unhelpfully missed the tone of this discussion, but I will deal with the more constructive elements of his questions. The issue of resources is very important. First, it is about the effectiveness of the deployment of resources. Bringing together actors from different agencies will help to deliver a more effective response from any level of resources. Some of the funding currently comes from the DFID budget. We are exploring how international development funding can further support anti-corruption work at home and abroad. That is part of the plan, and announcements will be made on it in the coming months.
I am glad to report that the ministerial group has met. I chair it, alongside the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands, and it includes representatives from across Government and different agencies. We are accountable to Parliament, and I am indeed reporting back now. Discussions with the overseas territories are under way, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay).
I welcome the cross-party support for an anti-corruption plan. The substance of the hon. Gentleman’s questions was relevant. I look forward to working with him, with the APPG and with others to strengthen the plan further, because we are a better and stronger United Kingdom if we work together to enact it.
Clearly, we all want to do everything we can to tackle corruption effectively, but I worry that the rules become so onerous that they catch an awful lot of legitimate small businesses and traders. Can the Minister assure me that the right balance will be struck so that rules will not be so onerous and officious that it is very difficult for law-abiding people to comply with them?
My hon. Friend makes an important point that was also made by the Opposition spokesman. We need to ensure that the money-laundering regulations, in particular, do their job of tackling money laundering without putting undue burdens on ordinary people and on other businesses. There is a vital balance to be struck. Many changes can be made in order to reduce burdens while ensuring that the rules are just as tight, if not tighter, on the perpetrators of corruption whom we really want to capture.
Will the Minister assure me that the anti-corruption laws will apply to arms deals and to British arms exports? Will they involve forensic examination of any supposed corruption that has gone on between arms sales and regimes in other parts of the world rather than suspending Serious Fraud Office inquiries, as in the case of an investigation into the Al-Yamamah arms contract with Saudi Arabia?
Of course, the principles in the anti-corruption plan apply across all sectors. The UK’s export control organisation is robust, as is our set of rules, which will continue to apply.
I welcome the Government’s anti-corruption plan and, indeed, the extractive industries transparency initiative, which performs a similar function. When will that initiative be extended to other industries?
The extractive industries transparency initiative is specific to those industries. The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill will extend ownership transparency across all industries, so in a sense we are tackling the whole piece in one go. If my hon. Friend wants to suggest different industries that need a specific initiative targeted at them, I would be very happy to listen to him.
The Minister is not able to tell the House which resources will be deployed in the new bribery and corruption unit or who will sit on the intergovernmental committee that he will chair. It seems that the only thing he is able to tell the House this morning is that his book is still available in all good book shops.
I have said that the current resources will be deployed and we are working further on that. I have also announced that this is not a future inter-ministerial group, but an existing inter-ministerial group. With those two answers, I wish the hon. Gentleman a very happy Christmas.
The Minister has mentioned Britain’s leadership on extractive transparency and I certainly welcome the fact that we have belatedly signed up to the EITI. Does he accept that the previous Government made a huge mistake in launching the EITI on to the world but then not signing the UK up to it, because that created the impression that it was a product just for corrupt countries? Now that we have fully signed up to it—we are leading the way in Europe in that regard—will the Minister embrace the recommendation of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee that we should be a champion of best practice in extractive transparency?
I pay tribute to the work of the BIS Committee, particularly that recommendation. My hon. Friend has made an eloquent criticism of the previous Government, but I think today is a day to bring all sides together.
Many Nigerians I meet are very positive about the steps the UK is taking to tackle corruption. The James Ibori conviction was hailed both by the diaspora and by many in Nigeria. Will the Minister explain how the plan will help more such cases come to court and tackle corruption with this important partner?
The first and most important element of the plan that will have an impact is that it will bring together the domestic resources used to tackle such issues—instead of having them splintered among different agencies and departments—and its transparency measures will make sure that we can better tackle corruption through transparency and also disincentivise it, because people will know that it will be harder to hide. I hope that those two things will help reduce corruption. If we ever manage to stamp out corruption as a society, that would be great, but this is about reducing it as much as possible.
Given that the UK maintains a responsibility to ensure good governance in the overseas territories, when will those countries actually be required to implement beneficial ownership rules themselves?
We are working very closely with the overseas territories. Progress has been made. There is recognition among them that they need to act and conversations with them are ongoing.
The Minister will know that when agencies are brought together to create one agency, that can sometimes create a form of rationalisation. Does he anticipate a reduction in the resources needed to make the new agency work?
As I have said, we are looking at how the budget of the Department for International Development, through its designated funding, can support this work, because we are very clear that there is further work to do both internationally and domestically.
When the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) and I were in Dodoma last month with the International Development Committee, all Tanzanian eyes were transfixed on a parliamentary hearing, at which its Public Accounts Committee was looking into a substantial local corruption scandal. What work are the Government doing to liaise with Parliaments across the world—their public accounts committees, and indeed the Parliaments themselves, are taking these matters seriously—to ensure that we can co-operate with them?
This Parliament has a proud history of helping Parliaments around the world to strengthen their capability to take forward this sort of investigation. I hope that having a more focused, cross-government approach in the UK means that we can take it further from the point of view of the Government. If there is more that Parliament can do to help parliamentary scrutiny elsewhere, I am sure that that will be looked at.
May I press the Minister on his rather opaque answer on the question of property ownership? As has been said, it is estimated that about 45% of London property valued at more than £2 million is owned by offshore companies. Does he not think that it is in the public interest that we should know who the beneficial owners of those properties are? The plan does not require that to be made public. He mentioned laws going through the other place and said that they will need time to bed down, but does he not think that the time for action is now?
The time for action is indeed now. The clauses in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, which have gone through this House and are now going through the other place, will put in place the central register for the first time. If we want to expand what is in the central register once it is set up, we should of course consider that.
On tackling corruption and working with our international partners, does the Minister agree that people in certain developing countries need to ensure that everyone at every level pays their taxes, including Members of Parliament and members of Governments around the world? Only when they start paying their taxes and leading from the front will we really be able to tackle corruption.
I thought that my hon. Friend was about to mention the Mayor of London.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As he knows, this Government have taken a huge amount of action to ensure that taxes are low but are paid. We have raised about £5 billion more a year by tackling tax avoidance in the UK. We have brought in new techniques to do that. I am sure that other Governments around the world under financial pressures could benefit in the same way.
The Minister mentioned that discussions are taking place with Britain’s overseas territories and his belief that progress is being made, but he did not explain to the House precisely what progress he believes is being made. Will he set out precisely what progress he thinks is being made with Britain’s overseas territories, and perhaps a timetable for each of the overseas territories to implement the beneficial ownership rules?
There is progress in two areas: the first is fiscal and on tax, and the second is on transparency. The overseas territories are each in a slightly different position, so the answer is complicated, but I would be very happy to report in future on how that is progressing.
DFID and other Departments are doing world-class work in this area. Does the Minister have a view on how the UK anti-corruption plan stacks up against those of our international partners?
I would say that this plan is one of the most advanced anti-corruption plans, but I also pay tribute to the work of DFID. Corruption undermines prosperity and development as much as, if not more than, almost any other failing, so focusing DFID resources on measures to tackle corruption is a very powerful way to help development. We must make sure that we use the DFID budget in a way that promotes long-term prosperity, and tackling corruption is a very powerful way of doing so.
Last month, a report published by the Financial Conduct Authority concluded that most small banks have significant problems with anti-money laundering. Given that finding, will my right hon. Friend explain what measures in the plan will deliver a more focused money laundering regulatory regime?
Again, the question is how we can have strong money-laundering and anti-corruption rules that cause distress to those who try to break them, but do not place undue burdens on perfectly legitimate individuals and businesses. Getting the right balance between the two is very important and there is more work to do.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next year?
The business for the week commencing 5 January 2015, and therefore next year, will be:
Monday 5 January—Second Reading of the Serious Crime Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 6 January—Remaining stages of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill (Day 1).
Wednesday 7 January—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill.
Thursday 8 January—Debate on a motion relating to higher education funding, followed by debate on a motion relating to Gibraltar. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 9 January—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 12 January 2015 will include:
Monday 12 January—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Stamp Duty Land Tax Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Consumer Rights Bill, followed by motion to approve a carryover extension on the Consumer Rights Bill.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 8 January will be:
Thursday 8 January—Debate on the first report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on winter floods 2013-14.
I would also like to inform the House that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced the date of the Budget statement. It will be on Wednesday 18 March.
May I take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Speaker, and all right hon. and hon. Members a very merry Christmas? I am sure that the whole House will join me in recognising the outstanding work that goes on to support the House throughout the year. I thank all staff who work in the service of the House and wish them a restful and peaceful Christmas and a happy new year. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for the first week back—a task that he will have just 10 more times before Dissolution in March and before he bows out after a quarter of a century as an MP. We will all be sad to see him go, even though he may be mightily relieved.
I welcome yesterday’s unanimously agreed report from the House of Commons Governance Committee, which was presented to the House ahead of the extremely challenging schedule that the House laid down in its motion of 10 September. I would like to take this early opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), all the members of the Committee and its hard-working staff on producing such practical recommendations.
The report sets out a series of sensible reforms that have the potential to move the administration of this place into the 21st century. It is right to conclude that the role of Clerk and chief executive should be split; it is right that we should reform the House of Commons Commission and the Management Board; and it is right that we should explore quickly how we can share more services between the Commons and the Lords. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is important that the House debates and acts on the report swiftly? Will he therefore confirm that it is his intention to move with alacrity to call a debate on it? Perhaps he even has a date in mind.
Amid the festive flurry of written statements that have been published this week, I note that we still do not have the long overdue list of special advisers and their pay. After the Prime Minister promised to cap their numbers and cut the cost of politics, he authorised a massive increase in their numbers and their cost. He now seems to have stopped publishing any details whatever. Will the Leader of the House tell us what on earth is going on and when we can expect the list to be published, or is he hiding something?
I note that, yet again, the Government have failed to bring forward the money resolution for the Bill on the NHS that is promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford). Will the Leader of the House tell us when it will be forthcoming?
On Tuesday, the House voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) requiring large companies to publish their gender pay gap. We know that women earn an average of £209,000 less than men over their lifetime, and the Government are clearly so concerned that they have done absolutely nothing about it for four years. Seven Conservative MPs even voted against the Bill. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Government will now listen to the will of the House and implement section 78 of Labour’s Equality Act 2010? Will he also tell us whether his equivalent in the Lords, Baroness Stowell, is still being paid less than he is?
Given that this is our last sitting day before the Christmas recess, I want to take the opportunity, as the Leader of the House did, to wish all right hon. and hon. Members, all the House staff and you, Mr Speaker, a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. It seems that everyone is getting into the Christmas spirit in their own way. The Chancellor, who is Parliament’s very own incorrigible Scrooge, has been visited by the ghost of Christmas future, and he is the only person in the country who likes what he sees. The Prime Minister has been spotted pigeon shooting with a full police escort, because apparently he misses killing things, and the UK Independence party has been busy putting on its very own nativity play—it sent the wise men back to where they came from and told the Virgin Mary to stop breastfeeding in public.
The festive season is now in full swing, and I have been hearing all about the coalition Christmas party. There was a bit too much excitement at the start, and there are now lots of people regretting saying things that they did not mean. They have learned that if you end up in bed with somebody, you can regret it for years to come. We can just imagine the games they were playing—for the Home Secretary and the Chancellor it was less musical chairs and more “Game of Thrones”. For the Liberal Democrats it was “Twister” when they should have been playing “Pointless”, and the Tories rewrote “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to reflect their past year—four resignations, three Euro-fudges, two lost MPs and a Chief Whip who’s nowhere to be seen.
It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Lady, and it was nice of her to say that she will be sad to see me go. If it is a plot to get me to stay, it will fail. I am determined about the going bit, but also determined to enjoy the 10 further business statements that she talked about. I reciprocate the respect; she is the most cheery Opposition Front Bencher—not that that is a high bar when we look at them in general, but she unfailingly manages to clear that bar.
I join the hon. Lady in her welcome for the report by the House of Commons Governance Committee, and I thank the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who chaired it, and all the right hon. and hon. Members of all parties who served on it. It is for the House to reach a view and take a decision—there is no fixed Government view, but I welcome the report and judge that it will be well received in the House and that there will be a great deal of support for its recommendations. We will indeed move with alacrity, as the hon. Lady put it, to have a debate. Although I have not been able to announce a specific debate in the first week back, I will certainly facilitate a debate on the report in January so that if its recommendations are supported by the House—as I said, I think they generally will be—they can be taken forward expeditiously.
The hon. Lady asked about the so-called festive flurry of written ministerial statements. Today and yesterday there have been 49 of them, although I notice that on the last two days before the final Christmas of the last Parliament, there were 50—even more. Only one more, but one is enough, as we politicians know. One is always enough to prove a point or win an election, so I consider my point fully made.
The hon. Lady asked about the publication of the list of special advisers. It will be published today. There are more special advisers now given the nature of coalition, although their average pay is actually lower than it was under the last Government, which is an interesting point.
Latest figures show that the gender pay gap has closed for people under 40; although there is more to do, it has closed a good deal and continues to do so under this Government, which we want to continue.
The hon. Lady talked about the festive season in general, including for UKIP, and part of the festive season for Government Members is reading the Labour party document on UKIP, which has already been referred to—I am not recommending that my hon. Friends spend all of Christmas reading it, but it is good for a laugh now and again so I recommend reading it before Christmas eve. Page 18 gives advice on getting into a discussion with voters, and for when people ask about Labour policies it states:
“It does not however follow that…emphasising our policies in our conversations with electors is always the correct response.”
Indeed, when one thinks about some of Labour’s policies, that is pretty good advice for Labour canvassers.
The hon. Lady compared the coalition to a Christmas party and getting into bed with each other, but it is not often that someone signs an agreement to get into bed for five years specifically, knowing that at the end of those five years they will be happy to be on their own. That, however, is what we did in the coalition agreement, and at the end of this year of coalition Government, as we come up to Christmas, we can celebrate what in my view is the most important fact: unemployment is 455,000 lower than it was 12 months ago. There are 326,000 more businesses in this country than there were 12 months ago, and 440,000 people have started an apprenticeship in the past 12 months. Those things are happening because the parties in the coalition got into bed with each other.
The whole House will be united in condemnation of the massacre of 132 children and nine adults at the school in Peshawar. Following that atrocity, the Government in Pakistan have announced the reintroduction of the death penalty. If—God forbid—a similar evil was to be committed in this country, there would be calls for the reintroduction of capital punishment. May we please have a debate about what steps will be required to reintroduce the death penalty in the United Kingdom?
The whole House will join my hon. Friend in wanting to remark on the horror of what happened a couple of days ago, and the slaughter of children. Even for those of us used to hearing about terrorist events and attacks, this atrocity was heartrending, and the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have expressed the views of the Government and the whole country. The death penalty is a matter for Pakistan in Pakistan, but the United Kingdom’s position is to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. It is open to my hon. Friend and others to try to secure a debate on that subject, but my judgment is that the House has passed the point at which it would be possible to reintroduce the death penalty.
Around 15,000 British citizens in my constituency are of Pakistani heritage, and the atrocity earlier in the week has been profoundly shocking to them and the whole United Kingdom. I know that they will be grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman has said, and for the sympathy and condolences expressed.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) and the Leader of the House for their approbation of the House of Commons Governance Committee report. I express my profound thanks to the Committee Clerks, who were drawn from all departments across the House service, as well as, formerly, the Clerks Department. Above all, I express my thanks to my seven colleagues on the Committee, who came to its work with different perspectives and worked fantastically hard. In some cases, we had three evidence sessions a week. Happily, we managed to produce an agreed and unanimous report. That was not just a negotiating fix; the report contains important and granular recommendations.
I thank the Leader of the House for his promise of an early debate. May I press him on one further matter? If the report gains the approval of the House, as I hope it will, there will be a need for minor, I think, consensual legislation to go through both Houses before the election.
I join the right hon. Gentleman in thanking all members of the Committee, and I thank him too. I recognise that there were a lot of evidence sessions. The Committee got through a lot of work and heard from a lot of people with expertise and experience. That has clearly benefited the report.
On legislation and the possible amendment of the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978, we will of course have to listen to the views of the House in the debate. If, as I expect, there is a great deal of support for the Committee, it will be important to be able to get on with the legislation. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate better than most how difficult it might be to ensure proper scrutiny at this stage of a Parliament. The House has a record of wanting to scrutinise legislation on House of Commons matters, as indeed on most other matters. I cannot guarantee that, but I am happy to discuss the matter further with him and the other members of the Committee.
Further to the reply my right hon. Friend has just given, may I join the chorus of approval for the work of the Governance Committee, so ably led by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw)? It has been a model for how a Select Committee should work. Can I take it from what my right hon. Friend has just said that he plans to table the draft motion in annex C when we have the debate on the report? Who has responsibility for implementing the recommendation in paragraph 186:
“that the ‘paused’ recruitment process be formally terminated. We believe that this action should be taken immediately.”?
I will clarify the motion when we announce the debate. It is very helpful of the Committee to put forward a draft resolution, which must be the frontrunner candidate to be the motion for that debate. On the responsibility for implementing that recommendation, I think that rests with the appointment panel that worked on it. The matter can be considered even before we come to a debate.
I thank the Leader of the House for arranging an early debate on the report. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) for his steering of the Committee, and for putting up with me in the private sessions as well as the public sessions. The report is important: it does not look backwards and it is not a slap in the face for anyone. We are making progressive recommendations, not least to ensure that Members understand that there is a split in the role and that they are both very important roles. I also appreciate the fact that the urgent debate will take place earlier, rather than later.
I thank the hon. Lady very much for the part she has played on the Committee. It was clear that all members of the Committee were very engaged in its work. The recommendations are clear. As I said, I think they will be well received by the House. We will have the debate in January.
We had a very good debate on Russia and Ukraine last week, but events are moving fast. For example, evidence emerged over the weekend of discussions between President Hollande of France and Mr Putin. Various compromises may be in the air. This is an important issue. I am not asking for a debate immediately, but before Dissolution at the end of March will the Leader of the House have it in his mind, as issues relating to the Russian economy develop, to have another debate?
One way or another, the House will need to be kept abreast of developments and to be able to comment on them, whether through statements from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary or debates. My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to this international issue, which is fast moving and immensely important. I will certainly remind colleagues of the need to keep the House informed.
A short time ago the Foreign Secretary announced the development of a new British base in Bahrain, and he accompanied that announcement with a statement suggesting that the human rights situation there was improving. It is the first British base to be developed outside Europe for a very long time, and that is a complete change from the Wilson Government’s east of Suez policy of the 1960s. Does not that deserve at least a full parliamentary debate, because it appears to be a complete change in foreign and defence policy that has not been reported to the House and that we have therefore not had an opportunity to question or debate?
As a former Foreign Secretary, I do not see any change of policy in that; it will be a change in facilities for British ships based in Bahrain. The hon. Gentleman may know that Royal Navy minesweepers have been based in Bahrain for a long time—they are based there now—and play an important part in ensuring the safety of navigation in the strait of Hormuz. For them to have improved facilities in Bahrain can hardly be described as a complete change in defence and foreign policy.
May we have a debate on the identity of political parties? Given that nearly 31 million people are now in work, the highest level on record, youth unemployment is at its lowest level since the 1970s and we have 2 million more apprentices, is it not the case that we on the Government Benches are now the party of labour and the workers and those on the Opposition Benches are the party of dependency, welfare and reactionary conservatism?
Yes. That is a most perceptive question from my hon. Friend. Of course, we are going to have a debate on the identity of political parties in a few months—it is called a general election. I am sure that debate will take place fully across the country. He is right that for the millions of people lifted out of income tax altogether and the 2 million people who have been able to start an apprenticeship, this Government have stood up for working people, and we will do even more in the months ahead.
One of the surprise inclusions in the Smith commission’s report was the proposal to break up the British Transport police. It was surprising because commentators over many years have commended them for the safety and security they provide on our transport networks, especially our rail network. Will the detailed proposals for that break-up come forward as part of the Smith commission proposals, or will there be a separate statement from the sponsoring Department, the Department for Transport, because I know that many Members will be interested in looking at that very carefully?
I will refer the hon. Gentleman’s specific point to my hon. Friends at the Department for Transport and the Scotland Office. The Smith commission put forward a package of proposals agreed across parties, and where legislation is needed it will be brought forward in draft form by 25 January. I think that the best time to discuss all the implications, including the one he raises, is at that time, as implementation of the recommendations is being prepared.
National and international corruption inhibits this country’s ability to collect taxes that are rightly due and hampers the ability of Governments in developing countries to help themselves stand on their own two feet. I welcome the publication of the UK’s anti-corruption plan today, but will the Leader of the House consider ensuring that an annual statement is presented to the House so that we can see what progress is being made in that area?
We have just had an urgent question on the matter, during which the Minister for Business and Enterprise set out the Government’s position, so I refer the hon. Lady to all the answers he has given. He pointed out the importance of the plan in bringing together all the Government’s work and assured the House that he will keep it regularly informed. I am sure that she will find the answer to her question among those provided by my right hon. Friend.
May we have a debate in Government time on unemployment? I fear we cannot rely on the Opposition to use one of their Opposition days for such a debate. In such a debate, we could highlight the fact that the unemployment rate in Shipley is 466 lower than it was this time last year, and we might find out why unemployment has dropped by another 29 over the last month in my constituency. I like to think it has something to do with the jobs fair I held in Shipley last month, which was very well attended.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the jobs fair in Shipley, which is a further example of the outstanding work he does for his constituents. He is right to draw attention to what has happened on unemployment. I referred earlier to the reduction of 455,000 in unemployment this year, but it is also important to note that long-term youth unemployment is down 53,000 this year. Such changes are greatly benefiting people in Shipley and across the country.
As stated already, we have all been shocked by the barbaric actions of the Taliban in Peshawar over the weekend. My constituency has many Pakistani residents, and on behalf of the Rochdale council of mosques I would like to express our deep sorrow for the people burying their dead and to offer our support in the continuing fight against extremism. Does the Leader of the House agree we should debate this issue in the new year?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. People in his constituency and across the country will be deeply moved by the sight of families burying their dead children in such huge numbers. It underlines the need to work together internationally to counter terrorism. The need to do that is one reason we have been debating the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill several times over the past few weeks, and in the first week back we will be devoting two days to its remaining stages. These events underline the importance of that.
May I welcome the publication today of the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill, which will provide the opportunity to fast-track into the House of Lords women consecrated as diocesan bishops? My right hon. Friend will know that there was widespread support and rejoicing in both Houses for the Measure to enable women to become bishops in the Church of England, but there was concern that if the rules of seniority prevailed, it might not have been possible for women bishops to be in the House of Lords for perhaps another Parliament. This is a simple measure in a one-clause Bill. Will he confirm that he intends the Bill to be taken in a single day, with a Second Reading in one half and the remaining stages in the other half of the same day?
The Bill is minutes away from introduction and publication, and this whole issue has indeed been the cause of rejoicing in both Houses, as my right hon. Friend rightly says. I will confirm the arrangements for the handling of the Bill in due course, but he is right that it is a short and simple Bill that should enjoy widespread support. When I come to announce the handling of business, I will certainly hope it can be considered quickly, with these facts in mind.
NHS England has announced at a late stage that it is halting the assessment for the Duchenne muscular dystrophy treatment Translarna. This decision has caused significant anxiety for people affected by the condition, so will the Leader of the House set aside time to debate the emergency interim measures that the Department of Health and NHS England need to put in place to ensure that Translarna completes the approval and funding process and can be made available to the boys it could help from as early as next April?
I know that Health Ministers are conscious of this matter. It is a priority to ensure that patients in England have access to new and effective treatments on terms that represent value for money for the NHS and the taxpayer. I believe the decision-making framework for adoption of new treatments and interventions was discussed yesterday at the NHS England board meeting, but there will be many further opportunities to put questions to Health Ministers in the early weeks of the new year.
Could we find time before Dissolution for a debate on the impact— the positive impact—of the Government’s academies programme? In that connection, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Jackie Steel, the principal of Bourne academy in my constituency, who retires this week and who has transformed that school and the prospects for its young children?
I absolutely join my hon. Friend in congratulating the principal of that academy. So often it is the principal or head teacher who sets the ethos and creates the performance of a school or academy. We should all be grateful to those who successfully transform educational institutions, and a great deal of that is happening among academies. My hon. Friend’s local example is a very strong one.
May we have a debate on the newspaper industry—local and daily, and perhaps with particular reference to the excellent new daily paper in Scotland from the Herald stable, called The National? After a few weeks, its circulation is almost up to that of The Herald itself and far higher than the established The Scotsman. Will the Leader of the House take this opportunity to join me in congratulating The National newspaper on that and on the jobs it has created? Finally, may I, on behalf of the SNP, wish you, Mr Speaker, and all hon. Members a merry Christmas—Nollaig Shona.
I think that is not so much a question as an advertisement! I am sure readers in Scotland will be able to make up their own minds about what they want to read without our having to endorse it. There is always something a bit suspicious about newspapers being endorsed by politicians of any colour, and those politicians often live to regret it when the newspaper decides to change its editorial line. I caution the hon. Gentleman a little about that.
May I say how happy I am to be able to join all those who have commended the House of Commons Governance Committee report, and urge my right hon. Friend to bring forward the debate as quickly as possible so that the findings can be implemented? I say that not least because I was the guy who came up with the idea of this Committee; I drafted the motion that was accepted by the House; and I was even the first to invite the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) to take on the role of Chairman—and he has done so most ably. Moreover, the report concurs with the evidence submitted by the Public Administration Select Committee.
Anybody would think that the matter was about the hon. Gentleman! If he wishes us to think that, it is Christmas time, and we are pleased for him.
Indeed, Mr Speaker. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for having an idea that was taken up by the whole House. We look forward to taking up more of his ideas in the future—provided they are just as good as that one. The support he has given and the ideas he has supplied are a further illustration of the widespread support in the House for the work of this Committee and indeed for its findings, as I have no doubt we will discover when we come to debate it.
The Leader of the House will be aware of the recent report of the Environmental Audit Committee on air quality, and particularly of the recommendations pertaining to the planning system. This is really important for my constituency, which forms part of the Greater Manchester air quality management area, and there is great concern about a new proposal for 200 homes in a very heavily air-polluted area alongside the M67 motorway. May we have a statement in the new year on that Select Committee report and particularly on the Government’s intentions on taking forward the planning recommendations?
This is clearly an important issue for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and he has already succeeded in raising it powerfully on the Floor of the House today. There are, of course, opportunities to debate Select Committee reports, which come up regularly. I announced one such debate in Westminster Hall in early January and there will be opportunities for further such reports to be debated. The hon. Gentleman has made a good case for that particular one.
The value of the all-party group was evident in the urgent question we have just heard. Is the Leader of the House aware that yesterday saw the launch of a new all-party group on e-cigarettes, bringing together representatives of the 2.1 million users of e-cigarettes, manufacturers and those with an interest in public health. May we have a debate on the use of e-cigarettes, including perhaps, Mr Speaker, their use on the parliamentary estate and how they can be a valuable tool for people wishing to reduce or cease their use of tobacco?
I agree with my hon. Friend that e-cigarettes have the potential to support public health objectives and to support smokers who want to cut down or quit. It is important, too, for users to have confidence in the quality of the products, which must be licensed like other nicotine replacement therapies. I am not sure when we shall have the opportunity to debate this, but my hon. Friend can of course make the case for it in all the usual ways.
Pelamis Wave Power in Edinburgh has gone into administration with the potential loss of 50 jobs. It is tragic not only because those jobs are lost but because this company comprised the leading experts in wave technology in the world. May we have an urgent statement on what the Government might be able to do—in conjunction, of course, with the Scottish Government—to support Pelamis Wave Power so that we do not lose that wonderful research facility?
Just a few moments ago, we had topical questions to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, so the immediate opportunity to debate that subject in the House has just passed. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to express concern about the jobs in his constituency. There will be further opportunities to raise that matter with the Energy and Climate Change Secretary on the Floor of the House.
May I welcome the Governance Committee’s recognition of the obvious fact that the qualities necessary to be a first-class manager are not the same as those necessary to be a first-class Clerk? Has the Leader of the House followed up his pledge to me in business questions on 27 November to speak to the Prime Minister about the possibility of making an award for the three women who acted so bravely to try to help Lee Rigby in very dangerous circumstances? Finally, will he speak to the Prime Minister on the question of a final settlement for those people infected with contaminated blood by the NHS—sometimes decades ago? One of my constituents in that situation pointed out that the Prime Minister said in June on the record in the press that this would be sorted out within six months. I do hope that this can be done before the end of this Parliament.
On those three questions—[Interruption.] It is indeed Christmas, so it is right to have Christmas generosity on this. On the first question, my hon. Friend, in common with others, expresses his support for the report on the governance of the House. On the second, of course I followed up the question he raised on 27 November, although I cannot comment on any potential outcome. On the third, which is a health matter, I know that my hon. Friend has been assiduous in raising it for his constituents. I will inform my colleagues in the Department of Health of his anxiety about the timetable, and ask them to respond to him.
This is my fifth contribution this morning, Mr Speaker, so thank you for being so generous. There is growing concern that the Conservatives are considering a rise in VAT after the next election—I very much doubt it will appear in the 18 March Budget statement. May we have a full debate in the new year on the consequences of a rise in VAT for people on low to moderate incomes and on businesses in my constituency, so that we can go into the election fully informed about what that policy would mean?
I hope we will have many exchanges and debates on the economy. Of course, any concern about increases in taxation will be about those parties that want higher deficits and higher spending rather than those that control deficits and spending and therefore do not need to increase taxation. Since it is now clear from the last few days that the Labour party wants higher levels of Government spending than we have today, it is for Labour Members to explain how increased taxation will have an impact on the people of this country.
I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to dealing with the recommendations of the excellent report from the House of Commons Governance Committee with alacrity, but may I join others in encouraging him to deal with them expeditiously as well? I am thinking particularly of the recommendations concerning the different roles of the Clerk and the subordinate director general. The past three months have been a period of great uncertainty for people both in the House and outside, and that uncertainty needs to be brought to an end so that we all know where we stand.
I do not think there will be any contradiction in regard to the need for those matters to be dealt with both expeditiously and with alacrity, and I hope that they will be, although it will, of course, be important for them to be debated in the House so that it can be fully consulted. Everyone who works for the House has coped very well with the last few months—all services have been successfully provided and important developments have continued—but now that the report has been published, we shall need to discuss it as quickly as possible.
Because there had been no ministerial statements during the week, I attended this morning’s session of oral questions to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to try to establish the Government’s position on the United Nations climate change conference in Lima and the agreement that was reached on Sunday, as it has huge implications for the discussions that will be held in Paris next year. It worries me that the House has not discussed the United Kingdom’s position on the legal structure of the agreement. There has been no discussion about the deferred decisions on ensuring a flow of finance to developing countries, about where the burden for cutting greenhouse gas emissions should lie, or about the dropping of the requirement for countries to provide information about their “prospect reduction targets”. May we please have a debate in Government time, so that we can discuss those important issues?
I think we have already had it.
They are globally important issues. This morning, as my hon. Friend may know, a written statement was issued to update the House on the outcomes of the conference, and my ministerial colleagues from the Department of Energy and Climate Change were here to answer questions from Members, including topical questions. I am sure that there will be further opportunities to debate the issue before the meeting in Paris next year. Indeed, my hon. Friend may wish to create such an opportunity with the help of the Backbench Business Committee.
Yesterday saw the publication of the long-awaited report of the independent inquiry into excessive pension charges and the selling of pension products, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. The report gives the full details of the scandal of excessive charging. The Minister for Pensions has said that he is deeply shocked, which is surprising, given that the Leader of the Opposition gave some of the details of the scandal more than two years ago. When the Minister has recovered from his shock in the new year, may we have a debate in Government time to establish how the Government intend to stand up for the hard-working people all over the country who have been ripped off?
As has already been said, the Government have a strong record on standing up for hard-working people. However, these pension issues are very important, and there will be opportunities to ask my colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions about them. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is also open to him to press for a debate through all the normal means.
I hope to accommodate the remaining questioners, but may we please have brief questions, without preamble?
That is about to be exemplified by Mr Rehman Chishti.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Local businesses in my constituency have contacted me expressing real concerns about the sale of illegal tobacco in Gillingham, which has previously been named as the capital of illicit cigarette sales. May we have an urgent debate on how the government are dealing with the problem around the country?
The issue of illicit tobacco is taken very seriously. It often involves organised crime, and causes a large loss of revenue at the taxpayer’s expense. Medway is certainly an area of Government work on the problem, involving the police, trading standards authorities and HMRC, and a number of sanctions are available to the various enforcement agencies. However, I will let my ministerial colleagues know of my hon. Friend’s anxiety.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that festive cheer in Mottingham has been increased by the Planning Inspectorate’s decision not to allow the demolition of the Porcupine public house, which has been mentioned in the House before. Will he make time for a debate so that we can consider what further financial incentives can be provided to enable community interest groups to take over the running of such valued local facilities?
I am happy to join in that festive cheer in the knowledge that a public house has been preserved. Its preservation will be dear to many of us throughout the House and the country, and I congratulate my hon. Friend and his constituents on their work. The Government have, of course, greatly enhanced the ability of communities to preserve assets to which they attach great value, but, if my hon. Friend presses for them in all the normal ways, there will be chances for the House to debate the further development of that policy.
Yesterday we heard the news that unemployment had fallen again in South Staffordshire and the west midlands. That has been largely due to the growth of apprenticeships and, in particular, the fact that Jaguar Land Rover has opened a new engine manufacturing facility in my constituency. Could time be made for a debate on the creation of more apprenticeships, especially in the automotive and aerospace sector, which plays such a key role in the economy of the west midlands?
This is a matter of fundamental importance, particularly to the west midlands economy. During the most recent academic year, 850,000 people were in apprenticeships. Two million apprenticeships have been created during the current Parliament, and many of us would like to see 3 million created in the next Parliament as part of our aim to abolish youth unemployment altogether. I hope that, during all the debates on the Budget and the economy, the House will be able to discuss precisely those matters.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I am the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the private rented sector. We have conducted a couple of inquiries and produced a couple of reports over the past year or so. May we have a debate on the recommendations of those reports, and, in particular, a debate on the proposed review of shared accommodation rates?
Those are important issues, and I know that my hon. Friend does very good work on them. We have no Government time to allocate to such debates, but, as I have said to other Members in connection with other subjects, it is open to my hon. Friend to press for them through all the normal channels, including the Backbench Business Committee.
May we have a debate on imaginative partnerships between the further education sector and private companies, such as the launch of the Risual academy by Stafford college and Risual, a fast-growing IT consultancy in my constituency?
We may not be able to have a debate on that subject immediately, but it is exactly the sort of co-ordination that is bringing great benefits to the economy and to local people, and I know that my hon. Friend’s support for it will be greatly valued.
Britain has an exceptional trading relationship with the United States, but more can be done to make trade easier for small business in particular. May we have a debate about the way in which the transatlantic trade and investment partnership, or TTIP—the current negotiations for a better deal between the European Union and United States—can bring only opportunities for Britain’s smallest businesses?
I hope that TTIP will be discussed regularly, and, indeed that great progress will be made on it in the coming year. It constitutes an opportunity to boost world trade considerably, and to add further to the vital economic relationship that my hon. Friend has described. Our bilateral trade with the United States is the greatest that we have with any country, and we have 1 million people working on each side of the Atlantic in companies that are owned on the other side of the Atlantic. I hope that there will be strong progress on TTIP in the coming year.
A few days ago, my constituency team and I became dementia friends following some very good training by our local branch of the Alzheimer’s Society. May we have a debate on how we can boost public understanding of all forms of dementia, making our communities more dementia-friendly and thus helping those who are suffering from this cruel disease, and, of course, their carers as well?
As we are not currently having a debate about the issue, it is important for us all to get on with it, which is exactly what my hon. Friend is doing and encouraging in his constituency. We are creating dementia-friendly communities which will help to support those who live with dementia, and we are educating 1 million people so that they can become dementia friends. I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for that.
All of us in the Cabinet have been taught about the issue, and, to date, there are more than 600,000 dementia friends. This is another issue on which we should continue to work hard in the new year.
Order. In wishing all parliamentary colleagues, and everyone who works on the parliamentary estate, a merry Christmas and a happy 2015, I am minded to mention that there is one upcoming item on the agenda to which they can look forward with eager anticipation: on Tuesday 13 January in Speaker’s House we will be addressed, in the lecture series for 2015, on the subject of William Pitt by the Leader of the House. He is a very considerable authority on that matter.
Local Government Finance
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on funding for local authorities in England next year.
This Government inherited the largest deficit in post-war history. Thanks to this Government’s long-term economic plan, that deficit is falling, the economy is growing and employment is at a record high. This Government are putting our public finances back on track. Local government, like every part of the public sector, has made a significant contribution to this. However, the job is not done. As my right hon. friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has indicated to the House, in coming years very substantial savings must be made in public spending. The Government continue to need to take difficult decisions to put the public finances on to a sustainable path.
In the context of this unprecedented challenge to public finance, we have yet again delivered a settlement that is fair to all parts of the country, whether north or south, urban or rural. English local government is expected to spend over £114 billion this year—around a quarter of all public spending. This settlement therefore recognises that local authorities continue to make a vital contribution to helping pay off the deficit. Once again, the settlement leaves councils with considerable total spending power. As planned, we have kept the overall reduction to 1.8%—lower than last year, and one of the lowest levels of reduction under this Government. If we include the funds the Government have provided to support local transformation, the overall reduction is even lower, at 1.6%.
Councils facing the highest demand for services continue to receive substantially more funding, and we are continuing to ensure that no council will face a loss of more than 6.4% in its spending power in 2015-16, the lowest level in this Parliament. I am also pleased to announce that all nine authorities eligible for efficiency support grant in 2014-15—Great Yarmouth, Burnley, Chesterfield, East Lindsey, Barrow-in-Furness, Bolsover, Hyndburn, Pendle and Hastings—will have these amounts incorporated into the settlement for 2015-16.
We also continue to recognise the challenges faced by rural communities. This Government have a clear commitment to rural areas, and consecutive settlements have helped to address the gap between urban and rural spending power. The gap is closing, and that has already benefited rural authorities to the tune of £208 million. We expect the gap to continue to close. In the meantime, the settlement confirms another year of additional resources for the most rural authorities, to recognise the challenges they may face in delivering services. In 2015-16, this grant has increased to £15.5 million.
But this is no longer just about the amount the Government provide to local authorities through grant. We have deliberately shifted the emphasis from keeping authorities dependent on grant to providing councils with the tools they need to grow and shape their local economies. We have given councils a real stake in stimulating local growth. For 2014-15, authorities’ own estimates show that 91% are expecting a growth in their business rates income—growth of £414 million in total. That includes authorities such as Barnsley, which is predicting growth in its business rates income of around £900,000, and which will gain additionally from almost £400,000 of growth that it is predicting within its enterprise zone.
Through the new homes bonus, councils benefit directly from increasing the number of homes in their area and bringing long-term empty homes back into use. On Tuesday, the Minister for planning and housing, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), announced to the House that £1.2 billion of new homes bonus funding has been provisionally allocated to local authorities in England for 2015-16. This brings the total to almost £3.4 billion since the scheme began.
Many councils agree that these measures are having a positive impact on their ability to deliver better outcomes in their areas. National growth is the sum of local growth. For Britain to prosper, every part of the country needs to fulfil its potential. Local places know best how to support growth in their local economies. We know that many authorities recognise this. That is why we have devoted such effort to empowering our great cities and communities to drive local growth through a redistribution of power away from Westminster and Whitehall to councils, communities and individuals across the nation.
To this end, we have established 39 local enterprise partnerships—partnerships between local authorities and business—who decide what the priorities should be for investment in roads, buildings and facilities in their local areas. Through our growth deals, we devolved £12 billion of local growth funding to these partnerships, for them to spend on local priorities over the next five years.
We are committed to further devolution to increase local democracy, bring better services and deliver more homes and jobs. We hope that Greater Manchester and Sheffield will be the first of many to take advantage of greater devolution of powers, and the Government are open to having discussions with other areas.
As well as growing their economies, the best authorities are transforming the way they do business. The Government are supporting them as they do so, achieving real savings and, importantly, improving outcomes for the people who use local services. Last month, I announced the latest round of successful bids to the transformation challenge award. We will provide around £90 million in support for 73 projects that will improve services and ultimately save the public sector over £900 million. In total, the latest successful transformation challenge award bids involve 287 partners, including 122 local authorities and 165 other organisations across the public, private and voluntary sectors.
Increasingly, local authorities are recognising that transformation and further integration has the potential to deliver improved outcomes. Nowhere is this more evident than in relation to health and social care. We are supporting the integration of health and social care services through the better care fund: 97% of local plans have been approved and the £3.8 billion initial contribution from Government has been boosted by local areas to more than £5 billion. This will help achieve significant change in services that will benefit some of the most vulnerable in our society.
Like all parts of government, councils need to prioritise spending so that it gets to those who need it most. Councils are rising to the challenge. Every council issued a balanced budget for 2014-15. The majority of residents remain satisfied with the way their council runs things. That bears testimony to the great skill that authorities have shown in prioritising and promoting efficiencies.
Local authorities up and down the country are demonstrating real innovation. I have seen for myself the work under way in Kirklees to support young people who need help in starting their young lives. Our transformation fund investment of £400,000 will bolster the Kirklees Cares project, where children in care are receiving peer support to prepare them for life after leaving care.
In Durham, a partnership of the police and fire services is using a £500,000 award to bring community volunteers and neighbourhood watch services together; and I was recently in Sunderland, which is one of five areas that had its better care fund plan approved early because it was making such good progress. I met staff from both the health and social care sectors working together in the same room, with the same patients, in a brilliant new community facility that is keeping elderly people out of hospital. Sunderland projects that it can start to cut local accident and emergency admissions by up to 15% in the years ahead as a consequence of this approach. That will save a huge amount of money and provide people with dignity and respect in retirement.
Last winter, to help local authorities deal with the immediate costs of the severe weather, the Government activated the Bellwin scheme of emergency financial assistance to local authorities. In recognition of the unique scale of the flooding, the terms of the scheme were made more generous. The changes included a reduction in thresholds above which the Government would compensate, and reimbursement at a rate of 100%. This reduction was the first time in the scheme’s 30-year history that thresholds had been reduced in that way. Last month, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced a consultation on improvements to the scheme, including permanent lower thresholds and 100% grant rate. Although the consultation does not end until the start of the new year, we have today published illustrative Bellwin thresholds for 2015-16. This will give local authorities a greater degree of financial certainty in planning for emergencies in the case of severe weather.
With colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions, we have been analysing responses to the Government consultation on how local welfare assistance should be funded in 2015-16. We have been looking at these alongside the Department for Work and Pensions review. Local authorities will continue to be able to offer local welfare assistance from within existing budgets, alongside a range of other services for 2015-16 if they judge it a priority in their area. It would be helpful to many areas to see how much of their existing funding relates to this, so today I can confirm that we have separately identified an amount relating to local welfare provision in each upper-tier authority’s general grant, totalling £129.6 million nationally.
The Government have always been clear that councils should choose how best to support local welfare needs, because what is right for Croydon will not be right for Cumbria. This allocation will therefore not be ring-fenced and we will not be placing any new duties, expectations or monitoring requirements on its use. The Government will carefully consider all responses to the consultation on this settlement, including those that relate to the provision for local welfare over and above existing budgets, and we will take these into consideration when announcing the final settlement in February. Over the last year, councils have increased their reserves by £2.2 billion, and they now stand at a total of £21.4 billion. Authorities should of course maintain a healthy cushion when balancing the books. However, local taxpayers would be right in asking whether such substantial reserves are necessary.
All councils should be freezing their council tax in 2015-16 and helping people with their cost of living. We are providing additional funding equivalent to a 1% council tax increase, to help councils to freeze. This is the fifth successive year of freeze-funding provided by the Government. This brings the total package to £5 billion, which will save up to £1,075 for an average household over the course of this Parliament. All councils should be taking advantage of this extra Government funding and freezing council tax for hard-working families. Councils choosing to increase should have the courage to put their case to local people. Any council proposing an increase of 2% or more will need to allow local people the opportunity to approve or veto the increase in a referendum. This threshold will apply to all local authorities, including the Greater London authority, fire authorities and police and crime commissioners.
Parishes are an important part of local government, delivering valuable and valued local services. However, that is not a reason for them to impose inflation-busting increases on their taxpayers. The average band D council tax in England has risen by 2% since 2011-12. The equivalent figure for the parish element is 14.7% over the same period. That is why I would welcome views on whether the highest-spending parishes should be subject to the same referendum principle as the rest of local government. There is also a question about whether town and parish councils whose failings have been highlighted in a public interest report should be included.
Today marks the start of a period of statutory consultation with local government on the settlement, and I welcome its responses. The consultation closes on 15 January 2015. We are publishing full supporting material online and I have placed copies of the consultation paper and other main documents in the Vote Office. This is a fair settlement that continues to recognise the responsibility of local government to find sensible savings and make better use of its resources. It supports business growth, adding to this country’s wealth, and helps to deliver our long-term economic plan. It also enables councils to offer another year of frozen council taxes. I commend this settlement to the House.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving me advance sight of his statement, and at least Ministers have chosen to come to the House today rather than having to be summoned, as happened last year.
In its recent report “Financial sustainability of local authorities 2014”, the National Audit Office found that the Government
“will reduce its funding to local authorities by 37% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2015-16”.
Will the Minister confirm that this is the case, and that the Government are going ahead with a 10% reduction in the main component of Government funding to local authorities in 2015-16, as also reported by the NAO? Councils have experienced the biggest spending reductions in the public sector, and they have done an extraordinary job in trying to deal with that, but they rightly resent the Secretary of State claiming, as he did, that the cuts are “modest” and that Local Government Association fears for the future are “utterly ludicrous”. Does the Minister still agree with those statements, given that in an open letter last month, a large number of council leaders, including 40 Conservatives, said bluntly:
“Services such as libraries, leisure centres and road maintenance continue to buckle under the strain of cuts and the ever-rising cost of caring for our growing elderly population”?
The Audit Commission has confirmed that
“Councils serving the most deprived areas have seen the largest reductions in funding relative to spending”.
That is still happening.
Why is it that the most disadvantaged communities are yet again being hit the hardest? Why is it that by 2017, the city of Liverpool, the most deprived local authority in the country, will have lost over half its Government grant compared with 2010? Why is it that Wokingham is on course to have a higher spending power per household than Leeds and Newcastle, despite those cities’ greater need? Why is it that, having claimed that those with the broadest shoulders should bear the biggest burden, Minsters have done the very opposite to local government? Given the complacency of the Department for Communities and Local Government, is it any wonder that the National Audit Office found that the Department had
“a limited understanding of the financial sustainability of local authorities”?
What is the Minister going to do about that? Councils are showing
“clear signs of financial stress”.
What contingency plans do Ministers have to deal with the potential failure of local councils? The truth is that the Government either do not want to know what is going on or do not care. Tough times do indeed require tough decisions, including on spending, but there is no justification whatever for taking the most from those who have the least.
I have a number of specific questions to put to the Minister. How many councils will face the maximum reduction in spending power of 6.4% in 2015-16? Will he accept the NAO’s advice and in the final settlement publish figures detailing the change in individual local authority income in real terms since 2010-11, so that the cumulative impact of funding reductions is made clear? How have the Government accounted for the better care fund when calculating 2015-16 funding reductions? Can he confirm that the new homes bonus actually takes money away from the most disadvantaged communities and gives it to areas where the new homes would probably have been built in any case? Does he not think that that funding could be more efficiently allocated to areas based on need?
Will the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State lost his battle with the Chancellor to save the local welfare assistance fund? It is clear that this year’s separate grant will now go and will not be replaced with any new money. That means that councils with the greatest need will face the greatest difficulty, because they are already facing the biggest cuts in funding. How much of the funding held back for the business rates safety net in 2013-14 is required for safety net payments, and what will be the total amount held back in 2015-16? The Minister talks about business growth incentives, so why will he not allow combined authorities to keep 100% of business rate income growth? Why has there been no economic devolution to counties? How will the business rates review affect the proposed revaluation in 2017?
On the impact on front-line services, 324 libraries have closed since 2011. What assessment has the Minister made of how many more will go as a result of this statement? How many more children’s centres will close, on top of the 578 that have gone since the Secretary of State took office? What effect will this statement have on women’s refuges, school crossing patrols and day centres for the elderly? We have just had an urgent question on the crisis in accident and emergency departments. Has it not occurred to Ministers that one reason why this is happening is the cuts that councils have had to make in social care? That is why the number of people over the age of 90 going to A and E in a blue-light ambulance has increased by nearly 50% in recent years.
In difficult times what councils need is fairer funding, help with longer-term funding settlements so they can plan ahead to protect services, and more devolution of power so they can work with other public services locally to get the most out of every pound of public funding. Nowhere is that needed more than in health and social care. If the loss of services we have seen already is only part of what the Chancellor and the Secretary of State have in mind for local government in the years ahead, let me tell the Minister that Labour Members will not be joining him in a headlong rush back to the 1930s. What hard-working councillors and communities wanted today was recognition of the increasingly stark choices they face and some practical help. Instead all they have got is Ministers who have no idea what is really going on.
I am really disappointed with the right hon. Gentleman’s tone. There was no sense of guilt or shame about the situation we were left in when we came to power. Let me mention two speeches that were made last week. In one, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor talked about the requirement and need for us to live within our means and to grow our economy in order to be able to support public services. The other speech was about how the deficit was the big test for Labour, and we can see from the right hon. Gentleman’s response today that the Opposition have no chance of meeting that test. They have failed at the first attempt, wanting to borrow and spend more money.
The Government are confident that councils can respond to the challenging economic circumstances that we inherited, and they are responding. The NAO says that many councils are dealing with that; they have been able to fix and deliver a budget, and to respond to economic emergencies as they have come about. The reality is that all councils need to respond and transform their delivery, and despite the right hon. Gentleman’s words, the authorities are doing thaton the ground. The Labour authorities in Manchester