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Topical Questions

Volume 592: debated on Monday 2 February 2015

T2. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. Will the Minister confirm that— (907318)

Order. It will not be long before we hear the hon. Gentleman’s dulcet tones. We can hold on just a moment. Let us hear Secretary Pickles, adorned in his waistcoat, first.

I can hardly wait, Mr Speaker. Last week, the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission published its recommendations to ensure that the memory of the holocaust is preserved. The Government will commit £50 million to the creation of the national memorial, the learning centre and the endowment fund. My Department will sponsor the new Holocaust Memorial Foundation, which will take forward those recommendations. Its first task will be to undertake an urgent programme to record and preserve the testimony of British holocaust survivors and liberators. It is our collective responsibility to educate future generations about the horrors of the holocaust and never to forget why we need to challenge and combat the forces of hate.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks on the holocaust memorial, which is fundamentally important? Will he confirm that, in 2015-16, Brent’s core funding will be cut by 14% and its revenue support grant by 28%? Will he also confirm that the reason why his Department curiously refers to Brent’s spending power is that it includes £23 million of money that Brent council does not receive and has no power over, and that doing so gives him the singular advantage of allowing him falsely to claim that Brent is being cut by only 1.8%?

We moved over to looking at the spending power of authorities at the urging of the Local Government Association, the Labour party and the local government unit. They considered it to be a fairer way of measuring, and I think that they were right. It is fairer, because it is frankly pointless just to measure the amount of money coming from the Government. It is better to get a rounded position. That is why we have been able to ensure that services have been protected, that the level of satisfaction with local government has never been higher, and that reserves have never been higher.

T3. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) have both kindly visited the largest redundant mill complex in Lancashire, Brierfield mill in my constituency. Following the fantastic news of Government funding for the project in last week’s growth deal, will Ministers commit themselves to continuing to work with Pendle borough council and myself to move forward this massive regeneration project? (907319)

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance, and I congratulate him on all he has done to be champion for his local area. I will be up there next week talking to his local enterprise partnership about how we can take things forward.

I want to return to the very serious matter of what the House was told in December about firefighters’ pensions. As we have just heard, firefighters are clear that the Minister gave them a guarantee that if they could not meet the fitness standard and could not be found another job, they would go on an unreduced pension. The Secretary of State—my question is to him—told the Communities and Local Government Select Committee the following day that if firefighters

“cannot be redeployed, the effect of yesterday’s decision is that they will get a full pension.”

However, the statutory instrument makes it clear that the fire and rescue authorities only have to “have regard” to the guidance in carrying out their duties. If that is the case, can the Secretary of State please explain how on earth that constitutes a guarantee?

The national service framework is something that is within our gift. We have changed it and put the principles within it on a statutory footing. They are not optional. There is no wriggle room for fire and rescue authorities. Clearly, fire and rescue authorities are responsible for their own policies locally, but I have no indication that they will deviate from the national service framework. If they do so, and we find that they are doing so, we will act. The Secretary of State has powers in the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 to do that. I say to Opposition Members that this is a vast improvement on what they gave firefighters. It is a step in the right direction to protect older workers. If, as the work of the fitness group progresses, there are further things that we can do once good practice is agreed upon, we will of course consider them. This is doing firefighters a grave disservice and it is undermining confidence in the fact that all firefighters—men and women—can enjoy a full career in the service.

I note that the Secretary of State did not want to respond in respect of his own words. But I say to the hon. Lady that the reason there is no confidence is that she and the Secretary of State have failed to give effect to the promise that they made. If she is looking for proof of that, may I quote to her what the London Fire Brigade said in correspondence to the Fire Brigades Union? She says that she has seen no evidence so she should really keep up. The FBU had written to the London Fire Brigade after the debate in December and asked whether there would be a guarantee. The London Fire Brigade said that it had taken legal advice, which

“confirms the position previously notified to DCLG by the Authority, most recently on 9 December 2014, that if DCLG wished to offer such a guarantee then it would need to change the regulations to enable that to happen.”

It then went on to say that

“the Authority is unable to give any guarantee.”

Firefighters are understandably angry because it turns out that the guarantee that they were promised in December on the basis of that was not a guarantee. Will the Minister do what she promised and apologise?

I will not apologise for improving the situation of firefighters. Firefighters had been asked to work until 60 without any protections. We have introduced those protections. I also have to say that I have no trouble keeping up with what the FBU wishes to tell us. Not only do I have its letters, but I have letters also from the Secretary of State. Those letters are not only in the FBU’s font but have even managed to get his job description wrong.

T5. One fire authority responding to queries from firefighters about how it was going to honour the Minister’s commitment wrote to them and said: “We are advised that the addendum to the National Framework…continues to provide discretion over the award of an unreduced pension…We are further advised that such discretion cannot be fettered, and that to provide the ‘guarantee’ you are seeking would be unlawful.”Will the Minister begin the audit to which she has committed and ensure that fire authorities honour the commitment that she has made? (907321)

Of course, if a firefighter loses fitness through their own fault—by neglecting to go to the gym, to train and to keep up to date with the requirements placed on them—fire authorities have the discretion not to award a pension, which is quite right. Where that is not the case, the authorities must award a pension. The audit will take place. There is work going on at the moment with the fitness group that was set up, and I am pleased to update the House that women in the fire service now have a permanent seat on that fitness group. The group will come up with good practice that I hope all fire authorities will follow.

T8. Durham is ranked the fifth most deprived area in the country on the Government’s own index and is recognised as having much higher need than other wealthier areas. If we are all in this together, will the Minister explain why Durham unitary authority has lost £180 spending power for every man, woman and child in Durham, while Wokingham authority, one of the wealthiest areas in the country, has seen a gain in its spending power for every man, woman and child? (907324)

As I said earlier, the most deprived areas receive 40% more money than the least deprived areas. It is important for local authorities and local leaders to understand that the grant is not the only course for delivering services. They should also consider building their local economy, building houses and receiving the new homes bonus, which I understand that the Labour party will scrap. That is the route that delivers quality services. It should be noted that, despite all the challenges that local authorities have faced, every authority has managed to balance its books and public perception of local authorities has remained positive.

T7. What steps is the Department taking to support independent local newspapers such as the Coalville Times in my constituency? (907323)

We have given clear guidance on our expectations regarding council-sponsored newspapers. At a time when every authority faces serious challenges in delivering core services to vulnerable people, we should not be wasting money on propaganda sheets, and our guidance makes sure that local authorities are aware of that. I note that my hon. Friend’s local council has taken significant measures to reduce the amount of money it spends on council newspapers.

T9. Why does the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) think that the fire authorities are saying that this is not a guarantee? (907325)

The fire authorities cannot deviate from the national service framework unless they choose to break the law. The measure will not come into effect until 2022 and we have undertaken to carry out a full audit in three years’ time of how they are adopting the fitness principles. If we find that fire authorities are not following and honouring those principles, we have powers to intervene. I do not understand why the issue is causing difficulty for the hon. Lady.

Harlow has had more than 100 illegal Traveller encampments over the past 15 months, yet the chief constable of Essex says that he does not have the power to remove them and cites human rights legislation. Will my hon. Friend the Minister please have urgent discussions with the chief constable, set out what the powers are and tell them to stop hiding behind Association of Chief Police Officers guidelines?

I know that my hon. Friend has fought hard for his residents in Harlow and I have met him, the police and crime commissioner and Harlow council. The council and the local police should be using their powers to make sure that policy, the green belt and the good residents of Harlow are protected in the way my hon. Friend has fought so hard to do.

T10. May I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? This time last year, the Department published a consultation paper on the private rented sector that, among other items, proposed that the installation of working smoke alarms be mandatory. Since then, Ministers have repeatedly failed to meet their own—frequently deferred—deadlines for saying when the consultation will be published. Why are they dragging their feet on such a simple and popular measure that will save lives? (907326)

The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about how important working smoke alarms and CO2 detectors can be in saving lives. We will respond to the consultation in due course.

Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State discuss with his Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Health the rules of ordinary residence for people in care homes? The London borough of Havering picks up financial responsibility for a large number of self-funding residents who come from out-borough. Would it not be fairer if the rule of ordinary residence relied on the address where that person last lived?

I am aware of that problem, which I think is most acute in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As we move into April, the better care fund—which is a mechanism not just for funding, but for better co-ordination—should help. Residence should be taken into consideration as a whole and a proper care package should be worked out individually for each person. I hope that that helps my hon. Friend.

Does the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) not accept that for a promise and guarantee made to this House in December to be in tatters by January does nothing to help good industrial relations? Is not the general secretary of the FBU entirely right to say that firefighters have been utterly cheated?

The fitness principles came into effect on 12 January, and no amount of spin from Opposition Members can undo that. Firefighters will have a guarantee: if they are working beyond the age of 55 and lose fitness through no fault of their own they will get an alternative role or, if none is available, an unreduced pension. If fire authorities do not do that, the Secretary of State has powers to intervene.

I have asked Bradford council to supply details of the amount of money it raises in council tax from each ward across the Bradford district. I would have thought that would have been readily available information for any local authority, but Bradford council keeps refusing to publish it, claiming that it does not even have it. We all know why: the council does not want to show how much is contributed in council tax from the Shipley constituency and how little goes back to that constituency. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State whether he will make it a statutory duty for local authorities to publish details of how much council tax they receive from each ward in their area?

As a former leader on the front benches of Bradford council, I asked the same question and I was given that information. But of course that was under a Conservative-led administration, which wanted to be transparent and open about the amount of money that was raised. Bradford council has nothing to hide from publishing these figures and letting people who make a significant contribution to the economy of the district know where their money is raised and spent.