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Commons Chamber

Volume 599: debated on Monday 14 September 2015

House of Commons

Monday 14 September 2015

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Devolution Deal

May I wish Shanah Tovah to all Members, and to those in the wider community, who are celebrating the Jewish new year? May I also say how relieved I am to see that an Opposition Front Bench team willing to serve has turned up today?

This one-nation Government are determined to devolve power to every part of the country—town and country. In response to our invitation, 38 areas have submitted proposals for devolved powers and budgets. We will work with every area over the coming months to negotiate transformational devolution deals.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer on this most auspicious day.

North Devon District Council and other local authorities in Devon and Somerset have submitted an expression of interest to the Government for combined authority status—a move that I welcome. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming it? Does he agree that granting greater regional powers is in the spirit of greater devolution for people in the south-west?

I do welcome it. I read the proposals from councils and businesses in Devon and Somerset. One of the benefits of devolved funding would be that infrastructure decisions were increasingly made locally. I know that the north Devon link road is close to my hon. Friend’s heart. In fact, I heard him talk about it on Radio Devon, and so confident is he that this investment will be made that he has invited Her Majesty the Queen to come and open it next year. That is the kind of positive thinking we need.

On the devolution deal, does the Secretary of State take a view on what these new authorities should call themselves? “Combined west midlands authority” is rather a mouthful, and I would much rather have “Greater Birmingham”.

I think the nuance with which the hon. Lady asked her question answers it for her. It is better for local people to make these decisions rather than for a Secretary of State to determine them. It is very good that the authorities across the west midlands are coming together and working so well.

The great county of Hampshire has submitted a compelling bid for devolution. Does the Secretary of State agree that further devolution could be pivotal in unlocking further economic potential in the southern powerhouse as well as the northern powerhouse?

I do agree. “Powerhouse” is an apt description, because the economy of the south and the part of Hampshire that my right hon. Friend represents is really firing on all cylinders. I remember launching the growth deal there, where the new centre for 5G technology is up and running, creating many thousands of jobs.

When the Minister brags about devolution proposals for local government, why does he not do the decent thing and say to local government that the coalition Government and this one have taken up to 40% off local authorities? Pay that money back, and then you can start work.

During the recess I had a very cordial and constructive meeting with the leader of the hon. Gentleman’s local authority in Derbyshire, and the one accord that we had is that the progress that the coalition Government made in transferring powers from London and Westminster to the regions has been one of the contributory factors to the revival of the regions.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the recent announcement of the historic devolution deal for Cornwall is a clear demonstration of this Government’s commitment not only to the devolution agenda but to a one nation approach to our economy?

It certainly is. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to his colleagues in Cornwall who were absolutely instrumental in securing that deal. I was delighted to travel down there with the Prime Minister to celebrate it, and indeed to do so over a pint of Tribute with him that very evening.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Opposition Front Benchers. Let me say this: we are ready, willing and able to take the fight to Ministers and eventually to drive them out of office.

The country is far too centralised, and there is clearly, because politics is not working, a political imperative on all of us to seek proper devolution. Devolution tied to spending cuts simply does not work.

It is great that the Government heeded, belatedly, the call to allow some more refugees into our country—we welcome that. Local government and devolved local government came up to the mark straight away, with over 60 councils immediately coming forward. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with local councils about how to deal with this incredibly important matter? Will the Government now hold the national summit that we have been calling for?

I welcome the shadow Secretary of State to his post. Members will recall that he was once Parliamentary Private Secretary to Peter Mandelson, and Tony Blair once said that his project would not be complete until Labour learned to love Peter Mandelson. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will update us on how that is progressing.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for devolution. I have found it possible to work on the most cordial terms with Labour authority leaders as well as Conservatives up and down the country, and I hope we will have a constructive working relationship.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Home Secretary and I chaired a Cabinet Committee meeting on Syria at which the Local Government Association was represented. This morning I spoke to the head of the LGA and, indeed, the Labour leader of Blackpool Council, who told me that local government collectively was working very well with central Government to make sure that we deliver the commitment that has been given.

In terms of loving people, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has a long way to go to encourage people to love him.

When the Government indicated that funding would be made available to local councils to help refugees and resolve the refugee problems, it was clear that only a one-year financial deal was on offer. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that the Chancellor will provide enough money over the five years of this Parliament to help councils to deal with the crisis, because the current financial offer is simply inadequate?

That is not the case. The one-year commitment is what is allowed under the official development assistance rules. The point of including our local government colleagues in the ministerial group designing the approach is to make sure that every aspect of the funding required is addressed. We will do that consensually with local government.

Brownfield Land

2. What support his Department is providing to local authorities to encourage development of brownfield land. (901297)

9. What support his Department is providing to local authorities to encourage development of brownfield land. (901304)

15. What support his Department is providing to local authorities to encourage development of brownfield land. (901310)

We intend to create a fund to unlock homes on brownfield land for additional housing. We will continue to support the regeneration of brownfield land through a range of measures, including announcing up to £400 million to create housing zones.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly important to encourage investment in brownfield land where the site in question, such as Springbank shopping centre and the former Carlton Street post office in my constituency, is a local eyesore that attracts graffiti and other antisocial behaviour?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We want brownfield land to be brought back into use and for homes to be built on it. I am sure that my hon. Friend, as a diligent constituency MP, will make the case for individual sites in his area. This Government are committed to delivering the houses needed in the right places across the country.

Greenfield sites across Pendle are under threat because the new Lib Dem and Labour administration of Pendle Borough Council has abandoned plans to spend the £1.5 million allocated for brownfield regeneration under the previous Administration. What more can the Department do to support the people of Pendle and to help fulfil their wish that brownfield is always developed ahead of greenfield?

The Government are setting up a brownfield fund, with £1 billion, and are introducing the brownfield register. We have an expectation that homes will be built, because the country needs them, and that they will be built in the right places, particularly on brownfield sites. My hon. Friend makes a very important point on behalf of individual sites in his constituency about the approach of his local authority. I am sure it will have heard him loud and clear on a matter that his constituents will be very keen to see resolved.

I welcome the Government’s redoubled commitment to support the development of brownfield sites. Does the Minister agree that, with the help of the Government’s new measures and extra effort by local authorities, brownfield sites can be developed more quickly and easily than by leaving large areas of green belt to be developed by large-unit developers, whose business model is not resulting in many houses?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, informed by her own direct experience. It is important that local authorities do not just plan to deliver the future houses we need in the right places, but ensure that the plans are deliverable. There are examples of best practice across the country, with local authorities delivering completions and the new housing needed, and I know that other authorities will look to them to see what lessons can be learned and what they can do in their own areas.

In my constituency of Mid Derbyshire, a large brownfield site is being decontaminated and made ready for redevelopment, but it has been left out of Derby City Council’s core strategy because the council states that the site will not be ready for development until 2028, despite the site manager saying that it will be sooner. Does the Minister agree that we must prioritise building on such brownfield sites?

With the brownfield fund and the accelerated powers we are giving local authorities for planning on suitable brownfield sites, the direction of travel and the intention of Government are clear. Local authorities need to ensure that opportunities in their areas are deliverable and that they are delivered. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s important comments regarding her constituency will have been heard today.

The Minister knows that there is a national shortage of homes and a housing crisis for the people whom we represent. He will not get anywhere with the illusion that that can all be dealt with through brownfield land. Brownfield land is often very expensive and in the wrong place. This Government will not acknowledge that we must build on greenfield to provide the homes that we need, but they do not like it: they are terrified of their constituents.

Listening to our constituents and recognising their concerns is an important part of the planning process. We cannot just ignore local sites of beauty or the value of our environment. It should be recognised and protected and account taken of it in the national planning policy framework. That said, we need to deliver more homes, which is why, on top the measures I have mentioned, the Government are releasing significant amounts of public sector land to deliver another 150,000 homes on brownfield land during this Parliament, meeting our obligations in a way that our constituents recognise is appropriate.

We must get developers to get on and build homes, but does the Minister accept that in a local authority area with sufficient land for building housing it would be inappropriate for a planning authority or the Planning Inspectorate to approve the building of houses on sports grounds when there is a need for them and users who want to keep them open as sports grounds?

The direction from Government is absolutely clear—we want to see more houses built in appropriate places. We want to facilitate and assist local authorities that want to build on brownfield sites to bring the sites back into use and to build the houses that are needed. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I am sure his local authority hears it, too.

The Minister’s ambition to build more houses, in particular on brownfield land, might be good, but is he aware of a recent survey by the Federation of Master Builders that highlighted the fact that many in the construction industry are still struggling to secure finance and that raw materials and skills are in short supply? What is he doing to address those issues?

The hon. Gentleman raises a range of important points, including the skills agenda, which is part of our devolution discussions in many areas. While I am tempted to go down that route, it is important to focus on what the Government are doing on brownfield, which is very significant. I say again that we have the brownfield fund and the brownfield register, and we are working to accelerate planning on such sites to deliver them and to release public sector land. This Government are doing a lot to deliver housing on brownfield, not on the green fields that some Opposition Members seem to think should be the priority for building.

The hon. Lady asks for figures I do not have immediately available, but this Government are setting up a significant fund to deliver housing and to free up and make viable brownfield sites. That will make a real difference and will encourage development on the sites that we want developed. I am happy to write to her in due course with the specific figures for which she asks.

I will help the Minister out here—I have some figures to hand. The cost of remediating brownfield land can range from £50,000 per hectare to over £1.7 million per hectare for the most contaminated land. Does he believe that the fund he proposes will be adequate to deal with brownfield land? The reason such land is brownfield, derelict and unused is that it can be difficult to remediate. In the east end of Glasgow, 350 hectares of brownfield land need remediation. How far will the fund go?

A range, of course, is not an average, although I recognise the hon. Lady’s concern. She, like us, wants brownfield land to be regenerated and built on and housing delivered in the right places, and the £1 billion fund being established by the Government will go a long way to doing that. It will make a real difference. It will deliver houses where they are needed—and on brownfield land that has not been used and from which there has been no benefit for far too long.

Local Government Finance

4. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the local government grant formula in directing funding to areas of need. (901299)

14. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the local government grant formula in directing funding to areas of need. (901309)

Councils facing the highest demand for services receive substantially more funding, including through formula grant. With the introduction of business rates retention in 2013-14, there has been a deliberate shift away from keeping authorities dependent on grants and towards providing councils with the tools and incentives they need to grow their local economies.

The Minister’s implication that areas of need are being fairly treated by the local government grant formula is simply not proven by the evidence. Research by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy found that many councils serving the most in need have been worst hit by the cuts. Indeed, in the list of councils worst hit by the cuts, Bradford council came 353rd out of a possible 383. Surely he agrees this is not fair.

Bradford has an area spending power of £2,295 per dwelling, which is 10% above the national average, and Bradford council also has £136 million in its reserves. It might want to deploy part of those reserves to address some of the challenges it faces.

Since 2010, funding to my constituency has been cut by a staggering 54%. Does the Minister agree that this cannot be acceptable given that during the same period some constituencies have benefited from a rise in funding? Does he realise that the funding formula is seriously flawed and in urgent need of review?

I do not agree. Burnley has an area spending power of £2,112 per household, which remains above the national average. In 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16, we provided Burnley council with a £1.9 million efficiency support grant—equivalent to more than 10% of its spending power—to support long-term changes to bring costs down while continuing to deliver the services that Burnley’s citizens expect. That is nearly £6 million of additional resources, so, given what some other councils have done, the hon. Lady perhaps doth protest too much.

Lancashire County Council tells me its grant is so inadequate that the discretion it used to have in assisting youngsters to go to schools of their choice has now been withdrawn. If a pupil passes a school to get to the school they want to attend, they will be asked to pay £550 for school transport. This is nothing other than a back-door means of raising council tax on hard-working families in Lancashire. Will the Minister look into what is going on, which is an abuse of the discretion system, and ensure that parents can get their youngsters into the school of their choice?

I know that my hon. Friend has pursued this issue on several occasions, including in a Westminster Hall debate. It is a complicated issue, and local authorities have sometimes had to take difficult decisions on the prioritisation of school transport. There is no easy answer, but he will no doubt continue doggedly to pursue it in the House, as he has today.

Child refugees orphaned or separated from their parents are arriving in Britain in unprecedented numbers because of the current crisis across the EU, but the Government have chosen to slash funding by 18% for gateway councils, such as Kent, Hillingdon and Croydon, which look after the highest numbers of them. What impact does he think this dreadful decision will have on the councils and, more importantly, the children affected?

First, I am joined on the Front Bench by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), whom the Prime Minister today appointed Minister for Refugees. He will sit on the Cabinet Sub-Committee looking to address these issues. I am sure the whole House will welcome his appointment.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman attacked us over resources. I have a question to ask him about resources.

We are familiar with the issue in Kent, because of what happened in Calais and all that was attached to that, and with our colleagues in local government we are looking carefully at the likely cost. That is one of the issues the Cabinet Sub-Committee will address, including with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Neighbourhood Planning and Community Rights

6. What support his Department has provided to communities on neighbourhood planning and community rights since May 2010. (901301)

Up to March 2015, we provided nearly £50 million to help communities undertake neighbourhood planning and to access community rights and associated initiatives. We are going further and invested another £32 million in April to help even more communities take up their rights.

Fylde communities such as Warton and Wrea Green in my constituency have submitted comprehensive local plans to the council. Does the Minister agree that it is important that when the council is finalising the local plan, it takes into account the neighbourhood plans and the wishes of my constituents?

I concur completely with my hon. Friend’s view. Our planning guidance is clear that local authorities should work in collaboration with neighbourhood planning groups when neighbourhood and local plans are being developed at the same time. Local plans are also subject to at least two opportunities for comment by any interested party.

A common complaint I receive from residents and communities in Doncaster is about the blight of empty properties. Some 3,800 homes are empty and over 1,000 have been empty for more than a year. That attracts vandalism and antisocial behaviour, and is a blight on property prices. Despite the best efforts of councils, including Doncaster Council, it is hard to get the owners of such properties to get them up to standard and filled with people living in them. Will the Minister agree to review the rights and powers of communities to tackle the scandal of empty homes, without imposing a cost on the taxpayer for the neglect of owners and landlords?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. She will be a loss to the shadow Front Bench. Local authorities already have significant powers to bring empty properties back into use. They are incentivised by receiving the new homes bonus to get long-term empty properties back into use. They also have the power to change the council tax regime to charge more council tax on properties that stand empty for a long period. I suggest that she contact her local authority and ask what it is doing about this.

23. Following a passionate local campaign, planning permission was recently rejected that would have seen the Ascot Tavern, a local pub in Cannock, demolished and replaced by yet another new supermarket. Local campaigners are looking at registering the pub as a community asset. What measures are the Government taking to assist and support communities who find themselves in that situation and similar ones?


I welcome my hon. Friend’s interest in this important subject. We have removed permitted development rights from pubs that are listed as assets of community value. As was promised in our manifesto, we are committing £1.5 million to a pub loan fund to support community groups in taking ownership of their local pub. The My Community advice service also offers important advice and support to local groups that are looking to take on their local.

Disabled Facilities Grant

7. If the Government will ensure that the statutory maximum for a disabled facilities grant increases in line with inflation. (901302)

The Government have invested just over £1 billion in the disabled facilities grant since 2010. That has funded about 170,000 adaptations, helping thousands of disabled people to live safely at home.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but a report and survey by Muscular Dystrophy UK that will be launched in Parliament this week show that thousands of people are being forced into tens of thousands of pounds of debt because the disabled facilities grant has not been increased since 2008 and just does not cover the cost of adaptations. Will the Minister be kind enough to meet me and representatives of Muscular Dystrophy UK to look at the report and see what the Government can realistically do to help all the people who so desperately need adaptations?

I am not sure about my diary for this week, but I undertake to meet the hon. Lady and representatives from Muscular Dystrophy UK on this important issue. The Government are providing £220 million for the disabled facilities grant this year, which is a 19% increase on 2014-15. Where the cost of adaptations exceeds £30,000, local authorities are in a position to provide top-up funding. I hear what the hon. Lady says. A spending review will take place in a few weeks and I will listen to her comments and those of other Members.

The disabled facilities grant has done wonderful work to support our disabled ex-service personnel. May I encourage the Minister and his colleagues to ensure that that continues for the rest of this Parliament?

It is extremely important that the Government continue to support our armed forces personnel. In this country we hold dearly the work done by our armed forces, and as my hon. Friend says, it is extremely important that we continue to support them. I will take that into account, as will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in the up-and-coming spending review.

17. Given the Government’s dismal record of selling off council housing and extending it to housing associations, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that our remaining council housing stock has adequate disabled provision and access for those who need it? (901312)

Order. This is in reference to the disabled facilities grant, but I feel sure that the dexterity of the hon. Gentleman is boundless.

You are right, Mr Speaker—it is a rather tenuous link but I will do my best. As I have said, the Government are providing significant funding to local authorities to provide disabled facilities grants, and there is no reason why they cannot use that for current council housing stock, or support housing associations with their stock.

Affordable Homes

8. What steps his Department is taking to promote the building of affordable homes through the planning system. (901303)

The national planning policy framework requires local planning authorities to meet their affordable housing needs for their area, and we are committed to delivering some 275,000 new affordable homes through to the end of this Parliament.

In my constituency, over the past 18 months developer after developer has used the planning rules to get out of their obligations to build affordable homes, and more than 200 much needed affordable homes have been lost to my constituency during that period. When will the Minister get a grip and get developers to comply with their obligation to build affordable homes?

The hon. Gentleman might wish to take up with his local authority the issue of the power to negotiate locally. We are delivering affordable homes at the fastest rate in just over two decades, and in his constituency the number of homes going forward has increased by 124% since 2010. He should be thanking the Government for the work we have done to support that industry.

Will the Minister assure me that councils are being encouraged to build more affordable homes for sale, because much more homeownership is the priority of the British people?

My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and one key focus of our manifesto this year was the starter homes project. I am proud that the Government will take forward the delivery of some 200,000 starter homes for first-time buyers at a 20% discount.

But the increase in the definition of affordable homes is one reason why the Government can claim a massive increase in the building of such homes. In my constituency an affordable home requires people to be able to afford 80% of market rent, and people on average incomes cannot possibly afford that, even if they have a deposit.

For good quality homes in the rental and ownership sectors the key is an increase in supply. I am pleased that in the hon. Lady’s constituency the number of starter homes has increased by 45% since 2010, and completions are up by 100% since 2010. We must build more homes—it is a shame that the previous Labour Government did not build them and that we started in 2010 with the lowest rate of house building since about 1923, which is what Labour left.

Does the Minister agree that the rural starter homes programme will provide much appreciated assistance to young people so that they can afford to live in the areas where they grew up?

Yes, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. The need for starter homes and affordable homes for people to purchase is as important in rural areas as it is in urban areas, and I am delighted that we will be able to take that project forward and see 200,000 starter homes delivered for first-time buyers across the country.

Affordable Housing

12. What steps his Department has taken to stimulate the building of affordable housing; and what steps he is taking to help young people buy a home for the first time. (901307)

We have already allocated £1 billion to our commitment to deliver a further 275,000 affordable homes by 2020. Since 2010, Government schemes such as Help to Buy and the right to buy have helped more than 230,000 people buy a home. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning said, we will build 200,000 starter homes exclusively for first-time buyers.

In fact, the right-to-buy scheme has raised private rents and cut social housing supply, but the Government want to force housing associations to sell homes during a housing shortage. Should the Government not look at the example from north of the border and the Scottish Government? Scrapping the right to buy has seen nearly 35,000 social rented houses built since 2007.

The residents of Scotland have the same aspirations as the residents in all parts of the United Kingdom. They want to own their own home, and the Government are committed to giving them the chance to realise that aspiration. We are doing that by extending the right to buy, and it is a matter of regret that in Scotland they are going the other way.

What specific impact is the new homes bonus having on the building of homes across the country in order to meet local needs such as those of young people?

First, the funds that come with the new homes bonus allow the financing of some of the infrastructure that is required—reasonably—when homes are built. Secondly, because of that, the plans that are coming forward for adoption by authorities have a significantly higher level of house building than was the case before the reforms were introduced.

Rough Sleeping

One person without a home is one too many. That is why since 2010 we have invested more than £500 million in local authorities and the voluntary sector to prevent and tackle homelessness in their areas.

I was intrigued to hear the Minister mention earlier how dearly the Government hold those who serve in our armed forces. Ex-forces rough sleeping in London has risen elevenfold since 2010. Homes 4 Heroes does a brilliant job in my constituency supporting the ex-forces, but what specific measures does the Department have to prevent those leaving our armed forces from ending up on the streets, and to intervene when they are identified as rough sleeping?

As I said earlier, this is an extremely important issue. Ministerial work is going on in relation to the military covenant, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is part of that ministerial group. We are also supporting local authorities with programmes to help them with rough sleepers, both to help rough sleepers on the street so that they do not spend a second night out—that has been especially useful in London—and to work with other housing groups so that rough sleeping does not become entrenched. We are helping people to get off the streets, especially those with mental health issues.

Will the Minister confirm that statutory homelessness acceptances are now lower than they were under the previous Labour Government?

My hon. Friend is right. Statutory homelessness is now lower than in 26 of the last 30 years and less than half of what it was at its peak under the last Labour Government.

20. Homeless people are 13 times more likely to be victims of crime than the general public and are more likely to suffer from serious health problems. Will the Minister explain his plans for the future of the homelessness prevention grant? (901315)

I welcome the hon. Lady to the House. As she has identified, the homelessness prevention grant has been powerful in that councils have been able to use it to stop people becoming homeless. She will be glad to know that we are considering the future of the grant in the context of the upcoming spending review.

On 12 October, I and other Members will be taking part in sleep out night. The Government are rightly proud of the resources they put into such projects during the previous Parliament. Will the Minister confirm that to tackle rough sleeping he will be putting in money and continuing to support the Homelessness Change and No Second Night Out projects, which do a huge amount to prevent rough sleeping?

It is always good to see the interest my hon. Friend has in this particularly important issue. I can assure him that I realise the value of the No Second Night Out programme. In London, two thirds of rough sleepers come off the streets after a single night out as a result of the programme. As I said in the previous answer, the Government are currently undertaking a spending review. We are considering the merits of this important scheme as a part of that.

Under Labour, rough sleeping went down by 75%. Since 2010, rough sleeping by young people in London alone has gone up by 123% and is about to get worse. Is the Minister so weak that he cannot persuade his Department for Work and Pensions colleagues that taking housing benefit away from 18 to 21-year-olds will have a catastrophic effect on vulnerable young people, or does he not care?

I have said to the hon. Lady before that this Government have taken a different approach—a more honest and open approach—where we are actually calculating the number of rough sleepers properly. That did not happen when the Labour party were in government. On the welfare changes that the hon. Lady mentions, it is important to say that we have made it very clear that our proposals would protect vulnerable people in particular. This Government are on the side of people who want to get on and who aspire. We do not want young people to be trapped in dependency, as several generations have been hitherto. Obviously, the hon. Lady thinks that that is a good thing.

Urban and Rural Areas: Funding

18. What steps the Government are taking to reduce the difference in funding levels between urban and rural areas. (901313)

Our reforms give all authorities substantial scope to increase revenues through promoting growth. I accept that most rural authorities face challenges in delivering services that other authorities do not. Consecutive local government finance settlements have delivered a steady reduction in the gap in spending power levels between urban and rural authorities.

Still surprised, but delighted to be here. I thank the Minister for that answer. Cambridgeshire has a creative way for local authorities to look to bridge the funding gap. The level of economic growth is such that private investors now want to invest in our infrastructure and help us to build affordable housing. Will the Secretary of State or Minister meet me and business leaders from Cambridge to hear our case, because we have an innovative solution?

I will certainly consider a meeting. My hon. Friend talks about promoting economic growth. The business rates retention scheme provides a strong incentive to local councils to reap the rewards of economic growth. Councils now benefit from nearly £11 billion under the scheme, which should deliver a £10 billion boost to national GDP by 2020. If we meet, we can discuss these matters in more detail.

I welcome the Government’s announcement of the rural productivity plan over the summer. In particular, I praise the identification of improved local government as important to the economic regeneration of rural areas. Does the Minister agree that closing that gap—the Government have set out on a path to do that, albeit at an incredibly slow pace—is an important part of improving local government in rural areas?

My hon. Friend has campaigned tirelessly on this issue for some time. As a result, he will know that the previous Government delivered a steady reduction in the so-called urban-rural gap in spending power levels. Consecutive settlements have helped to address the gap, and between 2012-13 and 2015-16 it has been reduced by £205 million. A great deal has been done, but there is still more to do.

Weedon Bec

19. If he will make an assessment of the performance of the Planning Inspectorate in applying planning guidelines in recent appeals in Weedon Bec. (901314)

Obviously, I cannot comment on specific planning appeals. However, the planning inspector will decide an appeal in accordance with the development plan and national planning policy, considering the evidence presented by all the parties in each specific case individually. The local decision is upheld in the majority of cases, with about two thirds of appeals being dismissed.

Although I understand that the Minister does not want to comment on the two planning appeals in Weedon, in which the same information was fed in only for there to be two different results, with one being allowed and one dismissed, will he let the Planning Inspectorate know that the people of Weedon in my constituency and the local council do not appreciate its varied decisions? They would also appreciate it if he could offer the Planning Inspectorate some strong guidance on implementing localism.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point on behalf of his community. There were two applications. I understand his point about their similarity, but every appeal has its own unique character, by definition. The planning inspectors need to consider them as individual cases. However, I appreciate his point about having consistent decisions.

In Northamptonshire, the difference in decisions on appeal for very similar applications is remarkable. Is it not time we took a serious look at the Planning Inspectorate and did something about it?

My hon. Friend is fighting hard for his constituents and planning is an emotive issue that people care passionately about. It shapes the future of the environments in which we live. Every planning application, no matter how silly it might seem, will have unique characteristics and will therefore potentially lead to different decisions.

Rogue Landlords

We have provided £6.7 million thus far to crack down on rogue landlords and have legislated to protect tenants from retaliatory eviction. I am determined to go further. We have recently published plans to blacklist and ban rogue landlords and to enable councils to impose civil penalties and to seek rent repayment orders in more circumstances.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the approach of creating a register will simply create bureaucracy and drive up rents for tenants?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Last time the Opposition costed their plans for a national register, it was, I think, about £40 million a year, a cost that would fall on the tenants. More regulation in that sense is simply not the answer; it drives down supply and, as a result, quality for tenants.

Topical Questions

I issued a written ministerial statement today to update the House on the main items of business undertaken by my Department over the summer. In the past eight weeks, we have introduced measures to boost house building and to support aspiring homeowners, including first-time buyers; our commitment to devolve powers from Whitehall to local people has prompted proposals across the country; and we have strengthened the planning system to tackle unauthorised development and ensure that all communities are treated equally. As the House has heard, the Home Secretary and I chaired a joint committee with local government to put in place the arrangements to settle Syrian refugees.

Concerns have been raised that the changes to planning policy guidance for onshore wind will undermine the Government’s community energy strategy. Will the Secretary of State tell us precisely what assessment he has made of the impact of that announcement on proposed community energy schemes as well as those already in the system? Will he agree to meet community energy groups to hear their concerns?

We have implemented faithfully and speedily a clear manifesto commitment that wind development should go ahead only with the consent of the local community. We have not hesitated in doing that, and it was one of the things we enacted over the summer.

T4. Residents in Barrowford and Colne are keen to create neighbourhood plans for their area. Will my right hon. Friend say more about the support the Government are providing to local communities to ensure that their voices are heard in the completion of neighbourhood and local plans? (901289)

Neighbourhood plans have been a huge success since they were introduced in the Localism Act 2011. They give local people more power to control the shape of development in their area but sometimes, across the country, local councils seem inclined to be tardy in giving the support that is required. In the forthcoming Bill, we will place a clearer responsibility on councils to support neighbourhoods in producing their plans.

This is the first Commons Question Time since our Labour leadership election and I am proud to speak for the party with more than 325,000 members behind me, more than double the Conservative membership.

I want to ask the Secretary of State about his ex-boss, the Chancellor, who describes the recent decline in home ownership as “a tragedy”. I have new House of Commons figures showing that home ownership has gone down each and every year in the last five years. What does the Secretary of State say to the millions of middle England, middle-income young people and families who desperately want the chance to own their own home, but have no hope of ever being able to afford the escalating costs?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench, but I have to say that I am very surprised to hear that line of questioning from him. In 2009, he said that

“home ownership has been dropping…And I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.”

For him to suggest to the House that his view is now the opposite is a turnaround. Since the coalition Government were elected, the number of first-time buyers has doubled—it collapsed under the Government of whom he was a member—but we want to go further, which is why we have extended right to buy and introduced Help to Buy. It is also why we are introducing the starter homes for first-time buyers.

What the Secretary of State is saying and what he is doing are simply not working. People need affordable homes to rent and to buy so that they get the chance of a decent start in life. In the last five years, with Conservative Ministers in charge, the number of people getting mortgages is down by over 10%. Last month, Shelter showed that families on the Chancellor’s so-called living wage will find it impossible and unaffordable to buy in eight out of 326 local authority areas across England. [Interruption.] Yes, eight of 326 local authority areas in England. Let me give a warning to the Secretary of State and his Ministers. They spent the last Parliament blaming Labour. That will not wash now. You have a track record of your own, and we Opposition Members will—week in, week out—expose your failings and hold this Government to account.

The right hon. Gentleman is not going to run away from his own record, because he was a Housing Minister in the last Government. In the manifesto on which he was elected in 2005, it said that his Government would

“create a million more homeowners”.

That was the commitment given when he was the Housing Minister. During that Parliament, home ownership fell by a quarter of a million—it actually fell. Under this Government, the number of first-time buyers has doubled, and under Help to Buy the figures published at the end of last week show that 120,000 people have been helped. That is working people who are being helped by this Government to achieve their dream of having a home for the first time. He should be supporting that, and doing so around the country, rather than seeking to hark back to a failed policy over which he, I am afraid, presided.

T5. The new Leader of the Opposition is, I believe, a keen advocate of rent control—unlike some of his colleagues. Does the Secretary of State agree that every time we see rent controls introduced, all that happens is a fall in the supply of housing, making it harder for people to find homes? (901290)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The reality is that the introduction of rent controls that the Labour party wants is another level of regulation. Evidence around the world shows that that drives prices up and supply down, which is bad for tenants. It is probably why the private rental sector dropped to just 9% of the market on the Labour Government’s watch. I am proud that we have rebuilt it to 19%, and it is important to see that grow further. What matters is the work we are doing to ensure that the quality of protection is there for tenants. It has been proven that rent controls do not work.

T3. Can the Secretary of State confirm the Government’s continuing support for city deals and that he, together with colleagues in the Treasury, recognise the substantial opportunities offered to Midlothian and the Edinburgh city region by the excellent collaborative work of the region’s six constituent councils? Will he make a statement on the progress of this city deal and produce a timetable for delivery? (901288)

The Government are indeed looking at the options for city deals, working with local representatives right across the country. I had a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland only last week to talk about the progress being made. Where we can find the right deals that will deliver the right things for local areas, we are keen to pursue them in collaboration.

T7. As term starts, Newcastle will proudly welcome 57,000 university students. However, the Government have stopped compensating Newcastle City Council for the fact that students do not pay council tax, and have excluded student accommodation from the new homes bonus. Given that the council has already suffered over £100 million of cuts, will the Minister take into account the number of students and others who do not pay council tax when calculating what remains of the grant? (901292)

It is good to see some representation from the north-east on the Opposition Back Benches, given that the Front Bench has very little, or none. [Interruption.] Ah! The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) is on the Front Bench, so it has one.

I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for her question. Newcastle has a spending power far in excess of those of many other local authorities, and certainly in excess of the national average. As she knows, we are undertaking a spending review and we will listen to what she is saying, but I must say that her part of the world does not do badly in comparison with many other parts of our country.

South Somerset District Council recently changed its approach to housing land supply, which means that despite spending £3 million on developing a local plan, it is now, after only five months of operation, likely to be considered out of date under the national planning policy framework. In situations of this kind, when serious questions need to be asked about the competence and/or motivations of a planning authority, what extra help can the Government give local communities?

My hon. Friend has made a strong point about the importance of ensuring that local plans are up to date and appropriate. We do give support to local authorities, but I think we need to look at the information they are putting into their local plans to ensure that it is the core information that they need to have if they are to deliver good, fast and efficient local plans. I intend to say more about that later in the week.

T8. Over the last Parliament, the local government funding settlement for Wirral Borough Council was reduced by 18% in real terms. If the Government cut that by a further 40% during the current Parliament, as they are considering doing, the council will have suffered a real-terms cut of 54% by 2020. How can it provide an adequate level of public services if its contribution from the Government is cut in half? (901293)

I hear what the hon. Lady says, but I think she should note that the spending power per dwelling in her constituency is £2,240, which is 7% above the national average. So Wirral is doing reasonably well in comparison with many other areas.

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will welcome recent figures which show a 22% rise in the number of new home completions, but achieving the 200,000 homes per year that we need will require a revival of the small and medium-sized house builders whose number has been reduced by 75% over the last 30 years. What support can Ministers offer to ensure that that revival comes about?

We agree that the growth of the small and medium-sized sector is an important part of delivering the housing that we need, and we want local authorities to do more to support it through local plans. In the Housing Bill, we intend to introduce a new fast-track process of establishing the principle of development for small sites. It will allow developers to obtain an earlier and more certain view from councils of whether sites are suitable for development, and will reduce their up-front costs.

T9. What are the Government’s plans to extend to more than a one-off payment the use of funds from the international aid budget to help local authorities to assist refugees? Will authorities in Wales receive any moneys from that budget, now or in the future? (901295)

As I said earlier, representatives of local government are participants on the ministerial committee that is putting those arrangements in place. We will take their advice to ensure that all the different costs that are incurred by authorities are sensibly addressed in the settlement that we provide.

Rebecca Thursby has highlighted to me the lack of available specialist housing for children with severe disabilities in Wiltshire, including her daughter. Will the Minister ensure that councils are made aware that they need to provide this housing? It is a requirement of the NPPF, and it needs to be properly incorporated in core strategies and cannot be left to building regulations.

My hon. Friend raises an important point and I know he has written to the Minister for Housing and Planning with a constituent case related to this matter. We want more self-builds and for people to have the freedom to build appropriate properties for their needs. I know that the representations my hon. Friend is making on behalf of his constituent and the letters he has already sent to the Department will receive appropriate consideration. I hope we can find a solution that will resolve his constituent’s concerns.

Since 2010 Tameside council has had to cut over £100 million from its budget and in the next two years it will have to take out a further £38 million. In Greater Manchester our local government is some of the most collaborative and innovative in the country, but what will have to go next is our citizens advice service, our adult services for people with special educational needs, our libraries and our civic buildings. Can the Government honestly say they that believe that the level of funding for local government in the north-west of England is adequate?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The spending power per authority in the north-west is on average considerably above the national average. That said, we are aware of the challenges. The Manchester devolution deal, which is bringing together things like health and social care so that those services work more collaboratively together, will help local authorities to realise the savings they need and to produce better services for the local people they serve.

The Government’s productivity plan said local plans should be radically shorter and simpler. Does the Minister agree that local plans can deliver? What is he doing to facilitate this?

My hon. Friend was instrumental in helping us transform the planning guidance, taking 1,000 pages down to 50 in the NPPF, and I am delighted that he has agreed to serve on a group that will help to simplify local plans, which have become far too long. I believe his first meeting with the group is taking place tomorrow.

Speaker’s Statement

I have two short statements to make. The first is an announcement in relation to the management of the House.

On 22 January the House agreed to the recommendations of the Governance Committee chaired by Jack Straw. That included the appointment of a new post of director general of the House of Commons reporting to the Clerk of the House but with clearly delineated autonomous responsibilities for the delivery of services and with the task of chairing the Executive Committee. I am pleased to tell the House that, in line with the process of recruitment agreed by the House, Mr Ian Ailles has been appointed as the first director general of the House of Commons and will be joining the House service on 27 October. He brings a wealth of experience in the private and public sectors, notably in the travel industry, and I am sure will enable us to raise our game in the quality of services which we provide.

I also want to make a short statement that is relevant both to today’s debate and much more widely, and which reflects discussions I have had with the other occupants of the Chair.

Colleagues, a very large number of Members have put in to speak in today’s Second Reading debate—the last time I looked no fewer than 62 Members were seeking to catch the eye of the Chair. I shall try to accommodate as many as possible by setting a time limit on Back-Bench speeches, but I am afraid some will inevitably be disappointed.

This may be a good moment to remind Members, and particularly new Members, of the expectation that those called to speak must remain for at least the next two speeches and must return to hear the wind-ups. That is in addition to being here for the opening speeches. This is not just a matter of courtesy, although that is not to be disregarded: it is important to the quality of the debate in this House that Members listen, and respond, to each others’ contributions, rather than merely offering their own opinions in isolation.

It is always very reassuring to have a Government Whip say from a sedentary position, “Very sensible.” [Interruption.] Mr Barclay it is on the record; you can’t retract now, man.

Trade Union Bill

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I see two or more new faces on the Opposition Front Bench this afternoon, and I want to begin by congratulating my new opposite number, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), on her appointment. She is certainly no stranger to Westminster; when she was first elected, I was just out of university. I believe that today marks the first time that our paths have crossed at the Dispatch Box, but I have long admired her skills as a parliamentarian and I look forward to working with her in the months ahead. I wish her all the very best.

I also want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna). We disagreed on many things, except our choice of haircut, but it was always a pleasure to debate with him and I am sure that he will continue to serve and represent his constituents with the passion and dedication that he repeatedly showed at the Dispatch Box.

I am also delighted to welcome the new Leader of the Opposition, the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), to the Front Bench. I congratulate him on his resounding victory in the election and wish him the very best of luck in his new role. He and I have two things in common, Mr Speaker. The first is that you will never catch either of us trying to eat a bacon sandwich. The second is that, like Members on both sides of the House, we both came into politics because we wanted to leave the world a better place than we found it. Obviously, you could put a rather large piece of cigarette paper between our ideas on how to achieve that, but his goal is the same as mine: a society that is fairer, more transparent and more just, in which the needs of the many are not outweighed by the wants of a few.

That is wishful thinking by the new Leader of the Opposition.

Since the industrial revolution, Britain’s trade unions have done much to help to deliver that fairer society that I was describing. They have helped to secure higher wages, safer workplaces and stronger employee rights. They have fought for social justice and campaigned for freedom and democracy, and they have supplied the House with some of its most eloquent and influential Members, including Leaders of the Opposition.

Unions helped my father when he first worked in the cotton mills. They helped him again when a whites-only policy threatened to block him from becoming a bus driver. Just as the workplace has evolved and improved since that time, so the trade unions and the laws that govern them have developed too. I hope that, in 2015, no one would argue for the return of the closed shop, the show-of-hands votes in dimly lit car parks or the wildcat walk-outs enforced by a handful of heavies. That is why the Labour Government repealed not a single piece of union legislation during their 13 years in power. Now it is time for Britain’s unions to take the next step, and the Bill will help to achieve just that.

The Secretary of State is pretending that the Bill is about democracy rather than being a vindictive attack on working people. If it is really about democracy and opening things up, why is he not lifting the ban on unions balloting online and in the workplace, which would be precisely the way to make a modern democracy work?

The hon. Lady will see that democracy and accountability are at the heart of the Bill—[Interruption.] She will see that a lot more clearly as I make progress with my opening remarks.

Despite what people may have read in some reports, this Bill is not a declaration of war on the trade union movement. It is not an attempt to ban industrial action. It is not an attack on the rights of working people. It will not force strikers to seek police approval for their slogans or their tweets. It is not a reprise of Prime Minister Clement Attlee sending in troops to break up perfectly legal stoppages. It is simply the latest stage in the long journey of modernisation and reform. It will put power in the hands of the mass membership; bring much-needed sunlight to dark corners of the movement; and protect the rights of everyone in this country—those who are union members and those who are not, and those hard-working men and women who are hit hardest by industrial action.

If this Bill was to be supported by the workers generally, some trade unions would already have given it support. This Bill is opposed by all those unions affiliated to the Labour movement and all those not affiliated to the Labour movement—even the Royal College of Nursing has said no to this Bill. It is a travesty and an intrusion upon the democracy of the workplace—get rid of it!

I am glad the hon. Gentleman has been able to get that off his chest. He will know, first, that the British people voted for this Bill at the general election and, secondly, that opinion poll after opinion poll has shown broad support for the measures we are discussing today.

If this is such a fair and reasonable Bill, why does the right hon. Gentleman’s predecessor, Vince Cable, say that it is both “vindictive” and “unnecessary”?

There is a new Business Secretary in this Government and he is the one presenting this Bill.

Hon. Members from both sides of this House are, to some extent, insulated from the consequences of strike action. We are lucky enough to have generous travel expenses so that we can hire a car or a taxi when there is a transport strike. We have secure jobs, where we get paid whether we make it into the office or not. Even a Back Bencher is among the top 5% of UK earners, so we can afford to deal with the childcare costs that might come with a school closure or some disruption. But what about the low-paid restaurant staff who miss a day’s work and a day’s pay because of a stoppage called by a handful of transport workers? What about the self-employed builder who has to turn down a week-long job because a strike by teachers means that his kids cannot go to school? What about the single mother who cannot afford to lose a day’s pay by refusing to cross a picket line? Should she be subjected to abuse and harassment simply for going to work?

The Secretary of State talks about women on low pay. Many of these women and men do not have bank accounts, yet he is still trying to get rid of check-off, which makes it easier for people to join trade unions. How is that helping people to defend their own rights?

There is absolutely no relationship between check-off and bank accounts. Anyone who is able to take advantage of check-off must have a bank account in order to receive their salary in the first place.

I also want to talk about the impact on taxpayers, who have to fund the salaries of public servants, only for those public servants to spend their time on trade union business. Do taxpayers not have a right at least to know what their taxes are being spent on? These are the people who are not represented in current trade union legislation, and by increasing transparency, fairness and democracy, they are the people that this Bill will protect. [Interruption.]

That is outrageous. Have a bit of dignity.

On this issue of consistency, if the trade unions are going to have to pay for the enhanced services of the certification officer, does the Secretary of State believe that Members of Parliament should pay for the costs of our regulator, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the certification officer is the regulator for trade unions, and it is perfectly usual for the regulator to be paid for by those whom they regulate.

Does the Secretary of State agree that modern unions are at their best when they work with employers to get more skills, better training, higher quality work and better paid jobs, and that strikes are deeply damaging to the interests of the employees as well as the employers?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. At the heart of this Bill is partnership—partnership between trade unions and employers and other stakeholders. A great example of that can be seen at Toyota in Britain. It has not had one day of industrial action in 20 years, and that is because of the partnership that it rightly has with its trade union.

The Secretary of State is giving the House the impression that London commuters would somehow be protected by his threshold. Is he aware that the recent industrial action on the tube would have passed those thresholds? He talks about partnership. Is it not the case that it is not the strikes and the ballots that are the problems, but the intransigent Mayor of London who is sitting behind him?

I am coming on to thresholds, but the hon. Gentleman’s point proves that this is not some kind of ban on industrial action. Strike action can rightly still take place where there is clear support from the membership of the union.

Let me move on to thresholds. The whole point of strikes is to cause disruption, but the impact of industrial action on ordinary people—often the very working people whom unions were created to support—is such that it should ever be used only as a last resort. It should be taken only after the explicit backing of a majority of members. That is why this Bill sets a minimum turnout of 50% for industrial action ballots. If 1,000 union members are being asked to participate in a strike, at least 500 of them must vote for the ballot to be valid.

I will give way in a moment. In addition, strikes in certain public services will need the support of 40% of those eligible to vote. In our hypothetical 1,000-strong union, a successful ballot will require at least 500 votes to be cast with at least 400 of those being in favour.

Despite the Secretary of State’s fine words about the trade union movement at the beginning, does he not realise that what he is saying about what this Tory Government are doing is a continuous Tory vendetta against the trade union movement? He should be thoroughly ashamed that he is bringing in this Bill and, just as in 1927, it will be a future Labour Government who will ensure that this rubbish is destroyed and that trade unions are given back their basic freedoms.

There was a time when Labour used to be the party of working people. We have seen evidence already this afternoon that it has given up on ordinary, hard-working people.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the words of Rob Williams from the National Shop Stewards Network? He said:

“The message must be simple—Cameron, we are going to take you down. If this goes into law, we want mass co-ordinated strike action.”

Does that further underline the importance of getting this Bill into place?

What that highlights is that, sadly, there are some trade union leaders who do not care about their members. They care about their own narrow interests and not the interests of their members or other hard-working people.

I will give way in a moment. I also wish to highlight the additional requirement for ballots of staff in six key sectors: the health service, the fire service, border security and nuclear decommissioning—because of the obvious risks to public safety and security—and education and transport. A ballot is required because of the massive disproportionate disruption that stoppages in those areas can cause.

What is the appropriate word to describe it when a person who feels that they have been dealt with unjustly seeks to withdraw their labour and is forced to work against their will?

I have already addressed the hon. Gentleman’s concern. This is not a ban on strike action. This is about ensuring that our rules are modern and right and fit for today’s workplace.

We have consulted on which occupations within those sectors should be subject to the additional 40% support threshold. The consultation closed last week and we are now reviewing the results. We will publish the Government’s response and details of the scope of the 40% threshold by the time the Bill is in Committee in the other place. As I have said, these measures will not make strikes illegal or impossible. If union leaders can make a genuine and compelling case to their members, they will have no problem securing the votes required. I believe that the vast majority of industrial action is unfortunate and unnecessary, but it is important that workers are able to go on strike. If union members truly want to do so, I will not stand in their way.

If the rules for thresholds set out in the Bill were applied to the election of MPs, can the right hon. Gentleman say whether he would be an MP?

First, as I hope the hon. Gentleman knows, in a general election the electorate do not face a binary choice. Secondly, everyone affected by the result of a general election has the right to vote. When a union votes on industrial action, only its members have the right to vote. Therefore, it is absolutely right that there should be a clear, effective mandate.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about having a mandate for this Bill. His party was wholly rejected in Scotland, so why does he not enter discussions with the Scottish Government to devolve trade union law to the Scottish Parliament?

First, as the hon. Gentleman will know, employment law and industrial relations are reserved matters. Secondly, as he is no doubt aware, the Conservative party won a majority at the United Kingdom general election.

My right hon. Friend was absolutely right to have a consultation on the additional 40% hurdle. He has talked about it in reference to the emergency services and other important services, but does he not agree that there is another issue: if we compare changes in strike action in the public and private sectors since the end of the last century, we see that over that 15-year period the number of strike days in the private sector has halved, but in the public sector the number has doubled?

My hon. Friend, as usual, makes an excellent point. That goes to the heart of the Bill and why we need these changes.

I will give way in a moment, but first I will make some progress, because many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate.

It is also important that any industrial action reflects the current will of union members. As things stand, that is not always the case. Union leaders can secure a mandate for industrial action and then keep using it for as long as they please. For example, in October 2013 the NASUWT justified a walk-out by citing a mandate acquired in November 2011, almost two years earlier. That is hardly a constructive approach to industrial relations.

Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that the reason the Opposition object to the Bill is that when people choose to go on strike they get only a tiny bit of strike pay, not their proper pay? They have responsibilities and families to support, so nobody goes on strike just for the hell of it; they do so because they need to.

I think that the hon. Lady will therefore agree with the changes we are proposing today. She is right that strikes should always be a last resort—I think that is the point she is making. If union members wish to take strike action, they will vote for it and meet the proposed thresholds.

The question of mandates was raised a few moments ago. Is the Secretary of State aware that when over 1,000 Londoners were polled by YouGov last month, 53% approved of these proposals and only 26% disapproved? Even among Labour voters the measures were approved of by 40 to 38.

My hon. Friend shows just how much support there is among the general public for these reforms.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the problems with the unions using historical mandates is that, because time has elapsed, many of the employees who voted for strike action may have retired or moved employment in the meantime?

That is exactly the point I am coming on to.

When old mandates are used, it is not fair on union members. As my hon. Friend said, a two-year-old mandate is unlikely to reflect the latest negotiations and would fail to reflect changes in the workforce. To ensure that any industrial action is based on a current mandate from current members, the Bill provides a four-month validity period after a ballot result is announced.

Is my right hon. Friend not showing with this legislation, once again, that the Conservative Government are standing up for people who want to work and against bullies who want to stop them? That is what fundamentally underlies his approach?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting how the Bill protects the rights of working people across the country when they are affected by strike action that has no proper mandate.

I must plough on, but I will give way later.

The Bill provides that voting papers sent to union members and employers will state the details of the trade dispute, exactly what type of industrial action is proposed, and an indication of the time period in which that action will take place. This will ensure that members know exactly what they are voting for or against and allow them to make an informed decision.

One of the valuable roles performed by unions over the years has been to defend workers from abuse, bullying and harassment at the hands of managers. There is no place for such behaviour in the modern workplace, and I applaud anyone who stands up against it. But bosses are not the only culprits. The independent Carr report contained shocking accounts of appalling bullying and harassment directed at non-strikers by trade union members. There were threats that included details of where workers’ children go to school, and abusive text messages warning, “We know where you live.” Photographs of non-strikers were posted online in a bid to shame them. Workers who had failed to support industrial action reported being punished by colleagues who deliberately saddled them with antisocial shift patterns or isolated them in the workplace.

It is not acceptable for managers to harass and abuse trade union members who take lawful industrial action. Nor is it acceptable for strikers to treat those who choose to work in the same way. While such abuses are doubtless the actions of a tiny minority of trade unionists, they should never be allowed to happen without consequences. The Bill makes it clear that such intimidation has no place in the modern workplace.

Is it not the case that this is just another instance of the Tory party no longer being on the side of people’s rights? There are no more rights. There is no longer a right to social security, legal aid or access to employment tribunals. The Conservative party is becoming much more authoritarian and Labour Members do not like it. It is no longer the party of rights. It used to have a fine tradition of rights, but that is disappearing.

Why does the Minister think that since 2010 seven times as many strike days have been lost in the public sector as in the private sector, despite the fact that more people work in the private sector?

My hon. Friend highlights an important point. It reflects the fact that, unfortunately, public sector unions seem to have more leaders who do not want to represent the views of their members and will take strike action without a full and proper mandate.

I must move on.

The code of practice on picketing, which is already followed without difficulty by many unions, requires the appointment of a picket supervisor. The Bill will make that a statutory obligation. It does not add any new requirement that is not already in the code. The supervisor must either attend the picket line or be readily contactable by the union and the police and able to attend at short notice, and he or she must wear an armband or other means to identify them in order to ensure that picketing is peaceful and lawful.

In addition, we consulted over the summer on other measures to tackle wider intimidation. The consultation closed last Wednesday and we are considering whether the Bill should contain further provisions. We will set out our views on that consultation in due course.

If the Secretary of State is so concerned about being even-handed in how he modernises strike law, why has he ruled out modernising how trade unions communicate and how strike ballots are sent out? Why is he focusing only on more punitive measures?

I assume the hon. Gentleman is referring to e-balloting, but I am concerned about fraud and that the identities of people voting in a secret ballot may be revealed. In fact, the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, which looked at the use of digital apparatus in elections, also shared those concerns. I do not think it would have been appropriate to suggest such changes.

Let me turn to political funds. The introduction of ballot thresholds will help ensure that unions reflect the will of their whole membership and that the views of every member count. Another way we are going to achieve that is through changes to the way in which political funds are managed.

The Secretary of State discounts e-balloting because of potential fraud. How about considering an amendment to the Bill with regards to balloting in the workplace, where there cannot be any fraud whatsoever? It will be democratised and there will be a huge turnout on every occasion, which is surely what the Secretary of State is seeking to implement.

I have clearly set out my concerns and we propose to make no change to the way in which ballots are carried out.

On political funds, first we will increase transparency on the way in which political funds are spent, helping members to make an informed decision about whether or not they want to contribute. The Bill places a duty on unions to report in greater detail on what annual expenditure over £2,000 is useful, helping members decide whether or not they want to pay into the fund. After all, freedom to choose without having all the facts is no freedom at all.

Secondly, unions will need to obtain the active consent of members to deduct a political levy. At present, members can, in theory, opt out, although many unions do not even tell new members that the political levy exists, let alone about them having to pay for it.

Labour is in hock to and funded by the unions—[Interruption.] That is why Labour Members are making howls of protest. Is not it a fundamental right that people’s pay packets should not be interfered with, without them knowing exactly where the money and the dues are going? That is what this Bill seeks to achieve.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That money belongs to hard-working people. They should know exactly what is being done with it and that is at the heart of the proposal. In fact, in Northern Ireland, members have had an active choice for almost 90 years and their unions are still perfectly able to operate and to organise. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the Prison Officers Association still have more than four fifths of their members choosing to opt in. All we are asking is for a simple tick box on the same membership forms in England, Scotland and Wales.

My union, Community, has used the political fund to challenge Governments of all colours and even took the last Labour Government to the European Court and won on behalf of its members. Does the Secretary of State accept that the political fund is not just about putting money into political parties, but about holding the Government of the day to account?

I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with the changes, because they support union members and will introduce more transparency. They will still allow the unions to raise the funds, but they will just have to be more open about how they do so and what they do with them.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) said earlier that when unions and employers work together, results are achieved. That being the case, why does the Secretary of State want to overrule agreements made freely between unions and public sector employees about the appropriate amount of time that should be spent on union duties?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a simple matter of transparency? If people want to give money to the Labour party as union members, they should choose to do so. Indeed, if they do not actually choose to do so, the danger is that the unions are arguably guilty of mis-selling, because people do not know what they are buying when they join up for membership of a trade union.

My hon. Friend puts it very eloquently. This is an issue of transparency. It is about ensuring that when people, rightly, give money to any political party, they know that they are doing so and do it with their eyes wide open.

I thank the Secretary of State for giving away again. If this is about transparency, what about the hedge funds and big business, which donate fortunes to the Conservative party? Will legislation be put in place covering the need to ask shareholders and the workforce whether such donations can be made? That’s transparency.

I think the hon. Gentleman actually agrees with the rules that apply to businesses. When businesses make a political donation to whatever party, they rightly have to declare it and must be open and transparent. They often need the votes of their shareholders. These rules are absolutely consistent with that. The hon. Gentleman is surely not saying that there should be no transparency here.

The Secretary of State is being very generous with his time. On the point of businesses being open and transparent, should 40% of shareholders have to agree before a business can donate to a political party?

The hon. Lady will know that businesses or individuals have to declare it when they make a donation. It has to be transparent. All businesses have to declare their donations and will often have to get the permission of their shareholders. In public companies, those shareholders will receive a vote. These changes are entirely consistent with that. We are saying that if someone is a union member, they should know that some of their money is going towards political purposes. It should be open and transparent. That is not the case in England, Scotland and Wales. It is the case in Northern Ireland. If it works in Northern Ireland, it can work in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Turning to check-off, as the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General has announced, a proposed amendment to the Bill will seek to end the practice by which union subscriptions are processed through payroll in public sector organisations. The so-called check-off system was created in a time before direct debits existed and serves no purpose in the modern workplace. It has already been abolished across Whitehall. The amendment will extend this modernising step to the rest of the taxpayer-funded workforce.

I respect Britain’s working men and women. I believe that they are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves whether they wish to support their union’s political activity and they are perfectly capable of paying their union subscriptions themselves. To suggest otherwise is to say that Britain’s union members are too lazy to set up a direct debit or too stupid to make a decision about politics. That is patronising in the extreme.

In the past few weeks, the Labour party has shown that it is possible actively to recruit hundreds of thousands of members to a support a cause and that it is possible to get hard-working men and women to hand over their hard-earned money to back an idea that they believe in. Not one of Labour’s new members signed up by mistake because they failed to tick a box. Not one of the registered supporters was required to pay their £3 through their employer’s payroll. Every new recruit to the Labour party made an active decision to participate. If the party born of the unions can achieve that, surely the unions themselves can do the same.

Will the Secretary of State explain why the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is pursuing auto-enrolment for contributions to pension funds?

This is an issue about check-off, not auto-enrolment. Several Whitehall Departments have already begun the process to remove check-off, and now we will apply that process to all parts of the public sector.

On facility time, the Government have a moral duty to ensure that taxpayers get maximum value for money out of every penny they provide the Exchequer. With that in mind, it is hard to justify paying a public servant to do a vital job, only for them to spend their day working for another employer. Yet this is exactly what is happening in the public sector today.

Before I came to this place, I was a public sector worker—a home help—and an elected trade union official for a public service, after more than 200,000 members voted for me, and I can tell the Secretary of State that the work I did saved my local authority 10 times what I was paid in facility time. Does he agree that the Bill is anti-business and anti-working practice and that most employers that have trade unions recognise their value?

I wholeheartedly disagree with the hon. Lady. There is nothing wrong with an employee doing union work, but it should be open and transparent.

Then this will make it even more transparent. If the hon. Lady looks at the changes, she should be able to agree with them.

Is it not an outrage that union officials can conduct union business on public time? Will the Secretary of State confirm that the first year of the Government’s controls on facility time in the civil service has seen a saving of £17 million?