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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
07 December 2015
Volume 603

House of Commons

Monday 7 December 2015

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Workless Households

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1. What progress he has made on reducing the number of people in workless households. [902559]

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With your permission, Mr Speaker, given the weekend’s events in my borough, may I take the opportunity, on behalf of myself and colleagues in all parts of the House, to wish a speedy recovery to those who were injured by the tragic events at the tube station in Leytonstone?

When we took office, almost one in five households had no one in work and around 1.4 million people had been on benefits for most of the previous decade. Since 2010 the number of workless households has fallen by over 680,000 to its lowest level since records began.

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My constituency covers the major part of Bracknell Forest. In 2014 it had the second highest percentage of working households in the country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that continuing to encourage households into work is one of the most effective ways of improving the life chances of everyone in that family?

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My hon. Friend is right that growing up in a working family is crucial for the life chances of children. When this Government took office, there were more than 2.5 million children growing up in workless households. That has fallen by nearly half a million since 2010. By targeting worklessness, the five new life chance measures that we have introduced will make an enormous difference to children’s lives. I understand that there are now almost no workless households in the south-east.

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I ask the Secretary of State to be a little careful—none of us should get complacent about worklessness. Has he seen the research in the United States on the Uberisation of work, when people cease to have good employers with pensions, rights and contracts, and are increasingly pushed into self-employment, where they have no rights?

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By the way, I welcome the hon. Gentleman back. It is good to see him back in his place; I understand he has had some difficulties with health treatments.

The hon. Gentleman would be right, if that were the trend and the direction in which we were going. It is interesting that there is a difference between us and the United States. The vast majority of the jobs that have been created here are white-collar and full-time. That is important. Although we think that people being self-employed is excellent for those who choose to do it, we are seeing a huge trend in supported jobs with full pay and full-time work.

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The selling point of the Government’s universal credit scheme was that it was supposed to increase work incentives. However, the reduction in work allowances in universal credit due to take effect in April next year will leave around 35,000 working households with no transitional protection and thousands of pounds worse off. Does the Secretary of State accept that these changes will actively disincentivise people to go into work, particularly lone parents?

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I do not. Universal credit is acting as a huge incentive to go back to work. Even the statistics published over the weekend show that universal credit means that people are 8% more likely to go into work than was the case with jobseeker’s allowance. I remind the hon. Lady that jobseeker’s allowance has been seen by many in the western world as one of the most successful back-to-work benefits. Universal credit performs even better than jobseeker’s allowance by some considerable degree.

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With respect, the Secretary of State did not answer the question about the 35,000 households and about transitional relief coming into effect for April 2016, so I ask him again: what about those people who stand to be thousands of pounds worse off in April?

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As I said before, first, people are getting back to work. Secondly, those who are on universal credit at present will be fully supported through the flexible support fund, which will provide all the resources necessary to ensure that their situation remains exactly the same as it is today.

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I wonder whether the Minister has seen the figures that I have. May I take him from rhetoric back to reality? The figures show that although there has been a rise in employment in the past three months, the number of hours that we have worked as a country has fallen. It is a good thing that unemployment has gone down, but surely we need to address under-employment, particularly when there are 3 million people who say they are under-employed. I saw that over the weekend his Minister for Employment was flogging temporary part-time jobs for people to dress up as Santa Claus, but perhaps it would be better if his Department spent a bit more time trying to ensure full-time permanent well paid work for people.

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It is a bit rich for the hon. Lady to get up and start attacking the Government’s record of getting more people back to work, more people in full-time work and more people in managerial positions. When we took over from the Labour Government, there was a complete collapse of the economy, with people lucky to get a job and even lucky to get part-time work. Two thirds of the rise in employment since 2010 has been in managerial, professional jobs, and permanent jobs are up over 476,000. That is not rhetoric; those are realities.

Youth Unemployment

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2. What steps his Department is taking to reduce the number of young people who are long-term unemployed; and if he will make a statement. [902560]

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Long-term youth unemployment has fallen by over a third over the past year, and our goal is to make sure that all young people are either earning or learning. We continue to provide extra support for young people on benefits and will introduce the new youth obligation in 2017.

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With the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, which is before the House today, will the Minister do more to devolve greater control of the Work programme to councils and more to empower local managers? When universal credit comes in, will she ensure that the DWP works closely with councils on that support in order to transform the delivery of services to vulnerable people?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and congratulate him on the work he has being doing locally in his community with the DWP and other partners, and the local authority too. He is absolutely right. Through the Work programme, and under devolution, we are working with communities, local authorities, jobcentres and other partners and stakeholders—the specialist organisations that can provide the right kind of support to support employment and to help to get more people back to work. He is absolutely right to hold up his area as a good local example.

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Does the Minister agree that helping young people to embrace work experience opportunities and encouraging employers to create those is essential if we are to tackle youth unemployment and bridge the skills gap?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course we can never stand still in relation to employment and young people. I mentioned the youth obligation that we will bring in in 2017, but we are also developing skills and work experience. Supporting young people through work experience and traineeships is absolutely vital, and I know that she has promoted that in her constituency.

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As the Minister will be aware, we are now coming to the festive period, meaning that many people will find temporary jobs. Last year, from October to December, the number of young people in work in my constituency increased by about 15%, and after Christmas it dropped by 10%. What measures is her Department taking to ensure that people are not trapped in a cycle of temporary work?

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The hon. Lady is right that this is obviously the time of year when there is more seasonal employment in the run-up to Christmas, but support is provided to continue employment after such seasons. Jobcentre Plus will be supporting those who may be in part-time jobs to secure longer-term jobs. I come back to the fundamental principle that it is better to be in work, and have the experience of being in work, so as to develop long-term career and employment opportunities afterwards.

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The opening of the new Primark warehouse at Islip will bring 1,000 new jobs to my area and help to reduce youth unemployment. Will the Minister join me in welcoming this jobs boost, and would she like to visit next year when it opens?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his very kind invitation. We are only getting these new jobs created because we have a secure and sound economy owing to our long-term economic plan. Importantly, employers such as Primark and many other retailers are creating great employment opportunities for our young people. I would be delighted to come to open the centre in his constituency with him next year.

Work and Health Programme

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3. Whether he plans for benefit sanctions to be applicable to people referred to the proposed work and health programme. [902561]

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The Department is developing new provision to support people with health conditions and disabilities and those who are very long-term unemployed. We are currently developing the design of the programme, including the conditionality that will be a feature of it.

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A survey by mental health charity Mind revealed that a shocking 83% of employment and support allowance claimants referred to the Work programme found that it made their mental health state worse. Will the Government’s new Work and Health programme end the utterly shameful sanctions regime which often leaves those with mental illnesses less likely to access work?

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I am sure the hon. Lady will also recognise that more than 60% of individuals who are on the employment and support allowance say that they want to work as well. That is why we will launch the new Work and Health programme, to look at how we can deliver vital employment support, which I am sure the hon. Lady and all other Members will welcome, to those individuals who are furthest away from the labour market but who want to work. We will do that in conjunction with our stakeholders and better target the accompanying support to get them back into work. Additional funding was made available in the summer Budget for support for those who are furthest away from the labour market, particularly those with health conditions.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is incumbent on anyone who suggests scrapping the existing sanctions scheme to propose an effective alternative, because there has to be some means of ensuring compliance with the rules?

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Of course, my hon. Friend raises a valid point about what the Labour party is now clearly saying, despite the fact that sanctions have been in place for a considerable time, including under previous Labour Governments. The purpose of sanctions is to support claimants and to encourage them back to work. Let us also remember that the sanctions are there for claimants to comply with reasonable requirements, which are developed with the claimant as well as the work coach.

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In the Work programme, extra help has been given to jobseekers who have been out of work for 12 months, but under the new programme it will not be until two years have passed. Will Jobcentre Plus get extra resources to support people who have been out of work for between one and two years, given that the Work programme’s successor will not be doing that?

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The new programme will be accompanied by a structural reform that will better target support for those individuals who are furthest away from the labour market. On top of that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has emphasised again today, universal credit in particular will provide support and engagement for those individuals who are furthest away from the labour market but who are looking for work. Alongside that, the new Work and Health programme will integrate services, particularly for those with mental health conditions or health barriers, to help them get closer to the labour market and back into work.

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Shockingly, a number of people have died after being sanctioned and we are still waiting for the Government to publish the data on them. We do know, however, following the recent publication of an academic report, that between 2010 and 2013 the Government’s work capability assessment process was associated with an additional 590 suicides. Given that Maximus, the company the Government contracted to deliver work capability assessments, has reported

“not being able to meet certain performance metrics”,

when will the Secretary of State admit not only that his work capability assessment reforms are a danger to claimants’ health, but that they are not fit for purpose and need a complete overhaul?

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Let me remind the hon. Lady that it was her party in government that introduced the work capability assessment—[Interruption.] Let me also point out, as she makes remarks from a sedentary position, that we have brought in a number of reforms, of which she and all other Members will be aware. We are very clear that sanctions are constantly under review, hence the five reviews we have had. Finally, on the data the hon. Lady has just presented to the House, she cannot justifiably or credibly extrapolate those figures and apply them to sanctions and this Government’s policies, because they are completely incorrect.

Jobcentre Advisers: Food Banks

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4. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the trial of locating jobcentre advisers at food banks. [902562]

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10. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the trial of locating jobcentre advisers at food banks. [902569]

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Jobcentre work coaches undertake outreach work every day in local communities and have recently been helping people with back-to-work support and advice at the Lalley Welcome Centre in Manchester, where a food bank sits alongside other support services. The test is at an early stage and the Department will make the findings public in due course.

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Despite the fall in unemployment, many working families across the country will be relying on food banks this Christmas. I pay tribute to Sarah Sidwell and her staff at the food bank in Hull. Is putting jobcentre staff in food banks not actually an acknowledgement of the shambolic nature of the benefits system, which is affecting people? Should the Minister not think very long and hard about sorting out the system rather than applying a plaster and putting jobcentre staff in food banks?

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May I gently remind the hon. Lady that we were invited, at the request of Sister Rita, to go to Lalley Welcome Centre, which also hosts other agencies? I might also say to the hon. Lady that that particular centre has a job club, which makes eminent sense. I presume she does not object to that. If she is happy to have a job club there, why on earth does she object to our going there to help people when we have been invited to go there?

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Will the Minister confirm whether Lord Prior will join in the evaluation of services at that job centre and food bank? As the Minister will know, Lord Prior has indicated that obesity seems to be a problem, rather than poverty. Will the Minister confirm whether the evaluation will include an examination of the reasons why sanctions and benefit delays cause problems for those going to food banks?

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There are now fewer delays in getting benefits than there were under the Government in which the right hon. Gentleman served. The number of JSA applications is down compared with 2009-10, as is the number of ESA applications.

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From my point of view, there is great potential in co-siting jobcentres and food banks if it is done in the right way. On a related subject, can the Minister envisage a future in which jobcentres and councils are co-located across the country?

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I am happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that that is already happening.

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In relation to this trial, has the Minister noticed today’s report in the Western Morning News, which says that food bank usage has dropped by 25% in Devon and Cornwall? Does he agree with the Trussell Trust that that is

“a sign that economic recovery is giving more people access to secure work”?

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It is always good to have external endorsement of what the Government are doing. That is just clear evidence that the Government’s long-term plan is working.

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May I report to the Minister the progress in Birkenhead? A benefits adviser has been working in the food bank there, and the number of people having to come back for a second bag of food has dropped by 65%. Whenever the Secretary of State refers to this experiment, he talks about “benefit advisers”, while other senior people in the Department talk about “work coaches”. Might the Minister persuade the Secretary of State to say that his phrase is not an offensive one? If someone who is hungry thinks that the person at the food bank is a work coach, it might put them off going to the food bank in the first place?

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Both terms are applicable. May I just say that we should not get bogged down in the terminology? The important thing is to make sure that people actually have support to get them back to work. As we just heard in the quote from my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), our long-term plan is working. We want to make sure that as many people as possible are in work so that they do not have to resort to food banks.

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Is the Minister surprised that the Secretary of State has never bothered to visit a food bank? Presumably, people in his Department have spoken to people in food banks. The message we get loud and clear from people in food banks is that the most important thing the Department can do is to fix its broken system of sanctions and stop benefit delays.

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It is always helpful if, when Front Benchers say things at the Dispatch Box, they are accurate. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has visited food banks. As far as sanctions are concerned, may I just tell the hon. Lady that the Oakley review said that 71% of people found sanctions helpful in encouraging them to find jobs?

Low Pay and Training

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5. What steps he is taking to encourage people on low pay to progress through training. [902563]

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For the first time, universal credit will support claimants in work to earn more. Work coaches will provide tailored support to claimants on low wages to improve their pay. To help to develop our package of support for people in work, we are implementing a comprehensive test and learn strategy to understand better the impact that labour market policies can have on helping people on low incomes to get jobs in which they earn more.

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Does the Minister agree that having a high-skill, high-pay economy is exactly the way to drive up productivity and, crucially, social mobility, which is the key thing underpinning the Government’s strategy?

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I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The latest figures show that the employment rate for young people who have left full-time education is above the UK average and is at its highest level for a decade at 74.3%.

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Low pay and training needs affect many disabled people. Two years ago, almost to the day, the Department announced the extension of the Access to Work programme to disabled people seeking training, internships and apprenticeships. How many people have benefited from that scheme and when will we hear about its progress?

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We are very close to record levels as far as that initiative is concerned. As I said earlier, our long-term economic plan is continuing. While I am at the Dispatch Box, may I say that the House has considerable sympathy with all that the hon. Gentleman and a lot of his colleagues are going through?

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May I pay tribute to your office, Mr Speaker, for the way in which it has combated exploitative internships, which are often unpaid and are used to exploit many young people? Many people begin their career progression with an internship. Will the Minister outline what the Government are doing to ensure that young people are not exploited through long-term unpaid internships?

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As I have said, the facts prove that young people are getting into jobs a lot more than they did before—certainly more than when the Labour party was in government.

Benefit Reforms

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6. What estimate he has made of the proportion of working families likely to be affected by the Government’s reforms to benefits. [902564]

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We are fundamentally reforming the welfare system to ensure that the benefits of work are always clear for all. As part of that, we are supporting working families who are on benefits to progress in work, increase their earnings and move away from welfare dependency.

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The Government’s humiliating U-turn on tax credits is to be welcomed, but the Chancellor has confirmed that another £12 billion of welfare cuts will take place. Is it not a fact that those cuts will affect the poorest, the most vulnerable and those who are struggling to survive in society, like families?

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With respect to the hon. Gentleman, it was made clear at the Budget by the Chancellor that the total package of changes includes changes to the welfare budget of £12 billion, but that other Departments are also involved in the process of getting rid of the deficit. I thought that the Labour party had said it was in favour of getting rid of the deficit, so the question is what it plans to do. I remind him that a huge amount of the savings are being made because more people are going back to work and fewer people are therefore claiming benefits.

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Following on from what the Secretary of State has just said, if the British people vote to come out of the EU, we will not be giving £350 million a week or more than £1 billion every three weeks to the EU. Would he welcome some of that money for his Department?

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My hon. Friend must not dare tempt me in that direction. What is really important is that we run our economy here in the UK for the benefit of citizens of the UK. We have made our position clear: we want to ensure that those who have not been here for a certain period of time and have not contributed are not able to draw upon our benefits system.

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On the whole, because the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) is dextrous, he was just about within order, but I counsel colleagues that they should take great care, as a general principle, not to shoehorn their personal preoccupations into questions to which they do not obviously relate.

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That’s the only thing he does!

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No, no; he is a very versatile fellow in all manner of means.

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The Government’s forced U-turn on tax credits is very welcome to the families in my constituency who were set to be affected by the cut, but many people are being moved on to the universal credit system and will be similarly impacted. Young people will not qualify for the Government’s so-called national living wage. How do the Government reconcile that with the aim of making work pay?

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The key thing is that, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said, there is nothing new in the spending review when compared with the Budget. It said that

“the long term generosity of the welfare system will be cut just as much as was ever intended”.

In other words, the £12 billion of savings is pretty much exactly as was announced in the Budget. I say to the hon. Gentleman that universal credit has a huge effect. We published figures this week to show that universal credit means that more people go into work faster, stay in work longer and are likely to earn more money. That is a huge change and it will affect young people dramatically, as much as it will anybody else.

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The reforms to benefits, whereby work should always pay more than welfare, are welcome in Louth and Horncastle. As we roll out universal credit across my constituency, will the Secretary of State join me in my constituency to see the changes for himself, including the 40 new jobs just created in Louth at the supermarket Aldi?

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I know how hard my hon. Friend campaigns to get employment up in her constituency. I am more than happy to come and support her to show that more people are getting jobs as a result of our welfare changes. Unlike the previous Government who spent money and changed very few lives, we are spending less money but changing more lives for the better.

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The Secretary of State said yesterday that “nobody will lose a penny” under his changes to universal credit, which was a surprise to me. On Friday, the Office for Budget Responsibility published a report showing that the Government intend to cut £100 million from the universal credit work allowance next year, £1.2 billion the year after that, and then £2.2 billion, £2.9 billion and £3.2 billion by 2020. By my count, that is a trillion pennies. Will the Secretary of State clarify his remarks and tell us precisely which workers are going to lose them?

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I just wish the hon. Gentleman would actually go and visit a universal credit site to see the huge difference it is making. In answer to his question, as the IFS said

“no family will take an immediate…hit”

from being moved on to universal credit. [Interruption.] Hold on a second. I remember that it was the Labour party that got rid of the 10p tax starting rate and did not cash protect anybody at all. We are transitionally protecting those who are moving on to universal credit. Maybe the hon. Gentleman is against that. If so, would he like to say why?

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Again, the Secretary of State says this Budget made no changes. He is right, because the changes had already been passed in the summer Budget and in the statutory instrument. The truth is that the Chancellor bailed himself out of the hole he dug on tax credits by raiding the universal credit system, creating a deeply unfair two-tier system. A working mother on universal credit will next year be £3,000 worse off than her equivalent on tax credits. In all, 2.6 million families will be £1,600 on average worse off. It is the new IDS postcode lottery: it is arbitrary, it is unfair, and if you are a low-wage working mother, it could be you.

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The hon. Gentleman’s party, which opposed universal credit from the outset, can hardly say that it is the slightest bit interested in how it works. The reality is that all those calculations for lone parents do not take into consideration—[Interruption.] No, they don’t. The childcare package that comes with universal credit is dramatic. Unlike tax credit—[Interruption.] Perhaps he would like to just keep quiet and listen for once to somebody who knows what they are talking about. I say to him very simply that the childcare package for universal credit gives parents with children childcare support every single hour while they are in work. Under tax credit, they got next to nothing.

Universal Credit

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8. What progress he has made in rolling out universal credit; and if he will make a statement. [902567]

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9. What the cost to the public purse of implementation of universal credit has been to date; and how many people have been enrolled on universal credit. [902568]

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18. What progress he has made in rolling out universal credit; and if he will make a statement. [902577]

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Universal credit is rolling out as planned: on track and on time. I can announce today that it will be in every jobcentre by April next year. Estimates of the total cost of implementation have fallen from £2.4 billion to £1.7 billion, with £0.6 billion having been spent to date. Over a quarter of a million people have now made claims to universal credit.

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I recently visited my local jobcentre in Sittingbourne. Job coaches told me how well universal credit is working, giving claimants more flexibility to work and coaches more time to support them. Does the Secretary of State agree that universal credit is helping people into work and making work pay? Will he press on with the roll-out so more people can benefit?

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Even on the figures we have published in the past 24 hours, it is a reality that people on universal credit are much more likely to get into work, work longer and earn more money—that is the key bit. Rolling out universal credit has a massive effect on the likelihood of people entering into decent work. I also remind my hon. Friend—the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) obviously did not want to listen to this fact—that under universal credit the childcare package is for every hour they work all the way up until the moment they leave the benefits system.

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What does the Secretary of State have to say about the value-for-money aspects of universal credit, given that only 2% of people have participated and it has cost £3.25 billion to introduce?

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The cost of universal credit implementation has fallen: it was originally forecast to cost £2.4 billion but is now due to cost £1.7 billion. To give Labour Members a concept of what value for money looks like—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has no idea about value for money because he has been on the Labour Benches for too long.

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With respect, I meant the Labour Member sitting just below him. The number of people getting back into work directly as a result of universal credit has had a net benefit to the Exchequer of £3 billion-plus. I call that a real benefit in real terms.

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I welcome the fact that universal credit reached my constituency about five weeks ago, but for the benefit of constituents concerned about what will happen when they move from tax credits to universal credit, will the Secretary of State confirm when that move will now take place?

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It does not suit the Opposition to know it, but all those who transfer from tax credits, through the legacy system, into universal credit will be transitionally protected. That is critical. They do not want to know that, because, as I said, they are the party who failed to transitionally protect anybody when they abolished the 10p tax rate.

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We welcome the apparent tax credits U-turn, but it appears that the cuts to the work allowance, which will still go ahead under universal credit, will hit families just as hard. Will the Secretary of State assure us that the tax credits U-turn will also apply to the corresponding elements of universal credit, or will he confirm our suspicions that this so-called U-turn is merely a delaying tactic?

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The universal credit position is exactly as set out at the time of the summer Budget, which means, as we understand it and calculate it, and as figures released in the last 24 hours show categorically, there will be a huge improvement in the numbers of people going back to work, working full time and earning more money. I absolutely believe that, in the next few years, the hon. Gentleman will be one of the first to say, “Thank God we introduced universal credit.”

Universal Credit (Payment Arrangements)

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11. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of paying universal credit to households rather than individuals or women experiencing financial abuse. [902570]

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For a minority of claimants, including women who may be victims of financial abuse, alternative payment arrangements can be made. We can split payments to members of the household, where necessary, under universal credit. Furthermore, jobcentre staff are trained to identify vulnerable claimants and can signpost individuals, at their request, to local domestic abuse support organisations for further help and support.

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Research carried out earlier this year by the Trade Union Congress and Women’s Aid, “Unequal, Trapped and Controlled”, found that universal credit had far-reaching implications for women experiencing financial abuse and, in particular, that the single household payment could leave women and their children in financial hardship. Current arrangements could make it difficult for victims to declare the need for a single household payment for fear of their abuser finding out. Will the Secretary of State commit to asking all claimants automatically if they require an alternative payment arrangement, including the choice of paying their landlord directly, to ensure that women and children are protected from destitution and homelessness?

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The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I think we all agree that there is no room for domestic violence or abuse in a civilised society in the 21st century. Advisers are well trained and look out for victims. They look at who has care and responsibility for children and, where appropriate, can split payments or make them more often than once a month—certainly they can be treated differently from those in normal circumstances.

Earnings Limits

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12. What steps he is taking to ensure that earnings limits applicable to benefits are well publicised. [902571]

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The way earnings are treated is different across the benefits, but the majority of benefits do not have an earnings limit. Individuals can find general information on benefit eligibility at gov.uk, or they can speak to their local jobcentre staff and work coaches.

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My constituent, a dedicated carer for a member of her family, was awarded carer’s allowance. She took on two small jobs to make up her earnings and to allow her to contribute to the community, while being careful to stay within the weekly and four-weekly earnings limits she had been advised of, so she was shocked to get a call telling her she had breached a monthly limit that she knew nothing about. Does the Minister think that laying that kind of tripwire for claimants is an appropriate way to deal with someone such as my constituent, who is trying her best to make a contribution to both her family and the community?

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I would make two points. I am happy to look at the case, but when it comes to the carer’s allowance, we increased the earnings threshold in April 2015 by 8%. Importantly, this is about providing the right structured approach to support carers who want to work and get the balance right regarding their caring responsibilities.

Benefit Overpayments

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13. What recent representations he has received on the discretion which may be exercised by his Department’s staff when recovering benefit overpayments. [902572]

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The Secretary of State has a duty to protect public funds and to ensure, wherever possible, that a benefit overpayment is recovered. Discretion is exercised where it is not cost-effective to recover an overpayment, or where recovery would cause undue hardship, and is subject to guidelines from Her Majesty’s Treasury.

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Yes, I accept that completely, but since April it has been possible to recover benefit at a rate of 40% from jobseeker’s allowance. There is much evidence that that is becoming the normal figure. There is no appeal, and on review, people are being told that even if they do not have enough money to eat, that is not a sufficient reason to be able to appeal against the benefit recovery. Will the Minister ask his officials to look seriously at this issue and how it is affecting the poorest people?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I know he has been tenacious in working in this area, particularly on behalf of a number of his residents. There is discretion in the system applied to repayment rates, but the claimant must prove that there is genuine hardship and talk to the debt management team. There is an appeals process, but I will look further into it further.

Youth Unemployment

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14. What progress he has made in reducing the rate of youth unemployment. [902573]

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Youth unemployment has fallen to its lowest level in over seven years. In addition, the proportion of young people who have left full-time education and are unemployed—5.9%—has never been lower.

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The Wheatsheaf Trust runs an employment access centre, helping young people off benefit and into work in my Havant constituency. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the trust on its work on the ground and confirm that the Government will continue to put young people at the heart of their aspiration for full employment and their long-term economic plan?

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Of course I congratulate the Wheatsheaf Trust on the work it does, and I know that my hon. Friend has made youth unemployment and getting young people back into work a priority in his own constituency. He is, of course, right that as a Government we are committed to helping more young people to secure employment opportunities, which is why we will continue to support work experience programmes and traineeships and will introduce a new youth obligation.

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But too many of the apprenticeships have been going to older people who are already in jobs. Does the Minister agree that what is really needed is apprenticeships that provide intermediate and advanced high-level skills and qualifications that are valuable both for young people and the success of our economy?

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I view all apprenticeship skills as providing value-added to our economy. Let me provide the example of my visit to Pimlico Plumbers last Thursday. They are investing in young people and taking on young apprentices—[Interruption.] I hear Labour Members being disparaging about the employer organisation, but it is creating employment and career opportunities for young people, as does every other business and employer organisation that takes young people on at an apprenticeship level. Those organisations are the future; they are the ones investing in our young people, creating great career opportunities and passing on skills for our economy.

Unemployment

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15. What progress he has made in reducing the rate of unemployment. [902574]

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The unemployment rate, at 5.3%, has fallen by a third since 2010—[Interruption.] I hear sighs from Labour Members, which shows that they have no interest in employment growth in this country.

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Grow up!

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The hon. Lady says, “Grow up”. Perhaps Labour Members should put aside the disparaging comments they make every time we speak about employment opportunities and growth in the economy. Unemployment is now at its lowest level for over seven years. In addition, the number of people in work has risen by over 2.1 million since 2010.

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Unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 50% since 2010, which has given a lot of security to a lot of people in my constituency. Does she agree that some individuals who might be suffering from long-term mental health conditions want to work, but encounter considerable barriers preventing them from getting back into employment? Does she therefore agree that we need to redouble our efforts to enable those people to get back into work because it is critical to their cure that they do so?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has drawn attention to two important facts: the fact that unemployment has fallen in his constituency and there are more people in work there, and the barriers—particularly mental health conditions—that prevent people from working. We will be launching a new Work and Health programme, and looking into how we can integrate services to provide the right kind of support to help such people to return to work.

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Between June 2011 and June 2015 there were 10,920 referrals to the Work programme in my constituency, 21% of which resulted in jobs. Those figures would improve, and employment would be further reduced, if the assessment of claimants that is carried out at the beginning of the process were more adequate and consistent, and ensured that crucial characteristics such as drug problems were not missed. When will the Government introduce changes to the assessment process?

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The Select Committee and many others have said that the Work programme has been one of the most successful employment programmes that the country has seen. Naturally, we constantly review our work in respect of assessments, but we are focusing on targeted support for individuals, because we all want the right outcomes for them. We all want to help them to return to work, and to give them the tailor-made support that they need. Rather than adopting the hon. Lady’s disparaging approach, we are saying that those people need help, and that we will give them help so that they can get back into work.

Work Capability Assessments: Veterans

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17. What his policy is on requiring injured veterans to attend work capability assessments. [902576]

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When a service medical board decides that a disabled person should be discharged from the forces, we will use its evidence to determine eligibility whenever possible.

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I raise this matter on behalf of my constituent Private Troy Watkins, an ex-serviceman who receives payments from the war pensions scheme and who was also awarded a lifetime disability living allowance. Private Watkins is excluded from access to the armed forces independent payment scheme, which, unlike the war pensions scheme, requires just one assessment. Does the Minister agree that what we have at present is a two-tier system which discriminates against service personnel such as Private Watkins, and will she meet me to discuss the way in which it affects him?

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I thank my hon. Friend for raising that case, and I shall of course be happy to meet her. I think it right for the House to recognise the sacrifices made by all members of our armed forces who have been injured as a result of service to our nation.

People with Disabilities in Work

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19. What progress he has made on increasing the number of people with disabilities who are in work; and if he will make a statement. [902579]

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In the last two years the number of disabled people in work has increased by 339,000, but we recognise that the gap between the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people remains too large, which is why our ambition is to halve it.

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May I invite the Minister to a Disability Confident event in my constituency, which will take place next spring? He will meet some brilliant charities, such as Independent Options and ARC, which provide work for, and teach life skills to, people with a range of disabilities.

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I should be delighted to accept that kind invitation. Our reforms of the support that is given to people with disabilities who want to work will give local organisations great opportunities. On Friday I visited Foxes Academy, which has a success rate of more than 50% in providing work for people with learning disabilities; that contrasts with the national average of 6%. Local flexibility is vital.

Work Capability Assessments

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21. When his Department next plans to publish information on people who have died after undergoing work capability assessments. [902581]

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There are no plans to publish such information.

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That is a source of great regret. A recent study by Liverpool and Oxford Universities concluded that 590 suicides were linked to work capability assessments. When will the Department stop hiding behind excuses and publish the information that we seek, so that we can examine the effect of the claimant system on suicide rates?

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We do not agree with those claims, and the authors themselves caution that no conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect.

Housing Benefit

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22. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of changes to housing benefit announced in the spending review and autumn statement 2015 on people under 35. [902582]

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To introduce fairness, we will cap housing benefit at the appropriate local housing allowance rate for the area from April 2018 when a new tenancy is taken out or a tenancy is renewed after April 2016. That means that the housing benefit of single claimants under 35 who take on a new tenancy or renew a tenancy will be restricted to the local housing allowance shared accommodation rate.

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Research shows that it is fairly unusual for people under 35 without children to be given social housing, but the exception to that is care leavers. Can the Minister let the House know whether there will be any safeguards or exemptions for vulnerable care leavers?

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To clarify, this will be a flow measure so there will be no cash losers among those already in the system. We will be looking at the protections in place, recognising those in the private sector which include protection for care leavers.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [902548]

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I am pleased to be able to update the House today on the next stage of universal credit roll-out. Universal credit is available now in three quarters of all jobcentres, and by April next year will be available nationally. Building on that, the digital service is already in a number of jobcentres, and I can announce that it is being extended to a further five jobcentres as early as next year—to Hounslow, Musselburgh, Purley, Thornton Heath and Great Yarmouth prior to May 2016, when the digital service will be rolled out nationally.

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I invite the Secretary of State to confirm that current claimants of universal credit will face losses next April as a result of cuts to the work allowance. Can he explain to the House why there is no transitional protection for universal credit, as there is for tax credit recipients?

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I thought I had made this clear, but I will make it clear again. For those already on universal credit, advisers will support them through the additional resources and the flexible support fund to ensure that their status remains the same. Those moving from tax credit to universal credit are transitionally protected, as has already been stated.

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T2. What steps are being taken to support those with early onset dementia through the ESA process and, where appropriate, how do we support those who wish to continue in work to do so? [902549]

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We fully recognise the devastating impact that a diagnosis such as early onset dementia can have on individuals and their families. That is why we have the work capability assessment, which is designed to ensure that any claimant who is severely affected can be identified at the earliest possible stages and is supported. They will of course be placed on to the highest rate of benefit, where there has been such a diagnosis, and they will be free from any conditionality.

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At the election, the Conservative party promised to exempt pensioners from their proposed benefit freeze, yet as a consequence of the autumn statement some 400,000 of those on pension credit will see their benefits cut, and 800,000 will see it frozen. [Interruption.] There is no point in Ministers looking puzzled; I would have thought they would learn to read the small print of the Chancellor’s economic statements by now. How can it be right, when three quarters of pensioners are facing a choice between heating and eating this Christmas, to be taking more than £100 a year away from so many older people?

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The hon. Gentleman really must move away from student politics. This Government have done more for pensioners than any other Government. They are benefiting more now than they would have under any system introduced by the Labour party. The triple lock is making sure they have more money. We have also maintained a lot of the universal benefits, so we on this side of the House will take no lectures from those on that side of the House.

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T6. I recently visited UK Interactive Entertainment to learn more about the work of Special Effect, a charity working with disabled people to make video games accessible to all. How can we further utilise technology to assist those with disabilities? [902553]

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I was delighted to join my hon. Friend on the visit to that fantastic charity, which has widespread support including from the Prime Minister and the deputy leader of the Labour party. Technology is key to removing barriers and I am delighted that we have the innovative technology prize—we will be announcing the winner in March—which shows that creating innovation and creating more opportunities will reduce more barriers.

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T3. I have a constituent, a single mother of three, who was declared fit for work despite having ongoing complex mental and physical health problems. Since the verdict, she has phoned my office and she says she cannot take any more. Her doctor has also increased her medication for depression. Will the Government admit that in this instance and many others they are pushing the fit for work test too far and it is having an adverse effect on people’s health? [902550]

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I would be very happy to look at the constituency case that the hon. Lady has just raised. I also remind her and the House that we have already had five reviews of the WCA.

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T7. Since 2010, unemployment in Weaver Vale has decreased by 54%. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the hard-working staff of Jobcentre Plus who have helped to make that happen? Is it not an example of this Government’s long-term economic plan delivering for hard-working taxpayers in Weaver Vale? [902554]

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As my hon. Friend knows, I visited him the other day in his constituency, where he is doing an exemplary job, as is the jobcentre. Employment is improving and unemployment is falling, and that is happening nationally as well as with him. I would be very happy to visit him again.

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T4. Hounslow Community FoodBox in my constituency is a food bank service that is, sadly, growing. A recent worrying trend has been the police bringing people into the FoodBox who have been caught shoplifting because they have no way of affording food. They have fallen through the net. Will the Secretary of State review past decisions to withdraw DWP emergency funds in the case of people who would otherwise be left destitute? [902551]

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We have actually gone in exactly the opposite direction. We are making sure that in all jobcentres, and in all correspondence, individuals are notified that if they have difficulty they will have full access to crisis loans and advance payments. There is no reason for anybody in the benefits system to find that they have no money. They need to go and speak to the jobcentre advisers or ring them on the telephone and they will find themselves supported.

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As a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on youth employment, I welcome the unemployment figures in my constituency, but will the Minister tell me what more can be done to help the hardest-to-reach young people into work?

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I welcome the work that my hon. Friend is doing through the APPG. We recognise that we can never stand still in this area. There is always more to be done to support young people through work experience, traineeships and, importantly, working with employers to encourage them to take on more young people and get them into the labour market, invest in them and train them so that they have skills for the future.

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T5. A devastating announcement has been made in the days before Christmas by Shop Direct, which covers the Littlewoods and Very brands, and its partner, Webhelp, that 400 call centre jobs in my constituency are to be lost. Those jobs are to be transferred 6,000 miles away to South Africa. What assurances can the Secretary of State give me that the people affected by those redundancies will get all the support and help they need from his Department? [902552]

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The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that. All support will be given by Jobcentre Plus. If it has not already done so, I will ensure that it puts a specialist team in to make sure that all those people are seen as a priority, that all their skills are assessed and that they are got into jobs as quickly as possible. If, however, he would like to come and see me about this or if he can think of anything else we can do, I can assure him we will do everything we can to help his constituents at this time.

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Will the Minister please inform the House of the specific plans for constituencies such as mine which have very high rates of employment but suffer proportionally high rates of long-term unemployment?

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I know that my hon. Friend is doing a great deal of work locally in the employment space through apprenticeship fairs and things of that nature. When it comes to supporting people who are suffering long-term unemployment, we are working with our jobcentres and employers and, importantly, Work programme providers to get people closer to the labour market, to support them through training schemes and to nurture them so that they have an easier, smoother journey into work.

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T8. I was delighted to hear from the Minister about all the work that the Government are doing for pensioners. In the light of the Pensions Minister’s announcement that they have finally conceded and announced a review of how rises in the state pension age should progress, will they now right the wrong that has been done to hundreds of thousands of women in this country? Does he recognise that this issue has to be addressed, as the Women Against State Pension Inequality—WASPI—campaign has said, to ensure that women are not pushed into poverty? [902555]

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When the Pensions Act 2011 was passing through Parliament, the Government made a concession worth £1.1 billion that reduced the period concerned from two years to 18 months. For 81% of the women concerned, the period will not be extended, and will be a maximum of 12 months. I am sorry to tell the hon. Gentleman that this Government have no plans to make any further concessions.

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Does the Under-Secretary of State responsible for disabled people agree that, at a time when we are doing so much to encourage people with disabilities to participate in sport, it is a huge missed opportunity that not one of our inspirational disabled athletes is being honoured by the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I thought that decision was a disgrace. I was at the Barclays power of sport event on Thursday—on international day for people with disabilities—and there was collective disbelief among the great representatives of disability sport at that decision. We are not saying that people should always be guaranteed a win, but they should have been included as a consideration, because that is really important for inspiring the next generation.

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I was surprised to hear the Secretary of State say earlier that my party never supported universal credit. If that were the case, why would we have spent the past five years harassing him about how slowly he was going with it? However, that does not stop me worrying about the fortunes of the 30,000 lone-parent families in work in Merseyside. Is the Secretary of State for real: can he confirm that not a single one of those families will be a penny worse off?

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Universal credit actually improves the lot of lone parents dramatically, because the first person into work gets a huge amount more than they would have done under tax credits. Here is the key: I have already said that those who are on universal credit at the moment will be supported by their advisers through the flexible support fund, to ensure that their status does not change.

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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on protecting the winter fuel payment, but although hundreds of thousands of letters are dropping through people’s letterboxes, figures also show that those who are retired are disproportionately less likely to switch their energy supplier. Will he commit to work with colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change to look at how energy switching details can be included with the winter fuel payment?

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I welcome my hon. Friend’s suggestion, and I would be delighted to liaise and work with colleagues to make that point. The more that we all do to switch energy suppliers and producers, the more money we can all save in the long run.

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The latest figures from the Department show that a clear majority of the JSA sanctions imposed in April to June, and about half of the ESA sanctions, were on claimants who had already been sanctioned within the previous two and a half years. Why does the Minister think the sanctions process is failing to change the behaviour of so many benefit claimants, and why does she not accept the recommendation of the Work and Pensions Committee and instigate a full and independent inquiry forthwith?

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We know that sanctions are having a positive effect on securing employment, and the figures actually show that. In addition, the claimant commitment clearly outlines to the claimants and the work coach the requirements on supporting the individual back into work. As we are seeing, JSA sanctions have halved and ESA sanctions are down, and they are supporting more people in getting back to work.

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I have a brief question on universal credit, as we continue to roll it out. Is there an opportunity to extend the dedicated telephone line that housing associations enjoy direct to universal credit to citizens advice bureaux, which do an incredible amount of work but are struggling to make contact with the people who can help them?

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Under universal support, which is delivered locally, we are talking hugely to local authorities and all the local organisations in the area, and my hon. Friend will find that this will be swept up as part of that process; it is a dramatic improvement on where tax credits are right now, because it brings in all those other benefits as well.

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The latest projections show that universal credit is running about four years behind the timetable that the Secretary of State originally set out. He has told us today that the new digital IT solution is to be rolled out from next April. How will he merge that with the prior IT system, which is already in use in quite a lot of jobcentres?

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The universal programme is on track and has been approved by the Major Projects Authority, which has said that it is delisted. I say to the right hon. Gentleman, who has been here long enough to remember, that I will take no lessons from a Labour Government who gave us a tax credit debacle—they rolled it out and more than three quarters of a million people failed to receive any benefit on the day it was launched. He should come to see this system; the live service and the digital service are merged because a lot of the digital service will use elements of the live service. They are therefore merging in the run-up to May and will then be rolled out together at the same time.

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The Minister said earlier that there is no place for domestic violence in our country, and I firmly agree with him. When will he confirm how his Department intends to make women prove that they have had their third child by rape?

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I missed the question, Mr Speaker. There was a lot of noise, so I did not hear it.

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The hon. Lady was asking about the treatment of someone who has a third child through rape.

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My apologies to the hon. Lady. May I say to her that we will come back with our exact reasons and rationale for how we will decide that? The reality remains, however—and this is, I believe, popular among the public—that those who make choices and take responsibility for them want everyone else to do the same as well.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

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Order. Points of order come after statements. I shall await with eager anticipation the hon. Gentleman’s point of order.

Flooding

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With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the impact of Storm Desmond and flooding in the north of England.

As the House knows, this weekend has brought some enormously difficult and extreme weather conditions, and I begin by expressing my deepest sympathy to those who have been affected in all parts of the UK. I also wish to commend the Environment Agency, the emergency responders and volunteers who have been working tirelessly throughout the weekend, often in horrific conditions. People have come from all over the country—from as far as south Wales, Lincolnshire and Somerset—to help. I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to them for their work, and to those who have shown such generous community spirit in offering food, transport and even beds to neighbours.

Over the course of Friday 4 December, it became clear that Storm Desmond would bring an exceptionally high volume of rainfall across the UK. The Environment Agency responded by mobilising its people and assets, moving temporary defences and pumps to north-west England. On Saturday morning, it became clearer which counties would be affected and that we would see very high levels of rainfall that evening.

The Government mobilised a full national emergency response. At midday on Saturday, I held a cross-departmental meeting to assess the projected impacts, which was shortly followed by the mobilisation of 200 military personnel and supporting assets, including making available a Chinook helicopter.

Local commanders were able to call on more than 50 high-volume pumps as well as specialist tactical advisers and rescue boats from around the UK, adding to more than 200 emergency responders already on the ground. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), travelled to Cumbria on Saturday to ensure that the emergency responders on the ground got all they needed. He has remained in the north-west throughout.

On Saturday night, we saw an unprecedented amount of rainfall. More than a month’s rain fell in one day. During Saturday night, main rivers all across Cumbria exceeded the highest levels ever recorded. There is a mark on the bridge in Carlisle showing the flood level in 1853. The 2005 flood was half a metre higher than that of 1853, which was the highest on record until then. This flood was half a metre higher again. It was 0.6 metres higher than previous records in Kendal, 0.7 metres higher in Keswick and 0.3 metres higher in Appleby.

Although more than 8,000 properties were protected by our flood defences, by Sunday morning, more than 3,500 properties had flooded across the country, the majority of which were in Cumbria. In Carlisle, more than 1,300 properties flooded. More than 600 properties flooded in both Kendal and Keswick, with more than 200 in Appleby. Flooding was also seen in Northumberland, with more than 60 properties flooded at Hexham. Some 55,000 properties lost power in Lancaster following the flooding of the electricity substation. Transport was severely disrupted, with roads closed across the north-west and bridges damaged. The west coast main line was suspended.

Tragically, I also confirm that there were a number of weather-related fatalities, with a number of incidents caused or exacerbated by flooding or poor weather. I am sure that the House will want to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to their families and friends. It is a tragic reminder of how dangerous these conditions can be.

On Sunday morning, I chaired a cross-Government Cabinet Office briefing room meeting to ensure that the emergency responders on the ground had all the resources that they needed and to address immediate issues, including the threat to the power supply in Lancaster and Carlisle. I spoke with gold commanders in the worst affected areas during the day to ensure they had sufficient national resources to deliver their emergency plans.

The Prime Minister chaired a further Cobra meeting this morning and is visiting the affected areas today. I am pleased to confirm to the House that progress is being made on recovering from some of the impacts. The number of homes affected by power outages has been reduced to fewer than 5,000 following the restoration of power at Lancaster substation. Electricity companies are working round the clock to restore power as soon as possible.

Transport remains disrupted across much of the area. Many roads remain closed and will need to be repaired. The west coast main line remains suspended to Scotland and service is unlikely to be restored until Wednesday at the earliest. The Government will continue to ensure that all resources are made available to support recovery from this flooding. Cobra will continue to meet daily to oversee recovery efforts and I will be travelling to Cumbria and Lancashire after this statement to continue to ensure that we are doing all we can to help those affected.

I know that local communities will want to know what action Government will be taking to support the recovery phase. I am pleased to confirm to the House that my colleague the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will shortly be opening the Bellwin scheme for local authorities affected by floods, and that 100% of eligible costs will be met by the Government. We will announce further support schemes over the coming days.

Since 2009 we have invested £45 million in new defences in Cumbria, but we will need to reflect on lessons that we can learn from this extreme weather event. In the last Parliament there was a real-terms increase in the investment in flood defences and in this Parliament there will be another real-terms increase in spending. We are investing £2.3 billion in 1,500 schemes throughout the country that will better protect 300,000 homes. The spending review has also confirmed that we are protecting flood maintenance spending throughout this Parliament as well as capital spending.

I am sure the whole House will join me in expressing our sincere sympathy to those who have been affected by this weekend’s extreme weather conditions. I can assure the House that the Government will continue to do everything we can to support those affected and I commend this statement to the House.

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I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. I have spoken this morning to my hon. Friends the Members for Workington (Sue Hayman), for Copeland (Mr Reed) and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for an update on what is happening in their constituencies. Understandably, they cannot be here this afternoon as they are with their constituents, and I appreciate that the floods Minister is, rightly, in his constituency too.

Our thoughts are with all the communities in Cumbria and Lancashire that have once again been devastated by flooding. Tragically, it now seems that a number of people have lost their lives; their friends and family have our deepest sympathy and condolences. I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the emergency services and the Army, who have once again responded superbly.

The immediate priority of course has to be help for all those who have been forced to evacuate their homes and businesses, and making sure that everyone is safe, warm and well. Communities such as those in Cumbria are getting used to rallying round and helping those who need shelter, food and clothing while they contemplate the state of their homes, and they have been magnificent this time, too. They are desperately worried that further rain is predicted for tomorrow, and I hope that the emergency response of which the Secretary of State spoke is geared up to respond to further bad weather.

With the last major floods of 2013-14, the Prime Minister declared that

“money is no object in this relief effort”,

yet it was months before residents, business owners and farmers received support from the Government, and much longer before they could return home. I was pleased to hear the Prime Minister say today that we must

“make sure everything is done to help in this vital phase of dealing with the floods”,

but it is not enough for the Prime Minister and the Environment Secretary to pledge to deal with the devastation and damage caused. We need a commitment from them to do all they can to try to prevent this from happening again.

It was just six years ago that Cumbria was hit by “unprecedented” flooding, described then as a once in a lifetime or a once in a century event, but it has already happened again. This time, as the Environment Secretary said, it is even worse. Her predecessor was, as we know, not someone who was prepared to acknowledge the risks posed by climate change. Does this Secretary of State agree that extreme weather events are unfortunately increasingly a feature of British weather and that Government policy has to adapt accordingly? World leaders in Paris are negotiating what, we hope, is an historic agreement on climate change right now, yet domestically the Government have repeatedly abandoned measures to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions, and climate adaptation appears to be a worryingly low priority for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. When the Secretary of State travels to the north-west later today I hope that she will see that that cannot continue.

Until the 2013-14 winter floods in the south-west, DEFRA had downgraded flood defence as a priority, despite the fact that the Committee on Climate Change warned that flooding represented the greatest climate change risk to the UK. Flood defence maintenance was cut by 20% in 2010. In one year alone, the coalition slashed flood spending by more than £100 million. Does the Secretary of State accept that that left the UK unprepared for extreme weather events? I know that capital expenditure has been announced and is protected, but DEFRA has said that it cannot tell us about the resource funding for flood defence maintenance from 2016-17 to 2019-20 until next summer. I should be grateful if she elaborated on that and gave us a bit more information.

Will the Secretary of State heed the warnings from experts that we need year-on- year investment in flood defences to meet the increased threat of flooding? Given that this year’s flood defence budget is £115 million lower than last year, and lower than flood defence expenditure in 2009-10, can she honestly reassure the communities affected by flooding that the Government are doing enough?

After the last floods in Cumbria, insurance pay-outs took months and, in some cases, years. Flood Re is not due to become operational until next year, so will the Secretary of State update us on her discussions with the insurance companies since the weekend? Has she managed to secure assurances that householders and businesses will be paid promptly and in full? Local people are finding it impossible to meet the cost of insurance premiums. What reassurance can she offer to people who fear that their premiums will increase even more?

The Secretary of State spoke, rightly, about the need for a cross-departmental approach, with issues such as road and school closures, and the role of hospitals. The point has been made by my colleagues in Copeland and Workington that it would be absolute folly to downgrade the West Cumberland hospital in Whitehaven, given that power shortages and the sheer distance that people had to travel meant that the hospital in Carlisle was not geared up to deal with the floods this time round. I am more than happy to confirm that we want a cross-party approach to the problem, working with communities and Government Departments to try to ensure that people in Cumbria and Lancashire are, wherever possible, back home, safe and well with a roof over their head, and as dry as possible before Christmas strikes. I offer the Secretary of State my support in that.

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I can assure the hon. Lady that we have an absolute focus on making sure that gold commanders on the ground have every support they need to make sure that people are safe and homes are protected, and to aid the recovery effort. We have seen that in efforts to restore the power supply and to report issues on road and transport systems. We are vigilant about the weather outlook. Cobra will meet daily to make sure that we have all those forecasts, that they are taken into account and that we put our resources where they are needed. We remain vigilant on that at all times. We began the recovery and response effort on Friday by making sure that those resources were in place in Cumbria. We can do all we can by mobilising resources such as the Army to ensure that support is on the ground where it is needed.

We have seen an unprecedented weather event. The hon. Lady referred to previous flooding in Cumbria, but this flooding was more extreme—levels were exceeded by half a metre in some key towns and cities in Cumbria. Of course, it was absolutely devastating for people previously affected by flooding who believed that things would be better but who have been affected by flooding again. My huge sympathy goes to those business owners and local residents, and I hope to meet them later today and tomorrow.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the extreme weather patterns that we are seeing. As we say, that is consistent with climate change trends. Climate change is factored into all the modelling work that the Environmental Agency does, but in the light of this extreme weather we must look at that modelling and ensure that it is fit for purpose for future decisions. We constantly review investment in flood defences. It is important that we remain fair to people across the country, and that the people of Cumbria understand why decisions have been made and get the proper protection they deserve.

On flood defence spending, over the last Parliament we spent £1.7 billion in capital spending—a real-terms increase on the £1.5 billion spent between 2005 and 2010. Our next six-year programme is £2.3 billion, which again represents a real-terms increase. It is the first time a Government have laid out a six-year programme so that we do not have lumpy bits of flood spending, but commit to a long-term programme that helps to protect the country better. Including the impact of climate change, that is forecast to reduce flood risk by 5% over the next six years.

The hon. Lady asked about the maintenance budget. We spent £171 million last year on flood maintenance. In the autumn statement the Chancellor confirmed that that will be protected in real terms for the duration of this Parliament.

The hon. Lady also asked about the help that people will get from insurance and support schemes. My right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary and I are keen to see support schemes that are flexible and simple to operate, so we will work on that in the coming days. My right hon. Friend will host a discussion with the insurance companies to make sure that that support is provided.

These issues are all very important, but the immediate priority must be the rescue and response effort to make sure that we protect lives and families. It is such a terrible time of year, just before Christmas, for people to be out of their homes. Our absolute priority as a Government is making sure that we restore power supplies to homes, restore transport systems and protect lives.

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Parts of my constituency have been affected by the floods that have wrought so much damage throughout the north-west. May I reinforce the point about insurance claims? They should be met speedily, not in six or nine months’ time. People’s needs are now, not in six or nine months. Will my right hon. Friend also make it clear to insurance companies that they will be looked at very carefully if they start to withdraw cover from people who have been affected by these floods? Withdrawing cover blights people’s homes, following the devastation that they have just suffered.

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My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We will work with insurance companies to make sure that people receive prompt payments and that we can get people back into their homes as soon as possible.

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I thank the Secretary of State for her statement this afternoon and, with my colleagues on the Scottish National party Benches, send our condolences to families that have been affected over the weekend. Normally my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) would speak on behalf of the SNP, but he is in his constituency assisting with the work there.

We feel for the devastation across the north of England and for the clear-up that is under way across the borders in Scotland as well, after some of the worst flooding that the region has seen. At its height about 700 people were evacuated from their homes. Hundreds of houses and business premises have been flood-damaged. There was extensive flood damage across other parts of Scotland, including the most significant flooding on the River Tay in 12 years. Today flood alerts have been issued for Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish borders again.

I note that David Shukman, the respected BBC science editor, wrote:

“Scientists always shy away from blaming any particular weather event on climate change. But they also point to a basic physical property of the atmosphere: that warmer air can hold more moisture. That means that rising temperatures are likely to lead to storms that may drop more rain—and in more intense bursts.”

In 2009 the Scottish Parliament unanimously passed world-leading climate change legislation. Using 1990 as a baseline, it committed itself to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 42% by 2020 and at least 80% by 2050. In Scotland, we are doing what we can to foster renewable energy. It is a pity that this Government are removing support for onshore wind. Will the Secretary of State liaise with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to revisit this? We need to do more to protect our environment.

There is potential for extreme weather systems to continue to plague the UK. We are lucky in the UK that we have the resources to help as much as we can in preparing for them and helping communities in the aftermath, and I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s comments on that. However, across the world, smaller and poorer countries are going to be far worse hit by the effects of climate change. Today the Scottish Government announced that they will double their climate justice fund by pledging a further £12 million for developing countries to lessen the impact of climate change. What are the UK Government doing to help in poorer countries?

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I express my sympathy for the people affected in Scotland. We are working very closely with the Scottish Government on our response.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is currently in Paris working to secure a good international deal so that we can deal with climate change on an international level. Of course, we have a very clear carbon budget system in place in the UK.

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I pay tribute to my local Environment Agency team in Lancashire and Cumbria, who worked all weekend keeping me up to date. My residents in Banks and Rufford are very concerned that in less than two years the flooding pumps at Alt Crossens are going to move away from the Environment Agency to another, as yet unnamed, body. Most of this water gives on to farmland. What is the Department doing to protect farmland?

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I agree with my hon. Friend’s tribute to the fantastic emergency service and Environment Agency staff who have been working round the clock to support people in the area. Our six-year programme will mean that an additional 420,000 acres of farmland will be protected. In the specific case of the flooding in the north over the weekend, we will look at what more can be done to help farmers.

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Over the weekend and this morning I have been in contact with my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), who remains in her constituency, and she has given me some thoughts on the situation in that part of Cumbria. She is extremely grateful, as are her constituents, for the response of the emergency services. There is concern that an unintended consequence of reductions in front-line services, as well as cuts to local authorities and the Environment Agency, is that those emergency responses may not be possible in future. Will the Government give some thought to whether cutting local authority and Environment Agency budgets might damage the ability to respond to these events in future?

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The response efforts over the weekend and the preparations put in place by the Environment Agency, the emergency services and Army personnel have been fantastic. They have been working their socks off on the ground to protect people, and we are all very grateful for what they have done. My role is to make sure that we are co-ordinating those efforts and giving the local teams all the support they need. On Saturday and Sunday I spoke to the gold command to ask whether they needed any additional support and resources, and whether all those resources have been made available. Of course, we will continue to monitor the situation to make sure that the resources are available on the ground.

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May I put on record my thanks to the emergency services and to officials at DEFRA and the Department of Transport for the work they have put in over the weekend? Will the Secretary of State assure me that she will continue to work with farmers in my constituency to ensure that the devastation that some of them have suffered over recent days will be looked at with sympathy?

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I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. As well as making sure that farmland is protected as part of our six-year flood defence programme, we will look at the specific impacts on farmers. The farming Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), will do more work on that.

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This morning I met businesses in York who are over 4 metres under water. This is the second flooding they have had within a month. Will the Secretary of State ensure that basics like sandbags and pumps are available free for businesses, because they pay a heavy price when flooding occurs?

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We are monitoring the situation in York very closely. There are defences in place in York, and the Environment Agency makes sure that that the relevant equipment, such as sandbags and pumps, are moved to the area in question.

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My North Yorkshire constituency has also been affected this weekend, so I welcome my right hon. Friend’s earlier comments and pay tribute to those working hard in my area. My thoughts are with those affected elsewhere. I recently visited the village of Brompton, where the community has come together to create a set of natural flood defences, including a leaky dam and a series of holding ponds. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such schemes have a role to play in preventing floods, and will she urge the drainage boards and the Environment Agency to support them where appropriate?

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I have great sympathy for those constituents of my hon. Friend who have been affected. I completely agree that natural defence schemes can play a very strong part in flood prevention. Indeed, I recently visited the Slow the Flow project in Pickering in Yorkshire, which is doing just that. Not only does it help to reduce flooding; it also contributes to the natural environment and biodiversity.

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It is at times like these that we begin to worry about the cuts that local government and the fire service have suffered for the last five years. Is there any opportunity for the Secretary of State to say from the Dispatch Box today that she will ensure that the fire service will have those cuts reversed and that it will be able to carry on without losing men and machinery from this day forward?

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We have seen fantastic support from the fire service and other emergency services, and the co-ordination on the ground has been superb. We have kept in regular touch with the gold command in those local areas. On flood protection, I have confirmed today that we are seeing an increase in real terms in capital spending over this Parliament, and we are also seeing a protection in real terms of our flood maintenance budget. That is really important in preventing and reducing the impact of flooding.

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In the light of the floods in Cumbria and elsewhere, I am pleased to say that flood defences provided security and protection, as they were supposed to, in north Northumberland. Will the Secretary of State consider, as a matter of urgency, increasing the number of trees we plan to plant during this Parliament from 11 million, which equates to only one tree for every five people, to some 200 million, which equates to five trees for every person? They would cover some 50,000 hectares, much of which could be in the upland areas of river basins, to help nature to hold water and to reduce the risk of flooding in the long term.

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I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s point about the number of houses that were protected. Although my thoughts are with those who were flooded, 8,000 houses in the north of England were protected by our flood defences. I completely agree with her about looking at the environment on a catchment level and making sure that we put in place tree-planting programmes that can both reduce flood risk and improve the environment at the same time.

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May I put on the record my heartfelt sympathies for the people of Cumbria and elsewhere, and for the friends and families of all those who died as a result of the weekend’s events? My constituency was badly flooded in 2007, and one has to live through such an event to be able to understand the devastation it visits on communities and families alike. The Secretary of State has made a great deal of play of the real terms increase in flood maintenance spending, but can she reassure the House that the flood maintenance budget has adequate funding to start with and that the Environment Agency is adequately funded to discharge its role in relation to flood prevention and flood response?

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I know the hon. Lady has a lot of experience in this area. I have had such a discussion with the Environment Agency, and the budget is effective for the level of our plans at the moment. As I have mentioned, we saw an extreme weather event with the incidents in Cumbria, so although the flood defences in Cumbria delayed the impact, giving the emergency services an opportunity to operate and to evacuate people, and also reduced the impact, we clearly need to look at that area.

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With uncanny timeliness, a publication entitled “Responding to Major Floods” arrived in my postbox today from the Association of British Insurers. It is a useful guide to help those affected by flooding. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the ABI and ensure that copies of the booklet are distributed to everyone affected by this weekend’s flooding?

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In fact, I met the ABI a couple of weeks ago and saw the document. It is indeed a good document, which I encourage Members of Parliament across the House to use in helping their constituents.

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The hon. Gentleman is doubling up as a helpful public information system, on top of all the other useful contributions—

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Always keen to help.

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Indeed, the hon. Gentleman is always willing to help. We are grateful to him.

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Like everybody in the House, I pay tribute to all our emergency services for the magnificent work they have done and continue to do. At present, however, there is no formal expectation that fire and rescue services will actually attend floods in England and Wales. Does the Secretary of State agree that, to ensure an effective, safe and robust response to flooding, we should follow the example of Scotland and Northern Ireland and make it a statutory duty for firefighters in England and Wales to respond to flooding?

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My view is that our procedures are working, with the gathering of Departments on Saturday to make sure that we had the right preparations in place for the emergency services, the Environment Agency and the Army. The Cobra system that we have to co-ordinate them when we have an emergency, as we have had for the past few days, has worked very effectively, and we have been able to mobilise people on the ground. I am interested in what works, in what is effective and in how we protect the maximum number of people and the maximum number of homes from this extreme event.

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I, too, pay tribute to the emergency services. As an officer of the all-party groups on mountain rescue and on mountaineering, I pay particular tribute to the mountain rescue workers who have put in a huge amount of work to support the communities affected.

Given that tourism is such a vital part of the local economy, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that every effort will be made to support local businesses and communities in the run-up to Christmas and during the Christmas season in these very difficult circumstances?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Mountain Rescue has been a fantastic support, particularly in some of the remoter villagers across the north of England, especially in Cumbria. I pay tribute to it for its round-the-clock work. It has been absolutely fantastic.

I agree with my hon. Friend about rural tourism, which is already worth £10 billion to the economy. It is really important to get things up and running again, which is why I am working with my colleagues the Transport Secretary and the Energy Secretary to make sure we get transport and power up and running, not only so that residents can enjoy the area, but so that people can visit it.

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I echo both the condolences expressed by the Secretary of State and her commendations of the emergency services and the volunteers for the invaluable work they are doing. Thousands of people across the north of England and Wales have been affected, including the leader of my party, my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). He has suffered the relatively minor inconvenience, compared with what other people have experienced, of having his car written off as a result of the floods. He cannot be in the Chamber today.

The Secretary of State is clearly focusing on the emergency. After the emergency, however, does she intend to apply to the EU solidarity fund to help rebuild the communities devastated by floods once the immediate emergency has been dealt with?

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My understanding is that there is quite a high threshold to obtain that funding, but we will of course look at all potential sources of funding. As I have mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary will open the Bellwin fund, and we are also looking at specific schemes.

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Floods, as we have seen, can have a devastating impact on businesses, homes and individuals. Our thoughts are with those who have been affected. My right hon. Friend’s Department has had a clear commitment to date to investing in flood prevention schemes. Will she reaffirm her continued commitment to investing in such schemes and to continuing the vital work that she has begun, which has spared many people from the plight of flooding—although, sadly, by no means all—and which has the potential to protect many more?

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It is an absolute priority for my Department to improve our flood defences as much as possible, to reduce the flood risk and to make sure that we are constantly prepared for these extreme situations. That is why we acted early on Saturday by bringing the Departments together to prepare the response and why we held a Cobra meeting on Sunday to make sure that the Army was deployed to deal with the situation and protect as many lives and homes as possible.

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Much of my immediate family, including my parents, live in the Carlisle area. Thankfully, they are safe, but my thoughts and prayers go out to everyone who has been affected by this dreadful situation. Obviously, I thank the emergency services and the community volunteers.

Just six years after unprecedented flooding, Cumbria has once again been hit by unprecedented rainfall. Does the Secretary of State agree that, unfortunately, such extreme weather events are increasingly a feature of the British weather and that Government policy has to adapt accordingly?

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I am pleased to hear that the hon. Lady’s family are safe and well. The events in Carlisle were not just extreme weather events, but were significantly worse than those on the previous occasion. There was an additional half metre of water, which has had a huge impact on local communities. Of course, as with all major incidents, we will look at this one and see what lessons can be learned for the future.

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May I pass on my sympathy to all those who have been affected and my commendation to all those in the emergency services who, as always, have done a fantastic job? Given the pressure on housing, will my right hon. Friend ensure that she and the Government note the new levels of water that are arising around the country and ensure that no new housing is built in those locations?

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That is very much part of our planning system.

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Like other hon. Members, my prayers and thoughts are with all those who have been impacted by these appalling scenes. The word “unprecedented” has been used time and again today, and we seem to be coming back to the House again and again to discuss these issues. Is it not time that we sat down as a nation and looked at all the infrastructure, at where the substations, roads and bridges are, and at the drainage systems—looked at everything—and involved the public in a national consultation, so that we can have a proper plan for how these so-called unprecedented events, which I am sure will become more and more frequent, can be dealt with once and for all?

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We do have very clear national resilience plans to ensure that our key assets are protected. Of course, after every major incident, we review them to see what could be improved. We constantly review the modelling on our flood defences to make sure that it is as good as possible. Each time something different happens, we need to be able to adjust it. Our models are open and transparent. The public can look at the methodology the Environment Agency uses. We use sophisticated data from the Met Office. Of course, we will look at this issue and see what more can be done.

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I send my sympathies to everybody who has been affected by the flooding. Cumbria is in the recovery phase. Will the Secretary of State review the flood defence modelling for the lower Thames region, in which many of my residents have no confidence? In particular, will she consider Thames barrier 2, which civil engineers were calling for even before the high floods in 2013-14?

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I would be very happy to discuss that issue with my hon. Friend and to meet the people who are working on the proposed scheme. It is helpful to have an open and transparent discussion about why decisions on flood investment are made. I would be happy to share the data and the modelling with her.

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The people of Hull, who know only too well the devastation flooding causes, extend their sympathies to all those affected by flooding this weekend. We pay tribute to the emergency services and to local BBC radio, which has an important role to play when we face such situations. Has the Secretary of State given any consideration to increasing support to the National Flood Forum, which does so much, through practical support and good advice, to help families and households affected by flooding? Additional resources would really help at this time.

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the National Flood Forum and local radio: we were able to ensure that people were evacuated from their homes and given adequate warning to keep them safe. It is also worth mentioning that the Environment Agency website has been a very useful resource. It has gone from having 400 hits on an average day to 650,000 hits on one day alone, so the public are able to access information. We have also been communicating on social media, enabling early evacuation to keep people safe.

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According to the Association of British Insurers, my constituency is the most likely to flood in the entirety of the UK. The tidal surge of 2013 flooded hundreds of homes and my constituents are still living with the consequences. Will the Secretary of State go back and double-check that the coming Boston barrier is not only up to the job but will provide the much needed economic benefits of flood defences after devastating floods, such as those that we are seeing in Cumbria and saw in Boston?

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I agree with my hon. Friend that the Boston barrier is an extremely important scheme not just for local businesses in Boston but for farmers in the surrounding area. I met a group of local internal drainage boards to discuss what more can be done in Lincolnshire. I am very happy to update him on the modelling we have done and the forecasts we have made.

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I join the Secretary of State and hon. Members in sending condolences to the families affected and in paying tribute to the extraordinary response of the emergency services. What message are the Government sending to the fire and rescue service personnel who are giving their all right now, and to the people so badly affected right now, when 40 firefighters face job losses and five stations face closure in Cumbria alone under the latest round of emergency service cuts? How will this affect the Government’s ability to respond to future extreme weather conditions that the Secretary of State said we must expect?

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My message to the firefighters of Cumbria is to thank them for all the fantastic work they have done, alongside the police, the Army, other emergency services and the Environment Agency, to help local people.

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Apart from the national interest in ensuring that Cumbria receives the support it needs, my researcher Nicholas Altham lives at Yanwath near Penrith and raised with me the collapse of nearby Pooley bridge. Will the Secretary of State look at having a commitment not just to rapid repair but to the provision of transport infrastructure in this area in future?

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Pooley bridge was discussed at this morning’s Cobra meeting, as part of our programme to ensure that bridges are restored as soon as possible. My right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary will be working on that.

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The Secretary of State talked about assisting local authorities through the recovery phase with 100% of eligible costs. Will she outline to the House what she considers to be the recovery stage? Is it just the clean-up and recovery, or is it the future-proofing of the reconstruction and investment in new infrastructure? What does she consider to be an eligible cost for local authorities?

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My right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary will be laying out more details of the scheme later this week, but the Bellwin scheme operates under well-established terms.

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On behalf of the people of Somerset, who know what flooding is like, may I extend my condolences and sympathies to all those affected in the north-west and say how pleased I am to hear that expertise from Somerset is being used up there?

In Somerset, local authorities and national Government have come together with residents to fund the Somerset Rivers Authority to ensure adequate and ongoing funding and oversight for flood defences. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is very welcome and that its decision to dredge this year is correct, despite the opposition of South Somerset’s local Liberal Democrats?

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It is fantastic that volunteers from Somerset are helping out in Cumbria, and I am delighted we have been able to establish the Somerset Rivers Authority to give local people control over local decisions such as on dredging. It is absolutely right that people who know the ground and understand the area are making those crucial decisions.

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I speak for many in west Kent—I see the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), on the Front Bench—when I ask the Secretary of State, when she looks at the floods in Cumbria, to remember that we in west Kent not only feel huge sympathy for our compatriots in Cumbria but are keen to ensure that the defences required on the Medway and the Beult are put in place. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), who is not here, would be urging me and others to say on her behalf that towns such as Yalding, Wateringbury, Tonbridge and Edenbridge absolutely need the defences planned only a few years ago when we suffered ourselves. I urge the Secretary of State not to forget the rest of the country.

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Over this Parliament, we will be investing an additional £2.3 billion of capital expenditure on flood defences in real terms. I am committed to ensuring that this money is distributed and spent in a clear and transparent way so that people fully understand how it is being used.

Point of Order

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In Work and Pensions questions earlier, I asked about the Access to Work programme, which helps disabled people to attain and retain work. In response, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), stated that Access to Work use was at record levels. According to DWP figures published in October, in 2014-15 there were 36,760 users, but in 2009-10 there were 37,270. Mr Speaker, will you encourage the Minister either to correct the record or provide the House with information on the statistics he was referring to, or encourage him to make a broader statement that might actually answer the original question?

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A better recourse is for the hon. Gentleman to make the short journey to the Table Office and pose further questions. I do not know which baseline year the Minister had in mind when making his comparison, and nor—I gently add—is it my responsibility to know. The hon. Gentleman is an adroit and ingenious contributor to our proceedings, and his head will almost certainly now be filled with a series of follow-up questions that encapsulate his dissatisfaction with what he has heard so far. He should make full use of the questioning system, whether the Minister likes it or not, and I have a hunch that that is precisely what he will now do.

Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill [Lords]

[Relevant Documents: Oral evidence taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee on 12 and 26 October and 10, 23 and 30 November 2015, and written evidence to the Committee, reported to the House on 7 and 15 September and 12 October 2015, on the Government’s Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, HC 369, the Committee’s First Report of Session 2014-15, Devolution in England, the case for local government, HC 503, and the Government response, Cm 8998.]

Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Committee of the whole House

New Clause 7

English National Park authorities: general powers

After section 65 of the Environment Act 1995 insert—

“65A English National Park authorities: general powers

(1) An English National Park authority may do—

(a) anything it considers appropriate for the purposes of the carrying out of any of its functions (its “functional purposes”),

(b) anything it considers appropriate for purposes incidental (whether directly or indirectly) to its functional purposes,

(c) anything it considers to be connected with—

(i) any of its functions, or

(ii) anything it may do under paragraph (a) or (b), and

(d) for a commercial purpose, anything which it may do under any of paragraphs (a) to (c) otherwise than for a commercial purpose.

(2) Where subsection (1) confers power on an English National Park authority to do something, it confers power (subject to section 65B) to do it anywhere in the United Kingdom or elsewhere.

(3) Power conferred on an English National Park authority by subsection (1) is in addition to, and is not limited by, the other powers of the authority.

(4) In this section, and in sections 65B and 65C, “English National Park authority” means a National Park authority for a National Park in England.

65B Boundaries of powers under section 65A

‘(1) Section 65A(1) does not enable an English National Park authority to do anything which it is unable to do by virtue of a pre-commencement limitation.

(2) Section 65A(1) does not enable an English National Park authority to do anything which it is unable to do by virtue of a post-commencement limitation which is expressed to apply—

(a) to its power under section 65A(1),

(b) to all of its powers, or

(c) to all of its powers but with exceptions that do not include its power under section 65A(1).

(3) If exercise of a pre-commencement power of an English National Park authority is subject to restrictions, those restrictions apply also to exercise of the power conferred on it by section 65A(1) so far as that power is overlapped by the pre-commencement power.

(4) Section 65A(1) does not authorise an English National Park authority to borrow money.

(5) Section 65A(1)(a) to (c) do not authorise an English National Park authority to charge a person for anything it does otherwise than for a commercial purpose.

(6) Section 65A(1)(d) does not authorise an English National Park authority to do things for a commercial purpose in relation to a person if a statutory provision requires the authority to do those things in relation to the person.

(7) Where under section 65A(1)(d) an English National Park authority does things for a commercial purpose, it must do them through—

(a) a company within the meaning given by section 1(1) of the Companies Act 2006, or

(b) a registered society within the meaning of the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014.

(8) In this section—

“post-commencement limitation” means a prohibition, restriction or other limitation imposed by a statutory provision that—

(a) is contained in an Act passed after the end of the Session in which the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2015 is passed, or

(b) is contained in an instrument made under an Act and comes into force on or after the commencement of section (English National Park authorities: general powers) of that Act;

“pre-commencement limitation” means a prohibition, restriction or other limitation imposed by a statutory provision that—

(a) is contained in an Act passed no later than the end of the Session in which the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2015 is passed, or

(b) is contained in an instrument made under an Act and comes into force before the commencement of section (English National Park authorities: general powers) of that Act;

“pre-commencement power” means power conferred by a statutory provision that—

(a) is contained in an Act passed no later than the end of the Session in which the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2015 is passed, or

(b) is contained in an instrument made under an Act and comes into force before the commencement of section (English National Park authorities: general powers) of that Act;

“statutory provision” means a provision of an Act or of an instrument made under an Act.

65C Power to make provision supplemental to section 65A

‘(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision preventing an English National Park authority from doing under section 65A(1) anything which is specified, or is of a description specified, in the regulations.

(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations provide for the exercise by English National Park authorities of the power conferred by section 65A(1) to be subject to conditions, whether generally or in relation to doing anything specified, or of a description specified, in the regulations.

(3) Before making regulations under subsection (1) or (2) the Secretary of State must consult—

(a) such representatives of English National Park authorities, and

(b) such other persons (if any),

as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.

(4) Subsection (3) does not apply to regulations under subsection (1) or (2) which are made only for the purpose of amending earlier such regulations—

(a) so as to extend the earlier regulations, or any provision of the earlier regulations, to English National Park authorities, or

(b) so that the earlier regulations, or any provision of the earlier regulations, cease to apply English National Park authorities.

65D Procedure etc. for regulations under section 65C

‘(1) The power to make regulations under section 65C—

(a) is exercisable by statutory instrument;

(b) includes power to make different provision for different purposes;

(c) includes power to make incidental, supplementary, consequential, transitional, transitory or saving provision;

(d) may, in particular, be exercised by amending, repealing, revoking or otherwise modifying any provision made by or under an Act passed before the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2015 or in the same Session as that Act.

(2) A statutory instrument containing regulations under section 65C may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.

(3) Subsection (2) does not apply to a statutory instrument that contains regulations only of the following kind—

(a) regulations under section 65C(1) that make provision for the purpose mentioned in section 65C(4)(b);

(b) regulations under section 65C(2) that make provision for that purpose or for imposing conditions on the doing of things for a commercial purpose;

(c) regulations made by virtue of subsection (1)(c) that do not contain provision amending or repealing a provision of an Act.

(4) A statutory instrument to which subsection (2) does not apply is subject to annulment by resolution of either House of Parliament.

(5) If a draft of regulations under section 65C would, apart from this subsection, be treated for the purposes of the standing orders of either House of Parliament as a hybrid instrument, it is to proceed in that House as if it were not a hybrid instrument.”” .(James Wharton.)

This New Clause confers new general powers on National Park authorities for National Parks in England, along similar lines to those conferred on other authorities by Chapter 1 of Part 1 of the Localism Act 2011

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

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With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment 51.

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First, I should put on the record my gratitude and that of my colleagues for the representations made by hon. Members who were keen to see the new clause included in the Bill, and to support and empower their local national parks authorities to do the best job they can and to continue to contribute to the communities they represent. In particular, I am grateful to my right hon. Friends the Members for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) and my hon. Friends the Members for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) and for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak). I would like to add Councillor Gareth Dadd of North Yorkshire County Council, who made strenuous efforts to convince us of the merits of these changes and kindly arranged for me to meet representatives of the North Yorkshire national park authority and National Parks England.

In the light of this weekend’s flooding, I think it important to reiterate the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the statement that we have just heard, and I offer my sympathy to the people of Cumbria and other affected areas in recognition of the significant impact of what has happened there as a result of the unprecedented weather events.

Before speaking expressly to the content of the new clause and amendment, I would like to say a few words about the role of the national park authorities in water management in the context of what has happened this weekend, and about how the changes might assist them in further performing that role. Although national park authorities do not have responsibility for emergency planning, the planning decisions they make and the development control conditions they enforce can make a big difference to the demands placed on those who do have to respond during an emergency.

National parks have an important role to play in managing the water environment and helping with restoration work. For example, the floods of November 2009 caused severe damage to the rights-of-way network in Cumbria and the Lake District national park. Over 250 bridges were damaged or destroyed and 85 paths needed repair. The function-specific general power of competence that we are discussing with these amendments could be used to enhance the national park authorities’ ability to respond to flood emergencies by enabling them to enter into partnerships, to develop skills and capacity within small rural communities and businesses to assist with the responses needed, to develop specific skills to combat future flood management, and to adapt the network to improve flood resilience.

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Given that national parks might cover one or more metro mayor areas—for example, the Peak District national park is partly in Greater Manchester and partly in South Yorkshire, two areas that might well have metro mayors quite soon—is there not a case for having some co-ordination for emergency planning to make sure that there is the same resilience and the same emergency planning in the different parts of the national park?

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We want to see co-ordination, and there are already structures in place to deliver it and to ensure that different bodies work together to respond as efficiently and effectively as possible. From what I have seen happening in Cumbria and other areas over the weekend, a number of those bodies are working very hard to deliver for local communities. The hon. Gentleman puts an important point on the record. We absolutely want to see as much co-operation as possible, and we want to empower these public bodies to carry it out wherever possible. That underlies in many ways the purpose of devolution, so it is an apt time for the hon. Gentleman to put his comments on the record.

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In the east midlands, there is the D2N2—Derby Derbyshire-Nottingham Nottinghamshire—which may or may not have a directly elected mayor. There is also the Sheffield city authority, which includes Barnsley, Rotherham, Doncaster and various other district councils in North Yorkshire and indeed in North Derbyshire. In the middle of all that, there is Hardwick Hall and various other major buildings. What I want to know, now that the Minister has said that there should be the greatest co-operation, is how that can happen between the Sheffield people who are anxious to take over large areas of North Derbyshire and D2N2, which is also part and parcel of the same area? My guess is that there will be many more situations like that in Tory shires. What is the Government’s policy?

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Devolution is a bottom-up process; it is done by consensus. I know that the hon. Gentleman will have a significant opportunity further to discuss some of the relevant provisions today, but where we see bodies that have the capacity to co-operate, we want to empower them to do so. We want to give them the levers they need to deliver such things as better public services and economic development. The first step towards that is to confer the powers that the bodies will need to achieve it. What the amendments do is to start the process of empowering our national parks authorities so that they can not only contribute on flooding and resilience, but better the offer that they can make to the public to improve the work they already do so well.

New clause 7 confers new general powers on national park authorities in England, along similar lines to those conferred on, among others, fire and rescue authorities and integrated transport authorities in chapters 2 and 3 of part 1 of the Localism Act 2011. I should make it clear to Opposition Front Benchers that those general powers are intended to enable a national park to do more and to do it better; they are not a back door to fracking or shale gas development, and will not affect the approach that we intend to take in that regard.

In England, our nine national parks include some of the country’s finest landscapes, beautiful vistas and exciting wildlife. They are part of our national identity. National parks protect those landscapes for future generations so that we can all enjoy them. They are the cornerstone of many rural businesses. The new powers for national park authorities will allow an authority to act as an individual could—with certain limitations—in relation to its functions. For example, a functionally specific power of competence will allow a national park authority to act through a company, and will allow authorities to trade in a broader way than they currently can.

National park authorities have themselves asked for that power, because they consider that it will enable them to act in a more entrepreneurial and innovative way. For example, they consider that they will be in a better position to enter into partnerships to support growth across our rural economy. Jim Bailey, the chair of National Parks England, has said:

“We are pleased to see the Government introduce this amendment. This will help National Park authorities to maximise opportunities to fulfil our statutory purposes”.

The measure will allow national park authorities to participate fully in devolution deals—an example is Northumberland national park authority's request as part of the north-east devolution deal—and to seek additional sources of funding to assist further their work in supporting rural economies.

It is important to note that a power of competence does not override existing legislation. National park authorities will therefore be bound by their statutory purposes: conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of an area, and promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the area. It is also important to note that the power will not be used by national park authorities as an opportunity to start charging for entry. As all but a very small percentage of land in national parks is owned privately rather than by the national park authorities, they could have no legal basis for charging.

Let me also make it clear that the new powers will not be used to encourage or permit too much, or inappropriate, development. National parks are designated under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 for their natural beauty and opportunities for open-air recreation. Under the Act, they have the two statutory purposes to which I have just referred. The statutory framework of protection and consents will remain unchanged, and, in using their new powers, the park authorities will not be able to promote or permit activities that are incompatible with those statutory purposes.

The powers given to the Secretary of State, by regulation, to restrict the use of powers by national park authorities in a particular way relate solely to the new clause, and not to their existing powers. Other than those concerning the furtherance of national park purposes, which are retained, the new powers replace the existing general powers of national park authorities under the Environment Act 1995. The new powers are considered more extensive, but the old ones are being repealed to avoid overlap.

Amendment 51 is a minor and technical amendment to schedule 5. It contains consequential amendments to section 65 of the Environment Act.

We are making these changes in response to effective representations that we have received from a number of Members, and from National Parks England and national park authorities. I hope that they will be broadly supported by Members on both sides of the House.

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Our national parks are precious national assets. Millions of people use and enjoy them every year. They are areas of protected countryside that everyone can visit, and where people live, work, and shape the landscape. We have 15 national parks: 10 in England, three in Wales and two in Scotland.

In his autumn statement, the Chancellor included devolution to national park authorities in England, allowing them to lend, invest, trade, and set up co-operatives with businesses. That is legally known as the general power of competence. However, we know what is driving this change: cuts made by this Government. Since 2010, national park authorities in England have suffered cuts of up to 40% in their Government funding. Indeed, Northumberland national park is already renting out its spare office space—vacated by staff who have lost their jobs—where an enterprise hub has been set up.

New clause 7 would amend the Environment Act 1995 to provide English national park authorities with general powers to do anything they consider appropriate in carrying out their functional purposes. The new general powers in proposed new section 65A are similar to those conferred on other authorities by chapter 1 of part 1 of the Localism Act 2011. The new clause only applies to English national park authorities.

Proposed new section 65B limits the scope of the general power of competence in several respects. It does not allow English national parks to borrow money or charge a person for anything they do other than for a commercial purpose. That immediately raises concerns. The coalition Government’s attempt to privatise our forests was met with a public outcry. That plan was rightly defeated. This Government have attempted to open up our national parks to fracking, again causing a great deal of concern among the public, who value our precious national assets and have no wish to see them opened up to commercial ventures in that manner. We need strong assurances that the character of our national parks will be protected and that such important national institutions are maintained for the benefit of the public. We need a cast-iron assurance from the Government that fracking is not going to be allowed in our national parks.

We need more details on Government funding of national parks. We need more details on what the national parks are actually planning to do with the new powers. We cannot allow the commercialisation of our national parks by the back door. The future governance and accountability of our English national parks is an absolutely massive issue, which deserves proper debate. It does not belong here, in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, inserted at the eleventh hour with no time for the weighty issues raised to have a proper discussion.

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Given that national parks are local authorities for these purposes, will the hon. Lady reflect upon the complete and deeply misleading red herring that she raises? After all, the fracking matter has nothing to do with the role of local authorities of any kind—national parks or otherwise —in relation to a general power of competence. Should she not welcome the ability of national parks to enter into joint agreements, for example with their district and county councils, which is precisely what this provision is aimed at? She is actually setting up a complete Aunt Sally in this matter.

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Red herrings, Aunt Sallies: I am merely expressing the unsuitability of the new clause in application to this Bill. It has been brought in at the eleventh hour with the minimum of notice. It raises huge issues. I do not think the general public would agree with the hon. Gentleman that the worry about fracking in our national parks is a red herring. I certainly got a lot of correspondence about it when the Government were talking about it a few weeks ago, and I think we need a proper debate.

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I do not know whether I could be clearer on this: the debate around fracking is perhaps for another day, but let me be absolutely clear that these clauses will not be a back door to fracking. They do not affect the issue of fracking with regard to national parks. I would also add very clearly that this is something that has been asked for by national parks. I would be interested if the hon. Lady could tell the House how many national park authorities she has spoken to before coming to oppose the new clause and amendment.

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The Minister makes an important point. The Government have not given us time to respond correctly. I have not spoken to any national park authorities because the Government have not given us time to consult properly on this matter. No reference had been made to the new clause before now. Today the Bill’s Third Reading debate will take place, and the new clause has been slipped in at the eleventh hour. The Minister is being disingenuous if he seriously expects us to have been able to do a thorough consultation with all the national park authorities in England. If that is his approach, he is trying to set us up to fail. We value our national parks, and we want to ensure that we have a proper debate on their future. That is what we are asking for here.

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As the MP for the Northumberland national park, may I say to the hon. Lady that this issue has been ongoing for many months? The powers of competence that are dealt with more widely elsewhere in the Bill have been the cause of enormous concern to the national parks as they have tried to get themselves into the arena of discussion. It is a huge credit to the Minister that he has come up to the north-east and spoken to those in North Yorkshire and to some of my colleagues at the national park in Northumberland to ascertain just how important the new clause—which is just an extension of those general powers of competence—will be. I hope that the hon. Lady will talk to the national parks, because they are absolutely passionate about having this freedom to get on and expand what they do.

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I am sure that, like me, the hon. Lady does not agree with the cuts that have been made to the Northumberland national park authority. I am sure, too, that she would rather we had a proper debate on this matter instead of discussing a new clause that has been snuck in at the eleventh hour.

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I understand that the hon. Lady has not spoken to the national park authorities, but that is not necessarily a reason to oppose the proposal. I have spoken to members of the board of the South Downs national park authority—Margaret Paren, who leads it, and Councillor Barry Lipscomb, who is a Winchester City councillor—and they very much welcome it. They think that this general power of competence will allow them to be full players at the table in the devolution bids that are so important in my area. I do not know what “Aunt Sally” means, although I remember her on the television, but this is nonsense. It is opposition for opposition’s sake. The Government should get with the plan here. Just because the Opposition have not talked to the national park authorities does not mean that they should vote against the proposal. I have spoken to the national parks, and they want this.

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I am sure the hon. Gentleman believes that the Government should get with the plan. However, we are the Opposition. I am not opposing the proposal for opposition’s sake; I am opposing it because I think we need a proper debate on it. It could have a far-reaching effect on our national parks, which are loved and valued by the general public.

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I will not take any more interventions. I have already given way to hon. Members.

The national park authorities are one part of the equation, and, as I have already said, we have not had time to consult them properly because this proposal was brought in at the eleventh hour. Surely any reasonable person would want—[Interruption.] Conservative Members had prior knowledge of it. I am sure that every reasonable person would agree that we need a proper debate on such an important issue. The national park authorities are not the only stakeholders involved. The public are the real stakeholders. Millions of people use and enjoy our national parks every year, and they should have their say. They would not thank us if we allowed this measure in through the back door.

Neither I nor any of my team are opposing the new clause for opposition’s sake; we are opposing it because we have serious concerns about the way in which it has been introduced. We will not agree to such a huge change in the governance and accountability of our national parks at only a few days’ notice and without a proper debate. If the Minister thinks that we are going to let this go through without a proper discussion, he is very much mistaken.

It is totally inappropriate that the new clause, which could bring about major and irreversible changes to our national parks, should be slipped into the Bill in this manner. The national park authorities are there to protect the environment for the good of the nation and its people. I call on the Secretary of State to withdraw the new clause. It does not belong in the Bill. If a discussion is needed about the future funding of our national park authorities, so be it, but let us have a proper debate. Let us give our stakeholders, the people, a chance to have their say, and let us not try to introduce damaging changes to our national parks by the back door.

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rose—

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Ah, what a rich and delicious choice! I call Mr Robert Neill.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

That was without any doubt the least-informed speech I have heard from a Front Bencher in the whole of my career in the House of Commons. I am sorry to say that to the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), but she has simply not read the new clause and understood what it is about. It extends the power of general competence that applies to local authorities, which her party supported as a welcome thing when I introduced it as a Minister, along with my colleagues, to local national parks authorities; it does not affect planning in any way whatever. I am horrified that an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman does not understand the difference between the role of a national parks authority qua local authority and its role as a planning authority, which is not changed in the slightest by any of this. The Opposition’s approach is therefore worrying.

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As the shadow Minister would not give way to me for a second time, I wish to put on the record the fact, which my hon. Friend will confirm, that we did have advance notice of the new clause. I met the South Downs national park authority on 13 November, when it made clear its support for the provision. It, like me, has had that much time to look at it. The Opposition may have been distracted by other matters, but that is a whole other matter—and, for the record, Aunt Sally was in “Worzel Gummidge”.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The troubling thing is this: applications for fracking, licensing matters and all that regime are not governed by a power of general competence in the slightest. The new clause has no effect on fracking of any kind whatever, and I regret to have to say to the hon. Lady that to suggest otherwise is either wilful ignorance or a serious piece of misleading the public.

The new clause gives local authorities that are national parks the same powers to deal with things as their district councils and county councils have. The point has also been well made that it enables them to enter into devolution deals, which again I believe the Opposition supported. So far, they are against a power of general competence, which they supported when we brought it in, they are against devolution deals in national parks, which they have supported, and they have set up an Aunt Sally that has nothing to do with the case.

I appreciate that the Opposition Front Benchers have been shuffled so many times that they probably do not have time to read an Order Paper nowadays, but the most cursory reading of the amendment might have given them some idea that their approach is totally off the case, it is against the views expressed by the Select Committee rightly and properly and it is against devolution. I am sorry to say that we heard a bizarre speech from the Opposition and they are taking a bizarre approach. If they divide the House on this, they are simply—

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Is my hon. Friend aware that quite a campaign has been whipped up across the country about the possibility of fracking springing up in national parks as part of some dastardly plot by the Conservative Government to introduce fracking wherever they can find a national park? Does he think that perhaps the response from the Opposition is influenced in some way by that campaign?

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I have always taken the view in politics that the further left you go, the greater the conspiracy theories get; I suspect that may have happened, perhaps with one or two honourable exceptions, to the Opposition Front-Bench team. But that has nothing whatever to do with what we are about. It has nothing to do with their ludicrous scare campaign. A simple amendment, whose principle was not objected to when the Localism Bill was brought through, is suddenly being seized upon for the most bizarre bit of political grandstanding by a bankrupt Opposition. The best thing they can do is find something to agree upon. Their approach would prevent a national park authority from entering into a joint venture with its district and county councils, although that is a perfectly sensible and reasonable thing to do. Anyone who speaks to people who have represented areas in national parks will know that one of their concerns was the inability to join up the service delivery between the national parks authority, the district council and the county council. That sort of thing was a regular issue upon the desk of any Minister.

The new clause enables that to be done through a simple, legal structure. It has nothing whatever to do with applications for planning permission for fracking and with the licensing regime for fracking. It is a sad and sorry day when an important and useful technical amendment is hijacked by one of the more bizarre bits of political boulevardiering that I have ever seen in my time in the Commons.

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As chair of the all-party group on national parks, I do have some interest in this matter. Additionally, a third of Sheffield—the local authority in which my constituency is—is in the Peak District national park. The name “Sheffield” may conjure up past visions of lots of cutlery being produced, but much of it is very rural, very open and very beautiful.

I understand the concerns of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench about new clause 7, which is of some length and has been parachuted into the Bill right at the last minute. The Government had many opportunities to introduce it earlier, and to talk informally to my hon. Friends, which might have allayed some of their fears. In the end, though, it is the duty of the Opposition to oppose, and probably to be very suspicious of a Government who claim they have nothing but good intentions in proposing a four-page amendment.

Of course there is some suspicion, but let us look at what the national parks have been doing. They have told us at meetings that they would welcome the extension of the general power of competence to them—perhaps it was an oversight that it was not done in the first place. As I understand it, the new clause proposes that where national parks exercise functions in a national park area that are similar in nature to those exercised by a local authority in other places the local authority has the general power of competence, but a national park does not.

Everyone gets suspicious about fracking. Many people do not trust the Government on the issue. They think that, as the Government want to go fracking all over the place and national parks do not, the Government are probably happy to do it and have rather brought those suspicions on themselves. Perhaps the Government could make an absolutely clear statement that there is no way in which this proposed new clause gives any extension of planning powers or anything else that could possibly affect fracking in national parks.

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I can assure the House that we had no idea that this new clause was coming. It is almost five pages long. The nub of our argument is this: the national parks should be single-mindedly protecting our environment, but this power of general competence allows them to engage in commercial activities to bridge the funding gap that the Chancellor has left them with. Does my hon. Friend not worry that that single-minded concentration on protecting the environment might be lost in the search for additional revenue as a result of the commercial powers that are being conferred on the national parks?

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I see my hon. Friend’s concerns in that regard, but the reality is probably that many national parks do look at ways to raise revenue to help support their budgets. I share his views that national parks are subject to cuts and that they are finding it more difficult to do the job that we expect them to do with their much reduced resources. I think that they will look at other ways to raise funds. That happens anyway. I am not sure whether this new clause widens that possibility greatly. I understand that it simply puts the national parks in the same position as a local authority to try to fulfil their functions.

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I wish to clarify that this proposed new clause has no impact on planning as it would affect national parks. It has nothing to do with shale gas extraction, or fracking. I hope that is clear enough for the hon. Gentleman, and that it will give him some reassurance about our intention, which is to deliver on a request from the national parks.

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I am aware that the national parks have been asking for it, and I accept the Minister’s statement. Will he think about the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) on fundraising and the extent to which the powers of general competence could be used by national parks in any way that undermined their primary purpose, which is to look after the national parks, their beauty and the environment while ensuring they are a place where people can live and work? That is an important function of national parks authorities.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for generously giving way again, and I can offer that reassurance. The primary purpose remains, as I said in my speech, that anything that a national park does must be in line with its statutory obligations. There is no legal basis for charging, and we are not looking to allow it. I hope that we might move to a position of greater consensus on the new clause, which I felt would be uncontroversial. I recognise the concerns expressed by hon. Members and I thank the hon. Gentleman for accepting my interventions and giving me the chance to put some of these matters to bed.

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I thank the Minister for his helpful comment. Perhaps more discussion could have been had before we reached this point; that might be something that everyone could learn from. The Minister’s intervention has been helpful to me and I thank him for it.

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rose

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rose—

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Order. The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has for some minutes now been poised rather like a sprinter, but he suffers from one disadvantage relative to the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones), whose constituency houses Exmoor, namely that the right hon. Gentleman beetled into the Chamber a little after the hon. Gentleman. We will reserve the right hon. Gentleman as a specialist delicacy and reach him in due course.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I have never felt disadvantaged by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis).

As you correctly point out, Mr Speaker, one third of Exmoor national park is in North Devon, and a beautiful part of the world it is. Before I go on with my prepared remarks, which I admit are pretty much a verbal tourist brochure, let me say that I do not recognise a lot of what was said from the Opposition Front Bench about the new clause, particularly the comments about its being slipped in and about insufficient time being given to speak to national park authorities. I, in common with all my hon. Friends, I am sure, had no notice at all. I was first alerted to the wording of the new clause on Thursday afternoon, and since then I have had time to have a detailed email correspondence with the chairman of Exmoor national park, Councillor Andrea Davis, my office has spoken at great length to managers at National Parks UK and two hours ago I came off the phone from a lengthy conversation with the chief executive of Exmoor national park, Dr Nigel Stone. If I can do that, I am sure that with all the voluminous resources available to them, those on the Opposition Front Bench should surely have been able to make some cursory inquiries about what the new clause is all about. It appears that they failed to do so.

Having spoken to those people, I can say that it is the national park authorities and managers who want this to happen. Opposition Members do those national park managers a great disservice by alleging some of the things that they are. They imply that in asking for the new clause those managers will in some way use the powers for nefarious purposes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Opposition Members need to be careful about what they are alleging because in my experience national park managers have nothing but the best intentions for managing our national parks, particularly in Exmoor.

That leads me on to extolling the virtues of Exmoor and why new clause 7, in particular, will be so valuable. One third of the national park is in my constituency and it includes the beautiful, rugged coastline that not only provides opportunities for many leisure activities but is very important for our environment and ecosystem. In the conversations I have had with them, the chairman and chief executive of Exmoor national park have been absolutely adamant that Exmoor in particular would benefit from the measures included in the new clause. Let me give some specific examples of why they believe that it would be beneficial and why they welcome it.

First, there is great pressure on the provision of housing for local communities in Exmoor and other areas of North Devon. Until now, national park authority managers have been hamstrung in the conversations they have been able to have with developers to ensure arrangements for local, affordable housing. Nevertheless, the new clause is not a carte blanche to say that all development will be allowed, and, as the Minister rightly said, nothing in it will allow that to happen.

Currently, it is difficult for national parks to enter into any sort of meaningful relationship with developers. For instance, they cannot set up a joint enterprise, and they could not engage with a developer who was seeking to undertake commercial activities in North Devon. The new clause will allow national park authorities to enter into an arrangement with a developer, so that land for commercial activity can remain in the ownership of the national park. That will mean that the park retains—and indeed gains—some financial advantage that has not been possible until now. I heard a sedentary comment from the Labour Front Bench that national parks want to make money, but what is wrong with that? What is wrong with national parks being able to raise funds to carry out further excellent work? Opening the commercial world in that way to national parks can only be good for Exmoor.

Another example is visitor attractions. Every year, Exmoor enjoys a large number of visitors who come for its rugged beauty and for the coastland and inland moor areas. The new clause will allow national park authorities to enter into commercial arrangements to ensure that more people enjoy those visitor attractions. It will attract people to the area and ensure that when they are there they have the best possible visitor experience. That is enormously important.

When I asked the chief executive of the national park to sum up for me in two sentences why he welcomes new clause 7—indeed, it is welcomed by all national park authorities—he said two things. First, at a time when we all have to save money, it gives national park authorities more options to ensure that they are viable going forward. Secondly, the new clause will give national parks the power to make things happen in a way that has not been possible until now.

I warmly welcome the new clause. It is also welcomed by the heads of Exmoor national park—I have spoken to them about this issue in great detail since Thursday. All other national park authority managers welcome it, and I know that they have been in conversation with the Minister. I warmly welcome that because the new clause will be good for Exmoor, and good for the rest of our national parks.

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I thank you, Mr Speaker, for drawing such attention to the fact that I “beetled” into the Chamber, as you put it, rather late, and I apologise for that. I also apologise for the fact that unfortunately I am going to beetle out of it again rather early, for the same reason that I was late, namely Defence Committee business. I am delighted to have the opportunity of this small window to try to reassure those on the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that they will take my reassurances seriously, as I was one of only three Conservative Members to vote against the scheme for privatising the forest estate, which the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) referred to in her remarks. I am not one to accept on trust everything about forests that the Government put forward.

Having said that, the Government deserve a big pat on the back for this measure. It is often said that the Government do not listen, but this is a classic case of their having listened. [Interruption.] I would be grateful if those on the Opposition Front Bench also listened for a moment, because I am directing my speech at them in an attempt to be helpful.

The chair of the New Forest national park authority, Mr Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre, is a former official verderer of the New Forest and very highly thought of by all those who live and work in the forest and are concerned with its management and protection. He contacted me some time ago to ask if it would be possible to persuade the Government to include such a provision in the Bill in Committee. Sadly, that stage had just concluded, so it shows extraordinary flexibility and willingness to listen by the Government in general—and by the Under-Secretary in particular—to manage to include the provision.

I fully sympathise with the Opposition spokesmen, because new clause 7 is a lengthy provision, and it is their job to scrutinise measures, whether they are long or short, but particularly if they are long. I should therefore like to try to reassure them about new clause 7 by reading two brief extracts from a document supplied by National Parks England specifically for use in our debate. It says:

“National Parks England (the umbrella body for the NPAs) warmly welcomes the tabling of New Clause 7 by Ministers and hopes that you”—

meaning me—

“will be able to speak in support of it at the Report Stage debate of the Bill on Monday 07 December 2015.”

It then gives a long list of the reasons why it supports the extension of powers, which are similar, it points out, to powers given to many comparable bodies. It ends by referring specifically to the new clause:

“New Clause 7 follows the legislative format established for other public bodies. National Parks England supports this amendment and would encourage MPs to speak in support during the Report Stage debate on the Bill.”

I understand the difficulty in which Opposition spokesmen find themselves, given that a clause of such complexity has been tabled at short notice. I hope that I have been able to reassure them that national parks themselves warmly welcome the clause. I do not think that it is a conspiracy. I have had occasion in the past to point out conspiracies when they crop up, but I do not think that this is an occasion for concern about conspiracies—on the contrary, it is an opportunity to congratulate Ministers, including the Under-Secretary, on listening, being flexible and making a change at, indeed, the eleventh hour. That change deserves to be made if we are to show our trust in the judgment of the national park authorities themselves.

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I do not intend to speak for long. I merely wish to record my thanks to hon. Members who have contributed to this debate. We began in a contentious place, but we have, I hope, moved towards consensus. I acknowledge the contributions of right hon. and hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who has been vociferous in making the case and with whom I have exchanged a significant quantity of correspondence, for bringing this to the Government’s attention and suggesting that it be included in the Bill. The measure is welcomed by national parks and by many hon. and right hon. Members. I hope that it will be welcomed, too, by shadow Ministers and that we can move forward in a more consensual way in the rest of today’s debates. Regardless, I commend the changes to the House. They are welcome and they are important.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division 141

7 December 2015

The House divided:

Ayes: 292
Noes: 187

Question accordingly agreed to.

View Details

New clause 7 read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 1

Local Government Constitutional Convention

“(1) A convention is to be held to consider and make recommendations on the constitution of local government in the United Kingdom.

(2) The Secretary of State must make regulations to—

(a) appoint a day on which the convention must commence its operations;

(b) make fair and transparent rules about how the convention is to operate and how evidence is to be adduced;

(c) make further provision about the terms of reference prescribed under section (Local Government Constitutional Convention: terms of reference); and

(d) specify how those who are to be part of the convention are to be chosen in accordance with section (Local Government Constitutional Convention: composition).

(3) The date appointed under subsection (2)(a) must not be later than 31 December 2016.” —(Mr Graham Allen.)

This new clause creates the means by which every UK citizen can engage in a national public discussion of devolution, local government, governance and electoral systems and make recommendations and receive a response from government and parliament to that national debate.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 2—Local Government Constitutional Convention: terms of reference

“The convention must consider the following terms of reference—

(a) the devolution of legislative and fiscal competence to local authorities within the United Kingdom;

(b) the reform of the electoral system for local government;

(c) constitutional matters relating to local government to be considered in further conventions; and

(d) procedures to govern the consideration and implementation of any future constitutional reforms in relation to local government.”

This new clause creates the means by which every UK citizen can engage in a national public discussion of devolution, local government, governance and electoral systems and make recommendations and receive a response from government and parliament to that national debate.

New clause 3—Local Government Constitutional Convention: recommendations

“(1) The Local Government Constitutional Convention must publish recommendations within the period of one year beginning with the day appointed under section (Local Government Constitutional Convention).

(2) The Secretary of State must lay responses to each of the recommendations before each House of Parliament within six months beginning with the day on which the recommendations are published.”

This new clause creates the means by which every UK citizen can engage in a national public discussion of devolution, local government, governance and electoral systems and make recommendations and receive a response from government and parliament to that national debate.

New clause 4—Local Government Constitutional Convention: composition

“(1) The Local Government Constitutional Convention must be composed of representatives of the following—

(a) registered political parties within the United Kingdom,

(b) local authorities, and

(c) the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

(2) At least 50% of the members of the convention must not be employed in a role which can reasonably be considered to be political.”

This new clause creates the means by which every UK citizen can engage in a national public discussion of devolution, local government, governance and electoral systems and make recommendations and receive a response from government and parliament to that national debate.

New clause 5—Commission on devolution of fiscal powers and taxation

“(1) The Secretary of State shall appoint a commission on devolution of fiscal powers and taxation to local authorities.

(2) The Commission shall consider the following issues—

(a) the desirability, impact and process necessary to implement an Income Tax rate of 10p in the pound on English tax payers;

(b) the desirability, impact and process necessary to give English Councils the same fiscal and taxation powers as those devolved to the Scottish Parliament in the 2012 Scotland Act, and

(c) any other issues that the Commission considers relevant.

(3) The Commission shall produce a report covering the issues listed in subsection (2) no later than 31 December 2017, and shall make such recommendations to the Secretary of State as it deems necessary.”

This new Clause would establish a Commission to consider the possibility of England local authorities being granted the same fiscal and taxation powers already devolved to Scotland in the Scotland Act 2012.

New clause 8—Combined authority functions: cool off period

“(1) The Secretary of State shall amend any order made under a provision of this Act which transfers a power to exercise of a function from a constituent part of a combined authority to a combined authority, to devolve responsibility for that function back to a constituent part of that authority, if the following conditions are met—

(a) A constituent part of a combined authority requests that the Secretary of State amend an order to return responsibility for the exercise of a function to the constituent part of the combined authority from the combined authority, and

(b) Such a request is made within one year of the first local government election held in the constituent part of the combined authority since the original order was made.”

The intention of this amendment is to create a cooling off period for the transfer of any power to the level of a combined authority. If a constituent part of a combined authority requests that a power is returned to it within one year of next elections held in the constituent part, then the Secretary of State must amend the relevant order to return power to the constituent part.

New clause 10—Governance arrangements for local government: entitlement to vote

“In section 2 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (local government electors), in subsection (1)(d) for “18” substitute “16””

This Clause would re-instate the provision in the Bill, as brought from the Lords, allowing votes for 16- and 17-year olds in local government elections.

New clause 11—Review of fire and rescue services in combined authorities

“(1) The Secretary of State must, within 15 months of this Act being passed, publish a review of the fire and rescue services affected by the provisions of this Act.

(2) The review must make an assessment of the extent to which the provisions of this Act affecting fire and rescue services have worked safely and efficiently for the protection of the public over the first 12 months from this Act being passed.”

This Clause would require a review, after 12 months of the Bill being passed, of the fire and rescue services to make sure the new system is working safely and efficiently for the protection of the public.

New clause 13—Fiscal and financial powers

“Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish plans for further devolution of fiscal powers to local authorities in England, including—

(a) an equalisation model related to the retention of business rates, to ensure local authorities with lower business rate income are not negatively impacted;

(b) greater local authority control over local tax rates and discounts;

(c) provision for combined authorities to set multi-year finance settlements.”

This new clause allows the Secretary of State to ensure devolution continues beyond current devolution deals by setting out plans for further fiscal devolution and greater local freedom and stability in relation to budgets and tax rates. The clause also ensures a model is put in place to ensure authorities with lower business rate income do not lose out from the phasing out of central government grants.

New clause 14—Cooperation with peripheral authorities

“No later than three months after the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State shall publish guidance to be considered by combined authorities while exercising a devolved function, in order to—

(a) have regard for any significant direct impact of decisions taken by the combined authority on neighbouring authority populations;

(b) encourage cooperation between combined authorities and their neighbouring authorities so as to encourage local growth;

(c) enable greater economic cooperation between combined authorities and their neighbours within a travel-to-work area.”

This new clause asks the Secretary of State to publish guidance to ensure neighbouring authorities are considered when devolved functions are exercised, and encourage economic cooperation between authorities within a regional economy or travel-to-work area.

Government amendments 4 to 6.

Amendment 58, in clause 2, page 2, line 10, at end insert—

“( ) The transfer of local or public authority functions to combined authorities shall not be dependent on an order being made under subsection (1).”

This amendment makes clear that devolution deals must not be dependent on a combined authority having a mayor.

Amendment 2, page 2, line 13, at end insert—

“(2A) An order under subsection (1) may not be made unless the proposition that the combined authority have a mayor is approved by a referendum of the electorate of that combined authority.

(2B) The Secretary of State shall, by regulations, establish the procedures to be followed in conducting a referendum under subsection 2A.

(2C) Before making a regulation under subsection 2B, the Secretary of State must consult the Electoral Commission.”

The intention of this amendment is that elected mayors will be introduced only if that proposal has been approved by a referendum of the residents of the combined authority. The rule for the conduct for such a referendum shall be made by the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Electoral Commission.

Amendment 57, page 2, leave out lines 21 to 26 and insert—

“(7) An order under this section providing for there to be a mayor for the area of a combined authority may be revoked or amended by making a further order under this section; this does not prevent the making of an order under section 107 abolishing the authority (together with the office of mayor) or providing for a constituent part of the combined authority to leave the combined authority and to resume its existence as a separate local authority.

(7A) An order under this section providing for a constituent part of the combined authority to leave the combined authority and to resume its existence as a separate local authority must make fair provision for a reasonable and proportionate division of resources between the former combined authority and the seceding local authority.

(7B) Where a combined authority has entered into a contractual arrangement with a third party and an order under this section is made to enable a constituent part of a combined authority to resume its existence as a separate local authority, that separate local authority shall be deemed to be a contracting party to that agreement unless an alternative agreement is reached with the third party.”

The intention of this amendment is allow for a constituent part of a combined authority to leave a combined authority without the combined authority being dissolved, with provision for “fair terms” for the leaving party (i.e. their resource is calculated on a per capita basis, or similar.) and the impact this may have on contractual arrangement with third parties.

Government amendments 7 to 25.

Amendment 59, in clause 10, page 12, line 32, at end insert—

“(1) Within 6 months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish a report on the performance of the Localism Act 2011 and a review of the general power of competence provision in relation to its use by combined authorities.”

This amendment introduces a review of the use of the general power of competence by combined authorities.

Government amendments 26 to 29.

Amendment 1, in clause 15, page 17, line 7, at end insert—

“( ) all local authorities in a mayoral combined authority commencing a community governance review of their whole local authority area within two years of this Act coming into force.”

This amendment introduces further measures to support the creation of new local councils with mayoral and combined authorities required to conduct a community governance review within two years of the Act coming into force.

Amendment 56, page 17, line 23, at end insert—

“(4A) Regulations under this section, so far as including structural or boundary provision in relation to a non-unitary district council area, may be made if at least one relevant local authority consents.

(4B) Local authority in this case is defined as—

(a) a non-unitary district council whose area is, or forms part of, the non-unitary district council area;

(b) a county council whose area includes the whole or part of the non-unitary district council area.

(4C) Relating to 4a and 4b

(a) “non-unitary district council area” means the area or areas of one or more non-unitary district councils;

(b) “non-unitary district council” means a district council for an area for which there is also a county council;

(c) “structural or boundary provision” means provision about the structural or boundary arrangements of local authorities in regulations made by virtue of subsection (1)(c).”

The intention of this amendment is to allow the government to make changes to boundaries of local authorities if it has the consent of at least one relevant local authority.

Government manuscript amendment (a) to amendment 56, after subsection (4C), insert—

“(4D) Subsections (4A) to (4C) expire at the end of 31 March 2019 (but without affecting any regulations already made under this section by virtue of subsection (4A)).”

This amendment provides for the provisions in subsections (4A) to (4C) of clause 15, allowing structural and boundary provision in relation to a non-unitary district council area if at least one relevant local authority consents, to expire at the end of 31 March 2019.

Government amendments 30 to 33 and 36.

Amendment 3, in schedule 1, page 37, line 3, leave out paragraphs 4 and 5 and insert—

“4 (1) The mayor is to be returned under the simple majority system.”

This amendment would require the mayors of combined authorities to be elected using the simple majority system, also known as “first past the post”.

Government amendments 37 to 45, 50 and 52 to 55.

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One of the difficulties involved in the debates we have had on this so-called constitutional Bill is that they have taken place on the Floor of the House. If we were upstairs in Committee and having detailed debates about particular places and particular boundary issues, the Minister could say, “The hon. Gentleman has made a very good point. I will take it away, talk to one or two authority leaders and issue a few words of reassurance.” On the Floor of the House, however, given the rather clunky weapons at our disposal—such as a Division of the House—they become much bigger issues. I congratulate the Secretary of State and his team on bringing the devolution process to the House, but rather than it being seen as the first step of many, it is lapsing into the good old confrontational stuff that we seem to enjoy so much on the Floor of the House.

Even under that structure, however, we can do a number of things in the Chamber this evening. We need to seek a more consensual way forward and understand that devolution is an organic process and that it will evolve. Once the deals in England have been concluded, they will make progress and other demands will be made. People will see that they can do things that they could not do before. They will look at neighbours who have concluded deals and say, “I’d like to try a little bit of that. I think I’ll talk to the Secretary of State.” The Secretary of State may well suggest to some places, “Things have been done by another place that you could also do.” To other areas, the Secretary of State and/or councils may say, “Perhaps we bit off a little more than we could chew. Let’s take half a pace back, let this settle and then come forward with other proposals in the future.” That process is not very amenable to debate on the Floor of the House of Commons. Almost by definition, it is better done, first, in Committee, and secondly, by the key players—council leaders and Ministers—talking openly and transparently to take forward the process.

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The hon. Gentleman is making a very thoughtful speech. Does he not agree that the fact that devolution is being driven at pace by the Scottish agenda means that there is no time to have such a convention on the big devolution to Scotland, and is it not time for England to have matching devolution if Scotland is going to get so much?

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The right hon. Gentleman talks about moving at pace and then immediately suggests that England should have what Scotland has. I would go with the latter of his contradictory points: in such devolution Bills, England should have everything that has been obtained by the Scottish people. To round out the package, England should in particular have not just the powers but the financial capability to make the powers real.

I will talk later about new clause 5, which says that we can have income tax assignment to England, in just the way it pertains to Scotland, without civilisation as we know it falling apart. I would add that that would renew and strengthen the Union, which will need to happen in future decades, as a federal entity in which the nations of the Union work together very closely as a family, but all retain a degree of income tax in their areas to make their own country work effectively.

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I share the hon. Gentleman’s view about financial powers going alongside the responsibility for providing services, but does he not agree that there is a case for devolving responsibility for income tax to below the England level? Most local services in Sweden, for example, are run through tax raised locally, rather than at national level.

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I am delighted to hear the Liberal Democrats proposing something in opposition that, sadly, they did not propose when they were a key member of the coalition Government during the past five years. Before Labour colleagues smile too much, however, the previous, Labour Government also did very little on this matter. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) says that they did. Obviously, I would never be so disloyal as to underline such remarks by repeating them on the Floor of the House, but—

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Order. At any rate, the hon. Gentleman would certainly not have done so in those almost forgotten days when he was a Whip.

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Indeed, Mr Speaker. We all have scars and sins that are best left unrevealed; otherwise that can turn into rather a destructive process. If we look at the constructive process initiated by the Secretary of State, there is a way forward. To finish my answer to the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), double devolution has repeatedly been raised by colleagues from all parts of the House in different ways. Let me restate that it would be ludicrous for England to go the way of Scotland, where there is devolution down to Holyrood, but we can hear the sucking sound—Ross Perot used to hear a “sucking sound” in the United States from Mexico—of powers being sucked up from the localities in Scotland into Holyrood. We do not wish that to be repeated in England, which means, as the right hon. Gentleman said, that there must be a proper localisation of power if the devolution bandwagon and evolution are to continue.

I would like to put a number of items on the record, but I will not discuss my new clauses at length because we have gone around the houses on those issues before. I just want to say that if we are devolving in England; if we have devolved in Scotland; if a majority of people’s votes in England do not count and perhaps ought to be made to count in a different way; and if we see, as we are seeing with the Strathclyde commission, an anxiety about the powers of the second Chamber: if all those things are happening and we did not have a Political and Constitutional Affairs Committee—imagine if such a thing existed—it makes a lot of sense to have a steady, careful, citizen-led convention that discusses all those issues. Party leaders should at least commit to give the views of a citizens convention airtime on the Floor of the House through the discussion of draft Bills.

It makes sense to take a slightly broader view when discussing these changes and to consider what our democracy ought to look like. The threats are considerable and the action we take should be swift in countering those threats. There should therefore be a broad-brush review of where our democracy lies. That is what is proposed in new clauses 1 to 4, which are in my name. New clause 5 takes up the point about having financial powers to go alongside that.

I turn to what is a difficult question, because it is a detailed question, in respect of amendment 27, to which the Minister will speak. I tempt him to respond to my view on what might be done with the amendment. Devolution deals are so important to those who run local authorities and those who care about local authorities that, because boundaries might change, functions might change and mayors might be imposed, there is a great deal of anxiety in certain places in the country about the precise detail of the deals and how they might work.

I fully understand why the Government tabled amendment 27. It makes sense within the terms of what they are trying to do. They are rightly trying to have a level of flexibility in respect of devolution deals. However, there are particular difficulties in and around Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, and in respect of the Sheffield deal that is being discussed. I say to colleagues that we are at the beginning of a long road. It is not perfection that we seek today, but progress. We can secure progress, provided that we discuss this matter in a consensual way. The Minister may wish to respond to what I say now. If not, I hope that he will do so soon.

I am sure that the Minister and the Secretary of State will agree that any changes in local governance that are enabled by the Bill must be achieved through local consensus, with the relevant partners coming around the table to agree a negotiated position. Given that, I draw their attention to the suggestion in amendment 27 that districts that form part of a county could join a different combined authority, without the need for any negotiation with, consensus within or consent from the county council. That would be deeply divisive in many areas and undermine the very consensual approach the ministerial team has consistently advocated in this House. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister provide the House with a reassurance that the amendment will not give districts the right to walk away without local consensus and that any changes would be made through a negotiation between district and county, facilitated if necessary by the Secretary of State?

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I intend to speak at greater length on this issue, but as the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to do so I would like to make it clear that the amendment gives any council, including districts, the permission to request to be removed from or added to a combined authority. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will review the case put forward by a council and make a decision on whether the request can proceed, but I can reassure the House that any such decision would, where possible, be made only following consultation and negotiation with relevant parties. In all cases, we would endeavour to seek and secure the consensus that I think has characterised many of the discussions we have had in a range of places so far, and which is so important in underpinning the Government’s approach to devolution more generally.

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I am sure that those words will have been heard throughout the Chamber and, more importantly perhaps, by all those who care about, or are in positions of authority in, local government. I very much hope that they take the message that the Government and the House are keen for there to be progress on devolution, and that it should occur on the basis of consensus, interaction and negotiation facilitated by the Secretary of State and the Government.

The people who have interacted with the Secretary of State and the Minister will make their own judgment on whether the Secretary of State can be trusted on these matters. As far as I am concerned, however, the Secretary of State has got us to this position on devolution, which, as I mentioned earlier, was not possible under the previous coalition Government or the previous Labour Government. Is it perfection? No. Is it genuine progress? I hope the answer to that is most definitely yes.

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All this consensus can sometimes feel a little bit disconcerting, but I think it is a good thing. The fact that the Minister has underlined and put it on the record, in respect of Government amendment 27, that consensus would have to be achieved—this is not about particular councils having vetoes or unilateral capability, but a negotiated process—is a very important step.

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I can barely believe that my hon. Friend would be anything other than consensual. In recent weeks he has perhaps been known as being on the provisional wing of the Labour party, but his innate character is that of seeking consensus. I agree very strongly, as I always do, with my constituency neighbour. I hope colleagues throughout the UK adopt a similar view and take us forward on this issue.

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Is my hon. Friend concerned that there are absent voices from the consensus thus far, in the shape of the public, who are not always involved or even aware that these kinds of deals are going ahead? I realise it is difficult, but do their voices not need to be captured somehow, too?

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To an extent, their voices have to be captured by those who seek elected office, whether in this House or in the locality. Devolution is just one part of a broader democratic settlement. It is essential that it is not just the great and the good who are involved. As I outline in new clauses 1 to 4, there has to be the most tremendous unprecedented outreach. A citizens convention must go way beyond even what we saw in Scotland, either in the referendum campaign or in its own citizens convention, and use all the modern techniques of social media, technology and electronic polling, so that people can feel ownership. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that unless we build that in, and unless people feel that a proper debate has been had, the process could be stressed and fractured when people feel that the right thing has not been done. I would argue, therefore, as with new clauses 1 to 4, that we will need a broad-based exercise involving an unprecedented level of public participation in order to settle our democracy not just for the next four years but so that it holds for 100 years after that. That cannot be done on the back of us alone making these decisions.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I seek your advice on a matter of order, although I do not know if I am entitled to do so in the middle of a speech. There are amendments on health. Should we talk about those matters now or wait for a natural break?

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The hon. Gentleman asks a perfectly reasonable question, and, just for once, it is a question that the Chair can answer. The answer is no. The matters relating to health are in the next group, of which the lead amendment is new clause 9. We should discuss health at that point.

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That is very helpful, Madam Deputy Speaker. In that case, I will limit my final remarks to a brief consideration of manuscript amendment (a) to amendment 56, which bears my name. Amendment 56, which I wish well, seeks to provide some welcome flexibility to allow for the organic growth and development of our devolution proposals. The Secretary of State, who needs to be reassured that the process will not drag on forever, has proposed a manuscript amendment that puts an end date on discussion. Colleagues and local authorities will have an opportunity, a gateway, a window—whatever metaphor we wish to use—in which to make representations. That process will not drag on forever, but there will be a lot of time to make those representations, which seems very appropriate. On that basis, I am pleased to have added my name to amendment 56.

This large group of amendments covers many other areas, including issues on which I could speak at some length, such as votes for 16 and 17-year-olds and a governance review. The latter will be very important. I believe that there are now 34 or so devolution deals. As we develop those, there will be much best practice, which, by definition, we cannot learn from mid-process, around what has been devolved and how, and around how local authorities can use their powers. It will all be at different levels and different speeds—because, again, devolution means people doing their own thing, not taking a one-size-fits-all approach—but there will be a place for a gathering and sharing of best practice by local government so that the next set of deals, building on the pre-existing deals, can be done in the best way.

We do not currently have an institution that can do that. Despite the excellence of the officials in the Department, we do not have what local government might regard as an independent institution to take that forward. It makes a lot of sense, therefore, to have a review at an appropriate time. It might not look that way to the Secretary of State, who is battling through a set of deals with lots of interested individuals—and that can only be his main priority—but, when the dust settles, it will make sense to have an adjunct to the Local Government Association, or whatever local and central Government come up with, to make sure that all the learning from the first set of proposals is carried over to the next set.

With that, I shall draw my remarks to a close. We now have a set of devolution deals, and the boulder is rolling forward. We need to keep the momentum going, so I hope that everyone will wish the Bill well.

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I begin with new clauses 1 to 4, which propose the establishment of a local government constitutional convention. We had the opportunity to discuss these provisions on our first day in Committee, and as the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) said then, they include the nuts and bolts of this body, as proposed by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which the hon. Gentleman chaired in the previous Parliament. He now draws on the wealth of the knowledge that he acquired from his chairmanship during that time. His intention has been, in part at least, to ensure that some of his observations and experience could be read by anyone who feels that the concept of a constitutional convention is something that could be recommended to the House. I hope he feels that he has been successful in that aim. I have certainly enjoyed the debates we have had on the issue, and I recognise his tenacity and consistency in putting his case before us.

I do not consider it necessary to go through in detail every stage of the possible effects that new clause 1 could have, but it is important to recognise that the hon. Member for Nottingham North has made a number of points that draw on his experience and that inform the debate on devolution. However, as has been the case in previous debates and in Committee, I am not yet persuaded to go as far as to include new clause 1 in the Bill at this time.

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Will the Minister confirm that as the talks on Scotland’s money versus that of the rest of the United Kingdom make rapid progress, it will be the Government’s aim to ensure that England has a block grant that it may choose how to spend?

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My right hon. Friend tempts me to go further than I can in the specific context of the Bill, but I think he has been above averagely consistent on that point and very clear about his position. He has put it clearly on the record today, as he has before, and the fact that he has done so is welcome.

I look to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, for advice on whether you would like me to comment on the other amendments in the group, which I would be happy to do, although I have not yet heard the comments of hon. Members on them.

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If the Minister would like to wait until the end of the debate, I shall, with the leave of the House, call him again.

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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Given that we have had such a productive and healthy debate so far, it would be appropriate for me to respond later to the specific points that hon. Members raise. I therefore look forward to the opportunity to speak again as we progress through this stage of consideration.

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I shall speak specifically to Government amendment 27. The proposals for combined authorities are welcome. They are essentially about local authorities coming together where they wish to combine their approach, their workings and their functions to deliver better services and, hopefully, greater economic growth for the residents in their areas. The idea was pioneered in Manchester. The one fundamental difference between Manchester and some of the other areas that we are considering is that Manchester has had a number of authorities that have worked together over a period of time and these happen to be the authorities that were part of the old Greater Manchester metropolitan area. There were 10 districts that formed that old Greater Manchester metropolitan county, so they have always had a sense of being together and working together over a number of years. They are also unitary authorities that all have the ability to make their own decisions about whether they come together, how they do so and what they do to form the combined authority. It is a relatively simple and easy arrangement in constitutional terms.

The difficulty for some other areas is that the constitutional arrangements are slightly different. Obviously, I am now going to refer to my own area. Sheffield contains the four districts which used to form the old South Yorkshire metropolitan county, and which have worked together to varying degrees, and with varying degrees of success, since the counties were abolished. They came together to form what is now the Sheffield combined authority.

To an extent, the same applies to Leeds, which contains five districts that used to be the West Yorkshire metropolitan county, and which have been working together as a combined authority. There are, however, some differences, which have been recognised at various times by parties on both sides of the House. Sheffield contains not merely the four districts of south Yorkshire, but five other districts which form part of either Derbyshire county or Nottinghamshire county: Derbyshire Dales, Chesterfield, North East Derbyshire, Bolsover and Bassetlaw. They are not part of the old South Yorkshire county, but they are very much part of the local economy of the Sheffield city region—the travel-to-work area.

That has been recognised in a number of ways, and I remember when it was first recognised. I went to the first meeting between the leaders of those nine councils, which took place at Meadowhall shopping centre, and which had been called by David Miliband when he was number two in his Department. I am not sure which Department it was, but it was probably the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I expected a reaction from the districts outside south Yorkshire—I expected them to think that Sheffield Big Brother was going to take them over—but the leader of Bolsover district council said, “Actually, it is quite good that we are involved in this.” He said, “I know that not everyone who lives in Bolsover will have a job in Bolsover, and that many people have to travel to work in Sheffield. What happens in Sheffield matters to us, and how people transport themselves from Bolsover to Sheffield matters to us. It is right that we are sitting round the table having discussions and being involved in the decision-making process.” Those were wise words, which have stood the test of time.

The coalition Government adopted a similar approach. When they formed the local enterprise partnerships, they recognised that the historical regional boundaries were not always appropriate. I know that the previous Secretary of State had a thing about regions: people almost had to cross themselves, or put money in the Department’s swear box, if they mentioned them. He was not always right in damning the regional spatial strategies and blaming them for every evil on the planet, but I think he had a point nevertheless, in that the old regions did not necessarily represent local economies and the way in which areas worked in day-to-day life.

The districts of south Yorkshire were in the Yorkshire and Humber region, but the districts in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire were in the old East Midlands region, and that often did not work because the two regional development authorities did not always speak to each other. That was a fundamental problem for the Sheffield regional economy, which the last Government recognised when it created the LEPs and allowed them to create themselves across the old regional boundaries to reflect the travel-to-work areas and the local sub-regional city region economies.

We now face a challenge. So far, the districts in that position in North Nottinghamshire and North Derbyshire have, to an extent, been able to have it both ways. They can continue as districts, as part of the two counties, but they can also be non-constituent parts of the combined authority in Sheffield. Ultimately, however, the districts will have to make some sort of choice.

We are to have an elected mayor in the Sheffield city region. We have had discussions and arguments about that, but it is going to happen. Should the people of Chesterfield, Worksop or any other parts of those districts be able to vote for the mayor in Sheffield, who will be in charge of transport in that area, or should they not be able to vote for the mayor, who will then cover only part of the travel-to-work area with his or her transport responsibilities? That strikes me as illogical, because it will not bring about a combined authority that really covers the city region and the travel-to-work area.

Is it possible that the people of Chesterfield will not have a vote for the mayor because Chesterfield will not become part of the Sheffield city region combined authority—although, under the proposals, the mayor will be involved in discussions and decision making about economic development matters that affect Chesterfield, even if it is only a non-constituent part of the combined authority? I do not think it reasonable for an individual who has not been not elected by the people of Chesterfield to have a say in what happens there.

What the amendment does is ensure that the districts of North Derbyshire and North Nottinghamshire will be able to make their own decision about the long-term position—about where they think they fit and where their future lies—without the county councils’ having a veto. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), I hope that that will done by means of consensus and discussion. No one wants Chesterfield to feel that it is no longer part of Derbyshire county or Bassetlaw to feel that it is not part of Nottinghamshire county, for many other purposes.

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The hon. Gentleman is advancing a powerful argument. He is absolutely right about consensus. He is also right about the fact that businesses do not recognise local authority boundaries. Surely, when we talk about devolution, we must talk about it on the basis of economic rather than political areas, but there is a danger of our being sucked into those political areas.

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I entirely agree. In the end, of course, a district council as a whole will have to go to an area