House of Commons
Monday 14 December 2015
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
The northern powerhouse is a project that runs across a number of Government Departments. The contribution made by this Department includes: the local growth funds, 11 of which are worth nearly £3 billion; the £400 million northern powerhouse investment fund; the devolution deals being agreed right across the north of England; and, of course, the doubling of the enterprise zones in the northern powerhouse announced in the spending review by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Earlier this year, the Government invested over £113 million in high-performance computing in my constituency at the Hartree Centre, a joint venture between the Science and Technology Facilities Council and IBM bringing high skill, high wage jobs to Weaver Vale. Does my hon. Friend agree that investment in technology and science is key to the growth of the northern powerhouse?
I commend my hon. Friend’s important and significant work in this area. He is a passionate advocate for his constituency and for investment in it. This is just one more example of Government investment in the north to build the northern powerhouse and rebalance our economy. As we saw in the autumn statement, science and innovation spending is being protected. We are investing in the economic growth of the future. This is a great example of that and my hon. Friend deserves commendation for the work he has done to deliver it.
Will this Government stop patronising the north? We are a powerhouse. Give us the investment in infrastructure. We are the people who still make things in this country. We make the wealth of this country. Many people in this part of the world—London and the south—live parasitically on our efforts. Stop patronising, start investing!
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for the northern powerhouse project. The Government recognise the potential of the north to drive our economy. The north can make a difference if it is invested in, and, crucially, if the people of the north are given real control over their own future. That is what we are doing. That is what the devolution agenda is about and what some of the investments I spoke of are about. We are going to deliver it. It will make a real difference to his constituents and to mine.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. The £400 million northern powerhouse investment fund will be targeted specifically at small and medium-sized enterprises. Growth hubs across the north are driving that investment and giving that support. We want our big industries to succeed and drive forward our economy, but our small and medium-sized enterprises are important too. We want to invest in them and give local people the controls they need to ensure they can reach their potential.
The Minister will be aware that the Scottish Government procure 46% from small and medium -sized enterprises compared to the UK Government’s 26%. Will he look at the Glasgow and Clyde Valley city deal, which has a supplier development programme to encourage SMEs?
City deals can be key drivers for growth. I welcome those that have already been agreed and we continue to have talks, including with some of the great cities and city regions in Scotland, on where we can go further and what more we can do. I hope we can deliver more in due course, because we can already see the difference the deals are making.
On behalf of the whole House, we thank all hard-pressed and often low-paid council staff and others who even now are helping those areas of the north so badly affected by the recent flooding.
In contrast to the rhetoric about the northern powerhouse, the Office for National Statistics recently reported that the north is falling further behind as a result of under-investment and that it is getting worse. The average Londoner now produces £42,000 a year added value, while in the north-east the average is only £18,000. In the place of more cuts, will the Minister now include specific, substantial and urgent northern investment in his local government settlement later this week?
The hon. Gentleman raises the important point that our economy has for too long been unbalanced. The whole point of the northern powerhouse project is to address that imbalance, ensuring we unlock the significant growth potential that exists across the north and the contribution the northern powerhouse can make to our economy. We can see, from a number of the announcements, that that investment is going in, but more importantly it is going in hand-in-hand with local control, giving control to the people who know best how to grow the economies of the north because they live in them and are part of them.
Fire and Rescue Services
Fire authorities have continued to provide an excellent service while making sensible savings. The number of incidents is 42% lower than 10 years ago, while the number of fire deaths and injuries is at an all-time low.
The existing grant distribution formula disproportionately penalises grant-dependent authorities such as Cleveland, regardless of socioeconomic deficits, unparalleled levels of industrial risk and/or their efficient performance. What assessment will the Minister make to identify less efficient authorities that can make savings and, more importantly, what capacity grant-dependent authorities have to make further savings?
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the magnificent work of firefighters, who, with the other emergency services, council staff, engineers, the armed forces, and indeed the whole community, have worked tirelessly to protect and help people during the flooding in the north of England.
Over the past five years, fire authorities have had spending reductions of less than local authorities. I have given the hon. Gentleman figures showing how well they have performed and managed those cuts, and the National Audit Office has said that the picture is one of financial health. In Cleveland, for example, the fire authority’s spending power is £48 per head of the population, compared to the national average of £37. So that is reflected in the formula.
The Minister mentioned the cuts to fire services over the years and said he took great pride in their work, particularly in places such as Cumberland, so I think he should award them a decent wage increase. What guarantee can he give that local fire and rescue services will not be negatively impacted if taken over by local police and crime commissioners?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are consulting across the country on whether to remove barriers to better local collaboration between all the blue light services. Such collaboration would be initiated locally, where it is wanted, for the purposes of providing a better service, if those changes would help.
I can certainly confirm that. They are two distinct services with proud and distinct histories, but, as I think my hon. Friend would acknowledge, the opportunities for them to work together should be taken, whenever it could make a difference to people on the ground.
I was greatly encouraged by what the Secretary of State said about amalgamating services, particularly with local authorities. Wiltshire fire service has been in discussion with the first-class, Conservative-controlled Wiltshire Unitary Council. Will he encourage the fire service, which has also been negotiating with Dorset council, to seek to find areas of co-operation with Wiltshire council?
I also pay tribute to the magnificent response of fire and rescue services to the floods in Cumbria and other northern areas. Fire and rescue services are rescuing people, pumping out water from flooded high streets and homes and rescuing livestock, thus limiting damage to rural communities, yet all those fire and rescue services have suffered cuts over the last five years. We have lost nearly 7,000 firefighters—one in eight—and equipment and appliances have been cut by more than 12% in metropolitan fire and rescue services. The fire service is at a key juncture. It is not safe, effective or efficient simply to keep cutting resources. Does the Secretary of State agree that more cuts will further damage the service’s ability to meet the risk in local major incidents, such as the recent floods, and will he commit to providing adequate resources so that the service can continue to contribute to national resilience on the scale and at the speed the public expect?
I would draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the National Audit Office report, which was published quite recently. It says that the picture to date is one of financial health and that
“fire authorities have not changed emergency response standards as a result of budget cuts”.
The evidence is that all but one stand-alone fire authority increased its reserves by 67% in real terms from 2010 to 2015. That tells me that the fire services are coping well with the reductions they have been invited to make.
I have lost confidence in the Staffordshire fire authority, which has decided to build a brand new fire station in Lichfield, but to reduce the number of appliances to half of what it is presently. Will my right hon. Friend work with Matthew Ellis, the police and crime in commissioner in Staffordshire, who has good, positive plans to combine the police and fire services for the betterment of the whole county?
We have successfully delivered 270,000 affordable homes since 2010. More specifically, the 2011 to 2015 affordable homes programme delivered 193,000 affordable homes, exceeding expectations by some 23,000.
It is no surprise that the Minister is so keen to crow about his numbers of affordable homes, but I can assure him that, in Sheffield, £250,000 is not considered affordable. Will he therefore introduce a statutory definition of affordability based on average income, not market rate?
I think the hon. Lady is referring to the maximum price for a starter home. If she looks, she will see that the average paid by first-time buyers is dramatically lower, which, along with the 20% discount we are introducing for starter homes linked to Help to Buy, makes buying a home affordable again for more people.
In Worcester, according to city council figures, 260 new affordable homes were delivered in the last financial year, a record for any year since 1997. That record was delivered by a Conservative administration the year after a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition delivered just 76 new affordable homes. Please can the Minister advise us how he will support well led councils such as Worcester to keep delivering more affordable homes?
My hon. Friend gives a good example of a good, well run local authority delivering housing for its constituents. We are determined to stand by those authorities and work with them. That is why I am delighted that the Chancellor committed a further £8 billion in the spending review to deliver 400,000 affordable homes across the country.
Given that average property prices in London have exceeded half a million pounds, first-time buyers will need to earn at least £70,000 a year to buy their first home. Does the Minister consider that affordable and, if not, what effective action will he take to put home ownership within the reach of the many and not just the few at the top?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is now joining our call to build more homes that are affordable for people. Starts are up some 57% in his constituency since 2010, which is a good start, but we want to go even further. That is why we want to deliver more shared ownership, giving people a wider opportunity to get on the housing ladder, along with the 20% discount on starter homes through Help to Buy on just a 5% deposit.
Some Opposition Members believe that homes can be made more affordable, particularly in London for example, by returning to the bad old days of rent controls. Will the Minister assure me and many other Members of the House that the Government have no intention of giving powers to any future Mayor to reintroduce rent controls in London?
As my hon. Friend will know, we are very keen to see more and more localism and devolution of power, but I am happy to tell him that this Government will not allow us to fall into the trap that Labour often encourages people to fall into. The reality is that rent controls simply drive supply down and end up increasing rents, so we are very much against them and they will not be allowed under this Government.
The Minister has talked about extra housing investment, and I would not want him or the Chancellor, who has said the same thing, to mislead the House. After the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the annual housing investment from the Government will be £1.7 billion. Under the money inherited in 2010 from Labour, it was £3.1 billion—not an increase, but a cut; not a doubling, but almost a halving. Does the Minister agree, therefore, that this must be the reason why his Government have built 30,000 fewer affordable homes to buy via shared ownership than Labour did in our last five years?
I am somewhat surprised that the right hon. Gentleman should ask a question of that type, bearing in mind that he was the Minister who oversaw the lowest level of housing starts in this country since the 1920s. What the Chancellor has now done has meant that this Government are overseeing the biggest building programme in about 30 years.
The Minister is wrong on the big picture as well. Under our national affordable housing programme, the number of homes built each year was bigger than under the last Government when he was the Minister. The hard truth is that for so many people, the dream of buying their own home is totally unaffordable and out of reach. Now the hon. Gentleman plans to fiddle the figures again by changing the definition of “affordable” to include so-called “starter homes” that can be sold at up to £450,000. Will he at least agree with Labour and the Building Societies Association, whose members will lend for these homes, that the discount on these starter homes should be permanent, not a cash windfall at the end of five years, but there for the next generation of first-time buyers as well?
I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman and I have a big disagreement on this. He seems to want to stop property owners having the right to deal with their property in the way that any other property owner would, but we want to support people who aspire to own their own home. That is why we want to keep building more homes generally and keep building more homes for people at that discount rate for first-time buyers. We are proud that under the Conservative-led coalition during the last Parliament, we oversaw an increase in affordable homes—unlike the loss of 420,000 that we saw under 13 years of Labour.
Home Ownership: Government Support
The autumn statement confirmed £8 billion for over 400,000 affordable homes, including 135,000 new shared ownership homes and £2.3 billion towards delivering 200,000 starter homes. Our Help to Buy ISA scheme, launched on 1 December, means that we have a Help to Buy equity loan scheme as well, which is being extended through to 2020-21. That means that just a 40% equity is being provided by the Government for people in London, and that will be launched in 2016.
I was very pleased recently to attend the opening of Prospect House in Cheadle Hulme—a brand new development of 11 apartments available for shared ownership, and I welcome further measures introduced by the Government to expand this scheme. What steps is the Minister taking to encourage local authorities to build more shared ownership housing and ensure that these developments utilise brownfield sites?
I am happy to respond. We will relax or remove local authority restrictions to shared ownership to make it easier for people to find the right home for their families. Brownfield land has an important role in meeting housing need, and we are committed to ensuring that 90% of suitable brownfield sites have planning permission for housing by 2020.
Since 2010, we have delivered 270,000 affordable homes, including nearly 200,000 homes for rent. The majority of rented homes, delivered through the affordable homes programme, are for affordable rent, delivering more homes for every pound of Government investment. The spending review committed some £1.7 billion to deliver 100,000 affordable rented homes.
Let me draw the Minister’s attention to the question I asked, which was about social rented housing, not affordable rented housing. Will he confirm that during the last Parliament, the only social rented houses built had been funded before the 2010 general election, and that there is no funding at all for social rented housing in the comprehensive spending review for this Parliament? Does the Minister accept that the combination of the policies of Right to Buy for housing association tenants and the sell-off of high-value council properties means fewer social rented homes being available for people and longer waits on the waiting list for those people who want one?
Actually, there was a 70% increase in social housing waiting lists under the last Labour Administration, and thanks to the flexibilities we have created, it has fallen. We also saw more social council housing built in the last Parliament than in the entire 13 years of Labour Government before that, and there is still over £2 billion of headroom in the housing revenue account for local authorities to go further and build more. I encourage them to do so.
The building of genuinely affordable homes for social rent in this country has plummeted, and no matter how much the Minister tries to dress up the Government’s record, his Department’s figures are clear and speak for themselves. In 2010, more than 38,000 homes were built for social rent, but by 2014-15, that figure was a truly dismal 9,500. The Housing and Planning Bill makes it virtually impossible to build homes for social rent. There was also the disgraceful sneaking out last week of proposals to end secure tenancies for local authority tenants. What exactly do this Government have against people who rely on social housing to make ends meet, and when is the Minister going to address the huge shortfall in social housing units?
As I said a few moments ago, in the last five years of Conservative government more council homes were built than in the entire 13 years of Labour government, during which the number of affordable homes dropped by 420,000. There is still more than £2 billion of borrowing headroom enabling local authorities to build more. We have made it clear that we will help all those who aspire to own their own homes by extending the right to buy and delivering starter homes throughout the country.
Autumn Statement: Devolved Services
9. What assessment he has made of the effect of policies in the spending review and autumn statement 2015 on his Department's expenditure on policies and services which in Scotland are devolved to the Scottish Government. (902671)
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the services of this Department are devolved to Scotland, so there are Barnett consequentials of spending decisions that affect the Department. As a result of the spending review, the Scottish Government’s capital budget will increase by 14%.
The Chancellor confirmed in the autumn statement the extension of the right to buy to housing associations, thereby effectively privatising them. As we all know, the existing right to buy has decimated social housing stock throughout the United Kingdom. The Scottish Government recognised that, and abolished the right to buy. Given that the new discounts and the so-called one-for-one replacements are not being financed by additional Government funding, will the Minister explain what effect the Chancellor’s proposals will have on housing in Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the policy intention to replace homes on a basis of at least one for one, which is greatly welcomed by Conservative Members. As I have said, the spending review will have a Barnett consequentials impact on the Scottish Government’s capital budget, amounting to £1.9 billion, which is in addition to the borrowing powers they already have. That will enable them to deliver on what they want to do for Scotland—just as we want to deliver on our objectives and manifesto priorities in England and Wales.
There are strict tests in national planning policy to protect people and property from flooding, which all councils are expected to follow. They include ensuring that new development does not increase flood risk elsewhere.
In my experience, the Environment Agency often does not object to a planning application even when the area on which building is proposed floods, and especially when other areas could be caused to flood by the development in question. Will the Secretary of State look into the agency’s policies and practice in this regard?
I will certainly do that. I recognise my hon. Friend’s constituency experience, and, indeed, his expertise as vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on flood prevention. However, the national planning policy framework states that any new application in an area of flooding risk
“must demonstrate that the development will be safe for its lifetime…without increasing flood risk elsewhere, and, where possible, will reduce flood risk overall.”
That test must be passed for the development to be permitted.
I am grateful for the opportunity that the hon. Gentleman offers me to pay tribute again to the fantastic work that is being done in the north of England, and which has, over the years, been done throughout the country at times when such emergencies occur. I will bear in mind what he has said, and it will be considered during our future discussions.
Loyn bridge, in Gressingham—which is in my constituency —has been partly washed away, and the roads on either side of it have caved in because of the flooding. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that everything will be done to ensure that the repairs are completed as quickly as possible, as the bridge is the main thoroughfare across the Lune valley?
I will indeed. I note the leadership that my hon. Friend has shown in, and with, his community in responding to those conditions. We are determined to ensure that things are put right with the greatest dispatch, and we are working closely with the authorities throughout the area. The funds that have been made available so far will allow an assessment of what is required for restoration to be made, which will be followed by the repairs themselves.
Does the Secretary of State think it is right that the Government are helping new people buy their own home under the Help to Buy scheme, but those very same people will not be eligible for flood insurance under Flood Re, which his Government are introducing in April?
Over 1,700 communities are preparing neighbourhood plans to shape development in their area. These will form part of the development plan and be used to determine planning applications. The Housing and Planning Bill reforms will speed up and simplify the process and allow communities better to engage in local planning.
The Minister will be aware that the planning inspector has deferred a decision on Chippenham’s housing development plan and has asked Wiltshire council to come back after a few queries. During this time, what measures could be put in place to ensure we do not have a free-for-all of aggressive planning applications against the best interests of the strategy of the town?
Having a five-year land supply in place puts local planning authorities in a strong position to resist unwanted development. Furthermore, national planning policy reiterates the importance of sustainable development, not development anywhere or at any cost, and I am sure my hon. Friend’s local authority is well aware of that when making decisions.
Last Thursday at business questions I raised the case of Porlock avenue in Audenshaw in my constituency, where a small semi-detached property that is now privately rented has been converted into a house of multiple occupation as part of the asylum dispersal programme. Does the Minister understand the dismay of the neighbours of this property that the owners are able to circumvent planning and licensing regulations because there will be only five people housed in the property?
The interpretation of neighbourhood plans appears to be causing difficulties, in particular in the beautiful village of Hook Norton in my constituency. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how villagers can ensure the neighbourhood plan is adhered to?
Local communities in York desperately need family housing built for social rent on the 35-hectare York central site, yet we hear that high-value flats are going to be placed on that site. Will the Minister listen to local communities and ensure their voice is prioritised?
This Government have demonstrated that we want local people to have a strong voice through neighbourhood planning. The issue the hon. Lady mentions is on the record, and her local planning authority should be listening to the concerns and comments of local residents.
Inverness City Region Deal
12. What recent progress has been made on the proposed Inverness city region deal. (902674)
The Government, along with the Scottish Government, are working with Highland Council to identify the opportunities for an Inverness and Highland city region deal. The discussions are ongoing. They are positive and constructive. I hope they will lead to the outcome that I am sure the hon. Gentleman hopes for. He is absolutely right to raise this important issue. City deals can be a great driver for growth; they can help us realise economic potential, and that is what we want to see.
Highland Council has submitted a detailed and innovative plan for city deal investment, with the support of the Scottish Government. Will the Minister commit to advancing discussions, and will he indicate a timescale for finalising the process to allow the deal to get under way?
Discussions are already under way. Officials met local representatives on 2 December and will continue to work through the plans to ensure that they are robust, that they deliver what is needed, that they meet the requirements that we place on such deals and that they have the support they need to continue. We wish to see them progress positively. That is the strongest assurance I can give the hon. Gentleman at this time, because of course those things need to be done properly and thoroughly before plans are taken forward.
Local Government Funding Model
I will shortly be presenting to the House the local government financial settlement for 2016-17. I will set out how we will deliver a sustainable settlement for that year and later years and pave the way for future reforms to fund vital services, promote growth and efficiency and devolve power and resources, just as local government has requested.
Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that since 2010-11 the areas of greatest need in England have seen the largest cuts in local government funding, breaking the historic link between the amount that a local authority spends per head and local deprivation levels. Over the past five years, councils such as Wirral have had severe cuts to their funding, whereas other areas have seen an increase. Forecasts suggest that Wirral will lose at least £126 million by 2020. What will the Government do to ensure that funding for local authorities genuinely reflects the needs of the people who live in the area?
The hon. Lady should wait to see what the settlement has in store, but she should know from the past few years that Wirral’s spending power, at £2,240 per dwelling, is 7% above the national average. Her council has reserves of £80 million, a third higher than they were in 2010. It is important that she bears that in mind.
20. People in rural areas such as my constituents pay an average of £80 more in council tax than those elsewhere, yet they receive about £130 less in central Government funding, which has an impact on local services. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is time to look for a fairer funding formula for all taxpayers? (902683)
I recognise that the cost of delivering services is higher in areas with a sparse population, for obvious reasons. The rural services delivery grant was introduced to reflect that extra cost, and it has since been increased. I will obviously have to bear that in mind when we assess what is needed in the financial settlement.
It is a year since a National Audit Office report found that the Department for Communities and Local Government had limited understanding of local authorities’ financial sustainability. Does the Secretary of State understand the unsustainability of high percentage, across the board cuts in low tax base authorities, and the fact that the complete removal of revenue support grant and the retention of all business rates without national redistribution will drive those authorities into the ground?
I would have thought that the hon. Lady, as a former council leader, would be in a position to welcome the spending review settlement, which not only provided protection in cash terms for the resources available to local government over the four years ahead but did what local government requested and made money available for the care of the elderly through the social care precept. I would have thought that her experience caused her to welcome that.
Will the Secretary of State ensure that the settlement reflects the pressures on top-tier authorities from adult social care costs, and particularly that it restates the opportunities for greater integration of health and adult social care spend, as supported by, for example, the London Borough of Bromley?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In advance of the spending review I had a communication from the Local Government Association estimating that the gap, if unaddressed, would be £2.9 billion. In the spending review settlement the Chancellor allocated £3.5 billion, to reflect the need to help our elderly population. That was a significant result for local government. As we come to make the settlement for individual authorities, we will ensure that that is in the hands of local people.
At least 340 unaccompanied child asylum seekers disappeared in this country between January and September, which is twice as many as did so in the calendar year before. That leaves them at terrifying risk of abuse, sexual exploitation and radicalisation. Councils say that funding cuts mean they do not have the resources properly to protect these incredibly vulnerable children, so why are the Government going ahead with a further cut to the unaccompanied child asylum seeker grant?
These are important statutory responsibilities of local authorities and it is vital that they discharge them. Through the spending review settlement, the Chancellor has made available funds to local government that make sure that the cash settlement by the end of the spending review period is the same as it is at the beginning. That is a positive result for local government.
The number of local authorities that have resettled Syrian refugees changes frequently, as more Syrians arrive for resettlement in the UK. Although it is not practical to give a running commentary on the number of local authorities participating in the scheme, I can confirm that at the beginning of December about 50 local authorities had confirmed places before Christmas.
Our dealings with local authorities vary very much, depending on the particular cases. We do not have any power to insist that refugees go to certain places, but we are working with county councils, district councils and metropolitan borough areas. The system is therefore very flexible, and all I can say is that at the moment it has been working very well, because the number of places that have been offered is broadly equivalent to the number of refugees arriving.
Planning Developments: Neighbourhood Plans
Planning appeals are determined in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Once brought into force, a neighbourhood plan is part of the development plan.
As the Minister will know, a few weeks ago the villagers of Earls Barton were trooping to the polls to vote on the referendum on their neighbourhood plan, at the very same time as the Secretary of State was allowing a housing planning appeal in their area. After all the work my constituents have put in, what assurance can the Minister give them that this work on neighbourhood plans will be worth while?
I recognise my hon. Friend’s diligent commitment to representing the views of his constituents and taking an interest in local matters, including this one. He will appreciate that I cannot comment on individual planning cases, but neighbourhood plans are, where appropriate, given significant weight, and individual decision letters will set out why there is a difference and why a neighbourhood plan has been departed from. The Secretary of State will always give appropriate weight to neighbourhood plans, which are an important part of our planning process and of localism. We welcome them and we want to see more agreed.
Local Government Grant Formula
We will shortly present our proposals for a sustainable and fair 2016-17 local government finance settlement to the House. We propose to continue our approach of transforming local authorities from being dependent on grant to benefiting from promoting local growth.
Spending on adult social care has fallen by £65 per person in the most deprived communities, whereas it has increased by £28 per person in the least deprived. In one of the councils I represent, the estimated shortfall in adult social care funding following the comprehensive spending review is £20 million, of which £2 million can be raised by increasing council tax by 2%. Is it not true that allowing an extra 2% rise in council tax merely devolves the blame without fixing the problem?
In the provisional local government settlement that will come very shortly, we will announce changes to the local government finance system to rebalance support, including to those authorities with adult social care responsibilities, by taking into account the main resources available to councils, including council tax and business rates.
Edinburgh City Deal
We are speaking with Edinburgh and south-east Scotland to look at proposals for a city deal there. It is welcome that so many parts of Scotland are keen to be part of the process of delivering city deals. We must ensure that, when they are agreed, they are agreed in such a way that will drive economic growth, and that is exactly what we are doing.
Despite the obvious wealth that exists in some parts of Edinburgh and south-east Scotland, there are also significant areas of very severe deprivation. Some 21% of children in the proposed city region live in poverty just now. The economy of the area has not been helped over the past few months by Government decisions on renewables. Rather than just talking about this deal, will the Minister tell us what the timescale is, first, for a decision and, secondly, for actual action on it?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the diverse nature of the area about which he talks. We see great potential for growth across Edinburgh and south-east Scotland. We want to ensure that we can realise that potential and deliver that growth. We will continue to have talks, which have been productive and are constructive, with interested parties on the city deal. We will continue to work constructively to deliver that city deal if it can be delivered in the right way. These things must be decided properly and after due consideration. That is the process that is currently under way.
The Housing and Planning Bill contains measures to tackle and go further with rogue landlords than anything we have had before. We want to rule out rogue landlords who rent out substandard accommodation and to do all we can to ensure that tenants have a good and safe environment. Our proposals include a database of rogue landlords and letting agents, banning orders for serious or repeat offenders, a tougher fit and proper person test, extending rent repayment orders and introducing civil penalties.
Over the past five years, despite the poor quality of many privately rented homes, rents have soared and they are now a fifth higher than they were in 2010. Why are the Government not taking any steps in their new Housing and Planning Bill to help private renters with these soaring rents?
If the hon. Lady looks at the private rented sector over the past five years, she will see that its increases are, on average, lower than the increases in the social housing sector, hence our reason for the changes in the Budget. We are going a lot further than ever before in cracking down on rogue landlords, whom everyone across the House would like to see put out of business.
An important part of protecting tenants is ensuring that landlords understand their obligations and that tenants understand the remedies that are available. What action is the Department taking to ensure that tenants and landlords understand their rights and responsibilities?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Apart from the extra measures that we are taking in the Housing and Planning Bill, in which we will do all that we can to publicise to tenants what they need to be aware of so that they know what to expect, we have also published a guide for tenants, so they can clearly understand their rights and what to expect from a good quality landlord. We should be clear that the majority of landlords offer an excellent service and that tenants are happy with them.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (902653)
At the start of topical questions before Christmas, may I wish everyone a very happy Christmas across the country?
Since our last oral questions, the spending review has announced the biggest affordable house building programme by a Government since the 1970s, delivering at least 400,000 affordable homes, and has confirmed that resources available to local government will be maintained in cash terms until 2020. We have agreed devolution deals with Liverpool and the west midlands. We have completed the Committee stage of the Housing and Planning Bill and Third Reading of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. We will continue to develop new devolution deals with communities in order to devolve more power and resources right across the country.
As my right hon. Friend might know, I am running a campaign to try to save the hedgehog. Will he ask his Department to provide guidance to local authorities on how to make gardens in new-builds more hedgehog-friendly and ensure that we can have a hedgehog superhighway?
I know that this is a prickly issue for my hon. Friend, so let me come straight to the point. I will not be issuing guidance on the protection of hedgehogs, but I draw Members’ attention to the excellent publications of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. I recommend its guide to looking after hedgehogs to any hon. Member who wishes to curl up this Christmas and read it.
If the hon. Lady looks at the figures, it will be quite apparent that the local authorities with the highest spending power are those that she refers to. Councils will see a rise in their resources in cash terms over this Parliament, from £40.3 billion to £40.5 billion in 2019-20. The hon. Lady will shortly see the outcome of the local government finance settlement.
T2. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming plans submitted for the tearing down of the PowerGen building in Solihull—an eyesore that has blighted the lives of my constituents for a generation? It is being replaced by hundreds of new homes of many different types, including 260 badly needed assisted living apartments. (902654)
My hon. Friend has given a really good example of a local authority making good use of brownfield land to provide the housing that its local community needs. I congratulate him on thinking properly and locally in that way.
T7. In a hasty attempt to reverse the Office for National Statistics decision to reclassify housing associations as “public”, Ministers were recently reported to be considering the sale of £44 billion of Government grant on housing association balance sheets to private investors. Housing associations have made it clear that they would strongly oppose such a move and David Orr, the chief executive of the National Housing Federation, has called it an “unhelpful distraction”. Will the Secretary of State assure the House and the housing association sector that the sale of Government grant on housing association balance sheets to private investors is not under consideration? (902659)
T4. Last year, Christchurch Borough Council’s local development plan was adopted with new green-belt boundaries. Will my right hon. Friend ensure public confidence in that plan by making it his policy to call in for his determination any application by a local authority to depart from the plan by giving itself planning permission to build on the very green belt that was so recently confirmed? (902656)
My hon. Friend outlines an important point. It is absolutely right that once a local authority has its local plan in place, it should adhere to it. If his local authority dared take an opportunity to go outside the local plan, I am sure that my hon. Friend would be the first to ask me or the Secretary of State to consider the application.
T8. Crippling cuts have led to some local authorities having to close their local welfare assistance schemes altogether. Food banks in these areas are reporting increased need. Given that the Government are continually presiding over 5 million people living in food poverty, will the Secretary of State commit to protecting future funding and reinstating the local welfare ring fence? (902660)
My hon. Friend is, of course, well placed to represent the views of the people of Lincolnshire and he does it very effectively. The whole approach of the Government towards devolution is bottom up; it is about bespoke deals that recognise that areas are different and that local people know best the tools they need to drive economic improvement and improve lives for the communities that they represent. Discussions in Greater Lincolnshire are going well and include the issues of skills, transport, housing and water management. I hope they will conclude successfully and that a deal will be reached that will last for a very long time.
T9. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Business Secretary to explore how councils in steel communities can use imaginative and creative approaches to business rates to support the steel industry through this difficult time? (902661)
I have had discussions with the Business Secretary and his colleagues. It is very important that we empower those local communities to be able to act in support of the businesses and the employees of those industries. Through the extension of the enterprise zone in Teesside, for example, the hon. Gentleman will see that practical support has been given to make sure that the prosperity of those regions continues to grow, despite these challenges.
T6. I am delighted to see the extra supply of affordable housing that will result from the Housing and Planning Bill, but a key to that is supply. Does my hon. Friend agree that the London Land Commission is crucial to this, and will he keep under review all the powers that it may need to ensure the supply of that land? (902658)
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am honoured to be joint chair of the London Land Commission and I can assure him that we will make sure that that land becomes available and plays its important part in delivering housing for the needs of London. Once we reach the 12-month point from when it starts, we will carry out a review to make sure that the commission has all the powers it needs to deliver on that promise.
T10. On Saturday I was out with Caroline Pidgeon, who is London Lib Dem mayoral candidate. We were campaigning on the subject of police community support officers. Will the Secretary of State talk to the Policing Minister about ensuring that PCSOs continue to play the essential role that they play in keeping our streets safe, particularly in boroughs such as Sutton, where we have the Safer Sutton Partnership, which joins the police and the local authority together? (902662)
My hon. Friend, who has a deep and long-standing interest in the matter, will know that the funding of adult care needs to be done jointly between local councils and the NHS. The Health Secretary and I are working very closely to make sure that the funds that the Chancellor has made available are put to good use so that our elderly people are properly cared for, whether they are in the charge of councils or in our hospitals.
This Government are doing a number of things to help the type of traders that the hon. Gentleman refers to. We have allowed sensible planning changes to allow local areas to respond more flexibly to changing market conditions on the high street. We are tackling over-zealous parking practices and I am working closely with retail organisations on the Future High Streets Forum to develop strategies that will enable our high streets and communities to meet the future needs of the consumer.
I commend Staffordshire fire and rescue service for its work in fire prevention, which has contributed to a fall in call-outs, but does my right hon. Friend agree that further integration and collaboration between police, fire and other blue light services would help to identify vulnerable people more effectively, which would lead to better outcomes for the public and great efficiency savings?
I agree that closer collaboration between our blue light services offers the opportunity to offer even better services, as well as to make efficiencies, so I encourage her and her colleagues to make their representations through the current consultation so that we can do that without the current barriers.
On the very last day of consideration of the Housing and Planning Bill, the Conservatives passed an amendment to bring to an end secure tenancies in social housing. That was done without consultation or any impact assessment. Can the Secretary of State tell me where he warned council tenants that this was in the Conservative manifesto?
Apart from the fact that that was outlined in the summer Budget, the tenancies of current council tenants are not affected. The provisions in the Housing and Planning Bill laid on 7 December prevent councils from offering new tenants life-time tenancies in future.
Some areas, such as the Isle of Wight, will have a much more difficult task than others in increasing their income through increasing the business rates base. Will my right hon. Member meet Isle of Wight Council to discuss this matter?
I would be delighted to meet Isle of Wight Council. In taking this historic step of giving 100% business rates to local government, it is very important that, with local government, we agree on how places that do not have such a buoyant business rates base do not lose out.
Many of my constituents were dismayed when I went back at the weekend after hearing last week, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) suggested, that the Government were going to limit council tenancies. What does the Minister say to people in my constituency who are absolutely dismayed that this Government have pulled a flanker on them, and pulled the rug from under them, in what they consider to be their rights as tenants?
I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave a few minutes ago and remind her that council tenants who already have a tenancy are not affected by this—it is about new tenancies. This is the right thing to do, as I am sure she would agree, given that the previous Member for Holborn and St Pancras had a council house when he was on a Cabinet salary. I am sure that many taxpayers would wonder whether that was good expenditure.
South Gloucestershire, Bristol and Bath and North East Somerset councils work very well as a functional unit. Does my right hon. Friend understand that any attempt to reintroduce Avon, directly or through the back door via Treasury pressure, would be regarded as an enormous betrayal, and will he guarantee that it will not happen?
As I said earlier, the Scottish Government are seeing a significant increase in their capital budget as a result of the announcement in the spending review. The Barnett consequentials of individual policies are worked through and delivered. The British Government—the Government here in this place—meet our obligations in that regard, and will continue to do so, to ensure that the Scottish Government get a fair deal and can continue to deliver what they need to deliver to meet their obligations and the concerns of hon. Members.
National Minimum Wage: Sports Direct
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that working people are paid the full amount that the law requires for every hour that they work, and I welcome his urgent question. We take the enforcement of minimum wage laws very seriously. That is why we have increased the enforcement budget from £8.1 million in 2010 to £13.2 million in 2015-16. While I am not able to comment on enforcement action in relation to individual employers, I can assure the House that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs follows up every complaint it receives in relation to breaches of the national minimum wage. I encourage any employer or worker who is concerned that these laws are not being complied with in their workplace to contact HMRC or ACAS, through its confidential hotline. HMRC undertakes targeted enforcement activity in the most high-risk sectors of the economy.
As the Prime Minister announced in September, the Government are taking a number of further steps to crack down on employers who are not paying workers the minimum wage. We have already increased the penalty for breaches of minimum wage legislation to 100% of arrears, up to £20,000 per worker, and from April 2016 the Government will double the maximum penalty from 100% to 200% of arrears so that employers comply with the law and working people receive the money they are due. Furthermore, a new team of compliance officers will be established within HMRC to investigate the most serious cases of employers not paying the relevant minimum wage. The team will have the power to use all available sanctions, including penalties and criminal investigation. We will also continue to name and shame employers who do not pay their workers what they are entitled to.
As a Government, our message to employers is straightforward. We will work to reduce burdens on business by cutting regulation and corporation tax. In return, we expect employers to pay working people at least a decent legal minimum—the national minimum wage and, from next April, the national living wage for workers aged 25 and over. I can assure the House that we will not hesitate to crack down hard on employers, large and small, who break this social contract by failing to pay the wage that the law requires.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I am proud that the last Labour Government, in the face of the then Conservative Opposition, introduced the national minimum wage in the first place, when people in our country were earning as little as £1 an hour. I am also proud —the Minister mentioned this—that the overwhelming majority of British businesses, notwithstanding any legal requirements, seek to treat their workers with dignity and respect.
We know enough about the practices at Sports Direct plc, which has a branch in my constituency, to conclude that this company is a bad advert for British business and one with a culture of fear in the workplace, which we would not wish to see repeated elsewhere. As the Institute of Directors has said, it is
“a scar on British business.”
I appreciate what the Minister said about not necessarily being able to respond in specific instances, but may I ask him this question? HMRC enforces the national minimum wage. A complaint has been made by Unite the union, of which I am a member, against Sports Direct, accusing it of being in breach of the legislation. HMRC says it cannot act without evidence being provided by workers in that workplace, but, of course, all of them are refusing to come forward in the warehouses concerned, for fear of the repercussions that will follow. Why cannot HMRC go ahead and carry out an investigation in this case, which surely will render other evidence without workers being required to put their necks on the line?
Secondly, may I ask the Minister a generic question? An issue has come up whereby employees are required to go through body searches to check for potential theft. The time they spend going through body searches is not time for which they are paid. The law is unclear in this area. Can the Minister give industry an indication of whether, in the Government’s view, time spent going through body searches would count as working time for the purposes of the legislation?
Thirdly, employees face having 15 minutes of working time deducted if they clock-in just one minute late. The law is not entirely clear about that situation, either. Do the Government believe that if an employer is engaged in those kinds of practices, they are not in keeping with the spirit of the legislation?
Fourthly, the enforcement of national minimum wage legislation is carried out not by the Minister’s Department, but by HMRC. How can we expect HMRC to do the work that we require of it if the Government are pushing through an 18% real-terms cut in HMRC’s funding over the course of the spending review period?
Finally, I have no doubt that the reaction of the employer concerned will be to say, “We comply with the law,” but surely what it needs to understand is that the British public expect a lot more from it. We often do not do things that the law allows us to do, because we do not think that that is the right way to treat our fellow citizens. Surely that should apply to the company in this case.
The hon. Gentleman asked a series of very important and good questions. The first point I would like to make is that, if any employee of any company has any fear of repercussions, I can reassure them that the ACAS hotline is genuinely confidential. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would be willing to endorse the fact that ACAS is an absolutely, resolutely independent organisation, so people should have no fear of calling that hotline out of hours and reporting a practice.
I did say in my brief response that HMRC enforcement is entitled to conduct targeted enforcement activity in sectors of concern, so it is entirely open to HMRC to investigate proactively in sectors where it feels that breaches may be in evidence. In that sense, it does not necessarily need to wait for a specific complaint to be able to investigate breaches.
I have read the article that revealed some of the allegations being made about Sports Direct. The hon. Gentleman asked about the search and whether the time it takes is working time or not. This is an intensely vexed legal question and he will know, as a former employment law practitioner, how much of his former colleagues’ time it is taking up. I cannot give an absolute pronouncement, but what I can say is that anything that counts as work as part of somebody’s employment contract must be compensated at least at the level of minimum wage. The question is whether such a search counts as work under their employment contract, and that question can be explored legally.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the second claim that was made—about employees being docked 15 minutes for being one minute late. Although it is legally permissible for time to be docked for late arrival, it is important for every hon. Member to understand that the minimum wage legislation will apply to the 14 minutes as well as to the rest of the time that people work, so employees cannot not be compensated for those 14 minutes if that would bring their overall wage rate down below the national minimum wage. I hope that that goes some way to reassure him.
The hon. Gentleman made a general point about the cut in funding for HMRC of 18% over the spending review period. I will have to take his word for it because I do not have the global figures to hand. I pointed out to him the very significant and dedicated increase in funding for the minimum wage enforcement team. It has gone up by more than 50% since 2010 and will go up £3 million this year alone. I can therefore reassure him that, whatever else is going on in HMRC, this is a priority in which we are investing and on which we will beef up activity.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make the general point that obeying the law is the minimum we expect of employers. We expect employers to behave responsibly and to be good citizens. We hope they would not be satisfied with just obeying the law, but would want to go a great deal further, and in a sense, our expectations about the behaviour of large and profitable employers are even greater than those for others.
Order. I am glad that the Minister graciously welcomed the urgent question. Unfortunately, the Treasury wrote to me this morning to say that the matter was not urgent and should not be aired. Upon examination, I concluded that it was and should. We look very much forward to the exchanges.
Mr Peter Lilley was standing, but the right hon. Gentleman has thought better of it. Never mind—fair enough. I call Mr Marcus Fysh.
My constituents have approached me with concerns about Sports Direct on several occasions since the election. It appears that Sports Direct can sometimes make somewhat aggressive use of and have a somewhat aggressive attitude towards flexible working. Flexible working can suit some people, but does not always suit others. When it comes to such employment laws, has my hon. Friend given any thought to a general anti-avoidance rule, such as the one we are considering in the tax sphere?
Mr Speaker, you know that it would be a career-limiting move for me to depart in any way from the script laid down by my colleagues at the Treasury, but may I just repeat that I welcome the urgent question and was glad to have the opportunity to answer it?
I thank my hon. Friend for his suggestion. I am not going to pretend that we had given thought to that, but he has now triggered such a thought. I would be happy to discuss with him how it might work.
The allegations against Sports Direct are extremely concerning, and we echo the calls of Unite the union for an HMRC investigation into the reported breaches of the national minimum wage legislation at the Shirebrook warehouse. We stand in unity with the employees, because such practices do nothing to engage them and make them feel positive about the place in which they work.
Allegations of such a serious nature must be taken very seriously by the UK Government, and they must do much more to support the accreditation of living wage employers. The Scottish Government have led the way in encouraging more than 400 living wage employers in Scotland. We have the second highest proportion of employees paid the living wage—80.5%—across the countries and regions of the UK.
Scottish National party Members want the Government to commit wholeheartedly to supporting an HMRC investigation into these business practices. What lessons can be learned from this case, especially when the UK Government are gearing up to implement the new minimum wage premium, which is not a living wage? If they cannot enforce the current minimum wage, how on earth will they manage to enforce such increases?
I welcome the contribution from the hon. Lady who represents the Scottish National party. Of course it is the job of the enforcement team in HMRC to follow up any concerns that they have in relation to specific complaints or sectors where they feel that abuse of the minimum wage legislation and other employment legislation is rife. However, I am sure she will understand that I cannot comment on a particular case.
In general, I do not often welcome investigations by The Guardian newspaper, but it is vital that media organisations investigate these matters. The Government will never be able proactively to investigate every employer in the country. If the media can uncover things, I promise that the Government will review their findings and enforce the law, where necessary.
I echo the Minister’s comments on the ACAS hotline. I called the hotline with a constituent who came to my surgery believing that he had been paid below the minimum wage. I found ACAS extremely professional during that phone call and would recommend the service to any hon. Member who had a case in their constituency.
May I question the Minister on the upcoming change to the minimum wage, with the introduction of the living wage? I read that in a recent Department for Business, Innovation and Skills survey of 1,000 employers, nine out of 10 employers strongly welcomed the introduction of the living wage and said that it would boost productivity and the morale of their employees. However, it was concerning that four out of 10 employers said that they had not communicated with their staff regarding the upcoming potential rises in pay, and that eight out of 10 still had not updated their payroll or created new procedures to implement the living wage. Will the Minister comment on that, so we can be sure that legitimate businesses are ready and do not get into a similar situation?
I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out, from direct experience, how good the ACAS hotline is. On the national living wage, which is coming in next April, a substantial Government communication campaign will start in the new year. We feel that it is in the months leading up to its introduction that communication will be most effective in making sure that employees and employers know that it is coming in, know what is required and begin to work out how to implement it in their systems.
The Sports Direct scandal has occurred even though the national minimum wage has become a national treasure. Everyone supports it now, but, like all great social reforms, it had to be fought for in the teeth of bitter, all-night opposition in this House. Even when great social reforms become part of the political consensus, they still have to be fought for. The battle to sustain and enforce the minimum wage must be continuous and, frankly, requires more than just warm words from Ministers.
The TUC estimates that at least 250,000 workers are not being paid the minimum wage. What is the Minister’s estimate? Have the Government even made one? In the last Parliament, it was revealed that just nine firms had been charged for non-compliance with the minimum wage. Will he update the House on how many legal proceedings are under way against firms for non-compliance? Can he even tell us how many workers have received the money that they are owed after a notice of underpayment has been issued by HMRC, because up to now the Government have failed to provide those data? Will he order an urgent investigation into Sports Direct concerning the alleged abuses, which have led the Institute of Directors to label it
“a scar on British business”?
The Minister says that he is acting, but where are the results? How will he get results with the closure of so many HMRC offices? It is easy to talk the talk on low pay, but it means nothing to millions of low-paid workers, whose labour employers feel they can turn on and off like a tap, unless Ministers walk the walk on the minimum wage. When will we see real action to enforce it?
I am happy to acknowledge that the national minimum wage was one of the great achievements of the Government led by Tony Blair. I note simply that there are more supporters of that Government’s achievements on this side of the House than on the hon. Gentleman’s side. I look forward to receiving the same acknowledgement from Opposition Members when, next April, we introduce the national living wage, which is significantly higher than any increase in the national minimum wage he and his colleagues proposed during the last election campaign.
The hon. Gentleman asked some good and proper questions about enforcement, but he glided over the fact that the budget for enforcement has gone up by more than 50% since his party was in government and that we have increased the arrears penalties, increased the powers and stepped up the programme of naming and shaming companies, large and small.
In 2014-15, 705 employers received penalties, totalling more than £934,000. We are setting up a new dedicated team to focus on tackling the most serious breaches, and to consider whether directors of employers that persistently breach legislation should be disqualified. In 2014-15 we identified £3.29 million arrears for 26,318 workers, we conducted 735 successful investigations, and we charged 705 penalties, worth £934,000. We successfully defended 17 of the 23 appeals against enforcement notices. If, from the luxury of opposition, the hon. Member for Cardiff West wants to suggest further activity that we could carry out, I am always happy to hear about it. Fortunately, we are doing a lot more than the Government he was part of to defend one of the only achievements that Labour Members are still willing to talk about.
There are reports that some large retail businesses have already increased their hourly salary for employees to a level above the national living wage, following the Government’s announcement. Will the Minister update the House on his understanding of that?
I have heard such reports, and while I do not have the list of major retailers that have announced that measure on the tip of my tongue, that extremely welcome news underlines the point made earlier: we expect more than just obedience to the law; we expect social responsibility and for employers to see benefits from the improved morale and retention that come from paying people better wages.
The Minister should not expect social responsibility from the man who controls Sports Direct in my constituency, at the warehouse at Shirebrook on a pit site. That man has not made £6 billion because he is a considerate employer; he is a monster of a man who does not even reply to MPs’ letters—I have sent him many. He has £6 billion and is on The Sunday Times rich list, because he is the type of man that will not take any notice of HMRC unless the Government really mean business. This man, Mike Ashley, would fit very nicely on millionaires’ row, along with his pals. This will be a test of the Minister’s mettle—get stuck in.
I have never had the pleasure of being encouraged to get stuck in by the hon. Gentleman before, but I promise to follow up on that. Let me be clear: I do not care how famous or well connected employers are, and I frankly do not care how much money they have made. They must obey the law, and if they do not, we will enforce it. We will fine them and disqualify directors if necessary.
As well as strong enforcement by the Government, it should be possible for those who are employed by bad businesses to vote with their feet and move to better employers. What is being done to help to create more and better jobs for those employed by Sports Direct, and to communicate the availability of those jobs?
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing us back to the important and constant theme of this Government, which is an economy that is creating new jobs at an unprecedented rate. Most of those jobs are now full time, and most not only pay more than the minimum wage, but pay more than the national living wage that will be introduced in April. It is ultimately through a dynamic economy that we will create opportunity for anyone who does not feel that they are getting a square deal from their current employer.
When Sports Direct announced that it would build its factory at Shirebrook, people in north Derbyshire were delighted. It is a tragedy that an organisation that employs nearly 3,000 people should have such a terrible reputation. What steps can the Minister take to communicate with that company and try to ensure that its future success does not come at the expense of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner)?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has pointed out how important that organisation is as an employer in his constituency. It is important we acknowledge that Sports Direct employs a great many people, and I am sure a great many people are very happy to work there. I reinforce the point, however, that no company director and no company owner will want the House of Commons to be discussing, in the terms we are discussing, the kind of breach that was alleged in the newspaper article. I am absolutely certain that, when faced with the kind of enforcement action I have set out, any employers, including those in his constituency, will want to sort themselves out.
What message of Christmas cheer does my hon. Friend have for all those people who are self-employed and earning far less than the minimum wage, but are faced with having to submit quarterly returns to HMRC instead of annual ones?
I am full of admiration for anyone who is self-employed. It brings many rewards, but money is not always one of them. I am absolutely clear that the Government must do everything they possibly can to reduce the burden of regulation on those who are self-employed.
Does the Minister recognise that what is so disturbing about the newspaper report is the fear among many people working there? In some instances, women are apparently not willing to stay away from work, even if their child is sick for a day, simply because they may lose their job. Is it not totally unacceptable to have such fear and exploitation in a company? Does it not remind one of the early years of the last century when workers were treated in such a contemptible way? Finally, why was the advice given to Mr Speaker that this was not an urgent question? If the Minister is so keen on coming to the House and welcoming The Guardian investigation, why did he try to stop the question being asked in the first place?
Mr Speaker, it is always for you to judge whether a question is urgent. I simply acknowledge that this question is important, which is why I am so delighted to answer it. On the hon. Gentleman’s broader points, while the Government believe in deregulation and reducing the burden on business, we have made it clear that certain laws are absolute and must be adhered to: minimum wage legislation is one, along with health and safety legislation and a whole slew of other employee protections. We intend to enforce those protections robustly.
According to the Office for National Statistics, a quarter of million people are not paid the minimum wage. According to the Minister, HMRC has found 26,000 of them. What is the Minister going to do to bridge the gap? If the Minister does not have any ideas—it does not look as though he has a plan—may I suggest something? To not pay the minimum wage is a criminal offence. Why have there not been any prosecutions taken out against directors who are not paying the minimum wage? The department in the Attorney General’s office responsible for taking out prosecutions has been cut for the past three years and there has not been a single prosecution during that time.
The hon. Lady always comes to this House knowing the complete answer to every question, but it might help her sometimes if she would actually listen to the list of measures we have introduced that go significantly further than any enforcement activity the Government she supported ever brought forward to defend their minimum wage. When the set of enforcement measures is working as well as it currently is, I see no reason to take any instruction, however helpfully phrased, from the hon. Lady.
On the facts, the case in The Guardian is disturbing. Does the Minister agree that one good piece of news is that, whatever else happens, in April next year Sports Direct will have to pay these people 11% more than they are getting now?
The Minister has pointed out that HMRC conducts risk-based enforcement in sectors where there is a high risk of workers not getting paid the legal minimum wage. Is the sector in which Sports Direct operates a high-risk sector? If so, how many proactive initiatives has HMRC launched in it?
The targeted sectors are those where low pay is prevalent and where many employers are therefore close to the minimum wage boundary and those where there have been significant breaches in the past and where there is therefore good reason to expect other such breaches in the future. I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman how many such investigations there have been, but I am happy to write to him and place a copy in the Library.
The Minister wrote to me on 14 October about the care sector—one of the sectors he just referred to—saying that HMRC was investigating several companies in the sector, but he could not confirm which companies or comment on the progress of the investigations. Given what he said about being strident with the owners, managers and directors of these companies, will he be strident with MiHomecare and Mitie—previously run by the new Tory Baroness McGregor-Smith—about whose conduct significant concerns have been raised?
It is not the job of a Minister of the Crown to lay down the law on individual cases and companies that have not been found definitely to have breached the law. I have been as clear as possible about any employer, large or small, that does breach the law, and I hope the hon. Gentleman can apply that to any particular case.
In our area, everyone knows that English native speakers cannot get a job at the Sports Direct warehouse, despite 3,000 people working there, and there was a baby born in the toilets there. Why were there 80 ambulance visits to Sports Direct in two years? Is it because employees are too scared and not allowed time off to see the doctor, and there is therefore a misdirection of NHS resources? Might there also be tied housing, meaning that people are too scared to speak because they are provided with a house to live in, the rent and the transport they have to pay for to get to work? We need a full investigation not just into Sports Direct but into the plethora of agencies it used to employ.
If the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member has allegations and evidence of bad practice in relation to minimum wage, or any other, legislation they would like to bring to my attention, I would welcome it. The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) mentioned that a trade union had raised concerns about this particular employer. If employees do not trust the Government phone line, despite the ACAS hotline being genuinely confidential and independent, and if they would like to submit their evidence through the union, they can, but I am sure hon. Members will understand that they need to be willing to engage with enforcement officers to provide evidence. The Government have to act on the basis of evidence; however well researched the Guardian article was, it is not enough on its own.
My understanding is that the trade unions have made representations on behalf of staff who, for good reasons, want to remain anonymous. Should HMRC continue to ignore representations on behalf of legitimate trade unions, or should it act now and search the offices of Sports Direct?
I have made it clear that if any individual complaint is to be assessed for its validity, HMRC needs to be able to follow it up. I have also made it clear that in sectors of concern, HMRC undertakes targeted enforcement activity that does not wait for a complaint. It will be listening to this debate.
The Minister said that it is ultimately a growing, dynamic economy that should give people confidence about being able to find well paid jobs, but good employment practices and legislation also give them confidence. One issue that is greatly worrying a number of residents in my constituency is the use of tips and service charges to top up wages and the murky world of requirements used by employers such as Turtle Bay, a local restaurant. Will the Minister meet me and some of the campaigners from the GMB union to look into these practices further? I know he has recently conducted an investigation, but it would be incredibly beneficial to those on low wages in my local community to look at how these practices are used to top up wages or otherwise, especially ahead of the new higher minimum wage that he has talked about.
Climate Change Agreement
It gives me great pleasure to report to the House on the United Nations conference of parties in Paris last week. COP21 has delivered an historic new global climate change agreement that takes a significant step forward towards reducing, on a global scale, the emissions that cause climate change. For the first time, nearly 200 countries have made a commitment to act together and to be held accountable. In doing so, this agreement will help to protect not just our environment but our national and economic security, now and for generations to come. As the Prime Minister said in his speech at the start of conference:
“instead of making excuses tomorrow to our children and grandchildren, we should be taking action against climate change today.”
I am proud to say that there are no more excuses. With the Paris agreement, we have shown that the world has committed to action.
This deal is unequivocally in Britain’s national interest. It moves us towards a level playing field at a global level within which the UK’s society and businesses can thrive, as we transition to a low-carbon economy. This is a deal we are wholeheartedly committed to, recognising that action by one state alone cannot and will not solve climate change. It is what we do together that counts.
This is a moment that all parties in the House can take significant credit for. Together, we passed the Climate Change Act 2008, which set an example to the world of what ambitious domestic climate action looks like. Together, since Copenhagen in 2009, we have supported a long, difficult and complex negotiation, which has brought us to this point. I want to pay tribute not just to the Prime Minister and my colleagues across Government, but to my predecessors as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change for all the hard work they put in to bring us to this point.
As a country, we should be proud of the role we have played, leading in the European Union, working closely with major global players, including the US and China, and leading many of the negotiations. My Department, with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, has worked tirelessly to build the political conditions and the capacity to enable countries to act. The UK team in Paris last week showed commitment, passion and resilience. When Laurent Fabius asked me to chair the finance session at 4 am on Friday morning, I was well supported, and when I left at 6.30 am, they stayed to write up the conclusions and send them to the presidency. That, Mr Speaker, was commitment.
The UK played a key role in building alliances and shared positions, especially with the most vulnerable countries, to ensure that pressure for ambition could be maximised. The deal in Paris was not done to us; it was done by us. Indeed, it reflects many of the elements that we as a country have already committed to as part of the Climate Change Act. Of course Paris is not the end of the road. We cannot sit back and say, “Job done.” Far from it: Paris is the beginning. Now the hard work to implement the agreement begins.
Let me turn to what the nearly 200 countries have agreed. First, we have set out a clear long-term goal for the world to achieve net zero emissions by the end of the century. The long-term goal sends a strong signal to investors, businesses and policy makers that the shift to a global low-carbon economy will happen and it provides the confidence needed to drive the scale of investment required. We have confirmed our collective ambition to limit global temperature rises to below 2° C. We have agreed a further aspiration of 1.5°. However, the current level of commitments by individual countries will not meet this ambition, so crucially, countries will come back to the table to assess overall progress towards the 2° goal in 2018 and every five years thereafter.
As investment grows and the costs of low-carbon technologies come down, the Paris process will provide not just the opportunity but the political pressure to step up individual countries’ emissions reductions targets. Starting in 2020, countries are expected to update their own plans to cut emissions, and will be legally obliged to do so again every five years, thus providing regular political moments to scale up ambition.
This agreement is not only comprehensive in its scope, as it also recognises the role of both developed economies and emerging economies in helping the poorest and most vulnerable countries to protect themselves from the effects of climate change as they transition to a low-carbon economy.
Over the last five years, the UK’s £3.87 billion international climate fund has been helping millions of the world’s poor better to withstand extreme weather and rising temperatures. At the UN Secretary-General summit in September, the Prime Minister announced a significant uplift to increase climate finance by at least 50% with £5.8 billion-worth of climate finance over the next five years to support poor and vulnerable countries to adapt to climate change and to curb emissions. This is part of a global commitment to mobilise $100 billion a year from both the public and private sector to protect the most vulnerable and support economic growth from 2020. Other developed countries, including Germany, France, the US, Japan, and Canada have all recently announced increases in their climate finance.
Important as the Paris agreement is, we will achieve our ultimate ambition only if it acts as a catalyst for transformational action from all parts of society. That is why it has been so important to see real action over the last month from business and civil society. A new initiative, for example, called “Mission Innovation”, will see some of the biggest global economies—including the UK, US, and India—doubling their investments in clean energy research and development. Crucially, it is private investors who will join us in this endeavour to bring down the costs of low-carbon technologies.
Here in the UK, we have committed to doubling spending in clean energy research and development, so that by 2020 we will be spending in excess of £400 million. That pledge has been matched by 19 other countries worldwide. This is in recognition of the fact that we will tackle climate change effectively only if we find technologies that are both clean and cheap. Let me emphasise that the announcement I made last month—that I would set out proposals to close coal by 2025 and restrict its use from 2023—added to the momentum at Paris.
The Paris agreement truly marks an historic turning-point. It builds on the Kyoto protocol, and for the first time ever provides the comprehensive framework in which not just developed countries, but nearly every country of the world has committed to take the global action needed to solve a global problem. Of course, it was hard fought and of course it required compromise to bring everyone with us. Of course, too, it has not solved every problem in one go.
Now we have to set about implementing the commitments made, but we should not underestimate the significance of what has been achieved. All parties have recognised that economic and global security requires us to tackle climate change. All have come together to commit to a single goal—net zero carbon emissions by the end of the century. All have agreed to set out plans to curb emissions and to be held accountable for their actions. We have made a huge step forward in meeting our responsibilities to this and future generations. As the excellent Executive Secretary to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, said:
“I used to say we can, we must, we will. Now I can say we did.”
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement, and for giving me advance sight of it. I also thank her for paying tribute to successive Secretaries of State on both sides of the House. She is right to recognise that the cross-party consensus that has existed since 2008 helped to build the road to Paris, and gave the United Kingdom its voice in the negotiations. It is a precious legacy for all of us, and we must not allow it to fracture now.
For the first time, leaders from nearly every country in the world have come together to cut carbon pollution and set us on the path to a cleaner, greener future; to agree on a common goal of building a carbon-neutral global economy within a generation; to reduce pollution; and to switch to cleaner energy—and, as the Secretary of State rightly recognised, all countries have agreed to raise their ambition every five years until the job is done. I particularly welcomed the Secretary of State’s announcement that the developed world would do its fair share by providing at least $100 billion of finance to assist poorer and more vulnerable countries.
This is a moment to celebrate, not because the agreement is sufficient—we must be honest about the fact that the pledges made by each country do not add up to a commitment that will keep temperature rises well below 2°—but because it gives us enough to take us much, much closer to climate safety, and sends a clear signal to global financial markets that the era of unchecked fossil fuel use is coming to an end.
This accord is testimony to the fact that we are stronger and safer when we work together, both at home and abroad. Our voice has been heard more loudly because we have worked closely with our friends in the European Union and we have spoken together, united and with one voice. Our voice has also been heard because of the hard work and the skills of our lead negotiator, Pete Betts, and his team in the Department for Energy and Climate Change, who worked tirelessly with Sir David King and his team of diplomats in the Foreign Office to secure the agreement. Let me place on record our thanks for what they have achieved. Let me also commend the dedication of the British scientists, campaigners, faith groups, business leaders and civil society organisations who mobilised public support for this global deal. Last month, along with some of my hon. Friends, I joined hundreds of thousands of people to march peacefully through the streets of London, Edinburgh and other major cities around the world, to ensure that our collective voice was heard in the negotiating rooms of Paris.
The question that must now be asked is “What does this deal mean for Britain?” In recent months, the Government have made a series of decisions that have reversed our progress on the road to climate safety. Ministers have attacked the cheapest options for achieving carbon targets, and household energy bills may rise as a result. Last week, during the Paris negotiations, they decided to raise household and energy bills again through the capacity market auction. Hundreds of millions of pounds will go to energy companies to keep open power stations that would have been open anyway. It is difficult to see how that is consistent with what the Secretary of State has said today, and with her claim to be acting to control costs. Will she explain that to the House today?
Ministers have also undermined our progress on carbon capture and storage, which is crucial to ensuring a just transition and support for climate change action from the communities of Britain who work in the important industries that rely on fossil fuels. In Yorkshire and Scotland, communities, scientists and engineers are reeling from the Chancellor’s decision to axe a £1 billion fund for CCS. Can the Secretary of State tell us today that that decision will be reversed?
The Government have wasted no time in blocking new wind farms even where they enjoy strong local support, and have made severe and short-sighted cuts in energy efficiency and solar power schemes. Thousands have lost their jobs, and thousands more could still do so. Millions around the world will go into the coming winter facing the prospect of cold homes and high energy bills, and in this country that is avoidable. The Government’s decisions will cause immense damage to human lives and to the planet.
Following the Prime Minister’s important words in Paris, will the Secretary of State demonstrate to the House that the Government as a whole will listen, and that they will prevent the Green Investment Bank from being sold off in a manner that will remove its green mandate, leaving it free to invest in fossil fuels; cancel the new tax on more efficient vehicles; and stop another tax raid on the renewable energy industry? All those steps will take us backwards on climate change and jeopardise jobs in the industries of the future. It raises this question: what is this Government’s plan for meeting Britain’s climate change commitments? The Government’s own advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, recently warned that existing energy policy is “failing”, and only this morning the CBI called for more clarity for British business. On news of the Paris deal and the goal it contains to limit global temperature rises, its director told the BBC:
“Businesses will want to see domestic policies that demonstrate commitment to this goal”.
So can the Energy Secretary confirm whether her Government’s recent string of green U-turns will now be reviewed in the light of the new assurances we have that every country will play its part in addressing climate change?
Secondly, can the Energy Secretary confirm that the UK will continue to support raising European targets on reducing carbon pollution by 2030, to ensure we are making our fair contribution to the international effort and grasping the maximum potential for our economy from green industries? Finally, will the Energy Secretary ask the independent Committee on Climate Change to review the adequacy of Britain’s existing carbon reduction targets in light of the new internationally agreed goal of limiting global temperature rises to well below 2 °C, and ideally to no more than 1.5 °C?
Two weeks ago the Prime Minister said that when we look back, we will ask
“what was it that was so difficult when the world was in peril?”
The Secretary of State rightly said in her statement to the House that there are no excuses, and I look forward, as do all my hon. Friends, to hearing how she intends to breathe life into this historic landmark agreement.
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions and welcome her support for the overall global deal. In answering her questions, I would make the following points. First, the UK’s emissions are 1.2% of the world’s, so our emphasis must be on making sure we get an international deal. That is why we were so committed to it. That is why we spent the past week flat-out trying to achieve it, and working to ensure we got China into the deal, which is responsible for 26% of the world’s emissions—more than the EU and the US combined. We remain committed to the Climate Change Act and to making sure we go forward on a low-carbon future, but there is no value in it if we do not actually have influence in the rest of the world. That is what we achieved this week: making sure that that influence was absorbed and taken on, so we reached that agreement—very late on Saturday night.
To answer the hon. Lady’s questions about our position in this country, I repeat that we are committed to the Climate Change Act 2008 and to our goals and our carbon budgets, but the difference between her side of the House and ours is that we will not risk security of supply and we will not put additional costs on consumers. She asks about the capacity markets but I am afraid that her interpretation is wholly wrong. The purpose of the capacity market is to take absolutely no risks with security of supply. That is what we have done, and we are proud of doing that.
In terms of the actions on renewables, this is about ensuring that our consumers pay the right price for the renewables to which we remain committed. As the costs of renewables come down, it is absolutely right that the subsidies come down. It is completely wrong to characterise us as having any negativity about renewables. We remain committed to them, but we will continue to make provision for them at the best value for money.
As far as CCS is concerned, it was a tight spending round in the review with the Treasury. The cost was £1 billion, and we made a decision not to proceed with the fund. I believe that CCS is going to play an important part in decarbonising in the future, particularly industrial CCS, and we will work internationally to make progress on that. Overall, this Government are absolutely committed to a low-carbon future that is value for money and constantly provides security to consumers and families.
As far as I am aware, there are only two peer-reviewed studies that have computed the total reductions in emissions promised by the member states at Paris, fed them through the standard climate model and calculated the impact on future temperatures. Both have concluded that the temperature in 2100 will, as a result of this treaty, be a mere 0.2 °C below what it would otherwise be. Has my right hon. Friend any alternative figures, and would not the trillions of pounds being spent on such a puny achievement be better spent on alleviating poverty and eradicating disease?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, but at its core is a suggestion that what we are doing will not alleviate poverty. On that he could not be more wrong. Particularly through climate finance and the investment that will come from the private sector, which Governments will be able to leverage, we will help to alleviate poverty and provide energy in areas of Africa and India that have never had it before. That is an essential part of what we will achieve.
Order. I should gently point out to the House that hon. or right hon. Members who were not present at the start of the Secretary of State’s statement should not expect to be called. Now that I have made that point, it would be rather unseemly for them to continue to stand, as well as fruitless.
I add my thanks and that of my party to the Secretary of State, her team and all those both at home and abroad who made the deal possible. The term “historic” has rightly been used in the rhetoric, but we will be judged not on words but on deeds.
We very much welcome the money to be provided to those most at risk from climate change and to those who have contributed least to it. That is the theme of climate justice, which I have spoken about here before. The deal is not perfect, and it has been acknowledged that it is not enough. We need to up our game both at home and abroad if we are to meet the target of a 2° C rise or well below, and extensively so if we are to meet the aspiration of a 1.5° C rise.
It strikes me that we almost have two Secretaries of State—the one who made her eloquent statement extolling the virtues of the low-carbon economy, and the one who answered questions and reiterated some of the appalling betrayals that the green economy has suffered at the hands of this Government. She said in her statement that there are no excuses, but for the past six months I have heard excuse after excuse. On onshore wind—excuses. On the solar feed-in tariffs—excuses. On carbon capture and storage—excuses. On the Green Investment Bank—yet more excuses. Will she rethink those policies and reinvest in them, or are we to hear yet more excuses?
The world stands on the brink of a global green revolution, and the economic possibilities are enormous, yet we seem determined to throw away our lead in various technologies. To use the words that my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) regularly uses, the Government are being penny-wise but pound-foolish. There has been betrayal on carbon capture and storage—I had to question my hearing when it was said that it had a bright future in the UK following the recent decision. It might, but it will be technology developed by others, and others will make the money out of it. That is so short-sighted that it is beyond belief.
Scotland wants to play its part, and we can play our part, but we require this Government to match their rhetoric with deeds. Will the Secretary of State back the green economy and allow us to play our part, or will we hear yet more excuses?
I simply do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation. I share his enthusiasm for the low-carbon economy, but we are going about it in a different way from the one taken under the coalition. We are making sure that we deliver better value for money, and we are investing in the future in a way that has not been done over the past 20 to 25 years—for instance, with nuclear and with offshore wind, which I am sure he would support. While supporting the low-carbon economy, we must also maintain security of supply, and I am sure he will continue to support the Government’s commitment to oil and gas in Aberdeen.
My right hon. Friend rightly says that not all countries have the same resources as we do to meet their targets. I am happy to say that we have a number of helpful tools that we offer in working with other countries, such as the global calculator. It helps them to work out what steps they need to take to meet their targets, and we expect to step up that engagement to help them to do so.