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Commons Chamber

Volume 605: debated on Monday 8 February 2016

House of Commons

Monday 8 February 2016

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Speaker’s Statement

I wish to repeat what I said to the House on Friday.

It is with great sadness that I must report to the House the death of Harry Harpham, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough. Harry entered the House at the last general election, following careers as a miner, as a researcher for David Blunkett, now the right hon. Lord Blunkett, and as a representative of the National Union of Mineworkers at Clipstone colliery. Harry was also a councillor on Sheffield City Council for 15 years, holding important cabinet responsibilities in that time, and serving as deputy leader of the council. Harry was a diligent constituency Member of Parliament, who held the Executive to account on behalf of his constituents. Most recently, on Wednesday 20 January, he asked the Prime Minister what support the Government were providing to world-class companies such as Sheffield Forgemasters.

I must tell the House that Harry informed me a few weeks ago of his circumstances. Let it be recorded that he first fought bravely his illness, and then bore it with stoicism and fortitude, continuing to battle on behalf of his constituents to the very end. Harry will be sadly missed by us all, and our thoughts are with Harry’s wife, Gill, and the wider family at this very sad time.

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Supported Housing

1. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of planned reductions in social rents and housing benefit support on the provision of supported housing. (903499)

18. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of planned reductions in social rents and housing benefit support on the provision of supported housing. (903518)

I associate myself and my colleagues on the Government Benches with your comments, Mr Speaker. Harry Harpham was a very distinguished long-serving councillor and we will all miss him in the years ahead.

This Government have always been clear that the most vulnerable will be protected and supported through our welfare reforms. Following our review of supported housing, due to report this spring, we will work with the sector to ensure appropriate protections are in place.

I, too, associate myself with the sad sentiments that have been expressed about our dear colleague.

The Minister says that the review will report in spring. It was due to report at the end of last year. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State is still pressing ahead with cuts before the review comes out. Can the Minister say why that is?

As the hon. Lady may have heard in the recent Opposition day debate, we have always been very clear that the most vulnerable in our society will be protected. We will also ensure a fair settlement for taxpayers.

Will the Minister acknowledge that, although his announcement to delay the 1% rent cut affecting supported housing is welcome, it does not go far enough and the substantive proposals should be jettisoned to inject much-needed stability back into the sector?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, and as I said in the recent debate, we are working with the sector. The changes will come in in 2018, but we are very clear, and have always been very clear, that we will make sure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected.

11. Homeless hostels and foyers play a vital role in helping rough sleepers to get off the streets and into long-term homes. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend could confirm that housing associations will be given urgent clarity on whether the local housing allowance cap applies to those services. If it does not, there is a real worry that many will close and that, as a result, there will be an unnecessary rise in the numbers of young homeless people. (903510)

My hon. Friend always fights hard for his constituents. Preventing youth homelessness is a priority for this Government. We are investing £15 million in the fair chance fund, an innovative payment-by-results scheme. That is helping some 2,000 vulnerable young homeless people to get into accommodation, education, training and employment. We will work closely with providers to find a long-term solution to the funding of supported accommodation.

I, too, associate myself and those on the Labour Benches with your comments, Mr Speaker. Harry Harpham will be sorely missed by the Labour party, his constituents, and, of course, his family and friends. Our thoughts are with them at this time.

Research from Changing Lives, a Newcastle-based specialist housing agency, estimates that it and other supported housing providers across the country will lose a huge sum of money from the Chancellor’s crude cuts to housing benefit. The discretionary fund on which the Government say they must rely is totally inadequate. What will the Minister do to ensure that that vital form of housing for many thousands of people with disabilities and other specialist needs remains and is properly funded in future?

I say to the hon. Lady, as I have said before, that we will make sure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected. We are also boosting supply with £400 million-worth of funding announced in the spending review to deliver specialist affordable homes for the vulnerable, the elderly and those with disabilities. Of course, there is also our £5.3 billion investment in the better care fund, through which we are looking to integrate health and social care.

Property Purchase Schemes

I associate myself with your sentiments, Mr Speaker, about our former colleague, Harry Harpham.

This Government are committed to increasing home ownership. More than 130,000 households have purchased a home through Help to Buy since 2012. We have just launched London Help to Buy, and I can tell the House that in the first seven days, 15,000 people have registered to take advantage of it. Since April 2010, more than 53,000 homes have been sold to tenants under Right to Buy, and a voluntary Right to Buy scheme will give 1.3 million more families the opportunity to do so.

Bovis Homes, a major employer in my constituency, commends Help to Buy as a tremendous initiative, but we all know that we need more small-scale developers in the supply chain to increase the supply of homes to which Help to Buy can apply. Does my right hon. Friend agree that large-scale developers franchising some of their plots to small and medium-sized developers is one way of getting those small-scale developers into the supply chain?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. One of the effects of the financial crash was that many small builders left the industry, and we need to get them back and involved. My hon. Friend has a good idea. The direct commissioning scheme that we have announced, whereby we can carve up public sector land into small plots so that small builders can take advantage of it, will be a big step forward, too.

We should have an end to these excuses. There is a generation in the rented sector who have no hope of owning their own homes. Is it not about time that we had some bold, imaginative policies? How many new towns are there? How many new generations of building are going on? How many houses are being built in Ebbsfleet, for example, which is supposed to be a new town? Will the Secretary of State answer that?

Over the last five years, home ownership, and particularly house building, has been revived from the crash that happened under Labour. The hon. Gentleman should welcome the planning reforms that we made, which have increased planning permissions by 50%. He should welcome the introduction of starter homes to give first-time buyers a foot on the housing ladder. He should welcome the extension of Help to Buy, which has helped so many people to achieve their dream of a home of their own.

Right to Buy does not apply to rural exception sites. Does the Secretary of State therefore agree that affordable housing in rural areas is absolutely key?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. In providing homes in all communities for all types of people we need to make sure that we have diversity of tenure, especially in rural areas. My hon. Friend is right.

The idea that any of these schemes are affordable is an Orwellian myth. In my constituency, people need an income of £70,000 to be able to get an affordable home, and that is going up to £90,000 before long. To whom is that affordable?

I do not think the hon. Gentleman does a good service to his constituents. He should know that under the combination of Help to Buy and shared ownership, the deposit that a London first-time buyer can be required to pay on the average price paid of £385,000 is as low as £4,800. The hon. Gentleman would do his constituents a service by promoting these schemes to them.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments about the importance of the small and medium-sized building sector. Does he agree that one of the most damaging things that could happen to that sector’s involvement in London would be the imposition of a 50% affordable housing target across sites, which would have no relation to the viability? As experienced under Ken Livingstone, this would actually drive developers away from bringing sites forward.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is not a matter of speculation but a matter of fact, because, as he says, the last Mayor tried that, and the amount of available housing in London fell. We want to provide homes for Londoners. The present Mayor has an exemplary record in providing affordable homes—indeed, homes of all types—ahead of the targets, and the £400 million that is being invested in the 20 housing zones across London is a tribute to his tenacity.

I am pleased to say that hundreds of families in my constituency, and in the local authority area of North East Somerset, have benefited from the Help to Buy and Right to Buy schemes, but young families still cannot get on to the housing ladder because of the high cost of housing. Will the Secretary of State meet me, and other Members whose constituencies contain high-value areas, and will he undertake to roll out the two-for-one guarantee in those areas?

I will certainly meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues. It is essential for homes to be built in every community, so that young people and rising generations throughout the country have a chance to continue to be part of the communities in which they were born and raised.

Private Rented Sector

I believe that all tenants should have a safe place in which to live. In the Housing and Planning Bill, the Government have introduced the strongest ever set of measures to protect tenants and ensure that landlords provide good-quality, safe accommodation.

According to a freedom of information inquiry that I carried out last year, only 14,000 of a total of 51,316 complaints made to councils about poor housing were subjected to a local authority environmental health assessment, and, on average, councils prosecuted only one rogue landlord every year. Is it not irrefutable that local authorities lack the resources, certainly, and the will, in some cases, to take action against rogue landlords? What possible grounds can the Minister have for resisting a modest change that would allow tenants to take legal action against landlords who let homes that are not fit for human habitation?

The hon. Lady is right, in that local authorities should be using the powers that they have. As I have said, there is already a requirement for properties to be fit and proper, and she may wish to welcome the extra £5 million that we have added to the £6.7 million that we have already invested to support it. However, if she looks at the changes in the operation of fines in the Housing and Planning Bill, she will see that the amount of resources for local government will be beyond anything that we have ever seen before, and certainly beyond anything that the Labour Government ever did.

Much of what the Minister said is not what I am hearing from constituents. Many of those who come to see me speak of substandard homes which are damp and cold and have not been subjected to gas and electricity safety checks, and many are afraid of dealing with their landlords because they fear being evicted. What will the Minister do about that? Does he now regret not supporting Labour’s amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill, which would have ensured that landlords only let properties that were fit for human habitation?

I hope that the hon. Lady will join me in insisting that her local council takes its duty seriously and deals with the situation. The Bill will enable councils to issue civil penalties amounting to up to £30,000 and remedy payment orders for up to 12 months. That will give them a resource that they have never had before, and one that I hope they will endorse and use. [Interruption.]

While the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) is right to draw attention to the difference in the enforcement of existing regulations, neighbouring councils with the same resources often enforce the regulations in radically different ways. May I encourage the Minister not only to promote the best practice in enforcement, but, most important, to challenge councils that are failing to use the powers that they have?

My hon. Friend has a wealth of experience in this field, and, as always, he speaks with great common sense and logic. Local authorities should be using the powers that they have. By far the majority of landlords provide a good service, but authorities should be using those powers to crack down on the rogue landlords whom all of us, including good landlords, want to see driven out of the system.

May I commend the Government for taking the toughest action on rogue landlords in a generation in the Housing and Planning Bill? On the provision of private sector rented housing, will the Minister give me an undertaking that he will continue to work, on a cross-party basis if necessary, to develop residential estate investment trusts, on which there has been a commitment from both parties over the years, and work with the Treasury to bring forward proposals for private sector housing, particularly in areas with affordability issues?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and we are working right across government on the institutional investments. I can tell the House that the estates regeneration panel that the Prime Minister has set up will be meeting for the first time tomorrow and will be looking at all these issues in that context as well.

Many of the 33% of my constituents who rent privately have been the victim of revenge evictions. Shelter has estimated that in a calendar year 4,000 people in my constituency were victims of revenge evictions and 200,000 people across the country suffered from rogue landlords. The Minister has been speaking about how much work the Government have been doing, but will he clarify what impact the law that was brought in last year has had on the number of revenge evictions across the country?

It is clearly a matter for local authorities to use those powers to crack down on rogue landlords and to ensure that they are providing the right services. It is just a shame that the Opposition did not support those measures in the Housing and Planning Bill.

In my constituency, some of the worst landlords have been prosecuted by Boston Borough Council, and the Department for Communities and Local Government has recently awarded it a £74,000 grant to keep up that good work. Does the Minister agree that when councils are proactive, there are resources available for them to enable them to be more proactive?

My hon. Friend is right. He has given us an example of a good council looking to do the right thing by its local residents by ensuring that they are well protected and well served, using the extra funding that we have put in. In addition, local authorities will be able to impose the new £30,000 civil fines when the Housing and Planning Bill gets Royal Assent, and it is a shame that the Opposition did not support that measure. It will mean that councils will be able to do more in this regard than ever before.

City Deals: Scotland

6. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers of the Scottish Government on the Aberdeen city region deal. (903505)

On 28 January, the Government, along with the Scottish Government and the local leadership in Aberdeen were able to announce the Aberdeen city deal heads of terms. The deal includes an investment fund of up to £250 million. This shows the investment going in and the support being delivered for our economy in Aberdeen, just as it is across the country as a whole.

With the Treasury having received more than £300 billion from North sea oil revenue over the past 40 years, and given that the current low oil price is being aggravated by deliberate under-pricing, including by our “friends” in Saudi Arabia, does the Minister not think that the UK Government should at least match the £250 million given by the Scottish Government, instead of offering just £125 million to help the region through this difficult time?

Most people welcome the Aberdeen city deal, the significant investment that is going in and the joint working that it demonstrates between the British Government and the Scottish Government to make a real difference and to drive forward the economy in Aberdeen, which faces some of the challenges of which the hon. Lady speaks. It underlines the fact that we really are better together.

I would first like to offer the condolences of the Scottish National party to the family and friends of Harry Harpham. He was passionate about housing, and he would no doubt have wanted to be here today to question the Government.

The Aberdeen city and shire deal submitted a bid for £2.9 billion of investment, but that ambition was not matched by the Tory Government, who stumped up only £125 million for the deal. Can the Minister understand why the people of Aberdeen city and shire feel disappointed and let down by this Tory Government?

Agreeing a city deal, with £125 million added to the other money that is going in, which is wanted by local people and delivered in co-operation with local partners, should be welcomed. It will drive forward growth, and it is something that a number of other areas would be very keen to secure if they could do so.

This Government are not providing a 50:50 basis for this deal. In fact, the Scottish Government are contributing £379 million to it. Will the Minister and his Government respond to calls from the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities and stump up the additional £200 million that Aberdeen so clearly needs?

When I saw that this was an area of questioning with which we would be dealing today, I had hoped the questions would focus on the great positivity that has surrounded the announcement, which is characteristic of the working together that has got us to a place where the heads of terms on this deal have been announced. This deal will make a real difference and it is only possible because of the contribution the British Government have made, alongside the Scottish Government, working with local partners. It is a welcome deal—it is a welcome deal in Aberdeen and it should be welcomed by Scottish National party Members rather more than it appears to be at the moment.

City Deals: Scotland

This question underlines the point I was making about how other areas would like city deals, too. We have to work together to deliver city deals and we have to ensure that they are properly thought through, but we will continue to have those discussions and continue to work together to deliver something that can make a real difference. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will continue to be a passionate advocate for it.

This city region deal was submitted in September, with further information being submitted to both the UK and Scottish Governments on 18 December. Local government received a draft set of terms of reference from the UK Government, which was responded to in early January, but despite follow-up, it is still to hear anything further back. Can the Minister confirm whether a deal will be in place prior to the purdah period for the Scottish Parliament elections?

The Edinburgh and South East Scotland city deal is another important area of potential growth. The discussions are important, as this has to be done properly. The discussions have to be detailed, going through the opportunities as well as the costs. Given what has been achieved in Aberdeen, it is no surprise that the hon. Gentleman is keen to secure a city deal for his area, too. We will continue to have those discussions, and if the right deal can be reached, we will look to deliver on it.

The Government committed £500 million to the Greater Cambridge city deal—or 50%. Following the news that only 25% of Aberdeen and Shire’s deal was funded by Whitehall, may I ask what percentage of the Edinburgh and regions deal the Minister will be committing?

As I said, those discussions are ongoing and we will see what conclusion they reach. What is welcome is the recognition across the House that city deals can make a real difference and the recognition in those communities and economies of the value they can bring and of the growth they can generate. We will continue in those discussions. I hope we will reach a conclusion that will be welcomed by hon. Members from across the House, but I am confident that the city deals, as a whole, are making a real difference and will continue to do so.

Brownfield Sites

We are committed to fulfilling our manifesto commitment of supporting development on brownfield land. To that end, we are creating a £2 billion long-term housing development fund to unlock housing on brownfield land, and we are determined to make sure that we get 90% of that land with planning permissions by 2020.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. In my constituency, we place great importance on the amenity that the green belt provides to our communities. What support is his Department providing to metropolitan boroughs to unlock brownfield sites for modern commercial as well as housing development, in order to afford further protection to the encompassing green belt?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we want to make sure we are protecting the green belt, and the national planning policy framework does just that. This £2 billion fund will make that brownfield land more attractive, as will planning permission in principle, once the Housing and Planning Bill goes through. This is about making sure we do everything we can to get those brownfield land areas developed for the benefit of our local communities.

Celanese is a very large brownfield site in Spondon in my constituency that is not included in Derby City Council’s core strategy, because it says that it will not be ready for development until at least 2028. The company on the site, however, says it will be ready by 2018. Does the Minister agree that local authorities should be doing more to utilise these sites through the funding that the Government have announced is available and increasing their efforts to make things ready for development?

My hon. Friend, who is working passionately for her local community to make sure that brownfield land is appropriately and properly used, will appreciate that I cannot comment on the particular local plan that is at examination stage. It is true to say, however, that a local authority should be working with its local community to make sure that appropriate brownfield land, with a good understanding of its availability, is brought forward at the earliest opportunity and can take advantage of this new £2 billion fund as well.

Pendle has 46 hectares of brownfield land, 40 hectares of which is assessed as suitable for housing, yet just days ago Labour and Lib Dem councillors voted through an application to build 500 homes on a greenfield site in Barrowford in my constituency. I am a strong supporter of localism, but how can the Government make councils such as Pendle Borough Council step up to the challenge of brownfield development, rather than just taking the easy option and building on our green fields?

My hon. Friend highlights a good case. I know that, with his support, the previous Conservative-led Administration in Pendle was passionate about delivering on brownfield land. We want to see 90% of that land given planning permission. The best route is for the local community to take note of what the authority does and to let it know exactly what it thinks at the ballot box next time round.

I join you, Mr Speaker, in paying tribute to my friend and colleague, Harry Harpham, who will probably be the last coalminer elected to the House. As you rightly said, despite the seriousness of his illness, he was still here three weeks ago arguing passionately for the steelworkers and steel industry in Sheffield. It was a fitting culmination to years of dedicated service to the people of Sheffield. That service included the delivery of the decent homes programme, from which thousands of our tenants have benefited.

There are many brownfield sites in the Don Valley in Sheffield on which more than 1,000 homes could be built. The problem is that the land is subject to flooding. Sheffield City Council has identified £40 million towards a £60 million flood prevention programme. Will the Minister ask his officials to liaise with officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and city council officers to find a joined-up approach to ensuring that this land can be safeguarded and that those 1,000-plus homes can be built on the available brownfield land?

Yes, the hon. Gentleman outlines a good example of where everybody could work together in the best interests of the community and to see more housing built, and I am happy to organise that meeting. I will make sure I have that conversation with him and the local authority.

York desperately needs family and social housing, yet the council plans to build predominantly high-value units on the 72 hectare “York Central” brownfield site, which will go no way to addressing our housing crisis. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the principle of York First and putting the interests of the city ahead of asset housing?

As the hon. Lady will appreciate, it is absolutely right that local communities can make local decisions about what is right for them and that her local authority can look at its local housing need and make a decision about what is right for it, as it is looking to do in York.

In 2012, the Secretary of State told the House that the new planning policy framework offered “clear and unequivocal” protection of the green belt, yet the number of green-belt approvals has increased fivefold in the last five years under this Government. The new permission in principle powers in clause 102 of the Housing and Planning Bill will only further undermine the green belt. When will the Government put urban regeneration first, rather than ex-urban sprawl?

Through the national planning policy framework and the guidance that has come out since, we have actually strengthened green-belt protection. With the new planning permission in principle, the new requirement for a brownfield register and the £2 billion fund, we are going further than any Government before in making sure that brownfield sites are developed first.

Will the Minister agree that the plan of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) to drive the London Land Commission to force local authorities to bring forward unused land will secure the homes that Londoners need and protect the environment and give London the quality of environment it deserves?

My hon. Friend outlines the sensible and productive approach that has been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who I hope will be the next Mayor of London, to make sure we deliver more housing for London. As the joint chair of the London Land Commission, I look forward to working with him.

Does the Minister understand the plight of the residents of Haughton Green, an urban village in my constituency, who, under the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s spatial framework, have seen every remaining piece of open green space in that area identified for future development? Is it not time we had a planning system that worked for the people of Haughton Green?

The hon. Gentleman’s council is represented on that authority, so I would hope it has a voice. I am also co-chairing the Manchester Land Commission, and I will certainly raise that point with the Labour interim panel chair and Mayor.

Neighbourhood Plans

10. What steps his Department is taking to support communities in setting up neighbourhood plans. (903509)

Our £22 million support programme for neighbourhood planning for 2015-18 provides neighbourhood planning groups with online resources, an advice service, grants and technical support in priority areas. Furthermore, the Housing and Planning Bill will speed up and simplify the neighbourhood planning process.

I thank the Minister for his important answer. Having failed to deliver the first time, the Liberal Democrat-led Eastleigh borough council is now consulting on its new and somewhat controversial draft local plan document. Does the Minister agree that the best possible solution for my constituents is to have a suitable and properly supported local plan, and to back parishes such Botley on their community created neighbourhood plans, as there is currently none going to referendum in Eastleigh?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I am pleased to reassure her constituents that if they go forward with a neighbourhood plan, it will have weight in planning law, and if the local authority is failing to do its duty by its local residents in the community then the neighbourhood plan is the best way to proceed.

A number of neighbourhood plans have failed because of insufficient evidence, unrealistic expectations and a failure to meet European environmental requirements. What help is the Department giving those formulating these plans to ensure that they meet the standards set down by the independent examiners?

As I outlined in my initial answer, we not only have online resources and advice services, but give grants of up to £8,000, with a further £6,000 in particularly difficult areas. Workshops are also going out around the country, and the National Association of Local Councils is talking through its parish council network about how the system works. I gently say to the hon. Lady that every single neighbourhood plan that has gone to referendum has passed with a huge majority.

Might it not be a good idea to highlight an exemplar neighbourhood plan in each shire area, which could be specifically rolled out across that county, to encourage more parish councils in particular to get involved?

As is often the case, my hon. Friend raises a very good idea, and I will take it forward. I will be talking to the group that is going out and doing this kind of work and sharing best practice around the country. It is a good idea for local authorities to look at what others have done locally, and we will certainly do our best to take up his idea and to promote it further.

Social Care Services

We have provided up to £3.5 billion of funding to meet the demographic pressures on social care. This is significantly more than the £2.9 billion that the Local Government Association estimated was needed.

When will the Government accept that the problems of social care will be overcome only when there is a comprehensive and publicly provided system of social care for all, which is free at the point of need? I am talking about a national care service, exactly parallel to and integral with the national health service—a true public service free of privatisation.

This Government are absolutely committed to the full integration of health and social care by 2020, and we will require all areas to have a clear plan for achieving that by 2017. The hon. Gentleman will also be interested to know that, by the end of the decade, the spending review does include more than £500 million for the disabled facilities grant, which is more than double the amount this year. That will fund around 85,000 home adaptations by that year, and is expected to prevent 8,500 people from needing to go into a care home by 2019-20.

17. Adult social care will be one of the biggest challenges that we face over the next several decades. Does the Minister agree that more needs to be done to integrate health and social care, particularly building on the success of the Better Care Fund, to encourage local authorities to work with local health providers to come up with innovative solutions for adult social care? (903517)

I know that my hon. Friend is a real campaigner on this issue. As he identifies, the Better Care Fund is paying dividends. We are seeing significant joint working through the Better Care Fund, which, in many areas, is reducing delayed transfers of care from hospital. We are absolutely intent on spreading best practice around all areas of the country. Plans are also in place to improve areas that are the most challenged.

I am afraid that what we have just heard is nonsense. Government funding for social care falls far short of what is needed. Directors of adult social services tell us that £4.6 billion has already been cut from adult social care, and the gap is growing at £700 million a year. The social care precept will raise only £400 million a year, and the Better Care Fund, which the Minister mentioned, does not start until next year, at £105 million a year. Government Ministers must consider that they are risking the collapse of social care because their funding is too little and too late.

The funding coming into the Better Care Fund—£1.5 billion—is all new money for adult social care, and it is going directly to local authorities. The absolute key is the integration of health and social care, and as I have set out to the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) and my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris), the Government are determined to achieve that integration.

Does the Minister agree with the Conservative council leader who covers his constituency and who was recently quoted in the press as saying that inadequate Government funding has left his local council struggling to provide adult social care services?

First, I welcome the hon. Lady to the Dispatch Box. I heard what she said about the Conservative leader of my local authority, Warwickshire County Council. I speak to the lady to whom she referred at all times. [Interruption.] Well, what I would say is that Warwickshire County Council set a sustainable budget last week, and was able to do that by protecting social care services.

Syrian Refugee Resettlement

13. What assessment he has made of the effect of the Syrian refugee resettlement programme on the resources required by local authorities. (903512)

Resettlement costs for year one are funded by the Department for International Development through the official development assistance budget. At the spending review, we announced a further £129 million towards local authority costs in years two to five. This amount was calculated after consulting the Local Government Association and local authorities with experience in this field on the likely costs that they would incur in being part of our Syrian refugee resettlement programme.

I am working hard with my council leader, Bill Hartnett, to provide refuge for two Syrian families in Redditch. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that that is the right thing to do, and will he reassure local people that it will not be paid for by local council tax, as there is some concern in my town about that?

I thank my hon. Friend and the leader of Redditch Borough Council for the part they have played in the joint bid with Worcestershire County Council. As they are aware, we work closely with local authorities to ensure that capacity is identified as suitable for that area, and I again confirm to my hon. Friend that the funding available through the spending review will go a long way towards funding the resettlement of Syrian refugees.

I commend the Minister on being the first Home Office Minister in living memory to set a target for resettlement and meet that target. However, there are still another 19,000 Syrian refugees to be resettled before the next election, and the number of other asylum seekers has risen from 9,000 to 17,000. Where are we going to find that accommodation?

Mr Speaker, excuse me, but to be complimented by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs puts one off one’s stride at the Dispatch Box. I remind the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) that the refugee scheme for which I am responsible very much requires the good nature of local authorities. That, together with the asylum programme, is important to us, and I am pleased to say that the demand for places from refugees equals the supply.

I understand the Minister. It is humbling indeed to be praised by someone of the exalted status of the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz).

Council Tax

14. What estimate he has made of the average difference in council tax paid by residents of urban and rural areas. (903513)

The average council tax has long been higher in rural areas than in urban areas. In response to the consultation on the local government financial settlement, several councils and hon. Members have pointed out the extra costs of providing services in rural areas—something that I am determined to address.

Figures from the rural fair share campaign show that those who live in urban areas receive 45% more funding than their rural counterparts, while at the same time those rural residents pay on average £81 more in council tax. Does my right hon. Friend agree that my constituents have every right to feel aggrieved about that inequality? What steps will the Government take to address that issue?

I have been looking carefully at the responses to the consultation on local government finance, including that from Leicestershire, which seems to make a perfectly reasonable point that the essential requirement is that the underlying formula should reflect the different costs of providing services in different places. If my hon. Friend is patient and comes back a little later, I shall have more to say then.

Is it not a fact that in practice, despite their rhetoric, Conservative councils are charging more than Labour councils? That is what the question from the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) conceals.

It is a long-established fact that Conservative councils offer lower council tax than Labour councils, which accounts for their success and their majority in local government.

Can my right hon. Friend say whether the gap between urban and rural authorities is widening? If it is widening in favour of urban authorities, will not the council tax payers in rural authorities, who are going to see their council tax rise considerably over the next three years, have to conclude that they are subsidising higher-spending urban authorities?

My hon. Friend knows that we are moving to a world in which councils will be funded by council tax and business rates. It is essential that the formula underpinning that is fair to all types of authority. That has been very clear in representations that he and others have made.

The Tory election manifesto promised to keep council tax low, so will the Secretary of State explain to the House why he has just written to town halls up and down the country saying that he expects them to force council tax up by more than 20% over the next four years?

I have written no such letter. I remind the hon. Gentleman that council tax doubled under the previous Government. On all the forecasts that we have made, it will be lower in real terms than it was at the beginning of the last Parliament.

Support for High Streets

We are committed to ensuring that high streets remain at the heart of their community. We have introduced a £1.4 billion package of support, which includes business rate relief, help for small business, measures to tackle over-zealous parking enforcement, and practical changes to simplify the planning system.

May I associate myself with the comments regarding Harry Harpham? He was a dear friend, a good and decent man, and we will miss him very much indeed.

A week before the general election, the Chancellor told the Dewsbury Reporter that within the first 100 days of a Tory Government, the town would be added to a list of enterprise zones in which new businesses would be spared business rates for the next five years. Will the Minister confirm that nine months into a Tory Government, there is no enterprise zone in my constituency, and local businesses on our high street are still paying full rates? Will he offer an apology to local people who were promised one thing when the Chancellor wanted their votes, and got quite another once he was in office?

We are committed to supporting high streets. High street vacancy rates are at their lowest since 2010. Investment in high street property is up by 30%, and where areas are doing the right things, they are seeing people return to their high street. That was seen through the Great British High Street competition. There are a number of winners from Yorkshire, and I am sure that people in Dewsbury will be able to take tips from around Yorkshire so that they can improve their high street.

Topical Questions

Since the beginning of January, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill has been enacted and given Royal Assent, the Housing and Planning Bill has passed its Third Reading, the voluntary housing association right to buy has been launched in five areas, and direct commissioning of housing has been launched.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the life and work of Mrs Hazel Pearson OBE, who died on Friday at the age of 92, having retired as a Middlesbrough councillor only last year at the age of 91. She was a formidable leader of Conservatives in Middlesbrough, achieved much for her town and was greatly respected by all parties and by her community over 47 years of service. She represented everything that was best in public service.

Enfield has the fourth highest population figure of all London boroughs. The last census said we had seen a population increase of more than 14% in one decade. That rapid population growth is well above the national average and is not reflected in an increased funding settlement. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), whom I met last month to discuss these matters. However, in the light of that meeting, and of submissions that have been made, what further measures are the Government willing to take to ensure there is a more equitable funding mechanism for boroughs in this situation?

I understand the point the right hon. Lady makes, which is very reasonable. It is important that the funding that local government receives reflects the very latest information available in terms of the population. I have reflected on the representations that have been made in the consultation, and I will have more to say about that later.

T3. In my city of Plymouth, local campaigns seem to regularly mislead my constituents on the spare room subsidy, something that many people see as a fair way of bringing about parity between the social and private rental sectors. I commend the Government, therefore, for making funds available for specific cases where the spare room subsidy is not appropriate. However, will the Minister confirm that Plymouth City Council has chosen to return that discretionary housing payment to central Government every year, so no one should be struggling as a result of this policy? (903526)

My hon. Friend highlights the interesting point that a local authority is sending this subsidy back and then claiming that it cannot look after people. That local authority should be answering to local people, doing the right thing and using the subsidy for the purpose the Government set out in the first place.

The Secretary of State will know that one of the many proud achievements of the last Labour Government was the rise in the number of families able to realise their dream of owning their own home—the number was up by 1 million over 13 years. Will the Minister tell us what has happened to the number of homeowners since Conservative Ministers took charge in 2010?

I find it interesting that the right hon. Gentleman raises this question, bearing in mind the fact that, as a Minister, he said he thought a fall in home ownership was not a bad thing. I disagree with him on that, as I do on other things. I think home ownership is something people aspire to, and we should support it. I am proud that the number of first-time buyers has doubled since 2010. Our work through the Housing and Planning Bill will take that further, and we must go further to support those aspirations.

Let me repeat: the number of homeowners under Labour was up by 1 million. Since 2010, it is down by 200,000. For young people, it is now in free fall, and they have little or no hope of ever being able to buy their own homes. Never mind the spin or short-term policies, the Minister has no long-term plan for housing. That is why I have commissioned the independent Redfern review to look at the decline in home ownership. We would welcome evidence from Ministers, but will the Minister at least agree to look at the review’s findings, so that five years of failure on home ownership do not turn into 10?

Coming from somebody who oversaw the lowest level of house building since roughly 1923, that was interesting, particularly as the Redfern review is being led by Pete Redfern of Taylor Wimpey, who has called for an end to Help to Buy—the very product that is helping tens of thousands more people into home ownership. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is about to tell us that the Labour party will end Help to Buy, which is helping so many people. It is a shame that he and his party voted against the Housing and Planning Bill, which will deliver starter homes through increased Help to Buy. These measures will make sure that more homes are built for those who are working hard and who aspire to own their own homes—the very people let down by the crash under Labour.

T4. What advice does my hon. Friend have for groups such as the Aireborough neighbourhood forum in my constituency, which finds itself in a constant fight with its local authority in trying to make progress? In this instance, Leeds City Council appears to be ignoring Government advice on brownfield sites, without any consequences. (903527)

Having met some of my hon. Friend’s constituents, I know they are very keen, and he has been supporting them strongly on their neighbourhood plans. Those should move forward, and we are putting in funding to support them. That gives them weight in law. This is a really good way for people to have control over local development opportunities if the local authority, in its local plan, is letting them down in the way my hon. Friend argues it is.

What does the Minister estimate the total percentage rise for residents of Birmingham will be once the Chancellor’s social care tax, the increased police precept and the 1.9% council tax are added together?

The core spending power figures that we released just before Christmas and have just consulted on do not take into account authorities putting their council tax up to the maximum referendum principle. Council tax in Birmingham is a question for Birmingham City Council. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was absolutely right to say that we should not take any lectures from Labour Members on the council tax because while they were in power for 13 years council tax doubled.

T8. Will my hon. Friend confirm that if the people of Redditch want to be a full member of the west midlands combined authority, they will also be able to take part in directly electing a mayor? (903531)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is a passionate advocate for the people of Redditch. Whenever I see her, she does a very good and effective job of explaining why she has a desire to pursue this matter and ensure that her constituents will get a say if appropriate and at an appropriate time. I can confirm that were Redditch to become a full member of the combined authority, then yes, people would have a vote in the mayoral election, although of course it would be done only by local agreement. As this Government have pursued matters throughout devolution, we want to build consensus and work with local people to find deals and structures that meet their ambitions.

T6. Aberdeen has supported oil, with our residents having to put up with the bad and the good that comes with this. The UK Government have tried to tell Aberdeen that their £125 million of investment will inspire hundreds of millions of pounds of investment from currently hard-pressed Aberdeen businesses. What will the UK Government be doing to encourage businesses in Aberdeen that are suffering, along with the rest of us, to stump up cash? (903529)

I thank the hon. Lady for her important question, which ties in with the discussion we have already had about the Aberdeen city deal and the significant amount of money that is going in from the British Government in Westminster and the money that is going in in partnership with the Scottish Government, local authority leadership, and the local leadership of the business community in Aberdeen. We intend to ensure that the deal brings real growth and benefit to Aberdeen. We recognise the challenges that it faces because of the price of oil and other factors that affect its local economy, but we are determined, with local people who understand what is needed, to drive change and to do everything we can to support its economy.

T9. Under Mayor Livingstone, the number of new housing starts in London plummeted as a direct result of developers walking away from unaffordable sites, thanks to the 50% affordable housing target. What does my hon. Friend think would happen if the new Mayor were to introduce a 50% affordable housing target? (903532)

As my hon. Friend outlines, the evidence shows that those kinds of targets, if they are not appropriate for the local area, distort viability, meaning that developments do not go forward and we do not get the houses built that we need. Local areas have to look at what is right for them and make sure it is viable. My fervent hope is that we have a very sensible Mayor of London in my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who will take forward an increase in housing supply.

T7. The Inverness city deal from Highland Council is based on the idea of a region for young people. The Highlands area has, over many decades, seen a drain of young people. Much work has been done to address this, including the opening of the Inverness campus, but more needs to be done to attract and retain young people. A plan such as the one put forward can help to rebalance the population demographic. Does the Minister agree that the aims of the plan and the statement of intent are worthy of support? (903530)

The hon. Gentleman is diligent in raising this issue, which we have discussed in the Chamber before. I think he recognises, as I do, the value that these sorts of deals can bring and the difference they can make. I recognise his comments and the importance that he attaches to this as a diligent local Member of Parliament, and I will certainly take it away and look at it. I cannot pre-announce deals at this Dispatch Box today. However, we continue in discussions and we are determined to deliver where the deal is the right one, and his effective advocacy is helpful in pursuing that ultimate objective.

T10. Only 94 of 1,600 asylum-seeking children and care leavers in Kent have been taken in by other areas under the voluntary dispersal scheme. With more refugee children coming, how will my hon. Friend’s Department get local authorities across the country to accept their share of the asylum-seeking children who are already here? (903533)

We hope that dispersal arrangements remain voluntary and are working with the Home Office, the Department for Education, the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services on a national dispersal scheme for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Provisions in the Immigration Bill will underpin dispersal arrangements and, if necessary, enforce them.

I know that the Minister for Housing and Planning well understands the extraordinarily high cost of private sector housing in London, but does he understand the impact that the changes to the local housing allowance are having on residents in my constituency? Will he ask his departmental officials to provide data on the impact of those changes?

If the hon. Gentleman reads the answer I gave earlier, he will see that we have already outlined a one-year delay. We are also looking at the implications before the 2018 introduction and are working closely on it with the sector at the moment.

Medway Council is currently working on its local plan. Could the Minister give an update on the work of the expert panel, which was set up in September to help streamline the local plan process?

I am happy to do so. As my hon. Friend outlines, we are determined to make sure that local areas can have a clear-cut, simple system to deliver local plans that give control to the local community, because they should be locally led. I look forward to seeing the panel’s feedback in the weeks ahead.

In response to questions asked earlier by Conservative Members about funding allocations for rural areas, Ministers hinted that they think there is some unfairness in the system. May I encourage Ministers to look at the issue again, because I agree that there is a great deal of unfairness? The funding in my borough in Darlington is being decimated and the cuts are devastating for the local economy, whereas the spending power of a similarly sized town, Wokingham, will be increased over coming years. That is fundamentally unfair. Will Ministers look at the issue again?

I will respond on the provisional financial settlement shortly. It is important for every type of authority that its needs and the costs of providing services are properly met, and that is the Government’s objective.

My right hon. Friend is keen, as am I, on building on brownfield sites. With the closure of coal-fired power stations, including the possible closure of one in my constituency, what are we doing to encourage building on brownfield sites that include contaminated land?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. In the spending review the Chancellor established a fund to decontaminate brownfield sites so that they can be made available for house building in the way that my hon. Friend recommends.

The Local Government Association is predicting that the Government’s pay-to-stay proposals will lead to some 60,000 council tenants leaving their homes. At the same time, councils are saying that they do not know how much their tenants earn. Will the Minister for Housing and Planning explain to councils how and why they should be asking their tenants how much they earn?

As we have said throughout the progress of the Housing and Planning Bill, on the Floor of the House and in Committee, we are looking at tapering to bring this in and we are working with the sector itself. It is absolutely right that we come up with a deal that is also fair for taxpayers, to make sure that as people earn more and can afford to pay towards their home they do so in a way that always makes it pay to work.

I assume that the Minister is aware that Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council’s local plan is due for adoption this spring. Could he reassure the council’s planning committee that it can now start to make decisions in line with that plan, safe in the knowledge that the planning inspector will not overturn those decisions, thus protecting the countryside from speculative development?

That is good news. My hon. Friend outlines another local plan that is in its later stages. I can confirm that, as a local plan gets to those later stages, it picks up more weight, so the local authority should be making planning decisions in line with the local plan. That is the right thing to do for local communities.

What assessment have Ministers made of councils that introduce a 2% precept increase for social care? For those councils with a very low council tax base, that will not result in the funding required to ensure that social care continues at the level it should in areas such as Hull.

Part of the settlement that was made in the spending review was to include this new council tax precept in addition to the better care fund. On top of the resources that councils already invest, we will be able to invest more than the Local Government Association requested for social care in advance of the spending review.

Junior Doctors’ Contract Negotiations

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on the junior doctors’ contract negotiations.

I would be delighted to update the House on the junior doctors’ proposed industrial action. The Government were elected on a mandate to provide for the NHS the resources it asked for and to make our NHS a truly seven-day service. The provision of consistent clinical standards on every day of the week demands better weekend support services, such as physiotherapy, pharmacy and diagnostic scans; better seven-day social care services, to facilitate weekend discharging; and better primary care access, to help to tackle avoidable weekend admissions.

Consistent seven-day services also demand reform of staff contracts, including those of junior doctors, to help hospitals to roster clinicians in a way that matches patient demand more evenly across every day of the week. In October 2014, the British Medical Association withdrew from talks on reforming the junior doctors’ contract and, despite the fact that the Government asked it to return, did not start talking again until the end of November last year in talks facilitated by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. Throughout December we made very good progress on a wide range of issues and reached agreement on the vast majority of the BMA’s concerns.

Regrettably, we did not come to an agreement on two substantive issues, including weekend pay rates. Following strike action last month, the Secretary of State appointed Sir David Dalton, one of our most respected NHS chief executives, to take negotiations forward on behalf of the NHS. Further progress has been made under Sir David’s leadership, particularly in areas relating to safety and training. However, despite agreeing at ACAS to negotiate on the issue of weekend pay rates, Sir David Dalton has advised us that the BMA has refused to discuss a negotiated solution on Saturday pay. In his letter to the Secretary of State last week, Sir David stated:

“Given that we have made such good progress over the last 3 weeks—and are very nearly there on all but the pay points—it is very disappointing that the BMA continues to refuse to negotiate on the issue of unsocial hours payment. I note that in the ACAS agreement of 30 November, both parties agreed to negotiate on the number of hours designated as plain time and I hope that the BMA will still agree to do that.”

The Government are clear that our door remains open for further discussion, and we continue to urge the BMA to return to the table. Regrettably, the BMA is instead proceeding with strike action over a 24-hour period from 8 am this Wednesday. Robust contingency planning has been taking place to try to minimise the risk of harm to the public, but I regret to inform the House that the latest estimates suggest that 2,884 operations have been cancelled.

I hope that hon. Members from both sides of the House will join me in urging the BMA to put patients first, call off its damaging strike and work with us to ensure we can offer patients consistent standards of care every day of the week.

There is so much that could be said about this dispute that it is hard to know where to begin, so let me ask the Minister four simple questions.

First, the Health Secretary says that his door is open to further talks with the BMA. What does that mean? Specifically, can the Minister envisage a new contract where the definition of plain time working at weekends applies only to a Saturday morning?

Secondly, if a negotiated solution to a new junior doctor contract cannot be found, will the Minister today rule out imposing one? Does he not see how harmful imposition would be to patients, given its impact on staff morale, the risk of a protracted period of industrial action and the implications for future recruitment and retention?

Thirdly, can the Minister confirm that the pay protection offered to one in four junior doctors means that those doing the equivalent jobs in the future will be worse off? Should we not value the junior doctors of tomorrow as much as we value those of today?

Fourthly, and finally, throughout the dispute Ministers have repeatedly conflated the need to reform the junior doctor contract with their manifesto commitment to a seven-day NHS. Can the Minister name a single chief executive who has told him that the junior doctor contract is the barrier to providing high quality care 24/7? If junior doctors are the staff group who have to change their working patterns least to deliver this, which other groups of NHS staff will need to have the definition of unsocial hours changed in their contracts during this Parliament?

In the past year, the Health Secretary has implied that doctors do not work weekends, insinuated that juniors are somehow to blame for deaths among patients admitted on Saturdays and Sundays, and insulted professionals’ intelligence by telling them they have been misled by the BMA. If he was here, I would ask him whether he regrets the way he has handled this dispute, but he has not even got the nerve to turn up.

No one is saying the existing junior doctors’ contract is perfect, but if you speak to anyone in the NHS, they will tell you that this whole episode has been an exercise in using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It is time now for the Government to do what is right for patients, for staff and for the NHS.

The hon. Lady wonders where to begin. I would say to her that where we begin is with the promise made to the electorate to deliver seven-day services in order to make care more consistent through the week and thereby bring down the rate of avoidable deaths. That has been the aim of this Government—pursued in the guise of the previous coalition and by the current Government—for some years. The junior doctors’ contract, about which negotiations have been going on for some years, has been framed partly in that respect during that time.

The hon. Lady asks a number of questions, and I will answer them directly. She asks whether the door is open and whether the Secretary of State is willing to see further talks. Of course it remains open. Throughout the entire process—from back in the summer, when the BMA made it a point of principle not to return to talks—we have asked the BMA to come back to the negotiating table time and again. I have done so, as has the Secretary of State, so the door remains open. I hope that, in the coming days up to the strike, such contacts will continue.

The hon. Lady asks whether there can be discussions about Saturdays. The Secretary of State has made it plain throughout the process that every aspect of the contract is open for discussion. What is not up for discussion is the ability of hospitals to roster clinicians on a consistent basis through the week. The one group of people who are refusing to negotiate about Saturdays or anything to do with the extension of plain time is the British Medical Association. Despite its assurance—in fact, its promise—at ACAS at the end of the November that it wished to discuss this issue, it has now refused to do precisely that with Sir David Dalton. We are therefore left at an impasse, where I am afraid that on the one item left to discuss, which is Saturdays, it is refusing point blank to open a discussion because of what it calls an issue of principle. For us, the principle is patient safety, and that is why we will not move.

The hon. Lady’s second question was about the introduction of a new contract. At some point, the Government will need to make a decision. Time and again, we have extended the point at which we will introduce the new contract, precisely so that we can give time for talks to proceed, even though the BMA, in a disjointed manner, refused to discuss it for several years until this point. At some point, we will have to make the changes necessary to get consistency of service over weekends. We cannot delay this any longer. No Health Secretary or Health Minister could stand in the face of the many academic studies that have shown there is an avoidable weekend effect and say that nothing should happen. Of course this should be done in concert with other contract changes—changing the availability of diagnostics, pharmacy and other services—and we have always said that it is part of the piece, but it has to be done at some point and that point is fast approaching.

The hon. Lady asks whether imposition will be harmful to patients. I ask her to consider whether avoiding changing rostering patterns to eliminate the weekend effect would not itself be harmful to patients to the number of several thousand a year.

The hon. Lady asks about pay protection. We have urged the BMA to put to its members the pay protection that we made clear right at the beginning of the process, but I am afraid that it wilfully misled its members about the pay offer that we put on the table. I ask her, therefore, to be careful in what she says. For this cohort of junior doctors, this is a very good deal. Those who are coming into the service can be assured that they will have a quality of contract that the current cohort has not benefited from: a reduction in the maximum number of consecutive nights from seven to four; a reduction in the maximum number of consecutive long day shifts from seven to five; a reduction in the maximum number of consecutive long late shifts from 12 to five; and a reduction in the maximum number of hours one can work in a week from 91 to 72. Those are considerable improvements in the contract that will protect the safety and working practices of future generations of junior doctors.

When the hon. Lady wrapped up her remarks, she asked whether we had any regrets about the way this process has proceeded. We do have regrets. We regret that the BMA wilfully misled its members at the beginning of the process, making them believe that there was going to be a cut to pay and an increase in hours, neither of which was true. We certainly regret the fact that the BMA refused to talk to us for months on end, when many of these issues could have been dealt with. We certainly regret the fact that the BMA has gone back on its promise to discuss plain time hours—a promise made at ACAS that it has now reneged upon. I am afraid that in dealing with the BMA, we have not been able to address the matter that is most important to doctors, which is protecting patient safety. That is why, in the end, we will have to come to a decision on this contract for the betterment of patients and the consistency of clinical standards through the week.

Under the current contract, too many junior doctors are forced to work excessive hours and are overstretched during the hours they work. Will the Minister, having set out that the hours will be reduced, reassure the House about what measures will be put in place to make sure that managers do not let this slip and that we do not return to the days of overworked junior doctors?

My hon. Friend is right that new measures have been introduced in the proposed contract. A new guardian role, which was proposed by NHS Employers, will help to protect the hours of junior doctors in individual trusts. That has been a point of success in the negotiation between the BMA and NHS Employers. A new fines system, which is not currently in place, will penalise trusts and ensure that the moneys that are generated by the fines go towards enhancing the general wellbeing and training of doctors within those trusts.

Obviously, I am disappointed that it is not the Secretary of State we are speaking to today. The Minister referred again to weekend deaths. I gently point out that if one studies the evidence from Freemantle, one sees that there is a lower level of deaths at weekends. Perhaps we might be a bit more precise and say that we are talking about people admitted at weekends who die within the next 30 days.

I welcome the commitment to increase diagnostics and social care, as I think will everyone in the NHS, but junior doctors already work seven days and seven nights a week, so I really do not see how they can be the barrier to the safety of patients.

I do think that, on looking back, the Secretary of State and the Minister may regret how this matter has been handled. Right from last summer, it has been so combative. In October, when we debated the junior doctors, the Secretary of State was still refusing to go to ACAS, so this cannot all be put on the BMA. Doctors are not stupid; they are capable of reading what has been offered. Many of the junior doctors who have written to me have talked about the fear of hours getting out of control. When I was a junior doctor, the hours were ridiculous and it was the automatic financial penalty on trusts that changed things. It is important that their concerns are listened to and that they are not patronised, as they were on the Marr show yesterday. That has aggravated things further, and the way in which this process has been dealt with from beginning to end has been really disappointing.

We are facing the second day of strike for the first time in 40 years—that is my entire career. What does the Minister feel will be brought to the table by the Department of Health in the next few days to try to get out of this and to try a different approach? We do not have junior doctors on the streets in Scotland. He has to ask himself why we have them on the streets here.

The hon. Lady speaks from experience, and rightly points to the fact that avoidable mortality that is attributable to weekends is different from mortality at weekends—the Secretary of State has been clear about that in his public statements. However that gap does exist, as the hon. Lady knows, and Professor Sir Bruce Keogh was clear in his statements that there is an avoidable rate of mortality. He stated:

“There is an avoidable ‘weekend effect’ which if addressed could save lives. This is something that we as clinicians should collectively seek to solve. It also strengthens the moral and professional case for concerted action.”

The way in which the hon. Lady characterised the discussions in September, October and November is not quite right. We implored the BMA to come and talk; I personally had those discussions with leaders of the BMA, and they refused to do so. It was only when they came and talked to us that we made substantive progress.

The hon. Lady is right to raise these issues, and we wanted to discuss such matters with the BMA. One issue was protection against excess hours, but we had no counterparty with whom to negotiate. Since we have had that counterparty, we have made good moments of progress, and the result is the guardian position, which she welcomed in another place. The guardian will be able to levy fines, and those fines will be remitted to the guardian. I hope—and indeed expect—that process to reduce the excess hours that we still see in a small minority of positions. We must get away from the perverse incentives for trusts and a small minority of doctors that mean that unsafe working hours are perpetuated.

Of course we all regret the course that this dispute has taken, but it would not have done so had the BMA taken a responsible position from the beginning. If people lie to their members and say that they will have their pay cut and their hours raised, of course doctors will be angry—all of us would be. The fact is that that was never true, but it has inflamed the situation. We could have had the kind of productive talks that we have had over the past three or four weeks back in August, September and October had we not had all the mess beforehand because of untruthful statements issued by the BMA.

The level of support among junior doctors for this pay dispute is at least in part because of longstanding dissatisfaction with the experience of being a junior doctor. Sir David Dalton recommended a review of those longstanding concerns in his recent letter. Do the Government intend to commission such a review?

The Government will be looking at Sir David Dalton’s recommendation and acting on it. He is right to point to the fact that the 1999 contract is imperfect—it was agreed back in 2008 that it had many failings, and that something needed to be done to fix it. That contract in its generality has helped to contribute to the lowering of morale in the junior doctor workforce, which Sir David Dalton has recognised, as has the Secretary of State. It is not just the way in which training placements are made and a whole series of other problems with the contract; it is also the fact that people have to work for long periods of consecutive nights and days, all of which is reduced in the latest proposed contract.

Is the Minister aware that it takes two sides to call a strike? It cannot happen just because one side of the argument wants a strike. The Secretary of State has been looking for a fight with the doctors ever since he got the job. Does he realise that when I came here 45 years ago, I was getting time and a half for all-day Saturday, and double time, like other miners, for Sunday? Every time the doctors are replaced by agency nurses it costs the Government and the taxpayer a small fortune. Get the matter settled, and be decent for a change.

The hon. Gentleman has long prized himself as a champion of working people, yet the current contract and the proposed contract by the BMA, which I presume the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) supports, prefers junior doctors over porters, cleaners and junior nurses, and it gives them better rates of pay, and premium rates that could not be enjoyed by lesser paid workers under contracts negotiated by unions that the hon. Gentleman supports. Here we have it: the final morphing of the Labour party into a party that prefers professionals over porters. That, I am afraid, is the party that he is now a member of.

I very much support the Government’s stance on junior doctors, while acknowledging that most doctors—junior and senior—work well beyond their contracted hours. Does the Minister agree that it is not junior doctors but their seniors, and seniors’ terms and conditions, who really set the tempo in our national health service?

My hon. Friend also speaks from experience. We have said right from the beginning that reform of consultants’ and junior doctors’ contracts will be critical in delivering seven-day services. On consultants’ contracts, it is important to make sure that consultants are providing clinical cover over weekends, not just for the benefit of patients but for juniors, who are often covering rotas without clinical cover from consultants with and to whom they might wish to confer and refer.

Is it not at the very least odd that the Secretary of State yet again chooses to stay away and not come before the House to answer questions on this very important subject? As a former Health Minister, I know how difficult the BMA can be, but this would seem to indicate to me that it is the Secretary of State who has become the main obstacle to a sensible solution to this crisis.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that, numerically, the previous Labour Government had far more scraps with the BMA than the coalition Government and this Government have achieved so far. He will know that it is a mark of all Health Secretaries to have disputes of one kind or another with the BMA. The Secretary of State will be here tomorrow, since the right hon. Gentleman asks, to answer oral Health questions.

I am sure that nobody who toddled into the Chamber after the urgent question started would expect to be called. That would be quite out of keeping with our parliamentary traditions. I think I need say no more.

I wonder whether the Minister can help me. The messaging I have heard from the BMA is that the dispute is nothing to do with pay. We have heard the issue described as a “nut” by the shadow Secretary of State, yet it has led to a national strike for the first time in 40 years and we face industrial action again. What is going on here?

That is a question I am increasingly asking of those in the BMA’s leadership. They have agreed with Sir David Dalton that the remaining issue is about pay. Having said for several months that it was not about pay, they have now, in the end, come clean and said that it is about pay. That is what we are dealing with: pay rates for plain time and for Saturdays, where they wish for preferred rates over nurses and other “Agenda for Change” staff.

Junior doctors in my constituency are only very reluctantly taking action on Wednesday. They are supported by many of my constituents, who think that it is simply a disgrace that junior doctors are being forced to take industrial action because the Government are simply failing to address the legitimate concerns raised by the BMA. I heard the Minister say that his door is open, but what he is actually going to do to settle the dispute, and does he think it helps to denigrate the BMA in the Chamber this afternoon?

The hon. Lady says the junior doctors in her constituency had legitimate concerns. They did. Every single one has now been answered in the negotiations between Sir David Dalton and his predecessors apart from one, and that is the one the BMA refuses to open negotiations on, despite having promised to do so in November last year. Yes, our door remains open, but the BMA has first to agree to talk to us, which it is again refusing to do.

Junior doctors in Cheltenham are some of the most dedicated and hard-working people anywhere in our local community. It is therefore a concern to me that some have cited information from the BMA suggesting that the Government are proposing a pay cut. Will the Minister make the position crystal clear? Is that right?

Does the Minister ever wonder whether he has chosen the wrong target? He bases his entire argument on safety—and rightly so—yet chairs and chief executives of hospitals constantly tell me that they have no difficulty staffing their hospitals with junior doctors over weekends. At the same time, however, our GP out-of-hours services are under incredible strain and cover is threadbare in many parts of the country. That, surely, is where the real safety concerns lie.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that we are looking at the contracts for GPs, consultants and junior doctors: they are of a piece. We cannot see one clinical group in isolation, when they work together. He should know, therefore, that in concluding discussions with junior doctors, consultants and GPs, we need to ensure that we give hospitals and primary care settings the ability to roster staff consistently through seven days of the week.

I have met junior doctor colleagues over the last few weeks and months, and I know that many of them are cautious about the new contract and that strike action is the absolute last resort for them that they would rather not take. I met one of my constituents from Polegate this morning whose operation is going to be cancelled this week, thanks to the strike action. I welcome the Minister’s comment that the door is still open even at this late hour to call off the strike. Would he find it helpful if the shadow Secretary of State also condemned the strike and asked the doctors to call it off, so that patients do not become the real losers in this dispute?

My hon. Friend points to an interesting fact—that despite these many months of discussions, we have never had a clear line from the shadow Secretary of State or from the Opposition generally on whether they condemn or support the industrial action. It would be helpful if they made that clear because we would know at least whose side they are on. Are they on the side of patients, where we are trying to eliminate the weekend effect, or are they on the side of the BMA’s leadership?

I find the Minister’s language and tone in regard to the BMA and the junior doctors unfortunate. He speaks as though junior doctors do not care and do not want to help their patients, and I find that regrettable. In my time as a Unison official, when I used to represent public sector workers in health care, the BMA was hardly known for its militancy within that organisation, and the Minister needs to reflect on that. Does he really think that this whole problem is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) denied earlier, all the blame of the BMA and doctors? Doctors care about their patients; that is why they are in this position. Does the Minister not accept any responsibility for the impact?

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady about the passion and dedication of junior doctors—and never once has the Secretary of State or I questioned that. What we have questioned are the tactics of the BMA’s leadership. I happen to agree with her, too, about her previous employer Unison. I have constructive relationships with that union. I disagree with it, and it with me—often—but we agree on many things and have a straightforward relationship. I am afraid that it is difficult to do business with the BMA, however, when it promises to talk about one thing and then refuses to do so a few weeks later, when it refuses to come to the negotiating table for months, and when it misleads its members in a way that I do not think Unison has ever done.

The residents in my constituency tell me two things: first, how much they value the work of doctors, both junior doctors and consultants; and, secondly, how disappointed they are that this House is not united in saying that the strike is not justified on safety grounds. Is the Minister as disappointed as my residents?

Yes, and I would add the 2,800 people who have had their operations cancelled. I wonder what answer they would get from the Opposition about whether they support or condemn those cancellations. As soon as we get an answer to that very simple question, it will be easier for us to know the official position of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Health accused the BMA of misleading junior doctors. Today, the Minister comes to the House and accuses the BMA of lying. Is he really asking us to believe that some of the most intelligent people in the country—junior doctors—cannot see for themselves what the Government are proposing? Does he not feel that the continued abuse directed at the junior doctors’ representatives is hindering any possibility of a settlement to this dispute and that that is damaging to patients?

The hon. Lady is also an intelligent woman, so let me ask her this. If a trusted body, such as the BMA, tells its members that they will have a pay cut of 30% and an increase in hours, but that statement is incorrect, does it constitute a lie? That is the question I would put back to her.

A number of Members met representatives of the BMA in the House of Commons. We were disappointed that, despite continued questioning, they refused to go to the negotiating table, but thankfully they eventually did so, and made some progress. My constituents want a safe, seven-days-a week NHS. Is it not time to get back around the table, so that we can provide the service that NHS patients want?

It is, and that is why we need to move ahead in fairly short order. Ultimately, if staff contracts are not reformed across the service, those who will suffer most will be patients, and what will be most affected is the consistency of care that they receive at weekends.

The shadow Health Secretary asked the Minister if he could list the hospitals in which there were currently not enough junior doctors working at weekends. He could not answer that question, so I will give the Minister another chance. Will he name them for us now?

Evidence given to the Review Body on Doctors and Dentists Remuneration made clear that rostering was made more difficult by the current plain-time terms in the contract. That is why it has been on the table for several years and has been the subject of parts of our discussions with the BMA, when we have been able to have them. It is also why one of the leading chief executives in the country, Sir David Dalton, who led the latest round of talks, has pressed the BMA to come and talk about Saturdays specifically and plain time in general. The BMA has refused to speak about either.

Whatever the arguments in this case, I can think of no one more honourable, decent and honest to run the negotiations than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It is reported that graduating medical students applying to be foundation year 1 and 2 junior hospital doctors are seeking work in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to avoid the new contract. Is that true, and if it is, what can be done to stop this drain of our best medical students?

We do not see any particular evidence of the movement of juniors at present, but what we would most like to see for juniors is the introduction of the new contract, so that they can recognise that it will be better for their working practices than the current one. It is in everyone’s interests—not just those of juniors, but those of patients—to ensure that juniors work safe hours. That is why the new contract involves reductions in the number of consecutive nights and long days, and it is why we want to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the excessively long hours in the week.

I am sure that Ministers have a very clear idea of how their proposals will affect working practices, so may I ask this Minister on how many occasions last year a junior doctor worked 91 or more hours in a week?

We believe that last year about 500 junior doctors were operating on a band 3 payment, which equates to payments for hours of work that exceed what is specified in the working time regulations. That is a relatively small number within the NHS, but it is still significant, and for the doctors concerned, working those excessive hours is unsafe.

Will the Minister join me in thanking the junior doctors who ignored the call to strike last time, and does he agree that the lack of condemnation from the Opposition demonstrates that they are putting their support for industrial action before my constituents and their healthcare needs?

I entirely agree. Rather like an arsonist who pours petrol on a fire and then runs to offer help to put it out, the Opposition have done very little to help to get the contract into the place where it needs to be, and to stop the industrial action. I am afraid that the patients whose operations will be cancelled this week will suffer partly because of the Opposition’s failure to take a firm stand.

As the Minister will know, Wexham hospital in Slough has enormously improved the care that it gives to its patients. It has done that with the same staff, but with a leadership which says to the people who work there that it has confidence in them and shares their values. The Minister is saying that he is the only person who cares about patient safety, and that doctors do not. What does that do for morale and for doctors’ ability to improve the quality of care for patients?

I am not sure how to answer the right hon. Lady’s question, given that she has wilfully misconstrued what I said. I have never once suggested that only the Government care about patient safety. Almost every doctor out there cares for nothing other than patient safety and patient care. However, according to the 10 clinical standards of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, if there are to be consistent levels of care over the weekends, part of that will be achieved through reform of staff contracts. One of those is the junior doctors’ contract, which is why we must press ahead with it.

I commend my hon. Friend for all the work he is doing to deliver a truly seven-day-a-week health service for the benefit of not only my constituents but those of every other Member. I am a little surprised by the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) saying that no one thinks the existing contract is perfect. Does the Minister agree that we should all be working together in the interests of our constituents to bring this situation to a successful conclusion, rather than trying to score party political points with it?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am afraid that this is a mark of the way in which the Labour party has changed. I suspect that a Labour party of a different era—one that was more responsible in how it dealt with industrial disputes—would have understood on whose side it should be acting at this point.

This is a Conservative Government, but to have a strike of this kind on any Government’s watch is a disgrace and a failure. I quite like the Minister actually, but he has only ever laid the blame for this elsewhere. Surely, the Government should be evaluating their own performance and saying, “We can do better than this and we should ensure that this does not happen,” even at the eleventh hour.

The hon. Gentleman tempts me with kindness, and I repay the compliment. However, having been involved in this process for some months now, I have found it incredibly frustrating. Up to the end of November, every time we asked the BMA to come and talk to us, it refused, despite personal entreaties. And when it did talk to us, we often found that we had nailed down an agreement only to find it slipping out of our fingers the next day in front of the media. This has been a hugely frustrating and difficult process for everyone concerned—not only for us but for the junior doctors, who have been left confounded and confused by the whole thing.

Does the Minister agree that most, if not all, junior doctors exceed their contracted hours and that a 72-hour limit is therefore essential? Will he also acknowledge that, even after the negotiations are complete, many junior doctors will continue to exceed their contracted hours?

Some junior doctors exceed their contractual hours. The average across the service is 48 hours, but some are working as many as 91, which is the current permitted limit outside the working time directive. We wish to stop that altogether and bring it down to an absolute maximum of 72 hours a week, which would equate to a 48-hour average over the agreed period, which is currently six months. The key is to get the number of hours down, because working excessive hours is unsafe for patients and for doctors.

The Minister has been keen to establish what he sees as the preferential terms and conditions that junior doctors enjoy, yet Sir David Dalton has said in an interview with the Health Service Journal:

“My assessment is that the staff group that will have to contribute the least above that which they are providing at the moment would be our doctors in training. Our messaging on this has got muddled”.

Does the Minister agree?

Sir David Dalton has also made it clear that we have to reform all contracts. One can place the balance where one wishes, but it is important that we reform the juniors’ and the consultants’ contracts together, so that they can fit within the service of a piece. It is wrong, for instance, to have a junior on duty taking decisions at the weekend and not be covered by consultants supervising and helping with those decisions. We need to ensure that there is consistency of rostering through the week and at the weekend involving both juniors and seniors.

I represent many junior doctors. I have met them and I have tried to represent their views to the Government, but I have always taken the view that my primary responsibility is to the patients of the NHS. One of those patients, a constituent of mine, emailed me this week to say that a consequence of the strike would be the

“cancellation of my wife’s biopsy, planned for this week, without which her already shortened life will be shorter”.

Will the Minister, the shadow Minister and the whole House join me in condemning this strike? It will achieve nothing. It is a distraction from the negotiations, which need to continue, and it will put the lives of my constituent and others across the country at risk.

I cannot possibly add to the comment made by my hon. Friend, and I just hope the shadow Secretary of State takes note.

Strike action is always a last resort, and I can say categorically, as an ex-NHS worker, that no NHS worker wants to go on strike. We have here a complete failure of negotiation. The Secretary of State’s door may be open, but the inflammatory and insulting comments he made in the media this weekend do not exactly invite people to cross that threshold and talk to him. Given that he has manifestly failed as a negotiator, is it not about time he stood aside and let a trained negotiator deal with the BMA and come to an agreement, before it is too late?

I am not sure the hon. Lady has been listening to the statements made in this House and elsewhere.

I am not sure the hon. Lady has been listening because otherwise she would have heard that the negotiations have already been taken on by leading negotiators from NHS Employers and, latterly, by Sir David Dalton, one of the leading chief executives in the country. Significant progress has been made, contrary to what she has just suggested. Negotiations have worked. We have managed to nail down—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady shakes her head, but the fact is that Sir David Dalton has managed to secure agreement on every single point of contention other than pay rates for plain time, unsocial hours and Saturdays. This dispute on Saturday and the kind of results we are going to see across the country on Wednesday will, in essence, be about pay rates on a Saturday, with the BMA wanting preferential rates over nurses, porters, cleaners and other workers in the NHS.

May I join colleagues in thanking the Minister and the Secretary of State for all their work in negotiating a contract, which is obviously a tough discussion to have? Although many of my constituents may have sympathised last year with the BMA’s case, patients and their families, including my father after a recent heart valve replacement, will be concerned that the BMA is not getting around the negotiating table and thus placing a lot of undue stress on the most vulnerable. Does the Minister agree that the BMA should seriously consider those patients as it protracts its negotiations?

If the BMA was truly representing its members, it would be thinking about patient welfare during the strikes. Just now, we heard my colleagues describe with great eloquence the kinds of effects on individuals that a strike will cause. These strikes will get us no nearer to a solution; the only way to come to a solution is by negotiation.

It is testament to the progress being made in the course of these negotiations that the BMA has cancelled some strikes and has downgraded the one we are expecting on Wednesday, but does the Minister agree that one crucial thing that would make the greater difference would be condemnation from the Opposition?