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Topical Questions

Volume 632: debated on Monday 4 December 2017

Today marks the start of UK Charity Week, in which we redouble our commitment to working with the likes of Shelter, Crisis and St Mungo’s to end rough sleeping in this country. It is also the 62nd birthday of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who last month delivered a Budget to help get Britain building—many happy returns to him. On the 226th birthday of The Observer, I am pleased to say that we are continuing our crackdown on local authorities that think it is their job to publish weekly newspapers.

Dockless bike schemes have recently been established in several cities. Some are working well and some less so, but councils are left struggling with outdated legislation to deal with such schemes. Will the Secretary of State meet me and others from affected areas to discuss the right way forward?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. It is important that we encourage better ways for people to travel and give people more opportunities, and I am happy to have a chat to discuss his ideas.

T3. Corby Nightlight is a fantastic charitable organisation that does brilliant work to help support homeless people in our community. What steps are the Department taking to support such organisations, which do important work in our communities? (902732)

I pay tribute to everyone involved in charities such as Corby Nightlight. We are providing a package of over £1 billion up to 2020 to prevent homelessness and rough sleeping. Part of the package involves providing funding for services and projects such as the one in Corby, which does so much to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Several national children’s charities and the Local Government Association wrote to the Secretary of State ahead of the Budget to warn that funding for children’s services is unsustainable and insufficient. Instead of creeping to the Chancellor with birthday wishes, what did the Secretary of State do to lobby the Chancellor to provide the £2 billion that councils need to properly safeguard and look after children in need?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the pressure on children’s services in many local authorities up and down the country, and that is why we are listening carefully to what local authorities have to say and working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to ensure that adequate resources are provided. Many local authorities are doing very well, but some are experiencing challenges. The hon. Gentleman will know that the local government finance settlement is coming along shortly, and he can look to see what happens with that.

The Secretary of State does not just need to listen; he needs to act and perhaps read our “Local Government Health Check” report, which highlights that children’s services are facing a £2 billion funding gap now. Early intervention has been cut, Sure Start centres have closed, child protection cases have doubled, more children need taking into care, and ever more families need specialist help, so why will the Secretary of State not stand up for our children’s services and tell the Chancellor that now is not the time to cut £4.75 billion from the bank levy? It is time to put our children first.

Time and again, the hon. Gentleman stands at the Dispatch Box asking for billions and billions of more spending. He has no idea how the funds are raised, and he would do much better to support the measures that we are taking to keep our economy strong so that we can pay for all those services.

T6. The move to calculate business rates using CPI instead of RPI is reducing bills for many small businesses across the country, but 62 councils are yet to move to CPI despite the Government providing Budget funding. What are the Government doing to ensure that all councils use CPI to calculate their business rates? (902735)

While the vast majority of local authorities have re-billed their businesses, it is unacceptable that some councils still have not. The Government have given councils a £435 million package of support for businesses, so I urge all councils that have not yet done the right thing to do so urgently.

T2. Given that England’s private rented sector has doubled since 2002, what plans do Ministers have to emulate Scotland’s exemplary new policy under which such renters now have longer notice periods, indefinite security of tenure and a limit of one rent increase a year? (902731)

The hon. Gentleman will have noted that in the Budget the Chancellor set out our plans to consult on longer tenancies in the private rented sector, and that is precisely what we will be doing.

T7. The positivity of small businesses in Bedworth last Saturday was tinged with frustration at Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council’s decision to increase car parking charges, which has reduced footfall and seen fee income reduced by £200,000. Does the Minister agree that our councils should be far more focused on supporting our town centres, not on driving shoppers away? (902736)

Only a Labour council could put up parking charges and lose money at the same time. What that shows to people living in Nuneaton and Bedworth is that, by putting into action the Marxist twaddle we hear from Labour Members, under Labour it is the many who pay for the dogma of the few.

T4. The Surrey Vaults in Bristol has become the latest small music venue to close because of noise complaints. Can the Minister tell us how discussions are going with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about plans to introduce an agent of change principle into planning law so that small music venues are able to stand up to developers? (902733)

T8. I am sure the Secretary of State will have seen today’s report from the British Chambers of Commerce, which concludes that, for our businesses to grow and compete, it is vital that local authorities provide an adequate supply of building land and consents for new commercial buildings. I know he is considering business rate retention, so will he ensure that proactive councils, such as Rugby Borough Council, continue to receive incentives to grow their local economies? (902737)

The Government are still committed to further business rate retention. We have relaunched our working group, which is our officials and the Local Government Association, to take that work forward. It is important that any future reform of the system has a balance between meeting need and having an incentive for areas to grow their tax base.

T5. Bus users in the Potteries have been hit by a double whammy of fare increases and journey cuts. Although my constituents might appreciate the irony of two lots of bad bus news arriving at once, they certainly do not appreciate the inconvenience or the impact on their jobs. Many of those cuts could be avoided if Stoke-on-Trent City Council was prepared properly to subsidise public transport. What support is the Minister providing to make sure we have a bus system in the Potteries that is fit for purpose? (902734)

This Government have done much to improve bus facilities throughout the country, especially in the new metro mayor areas where we have extended bus franchising. If the hon. Lady has particular issues, the Department for Transport is the policy lead, and I would be happy to pass her questions on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

The affordability of a house is not just what it costs to buy or rent each month but what it costs to live in it thereafter. May I therefore encourage the Secretary of State to set the highest energy efficiency standards possible for new houses so that they can be cheap both to own and to operate?

Energy efficiency, as a result of the policies this Government have put in place, has improved. Fuel costs are now several hundred pounds cheaper than they were in 2010.

T9. Councils in the north-east such as Gateshead Council and South Tyneside Council have seen their central Government grant cut by 50%, forcing them to axe 4,000 good jobs. The Government’s so-called jobs bonanza in the north through the northern powerhouse has created jobs, but two out of every three of those jobs are on temporary, insecure and zero-hours contracts. Is that how the northern powerhouse economy will work? (902738)

I had thought the hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that in his constituency the claimant count has fallen by some 42% since 2010. If he really wanted to champion Gateshead and more funding, including for jobs and investment, perhaps he might ask why the mayoral devolution deal was rejected last year.

With the abolition of stamp duty for most first-time buyers, families in Wealden will save, on average, £3,209 on their first home. Will the Minister say what else is being done to help families secure their first home?

Of course I am delighted that my hon. Friend has highlighted the stamp duty cut, but we also know that for a number of years we have been running the Help to Buy scheme, which has helped 135,000 households already, and the extra £10 billion committed a few weeks ago will help another 35,000 households.

I listened to the Secretary of State’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and heard no acknowledgement that the cuts by his Department to local authority funding and the removal of the weighting for deprivation have a massive impact on our country’s children—on their physical and mental health, and on their ability to access a wide range of services. Why does the Secretary of State not care?

I know that the hon. Lady cares about this issue, but she should recognise that many Members in all parts of the House care about it, too. That is why this Government have made sure that for children’s mental health services, through local authorities, there is dedicated funding of £1.4 billion over this spending period, which is the highest ever. In addition, the Green Paper that will be published by my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will look at many of the long-term issues.

I noted with interest the Secretary of State’s comments about funding to support the delivery of garden villages. Will he confirm that this will include the development at West Carclaze in St Austell? If so, will he meet me to discuss how we can ensure that these new homes are affordable and accessible to local people?

Let me thank my hon. Friend for his support for more funding for garden villages. The announcement will be made later today, and I will look carefully at making sure that it is clear about the ones we are supporting. He should also be clear that this is the first stage of support and we will be taking many other actions in due course, as set out by the Chancellor in the Budget, to support more garden villages and towns.

The Minister said earlier that there would be a review of the viability assessments under the national planning policy framework. Will he admit that there is a problem, which the Mayor of London and London councils see, and that these viability assessments are abused by developers to stop local authorities and others developing affordable homes?

On London, it is worth pointing out that we have made £3.15 billion already available for affordable housing .That has been welcomed by the Mayor of London, so I suggest that he should start and get building. On the viability assessments, as I have said, we have had a consultation, which we will reflect on and come forward with proposals.

In his response to an earlier question, the Minister made reference to a call for evidence on unauthorised Traveller encampments. Will he confirm that local residents will also be able to feed in to that?

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that everyone will have an opportunity to give their views as part of that call for evidence.

The northern powerhouse Minister mentioned HS2 as being the best transport investment for the north, but surely the best transport investment for the north would be “Crossrail for the north”, linking the great cities of the north with high-speed rail.

Improving the east-west connectivity between Liverpool and Hull is one of the issues that we have asked Transport for the North, the first sub-national statutory transport body, to report on when it comes forward with its report. I am delighted that in the Budget we have a confirmation of £360 million to ensure that HS2 is futureproofed against HS3.

What assessment has the Minister made of whether owners of buildings with cladding that may not meet building regulations have been meeting their responsibilities or whether they have been seeking to pass the costs for this essential work on to leaseholders?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He will know that local authorities and housing associations have made it clear that they will not be passing on the costs, and that is the right approach. I would like to see private sector landlords follow the lead of the social sector and not pass on the costs to their tenants, but I also want to make sure that leaseholders have more information, which is why today I am announcing an increase in funding for the Leasehold Advisory Service.

People in Barnsley and Doncaster are now voting on the future of Yorkshire devolution, and we will get the results on 21 December. Does the Minister agree that, whatever the results, national and local politicians have a responsibility to get round the table and work together to serve the best interests of the people of Yorkshire?

As the season of goodwill and peace to all men approaches, I hope that across Yorkshire a compromise will be found. Just to restate our position, the Government remain committed to the south Yorkshire city deal proceeding.

Two Members are standing and seeking to catch my eye who have not contributed. I will call each of them, but their questions must be extremely brief—a short sentence. If you cannot do it that way, I do not want to be unkind, but don’t bother.

Last month, the Secretary of State decided not to call in a planning application on Foxhill, where we are losing 99 homes for social rent, telling us that the development is in line with Government policy. Will he confirm that losing social homes for rent is Government policy?

I will talk very fast, Mr Speaker. May I say a big thank you to the Housing Minister for coming to Taunton Deane last week, where he met protestors at the Staplegrove development to see how important the road through the development was? Are the Government pursuing the right policy in putting more money into the housing infrastructure fund to guarantee that we get the roads that we need to make our houses work?

Absolutely; I can confirm that, as a result of the Budget, there is £5 billion in the housing infrastructure fund, which is precisely what many colleagues want to see in terms of spending on infrastructure.

Before we move on, I have been notified of a number of intended points of order springing directly out of Question Time. I say for the record that, on this occasion, I will take Members on trust and take those points of order now. However, if it becomes apparent to me that they are really just a way of trying to continue Question Time or if they are too long, when I have specifically said that they must be short, I will cut them off and the process of taking any—[Interruption.] Order. If that happens, the process of taking points of order at this time will be discontinued and those Members will be responsible.

I look to the shadow Secretary of State to set a good example, with a proper point of order done briefly—for which read “a sentence”.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you offer any guidance to the House on your expectations and on the conventions? We just heard the Secretary of State, after an hour of Question Time, say in an offhand way, in answer to the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who has now left the Chamber, that later this afternoon he will make a statement about the backing the Government will give to garden villages and urban extensions. Surely we should have expected that either in a written statement this morning or certainly through a reference in the body of questions this afternoon, so that the House had a chance to ask him about it.

My understanding is that a written ministerial statement is expected. Whether that WMS is the WMS concerned, I do not know.

The simple nod—in fact, two nods of the head in unison by the Secretary of State and the Housing Minister—suggest that that is the gravamen of the matter. I am bound to say that it would be preferable, if such announcements are intended, for them to be worked into Question Time in some way, not by elongated replies, but by responding at topicals. What has happened is arguably irritating to colleagues, but it is not demonstrably disorderly. We will leave it there for now, but the shadow Secretary of State has made his point with his customary force and alacrity.

I do not know whether the nods will appear in Hansard. There will be no graphic images, but reference to the nods will appear. I hope that that satisfies the insatiable curiosity of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman).

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) about the Mersey tolls, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), said that he had spoken to the Metro Mayor and that the Metro Mayor supported the tolls. I have been in contact with the office of the Metro Mayor of Liverpool and he says that he said no such thing. Would the Minister like to correct the record and withdraw his remarks?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising her point of order. The answer is that it is for each and every Member, be they a Front Bencher or a Back Bencher, to be responsible—[Interruption.] Order. It is for each and every Member to be responsible for the veracity of what is said in this place. If a correction is required, it is better sooner rather than later. If the hon. Gentleman judges that no correction is required, that is his prerogative.

No correction is required, Mr Speaker. I discussed the matter with the Metro Mayor of Liverpool as we walked across the bridge while it was under construction. Perhaps he will remember with the added detail.

In that case, we will leave it there. It was right that it was aired and I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I cannot be expected to adjudicate between the competing witness accounts.