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Commons Chamber

Volume 635: debated on Monday 22 January 2018

House of Commons

Monday 22 January 2018

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Housing, Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Remedial Fire Safety Work

1. How much Government funding has been allocated to local authorities for remedial fire safety work as a result of the Grenfell Tower fire. (903413)

The Government will consider providing financial flexibilities for local authorities to undertake essential fire safety work to make buildings safe. We have not turned down any requests for such flexibilities. Separately, we have provided funding to local authorities for the collection of data on private buildings.

Before Christmas, the former Housing Minister, the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), revealed that 36 local authorities had contacted the Department about work to secure fire safety in tower blocks, but none of them have received any financial help so far—why not?

Let me update the hon. Lady. My records show that the number of authorities is still 36. We have requested further information from 10 of them, and four have provided it. As I said a moment ago, however, we are ready to provide any local authority with whatever financial flexibilities are necessary to ensure that all essential fire safety work is done.

How are local authorities or other landlords to know what steps to take to ensure that there is adequate fire protection when the relevant building regulations are 11 years old and no review of them has yet commenced?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not in Parliament last year when the Home Secretary and I asked for an independent review of all building regulations by Dame Judith Hackitt. Just a few weeks ago, in the House, I presented the findings of her interim report, the recommendations of which we accepted in full.

Grenfell Tower is seared in all our memories, and of course we must do whatever we can. I very much agree with what was said by the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock)—I hope I can call her my hon. Friend—but am I not right in thinking that if a local authority runs out of funds for fire protection measures, a trigger mechanism allows them to spend more, beyond their normal restraints?

First, I can tell my hon. Friend that I am not sure that the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) is his hon. Friend. As for his question, mechanisms do exist, and we have gone further by saying to local authorities that if there are certain flexibilities that they need, they should contact us, and those flexibilities will be provided.

My hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) and for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) are absent to pay tribute and respect to Kieran Quinn, whose funeral is taking place this afternoon. He was the leader of Tameside Council, which was council of the year in 2016. Our thoughts and condolences are with his family and friends today.

I welcome the new ministerial faces to the Department with a new name, but what the country really needs are new policies to fix the growing housing crisis. More than seven months on from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, how many tower blocks with the same dangerous cladding have had that cladding taken down and replaced?

I join the right hon. Gentleman in extending my condolences to Kieran Quinn’s family and friends on what will certainly be a very difficult day for all of them.

According to my figures, which I think are accurate up to 10 January, 312 buildings have been tested, of which 299 have not passed the test. The cladding on a number of buildings has started to come down and is slowly being replaced. We are anxious to ensure that there is enough capacity in the industry to meet the extra demand that it is now experiencing, and we are working on that with both the industry and my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State has read the update that his Department issued this morning. The number of tower blocks with the same dangerous flammable cladding that has been taken down and replaced—more than seven months on from Grenfell Tower—is three. How has it come to this? Seven months on from Grenfell, only one in four families who are Grenfell survivors has a new permanent home. The Government still cannot confirm how many other tower blocks across the country are unsafe. Ministers still refuse to help to fund essential fire safety work when they know that blocks are dangerous. The Secretary of State is sitting back and letting individual flat owners, rather than landlords and developers, pick up the full costs for private tower blocks. The Secretary of State must know that that is not good enough. What new action will he take to sort out these serious problems?

The right hon. Gentleman will know, because he shares this view, that the No. 1 priority for buildings safety following the Grenfell Tower tragedy is to ensure that anyone living in any tower that might have similar cladding feels completely safe and that those buildings are properly tested. If anything is found before that cladding can be taken down and replaced, which will of course take time, we must ensure that adequate measures such as 24/7 fire wardens are put in place, on the advice of the local fire and rescue service. That is exactly what has been done in every single case. The right hon. Gentleman also asked about private sector tower blocks and the cost of any remedial work that is needed. I have made it clear in the House and since our last oral questions that, just as social landlords are picking up the tab for those changes, and whatever the legal case might be in the event of a private relationship, the moral case is clear: the tab should be picked up by the freeholders of those properties.

Order. These are extremely important matters, but we need to speed up a bit because we have a lot of questions to get through.

Housing First

In the recent Budget, we announced £28 million to pilot Housing First for some of the country’s most entrenched rough sleepers in the west midlands, the Liverpool city region and Greater Manchester. We are continuing to work with the pilot regions to refine the scope and design, ready for launch later this year.

Ahead of the commencement of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, will the Secretary of State join me in praising the work of Routes to Roots, a local charity that helps homeless and vulnerably housed adults in Poole?

First, let me thank my hon. Friend for the role that he played on the Bill Committee in getting that legislation on to the statute book. It will help to prevent homelessness in Poole and elsewhere. I agree that there is a lot that individuals can do to help to end the homelessness cycle, including by getting involved with voluntary groups such as Routes to Roots in his constituency, and to make a real difference for vulnerable people.

On Boxing day, a group called Activists for Love created a squat to shelter homeless people in Hull. I went to meet the residents on Saturday. The landlord, MRC lettings, has been very accommodating and is actually going to find everyone living there a home. However, I am concerned that the funding cuts to Hull City Council mean that it does not have the money for much-needed aftercare support to prevent these people from becoming homeless again. Will the Government please commit to providing more money for an aftercare homelessness service for Hull West and Hessle?

I can tell that the hon. Lady shares our desire, and that of all Members, to fight homelessness and rough sleeping. That is why I am sure that she will welcome the £1 billion that the Government have allocated to 2020 to fight homelessness, including £315 million for core funding for local authorities.

I commend the Government for initiating the Housing First pilots, but what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of rough sleeping in London, which is clearly under the greatest pressure? We want to ensure that people get a firm home of their own and that the Mayor of London actually delivers affordable housing for the capital.

I know that my hon. Friend cares deeply about this issue and has done much on it, not least through his work on the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. He is right to raise this issue. We will not solve the problem of homelessness in this country unless London does its bit, and I am afraid that the Mayor of London is letting the people of London down. In his first year in office, not a single home for social rent was started in London. That is a tragic record.

The centre for housing policy at the University of York is leading on policy development and on validation of the Housing First initiative, yet City of York Council has presided over a fifteenfold increase in street homelessness since 2010. How will the Minister ensure that the residents of York can benefit from Housing First not just in theory, but through action?

I hope that the hon. Lady agrees that it makes sense to pilot Housing First properly so that we ensure that when it can be rolled out across the country, it will work properly. That is why we have set up the pilot areas. There are still lots of types of help in other parts of the country, much of which comes from the £1 billion of funding that we have allocated to 2020, which includes funding for local authorities such as York.

The December report of the local government and social care ombudsman, “Still No Place Like Home”, found that in seven out of 10 of the housing cases that it investigated, families were being placed in bed and breakfast accommodation for unlawfully lengthy periods, with some lasting more than two years. The report highlights the appalling physical and mental impact, including on children, of living in inadequate, crowded and sometimes damp conditions. Does the Secretary of State recognise just how damaging living in insecure, inappropriate housing is? Will we see any improvement for those families in the next 12 months?

I share the concerns of many hon. Members, which is why the Government have made fighting homelessness and reducing rough sleeping an absolute priority. The hon. Lady’s question recognises that action is required on many fronts—economic, mental health, addiction and other issues—and the Government have put together a programme to pursue them.

Fire Safety

I am grateful for the recommendations of Dame Judith Hackitt’s “Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety”. Our building safety programme is making good progress in identifying potentially unsafe aluminium composite material cladding in English tower blocks. Through that and future action, we will make buildings much safer.

The use of sprinklers in high-rise blocks has been widely discussed since the tragic event at Grenfell Tower. Many of our tower blocks are constructed using individual compartments that are designed to prevent the spread of fire to other flats. However, there are many examples of where the integrity of such compartments has been compromised. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the fire resistant properties of individual flats will form part of the ongoing reviews?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Fire and rescue services have visited over 1,250 high-rise buildings since the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, and those inspections have included the checking of compartmentalisation, fire doors and other relevant features. The National Fire Chiefs Council has reaffirmed the principle of “stay put”, but it is the responsible person who must determine what is appropriate for each particular building.

I want to refer to Approved Document B of the building regulations and the guidance contained within it. Paragraph 12.7 specifically prevents the use of combustible material in the insulation of high-rise buildings. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the guidance is a lot less clear about cladding and appears to allow for the continued use of combustible materials in the cladding on high-rise buildings? If so, is the Secretary of State comfortable with that situation?

I do not think that that is still the case. However, the hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the need to review the guidance and the regulations themselves. That point was made clear by Dame Judith Hackitt in the interim report that she published last month, the recommendations of which we accepted in full.

Citiscape is a residential block in Croydon with the same flammable cladding as Grenfell Tower, and its residents fear that they are living in a deathtrap. The Secretary of State has told them that the responsible person should take action, but the freeholder, the developer, the managing agent and the insurer all deny liability, and the cladding stays in place while legal wrangles go on. There is only one responsible person left, so when will the Secretary of State take action to remove the dangerous cladding, and to keep people and their families safe?

I am happy to reiterate that the responsible person in such situations is clearly the freeholder. Whatever the legal case might be, the freeholder should take responsibility. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has spoken to the chief executive officer of Proxima GR Properties, the company in this case, and is engaged in dialogue to try to see what we can do to ensure that it does the right thing.

As the Secretary of State has said, one of the key recommendations of the interim review of building regulations and fire safety was to restructure the whole suite of approved documents to provide more clarity on how fire safety measures are applied. Will the Secretary of State therefore provide an update on what steps his Department is taking to implement that recommendation, with particular regard to planning guidance?

The hon. Lady will know that the report was an interim report, with the final report due in the spring. There were some interim recommendations that we could act on immediately, and we have accepted all of them. For example, a recommendation about restricting how and when desktop studies can be used is being implemented right now. The hon. Lady might be interested to know that a convention involving industry experts, stakeholders and Dame Judith Hackitt is going on as we speak, just down the road from Parliament—I attended this morning—to look at what more can be done in the interim.

Rough Sleeping

4. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of homeless people sleeping rough between 2010 and 2016. (903416)

11. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of homeless people sleeping rough between 2010 and 2016. (903424)

13. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of homeless people sleeping rough between 2010 and 2016. (903426)

17. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of homeless people sleeping rough between 2010 and 2016. (903430)

22. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of homeless people sleeping rough between 2010 and 2016. (903435)

There are too many people sleeping rough and I am determined to do more. That is why the rough sleeping and homelessness reduction taskforce will deliver a cross-Government strategy to tackle this issue, with the help of an expert advisory panel.

I welcome the Minister to her new role. Rough sleeping has doubled nationally since 2010, but in my constituency it has doubled in the past two years, according to our local charities Leamington Winter Support and Helping Hands. Of course, the biggest cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. In my constituency, developers have delivered—

Order. I apologise, but we have a lot to get through. What we need is a question, not a series of statements—a question with a question mark. One sentence, please. Help others; help yourself.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Given the lack of affordable housing being delivered by developers—the rate is currently running at 27% compared with the 40% set in the local plan—what does the Minister plan to do to ensure that that is enforced locally?

That is an interesting question, because those statistics are not aligned with November’s rough sleeping statistics. However, we recognise concerns about viability assessments for affordable housing. Last autumn we consulted on proposals to simplify viability assessments and increase transparency. We will announce further details of our approach when we publish the new national planning policy framework consultation later this year.

The number of rough sleepers in Darlington has doubled since 2010. Is that caused by: (a), a reduction in council budgets; (b), more than £5 million of cuts to housing benefit; (c), the bedroom tax; (d), the lack of affordable housing; (e), universal credit—I could go to (z), Mr Speaker—or the Minister’s failure to tackle soaring rents in the private sector?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question but, frankly, this is not a laughing matter. The Government are clear that one person without a home is too many. We have already taken steps towards combating rough sleeping and homelessness. For instance, we have implemented the most ambitious legislative reform in decades through the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which comes into force this April. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for all his hard work on that Act. We will ensure that more people get the help they need earlier to prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place.

The massive increase in homelessness and rough sleeping in my city of Glasgow is in stark contrast to the situation under the last Labour Government, when homelessness fell by more than three quarters. Given that shocking situation, what plans does the Minister have to roll out the finished Housing First pilot scheme, which prioritises rapid rehousing and permanent tenancies as a national strategy following the excellent pilot results in several British cities?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, which rather seemed to be about a devolved matter. As the nation gets to grips with this issue, the rough sleeping advisory panel, which I will chair, will include key figures from local and central Government, as well as homelessness charities. The panel’s role will be to support the taskforce in developing a cross-Government strategy to halve rough sleeping by 2022, and to eliminate it altogether by 2027. The first meeting of the advisory panel will take place on 1 February.

Earlier this month, the Wales Audit Office produced a report stating its belief that the Government’s welfare policies were having a detrimental impact on homelessness in Wales. Does the Minister accept that what is true in Wales is also true in England?

I like truths across the whole UK. The interesting issue will be the amount of money and the packages that we can put in place to spread funding for affordable housing across the nation. That is something that we are determined to do.

In Wolverhampton, the estimated number of rough sleepers has doubled since 2010. What plans do the Government have to decrease the number of rough sleepers, because their current plan is certainly not working?

The interesting thing about the Wolverhampton area is that it is part of the west midlands, so we are working very hard with Mayor Andy Street, who will be joining me on the rough sleeping strategy panel. I look forward to our first meeting on 1 February.

I am launching an appeal for mobile phones with local charity Doorway to enable those who are homeless or suffering to get back on their feet—literally—and have an emergency lifeline. Will the Minister offer support for what is, for some people, a controversial initiative locally and agree that it is much more controversial that in the UK today we still have some people who are homeless, which is why the Government are prioritising that area?

I thank my hon. Friend for referring to that interesting, innovative way to deal with such issues in the future, and I would be interested to see how the pilot in her area works. I congratulate her local area on being so proactive.

In Rugby, council officers go out into the community to speak to rough sleepers and have recently placed four in supported accommodation, but more often than not offers of support are declined and only last week Warwickshire police charged two rough sleepers for aggressive begging. Does the Minister agree that it is vital that we provide support for those who are forced to sleep rough, but that it is important also to ensure that support goes to those who are in genuine need?

My hon. Friend is quite correct: this is a complex matter involving some inherent difficulties such as mental health issues, family breakdown, crisis and chaos, but equally, the state has to be fair-handed, and if people are begging aggressively and have properties of their own, the state will do what it has to do. Our focus is on rough sleepers who need the help most.

It is a pleasure to welcome the Minister to her place. She will be aware that, following a grant that provided funding for the Torbay End Street Homelessness campaign, we have seen the number of rough sleepers fall. Will she confirm how work of that sort will be complemented by the Homelessness Reduction Act coming into force later this year?

I thank my hon. Friend, whom I have known for many years, for his good question. We want to pick up on the pilots around the country that are working so well, and the Homelessness Reduction Act means that councils will have a duty to try to help people before they become homeless. That is why, as part of a suite of efforts, we are looking into dealing with these matters. We are confident that, by 2022, we will halve rough sleeping in this country.

There has been a noticeable increase in the number of rough sleepers in Shipley over the past year or so. Will the Minister set out what the Government are doing with Bradford Council to try to deal with that issue? Does she agree that, to help homeless people, it is important that Bradford Council develops new housing in cheaper, affordable areas in Bradford, rather than concentrating on building unaffordable, expensive houses on the green belt in Wharfedale in my constituency?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question; he never fails to disappoint. Interestingly, one area where councils will be able to flex their muscles more is in taking on empty homes and looking into quality rented properties that are affordable for everybody so that communities stay together. I think that is something Bradford Council ought to do.

Affordable Homes: Rural Areas

More than 119,000 affordable homes have been delivered in rural communities since 2010. Homes England has invested £142 million in the rural affordable homes programme schemes in the past four years, which is around 9% of total spend.

I very much welcome those figures on affordable homes. There are redundant farm building sites, which could be classed as brownfield sites. If they were, that would release a lot more land for affordable homes. Will the Minister consider that, please?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we have introduced a requirement for each local authority to publish registers of brownfield land. More than 90% of local authorities have done so, and the information to date suggests that nearly 16,500 brownfield sites covering 26,000 hectares have already been identified in England alone.

As well as helping rural areas, what is the Minister going to do for places such as Birmingham? How will he respond to the council’s request for additional assistance with the provision of new homes, essential maintenance on existing properties and the discharge of statutory obligations, such as health and safety and annual gas inspections?

Since 2010, we have delivered more than 370,000 new affordable homes, but of course we are ambitious to do more—working with housing associations and local mayors such as Andy Street. Of course, we have raised the housing revenue account borrowing cap for local authorities to give them greater flexibility.

In welcoming my hon. Friend to his new role, may I ask him to look, with the intellectual vigour that I know he has, into what national parks do to supply affordable homes? They are not exempt from the need.

My right hon. Friend has considerable experience, both as a Minister and as a long-standing Member. We will certainly look into all such matters because we are absolutely committed to using every lever that we possibly can to increase home building in this country for the next generation.

One of the best ways to provide more affordable homes to rent in rural and, indeed, urban areas is through the provision of more co-operative housing. What further co-operative housing initiatives are the Minister and his Department thinking of pursuing?

The hon. Gentleman is right, and a lot of social housing is of a co-operative nature. It particularly depends on any given community’s specific needs, which are often for the local authorities to help to identify. Local authorities in rural areas need to focus on the particular needs of their communities. For example, some areas have rural exception sites, which provide long-term protection for affordable homes in rural areas.

Coastal Communities

Since 2012, we have invested £174 million in 295 coastal communities fund projects throughout the UK. Those projects are forecast to deliver 18,000 jobs, and we have announced that round 5 of the coastal community fund, worth £40 million, will open shortly.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. The Lowestoft coastal communities team has developed an exciting strategy for the regeneration of the town’s historic seafront. Will my hon. Friend visit Lowestoft to see for himself the work that will transform Britain’s most easterly town into the east coast’s destination of choice?

My hon. Friend’s constituency has already received more than £1.5 million from the coastal communities fund, which shows how he is delivering for his constituents through his campaigning. I would be delighted to visit when I am in his area.

The Social Mobility Commission’s “State of the Nation” report revealed that the socioeconomic prospects of those who live in rural coastal areas are poor. We have world-class industries and skills in many sectors, so what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that we realise our full potential?

I had the pleasure and privilege of visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency last year, and I saw those world-class skills in action, particularly in the nuclear supply chain. I am delighted that, through our industrial strategy and the northern powerhouse, we are supporting people throughout the country, so that they can grow the economy, wherever they may reside.

The Minister is leading on this issue, so he will know that the northern powerhouse growth deal, which will affect north Wales and its coastal communities, is about connectivity with Liverpool and Manchester and the improvement of infrastructure. Will he give an indication of when he will reach some conclusions on the budget for that growth deal?

Ultimately, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and his Ministers are leading on the north Wales growth deal, but with them I have an absolute determination to ensure that the deal delivers for the people of north Wales. On Thursday this week, I shall visit local authorities in north Wales to ask them what progress they have made and to update me on the projects that they would like to see.

I extend the condolences of the Scottish National party group to the friends and family of Councillor Kieran Quinn for the sadness and sudden loss they have faced.

Is the Minister aware of the Cardiff declaration by the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions? It was signed in November by the Scottish Government, alongside representatives of more than 20 other EU regions. Does he agree with its statement that Brexit will have a disproportionate impact on coastal regions and their key economic sectors?

I do not agree with the statement that Brexit will have a disproportionate impact on the coastal regions, because taking back control of our fishing industry will pay a huge dividend for the people who live along our coast. It was hugely exciting for me to visit Dumfries and Galloway only last Thursday to talk about the borderlands deal, which is unique in that it goes from coast to coast, covers the English and Scottish border areas and is a partnership of two Governments—the Scottish Government and the UK Government—coming together as equals to deliver for the people of the borderlands.

That does not really answer the question. Coastal communities face economic and social deprivation, and the Cardiff declaration highlights the fact that a hard Brexit will exacerbate that. Will the Minister meet representatives of the CPMR, and does he agree with them that if this Government do the unthinkable and walk away from a deal, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should still be able to access EU funding programmes?

Of course I will be happy to discuss having a meeting with the people to whom the hon. Lady refers. However, I gently point out that this Government—the UK Government—have already invested £174 million in our coastal communities and are getting behind those communities. What have the Scottish Government done? I think nothing.

Self-build Housing: South-west

The Government are promoting a step change in self-build through the £4.5 billion home-building fund and the 2016 self-build regulations.

I welcome the Minister to his place. May I just ask him what discussions he has had with the Treasury regarding the continuation of the community housing fund to deliver more local houses for people in Cornwall?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. The community housing fund was worth £60 million in its first year. In the context of the Budget in November, we announced that it would be continuing for a further three years. That includes capital and revenue funding, and it is part of the Government’s drive to support community groups bringing forward home-build projects.

Looked-after Children

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education on outcomes for looked-after children. (903421)

Like the hon. Gentleman, this Government have high ambitions for looked-after children and care leavers. The forthcoming corporate parenting provisions in the Children and Social Work Act 2017 will ensure high-quality care and support for these vulnerable young people.

I welcome the Minister, my near neighbour, to his new post. When will the Government actually provide adequate funds properly to support these special young people?

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that, shortly, the Government will announce the winning applicants to their social impact bond to provide funding for local authorities to improve outcomes in education, training and employment for care leavers.

I, too, welcome the Minister to his position, and I know that he will be excellent in his role. Does he agree that no child should be taken into care if family support would allow them to stay safely at home? What will he do to provide more support to struggling families to prevent children from being taken into care?

I thank my hon. Friend for her warm words and wholeheartedly agree that, where possible, children are of course looked after best by their own families. That is why the troubled families programme, in which we are investing £1 billion through to 2020, is working with those families to reduce the need for children to go into care. I am delighted to tell her that the results in December show a decrease in the number of children in need in that programme.

14. May I remind the Minister that, whether we are talking about children in care or the elderly in care, the real question that he must answer is what has happened to the fabric of social support and care, which has been driven down by local authority cuts over the past few years? (903427)

This Government are ensuring that local authorities have the resources they need to provide important local services: £200 billion over these five years; a real-terms funding increase over these two years; and £2 billion announced in the last Budget specifically for social care.

Local Government Finance

9. What assessment he has made of the effect of the local government finance settlement on the ability of local authorities to meet their statutory responsibilities. (903422)

19. What assessment he has made of the effect of the local government finance settlement on the ability of local authorities to meet their statutory responsibilities. (903432)

Our fair and sustainable financial settlement gives local authorities the ability to protect important local services. It marks the third of a four-year deal, providing funding certainty to local government and a real-terms increase in available resources to the sector.

How does the Minister intend to ensure that, under the fairer funding review, individual local authorities receive an adequate level of funding that is not only fair, but sustainable, given that the Government’s intention to reset the business rates baseline from 2020-21 may result in all the individual growth that has been built up since the start of the business retention scheme being taken away? Can the Minister provide any assurances that this growth will be protected?

Order. May I gently encourage colleagues in preparing their questions to recognise the merits of the blue pencil? Usually something drafted can be shortened.

The Government are piloting 100% business rates retention and have seen extraordinary applications for those pilots, and we are learning from them to design the appropriate system to take over in 2019-20 together with, as the hon. Lady said, a full review of fair funding, so that we can get the allocations right.

This Government have deliberately targeted their cuts at the most deprived communities. Nottingham City Council has lost a staggering 80% of its funding since 2010. Now the Government’s only answer to the social care crisis is to add another 3% to council tax bills. In Nottingham, that will raise just £3 million, which is way short of the extra £12 million the city needs to meet the costs of caring for more elderly and disabled people. When will the Minister stop dumping the financial burden on to Nottingham’s taxpayers and start funding social care properly and fairly?

I gently point out to the hon. Lady that core spending power per dwelling in the 10% most deprived local authorities is actually 23% higher than that in the least deprived, and indeed in her local authority, it is 11% higher than the national average.

I welcome the Government’s best value inspection of Northamptonshire County Council. Will the Minister ensure that the transfer of the fire service out of the council to the police and crime commissioner is not delayed by this inspection?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Secretary of State has asked Max Caller to look at the authority, and we await his findings eagerly. It is difficult for me to comment further at this time, as I am sure my hon. Friend appreciates.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new post. Somerset, which is underfunded relative to other local authorities, was disappointed not to be part of the business rates pilot. Will he meet me to discuss the upcoming local government finance round?

As my hon. Friend will know, we had an overwhelming number of applications for the pilot, and I am disappointed for him that Somerset is not a member. He should encourage his local authority to apply again when we rerun the pilot this year. In the meantime, I would be delighted to meet him to discuss fair funding for Somerset.

The local government finance settlement descended into a complete and utter shambles last week. The figures sent to local authorities were wrong. Back in March 2017, the National Audit Office was concerned that there was not the capacity within the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Valuation Office Agency to handle the Secretary of State’s plans. This new error will certainly not engender confidence in the Department. What steps are being taken to ensure that the error is not repeated?

The Valuation Office Agency made a mistake with the initial calculations. That was corrected and the Department has moved swiftly to provide accurate information to local authorities. I gently point out that overall the error meant that local authorities will receive an increase in the business rates retention forecast for this year.

The last time we were able to question the Secretary of State, we asked how he planned to address the unsustainable and insufficient funding for children’s services and what he would do about the £2 billion funding gap. He told us to wait and see what happened in the local government finance settlement. Well, we waited and looked at his proposal, but there is no new money for these vital services. Was that another error, and will it be corrected in future?

As I have already mentioned, local authorities will receive a real-terms increase in their aggregate funding this year and next. The Government have also invested £200 million in a social care innovation programme to look at ways to improve the delivery of children’s social services.

Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission

10. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission takes account of the needs of south Essex. (903423)

Under Sir John Armitt’s leadership, the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission is engaging all interested parties, including on last Friday’s visit to Southend airport, which I understand my hon. Friend attended. The commission is developing an ambitious vision for south Essex, north Kent and east London, and will publish its final report this spring.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. London Southend airport, as we like to refer to it, will have a major impact on the commission. What role does he see London Southend airport playing in boosting growth and productivity across the whole of south Essex?

I, too, like to refer to it as London Southend airport, which I think is its correct name. It is a real success story and has great potential for growth—it has an ambitious 2 million passenger target this year. Stobart Group has already invested £162 million in a new terminal. That puts London Southend airport at the heart of the Thames estuary commission’s growth plans.


12. What discussions he has had with local authorities on local government contingency arrangements as a result of Carillion entering liquidation. (903425)

We have been working in close partnership with the Local Government Association, which contacted affected local authorities before Christmas about the financial difficulties Carillion was facing to ensure that they have appropriate contingency plans in place. We will continue to work with the LGA to ensure that there is no, or minimal, disruption to public service.

Following revelations in the Sunday Herald that Keith Cochrane, the interim CEO of Carillion, sits on the Government’s network of non-executive directors, can the Minister advise on whether he or anyone from his Department has taken advice from or held meetings with Keith Cochrane?

I am not aware of any meetings taking place or advice being given. However, I will check the records when I return to the Department and write to the hon. Gentleman if there have been such meetings.

Homes for Social Rent

15. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of new homes for social rent since 2010. (903428)

We have delivered 357,000 affordable homes since 2010—more than in the preceding seven years. That includes 257,000 for rent and 128,000 for social rent.

Will the Secretary of State adopt Labour’s plans to lift the borrowing cap on councils’ housing revenue accounts, which could alone build 80,000 council homes, according to the Local Government Association?

We are not going to take on Labour’s plans in this area or any other, because frankly they are not sustainable. We are going to increase the affordable homes budget to £9 billion up to 2021. We are restless to deliver more affordable homes, including for social rent. The hon. Gentleman may like to know that in the past year there were 1,100 new housing starts in Manchester, and we are talking to the Mayor of Manchester about the housing deal, which will include a social housing component.

Whichever way Ministers try to present the figures, the number of genuinely affordable social homes built with public sector grants on their watch is pitiful. If the Minister will not accept Labour’s policy, will he accept the recommendation of the Treasury Committee by lifting the borrowing cap on councils’ housing revenue accounts completely to enable councils to build desperately needed council homes—or will he confirm that only a Labour Government will take the action that we need on council housing?

The record speaks for itself. We have delivered 357,000 more affordable homes since 2010—more than in the preceding seven years under the previous Labour Government. We are raising the cap; we did that in the last Budget. We are also creating a stable financial envelope for local authorities and housing associations with long-term rent deals: the settlement is CPI plus 1%. That is the sustainable way to drive home building in this country.

Surplus Public Land

18. What progress his Department has made on enabling the development of surplus public land for housing. (903431)

Some Labour councils, particularly in London, own hundreds of acres of surplus land. May I urge the new Minister to challenge those Labour authorities so that we can turn that land into family homes?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the 2015 autumn statement, the Chancellor set out our aim to release enough Government land by 2020 for 160,000 extra homes to be built. The Government are providing local authorities with money to help to facilitate that. I met Nick Walkley, the CEO of Homes England, last week to make sure that we get cracking on this top priority.

Temporary Accommodation

21. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of households in temporary accommodation. (903434)

Temporary accommodation ensures that no family is left without a roof over their head. Prevention is at the centre of our approach to protect the most vulnerable. We are spending over £1 billion until 2020 to prevent homelessness, as well as implementing the most ambitious legislative reform in decades—the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman).

Why does the Minister think that the number of children in temporary accommodation has risen by 73%, to 120,000, since 2010, according to the Public Accounts Committee, when the number had been falling under Labour?

I very much regret to have to point out to the hon. Lady that the number of children living in temporary accommodation is lower than at its peak in 2006. In 2011, we changed the law so that councils can place families in decent and affordable private rented homes. This now—[Interruption.] Behave yourself, love, please. This now means that homeless households should not have to wait as long for settled accommodation.

Anti-Semitism and Holocaust Denial

Anti-Semitism and holocaust denial are completely unacceptable in a civilized society, and this Government have taken a strong lead in tackling both. We have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of anti-Semitism, and we are planning a striking new national memorial beside Parliament.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust is as important as ever, given the worrying levels of organised hatred and intimidation both at home and abroad?

I agree wholeheartedly, and I am very pleased to praise the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust. I was also pleased to announce in Speaker’s House last week that we are giving £144,000 of support jointly to the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Union of Jewish Students to tackle anti-Semitism, prejudice and intolerance on our university campuses.

Topical Questions

The new year has meant a new name for my Department, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—or MoHoCoLoGo for short—and a fantastic new ministerial team, who will build on the great strides achieved by my hon. Friends the Members for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) and for Reading West (Alok Sharma). The name underlines the importance of our commitment to fix the broken housing market, and we will continue to help to build strong communities and to support local government. Something that resonates especially strongly this week is Holocaust Memorial Day, which is an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to rooting out hatred and anti-Semitism wherever it exists.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that upbeat statement. Both Scotland and Wales are totally served by unitary local authorities. How many people in England are served by unitary authorities, and what does he expect the figure to be in five years’ time?

First, may I say that it is a privilege to receive a question from my right hon. Friend? This is the first time I have received one from him in Parliament, and it is an opportunity for me to thank him for all the work he has done in government, of which he can be incredibly proud. I can tell him that 60% of English people are served by unitary authorities, and I expect the number to be higher in five years’ time, given the views of many local people about unitary authorities and our commitment to consider unitarisation whenever requested.

The Secretary of State is clearly overflowing with excitement, and we are very pleased for him.

T3. Recent statistics published by the Department show that 54,000 households in London are living in temporary accommodation and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said, 120,000 children are living in temporary accommodation this winter. Often, the standards are some of the worst, and the accommodation houses some of the most vulnerable. What steps will the Department now take to end the temporary accommodation crisis both in London and in the rest of the country? (903440)

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. First, it is a very serious matter, which is why we have put more money into local authorities so that they can look at the quality of the private rented accommodation in which temporary accommodation now takes place. Secondly, on the point about children, we have made it clear that bed and breakfast accommodation should be acceptable for only an incredibly short period where children are concerned, and local authorities know that.

T2. Will the Secretary of State assure me that he will set up cross-departmental arrangements with the Department for Transport and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure delivery of the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor, as envisaged by the National Infrastructure Commission? (903439)

First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on becoming the champion for the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor? I know he is very determined to do an excellent job, and he will make a great difference. The cross-departmental co-operation he talked about is absolutely essential. It is exactly what we are arranging, and I know he will help with it.

T4. Earlier, the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), promoted the borderlands growth deal and Moray apparently hopes to finalise a growth deal in the summer, so will someone in this Government tell me what blockers are preventing the UK Government from signing up to the original non-city deal, the Ayrshire growth deal? (903441)

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, these growth deals are extremely complicated. That is why I have agreed to meet the backers of the Ayrshire growth deal to talk about how, for our part, the UK Government can take an exciting deal forward.

T9. Does my hon. Friend agree that the ability to buy a home at an affordable price is vital to developing and enhancing social mobility and to realising the Government’s goals on aspiration and opportunity? Does he also agree that we must massively increase house building and speed up the process right across the country? (903446)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We delivered 217,000 new homes last year, which is 50% more than the last year of the last Labour Government. We want to get that level up to 300,000. We have planning reform, release of public sector land and targeted funding to achieve that, which is crucial for key workers, the next generation and those on low and middle incomes.

T5. City of Lincoln Council is aiming to build 500 homes in the next five years to help to tackle its waiting list of more than 1,000 house- holds. If the Government will not consider raising the borrowing cap on local housing revenue accounts, how do they plan to tackle the shortage of truly affordable rented housing? (903442)

We have, of course, raised the cap by £1 billion. It needs to be done in a responsible way, because we have to consider the amount of debt that has been taken on, but we will keep it under review. That is one aspect of the huge drive towards building the extra homes we need. I have talked about some of those issues, including targeted funding and release of public sector land. We want to make sure that we get up to the annual target of 300,000 as soon as possible.

Regeneration in Cleethorpes will be greatly assisted if the Government can conclude discussions with the local authority about a town growth deal under proposals by the Greater Grimsby project board. When do Ministers expect to reach a conclusion?

I met members of the board of the Grimsby town growth deal on a recent visit to Cleethorpes and the town of Grimsby. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be as pleased as I am that the growth deal was specifically referenced in the industrial strategy, and I encourage him to contact the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to talk about how it can be taken forward.

T6. May I ask the new Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), whether she thinks that Government policy since 2010 has played any part in the sharp rise in rough sleeping? (903443)

This is a very complex matter. The interesting thing that I find now that I am getting to grips with it as a Minister is the different layers of problems that people have in their chaotic lives. It is very important that different councils have moved on with building new council housing, including my own Conservative South Derbyshire District Council—I declare an interest as my husband was the leader. Different levels are really attacking the issue and it is going to be a pleasure to get my teeth into it.

The Secretary of State attended the launch of the new all-party parliamentary group on new towns, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan). My right hon. Friend will know that the new towns and Milton Keynes were created because they were able to acquire land at a reasonable valuation close to its current use. That is no longer possible, because of the Land Compensation Act 1973. Among his many admirable ambitions for housebuilding in this country, will he agree to look at the Act and the possibility of reforming the valuation of land that is acquired?

My hon. Friend speaks with great experience. He made a number of important planning reforms when he was a Minister. I will commit to looking at the issue he raises and point him to some of the work we have already done, including an amendment in the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 which allows the Secretary of State to designate planning zones.

T7. The leader of Birmingham City Council wrote to the Secretary of State about financial support from Government to make safe Birmingham’s 213 tower blocks in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. Will the Secretary of State provide an update on the proposal submitted and whether the finances will be made available? (903444)

We are working with Birmingham City Council on its request. As I said earlier, no request for financial flexibility will be turned down. We have received further information and we are working on it with Birmingham right now.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor provided money in the Budget for a national rental deposit scheme. What plans does the Department have to introduce that scheme, and how many families does it believe it will assist?

We are certainly looking at that as part of our wider strategy, which I have already described. I am very happy to write to my hon. Friend about its particular impact on his constituency.

T8. I find the level of rough sleeping in Chesterfield and across the country deeply humiliating as an MP, and it infuriates and disgusts my constituents. When Ministers walk past people living in sleeping bags, do they believe that it is the halving of councils’ Supporting People budget or the £5 billion cut to housing benefit that is most responsible for this national scar on our society? (903445)

We have made it an absolute priority in government to help to fight rough sleeping and homelessness. We have committed to halving it by the end of this Parliament and to eliminating it completely by 2027. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but I hope that he agrees that this issue is not a party political football, and we should all work together across the House to deal with the issue.

I am delighted that the new Housing Minister has agreed to work with me to improve tenant safety in respect of carbon monoxide poisoning. Does he agree with the National Landlords Association and Headway, a brain injury charity, that more needs to be done to protect the public at large from death or injury through carbon monoxide poisoning?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the tenacious way he has built the campaign. We will certainly listen to all voices on this issue. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to sit down with him to talk about his private Member’s Bill. We share the aim to make progress on carbon monoxide in both the key areas of his Bill. I look forward to working with him in future.

T10. Gateshead Council, of which I am a member, has seen its Government funding cut by 52% since 2010. Fifty per cent. of its budget is spent on vulnerable children and adult social care and demand is rising. With over 90% of our properties in council tax bands A to C, the social care precept does not go near addressing the shortfall. Will the Secretary of State urgently address the shortfall in funding for children and adult social care in Gateshead and elsewhere now, and will he produce a truly fair— (903447)

Order. It is very well meaning but topical questions are supposed to be shorter than substantives. That was just as long.

Gateshead will receive a 1.5% real-terms increase in core spending power this year and, thanks to the steps taken in the spring Budget by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, an additional £40 million to fund adult social care in the forthcoming financial year.

Will the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government work with the libraries taskforce at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to see how Northamptonshire’s public libraries can all be kept open?

The Secretary of State will have seen the leader of Wakefield Council’s announcement this morning that he now supports a wider Yorkshire deal. That means that 18 of the 20 local authorities across wider Yorkshire support it. Does the Secretary of State agree that in addition to finalising the detail of any Sheffield city region deal, an important conversation now needs to be had with the 18 leaders about a wider Yorkshire deal?

The crucial decision about any wider Yorkshire deal, if there ever is one, is in the hands of the local authorities concerned. We will be going ahead with the South Yorkshire deal, but earlier this week, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, we put forward a proposal to allow others, such as Barnsley and Doncaster, to take a different route, if they choose to do so.

For the coming year, the Secretary of State has enabled councils to increase tax by 3%, compared with just 2% last year, but the cash limit has been retained at £5 when parity would be £7.50. That affects 88 small district councils. Will the Secretary of State consider a change?

A number of people have made that representation. I have listened carefully and we will keep the issue under review. As my hon. Friend knows, the draft settlement is just that at the moment, and we are looking at it carefully.

May I welcome and congratulate the new members of the team? Ending a private rented sector tenancy is now the leading cause of homelessness. Will the Secretary of State extend the mandatory licensing scheme for landlords in the private sector?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We are looking closely to see where certain councils have introduced this. At the moment, it is something we are keeping under review.

Waltham Forest Council, which covers some of the poorest wards in London, has had to put through more than £100 million in cuts. To what extent is that situation sustainable?

The Government recognise the pressure on local councils and are determined to get them the resources they need, which is why there will be a real- terms funding increase for local authorities across the country this year, together with the flexibility to deliver more money for adult social care, in the hon. Gentleman’s council and elsewhere.

Will the Government please commit to reviewing the situation whereby street homeless people are crossing local authority boundaries, going from one where there is little support to others such as Bristol, where there is a great deal?

The hon. Lady asks a very interesting question. The taskforce will be looking at cross-county and rural-to-city issues. Perhaps we could meet to discuss this further after our first meeting on 1 February.

If the Treasury Committee can recognise the social and fiscal benefits of removing the council house building borrowing cap completely, why cannot the Government?

Of course, the borrowing cap has been raised by £1 billion, but it has to be done sustainably. We remain open-minded, however, and are keeping it under review.

With Holocaust Memorial Day this week, does my right hon. Friend agree that on both sides of the House we really need to face up to anti-Semitism wherever we see it and whatever form it takes?

Holocaust Memorial Day is a reminder to us all of the horrors of what mankind can do—of what we can do to each other—if no one speaks up. It is incumbent on all parties in this House to face up to anti-Semitism. I noted just a few days ago the Jewish Labour Movement was appealing to the Labour party leadership to throw out people who allegedly practise anti-Semitism. The Labour party talks about combating hate crime, but it has to show people that it really means it.

Too many people moving into brand-new homes on brand-new housing estates struggle with poor or no wi-fi. Will Ministers work with developers to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place when these houses are being built?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that issue. We have worked with local authorities and developers, but also with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in relation to that.

Private Sector Pensions

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if she will make a statement on the Government’s plans to stop private sector pension abuse.

The vast majority of employers do the right thing by their pension schemes, and members can expect to receive the pension benefits they have paid for throughout their working lives. The Pensions Regulator and the Pension Protection Fund were set up in 2004 to provide pension scheme members with a safety net to ensure pension benefits receive some protection when things go wrong—it is a fact that some businesses will fail. The PPF approach has been supported on a cross-party basis since 2004.

To prevent irresponsible employers from off-loading pension liabilities on to the PPF, the regulator was given a range of powers, including the ability to recover significant assets where employers failed to take account of the scheme. There are about 6,000 defined benefit schemes, however, and such cases are very few and far between. It is the responsibility of the regulator to strike a balance between protecting members and PPF levy payers, and minimising any adverse effects on the sustainability of employers and businesses when it comes to the regulation of defined benefit funding.

The regulator does not have the power to stop businesses paying out bonuses to executives or dividends to shareholders, but if it believes that a scheme is not being treated fairly, it will investigate to see whether the use of its powers is appropriate. The Government are clear, however, that where sponsoring employers can meet their pension promises, they should and must do so. That is why we have suggested ways of strengthening the current scheme to enable the regulator to be more proactive. In fact last February we published our Green Paper, “Security and Sustainability in Defined Benefit Pension Schemes”, which included suggested measures that could strengthen the powers of the Pensions Regulator by introducing punitive fines for actions that harm a pension scheme. We also set out powers to enhance the regulator’s ability to demand information to ensure effective governance and spot issues before damage is done.

Our manifesto in June 2017 reaffirmed this intent by proposing to give the regulator the power to impose punitive fines alongside contribution notices so that pension scheme members are fully protected. The details of the fine would be worked through with all the relevant stakeholders, but it would represent a significant strengthening of the deterrent. We also intend to make certain corporate transactions subject to mandatory clearance by the Pensions Regulator, but we must take care to ensure that these measures do not have an adverse effect on legitimate business activity and the wider economy.

I should tell colleagues that we have received 800 responses to the Green Paper, and they are being reviewed by the Department. The White Paper is in progress and will be published in the spring. Effective regulation is dependent on a prompt flow of information between the parties concerned, and on compliance with rules and processes. Following the publication of the White Paper, we will introduce new regulation to ensure that the regulator gets the information it requires to conduct investigations and casework effectively and efficiently. It remains the case that the Government support free markets, enterprise and businesses, but this has to be conducted responsibly.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister chose to announce via the media, in part in response to the collapse of Carillion, that the Government planned to introduce tough new rules to stop private sector pension abuse. Carillion had 13 defined benefit schemes in the UK, with 28,500 members and a combined pensions deficit of £587 million. Between the end of 2015 and last year’s interim results, the difference between Carillion’s assets and liabilities almost doubled, from £317 million to £587 million. We know that profit warnings started to be issued in the summer of 2017. Given the severity of the financial problems facing Carillion, why did the Government not act then, rather than attempting to close the stable door after the horse had bolted?

We have argued for years that the Government should take better action to protect people’s pensions. The Government had the opportunity to act in 2013 and again in 2015, by supporting Labour’s amendments to pensions governance in legislation. More recently, the Work and Pensions Committee warned the Government of the need for protections and for more powers for the regulator. Although we welcome the Green Paper, the urgency has just not been there. Why did the Minister choose to ignore those warnings?

The Committee made a number of recommendations, including that the Pensions Regulator should have mandatory clearance powers for corporate activities that put pension schemes at risk, and that it should have new powers to impose fines at a level that would genuinely deter such dangerous and irresponsible behaviour. Why did the Government refuse to implement those recommendations at the time? Are the Government now ready to commit to implementing them fully? If the Government had taken action, Carillion’s massive debt accrual might have been arrested.

Given the scale of the liabilities and the concerns for other defined benefit schemes, what does this mean for the adequacy of the Pension Protection Fund? The collapse of Carillion has already led to a rise in pension scammers targeting those with pension pots. What about the defined contribution schemes that are not covered by the Pension Protection Fund? Will the Secretary of State investigate the apparent conflict involved in BlackRock being responsible for those schemes while simultaneously betting against their employer? Finally, can she advise the House what measures will be proposed in the White Paper, and when, exactly, they will be brought to the House?

As Members on both sides of the House know, the regulator is an independent, arm’s length body. It was set up in 2004 after much discussion about how it should work and how it could best support pensioners when they needed its help. What it never did was to interfere with the running of a business; that was what was decided. We said that we needed to make sure that we could go further if we had to. That is why we have set about introducing a Green Paper—as I said, we have had 800 consultation responses—looking at where it is best to intervene, to make sure that we get the balance right. We do not want to tip the edge and unnecessarily cause harm to a business.

Profit warnings mean that a company will not get the profit that it expected—no more than that. We have to make sure that the Government do not precipitate anything that could be seen as negative from business. That is why we are looking at all these 800 responses, looking carefully and considering how to protect companies’ employees, protect pensions and move forward in the most conducive and careful manner. The new White Paper will be coming forward later this year.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the way the British public are reacting to this issue? They are seriously repelled by the notion that executive directors and even ex-directors should carry on drawing large payments at the same time as there is a mounting pension deficit. If this was what capitalism was really like, people would not want it. What are the Government going to do to draw the attention of businesses and executive directors to their governance responsibilities in these situations in the future, although this is nothing like as bad as the Maxwell scandal?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. This is about strengthening the corporate governance of organisations. This is about giving power to the boardroom. This is about giving shareholders responsibility. This is about having responsible businesses doing the right thing. Where we can ensure that that happens, and where we can look into investigating what is going wrong—should things be going wrong—it is right that we do. As I said at the beginning, most businesses—the vast majority of businesses, and there are over 6,000 defined benefit schemes—are doing the right thing, but where they are not, it is right that there is fury from the public to make sure that they do the right thing. That is why the Insolvency Service carries out investigations in this regard and gets money back where it can.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing it.

That we are talking about private sector pensions again highlights the fundamental need to address the regulation of the pensions industry—something that the SNP has been calling for for years, but that has until now fallen on deaf ears. The BHS pension scheme was in deficit by more than £500 million. Carillion is estimated to be up to £900 million in the red, and there are over 5,000 other private sector defined benefit schemes in deficit, to the tune of £900 billion—a ticking time bomb for savers.

However, the real issue is that, while top executives make bad decisions and are rewarded for it, 11 million people who rely on a final salary pension could still be at risk of having the rug pulled from under their feet and of facing reduced entitlements should cases such as BHS or Carillion continue to be repeated.

The SNP has long called for the establishment of an independent pensions commission to ensure that employees’ savings are protected and that a more progressive approach to fairer savings is considered. Alongside that, will the UK Government make sure that the Pensions Regulator is now given the appropriate authority to step in and protect the interests of savers and pensioners before cases such as those of BHS and Carillion happen again?

The Pension Protection Fund is there to do just that: to support pensioners. It does step in and support them where necessary. The hon. Gentleman is quite right: where businesses have not worked responsibly, we should be getting involved, and we did that when we saw the conditions with British Home Stores. What happened there is that anti-avoidance enforcement did take place, and £363 million was got back, so we did not have to use the PPF. Also, a prosecution did take place. All these instances have been different, but the hon. Gentleman is quite right: where there has been an abuse of the system, we will carry out an investigation and bring people to account.

What action is my right hon. Friend taking in working with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to look at the conduct of the directors of Carillion in this regard? Specifically, following on from the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), what can be done now to recover any of this money for the people affected?

I thank my hon. Friend. An investigation is going on. Not only is there one that has been initiated by the Business Minister, but the Insolvency Service will also be investigating what went on. If there is any evidence that untoward things have been done, a prosecution will follow. That is what we are about: we want businesses to act responsibly. They employ the majority of people in this country, so it is only right that we support them when they need our support and bring them to account when they are doing things wrong.

I welcome the right hon. Lady back to this Department. The Government, of course, are responsible for the regulatory framework for pensions. Will she respond to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) about defined contribution schemes? Are the Government looking at possible changes to the rules for those, as well as for defined benefit schemes, which the Minister has said the Government are looking at?

We are not currently considering changing the rules on defined contribution schemes. In that instance a contribution has been made which will be protected and moved to another pension, whereas a pension in a defined benefit scheme is what someone was expecting to receive at the end, and will therefore be protected. They are very different schemes, and different protections and rules apply to them.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that constituents with existing Carillion pensions will receive 100% recovery through the Pension Protection Fund?

I can indeed state that that is the case, but anyone who is concerned about a pension should call the free hotline. The number is 0800 756 1012. I know that my hon. Friend is a great supporter of employees and businesses in her local area.

The Secretary of State does not seem to have grasped the fact that the decision to carry on paying dividends and to boost the bonuses of the board while running up a pensions deficit was made by the board itself. What will she do to prevent that from happening again?

I do understand the gravity of what happened, but there is one thing that we never seek to do in the House. In 2004, after much discussion, we asked an independent arm’s length body to look into these matters. When there have been misdemeanours and irresponsible behaviour and things have gone wrong, we announce that investigations are under way, but we are not the investigator. What we do is legislate to ensure that people are brought to account—and if they have done something wrong, my goodness, we need to bring them to account.

A number of my constituents have been affected by the Carillion situation. What will the Pension Protection Fund do to support those who have pensions through Carillion, and what more will the Government do to ensure that people with private pensions can be confident that investing their savings in a company pension fund is the right thing to do?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Pension Protection Fund is there to provide a lifeboat. Those who have retired will receive 100% support, while those who have not will receive 90% support, with a cap. That is what we are here to do: to protect the people who have done the right thing in saving for their future and to look after them in a responsible way, while also ensuring that regulations and processes exist to bring to account those who have done the wrong thing.

BlackRock was responsible for Carillion workers’ pensions, while simultaneously betting against their employer on the stock market. What measures will the White Paper contain to ensure that such a conflict of interests cannot happen again?

We received 800 responses to the Green Paper. We want to learn from the people who know most about these matters what they think is the best way to tackle the problem, because obviously we do not want such things to happen again.

My constituent Michael Evans, a retired employee of Barclays, has raised serious concerns about the future of its pension fund. Given the £7 billion shortfall, is Barclays moving its liability to its investment branch in the hope that it can avoid having to cover the deficit?

People who are concerned about their pensions should take advice from the Pensions Advisory Service. That is the best thing they can do. Obviously, the regulator will look into any incidents that it thinks need to be investigated.