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Topical Questions

Volume 717: debated on Monday 27 June 2022

I had the enormous privilege on Wednesday last week of attending the unveiling of the Windrush memorial, which marks the fantastic contribution made to this country over more than 70 years by migrants from the Caribbean and the wider Commonwealth. I wish to place on the record my thanks not just to the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), but to Baroness Floella Benjamin for the fantastic work she undertook to ensure that that fitting memorial could be unveiled.

I welcome the proposals to extend the decent homes standard in the private rented sector in the just published, “A fairer private rented sector” White Paper. Is it the Government’s intention to include their stated targets on private rented sector energy efficiency in homes in the decent homes standard? If they do that, what sanctions will the Government be proposing for landlords who fail to make their properties energy-efficient?

The hon. Gentleman is right that energy efficiency is a critical part of making sure that homes are decent, safe and warm, and we will be considering what steps and what proposals we might be able to put in place to ensure that landlords live up to their responsibilities.

T3.   Local authorities such as Suffolk County Council are facing major challenges in recruiting social care staff. That is cascading right through the health and social care system and causing major difficulties for hospitals in discharging patients, getting on top of the backlog of operations and getting ambulances quickly back on the road. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State outline the discussions he has had with local government to remove this logjam? (900739)

Local authorities such as Suffolk County Council are facing major challenges in recruiting social care staff; that is cascading right through the health and social care system and causing major difficulties for hospitals in discharging patients and getting on top of the backlog of operations. I agree with my hon. Friend and want him to know that I have been working on the issue very closely with my counterpart in the Department of Health and Social Care. We have provided £462.5 million to local authorities to support them with those workforce pressures, and there is more that we will continue to do.

We have had a week of travel chaos while the Transport Secretary has sat idly by, and there is another crisis on the horizon: the local government cleaners, social workers and refuse workers who cannot afford to feed their families on the wages they are paid. They need and deserve a pay rise. The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities knows that workers and council leaders struggling with record Tory inflation cannot square the circle alone. Nobody wants rubbish piling up in the streets, nobody wants older people left in their homes, and nobody wants families left to break. Will he commit to making a better fist of this than his hopeless colleague at the Department for Transport? He should do as they ask and come to the table to protect our vital workers, who kept this country going during the pandemic, and the communities they serve so well.

I am surprised that the hon. Lady talks about “Tory inflation”—presumably the inflation in Germany is Social Democratic inflation, inflation in France is En Marche inflation, and inflation in the United States is Democrat inflation. The truth is that when it comes to dealing with the cost of living crisis and ensuring that our economy is on the right track, she and her colleagues would be better served by using their links with the trade unions to get workers back to work, rather than she and her colleagues supporting the RMT in strike action that gets in the way of our economy moving forward.

It would be laughable if the Government’s failure to do their job had not brought this country to a standstill and was not about to get much worse. The Secretary of State talks about Labour Members doing their jobs, but the last time we had strikes on this level was under the Thatcher Government in 1989, and he was on a picket line—I prefer his earlier approach. If he is serious about getting the economy moving, why does he not do his job?

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) talked about the billions of pounds that the Government have poured down the drain on levelling up, because the Secretary of State does not have the first clue how to spend it. He knows that the only way out of this low growth, high tax spiral that his Government have created is to get the economy firing on all cylinders. Can he remind me again whose job that is? It is his. If he will not do it, why will he not get out of the way and give that money to local council leaders so that they can?

That was beautifully scripted. I offer my support to the hon. Lady in her leadership bid; I am behind her 100% of the way, as, I am sure, are her friends in the RMT and that other figure who joined Labour MPs on the picket line last week: Arthur Scargill. She talks about going back to the future, but she would take us back to the future of the ’80s with strikes, inflation and borrowing. She is the Marty McFly of politics: someone who lives in the past, even as she aspires to greater things.

I say to both Front Benchers that it is totally unacceptable to take that length of time in topical questions. Back Benchers are the people who are meant to be asking topical questions, so please consider the rest of the Chamber.

T6. Wrexham’s levelling-up gateway bid is supported by a 16,000-signature petition, which we will present to No. 10, to redevelop the Kop stand at the racecourse and create an international sporting stadium in north Wales for the first time. Does the Minister agree that people are at the heart of the Government’s levelling-up agenda and the amount of people who have signed the petition shows its true value? (900742)

Will the Secretary of State confirm his willingness to meet me, North Ayrshire Council and key partners to discuss the robust proposals for a fusion energy plant at Ardeer in my constituency? Does he agree that a successful Ardeer bid would provide a step change in local and regional economic prosperity, as well as being a catalyst for long-term sustainable investment in North Ayrshire?

Yes and yes. Even though they are not in my party, I must say that North Ayrshire’s elected representatives in this House and in Holyrood do a fantastic job for their constituents in championing nuclear power.

T2. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. There is an alcohol harm paradox, whereby people in the most deprived communities drink less but suffer larger consequences. In Liverpool, 88% of alcohol is sold at below 50p a unit, and 24% of the population drink at high risk. More and more premises are seeking to open. Will the Secretary of State look again at making public health a licensing objective and review the way that licensing fees are set nationally so that they could be set at a local level? (900738)

I am sure the whole House knows of the hon. Gentleman’s courage and principle in campaigning on such questions. He makes a valid point. A health disparities White Paper is forthcoming soon and I will discuss his precise point with my right hon. Friend the Health and Social Care Secretary.

T9. Planning applications have a major impact on communities, but too often communities feel excluded from the decision-making process because they are unaware of the procedure for the local plan. Could Ministers ensure that, in the planning reforms they bring forward, they will make changes so that communities can take an active part from the beginning? (900746)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is one of the key ambitions of the measures being introduced in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. We want there to be opportunities for communities to influence and comment on emerging local plans, and we will make sure that those powers are enhanced and that the planning system is digitised so that it is easier for people to engage, because local people need to decide where the local housing should be provided.

T5. The Secretary of State promised an overhaul of the building safety fund to put an end to the endless delays to the funding that people in unsafe buildings desperately need, but the delays continue. Three blocks in my constituency—the Swish building, the Radial development and Percy Laurie House—have all been pending for well over a year now, and they have heard nothing from the fund. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss these blocks, and stop these and many applications getting stuck? (900741)

Absolutely. In the first instance, I will ask Lord Greenhalgh to investigate, and then we will of course follow up with a meeting.

Burtree in the north of Darlington has been granted garden village status. However, the current difficulties posed by nutrient neutrality guidance from Natural England are causing delays not just for this developer, but others. What can my right hon. Friend do to rectify this situation? Moreover, can I press him to do all he can to unblock the bureaucratic backlog between Homes England, the Treasury and his Department, to enable Burtree to progress?

Absolutely. On nutrient neutrality, we are working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Natural England to resolve this question. On the second point, I will apply appropriate pressure to tender parts.

T7. The Secretary of State will be aware of my interest in flood prevention from my ten-minute rule Bill—the Flooding (Prevention and Insurance) Bill—and how important the issue is to Hull and the East Riding. Will he be following the Labour Government in Wales in enacting schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 for England, which would ensure minimum standards of sustainable drainage systems on every new property? (900743)

Sustainable drainage systems are a vital part of future developments, so I will look closely at the recommendation the hon. Member makes.

While currently only local authorities can initiate levelling-up fund bids, has my right hon. Friend given consideration to giving other organisations, such as community interest companies or charities, the ability to submit LUF bids, so long as they have the backing of the local MP?

That is an intriguing idea, and it would be a significant development. My hon. Friend is, I think, probably the most effective Member of Parliament in the borough of Wigan, and can I say that I look forward to working closely with him on that?

Since the Tories came into power, 800,000 fewer households aged under 45 own their homes, nearly 1 million more people now rent—often at a cost higher than a mortgage—and the number of truly affordable homes and new social rented homes being built has fallen by over 80%. Is the Secretary of State ashamed of this record, which is failing a generation of young people?

I was very proud when this Government repealed the Vagrancy Act 1824 under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, and the last thing we should do is demonise and criminalise people who rough-sleep and beg. I absolutely appreciate that there can be antisocial behaviour with aggressive begging, but we have legislation —more robust and more modern legislation—that deals with that. Therefore, I was concerned to see that clause 187 of the new Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill disregards the repeal of the Vagrancy Act. When is a repeal not a repeal?

There will be no return to the Vagrancy Act. We will work with the Home Office to ensure that there are appropriate measures to deal with any form of antisocial behaviour, but criminalising rough-sleeping and begging is not on the agenda.

I have leaseholders in my constituency of Warwick and Leamington who are unable to sell their properties because the properties have not been painted for 40 years, despite the freeholder’s obligations. Why have the Government actually postponed their leasehold reforms from this Parliament?

Is the Secretary of State aware that in 2019 I took through Parliament the Parking (Code of Practice) Act with all-party support? This measure mandates the Government to introduce a code to make parking fairer for motorists. In view of the overwhelming support for this measure on both sides of the House, why are the Government now dragging their feet on the matter?

There is a challenge to some of the proposals we are putting forward, with which we have to deal in the courts.

Scotland receives 40% less money from levelling-up funding than it received from the EU. When does the Secretary of State estimate Scotland will get the same amount of funding as we had as a member of the EU?

Scotland is just as generously funded as ever before, but it would be even better for Scotland if the Scottish Government were not spending £20 million on campaigning for independence, because as we all know, breaking up the United Kingdom would be an economic disaster for Scotland.

Ministers are aware of the long-standing limbo the learned societies of Burlington House find themselves in because of the proposed rent increases from the Government, and I declare an interest as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. Apparently the Secretary of State has promised the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) a meeting to get everybody around the table to sort this out. May we urgently have that meeting before the summer recess, and will he give us a date now?

My hon. Friend is a distinguished archaeologist and antiquarian—although still a youthful-looking antiquarian. Yes, we will have that meeting; it will happen before 22 July and I will invite both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).

The Secretary of State has mentioned that there will be more opportunities for all of the UK as a result of the levelling-up programme, and of course we welcome that. He also knows there is a subsidy control mechanism in operation in Northern Ireland that prevents Northern Ireland from benefiting from levelling up and other generous benefits that flow from this place. Will the Secretary of State today ensure that everyone on his side of the House—and I encourage Members on the Opposition side of the House to do this too—votes for the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, in which clause 12 will remove that impediment to progress?

The Foreign Secretary will open the Second Reading debate, and I hope people will listen to everything that she and indeed the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland say, in order to make sure Northern Ireland can fully participate in all the benefits of being part of the UK.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

There are two villages in my local area that will essentially become one due to a development that was granted approval on appeal. How is the Secretary of State addressing the current problem of the lack of a five-year land supply circumventing local planning decisions?

The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and our forthcoming national planning policy prospectus will address precisely that question.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s new-found enthusiasm for the Scottish Parliament. Does that enthusiasm extend to recognising the mandate that Parliament has to honour the manifesto commitments on which a clear majority of its Members have been elected in 2021, 2016 and 2011?

In 2014 the people of Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom and were told at the time by the Scottish National party that it was a once in a generation vote. Eight years on from that vote it would be folly indeed, at a time when there is war on the European continent, we face cost of living challenges and we are all committed to working together to deal with the legacy of covid, to spend even more money attempting to break up and smash the United Kingdom instead of working to heal and unite.

Eastleigh Borough Council is scheduled to have £670 million of debt by 2025, with no sign of it reducing. Does the Secretary of State think this is acceptable, and what plan does his Department have to tackle such profligate councils?

As Eastleigh Borough Council is so profligate, I presume—I do not know; I do not have the facts in front of me—it must be a Liberal Democrat-controlled council, because profligacy and fiscal incontinence on such a level could only be engineered by the opportunistic gang that masquerades as the Liberal Democrat party.