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Topical Questions

Volume 746: debated on Monday 4 March 2024

On Friday, at the convention of the north, I was delighted to confirm enhanced devolution deals for the Liverpool city region, West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire and additional investment in Blackpool, Sheffield and Blackburn. That includes £1.5 million for Tony’s Empress Ballroom, which—as you know, Mr Speaker—is an iconic northern soul dance hall. I look forward to visiting it with you and the shadow Secretary of State soon.

A constituent recently came to my surgery with her seven-year-old son to show some appalling photographs of the private rented accommodation in which they live. The little boy asked me whether he is going to die because of the thick mould in his bedroom. Given the housing ombudsman’s recent remarks, particularly emphasising the link between housing conditions and health, what urgent action will the Secretary of State take to address the appalling situation in the private rented sector?

We will shortly say more about the decent homes standard and the extension of the ombudsman’s powers to deal with precisely the sort of situation that the hon. Lady raises.

T2. My local housing association, Flagship Newtide, has sold off three more homes in Aldeburgh at auction since the last Levelling Up, Housing and Communities questions. However, it is failing to take action on the antisocial behaviour that is affecting several of my constituents in Saxmundham. What powers can we apply to make sure that people who do the right thing and want to live peacefully in their home are not surrounded by people who deal drugs, breed illegal pets and make other people’s lives a misery? (901786)

Tackling antisocial behaviour is a priority for this Government, which is why we have published our antisocial behaviour action plan, backed with £160 million of new funding. We have committed to a “three strikes and you’re out” ASB policy, and landlords will be expected to evict tenants whose behaviour is disruptive to neighbours. My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that, from 1 April, the social housing regulator will require registered providers of social housing to work with the appropriate local authority, the Department, the police and other relevant organisations to tackle antisocial behaviour.

This week’s Budget will be a big one for young people—16 and 17-year-olds—who are starting work or making important education choices, yet they currently have no say on who will be the next Government. We on the Opposition Benches believe in our young people. Will the Government act now to give 16 and 17-year-olds a say in the next general election?

The hon. Lady makes a case for lowering the voting age—one that I do not support and the Government do not support. The age of 18 is seen as the age of maturity in this country and many others across the world. It seems to have served us pretty well up to now and I see no particular reason to change it.

T3. Will the Minister join me in congratulating South Staffordshire Council on serving an enforcement notice to rebuild the Crooked House pub? Will he also look favourably at measures I will be bringing forward to ensure that heritage pubs are better protected, because, as he will know, the Crooked House and many others have had no protections at all? (901787)

My hon. Friend makes an important argument, and the case of the Crooked House reinforces what he has long campaigned for: better protection for heritage pubs. I look forward to working with him and Lord Mendoza to achieve just that.

T4. The Secretary of State is a strong supporter of green urban spaces, so will he urgently meet me to discuss the ancient Haven Green, which is currently under threat and on which he is due to make a decision soon? (901788)

Obviously, I cannot speak to the hon. Lady about specific planning applications. I do cherish urban green spaces, but I also cherish more homes being built in London. It would be regrettable if she were to be a blocker, not a builder.

Since my election, I have urged Wolverhampton City Council to focus on city centre living, to bring footfall back to our city centre. What more can the Government do on that? I am delighted that the council is now changing its plans, but how can we get upper storeys converted as well, to really bring that footfall back?

My hon. Friend is a brilliant champion for Wolverhampton and for Wulfrunians everywhere. In particular, she has been the single most effective voice in attracting investment to the heart of Wolverhampton. She is right to say that, as well as commercial investment, we need new residential opportunities, and our extension of permitted development rights should provide just that.

T5. Will the Minister for the Union tell me what discussions he has had with devolved Administrations, and with the Chancellor, on the very important matter of infected blood compensation? Does he recognise the frustration and dismay from many campaigners at the delays? They have waited almost a year since Sir Brian Langstaff reported on his compensation framework. (901789)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. Those who have suffered as a result of the infected blood scandal are, of course, in the forefront of our minds. This is directly a Cabinet Office responsibility, but I know from my time there how seriously the Ministers charged with that responsibility take it. I will talk to them and update the devolved Administrations on progress towards appropriate compensation.

The Government are to be commended for taking through the first leasehold reforms for 20 years, but as the Bill now goes to the Lords, will Ministers go further and agree: first, to empower the 3 million to 4 million people trapped on fleecehold estates; and, secondly, to fundamentally end this scammy, dodgy, corrupt model once and for all?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about making sure that we strike the right balance. We have brought forward significant reforms in the Bill, but I am happy to continue to talk to him and other Members who are interested. The Government continue to look at what more can be done.

T7. Last week we saw, for a second year running, rough sleeping numbers up by more than a quarter—that is a lot of people to criminalise if the Criminal Justice Bill remains unamended. More than 100,000 households, including 140,000 children, find themselves stuck in temporary accommodation, yet the mere mention of temporary accommodation sees Ministers pivot away from the subject entirely. This should be a source of shame for this Government. So where is the national plan to end all forms of homelessness? I sincerely hope it is not in the same place as the Government’s plan for ending section 21 evictions. (901791)

This Government have a clear plan that we introduced last year: ending rough sleeping for good. We announced £2 billion behind it and the figure is now £2.4 billion. We are giving unprecedented amounts of money to this very important task.

Haden Hill leisure centre in my constituency is to be part rebuilt and part refurbished by a £20 million investment from the levelling-up fund. Does the Minister agree that the Department needs to continue to be engaged with the local authority, which is appointing contractors, to make sure that this project gets delivered on time and on budget?

My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for his constituents. I am happy to meet him to discuss the delays as soon as we can. The project adjustment process is available to the council if it needs to use it.

T9. In 2010, total wealth per head in the north of England was 16% lower than in the rest of England. Last week, the Institute for Public Policy Research released a report that estimated that by 2030, this gap will have grown to 21%. Can the Secretary of State confirm that this Government’s policies have achieved levelling up? (901793)

I was delighted to be in West Yorkshire on Friday outlining the additional investment that we are making in that region. The agreement that we have reached with the Mayor of West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin, will see significant additional funds going in to help with housing, adult skills and transport, all of which will contribute to a revolution in devolution that has occurred under this Conservative Government.

Rural areas are particularly vulnerable to the high energy costs we have seen in the last two years. They are 150% more vulnerable to fuel poverty. Does my right hon. Friend agree that councils on the frontline of high rural costs are seeing a spate of homelessness? Great councils, such as Breckland Council in my patch, are now spending 50% of their net budget on relief. Would he support me in urging the Chancellor to increase that relief in the Budget on Wednesday?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are concentrating on ensuring we can level up the north and the midlands, but we also need to recognise that levelling up encompasses making sure that those in rural areas, who contribute so much to the life of our nation, are supported through the challenges that the cost of living crisis has generated.

Will the Minister advise me how many people took up the offer of the former help to buy ISA scheme? Has another such scheme been considered to allow young people to get on the seemingly impossible first rung of the property ladder?

As a Government, we continue to bring forward as many interventions as we can to support young people to get on the housing ladder. Some 800,000 first-time buyers have managed to do that since 2010. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to talk more about the points he has made.

Today, the Charity Commission issued new guidance for charities that refuse to accept donations. That comes after the Royal National Lifeboat Institution turned down a donation from Dungarvan Foxhounds Supporters Club in the Republic of Ireland. Declining a donation from a lawful source may not be consistent with the legal duty of trustees to “further their charity’s purpose”. Will my right hon. Friend support the right of communities throughout the British Isles to donate to charities of their choice?

My right hon. and learned Friend, the former Attorney General, raises a very important point. We want to do everything we can to encourage charitable giving. I will look closely at the case he mentions, and raise it with the Cabinet Office and Orlando Fraser KC, the distinguished chair of the Charity Commission, who is doing such a good job.

There are businesses in York that have not been able to trade for over four months because of flooding. The flood recovery framework precludes them from getting funds, whereas those in the Tory shires are able to access funds. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the fact that businesses in my constituency cannot get funding? Let us find a way forward so that they do not miss out.

Councillors will not be covered by the newly passed Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Act 2023 and are at risk of losing extra responsibility allowances if they have a child who spends time in neonatal care. Will the local government Minister issue guidance to councils, asking them to ensure that all parents are protected if their councillors find themselves in those most difficult of circumstances?

My hon. Friend has worked on this campaign. We spoke about it last week and I understand entirely the merits of the argument he makes. So powerful is he as an advocate that I have already put work in hand to deliver what he is talking about.

On the community ownership fund, it is welcome that the match funding requirements for local organisations have been reduced to 20%. In future rounds, could the criterion around match funding take account of prior investment by the community, such as the very many small donations that people in the Axe valley area gave to build Seaton community hospital?

1244 was the date of the first market charter awarded to Wellington in Shropshire, in my constituency. In the last three years, £3 million from the towns fund, £10 million from the levelling-up fund and £800,000 from a fund I cannot remember have provided record investment from this Government into the 800-year-old market town of Wellington. The Labour council has just taken over the market, so will the Secretary of State please ensure that the council do not mess it up?

We will do everything we can. Wellington is very lucky to have such a brilliant advocate. I hope my right hon. Friend sits on the green Benches for many years to come, but when he is transferred to another place, he deserves to be the next Duke of Wellington.