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Topical Questions

Volume 733: debated on Monday 5 June 2023

This Government are committed to ensuring that we have a fitting memorial to the holocaust, and we will be bringing forward legislation to ensure that we can do just that. That legislation has been designated a hybrid Bill, which, Mr Speaker, you and others will be aware adds an additional layer of complexity to legislating for that memorial. I repeat at this Dispatch Box my commitment on behalf of this Government: we will do everything possible to legislate, consonant with our responsibilities to this House and to the other place, with the maximum level of speed and with unwavering commitment, because we know that, as the voices of those directly affected by the holocaust fade, we must do everything we can to ensure that there is a fitting memorial to this country’s role and place in supporting them.

Why is my right hon. Friend refusing to let Members of this House see the original and revised impact assessments of his neo-socialist Renters (Reform) Bill? The independent Regulatory Policy Committee rejected the first impact assessment as not fit for purpose. Will he ensure that we see that and the second version before we debate the Bill on Second Reading?

I am hugely in favour of publishing impact assessments, but I reassure the House that the proposal that my hon. Friend mentions as neo-socialist was in the manifesto under which we secured a record-breaking majority in 2019, and the key provisions of it were backed not just by my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) but by other noted neo-socialists, including my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss).

It is nice to see an outbreak of consensus in the House; the Secretary of State is a neo-socialist, and the Bert and Ernie of British politics have been reunited once more. Will he tell us, though, why he did not decide to allow the National Audit Office to investigate the serious allegations about misuse of public money and assets on Teesside?

We consulted with the NAO and with others, and we felt that it was most appropriate to have a genuine independent inquiry. It is important to state that there is no evidence that has come to light hitherto of any suggestion of corruption, as has been alleged by some in this House. What we need to do—this was the explicit request of the Mayor of Tees Valley—is quickly, expeditiously and authoritatively to provide people with the reassurance they all want. I am afraid that at the moment there is a real risk that investment in Teesside could be frozen or chilled as a result of the programme of misinformation that has been sedulously spread by Labour party colleagues in Tees Valley.

It really does beggar belief. The Secretary of State knows very well that the Mayor in question asked specifically for an NAO investigation, and that that request was backed by three Select Committee Chairs, the official Opposition and countless others. Instead, the Secretary of State has chosen to launch an investigation on his own terms, hand-picking a panel to investigate an issue where accountability has totally broken down as a result of a flawed system of accountability over which he has presided for years, without heeding the concerns of Members on both sides of the House and the NAO itself. These are not his assets; they belong to the people on Teesside, and those people deserve answers, so I ask him, seriously: how could anyone possibly have faith in this investigation process or this Government when they have chosen to block the NAO from investigating?

The hon. Lady once again seeks to raise question marks over what has happened in Tees Valley, as her Labour party colleagues have done. I gently point out that, under the 13 years of Labour Government, the constituencies and communities of the Tees Valley were neglected. That is why Ben Houchen was elected as Mayor. He is bringing investment to the Tees Valley that never happened during the 13 years that Labour was in power; and because it hurts so much for the Labour party to acknowledge that it is a Conservative Mayor who is delivering for working people in Tees Valley, it engages in a campaign of innuendo unworthy of the party of working people.

According to the ONS, Kirklees Council is significantly underperforming in delivering education, health and care plans within the 20-week target, particularly compared with the national average and other councils in West Yorkshire. Does the Minister agree that the council is letting our children and parents down, and that we need to see a real improvement when the next ONS report is published later this month?

That policy area is led by the Department for Education, but I agree that Kirklees Council needs to improve its performance on EHCPs. I understand that colleagues from the Department for Education have been working closely with that council to support it in doing so. We are awaiting the most recent publication of figures, which are due to be released imminently.

T2. Over 1 million households are waiting for social homes, including more than 9,000 in Nottingham alone, but rather than expanding our council housing stock, there was a net loss nationally of 14,000 council homes last year. When will the Government take action on our housing crisis and enable council housing to be built en masse? (905291)

I share the hon. Lady’s commitment to making sure that there is more socially rented housing, and indeed more affordable housing overall. Again, I would gently point out that we have built more social homes under this Administration than were built under the previous Labour Government. I should also point out that, under the previous Conservative Mayor of London, more homes were built than under the current Mayor of London.

And, indeed, the previous Labour Mayor. If you want affordable urban housing, you need to have Conservative leadership in City Hall.

After speaking to residents in Mercer Park in Hyndburn this weekend following the successful “Let’s Move Hyndburn” event, it came to my attention that we have a real lack of disabled facilities in parks across Hyndburn and Haslingden. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss how we can provide local authorities with the funding that they need, so that people do not have to travel outside of the constituency?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. Whether it is Oswaldtwistle or Accrington, we need to make sure that people living with disabilities have the support they need, and we will make sure that a meeting happens quickly, whether with myself or with another Minister in the Department.

T3.   Hundreds of families in my constituency are living for months on end in hotels, as they can no longer afford to rent and the council has no suitable temporary accommodation left. Local authorities currently do not have the powers or funding they need to tackle the crisis, so will the Secretary of State confirm how he is going to change that and give councils such as Enfield the resources they need to end this hotel crisis? (905293)

I appreciate the nature of the problem that the hon. Lady mentions: too many people are in temporary accommodation. I will look at the challenges that Enfield Council faces in terms of the delivery of housing, including affordable housing for the vulnerable families that she champions, and hope to be able to report back more in due course.

House prices are all over the headlines yet again, but affordability is the key issue. Does my hon. Friend the Housing Minister agree that when we do get new houses built, often taking years and years to go through planning, they all look like identikit estates, just like the estates we have already? We need affordable homes that local people can aspire to and retirement homes for later living. Does she agree that we need to build the right houses in the right places?

I thank my hon. Friend very much. He represents a new town, as I do—I am very proud to represent the new town of Redditch. We are absolutely committed to building the right houses in the right places, and that includes enabling local communities to have more say over the design and type of housing. We are doing that through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill: through design codes, street votes and reforming the planning system. I am pleased to report to my hon. Friend that I have also launched a taskforce for older people’s housing to address the housing needs of older people.

T4. I do not think that the staggering complacency of the Secretary of State in dismissing legitimate, serious complaints and concerns about the use of hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money will have passed anybody’s attention. I warn him that that type of response may well come back and bite him. However, if there is to be any possibility of this House and the people of Teesside having any confidence in the findings of the inquiry that he has commissioned, that inquiry must have all the powers it needs to demand and secure whatever evidence and documentation it determines is necessary, and anyone must be able to submit that evidence to the inquiry. Will the Secretary of State give those commitments? (905294)

I am tempted to say that if the hon. Gentleman has evidence, he should please share it. It is the case that Labour in Teesside, including Labour in Middlesbrough, has consistently sought to undermine, thwart and oppose those efforts at economic development and investment that the Mayor of Tees Valley has brought forward. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has made a number of allegations in this House that he has been reluctant to repeat outside. We look forward to him putting us right in a way that actually contributes to the welfare of the people of Tees Valley, rather than advancing the agenda of the Labour party.

I have allowed some contributions to stretch, but we are on topicals, so you will not mind staying a while.

Wiltshire urgently needs a lot more housing, and the good news is that we are getting it. For the past six years, we have met our house building target by 130%, with 4,000 new houses in Wiltshire every year, but because developers routinely underestimate their future building forecasts, we have a theoretical shortage in the five-year land supply. Because inspectors routinely declare that local plans are out of date, it means that developers can impose unwanted and ugly developments that communities do not want. Will the Secretary of State use the NPPF review to exempt—

Order. I am sorry, but topical questions are meant to be short and punchy. It is not like your previous question. You have just got to shorten it down. Can somebody answer that question please?

T6. I have raised the issue of overseas voters in this place before, and I understand that the regulations will be brought forward by the end of the year, but we might have a general election by then, and we need six months between the regulations being made and a general election in order for them to take effect. Can the Secretary of State provide more clarity on the guarantee that overseas voters will be able to vote? (905296)

I will do everything in my power to ensure that there is at least six months between those regulations coming forward and any general election.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for levelling up, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), has been generous with her time in discussing the future of Essex. Can she reassure the House that no plans for a combined authority will go forward without the support of the majority of Essex MPs, because at the moment I am pretty sure that none of us wants it?

We are absolutely clear that any devolution deals must be locally led with local consent. I have consulted my hon. Friend, and we will continue to have such conversations, but ultimately this is about getting the best for the people of Essex, and I know he shares my ambition to deliver that.

T7. Homes England’s new strategic plan contains commitments to work with local leaders to deliver “a brownfield first approach” and to “support biodiversity” by working with partners “to protect, enhance or create new environmental assets”,yet there are plans to put 260 housing units on Brislington meadows, a beautiful nature-rich site in my constituency, going against the wishes of the council, local residents, the mayor and me. Does the Secretary of State really think the plan is worth the paper it is written on if Homes England does not put its principles into practice? (905297)

I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Lady’s position, and I will look closely at that proposal. I agree with her and, indeed, with the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), that the green belt is a valuable environmental asset that we need to protect, but sadly that is not the view of the Leader of the Opposition.

In reforming planning policy to deliver more homes, can I have an assurance that the brownfield-first policy will be paramount to protect the green belt and green fields from development?

Yes, absolutely. As the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) has pointed out, that is absolutely at the heart of the strategic plan for Homes England.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with devolved counterparts on the potential location of investment zones in Scotland? What steps is he taking to tailor those zones to Scotland’s economic strengths and the Scottish Government’s ambition of transitioning to a wellbeing economy?

I have had good conversations with the SNP leaders of Aberdeen City Council and Dundee City Council and, indeed, the SNP leader of Glasgow City Council, as well as with the Deputy First Minister about precisely this issue. We want to make sure that investment zones, such as freeports, are an example of the Scottish Government and the UK Government working in a way that is better together.

To hit the Government’s new sewage reduction targets, water companies such as South West Water must make sure that the infrastructure can cope with new housing developments. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend update the House on what plans the Government have to make sure that water companies are statutory consultees in major housing developments?

My hon. Friend has talked to me about this issue before, and I think his concerns are absolutely on the button. I should say that proposals have been brought forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to dramatically improve the way in which waste water treatment works operate, but there is still more to do, and his point is very well made.

Residents in Master Gunner Place in my constituency are still paying for a waking watch, despite a new fire alarm being introduced. These properties were built with major defects by Countryside Properties, and they are now owned by Samnas. I want to know what the Minister is going to do to take these people to task, because they are costing my constituents a lot of money, which should have been resolved before.

The hon. Gentleman will have seen that we have recently reopened the waking watch fund, but on the specific issue he has raised, I would be happy to meet him, because I also want to understand why this has not been removed as a result of the money spent.