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2.1 pm

Ms Keeble: With the leave of the House, I shall reply to the debate, which has been wide ranging and has shown the importance of environmental issues to people throughout the country. Hon. Members from all parties understand that pavement politics issues are important to the well-being not only of individuals and local communities, but to local economies.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) struck a jarring note by focusing on the press release. It and the method that produced it will withstand any scrutiny. In drawing attention to it, he has created a story when none existed. I welcome the fact that more people will read it, but his actions fail to do justice to a serious, well-informed debate on an important subject.

Mr. Moss: Will the Minister confirm that, in her opinion, the press release did not break the civil service code?

Ms Keeble: I am absolutely clear that it did not break the civil service code.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned destruction of greenfield sites. He was wrong about that. The Government's approach is to monitor and manage, whereas that of the Conservative Government was to predict and provide. In many cases, our figures for housing need in different areas are lower than the current rate of building. When figures for town centre development are compared with those for out-of-town development, they show that our policies to

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support town centres and protect greenfield areas from urban sprawl, especially out-of-town retail centre development, are working well.

The hon. Gentleman criticised the Government on transport. Our approach to London Underground was determined by a legacy of underinvestment and the well-perceived need to improve its quality as a key part of improving the capital city's infrastructure.

The hon. Gentleman also criticised our record on social services, but that of the Conservative Government was bad. Those who remember care in the community know that what should have been a good policy was fatally flawed because of the Conservative Government's failure to fund it properly. Many old people are now paying the price of that underinvestment. We have learnt from that, and in introducing our supporting people programme, we shall ensure the provision of good-quality, supported accommodation across the board for the people who need it. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) will be interested in that.

We recognise that not only elderly people, but people who have come out of prison, those who have left care and psychiatric hospitals and those who are fleeing domestic violence need supported accommodation. That applies also to some very young people who, on being given the key to a council flat and being told, "There's your flat; go and get on with your life", have real difficulties because they do not yet have the necessary social skills. A number of hon. Members have spoken about that today, and about the consequences for communities of young people not getting the support that they need when they need it.

We have provided free nursing care for people in care homes, and invested more money in the health service and in local authorities to deal with the pressing problem of ensuring that, when older people are discharged from hospital, they can go into appropriate accommodation. Having lived in their home for, perhaps, 50 years, many of them have the awful experience of seeing it for the last time out of the back of an ambulance as they are carted off to hospital. They never manage to get home to pack up their belongings because the necessary support systems are not in place. We have put the money into local government to unlock some of those acute difficulties.

In looking at ways of providing services, I have previously mentioned Castle Vale, which has come up with some extremely good partnerships—involving the private sector, the housing authority and the health authority—to find ways of helping older people in their transition from hospital back into the community. That brings me to the most depressing aspect of the contribution of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire. His speech did not do justice to the outstanding work being done in communities throughout the country to tackle those difficult issues.

The hon. Gentleman might say that I look at life through rose-tinted spectacles, but I think that he had the most severe bout of the blues today that I have ever come across. Many disadvantaged areas have been beset by crime, drugs, poverty, poor housing and poor local management of services. They have taken a grip on those problems through measures such as the new deal for

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communities and have transformed what is happening. That has taken a lot of hard work, commitment and dedication by a range of people at local level.

Mr. Moss: Will the Minister point to any one of the statistics that I gave in my speech which she thinks is inaccurate, or with which she takes issue?

Ms Keeble: Yes, I will indeed be coming to one. I shall deal with it when I respond to the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) on crime statistics.

The Conservatives have made much of wanting to be compassionate and to be the party of the disadvantaged. If they want even to start going down that road, they should support their communities, listen to them and look at what they are doing. They should also look at their problems. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire spent most of his speech denigrating the outstanding work that many of those communities are doing. The Conservatives are turning the crime statistics round and running them down. That does no justice at all to the work being done.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting talked about the problems of older people who are out of work, which the Government are dealing with through the new deal for the over-50s and through the work being done to encourage volunteering. He also drew attention to the need to ensure that the needs of black minority ethnic communities are catered for in our towns and cities, including through the provision of facilities. Issues about the provision of facilities often relate back to planning decisions, and I draw to his attention, and pay tribute to, the work of the planning inspectorate to attract more people from the black minority ethnic communities into the planning profession, and to get them to stay and become inspectors so that they can play a part in shaping our urban communities.

My hon. Friend also referred to the impact of property leases on people starting up in business. I draw his attention to the code that my Department recently agreed with all sectors of the commercial property industry to deal with some of the problems that he identified. I shall ensure that he gets a copy of that, and of the "Plain English" leaflet that goes with it, which is quite outstanding—it is a model of how to produce plain English leaflets.

My hon. Friend asked about the procurement of affordable housing through the planning process. We are extremely concerned about that and see it as part of the planning process to make sure that developments include some affordable housing. It is key to tackling some of the problems in London. If he writes to me about the issues that he is concerned about, I shall certainly look at them, although he is aware of the restrictions on the Department's role in the planning process.

The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) set out some of the serious issues raised by the urban taskforce. All of those have been taken on board by the Government and substantial progress has been made in delivering on them. He also talked about the flight to the suburbs. Some big cities are doing extremely good work in reversing that flight and increasing the residential population in city centres. I mentioned Newcastle previously, but Manchester and Nottingham are also doing good work through design and innovative housing. Nottingham works with the private sector and some housing associations, and environmental standards are being improved.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) talked about including young people and children. The green spaces taskforce is looking carefully at the needs of children and young people. It recognises that young people can be a problem because they just want to hang out, like young people do. Parks and open spaces have a role in providing facilities where young people can do that without being perceived as a threat or a nuisance. Recommendations on that will, I hope, be made shortly.

I was pleased to hear about the success of the programmes for fishing communities. The Government recognise that the need to deal with the environment is particularly serious for seaside towns and all areas trying to attract tourists. I wish my hon. Friend's council all the very best for its planning weekend and its effort to engage the public in the planning process.

The hon. Member for Poole raised a number of issues. I agreed with many of his comments about the country's strong economic performance, but I take issue with his position on crime. Fear of crime must be tackled as well as crime itself. The Home Office statistical bulletin 18/1, which draws from information in the 2001 British crime survey, shows that crime went down by a third between 1995 and 2000 and has dropped by 21 per cent. since 1997. It also deals with fear of crime, because crime can be considered in terms of enforcement or victims, and shows that the chance of people being victims of crime is the lowest for nearly 20 years. That is important in terms of people's day-to-day experience.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) described eloquently the problems of antisocial behaviour. Most hon. Members have heard similar stories at their advice surgeries. He described many of the measures that my Department is considering, so I shall not go through them all again. We are also working closely with the Home Office. I re-emphasise the fact that we need to ensure not only that the police, local authorities and communities work together to enforce law and order, but that we prevent crime by building safety into the design of urban areas.

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