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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2003 published, as a result of extensive research, both a guidance booklet and an implementation handbook entitled "Empty Property: unlocking the potentiala case for action". I commend them both to my hon. Friend and the House.
Mrs. James: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but does he recognise that there should be more focus and resources provided by the Government to make better use of empty housing stock, such as in my constituency? Shelter feels that this is needed to alleviate the negative effects of homelessness and housing need.
Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend is right. Empty homes are not just a waste, but are a target for antisocial behaviour. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is assisting local authorities to try to deal with this problem. She may know that we will be consulting shortly on secondary-legislation issues around the empty dwelling management orders and hope to see them introduced later this year. She will also be aware that we have introduced fiscal incentives and penalties to try to help with the situation.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Given that last year, we had nearly 700,000 empty homes in England and nearly 100,000 in London, could the Government learn the lessons and apply the urgency, enthusiasm and focus that we have had in our brilliant Olympic bid to reduce the number of empty homes? If so, could the Government follow the Select Committee recommendation of an annual report and recommendations and the urban taskforce recommendation of equalising VAT on new build and restoration?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I listened carefully to the suggestions that the hon. Gentleman made in respect of the statistics that he quoted. Last year, there were 700,000 empty homes in England, but that figure was below 600,000 in 2004. Considerable progress has been made. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and local authorities are concentrating on the 300,000 homes that have been empty for more than six months. We have reduced VAT on homes empty for more than three years, and we have zero rated it for renovations for homes empty for more than 10 years. We are trying to ensure that there are fiscal incentives for empty homes to be brought back into the letting sector.
Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware of the superb job being done by New East Manchester in tackling the empty housing problems there. What discussions is his Department having with neighbouring authorities, such as Tameside and Stockport councils, to ensure that the very real problems of market failure do not spread into the adjacent areas?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the information that he supplies about the good work
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being done locally. We are trying to work with all local authorities and I am sure that the subject of empty homes will be a feature of the local government conference, which starts today in Harrogate. We are also working with non-governmental agencies, such as the Empty Homes Agency, to try to make sure that we address the problem with the seriousness that it deserves. We will certainly look at the local authorities that he mentioned and make sure that they are getting the best possible advice from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): Some 117 responses were received following the first consultation paper on developing an allocation formula in 2001, 38 responses were received to the second consultation paper in 2002 and more than 50 responses were received following the publication of a briefing paper on the distribution formula last autumn.
Tony Baldry: Under the proposed distribution formula, Oxfordshire will lose more than 60 per cent. of its supporting people grant, which will hit some of the most vulnerable people, such as the chronically mentally ill who live in supported accommodation. It will affect support services in hostels for homeless people and support for people with learning disabilities. Why do the Government introduce a programme such as supporting people only then to turn round almost immediately and pull the rug away from us in Oxfordshire, thus dashing the hopes of many of the most vulnerable people who had hoped and expected to get an improvement in their lives?
Mr. Woolas: I acknowledge the genuine constituency concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises. He has had meetings with my colleagues in the ODPM. I assure him that there are no plans whatsoever to reduce the budget in Oxfordshire by 60 per cent. or anything like that figure. Indeed, Lord Rooker has given assurances, with the inclusion of dampening in the formula, that no such thing could possibly happen.
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott):
As the House knows, the Prime Minister is in Gleneagles, where he is hosting a very important G8 summit. The Prime Minister flew to Scotland directly from
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Singapore, where he has been helping to press London's case to host the 2012 Olympics. I understand that the votes of the International Olympic Committee ballot have been counted and that the result will be announced shortly. I congratulate everyone involved in the London 2012 team on getting through to the final round, as has just been announced, and putting together what is widely recognised as a superb bid.
Mr. Leigh: Quite apart from the appalling effect on world poverty and fair trade of the common agricultural policy, has the Deputy Prime Minister had a chance to read the recent Public Accounts Committee report on fraud in the EU, which details why, for 10 consecutive years, the European Court of Auditors has been unable to sign off the EU's accounts because of corruption? Can we all in this House unite behind a campaign to sweep away the bureaucratic, corrupt and damaging CAP?
The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about fraud and corruption. The President of the Commission recently announced that he intends to investigate those matters further and deal with them[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Well, that must be the case. We cannot condone the situation, so we say that the problem must be dealt with.
The Prime Minister's speeches about the CAP in Brussels and at the summit have had a considerable effect on our partners. There will be change and we intend to bring it about. We were not the ones who took us into the CAP, by the way.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): What measures can be taken to ensure that the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of UK citizens who are left off the electoral register can be put on it as soon as possible?
The Deputy Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend knows, a report by the Electoral Commission is being considered by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which will report on it shortly. It is of great importance to all of us that the number of people who vote is maximised. Indeed, postal ballots increased the number of people voting by millions. While there has been a lot of criticism of them, I am bound to say that we must get a proper balance on such matters. They are without doubt one of the ways in which we can get more people voting in elections.
Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I join the Deputy Prime Minister in the tribute that he paid to our London bid teamwe all await the outcome of the vote with anticipation. We quite understand why the Prime Minister cannot be here today, and I am sure that the whole House will wish the G8 leaders success this week in addressing the problems of Africa and climate change. However, in his message this week to G8 leaders, the Zimbabwean Opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, said:
"Zimbabwe is an albatross to all African leadership credibility and therefore we want to see a strong message that this regime has gone beyond what is acceptable behaviour of any government, and that it must be called to order".
The Deputy Prime Minister: I welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman to the first time since the election that Prime Minister's questions have been taken by the deputies. He will recall that I told him that the election would be on 5 May, something that he received with great hilarity. I also told him that we would win the election. We did. Handsomely. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Sixty-odd Members sounds a pretty good majority to me.
We are all concerned about what is happening in Zimbabwe. The G8 will make its own comments. We must welcome the fact that the African Union has sent an envoy to Zimbabwe to make the points to it and to report back, as, I think, has the United Nations. The House has been calling for that, and the Prime Minister has made it clear from time to time. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman welcomes that.
Mr. Ancram: The Deputy Prime Minister's view of "handsome" and mine are obviously somewhat different. His party was elected to government on a 35 per cent. share of a 65 per cent. turnout of electorsthe lowest winning level in history. In England, his party got fewer votes than our party. If he had any respect for the British people, he would show a little humility.
May I at least welcome the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister takes seriously the horrors and gravity of the human rights abuses in Zimbabwe? Why on earth then are this Government still trying, without due safeguards, to send Zimbabwean asylum seekers in fear of their lives back to the blood-stained hands of Mugabe and his thugs?
The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is well aware that that is not the case. Each individual case is judged by the Home Secretary, as has been made clear in statements to the House. I do not accept the right hon. and learned Gentleman's interpretation.
Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend pass on the thanks of all the people of Blackpool to his colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for the £62 million investment in modernising the sea wall to north pier that has just been announced? Does he agree that that money and the investment in the central corridor from EU and regional development agency funds, which is to be completed this weekend, show that Blackpool is on a strong course for regeneration, one that we hope will be joined in due course by a resort casino?
The Deputy Prime Minister:
I agree that Blackpool needs a great deal of regeneration. [Laughter.] I think that is true. Anyone visiting Blackpool will know that to be the case. Indeed, we appointed an urban development body to do just that, and we hope to see much more development. As to whether we would consider a casino in Blackpool, my hon. Friend will know that in my job
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as Planning Minister I may have some influence on that decision under the new legislation, so I cannot comment.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): I add my congratulations to those responsible for the British bid. For what are now largely historical reasons, I have a particular interest in the outcome in Singapore. Like everyone else, I have my fingers crossed.
The United Kingdom is now the second largest exporter of arms in the world. Since 1997, we have exported more than £2.5 billion-worth of arms to Africa. At Gleneagles, will the Government press G8 leaders, whose countries account for more than 80 per cent. of world arms sales, to sign up to the proposed international arms trade treaty, and to ensure that the export of arms neither fuels conflict nor contributes to the abuse of human rights in Africa?
The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that we have been leading most of the argument in the EU. The question is a powerful one, and we have secured a great deal of agreement on it. We must achieve consensus on those matters within the European Union, and we are doing our best to do so.
Sir Menzies Campbell: I am grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for his positive response. He will know that, of all the crises on the African continent, the situation in Darfur is particularly grave. Disease, hunger and violence kill thousands every month. Does he agree that the African Union force is too small and its mandate too weak to have a decisive impact? Does not the situation now demand the swift deployment of an expanded and properly resourced African Union force with a new and unequivocal mandate to protect civilians and enforce peace? With four permanent members at Gleneagles, will the Government seek agreement to take that proposal to the Security Council?
The Deputy Prime Minister: When I entered the House in 1970, my first trip abroad was to the Sudan, where there was a civil war. People talk about the civil war in Sudan as if it started in the 1980s but in fact it had been raging well before then. There is a terrible tragedy in Sudan, but it is possible to identify Darfur with even worse atrocities. We are providing military and financial assistance and other help. Criticisms have been made of the African Union's involvement and whether it is adequate. That is being considered by the United Nations, and we will give whatever support we can.
Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): My right hon. Friend and his colleagues have done brilliantly in doubling overseas aid for the poorest in the world after many years of mean-spiritedness. However, does he agree that, as France is apparently spending more of its gross domestic product on aid and is closer to the 0.7 per cent. than we are, it is a matter of national honour that we do something at least to match that?
The Deputy Prime Minister:
As my hon. Friend acknowledged, we are doing tremendously well in achieving that target. We have agreed when we will achieve it, and the European Union has agreed that
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other nations should achieve it. It will have a tremendous effect on foreign aid, particularly for Africa. Whatever is agreed at the G8, we all agree that there have been tremendous advances in the past few months on the amount of money to be given to those countries. Six or seven months ago, everybody said that that was not possible and that we would not be able to secure an agreement. That contrasts strongly with the halving of foreign aid by the Tories in the last Administration.
Q2.  Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Will the Deputy Prime Minister take the opportunity to apologise to my constituent, Miss Emma Walker of Leegomery, who has been suffering from toothache for over 12 months? Despite 25 attempts, she is still unable to register with an NHS dentist. What is the Deputy Prime Minister going to do about it?
The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman should take into account what happened to dentistry under the previous Administration. The Tories closed down two training schools and introduced a new contract that drove most dentists into the private sector. We have been trying to deal with those difficulties. Let me give him some facts. The number of primary care dentists has gone up from 16,700 in 1997 to over 20,000. Our target to recruit the equivalent of 1,000 dentists by October will mean 2 million more people can be treated. Those are the improvements that we have achieved after the mess that we inherited. Fifty-three dental access centres provide treatment for over 400,000 people. We recognise the difficulties, but we are dealing with them and are making improvements. That was covered in a recent debate in the House, when it was made clear that major improvements are comingnot enough, but they are on the way. We are going in the right direction, because we believe in a national health service, not a privatised one.
Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): I am visiting two school assemblies on Friday to discuss the Make Poverty History campaign. Will my right hon. Friend send a message to those two school assemblies about how they can ensure that making poverty history does not start and end with a concert, but is something that we should all do throughout our lives to make sure that the scourge of poverty is not visited on their generation?
The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right, and it is right to talk to the youngsters in our schools about it. From my visits to schools, I have noticed that they are keen to talk about it and ask us why we are not doing enough. That is the experience of most people. However, we should recognise that the concerts have played a major part. Let us give credit to people who have gone out and put the poverty issue on the map, assisting both the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, who have constantly carried the message abroad. The recent concerts played a major part in putting it publicly on the agenda, with many people saying, "Do something about it and do it now."
Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes)
(Con): When the Prime Minister said last week that he wanted to get rid of the common agricultural policy, what did the Deputy Prime Minister understand him to mean by that?
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The Deputy Prime Minister: The Prime Minister was making it clear, as he did in his speech in Brussels, that he wanted to see the CAP changed. From the anomaly of the CAP came the rebate, and he was suggesting in his presidency speech that we needed to take both into accountthat if we wanted a modern financial facility for Europe, we had to make major changes, and that for the CAP to take about 70 per cent., to be reduced to 40 per cent. by 2013, was still not good enough. I toured the eastern European countries recently, and they are clear that they want a modern economy, not one simply geared to conserving, as the common agricultural policy does.
Mr. Ancram: The Prime Minister did not just talk about changing the CAP. He spoke last week of getting rid of the CAP and we need to know how he intends to do that. Did he really mean scrapping all support schemes for agriculture, did he mean, as we do, an alternative system for environmental protection, or did he mean some other means of support? Surely as president of the European Council, the Prime Minister knows how he will secure his stated aim, or is this once again a case of brave words that will be followed by inaction?
The Deputy Prime Minister: No, the Prime Minister certainly wants to get rid of the present CAP. He recognises that there are arguments about the subsidies and the CAP. I should be very surprised if a Tory Administration did not see an argument for subsidies being used in the common agricultural policy. It is about getting a proper balance, which we do not have in the present financial facility in the Community. That is what my right hon. Friend meant. We made it clear in our manifesto that we want to get rid of the export subsidies by 2010. There are changes that we want to make and we have outlined them, so that, for the first time, the issue has been seriously put on the agenda by the Government and is now the subject of serious debate.
The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman calls for changes. Our Government have made the position clear. I get the feeling that his demands are more of a leadership bid from him on the CAP than anything to do with change.
It is clear that the Deputy Prime Minister has no idea that getting rid of the CAP requires renegotiating the treaties. Is it not extraordinary that, at the beginning of the British presidency of the European Council, the Government do not seem to know where they want to go in Europe, whether they will defend our rebate, how they will achieve the Prime Minister's aim of getting rid of the CAP, or whether they want the constitution brought back or not. Would the Government not do well to take a leaf out of a former Prime Minister's book and start demonstrating a bit of clarity and deploying a bit of handbag?
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The Deputy Prime Minister: I have no doubt now that this is the start of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's leadership campaign. I notice he made a speech last night in which he left open the question of whether he is running. I hope he does, because the contest needs a bit of class. He also said in his speech last night that the Conservatives as a party lacked character, coherence and context. Well, he is spot on there. I have been telling him that for years. If he stands, that makes 11 candidates so far, some of them on the Front Bench. There might be moreperhaps we could find out. Can he help the country by asking those who intend to be candidates in the election to put their hands up? [Interruption.] Oh, we have got one. That makes 12. Now we have the dirty dozen.
Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend find time to visit London's biggest regeneration project at Battersea power station? Will he particularly welcome the jobcentre that opened yesterday, where the developers, the Department for Work and Pensions and local colleges are working together, with funding from the single regeneration budget, to ensure that local people can take up at least a third of the 9,000 jobs that the project will create?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend. That is a further example of the fact that, after nearly eight years in government, the number of those in work continues to increase. No Government have had a month-on-month increase in employment for such a long period of time. I am delighted that Battersea power station will now be used, as that development has been wanted for several years. I looked at the facility seven or eight years ago. It was visited by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who pointed out just how many jobs will come from the creation in London of this new facility, along with new development and regeneration. Again, it shows our Government at the fore in putting employment, regeneration and improving the quality of people's lives first.
Q3.  Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): Mr. Deputy Prime Minister, three weeks ago the Prime Minister was asked to meet a delegation about the underfunding of police in Northamptonshire, which has continued for a considerable number of years. He did not answer. My grandmother always said, "Never trust a man who doesn't give a straight answer." [Interruption.]
The Deputy Prime Minister:
Clearly the hon. Gentleman is after the granny vote. He talks about reductions in police forces and resources. In his area, under a Labour Government, we have provided a record number of police officers1,264, which is 87 more than in 1997plus 39 community support officers. He is typical of Tories who arrived here having fought the election saying, "Cut taxes and yet increase support and finances for public services." It would have
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been better if he had got up and congratulated a Labour Government on giving his constituency more nurses, more hospitals, more teachers, and more police, and reducing long-term unemployment there by 77 per cent.
Q4.  Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is rightly a great champion of regenerationit is his passion and he is quite open about it. However, in north Staffordshire openness and transparency on this vital issue have recently taken a step back. Our regeneration zone body has not only become a private company but unjustifiably decided that it can behave like a private company and meet behind closed doorsjust like Marks and Spencer, as its director said yesterday. Does my right hon. Friend agree that openness and accountability are vital for public confidence in regeneration and that such bodies should meet in public and maintain access?
The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend raises a serious point. He has two regeneration bodiesRenew, the pathfinder, from which I believe that he gets the fullest co-operation, and the regeneration zone body, with which he has had difficulties. All these organisations are publicly funded bodies and should make available to Members of Parliament the information that they want about regeneration in their area. I am sad to hear what my hon. Friend says; perhaps if he wants to have a chat with me, I will take it up with the authority. I want to make it clear that, as more and more such bodies are set up, the fact that they may be some distance away from us does not mean that they should not be accountable to public representatives, especially to Members of Parliament who rightly ask for information.
Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that the Government overruled the planning inspector and Basildon council and gave Travellers, who had built illegally on greenfield land in Crays Hill, a two-year extension in which to move on. Given that, in that period, the number of caravans on the illegal site has increased from 20 to 86, and that the cost of eviction has now risen to £2 million, representing approximately 15 per cent. of one year's council tax, will the Government financially assist Basildon council to meet the increased eviction cost so that local taxpayers are not unfairly penalised?
The Deputy Prime Minister:
The hon. Gentleman knows that he raises a difficult problem for certain areas. I am bound to say that the previous Administration relieved local authorities of the responsibility of providing land for sites, and many Gypsies therefore move on to unauthorised sites or buy the land. Those circumstances are difficult to tackle. However, fewer caravans are being registered in those areas and we hope that there will be a reduction in numbers. Our actions to give advice to local authorities are beginning to work and I hope that we can deal with the problem of the Gypsies reasonably and openly. It is a pity that a fraction of all the money that is spent on legal expenses for removing the Gypsies is not used for providing land and lessening the problem.
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