The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): Good progress is being made by local authority employers and trades unions, within the framework of the local government pension scheme tripartite committee, to determine what further amendments are necessary to the scheme by April 2006 to ensure its ongoing affordability and viability in light of the statement of 13 July. A further meeting of the tripartite committee is scheduled for 2 November.
Mr. Harper: Council tax payers in my constituency are likely to face a 3 per cent. rise in their council tax bills next year just to pay for the pension hole caused by the Government's weakness in the face of union pressure. Could the Minister give me an explanation that my constituents would find comforting as they write out the cheque?
Mr. Woolas: If the hon. Gentleman were to read the statement of 13 July, he would see that it makes it clear that the Government have proposed to the tripartite committee abolishing the 85-year rule by April next year, and talks are taking place on how we can implement that. Far from caving in, the viability of the local government pension is a priority for us. I have to say that if it had not been for the decisions taken more than 10 years ago by the previous Government, we would not be in this situation.
Mr. John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): In the consultation on the pension scheme, will the Minister give thought to boosting the number of people over 65 who work if they so desire? There would be great benefits to industry if the Government ceased requiring employers to pay national insurance contributions for employees over 65. That initiative would help individuals, help employers and help the country in general. It would be a win, win, win situation.
I thank my right hon. Friend, who makes a very interesting point. The discussions are taking place precisely to modernise the scheme, which the unions and the employers are asking us to do. Let me use this opportunity to clarify the fact that the local
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government pension scheme already has a retirement age of 65, as he knows, contrary to some of the reports and reactions in this morning's newspapers.
Mr. Woolas: I understand the hon. Lady's point and I know that she has tabled several questions about the matter. However, I must emphasise that the local government pension scheme is a funded scheme. It was not part of the discussions that took place yesterday, and previously, on other public service pension schemes. Those schemes are not funded and applying principles from one type of scheme to the other leads to a misunderstanding of their nature.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): There is a feeling among some local government employees that although there must be changes to the pension scheme generallythat applies to schemes for all public sector workersthey are being asked to make changes more quickly than other public sector workers, to pay bigger contributions and to accept worse terms and conditions. I was interested in the agreement reached the other day by the Government with the civil service, education and health unions on a statement of principles on which all could work. Despite the different nature of the local government funds, would it be possible to bring discussions on them back into that orbit so that all public sector workers feel that they are getting equal treatment?
Mr. Woolas: I understand my hon. Friend's point and accept the integrity of it. The Government's role in the local government pension scheme is that of regulator. We are addressing two issues. In the immediate term, we are examining the cost implications for the scheme of the abolition of the 85-year rule, which we desire and which equality law requires of the scheme. Secondly, we are discussing a more medium-term strategy for the future of the scheme. We wish to address the cost viability of the scheme as part of that because it has a £27 billion deficit. We also want to bring the scheme up to date to address equality, especially for low-paid and women workers.
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott):
We expect to issue a draft of the new planning policy statement 25 for consultation later this year. It will
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strengthen and clarify planning policy on development and flood risk as part of the Government's approach on managing future flood risks.
Miss McIntosh: While I am grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for that answer, will he please put a legal obligation on planning authorities to follow the Environment Agency's advice to the letter? Does he agree that where there is a risk of flooding, no planning permission should be given?
The Deputy Prime Minister: As the hon. Lady knows, we are strengthening planning requirements on flooding and introducing a much more risk-averse policy than that which presently exists. I am pleased to say that we have warned local authority planning bodies that they should take the advice of the Environment Agency into account. Since we did that, the number of applications that were contrary to advice given by the Environment Agency on flooding risk has fallen quite considerably. The hon. Lady probably knows that I am involved in consultation on whether to strengthen the Environment Agency yet again and to put a requirement for consultation on a statutory footing.
Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the £46 million investment in flood defence systems in the upper Calder valley in my constituency, which will make a huge difference to an area in which there is little flat land for development. Will he assure the House that steps will be taken through the new planning guidance to ensure that rogue developers do not take advantage of new flood defence systems to build on land that experienced a massive problem with flooding in the past?
The Deputy Prime Minister: One of the requirements of new planning policy statement 25 is to take account of all matters that might contribute to further flooding, in order to reduce that risk. Following my hon. Friend's inquiry, I will bring the matter to people's attention again.
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): Given the vulnerability of the Thames Gateway to serious flooding, which could damage 1.25 million people and cost £12 billion, what action is being taken to identify landowners and repair badly neglected flood defences in the area? Will the right hon. Gentleman share with the House the timetable for action on that serious danger?
The Deputy Prime Minister:
There have been considerable discussions on further flooding in the Thames Gateway and action has been taken to prevent that. Indeed, advice is taken from the Environment Agency and other bodies on the matter. I do not think that any serious flooding has taken place in the area since the building took place, and I think that only one application was granted against the advice of the Environment Agency. We have doubled the resources for flood protection, increased resources for the emergency services and warning systems and strengthened the planning situation. All in all, that has led to a major improvement, and a report from the Institution of Civil Engineers only this week made it clear that our actions had tremendously improved the situation.
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That contrasts well with the proposal that the Opposition made during the election to cut the resources of the Environment Agency. Barbara Young, the agency's chief executive, said that a choice might then be to abandon vulnerable homes to flooding. That is the reality of the Opposition's policy. I suggest that the hon. Lady shops around the three candidates and asks them whether they are likely to change it if they are elected as leader.
Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): The Deputy Prime Minister sounds somewhat complacent. Does he recall that in 2000, after my town of Lewes had been badly hit by floods that forced hundreds of people on to the streets, he said that he had had a wake-up call to deal with flood defences? Five years on, almost nothing has been done in Lewes to deal with our flood defence problem and nothing is planned for the next few years. Has he gone back to sleep after his wake-up call? When is he going to give Lewes the flood defences that it deserves?
The Deputy Prime Minister: Quite clearly, if what the hon. Gentleman says is trueand I am not sure that it isthe people of Lewes do not have a very effective Member of Parliament representing them. As I said, the Government have doubled resources, enhanced planning procedures and improved the emergency services. As the Institution of Civil Engineers says, the situation has improved considerably. Perhaps he should take that into account and tell his constituents about it.