The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): We expect to publish the new planning guidance very shortly, alongside new guidance on enforcement. We need more sites, to address the shortage that has grown, and also better enforcement to deal with problem sites.
Julie Morgan: I thank the Minister for that reply. I am pleased to hear that the guidance and the circular will come out soon, because I know that they are eagerly awaited. Does she agree that the provision of more Gypsy sites will help to reduce tensions between the Gypsies and Travellers and the settled community, and result in more social inclusion for Gypsies and Travellers?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right. The shortage of Gypsy and Traveller sites has grown since 1994, when the law changed. That has resulted in an increase in unauthorised developments and encampments, which can cause huge tensions with the settled community and can contribute to the further exclusion and difficulties faced by Gypsies and Travellers.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
(Con): The disgraceful and illegal Gypsy encampment at Minety in my constituency has been given leave by the Deputy Prime Minister to stay there for 18 months while Wiltshire county council assesses, among other things, whether there are enough Gypsy sites around to
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accommodate the caravans. Given that these people are nomadic and come from as far away as southern Ireland and Romania, by what mechanism should Wiltshire county council assess whether it has enough sites?
Yvette Cooper: We shall also be publishing additional guidance on accommodation needs assessments for Gypsies and Travellers. This is obviously more difficult than assessing the accommodation needs of the settled population, which is why the additional guidance is required. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would accept that, to address this problem, we need not only better enforcement but more appropriate site provision; otherwise, we will simply shift the problem elsewhere.
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): A consultation paper on developing the supporting people programme was published on 15 November 2005, with consultation running until 28 February 2006. Throughout that period, officials and Ministers are meeting a wide range of stakeholders, including local authorities, service providers and people who use the service.
Dr. Iddon: The special interest group of municipal authoritiesthe SIGOMA groupis happy that the new funding formula delivers on the needs identified in the social services block. The problem is that the figure has been reduced by £250 million for the next financial year by the damping mechanism. Before making his announcement yesterday, did my hon. Friend consider the impact that that level of damping would have on metropolitan local authorities in the SIGOMA group? For how long will the damping mechanism be applied?
Mr. Woolas: I am of course aware of the representations that my hon. Friend and his local authority have made on this issue. I repeat to the House that every local authority in the country has once again received an above-inflation grant increase. Authorities such as that of my hon. Friend, which are above the floor, are paying indirectly for those that are beneficiaries of that arrangement. The decision that my colleagues and I took to ensure stability and predictability in local government financing is part of a very important and, I believe, successful policy.
Tony Baldry (Banbury)
(Con): The existing formula does not take adequate account of the cost of delivering services. Nor does it take account of the fact that, in counties such as Oxfordshire, there are areas of considerable need. For example, the 2001 census showed that more than half the population in the Grimsbury and Ruscote wards in my constituency were carers. When the Minister is deciding on the new formula, will he please try to ensure that it is fair; otherwise, the most vulnerable people will be hit the hardest?
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Mr. Woolas: I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the supporting people programme, about which he and his colleagues have already made representations to me and others. I want to emphasise to him that the allocations for the second year of the two-year settlement200708are guaranteed minimum allocations at 95 per cent., in order to allow the planning of the services that those vulnerable people need.
Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): Welcome as the supporting people programme is, the Minister will know that it is not core funding and is therefore subject to ministerial support. Does not my hon. Friend agree that the best way in which a Labour Government can achieve its historic aim of reducing inequality is to fund local authorities at a formula that recognises real need rather than to damp that out of existence?
Mr. Woolas: In reference to the supporting people programme, I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will ensure that the most vulnerable in our society have access to a proper home, with a roof over their head and the support services that they need to be able to carry on living independently. I assure him that during the consultation, which ends later this month, that commitment will be at the front of our minds.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): Given the cut in funding, that assurance is meaningless. The Minister must understand that this is the next crisis that is likely to engulf his dishevelled Department. The cut in funding is blighting the lives of many, involving a drop in the quality of life for the most vulnerable. The Government's wilful blindness will not prevent a growing crisis, which, ultimately, will be more expensive to the state. Avoiding the problem with diversionary reviews, tinkering with structure and official junkets to Disneyland fools no one. [Interruption.]
Mr. Woolas: I thought that the hon. Gentleman read out his press release with great eloquence. Unfortunately, like the reference to the newspaper story at the weekend, it bore no relation to the facts whatever. In relation to the accusation about the reduction in funding for the supporting people programme, which delivers services to the most needy and vulnerable in our country, I remind the House that there was no such programme before this Government were elected to office.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware of the Audit Commission's concern that delivery of the generally excellent supporting people service is variable and inconsistent. What action is his Department taking to ensure that the 1.2 million service users receive the best possible care and support from providers?
This morning, I attended the Local Government Association and National Housing Federation conference in Church house, with 300 stakeholders, to discuss exactly that issue. I assure my hon. Friend that the objective that she has outlined
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to the House will be at the forefront of our minds when we publish the findings of the consultation and our conclusions in the summer.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will publish shortly a review of the Government office network. Its emerging proposals include a smaller, more strategic role for Government offices including GOL, the Government office for London. A consultation on additional powers and responsibilities for the Greater London Authority is also taking place. However, we do not expect that review to have a major impact on the functions or size of GOL. I want to pay tribute to the excellent work done by the staff of GOL for the people of the capital.
Adam Afriyie: Given the current burden of government in London, with the Mayor, the GLA, the 32 boroughs and the London Development Agency, can the Minister tell us clearly, precisely and specifically the unique functions of the Government office for London, so that we can make a judgment as to whether it is worth while?
Jim Fitzpatrick: My understanding is that the Government office network was created by the Conservative party in government, long before the hon. Gentleman arrived in the House. The Government office for London serves a unique purpose of co-ordinating the responsibilities of 10 different Government departments within the capital. We are undertaking a review of the Government office functions in line with the GLA review. After the consultation period, which concludes on 22 February, we will determine what the appropriate level of responsibility is, and we will make that announcement shortly.