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Always in the post-war era, local government has built homes of a good standard and they have made the major contribution to public health in this country—more so than the national health service itself, in so far as they have created sanitary conditions in which people can raise their families while working and paying an affordable rent that allows them to work and keep the children. It seems, if I may say so, that the Government have a mental block in that they fail to see the massive success of council house building the
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length and breadth of this country in any way other than saying, “Oh well, it’s to do with the council.” We must change that.

Let me give an illustration. My constituency, like many others, has council estates where people have bought former council homes, saved a bob or two and then moved out into the private sector proper, having left their council house in the hands of an agent who rents it out for them. The rent officer then offers a market rent, which is almost invariably at least twice as much as that which the council can charge, due to its 20,000 to 30,000 houses, pooling of historic costs, subsidies and other elements of housing finance. Ordinary people doing ordinary jobs on average pay simply cannot afford to pay that rent without assistance. In my constituency and, I suspect, others, it is usually a single mother with two or three children—sometimes fewer and sometimes more—on 100 per cent. rent rebate who can afford to live there. Not always, but often, the children in that home have more problems than they should be expected to cope with at such a tender age. They go to the local school, are sometimes not well nourished, sometimes tired, sometimes not well looked after, and, guess what, standards at that school start to waver and then to tumble. What do we politicians say? We say that the teachers are responsible, but they are not. The failure is one of social policy, in so far as it is intellectually incoherent—it does not join up, to use the vernacular phrase.

Rob Marris: In terms of joining up policy on immigration and housing, we need to address the huge problem, to which my hon. Friend might be about to refer, whereby this country builds 200,000 housing units a year, whereas we should, like France, which has a similar-sized population, build at least 300,000 units a year. That would remove many of the pressures to which he refers.

Mr. Purchase: I thank my hon. Friend for that point, to which I was going to refer briefly. Another aspect of the failure to build council houses is that we have created unnecessary shortages. A report has shown that the midlands is now 30,000 houses a year short of meeting the demand that he mentions. The Birmingham Post drew attention to that, I think, yesterday. There is a lot to be gained from a sensible, needs-related council house building programme, with rents set at affordable levels through pooling historic costs—

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman share my concerns about the system for sale of land? If one demolishes a council property and sells the land, one can spend all of the money raised. But if one does not demolish the property, and sells it while it is extant, one can only spend 25 per cent. of the money; in fact, 75 per cent. must go to the Government to pay off the debt. Would not it be sensible to allow 100 per cent. of the revenue to be spent on additional housing?

Mr. Purchase: The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point. Tony Crosland once described housing finance as, I think, a granny’s breakfast—for whatever reason—rather than a dog’s breakfast. I wonder how
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much change has been made to that. There are still considerable, unnecessary complexities.

The other day, I read a paper from my local authority’s treasurer—I think that they are called directors of finance now—and after two pages, I needed to go to a darkened room to lie down. It is becoming so difficult to understand the subsidies and cross-subsidies. At the bottom of it all is the dreadful legacy from the previous Conservative Government, which my Government have done nothing to change, whereby cross-subsidies between councils end up with the relatively less-well-off people paying for the poorest people in our communities. In my opinion, that is not what a Labour Government should be doing. We should be trying to put housing on a footing that is relatively easy to understand, and on which people can pay the rent that they are charged.

I hope that the local government Bill will contain major changes to what appeared in the White Paper. I hope that it will place more emphasis on practice. The White Paper speaks of structural changes—of giving more power to mayors and to city regions. We need to get the basic services right, get them joined up, and ensure that they serve the people. If we do that, I think that we will make real progress.

5.30 pm

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase).

I, too, pay tribute to colleagues who are no longer in the House with us. Perhaps it would be appropriate for me to single out my old friend and colleague, Eric Forth. Eric participated on the first day of the Queen's Speech debates in the last Parliament, when in a noble speech—and one of the briefest that he made—he set out nine criteria on which Bills should be judged to establish whether they passed the Eric Forth quality test. They were noble criteria. I would not hope to emulate anything like that today—my speech will deal with more parochial and Penrithean matters, rather than great matters of state—but I cannot let one comment pass. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East was concerned about the Fireworks Act 2003. I seem to remember assisting Mr. Forth on one occasion—briefly, as his sidekick—when he delayed that Bill for two or three Sessions because he thought it over-regulatory.

My concern is that the measures proposed in the Queen's Speech do not include a Bill to deal with rural discrimination, which we desperately need. When I look at measure after measure introduced by this Government, I see that rural areas are being ignored and neglected, and that when the Government do focus on them, it is in order to discriminate against them. Let us take the “bus pass” Bill. How could anyone oppose that seemingly wonderful measure? How will it affect my constituents? It will not do them the slightest bit of good, because we have no buses; but they will be paying, in increased taxes to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for more bus subsidisation in inner-city areas.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that, since 1986, £45,000 million has been paid in farming subsidies? Does that constitute discrimination?


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David Maclean: I think that if the hon. Gentleman bothered to look at what DEFRA has been doing in the last 12 months—leaving aside the wicked, incompetent destruction of farmers during the foot and mouth debacle—he would not make any comment about farmers having been overpaid subsidies.

We should look at what Europe does, and at what Scotland and Wales do. They manage to pay their farmers in time. It is only in England that the incompetent DEFRA and the Rural Payments Agency fail to make payments to British farmers. Every other country in Europe, including the other countries of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales—is able to pay up on time.

There is more to rural areas than farm payments, however. I have mentioned the lack of buses. More bus subsidy will go to pensioners, of whom most will be in city areas. My constituency is under a massive onslaught from the Government. Four of my community hospitals are threatened with closure. One of the problems is the funding formula, which does not include a rural sparsity factor: it, too, discriminates against rural areas. The police funding formula, which does include a rural sparsity factor, happens to be one that I incorporated in 1996, and I pay tribute to the Government for retaining it. The rest of the local government funding formula takes some account of rural sparsity, but not the NHS formula.

One way of determining whether an area is poor in health terms is to establish whether it contains cars or buses. As city areas have more buses, it is concluded that people must be slightly poorer. My area is discriminated against because more people have cars. The Government’s formula assumes that an area where people have cars must be a wealthy middle-class area, and we are therefore given less money for health. In Cumbria, if people do not have a car, they go nowhere. We have rural poverty in Cumbria and in other rural areas, but it is not in clusters that one might spot more easily in inner-city areas. We have rural poverty worse than in some cities but it is scattered and sporadic. It is individual houses among plush-looking countryside. It is not noticed but, goodness me, it exists.

We need an anti-discrimination Bill for rural areas to save our post offices. The latest survey shows that the Penrith and The Border constituency, one of many rural constituencies, is top of the hit list for removal of our rural post offices. Is it any co-incidence that the areas that are most likely to lose their post offices, bus services and hospitals in the latest hit list happen to be in the constituencies of Conservative Members of Parliament? There is a deliberate, two-phased attack on those areas—Conservative areas and rural areas—by this Government. Where the Government are not deliberately attacking them, by neglect, ignorance and inadvertence, they are letting our services fall.

The Government talk about social inclusion. Many of my rural constituents feel terribly excluded.

John Bercow: Is it not illogical and invidious that the Government fail even adequately to provide for the infrastructure of a rural area such as mine in Aylesbury vale, which is expected to accommodate an additional 1,000 houses every year for the next 20 years? Would not it be a good idea if the Department of Health
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talked to the Department for Education and Skills, which in turn had the decency to talk to the Department for Communities and Local Government?

David Maclean: My hon. Friend is right. I will give him the other side of that equation. In the town of Penrith, we are allowed to build about 100 homes per annum. That was set by the Deputy Prime Minister and his Department a few years ago. We need about 400. The Carlisle area is allowed to build about 200 to 300 homes. It needs 1,000 per annum. We are desperately short of housing at all levels in my constituency and in Cumbria. There is the myth of starter homes. The average salary is £15,000. A starter home is £120,000. It is nonsense to talk about starter homes. We are short of houses at the £200,000 level. Two-bedroom bungalows are selling at £300,000 in my constituency, and they are not in the heart of the Lake district or the plush areas.

Why are we in that situation? The Deputy Prime Minister concluded in his wisdom that Cumbria is part of the north-west. Apparently, somewhere in the north-west—is it in Manchester or Liverpool?—thousands of houses are surplus to requirements and must be demolished. The Deputy Prime Minister will not allow us to build houses 120 miles to the north of Manchester and Liverpool until their homes are demolished and the surplus is balanced. It is nonsense, it is madness. Some of my constituents in rural areas do not have the capacity to travel five miles to work, let alone commute from Manchester and Liverpool to Cumbria. However, I do not want to be led down that route because I want to concentrate on measures that are in the Queen's Speech and on some that are not in the speech.

The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) mentioned the lack of a coroners Bill. I, too, would like to see a coroners Bill because I would be able to make the point that, despite the fact that Cumbria is a big rural county, the Government have ordered our county council to get rid of one of our three coroners, with a huge loss of services. They have also decided that we have too many registration offices and that some of my rural constituents in Kirkby Stephen and Appleby should now be registering online on the website. That is all right for some, but 50 per cent. of my constituents are not online and they cannot access the website. That is why I say that a Bill to outlaw that sort of discrimination is long overdue.

I support what the Government are aiming to do on climate change. I was pleased to hear the Prime Minister say today that, if we closed the whole of British industry, it would make no difference to the expansion of China and, indeed, of the United States. Therefore, although I look forward to this country setting an example, it must not be an example that destroys our business and does not make the slightest difference to climate change in the world. I agree with the Prime Minister; we must have an international treaty to make sure that the biggest polluters in the world do their fair share.

Mr. Salmond: I am listening with great care to the right hon. Gentleman and I sympathise greatly, representing a rural constituency myself. Given all the woes that are befalling Cumbria, might not it be better
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if it were under the administration of the Scottish Parliament, particularly one led by a new Executive, under bright new leadership, who care about rural areas?

David Maclean: I cannot resist commenting that of course we in Cumbria would like some of the benefits that the people of Scotland get from their Parliament. My constituents say, “We are paying for them. Why are they getting 25 per cent more spent on their roads, their houses and their education?” My rural agricultural constituents beg for the Scotland Executive’s Agriculture Department to run their payments rather than DEFRA.

I am not going to go down that route, except to say in all seriousness that I have the benefit of living in an area served by Border television, which serves south Scotland and the north of England. It is a superb cross-border facility that would never be invented these days—for nationalistic reasons north and south of the border, a mixture of Scottish and English television would never be created—but it works. We have a proud 600-year history in the borders; in Dumfries and Galloway, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland and Cumbria. If we had invented a borders economic development region 30 years ago, it might have been successful and improved relations between the Grahams and the other clans in the borders.

I shall get back to the main subject before I am led down a further ethnic route. I want to make a final point about rural areas. I served on a Committee that dealt with the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill in 2005. When will the Government get away from their obsession with wind farms? With declining agriculture, this country has tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of acres of land where docks, weeds and thistles grow at the moment. We should be growing fuels for biodiesel on that land.

Biodiesel is the future and yet the Government are trying to inflict massive wind farms on the Lake district, placing a steel noose around England’s finest national park. Yes, we want renewables; yes, we will have to go down the nuclear route and we must do more to save and conserve energy. But land-based wind farms that destroy our finest landscapes are not acceptable. We could take some hydropower, of which Scotland has the great benefit, but biofuels are the future for renewables, not land-based wind farms that destroy jobs and landscapes and only let some companies make a few grubby pounds.

The final point on rural areas is about milk. I am deeply concerned, as are many others in this House, about the decline of the British dairy farming industry. It is not just men and women with 50 to 100 cows who are going out of business. When huge and efficient dairy farms with 300 or 400 cows are going out of business because it is uneconomical, that is a serious threat to this country and a serious warning that we must take on board.

I make no apology for once again attacking the big supermarkets and I pay tribute to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which has identified the missing 18p. Our farmers are paid 14p or 15p a litre; the supermarkets are all, by happy coincidence, selling at 54p or 55p each. However, there is not a cartel, say our regulators; they cannot prove it.
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But where is the money in between going? We must look at the power of the supermarkets relating to milk. We must encourage milk farmer and producer co-ops with more muscle, selling directly to the supermarket.

The penultimate point I wish to make is on Farepak. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) for her excellent debate in Westminster Hall last week. Nothing, apart from the way in which DEFRA handled foot and mouth, has angered me more than Farepak’s treatment of its customers. As I get letter after letter from constituents describing their plight, I am getting very angry about it indeed. It is despicable. The hon. Member for South Swindon named the Farepak directors. She was right to do so, because their behaviour has been tantamount to that of the scum of the earth.

The situation might be worse, however, because Farepak’s holding company, European Home Retail, has, it seems to me, been guilty of money laundering—if not in the technical sense, certainly in the moral sense. It knew for some time that its investments were duff. It bought a company for £35 million, which did not prosper, and sold it for £4 million, and I understand that it has been raiding the Farepak account. That is money laundering. It siphoned money out of Farepak, which was an okay company that was not going broke or bust.

If I could find the names of European Home Retail’s directors, I would name them, too. But if we publish on the internet their other subsidiary companies, I hope that no one will do business with them ever again.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Does he agree with me that the banks knew that some of the money was being used to pay back not only the subsidiary company but the banks’ overdraft?

David Maclean: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments. They lead me into my next line, as I was about to say that I hope that the investigation will also look into the role of HBOS and NatWest bank. I understand that they were owed huge sums—loans totalling about £35 million—by European Home Retail. HBOS has made a generous offer of £2 million to the new charitable fund that has been set up. If, however, HBOS has pulled the rug from under the European Home Retail holding company and asked for its £35 million back—or £10 million or £15 million; we do not know how much the sum is—it is as guilty of grubby, dirty, underhand behaviour as are Farepak and European Home Retail, and an offer of £2 million is not sufficient for the distress that they have caused and the wrong that they have done. If neither HBOS nor NatWest has done that, I give them my apology in advance, but I would like to know whether that is the case; I would love to get a note tomorrow from the managing directors of those banks putting me right on that.

John Hemming: The issue that particularly concerns me about Farepak is that the deposited money should have been on trust. If it were a firm of solicitors—or one of the many financial institutions that are regulated in this way—the money would be held on trust, and would be deemed to be a different type of money from the ordinary assets of the company. The banks would therefore be in error in taking the money to settle other debts. Therefore, I share the concern that has been expressed.


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