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House of Commons

Monday 20 November 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Points of Order

2.33 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Last Thursday, the Leader of the House responded to a question from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) regarding the reported use of a traffic lights coding system in the Department for Work and Pensions to code questions according to the level of embarrassment that they would cause the Government. The Leader of the House answered that the coding system was used

The original story was prompted by an anonymous call to my office by somebody in the Department for Work and Pensions. My experience has been rather different from what the Leader of the House indicated. I received answers to 18 questions, including one tabled in February, on the day that the House was prorogued. A further 20 questions, tabled in July, remained unanswered. Most of those questions were by no means classifiable as difficult. In view of the importance of the allegation that questions are being coded with a view to delaying, or even simply not answering, those that are most embarrassing to the Government, I wonder whether you could use your authority, Mr. Speaker, to investigate what is happening, whether the system is operating in the
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interests of Members or against them, and whether it extends beyond the Department for Work and Pensions, across Government.

Mr. Speaker: In the past I have made it known to Ministers that I expect replies to be timely. However, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) states that there is some sort of system being worked in a certain Department. I was present when the Leader of the House responded to the original question, and that told me that Ministers—the Leader of the House being a Minister—are prepared to respond to the question that is being put by the hon. Gentleman on a point of order. Given that, I think that there would be absolutely no harm in his putting a written or an oral question to that Department to seek a reply. Once the Speaker starts getting into the field of the quality of replies, that can be seen to be sending a signal that perhaps he is not pleased with the response that Ministers give. Of course, the Speaker is always pleased with any response, and any question.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on a matter of some importance to me, and I hope to other right hon. and hon. Members. Following weekend news talk about the possible dispatch of a new and mixed United Nations/African Union force to Darfur, we have observed further and authoritative weekend news reports that the Government of Sudan have launched fresh attacks on civilians in Darfur and exported terror to neighbouring Chad. In the circumstances, Mr. Speaker, may I ask whether you have had an indication from the Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for International Development that either of them intends to come to the House to update Members on Government thinking and to subject herself or himself to proper scrutiny?

Mr. Speaker: I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s deep concern about that very troubled part of the world. I understand that there is a foreign affairs debate on Wednesday. That will be helpful to him. Perhaps he will have an opportunity to raise those important points.

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Orders of the Day

Debate on the Address

[Third day]

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [16 November].

Question again proposed.

Communities and Local Government/Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

2.37 pm

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Ruth Kelly): It is a pleasure to open this section of the debate on the Gracious Speech. At the heart of the Government’s programme is action to create strong, stable and secure communities, and action to tackle terrorism. My Department has a role in both. We want to create communities in which there is economic opportunity, social justice and a strong sense of civic pride, communities in which people come together to make a difference to their own and other people’s lives, and communities in which people feel secure and able to stand up for our shared values—rights combined with responsibilities.

In 1997 we inherited a legacy of run-down public services starved of cash, and a demoralised local government drained of resources. The Leader of the Opposition confessed this summer:

We on the Labour Benches agree with him. In their last four years, the Tory Government presided over a 7 per cent. real-terms cut in local services. Since 1997 we have increased spending by almost 40 per cent. in real terms. That investment, together with a strong national direction and the hard work of local authorities, has brought about real improvements in the quality of local public services.

The challenge now is to give local people more control over their lives and to make local services more responsive to local needs. Last month, I published a local government White Paper setting out our proposals for the next phase of reform. People have the right to a decent neighbourhood. When they see graffiti on walls or drug dealers hanging around on their street corners, they need to know that they can get something done. We are thus strengthening the ability of local people, through their local councillors, to hold to account those who deliver local services. At that time, I also set out measures to ensure that all communities benefited from strong, accountable and visible leadership.

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We will introduce a Bill in the coming Session to give effect to those proposals. Even the Tory chair of the Local Government Association has described that Bill as taking

I hope that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and her Front-Bench colleagues will take the opportunity to welcome the proposals, which she signally failed to do when we debated them last month, and that she will back the Bill on Second Reading.

We want our cities to compete with the best in the world and to be good places in which to do business, live, work and travel. We are working with our towns and cities to support economic development, to strengthen public services and to improve the quality of public spaces. I pay tribute to Ken Livingstone for having the courage to take the tough decisions needed to maintain London as a world-class city. Building on the success of devolution in London, we will introduce a Bill to strengthen the powers of the Mayor and the assembly. Is the hon. Member for Meriden any clearer about whether she will support the Greater London authority Bill during its passage through the Commons? But perhaps I should not expect too much, given that the Tories do not yet have a candidate for Mayor. As Tony Travers of the London School of Economics pointed out recently, it is not easy for the Tories. They need a candidate who is

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): May I say, for the record, that this is not remotely a leadership bid on my part, although there is a vacancy? My right hon. Friend will be aware that one of our greatest investigative journalists, the divine Nick Ferrari of LBC, is now the bookies favourite. Can she share any views with the House about the fact that Mr. Ferrari has said that it is not so much the X factor as the yuck factor? Where can we find a candidate? Is it not our duty to help Conservative Members and suggest a name?

Ruth Kelly: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. It is not really my job to add even more yuck to the yuck factor—but how can the Conservative party seriously expect Londoners to believe that it could run a world city, when it cannot even run a process to select its candidate?

As a progressive Government, we want to give more people the chance to realise their aspirations, and to extend opportunity and prosperity to all. Because we have given people a greater opportunity to own their own homes, thanks to low and stable inflation and interest rates, the number of home owners has risen by 1.8 million since 1997. As was promised in our election manifesto, by 2010 we will have helped 100,000 extra households, including key workers such as nurses and teachers, into low-cost home ownership—and I am keen that we should go further.

We are doubling investment in affordable housing and we will be delivering an extra 10,000 social homes a year by 2007-08. However, we face significant challenges. Too many first-time buyers and young families remain
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unable to get a foot on the housing ladder. As Kate Barker made clear in her report two years ago, there has been a 30 per cent. increase in the number of households over the past three decades and a 50 per cent. drop in house building. That is clearly unsustainable, so we are taking decisive action. The building of new houses has increased, and in 2005 it hit its highest rate since 1990.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend received any indication of where Her Majesty’s official Opposition want houses to be built? They do not want them in people’s back gardens or on brownfield sites—or anywhere, it seems. I hope that the Conservatives do not want to build houses in my constituency, because it is already grossly overcrowded.

Ruth Kelly: I hope that the hon. Member for Meriden will use this debate to clarify her party’s position. I also hope that she will not only support the Barker proposals to build an extra 200,000 homes a year, which will have a significant impact on affordability, but back the position that the Leader of the Opposition expressed earlier this year when he said:

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What my right hon. Friend says is good news, but is she aware that in constituencies such as Huddersfield, the real problem is the lack of social housing, and getting young people into the housing market? The financial services industry now offers a mortgage of five times a person’s salary, and that is helping to push up house prices. Surely young people will never be able to afford a house unless something is done about that.

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we have to tackle the issue of investment in new social homes, and we are committed to making that a priority in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. In addition, we must provide access to low-cost affordable homes for young couples who want to get on the housing ladder. However, we have to commit ourselves, as a society and as a nation, to building the number of homes that people need, in order for housing to be affordable. That is why I am determined to force the hon. Member for Meriden on this point. Is she or is she not committed to providing 200,000 homes? That, as Kate Barker set out in her report, is the number of homes that we have to build to meet that pressure. Unfortunately, the hon. Lady remains silent.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for challenging our Front-Bench Members on the matter, but I recall a number of press reports about her vigorous campaigns against building proposals in her constituency. Was she wrong in her opposition to those proposals, and what does she intend to do about the subject in future?

Ruth Kelly: If the hon. Lady does her research, she will find that Bolton, West has already met its housing targets and that the local authority is committed to building more homes, including more affordable homes. She and her Front-Bench team, as well as Opposition Back Benchers, oppose homes wherever
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they are to be built. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said, they oppose them whether they are on greenfield or brownfield sites, in fields or in the suburbs.

The hon. Member for Meriden will have an opportunity later in the debate to make her position known, and I look forward to hearing whether she sticks to the position that she recently set out, when she said:

Does she still hold that position?

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that new housing has to be accompanied by high-quality infrastructure if development is to be sustainable, and that my own area is expected to take another 1,000 houses a year for the next 20 years—to which, in principle, I have no objection whatever—will the Secretary of State tell the House, as an indication of the strength of her commitment on the subject, when she last spoke to the Secretary of State for Transport, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills or the Secretary of State for Health about the provision of infrastructure for Aylesbury Vale?

Ruth Kelly: I can tell the hon. Gentleman, and the House, that I speak to my colleagues regularly, on that matter and on others, and we are, of course, committed to investing in the necessary infrastructure. That is why, together with the Treasury, my Department is examining proposals for a planning gain supplement. We will, of course, invest in the necessary infrastructure, so that we make homes that are viable, of high quality and environmentally sustainable. The Opposition have no proposals for funding the additional infrastructure required.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): The Secretary of State speaks of infrastructure investment, but although Bournemouth has been told to build 20,000 more houses over the next 15 years, we are not getting a single penny of the £900 million budget for transport in the next five years. How does she correlate the fact that we are told to build more houses with the fact that there is no more money for infrastructure?

Ruth Kelly: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would be better off lobbying his own Front-Bench team. As far as I am aware, unless the hon. Member for Meriden is dissociating herself from the shadow Chancellor, the Opposition are committed to cutting £21 billion from the infrastructure budget. When the hon. Gentleman’s party comes up with viable propositions for investing in infrastructure, perhaps we will take it seriously on housing, too.

We are committed to social justice and to extending opportunity to the most vulnerable in society. Last week marked the 40th anniversary of “Cathy Come Home”. I had the opportunity to meet a group of homeless people involved in the “Moving in, Moving on” project in London. They were learning new painting and decorating skills in order to give them a chance of a job, raise their confidence and learn about working as a team. It was a powerful illustration of the progress that we have made in tackling the terrible
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legacy of homelessness left to us by the Opposition. Rough sleeping is down by nearly three quarters since 1998, there has been an end to the scandal of large numbers of families living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for long periods, and new cases of homelessness are at a 23-year low.

We need to go further, however, to focus on the root causes of the problems that we face. We will increase investment to £74 million in 2007-08 to support work on preventing and tackling homelessness, and to reduce the number of people living in temporary accommodation. We are working with local authorities to give young people access to safe accommodation and the advice and services that they need. I have made a commitment that by 2010, 16 and 17-year-olds will not be placed in bed-and-breakfast hotels, except in an emergency.

We want tolerant and inclusive communities, in which discrimination of any kind is unacceptable. Most of all, they should be safe. Our society is increasingly diverse, and we must take advantage of the enormous benefits that migration and diversity bring. We must recognise, too, that the pace of change can be unsettling for some people, especially in the communities most affected. It is important to recognise genuine concerns, and at the same time to fight at all times the lies and poison peddled by the British National party. In the summer, I established the Commission on Integration and Cohesion to take a hard look at those issues, to consider how local communities can better respond to change, and to see how we can ensure that all groups in our communities have genuine opportunities. We must recognise, too, that we face stark challenges to our values and our way of life from those who foster extremism and do not hesitate to use violence to further their own ends.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): As MPs, we are good at meeting the leaders of ethnic communities. It is right that that should continue, but we are not so good at meeting young, possibly disaffected members of the community to whom radicalism and extremism may be attractive. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should concentrate our efforts in that direction?

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