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7 Dec 2006 : Column 461

James Purnell: As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is no reason for any older person to end up in court because of council tax. The key thing is for people to take up council tax benefit if they are struggling to pay and, if I may say so, for councils to moderate their council tax increases. My local authority tries hard to make sure that council tax goes up less fast than inflation and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be pressing his to do the same thing, thanks to the above-inflation money that the Government have given local authorities over the past few years—in contrast to his Government—and the extra money for schools announced in the Chancellor’s statement yesterday.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): In his opening remarks, the Minister said that he wanted to reduce prejudice in employment. He also announced improvements in maternity benefit, which are welcome to pregnant women and new mums but less welcome to small employers whose firms employ only a handful of people. When the absent employee is a key worker such firms cannot afford to employ an additional person to take on their duties. Has the Minister considered how small firms can be helped so that the increase in maternity benefit does not have an adverse effect on potential employment?

James Purnell: I welcome the hon. Lady’s support for the progress that is being made on maternity and paternity leave. I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform is in discussion with representatives of the small business sector to make sure that the hon. Lady’s concerns are addressed, and I am sure that he would be happy to meet her to discuss those issues.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I think that the Minister said in his statement that the Pension Service is encouraging pension credit take-up by visiting pensioners in their own homes. My father, Mr. William Bone—a man of great integrity and a public servant all his life—is a little frail now. A little while ago, he rang me because he was concerned about a telephone call he had received from the Government as they wanted to meet him to investigate his finances. I attended the meeting, which was, of course, about taking up pension credit, and it was fine. I asked the gentleman how many of the people he had visited had actually been able to take up pension credit and he replied, “Absolutely none”. I am worried that frail, elderly people are concerned about such visits.

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James Purnell: The Pension Service is sensitive in such cases and there is specific training to make sure that people deal with customers appropriately. Age Concern carried out research with people who had gone through that process with the Pension Service. There have been concerns that older people do not find it helpful to use the telephone, but actually 70 or 80 per cent. of them found the experience very satisfactory or satisfactory. We introduced a local service of home visits for people who did not want to use the telephone. We try to use the right approach and we always try to be sensitive to the needs of older people to make sure that they understand exactly what they are being asked.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): How concerned is the Minister that pensioners are, in effect, facing an inflation rate that could be three times the rate faced by the rest of us? Should not far more work be done by his Department to ensure that pensioners are protected from those cost-of-living increases? In that regard, was not this year, of all years, the time to do something serious about the winter fuel allowance, given the massive utility bill increases for pensioners?

James Purnell: That is why the inflation rate in the pension for next year will be higher than in recent years. Over the past 15 to 18 years, inflation faced by pensioners has gone up less fast than the retail prices index overall. I am not sure that linking pensions to a smaller subsection of the overall inflation figures would be a sensible policy, as it would result in much more fluctuation. We agree that inflation is not the right measure for the future; we will be linking the pension to earnings, which will address many of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, and I am sure that his party, too, will back that measure.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): One group of people who, sadly, do not take up the benefits that they deserve, or for whom the take-up rate is low, are terminally ill patients, and although there is a special fast-track benefit system for them, it is clearly not working. Will the Minister look into how benefits for terminally ill people can be fast-tracked so that they do not have to worry about their financial situation at such a desperate time?

James Purnell: That is an important point and we are looking to address it, in part through the Welfare Reform Bill. We take the matter seriously throughout the whole benefits system. The hon. Gentleman is correct to raise it and we shall continue to address it.

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Points of Order

12.46 pm

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A year ago, on 11 December at one minute past 6, my constituency and half of eastern England was rocked by the largest explosion this country has seen since the second world war. The following day the Deputy Prime Minister responded perfectly well by kindly coming to the House to make a statement about the disaster and how plans were going. At present, I am dealing with five Secretaries of State on the continued problems for my constituency following the Buncefield explosion, but no Minister has come to the House since about the matter, even though it was promised that the House would be fully informed about the progress of the inquiry and the reconstruction. Can you advise me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, how I can get a Minister to come to the House to tell the country and my constituents what is going on with regard to that disaster?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I understand the hon. Gentleman’s great concern about that very serious matter. Ministers on the Treasury Bench will no doubt have heard his remarks, but it sounds to me like an ideal subject for an Adjournment debate.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On 4 December, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), responded to my question about potential cuts in the integrated drug treatment programme by saying that he did not accept that the Government had cut the programme. I have since had the opportunity to check the position. Paul Hayes, the chief executive of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse confirmed that the £28 million pledged to the scheme for 2006-07 would be “scaled back” to just £12 million. I checked in the “Oxford English Dictionary” that the definition of “cut” is “reduce” or “cease”, so do you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, share my concern that the Minister may have inadvertently misled the House and that the position needs to be corrected?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I understand the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises. There is a great problem with the interpretation of statistics of all kinds, but all I can suggest is that he pursues the matter as vigorously as he normally does.


Income Tax

Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by Mr. Secretary Darling, Mr. Secretary Hutton, Mr. Stephen Timms, Dawn Primarolo, John Healey and Ed Balls, presented a Bill to restate, with minor changes, certain enactments relating to income tax; and for connected purposes.: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 11 December, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 14].

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[1st Allotted Day]

supplementary estimates 2006-07

Affordable Housing

[Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions (now the Communities and Local Government Committee), Session 2005-06, HC 703, on Affordability and the Supply of Housing, and the Government response thereto, Cm. 6912.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

12.48 pm

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Access to housing, especially affordable housing, is a key issue for all our constituents and it is becoming ever more urgent. I am sure that we all know from our constituency case loads about the effect of the shortage of housing on individuals. It reduces the ability of young people to buy their own home and puts enormous pressure on social housing, especially social rented housing, and families are trapped in overcrowded and sometimes substandard housing. That was the reason why the Communities and Local Government Committee—although, at the time, it was the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—decided to devote its first large investigation to the subject of the affordability and supply of housing. I am sure that that is also the reason why there are many hon. Members in the Chamber. I know that a great many of them wish to speak, so I will try to keep my remarks fairly short.

Over the past 15 years, it is indisputable that the annual rate of house building has fallen while the rate of household growth has increased. There was an upturn in the number of houses built in 2005—there were 160,000 built, which was the highest number since 1994-95—but there is clearly still a need for further increases. Although there is a slight excess of houses over households nationally—the figure was 1.7 per cent. in 2003—that figure is falling and there is enormous regional variation.

The Committee endorsed the Government’s view that the rate of house building must be increased if problems of house shortages are not themselves to increase. However, given that the latest estimates of household growth are even higher than before, at 209,000 households a year, the Committee questioned whether the Government’s target of an extra 200,000 houses a year by 2016 was actually enough. We urged that the target should be regularly revisited and reviewed.

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The Committee also thought that national figures were not especially informative, given that there was such huge regional variation. Some 60 per cent. of household growth is occurring in London, the east, the south-east and the south-west. There are already 3.5 per cent. more households than homes in London. The National Housing Federation, in an excellent leaflet that I commend to hon. Members as a source of statistics, highlights the scale of the “affordability chasm” in the south-east, such is the extent of the problem. Of course, the Committee accepted that there are housing hot spots in many other parts of the country and that affordability problems are both increasing and occurring in parts of the country in which they previously did not.

The Committee felt that it was absolutely crucial that regional and local house building targets reflected regional needs. We thought that they should not be just dictated by the market, but that equal weight should be given to the needs of local economies and environmental and social issues. In the regional and local context, this is not just a question of housing numbers. Additional housing should match local demand through both a mix of tenure and a range of housing sizes and types.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): The hon. Lady makes a powerful argument about housing targets. However, she will be aware that on the eastern and western flanks of the city that we represent, the planning authority is not the local authority, but an unelected, unaccountable quango. Does she agree that if any community is to be genuinely sustainable, it must have the support of local people, and that the planning authority should thus be accountable to local people, not the national Government?

Dr. Starkey: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I am speaking as the Chair of the Select Committee. I am trying to represent the all-party Committee’s report, which was supported by Conservative Members. I would ask that we do not divert the debate by concentrating on the city that both he and I represent. There will be plenty of other forums in which to deal with those specific problems in our city, which, as he knows, I feel as strongly about as him.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that over the past five years house prices have risen sharply and that average earnings are about £5,000 a head lower in rural areas than in urban areas, does the hon. Lady agree that in legitimately seeking an expansion in the quantity of housing available in areas such as mine and others, it is important that the Government address in terms both the requirements for infrastructure in general and my constituents’ concerns about water shortages, sewerage capacity and implications for the food plain?

Dr. Starkey: Indeed. The Committee made recommendations on those matters, which I shall come to later.

As I said, housing planning needs to be related to regional and local economic planning. Employment and housing need to be related to each other. Account must be taken of the fact that employment has run
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ahead of housing in some parts of the country, while the reverse has been the case in others.

On housing tenure, the Committee noted that the major decrease in house building numbers has been seen in the provision of social housing. Of course, council housing stock has been eroded through the right to buy. We accept that home ownership is an aspiration for very many because it both meets housing need and provides a way of gaining access to wealth and equity. We also supported the Government’s schemes to promote access to home ownership through shared ownership and equity schemes, but we felt that there had to be not only an increase in the supply of shared ownership schemes, but support for people to enter the market. Support for equity mortgages could otherwise just further price growth, which would not improve the situation.

We were worried that there was insufficient emphasis on the supply of social rented housing. When Shelter gave evidence to the Committee, we endorsed its target of building an extra 20,000 new social rented homes annually. We were worried that the Housing Corporation had enormously increased the proportion of its funding being spent on shared ownership. Although social rented housing still represents slightly more than half the housing provided by the Housing Corporation, we want investment in social rented housing to be protected by requiring the corporation to spend a certain percentage of its funds on such housing, rather than allowing the proportion to erode further.

A great deal of the pressure for housing growth is coming from changing demography. Again, demographic pressures vary from region to region, but, broadly speaking, there has been an increase in the number of one-person households, which has happened partly because we are all living longer and also because of changing family patterns and relationship breakdown. Those factors need to be reflected in the housing provided in regions. There are shortages in new family housing in many regions, especially social rented family housing. We want to make it clear that new housing must meet the increasing needs of the elderly population, by including provision for sheltered housing, and include housing for people with disabilities.

As part of building more sustainable communities, the Government have quite rightly put an emphasis on increasing density in new housing developments. That makes the best use of land and can be much more public transport-friendly. The Committee stressed, however, that that must not lead to a preponderance of smaller units and flats simply to achieve that density. There are examples in which high density has been achieved successfully while still providing family housing. We want the Government to ensure that funding streams are sufficiently flexible and that local authorities are encouraged to use their planning powers effectively to ensure that high density is achieved with a proper mix of housing sizes and tenures.

The Committee wants the best use to be made of existing housing and we urge the Government to increase their target on reusing empty homes. We were persuaded that further measures were needed to discourage the purchase of second homes in places such as rural areas and those in which in-comers
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purchasing second homes, who usually have higher incomes than the existing population, are driving up house prices and depriving local people of access to the housing supply. The Government have not been persuaded on either of those points.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend refers to the priority of ensuring that empty housing is reused. Is not the greater use of under-occupied housing a parallel issue? In the estates for which I am responsible—no doubt my hon. Friend will have had similar experiences—I often find that three or four-bedroom local authority houses are occupied for long periods by an elderly person for want of either appropriate sheltered accommodation, or a financial incentive to free that house up for a family. What does the Committee have to say about that?

Dr. Starkey: I do not recall the Committee addressing that specific issue, but it is dealt with in the points that we made about the need to take account of the increasing number of elderly people when planning what types of new housing—both housing for sale and social housing—is to be provided. One problem that local authorities have in persuading elderly tenants to move out of their present housing and into new properties is that they often do not have suitable, attractive sheltered housing. Clearly, no one would want to force elderly people to move out of their homes into less acceptable accommodation.

The Committee recognised that housing makes an enormous contribution to climate change, and that factors such as where and how new housing is provided could have an environmental impact. Planning plays a key role in facilitating methods of development that minimise effects on the environment, but the issue is not clear-cut. New build concentrated in and around urban areas, and in expanding urban areas—even if it is on a greenfield site, and so has a negative environmental impact in that way—can reduce commuting, if there is an excess of local jobs. That would have a positive environmental impact. It could make public transport a much more realistic alternative, as well as regenerating and revitalising our cities. That is an issue on which the balance must be struck locally. It is, of course, extremely important for the quality of life of people living in our cities, including new residents, that green spaces in cities be protected, and not used for urban packing.

Because of the upward trend in building regulations, new housing is much more sustainable than most existing housing. The Committee urged the Department for Communities and Local Government to sign up to a climate change public service agreement, and we want the code for sustainable buildings to be strengthened still further. The Government’s moves on a commitment to zero-carbon housing are welcome.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): In the context of the debate on new housing and climate change, did the Committee examine, or make a recommendation on, the issue of changing building regulations to promote the use of geothermal heating, or any other form of heat-preserving structures, in developments?

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