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Mr. Slaughter: I am delighted to hear what my hon. Friend says. Several hon. Members have mentioned the Shelter report. Will she look again at the persuasive case that it makes for an additional 20,000 affordable rented homes? Will she consider the whole issue of affordability, given that rented homes are the only possibility for many people in housing need? In view of
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the remarks by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), will she consider the fact that shared ownership housing must be affordable? It currently stands at 60 to 70 per cent. of market price, which is not affordable to anybody in housing need if market prices are in the range of £800,000, as in Hammersmith and Fulham.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right. I shall say more in a moment about the need for more properly affordable social and shared ownership housing.

On the overall level of house building that is needed, we believe, given the growing number of households with people living alone and an ageing population, that we should be building at least 200,000 new homes a year. The Select Committee said in its report that we should go further. Conservative Members have continued to refuse to say how many new homes they think should be built. Indeed, the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), when challenged, has repeatedly denied herself the opportunity to say whether she agrees with or supports the 200,000 new homes that we suggest, although she has said:

I know that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is never coy, and I am sure that he would love to take this opportunity to join the consensus in the House and tell us how many homes he thinks are needed for the next generation and how many he thinks we should be building a year.

Michael Gove rose—

Hon. Members: Hooray.

Michael Gove: It is an intoxicating pleasure for me to get a cheer from the Labour Benches when I rise; I hope that it will not be the last occasion.

I think that Miss Barker’s estimate of 200,000 is a fair estimate of the level of potential future housing need, but I would not like our ambitions to be limited by that target, because I fear that, as has so often happened in the past, targets can distort delivery. Miss Barker’s work has been useful, but I do not want us to be tied down by any arbitrary target. We should respond to local need instead of being bound by a specific national straitjacket.

Yvette Cooper: I interpret that to mean that the hon. Gentleman does indeed think that we should probably be building somewhere in the region of 200,000 new homes a year but needs to give himself a little wriggle room in case he comes under pressure from his boss, the hon. Member for Meriden, who has opposed the level of building that we suggest. Clearly, hon. Members take different views on this; certainly, the hon. Members for Surrey Heath and for Meriden have done so, as they are welcome to.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I oppose the house building that the Government propose in Hemel Hempstead on the site of the hospital that they are closing.

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Yvette Cooper: I cannot comment on the individual site that the hon. Gentleman mentions. It is true, however, that Conservative Members from all parts of the country are continuing to oppose increased housing in their areas at a time when 45 towns and cities have come forward just in the past 12 months to say that there should be significant increases in new homes in their areas, and regional assemblies across the country are proposing increased house building. As the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) said, this affects not only London and the south-east but areas such as the north-west, the north-east, and Yorkshire and Humberside. We should be building additional homes in every part of the country. It is a shame that the only regional assembly to propose cuts in the level of house building is the Conservative-led south-east regional assembly.

Mr. Khan: Speaking of nimbyism, Wandsworth council is discharging its responsibility for providing affordable units by providing studio flats costing £325,000. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), members of the Wandsworth Labour group and myself to discuss the unique problem of how Wandsworth discharges its responsibilities?

Yvette Cooper: I would be happy to meet my hon. Friends and I am sorry to hear about their difficulties. We expect local authorities to take seriously the need for affordable housing that is genuinely affordable in their areas.

I should like to deal briefly with some of the other points that the Select Committee raised and that were mentioned in the debate, especially climate change and the way in which we ensure that, as we build the additional homes that we need for the future, they are properly sustainable for the next generation. That means that we must build to much higher environmental standards. The Committee highlighted that and referred to the need to improve the code for sustainable homes. We are doing that and we will publish it next week.

We shall also publish a new planning policy statement on climate change as well as the revised code for sustainable homes. We will set out a timetable to introduce the code standards into building regulations, as the Committee suggested, to achieve the targets that the Chancellor set so that, in 10 years, all new homes should be built at a zero carbon rating. No other country has set that sort of timetable or ambition but I believe that we need to do it to drive the environmental technologies of the future and ensure that we are building the homes of the future.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I am glad about my hon. Friend’s announcement about the sustainable building code and yesterday’s announcement about the zero rate of stamp duty land tax to encourage such development. That is especially pleasing because the policy would apply throughout the UK. Yesterday’s announcement also referred to measures to encourage energy audits and loans to allow people to carry out work in their houses. As energy and housing—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have previously appealed for brief interventions. Long interventions rob time from the second debate, in which a great many hon. Members, even on the hon. Gentleman’s side, wish to participate.

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Mark Lazarowicz: I should be grateful if my hon. Friend commented on the implications for Scotland as well as England and Wales.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right that we need to work on carbon emissions from existing homes as well as new homes. We are already investing in Warm Front and we want to expand the programme to improve existing homes.

The announcements next week will be primarily about new homes but in the new year we want to take forward further work on existing homes, too. Last week, we published a new planning policy statement on housing, which responds to many issues raised by the Committee and in the debate.

Emily Thornberry: Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning the Liberal Democrat council in Islington for refusing once more to set a target for the overall amount of affordable housing to be provided in Islington, despite the publication of the new planning policy statement? I refer to a council meeting that took place two days ago.

Yvette Cooper: We expect local authorities to start responding to the new planning policy statement on housing. They will need to take account of it in developing their new local development frameworks—their local plans for their area. My hon. Friend has raised the matter many times and we have set out the need for councils to consider asking for affordable homes on smaller sites, not simply on large sites, where that is viable and housing is needed. We should try to provide more affordable housing through the planning system. Some research suggests that two thirds of homes are currently built without any contribution to affordable housing. That is why we have made it clear in the new planning rules that more should be done throughout the country to achieve the goal.

Mr. Steen: I need some clarification to help me understand something. The Minister talks about affordable homes. Does she mean subsidised homes—those that are subsidised by the public and private sectors? If so, why does she keep calling them affordable? They are not affordable.

Yvette Cooper: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman examines the new planning guidance that was published last week. It clearly sets out what we mean by affordable housing. We use the term to mean subsidised shared ownership schemes and social rented housing. However, they could be subsidised purely by planning gain—in other words, by the private sector—or by the public sector. We have changed the definition in the new planning guidance to concentrate more on schemes that are genuinely affordable rather than allowing developers to describe low cost home ownership schemes, which are simply smaller, market properties, as affordable when, in many cases, in practice they are not.

Hon. Members have talked about the need for more social housing, and we take that matter very seriously. I want to make it clear to those hon. Members who mentioned investment in existing homes as well as in new homes that we will have invested £40 billion by
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2010 in improving council homes and social housing across the country. That includes a more than 30 per cent. increase in funding going directly to councils. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) expressed concern about direct funding to councils; we have increased it by 30 per cent. in real terms to help them to improve their council housing stock. We are also going further with arm’s length management organisations and other stock transfers.

I have to say, however, that if we had not inherited council homes that were in such a shocking state of disrepair in 1997, with more than 2 million families living in homes that did not meet basic standards of decency, we could have spent a hefty chunk of that £40 billion on new social housing. The shocking legacy of the 1980s and 1990s under the Conservatives is still being felt right across the social housing sector.

We need to go further by investing in more social housing, and we have said that that will be a priority for the spending review. We also need to look at ways of levering in additional resources through planning gain. We take seriously the need to look at all aspects of improving housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) raised specific issues relating to Birmingham, and we are making clear to Birmingham the importance of its demonstrating that its approach continues to be sustainable.

There needs to be more shared ownership, and we are increasing to 160,000 the number of families who can be helped into shared ownership, including key workers and other first-time buyers, partly as a result of levering additional private sector investment into shared ownership schemes. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) raised the issue of temporary accommodation. She will be aware that we have set up a scheme to start buying back social housing, funded by savings from housing benefit. Clearly we also need to ensure that we provide the billions of pounds needed for infrastructure. We are already doing that across the Thames Gateway, and we are consulting on ways to raise this further.

Members have raised particular issues relating to family homes. The new planning guidance clearly states that we need more family homes, and that we need to concentrate more on the needs of children, who have different needs from the rest of us in terms of gardens, parks and play areas. We need more family homes in our cities, where we often see a great deal of investment in flats but not the additional investment that we need in family homes.

We recognise that Conservative Members have taken different views on this matter in the past. A recent edition of Inside Housing carries a fetching photo of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, alongside his suggestion, “Let’s build on farmland”, rather than in towns and cities. In the same article, however, his boss, the hon. Member for Meriden is quoted as saying:

In response to that, even the Campaign to Protect Rural England said:

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Perhaps it is the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). Speaking to the Conservative party conference, and claiming to represent the next generation, he said:

However, speaking to Age Concern just three weeks later, he said:

That represents a complete flip-flop in the space of just three weeks. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath might not agree with his boss, but his ultimate boss, the right hon. Member for Witney, does not even agree with himself.

We have made it clear that we need to build more homes for the next generation; we agree with the Select Committee report on that. We only hope that Conservative Members will demonstrate a little more consistency in supporting us as we build the new homes that the next generation needs.

Question deferred, pursuant to Standing Order No. 54, (Consideration of estimates).

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Occupational Pensions

[Relevant documents: Sixth Report from the Select Committee on Public Administration, Session 2005-06, The Ombudsman in Question: the Ombudsman’s report on pensions and its constitutional implications, HC 1081, and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6961; and Sixth Report from the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, Session 2005-06, Trusting in the pensions promise, HC 984, and the Government’s response thereto.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

3.45 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I am glad to have the opportunity to introduce the recent report of the Public Administration Committee on occupational pensions following the report of the parliamentary ombudsman earlier this year. I pay tribute to my colleagues on the Committee: it is a great privilege to work with them, and I thank them for what they do to enable the Committee to function as it does. I also pay tribute to both the office and the officers of the parliamentary ombudsman, who have served this Parliament with distinction and continue to do so.

It is almost 40 years since Parliament decided to establish the office of ombudsman, which was then called the parliamentary commissioner for administration. We will mark the 40th anniversary in April next year. The original legislation, the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, contained a provision allowing the ombudsman to report to Parliament in cases in which maladministration leading to injustice had been unremedied. That sensible provision enabled Parliament’s attention to be drawn to what were believed to be the exceptional circumstances in which a finding of maladministration leading to injustice had remained unremedied by the Government of the day.

We are dealing with what is only the fourth occasion in 40 years on which the parliamentary ombudsman has had to use that provision to report to Parliament. It is the first time—the only time; the unique time—that a case has arisen in which not only has the finding of maladministration been rejected by the Government of the day, but the injustice has remained unremedied. Both components of the ombudsman’s work have been set aside: the finding of maladministration and the description of how it might be put right. It is an important moment for the House when Parliament’s ombudsman is in such a position over an issue of this kind.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend share my surprise, and that of others, at the Government’s over-reaction? In asking “What must we do now to make good the shortfall in pensions?”, the parliamentary ombudsman merely requested that the
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best brains should be put together to try to come up with a better scheme. Given what some of those observing our debate would consider to be the mildness of that recommendation, was my hon. Friend as surprised as I was at the Government’s excessive response?

Dr. Wright: I was surprised and disappointed, as no doubt was the ombudsman, by the way in which her report was immediately set aside. I think she was particularly troubled by the fact that, in her view, the report had been misrepresented. She had not said to the Government, “You must sign a blank cheque straight away: that will take care of it.” However, I think she was even more upset by the rejection of her finding of maladministration.

The whole point of the ombudsman system created 40 years ago by this House of Commons was to establish an independent person to decide whether there had been maladministration on the part of a Department or body. The decision would be transferred from the normal exchanges to an arena in which someone could make it independently, which is what the parliamentary ombudsman has done.

We must not forget what this involves. More than 100,000 people—and many of us have constituents in this position—have lost some, or in a number of cases all, of the occupational pensions that they believed to have been secured. In human terms, that is what we are talking about. Many of us will know the real human stories behind the figures, the real human consequences as well as the financial loss, and the stress and health issues that have arisen from people seeing their pension, and therefore their ability to support families and to contemplate a decent retirement, disappear.

The argument centres on the question of liability. Again, to respond to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the point is not that the ombudsman said that the Government had sole responsibility for what had happened. What was affronting was the proposition that the Government had no responsibility for what had happened. Whichever way we look at the evidence, which has been pored over endlessly by the ombudsman, our Committee and others, there can be no question but that there is a liability. There is some maladministration.

Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): I am listening to my hon. Friend’s comments with extreme interest and some concern. Please will he clarify whether it is just this Government who are criticised, or whether the previous Government also come under criticism for the period between 1995 and 1997?

Dr. Wright: I am grateful for that point, which I was going to make towards the end of my remarks, but which I will make now. The reason that the issue should concern us all is that it involves this and the previous Government. It flows from the Pensions Act 1995 following Maxwell, and the protections that were supposed to have been put in place then. Although, of course, my comments are necessarily critical of my Government’s response so far, I also note that the Conservative Opposition have said that they are not prepared to spend an extra penny on helping such people. This is a House of Commons matter. It affects both major parties, and we both have an obligation.

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