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Overview/Scrutiny Committees

15. Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had with local authorities on the role of overview and scrutiny committees; and if she will make a statement. [108117]

16. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of overview and scrutiny committees in holding local authorities to account. [108118]

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The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Ruth Kelly): Prior to the local government White Paper, Ministers and officials had extensive discussions, including on overview and scrutiny, with local authorities and others. We are extending councillors’ scrutiny role so that they can more effectively hold to account those who provide public services to their communities.

Mr. Betts: I am pleased about the importance that my right hon. Friend attaches to scrutiny of matters internal and external to the council. Does she agree that there are many good examples of scrutiny in local authorities, some of which model their role on that of Westminster Select Committees? In other authorities, however, scrutiny is too lowly graded. It is not properly resourced, councillors are not properly trained, and in many cases the officers being scrutinised manage the officers who give advice to the scrutiny committees. Does she accept that there is a role for her Department and the Local Government Association to play together in disseminating examples of good practice and trying to pull the poorest performing authorities up to the levels of the best?

Ruth Kelly: I agree with my hon. Friend. There are some fantastic examples of local councillors coming together and challenging the council and others in their local area, thereby raising the quality of scrutiny and ultimately of local public services. That depends partly on genuine interest from members and partly on the authority’s willingness to respond. Committees that are independently resourced can be very effective in ensuring high-quality scrutiny. We want to work with the LGA to ensure that best practice in our best councils is spread right across the country.

Linda Gilroy: I hope that my right hon. Friend will be interested to know that on some occasions I have given evidence to scrutiny committees of my local authority, particularly on matters such as licensing and use of disorder zones. Just as when we serve on Select Committees we have good back-up from the teams that support us, scrutiny committees must, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) said, have the necessary resources to do their work. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that in the context of the White Paper she will consider how professional resources can be better supported in local government?

Ruth Kelly: I certainly give my hon. Friend that commitment. As we move forward, we want to shift responsibility for target setting and scrutinising proposals from central Government to local government. That will free resources that are currently spent on looking upwards, filling in forms and central bureaucracy, thus allowing local overview and scrutiny decisions to be made at the right level. I hope that the money that will be saved through the complete change of one performance regime can be put into supporting overview and scrutiny committees to do an even better job than they do at the moment.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I bring news from Northamptonshire, where scrutiny is in good heart but under great pressure. It is under
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particular pressure because of the poor revenue support grants that we have had in the past few years. Given the Secretary of State’s remarks, will she give me encouragement by telling me how much money she intends to give my county to ensure that separate scrutiny support can exist, as she just advised?

Ruth Kelly: I send my greetings to Northamptonshire and I am pleased that it has such excellent overview and scrutiny committees. Of course independent resourcing of scrutiny committees can make committees work better and raise the quality of local decision making. However, I am trying to move away from central prescription to allow local authorities to make the decisions that are right for them. I do not want to replace with one hand what I take away with the other. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that sentiment.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Will the Secretary of State expand on the effectiveness of overview and scrutiny committees when calling in decisions by bodies such as primary care trusts, if they have to consider decisions such as that made by Devon PCT yesterday to close community hospital beds and reduce the hours for magnetic resonance imaging units without consulting anyone?

Ruth Kelly: Overview and scrutiny committees can be incredibly effective. Indeed, 60 per cent. of executive councillors said that they had a policy decision changed because of overview and scrutiny. I do not know the details of the case that the hon. Gentleman cites, but it would be appropriate for local councillors and people to get involved and use overview and scrutiny committees to review decisions about local hospital reconfiguration or changes, raise the quality of debate, take evidence from different sources and make recommendations. I would expect that to happen in many places throughout the country.

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): May I inform my right hon. Friend of an example of bad practice by the overview and scrutiny committee in the London borough of Wandsworth? Often, it simply rubber-stamps decisions made behind closed doors. What carrots and/or sticks will the new Bill contain to ensure that boroughs such as Wandsworth follow best rather than bad practice for overview and scrutiny committees?

Ruth Kelly: I completely sympathise with my hon. Friend’s predicament in Wandsworth. Of course, when local councillors are involved in actively scrutinising decisions on behalf of local people, those local people can have their voices heard and ultimately help shape services. In the coming months, we will work with local authorities and others, including my hon. Friend, if he has an interest, to draw up guidance that local authorities can use if they wish to ensure that decisions are made in the best possible way.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): Might not the Secretary of State’s time be better spent in reading some of the many reports of overview and scrutiny committees about councils’ No. 1 problem—care of the elderly? The reports were summed up in a letter, which was published in The Guardian last week,
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from 45 leaders of authorities of all political persuasions. It said that services for the elderly were “teetering on the brink”. That is made worse by Labour cuts to the national health service. Instead of treating local government like her personal Lego set, will the Secretary of State tell hon. Members whether the Government have a plan to deal with the crisis, or is she content to abandon the elderly to the indignity of poor service and neglect?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman may like playing with Lego; I do not. I draw his attention to our investment, year in, year out, in local public services. The quality of public services is increasing, as is satisfaction— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) has a privilege in getting to the Dispatch Box and questioning the Secretary of State. He must listen to her reply.

Ruth Kelly: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Not only has real-terms funding for local services increased by almost 40 per cent. since 1997, following yearly cuts in investment in public services, but our commitment to social care cannot be questioned either, as we are investing in that as well. Rather than mouthing comments from a sedentary position, the hon. Gentleman should get real, look at the funding that has gone into local government and say whether or not he would match it.

Thurrock Development Corporation

17. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): If she will make a statement on progress made by the Thurrock development corporation. [108119]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): Over the past few months, the Thurrock development corporation has been securing key sites for jobs and housing in Purfleet, West Thurrock and on the riverside, as well as making progress on major cultural and environmental projects.

Andrew Mackinlay: I very much welcome that statement, but will the Minister assure me that the Thurrock development corporation will be facilitated by the Government in terms of capital spending, so that it can fulfil its seven-year business plan and strategy? Without the means, the Government’s policies will not be achieved, and I want them to be achieved.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right that capital investment is required across Thurrock to ensure the necessary infrastructure and progress. We will provide capital investment to support the development corporation. He will also welcome the fantastic proposal to relocate the Royal Opera house production facility and archives to Thurrock, which will build skills and create jobs as well as supporting new homes and cultural development in the area.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): The Thames Gateway, of which Thurrock is a key part, was originally the vision of my noble Friend Lord Heseltine, and the Opposition strongly support it. The
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hon. Lady must therefore have been both brave and embarrassed, just a fortnight ago, to admit to her Government’s serious mistakes in carrying the project forward. Given that the design and quality problems and the mess of the 37 overlapping public bodies defusing accountability and leadership were identified long ago—not least by the Government’s own urban taskforce last November—why has it taken them so long to get round to sorting it out? How long will it be before a similar apology is due to those caught up in a series of questionable decisions and failed court actions associated with the Liverpool pathfinder scheme?

Yvette Cooper: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has decided to talk such complete nonsense and has failed to welcome the new strategic plan for the Thames Gateway. That has been welcomed by local authorities and development agencies across the Thames Gateway, including Conservative local authorities, which agree that billions of pounds of new investment in infrastructure to support new jobs and homes, and raising the quality of design, is the right approach to making the Thames Gateway a fantastic place to live.

Community Cohesion

18. Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): If she will make a statement on her Department's work to support community cohesion since May 2005. [108120]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Ruth Kelly): We have continued to support areas facing particular challenges. Since its launch in August, the Commission on Integration and Cohesion has been undertaking a programme of consultation and visits. It will make recommendations in June next year. The local government White Paper sets out a number of measures to improve cohesion.

Tom Levitt: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. She will be aware that 2007 marks the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Community Development Foundation, the country’s foremost source of expertise on community development and social cohesion. In recent years, the CDF has delivered and administered the faith in the communities programme on behalf of her Department and its predecessors. In the light of the Prime Minister’s recent comments on cohesion, does my right hon. Friend agree that cohesion must start from the grass roots of communities, but that organisations such as CDF can contribute the expertise and knowledge that will help it to succeed?

Ruth Kelly: Yes, I do. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend as chair of the CDF and to community workers up and down the country who are striving to build cohesion and communities that get on well side by side, share values and understand what difference is, but understand what it is to be British. I understand the contribution of that particular organisation, which builds from the grass roots to make sure that our communities are good places in which to live and work.
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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I am grateful to Ministers at the Department for meeting me to discuss the challenges to community cohesion in Slough, but they still exist because of the huge changes faced by my community. Will my right hon. Friend look at a proposal submitted recently by Slough council to help with those challenges?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend has raised this issue with Ministers for some months, and we are well aware of the problems facing Slough and other councils throughout the country. Next week I shall meet a delegation of local authorities to discuss some of them. We will work with local authorities not just to identify particular local pressures and challenges, but to identify what will help authorities to manage such tensions and spread best practice across the country. I stand ready to consider those issues whenever new evidence emerges.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): A crucial prerequisite for achieving and sustaining community cohesion is, of course, equality before the law. Given that no fewer than 100 right hon. and hon. Members signed an early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), by me and by others urging early and undiluted implementation of the regulations on sexual orientation, when will they be forthcoming?

Ruth Kelly: I have already responded to the hon. Gentleman on this point. As he knows, respect for the rule of law is at the heart of British politics. The Government are prepared to legislate to prevent discrimination of any kind, so that people can take advantage of goods and services without the threat of such discrimination. As the hon. Gentleman also knows, however, there are strong views on precisely how that legislation should be implemented in practice. More than 3,000 responses were received to consultation, and we will respond to it in due course, but my main priority must be to establish effective regulations by April so that people with a particular sexual orientation can be protected from discrimination.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): The Muslim Council of Britain has defended the Muslim Public Affairs Committee and its involvement in the politics of the far right, including holocaust denial. In view of that, does my right hon. Friend consider either organisation to be a suitable partner in contribution to community cohesion?

Ruth Kelly: I find it surprising that any organisation in Britain today does not recognise the reality of the holocaust. I also find it surprising that members of leadership organisations in the Muslim community, or indeed other faith communities, should choose not to attend holocaust memorial day. I know that a debate on the issues is taking place in those organisations, and I would encourage its continuation.

I hope to see the organisations myself, along with my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government—who is responsible for community cohesion—in Newcastle in January to remember the holocaust. I hope that we can work towards a society in which the contribution of all people, of all faiths and none, is fully recognised.

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Social Housing

19. Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): What change there has been in the number of households on council waiting lists for social housing since 1997. [108121]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): In England, 1.63 million households are on the waiting list for social housing. The number of households on the waiting list has been broadly unchanged between 1997 and 2001-02. There has been a significant increase in the last four years, which reflects the difficulty of affordability faced by those trying to get on to the housing ladder.

Paul Holmes: In Chesterfield the waiting list has risen from 1,774 to 6,170, while nationally it has risen by half a million. Yet Government policy has allowed the number of social houses to fall by 600,000 since 1997, and the Government steal £3 million of Chesterfield council tenants’ rent every year rather than allow Chesterfield to build new social housing. When will the Government change their disastrous, dogmatic and failed housing policies?

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to learn that I do not agree with his characterisation. It is enormously important for us to produce more houses in all sectors—the private sector, shared ownership and social housing—and we are on course to deliver our target of 30,000 social rented houses a year by 2008.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, housing revenue account money is seen as a national resource, allowing us to target the areas in most need. We are therefore providing more resources, including more resources for Chesterfield.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend recognise that the crisis in housing is now becoming as fierce in some northern towns and cities as it is in some southern towns and cities? Bolton has lost a third of its housing stock, largely through the right to buy, and its housing waiting list in the last few years has quadrupled from 5,000 to over 23,000, and it is rising steeply. A few days ago, the Minister for Housing and Planning met the northern housing forum. Will the Department look at its proposals for alleviating the housing crisis in northern areas?

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend is right to recognise that housing issues affect not only the south of England, but the north as well. We need to build more houses throughout England. It is important that we look at proper local assessments, and we are of course very happy to consider any proposals and initiatives that are brought forward by local communities.

Islamist Extremism

20. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What assessment her Department has made of the effectiveness of Government initiatives to tackle Islamist extremism. [108122]

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