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8 May 2007 : Column 8

Mr. Alexander: I remain convinced that there are huge opportunities for Glasgow, not simply in terms of the Commonwealth games bid, which I sincerely hope will be successful, but in its being another part of the United Kingdom to benefit from the 2012 Olympics. One of the key attributes of London’s successful bid for the Olympics was a recognition not just of the magnificent diversity within that global city, but of the fact there were real opportunities for a legacy for every part of the United Kingdom. I know that that is certainly the intention of the Olympic authorities.

Drugs Classification

5. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet Ministers in the Scottish Executive to discuss the effect in Scotland of the legislation governing the classification of drugs. [135095]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has no immediate plans to meet Scottish Executive Ministers to discuss the effect in Scotland of classification of drugs. That policy matter is primarily the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that the UK now has the second highest number of drug-related deaths in Europe? The problem is particularly acute in Scotland, where the death-rate average for the past five years is 624. Given that recent evidence from Scotland shows beyond any doubt that cannabis can cause brain damage and can lead to experimentation with harder drugs, has the time not come for it to be reclassified? What is his view on that and what recommendations will he make that might help to save Scottish youngsters from misery and drug affliction?

David Cairns: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that drug misuse is a terrible blight that affects all too many communities, both in Scotland and elsewhere. I commend him on the work that he has done in raising the issue. He will know, however, that the Government’s position on the declassification of cannabis was informed by the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The position was reaffirmed in January 2006, after further advice from the council. It recommended that cannabis should remain a class C drug, but that an information campaign was needed to highlight the mental health dangers and clarify that cannabis remains illegal. The Home Secretary has accepted that recommendation and has acted on it.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Does not the confusion surrounding the classification of cannabis highlight the fact that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 needs a major overhaul? In this House we revisit road traffic legislation on average every 10 years, but we have had no major drugs legislation since 1971? Will the Minister impress on the Home Secretary the fact that the time has come to look at drugs misuse as a whole?

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David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman highlights the fact that, as I said, this matter is a policy responsibility of the Home Secretary. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly capable of making those representations strongly by himself. It is important that we clarify that cannabis still remains illegal and that in my view, the view of the Government and the view of more and more informed commentators, it is still a very dangerous substance indeed. The Government are clear that that is a message that we all have to get across.

Second Home Owners

7. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What discussions he has had with the First Minister on eligibility for voter registration for those with second homes in Scotland. [135097]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with the First Minister on a range of subjects.

Mr. Robathan: Is the Minister aware that, as part of the electoral fiasco in Scotland last week, some people with second homes in Scotland who applied to register as voters were turned down? Given that all Ministers of the Crown are deemed to have their primary residence in London, will the Minister tell the House whether he, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other Scottish Ministers were able to register and vote in Scotland? If so, why are politicians treated better than ordinary people?

David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman knows that decisions on whether individuals are placed on the electoral register are a matter for individual registration officers. If he has a specific example that he wishes to put forward, I will be happy to receive his representations. On his first point, he will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be making a statement on the matter very soon.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): I was grateful for the answer that the Minister gave to a written question that I tabled about this subject on behalf of a constituent with a second home in Scotland who was refused registration. We then discovered that Scottish MPs with second homes in London were able to vote locally. There are irregularities in the way in which registration officers apply the rules across the country, because some will grant second home owners a vote, while others will not. Given that second home owners now pay virtually full council tax, will the Minister ensure that they will have the right to vote if they want to, bearing in the mind the phrase “no taxation without representation”?

David Cairns: It is clear that it is perfectly possible to be on the electoral registration roll in more than one location. We must not allow anyone to run away with the idea that that is a special privilege for MPs. For example, students can be registered on the electoral roll at a hall of residence and their home address. I simply do not know why individuals were turned down, because it was not my decision to turn anyone down. Such decisions are made by individual registration officers,
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who have clear guidelines to which they work. If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me about a particular issue, I will take it up on his behalf, but this is clearly a matter for individual electoral registration officers.

Digital Switchover

8. Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East) (Lab): When he last met Ofcom to discuss digital switchover; and if he will make a statement. [135098]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): I last met the director of Ofcom Scotland, Vicki Nash, on 29 March and we discussed a wide range of issues.

Rosemary McKenna: When my hon. Friend meets Ofcom and, especially, Digital UK, will he express his concerns that some suppliers are still providing equipment that will be obsolete after switchover? Will he ensure that Digital UK does all that it can to discourage people from purchasing such equipment and that it gives good information and advice?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend raises an important point. I pay tribute to her work on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, through which she has consistently raised such issues. She asks about one of the matters that I discussed with Vicki Nash a few weeks ago. It is important that people are aware not only that digital switchover is happening—it is happening sooner in the Border television region than elsewhere—but of the technical issues involved. People should not buy equipment that they do not need or something that is far more expensive than is needed, and nor should they be sold equipment that will become obsolete very quickly. We must work with manufacturers and retailers. The Department of Trade and Industry is involved in this and I continue to raise such concerns.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Following those discussions about digital switchover, does the Minister have any progress to report on the development of handsets and controls for people with visual impairments and other disabilities, given that the programme guide is extremely difficult to control? Will the Government ensure that those with disabilities will have equal access to digital television when they are forced to use the new technology?

David Cairns: This is an extremely serious point. Given that digital services will be enhanced and the spectrum will be greatly increased, there will be an opportunity to tailor specific services for disabled people. It is absolutely vital that the technology allows such people to access programmes that are made on their behalf. We touched on the issue regarding handsets, albeit briefly, and I shall be happy to take up the matter on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf because I entirely share his concerns.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): With regard to digital switchover, will the Minister give an absolute assurance that my constituents in Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra will be guaranteed continuity of service at all times, particularly during elections such as the one that they really enjoyed last week?

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David Cairns: I am being encouraged to say things by my hon. Friends on the Back Benches, but I shall not put them on record. It is important to note that digital switchover means that about 98 to 100 per cent. of people will receive a new digital signal. It has never been the case that every single person would be able to receive a digital signal. I do not have the map in front of me, and I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman about every island that he mentioned. There are areas in my constituency that cannot get an analogue signal, never mind a digital signal. Everyone has been clear and consistent all the way along the line: about 98.5 per cent. of homes will be able to receive the new, improved digital services.

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Energy Efficient Homes

15. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): What minimum requirements her Department stipulates for the energy efficiency of new and refurbished homes. [135791]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): New standards for building regulations were introduced in April last year. They require a 40 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency, compared to 2002. However, we need to go further, and we are consulting on a timetable for significant increases in compulsory energy efficiency measures for new homes, so that all new homes can be zero carbon within 10 years.

Lynne Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she is doing to ratchet up energy efficiency standards, but may I ask her to address the second part of my question, which is about existing homes? In Birmingham, 35,000 homes in the private sector, and more than half of council homes, do not even meet the decent homes standard, which is a very low standard. What is she doing to improve the energy efficiency of existing homes, particularly those occupied by people on low incomes?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and it is certainly true that existing homes make up the vast majority of the stock. We already support grants and assistance for people, including through the energy efficiency commitment provided by energy companies, but more work needs to be done as part of the decent homes programme, and through the introduction of energy performance certificates, which we strongly support, but which, unfortunately, Opposition Members do not.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Does the Minister agree that there is no point in having high standards for new homes if those standards are not enforced? Does she share my concern that between a third and 40 per cent. of homes built are reported to fail to meet current standards, and what steps will she take to ensure that those standards are enforced?

Yvette Cooper: The issue of enforcement is important, and that is why we have introduced pressure testing as
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part of the new standards introduced last year. The standards that were in place before April last year were not sufficiently well enforced, and we have been working on a major training programme to increase enforcement and ensure that the current standards are properly implemented.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that we can tackle the issue of energy efficiency in new homes through building regulations, but it is important that we have a policy to deal with energy efficiency in existing houses. By including energy efficiency certificates as part of home information packs, are the Government not demonstrating that those certificates are a vehicle through which we can try to raise public awareness of existing energy-efficient homes across the board? If the Government, while pretending to be green, rejected a measure as modest as making energy certificates part of home information packs, that commitment to being green and to tackling climate change would be nothing more than skin deep.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Energy performance certificates can make a significant difference, particularly if they are linked to new programmes, such as those involving green mortgages and other kinds of grants for home owners. He will know that the measure has been strongly supported by WWF, Friends of the Earth, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and a range of environmental groups; they are strongly saying to us that it would be a travesty if energy performance certificates were to be delayed.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): The Minister knows that the Conservative party—and, for that matter, the Liberal Democrats—is entirely behind energy performance certificates. It is because we take energy efficiency so seriously that we were scandalised to read on Sunday that there is not a single accredited domestic energy assessor available in the United Kingdom. Figures released by the DCLG on Friday reveal that there is not a single accredited assessor in place. A year ago, we were told that we would need 7,000 inspectors—this month, 2,000—but not a single one is in place. What a fiasco on the Minister’s watch.

Yvette Cooper: I have to say that, for all the hon. Gentleman’s manufactured indignation, more than 5,500 people have entered training to be energy assessors or home inspectors, and 1,900 have passed their exams. The hon. Gentleman says that he supports energy performance certificates, so I must ask him why he has signed early-day motions 1264 and 1265, which oppose not only home information packs but energy performance certificates for rented buildings, public buildings and homes. WWF has criticised his party for doing so, and that is the group that helped his right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) to travel to the—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Mrs. Hodgson.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend the Minister aware of the affordable homes that are being built by Ikea in my constituency? They use sustainable materials and seek to be at least 25 per cent. more energy efficient than the norm. People do not even have
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to build them themselves. Should councils not follow the example set by Gateshead of backing innovative solutions that produce energy efficiency coupled with affordable housing?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A lot of innovative schemes have been set up across the country. I went to see one in Redditch just a few weeks ago in which people are looking at different ways of constructing homes. We have to recognise that the house-building process must change fundamentally: we must change the way in which we build, heat and power our homes if we are to meet the challenge of climate change. I agree that there is a lot more that local authorities can do to support that process.

Council Tax

16. Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): What plans she has for a council tax revaluation in England. [135792]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Ruth Kelly): As I have made clear on several occasions, the Government have no plans to revalue during the lifetime of this Parliament.

Mark Hunter: Given the Government’s decision to abandon the council tax revaluation for the foreseeable future, does the Secretary of State have anything positive at all to say to the 2 million-plus households that, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, are struggling to pay council tax? Can she explain, too, why the Government are so committed to retaining the unfair and unjust council tax system, which was introduced, after all, by the Conservatives, and which we all know penalises people on fixed incomes, particularly pensioners?

Ruth Kelly: I do not think that any tax is ever going to win a popularity contest, and the same is true of council tax, which is why we asked Sir Michael Lyons to look at it in what I think is a thorough and valued report. He concluded, first, that council tax is not broken and should be retained. Secondly, on local income tax, which was suggested by the hon. Gentleman’s party, he said that there are serious concerns about the fairness of the proposal. I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at what Sir Michael Lyons said. Let us work together in making sure that we have a council tax and council tax benefit system that really do mean that we have a secure and stable level of funding for the future.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): The Minister has just alluded to the excellent and thorough report published by Sir Michael Lyons. Will she join me in urging all Members of Parliament to read it very thoroughly before they make pronouncements about the supposed effects of council tax revaluation in, to quote some people, “shoving up” everyone’s bills? If people understood the way in which council tax worked, perhaps they would refrain from such scaremongering, which is simply scaring enormous numbers of people for no reason.

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes incredibly important points. Sir Michael Lyons himself said:

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