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Simon Hughes: I have a very clear view about that, too, which is that if a constitutional convention for the United Kingdom comes up with proposed changes to the constitutional structure of the relationship between the four countries—including, in my view, the way in
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which we elect our Parliament and what we do in this building—then, yes, that needs to be endorsed by a vote not just in Scotland but across the United Kingdom. One clearly cannot alter the constitutional relationship in a big way without that change. That is why we supported, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, what happened after the constitutional conventions in Scotland, and in Wales and Northern Ireland when they moved, with the assent of their populations, to that conclusion.

On the constitutional reform Bill, the Government need to go further. So far, we have seen proposals for a welcome transfer of powers, but as our previous debates have indicated, there is still a lot further to go. Pursuant to the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and others, I hope that we will see the day when the business of Parliament is fixed by Parliament in consultation with Government, not by Government in consultation with Parliament. The agenda should be set here—it should of course accommodate what the Government came to power to implement—rather than the Government by grace and favour allowing Parliament opportunities to do other things.

I observe that in the list of the other 22 Bills, the Government have made provision literally from the cradle to the grave. Indeed, in the words of a joke one might think of, they have made provision from the womb to the tomb. There is a Human Tissue and Embryos Bill at one end of the life cycle and a coroners Bill at the other, so all the seven stages of man—and woman—are catered for. To that extent, the list is certainly comprehensive. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made the good point, however, that none of this is new. I will not repeat the litany that she gave, but it is absolutely true that if ever we wanted evidence that this is a continuing Government, not a new one—with a Prime Minister who, although a new individual, is continuing the agenda—the evidence is here in front of us.

I want to pick out one or two important implications. There are five Bills relating to the children, young people and education agenda, which is important. I share the view expressed a moment ago by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) that unless we have a child maintenance and other payments system that means that parents pay what they are meant to pay, all the shouting over the past 10 years about the Child Support Agency will have been in vain. That system has failed, and it needs to work. We all have constituents who are the victims of the system not working.

Children in care, which is still a hugely important issue, is also on the agenda. Ministers will know that many of the people who end up in prison have been in care at some stage in their lives; there is a sad link. Many people are still waiting for adoption. We do not have adequate fostering or enough people to foster. We need to ensure that those children who, through no fault of their own, end up in care get a much better quality of care, so that the risk that they will go wrong later in life is much reduced.

In relation to education and skills, the borough that the Leader of the House and I represent—like the area represented by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, East—had a tradition, certainly on its
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northern side, of people working in the docks, but the docks are no longer there and the education needs have changed. However, I hope that we do not go blindly in the direction of academic education for everyone until the age of 18. Many of my constituents want vocational education, and they can benefit from experience of the workplace at the top end of primary school. They benefit from doing paid work at weekends when they are in their middle years of secondary school. They want to be able to understand the world of work, and some of them have never had the experience of anybody in their home working. It is therefore important that education and skills are not seen as being solely about academic attainment. We need skills upgrades, but we also need to train people for practical things, such as constructing buildings so that we do not have to import people—as London is doing now—to do it. We could use our own young people to do the construction work not only for the Olympics, but all over Britain.

I know that the Leader of the House has always been vocal about youth services and I am glad that the Government have been able to find more money for youth services through the unclaimed assets Bill. We will have to check whether it is entirely compatible with human rights legislation, given that someone else left that money in the bank, but we need more investment in youth services. Everybody now recognises that, and if the Bill is a quick-fix way to do that, in partnership with local communities, it will be a good thing to do.

On housing and planning, there will be three Bills. One is, sadly, insufficient and the other two on planning are controversial. On the Housing and Regeneration Bill, we do not yet see the mechanisms for delivering the social housing, at a cost people can afford, to rescue Britain from the shortage of housing, terrible debts, high mortgages and crippling rents outside the social housing sector. My borough is not untypical and we have waiting lists of thousands for social housing. We had a statement on housing the other day and there was an almost deafening silence from Ministers on council housing, which appears to be still off the agenda. Many people believe that council housing is a good thing. Many people like living in council housing and believe that councils can be more responsive than housing associations, housing trusts, arm’s length management organisations or tenant management organisations. I hope that the Government have heard the message loud and clear from authorities and parties around the country that what is now called the fourth option—the right of councils to say, as mine is doing, that they will not sell off their housing stock or set up an ALMO—should be an option for every council, certainly in England.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is giving a considered view of housing policy, but I can tell him that as far as the vast majority of the parliamentary Labour party is concerned, council housing is back on the agenda. I have a question for him. What will he do to stop Liberal Democrat councillors running opportunistic campaigns against housing schemes wherever they are suggested?

Simon Hughes: I believe in devolution, and local people have to judge what is appropriate for their area. It is not for us in the centre to say what is right for
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Reading, Washington or Maidenhead. It is a matter for community debate and decision. It is necessary to respond to needs, but they differ around the country. Decisions on how to meet need—be it through council housing or selling off housing stock—should be taken locally, without force or bribery. The Labour party conference has made it clear that it wants councils to be able to build and let housing. The Leader of the House is also deputy leader of the Labour party and she knows that too, but my point is that we did not hear much about that we when had exchanges on the subject here the other day. I want to make sure that the matter is kept on the agenda. We will not let up on our efforts to make sure that it is, and I hope that colleagues on the Labour Back Benches will do the same.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): If we are to permit local councils to construct homes again, and if we are to provide the resources for them to do so, would the hon. Gentleman concede that there should be some sort of quality test on their ability to perform that function adequately? My instinct is very strongly in favour of what my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) has said, but we have an obligation to prevent councils that have struggled with their existing management function from extending their housing stock.

Simon Hughes: We certainly do not want to build poor-quality housing, and the old Parker Morris standards were good. I applaud the fact that the Government want a decent homes initiative to make sure that standards are upgraded, and I am not arguing that councils should build frequently and build cheap. On the contrary, I am arguing that they should build to last, and the really good housing that people like to live in is housing that is built to last. We must adopt that approach again.

I absolutely understand that we must not compromise on standards, but the big question is whether there is a real commitment to putting in the finance and giving councils the power of general competence. That freedom would mean that they are not told what to do by central Government.

Mr. Todd: I think that the hon. Gentleman may have misunderstood my question, which was whether he thought that some sort of quality test should be applied to a council’s governance and management of housing, and to its ability to provide decent housing stock. However, I accept everything that he said about the stock itself.

Simon Hughes: I am sorry: I did hear that question, but did not deal with it. In the end, the quality test is applied by the electorate, with the help of the district auditor and all the performance standards tests for local government that are now carried out regularly. Much better peer-group analysis is available, but the quality test that the hon. Gentleman seeks comes when local people decide whether their council is good or bad, and whether it is run well or badly.

I turn now to the planning gain supplement Bill and the planning reform Bill. The idea that big planning decisions will be taken by a quango and not by accountable councils or Ministers is not one that I favour. The quango can advise, if that is what the Government
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want, but big planning decisions must come with political accountability and they cannot be taken out of the political forum.

In addition, the current system works well. The proposal means that large portions of the planning gain money—section 106 money—can be hoovered to central Government for redistribution. That is very problematic and, although the Prime Minister has said that it is to go out for consultation, I hope that the Bill that is eventually considered by this House will contain a different approach that respects local autonomy.

Martin Salter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, but I want to press him on this matter. Some major strategic decisions have to be made. They may involve airports, or ports, or even the third Thames bridge for the Reading area that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and I have advocated tirelessly. However, it is the devil’s own job to get four or five councils to agree to do anything in a strategic way. Does he accept that sometimes, and for the good of a region, central Government must take the tough decisions?

Simon Hughes: That is exactly what I was arguing. The summary of the Government’s draft legislative programme states that the purpose of the planning reform Bill is to

That is a quango, not a Minister. I am in favour of big schemes being decided by Ministers. Yesterday, for example, the Secretary of State for Transport gave her approval to Thameslink. I do not like some of the implications for my patch, but I can have a go at her, question her and call her to account. We need to have that sort of system for planning.

On local transport, we are concerned that the Government are forcing local councils to run road pricing pilots as a sort of bribe to get the schemes that they want, whereas we believe that a national pricing scheme would be a better way forward. We would also like a national pricing scheme to be introduced for lorries. Other countries operate that system, and it seems to work well.

Moreover, greater powers over bus regulation must have the local accountability for which the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, East called. That is not as huge an issue in London as it is in rural and suburban Britain. Public services may be contracted out to private tenderers, but they must be subject to democracy. For that to work, we need an accountability that really works, rather than leaving everyone involved to say, “Nothing to do with me, guv.”

On work and pensions, there is a proposal for an employment simplification Bill. In parenthesis, I welcome simpler text in legislation and I seriously hope that eventually all Bills will be readable and understandable by the public. As Ministers know, in Committee, I regularly make the plea that Bills be written in a logical order, so that definitions are not followed by the substance; the Bill should start with a statement of what it is about and then amplify it. The issue is serious. If what we do is to be understood, Bills should not be readable only by lawyers who are paid to do the job.


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On employment simplification, there is one grievance that I hope will be addressed. At present, someone with an exemplary record—perhaps for 25 years—can be summarily dismissed after one breach of good conduct, which does not have to be violence or dishonesty. We need to consider restoring a yellow and red card system in employment that does not give such great powers to employers.

I could highlight many of the proposals, but my final selection is the measure on health and social care provision. I welcome the general proposals to integrate the various regulatory and supervisory bodies. My constituency experience, like that of other Members, is that in this rich country we do not yet provide an adequate standard of care for our old and our vulnerable. Too often, the local and national press describe how people are abused and exploited. We need well-qualified staff, effective regulation and effective action when things go wrong, so that there are not repeated occasions when we say, “Oh that was terrible, those people were treated so badly.”

Today, there were statements about counter-terrorism and emergency powers and I shall not repeat our arguments about them. The draft legislation process is a good one and we shall take part in it constructively, but the test of whether it enhances the credibility of the Government and Parliament is whether the Government listen, respond and, to return to my starting point, legislate only when nothing else will do—when the general mood in the House is that legislation is the right way to proceed after showing us the draft, listening to our answers and eventually agreeing the best and shortest text.

9.2 pm

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, welcome the fact that we are having this debate on the Government’s draft programme, not just because it gives Back-Bench MPs and even the tiniest of minority Opposition parties a chance to comment on the Government’s proposals, but also because, as we have heard, it allows the public to be involved in the process. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House will understand from my earlier intervention how keen I am to ensure that consultation takes place in all the nations of the UK.

The announcement of the draft programme is also welcome because it deals with one of the most striking anomalies in our constitution, whereby every year the monarch is made to read a speech that she has not written, and with which she may disagree heartily, and has to pretend that it is her programme, which she is bringing as a surprise to Parliament. We all know that is not the reality, so the announcement of the draft programme makes it clear that political responsibility for the programme lies with the Government, while recognising the monarch’s role as Head of State in the formal ceremony. It is a welcome element of modernisation in our proceedings at Westminster.

I shall speak briefly about four specific aspects of the measures outlined in the draft programme. I hope the Government will take my comments on board. The first issue is housing, on which the draft programme makes a number of legislative proposals, reflecting the commitment made by the new Prime Minister to meet
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housing need, especially for first-time buyers. That is particularly important in many parts of the country, not least in my constituency.

Housing legislation is, as it should be, devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but decisions at UK level can have as important an impact on housing provision in Scotland as in England or Wales. If changes were made to VAT and stamp duty—I have no idea whether that is in anyone’s mind—such matters would certainly be decided at UK level. The Government’s welcome proposals to encourage more long-term fixed-rate mortgages would benefit house buyers in all parts of the UK. Similarly, the proposals to make Government land available for housing also have relevance for Scotland, particularly given the opportunities for the development of Ministry of Defence property.

Mr. Todd: I wonder whether my hon. Friend noted in the smaller print a reference to dealing with Travellers’ housing needs. I hope that any such Bill will attempt to provide greater certainty both in the planning of appropriate sites for Travellers to occupy and to develop for their own housing purposes, and in greater guidance on the role of local authorities in providing accommodation and sites for them in the future. Certainty has been lost through past legislative decisions made by the Conservative party.

Mark Lazarowicz: I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will have heard what my hon. Friend has just said and will take on board his helpful comments.

The Government have announced proposals that will have beneficial consequences for housing provision in Scotland, as well as in the rest of the UK. There are other ways in which the UK Government can help my constituents and people elsewhere in Scotland to get on to the housing ladder, not least by using the influence that the Government have with the big banks and financial institutions to find funds at favourable rates to build new houses for first-time buyers and affordable housing. A lot can by done by the financial institutions themselves—for example, by promoting shared equity, which can certainly be encouraged in Scotland, as much as elsewhere in the UK, by the Government’s actions.

I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity when she replies to the debate to make it clear that the Government’s decision, and the Prime Minister’s announcement, that they will make housing a top priority applies to the whole UK, not just to England and Wales. I want the Government and the Scottish Executive to work together constructively to ensure that housing is a priority throughout all the nations of the UK.

I hope that the Scottish Executive will make as radical a commitment to affordable housing in areas such as mine in Edinburgh as the UK Government have made for England. I also hope that the Scottish Executive will take advantage of the new measures announced by the UK Government, to which I have just referred, to ensure that my constituents can benefit from the same type of ambitious programme that I am pleased to say the Government have announced for the rest of the UK.


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