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25 July 2007 : Column 993

All the matters that I have mentioned are potentially valuable, on an industrial scale, to more than half the population of this country. I reserve judgment on the last item, because I do not know whether the employment simplification Bill will work as the Government intend, and as I hope that it would operate. If they take account of the sort of points that I am making, I hope that the measure will command support from all parties, because it would make a great difference to the lives of many highly vulnerable people in this country.

The three issues are important and I hope that they will be tackled to the benefit of the country.

9.38 pm

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). He is always eloquent and I concurred with much of what he said, especially about reproductive health.

It is a great privilege to speak in the debate. We are considering a welcome and positive process. I agree with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that it has the potential to be excellent and I hope that I can use it today, and in years to come, on behalf of my constituents.

I want to talk about three things. The first is the housing and regeneration Bill, about which I am especially excited because the pressure on housing in London is extreme and my borough is no exception. In Newham, housing benefit spending is currently £245 million a year. Nearly one third—£67 million—is spent on keeping homeless people in temporary accommodation. It will be a measure of our success when that is reduced through the provision of affordable housing.

The expansion of affordable housing will provide an opportunity for my local council—a good local council—to ensure that much-needed social homes are built. I further welcome the commitment to increase the provision of affordable housing in east London and the UK as a whole, to ensure that young people who are not fortunate enough to inherit property can afford to buy their first home. There are so many young people in my constituency who see homes priced out of their reach and for whom the opportunity to buy is a vague dream for some time in the future. I hope that adequate levels of social housing will also dampen down the inflationary tendencies that have, I fear, made London the European capital for housing inequality.

I remind the House that the waiting time in my area for a four-bedroom property is more than 13 years. There are families on waiting lists who will never receive that home, because they will have grown and family members will have flown before it becomes a possibility. Let us not misunderstand what that means to those families. They are often shunted from home to home, as the lease finishes. That means that they do not have the stability that comes from making a community where they live, and that the children might have to move schools or travel large distances, with long journey times, to get to school. That does not make for a community.

Moving home is also an expensive business, as many of us in the House know. When people are poor and in temporary accommodation, often paying their rent out
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of their wages, which do not meet those needs, the moving costs on top of that add costs, problems and stresses to families already under pressure. The waiting list in my community in 2006 was 29,574, which is equivalent to the entire population of San Marino—I thank my researchers for that one.

There is also something to be said for not putting all our faith in supply. I would certainly welcome measures, which might be under consideration, to cool the overheated buy-to-let market, which has helped both to ratchet up the cost of temporary accommodation, at such an extreme cost to the Exchequer, and to decrease the affordability of housing for ordinary working families, above all in the capital. That is without mentioning the concurrent social difficulties experienced through unsuitably located households in multiple occupancy. I come from an Olympic borough, where we now have a population of migrant workers, who often live in small homes, with many to a room. That is causing stresses in local communities, as buy-to-let properties are inhabited in such a highly multiple-occupancy fashion—if that makes sense and is good English.

I have lost count of the number of complaints from constituents about absentee landlords, which stems from the huge increase in buy-to-let properties in Newham over the past decade. The high cost of rents in the private rented sector and the resulting overcrowding of properties by tenants often compounds those problems. More importantly, in the long term it might prove difficult to maintain West Ham’s strong sense of community cohesion, of which I am immensely proud. Although I accept that the private rented sector provides much-needed flexibility and choice for those who cannot purchase a home or do not wish to, I would welcome moves to ensure that our dream of building mixed sustainable communities is not hampered by the sheer extent of buy-to-let properties in particular areas.

With a significant prospect of housing gain as a consequence of the Olympics, my constituents need rock-solid assurances that our expectation of more affordable housing as a result of the regeneration of the Olympic boroughs meets the needs of the families currently on the waiting list. There is a real fear that the properties that will be built in Stratford and along the regeneration belt in the Lea valley will be one and two-bedroom properties, which will not meet the needs of our growing families, particularly those who have been waiting on the housing list for more than 13 years for a four-bedroom property in the area.

A second theme of great importance for the people in my local community relates to the proposed counter-terrorism Bill, which includes a number of new proposals aimed at tackling the continuing threat from criminals bent on causing indiscriminate damage and death. When we strive to engage our communities in tackling this threat, however, it is vital that a meaningful consultation be undertaken in all our communities on proposals such as stop and question, and the extension of the limit of detention without charge, to ensure that alienation and disillusionment are not the unintended result of such moves.

The wonderfully diverse communities of West Ham want to work together to defeat this threat and to contribute constructively towards its defeat. They will therefore strongly welcome the consultation on the new security and anti-terrorism measures, and it is my
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genuine belief that, through honest and open consultation on the legislation, we can help to avoid community isolation and alienation and build stronger cohesive communities in the UK. I am sure that the many diverse communities in my constituency will be keen to play as constructive a role as possible in this important debate, and I welcome the Government’s decision to give them the opportunity to do so.

My third theme, like the others, seeks to strengthen the sustainability of the communities in my constituency. The Green Paper, “In work, better off: next steps to full employment”, has already appeared and attracted some comment. I applaud the commitment to encourage long-term benefit claimants to sustain and make progress in employment, particularly through strengthening the skills base of people who have not worked for some time. Despite recent falls in the probability of leaving work, lone parents are still almost twice as likely as non-lone parents to leave their jobs. One in five lone parents who leave income support return to it within six months, and more than a quarter do so within a year. One third do so within two years, and almost two fifths within three years.

I fear that one of the reasons for that is that, when women are encouraged to go into work, the costs that they will face—including travel and child care costs—along with the reduction in their benefits are not properly assessed before they make the move. I have conducted a focus group—for want of a better term—with local communities on these issues, and it has become clear that, when women leave employment in those circumstances, they feel demoralised because they have not been able to sustain a job. That is bad enough, but they also leave with heavy debts. They have often been forced out of employment because they could no longer afford to work and to live. That is particularly an issue in London, where it is related to the housing and child care costs. We need to ensure that such women receive the very best assistance before they take the step of leaving benefit in order to obtain work.

Lisa Harker’s report into child poverty at the end of last year projected that, if the rate of job exits among lone parents was reduced to that of non-lone parents, the Government’s target of 70 per cent. employment could be met without any increase in the number of lone parents entering work. While skills and support are vital, messages from the Government also play an important part. Once additional skills have been achieved, with real effort and at some personal cost, the pay rise can be gained and the lone parent is ready to enjoy the fruits of their hard work. However, for some of those women, the loss of help with child care costs, rent and tax credits can mean that they face what I would call a marginal tax rate as high as 96 per cent.

At the centre of the marginal tax rate is housing benefit. I am bombarded with evidence about how it combines with other sources of income to create a poverty trap for those already in low-paid work. At the centre of that is a 65p in the pound withdrawal rate of housing benefit as income increases. As the Hills report stated, a couple with two children paying a typical private rent of £120 a week—frankly, if £120 a week was the price people were paying for their rent in West Ham, they would think that all their Christmases had
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come at once, but let us stay with the Hills report—would, as a result of reduced benefit and tax credits and a higher rate of national insurance, gain only £23 if their earnings rose from £100 to £400. For those in temporary accommodation with high rents paid through housing benefit—in my constituency, two-bedroom flats can go for more than £1,000 a month—those effects extend to even higher levels. If we are to make serious progress with making aspiration pay in the UK, I believe that the housing benefit regime merits further and urgent investigation.

Let me reiterate, as I draw to my conclusion, that this legislative programme is ambitious and forward looking. It proposes measures to tackle the most pressing issues facing Britain as a society, as an economy and as a nation. Such measures can only be improved by this inaugural opportunity to debate the draft legislative programme in advance.

9.51 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) said that it was a privilege to speak in such a debate. She is, of course, right, but it is not a privilege of which many Members have wanted to avail themselves. It is an innovation and I welcome the opportunity to influence the Government’s entire legislative programme. Clearly, though, that has not attracted an enormous number of Members to the House. That might be to do with the hour—it is 9.52—and we are also on the very cusp of the recess. I suspect, however, that it is more than that. I suspect rather that the Government have a credibility gap as wide as the Clyde. I do not think that hon. Members truly believe that by turning up at this debate they can influence the legislative programme.

If the massed ranks of the Scottish Liberal Democrats really felt that they could influence the Government’s programme—if they thought they had the potential to influence all the things that they bang on about week after week in the local papers—they would have been here all evening, rather than turning up a mere four minutes ago— [Interruption.] Yes, and on his own!

Mark Lazarowicz rose—

Mr. Salmond: Let me develop my points for a few seconds before I give way to my old university friend from Edinburgh.

I was saying that if Members thought that they could influence the Government’s legislative programme, they would be crammed into these Benches. The fact that that has not happened suggests to me that, as yet, the Government have not persuaded people that this innovation is meaningful in respect of influencing the Government programme. This debate compares very poorly with a debate on the Gracious Speech, for example, which we would expect to be conducted at a sensible time. Perhaps the Government would like to follow the innovation of the Scottish Parliament and time such a debate, if they truly believe that it is important, at a sensible hour. The Government are going to have to do a great deal more if they are to convince Members that this process is meaningful, as opposed to some early window dressing on the part of the new Administration.

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Mark Lazarowicz: The right hon. Gentleman’s comments about the numbers here today would be slightly more impressive if he had more than one of his own colleagues in their place for this debate. Leaving that aside, I am disappointed at the cynical manner in which he has started his speech. This is a new procedure. We would all accept that it has to develop and improve in the future, but I hope that, after such a cynical start, the right hon. Gentleman will see the benefits of this process of consultation and join all of us in a spirit of co-operation across Parliaments to ensure that as many people as possible participate and get involved in the Government’s programme. We would all like to see that.

Mr. Salmond: I welcome the innovation, but to note the poor attendance at the debate is no more than a fact. There is 33 per cent. of the Scottish National party’s representation in the Chamber this evening. If there were 33 per cent. of the hon. Gentleman’s party’s representation, they would be flooding across the Benches. If there were 33 per cent. of the Scottish Liberal party’s representation, it would have at least another one or perhaps two. Statistics are useful when we all know—and each one of us does know—that if Members of this House thought that this was an important constitutional innovation, they would be here to influence the Government.

John Bercow: Given that the right hon. Gentleman is legendarily provocative and a noted crowd-puller, does he think that if hon. Members had been aware in advance that he was intending to seek to catch the eye of the Chair, the attendance would have been dramatically greater?

Mr. Salmond: Unfortunately, it is down to timing. If only the hon. Gentleman had not been called before me then perhaps more Members might have flooded into the Chamber to hear this climax of the debate. To be called provocative by him is one of the great phrases that makes me miss this place. It is the pot calling the kettle black, and it is extraordinary to hear it from the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have such enormous affection.

The Government say that the constitutional reform Bill will be a centrepiece of their legislative programme. It will not surprise the Minister to learn that I want to devote a few remarks to that Bill and the Green Paper, and to say how it could be substantially improved. Last week, I was sitting at the British-Irish Council. Some 20 people were around the table representing two sovereign Governments, three devolved Assemblies and Parliaments, and three island groups. Out of those 20, two were members of the Labour party—the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. There were no members of the Conservative party, although the Secretary of State used to be one of those. There were also no members of the Liberal Democrats. That was the result of a self-denying ordinance, as it were, because, uniquely, the Liberal Democrats have turned down Administration in three Parliaments in the space of the past two months. They turned down the chance of sharing government and sharing power in Scotland. They then turned down the chance of sharing power in Wales, and I understand—at least I read in the papers—that they turned down a role in Government in this place as well.
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That has resulted in the unique phenomenon of a political party denying itself a role in the British-Irish Council.

None the less, the point remains that out of 20 people representing the various Governments around these islands, only two were members of the governing party in this place; none were members of the Conservative party, and none were members of the Liberal Democrats—in other words, the three parties that dominate this Chamber are in a tiny minority in terms of the configuration of the political geography that has arrived around these islands. [Interruption.] I know that it is difficult for some hon. Members in this place to understand, but there have been changes in government: in Northern Ireland, where a Government have come into being; in Scotland, where simultaneously I am in government and in opposition, which is an interesting process; and in Wales, where there has been a fundamental change in the configuration of the Government. That is a huge change in the political geography of these islands, and I saw nothing in the Government’s Green Paper which persuaded me that they have caught up with that reality.

For example, way back in 1999 it was envisaged that there would be an organisation of joint ministerial committees to enable the Westminster Government, Ministers and Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and, hopefully, the Assembly in Northern Ireland to engage in dialogue on issues of mutual concern. Those joint ministerial committees, certainly in plenary session, have not met since 2002. In terms of the sub-committees, which are part of that process, only one strand of four sub-committees has met over the past five years, and that is the sub-committee on Europe. An arrangement that was brought into being—presumably, I suppose, because it envisaged a situation in which the same party would not be in government in Westminster as was in government in Scotland or Wales—has fallen into total disrepair. It is important that that instrument, or something like it, be brought back into being very quickly. It is disappointing that the Government Green Paper does not address the nature and evolution of the constitutional changes that have already happened and the mechanisms to cope with them.

Other matters, too, are not addressed in the Green Paper. There is no mention of the British-Irish Council and its potential development. There is no mention of the Act of Settlement, despite the Green Paper’s explicit desire to break down barriers to inclusion within “British society”. There is no mention of the repeal of that Act, which has institutionalised discrimination against many sections of our current society—incidentally, the Scottish Parliament on one occasion unanimously suggested that that Act should be consigned to the dustbin of history. The Green Paper is also almost silent on the West Lothian question and the disquiet felt by many English MPs and a considerable number of people in England at the absence of a forum in which to address specifically English matters and legislation. I do not think that that will be adequately coped with by a system of regional Select Committees. As I have said, there is nothing on the practical mechanisms for improving the functioning of devolved arrangements. It appears that the UK Government want a new relationship between Government and citizen, but one that that does not extend to examining the relationships between central and devolved Government.

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There is a huge constitutional conservatism in the Green Paper. Let me illustrate that by quoting a few phrases. It is stated in paragraph 122:

The principle that

is also restated.

Yet only recently a quite different view was held by many concerned people in Scotland. A statement of 30 March 1989 declares:

That was signed by every Labour MP with one exception: Tam Dalyell. It was signed by the current Prime Minister. Since then, there has almost been a retrenchment into a constitutional conservatism with the window-dressing of change.

Regardless of where Members stand on the future of the constitution, it is absurd that the UK Government wish to have a “national conversation” when they alone are seen as having total and complete certainty that the current constitutional position is the right one, maintained as

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