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David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman is right to this extent: there must be a proper and transparent process. People need to see the criteria against which decisions on individual post offices will be made. We are not adopting a purely commercial stance on this issue; if we were, the Post Office would be decimated not only in Scotland but throughout the UK. Instead, we are capping a maximum number of closures, and we are continuing with sustained investment. I must also say that this transparent, open and sustained programme of post office closures stands in stark contrast to the 3,500 post office closures when the hon. Gentlemans party was in power, when there was no proper management, no proper investment, no proper strategy and no proper help and support for the communities left bereft.
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Des Browne): The Scottish measurement of poverty unfortunately does not provide numbers for households in each local authority. In Scotland, however, the number of children living in relative poverty, after housing costs, has fallen from 330,000 in 1998-99 to 250,000 in 2005-06a drop of 80,000.
Mr. Marshall: As a regular visitor to my constituency, does my right hon. Friend agree that the statistics should be measured by local authority area? Is he aware that almost 33,000 grants for clothes and shoes for schoolchildren were made to needy families in Glasgow last year? That is an unacceptably high figure in this day and age. Will he therefore agree as a matter of urgency to meet the leaders of Glasgow city council and the Scottish Executive to discuss what additional resources can be made available to lift many more Glasgow children out of poverty and to give them a better chance of a decent life in future?
Des Browne: As my hon. Friend points out, I have occasion to be in his constituency the odd time, and I also pass through it. I commend him on his campaigning work for decades against poverty among his constituents. I have over the past 10 years witnessed a transformation of his constituency. Housing has been generated in greater numbers than I have ever seen before in a lifetime of being in and around it. I can also think of at least two shopping centres that have been developed, and a significant number of employment opportunities have recently been developing there. However, my hon. Friend is right to point out that, despite all that improvement and all the support from this Government to help people out of poverty through a number of measures, there is still a hard core of poverty in his constituency. That is a result of decades of neglect, principally by the Conservatives.
I will be perfectly content to meet the leadership of Glasgow city councilI have done so on a number of occasions since I took up this postand others, to ensure that resources and initiatives are appropriately directed into Glasgow, because it deserves the opportunity to continue to improve as it has done over the past decade.
The Minister of State, Scotland Office (David Cairns): The Scotland Office does not have a remit for developing international trade, but I am happy to report that UK Government spending on Malawi amounts to some £70 million. For the sake of completeness, I should add that the Scottish Executives contribution to international development in Malawi is £3 million.
Mark Pritchard: Notwithstanding Scotlands close links to Malawi dating back to Dr. Livingstone, does the Minister share my concern that when the new chief of Blantyrealso known as the British high commissionerwas in charge of Scotland, albeit briefly, he set up a Scottish international aid charity and that that charity might be competing with, rather than complementing, the excellent and important work of the Department for International Development, which is, of course, a reserved matter?
David Cairns: If that were the case there would be a concern, but there is not a concern because DFID officials are working closely with Scottish Executive officials on that. I should point out that some 560 DFID officials work in East Kilbride, where a large part of the Department is based, and that extends Scotlands contribution to international aid and development. When I saw that this question had been tabled, I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would congratulate the Government on an 11 per cent. increase in international aid, reversing years of decline and cuts to the international aid budget under the last Tory Government, so that we are now well on the way to meeting our international obligations.
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Des Browne): The employment level in Scotland stands at 2.54 million, with the rate of employment at 76.7 per cent. The current employment level and rate are both at near historic levels.
Ms Clark: The Secretary of State is well aware of the huge improvement in employment throughout Scotland, but particularly in my constituency, since 1997. Indeed, 25 per cent. more people are now in work than in 1997. However, unemployment and low pay remain major problems in many parts of Scotland, particularly Ayrshire. What does the Secretary of State believe can further be done to improve employment levels, so that we reach full employmentour manifesto commitmentin Scotland?
Des Browne: As a fellow Ayrshire MP, I am well aware of the challenges that the economy of Ayrshire faces in sustaining and increasing employment. Given the systemic difficulties that Ayrshire has faced over a long period, the level of improvement over the past decade is nothing short of miraculous. However, none of us are entitled to rest on our laurels, and we will not achieve our objective of full employment, whatever that measure might beagainst the accepted standards of a few decades ago, we are well past the benchmark that was set for any Government by economistsunless we sustain and maintain a stable economy, as we have been able to do, and unless we address the issues of skills, resources and economic development, with the co-operation and help, of course, of the Scottish Executive, who have the major responsibility in that regard. I have absolutely no doubt that, if we do more of what we have been doing in making work pay and encouraging people into work, we will achieve the objective that my hon. Friend and I share.
The Minister for Housing (Yvette Cooper): Home information packs are proving to be fast to produce, and are providing the market with important early information. They have already proved a trigger to cuts in search costs. Estate agents have encouraged people to market early, in advance of HIPs, with predictable short-term impacts on the timing of listings. However, the overall market is currently affected by wider factors, such as attitudes to interest rates and uncertainty in the financial markets.
Mr. Mackay: Does the Minister not see that home information packs have harmed the housing market, and does she not realise that inspectors, whom she promised would earn up to £70,000 a year, will be lucky if they take home £10,000 this year? Are we not right to say that, when we return to office, we will scrap this ridiculous scheme?
Yvette Cooper: No, the right hon. Gentleman is not right. HIPs are already having an impact on search costs, for example. More than 80 local authorities have cut the cost of searches as a result of HIPs introduction, some by more than £100. The right hon. Gentleman should admit to energy assessors and home inspectors across the country that his partys policy would put them all out of work, because he would abolish energy certificates altogether.
Mr. Vara: Research carried out by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has found a direct link between the introduction of home information packs and the reduction in new instructions by a staggering 37 per cent. Is this the Ministers idea of bringing about stability in the housing market?
Yvette Cooper: Shock news! The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors opposes home information packs! It has been opposing HIPs and trying to block the introduction of energy certificates for a long time. It even introduced a court case to try to block them, which is tragic, because energy certificates are hugely important and provide vital information for people across the market. We know that new listings have been falling across the market since Junelong before HIPs were introducedand that there are other factors. For example and as most commentators would point out, buyers decisions are perhaps currently the most significant factor in the market.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I do not know whether my right hon. Friend has had a chance to see this afternoons Evening Standard, which contains an article stating that Conservative Front Benchers have written to the Departments permanent secretary giving
formal notice that
project faces cancellation under the Tories.
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend can rest assured that the permanent secretary will be able to keep that letter in a drawer for a very long time indeed. Opposition Members should consider that, by opposing EPCs, they are opposing a measure about which Friends of the Earth has said that
without them, there is absolutely no hope of making significant progress on low-carbon homes and tackling climate change.
EPCs are about providing important information to help consumers cut fuel bills and carbon emissions. They are something that we should support, not oppose in the way that Opposition Members are trying to do.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Contrary to the vision of housing Armageddon that the Opposition predicted when HIPs were introduced, does not my right hon. Friend agree that we have seen no discernible impact on new properties coming on to the market? They have been introduced at a third of the cost, and without the lengthy delays caused by the shortage of inspectors predicted by the Opposition. Given the successful implementation of HIPs for three and four-bedroom properties, will my right hon. Friend consider how quickly she can introduce them for one and two-bedroom properties, as that would be a real help for first-time buyers? Will she also give further consideration to bringing in compulsory home condition reports, as they would make HIPs more effective in the future?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes some important points. We are working with a range of stakeholders in the industry, including Which?, about what the next steps should be. For example, we are looking at promoting e-conveyancing as part of our consideration of the wider issues to do with the buying and selling of homes. Back in May, we identified key issues to do with the number of inspectors in place, the impact of HIPs on the market, and how they could be implemented smoothly, and we will take a sensible decision about the timing of the roll-out in the light of those factors.
Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): As yesterdays Hansard shows, the Minister has been forced to admit that a mere 4 per cent. of those who have ordered HIPs have also ordered the optional home condition report. Is it not about time, therefore, that she came to the same conclusion as the public and scrapped HIPs in favour of the simple EPC system that operates in Northern Ireland?
Yvette Cooper: May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that EPCs have not been introduced in Northern Ireland? In fact, the Administration there are learning from our experience and from the measures that we have taken. Moreover, people in Northern Ireland will not benefit from the reduction in search costs already evident across the market here as a result of the introduction of HIPs.
Opposition Members sound a bit like Chicken Licken in their belief that the sky is always falling. They said that HIPs would cost £1,000, take months to produce and increase council tax, but all of that has turned out be barmy nonsense. We need a sensible debate about how we take forward improvements to home buying and selling but, unfortunately, Opposition Members remain incapable of taking part in it.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): May I urge my right hon. Friend to look at what is happening in Denmark? In the UK, and especially in England and Wales, it takes something like 12 weeks to exchange contracts, and a third of transactions fall through. In contrast, the introduction in Denmark of the equivalent of HIPs caused the time for contract exchange to fall to seven days and reduced to almost zero the proportion of contracts falling through.
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right. Denmark was one of the first countries to introduce EPCs and HIPs, with the result that there have been very substantial improvements to the process of buying and selling homes there. We should learn from other countries experiences and recognise the benefits that such reforms can bring to that process.
16. Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): What assessment she has made of the level of satisfaction amongst older sheltered housing residents with floating support under supporting people. 
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): Local communities know their areas best. That is why all decisions about how services are funded and monitored, including on satisfaction, are made at local level. It is central Governments role to provide support and funding, and that is precisely what we are doing. My Department is providing £1.7 billion to local authorities for the supporting people fund this year. That money allows 800,000 older people to live independently, and more older people are getting the help that they need. Between 2006 and 2007, the number of older people getting housing support went up by nearly 20,000.
Hazel Blears: No, I do not accept that. Being able to be flexible in the way that supporting people funds are used means that we can use the money to best effect, so that it is not only people in sheltered housing who can get support but, increasingly, people in their own homes. As I said, we are helping 800,000 older people to live independently. The important thing is that the support is not tied to bricks and mortar; it is about assessing peoples real needs and having the flexibility locally to meet those needs. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wants many more older people to be helped irrespective of their tenure.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): But does my right hon. Friend accept that the process has added a level of complexity to the way in which most sheltered housing schemes work? They are tenanted and rented through local authorities or housing associations and the biggest problem is that the supporting people budget has not been the most stable one. Will she look at it again to ensure that older people have the security that they want and the stability of funding that they should expect?
Hazel Blears: Yes. Stability in funding is important, and I am sure my hon. Friend accepts that the amount of money that has gone into the fund has been very significant in recent years£1.7 billion. The important thing is that local authorities should take into account the views of not just older people but the whole range of vulnerable people helped by the funding to ensure that services are tailored to the needs of those people. Built into the framework there is an absolute emphasis on making sure that the services are suitable for the often complex needs that supporting people funds are designed to meet.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): I am surprised that the Secretary of State sounds so happy. Is it not the case that supporting people budgets have been slashed in recent years, largely because the Government underestimated the cost of provision, leaving councils to pick up the bill? The costs to councils of social care and support of the elderly are soaring, made worse by the NHS cuts that have shunted costs directly on to council bills. The Local Government Association issued a cross-party warning last week that council tax will be above the rate of inflation for the next three years. Does the Secretary of State share that assessment? Does she agree with it or is she still in denial?
Hazel Blears: Far from being in denial, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that in many cases excellent Labour councils are providing more services. I am sure that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) is aware that his council in Manchester is a four-star local authority providing excellent services, with an excellent direction of travel. It is providing services to more older people this year than in the past. I have to tell the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that, unfortunately, Conservative councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham and Suffolk county council have implemented significant cuts in support for older people. The contrast is absolutely obvious.
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