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House of Commons

Tuesday 15 January 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [ Lords] (By Order)

Manchester City Council Bill [ Lords] (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 22 January.

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Violent Extremism

1. David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the preventing violent extremism programme; and if she will make a statement. [178383]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): Over the past nine months, through the pathfinder fund, we have supported more than 200 projects in 70 local authorities. During the course of this year we will carry out a formal evaluation of these projects, but so far it is already clear that more women and young people are involved in helping to build stronger and more resilient communities.

David T.C. Davies: The Home Office has estimated that thousands of British Muslims in this country support both the means and the ends of various Islamic terror groups. Can the Minister give a solemn assurance to this House that not one single penny of the money that she has allocated under this scheme has gone to any individual or organisation with any links whatsoever to Islamic terrorism?

Hazel Blears: Let me first make it absolutely clear that the vast, overwhelming majority of Muslims in this country abhor violence, abhor terrorism and do not support the tiny minority of people involved in violent extremism. The work that my Department is funding, and will be funding in a substantially greater way over the next three years, is directed at building the
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resilience and strength of local communities to resist that extremism. We will monitor very carefully indeed the groups to which this money is allocated, and I will certainly ensure that we fund groups who absolutely stand up and condemn terrorism and want to participate in tackling it.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): When I go to the mosques in my constituency, the red carpet is rolled out, so to speak, and I am sure that the same applies to many other hon. Members. What happens there is that I meet imams and elders of the Muslim community, and perhaps that means that we are not engaging enough with younger members of the Muslim community. Does the Minister agree that it is vital that we open a dialogue with young men and young women from the Muslim community in order to ensure the success of the Government’s programme?

Hazel Blears: Yes, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am very grateful to hon. Members in all parts of the House who take this responsibility seriously in their constituencies and are involved in that dialogue. Part of the work of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, which is the national organisation from the community itself that is looking at governance in mosques, concerns how we get more young people and women involved in the mosques; that will take us a considerable way forward.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks? I entirely agree that that is what is happening in Rochdale. Does she agree that a key priority needs to be ensuring that we have more imams who are trained and brought up in Rochdale— [ Interruption ] I mean brought up in Britain; in Rochdale would be even better—and what steps is she taking to assist in that development?

Hazel Blears: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind offer, but I know that there are some extremely good imams in Rochdale. Irfan Chisti works very closely with our Department and makes a great contribution. I agree that we need to have more imams who are trained in this country and who have not only English language skills but community leadership skills. That is why we are funding a programme for imams. In Dudley in the west midlands, 23 imams are currently involved in a leadership development programme that will help them to really engage with Islam in the modern context of living in the 21st century in Britain.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): The preventing violent extremism programme is clearly important, and I have seen some of the good work myself, including the work in Dudley to which the Secretary of State referred. However, she really must clear up the point that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies). In November, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), wrote to me about the programme, saying:

that is, the Department—

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If the Department does not have fully accurate details, how can it be sure that none of the money—not a penny, as my hon. Friend said—is falling into the hands of separatists and extremists?

Hazel Blears: It is important that we monitor very carefully the way in which these funds are being used. At the same time, however, it is essential that local authorities see this as part of their core business and integrate it into their mainstream activities, because local authorities, whether they are in Luton, Leeds or Birmingham, know the situation on the ground and what can work. As the hon. Gentleman knows from our correspondence, we are currently considering all 200 projects. I am ensuring that information about all those projects and the work that is going on will be placed in the Library next week. Monitoring is absolutely essential. We must also allow local authorities to do the things that work in their local neighbourhoods.

London Development Agency/Mayor of London

2. Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): If she will initiate a review of the governance of the London Development Agency and the arrangements for scrutiny of the activities of the Mayor of London's advisers. [178385]

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): The Government have no plans to review the governance of the London Development Agency or the legal basis for the scrutiny of the Mayor’s political advisers.

Mr. Randall: I am rather surprised by that answer. Will the Minister confirm that there is a code of conduct for the Mayor, assembly members and assembly staff, but no code at all for the Mayor’s political advisers? In light of the controversy over the role of Lee Jasper, who pressurised the LDA into giving grants to his pet organisations, will the Minister think about looking again at the legislation relating to this matter?

John Healey: I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman’s surprise. The Greater London authority and the LDA are subject to the same local government finance and audit framework, with the Audit Commission and the district auditor having external inspection and audit powers. He knows that the district auditor has been sent the LDA and GLA internal reviews and will be reviewing whether any further action is necessary.

The Mayor’s advisers report directly to the Mayor. The assembly can hold the Mayor to account for their actions, and it is also able to require their presence at meetings. Indeed, it has done so a number of times in public since 2000.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): The Minister will know that I asked for the police to be brought in to investigate a number of projects in my area, and he will obviously not want to comment on those, but does he accept that there is growing concern about the cosiness of the relationship between the LDA, the GLA, the
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Mayor and the Mayor’s office? That could have led to the sort of problems, to put it mildly, that we have seen—the huge abuse of how money is spent. If it is found that there is a serious link between how the LDA has worked and the money that has been misspent, does he agree that the whole way in which the LDA operates will have to be looked at? We may have to go back to renewing legislation and changing the law.

John Healey: My hon. Friend is right that it would not be right for me to comment on specific allegations, but I do not accept her description of what has gone on. As I have said, the district auditor will be reviewing whether any further action is required as a result of receiving the two internal reviews from the GLA and the LDA.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): May I draw the Minister’s attention to a letter from MPs of all three parties, calling for an urgent investigation by the local district auditor? In their words:

Will he confirm that he will take absolutely no further steps to protect the taxpayer in London and the United Kingdom from the wastefulness and cronyism that characterise the expenditure of the LDA?

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman does not need to tell me because I read the Evening Standard last Friday, as he did. I also read the press release that he put out on that day. It is interesting that he was not on his feet talking about the LDA back in the summer when it delivered the land required for the Olympic park on time—the most complex and largest compulsory purchase order project for the past 20 years. That may have something to do with the elections in May. The fact is that the Mayor we have has been an outstanding leader for London. He has led part of the success of London in recent years, and only today London has won a prestigious international award for the congestion charge—something which the hon. Gentleman opposes.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I hope that the Minister will take time to read the LDA’s report, because the truth is that his washing of his hands is wholly unsatisfactory. Even that report, despite its clear inadequacies, acknowledges the need to review the role of mayoral advisers, based on the limited evidence that resulted in half the instances it investigated being referred to the police. The LDA was criticised in November over some 61 wholly separate grants. It was found that it had not demonstrated that it would get what it expected in return for the funding given, that it had not adequately monitored outcomes, and that it was unable to explain the criteria on which it had based some of its decisions. Government action is needed because the LDA is a serial offender in such matters; it has more form than the Kray brothers.

John Healey: If the hon. Gentleman says that the scrutiny and holding to account of the LDA have been insufficient, he therefore also says that the operation and conduct of the Greater London assembly has fallen far short of what is required. He remains, of course, a member of that assembly.

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Housing (Stoke-on-Trent)

3. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): What recent assessment she has made of the demand for council housing in Stoke-on-Trent. [178386]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): The Department does not make assessments of the demand for council housing. However, we encourage local authorities to assess the housing needs of their area as part of their strategic housing role. Stoke-on-Trent city council is working on such an assessment with neighbouring authorities in the west midlands region’s north housing market area. I understand that it will be published in the spring.

Joan Walley: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. However, in Stoke-on-Trent, the numbers on the council housing waiting list have increased from 2,000 in 2003 to 8,000 today. I welcome the Government’s investment in affordable housing, shared ownership and social housing, but will my hon. Friend reconsider what he can do to help local authorities build new council houses, including through access to the social housing grant?

Mr. Wright: I agree that local authorities have a vital role to play in delivering more social housing. On my hon. Friend’s point about social housing grant, she may be interested to hear that we have changed the process for awarding the grant to make it easier for high-performing councils, through local authority companies or special venture vehicles, to qualify and compete for it. We are also examining the potential to increase the number of new council houses by allowing councils to operate outside the housing revenue account subsidy system. I hope that she will be encouraged by that answer.

Housing Revenue Account Subsidies

4. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Whether she plans to change the system of negative housing revenue account subsidies; and if she will make a statement. [178388]

The Minister for Housing (Yvette Cooper): There is redistribution within the housing revenue account and I believe that that is right. However, reforms are needed to the housing revenue account and we are already piloting some major changes, which will be supported by the Housing and Regeneration Bill, but we are also conducting a wider, long-term review of the housing revenue account.

Tom Brake: I thank the Minister for her reply. She may know that I had a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), during which I highlighted the impact of the housing revenue account on Sutton’s tenants. Thirty-seven per cent. of the rental income there is a negative subsidy. I asked the Under-Secretary a question, which I should now like to repeat to the Minister. Is she willing to freeze those subsidies at the 2007-08 level until her review of HRA is complete so that Sutton’s tenants do not pay a heavy price?

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Yvette Cooper: As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a long tradition of acknowledging that some areas have been better funded in the past than others. Some areas have had their council housing funded through different mechanisms, which has put them at an advantage or a disadvantage, and there is different need in different areas. I believe that it is right that there should be some redistribution in the system.

I do not like the housing revenue account. There is a series of problems with it in enabling councils to manage their assets properly for the long term. However, it is a complex framework and, to reform it, one has to ensure that one is not disadvantaging unfairly other areas and other councils. We have set out the determination for 2008-09, which councils should have received. We will work fast on the housing revenue account review to inform next year’s determination.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I greatly welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments and the review to which she has committed the Department. The housing revenue account is not merely a problem for authorities in negative subsidy. The housing revenue account system is a problem in that an authority can get penalised for building new homes and, if tenants want to opt for improvements, they cannot pay extra rent to cover the cost. There is a fundamental dislocation between the service provided and the rents that are charged. For all those reasons, I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that a fundamental change in the system would benefit landlords and tenants.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right. Part of the problem with the housing revenue account is that one has to wrap one’s head in a wet towel every time one tries to work out the details. Such a complex system is not in the interests of people who run housing revenue accounts throughout the country. A system that better rewarded long-term planning and long-term decision making by local councils would be preferable. The pilots that we have established are already trying to find one way in which to approach reform, but the review will be wider and examine a range of options.

Local Government Funding

5. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What representations she has received on the statistics used for the calculation of grants to local authorities. [178389]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): We have received more than 300 representations on the provisional local government settlement. As we expected, many of those asked us to check the data used or made other statistical points.

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