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20 May 2008 : Column 143

House of Commons

Tuesday 20 May 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Smoke Alarms

1. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What her estimate is of the percentage of residential dwellings fitted with at least one smoke alarm in (a) Kettering, (b) Northamptonshire and (c) England. [206421]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): Ownership of smoke alarms in England now stands at 80 per cent. of households and we are seeking to raise it further as those without alarms are often in those groups who are most at risk from fire.

Information on smoke alarm ownership in Kettering and Northamptonshire is not held centrally. However, 82 per cent. of households in the east midlands region own one or more smoke alarms.

Mr. Hollobone: Last year, in Northamptonshire there were fires in 463 homes, 247 of which did not have smoke alarms fitted. Will the Under-Secretary congratulate the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, which has launched a campaign to get smoke alarms fitted in residential homes, and ensure that those that are fitted work? What steps are the Government undertaking to spread the message that those who do not have a smoke alarm are twice as likely to die in the event of fire?

Mr. Dhanda: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. He is right that the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph is running a good, strong local campaign. Eighty per cent. of homes have smoke alarms, but people are twice as likely to die in a house fire if they do not have a smoke alarm. In one third of cases, there is no working battery in a smoke alarm, so we are running a high-profile campaign with the actress Julie Walters’s television programme. It is a hard-hitting campaign to ensure that people check their smoke alarms on a weekly basis. We also pump-primed the fire and rescue service with £25 million over four years. That money has been used to ensure that 1.9 million smoke alarms nationally have been fitted and I think that that is making a huge difference across the country.

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Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): I have been delighted to be involved in my hon. Friend’s campaign on smoke alarms. Has he also considered the huge importance of sprinklers? Is he prepared to consider making mandatory the installation of fire sprinklers in residential homes, especially in care homes for the elderly and for children?

Mr. Dhanda: I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for her ongoing campaign for her constituency—we have done some work together on that. We have made it a requirement for all new care homes to have sprinkler systems when there is more than one bed in a location. If there is only a single bed, it is a requirement to have a sprinkler or a system whereby there is a smoke alarm and a door-shutting mechanism so that fire cannot spread. Through building regulations, we have also introduced a requirement for fire sprinklers for buildings of, I believe, over 30 m and for warehouse-style buildings above a certain size and height.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Some alarms can now also detect carbon monoxide, which is responsible for the death of 30 to 40 people every year in this country. There are concerns that many more problems go undiagnosed. Will the Under-Secretary join me in urging the use of devices that can detect not only smoke but carbon monoxide?

Mr. Dhanda: I am happy to do that. I believe that Cleveland in particular has provided a strong local service, and it is part of the statutory duty to go out and ensure that community fire safety work is taking place throughout the country. Cleveland and many other fire and rescue authorities focus on carbon monoxide, whereas others focus on smoke alarms. Other fire rescue services have done completely different things—for example, in one area, chip fat fryers are being replaced with safer versions so that there are fewer kitchen fires. I therefore congratulate the hon. Lady on supporting the carbon monoxide campaign, and I know that fire and rescue authorities up and down the land are taking a closer look at it.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Under-Secretary knows that a good proportion of domestic fires, and the injuries and deaths that go with them, are associated with discarded smoking materials. What steps have the Government taken to pursue the development and sale of reduced ignition propensity cigarettes of the sort that Canada and some states of the United States of America require? They need to be actively smoked, otherwise bars along the length of the cigarettes mean that they go out. Are not they a safety device, and why are we not moving along that path more rapidly?

Mr. Dhanda: We are working with our partners in the European Union on cigarettes that are less liable to cause house fires, through my chief fire adviser, Sir Ken Knight, who has been actively engaged on the issue. I am sure that my hon. Friend will see some of that work come to fruition in the coming months, as we work with our partners on guidance to help change the system, both here and across the continent.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Does the Minister agree that one of the most effective ways of increasing the percentage of domestic dwellings fitted
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with fire alarms in England is through the work that the fire services do in providing people with free advice on the use and installation of fire alarms? In that respect, will he join me in praising Essex fire service for the tremendous work that it does by increasing awareness of safety and installing free fire alarms in domestic dwellings?

Mr. Dhanda: I am very happy to congratulate Essex fire and rescue service on the work that it is doing. Such work is being done throughout the land. As I have said, 1.9 million smoke alarms have been fitted through the £25 million that my Department has provided between 2004 and 2008. Some 1.5 million home fire risk checks have been performed by fire and rescue services throughout the country. Fire and rescue services are finding that ensuring that people are alerted to fire risks in the first place not only is effective in saving lives—we now have the lowest number of fire deaths since 1959—but results in savings, because it means that fire appliances and crews are called out less and less often to put out fires.

Overcrowded Accommodation

2. Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the capacity of the private rented sector to contribute to a reduction in the number of families in overcrowded accommodation. [206422]

The Minister for Housing (Caroline Flint): Working with local authorities has shown that providing access to larger properties in the private rented sector can be a positive solution to the problem of overcrowding in some circumstances. We will shortly be publishing good practice guidance on the Department’s website demonstrating the practical solutions that local authorities can take—and which some are taking—to address the problem of overcrowding.

Ms Taylor: I am very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend’s response. Will she outline the review of the private rented sector that Julie Rugg is undertaking and will she also tell the House when we will receive information on how she sees larger houses being utilised to manage overcrowding?

Caroline Flint: The review of the private rented sector that Julie Rugg is undertaking will report in October and is focusing on four key themes: how to create an accessible private rented sector; security of tenure for tenants; the provision of safe and decent homes; and improving landlord-tenant relations. Over the past few months, I have had a number of conversations with colleagues in the House, local authority leaders and others about the question of whether, if it comes up to standard, the private rented sector could be part of a family of providers, as well as about tackling houses in multiple occupation and overcrowding. I hope that that will all feed into the housing reform Green Paper that the Prime Minister announced will be forthcoming at the end of this year.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Has it dawned on the Minister that the move to pay housing benefit directly to tenants rather than to
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landlords for new tenancies will result in an increase in evictions and a reluctance among private landlords to let their houses to people on benefit?

Caroline Flint: With due respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is a somewhat patronising attitude towards tenants. I understand that the driver for the change was about ensuring that those renting in the private sector who have traditionally been in receipt of housing benefit can take more responsibility for finding their housing and assume more financial responsibility, too. The change is about developing a more independent approach, rather than a dependent approach. I also understand—I am sure that colleagues from the Department for Work and Pensions will be happy to provide him with information on this—that safeguards are in place, particularly for vulnerable tenants, to ensure that rents are paid and, where appropriate, that adequate and suitable support is given either by Jobcentre Plus or by local authorities, or by charitable organisations working with particular groups of vulnerable people.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Milton Keynes council is using the private rented sector to try to provide more suitable accommodation for many of the people on its waiting list and those in overcrowded accommodation. However, does the Minister accept that a major disincentive for council tenants to move to the private sector is the security—or rather, the insecurity—of tenure in the private sector? Will she ensure that the review considers that issue seriously?

Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I have outlined, security of tenure is one of the issues that Julie Rugg and her colleagues are addressing. For people to feel safe and comfortable about alternative options, particularly where children are involved, they want to be assured that if accommodation is provided in the private rented sector, they can make the appropriate arrangements for schools, doctors and, I hope, employment, too. I hope that my hon. Friend and colleagues on both sides of the House will engage and make their views known to Julie in her review.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the private sector can take advantage of the housing market because people cannot afford to buy their own properties, which is driving up rents in the private sector? Has the time not come for more investment in the public sector, because it is the people in that sector who can really deal with the housing problem? Can we make more houses available through the public sector?

Caroline Flint: It is absolutely the case, as my hon. Friend has outlined, that although we seek to engage with positive landlords in the private rented sector and to tackle landlords’ bad practices, the issue is also about building more affordable homes for low-cost ownership and, importantly, for rent. That is why we are investing more than £8 billion in the next few years. We want to increase the number of homes being built and those that are available for social rent. As I have said to colleagues across the House, MPs play an important role in making sure that local authority bids for growth points or housing supply targets are
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underpinned by an understanding of the housing needs of those communities and the priority that should be given to those who need homes for social rent. As MPs, we can play an important role in ensuring that what is talked about locally is delivered on the ground.

Council Tax

3. Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): If she will consider the merits of abolishing council tax. [206423]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): The Government have no plans to abolish council tax. We agree with Sir Michael Lyons, who concluded in his independent report on the future of local government that council tax is basically sound and should be retained.

Martin Horwood: Sir Michael Lyons also said, at paragraph 7.239:

Given that the council tax is being used in Gloucestershire even to top up flood-relief spending, and that the poorest households still pay 7 per cent. of their income in council tax, compared with just 2 per cent. for the richest, is not it time to perform another tax U-turn for the lowest paid?

Hazel Blears: Sir Michael Lyons also looked, very properly in my view, at the implications of moving either to full or local income tax. If we went to full income tax, there would be a rise of 7.7p in the pound, and if we went to a local income tax that covered only half of council tax, that would add 4p to the basic rate of income tax. I do not think that families want to pay such amounts.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that if a local income tax were levied instead of council tax, practically it could only be levied nationally and assigned locally? That would make the word “local” in local income tax rather redundant.

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend expresses himself with great knowledge, as usual. He is a bit of an expert on these matters. I understand that if we were to have a local income tax, not only would it have to be administered nationally, but the cost for business would be absolutely enormous. The latest estimate is that the administrative costs would be £100 million, particularly affecting small businesses.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I do not know whether there is a discount for council tax payers in England for senior citizens aged over 70 who live alone, but if not, will the Minister consider introducing a scheme similar to the one introduced in Northern Ireland by my colleague the Finance Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson)? Such a scheme would be very productive in targeting senior citizens who live alone and who are at the lower end of the income scale.

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Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a general discount of 25 per cent. for people who live alone. Clearly, local authorities have discretion regarding other adjustments that they would like to make. A number of local authorities have given discounts to particular sections of the community, so that option is open to local authorities.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I welcome the Government’s commitment to keeping a property-based council tax at the heart of local government finance, but does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that local councils should be able to raise finance from a range of sources other than a property-based council tax? Does she agree that it is particularly important that a higher proportion of their revenue is raised locally if they are to be accountable to the local electorate?

Hazel Blears: Yes, it was Sir Michael Lyons who said that the property-based tax was an important element in the accountability of local authorities to the people that they serve. It is clearly important that local authorities have some flexibility, and we have recently decided that we will give them the ability to raise supplementary business rates in their area, subject to a whole range of safeguards to ensure that they do not impose a burden on business. There are already business improvement districts, in which local people get a vote on raising more money so that they can do the things that really matter to their local communities. It is important that we do not enter into the debate on a local income tax lightly, because such a tax would involve a massive shift from older people to hard-working families. I know that the Liberal Democrats choose to talk about a local income tax as though there would be no losers; actually, there would be many thousands of losers, mainly from hard-working families.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that, although I might agree with her that a local income tax is the wrong answer, a real problem has none the less been created by her Government as a result of the plethora of unfunded burdens, regulations, inspection regimes, red tape and ring-fenced funding that reduces the scope of local authorities to make local decisions for local people? Against that background, does she regard it as a considerable achievement that one third of the increase in the basic state pension is now eaten up by the increase in council tax?

Hazel Blears: Much as I like the hon. Gentleman—[Hon. Members: “Surely some mistake!”] It is only because I can look him in the eye. Much as I like him, I am afraid that he is significantly out of date, and I urge him to catch up. In the past 12 months, we have slashed the number of targets for local authorities from 1,200 to under 200. We have also un-ring-fenced £5 billion of resources for local authorities and their partners to spend on the things that really matter to local people. There is now a slimmed-down regime for local government, because I am determined that local authorities should be able to respond to the things that people think are important. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me on that.

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Household Rubbish (Charges)

5. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the relationship between charges for the collection of household rubbish and council tax. [206425]

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): Our Department is working closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on policies to reduce household waste, including possible waste incentive schemes.

Mr. Evennett: I thank the Minister for his response. Will not the Government’s plans for bin taxes simply harm the local environment by causing a surge in fly-tipping and backyard burning, as well as increasing bills for families? Is he aware that in the Republic of Ireland, which already has bin taxes, one in 10 people burn rubbish in their backyard? Surely the Government should be working with councils to extend recycling opportunities.

John Healey: Of course, we are doing just that—extending recycling opportunities. The performance of local authorities in recent years—including the hon. Gentleman’s own, to which I pay tribute—has been extremely good. I recognise that fly-tipping is a concern, and we have made it clear that any pilots that go ahead would have to be in authorities that could show that they already had a good fly-tipping programme in place, as well as good recycling programmes. I think that we can reduce the risk, but this is clearly one of the things that we can test through pilot schemes, once we get them up and running next year.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): In his discussions with his ministerial colleagues on how we manage household waste, will the Minister look at what is already happening in continental Europe, where biodegradable waste is being put back into the waste stream in order to deliver heat and electricity from biogas on a scale that the UK is barely even paddling in? When residents can be the beneficiaries of sustainable energy systems from their own waste, we see a profound change in the culture. Will the Minister explore that process for the UK as well?

John Healey: My hon. Friend is right, and he knows a great deal about these things, including what goes on in many parts of the continent. My Department and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are encouraging local authorities to look widely into the kinds of investments and methods that are used—including on the continent—to make the best use of waste as well as to encourage recycling. Part of the provision that we shall put in place over the next three years will double the amount of private finance initiative cover to allow investment in a range of different techniques to go ahead.

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