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3 Jun 2008 : Column 197WH—continued

He argued that they will damage both rural and urban environments while increasing road congestion and carbon emission.

Brian Berry, director of external affairs at the Federation of Master Builders, said that

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a point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier)—

My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who may be an old cynic but who has been in the House for 16 years, made an important point in questioning Ministers about the issue of the capital receipt that will accrue to the Treasury from the sale of several Ministry of Defence sites such as Ford, and Middle Quinton in Warwickshire. It is a shame that my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) is not here, as he has made a big contribution to that local debate. I hope that the Minister will answer those questions as he goes along.

We need to focus on infrastructure. It is as well that the Campaign for Better Transport has made a valid contribution to the debate. It considered the situation in its document “Lessons from Cambourne”. Cambourne, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), is described as a proto-eco-town—

Mr. Lansley: It is a village.

Mr. Jackson: Well, it has been described as a proto-eco-town. In fact, owing to the lack of transport infrastructure, car use there is higher than it has ever been: 95 per cent. of households own a car, 56 per cent. own two or more and 81 per cent. of the working population drive to work. That is a powerful lesson. Unless the Government get transport infrastructure right, they are disregarding the whole concept of the eco-town. I hope the Minister will consider that issue.

Dermot Finch, the director of Centre for Cities, supports that view on the lack of infrastructure:

Hugh Bayley: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jackson: I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. I need to make some progress and conclude in order to let the Minister answer.

Openness and transparency are key issues. The CPRE feels strongly about the

That is important: the proposals seem to be outside both local plans and regional spatial strategies. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) made that point in his eloquent remarks during his Adjournment debate on this issue not long ago. Professor David Lock and the Local Government Association made the point that the planning system is being circumvented in order to drive centrally imposed housing targets. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s viewpoint. The proposals have sadly lacked accountability in respect of Parliament. Local accountability
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and transparency have been non-existent and there is a great deal of ignorance about the proposals at all levels. Frankly, an arrogant disdain has been showed towards democratically elected local councillors, residents associations and others.

The Government have failed to make the case for eco-towns coherently, transparently and with the benefit of strong local support. Indeed, they have not commanded the support of Members of the House: early-day motion 920, tabled earlier this year by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), indicated his concern about consultation on eco-towns, and the Minister will know that the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) has objected strongly to proposals in his area. The Government need to think again about eco-towns in order to win the support of local people and the House in their laudable aim of delivering homes for people who need them. They have failed to do so. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, who I hope will address some of the key issues raised by me, my hon. Friends and other hon. Members.

10.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Mr. Martlew. We seem to be permanent fixtures in this Chamber. I have enjoyed today’s debate and the contributions from the Conservative Members lined up in front of me. I now know what it feels like to be before a firing squad, but their contributions were valid and worth while. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing this important debate. I know from seeing her in the Library from dawn till dusk that she works incredibly hard on behalf of her constituents. It is fair to say that she has demonstrated that again today with extremely pertinent questions.

I am disappointed, however, at the point that the hon. Lady made today, and in business questions last Thursday, about how she was disappointed to see me responding to the debate. I shall respond to that important point about the availability for this debate of the Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), and to the one about her conference call mentioned a number of times by hon. Members. The hon. Lady will know that it is entirely within the confines of parliamentary convention for Under-Secretaries to respond to debates in this Chamber, which is entirely fitting—I think that she knows that and was being slightly cheeky in raising that point. However, I am profoundly disappointed that she was disappointed to see me.

The hon. Lady also made a very important point about the conference call, and suggested that it showed a disregard for parliamentary convention. I believe passionately that quite the reverse is the case. My right hon. Friend wrote to all MPs ahead of the announcement on 3 April, on the day of publication, made a written ministerial statement, which fell entirely within the confines of acceptable parliamentary convention, and wrote to hon. Members whose constituencies would be affected by the eco-towns list. The offer of a telephone briefing was made over and above the written ministerial statement, because she believed—rightly, in my opinion—that the availability of hon. Members at Westminster on the last day before recess might be low. She actually moved in
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advance of parliamentary convention, so I do not accept the point made against her that that amounted to a lack of clarity or transparency.

Miss McIntosh: I am never disappointed to see the Minister, whether in the Library or in his customary place responding to debates. However, what is the right hon. Lady frightened of, and why will she not subject herself to parliamentary scrutiny? We all have to do it, whether as a humble Back-Bencher or from the giddy heights of a Cabinet Minister. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said, it is one thing to write a letter, but another thing to present herself to her peers and take questions from them—we are only asking them on behalf of our constituents who feel so strongly about this issue.

Mr. Wright: I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but, on 20 May, my Department answered questions in the House, and I seem to recall that she herself asked a question about flood risk in her area. My right hon. Friend was available to answer questions on eco-towns and other matters, so she is not running away at all; she is available to be scrutinised by Parliament on the Floor of the House at departmental questions. That is obvious to all.

Since I last had the opportunity to speak on this matter, there has been a great deal of activity in the Government’s eco-towns programme. I shall bring to the Chamber’s attention the work going on in this significant area and respond to points raised by the hon. Lady and other hon. Members. Before that, however, it is worth repeating, as other hon. Members have done, what we are trying to achieve by building eco-towns.

Mr. Gibb: The official in charge of the eco-town policy, Henry Cleary, gave evidence last week to Arun district council’s scrutiny committee inquiry. He said that the planning policy statement, to be issued at the end of July, would be “location specific”. Does that not change the nature of planning guidance, which ought to be about general principles, rather than turning them effectively into central Government directives that subvert the locally and democratically based planning process?

Mr. Wright: I would like to draw out of this debate two essential themes: one is the important point about process, which the hon. Lady mentioned quite a lot, and which I shall go on about quite a bit too. The second important point is about location-specific issues, which the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) has raised with me and others on many occasions and in an excellent fashion.

I shall start from the beginning, however, and explain what we are trying to do with eco-towns. As my hon. Friends the Members for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and for Selby (Mr. Grogan) mentioned, eco-towns give us a unique opportunity to tackle in tandem two of the greatest challenges facing the country: to ensure that we provide the homes so sorely needed for the people of this country, and to address climate change and environmental and sustainability issues—two extremely important points. Eco-towns have the potential to deliver vital, affordable housing to tens of thousands of young people and families. We want to build 10 eco-towns
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delivering up to 100,000 new homes, with a significant proportion—between 30 and 50 per cent.—being affordable homes.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: For the record, I am on no circulation list, even though my constituency abuts Middle Quinton. Could I be put on one? I also suggest gently to the Minister what I said to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson): out of this debate the Government should trial one or two eco-towns, learn the lessons about where they are wanted and then roll out the programme. That is what the Chinese are doing at Dontang, just outside Shanghai.

Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I think that we can build in new thinking to our eco-towns policy, as he suggested, on a variety of things, such as health, community empowerment, age-friendly development—as a country, we are all getting older—and cutting resource and carbon use. The eco-towns will, and should, be designed around the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users, so that residents have more flexibility in how they travel, rather than no option other than to drive everywhere.

The hon. Lady mentioned the importance of process, with which I agree wholeheartedly. In April, the Minister for Housing made a statement to the House outlining the process so far. We have received 57 expressions of interest for eco-towns, and have looked at proposals across Government and with other agencies, particularly to assess flood risk—I know that the hon. Lady is very interested in that—and scarcity of natural resources. We have also considered effects on the natural environment, the green spaces that we all have the right to enjoy and the protected landscapes or species that inhabit it, which was a point made by the hon. Member for Peterborough. Crucially—this theme has emerged in today’s debate—we also looked at sustainable transport, which is essential to the new eco-towns. Submissions must clearly demonstrate how they will encourage a reduction in the reliance on the car, and a shift towards other, more sustainable transport options.

In the expressions of interest, we looked for high-quality offers on accessible public transport and developments designed around the needs of pedestrians and cyclists.
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As the Chamber is aware, following that initial scrutiny, we are now conducting a full public consultation on the 15 shortlisted locations, and we will take every opportunity to engage with local authorities and the general public during this time to ensure that all views are heard. The consultation document elicits views on the benefits and principles of eco-towns, and we are asking people to tell us what types of technologies, development standards, housing, green space, travel and wider benefits they would like incorporated, as well as to give us their views on the 15 shortlisted locations. We will feed outcomes into the second round of consultations.

Miss McIntosh: The Minister touched on the sustainability of transport, but has not mentioned where the jobs in such towns will be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) asked, will people have to travel further to work?

Mr. Wright: The hon. Lady raises a very important point. We do not want a mismatch between employment, business activity and homes. With technological advances, there is an ability to work from home and so on, but that is another very important point to be considered.

Hugh Bayley: The hon. Lady ignores the fact that at the moment people travel large distances because of housing shortages. Poor people, who supply the service jobs in York for the rich incoming professionals, often travel from Selby or Goole by car. Additional housing, which we need, might well be closer to where people work.

Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point.

Unfortunately, I do not have time to answer many of the points raised, but I promise to write to hon. Members. Building a new generation of towns is a tough challenge, but one that we must meet if we are to achieve our goal of meeting the demand for housing, which is so sorely needed, while tackling climate change and sustainability issues. We have a real opportunity to do something new and innovative, to create some great places for people to live in and to leave a tremendous legacy. Eco-towns can provide that, but decisions will not be made in some darkened room, but as part of the full planning application process. I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate and for providing an opportunity to give further guidance on the Government’s policy on eco-towns.

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Low Pay (Migrant Workers)

11 am

Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab): I want to start a debate and challenge what I think is a too-cosy consensus among all the political parties about the unchallenged supremacy of market forces. I also want to challenge the dominant idea—again, held across the political stage—that there should be automatic support for the free movement of capital, goods and, in the context of today’s debate, labour. We must also therefore discuss the role of the Government in—some people would say interfering, we would say intervening in—the market. Today, we are talking about the impact of the free movement of labour on people working in this country, but I also want to consider the impact of economic conditions on determining and dictating the situation for migrant workers.

All political parties and leaders applaud the theory of flexible labour markets. I, for one, do not share their enthusiasm, because in the current climate of weak employment regulation, it means low pay and diminished employment rights for both migrant workers and resident workers. I draw the House’s attention to the recently published House of Lords Select Committee report that dealt with the economic impact of immigration. It made it clear that what I would argue to be under-regulated migration has sustained, and is helping to sustain, an economy that, again, I would argue—the facts seem to substantiate this—is increasingly dominated by employment that is low paid, insecure and leaves workers, resident and migrant alike, vulnerable and ill equipped to face the rising costs of living and all the increasing challenges of today’s period of economic turbulence.

The recent TUC report “Hard Work, Hidden Lives” makes it clear that the proposed agency worker developments—the Government’s discussions with the TUC and the CBI—may not make any meaningful difference to the status quo. The Minister will be pleased to know that I shall look at that issue, I hope, in some depth. Perhaps my colleagues will join me.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend will recall the 2004 Warwick agreement. Is he as disappointed as I am about the lack of progress on the Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill, introduced by our hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), which would tackle some of the concerns that he is about to detail to the Chamber this morning? I congratulate him on securing the debate, which is very important indeed.

Colin Burgon: I share my hon. Friend’s reservations about the 12-week period affecting agency workers. I hope that we will discuss it in detail. I hope—perhaps against hope—that the people who negotiated on the side of the trade unions got some real plums out of the agreement. If they did not, it will have to me the faint whiff of a Munich agreement, and we may well regret that instead of pushing for a six-week European directive, we settled on 12 weeks. I hope that other Members will comment on that.

I called for the debate because in Yorkshire and Humber, and particularly in the city of Leeds, where my constituency is located, evidence of low pay and abuse of migrant labour is crystal clear. Yorkshire and Humber
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is the third worst UK region in terms of its percentage of low-paid workers. Something like 26 per cent. of the work force fall into that category. Currently, 24,000 workers in my region are known by central and local government not to be receiving even the minimum wage. That figure does not include the unquantifiable number of temporary and agency workers, many of them migrant workers, employed on varying contracts or on no contracts at all in Leeds. To put the issue in context, despite strong economic growth in Leeds—under a Labour Government, I might add—149,000 people are designated as deprived and wage inequality is really sharp.

I have some facts to buttress that argument. The median gross weekly wage for all employees in Leeds is £367—the highest-paid 10 per cent. receiving £775, the lowest-paid 10 per cent. receiving just £121. The median gross weekly wage for men stands at £429, compared with £290 for women. The highest-earning men in Leeds, leaving out MPs of course, receive £865 weekly, and the lowest, £202. The highest-earning women receive £595 weekly, and the lowest—incredibly—just £84. That disparity increases dramatically when part-time work is measured.

I should like to place on the record some balance: my encouragement and appreciation of the Government both for their recent moves on agency labour, although many of us have reservations about how effective those will be, and, to be fair, for their hard work over the past decade to introduce extra employment rights, such as the national minimum wage, paid holidays, health and safety regulations, statutory maternity and paternity leave and sick pay.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On the measures that the Government have introduced over the past decade, he will also be aware of the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004. Indeed, today the Gangmasters Licensing Authority has clear evidence that the exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers is far deeper than we expected. Even the TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, is now calling for the Act to be extended to other sectors, in particular the construction industry, where migrant workers are being exploited.

Colin Burgon: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and pay tribute to his work. He has played an outstanding role in bringing the issue to the forefront of public debate.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The hon. Gentleman touched a few moments ago on the subject of those people who were being denied the legal protection of the national minimum wage. Would he care to elaborate on that and to tell colleagues what evidence he has of the incidence of straightforward non-payment among migrant workers? Secondly, Mr. Martlew, if I can try my luck, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would care to say something about the phenomenon, highlighted in the TUC report, of what might be called bogus self-employment, and how it impacts in particular on migrant workers and on those for whom English is an additional language.

Colin Burgon: I shall attempt to cover those two points as I develop my argument.

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