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8 Dec 2008 : Column 375

The private housing sector has also been subject to failure. No wonder there is so much legitimate concern about repossessions, to which hon. Members have referred. Why is that such a difficulty? Not only is there a lack of supply arising from the Government’s policies, but the explosion of easy credit exacerbated the problem and pumped up the housing market in an unsustainable fashion. Who is responsible for driving that? [ Interruption. ] It is no one on the Conservative Benches, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) well knows, but the Prime Minister, first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and now as Head of Government. Who personally removed the Bank of England’s power to call time on bank lending and who stoked up an unsustainable housing boom? It was the Prime Minister. Now that the consequences are coming home, it is ordinary hard-working families who are having to bear the brunt.

Abandoned ideas litter the Department for Communities and Local Government a bit like the abandoned gun carriages that littered the road from Moscow back to Paris in 1812. There has been a full-scale retreat by the Government on those policy issues.

Rob Marris: “War and Peace”.

Robert Neill: We could probably have read “War and Peace” in this debate.

Hon. Members will remember that there used to be a target to build 3 million homes by 2020. Then it ceased to be a target and became an ambition. What happens to a target that becomes an ambition? It becomes an aspiration. Now I read from the new Minister for Housing that the ambition has become a challenge. What it comes to is this: a target that becomes an ambition, which then becomes an aspiration, which then becomes a challenge, turns out to be a pipe dream and a confidence trick on the British people.

The Government have dropped another target, on eco-towns, to which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) referred. That target, too, is now an ambition and will become an aspiration and then a challenge, so at least the Government are consistent in the methodology and the words that they use. That is a skill that they have acquired at any rate, and we should be grateful for that.

Finally, there is the social homeBuy scheme, which relates to a matter of real concern. People who are struggling to keep their homes are subject to acute pressure, but what did we get to address that? We got a particularly cruel situation. Hopes were raised by a scheme that it was said would assist some 10,000 families over two years, but how many families have in fact been helped? At this time of particular need, 235 families have been helped. That is a shameful and abject failure by the Government in the very years when one would have thought that they would have more to do. Ministers must understand that the failure of the social homeBuy scheme naturally makes the public hugely sceptical about the latest initiative to assist people with mortgage arrears.

Once again, that latest initiative is an interesting scheme. We were first told by the Prime Minister with his usual hyperbole that all the major lenders had signed up, only to find that just two had gone into any detail about the assistance to be offered. As everyone said, it is only by seeing the devil in the detail that we can understand the concerns about the scheme.


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What is sad is the real lack of initiative and the real lack of joined-up government. As Members have said, we are facing a recession that will test our economic resilience to the utmost. That is why the skills agenda is so important and why focus and determination are so important. The recession will test our social fabric to the utmost and nowhere is that more apparent than in housing. The Government’s lack of imagination and their willingness to fall back on soundbites are things that the British people will not forget.

Housing is one of the greatest concerns of the British people. They work hard, they hope for and have an aspiration to have a decent home: it is the most basic of natural instincts. When the Government offer up ideas that they then casually abandon in a serial manner, it is no wonder that people lose confidence in what they can do and achieve. This is not the only instance where we have seen that problem, as we also saw it in the past. Once again, the Government are behaving in a way that causes the British people to lose faith—not in the Government themselves, although they certainly will in time, but sadly in the institutions of democracy. That is a serious failure of the Government in respect of the trust that people have placed in them. There is still time, if they could only get their act together, to do something constructive. On current form, however, what we are going to get is yet more spin, yet more soundbites and complete inaction on a key area of policy.

10.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I begin by joining the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) in paying tribute to all the contributions to tonight’s debate. Hon. Members brought their experience, knowledge and considerable expertise to bear on the debate, which greatly benefited from it.

I start by paying particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy) for his high-quality, witty and insightful speech. I have a great deal of affection for hon. Members who come here following by-elections. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst did that, and I did so about four years ago as a result of the previous MP representing Hartlepool, my noble Friend Lord Mandelson, moving away, although I do not really know what happened to that individual! After 11 years of a Labour Government and with the biggest financial turbulence the world has seen since the first world war, it is striking that my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes was able to win that by-election—and win it so decisively. That is testimony, first, to the policies that the Government are advancing and, secondly, to the personal qualities of my hon. Friend. He comes to the House with a formidable reputation in matters of education and skills; on the basis of his speech tonight, I am sure that we shall hear a lot more of him. He will be a true asset to this place.

The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) displayed his usual smooth and articulate manner to the House, but I have to say with the greatest respect to him that he was somewhat complacent and disparaging about the success of a generation of young learners. He mentioned the importance of freedoms that incorporation in the 1990s brought to further education colleges in his area and others—and they were quite rightly welcomed, so I fully agree with him about that. He failed to mention,
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however, that FE colleges were not quite so grateful for the cut in sector funding—by 7 per cent. in real terms—during the four years up to 1997 or for the fact that earmarked expenditure on FE capital under the Major Government came to a grand total of zero. Public investment in adult skills since 1997, in contrast, has been transformed. It has increased from £3.8 billion in 2002-03 to £4.7 billion in 2008-09 and is planned to increase to £4.9 billion in 2009-10.

The UK has made strong progress in recent years, particularly in helping those with the lowest skills. Apprenticeship starts have increased from 65,000 in 1996-97, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned, to 184,000 in 2006-07. Crucially, the number of people completing apprenticeships has trebled. In England, the proportion of people of working age with no qualifications has fallen by almost 6 percentage points from more than 17 per cent. in 1997 to more than 11 per cent. in 2007. About 75 per cent. of economically active adults aged 18 and over are now qualified to at least level 2, which is a formidable record of which we can be very proud.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) made some important points about the marine and coastal access Bill. Perhaps more importantly, he brought to bear his considerable expertise in science and his history of teaching in a university under a Conservative Government. He mentioned the brain drain in the 1980s and 1990s, which has been stopped and reversed to the point at which senior international academics and students are now attracted to British universities. He mentioned funding for science and how important it was that it continued, which was echoed in the excellent contribution by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). Let me point out to the House the details of such funding over the past dozen years.

In 1997-98, the science budget was £2.4 billion; it is now £5.6 billion, and will be £5.9 billion in 2009-10. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough mentioned the importance of the exploitation and commercialisation of research in higher education, on which they are absolutely right. They are obviously aware of the work of the higher education innovation fund in England, which helps knowledge transfer activities between universities and firms. As a result, university research income from contract research and consultancy has trebled since 2000 to more than £1 billion a year, and income from intellectual property licensing has also trebled. One of the areas in which I am interested is that of so-called green-collar—low-carbon—jobs, which can help to drive economic growth. It has been estimated that the overall added value in the low-carbon energy industry could be worth at least £3 trillion a year by 2050, and could employ more than 25 million people globally. Through the measures put in place by the Government, the UK is well placed to take advantage of opportunities for such technologies. The UK needs to build on that success by developing the appropriate skills, research and infrastructure base and making conditions conducive to innovation.

The hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) described vividly and evocatively the pressures on both new supply of housing and the quality of existing
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housing stock. Her comments were echoed by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). He was concerned that we will go for quantity rather than quality. That is absolutely not the case—we need to ensure that we build homes to last, not to be condemned in 10 or 20 years’ time.

The hon. Member for Brent, East gave somewhat grudging support for the Government’s package on repossessions. She will be aware of the Prime Minister’s announcements on the day of the Queen’s Speech with regard to the home owner mortgage support scheme. As part of a wider package of help for home owners, that will enable ordinary, hard-working households that experience a redundancy or significant loss of income to reduce their monthly payments to a more manageable level by deferring a proportion of the interest payments on their mortgage for up to two years. The country’s eight largest lenders, who represent 70 per cent. of lending, have already agreed to support the new scheme and have pledged to work with the Government to implement it. That is on top of an earlier package to help to minimise repossessions, such as opening the mortgage rescue scheme to vulnerable households, fast-tracking the set-up of mortgage rescue schemes, and making the support for mortgage interest schemes more generous. We will not leave hard-working families who are frightened about losing their home high and dry, as happened in the 1990s. We will do whatever it takes to ensure that hard-working families can keep their homes, and to minimise repossessions.

In an excellent speech, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned the growth in redundancies in his constituency, which he said had not been affected in such a way by previous downturns. His comments were echoed in the contribution of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson).

Let me put the position in context. This year, the number of people unemployed and claming benefits reached its lowest level for more than 30 years. The number of people in work increased by more than 3 million to about 29.5 million, the highest number ever. However, I do not want the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst to think that I am complacent. I am aware of the pressures on employment caused by the economic downturn.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wright: Very briefly.

Mr. Hayes: The Minister has referred to unemployment and given some apparently impressive figures. He will know that the number of NEETs—people not in education, employment or training—has increased dramatically. Does he expect it to continue to increase, or to fall?

Mr. Wright: It is good to see the hon. Gentleman back from the pantomime, but this is a serious point. As with repossessions, we are keen to minimise the number of people unemployed as much as possible. We do not want people to say “This is good for the economy: it is inevitable that we have some sort of recession and some sort of growth in unemployment”, so we are investing an extra £1.3 billion in Jobcentre Plus and other services over the next two years to respond to rising unemployment.
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I believe that that will not only maintain but increase the support that we offer to people who unfortunately, as a result of the current global turbulence, may lose their jobs.

The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned—again, in a thoughtful way—the frustration caused by the fact that some agencies, such as regional development agencies and local authorities, cannot gain access to funds in a coherent manner. The Government recognise that many businesses face real difficulties, and I think we have responded well by announcing a package of measures that will support small and medium-sized enterprises by addressing their top priorities: cash flow, access to finance, and training. Central Government are committed to paying businesses within 10 days, and RDAs are supporting that commitment. We are offering free health checks for businesses in England through the Business Link support services to help identify potential problems as early as possible, and we are providing financial information—produced by the Institute of Credit Management—to help United Kingdom businesses to maintain cash flow, which is essential at this time.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned eco-towns—after 19 minutes, which was probably a record for him. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) also mentioned eco-towns, along with the problems involved in a judicial review. A court hearing will be held on 22 January next year. The case concerns the process as a whole, but the challenge is very specific to Middle Quinton. We believe that we have followed the right consultation process, and we will contest the case robustly. We are determined to meet the twin challenges of trying to increase housing supply and addressing environmental issues, and eco-towns offer an exciting way of doing that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) spoke with eloquence of his experience and analysed with great accuracy the industrial policy of previous Conservative Governments, which was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson). I was greatly interested by his comments about the trade union movement and its links, on our patch, with Durham university. He will be aware of the great work of union learning representatives, which has done much to upskill the work force. As a fellow north-eastern Member, I am aware of the links between businesses and colleges and how strong they are on our patch, particularly—as my hon. Friend said in his excellent speech—the link between Nissan and Gateshead college. I also agree with him about the central importance of local authorities in trying to adapt to harsh economic realities

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) was heavy on criticism but light on policy alternatives, which befits his position as a Front-Bench spokesman. I found the contribution of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) somewhat curious: he seemed to suggest that in attempting to attract overseas investment, the country should not publicise our strengths and competitive advantage. He too was heavy on criticism and light on alternatives, and I would imagine, with the greatest respect to him, that it will not be too long before he too is on his party’s Front Bench.

The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy) mentioned employment in his constituency,
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and his fear that we might return to the 1980s when adult male unemployment stood at 50 per cent. He mentioned the problems involving Tarmac, which I shall pass on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.

The challenges facing Government are clear. We need to help people through these tough times and respond effectively to economic downturn. We need to prepare for the upturn, and lay the foundations for long-term prosperity and sustainable growth.

The measures we announced in the Gracious Speech offer real, practical help for families, businesses and communities in these difficult times, but we are also planning for the future, taking the decisions now to help the country prosper and thrive over the longer term.

11 pm

The debate stood adjourned. (Order, this day).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed tomorrow.

Business without Debate

Estimates

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 145),

Question agreed to.

Petition

Health Care (Sunderland)

Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North) (Lab): When a Member has 12,280 petitioners in their constituency, they do not have to be particularly wise to know that they have a lot of disenchanted, disappointed or angry people. What makes matters even worse is the fact that this particular petition is on the subject of the national health service, where the Government have done extremely good work, and that it revolves around the current Darzi proposals, which will undoubtedly bring overall improvement to the country as a whole. Unfortunately, however, because of the way the consultation procedure is being carried out, we now have more than 12,000 people who are up in arms about the situation they find themselves in, and who are very worried about the way the national health provisions will affect them. I shall read out the petition in the hope that the Secretary of State will take due note.

The petition states:

[P000292]


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