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I have also tabled a question to the Cabinet Office. As I had this vision of the Information Commissioner's office being submerged in a tidal wave of information from the Cabinet Office relating to those two simple requests, I asked the Cabinet Office how many documents the Department had supplied to the Information Commissioner about my request. The Cabinet Office
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refused to say. I did not want it to specify the nature of the documents; I asked how many documents the Cabinet Office had passed over to the ICO, but the shutters came down. This makes a mockery of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. This issue involves someone who was given an honour, but he is in our legislature, down there-

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Up there.

Mr. Prentice: He is up there voting on, formulating and participating in the laws of the land. I am talking not about the laws of Belize, but about the laws of the United Kingdom, so I want the new Information Commissioner to listen to what I am saying today and ensure that I have this information within the next four weeks. If I do not have it by then, I will raise this matter again when we return in October.

6.17 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): The House should not rise for the summer recess without addressing and resolving a situation facing a small but significant number of citizens of the United Kingdom who are being denied their right to "exportable benefits". In October 2007, the European Court of Justice determined that aspects of disability living allowance, attendance allowance and carer's allowance were sickness benefits, rather than "special non-contributory benefits" and were therefore exportable and payable to United Kingdom claimants living in other EU states and Switzerland. That decision has, potentially, a profound effect on the incomes and well-being of those who, having left the United Kingdom to take up residence in other EU states, had benefits to which they had previously been told they had an entitlement for life, summarily withdrawn in 1992.

Let us be clear: these are not rich people who have chosen to leave the United Kingdom to take their money with them and live in large villas with swimming pools; they are, by implication, all suffering from advancing disability, and most are elderly and drawing United Kingdom pensions. They have, throughout their working lives, paid UK taxes and national insurance contributions and have earned the right to those continuing benefits to which the ECJ says they are entitled. It would appear that there are about 2,000 to 3,000 such people and their moving abroad has probably saved the UK taxpayer significant sums in continuing health care costs.

Although the ECJ ruling was issued in October 2007, it was not until 24 February 2009 that the Department for Work and Pensions finally issued its eligibility criteria for the payment of exportable benefits. First, the Department has imposed a condition that claimants must have resided in the United Kingdom for 26 out of the previous 52 weeks before claiming-inevitably, many people who moved abroad before the ECJ ruling have found their claims rejected on those grounds. Secondly, claimants are told that their applications for reinstatement fall because they did not appeal within the time limits set following the original decision to terminate benefits. Given that the ECJ ruling was not announced until October 2007, that is clearly a condition designed to facilitate the rejection of claims for reinstatement, rather than to facilitate them. Indeed, in a letter to me dated 14 April 2009 the relevant Work and Pensions Minister said:


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In other words, the Government were saying, "We acted erroneously in law but you should have known that before the ECJ ruling and lodged an appeal. Because you did not do that your claim is now out of time and we don't have to pay you the money that the ECJ says is lawfully yours." What an honourable Government should have done, as swiftly as practicably possible following the ECJ ruling in October of 2007, is to have written to every known claimant whose payments had been terminated by the Department and advised them that, following the ECJ decision, their claims were being reinstated and backdated. There should have been no requirement on the claimants to instigate action to regain that to which they were and are entitled.

One claimant, who has had his application rejected, is my constituent John Hamilton, now resident in France. Mr. Hamilton has 44 years of United Kingdom national insurance contributions behind him, paid during a long career in teaching and civil engineering. He had his eligibility to receive disability living allowance confirmed for life on 17 June 2002 while still resident in the UK. His last full payment of DLA was made, after he advised the DWP of an impending move to France, on 23 May 2006. Mr. Hamilton and his wife left to live in France on 9 June of that year.

On 13 March 2008 my constituent found on the internet a reference to the October 2007 ECJ ruling and wrote to the Department requesting reinstatement of his benefits. He was told that the exportability team were

Following the publication of the long-awaited criteria in February of 2009, Mr. Hamilton received a letter telling him that a decision maker had rejected his claim. My constituent then submitted a request for an appeal hearing before an independent tribunal. To date he has received no date for a tribunal hearing and no satisfaction.

What Mr. Hamilton-and many others in a similar situation-should have received is an apology from the Department for the chaotic mismanagement and delay following the ECJ ruling, immediate reinstatement of his benefits and, in his case, backdated payments from the date of termination in May 2006. John Hamilton was claiming DLA before he left the UK. He was awarded it for life. The ECJ has ruled that he is entitled to this benefit, and he and others like him want and deserve their money without further delay.

If this Government and this Minister seek to prevaricate further at the expense of a few elderly and infirm UK citizens and their carers who have paid their dues to the United Kingdom, it will be to their eternal shame. I hope that when she comes to respond, the Minister will feel able to announce that all of those who have had their benefits terminated will now, and without further argument or appeal, have them reinstated along with reparation in the form of back payments. Nothing less will suffice.

6.23 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): There are several issues of importance to Plymouth that I could mention today, including how we could speed up
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the connectivity of broadband; how we respond to the Walker review of water supplies, in view of the high water costs in the south-west region, and how some fairness could be brought into the charging system; or the need for further investment in transport, given our peripherality. However, in the past few weeks, one issue has been raised with me frequently by telephone and letter, and that is the problems with leasehold managing agents.

In 2006-07, according to the English housing survey, more than 1.5 million households were owned leasehold, so about 11 per cent. of the total owner-occupied sector could be subject to management by a managing agent. Most leaseholders lead a problem-free existence and are happy with the way in which their properties are managed and their relationship with their freeholder. However, for a significant minority, this is not the case and most MPs will know from their casework in both the private rented and residential leasehold sector that people's lives can be made a misery.

Typically, where a block of properties is owned leasehold, the freeholder appoints a managing agent to maintain the property, arrange building insurance and look after any communal areas. These managing agents will levy fees on the leaseholders for the provision of these services and should explain these charges-but that does not always happen, as I will explain later.

The managing agent sector is a multi-million pound industry, and one which is at the moment entirely without objective and independent scrutiny and regulation. In the last two months alone, I have had complaints about four separate managing agents. Many of the concerns raised have a common theme, and interestingly many of the properties affected in Plymouth are part of the portfolio that was sold off by the Ministry of Defence. The complex web of sales has been part of the problem for residential leaseholders, who have had difficulty tracking down their landlord and then the managing agent responsible for ensuring that works are carried out.

For example, a company called Novograde bought a tranche of ex-MOD properties from Annington Homes in Barne Barton. Novograde employed a company called Labyrinth Properties Ltd to manage that property. The Shorepoint residents came to me because they were receiving bills from Labyrinth for work which they claimed had never been carried out, and when they tried to contact the managing agent seeking the details of the maintenance being done, nothing was forthcoming. I tried to make contact with Novograde to see if it would put pressure on its agents. I also contacted a company called Galliard Homes whose name cropped up, but whose role was unclear. I contacted Labyrinth, to try to get them to talk to the residents. Sadly, none had the decency to respond to my request for a meeting.

Some progress now appears to have been made. Labyrinth has lost its contract to a company called TMS, and TMS has already been in touch with me and seems to be moving in a more positive direction. It has acknowledged that the area has been poorly managed and that the residents have not had the information to which they were entitled. Clearly the jury is still out, but I have encouraged TMS to engage with the residents and vice versa.


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In the case of the Shorepoint properties, one issue of concern was the common areas, including play areas, which were neglected and potentially a health hazard. The problem was that no one was taking responsibility for those areas. Residents are often, and understandably, concerned with their own individual properties and simply expect the private landlord to ensure that the grounds are maintained, as their contracts provide. Common area maintenance is not initially residents' first priority. However, when the exterior becomes overgrown and when residents are being charged for maintenance and nothing is being done, they get more than a little irritated. Some managing agents and freeholders will try to delay action and dispute land ownership to avoid paying out for remedial action. This of course often then puts pressure on the local authority-and the council tax payer-when it has to be called in to inspect areas and serve notices, if appropriate, on the landlord.

Leaseholders are often invoiced for works outside the legal timeframe, and invoices are sent out incorrectly-either too soon or with the urgency of a final demand without prior warning. In Vicarage gardens, St. Budeaux, there is now an active group of residents-lovely people-who are in some cases very frightened because they have received court summons and final demands for sums that they believe they have been incorrectly charged. Pier Management, which oversees these properties, again proved elusive until very recently. It has at last responded to letters I sent on behalf of a resident-an elderly woman-who had been sent a court summons for moneys which, when broken down, she had either paid or were in fact not due for some time. The lady in question has at least been reimbursed and I now understand that progress is being made with other residents.

However, some questions remain unanswered. The residents have not been allowed to see the insurance cover which exists for their buildings. These are a series of mainly maisonettes which have four properties in them and which are wholly free-standing. The residents want to know why they cannot organise their own buildings insurance. The managing agents simply say that all the properties should be insured as a single portfolio. I would welcome the Minister's confirmation that that is in fact the case, and if it is, the issue should be revisited.

In another part of my patch, a company called Solitaire is the managing agent; again, until very recently and following my involvement, its unwillingness to speak to or meet residents has led to a serious breakdown in relations. It has now met residents, and its regional director has taken away their concerns. The residents produced figures showing that the percentage increase in charges was astronomical with no obvious improvement in the service offered. They quite rightly felt that this was unacceptable. I am pleased to say that yet again there has been some progress. Errors have been found in the company's budget figures that make a considerable improvement in the charges levied.

Why is it acceptable for these companies not to provide the service for which leaseholders pay not inconsiderable sums annually? They should not have to engage the support of the local MP. Leaseholders should be able to access their landlord and know where to contact them. The same applies to private tenants, and I am pleased that the Government appear to be making progress towards changes in this regard.


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I am not condemning all leasehold managing agents. The professional association is keen to see the sector cleaned up. Finally, I ask Ministers to give serious consideration to any legislative change to the practices of letting and managing agents of residential leasehold properties, because many companies offer both services and the abuses are the same.

6.30 pm

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): I want to speak about aeroplanes, tax and flowers-a combination that probably has not been addressed by the House so far.

I shall speak first about planes. There has been much debate recently about Heathrow. I opposed the third runway there and I also oppose the development of the Thames estuary airport that is sometimes known as "Heathrow-on-Sea" or "Boris Island". Whatever it is called, it is a rehash of the Maplin Sands proposal of the 1970s and it is wholly and totally inappropriate. However, I fully support the expansion of Southend airport.

That may appear contradictory, but the expansion of the facilities at Southend airport would be very positive for the town and the surrounding area. The main expansion would involve lengthening the runway from 1,605 to 1,799 metres. That would make Southend a successful regional airport with the capacity to serve 1 million to 2 million passengers, and so similar to the very successful airport at Southampton.

Southend's economy is heavily interwoven with tourism, and a fully functioning passenger airport would provide a major boost to the town. However, Southend cannot rely on tourism alone, as it also needs to rely heavily on the business sector. The airport plays an important part in that respect as well.

Hi-Tec is a big company with its headquarters in Southend, to which it relocated mainly because of the existence of the airport and the capacity that it offered for staff to get around Europe. A larger airport would offer more passenger flights, and both Southend and Rochford councils have made a strong commitment to developing a business park. The airport already employs 1,300 people: its expansion would create at least another 1,000 jobs, but my gut feeling is that there would be a great many more.

There are always different views on airport expansion. I have received many letters and e-mails both supporting and opposing expansion. I conducted my own survey of local business people and 62 per cent. said that they supported expansion of the airport, with only 13 per cent. saying that they opposed it.

Politicians can disagree with each other as well. In our last recess Adjournment debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) set out some of his legitimate concerns about expansion, but the final decision rests with councillors in Southend and Rochford. I urge them to have some backbone: they should do what is right for the town and not worry about political point scoring. Some politicians in both towns have stepped up to the challenge, but not all. We should set aside party politics and do the right thing for Southend.

The consultation on the joint area action plan closed on 15 May. It was a mistake for the councils in Southend and Rochford to request the airport not to get involved
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and to stay silent. It was also a mistake by the Stobart Group to acquiesce in that and not to get out and sell the benefits of the airport. Now that the consultation is closed, there should be much more aggressive selling of the benefits that an expansion of Southend airport could bring, especially as we approach 2012. Southend is closer to London than Stansted, with faster journey times to the capital.

I turn now to the question of tax credits. I know that Mr. Speaker is keen to speed up responses to parliamentary questions, and I hope he will consider extending that to parliamentary correspondence as well. I have written to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury about my concerns about queries to the tax credits office and, given that over the next 10 days some of my constituents will fill in their tax credits renewal forms, that is a very appropriate matter to raise today.

Some families in my area have children leaving full-time education. If they do not notify the tax credits office of that, they could end up in receipt of an overpayment of tax credits and thus being fined more than £300. The system is a mess, and the responses from the tax credits office are poor, untimely and sometimes not especially comprehensive. The result is that several clarifications have to be issued, and the extended correspondence can cause confusion. It is a great disincentive to people taking on the extra work and promotions that would be notifiable to the tax credits office.

I turn now to flowers. I have noticed that Members of Parliament sometimes get the bit between their teeth about really small issues. Given the bigger issues such as the recession and the economy, it may seem odd to speak about Southend hospital's decision to ban flowers, but things are sometimes symbolic. The ban on flowers is symbolic of a public institution that has lost touch with reality-one that has lost the common touch.

Ministers have said that the flower ban is a matter for the local hospital trust, but I am sure that if they seriously thought that flowers were a risk to health, they would issue national guidance on the matter. An article entitled "The Evidence Base and Infection Risks from Flowers in a Clinical Setting" was published in the British Journal of Infection Control in 2005, and I am sure that hon. Members of all parties will have read it in great detail. It states that there is no "robust evidence" that flowers cause a problem, and it goes on:

Another survey that I held found that more than 70 per cent. of people wanted to keep the display of flowers in hospital. The journalist Matthew Stanton spearheaded a campaign in the popular local newspaper the Yellow Advertiser, to which the majority of respondents also said that they wanted the hospital to allow flowers in the wards.

Last week, I went to the hospital at quite short notice to see a friend, and I found it to be dirty, depressing and disorganised. The visit confirmed some of my worst fears, and the hospital's failure to see common sense on flowers is on the same level as the failures that have caused it to become dirty and have poor patient flows. Despite its multi-million pound budget, the chairs are crumbling and there is not a decent one to sit on. The ragged signs on the walls telling one where to go suggest that the operation there is not run in a professional way.
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The symbolism of the ban on flowers represents a much greater problem at Southend hospital, and it is a problem that I hope the hospital addresses.


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