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9 Mar 2010 : Column 151

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that information now, but I would be happy to meet him and discuss the matter in detail.

T8. [321028] Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): A few days ago, the Secretary of State gave permission for 3,000 new homes to be built in Wellingborough north, against the wishes of local residents, local councillors and myself. What democratic credibility can this Government have when the Secretary of State makes such a decision so near to a general election?

Mr. Denham: Since I came into the House in 1992, I have held the view that Parliament and this House were sovereign. I do not share the concept that there is a period of time when the House is sitting when decisions should not be taken. Decisions are taken properly and in accordance with the law, after we have considered all the relevant processes. It is only right that Ministers should continue to take decisions as long as the House is sitting as a properly constituted, democratically elected Chamber.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Given the consensus that exists in areas such as south Worcestershire about the need for more homes-and for more affordable homes, in particular-may I urge the Secretary of State, even at this late stage, to tear up the west midlands regional spatial strategy and to allow local communities to decide exactly how many houses they need and precisely where they should go?

Mr. Denham: It is important that the combination of local, regional and national policy should be used to secure sufficient homes to meet the needs of families in this country in the future. We have rejected calls to scrap regional spatial strategies and planning targets and to leave everything to decision making at local level because we know full well that the house building industry would grind to a halt, that land would not be available, that growth would be slowed and that the needs of this country's families would not be met. The house building industry is terrified by the prospect of such a policy being brought into play.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Order. I would like to accommodate several more colleagues, but I hope that they will be considerate of each other.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): After five years, the south-west regional spatial strategy is still grinding on with unsustainable housing targets that are way in excess of economic reality and local housing need. It has attracted 37,000 objections and run into legal challenges; it has also now clearly run out of time. When will the Government admit defeat and return to local people their right to plan the houses that they need where people want them?

Mr. Denham: The total number of houses is based not on some whim of central Government but on a hard-headed assessment of need. That need translates into the families of this country who want to know that
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their children will have homes that they can move into, and that there will be provision for elderly people in the future. Those who pretend that we can simply say that we are not going to provide that housing and that someone else will provide the space in which our children need to live are wrong. It is enormously damaging to suggest that. It is also, frankly, misleading to local people to suggest that the hon. Gentleman's approach would work. There must be a mature discussion in this country about meeting the needs of people now and in the future, and I am sorry that he does not share that view.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): The South West of England Regional Development Agency is pumping millions into the Porton science park in my constituency, in partnership with Wiltshire council, which is regenerating the social and physical infrastructure. Will the Secretary of State have a word with Ministers in the Department of Health, who are talking about supporting the Health Protection Agency in moving nearly 800 of its work force out of the south-west, which needs the jobs, into the overcrowded south-east? Is the Lyons review still living, or is it dead?

Mr. Denham: I will talk to my right hon. Friend at the Department of Health if the hon. Gentleman will talk to his hon. Friend on the Front Bench to say how crazy it would be to scrap the regional development agency that he values so highly in his constituency, because that is exactly what would happen.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): Why is the junior Minister for local government refusing to meet me to discuss the persistently low level of grant given to Sevenoaks district council? It has had an increase of only 7 per cent. over the last 10 years compared to an average for district councils of more than 50 per cent. Will she reconsider?

Barbara Follett: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman; I was not aware that I was persistently refusing, and I would be most happy to see him.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): My local council wants to build and renovate many more affordable homes. Will the Government give Southwark council permission to borrow at the lowest interest rates that the market offers rather than at the highest rates that it is currently locked into?

John Healey: We are not just making grant available to support councils that want to build affordable homes across the country, including in Southwark, but we are looking at ways of dismantling the system of financing council housing for the future. I hope to be able to update the House on that before long.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): How does the Secretary of State reconcile his duty to champion local government with his decision to impose unitary authorities that are not wanted? Does he believe that the gentleman in Whitehall still knows best?

Mr. Denham: The proposals we are putting forward are indeed wanted in Exeter and in Norwich. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Economic
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Development and Co-ordination and I propose having a unitary council for Exeter and one for Norwich, which I think is the right thing to do.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Further to the question put by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), does the Secretary of State believe that the pay packages of senior council officers have increased for selfish reasons to indefensible levels? Does he believe, as I do, that it is time that we slimmed down these fat cats?

Mr. Denham: It is very clear that over a period of time in which the average pay of council workers has gone up by £6,000 a year, the average pay of chief executives has gone up by £40,000 a year. Although I pay tribute to the vast majority of those people with a lifetime of public service, things have got out of hand at the top. That is why we have required from April the publication of the full details of every named post in which an individual is paid more than £150,000 a year, and details of the pay in £5,000 bands from £50,000 upwards. I will also talk to local government about
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what further measures we can take when it is proposed to create or fill one of these very highly paid posts.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Turning to the earlier question about Hammersmith and Fulham, the Secretary of State seemed entirely unaware of the quote that he had made about the leader of the council, so let me take him back to the opening line of his party conference speech, when he said:

That was an invented quote, which has been repeated many times by his colleagues, including in the document, "Cameron's Councils". Will he finally take the opportunity to withdraw this disgraceful slur on one of the best-run councils in the country?

Mr. Denham: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the publication "Cameron's Councils", because it sets out for everybody the very clear warning of what it would be like if people were so ill advised as to elect a Conservative Government.

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Point of Order

3.34 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I rise to make a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I gave your office notice yesterday, in connection with the shameful behaviour of the Department for Work and Pensions in failing to answer written parliamentary questions tabled by me and other Front-Bench colleagues-specifically,questions 316961 and 316962. What action are you able to take, to ensure that Government Ministers are indeed accountable to all Members? These questions were asked more than a calendar month ago, and I suspect that the Department wishes to bury bad news by not answering them. How can you help me, Sir?

Mr. Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman both for his point of order and for giving me notice of it. Let me reiterate the position that is expected of Ministers in all Departments: timely replies should be provided to written parliamentary questions.

I was waiting for what I regarded as the crux of the hon. Gentleman's inquiry, namely the length of time for which he had been waiting. For him to table a question and find a month later that he had not received any reply-or, at any rate, had received no substantive reply-was not satisfactory.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the new system that I have introduced, which gives better transparency to the record of Departments in answering questions. I had hoped that that would serve to shame Departments into superior performance. If it has not, we may have to look at the thing again, but it really will not do.

9 Mar 2010 : Column 156

Hydrofluorocarbons Limitation

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

3.35 pm

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I beg to move,

The purpose of the Bill is to bring an end to the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, in the refrigeration units of large supermarkets-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that the clock can be stopped, but I should be grateful if Members who are leaving the Chamber would do so quickly and quietly. The noise is very discourteous to the Member who has the Floor. I hope that we can have some regard to the way in which our proceedings are viewed by people outside this place.

Clive Efford: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Last year, I presented a similar Bill in an attempt to persuade the Government to regulate for the complete phasing out of HFCs in large supermarkets. Today, I shall attempt to impress on them three facts which I hope will convince them that it is time to act. HFCs are extremely harmful in terms of global warming and represent a growing proportion of our emissions. There is little to suggest that current European Union and United Kingdom regulation in the field has encouraged large retailers to speed up the process of eradicating the use of HFCs in their stores, and there is nothing in EU regulation to prevent the Government from regulating in this regard.

According to Greenpeace, HFCs can be up to 20,000 times more damaging in terms of global warming than carbon dioxide. The most common gas used in supermarket refrigeration, HFC-404A, is 3,800 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. It is predicted that by 2020 HFC emissions will be equivalent to between 2 billion and 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, approximately four times the level of the United Kingdom's annual greenhouse gas emissions. In 2005, stationary refrigeration units were the biggest source of F-gas emissions in the UK, and within that total, supermarkets account for more than half the emissions. Phasing out the HFCs in supermarkets has the potential to save more than 175 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalence between now and 2050. That is equivalent to a quarter of the UK's annual carbon dioxide emissions.

The potential impact of gases on global warming is averaged over 100 years, which reflects the extraordinarily long time that gases responsible for global warming remain in the atmosphere and add to the problem. HFCs do not last for 100 years. The evidence is that global warming is accelerating. Prompt action now to remove gases that are 4,000 times more harmful than carbon dioxide and do not linger as long as other harmful gases has the attraction of buying much-needed time for other greenhouse gas mitigating measures to take effect. I hope the Minister will accept that the time to act is now.

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I presented my Bill last year in response to a report from the Environmental Investigation Agency on the use of hydrofluorocarbons in supermarket refrigeration units. I commend the agency on its work. Its report was prompted by the announcement by a group of large supermarkets that they intend to move away from the use of HFCs. The EIA carried out its survey to monitor progress in August 2008. Its conclusions were not encouraging-the best-performing supermarket succeeded in reducing its HFC use in only three out of 620 stores.

The figures for other supermarkets were just four out of 1,700 stores and one out of 2,250 stores. I shall not name and shame the supermarkets involved, because the response in this area has been so mixed. The stated view from many in the industry is that regulation in this area would create the confidence across the industry to plan ahead, knowing that the supermarkets are all operating within the same framework. Such an approach would bring about the stated objective of the Department, which is to eradicate the use of HFCs. That view still applies today.

Following the presentation of my Bill last year, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wrote a letter to the EIA on 11 November in which he accepted that supermarkets were the "big emitters" and that

He went on to say that in the short term the Government anticipate that

in the use of HFCs-

I am sorry to say that there is little evidence that that is moving companies in the right direction.

In August 2009, the EIA carried out a further study of large supermarkets to see how far they had got in moving away from being dependent on these extremely harmful gases. Only 2 per cent. of the major stores in the UK are running HFC-free refrigeration systems-only 46 are now HFC-free compared with 14 last year. One of the largest supermarkets has experimented but has reneged on its promise to switch all its stores away from the use of HFCs, while one major chain continues to use HCFCs-hydrochlorofluorocarbons-which are supposed to be phased out this year. Aldi, Morrisons and Sainsbury's refused to share their data on leakages, and so I shall make an exception in naming them. The level of the leakages emitted into the atmosphere reported to the EIA ranged from 14 to 17 per cent. of HFCs, so I am afraid that my hon. Friend's confidence that the current regulatory regimes in the EU and the UK are sufficient to meet the urgent need for action on HFCs is misplaced. I hope that he will accept the argument that the time to regulate has come.

My third point is that nothing in the competition rules prevents the Government from regulating in this area. May I refer the Minister to article 95 of the treaty establishing the Economic Community which, following the passage of the treaty of Lisbon-I pardon him if he starts to fall asleep as I read this technical section-became article 114 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Community, TFEC? While on the approximation of laws, I should mention that paragraphs 4, 5, 6 and 7
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of the article are the most relevant. They clearly demonstrate the need for the Government to make a case for the eradication of HFCs here in the UK-nothing is preventing the Government from making that case.

The Commission would then be required to consider whether this form of practice was aimed at seeking advantage over other EU countries or companies that operate within those countries and whether the UK was seeking to exclude those people from free trade with the UK. Those paragraphs contain clear powers for the UK to regulate to tackle environmental issues. Nothing excludes the UK from acting in this area and preventing the further use of HFCs in the future.

So, in conclusion, may I urge my hon. Friends in the Department to take on board the three arguments that I have made today and to agree to meet me and the EIA in the near future to discuss ways in which we can make a case to the European Commission that we are not breaching European competition laws, that there is scientific evidence that proves that it is necessary for us to act in this field, that current European and UK regulations are not moving the large supermarket chains along the road of eradicating hydrofluorocarbons and that action in the UK is absolutely necessary? With that, I commend the Bill to the House.

3.45 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I rise to comment on this Bill, provoked by the question of why we need such legislation in the first place. I agree with the intentions and objectives of the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), but I am extremely worried about the situation in which we find ourselves. We always talk about the environment, as do the supermarkets, yet they do not feel compelled to act without the threat of legislation. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have heard the supermarkets making various claims on this matter, as well as various general commitments to phasing out the hydrofluorocarbon-related refrigeration units that he has described. However, as he has rightly pointed out, the reality is far from the public relations commitments. If the supermarkets are serious about the environment and about improving their environmental footprint, as they incessantly tell us in their advertising, they ought to be making a formal statement about what date they will set for themselves to phase out the refrigeration units in question-perhaps 31 December 2015, which would give them half a decade to finish the job.

It seems to me that it would be unhelpful for me to divide the House on this matter-it would be a poor use of the Chamber's time-but I want to put on the record my view that if no action is unilaterally taken by the supermarkets without this legislation, we cannot accept their claims that they take the environment seriously. I fear that not only will the supermarkets give us more words without action, but when it comes down to a fairly straightforward change of the type that the hon. Gentleman wants to see, they will be resistant for purely economic reasons. The environment is more important than that.

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