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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 13 July 2010

[Mr Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Offshore Energy Industry

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr Vara.)

9.30 am

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I am delighted to have this debate and to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hancock. As I hope my contribution will make clear, the debate is about one of the most vital sectors of the UK economy, in terms of both securing our deficit reduction and growing the private sector. It is fair to say that in the House a relatively small number of hon. Members engage in detail with the sector, but it is hugely important to the British economy and I am grateful to those hon. Members who are present. I understand that a number of hon. Members have the first sittings of Select Committees in Parliament this morning, which may make it difficult for them to stay for the whole debate. I completely understand if that is the case. Being the Chairman of a Select Committee, I have had the luxury and indulgence of being able to secure a timing that is compatible with this debate.

I have been associated with UK oil and gas developments for nearly 40 years, since 1971, when I became the research and information officer with NESDA-the North East Scotland Development Authority. At that time, exploration was in its infancy. The Montrose field was discovered, and in the autumn of 1971 BP announced the successful testing of the first commercial well for what became the Forties field. After that, Aberdeen went into boom mode as the UK scrambled to get the maximum production out of the North sea, while the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries asserted itself, squeezed supplies and forced up prices across the world. Field after field was brought on-stream. That boom continued until the oil price collapsed in the late 1980s and then there was a sharp and painful downturn.

However, for all of the past 40 years, despite ups and downs, the offshore industry has made a huge contribution to the UK economy. That continues to be the case. We shall be at another key point of development over the next two or three years, when how we deal with the industry as it changes and as other industries associated with it come on-stream will determine precisely how much of a contribution it will make to the UK economy over the next 40 years. There is the development of the renewables industry, which shares much of the same technology as the offshore oil and gas industry. They can complement each other and compete.

Among those who are not well acquainted with the offshore energy industry, there is a presumption that oil and gas are in sharp decline and little recognition of the crossover between oil and gas and renewable energy. In Oil & Gas UK's latest economic report, there is a clear indication of a huge industry with a long-term future. Domestic oil and gas production was 2.4 million barrels of oil equivalent a day in 2009. That is equivalent to 94% of the UK's oil needs and 68% of our gas requirements. With sustained investment, that level of production will decline slowly, at about 5% per annum,
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although even that may level off if we get the right type of investment. The position is that 39.5 billion barrels of oil equivalent have been produced, with between 15 billion and 24 billion barrels of oil equivalent of recoverable reserves remaining.

Capital investment, which had declined, is now rising again towards an estimated £6 billion or more. Indeed, the industry's total spend in 2009 is estimated at £12.3 billion. With the oil price rising, tax paid in the current year is expected to rise to £9.4 billion-a 45% increase, based on an oil price of $78 a barrel. On top of that, the balance of payments benefited to the tune of £27 billion, and there is £5 billion of exports-a figure that is growing. Altogether, the industry sustained 440,000 jobs across the UK.

It is important to put the figures on the record, because too often people do not appreciate how huge the industry is and how important it is not just to the north-east of Scotland, but to the whole United Kingdom.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on raising this subject for debate. He is making a vital point. In the north-east of Scotland, we are probably aware of just how vital the industry is to jobs and investment there. What is important is getting the message across to the rest of the United Kingdom about what a success story the industry is. He has touched on the industry's export potential. The vital point that he is developing is that, with the right encouragement and investment, there is a long-term future for many more jobs for the whole of the United Kingdom. That will be the case if the Government can get the policies right to encourage companies to locate in the north-east of Scotland.

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): That was very nearly a speech, Sir Robert.

Malcolm Bruce: It was a long intervention but an appreciated one, because it reinforces the point. Exactly as my hon. Friend says, we who represent the north-east of Scotland know and understand the industry. Generally when it is debated in the House, we are the only people who turn up, along with one or two others, yet the industry accounts for more than 20% of all UK industrial investment. There are much better attended debates on industries whose economic impact is far less than that of this industry, so I make no apology whatever for stressing its importance and for bringing it to the attention of the House and the Minister. I know that the Minister understands these issues and I hope that his response to the debate will demonstrate that.

We have a huge amount of technical innovation to enhance the recovery of our existing reserves, to operate in more difficult areas and to squeeze more oil and gas out of the existing reserves that we have found and, at the same time, to adapt the technology to be able to install offshore wind farms and provide for electrical transmission and possibly other marine renewable energy. This is one of the industries that could help to grow the private sector and grow the recovery of the UK economy if it is handled correctly. It is my contention, and the purpose of asking for the debate was to say, that the economic and Exchequer revenue potential of this sector for the UK economy is massive, and if it is not properly handled, significant future benefits could be put at risk.

Let me be clear. Aberdeen and the north-east of Scotland have welcomed the offshore industry and built
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up a critical mass of innovation and global activity. It is estimated that more than 1,000 companies are based in our area.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman was coming on to this point, but Aberdeen and the north-east of Scotland excel not only in the technical expertise but in the intellectual expertise necessary for an energy industry-not just oil and gas. The crucial part that is played by both universities in Aberdeen-Aberdeen university and Robert Gordon university, in my constituency-is very important to the future well-being of the whole area.

Malcolm Bruce: I am grateful to the hon. Lady because that is a very welcome and pertinent point. There is a critical mass; there is almost a buzz around Aberdeen among those who are engaged in the industry, because they are at the cutting edge of global technology and innovation. Companies have developed in the area to service activity on the UK continental shelf, but what they have learned in the process of doing that is of so high a standard-we are talking about world-class standards-that many companies are now exporting much, and in some cases the majority, of their output all over the world. That is why we have £5 billion-plus of exports, and that figure is rising quite sharply.

A synergy and value are being added by that dynamic critical mass. Engineers, technicians and certainly academics based in the north-east of Scotland travel all over the world, winning business and servicing the offshore industry. Aberdeen is the world's leading centre for innovative sea technology. It is a good story and I do not want anyone to suggest that my concerns are about anything other than saying that the north-east of Scotland welcomes this industry, is open for business and has a very dynamic relationship with it, but we need to keep it and to build on it.

I want now to address offshore infrastructure, which is the purpose of the debate. Over the past 40 years, platforms, subsea completions, offshore loading systems and pipelines have been installed all over the North sea, but many of the fields that they originally served have declined, and Brent crude, the North sea's oil price benchmark, may soon be a thing of the past. BP has sold its interest in the Forties field to Apache, and operations and developments have transferred across the acreage. New, smaller fields are being developed, and they require creative engineering and access to the existing infrastructure to make them viable.

I know that the Department fully understands Oil & Gas UK's assertion that the North sea's future lies in exploiting smaller, marginal and technically challenging reserves, the majority of which will not support stand-alone infrastructure, and I am sure that that is why the Department has established the infrastructure code of practice, but there is concern in some quarters about how the code works in practice, and that is borne out by Endeavour International's request for the Government to arbitrate on its pricing dispute. The other problem is that the older infrastructure was, by definition, developed by the majors-the bigger companies-but is now required by smaller companies. In negotiating terms, there can
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be an imbalance between the parties, which the Department needs to address to ensure that we achieve optimum use.

I, for one, am pleased that the Government have explicitly recognised the need for a stable and fair fiscal regime for the industry, not least because I and my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) were instrumental in getting a commitment on that into our party's manifesto, and the Minister may well have done the same with his party's manifesto. I am also pleased that a greater understanding has developed between the Treasury and the industry in recent years, and the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg), in her capacity as the chair of the all-party group on the oil and gas industry, has arranged one or two useful briefings with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs to give us an insight into how that understanding actually works.

I therefore accept that there is a recognition of the need to balance the desire for short-term tax revenues and the long-term prospects offered by future investment. In simple terms, however, the tax regime can influence investment positively or negatively and therefore-I will return to this-alter the potential revenue profile. Centrica, for example, has said that it has expertise in developing tight gas, but that because that is generally found in larger fields, development does not qualify for new-field allowance or any other allowances, which delays investment, prejudicing security of supply and revenue. Perhaps the Minister can comment on whether his Department or the Treasury are in any way active in addressing that issue.

There is also concern, or at least debate, about the future of the petroleum revenue tax and how it might impact on abandonment and decommissioning, which could be carried out prematurely and in contradiction of the decommissioning code of practice. There is discussion-certainly in the industry-about the scope for PRT buy-out, which has an upside and a downside from the Treasury's point of view in that it could provide the Treasury with an early cash flow, but only in exchange for future liabilities, and that is a fine balance. Again, it would be interesting to know whether the Minister or the Department have a view on that.

The Secretary of State visited the All-Energy exhibition during his first week in office and saw for himself the growing engagement in offshore technology and the crossover between oil and gas and renewables. That crossover has potentially useful synergies for manufacturing and installations, but it could, as the industry recently said, also create competition between the sectors, which could cause cost inflation, especially if there are significant infrastructure constraints. That could make marginal investments unprofitable and squeeze them out altogether. The core of my concern is that constraints on infrastructure-offshore or onshore-could prejudice investment and cost us jobs, revenue and economic benefits.

Indeed, RenewableUK sent in a contribution this morning making the same point. E.ON states:

There is real concern that installation work for UK North sea offshore energy could be carried out by continental ports and that a lot of the support work associated with that installation could therefore be
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transferred to companies based on the continent. That is one of the concerns that needs to be addressed.

E.ON also said:

The Chancellor of the Exchequer indicated that there would be £60 million of grants to develop port facilities. Can the Minister give us any more information about that in his reply? E.ON's point was not only that Government money may contribute to ensuring that these things happen, but that private money will be invested in ports provided that there is confidence that the level of activity justifies that investment.

Concern has been expressed about how the infrastructure for offshore wind can be developed. One argument that has been put to me is that developers would like more control over access to infrastructure-for example, designing and constructing it, before transferring it. There is concern that, if the infrastructure is owned by somebody other than the developer, that could lead to delays and make investment calculations more complicated.

There seems to be universal opposition to the bureaucratic confusion between the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Crown Estate, which are responsible for licensing the sea bed for offshore renewable energy. The Minister expressed his view on the issue in opposition, although I do not know whether he or his Department still hold to that view. My question is simply what prospects there are of DECC becoming the sole licensing agency. The industry is certainly asking for it to take on that role. To anticipate the counter-argument, I accept entirely that the interests of the fishing industry and other commercial maritime interests need to be taken into account, but I, for one, see no reason why DECC could not be trusted to take on such a role.

The story today is as follows. Offshore oil and gas is in a mature phase and has a more challenging and fragmented role than in the past. Properly handled, however, it will make a huge contribution to the UK's energy supply, investment, our balance of payments and jobs, as well as to deficit reduction and economic recovery. At the same time, we have a growing, new offshore renewable energy industry, which shares some of the same technologies and therefore offers diversification. The industry is already heading for a £2 billion turnover and it has the potential to grow, more than taking up any slack that might emerge in the oil and gas sector. As I said, competition between those sectors could be inflationary despite the obvious synergies. For example, it could cause cost inflation in terms of offshore vessels, because there are nothing like enough vessels to meet the challenge of further developing the North sea, and the same could apply to subsea equipment. All that could prejudice marginal investments so that they do not happen at all.

Ideally, companies operating in the northern North sea would prefer to base their operations in the UK, with north-east Scotland as the preferred location for many of their activities. I completely accept that it might not concern the UK Government if pressure in the north-east leads to development elsewhere in the UK, but Ministers should be concerned if that pressure
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leads to development elsewhere in the world, whether in Europe or further afield. My concern is that costs and operating difficulties could lose the UK investment altogether, and it is important that UK Ministers understand the problems that north-east Scotland faces, so that we can give these crucial industries the infrastructure that they are entitled to expect.

I turn now to an issue that is not the direct responsibility of the Minister's Department, although it should concern him. Compared with other energy centres around the world, Aberdeen does not live up to its role as Europe's offshore energy capital. As one correspondent put it:

The Aberdeen western peripheral route, which will provide a bypass around the city from the north and north-west, faces delays and uncertainty over funding, but it is essential to the city's functioning and future credibility. Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future, which seeks to promote the optimum development of the UK economy, is looking for ways to secure the energy industry's long-term future, anchoring the industry in our region. It is also promoting a development corridor between Aberdeen and Peterhead called Energetica and hopes to attract a range of energy-related developments.

Anyone who knows the geography of Aberdeen will appreciate that its viability depends on the completion of the bypass and the A90 dual carriageway to the north. Further improvements to the A96 Aberdeen to Inverness route are also required, including to the notorious bottleneck at Inveramsay bridge, where the trunk road passes under a railway; single-file traffic is controlled by traffic lights at that point, and large vehicles are diverted along a B road. Much has been promised, but nothing has been done to resolve the problem.

At the same time, the proposed commuter rail service between Inverurie and Stonehaven-it has always been presented as a complement to the bypass; it is not just a road but a transport solution-has made no progress, not even in relation to the simple job of providing a station at Kintore, a community that has quadrupled in size over the past 10 years. However, although rail investments in recent years have far exceeded the business plan, conservative predictions continue to be used to justify resisting a commitment to further development.

Miss Begg: The right hon. Gentleman is right that the north-east, and particularly Aberdeen, has been waiting for a long time for a western peripheral route. Thanks to the last Labour-Lib Dem Administration in the Scottish Parliament, it was finally agreed that it should be built, but almost 10 years later we are still waiting. Not even a centimetre of tarmac has been laid, despite the spending of £100 million. The lack of a western peripheral road and of Crossrail is a double stranglehold. One would help deal with traffic congestion and both would be excellent, but we have neither.

Malcolm Bruce: I completely agree. I urge the Minister to listen to this part of the debate. I can anticipate his reply. His brief will say that they are matters for the devolved authorities and local authorities. Indeed they are, but if for whatever reason those authorities are not able to deliver that infrastructure, it is UK Departments that will lose the economic benefit and the tax revenues.
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It is important that joined-up government engages in this, and I have some practical suggestions and questions for the Minister. I hope that he will not think, "Ah, this is the bit where I just offload it to the devolved Administration." It is much more serious than that. I am deliberately not trying to pin blame. I simply observe that these vital investments, which are crucial to the dynamic operation of the city of Aberdeen to deal with the next 40 years of development, are not happening. It is important that the Government understand that, and that they are engaged.

Twenty years ago, I was successful in securing the reopening of Dyce station, which has proved a great success. Indeed, trains are so overcrowded that one cannot board them at that station for safety reasons. The problem is that, while the station remained closed, the airport terminal was moved to the other side of the airport, so that vital link is no longer there. The airport has had investment, but for an energy centre of Aberdeen's importance the range of services and flight links is limited, and the ground links fall far short of what is needed, as those who get stuck there at 5 o'clock will know.

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry) indicated assent.

Malcolm Bruce: I see the Minister nodding. He has been in that situation and will understand.

The two local authorities that serve the north-east of Scotland are struggling to deliver essential services on funding levels well below those of other Scottish authorities, but the latter do not face the same pressures. Both authorities receive grant aid at well below 90% of the Scottish average, despite having the fastest population growth in Scotland-indeed, compared with some parts of Scotland, the only population growth. Aberdeen city businesses pay around £150 million in business rates and receive back only half of that. Although Aberdeenshire is a net beneficiary, the overall grant allocation is a significant net loss.

It is important for the Minister to be aware that in the 1970s, when the scramble to develop the North sea was under way, local authorities in the north-east of Scotland received extra rate support for five years to enable them to meet the infrastructure needs of the growing industry. It was a special one-off recognition of the pressure that they were under. I suggest that something similar may be required now if we are to deliver people's hopes and expectations for the next 40 years.

The population of the region has grown by around 50,000 over the past 40 years and it is projected to grow by a further 50,000 in the next 15 years. Unemployment is low and incomes are high. People may say, "You've got low unemployment and high incomes. What's your problem?" The problem is that that income does not stay in the area. Taxes go to the Exchequer and business rates go to the Scottish Parliament, and we are dependent on grant support coming back to the area. Unfortunately, that does not happen enough-we do not have sufficient resources. Because of those pressures, housing costs are high, as are the costs of recruiting and retaining key people.

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A substantial section of the British economy, for which the Minister and the Treasury are responsible, could be the biggest losers if we do not get it right. I shall give some statistics. If we lose only 1% of the forecast potential average development over the next few years, it would cost us £74 million a year in tax revenue, £270 million a year on the balance of payments, £50 million in exports, £60 million in investment, £60 million in operational spending and 4,400 jobs. If we lost 5%, it would cost us £480 million each year in tax revenue, £1,350 million on the balance of payments, £250 million in exports every year, £300 million in investment and £300 million in operating costs, and 22,000 jobs. I hope that those figures reinforce the fact that a small shortfall could result in us losing a substantial amount of revenue.

I therefore ask three things of the Minister. First, will he engage with the Treasury over the fossil fuel levy attributable to Scotland? The Economic Secretary has confirmed that the Government are committed to reviewing the

I suggest that it would be appropriate for a substantial proportion of that to be allocated to infrastructure support in the north-east of Scotland, specifically to support the offshore renewable industry. I make no bones about it. It would help both oil and gas and renewables. That would be an appropriate use of the money, both now and in future.

Secondly, I remind the Minister that, through an Act of Parliament, Shetland and Orkney secured a share of the continuing revenues based on the flow through their respective oil terminals. No such provision was made, or sought, for the north-east of Scotland, probably because it did not expect to be so badly squeezed by the funding arrangements as they are. That is despite the area being a major landfall for oil and gas. I do not know how many pipelines cross my constituency, but it is probably into double figures. It is also the most important land base for offshore operations.

I therefore suggest that some consideration be given to the tiniest share of revenue from the oil and gas industry being earmarked for infrastructure. That would pay dividends by ensuring maximum long-term revenue. That may sound like a bid for new money, although there is a way of presenting it that would not. However, I return to the debate within the industry about the possibility of PRT buy-outs, which could create a cash-flow windfall for the Treasury. If the Government were minded to consider it, that bonus could support a small infrastructure fund.

Thirdly, given representations made during the debate by other hon. Members, I hope that the Minister will engage constructively with Ministers in the Scottish Administration. If they fail to support essential infrastructure in the north-east, it will prejudice not only the Scottish economy but the entire UK economy. In order to deliver that investment, it is therefore legitimate for the Government to have a partnership with the Scottish Government. So far, they have failed to so. I am trying hard not to be too political about it, but the facts are as the hon. Member for Aberdeen South made clear. Although promises have been made, delivery has not been achieved, and that is a real anxiety for the industry and its confidence in future investment.

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The north-east of Scotland is a key economic region for the UK. It delivers far above its weight for its small population, but for it to continue to be a driver of growth for such a large chunk of the UK economy, it needs recognition and support. It suffers from relative remoteness. I meet too many people in Scotland, let alone in England, who tell me that they have never been to Aberdeen, and they have a very warped idea of what it is about. In some ways, the dynamism of the north-east of Scotland is perhaps Britain's best kept secret. There are not 500,000 people anywhere in the United Kingdom who contribute so much economically. Indeed we have statistics to show that the contribution per capita of the north-east of Scotland is the highest of any region in Europe, and I am not sure whether that is fully recognised or acknowledged in the way in which it is treated by Government at all levels.

I know the Minister, and I believe that he understands much of what I am saying. He certainly knows Aberdeen, and Aberdeen knows and respects him. I look to him to ensure that the whole Government recognise the importance of the issue and act accordingly. I have tried to identify not just the problems but some possible solutions. I have tried to emphasise that if we do not get this right, it is the UK Government and the UK economy that stand to lose the most. We in the north-east of Scotland can proudly say that we have made an enormous contribution to the whole of the UK over the past 40 years, and the right decisions taken now can ensure that we will do that for the next 40 years. I hope that the Minister will understand that this is not just an opportunity for a local press release, but a serious debate where there is real and genuine concern within the industry that, if these issues are not addressed, a substantial amount of investment in the UK economy could be lost.

10.1 am

Mr Frank Doran (Aberdeen North) (Lab): I congratulate my neighbour-I was about to say my right hon. Friend but that would have been a mistake, given his recent political aberration-the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on putting such a strong case. I do not demur from anything that he said. It is important to put out the message that the future for the oil and gas industry is positive. As he rightly says, there is a view that there is a sharp decline in North sea oil and gas, but that is not the case. The decline is shallow and slow, and it is in all our interests to ensure that it remains so. At the same time, the oil industry in Aberdeen is changing its profile, as it has been doing for some years. All of us who represent the area, including the right hon. Gentleman, travel between Aberdeen and London every week, usually by plane, and we see people who travel to every part of the globe. The subsea industry, which is based mainly in Aberdeen but has important centres in Teesside and Southampton, now wins about 60% of worldwide contracts in subsea technology. It is playing a huge part in the rescue operation in the gulf of Mexico. That is the future: exporting our technology and skills, but maintaining our important pace in the North sea.

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): Before my hon. Friend gets into the main body of his remarks, and given that he has just touched on the gulf of Mexico disaster, does he share my concern about the information that has come out in written answers-not
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from the Minister's Department, but from Work and Pensions Minister with responsibility for the Health and Safety Executive-that Transocean, the operators of the rig at the heart of the gulf of Mexico disaster, has seen some 100 safety incidents in the past three years on its 10 UK rigs? Does not that indicate that the health and safety inspection of those 10 rigs in the UK needs to be speeded up?

Mr Doran: My hon. Friend, while representing the well-known oil province of Harrow West, has done a huge amount of important work in this area. He makes a valuable point, and I will say a little about the problems in the drilling industry because it is the last area in the North sea with a frontier mentality. The rest of the industry has made great progress, but I am afraid that the drillers are still in John Wayne territory.

Most of the key economic points and very strong regional points have already been made by the right hon. Member for Gordon, but as this is an industry that both he and I have spent much of our parliamentary life working with, examining and considering, there are three crucial areas of infrastructure that I want to discuss: the kit that is in the North sea-the platforms, the pipelines, the wells and the vessels that service the industry-the people in the industry, because they are a key part of the infrastructure; and the Government at every level. I shall try not to duplicate any of the right hon. Gentleman's points, but if I do, I hope that they will reinforce what he said.

As I said, we have a huge amount of infrastructure in the North sea. Most of it is ageing and needs to be carefully maintained, but that does not always happen. One of the key problems in the North sea oil and gas industry is the fact that the price of the product is based on worldwide prices and we have no control over it. I remember a time in the mid-1980s when the price dropped almost overnight from $32 a barrel to $8. The North sea industry was devastated. Virtually every job and every piece of investment stopped, and the price stayed low for quite a while. I have always put the fact that I was elected as a Labour MP in a constituency that had always, apart from one occasion in the 1960s, been a Conservative seat down to the fact that the then Government were being punished for that collapse in the oil prices. It had a huge impact, as some 50,000 jobs were lost overnight.

The problems continued into the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then we saw a price rise. In the late 1990s, however, there was another drop in the price. Recently, the price rocketed, going up to slightly more than $100 a barrel two or three years ago. We have now achieved a degree of stability-and tax stability, I hope-with the price standing at about $75 a barrel, which is good for the industry. The money should be in place to ensure that assets are properly maintained.

I raise that point because at certain points over the life of the industry-the last 40-odd years-there were times when the infrastructure was not properly maintained. The classic case is the Piper Alpha disaster, which had its 22nd anniversary last week. If we consider the history of the particular platform that led to the disaster, which was well spelled out in the Cullen report, it is quite clear that a lack of maintenance was one of the key issues. There was a whole host of issues including a water deluge system in which none of the valves worked
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because they had become clogged up with gunge, and a lack of a proper permit-to-work system. Once the people in the oil industry got over the shock that a disaster on that scale could happen on the platforms that they had built, they said that it could have happened to any one of at least a dozen platforms-many platforms were in the same condition. However, good things come out of every disaster, and the good thing in this case was that the Cullen report established a safety system that is now the template for safety in not just the oil and gas industry, but the rest of industry. It set a goal-setting system rather than a tick-box system, and we have made progress.

It is important to record that over the past four or five years, there have been some difficulties. I have spoken both in this Chamber and in the main Chamber about the KP3 report, which was an attempt by the Health and Safety Executive offshore division to look at the integrity of our assets in the North sea. The report found that the industry was wanting. It identified some very serious problems to which the industry was forced to respond. I will not go through the detail of the report now, as I have done so before and it is not necessary to do so again now, but it is important to record that the industry responded well, as the review that was carried out a couple of years later showed.

There are still difficulties, however. The HSE recently released figures showing that a significant number of enforcement notices were still being issued. A total of 446 safety regulations have been broken by more than 30 companies since 2006. Some of those breaches of safety regulations were minor, but I know that some were not so minor.

The period covered by those figures includes the period when the KP3 report was being put together. Nevertheless, we need to keep underlining and reinforcing the importance of the safety regime to ensure that the industry continues to maintain our assets in the North sea. The health and safety of the work force is crucial. We saw the devastating effect of the Piper Alpha disaster on not only the companies involved, but the whole industry. The same thing is now happening in the gulf of Mexico. There is nothing quite as expensive as an accident. It is extremely important that we remember that maintenance is cheap compared with the cost of an accident.

There are huge opportunities in the industry. The right hon. Member for Gordon rightly talked about the spin-off benefits for the renewables industry, and it is important that we recognise the value of those benefits. I do not think that a renewables industry on the scale that we need will be possible without strong Government support, so I hope that this Government will continue to give the support that was provided by the previous Government. The same goes for other sectors related to the North sea sector, such as carbon capture and storage. The production of a commercial working product in that sector will also require significant Government support.

In addition, we have the huge opportunity of the west of Shetland project-in fact, there is not one such project but a number of projects. Those projects will become much more feasible because of the support that was given through the tax system by the previous
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Government to the Laggan project, which I hope the current Government will continue. The pipeline that will be built as part of the project will be the key part of the infrastructure that will make many other projects possible, so it is important that Government support continues.

I want to move on to discuss the people involved in the industry. The work force in the North sea are highly skilled, but there are still huge skills shortages. The work force is also ageing. Although it took the industry a long time, it now has an established oil and gas training school: the offshore petroleum industry training organisation based in Portlethen, which is just south of Aberdeen. OPITO has probably become the benchmark for safety regimes, training and safety, and other related skills in the whole world. There is not an oil regime in the world with which OPITO is not involved. It sets safety standards and provides the support that is necessary for companies, particularly those operating in the more remote parts of the world such as the west of Africa and Asia, to have proper, modern safety systems, as well as other systems that support the industry.

We must remember that the North sea is a very dangerous area. While the right hon. Member for Gordon was speaking, I quickly drew up a list of disasters-and they were disasters-in the North sea: the Alexander Kielland disaster; the Piper Alpha disaster; the Ocean Odyssey disaster; the Brent Alpha disaster; and the helicopter disasters, including the Chinook disaster, the Cormorant disaster, the Morecambe bay helicopter crash and the Super Puma disaster in April 2009. They caused huge loss of life across the board.

Safety has improved immeasurably since the Piper Alpha disaster, however, and the industry has made a huge improvement in safety, including by working through its agency, Step Change. Recently, it has also recognised the importance of the work force.

Malcolm Bruce: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that one of the reductions in safety has been due to greater automation of offshore activity? That greater automation has meant that more of the industry's activity is supported onshore, but that has actually increased the pressure on the onshore infrastructure for the very same reason.

Mr Doran: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Nevertheless, there are many reasons for the improvements in safety that have occurred. I think that the most important reason has been the dramatic change in the industry's attitude. We must constantly be vigilant, which is why we depend on the HSE. Its KP3 report was a wake-up call. The safety of working on platforms has certainly improved dramatically, although there are still issues about helicopters.

The oil and gas industry has realised the importance of engagement with the work force. A key part of the HSE's review of the KP3 report was a careful examination of worker involvement in the North sea oil and gas industry, which involved working with both the industry and the unions.

A huge step forward was taken when the industry set up its helicopter task group to look at the Super Puma helicopter disaster 15 months ago. Three trade union officials from Aberdeen were involved in that task group, which examined a lot more than the accident itself. It
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looked at the causes of the accident, worked out what the problems were, reached conclusions and made recommendations. In addition, it looked at issues that had concerned people such as the right hon. Member for Gordon and me for years.

For example, there was concern about the lack of radar in the North sea oil and gas industry. When the Minister was about to make an offshore trip-I know that it was not his first such trip-I told him one of my scary stories about trying to get on to an oil platform in very thick fog in the middle of the North sea. It took us three attempts to get on to the platform. That was not the best experience of my life, but the people who work in the North sea have to make such trips every week when they go out to the platforms and then come back in. However, progress will be made, such as by providing radar and improving the lighting on platforms. The helicopter task group went much further than looking only at the Super Puma disaster and I think that everybody in the industry welcomed the report that it produced. In addition, the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Advisory Group has been set up to tackle the consequences for the North Sea, if there are any, of an oil spill similar to the one that is happening now in the gulf of Mexico. The trade unions are involved in OSPRAG, too.

The Minister cheered me up immensely two or three weeks ago after we had heard the statement from the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change on the oil spill in the gulf of Mexico and the action that he was taking in relation to the North sea. After that statement, the Minister said to me, "I'm going up to Aberdeen next week and I'd like to meet the trade unions." I must say that after the 20-odd years-with a slight break in the middle-that I have been a Member of Parliament, a Conservative Minister saying such a thing shows that there has been a change everywhere. If this Government recognise the importance of the trade unions, particularly in the area of North sea safety, I welcome that wholeheartedly. I know that the Minister had a good meeting with trade union officials in Aberdeen.

The other key part of the infrastructure is the Government. I have seen a massive change in the Government's approach to the industry. When I was first elected to Parliament in 1987, there was a Department of Energy, which was responsible for both production and safety. However, it was quite clear that the Department did not work, and I must say that we did not need the Piper Alpha disaster to tell us that, although it underlined the fact in spades. Of course, one of the key recommendations of Lord Cullen's inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster was that responsibility for checking safety should be passed to the HSE.

At that time, I was appointed to the Front Bench as part of the then shadow Energy team with responsibility for the oil and gas industry. I spent four years shadowing two Ministers: Peter Morrison and Colin Moynihan. Given that and subsequent experience, I have no doubt that the Government in those days saw the industry as a cash cow for raising money, which was one reason why the focus on safety was not as strong as it should have been.

When my party was elected to government in 1997, I do not think that the position changed-the attitude was the same. I remember many battles with Treasury Ministers in 1997 and 1998 when they were reviewing oil taxation and seriously considering increasing the tax
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on the oil industry. A windfall tax had been levied on the banks, which some of us cheered, and similar measures were being proposed for the oil industry. Those of us who were involved in that campaign recognised that the industry had gone through a sustained period of low prices and that increasing taxes would be the wrong thing to do.

Thankfully, the then Chancellor, who was one of the most dyed-in-the-wool proponents of the tax-I remember a difficult meeting with him-ultimately accepted that we were right, and a Government review decided that the tax regime should not be changed. The tax was increased when prices improved and again, if I remember correctly, during the next Parliament. However, the industry's position was much more secure by that time, and it was recognised during the 1990s that taking money out of the North sea was wrong.

One result of that, as the right hon. Member for Gordon mentioned, was that the Revenue became more involved in the oil industry task group pilot. That was a fundamental change, because at the time the Treasury saw itself as completely separate from the industry. It had some knowledge of how the industry operated, but did not concern itself with the day-to-day stuff. Sending an observer from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs to the pilot meetings fundamentally changed the Government's attitude to the oil and gas industry. It is now accepted that it is crucial to encourage inward investment in the North sea and to consider how the oil companies spend their money. The right hon. Gentleman rightly discussed the significant sums that will, we hope, be invested this year and next year in the North sea, and the revenue benefit to the Government as a result of that investment.

It is crucial that we continue to bring in new blood. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Apache, which had never been in the North sea, having concentrated mainly on America and the middle east. Apache came over and bought the massive Forties field. It made it work and is now a major player. When BP was not prepared to invest any more, Apache made things work.

Another crucial thing that the previous Government did was to improve tax reliefs for new entrants to drilling. Before that, drilling, exploration and appraisal costs were allowable only against previous profits. If a company had no previous profits because it had not been in the North sea, it got no tax relief.

I hope that the important changes that have been made, mainly in the past 10 years, will be carried forward by this Government. It is important that we continue to encourage investment in infrastructure and in new fields, although they tend to be smaller. We must also ensure that we encourage new entrants to the North sea, and the tax regime is fundamental in that respect.

I will briefly raise two burning issues that do not get a lot of attention. The first is that we still have a skills problem. A major factor is that we depend hugely on immigrant labour in the North sea. In the main, such immigrants are highly skilled. Two or three years ago, I spoke to a major company that had brought 1,500 skilled engineers over from the Philippines. They had not come as cheap labour; they were essential to the company's summer maintenance programme. Agreements were reached with the union to pay them the rate for the job, and after it was completed, they went back to
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the Philippines to do their normal jobs. However, I am hearing about more and more problems in my surgery, although they have nothing to do with the new Government as they have been building up for some years. The smaller companies in the supply chain are finding it particularly difficult to bring people in, while the universities have the same problem. Two universities now operate worldwide to bring in students, particularly from Africa-the students take a first degree in Nigeria or Ghana and then come to Aberdeen to do their master's degree-but now even Government-sponsored students are finding it difficult to enter the country. That is a serious problem.

Finally-I have probably spoken for a lot longer than I should have-although the Department of Energy and Climate Change is now responsible for the energy industry, who looks after the oil and gas industry as a business? There is a sense in the industry that it has been abandoned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, previously the Department of Trade and Industry, and that the Government are no longer focusing on the industry as a business. Will the Minister say a little about that that important issue, which relates to not the industry's place in the energy industry, but its status as a business like any other?

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): As no other Back Bencher wishes to catch my eye before I invite the Front Benchers to respond, I call Emily Thornberry.

10.26 am

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hancock, and to listen to a debate by Members of Parliament who clearly know a great deal about the industry. That includes the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), whom I congratulate on securing this debate, and my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg), for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) and for Harrow West (Mr Thomas).

It is vital that the Government give a clear direction to the offshore industries. Given the huge amounts of capital investment required and the long time frames within which the industries work, they need uncertainty like they need a hole in the head. Although I am sure that many people were greatly heartened by the Minister's assertion last week that the Government will provide leadership on such issues, I suspect that the fears likely to have been inspired by the coalition agreement have not been allayed sufficiently. I remind him that the agreement says specifically that the parties share a conviction that the days of big government are over. These are exactly the circumstances in which we need big government to give direction. Since the coalition was formed, a number of uncertainties have arisen in relation to infrastructure for the offshore industry. In my contribution, I hope to clear up some of those uncertainties by asking several questions.

The economic downturn hurt our oil and gas industry, which already faced high costs, low prices and a lack of cheap credit. In January this year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) extended tax relief worth up to £160 million a field to
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fields west of Shetland. His announcement came at the same time as the announcement of the 26th offshore oil and gas licensing round. I am pleased that the UK North sea oil industry is once again attracting investment, as we heard from hon. Members' contributions. That is reflected in a great increase in the number of bids made during the licensing round.

In its report last summer, the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change highlighted the difficulties in accessing infrastructure that some smaller companies experience. The difficulties came to a head when Endeavour International sought arbitration from the Secretary of State regarding the charges levied by Nexen for access to the gas transportation infrastructure. What progress has the Department of Energy and Climate Change made in finding a more equitable solution to that problem?

After the explosion of the Piper Alpha rig in the North sea in 1988, which resulted in 167 fatalities, the UK's regulatory regime was tightened. I listened with great interest to the highly knowledgeable contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North and his account of the day-to-day realities of working in the North sea. I was also greatly interested to hear what a contribution the trade union movement has made to ensuring the safety of the work force.

Since the disasters, licensing and health and safety have been separated in the UK. In light of the Deepwater Horizon spill, I understand that the US will now adopt a similar model. Despite our already robust regulatory regime, the disaster in the gulf of Mexico must give us pause for thought in the development of deep waters off the west coast of Shetland. I welcome the Secretary of State's decision to increase inspections, which seems sensible. Will the Minister tell us when those increased inspections are likely to commence and will he explain the apparent contradiction between an increased regulatory regime and what was promised by his manifesto? The Conservative party promised to streamline government in its manifesto. I would welcome his comments on the following Conservative party quote:

That is question No. 3.

The UK is the leader in offshore wind capacity. Given that only a few countries have more than 3 GW of offshore wind power, the amount of wind power we have is amazing. The annual amount of offshore wind power generated will soon explode, which shows the huge increase in the proportion of wind in our energy mix. The development of the offshore wind industry has been made possible by the leadership and vision of the previous Government. I obviously hope that such leadership and vision will continue under the new Government.

The contribution of public money and the renewables obligation have ensured the fast development of the industry. In the 2009 Budget, £50 million of funding was made available for the testing of offshore wind facilities and £15 million was provided to the new renewable energy centre in Northumberland to test wind turbine blades. Just this month, the Secretary of State reconfirmed the previous Government's decision to grant £5 million to Siemens Wind Power. In the March 2010 Budget, the Labour Government also announced a £60 million competition to help ports to
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develop, to which the right hon. Member for Gordon referred. We wanted ports to have the capacity to help to drag out to sea massive, heavy windmill towers for the turbines to sit on. The amount of money offered might not have been large, but it was of sufficient size to be an important signal, and General Electric and Siemens quickly declared that they would be investing £200 million in the UK's offshore wind industry. On 15 June, the Minister announced that the ports competition was under review. Will he commit to the level of investment proposed by Labour or is he prepared to risk driving away such investment?

In the case of offshore wind generation, a loss of investor confidence would be an absolute tragedy because, according to the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, it is the only low-carbon technology that is ready for large-scale deployment now. Perhaps another way of asking question four is this: what plans does the Minister have for offshore wind infrastructure and for port development? In the energy security debate last week, the Minister was kind enough to agree that the renewables obligation has helped to expand the UK's offshore wind capacity. Will the Minister commit himself today to continuing with our commitment to renewables obligation certificates?

I would also like the Minister's help with the offshore grid and how that will develop, because it is particularly important to the infrastructure for offshore industry. The offshore wind industry and network industry are awaiting Ofgem's decision about what the offshore transmission regime will look like. I understand that the Minister's party has a different emphasis in terms of how the competitive tenders should be administered. I certainly hope that there will be no undue delay while the coalition decides what to do. An announcement on the offshore grid was expected at the end of June. Does the Minister know what the hold-up is, and when will the industry know what will happen to such a vital part of its infrastructure?

Of course, the offshore grid connects to the onshore grid. We hope that the onshore grid will become a smart grid, which we hope will be informed by smart meters. I would like to ask the Minister a number of questions about smart meters and his ambition to put a smart meter in every home by 2017-not 2016 as promised in the manifesto. I have what I would call a number of sub-questions to question six. How does the Minister expect to install smart meters in every home in the country? How many staff will be required and, if he wants all smart meters to be put in by 2017, when is the process likely to start? Given that the Digital Britain programme will ensure that all hard-to-reach homes are linked by 2012, will he link in that programme with the smart meters installation programme?

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. We are drifting slightly from the subject of the debate .

Emily Thornberry: The thrust of my remarks is that there are a number of questions about this aspect of Government policy. My biggest and most important point is that we could clarify many of those questions if the Government were to publish their energy national policy statement. I understand that a consultation on that statement finished in February. Is the statement likely to be radically different from the one that was to
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be published by the previous Government? Is that the reason for the delay or is there another reason why there might be some delay in the statement being published? The industry needs to have some certainty about what has been happening. Perhaps the Minister is reconsidering the Lib Dem manifesto.

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. That is not the Minister's responsibility, is it? We need to stick to the subject of infrastructure support for the offshore energy industry. If the hon. Lady confined her comments to that, I would be extraordinarily grateful.

Emily Thornberry: Is the Minister considering making a commitment to investing £400 million in refurbishing the shipyards in the north of England and Scotland, so that they can manufacture wind turbines and marine renewables? I understand that that is a commitment of one of the parties in the coalition. If there is a hold-up in publishing the statement, perhaps it is because he is reconsidering that aspect of policy.

10.36 am

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Hancock. We have had an extremely valuable debate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on securing it, raising a wide range of issues and bringing his expertise to the debate. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) also brought his expertise to the discussion. I hope that I can give further reassurance and encouragement to them that this is not a partisan issue. I want to work on the subject using the relevant expertise wherever it is found-on both sides of the House and all sides of the industry-to ensure that we can achieve the best possible outcome for this crucial sector of our economy.

My right hon. Friend has rightly understood my reaction to some of his points, particularly those about Scottish infrastructure issues. He will know from the respect agenda that we are committed to working closely with the Scottish Government and Executive to ensure that we do not seek to influence their decisions on those issues, which are devolved. I also reassure him that we are very keen indeed to have a holistic approach to those matters. I have already had an initial discussion with the First Minister and I hope to have a further conversation with him in the next few weeks about how we can most constructively work together in those areas.

That is what the industry is looking for: a seamless Government approach across Departments and different bodies. We will try to ensure that we bring the best endeavours and approach that we possibly can to securing further investment in the sector. From my time as Opposition spokesman on these matters, I hope I have managed to gain some understanding of the issues facing the industry. I assure hon. Members again that I intend to be a regular visitor to Aberdeen. If my right hon. Friend or any of his hon. colleagues feel at any point that I am not talking to the right sections of the industry, I ask him to let me know. I want to ensure that I have as comprehensive a grasp as possible of the issues
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involved and, as I say, I want to work constructively with those who have great expertise from working in this area.

In initiating the debate, my right hon. Friend spoke about how crucial the sector is to the whole of the UK economy. Although indigenous production is declining, our oil and gas reserves remain a key element of our energy mix. On the reassurance that the hon. Member for Aberdeen North was looking for, there are a number of key pillars of energy policy without which we cannot have energy security-for example, the commitment to the North sea and the development of the UK continental shelf. Nuclear without subsidy is also in that mix, as are coal with carbon capture and renewables.

All those factors are part of a balanced energy policy. I certainly hope to reassure my right hon. Friend that there is every intention of identifying the issues that will help to drive forward investment in the North sea. We will do what is necessary to bring the skills and investment to Britain, because I am very much aware that the companies that are looking to invest are overwhelmingly international. When they consider international opportunities, there is no predisposition for them to come to the United Kingdom. We have to make the strongest possible case for why they should come here instead of taking the many other opportunities that exist around the world.

As my right hon. Friend said, 350,000 jobs in the UK depend on the industry, and a further 100,000 in the supply chain's thriving export business, with an annual expenditure of about £12 billion. The industry, therefore, makes an extraordinary contribution to the economy. We see no dilemma, however, in the absolute necessity of moving to a low-carbon economy and the desire to get the best out of our indigenous hydrocarbon reserves. That is essential to our energy security and our national prosperity, and particularly to the prosperity of the north-east of Scotland. We will, therefore, work closely with the industry to see what is necessary to encourage further investment in exploration, development and production, while maintaining high standards of management and minimising environmental impacts.

Over recent years, an important role has been played by PILOT, the organisation set up to maintain the dialogue between Government and industry in this area. It has put in place many initiatives to help us to extend the life of the basin, and has significantly contributed to the security of the UK's energy supply and balance of payments, but we are now looking at how to take that relationship forward. I want to look more at a road map for the future, rather than at setting targets. I am nervous about targets because they tend to be set sufficiently far ahead that nobody is accountable for how they are delivered. I would therefore rather have a more specific road map for what we are jointly expected to do as industry and Government, to try to make this an attractive environment.

I am also keen to broaden involvement in PILOT, to include people from all aspects of the industry. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North talked about the subsea sector, which is an absolutely critical part of the Aberdeen and north-east Scotland economy and an absolutely wonderful example of British engineering and skills providing incredible global leadership in many of these
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areas. I want to ensure, therefore, that PILOT contains the full range of expertise that is there, and I am also considering how we can increase the regularity of the meetings. As they are currently six months apart, I have a slight tendency to think that there can be a gap before too much is done, and a panic before the next meeting. I want to get a rather more established flow of activity. The guiding principle has to be trying to remove barriers to investment. Where we see barriers to investment, we-with the industry and my parliamentary colleagues-will actively try to remove those barriers, to make this a very attractive place in which to invest.

Many things were done under the previous Government, and historically, to make this an attractive area. We have flexibility in our licensing system to attract the widest possible range of players. The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) asked about the commitment that we made about licensing in our manifesto. That was nothing to do with safety issues. It responded to a concern within the industry about how long the licensing process takes, and considers whether there are ways, taking account of the safety and environmental issues, in which we can tell investors rather more rapidly than at present what the outcome of each licensing regime will be. It is certainly encouraging that the latest round received the greatest number of applications since the first round in 1964, and we hope to be in a position to award licences later this year.

The fallow initiative, put in place by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, continues to encourage companies that are not actively working on blocks or licences to relinquish them so that other companies can be given opportunities to exploit them. To ensure maximum production efficiency from North sea fields, the Department has a stewardship process, which is an annual review in which DECC works with the fields' owners and looks at individual field performance with the aim of maximising economic recovery and enhancing production levels wherever possible.

We are also considering the whole issue of infrastructure, which has come through very strongly in the contributions to the debate. It is a key part of the coalition agreement. We want to work to improve on that, and we have said that we will consider legislating in that area. I would always prefer that we work through voluntary agreements wherever we can, but we have to recognise that the voluntary agreements in this area involve one party that has overwhelming strength because it owns the infrastructure and essentially has a monopolistic position, and a much smaller company that wishes to have access. We therefore need to find a better way of making that voluntary arrangement work, as I think it often does in other countries, or we will consider taking extra powers to deliver the greater access to the infrastructure that we think will be necessary.

It is absolutely clear that many of the fields now being looked at are more marginal ones, and therefore we will not necessarily be able to attract the huge international oil companies but rather smaller specialist companies, which nevertheless have fantastic records of technological expertise and safety. We therefore have to ensure that the regime is appropriate for those smaller companies.

Several questions have been asked about the fiscal situation. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon will be aware, those are always matters for the
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Treasury, which rightly guards its leadership on such issues very carefully. I can certainly tell him, however, that there have already between discussions between the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Scottish Executive about the fossil fuel levy. We understand the requests that there should be a higher ability to draw down funding from that levy and the Treasury is considering the issues with an open mind.

Malcolm Bruce: Allowing for the respect agenda, does the Minister not agree that it would be beneficial, before any agreement were concluded, to have a clear understanding, at least in broad terms, of how the money was likely to be used? To put it at its crudest, the purpose would not be fulfilled if the money were simply to disappear into the block and not benefit the support for the offshore renewables industry in the north-east of Scotland.

Charles Hendry: My understanding is that that is the case that has been put to the Treasury by the Scottish Executive, and that they want access to more of that funding to facilitate such investment. Clearly, these are details that have to be sorted out, but I am very encouraged indeed that the Treasury is keen to approach that with an open mind.

Mr Doran: My understanding is that the money is not passed to the Scottish Executive because they have consistently failed to put forward projects on which to spend the money.

Charles Hendry: As I say, there is much devil in the detail in these matters and the Treasury is taking forward the discussions. I am, however, encouraged by the approach taken in general.

About 45% of all the UK's oil and gas-related jobs are in Scotland, and many, as we have heard, are in Aberdeen. I know from my own experience how committed that work force is. I was there most recently just a few weeks ago, and went through the helicopter training exercise. They decided that they should not yet dunk me in the water, that perhaps I was too new a Minister. I am not sure that any Minister has gone through the dunking process, and I have made a rather rash commitment to be the first. It is incredibly important that as policy makers we understand how the industry addresses these issues, and, as far as we are concerned, there should be no short cuts on safety. The visit brought home the great measures that have been put in place since the helicopter tragedies, to ensure that we have the toughest safety standards in the helicopter transportation that operates there. I went out to the Beryl platform, which I was particularly keen to see because it is an old platform still operated by its original operators, but drilling again for new reserves. It is a very good example of how, after some decades of operation, there is still much life and activity.

We travelled nearly 200 miles from Aberdeen airport to the rig, passing over two structures that had human life on them, and the very often incredible isolation and the bravery of the people who work there also came home to me very clearly. I travelled out there on a nice June day, when there was a little ripple in the water, and I cannot imagine what it would be like in a cold February gale. The landing spot for the helicopter looked small
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enough in those conditions. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North talked about making several attempts to land when he went out there some time ago. It really brings home to us the courage, the expertise and the global skill set that we have in the North sea, something to which we should always pay tribute.

I am certainly always willing to talk to the trade unions on these matters. Safety is not an issue for industry versus workers. There is a great recognition that for the industry, it is absolutely critical for everybody, every business and every organisation working with it. I will always be keen to find reasons to talk to the people who represent that work force.

Our approach to North sea regulation is among the most robust in the world, and our record there is strong, but the tragedy in the gulf of Mexico has to give us pause for thought. As we move into deeper waters west of Scotland, there is every reason to increase our vigilance. We have announced that we will double the number of annual inspections and increase by one half the number of inspectors. There is the inevitable time span before they are recruited, but the process is already under way.

Right hon. and hon. Members should be in no doubt that, if there is evidence from the reviews of the gulf of Mexico tragedy that requires us again to improve security and health and safety measures, we will do so. We are determined that the safety regime in the North sea will be the toughest operating anywhere. I am pleased that we will do that in partnership with the industry. The Oil Spill Prevention and Response Advisory Group is an industry-led initiative that does critical work in looking at these issues, just as it looked at the measures necessary to improve safety after the tragedies involving helicopters. We are very much in debt to it for its leadership in ensuring that we introduce measures in this area. Again, I welcome the role that the trade unions play in ensuring that workers' voices are heard and represented.

There has been discussion about other ways in which the North sea can be a global centre for international excellence in energy infrastructure. Foremost among those will be offshore wind. We recognise that the United Kingdom is now a global leader in offshore wind, but much needs to be done if we are to meet the targets that have been set. The aspirations are high, and a great deal more has to happen if we are to get the right investment and infrastructure in place to achieve them. Some £15 billion of new investment is required in transmission assets to connect offshore wind farms to the onshore grid.

I am determined that we roll out the programme in a more structured way. Again, the Government want an approach that focuses on the problems, so we will look at where there are barriers to investment. We see working constructively and jointly with the industry as the best way to get around those issues.

My right hon. Friend spoke about the need for more ships, which are critical to this work. With the number of ships available in the world at present, we simply cannot put in place the number of turbines necessary to meet the aspirations. Grid infrastructure and connectivity will be fundamental to that.

The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury asked why the announcement has been delayed. There was every opportunity for the previous Government to make an announcement. Not only was there a little
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letter in a drawer which said that there was no money left, but there was a big pile of paper labelled, "Too difficult to think about." There is a range of complexities, and different views from different sectors of the industry. We have been actively looking at the full range of grid and transmission issues with a view to announcing a decision in the near future. We absolutely understand that these are critical issues for the industry, and we are determined to give early clarity.

Emily Thornberry: I am sure that the Minister is aware that a date at the end of June was set for an announcement on the offshore grid. Why the delay, and when will we get an announcement?

Charles Hendry: We are trying to ensure that we have cohesion across the whole range of issues relating to the grid, including the offshore transmission system, transmission access and transmission charging, which is particularly critical as far as Scotland is concerned. I want to ensure that we have a complete response to all the issues involved as we try to move forward in this area. The hon. Lady will not have to wait much longer. I understand that the industry attaches a great deal of importance to the sector, and this is very much at the top of the list of things that we are seeking to resolve.

Questions were asked about the ports project. It has not been suspended or cancelled, but, within the framework of the comprehensive spending review, we are trying to ensure that all such major projects are handled in the most sensible and constructive way, to deliver the best response and to make the best use of taxpayers' money. We are committed to taking the work forward, but it will be handled within the network of the comprehensive spending review.

We will also be looking at how we take forward work on carbon capture and storage, which offers many partnership opportunities. Some of the most extraordinary academic work on CCS in the world is being carried out in Scottish universities. People such as Professor Jon Gibbins and Professor Stuart Hazeldine at the university of Edinburgh are doing wonderful work to ensure that we lead the world in that technology. I want to work closely with them in ensuring that we make the best and strongest case for Britain in that respect.

There was a question about the working relationship with the Crown Estate. We believe that the regime is working at present. There is clearly a difference between the role of the Crown Estate as the landlord and the role of the Government who, as the regulator, are able to issue licences. If there is evidence that the regime is not working, we will certainly look at how the matter can be addressed.

The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury asked about our continuing commitment to renewables obligation certificates. We have said that we are looking at introducing feed-in tariffs. We indicated prior to the election that there is a strong case for using feed-in tariffs for the third round of offshore wind because investors have told us that that would be more attractive.
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We have also been told that feed-in tariffs would be more attractive for marine technologies, so we are looking at the most appropriate balance between the renewables obligation and feed-in tariffs to see how we can best stimulate investment. At the core of all that we are doing is a desire to make this the most attractive place to invest in energy infrastructure, and that applies to oil and gas, nuclear, coal with carbon capture and renewables.

The debate has touched on many critical issues, and there is an overwhelming sense on both sides of the House that the industry will continue to make an enormous contribution to the British economy. The North sea sector is sometimes seen as an old industry, but it is, in fact, a ground-breaking industry in the development and application of technology. Probably only space travel has the same level of involvement.

Let us look at what is happening in the gulf of Mexico at present, where BP is drilling down 18,000 feet below the surface of the water, through perhaps 13,000 feet of rock. It intends to intersect a pipe that is just a few inches across in order to stop the flow of oil from the well. We should pay tribute to it for the work that it is doing and the cap that it appears to be putting in place successfully. The technology involved is extraordinary.

In all our debates about the industry, we should see it as an industry of the future which has an extraordinarily important role to play. I can say to right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken this morning that, even though I may be a Conservative Member of Parliament from the south-east of England, I have an absolute commitment to being a champion of the industry. I want to visit Aberdeen regularly and know about all aspects of the industry. I want to know the industry and the trade union sides, and to work with both of them to deliver the best possible outcomes for investment. We have an absolute national interest in ensuring that we secure the best from our indigenous resources.

We have had an outstanding debate this morning, which has raised many critical issues. I look forward to working closely over the coming months and years with right hon. and hon. Members, who have great expertise in the sector, and with the companies and people in their constituencies who work in this sector and deliver so much in terms of our energy security.

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Thank you, Minister. I thank all those Members who have taken part in the debate for the courtesy that they have shown to the Chair and for their indulgence of each other. I wish you much luck with your dunking exercise, Mr Hendry. I hope that the safety procedures are all in place when you do it, by the way. I am sure that the whole House would regret any mishap. Do not forget the wet suit.

As we are now all in place, we can move on to the next debate. Before we do so, several Members have indicated that they want to take part. I want to try to get as many in as possible, so I ask that interventions be short and to the point, and that replies be quick as well. I ask for the indulgence of the Minister and the Opposition spokesman: could they give me an indication at some stage of how long they will want to speak so that I can ensure that we can get in as many people as possible?

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Housing Benefit

10.59 am

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): As ever, it is a pleasure to server under your chairmanship, Mr Hancock.

I am mindful that a number of colleagues have approached me to say that they are keen to speak in the debate-that is an indication of how serious the Government's recent proposals are-so I do not propose to go into detailed background about housing benefit. The Minister, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), is one of the most expert Members of Parliament on this subject. None of us need a history lesson on housing benefit, and I hope that the Minister will focus on answering the serious points that we all need to raise.

The cap on housing benefit levels that was announced in the Budget is devastating for London and for Londoners. Only four London boroughs are completely unaffected. I do not have time to go into some important general issues to do with the provision of affordable housing, so I will instead focus on the impacts in relation to housing benefit in Hackney and more widely.

In addition to the cap on benefit levels, we will see an impact due to the local housing allowance level being limited to the 30th percentile of a local reference rent. There will also be a devastating impact due to the perverse proposal to impose a 10% cut in benefit for those who are unemployed for more than a year, which will be particularly hard for young people aged 18 to 24, who are among those hit by the highest levels of unemployment. That is a particular concern of organisations such as Catch22, which is a charity that works with young people.

More than 650,000 homes are rented in the private sector in London, so this subject touches the lives of many people. More than a third of those homes are rented to families who receive the local housing allowance. High rents in London are not a new phenomenon and are driven largely by a housing shortage. Figures provided by London Councils show that when the local housing allowance was introduced in 2008, the rent charge for three-bedroom properties in central London was £700, which is twice the level of the proposed cap. Looking further back to 2005, the then local reference rent, which excluded the top end of the market, recorded the rental market as follows: £435 a week for two-bedroom properties; £546 a week for three-bedroom properties; and £625 a week for four-bedroom properties, all of which are above the cap recently proposed-some seven years later. It seems that the Government are making decisions without looking at any evidence or at history. The lack of affordable alternatives in London meant that the previous Government's desire to achieve a reduction in rents through the introduction of the local housing allowance was not fulfilled, because local housing allowance rates have risen as they chase the ever-increasing level of rent in the wider market.

According to a parliamentary answer, 14,000 households will be affected by the changes. The Minister has acknowledged the impact. We need him to tell us what measures will ameliorate those changes, if the Government go ahead with them. I should like the Minister to explain that figure and to say how the private rented
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housing market will be able to cope with the likely upheaval that it suggests. In addition, he needs to address the impact on families at a human level.

There is an assumption that people will be able to move to lower-price properties, but the pace and scale of change will present a challenge in that regard, even without the huge impact that there will be on children and families, and on low-paid workers. It is important to ask where that low-rent property will be available. It will not be available in my constituency. Will my constituents be forced to move to the borough of Barking and Dagenham, which is no doubt delightful, but not convenient for work and schools for my constituents with Hackney connections? The impact, including the social impact, on those few boroughs that will be unaffected could be huge.

For those listening to this debate who are not aware of the situation or are not from London, I point out that all central London boroughs are affected, including that covered by my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott)-the whole of Hackney-as well as Barnet, Brent, Ealing, Haringey, Hounslow, Lambeth, Merton, Richmond and Wandsworth. The changes will have a particular impact in London.

It is interesting that the Government have professed their intention to get rid of the Minister for London. That is all very well, but I believe that there is a spokesman-or spokesperson-for London. However, I wonder whether the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) has been asleep on the job because it seems that this measure has been advanced without any understanding of its wider impact, particularly in London, which is the driver of our economy. The Mayor of London has also written to the Government to outline his concern.

Mr Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): Does not the hon. Lady accept that the level of housing benefit-and how it is set-affects the rental market? The National Landlords Association has said:

The hon. Lady will have seen examples in the Evening Standard last night of properties being rented at almost double the market value to housing benefit tenants.

Meg Hillier: The hon. Gentleman brings me nicely to my next point, and I shall deal with his second point in a moment. Let me be clear that I am not saying that all is perfect with housing benefit, as the Minister, from his previous incarnation as an academic in this area, knows all too well. Although I have been unable to source the reference, I believe that the current Leader of House famously said, "Let housing benefit take the strain," when a previous Government made changes following which social housing rents increased.

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there are grave perils in establishing a policy that affects one million claimants on the basis of what we know for a fact are some 30 extreme cases of the kind quoted by the hon. Member for North East Hertfordshire (Mr Heald)?

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Meg Hillier: I agree. We must not lose sight of the majority of our constituents. Good law is not made on the basis of rare exceptions.

The hon. Member for North East Hertfordshire (Mr Heald) raised an interesting point about housing benefit levels in the private rented sector. Some private landlords have been in touch with me to say that they are concerned that they will no longer wish to rent to anybody who is either in receipt of benefit or likely to be. Given the current economic situation, the group of people who are likely to be in receipt of housing benefit will grow, because many people could be affected over the next few years. We heard yesterday about cuts to the NHS, and job losses are coming from all directions. That will mean that for many people in the private rented sector who want stay in their home and their community, the only option will be to look to housing benefit to take the strain.

Mr Heald: Does not somebody have to speak up for the hard-pressed taxpayer? Average earnings-take-home pay-in this country are £374 a week, but the hon. Lady is arguing that people should be able to rent properties for amounts hugely above that.

Meg Hillier: There is an interesting divide in the Chamber-not on party lines, but on London and rest of the country lines. Those of us who represent London see the reality of the situation. Yes, the housing benefit bill has increased, but tinkering in such a way is not the solution. The subsidy needs reform, but it is flexible, and that flexibility is useful. In the current climate, with job losses looming, we tinker with such flexibility at our peril. If wholesale reform was being proposed, we might want to look at that, but at the moment we are talking about tinkering with the system in a way that damages London.

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): We have a history of using market forces to force down rents, which clearly has not worked, as the riposte by the hon. Member for North East Hertfordshire (Mr Heald) showed.

Meg Hillier: One reason why that has not worked is housing shortages. However, the self-denying ordinance that I set out at the beginning of my speech means that I cannot talk about wider issues.

Flexibility is important, but it is being abused by the Government, who are proposing changes overnight that might be in place from this autumn-I look to the Minister to give me guidance about that. People who have signed a six-month tenancy or a tenancy with a six-month break clause, for example, will have little option but to fund that shortfall somehow, as I shall address in more detail in a moment.

There is also a proposal to link housing benefit to consumer price index inflation, which will have a big impact on tenants and landlords. Research by Shelter has shown that CPI increased by 15% between 1999 and 2007, while there was a 44% increase in average rents. Had the local housing allowance been set to increase in line with CPI in 1999, it would now be 20% below the level needed to rent the average property. Whichever way the cut is made, people on low incomes-those
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people are often working-or on benefits are expected to fund the shortfall from their income to stay living in their own homes.

The impact on children and families is pertinent in my constituency, because some 22% of residents are under 16 and a lot of families need homes. People often come to my surgery because they are unable to access social housing. They are advised that they should look at what can be provided in the private rented sector, and I am sure that colleagues are in a similar position. More than one million children-a third of them in London-are living in overcrowded conditions. The cap will only exacerbate that problem because families will be forced to move into smaller, cheaper properties, and perhaps to push out their teenage children as they get older so that they can afford the rent.

I need to touch on a problem in the north of Hackney-not in my constituency, but in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington-where orthodox Jewish families will be severely hit. Such families typically have more than four children, and many of them live in the private rented sector, so the limit on benefit will have a devastating impact. The council and social landlords in Hackney will be unable to take the strain, so I need answers from the Minister on how councils will be supported in dealing with that.

Of the nearly 40,000 people in Hackney currently in receipt of housing benefit, just over 9,000 live in the private rented sector. Two thirds are in receipt of benefit, but one third are working tenants, many of whom would like to continue to work but, as a result of the proposals, will find a serious shortfall between their rent and the benefit provided for it, and will have very little income to make up the difference. In the three bands for the broad rental market areas that operate in my constituency-inner east, inner north and London central-all properties with more than two bedrooms are above the Government's proposed cap. That is ludicrous. It means that those in Hackney living in a two, three or four-bedroom property-or a larger property-will have nowhere to go. They could go out of Hackney, but there are not many boroughs they could go to. I am not entirely clear how the Government propose to ensure that people can stay living in London-and, crucially, working in London and supporting its economy-because many people need that benefit to subsidise their rent so that they are able to live locally to their jobs.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): I agree.

Meg Hillier: Does my hon. Friend wish to make an intervention?

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. Do not look for them.

Meg Hillier: There was some agitation behind me, Mr Hancock, and I thought that my hon. Friend wanted to intervene.

We must also consider the annual reductions in housing benefit payments. I can see why the Government see that as appealing from the point of view of money, but the impact on those affected is enormous-1,642 claimants will be affected by the bedroom size proposals in my borough alone, which is devastating. Shelter has kindly
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done some research that shows that the average three-bedroom household in inner-east London, which is a band in my constituency, will need to find an additional £35 a week to keep a roof over their heads. I do not know how people on the minimum wage or benefits can do that. For example, how will a pensioner surviving on £98 a week find that additional £35? Perhaps they would not be in a three-bedroom property, but they would still have to find some extra money. How will someone on the minimum wage-£218 a week-find that additional money?

Almost half of local housing allowance claimants already have shortfalls of almost £100 a month. Shelter is concerned, as am I, that the cuts could push many households over the edge. I have great faith in the Minister, because he is an expert in the area, and he has a great opportunity to do something positive for housing benefit. I hope that he is not a fig leaf for the coalition's proposals, that he will genuinely look at the problems that the proposals throw up, and that he will come back with solutions that will, at best, ameliorate those problems, or delay them while better work is done to lessen the impact.

It is rare to have a Minister who is an expert. Governments often seem to conspire to put people in office who do not know much about their subject, but in this case we have a Minister who knows what he is talking about and can make a difference. I urge him to look into the matter with all vigour. I would also like him to answer some specific questions. What is the timetable for the welfare reform Bill, and are there any plans for the implementation of its measures, should the House pass it? Were it to go through the House in the autumn at a fast pace, when would the measures be brought in?

Will the Minister look at the following matters, which would not require primary legislation through that Bill: the reduction from the median to the 30th percentile for claimants of local housing allowance; the cap for each property size; the increase in discretionary housing payment, which I will touch on in a moment; and the change to non-dependent deductions? The Government can change the rules with a stroke of the pen, as we saw in the Budget, but that stroke of the pen devastates my constituents and many others. Is the Minister planning to consult on that, because we have seen very little consultation? We have not even seen an impact assessment. Rather than having evidence-based policy, for which the Government parties pressed when they were in opposition, it seems that policy is being made before information is provided to back it up. That is not the right way to go about things, and I hope that an impact assessment will soon be forthcoming.

I must mention the discretionary housing payment in the short time I have left. The Chartered Institute of Housing has conducted an analysis that shows that the suggested additional £40 million, which to the average man or woman might sound like a lot of money, does not go very far. If it is spent solely on making up the shortfall in rents due to the proposed drop, it would support only 4% of claimants facing the drop from the 50th to the 30th percentile for one year. It is just not enough. I do not know what will happen in my borough when people turn up to the housing office looking for alternatives, having been kicked out of their private rented properties. The borough will find it difficult to deal with the private landlords with whom it already
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has relationships, because they will not be keen to take people on and there will not be enough social housing. I hope that the Minister will address that point.

I am confused about some of the proposals and hope that the Minister can clarify them for me. I have already mentioned the welfare reform Bill, but what is the timetable for the more general changes and for the publication of an impact assessment, and what will that impact assessment cover? What is the rationale behind the proposals? We see a Government who are joined up in their coalition, and we have talked a lot about joined-up government over the past 13 years. As a former Minister, I am aware of the challenges that that presents, but to see such a disjoint in one Department is quite extraordinary. On one hand the Secretary of State is telling social housing tenants, "Move for the work and travel around," and on the other hand private rental tenants are being forced to move, not necessarily to where the work is, but to poorer, cheaper places. It would therefore be helpful to hear the rationale behind the proposals. Will the Minister be candid and explain what discussion he, as an expert on the matter, has had with the Secretary of State?

What transitional arrangements will be in place for affected families? Will the change be sudden, because at the moment it seems that there will be no such arrangements? What support will councils be given, particularly with regard to discretionary housing payments? What will be the impact more generally on housing needs teams, which are already stretched? What conversations has the Minister held with the Department for Communities and Local Government?

If the Government's apparent theory is backed by action and we see an influx of tenants seeking cheaper properties, certain boroughs will be particularly badly affected, so what support will there be for those boroughs? My colleagues, undoubtedly, will want to refer to that concern. Will the Minister share with us any analysis of an impact assessment on the private rented sector? I am not sure whether that will come in the impact assessment that has been proposed, but I have already heard landlords say that they will not rent to people on benefits. Will he tell us candidly what the chances are that we will make any difference by banging the drum about that in the debate? Have the Government made up their mind? Is that the style of the new Government, or is the Minister genuinely listening?

The Conservative Mayor of London and the Labour chair of London Councils have joined together-in the spirit of coalition government, I suppose-and have written to the Government to point out the error that they have made. In seeking to grab a headline and make a saving, the Government will have a huge impact on our capital. I do not claim that housing benefit is perfect, but to change it in such a way is just not the way to proceed. Where is the voice for London in the Government? I hope that the Minister will hear what we are saying today, as many London Members are present to hammer home our points. On this occasion, I agree with Boris, which is not something that I expect to say regularly. At least we have some voice for London through him and through Mayor Jules Pipe, who chairs London Councils.

In the past, Westminster council sold homes to discourage poor people from living in the area. Now we see a Secretary of State colluding in that by depriving lower-income households of the opportunity to live in whole
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swathes of London, unless they qualify for social housing. We can draw our own conclusions about what is happening, and you, Mr Hancock, are experienced enough for me not to have to lay it out. The quiet man is roaring in his own way, and it is our constituents and London's economy that will suffer.

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Thank you for being short and to the point. Hon. Members will have to be fair to each other, because some will be squeezed out of the debate if others talk for too long.

11.19 am

Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing the debate. We have worked together on a problem in our communities concerning the Crown Estate, along with the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), and will continue to do so. I have significant sympathy with some of her concerns, particularly those that relate to London. I fear that elements of the proposals are similar to those adopted by previous Governments, of all colours, and that there is a lack of understanding on specific issues that affect the capital and that an entirely nationwide approach cannot necessarily focus on. Many people will argue that if we remove the opportunity of central London life for the unemployed or the poor, we risk losing the fundamental character of the inner city and perhaps ghettoising the outer capital where families would inevitably be placed.

A housing benefit cap is not about driving people out of London; it is about bringing rents back into the real world, and saying that a system that pays for accommodation that is well out of the reach of ordinary taxpayers is wrong. That system is largely absurd. It has been broken, and become more absurd as time goes by. I am not focusing on Daily Mail articles that appear day by day, because we all know that those exceptions do not prove the rule. None the less, they reflect some of the reality as well as the anger felt by many people who take responsibility for their lives and do not have a lot of children and then throw themselves on the mercy of the state through housing benefit or subsidised housing. There must be fairness.

London will continue to have vibrant estates, and its housing association properties and relatively cheap private sector offering will probably come within the reach of many ordinary workers when the artificially raised rents that have in part been caused by the housing benefit system fall. The issue is not just about the regulated rents of recent years, but goes back some years. There is no doubt that some rents have been artificially raised over the last few years because private landlords have known what they can get away with. That has led to some of the current absurdities.

Ms Buck: On that specific point, is the hon. Gentleman aware of the proportion of private sector tenancies in London where a claimant is on housing benefit? He is making the point that the market is distorted by housing benefit, yet housing benefit claimants make up only a small proportion of total private sector leasing, so why should that be the case?

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Mr Field: It distorts the overall price level that landlords-often absentee landlords, of which there are far more-reckon they can get away with. That has a distorting effect on the rest of the free market in this area.

Westminster city council-my local authority and the hon. Lady's-supports the cap even though the announced changes are estimated in the worst case scenario to cost local authorities some £8.1 million this year. That reflects another element of the absurdity: the expense of long-term temporary accommodation contracts that the council was encouraged to enter into under the previous cap regime.

Ms Buck: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that two years ago, when the Labour Government proposed changes to the broad market rental area that would have impacted on Westminster, the council not only opposed that and asked us to lobby against it, but said that it would seek judicial review?

Mr Field: I do. The hon. Lady and I have done work and spoken in debates here over many years, but it is absurd that there is a massive incentive for local authorities to work within that system, and that they will lose a significant amount because of the cap system.

The local connection guidelines must change because, again, there is a phenomenal incentive for people to come to London, particularly central London. It is understandable that people from established communities abroad would want to be in central London, and I share some of the concerns of Opposition Members about tampering with ideas about local connections. However, in relation to the requirement on a local authority to provide housing, it has been suggested that we consider a three-year period instead of the existing six months out of 12. There is no doubt that central London remains an extremely attractive place in which to live, and it is important to ensure that only families most in need of temporary accommodation are here.

I understand the knock-on effects-I see the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) shaking her head. I understand that part of the difficulty is that wherever the boundary is drawn the knock-on effect will mean that in Barking, Dagenham, Newham and so on there will be many more people, and that is equally a wrong way forward to a large extent. I hope that we will implement the caps for new claimants with immediate effect, because nothing would be worse than having too long a gap, such that there would be an incentive for people to enter into long-term contracts before the cap comes into effect.

I appreciate that many hon. Members want to speak, but I want to provide a bit of balance. I am broadly supportive of what the Government are trying to do, but they must consider seriously the specific problems in London, which I am sure will be articulated elsewhere.

It is only right to put another side of the story. A housing provider in my constituency-St Mungo's-is dedicated to providing a recovery solution for homeless people, and I have worked closely with it during my time as an MP. We know that finding employment must be part of homeless people's recovery. St Mungo's welcomes the Government's promise of further support for those who live a long way from the labour market. The people it works with have many problems, which have contributed
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to their joblessness and homelessness. It is worried about the announcement that jobseeker's allowance claimants will have their housing allowance cut by 10% if they have not found jobs within a year.

Many Conservative Members welcome the review of the housing benefit system, because its flaws have become glaringly obvious to those of us who frequently deal with housing cases. I probably speak for all London Members when I say that housing and immigration are the two biggest elements of our work load. Given the great financial straits facing our country, the case for reform is more compelling, but I share the concern of the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, and I hope that the Minister will respond to it. Urgent as the need for reform is, there must be proper consultation and an emphasis on the issues particular to the capital. I fear that if we do not change the system, we risk undermining the most compelling aspect of the case for reform, which is that the measures must be primarily about fairness, with hard work rewarded and the truly vulnerable protected.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. If hon. Members who wish to speak do so for four minutes, I will be able to call nearly everyone.

11.26 am

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): It is pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field), and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) who has laid out as a basis for the debate the numbers and figures. I will not reiterate what has already been established.

What I find most shocking about the Government's proposals is that the previous Conservative Government laid out a lesson of precisely what not to do, and the present Government are intent on repeating what happened last time. The suggestion that if people are decanted from the centre of London it can thrive is absurd. The services on which we are all dependent in the city are dependent on people who work extremely hard, not unusually for the minimum wage. They will certainly never be able to afford to buy a property in London and are finding it almost impossible to rent an affordable property in London. One of my most recent constituency cases involves a man with four in his family. He earns £361 a week and his rent is £351 a week. How is that family supposed to survive?

I want to revert to my opening statement about history being rerun. Last time there was a Conservative Government, they decanted people to seaside resorts, which experienced difficulties because those people had no employment and nothing to do, and that became an increasing tragedy. This Government have said that they are committed to families. I would argue about their definition of what constitutes a family, but the basis of that argument is that children thrive best in a stable family environment. The proposal for housing benefit will destroy families.

I revert again to my history lesson. What happened was that families were placed in absolutely appalling bed-and-breakfast conditions. That will happen again,
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because local authorities still have a statutory duty to put a roof over the heads of children. They may either put families into bed-and-breakfast accommodation, or they may attempt to take the children into care. Will someone tell me precisely how much we will save if thousands of children are taken into local authority care and their parents are left to wander the streets? We will see an increase in the sort of homelessness that I thought so shocked all political parties that they would never allow such a situation to arise again. But it will arise again, because the Government are trying to sell to the British electorate the argument-we heard it not in harsh terms, but it has been presented by the Government-that the majority of people who claim benefit, particularly housing benefit, are scroungers and wastrels who do not want to work and are battening on the backs of the majority of hard-working British people who do not claim housing benefit. That is simply not the case. There are people who work all the hours that God sends and are still dependent on housing benefit in order to house their families.

I hope that the Minister will reply to all the questions put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch. This policy is a monstrous rush towards what I believe will be the creation of serious social damage to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I have already mentioned children, but there are a number of pensioners in my constituency who are dependent on housing benefit. If their homes are taken away, where will they live? Many of them do not have families who can house them. Are we going to put them into a residential home? Are we going back to the good old days of the Poor Law, where a husband and wife could be separated and put in separate buildings? I know that sounds fanciful, but if the Government's policy is carried through as they propose, I do not believe that it is extreme to see that happening.

I have not mentioned those people who claim housing benefit because they are disabled. Such disability may not always be physical; it could be a mental disability. The policy must be rethought. The Government claim to be hard but fair none the less, and they have a duty to ensure that their approach to this issue is fair.

Lastly, on landlords, I will not be the only Member of the House who has received a briefing from a landlords association that wants to see its properties turned into houses in multiple occupation. My local authority-along with every local authority in central London, I think-has instituted policies to prevent that from happening, because properties are needed that can house more than just one individual. In my constituency, we need to house larger families, and the housing stock available at the moment is utterly inadequate. The bottom line is that we as a nation should be building more homes, but the Government have put a total block on the funding available to the Homes and Communities Agency to build more properties, so that is apparently not going to happen. That is a long-term issue, but in the short term the Government must rethink this scandalous and disgraceful policy because it punishes the most vulnerable people most harshly.

11.32 am

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing this debate. This is not just a London
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problem. Most, if not all, housing policy for Wales is devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government, with the obvious exception of housing benefit. The current system of housing provision clearly fails to provide for the warm, dry, clean spaces that most people would like to live in-MPs have recently had the experience of looking for rented properties-and that has been the case for decades. I do not want to enter into a history lesson, but I became interested in housing in the '70s and '80s, and there is a clear contrast between housing policy in the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s, and recent policy with its emphasis on profits, ownership and selling off assets.

There are particular circumstances in Wales. In my part of Wales, the question of housing is exacerbated by the huge number of second homes. In my constituency around Caernarfon there are enough empty properties to rehouse every homeless person and nearly everybody who lives in substandard housing. However, those houses stand empty.

The Welsh Assembly Government have been trying to do something about that problem, and in the last Parliament a legislative competence order on housing was discussed. Three Conservative MPs on the Welsh Affairs Committee turned up expressly to vote the order down-I see that they are not present in the Chamber today. They took the opportunity to vote down that provision, and the transfer of powers over this vital issue to the Welsh Assembly Government was blocked. There has now been a U-turn. The Welsh Assembly Government lack overall control over housing benefit and work on only part of the jigsaw. They work effectively and have a well-thought-out policy, but the part of housing provision that is a mess-housing benefit-is controlled from this place.

If we are to reduce the housing benefit bill in the long term, we must plan to provide proper homes of a good standard to the people who need them, and not depend on the vagaries of the market. We must build more affordable homes, and in Wales we must change the VAT system so that houses that are clearly substandard are brought up to a proper standard. VAT is charged on repairs to houses whereas it is not charged on new build. In Wales, we need to devolve power so that the Welsh Assembly Government can take full control of the issue. My question to the Minister is this: what discussions on housing benefit took place with the Welsh Assembly Government before the announcement of this policy?

11.36 am

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): It seems a long time since the Budget, and this policy on housing was probably the worst of a number of shocks on that day, particularly for London MPs. We have had time to reflect, and we have seen a pattern of announcements. If we look at the announcement about Building Schools for the Future last week, or that about the NHS yesterday, we see a systematic attack on the welfare state, and major changes that are being done without consultation or advice. To my mind, that looks like the legal definition of recklessness-we are either giving no thought to the consequences of our actions, or we are giving thought to those consequences, but pressing on regardless. I
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would be interested to know whether the Minister has given this policy any thought. He has a reputation for doing that.

I do not know whether this degree of recklessness is the new politics, or whether the Conservatives expect the Liberal Democrats to hold them back. There is little sign of that at present given the rather slavish and shameless way in which the Liberal Democrats adhere to those policies, which are attacks on the poorest communities in this country. I hope that the Minister will speak not only on behalf of the Government, but on behalf of his party to explain how he can defend his actions. He would be well advised to take advice.

Citizens Advice has produced an excellent brief for this debate that claims that there will be a marked increase in poverty, debt, rent arrears and homelessness, as well as negative impacts on family relationships. The National Housing Federation has estimated that homelessness will rise by 200,000. I feel most strongly about the fact that this policy will destroy mixed communities in London. We are proud of those communities, and not only poorer people but better-off people enjoy living in places such as Shepherd's Bush, Hammersmith and many other areas in London. Such areas have a uniqueness that is not found in many other countries in that people of all backgrounds, incomes, races and religions live together harmoniously. This policy is destroying that. It is just one way in which the Conservative party has sought to destroy the communities that I represent, but is a particularly pernicious way that will lead to the return of Rachmanism in London. It will lead to appalling housing conditions being promoted by the Government, which is something that I hoped never to see in this country. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing this debate. As she said, this policy is full of contradictions and is driving out those people who can get work and who, to a large extent, do work in London.

Given the limited time available I will not repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) has said, but there is a myth that people in receipt of housing benefit are scroungers and that they are staying out of work. Shelter stated:

There is a myth that housing benefit is generous, although half of people who receive it pay an average of £23 a week towards their rent. There is a myth that people are living in luxury. We know the stories that Tory central office plants in theEvening Standard, which is frankly a disgraceful way to pillory the millions of people who are reliant in some degree on housing benefit in this country. At present, the level of accommodation is low.

The biggest myth of all is that people choose to live in that way. Almost everybody I know who receives housing benefit would prefer to have a secure or assured tenancy in an affordable home. To give some figures, the director of finance of Hammersmith and Fulham council estimated that initially the cap would mean 750 families being unable to afford to live in the borough-I suspect many more once we have taken into account other factors, such as the six different changes. The cap alone means thousands of people not being able to live where their
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families live, where they have grown up, where their work is or where their children go to school. In comparison, in the past two years the Conservative council has given planning consent for only four new affordable rented homes, although even that scheme is in doubt.

Do not blame the people who are receiving housing benefit for the problem. I blame Conservative councils in particular, but also Liberal Democrat ones. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) agrees about the Liberal Democrats. Those councils have singularly failed through the planning process and their own means to build affordable homes in London over the past five years. What I find particularly pernicious-

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Slaughter: I do not think that I have time-I would like to, but it would be unfair on other people.

A degree of trickery and blackmail is used by Conservative councils and, I am sure, Liberal Democrat ones-I have to include them now-to force people into the private sector. They say, "Give up your tenancy in order to get more space. If you want your families to live in more than a one-bedroom flat, move into the private sector." I have such cases every week in my surgery. I now have to inform those people that if they do so, not only will they be in an insecure tenancy, but in a year's time their rent will be capped and they will be forced to move out of the area altogether. They simply do not know that.

I praise the campaign that Inside Housing magazine is running on the issue, and I praise the efforts of many London MPs, but the policy needs a rethink even at this stage. The Minister needs to go back and look at the implications, which he clearly has not yet done.

11.41 am

Mr Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): Average earners in this country-taxpayers-take home £374 a week. Is the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) seriously arguing that they should chip in so that £2,000 a week can be spent through housing benefit for a family? He needs to wake up. The fact is that the housing market for rentals is affected by the level of housing benefit and the housing allowance. In Wolverhampton, 75% of the rental market is housing allowance. The maximum amount that can be claimed for a four-bedroom property is £693 a month and-guess what?-that is what they all go on the market at.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr Heald: I will give way in a moment, but first I wish to mention Blackpool. The effect of the local broad rental market area, which takes in surrounding areas such as Fylde, has been to put up all the rents in the centre of Blackpool. There are other examples, including one in yesterday's Evening Standard showing that housing benefit rents are higher than ordinary rents. The National Landlords Association states that the effect of the change will be landlords looking at their profit and loss and deciding by how much they can
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afford to reduce their rents. The fact is that housing benefit and the rental market are intertwined and it is ridiculous to say otherwise.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those on the lowest incomes pay most in income tax, as a percentage of their income, rather than those on higher incomes? The idea that these measures are somehow unfair to taxpayers is completely misguided.

Mr Heald: The hon. Lady makes my point exactly. If someone with a job that does not pay much is struggling and paying taxes, how will they feel to see a family renting at £2,000 per week?

Lyn Brown: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Heald: Of course.

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. I urge hon. Members to consider that at least six more people have indicated that they wish to speak. If we have such a rate of interventions, they will not all get in. Please can we be fair to each other?

Lyn Brown: I am grateful, Mr Hancock. Other people would like to contribute to the debate but will probably find it impossible.

I want to make it absolutely clear that the hon. Member for North East Hertfordshire (Mr Heald) is talking about one case that has been cited in the Daily Mail, The Mailon Sunday or wherever. In Newham, in London, the rent for a five-bedroom house is £350 a week, not the ludicrous amounts that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. Perhaps he will focus his remarks on the real world, rather than the world of Notting Hill.

Mr Heald: The hon. Lady must recognise what has happened to the housing benefit budget. It has gone up in a decade from £14 billion to £21 billion, and has been pushed there the whole time. When the Work and Pensions Committee looked at the issue before the election, some people were seriously arguing that we should remove the five-bedroom cap so that someone could get a seven-bedroom house on housing benefit-there is no end to it. Someone needs to speak up for the ordinary taxpayer.

What about large families? The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) talked about that issue in Hampstead. If ordinary working people want to have a large family, that is their individual choice, and it probably means that if they are not subsidised to a huge extent, they will be a bit more crowded and cannot live in the part of London in which they want to live. People with large families need to be more realistic about the way of the world.

11.45 am

Margaret Hodge (Barking) (Lab): I want to raise the issue of the impact that this policy will have on my community in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham. Our borough has lower local housing allowance rates than the proposed cap for all but the largest properties, so only five families will be adversely affected by it, although I must add that larger families tend to be the poorer families and that the impact will be felt over time.
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However, that figure can be compared with the 4,592 families-some 85%-who will be over the cap in Westminster, the 2,345 in Kensington and Chelsea, the 2,360 in Brent and the 1,688 in Hackney.

We do not need to be rocket scientists to work out what will happen in practice: families will move out of the inner London boroughs to places such as Barking and Dagenham, where there will then be greater pressure on housing. Let me set out what the impact of that will be. Our borough does not have enough decent housing for local people at a price that people can afford. We have more than 11,000 people on our waiting list. Everyone in the Chamber knows the impact that a lack of affordable housing can have on people's anger, and therefore the rise of the extreme right, and we have been grappling with that problem. I ask the Minister to think about the impact of what he is doing by moving people across the capital, and what that will mean for social cohesion, which he must care about.

There is intellectual illiteracy among some Government Members. Rents have gone up in the private sector not because of housing benefit, but because of a lack of affordable housing. Both Labour and Conservative Governments have not built enough social housing. Making housing rents in the private sector less affordable for poor families-if there are no council or housing association homes available-means that people are forced into bed-and-breakfast accommodation or back on to the streets, which will cost the taxpayer very much more than private sector housing.

Several hon. Members rose-

Margaret Hodge: I will not give way, because loads of people wish to speak. I am not being discourteous, but do not want to be unfair to Members.

I have two other issues to raise. I am concerned about the changes to the local housing allowance. The current level of 50% of market rates is to go down to 30%, which again will disproportionately affect the largest families, who tend to be the poorest. In Barking and Dagenham, it will mean that the poorest large families will be more than £23 a week worse off. I do not believe in castrating the parents of such families to prevent them from having children. In a civilised society, our prime duty is to be fair and to look after the children of families in greatest need.

The Government also intend that, from 2013, families who have been on jobseeker's allowance for more than 12 months will find their housing benefit cut. That will have a terrible impact on the poorest families in the community. In my borough, one in five private tenants is a JSA claimant. They tend to be people of working age, but as rents go up, the costs of being in work increase, which forces people into joblessness.

I passionately ask the Minister whether he has considered the impact of his proposed changes on social cohesion in communities across London such as mine. If so, how will he respond to the challenges that he is creating? Will he reconsider the caps to prevent such dislocation across the capital, or is the policy just another bit of political gerrymandering, as we had with the Conservative Government in the 1980s? With his background, how can he justify hitting the poorest people first? How does
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the cap fit with fairness? Why punish people rather than supporting them out of poverty? The Government's proposition is ill thought out. We all want to reform housing benefit, but not in this way.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. I intend to call Damian Hinds next, and then Karen Buck and Caroline Lucas. The winding-up speeches will start at 12.10 pm. Both the Minister and the Opposition spokesperson have agreed to speak for 10 minutes each, which I hope that we can respect. We can still get five more speakers in if we play the game.

11.49 am

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): Most of us agree with the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) that there will be difficulties for some families following the changes. It would be faintly ridiculous to have a debate in which people on one side were saying that taking money from a benefit would have an impact, but people on the other side were saying that it would not. Of course there will be an impact, and not just in London, although London is particularly affected. Many other areas will be affected, including my constituency of East Hampshire.

Most of us wish that the changes were not necessary. We wish that we were not where we are-but we are. A budget of £21 billion is bound to be examined. The question is how we proceed, and the trick is not just to cut but to try to reform and redesign in a way that smoothes off the roughest edges, that does not introduce perverse incentives, and that attempts to keep rents down. The right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) shouted out that saying that this measure will do that is an assertion, not a fact, but it is also a basic economic law. If we take a large part of the macro-market-it does not have to be the majority of the market or all of it-and impose a limit, that will have an impact on the overall price.

The point that I really want to make is somewhat broader, however. I realise that Opposition Members would like the structural deficit that they ran up to be last week's or last month's debate, and now want to move on to a debate about cuts and pretend that it is a different topic altogether. In the first debate, they say, "Oh yes, we did go a little bit far in running up debts, but the real problem was caused by the bankers and the global recession," but that glosses over the fact that we were so economically ill prepared for what came. They deliberately confuse the cyclical deficit with the structural deficit and deliberately confuse the annual deficit with the accumulated debt, thus trying to discombobulate the public. By the way, they say that they had a plan to deal with the situation, but they only ever talk about the total, and never about the individual line items that make up that total.

In the second debate, Opposition Members move on to a discussion about cuts, and for every individual line item that the present Government have to cut, they find fault with that particular approach without offering a realistic alternative. We cannot have those two separate debates. They are not separate debates, because the deficit and how it is dealt with are two sides of the same coin.

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Let us be clear that with a deficit of such a size, we cannot talk only about cutting unproductive programmes and waste. We will also have to cut things that we want but simply cannot afford. If people are to be able to do the things that they want to do, they have to do the things that they must do well and responsibly, yet by running up the deficit, that is precisely what the previous Government did not do.

Many hon. Members who supported the previous Government want to see the debate in terms of so-called ideological cuts. I have seen how eager they are to suggest that there is some zeal on the part of Government Members to make such cuts because we have a strange, ill-defined antipathy towards helping people. Of course, that is nonsense. The reality is that we are trying urgently to save money-money that we do not have and never had-in the best way possible.

This is rightly a sensitive subject. As I said at the start of my speech, there will be hardship and hard cases as a result of the changes, which is why I was encouraged to learn of the increase in the discretionary housing benefit fund. I hope that that will help to mitigate some of the effects. Overall, however, given the fiscal situation that the Government have been bequeathed, I think that the changes are right and that they strike about the right balance. They cannot be considered in isolation. We must remember that people throughout society are being asked-have to be asked-to make sacrifices. I think that the changes will be seen as fair. My question is this: what representations has the Minister received from Opposition Members on how else to make cuts of a similar overall quantum in the housing benefit budget?

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. There are three more Back Benchers who wish to speak. If they take five minutes each, we will be laughing.

11.54 am

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): William Beveridge deferred any strategy for dealing with housing costs on the ground that that could not be done while there were still significant regional variations. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen's famous comment to Dan Quayle when Dan Quayle compared himself to Kennedy, "George Osborne, you are no William Beveridge."

Our problem is that we have had a 30-year policy of shifting expenditure from the construction of affordable housing to the housing benefit budget. That includes, I have to say, decisions made by the Labour Government, which I did not agree with at the time. We are dealing with that now in the worst possible way.

Four categories of people are involved. There is a very small number of very extreme cases, which the Labour Government were planning to deal with through taking out the most expensive properties at the top of the market in the local housing allowance calculation, which was a reasonable one. We will not support such cases, but we have to have a sensible strategy for dealing with those extremes. I do not think that any Labour Member would disagree that pumping billions of pounds of taxpayers' money into the pockets of private landlords is an insane way to go about a housing policy, but what is proposed is more insane.

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I say that because of the other three categories. One is pensioners who never expected to be on housing benefit but who, many years into their private tenancy, as the rents have gone up, have found themselves caught. The second is people in the private rented sector who were working but who have lost their jobs or whose incomes have gone down and who now find that they have to claim housing benefit, possibly for a transitional period. The third category is people-families in many cases-in priority need, who either could not access social housing or were deliberately placed in the accommodation that we are talking about by local authorities. All three categories but certainly categories one and three are made up of very vulnerable people.

I have a few questions for the Minister and I would be grateful if he confirmed that he will write to all hon. Members with replies to these questions and those asked in the excellent opening speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). Can he confirm that placing homeless households in private rented accommodation was a deliberate policy of local authorities and Government, and remains so? Is he aware of how many households have been either directed to or maintained in private lettings over the past five years as a deliberate housing policy?

What proportion of households making applications and accepted by local authorities as homeless had as the main reason for their homelessness acceptance the end of an assured shorthold tenancy? I believe that it is the majority of cases; it is the main driver of homelessness.

If a household is in priority need and faces a reduction in housing benefit below the rent payable, will the local authority continue to have a homelessness duty to it? How many private tenants on housing benefit currently face a shortfall between local housing allowance and the rent charged, and what is the average amount? Hon. Friends have cited some figures. Shelter has come up with the figure of 50% of all housing benefit claimants and cited the figure of £100.

What assessment has the Department made of the numbers overall and broken down by different categories-pensioners, families with children and those of working age-and by local authority area for additional homelessness applications that are expected as a result of the policy? What assessment is being undertaken of the implications for local authorities of the movement of substantial numbers of families with children, pensioner households and others, referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge)? I am thinking in particular of the capacity to provide school places and the implications for children's services and adult services of dealing with large numbers of people with additional needs in a very short time scale.

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