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House of Commons

Thursday 25 November 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked-

Redundancy Costs (Local Authorities)

1. Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): What estimate he has made of the likely amount local authorities will incur in redundancy costs in the next 18 months. [26198]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): It is for individual councils locally to determine redundancy policies based on their own circumstances. Decisions about when and how to make and manage work force reductions, including policies on redundancy payments, are rightly for individual councils to make as the employers.

Mr Blunkett: Ministers do not have the first idea what the cost will be to local taxpayers. Is this not a triple whammy, whereby families and individuals lose their services, communities find that provision is taken from them and individuals lose their jobs? Is it not correct that instead of paying for services, council tax payers will have to pay for redundancies for services that are being withdrawn? Is it not a scandal that the Government do not know what the impact will be?

Robert Neill: The Government have endeavoured to assist the most vulnerable local councils by increasing the amount of money available in the formula grant that is not ring-fenced, moving more money into formula grant, reducing the amount of ring-fencing and rolling more grants into one. I imagine that when his Government were in office, the right hon. Gentleman would have complained greatly about their removal of working neighbourhoods funding for his city of Sheffield, which will cost the city some £38 million. We will endeavour to find the means to cushion that-

Mr Speaker: Order. We are talking about redundancy costs, so we must get on with it.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I gather that in the comprehensive spending review the Government allocated £200 million for the capitalisation cost of redundancy payments. I also gather
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that local authority chief executives and treasurers suggest that the costs might be between £1.5 billion and £3 billion. If they are correct and the Government estimate is much lower than the actual sums involved, what are the Government going to do about it?

Robert Neill: Capitalisation, which enables local authorities to treat revenue expenditure as capital and borrow for it is an exception to the accounting rules, so there has always been a need for some control, and capitalisation for a number of streams has never run at 100%. It is also worth bearing in mind that local authorities have been aware for some time that reductions in expenditure were inevitable-they were planned by the previous Government. A shrewd authority will therefore have planned to deal with the problem in advance.

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): Local government now predicts an 11% cut in council budgets next year, with 140,000 jobs lost and a redundancy bill in excess of £2 billion-not the £200 million originally predicted by Ministers. Is local government right? Do Ministers know, or is the truth that they simply do not care about the public servants they will lay off or the public services that they will lay to waste?

Robert Neill: The greatest threat to public services for the future is failure to tackle the unprecedented deficit that the previous Government left us. We are prepared to work with local government to deal with those issues, but the hon. Gentleman and his party clearly have no answers whatever.

Unauthorised Encampments

2. Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): What steps he is taking to reduce the number of unauthorised encampments. [26200]

6. Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): What steps he is taking to reduce the number of unauthorised encampments. [26204]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): Local authorities will be responsible for determining the right level of Traveller site provision in their area to meet local needs and historic demands. We will encourage councils to provide sites with incentives through the new homes bonus scheme and grant funding for local authorities to deliver new sites.

Eric Ollerenshaw: Will my right hon. Friend give us some idea of the time frame for the withdrawal of planning order circular 01/06? In the meantime, does he take the view that the Government's intention to withdraw this circular should be a material consideration at both the planning and appeal stage?

Mr Pickles: We have certainly stated our intention to repeal circular 01/06 and we shall shortly start consultation on an alternative to it. In the meantime, given that the localism Bill will substantially change planning on these matters, I can say that our intention almost certainly is a material consideration.

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Jonathan Lord: Residents of the village of Normandy in my constituency are fed up with the never-ending cycle of encampments on green-belt fields, retrospective planning applications and seemingly unenforceable planning refusals. Does my right hon. Friend really believe that the measures he has described will provide a proper and permanent solution for my concerned constituents?

Mr Pickles: The short answer to that is, of course, yes.

I am afraid that the policy pursued by the last Government left us in a very difficult position. Let me give an indication of how difficult it has become. I remind Members that in 1997 there were 887 unlawful encampments. That figure was bad enough, but it has now shot up to 2,395. As for the second part of my hon. Friend's question, we intend to restrict retrospective planning applications substantially.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): May I warn the Secretary of State of a new type of unauthorised encampment? In my city of Nottingham, the chief executive of Framework, a major charity for the homeless, warned this week that there would be hundreds of rough sleepers in tents in the woods or in sheds on industrial estates as a result of the swingeing cuts that the Secretary of State has implemented in the Supporting People budget. Will he please think again?

Mr Pickles: I think that the hon. Gentleman may be a little mistaken. As he will know, the Government have passported £6.5 billion to local authorities to support people, and we expect that money to be passed on to the most vulnerable.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Does the Secretary of State agree that no element of human rights legislation contains any provision allowing antisocial behaviour, or enshrining any kind of right or protection allowing people in unauthorised encampments to participate in such behaviour?

Mr Pickles: We are trying to achieve a balanced approach. The last policy was unrealistic. To hit the 2011 targets set by the last Government, we would have to wait for a further 18 years because we are so far behind. I believe that that policy was predicated on conflict, whereas we want to ensure that there is firm action on retrospective planning applications and enforcement. We will end the continuous process of appeal on application, subsequent application and stop notice, but at the same time we hope to introduce mainstream provision for Travellers by including provisional sites in the new homes bonus.

Local Authority Funding

3. Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): What representations he has received from local authorities on likely changes to funding from his Department since the publication of the comprehensive spending review. [26201]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): I have received a number of representations about the challenging but fair settlement
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for local government. We will shortly announce details of our proposals for funding local authorities in the provisional local government finance settlement.

Simon Danczuk: The Secretary of State's failure to stand up for councils in the CSR is having a devastating impact on jobs and services in Rochdale. Provision for the homeless, community centres, adult care and many other services are being cut. The situation is so bad that six Liberal Democrat councillors resigned last week, and yesterday the Liberal council leader stood down. Because of the Secretary of State's cuts, the local authority is in turmoil. When will he stand up for local government?

Mr Pickles: I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would congratulate the coalition Government. We recognise that a number of authorities are more dependent on grant than others. We face a particularly difficult task in relation to Rochdale, as we must bridge just short of £6 million that the Labour Government took from the working neighbourhoods fund, but we will certainly seek to provide that cushion. My advice to the hon. Gentleman is "Go back to Rochdale, put a bit of lead in their pencil, and let them get on with protecting front-line services rather than fighting among themselves."

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree, on the basis of the representations that he has received from local authorities, that every progressive authority in the country will have planned for the reductions in expenditure? Does he intend to ensure that councils are able to freeze council tax following the years of rapid increases under Labour?

Mr Pickles: Absolutely. What was going to happen to local government was well showcased. It was clear from the previous Chancellor's statement in autumn 2009 and the Budget earlier this year, before the general election, that at least £5 billion was coming out of local authorities and that that would be front-loaded. I would therefore expect prudent local authorities and prudent chief executives to have taken the necessary precautions.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): The worst aspect of these cuts to local authority budgets, which amount to 28% in real terms over the next four years, is that they are front-loaded. The hardest hit councils are facing reductions in their grants next year of 14%, 18%, 20% or even more. That means they have to plan their service cuts and redundancies now, so may I urge the Secretary of State to think again about the scale of these cuts or to alter their phasing so that councils are not forced to take what will be very damaging crisis measures?

Mr Pickles: "As we look forward", regeneration spending is

as there are "other competing priorities." I apologise: perhaps I should have made it clear that those were the words of the now Leader of the Opposition, speaking on the Radio 4 "Today" programme on 12 April, just before the general election. That is the dilemma. The Opposition have a blank piece of paper. They oppose everything when they know, as we know, that they were going to impose £5 billion of front-loaded cuts on local authorities.

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Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): May I ask the Secretary of State to join me in congratulating my council, Dudley metropolitan borough council, on engaging in discussions with Wolverhampton, Walsall and Sandwell councils about rationalising services and reducing back-office costs without affecting front-line services?

Mr Pickles: I have to say that that is the future of local government. We expect local authorities to merge services and to protect the front line. Prudent councils are doing that. Councils that are more content to use the poor and the vulnerable as a battering ram against the Government will seek to protect the centre and not seek to protect front-line services, whereas good councils will protect the front line.

Local Authority Powers

4. Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): What progress has been made in devolving more powers and financial autonomy to local authorities. [26202]

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Greg Clark): In six months, the coalition Government have ended the ring-fencing of all but two revenue grants, simplified over 90 separate funding streams for local government to fewer than 10, scrapped comprehensive area assessments and abolished 4,700 central targets on local government. The localism Bill will give many more new powers to local councils, including a general power of competence. This Government are reversing decades of top-down control, which has led to Britain being one of most centralised countries on the planet.

Mr Raynsford: The Minister may be aware that, in responding to his Department's recent paper on proposed changes to social tenancies, Councillor Richard Kemp, leader of the Liberal Democrats in local government, described the proposals as "an irrelevant fantasy" and added:

Does the Minister-and, perhaps more interestingly, do his coalition partners-agree?

Greg Clark: The consultation my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government has launched has been well received across the sector because it introduces a right, not an obligation, and when we have a homelessness crisis, I think it is right to give registered social landlords more flexibility than they currently have in allocating to homeless tenants.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): Like many other local authorities, South Lakeland district council would desperately love the autonomy to be able to scrap the second-home council tax subsidy, which costs the council tax payer in South Lakeland £1.25 million every year. At this time of hardship, difficulty and restraint, is it not time to look again at whether we should give a 10% subsidy to those who can afford it the most?

Greg Clark: We have made a lot of progress already. My hon. Friend is right that localism involves there being greater control of resources locally. A further set
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of measures will be considered in a review that will start in January, and I will make sure that his proposal is considered in that.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): The Minister for Housing and Local Government was not in the House on Monday to answer questions on the housing consultation paper so, while we are on the subject of devolving powers, may I ask his colleague about this? The Government have repeatedly said that they will not allow social landlords to change the rights of existing tenants, yet question 13 of that consultation leaves the door wide open for them to do exactly that in the future. Can this Minister give the House a personal guarantee that the Government will not now or in the future permit changes to the rights of existing social tenants?

Greg Clark: Yes.

Local Authority Expenditure

5. Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): What requirements local authorities have to report their expenditure to his Department. [26203]

10. Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): What recent steps he has taken to increase transparency and accountability in local government spending. [26208]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): We are replacing bureaucratic accountability to central Government with democratic accountability. People should be able to hold their local council to account over the taxes it spends. More and more local authorities are publishing details of spending items of more than £500 online. Next month, I will consult on a code of recommended practice for local authorities, which will address issues such as scope, formatting and timings for publishing data.

Penny Mordaunt: Although I do not want to add to the administrative burdens of local authorities, it would be useful to have data against which performance, quality and reach of services, and efficiency could be measured. What tools will be made available to this House and the public to do that?

Mr Pickles: It is most important that we continue to press ahead with the agenda and, in particular, with the public right to know how money is being spent. It is no use talking about cuts in public spending and cuts to front-line services when we find that we have excessive pay among chief executives and excessive numbers of middle management, and that local authorities are not offering value for money. So the important thing is that all authorities will put this online. I have to tell my hon. Friend that the Portsmouth, Great Yarmouth and Norfolk authorities have not put these amounts online. I hope that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) will urge them to do so.

Brandon Lewis: I thank my right hon. Friend for that. I know that Great Yarmouth's authority is set to go live with this online in January. Does he agree that having the new transparency in place will mean that voluntary
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sector organisations and small businesses across the country will have a much more even playing field when bidding for contracts?

Mr Pickles: Yes, and we will be taking this a step further: not only will voluntary organisations be able to compare the costs and the spending, and the public will be able to judge those, but in the new localism Bill we will give voluntary organisations the right to bid for services and to run them directly if they can produce them better and more cheaply than local authorities.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): What plans does the Secretary of State have to encourage local authorities to publish the expenditure that they are undertaking on big society projects? If he has plans to scope out that expenditure, could that report contain a particular section on funding for citizens advice bureaux? The representations that I am receiving suggest that they are going to get a hammering as a result of his funding settlement.

Mr Pickles: They should not get a hammering, as that would be foolish of local authorities. That applies whether the authority is Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative or hung; it applies to councils of whatever colour. If local authorities seek to deal with this country's financial crisis by simply paring back on grants, salami slicing and taking X% out of all departments, they will fail. They have to restructure, they have to change and they have to share services. If they do not do that, they will rue the day when they cut back on Citizens Advice and similar voluntary organisations.

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): On the issue of reporting expenditure to central Government, and pursuant to the Secretary of State's previous answer about protecting the front line, has Westminster council informed him of its intention to close a disability centre that provides luncheon facilities and a hydrotherapy pool to many severely disabled people, many of whom are also losing their levels of care services, as they, too, are being retrenched?

Mr Pickles: I will look into that issue and write to the hon. Lady. I have to say that Westminster council has a fantastic record in dealing with vulnerable people, but I will look into the specific case.

Localism Bill

7. Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): When he plans to publish the localism Bill. [26205]

12. Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): When he plans to publish the localism Bill. [26210]

14. Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): When he plans to publish the localism Bill. [26212]

17. Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): When he plans to publish the localism Bill. [26216]

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Greg Clark): The localism Bill contains a wide range of measures to shift power from central Government into the hands of individuals, communities and councils. The Bill frees local government
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from central and regional control and strengthens local democracy. In addition, it gives greater power over planning, housing and other services and allows councils and councillors to be better held to account. The Bill will be published imminently.

Julian Sturdy: I thank the Minister for his response. May I ask him to go into a little more detail on how the localism Bill, through empowering local people, will help protect the green belt in my constituency of York Outer?

Greg Clark: Of course. One of the real opportunities in the localism Bill is to remove the threat to the green belt that comes from the regional spatial strategies. The concern up and down the country that green belts could be deleted through those strategies will be buried once and for good by the localism Bill.

Nadhim Zahawi: I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State confirm that material consideration should be given by councils to circular 01/06 on Gypsies and Travellers, although some, including mine, have not been doing so. May I ask the Minister to outline what benefits that will present to neighbourhoods and to villages such as Welford-in-Avon in my constituency?

Greg Clark: The Leader of the Opposition has said that the previous Government looked down their noses at local government. Nowhere was that more true than in the case of parish councils. The charge of parochialism needs to be turned round and we need to regard an interest in locality through parishes as a positive measure. The localism Bill will allow parishes, as neighbourhoods, to set their own plans, to have them adopted and to give effect to them in the planning system.

Julian Smith: May I ask my right hon. Friend to go a bit further on the role of parish councils? Skipton and Ripon is packed with hundreds of excellent parish councils and they are asking me what specific role they have in relation to district councils. Will he go into a bit more detail on that?

Greg Clark: The planning provisions in the localism Bill will allow every neighbourhood in the country, including parishes, to set its own local neighbourhood plan. That will mean that they can design the look and feel of their neighbourhoods going forward into the future and in so doing take away the bureaucracy that is involved in taking planning applications through the development control process. If we capture it in the plan, we will not have that bureaucracy and uncertainty.

Zac Goldsmith: I welcome the Government's commitment to include local referendums in the localism Bill. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the results of those referendums are not binding, their status will be only marginally higher than that of an ordinary petition, although they will be a lot more expensive? Will he bring in proper referendums that are legally binding?

Greg Clark: I know that my hon. Friend is a great champion of referendums, as he has organised one in his own constituency. The localism Bill contains binding referendums on subjects such as whether to introduce mayors, the neighbourhood plans that I mentioned earlier
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and excessive increases in council tax. It also contains provisions for advisory referendums that will test public opinion and can influence policies. Sometimes it is appropriate to nudge councils to do the right thing. This will be perhaps more of a shove than a nudge, and I think it will be difficult to ignore.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): How can the Minister keep a straight face when he talks about localism and local democracy when later today his Government will ram through legislation to take away that local democracy from Exeter and Norwich with our recently restored unitary status?

Greg Clark: I am advised that the right hon. Gentleman did not even table an amendment to the Bill, such is his commitment. I shall stand corrected if I am wrong. During the previous Government's time in office, this country became one of the most centralised countries. We want to revive local democracy by transferring power from central Government to local government and down to communities. We will take no lectures from the Opposition, who have driven that centralisation.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): What discussions has the Minister had with the Welsh Government on devolving extra powers to the National Assembly under the localism Bill?

Greg Clark: We have had discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government. Clearly, if we want to devolve powers to the lowest possible level, those discussions will vary according to the different provisions in the Bill. It is quite a detailed matter and the hon. Gentleman will see the outcome of the discussions when the Bill is published.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Will the Minister say what proportion of local expenditure should be raised locally, thereby bringing direct accountability to local communities on delivering localism?

Greg Clark: I do not think it is terribly localist to prescribe what that percentage should be, but it is right that as we take a more localist direction, we want a greater connection between the behaviour of local councils and the revenue being raised. That is the direction in which we are going, but it would be wrong to prescribe a percentage.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): Two weeks ago the High Court ruled that the Secretary of State acted unlawfully when he scrapped regional housing plans, comparing him with Henry VIII. His Majesty's reply was that it did not matter because the Government were going to abolish them in the localism Bill anyway, but that could take nine months to become law and the confusion that the Government have created has undermined the construction industry and led local councils to ditch 1,300 new homes every day. Will the Minister confirm that, in the mean time, local councils should get on with supporting the construction of the homes that the country so badly needs?

Greg Clark: The right hon. Lady makes a mistake that afflicted the Government of whom she was a member-the fatal flaw of confusing plans with homes.
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In many cases there was an inverse relationship: the higher the target, the lower the number of homes actually built. That is why we want to reform the planning system. The Government's intention has been absolutely clear. There is not a councillor, planner or developer in the country who does not know that the regional strategies are on the way out and will be buried and interred for ever.

Local Authority Funding

8. Dr John Pugh (Southport) (LD): What his policy is on the distribution of reductions to local authority funding over the comprehensive spending review period; and if he will make a statement. [26206]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): We will announce our proposals for the local government finance settlement in the usual manner in due course.

Dr Pugh: It would be rational to accept that the size of the front-loaded cuts coupled with the council tax freeze in the first year will create a huge problem for even prudent local authorities, necessarily giving them less time, less flexibility and less chance of saving front-line services. Does he agree?

Andrew Stunell: No I do not. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that we have proceeded at a rapid rate with de-ring-fencing and breaking down the silos between different funds coming to local councils, reducing the number from more than 90 to around 10. We are also putting large sums of money at the disposal of local authorities. I also want to draw his attention to the option that local authorities have of raising their council tax income by up to 2.5% and receiving a compensatory grant so that their residents do not have to bear that cost, thereby protecting residents and giving councils the opportunity to generate more revenue.

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): The Treasury's green book confirms that funding for local councils will be cut by 28% over the next four years, but the spending review framework document says that the Government will limit the impact of the reduction in spending on regions that are heavily dependent on the public sector. As we are all supposed to be in it together and in order to ensure fairness will the Minister confirm that the cuts faced by local councils will be based on their total budget requirement and not on their formula grant? As he knows, the formula grant accounts for up to 80% of the budget requirements of some councils and less than 20% of others.

Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the picture is very complex. That is why when the settlement comes, he will see that the Government have responded to the points he has raised.


9. Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): What steps he is taking to reduce the number of squatters. [26207]

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The Minister for Housing and Local Government (Grant Shapps): On 8 November I published an online guide for home owners affected by squatters, setting out the rights and action they can take. We are also taking steps to help get empty homes back into productive use and will be helping to reduce the scope for squatting by doing this.

Michael Ellis: I thank the Minister for that answer, but we have some long-established squatters in Parliament square. What are we going to do about them?

Grant Shapps: As the Prime Minister said yesterday, the Government share the concerns about the current state of Parliament square. I can inform the House that we intend to introduce legislation shortly.


11. Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): What recent steps he has taken to reduce homelessness. [26209]

The Minister for Housing and Local Government (Grant Shapps): The Government are committed to tackling and preventing homelessness. We have established a cross-departmental working group on homelessness, taking in eight Departments, and the homelessness grant has been fully protected at £400 million.

Andrew Selous: Does my right hon. Friend believe that the Government could learn lessons from the recent successful scheme by the charity Broadway, which got a number of long-term homeless people off the streets and into their own accommodation at an average cost of £794, compared with the many thousands of pounds spent on them while they are on the streets?

Grant Shapps: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Broadway scheme is excellent and innovative. It has taken funding and allowed the people who are involved with homelessness provision and the service users to decide how best to use it. I congratulate Broadway, which has managed to get a lot more done for £794, rather than the average of £3,000. It is an excellent scheme from which others can learn.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): Will the Minister confirm whether now or in the future he plans to reduce homelessness by changing either its definition or the categories of people who are entitled to assistance and re-housing because they are homeless?

Grant Shapps: We have no plans whatever to change the categories of reasonable preference-those categories that councils have to take into account in order to state whether somebody is homeless and, therefore, provide statutory help. We have already changed the terms-the measurement-of homelessness as defined by rough sleeping, which, under the hon. Gentleman's Government, meant that there were only 440 people sleeping rough on the country's streets. We discovered very quickly, once we had counted such people properly, that there are actually 1,294.

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New Homes Bonus Scheme (Milton Keynes)

13. Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): If he will estimate the proportion of the funding for the new homes bonus scheme which will be spent in Milton Keynes. [26211]

The Minister for Housing and Local Government (Grant Shapps): The new homes bonus will match-fund the same amount of council tax for every single home built for an additional six years, and we have published a very helpful calculator on the Department's website, where people can go today to find out how much they will get for the additional homes built.

Iain Stewart: I warmly welcome the new homes bonus, which will go a long way to providing the infrastructure that new housing estates need, but will local authorities have the discretion to use that bonus for capital and revenue items?

Grant Shapps: The new homes bonus is available for local authorities to spend as they see fit. Under the localism Bill and the flexibility that we now provide, it is absolutely possible for local authorities to use that money potentially even to borrow against, because the income stream is guaranteed for six years. It is a simple, very straightforward approach to making sure that people get more money to their area. To give Members an indication of the calculator, I should say that for every 100 homes that are built in any given area £1 million is likely to go to it over the six-year period.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab) rose-

Mr Speaker: Specifically on Milton Keynes, the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart)?

Fiona Mactaggart: Milton Keynes and Slough are both in the same region, and they both face similar issues, because the homes in their areas are more likely to be in a lower council tax band than the homes in neighbouring areas. Is it fair that those neighbouring areas, which build bigger, richer houses, will get more money than places such as Milton Keynes and Slough, which have more band D places?

Grant Shapps: We can usefully draw out a couple of points from the consultation that is before the House. First, we have set the banding equally throughout the country, so a band D home represents the average band D home throughout the country. Secondly, bigger homes obviously take up more space, so people will get less money because they cannot build as many. Thirdly, the hon. Lady will be interested to know that we have over-compensated for affordable house building, ensuring that every single affordable home that is built will get more than £350 in additional money. That represents a figure of more than 125% for every affordable home built. We should get more built-

Mr Speaker: Order. I am very grateful to the Minister.

Community Ownership (Assets and Facilities)

15. Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): If he will take steps to encourage community ownership of local assets and facilities. [26213]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): The Government will make it easier for communities to take on community assets through the community right-to-buy provisions in the localism Bill. Practical help is already available from the Government-funded asset transfer unit and from the Communitybuilders programme, and the big society bank will step in to help social enterprises and voluntary sector organisations early next year.

Esther McVey: Does the Minister agree that the Government need to do more to empower communities to improve their local areas and take over amenities, such as community centres and allotments? What steps will the Government take to ensure that those initiatives are taken up in the forthcoming localism Bill?

Andrew Stunell: First of all, I commend Wirral borough council for setting up its own fund for the transfer of community assets and for making the launch of those much more feasible. I hope that other local authorities will look at that example.

The community right to buy will be a powerful option for neighbourhoods and community groups that want to take on assets, and that will be backed by money. The asset transfer unit and Communitybuilders, a project lasting through to 2014, will be there to provide support. I also want to make quite sure that the House understands that the big society bank will be there to assist as well.

Empty Homes

16. Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to return empty homes to productive use. [26214]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): My hon. Friend's question is well timed, as it is empty homes week. I am sure that there will be concern right across the House at the fact that there are currently 738,000 empty homes in this country and that more than 300,000 of those have been vacant for six months or more. They are a blight on the community and a waste of housing that we cannot afford.

The coalition agreement says clearly that we are planning to tackle the issue, and we have made the first steps. We intend to provide £100 million over the spending review period to bring empty homes back into use-that is a tripling of the money contributed by Labour in the last comprehensive review period. We are consulting on how the new homes bonus can also be used to bring more homes back into use.

Amber Rudd: In Hastings, more than 2,300 families are on the housing waiting list and there are more than 800 empty homes. Has the Minister considered whether there is any additional incentive that we can give to councils to try to bring the more difficult properties, which have been empty for more than two years, back to productive use, as against the slightly easier properties, which have been empty for six months?

Andrew Stunell: Every effort needs to be made by local councils. They have some statutory tools at their disposal-statutory improvement notices, enforced sales
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and the empty dwelling management orders. However, I hope that the fact that we are tripling the investment for bringing empty homes across the country back into use will give my hon. Friend some assurance that we are serious about the issue and will work with local authorities to deliver a much improved record.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): I am glad that you have mentioned that there are 738,000 empty properties, many of them long-term empty. Can you give some quantitative indication of-

Mr Speaker: Order. I can give no quantitative indication at all, but the Minister might be able to. Carry on.

Graham Jones: Sorry, Mr Speaker. Can the Minister give a quantitative indication of the extent to which he hopes to reduce the figure over the period-100,000 or 200,000? By how much will he reduce it?

Andrew Stunell: Some £100 million is intended to assist in bringing back 3,000 empty homes into use, and that is direct financial support. I draw the House's attention again to the impact that the new homes bonus can make in increasing that, and there are of course the statutory levers that local authorities should use to make sure that the blight of empty homes is reduced.

Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): I welcome my hon. Friend's remarks about the new homes bonus. However, will he go a little further and confirm that that bonus will be payable to local councils that bring empty properties back into use, so that councils such as Basildon and Thurrock can benefit from the measure?

Andrew Stunell: I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that this is a matter on which we are consulting. We have that intention, and I hope that he will write and encourage us to carry forward that proposal.

Residential Property Tribunals (Park Homes)

18. Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): By what date he expects the residential property tribunals system for park home owners to be in full operation. [26217]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on her staunch work on behalf of mobile home owners. Subject to parliamentary approval, we expect residential property tribunals to begin hearing cases under the Mobile Homes Act 1983 in spring next year.

Annette Brooke: I very much welcome the Minister's response. However, I am sure that he is very much aware that it will not address some of the appalling practices to which some park home owners are subjected. What further action will he set in motion?

Andrew Stunell: As my hon. Friend knows, I attended the lobby that she organised, and I have absolutely no doubt about the serious problem that residents face with a small minority of rogue landlords. We need to
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see how the Tribunals Service can deal with these complaints and matters. Certainly, we shall be looking very hard to see what progress we can make. The Minister for Housing and Local Government is looking at a range of measures that will help to combat the mismanagement and abuse that some residents face, and he will shortly make an announcement on his plans.

First-time Buyers

19. Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): What estimate he has made of the change in number of first-time buyers in the housing market in the last 12 months. [26218]

The Minister for Housing and Local Government (Grant Shapps): According to data from the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the number of first-time buyers has fallen slightly over the past 12 months, by around 5% in total.

Mr Robinson: Is the Minister aware that those figures are among the worst ever for first-time buyers? Is he further aware that the calculations put out by the British Bankers Association on Tuesday of this week show that the level of new mortgage approvals is at its lowest for 19 months, and that the level for gross mortgage lending is the lowest for 10 years? This is a disastrous situation for hundreds of thousands of young couples who want to get into the housing market. What is the Minister going to do about it?

Grant Shapps: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in that analysis; I completely concur with it. It is a disaster for first-time buyers. One of the first things I did as Housing Minister was to reverse the policy of the previous Minister to say that I believe in the aspiration of people owning their homes. The reason we ended up with this problem in the first place is related to the enormous deficit and boom and bust, which was led by housing in particular. We need a more stable economy in place-not like the one that we were headed for or like the Irish one, but one that is stable for the long term. That means that cutting the deficit is the No. 1 move. I am also very aware that there are effectively only five lenders on the high street, which means that there is very little competition for first-time buyers. The banking review will report next June. It is very important that competition is opened up and we reverse the situation for first-time buyers.

Topical Questions

T1. [26224] Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): This week my Government will be co-operating with interfaith week, celebrating how faith communities are adding to the well-being of our society. We have published details of our plans to build 150,000 more affordable houses over the next four years. We have welcomed the decision of the Local Government Association's chief executive to take a cut of £200,000 a year, and we hope that more town hall chiefs will follow his example in these austere times.

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At the 2010 British curry awards, the Government paid tribute to the spice industry's £4 billion turnaround-a real bhuna for the British economy. From bin collections to small business tax relief, we will do our utmost to ensure that Britain's curry industry is second to naan.

Mr Blunkett: Sorry, Mr Speaker, I can hardly follow that.

The proposal to refund 2.5% of income to councils freezing their council tax next year, which was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), will have the perverse outcome, will it not, of top-slicing the money from all councils and then rewarding the wealthiest, high rateable value authorities such as Surrey twice as much as the poorer low rateable value authorities such as Hull, Newcastle or Sheffield? Given that those three councils are Liberal Democrat-controlled, will the Secretary of State tell me which conjuring trick he managed to do in persuading the Deputy Prime Minister and his colleagues that this was fair or even acceptable?

Mr Pickles: I am sorry to tell the right hon. Gentleman that he is wrong about the top-slicing. It is in fact new money, and we will not be top-slicing the authorities. I face a great dilemma. As the money that each local authority has varies, the grant differs considerably; he alluded to that. The particular problem I face is the decision taken by the Labour Chancellor to remove £300 million from the working neighbourhoods fund, which will hit Sheffield particularly hard. At the moment, I am trying to ensure that Sheffield and all those authorities are cushioned against Labour cuts.

T3. [26226] Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Mindful of the recent floods in Cornwall and the fact that from April next year, upper-tier and unitary authorities will have responsibility for flood risk management strategies, will the Secretary of State confirm that money for that purpose will be guaranteed in the comprehensive spending review? Will he please apply planning policy guidance note 23 to inappropriate developments on floodplains?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): Our colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs remain committed to funding fully local authorities' new burdens under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. Up to £36 million a year in total will be provided directly to lead local flood authorities for all those new burdens, and in addition local authorities will spend money supported by formula grant from our Department. I will certainly consult my colleagues on the PPG to which my hon. Friend refers.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): It is not really turning out to be a very good day for the Secretary of State, but you know what, it has not actually been a very good fortnight since he told council leaders on 6 November that talk of front-loaded cuts was "fiction". Now it seems that reality is beginning to dawn on him. According to a report in the Local Government Chronicle, he has been attending emergency meetings with the Treasury to plead for more money to mitigate the effect
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of those cuts, which could mean some councils losing up to 20% of their funding by April 2011. Whether or not it is true that the Secretary of State has been lobbying the Treasury to come up with more cash, may I urge him to start listening to the concerns of local government and ensure that councils get a fair deal that stops the damage caused by the heaviest cuts falling in the first year?

Mr Pickles: I am sorry to say to the right hon. Lady that I have not necessarily found the Local Government Chronicle a very accurate reflection of what is going on in my Department, ripping read though it undoubtedly is. I must also admonish her in the mildest possible terms for using a partial quote. What I said was ridiculous was the idea that councils would face a 20% cut in their total spending ability in the first year.

The right hon. Lady has to recognise that she needs a policy. She knows, I know and the House knows that the Labour party Government were going to impose £5 billion-worth of cuts on local government, which would have been front-loaded.

T4. [26227] George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): Analysis of the impact of reforming the formula grant on concessionary travel support suggests that most of the options currently being considered have urban-centric criteria and therefore could lead to more money going to urban areas and less to rural areas. What assurance can my hon. Friend the Minister give to places such as Cornwall, which rely on concessionary fare support, that they will not be disadvantaged by the changes?

Robert Neill: I understand very well the concern that my hon. Friend raises and the importance of the issue, particularly for shire districts. He is right that we have consulted on that, and we are considering the results of that consultation. I have to ask him to be patient, because we will announce our proposals for the local government finance settlement in the usual manner in due course.

T2. [26225] Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): What incentive does the Minister think cities such as Southampton will have, under the terms of the new homes bonus, to avoid losing millions of pounds of housing funding by having to build more homes each year than have been built in the city since the aftermath of the second world war, and on land that, because of the urban nature of such cities, does not actually exist?

The Minister for Housing and Local Government (Grant Shapps): The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, because people often say that more homes cannot be built in a city, so perhaps the new homes bonus will not operate there. Interestingly, however, when I go to some of the most crowded places, such as Kensington and Chelsea or Westminster, I am told that even those areas have space to build and will benefit greatly from the bonus. I recommend that his local authority looks for some of the space it has and gets building.

T5. [26228] Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): Will the Secretary of State inform the House what guidance there will be following the proposed revocation
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of planning circular 04/07 to inform local authorities such as mine in Selby about planning permission for travelling show people or others wishing to develop land for use as a permanent site for travelling show people?

Mr Pickles: I have had a meeting with the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain, kindly organised by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley). We talked about what would replace those planning guidelines, and we will do our best to meet what the guild is looking for-sensible co-operation with local authorities.

T6. [26229] Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): Many small voluntary organisations in my constituency that provide services to the most vulnerable, such as Durham Action on Single Housing, are extremely concerned about their futures following local government cuts. What will the Minister do to ensure that homelessness does not increase in my constituency and elsewhere as a result of the cuts to local government spending?

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Greg Clark): It is very important that every local authority reflects on the contribution that the voluntary sector can make. We are decentralising funds from central Government to local government, and I expect local government not to draw up the drawbridge, but to treat voluntary organisations fairly and, indeed, to allow them greater access so that they can provide more services than they currently do.

T8. [26231] Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con): The Secretary of State recently visited the Nine Elms development area, which includes Battersea power station in my constituency. We talked about the importance of tax increment financing being available to councils involved in major regeneration projects. Will he press for TIFs to be brought in as soon as possible?

Mr Pickles: I thought the development was very interesting. It will transform the south of the river; indeed, Members of the House will be able to look across to one of the more exciting developments in our capital. I very much recall my visit, which was just before my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced our intention to move forward on TIFs at the Liberal party conference. We will be including this in the localism Bill, which will be introduced in this House very soon.

T7. [26230] Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): On Monday, the Government set out plans to reform social housing, including the scrapping of guaranteed long-term tenancies. These reforms have been described by leading charities as

Does the Housing Minister agree with the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, who said of the Government's proposal:

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Grant Shapps: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that, because a lot of misinformation has been put about on these reforms. For one thing, on the flexible tenure-the idea that a tenure from two years could be provided-we are thinking about special cases, such as that of my constituent Matthew Hignett, who was paralysed from the neck down after a motorcycle accident. He cannot apply under any of the current rules for social housing, but thanks to flexible tenure-because we are making the system more flexible-he will now actually get the help and assistance that he requires. Some of the charities have made comments on that, but some, such as the YMCA, have said that they appreciate and welcome flexible tenure, so, no, I do not agree with the hon. Lady's comments.

Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): My constituents welcome the fact that Milton Keynes council will become the sole planning authority for the city, but they are concerned that some of the assets currently controlled by Milton Keynes Partnership may not be used for community purposes. Will the Minister meet a delegation from the city to discuss some innovative ideas about how those assets could be used?

Mr Pickles: It is always a pleasure to meet my hon. Friend, and I look forward to meeting him and representatives from Milton Keynes in due course.

T9. [26232] John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): What support will the Secretary of State give the campaign that I am launching to ensure the retention in Retford of the full-time fire station and service, which has been there ever since the inception of local government?

Robert Neill: It is for individual fire authorities to decide the manning levels and the nature of the duty systems at fire stations, consistent with their obligations under fire services legislation and their integrated risk management programmes. It is not for the Government to interfere, because those authorities are best placed to assess the needs, priorities and risks in their areas.

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): Will the Minister confirm whether the requirement on local authorities to front-load the budget reductions is in any way connected to the protection of the Olympics budget?

Mr Pickles: No, it is not.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): What steps did the Secretary of State take within the Government to protect communities in London and the south-east that have not been able to take advantage of the national insurance holiday that other areas have enjoyed, precisely because they were more, rather than less, reliant on public sector workers? Surely, that must have stuck in the Secretary of State's craw just as much as it did in mine.

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Mr Pickles: There needs to be consistency from Opposition Members. They cry, "What are the Government doing to help the north of England?" but the national insurance holiday is a tangible measure that the previous Government were unable to take. The hon. Gentleman should congratulate this Government. After all, only when we get through the reduction in public expenditure and get our economy back on to an even keel can we look forward to-

Mr Speaker: Order. I thank the Secretary of State.

George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) (Con): Will the Minister give a brief account of progress on the FiReControl contract?

Robert Neill: The Government inherited the FiReControl contract from the previous Government. As I have indicated to the House already, we have concerns about the contractor's persistent delays in delivery. In consequence, on 8 November, we placed the contractor in material breach, which requires a response within 20 working days.

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): In October, the Secretary of State told the House that it was outrageous for me to suggest that the money announced in the comprehensive spending review for elderly care would be wiped out by overall cuts to local government. Will he tell me what he disagrees with in the London Councils' estimate that overall funding, in relation to the personal social services budget, will decrease by £885 million, or including inflation, £1.8 billion?

Mr Pickles: I think that the London Councils' analysis is overblown, and that it errs a little on the side of hysteria. Let us be clear. What we know is that the local government settlement is £6.5 billion for Supporting People, and, for care for the elderly, for an extra £2.2 billion will come directly from the NHS.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Further to my questions in the House, the Secretary of State has challenged local government to get its house in order on executive pay-offs. Will he therefore commend the approach taken by Bristol city council, which has applied a cap of £700 per week in redundancy payments for each week's pay in the settlement? That has cut redundancy costs by 30%, and it affects only the highest paid 10% of the work force.

Robert Neill: It is absolutely right that Bristol council has used existing flexibilities to reflect the circumstances that apply to it. That is the right approach, and why, as I indicated in relation to a previous question, it would be inappropriate for the Government to restrict the ability of local authorities to respond to their own circumstances in such matters.

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Business of the House

11.32 am

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the forthcoming business?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Sir George Young): The business for the week commencing 29 November will include:

Monday 29 November-A motion relating to banking reform, followed by a general debate on the regulation of independent financial advisers. The subject for both debates was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 30 November-Opposition day (7th allotted day). There will be a debate on school sport funding, followed by a debate on tuition fees-both debates will arise on an Opposition motion-followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) (Amendment) Order 2010.

Wednesday 1 December-Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, followed by a general debate on national policy statements.

Thursday 2 December-Motions relating to the publication of information of complaints against Members, power of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to initiate investigations, and lay membership of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, followed by a debate on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The subject for debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 3 December-Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 6 December will include:

Monday 6 December-Opposition day (8th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Tuesday 7 December-Second Reading of the European Union Bill.

Wednesday 8 December-Estimates day (1st allotted day). There will be a debate on police funding for 2011-12 and the Department for International Development's assistance to Zimbabwe. Further details of the second of those debates will be given in the Official Report.

[The information is as follows: "DFID's Assistance to Zimbabwe" (8th report from the International Development Committee of Session 2009-10, HC 252); Government response, Cmd 7899 .]

At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Thursday 9 December-Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No.2) Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments.

The House will also wish to be reminded that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make his statement on the autumn forecast on Monday 29 November 2010. I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 2 and 9 December will be:

Thursday 2 December-A debate on fisheries.

Thursday 9 December-A debate on the future of pubs.

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Hilary Benn: I thank the Leader of the House for his answer. Will he confirm that there will be the debate on Europe that traditionally takes place before the December European Council? The Foreign Secretary said in the Queen's Speech debate that it would happen in good time, and this one will be especially important given the problems affecting a number of eurozone countries.

We now know that the vote on lifting the cap on tuition fees will take place before Christmas-in other words, long before the promised White Paper on higher education. As the Government are clearly desperate to get this out of the way, will the Leader of the House assure the House that the necessary orders will be taken and voted on on the Floor of the House, so that every single voter can see every single Liberal Democrat MP who goes through the Aye Lobby and breaks the pledge that they made? It is not so much the new politics, but very old politics-say one thing, do another.

Talking of which, two weeks ago the Deputy Prime Minister said that he should have been more careful about signing the pledge. This morning, we learn that he now "massively regrets" not keeping his word. Can we expect a further statement next week from him that he is now really, really, really sorry about breaking his word, and if so, can we have a debate on crocodile tears and could he lead it?

Last week, the Bill that will reduce by 50 the number of representatives in this House-to cut the cost of politics, we are told-had its Second Reading in the other place. In the very same week, the Government decided to increase by 54 the number of new life peers in the other place. I make that a net gain of four parliamentarians, so can we have a debate on incoherence, and could the Deputy Prime Minister lead that one as well?

Two weeks ago, I raised with the Leader of the House the Education Secretary's arbitrary decision to take away all the funding from school sport partnerships, which, as we know, have been highly successful in getting more children to take up sport, including 1 million more doing competitive sport. Yesterday, extraordinarily, the Prime Minister chose to describe that as "pathetic" and "failing". I will give the Leader of the House some other words that have been used by those involved to describe the decision-"unforgivably cynical", "despicable", "catastrophic" and "heartbreaking". May we have a debate on irrational decision making, so that the Prime Minister can first apologise for rubbishing the efforts of all the people who have made this happen and secondly explain why he has not told his hapless Education Secretary to think again?

Christmas is coming, and some geese are getting very fat indeed. I refer, of course, to the traditional start of the bankers' bonus season. Yesterday, the Prime Minister refused to confirm that he will enact Labour's legislation to provide transparency on salaries and bonuses of more than £1 million a year, and yet in the very same week we were told that the Minister for Housing and Local Government wants local authorities to require new council tenants to disclose how much they get paid. Apparently, that is in case their earnings are too high, in which case they could be evicted from their homes after just two years. Given that the Government now have one rule for bankers and another for just about everyone else, can we have a debate on double standards? And could that be led by the Deputy Prime Minister as well?

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Finally, last week, Lord Young was sacked for saying that we have never had it so good. On the day that the happiness index is officially launched, would the Leader of the House like to take this opportunity to make it clear that the personal happiness that he expressed last week is not at an all-time high? Given that the Prime Minister is ruthless when it comes to people saying the wrong thing, but useless when it comes to Ministers doing the wrong thing, we would hate to lose the Leader of the House simply for being too cheerful.

Sir George Young: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the range of questions that he asked. On his first question, I would remind him of paragraph 145 of the Wright Committee report, which was accepted by both sides of the House and which we are implementing-something that his party refused to do. Paragraph 145 makes it absolutely clear that the days for the pre-European Council debates are now a matter for the Backbench Business Committee-something that we established, which he and his party failed to do in office. Therefore, the question of that debate falls to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and her Committee, not the Government.

On tuition fees, we hope that the motion that will be tabled by the Opposition on Tuesday will clarify whether the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Leader of the Opposition is in charge of Opposition policy, and whether there will be a commitment to a graduate tax. We wonder whether the shadow Chancellor will wind up that debate, so as to make it absolutely clear that his views are the same as those of the Leader of the Opposition. On the specific question that the shadow Leader of the House posed, the answer is yes: there will be a debate on the Floor of the House and a vote on lifting the cap on tuition fees.

I will take no lectures from the Labour party on the appointment of life peers. We could not conceivably match the record of the Labour party and Tony Blair in appointing people to the upper House, however long we were in office. I gently point out to the right hon. Gentleman that some of those nominated last week for the upper House came from his party. If they want to make a contribution to reducing the size of the upper House, to respond to the right hon. Gentleman's injunction, it is perfectly open to them not to take their seats.

There will be a debate on school sports on Tuesday, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, but in response to the substantive issue I can tell him that the coalition Government are anxious to devolve decisions down to the local level. We have removed ring fences in local government and education, because we think that it is right to let local people decide how best to allocate the funds. That is what has happened to school sports.

On bankers' bonuses, we are doing exactly what Sir David Walker recommended. Labour appointed Sir David Walker to look at bankers' bonuses, and he is absolutely clear that this country should not take unilateral action. We are following the advice of the person whom the previous Government commissioned.

On tenancies, it is important that people do not go around saying that after two years people will be evicted. That is not the policy at all. We are suggesting that some tenancies be initially for two years, and the position
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reviewed. It is in the interests- [ Interruption. ] It is in the interests of those on the waiting list that there should be more mobility in the social housing stock, in order to make progress in allocating homes to those who desperately need them.

On the happiness index, mine went down this morning when I heard that England had been bowled out for less than 300, but I am sure that they will rebound. However, I would just ask the right hon. Gentleman how happy he is in a shadow Cabinet where his party leader is being undermined by fellow members, and where they are at war with each other on the 50p tax and the graduate tax, as well as on other issues, such as whether there should be one member, one vote for leadership elections. I think that the shadow Leader of the House will find that we on the Government Benches are far happier than he is.

Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): May we have an early debate on the proposed cuts to the staffing hours and acquisitions budget of our Library? The Library is one of the few resources available to all Members in their work of scrutinising the Executive. Given that importance, there must be other areas where savings could be made, not least in the top-heavy bureaucracy of this House.

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend will know that the Select Committee on Finance and Services is seeing how reductions of around 17% might be made in the House of Commons budget. I know that the Committee will want to pay serious attention to his view that, if reductions are to be made, they should not be made at the sharp end, and nor should they take away from the ability of Members of Parliament to hold the Government to account. I pay tribute to the work that the Library does in that respect.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): In view of the launch of the happiness index-mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn)-on which the Prime Minister is so keen, will we get a statement in the near future on how happy are those who will be the subject of the savage cuts in jobs and services that are coming shortly? As far as yesterday's demonstration is concerned, it was marvellous, and gives a lead to others to follow.

Sir George Young: I do not think I have ever seen the hon. Gentleman look happy. Wherever the index is, it will be dragged down by his appearance in the House. I wonder whether, on reflection, he would describe yesterday's demonstration as "marvellous". Hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage was done in Westminster, and the demonstration was ruined by a minority of irresponsible people. I pay tribute to the way in which the police responded.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): In the light of the imminent publication of the report of the Select Committee on Transport on the North review, can we have a debate on the future of drink and drug policy?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Government will introduce a police Bill, which will cover issues relating to alcohol licensing, and that may
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provide the opportunity for my hon. Friend to clarify his views on those issues. We take the matter seriously, and we are moving towards publication of a document on drug policy.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester South) (Lab): In response to my question last week, the Leader of the House kindly agreed to arrange for the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to publish a list of land owned by the Forestry Commission in each constituency. We now have that list, and it shows that more than 170 constituencies will be affected by the fire sale of our national assets. In view of the widespread concern on both sides of the House, can we have a debate in Government time on the way in which the sale is proceeding and its threat to our natural national assets?

Sir George Young: The House will have an opportunity to debate the Public Bodies (Reform) Bill when it has completed its passage in another place, and that will be the right forum for the hon. Gentleman to make clear his concerns about disposal of national forests.

Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): In the light of the announcement this week about the proposed cap on immigration, can we have an early debate on the need to provide skilled, ethnic cuisine training, because the curry industry and other ethnic cuisines will be particularly hit by that announcement?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That point may have been made on Tuesday during the exchange following the statement of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The point was well made, and there would be no need to import chefs from Bangladesh and other countries if we were able to provide the necessary skills in this country. My hon. Friend makes a valid point.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): On Monday, the Government announced that a £200 million project to transform the Meadows estate in Nottingham will not go ahead. The estate suffers from serious deprivation, a poor reputation, fear of crime, and high unemployment. Although local people and community groups, such as the Meadows Partnership Trust, are doing wonderful work to tackle those problems, they are hampered by poor housing and poor quality infrastructure. The scheme would have transformed the area, making the Meadows estate a more sustainable community and a place where people would choose to live and work. Can we have a debate on the decision by the Department for Communities and Local Government to scrap the housing private finance initiative, which has so dismayed my constituents?

Sir George Young: We have, of course, just had questions to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I do not know whether the hon. Lady was able to ask her question then.

The Decentralisation and Localism Bill will devolve more responsibility to local authorities, but I say in response to the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) that, because of the legacy that we inherited, it is not possible to go ahead with all the projects that are being urged on us by Opposition
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Members. I remind Opposition Front Benchers that the shadow Chancellor has insisted on a nine-stage process before they enter any financial commitments.

John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): Improvements in sporting facilities wherever possible and certainly in my constituency are always welcome. The coalition agreement states:

Will the Leader of the House agree to have a debate on that matter, which would be very beneficial to my constituency?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport has asked my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster) to do some work on dormant betting accounts, and I understand that he has made some inquiries and before the end of the year will produce a report suggesting how the matter might be taken forward. There may be a possibility of legislation later.

Mr Frank Doran (Aberdeen North) (Lab): I note the response of the Leader of the House to the question from my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House on the Europe debate. We have exactly the same situation with the annual fisheries debate, which always took place during Government time, and provided a key opportunity for those of us with fishing constituencies to hold the Government to account. I have been advised by the Minister with responsibility for fisheries that his Department is no longer allowed to organise such a debate, which seems strange. Will the Leader of the House advise me why the Government have chosen to use the extension of democracy to Back Benchers to reduce Departments' accountability?

Sir George Young: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election to the House of Commons Commission last night. I find this line of attack from Opposition Members astonishing. The Government decided to give up their responsibility for deciding what the House would debate, and we have allocated roughly one day a week to the Backbench Business Committee. Among the issues for which we are no longer responsible are the fisheries debate, the European Council debate and the four days of debate on defence. Those matters now fall to the Backbench Business Committee, and if the hon. Gentleman wants a debate on the European Council or on fisheries he has to go to the Committee's Chair, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who is sitting next to him. He will know that her Committee has allocated time for a debate on fisheries in Westminster Hall, which I announced a few moments ago.

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): May I refer the Leader of the House to early-day motions 1046 and 1047?

[That this House recognises the enormous contribution by members of Her Majesty's Armed Services from each of the UK Crown Dependencies in wars and conflicts over the years, fighting for Queen or King and Country; believes that the sacrifices of all these brave men and
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women should be fully acknowledged in a similar way to members of the Commonwealth of Nations, by granting representatives from the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark the right to lay a wreath in their own right at the annual Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, each year on Remembrance Sunday; and calls on the Government to ensure that all the appropriate arrangements for this to happen are in place in time for Remembrance Sunday to be held on 13 November
2011 .]

[ That this House recognises the enormous contribution by members of Her Majesty's Armed Services from each of the British Overseas Territories in wars and conflicts over the years, fighting for Queen, or King and Country; believes that the sacrifices of all these brave men and women should be fully acknowledged in a similar way to members of the Commonwealth of Nations, by granting representatives from Ascension Island, Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Pitcairn Islands, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Turks and Caicos Islands, the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands the right to lay a wreath in their own right at the annual Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, each year on Remembrance Sunday; and calls on the Government to ensure that all the appropriate arrangements for this to happen are in place in time for Remembrance Sunday to be held on 13 November 2011 . ]

They deal with the laying of a wreath on Remembrance Sunday by representatives of the British Crown dependencies and overseas territories. Will the Leader of the House ask the Foreign Secretary and the Lord Chancellor to make a statement to the House on why our British territories are still refused the right to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday to remember their war dead, while other Commonwealth countries are allowed to do so?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend has pursued this issue with diligence. I think I am right in saying that the Foreign Secretary lays the wreath on behalf of the British Crown dependencies, but I will of course raise this important issue with him and others, to see whether we might make some changes in the future.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): In previous years, questions about Europe and matters for debate prior to European Councils have always been dealt with in Government time. Instead of hiding behind the wording of the Wright report, will the Leader of the House explain the real reason that the Government are afraid to have a debate prior to the European Council on 19 December? Is it because of internal divisions with his Eurosceptics, or is it because he cannot get an agreement with the Fib Dems?

Sir George Young: Again, I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman should criticise the Government for implementing a measure that empowers Back Benchers. We have given up the monopoly on deciding what the House debates. Paragraph 145 of the Wright report deals with set-piece debates, and one of the subjects mentioned is

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It makes it absolutely clear that the responsibility for fixing those debates transfers to the Backbench Business Committee. We have honoured our obligations and set up the Backbench Business Committee; it is now for the Committee to decide which debates are held and when. We cannot have a position in which the Government transfer the days to the Committee but remain responsible for fixing all the debates that would be held on those days. Even the hon. Gentleman must be able to see that that would be a very one-sided deal.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): Will there be an opportunity for the Home Secretary to make a statement to the House about the use of kettling, particularly with regard to schoolchildren?

Sir George Young: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be answering questions in the normal way. As I have said, I think that the police handled yesterday's demonstration well. It was an enormous improvement on what happened last time. I am not going to criticise from the Dispatch Box the tactics that they used in order to protect public property and prevent more extensive damage from being done, but there will be an opportunity at the next Home Office questions for my hon. Friend to raise that issue.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): I welcome the fact that we are having a vote on tuition fees soon, but does the Leader of the House agree that, prior to that debate, it is vital to have a debate on the difference between a pledge and a promise, to assist Lib Dem Members?

Sir George Young: There will be opportunities in the debate on Tuesday and in the subsequent debate on the Browne report and raising the cap on tuition fees. I remind Labour Members that they had a pledge not to introduce tuition fees-a pledge that they broke.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Yesterday, young violent thugs disrupted a peaceful protest. Those thugs were wearing face coverings so that they could not easily be identified by the police. At the next sitting dealing with private Members' business, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) is introducing a private Member's Bill-the Face Coverings (Regulation) Bill-to outlaw such practices. Will the Government make a statement on whether they will be supporting his Bill?

Sir George Young: When that important private Member's Bill is reached, there will of course be a Minister on the Front Bench, and, during the course of the debate, the Minister will make clear the Government's response to the Bill.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement from the Ministry of Defence on what progress, if any, has been made on compensation payments for the Christmas Island veterans, and, indeed, victims? I say this from a non-partisan point of view, because my own party, when in government, could and should have done more for those people.

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Sir George Young: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue and I will pass on his request to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to see whether we can make some progress.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): Mr Speaker, you are the anecdote to verbal diarrhoea- [ Laughter. ]

Mr Speaker: Order. I think the word for which the hon. Gentleman was vainly searching was probably "antidote".

Mr Ellwood: It is always good to get off to a good start, Mr Speaker. I stand corrected. The rules that you impose during the week are not being adhered to on Fridays in the Chamber. Next Friday, we will debate the Daylight Saving Bill, for which the excellent publication "Time to change the clocks" has been produced-I recommend it to all Members-but my worry is that the Bill will not see the light of day because Members will try to talk it out. Is it not time to change the draconian rules that apply on Fridays to ensure that good ideas are able to be debated by the entire House?

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not seeking to prove himself an expert in verbal diarrhoea.

Sir George Young: I congratulate my hon. Friend on a good recovery. If I may say so, Mrs Malaprop would have been proud of him. There is a serious issue about Fridays and about the procedure for private Members' Bills, which he has touched on. The Procedure Committee is conducting an inquiry into the parliamentary calendar, which will include the use of Fridays. That will absorb the whole question of how we deal with private Members' Bills, and will provide my hon. Friend with an opportunity to make representations to the Committee to determine whether there is another way of dealing with them, in order to overcome the problem that he, eventually, correctly described.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): There is clearly surprise and unease on both sides of the House about the fisheries debate and the EU Council debate. The matter was raised last week, not only on this side but by Lib Dem Members, and it has been raised again this week. Given that clearly a number of people feel that this decision is wrong, may I ask the Leader of the House what we can do to bring about a change to the recommendations of the Wright report, and to take those matters out of the hands of the Backbench Business Committee?

Sir George Young: I would regard it as a retrograde step if time were taken away from the Backbench Business Committee and given back to the Government. The whole direction of travel is the other way. I have announced the Second Reading of the European Union Bill, which will provide an opportunity to raise European issues. Also, there is going to be a fisheries debate. The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who chairs the Backbench Business Committee, and I have made it absolutely clear that if Members want a debate on the European Council, they have to make
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representations to the Committee in order to secure such a debate. As I understand it, no such representations have been made.

Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): May we have a debate on unaccounted Government spending, and on how that can happen? Bearing in mind the irrational decision making mentioned by the shadow Leader of the House, can we make the specific subject of the debate the £38 billion committed by the Ministry of Defence over 10 years without accountability?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend is quite right to say that we inherited a number of obligations from the outgoing Government, and that the resources were not there to honour them. The Ministry of Defence provides a very good example. We had an opportunity to debate that when we discussed the strategic defence review, but I am sure that there will be other opportunities for my hon. Friend and others to remind the House and the country of the irresponsible action of the outgoing Government and the unsustainable expenditure that they left us to sort out.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): The Leader of the House will be aware of the lead story in the Western Mail last week, in which it was disclosed that powers have been transferred on numerous occasions to the Welsh Assembly Government without the corresponding financial resources. Will he ask the Chancellor to make a statement on how these liabilities will be addressed?

Sir George Young: I understand that the Welsh Assembly has had a relatively generous settlement compared with that of other public bodies. Against that background, I am not sure how much substance there is in that suggestion.

Kris Hopkins (Keighley) (Con): The Leader of the House will be aware of the media coverage of the predatory paedophiles who were convicted yesterday of grooming and raping children. It is well documented that this vile and criminal activity has also happened in my constituency. Will the relevant Ministers make a statement outlining what the Government are doing to stamp out this abuse of children?

Sir George Young: I am sure that everyone was appalled by what was revealed yesterday. I saw the interview with Emma on "Newsnight" and I was horrified by what had happened. It is crucial to learn the lessons and make sure that that never happens again. I will certainly pass on my hon. Friend's request to the Secretary of State for Health to see whether some ministerial response might be made to what was revealed yesterday.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House ask the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on British representation at the Oslo Nobel peace prize ceremony award to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese pro-democracy dissident? The Chinese are bullying countries like mad not to turn up. Could we raise our representation to ministerial level and ask our EU and NATO partners also to send Ministers, because the only language bullies understand is that of someone standing up to them?

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Sir George Young: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is important that we do not succumb to pressure from the Chinese and that this country-and, indeed, NATO countries and all countries-should send strong representations to the ceremony so that the Chinese understand that on this issue they are alone.

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): Does the Leader of the House agree that it would be better if large and volatile demonstrations were routed away from Parliament to end in a rally in a park, where just grievances and speeches could be heard? Does he agree that the Police Act 2005 has to be amended so that the commissioner can refuse a particular route?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. My understanding is that section 12 of the Public Order Act 1986 allows the police to place conditions on a march, where they consider that without such conditions the march would result in serious public disorder. These conditions would include the duration, the location and the size of the march. I therefore think that the police may well already have the powers that my hon. Friend wants them to have.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): May we have a debate on the Government's cruel decision to cut the mobility component of disability living allowance for people living in residential homes, as the Prime Minister seemed totally to misunderstand the question asked about it at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday? We need to discuss the impact of this decision on severely disabled people like my constituent Pam Coughlan.

Sir George Young: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did understand the question yesterday. There will be an opportunity to debate this when the Government bring forward the necessary measures in the welfare reform Bill. My right hon. Friend's answer yesterday was that if people are sponsored by the NHS, their mobility component is removed whereas it is not removed if they are sponsored by a local authority. That is an anomaly, which the Government's proposals are designed to address.

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): A serious situation has developed this week in Korea. If the situation deteriorates, will the Leader of the House undertake to ensure that we have a statement? China is launching its first aircraft carrier and America is sending an aircraft carrier there. Does that not underline the fact that the procedures of this House and our defence configuration must be prepared for a very unpredictable and dangerous world?

Sir George Young: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The Prime Minister has been in touch with President Lee of South Korea, making clear this country's condemnation of the unprovoked North Korean attack and offering condolences for the loss of life that has occurred. My right hon. Friend also agreed that we would work together on the next steps that need to be taken in the United Nations Security Council. We are now indeed in discussions with our Security Council partners on those next steps.

Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): In Communities and Local Government questions earlier this morning, the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), indicated
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that the localism Bill was likely to be published imminently. I listened carefully to the statement by the Leader of the House, but I heard no reference to the localism Bill in the business announced for the next two weeks. Given that the Government are clearly having increasing difficulty matching their actions to their words, will the Leader of the House tell us the meaning of "imminent" and whether we can expect a debate on this rather important and controversial Bill before Christmas?

Sir George Young: The Bill will be published shortly. Second Reading will follow after a decent interval.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Has my right hon. Friend seen my early-day motion 1090?

[That this House notes the Harrington Report, and its criticisms of the French multinational company ATOS, who have a £54 million contract to assess benefit claimants through medical checks; welcomes the Government's agreement with the Harrington Report and its promise to implement the Harrington proposals in full; concludes that ATOS has damaged the public perception of medical assessments, and has also created a serious risk of maladministration of incapacity benefit checks, following the shocking reports on their systems in the national media; further notes frequent complaints in this regard from Harlow constituents and others; and therefore calls on the Government to act swiftly so that medical assessments are more localised, humane and sympathetic.]

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on the Harrington report and the maladministration of incapacity benefit checks, following the shocking report into the private company ATOS? A number of my Harlow constituents have been maltreated by this company. Does he agree that urgent action is needed?

Sir George Young: We are grateful to Professor Harrington for publishing his report on the work capacity assessment and we accept all his recommendations. He did indeed find that improvements should be made. He has now started the next stage of the next review. We will improve the medical assessment conducted by ATOS by putting in place champions with additional expertise in mental, cognitive and intellectual conditions.

Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): Given this week's independent report indicating that the removal of speed cameras could lead to 800 extra deaths on our roads and the fact that some Tory councils have already removed their cameras, may we have a debate on the effects of the removal of those cameras and whether those individual councillors should be held directly accountable for their actions?

Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue relating to road safety, and it strikes me that it would be an appropriate subject for a debate either on the Adjournment, in Westminster Hall or through the Backbench Business Committee. I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State of Transport, who will be here shortly.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on Burma? I am sure the whole House would welcome the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, but the fact remains that 7,000 political prisoners remain
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incarcerated. May we have a debate to put pressure on the Burmese Government to be more serious about political dialogue?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend is right that there are still a substantial number of political prisoners in Burma. I hope that the release of Aung San Suu Kyi will enable her to have a dialogue with the military regime to see whether a way forward can be found that introduces some sensible human rights measures in that regime which are absent at the moment.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): In recent evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee, the Gun Trade Association, the Countryside Alliance and others expressed concern about the violent content of video games and their effect on some people who buy firearms. At this time of year especially, it is important for parents to have an understanding of the content of some of these games. When can we have a statement or a debate on the Government's response to the Byron inquiry?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the inquiry that his Select Committee is conducting into firearms. We have made a commitment to having a debate when his report is published. That would be a good context in which to explore further the impact on young people of videos and games that involve firearms. We could then establish whether any further legislation was necessary.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Given the recent revelation by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government that the last Labour Government wasted nearly £81 million developing regional spatial strategies, and given the recent attempts by developers to raise these, zombie-like, from the dead, would it be appropriate to have a debate on regional spatial strategies and their current status?

Sir George Young: This takes us back to the localism Bill. We will shortly, imminently and very soon introduce the localism Bill to Parliament. That will sweep away the last of the outgoing Government's controversial regional strategies. It is clear that top-down targets have not worked; we propose to move to a different regime, giving local planning authorities some real incentives to get on with house building in their area.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South): Alumwell business and enterprise college in my constituency has seen a 14% improvement in GCSE results by getting marked papers, but it has had to pay for them. May we have an urgent debate so that state schools can get the marked scripts free, just as they do with standard assessment tests?

Sir George Young: I congratulate the hon. Lady on the good results in her constituency. I will raise with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education the question of whether these documents can be made available without charge.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): Over the past three years, failures in the cross-border commissioning protocol between the Department of Health and the Welsh Assembly Government have caused NHS Western Cheshire to lose about £19 million. Despite having been
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involved in a formal dispute since 2007, they seem to be no nearer to ending it. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the operation of the protocol?

Sir George Young: I am afraid that I shall not be able to find time for a debate. I understand that the shortfall to which my hon. Friend refers is not due to a failure of the protocol. A transfer was made from the Department of Health to the Welsh Assembly under the terms of the protocol, but discussions are now under way to review the protocol before it expires in March 2011. They will include discussion of the funding arrangement, and I will ensure that they are informed by what my hon. Friend has said.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): May we have a debate in Government time on whether we really are all in this together, especially those of us who live in the north, in the light of the withdrawal of £160 million for housing from Orchard Park in Hull? Hull is the 11th most deprived area in the country, but its funds are being cut by 25%, unlike those of Reigate and Tunbridge Wells, which are being increased by between 25% and 37%.

Sir George Young: Of course I understand how strongly the hon. Lady feels about her constituency. However, only a few moments ago, when I came into the Chamber, I heard the Government being criticised for focusing help on national insurance relief on the north and not extending it to London and the south-east. Opposition Members must sort out their priorities.

I suggest to the hon. Lady that the £1 billion regional development fund might be a suitable place for her to seek solutions to the problems that she has outlined.

Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): May we have a debate on broadband? I strongly support the Government's review of broadband and its focus on rural communities, but I fear that cities such as Milton Keynes may miss out. We have specific problems because of our 1970s infrastructure. May I simply ask the Leader of the House to ensure that Milton Keynes is included in the review?

Sir George Young: That question is slightly beyond my pay grade, but my hon. Friend has made a strong case for a debate on rural broadband. I too represent a rural constituency, and I know that it is vital for those who live in rural areas to be able to compete on the same terms as those in towns and cities. I think that the issue is a strong candidate for a debate, but perhaps not in Government time.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider his answers to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the shadow Leader of the House, and my hon. Friend the. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on the subject of debates set up by the Backbench Business Committee? The Committee's Standing Orders make no reference to the Committee's having responsibility for those debates. A dangerous precedent is being set, because those on the Opposition Front Bench who are responsible for holding the Government to account cannot do so. The Government have avoided arranging the debates in Government time and Opposition Front
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Benchers cannot make representations to the Backbench Business Committee. The Government are thus dodging the issue. May we have those debates in Government time?

Sir George Young: Labour Members must make it absolutely clear at some point whether or not they agree with the Wright Committee's recommendations. They supported them throughout the last Parliament, although towards the end of that Parliament they did not implement them by setting up the Backbench Business Committee.

If the hon. Gentleman reads the Wright Committee's report, he will see that it makes a distinction between Government business and House business, and makes it clear that the debates to which he has referred are House business. It is up to the Backbench Business Committee, which has been allotted 35 days, to find time for those debates-if it wants to hold them-in competition with other bids. We cannot allow a position in which the Government, having allotted 35 days to the Backbench Business Committee, are then held responsible for all the subjects included in the transfer.

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): Yesterday, when responding to questions about the education White Paper, the shadow Secretary of State for Education suggested that many young people could not be expected to obtain five C-grade GCSE passes in academic subjects. May we have a debate on the depressing poverty of ambition that affects Members in many parts of the House and our education establishments?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must raise the ambitions of our young people. Following yesterday's statement there will be an education Bill, which will give Members an opportunity to examine the issues in more depth.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): We need a debate on school sport partnerships. We know from his mother that the Secretary of State for Education hated games when he was at school, and avoided them as much as possible. Before we have that debate, will the Leader of the House persuade the Secretary of State to put on his tracksuit and perhaps a pair of trainers, apply some embrocation, get out into the real world-away from la-la land-with the school sport partnerships, and find out what great work they have been doing?

Sir George Young: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it absolutely clear yesterday that he was in favour of competitive sports and regretted the record of the outgoing Government in failing to promote them. If the hon. Gentleman is here on Tuesday he will have the opportunity to make a longer speech, which will be robustly rejected by whoever replies to the debate.

Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): We have already heard Members refer to early-day motions this morning. EDMs are hugely important in enabling Members to raise the profile of issues for themselves, constituents and organisations. However, given that the House is seeking to reduce its costs, does my right hon. Friend agree that this is the right time to arrange a debate so that we can examine the cost of publishing EDMs? The
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contract with The Stationery Office means that it is currently more than three quarters of a million pounds a year.

Sir George Young: As I said in reply to an earlier question, the Finance and Services Committee is considering how economies can be made in the running of the House. As my hon. Friend may know, older EDMs have not been reprinted weekly since the start of the current parliamentary Session, which has saved 2.5 million sheets of paper and up to £300,000 a year in printing costs. I will pass his comments to the House of Commons Commission and the Finance and Services Committee.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): May we have an urgent debate on the Government's migration policy? In response to questions from my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and me, the Home Secretary said-I cannot do the French accent-

A few hours later, No. 10 Downing street issued a statement saying that that was an aspiration. If I may use the language of the new Government, is it an aspiration, a target, a milestone or a horizon?

Sir George Young: Before she made those remarks, the Home Secretary said that she would "say this only once", and I think that that was the right thing to do.

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman find Government time for either a statement from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), or the Lord Chancellor, or a debate about the cutting of civil legal aid for social welfare cases? In my constituency, the citizens advice bureau represented or advised 14,000 of the most vulnerable and economically and socially deprived people in the area. The Under-Secretary's response was that people should go and see their Member of Parliament. I am a superwoman, but I do not think that that is the way forward.

Sir George Young: I understand the hon. Lady's concern, but it must be said that the legal aid regime in this country is relatively generous in comparison with those of most other countries. We were not able to exclude it from the difficult decisions that we had to make to control the deficit, but what we have announced requires legislation. There will be a legal aid Bill, which will give the hon. Lady an opportunity to press her concerns.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): The North East illegal money lending team has helped communities in my constituency to beat loan sharks in communities such as Easterside. It has helped to set up credit unions, and to break up gangs selling counterfeit and fenced goods. Will the Leader of the House please press Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to allow a debate on the subject, and will he impress on them the
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need for me to have personal meetings with them, along with other Teesside Members, so that we can discuss the agency?

Sir George Young: I commend the group in the hon. Gentleman's constituency for what it has done. I will certainly find out whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government can meet him and his colleagues to take the agenda further forward.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): This weekend, the Tamil community in the United Kingdom will commemorate the war dead and martyrs from the recent civil war in Sri Lanka. Next week, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is due to come to this country on a private visit, reportedly to speak at the Oxford union. May we have a debate to discuss the situation in Sri Lanka and war crimes associated with its president?

Sir George Young: The Government do not propose to find time for a debate on the issue, however important it is, but it strikes me that it would be an appropriate candidate for an Adjournment debate at the end of one of our sittings.

Mr Speaker: Last but not least, I call Luciana Berger.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you, Mr Speaker.

My constituent Martine Taylor's husband went missing one year ago. He left behind three young children and tens of thousands of pounds of debt, including two loans worth £34,000 from RBS, a bank which is 80% owned by the taxpayer. RBS has now sold that debt to bailiffs who may force Miss Taylor to sell her home to recover the debt, while RBS refuses to discuss my constituent's case because the debt is not in her name. Please may we have an urgent debate on the debt recovery practices of Government-owned banks?

Sir George Young: I am very sorry to hear of the misfortune of the hon. Lady's constituent. I will raise the current regime for pursuing debts with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and ask him to see whether there is any action the Government can take to help this poor lady and to write to the hon. Lady.

Mr Speaker: We now come to the statement-

Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that points of order follow statements. We will hear from him later.

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Rail Investment

12.20 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Philip Hammond): With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Government's plans for investment in rail infrastructure and rolling stock.

These plans build on the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the outcome of the spending review. As we have consistently said, tackling the deficit is our top priority, and by taking the tough decisions on current spending we are able to secure our future growth by making vital infrastructure investments. Over the next four years, we will provide £14 billion of funding to Network Rail to support capital maintenance and infrastructure investment, and £750 million for high-speed rail. We will also fund the Crossrail project, the tube upgrade programme and light rail projects in Birmingham, Tyneside, Nottingham and Sheffield, and provide additional funding to franchisees for extra rolling stock.

I can also confirm today that we will fund and deliver the Thameslink programme in its entirety, virtually doubling the number of north-south trains running through central London at peak times. This huge investment will link Sussex, Kent and Surrey, through central London, with Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. But the original programme for the rebuilding of London Bridge station to increase through-running as part of this project was always ambitious, with substantial risks in respect of delivery and operation of existing services during construction. To reduce these risks, we have re-profiled the delivery of the programme to achieve completion in 2018. This will enable Network Rail to make the further efficiencies in the design and delivery of the programme that we require to ensure value for money. Passengers will start to benefit from incremental improvements on the Thameslink routes from the end of 2011. As part of the Thameslink programme, we will procure a new fleet of trains-up to 1,200 new carriages. That is in addition to about 600 new carriages that will be provided for the Crossrail project.

Together with the tube upgrades, these projects represent a step change in rail capacity in London, providing a significant boost to economic growth potential in the capital. New Thameslink and Crossrail rolling stock will enable the redeployment of hundreds of serviceable electric carriages currently used on Thameslink services. These carriages belong to rolling stock leasing companies, but we expect they will be available at competitive leasing prices for re-use elsewhere, thus justifying further electrification of our network.

As a first step, I can announce today that Network Rail will electrify the commuter services on the great western main line from London to Didcot, Oxford and Newbury over the next six years. Electric trains will speed up journeys, improve reliability and reduce the impact on the environment on these busy routes.

The Chancellor also announced on 20 October the electrification of the lines between Liverpool, Manchester, Preston and Blackpool, representing an investment of up to £300 million. I expect work in the north-west to begin next year and to be completed at about the same time as work on the Thames valley commuter lines, in 2016. Some sections will be completed well ahead of
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this, notably Manchester to Newton-le-Willows in late-2013, allowing new electric trains to operate from Manchester to Scotland. As with Thameslink, we will require Network Rail to keep a tight rein on costs. The redeployment of electric rolling stock to these routes will, in turn, free up hundreds of diesel units, which will be available to train operators to lease as they become available in the period after 2015.

This will all be welcome news to passengers. The Public Accounts Committee recently found that many services are unacceptably overcrowded, and I understand the frustrations of rail travellers who have to travel on packed trains. More investment is clearly needed. That is why I argued for additional rail investment in the spending review, and it is also why I have taken the difficult decision to allow regulated fares to rise by 3% above inflation for the three years from 2012, to help us pay for these investments.

In January 2008, the previous Government published a plan to bring 1,300 additional carriages into service by March 2014. That plan was never deliverable. In total, only 206 of the 1,300 carriages had entered service by May this year. My predecessors quoted a grand total of rail carriages, but never referred publicly to the fact that delivery of that total was subject to so many caveats and qualifications as to render it effectively meaningless. According to their published plan, the 1,300 was not fixed and subject to

and "credibility". The document went on to say that

In other words, it was not so much a plan as a press release.

So let me set the record straight. I can today confirm that an additional 650 carriages will have been delivered to the network between 6 May 2010 and March 2014. That is in addition to the Thameslink and Crossrail carriages I have already mentioned.

But it is not just about rolling stock. Network Rail has already started work on station improvements, with funding confirmed for developments at Reading, Birmingham, London King's Cross and Gatwick airport. Investments on the east coast main line and midland main line and improvements in Yorkshire, on trans-Pennine routes, around Manchester and in south Wales will improve line speed, reliability and capacity of services.

Beyond these investments, there are far-reaching decisions to be made about inter-city services. In February 2009 the intercity express programme, launched by the previous Government, identified the Agility Trains consortium as preferred bidder to build a new fleet of inter-city trains. Then, this February, my predecessor invited Sir Andrew Foster, former head of the Audit Commission, to provide an independent assessment of the programme. Sir Andrew presented his report to me at the end of June, recommending further work on the Agility Trains proposal and a detailed study of the alternatives. I can now tell the House that we have narrowed down the options, from the four Sir Andrew identified to two. I have ruled out the option of requiring passengers to change from electric to diesel trains at a point in their
25 Nov 2010 : Column 468
journeys, recognising the value to passengers of preserving through-journeys. I have also ruled out the option of a wholesale refurbishment of the existing diesel InterCity 125 fleet, some of which dates back to the 1970s.

The remaining options are, on the one hand, a revised, lower cost proposal from Agility Trains envisaging a mixed fleet of some all-electric trains and some electric trains equipped with under-floor diesel generators, and on the other hand, a fleet of new all-electric trains which could be coupled to new diesel locomotives where the overhead electric power lines end. Both of these options would allow us to preserve through-journeys between London and parts of the rail network which are not electrified. Both of them would deliver faster journey times too. For example, we expect to see time savings of at least 15 minutes for the journey between Cardiff and London, bringing it below 2 hours. This is a major decision that will affect inter-city rail travel for decades to come, and we must get it right.

To address the outstanding issues on choice of train type and further electrification on the great western main line, additional work will be required within the Department, with Agility Trains, and with the Welsh Assembly Government on the business case for electrification into Wales. When this work, and discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, has concluded, I expect to announce a final decision on the IEP and on further great western electrification in the new year.

The package I have confirmed today has been possible only because this Government have been prepared to take the tough decisions to protect investment in Britain's future. This is a commitment to our railways that will benefit Britain for generations to come, and I commend the statement to the House.

Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for early sight of his much-delayed statement. We first read the details of the statement in the Sunday papers three weeks ago, we read them again two weeks ago and we saw much more detail in the press this morning. I know that he tabled this statement as a written ministerial statement today so that he could get away with spinning it on the "Today" programme, but his whole handling of this announcement is an insult to this House, which should be the first to hear about major Government policy decisions, not the last.

Despite all the spin and the re-announcing of decisions taken by the previous Government, many passengers will be bitterly disappointed by the right hon. Gentleman's announcement today, because it amounts to delaying investment but bringing forward massive fare hikes. The real losers of today's statement are commuters, who already suffer some of the highest fares in Europe and the worst overcrowding. Because of the cuts he has had to make to his budget, their fares will rise by 3% above inflation from next year and they now face waits of up to a decade for the new trains that will ease overcrowding and speed up journeys.

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