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House of Commons

Monday 6 December 2010

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Speaker's Statement

2.35 pm

Mr Speaker: I have a short statement to make further to my statement of 8 November on the application of the sub judice rule to the matter of the judgment of the election court in the petition relating to the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency.

The House will know that the administrative court has upheld the certificate and report of the election court. I understand that Mr Woolas is not intending to appeal, although the period for applying for leave to appeal has not yet expired. However, I can inform the House that the sub judice resolution no longer applies to this matter.

So far as the seat is concerned, it has been vacated since 5 November, the date on which I received the election court's certificate and report, as I informed the House in my previous statement.

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked-

Security Threats

2. John Howell (Henley) (Con): What methodology her Department follows to determine the nature of security threats to the UK. [28266]

12. Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): What methodology her Department follows to determine the nature of security threats to the UK. [28276]

13. Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): What methodology her Department follows to determine the nature of security threats to the UK. [28277]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): As part of the Government's national security strategy, we conducted a national security risk assessment-the first time that a Government have undertaken a comprehensive assessment of all national security risks to the UK. The most important risks were then placed into three tiers to inform the strategic defence and security review.

John Howell: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does she agree that the issue is even more important today, because the recent activities of WikiLeaks have shown the need to strengthen cybersecurity measures in the UK?

Mrs May: My hon. Friend makes a very pertinent point. On WikiLeaks, the Prime Minister's national security adviser has written to all Departments to ask them to look again at their information security and to provide him with assurance about the level of that information security.

My hon. Friend makes a wider point about cybersecurity. This Government recognise the importance of dealing with cybersecurity and cybercrime, which is why we focused on both in the strategic defence and security review and in the national security strategy, and over the next four years £650 million is being made available to develop a national cybersecurity programme.

Jonathan Lord: What are the Government doing to prevent threats from within and to tackle radicalisation?

Mrs May: My hon. Friend also makes an extremely important point about security. We must remember the importance of prevention as well as dealing with security
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threats as they arise. We are reviewing the Prevent programme, which was initiated by the previous Government, with a view to separating more clearly its counter-terrorism work from the integration or participation-in-society work of the Department for Communities and Local Government. In that work, we are also looking at radicalisation issues so that we can ensure that our programmes are effective.

Stephen Mosley: What action is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure the security of the Olympic and Paralympic games in 2012?

Mrs May: The Home Office's Olympic and Paralympic safety and security strategy, run by the police, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, the Olympic Delivery Authority and other partners, provides a framework for projects to safeguard and secure London 2012. The Minister for Security and Counter-Terrorism has conducted an audit and review of Olympic security planning, and that concluded that that work is well placed. There is of course more work to be done, but an effective foundation has already been established, and we are absolutely sure that there is sufficient funding to deliver a safe and secure Olympic games in 2012. We have protected the Olympic security budget, and counter-terrorism policing budgets will stay flat in cash terms.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): May I first concur with the Home Secretary about the threat posed by those involved in WikiLeaks, which is to be condemned by all in this House? In looking at the methodology for assessing a security threat, however, will she listen in particular to those voices internally who advise her on control orders, so that she does not move away from control orders in a way that potentially damages the United Kingdom but recognises that orders signed by former Ministers such as myself were placed for absolutely correct and proper reasons?

Mrs May: I accept that any Minister who has taken such a decision in has done so for proper reasons. In relation to the right hon. Gentleman's question on control orders, I can assure him that the Government and I have national security at the forefront of our minds. In considering the counter-terrorism legislation review, we need to rebalance national security and civil liberties, but we are absolutely clear that we can enjoy our civil liberties only if we have national security.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): Does the right hon. Lady accept that the current system for intelligence gathering in Northern Ireland used to counteract the threat from dissident republican and other paramilitary groups has failed? The system is flawed and needs to be reviewed. The Police Service of Northern Ireland needs to take the lead in intelligence gathering to counteract the security threat.

Mrs May: I do not accept what the hon. Lady says about the flawed system that has existed so far. Sadly, the PSNI has had to deal with an increasing number of incidents over recent months in relation to bombs and other attempts on the lives of people in Northern Ireland. As I say, that threat has been increasing. It is important that we ensure that the tools are available to
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enable the PSNI to do the job that it has been doing. The whole House should congratulate the PSNI on its work.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): On control orders, will the Home Secretary give the House a categorical assurance that she will always put the safety of the British people first and that she will resist pressure to appease either her maverick Back Benchers or her Liberal Democrat coalition partners?

Mrs May: I think that I answered that when I responded to the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson). As I said, the Government are absolutely clear that there is a need to rebalance national security and civil liberties. We can enjoy our civil liberties only if we have our national security, and we are absolutely clear about the Government's responsibility for ensuring our national security.


3. Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): How much she plans to allocate to development of the e-borders system in the next three years. [28267]

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): The priority for the coalition remains to secure the border and to control migration. The coalition Government remain committed to the delivery of e-borders, which will help to reduce terrorism, crime and immigration abuse and to improve the productivity of border processes. At this stage, final budgets have not been agreed for e-borders.

Claire Perry: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. I am particularly pleased to hear that we have an ongoing commitment to the e-borders project, which is a necessary step in tackling the problem of illegal immigration that many people in my constituency feel was all but ignored by the previous Government. Will the Minister update us on another vital part of our strategy to combat illegal terrorism, namely the formation of the dedicated UK police and border force?

Damian Green: My hon. Friend is right to point out the importance of e-borders as part of an integrated strategy to improve our border control. We have made significant progress on creating a single harmonised work force in the UK Border Agency. Some 3,000 staff have already been trained across the old disciplines of customs and immigration, and we have gone a long way towards creating a single primary line-the first line that people meet when they come into the country. On top of that, of course, we have published our consultation document, "Policing in the 21st century", in which we announced a border police command as part of the new national crime agency. That will co-ordinate the tasking of the border enforcement operational staff who will form the new border police capability. We will make our borders much more secure with all those measures.

Mr Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford South) (Lab): Is the Minister not being complacent when he talks about the border and immigration service, which will face 5,260 job losses over the next five years? How can he talk tough
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on immigration when the reality is that he will not be able to deliver because there will be a reduced number of staff?

Damian Green: The hon. Gentleman illustrates the problem of writing his question before hearing the previous answer, in which I made the point that we are deploying UK Border Agency staff more efficiently by integrating them, as his Government started off doing. On top of that, the border police command will be within the national crime agency. That will mean not only that we better use the resources that we have, but that we will have more resources with the new border police command. Our borders will be much safer than they were under what I am afraid was the lamentable performance by the previous Government.

Young People (Sexualisation)

4. Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): What progress she has made on implementing the recommendations of the review of sexualisation of young people undertaken by Linda Papadopoulos. [28268]

The Minister for Equalities (Lynne Featherstone): The coalition Government have already made a clear commitment to tackle the sexualisation of young people. That is why the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), has announced today an independent review of the excessive commercialisation and premature sexualisation of childhood.

Helen Goodman: As a long-standing member of the Mother's Union, I am pleased that the Government have listened to its "Bye Buy Childhood" report, but what has the Minister done about two particular recommendations in the Papadopoulos report, one of which recommends the closing down of pro-anorexic websites, while the other recommends labelling of airbrushing in teenage magazines?

Lynne Featherstone: On closing down anorexic websites, I will have to confer with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Education, who has taken on this work from Dr Papadopoulos and other recommendations that will be considered by the new review. On the labelling of airbrushing, I have met people from the industry and we are looking at what may be done to ensure that we no longer have a single image which so affects young people who are oppressed by having to conform with being over-skinny.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Will my hon. Friend join me in praising Mumsnet's Let Girls be Girls campaign, which has already seen dozens of companies sign up to support moves against the premature sexualisation of young people? Does she agree that companies should be encouraged to commit to responsible marketing and product selection for children, but that the Government need to recognise that, in some cases, regulation might be necessary on top of good practice by industry?

Lynne Featherstone: I thank my hon. Friend. I congratulate Mumsnet on its very admirable campaign on the sexualisation of children. Perhaps one of the
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best ways forward is to get corporations to sign up and develop their own responsibility. However, I understand from my colleague at the Department for Education that it will look at whatever is necessary, be it regulation or simple persuasion.

Police Officer Numbers

5. John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment her Department has made of potential links between police officer numbers and levels of crime. [28269]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): There is no simple link between police numbers and crime- [ Interruption. ] What matters is how officers are deployed. Our aim is to reduce costs and bureaucracy to ensure that resources can be directed to the front line.

John Woodcock: Does the Minister understand how quickly he has seemed so completely out of touch with the reality on the ground? Every community up and down the nation will understand that more police on the street make people feel safer and that it has contributed to a lowering of crime over the past decade. Will he take this opportunity to retract his statement?

Nick Herbert: Surely the test of an effective police force is what we are doing with those officers. The report by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman has read, pointed out that only 11% of a police force's strength is visible and available at any one time. That number is too low. There is a problem with the bureaucracy that the previous Government created and that we have to deal with.

Mr David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) (Con): The Met Police Commissioner says that a simple way of increasing police visibility in lower-risk areas is to end double crewing, where officers patrol in pairs, and to put individual officers on patrol. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House how many forces have adopted that very sensible policy?

Nick Herbert: I should say to my hon. Friend that these are operational matters for police forces, but we strongly support those who have taken what we regard as a sensible decision. The Met Police Commissioner and the Mayor have been clear that the move towards single patrolling has been hugely helpful in increasing police visibility, and that can be extended to other police forces.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab): The Sunday before last, on "The World This Weekend", the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice told the nation that there was no link between police numbers and the level of crime-a quite astonishing claim. He also argued in recent weeks that it is not officer numbers that are key to cutting crime but individual directly elected police commissioners who will make the difference. As The Daily Telegraph reported, the Minister told a private meeting of police authority chairs on 9 November that, to make that happen,

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Will he confirm that he made those remarks, and does he stand by what he told The Guardian last week-that the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill will enshrine in legislation that these advisers

Nick Herbert: First, I did not say that there was no link; I said that there was no simple link. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman something:

Those are not my words; they were the words of the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) when he appeared on "Any Questions" in September.

In response to the hon. Gentleman's specific question, he and his right hon. Friend should have taken care to read the Bill and the consultation document before making the allegation that police and crime commissioners will be able to appoint political advisers. We are determined that they should not be able to do so and have legislated for that. It is in the Bill that they may not appoint political advisers.

Non-EU Immigration

6. Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): What steps she plans to take to reduce annual immigration from states outside the EU to the tens of thousands. [28270]

11. Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): What steps she plans to take to reduce annual immigration from states outside the EU to the tens of thousands. [28275]

15. Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con): What steps she plans to take to reduce annual immigration from states outside the EU to the tens of thousands. [28281]

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced to the House a fortnight ago, we are introducing a new permanent limit on non-EU economic migrants, with a reduction in the number of visas next year from 28,000 to 21,700. We are also taking action to tighten our immigration system across all the key routes-work, students and family-and will make settlement in this country a privilege to be earned.

Mr Buckland: I thank the Minister for that reply. What evidence has he found of abuse in the points-based immigration system that was introduced by the previous Government?

Damian Green: Regrettably, there is large-scale abuse. For instance, we looked at a sample of the migrants who came here last year in tier 1, which is meant to cover the brightest and the best of highly skilled migrants, and nearly a third of them were doing completely unskilled jobs. We have also found widespread abuse in the student system. That tells us that we must refine and smarten the points-based system that was left to us by the previous Government so that it does the job of ensuring that we get immigration numbers down to sustainable levels.

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Sheryll Murray: How many migrant workers are from within the EU and how many are from elsewhere?

Damian Green: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question, because it enables me to puncture one of the great urban myths in the immigration debate, which is that most immigration comes from within the European Union. The net migration figures-which we will get down to the tens of thousands by the end of this Parliament-show that the vast bulk of immigrants come from outside the European Union. She asked about the numbers. In 2009, 292,000 non-European economic area migrants entered the UK and only 109,000 left. The House will see that the vast majority of net immigration comes from outside the European Union. Such immigration is precisely what we will take action on.

Karen Bradley: Will the Minister assure the House that the new proposals to control immigration will protect the interests of legitimate businesses?

Damian Green: I give that assurance to the House and, beyond that, to business. We held something that has been unusual in recent years: a consultation that genuinely consulted. We listened to business and changed the rules on inter-company transfers. That is also why we got rid of most of tier 1 and left a small remainder for the very exceptional. We now have a system that will not only enable us to get immigration to sustainable levels, but protect businesses and educational institutions that are vital to our future prosperity.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): In light of the concerns about immigration that the Minister has articulated, will he share his justification for this week's news that front-line UK Border Agency staff at Liverpool port and John Lennon airport will be slashed by almost half?

Damian Green: The hon. Lady has heard me say in response to a previous question that there will be a reduction of more than 5,000 in the UKBA work force. We are ensuring that we use new technology and new working practices to make our border more secure than it was under the Government whom she used to support. I commend to her the very good Institute for Public Policy Research publication, "Immigration under Labour", in which an adviser to one of Labour's more successful Home Secretaries-

Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister of State will resume his seat. His purpose here is to answer questions about the policy of the Government, not that of the Opposition. I hope that that is now clear to him.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I know that some members of the coalition have trouble understanding what a pledge means, but after a bit of probing, the Home Secretary gave the House a commitment the other week to reduce immigration to tens of thousands by the end of this Parliament. Does that commitment still hold this week?

Damian Green: I think that the hon. Gentleman was in the House when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made that commitment. [Interruption.] No, she said by the end of this Parliament; I was here. All I
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can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I do not propose to go into the French accent that my right hon. Friend used, but I am more than happy to repeat the commitment that she gave the House on that occasion.

Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): On that exact point, the Prime Minister has repeatedly promised that he will bring net migration down to the tens of thousands by the end of this Parliament. The promise was even included in the Conservative party's pre-election contract with voters. However, in recent weeks it has been downgraded to an aspiration or an aim, most notably by the Home Secretary. Has the Minister been told whether his policy is a firm pledge or just an aim or aspiration? Which is it?

Damian Green: Our policy has been the same since before the election and is the same as it was when the Home Secretary stated it to the House in her announcement about the immigration limit.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): Both the Home Secretary and the Minister have stated a commitment to ensuring that excellent scientists, engineers and academics will be able to come into this country. Will they revise the number of points available for PhDs compared with MBAs, and can the Minister explain how the tier 1 scheme will work for both established people and up-and-coming young people?

Damian Green: The tier 1 system is designed precisely so that we can ensure that we get the next generation of excellent scientists. As the Member of Parliament for Cambridge, my hon. Friend clearly has both interest and knowledge in the matter, and he will know that existing Nobel prize winners will get enough points to come in under the points-based system. Our new tier 1 is designed to ensure that the Nobel prize winners of tomorrow will be able to come to this country. We plan to ensure that objective, outside bodies decide who those people are, so that we get the best expertise in specialist fields not just among those coming into this country but among those who decide who comes to this country.

Policing Numbers

7. Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): What estimate she has made of the likely number of police community support officers at the end of the spending review period. [28271]

Hon. Members: Come on! Get up!

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): The number of police officers is not set by central Government, but we believe that forces can make savings to ensure that visible and available policing is secured for the public.

Mr Speaker: Order. I realise that the right hon. Gentleman was slightly out of breath or a bit uncertain in coming to the Dispatch Box, but I believe that he is seeking to group the question with Question 8.

Nick Herbert: With permission, Mr Speaker, I will take Questions 7 and 8 together.

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8. Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had with police forces on the likely number of (a) police officers and (b) police community support officers at the end of the 2014-15 financial year. [28272]

Mr Speaker: I assume that the Minister had finished his reply, so I call Paul Blomfield.

Paul Blomfield: Will the Minister note that there are 337 police community support officers in South Yorkshire whose jobs are at risk because of cuts in both police and local government budgets? Those officers have made an enormous contribution to the reduction in crime and the fear of crime. Does he accept that people across the country would believe that money was better spent on those posts than on the £100 million that the Government propose to waste on police commissioners?

Nick Herbert: First, I should say to the hon. Gentleman that our intention is that directly elected police and crime commissioners should cost no more than existing police authorities. Of course there will be a cost for elections once every four years-an average of £12 million a year, which is less than 0.1% of the national policing budget. We are determined to do everything we can to protect front-line policing and the number of police community support officers. We think they do a very valuable job in our communities.

Mrs Hodgson: As the Minister is no doubt aware, Northumbria police force, which covers my constituency, has recently confirmed that it is to make 450 civilian staff redundant immediately and it is imposing a recruitment freeze on all front-line posts, all because of the cuts made by the Home Secretary. Does the Minister think that those cuts to front-line policing will make my constituents safer?

Nick Herbert: I do not accept that those are cuts-

Hon. Members: What was that?

Mr Speaker: Order. Opposition Members' hearing is playing tricks with them. They did not hear what they thought they heard.

Nick Herbert: Mr Speaker, I am in very good company today.

The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) said that these were cuts to police staff. In all, there are more than 6,000 members of staff in Northumbria police force, including police officers, and I repeat that our determination is to do everything we can to support forces in making savings to the back office, in order to protect the front line and the visible and available policing that the public value.

Mr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): Will the Minister advise the House on what is to happen to the neighbourhood policing fund?

Nick Herbert: I am afraid I cannot give an answer to my hon. Friend right now. We will shortly be announcing the provisional police grant. At that point, we will tell the House what we plan to do with the neighbourhood policing fund.

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Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am sure that my right hon. Friend would like to congratulate the large number of regular police officers and police community support officers who have responded, often unpaid, to the crises of the past few weeks, including the bomb at east midlands airport, the violence here in Westminster and so on. In view of the spending review, how will we cope in future with the need for surging officers when those occasions occur?

Nick Herbert: As my hon. Friend knows, we prioritise counter-terrorism funding to policing, and it has received a measure of protection in the funding settlement. We will, of course, continue to prioritise it.

Ed Balls (Morley and Outwood) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice is having a busy and rather stressful afternoon. I was hoping to ask the Home Secretary about police funding and numbers-and it looked like he thought that she would answer this question too. In any case, may I ask him about the Home Secretary's Cabinet-level spending negotiations? I hope that she has filled him in on what went on. This week, the cross-party association of police officers wrote to the Home Office to ask for the spending review settlement for the police-20% front-end loaded cuts, followed by 6% next year and 8% the year after-to be reopened in order to

and to protect the front line. Back in May, the Prime Minister told the BBC:

If the Prime Minister has not told the Home Secretary to go away and think again, will she listen to police chiefs up and down the country urging her to do just that?

Nick Herbert: I think that the right hon. Gentleman was referring to the Association of Police Authorities. The House might not have heard that he told the Home Affairs Committee seminar in Cannock on 22 November that this is a tighter environment for police spending and would be under any Government. He admitted that there would be cuts in police spending. We inherited £44 billion of unspecified spending cuts from his Government, and we are having to deal with the deficit, taking the decisions that he has forced upon us.

Ed Balls: The deputy to the Home Secretary will have to do a lot better than that. These cuts are front-end loaded and go well beyond the 12% over four years that Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary said was do-able. I am pleased that he has not repeated the 11% smear against our police, which he knows is a completely corrupt and erroneous statistic. Hon. Members should look at the numbers. In north Wales, 230 officers are to go; in the west midlands, 1,100; and in Greater Manchester, 1,387. The chief constable of Greater Manchester police said that

The Home Secretary was not willing to stand up for the police in the spending review, and she is not willing either to stand up in the House and answer my questions on the police. She can refuse to answer my questions,
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but she cannot refuse to answer the questions from police officers and the public all around the country. Today-

Mr Speaker: Order. We must have a one-sentence question.

Ed Balls: I call on the Home Secretary to listen to police chiefs and the public, and I demand that her spending settlement be reopened, that there is an end to front-end loading and that there is a better deal for the police.

Nick Herbert: First, may I say that I am absolutely astonished by the right hon. Gentleman's attack on the figure of only 11% of total police strength being visible and available to the public at any one time? That was the finding of a report by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, and if he takes issue with it, perhaps he will speak to the inspectorate. I think it is disgraceful that he should attack the figure in that way. The report stated:

The right hon. Gentleman also quoted the chief constable of Greater Manchester police. In announcing the changes that he was making to the force, the chief constable said that

Instead of scaremongering in this way, and instead of attacking the correction that we are having to make, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will accept responsibility for bequeathing the deficit to this country that has meant that we have had to deal with public expenditure.

Youth Services

9. Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): What funding her Department plans to allocate to the provision of youth services provided by her Department in the spending review period. [28273]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): I know that the hon. Lady, in the various posts that she has held over the years, has a wealth of experience in dealing with this area of youth services. Youth services are crucial in ensuring that our young people have the best possible chance in life and fulfil their potential. As I am sure she will be aware, the Home Office itself does not provide youth services directly, but we do contribute towards local youth crime prevention work, including youth offending teams, and we will set out our plans for future funding in due course.

Julie Hilling: The Secretary of State will be aware of the numerous studies that show that, where there is a well-funded youth service, there is a decrease in criminality. Now that youth services are being destroyed due to cuts to local government, education, health and Home Office budgets, leaving young people with nowhere to go and nothing to do, has she done a cost analysis of the effects of closures of youth centres on her departmental budget and on levels of antisocial behaviour?

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Mrs May: I simply do not recognise the picture that the hon. Lady has set out in relation to youth services across the country. I would also remind her of the extremely effective point that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice made just now in response to the shadow Home Secretary-namely, that the Government have had to take the recent decisions on funding because of the mess that the last Labour Government left the finances in. We will be looking very closely at the support that we can provide in relation to specific issues about youth crime, to ensure that we are able to help young people not to go down the route of crime and to ensure that they are able to fulfil their full potential and develop the life that they deserve.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): In my constituency, there are many voluntary organisations providing key services such as children's centres and youth services. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential to maintain the funding for those voluntary organisations that are doing such a key work?

Mrs May: I pay tribute to the voluntary organisations that are doing key work in my hon. Friend's constituency, and indeed in other constituencies up and down the country. This is a very good example of the big society in action. As he will be aware, the Government are putting support into voluntary organisations; £100 million is being made available to help voluntary organisations in the difficult times ahead.

Criminal Records Bureau

10. Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): What her most recent assessment is of the performance of the Criminal Records Bureau in undertaking checks. [28274]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Lynne Featherstone): The Criminal Records Bureau has been consistently exceeding its performance targets for standard checks, completing over 95% in 10 days, but it has not been meeting its target for enhanced checks, which is to complete 90% of applications within 28 days. There has been an improvement over recent months, and the Criminal Records Bureau expects to meet its operational targets by April.

Mr Jones: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for that response. I would like to make her aware of a constituent of mine who, as a young girl aged just 12, received a police caution for a minor public disorder incident. Three years later, as a mere 15-year-old, the same young girl applied for a college course and was advised that, because she had been listed on a CRB check, she would struggle to access either a work placement or a university place. Does my hon. Friend agree that it cannot be in the public interest that a CRB check can so damage a young person's life chances at such an early age?

Lynne Featherstone: I agree with my hon. Friend. Under part V of the Police Act 1997, all convictions, cautions, reprimands or warnings, both spent and unspent, held on the police national computer must be disclosed. Obviously, I cannot comment on this particular case,
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but young people's life chances can be ruined by one incident when they were young. That is why these issues are being looked at as part of a review of the criminal records regime and the vetting and barring scheme.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Can the Minister confirm that anyone receiving an official caution is accepting their guilt and that, in reviewing Criminal Records Bureau checks, she should bear in mind the balance of risk and make sure that that is at the forefront of her thoughts on this issue at all times?

Lynne Featherstone: I have complete faith in the fact that the review will adopt a balanced viewpoint and understand all that it needs to look at.


14. Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): What plans she has to allow local authorities to levy charges on pubs and clubs wishing to stay open late. [28279]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, which was introduced last week, includes measures that will allow local authorities to charge a late-night levy. This levy will help to pay for police services and licensing authority services aimed at mitigating the impact the late-night economy has on the local community.

Annette Brooke: I thank the Minister for his answer. How will he ensure that the extra funding will be made available to police the night-time economy, particularly in places such as Bournemouth, which is within Dorset's large rural police authority and where resources have to be concentrated in a relatively few hot spots-often, my constituents feel, to the detriment of the policing of other areas within Dorset?

James Brokenshire: I certainly recognise the pressures put on the police, often in the small hours of the morning, when it comes to dealing with issues surrounding the late-night economy. That is precisely why we have introduced the late-night levy in the Bill. When it comes to ensuring that moneys are protected for policing, we have said that 70% of the revenue, after administration costs have been covered, must go to the police for that purpose.

Police Authority Funding

16. Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): What assessment she has made of the likely effects of the planned reduction in Government funding for police authorities in (a) England and (b) West Yorkshire. [28283]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): The Government will propose individual force allocations to Parliament later this month. By cutting costs and scrapping bureaucracy, we will save both money and man hours, so I am confident that the spending review should not lead to any reduction in police officers visible and available on the streets.

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Greg Mulholland: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and accept the logic of what he says. May I bring it to his attention, however, that the proposed cuts in grant reductions will lead to 7.07% cut to West Yorkshire police, whereas it will lead to a 0.17% increase for Surrey police? By looking at damping the formula grant, could we not find a fairer way and ensure that all forces have approximately the same reductions in their funding?

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend raises an important point about both the issue of damping and the contribution to police funding made by the precept. I am afraid that I cannot tell him any more about our plans right now, but we will make an announcement to the House very shortly.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): Perhaps I can help the House by quoting what the Minister said on "The World This Weekend" on Sunday 21 November. He said:

between police numbers and levels of crime. Let me ask the Minister, however, about a recent quote by the Home Secretary on special constables, as I do not have the opportunity to ask the right hon. Lady. We know that special constables are a valued extra resource for our police service. It has been reported that the Home Secretary said that she is looking to recruit an additional 50,000 specials, but does the Minister seriously believe that part-time volunteers can properly substitute for the core policing work of trained, full-time police officers and police community support officers whose numbers are being so savagely cut?

Nick Herbert: I repeat to the hon. Lady that I said that there was no simple link. She may have noticed that the former police chief of Los Angeles and New York was in this country last week. He wrote a number of pieces, which I think the hon. Lady should read. One thing he said was:

I would suggest that Bill Bratton knows rather more about policing than the hon. Lady does. As to special constables, of course they are valuable and of course we would like to recruit more of them. They are not a substitute for what police officers do, but an important supplement.

Student Visas

17. Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): What plans she has for the future of the student visa system. [28284]

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced in her statement to Parliament on 23 November, the Government will shortly launch a public consultation on proposed changes to the student visa arrangements. The proposals will result in a more selective system, and will reduce the numbers to support our aim of reducing net migration to sustainable levels.

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Mark Lancaster: I commend my hon. Friend on the public consultation and subsequent review, but may I press him to ensure that the terms of reference will be broad enough to enable us to address the underlying causes of abuse, particularly bogus colleges?

Damian Green: I am more than happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance, because it is an extremely important point. I hope he will be encouraged to learn that since the Government came to office in May, we have revoked 24 tier 4 sponsor licences for bogus colleges, 40% more than the number revoked by the last Government. We have also discovered by researching the figures that in some sectors of the education world-especially private sector further education colleges-26% of students are not complying with the visas with which they entered the country. That means that tens of thousands of students are breaking the rules in some way each year. That is simply unacceptable, and we will deal with it.

Topical Questions

T1. [28290] Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): Last Tuesday, we introduced the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. It makes provision for the new police and crime commissioners, who will ensure that for the first time the public have a greater say over how their community is policed. That will make forces truly accountable to the communities whom they serve, and will ensure that resources are targeted properly where they are needed.

Annette Brooke: Will the Home Secretary update the House on progress towards the ending of child detention in relation to immigration? What improvements can she make to ensure that family applications are processed at an earlier stage?

Mrs May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to confirm, first, that the coalition Government retain their commitment to ending the detention of children for immigration purposes and, secondly, that we will make an announcement before the House rises for its Christmas recess. One of the issues that we will be considering is how we can work with families at a much earlier stage of the application process to help them to negotiate the system.

T6. [28296] Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): In 1997, a 17-year-old girl in Chesterfield was raped. The offence remained undetected by the police for 12 years. Finally, a gentleman who was arrested and not charged was matched to it by the DNA database, and he is now serving time. Why is the Home Secretary more in favour of supporting someone like that than supporting use of the DNA database by our police to ensure that dangerous rapists are locked up?

Mrs May: I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has said about what the Government are doing. The Government take a very simple view. The last Government wanted to hold the DNA records of innocent people, but did not even possess the DNA records of all those
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who were in prison. We will change that. We will establish the protections of the Scottish model in relation to the DNA database. DNA will continue to be a tool available to the police to secure convictions, but it is crucial for us to stop holding the DNA records of innocent victims without holding those of all the people who are in prison.

T3. [28292] Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What steps are being taken with the help of the French authorities to stop the steady flow of illegal immigration from the northern French coast into our channel ports?

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): Very effective steps. I am grateful to the French Government for the changes that they have made, not just the closure of Sangatte some years ago but, more recently, the clearing of "the jungle", the unofficial camp that was set up. We also have our own juxtaposed controls. British customs and immigration officers are standing on the French side of the border, not just in Calais but at the Gare du Nord and other rail points at which people can gain direct entry to Britain. That has had measurable results. The number of illegal immigrants caught in Kent in the area of the channel ports is now running at about a fifth of the previous level, so the extra controls are visibly working.

T7. [28297] Fiona O'Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): On Wednesday, responding to a question about correspondence sent by the UK Border Agency to asylum seekers in Glasgow who were tenants of the city council, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), reassured the House that lessons had been learned. On the same day, a 34-year-old single mother received a telephone call from the agency telling her that she would have to move not within the promised 14 days, but within 24 hours. What further steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that what is said in this place reflects what is happening in Glasgow?

Damian Green: I am afraid the hon. Lady is completely misinformed about the facts of this case. She need not take that from me; she can take it from her own colleague, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson). He has been approached on this subject, as I have by many people. In response to an e-mail about it that he received, he wrote:

the e-mail he received

Glasgow city council and

He goes on to say:

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman on this matter.

Mr Speaker: Chris Skidmore. Not here.

6 Dec 2010 : Column 18

T5. [28295] Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): It costs an extra £100,000 a year on top of normal policing costs to police Stourbridge high street late on a Friday and Saturday night. What plans does the Home Office have to protect the taxpayer from the costs of alcohol-related crime?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, which underlines the pressures that dealing with the problems of the night-time economy put on the police. Indeed, a recent study found that about 46% of officers highlighted the night-time economy as one of the main causes of their overtime payments. It is for precisely that reason that we are seeking to introduce the late-night levy in the recent Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. It will be for local authorities and local communities to decide how best to use that power, as well as other powers that are very much about giving control back to communities and promoting a responsible approach to alcohol, which, sadly, the previous Administration did not pursue.

Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): In an earlier reply, the Home Secretary was a bit vague about the ending of the detention of children in removal cases. Does the commitment to end the holding of children in prison in those cases by Christmas still stand?

Mrs May: I was not at all vague. The commitment does still stand. I said in my earlier answer that the coalition Government's commitment to ending the detention of children for immigration purposes still stands, and we will be making an announcement to this House before the Christmas recess.

T8. [28298] Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): The Minister will know that 50% of all violent crimes are alcohol related, and that 70% of alcohol is now sold through supermarkets and the off-trade. Given his commitment to tackling alcohol-related crime and binge drinking, does he not agree that the measures he set out earlier are weighted against pubs and that if he wants to take real action, they must be followed up with a ban on below-cost selling to tackle binge drinking?

James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend makes a very important and powerful point on the approach to alcohol that needs to be taken and why the Government remain committed to banning below-cost sales as set out in our statements in the coalition agreement. We will be bringing forward proposals in due course. It is also worth mentioning that the late-night levy will apply to the off-trade as well as the on-trade, and that it will give local communities the flexibility to provide discounts for businesses who are members of Best Bar None and similar schemes.

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that the chief constable of West Midlands police has already announced that there will be a reduction of upwards of 2,000 police officers in the west midlands? How much greater a reduction does he think the west midlands, and Coventry in particular, could take, in order to put to the test his absurd proposition that there is no link between police numbers and crime levels?

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Mrs May: My right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice was absolutely clear that there is no simple link between police numbers and levels of crime. Indeed, that view was reiterated last September by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw)-and perhaps the hon. Gentleman could have a conversation with him about this very point as they are sitting next to each other on the Opposition Benches.

T9. [28299] Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): In the WikiLeaks affair referred to earlier, was not the real problem that a low-level crime yielded such a high volume of confidential data? So is not the real lesson for the future that gigantic databases of this sort ought not to be created? Will the Home Secretary be spreading that lesson around relevant Departments?

Mrs May: As I said in response to an earlier question from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), the national security adviser has been in touch with Departments about the use of confidential information by the UK Government, asking them to review matters and provide him with assurances about their information security arrangements. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) will be aware that there is a balance to be achieved between the very real need for people to have access to information in order to be able to do their jobs properly and the need to restrict access to some of that information. That balance has to be achieved, and decisions are made on that basis.

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): Police community support officers are arguably even more important in communities such as North East Derbyshire that are rural and isolated, so what impact does the Home Secretary think cuts to the budget of Derbyshire police force will have on community policing in constituencies such as mine?

Mrs May: We have been absolutely clear about the need for forces to ensure that the cuts are made to the back office, procurement, IT provision and so forth. Forces must focus, in line with what chief constables up and down the country are saying, on front-line policing-on visible community policing-which is of benefit not only to forces in terms of catching criminals, but of course to local communities.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): What discussions has the Home Secretary had with police forces about the potential to increase police visibility by, for example, reducing the 100 or so processes that the police and police staff have to go through between the reporting of a crime and the final appearance in court?

Mrs May: I am pleased to say that a number of discussions are taking place with police forces about how we can ensure that we bring greater efficiencies into the whole criminal justice system in order to get the benefits and make the gains to which my hon. Friend referred. I am not just discussing that with the police forces; together with the Police Minister, I am discussing it with the Attorney-General and the Lord Chancellor.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Do the Government really intend to end the obligation for scientists to be members of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of
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Drugs? Will this not result in the failing Government drugs policy ending up being evidence-free and prejudice-rich?

James Brokenshire: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, because it allows me to underline the importance that the Government place on scientific advice and the important role that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs plays in the formulation of our drugs policies. I can make it absolutely clear that our proposals are intended to add greater flexibility to the provision of advice given to government, in order to ensure that we are able to get more effective policies, given the changing nature of the drugs threat. The proposals were drawn up in conjunction with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and I should add that they have the support of the Government's chief scientific officer, Professor John Beddington.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): Can the Home Secretary update us on how many more countries she has been able to make arrangements with so that foreign prisoners who have served their sentences can return to their home countries?

Damian Green: We are constantly in negotiation with all foreign countries where a significant number of prisoners are involved, and we now have charters going back regularly to Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Jamaica. We are continuing with and trying to expand this campaign, because it is extremely important that when foreign prisoners have finished their sentence, they return to their own countries and do not hang around in this country, as sadly they have been doing.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): In the discussion about reducing police numbers, the Home Secretary puts a lot of emphasis on visible policing, but some of the most effective policing is invisible. This morning, I attended a briefing by the Operation Golf team, which has dealt very effectively with child trafficking. Can she assure the House that resources will be available for the police to tackle human trafficking and that they will have sufficient numbers of officers to mount similar operations with other police forces in future?

Damian Green: I completely agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of the effectiveness of combating human trafficking. Indeed, she was on the Front Bench when I revealed that early next year, as part of the new national crime strategy, we will produce a new anti-trafficking strategy precisely so that all the forces of law and order can be more effective in combating that disgraceful and evil crime.

Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con): It has today been brought to my attention that all e-mails sent using the parliamentary system are redirected through computer networks in a foreign country. Will my right hon. Friend undertake a review of that arrangement to see whether there are implications for national security?

Mrs May: I have to say to my hon. Friend-I am looking at you, Mr Speaker-that I am not sure that responsibility for the processing of parliamentary e-mails is a matter for the Home Office. I think that it is a
6 Dec 2010 : Column 21
matter for the House of Commons Commission and the parliamentary authorities.

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): On 31 October, on the "Politics Show", the chief constable of Durham Constabulary, Jon Stoddart, said in answer to a question about the reduction in police budgets:

What kind of irresponsible Government would make front-line police officers take more risks in their jobs?

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): The Government's determination is to support police forces in England and Wales in making savings in the back and middle offices, by becoming more efficient, sharing services, improving IT, procuring together and so on so that they can protect the visible and available front-line policing that the public value.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): In relation to the use of control orders, the Government's independent reviewer of terrorist legislation last week suggested that they should instead devise a new system. Will the Home Secretary heed his advice and replace them?

Mrs May: The review of counter-terrorism legislation is of course taking advice and representations from a wide variety of those who have interests in control orders and other aspects of counter-terrorism legislation.
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Indeed, the reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation has made his views clear to the review.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Some 1,400 police officers and 1,500 police staff are to be axed from Greater Manchester police. Given that the Conservatives-and the Liberal Democrats, for that matter -locally pledged more not fewer police in the elections last May, will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to apologise on their behalf?

Nick Herbert: The test of the effectiveness of a force is not the overall number of people who are working in it but what those officers are doing. We share the determination of the chief constable of Greater Manchester police to protect the front line and to ensure that officers remain on the streets and available when the public want them.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Is not my right hon. Friend concerned that some 2,000 police officers-almost equivalent to a whole police force-are off on long-term sick and unable to work? In any other occupation, such employees would probably be retired as unavailable for work. I do not understand why those provisions do not apply, because otherwise we have a number of police officers on the books who simply are not able to work.

Nick Herbert: I share my hon. Friend's concern. It is an issue and we have set up a review of police officer employment and conditions, headed by Tom Winsor, that will make its first report shortly.

6 Dec 2010 : Column 23

Points of Order

3.33 pm

Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On Tuesday, the House debated the need for more information on higher education policy, including the national studentship scheme. No information was forthcoming. Yesterday, a scheme was briefed to newspapers that means that students whose parents do not work will get reduced fees and students whose parents work but are on a low income will not get any help. What steps can you take, Mr Speaker, to ensure that we do not vote on Thursday without the House having all the necessary information about the Government's higher education policies?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. I have not been informed of any imminent Government statement on that subject, but there will be other opportunities to canvass these issues in the course of the week. I should be very surprised if further particulars of policy were not forthcoming before the vote on Thursday, especially as a Minister will be speaking in the debate-I rather fancy that the right hon. Gentleman will be speaking, too.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for me to put on the record what the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice said on "The World This Weekend" on 21 November when talking about the link between the increase in the number of police officers-

Mr Speaker: Order. In keeping with his usual courtesy, the hon. Gentleman asked whether it would be in order to put this matter on the record, so I feel I should put him out of his misery and explain that, no, it would not be.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will recall that the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) made a point of order last week, which was followed up by her and by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) in last Thursday's business questions, regarding the transfer of oral parliamentary questions. My office took this matter up with the relevant Department and the questions have now been answered. However, in last Monday's point of order, the issue of transferring oral parliamentary questions was also raised. Having checked with the Department, I am assured that the questions were transferred within 24 hours of being tabled and that the relevant Members and the Table Office were notified. That is in line with the guidance given to Departments that oral questions should be transferred as soon as possible after tabling and never on the day for answer. My office has issued a reminder to parliamentary teams across Whitehall to ensure that best practice is always followed in this regard.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for that. We cannot have an extended exchange on this particular matter, but because he referred-perfectly properly-to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella
6 Dec 2010 : Column 24
Creasy), who was jumping up and down, if she wants to raise a point of order, I am very happy to hear and respond to it.

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I would be happy to go through the details of those questions with the Deputy Leader of the House, but it simply is not true that they were transferred within 24 hours. Indeed, we were given days on which we would get answers but we were getting none and when we spoke to the Departments, they had no idea about the questions. I think that further investigations are merited and I hope you will support that, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: There is now a dispute as to the facts but that cannot be the subject of extended points of order. I strongly suggest that the complaining Member and the responsible Minister or the Deputy Leader of the House should get together and try to sort this matter outside the Chamber.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. [ Interruption. ] I hope that the Home Secretary will stay a moment longer before she leaves the Chamber. I realise that this is not for you, Mr Speaker, but I am sure that you will have read, over the weekend, the substantial coverage of the action that the Home Secretary has taken in relation to a researcher working for a Member of the House. I am sure that you would not want to comment on that because it is still sub judice-I understand that that person is appealing the decision-but it would clearly be a very important matter if an agent working for a foreign power were to be employed in the House. I hope that you can assure the House that the Home Secretary will seek to make an oral statement to the House when that process is finished and that you, as always, are keeping all the security measures in the House, including the vetting of potential researchers, under review.

Mr Speaker: Well, I think that someone once said of the hon. Gentleman that his mind climbs mountains without any molehills. He is always thinking ahead of himself and I am not surprised, as he has a great elasticity of mind, but he is seeking to draw me into matters beyond where we have reached and he is absolutely right in his initial supposition that we do not discuss security matters on the Floor of the House. He has registered his concern that the Home Secretary should be ready to make a statement if the eventuality he fears could happen, but should not, actually happens. I have a strong feeling that her office reads Hansard. I think that will probably do for today.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you investigate whether there is some extraordinary pact or audacious dare between Ministers and broadcasters to insert a particularly unsavoury word into their performances-before this virus is allowed to spread any further?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. That is not a point of order, but he has made the point with his characteristic subtlety.

6 Dec 2010 : Column 25

Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sure that the Home Secretary wants to be accurate in her replies to the House and in view of a woolly reply that she gave to an earlier question, when I asked whether she stood by the pledge by Ministers to end by Christmas the holding in prison of children involved in removal cases-

Mr Speaker: Order. Let me anticipate what the right hon. Gentleman is likely to go on to say. I note the difference between the commitment that he is seeking and what the Home Secretary said, but as a very experienced Member of the House and former Minister, he knows that I am not responsible for the content of answers. What the right hon. Gentleman is about, of course, is trying to remind the House and his constituents of his dissatisfaction that his point was not answered as he would have wished. I think he has accomplished his objective, and we will leave it there.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you confirm that it is in order during a Division for hon. Members to walk through both the Aye and the No Lobby if they seek to register an active abstention? For those who are not sure how to vote on Thursday in the tuition fees vote, would that not have the advantage of allowing them to say that they voted both for and against it, depending on their audience?

Mr Speaker: Yes.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek clarification for my constituent, Mrs Amanda Matthews, and myself. As the House knows, the whole House is on a three-month holiday through the summer, so it came as a great surprise that the Treasury received a letter from me on 4 August. I must have been working. The Treasury, however, must have been on holiday because there was no reply to that letter, or to the letters of 21 September, 13 October or 3 November. May I seek your guidance as to whether there has been some change in the Whitehall directive about answering MPs' correspondence on behalf of their constituents? I am pleased to say that in the past two days I have received the answer, only four months after I sent the original letter.

Mr Speaker: That is not a matter for the Chair. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his intended and what I will describe as attempted point of order. I appreciate his frustration at not receiving a satisfactory reply, although he says that he has now received one. He has made his point and it will have been heard on the Treasury Bench. For wider application, he might want to consult the Table Office about other ways of pursuing these matters in the event of receiving no reply or replies that he regards as excessively tardy.

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Opposition Day

[8th allotted day]

Local Government Funding

3.42 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): I beg to move,

There is common cause across the House in recognising the need to reduce the deficit. Labour had a plan to halve Britain's borrowing over a four-year period. That would have meant cuts in spending and would have resulted in reductions to local government funding, but not like the Government's cuts. I will not let the coalition pass the blame for cuts of their choosing, their design and their timing on to us. Let me, once and for all, nail the myth that there is no alternative. The Government had a choice.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): That would be reasonable position for the right hon. Lady to adopt if she set out in some detail how Labour's programme of cuts would impact on local government.

Caroline Flint: We are dealing with a package, which is what local councils will face. Even on the coalition Government's most extravagant predictions of what we might have cut, with which I do not concur, the cuts proposed by the coalition Government, of whom the right hon. Gentleman is an ally, would have meant another £2.2 billion worth of cuts over a four-year period, and they are front-loaded in a way that is dangerous for local communities and the services that they need.

Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend amazed to hear that question, bearing in mind that the Government have not announced what cuts are to take place? It is likely that local authorities will not know that until December, giving them just a few months to adjust the budget.

Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend is right: we do not know what the settlement announcement will be at this stage, but what we do know is that local authorities have been told that they will face cuts of 27% in their funding over a four-year period. As I will set out in more detail, much of that is being front-loaded in an incredibly short period of time, which makes no sense at all.

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Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend realise that Coventry city council, for example, will lose not only front-line staff, but £45 million over the next two or three years in different types of grants? Is that not an horrendous thing to inflict on the people of Coventry?

Caroline Flint: It is absolutely dreadful. As we will see in this debate, not only are the cuts unfair for the whole of local government; they will attack the poorest communities up and down the country. That is neither fair nor right, and it is not something that we would have done. This Government had a choice. They have chosen to cut deeper and faster, taking a huge gamble with jobs and growth. They could have shared the reductions in spending between Whitehall and town halls, but instead, they have chosen to dump cuts on local councils up and down the country. The Government could have spread the cuts evenly over four years, giving councils time to plan where savings could be made, but instead they chose to front-load them, so that councils are crippled by the heaviest cuts falling in the first year.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Does the shadow Secretary of State agree that a freeze in council tax will help hard-pressed families, who were hit by the previous Government's year-on-year increases in council tax bills?

Caroline Flint: The irony of the hon. Gentleman's point of view is that the most affluent areas will benefit from the freeze in council tax and the transition payments that the Government are providing. Those in the poorest areas, with the lowest amount of take from council tax, will have a double whammy, because to pay for the council tax freeze, the 2.5% is being top-sliced from the formula grant. The Government could have ensured that the cuts were spread fairly, but their choice was not to do so. Those are the risks that they are prepared to take. The danger is that communities up and down the country will pay the price, and we will not let the Government forget it.

Hazel Blears (Salford and Eccles) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the chairman of the Tory party, Baroness Warsi, said to the Manchester Evening News in September:

With Salford council facing £40 million to £45 million of devastating cuts and West Oxfordshire district council-which contains Witney, the Prime Minister's constituency -getting a 37% increase, how can this possibly mean that regions such as Greater Manchester are to be protected?

Caroline Flint: As usual, my right hon. Friend makes an excellent point, based on facts, and the facts are that the cuts to local government will have a devastating impact on our poorest communities. Not only that, but local authorities up and down the country, of whatever political persuasion, are facing a huge task in having to tackle the front-loading of cuts in a matter of weeks, which is not good for either services, jobs or communities.

The Government like to talk about localism-about devolving power to local councils and empowering local communities. In fact, the coalition agreement boldly states that the Government will

6 Dec 2010 : Column 28

Well, the cuts have come, but we are still waiting for the localism. For all their talk of localism, this Government have imposed the largest cuts to local government funding for a generation-cuts that are much deeper than those to other Departments or those originally forecast in the Budget in June; cuts that fall heaviest in the first year and hit the most deprived communities. So much for fairness, localism, and devolving powers to local councils and community groups. The only thing that this Government want to devolve is the blame for difficult decisions.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I wonder whether my right hon. Friend recalls the Chancellor saying:

Does she agree that what we are seeing is breathtaking hypocrisy?

Caroline Flint: I do, and whether in local government, education or health, it is the poorest and vulnerable who are being hit the hardest, as well as those hard-working families who pay their way, but who also depend on local services to provide for themselves and their families. They do not ask for much from the Government, but they ask for them to be on their side-to make sure that work pays and that they can look after their families-and this Government are not providing that security. The whole House knows why that has happened-why local councils will lose almost one third of their funding over the next four years.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): A debate about local government is welcome, because local government and its financing are important, but as the right hon. Lady launches her attack on the Government, as she is entitled to do, will she make her position clear,? Did not her Government, when in office, say that there would be a £52 billion cut in public services? How much of that would have fallen on local government? Was the decision to end the working neighbourhoods fund and to cut regeneration funding not taken in March by her Government's Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he was in office?

Caroline Flint: On the working neighbourhoods fund, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has fallen into his Tory coalition partners' trap. The Tories say, and he repeats the claim, that we planned to scrap the working neighbourhoods fund and had already cut money from it. In the March Budget we did announce savings, including £300 million through rationalising the regional development agencies, but we clearly distinguished between those programmes that were not a priority and would therefore be scrapped and those, including the working neighbourhoods fund, to which we were committed but would look to find savings in. It was a three-year programme in which, in November 2009-[Hon. Members: "Three years."]. Three years' funding is more than the one year that we used to have under Tory Governments, and more than the non-existent funding that poorer communities had under the Tory Government from 1979 to 1997.

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Indeed, in November 2009 we announced a £40 million boost to the fund, worth £1.5 billion from 2008-09 to 2009-10. Of course, we had to look at programmes, but there is no evidence whatever to suggest that we would have scrapped the working neighbourhoods fund. That is not the case.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): The right hon. Lady talks about devolution, but her Government took £13 million out of the housing budget in Harlow, where 45% of housing is social housing. The current Government are ending that and guaranteeing Harlow housing money for Harlow people.

Caroline Flint: I am afraid that is rubbish. The Labour Government, in so many different ways, contributed not only to boosting the refurbishment of homes that had been left to languish for too many years under the Tory Government, but to ensuring that there were ways and means for local councils, with other housing providers, to provide more homes.

The National Housing Federation, I think I am correct in repeating, says that, once the homes that Labour funded in its last period in office have been built, under the coalition Government's plans, no more homes will be built. In relation- [ Interruption. ] The Minister for Housing and Local Government says "nonsense", but let us just wait and see, because even in a time of recession, it was Labour money that worked in partnership with others-[Hon. Members: "Taxpayers' money".] It was taxpayers' money with which a Labour Government decided that we should promote the building of more social homes. Even in the teeth of recession, I think we built at least 55,000 homes to provide for people who could not afford a house on the private market.

We all know why that front-loaded package is happening: because the Secretary of State gives the impression of being more interested in trashing local councils, chasing cheap headlines, calling councillors stupid or lazy and telling local authorities to grow up. The hundreds of thousands of decent, honest, hard-working people who work in local government, and the millions of people who depend on the services and support that they provide, hardly seem to warrant a second thought, but they will be the ones who pay the price for this Government's decisions.

To make matters worse, local councils are being forced to make deeper cuts than they expected and to do so much quicker, because the reductions in local government funding are front-loaded. As much as 50% of the cuts could fall in the first year. Councillors are looking at cuts of 14%, 16% or 18% to their budgets within weeks, but the Secretary of State still denies it. He says that it is a fiction, but he is about the only person left who still thinks so.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I hope that the right hon. Lady will not forget that from 1997 onwards the then Deputy Prime Minister, the Secretary of State responsible for local government funding, changed the formulas three times, each occasion moving money north to Labour authorities and away from London and the south-east. In one year, the year-on-year effect in Surrey, for example, was a £39 million loss.

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Caroline Flint: I think I am right in saying that, for every year we were in power, there was an above inflation increase in local government spending. I am not going to apologise for trying to show leadership in addressing need, inequality and poverty in this country. Perhaps that is something that the Secretary of State and his hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench do not want to champion anymore.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend talked about the cuts being front-loaded. Figures from Newham council suggest that a large proportion of the nearly £40 million cuts for Newham-13% of the 25% total cuts that are being proposed by the Government-will take place in year one.

Caroline Flint: That is another example of the devastating impact of the cuts in the first year. I say to the Secretary of State: is that a fiction?

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): Yes.

Caroline Flint: I am very much looking forward to the missives I can hear being typed out in town halls in London and across the country to put the Secretary of State right on that one.

Mr Watts: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the changes to the grant system are only putting right what the previous Tory Government had done? When I was the leader of St Helens council, the then Tory Government, in one year, took more than £13 million of grants from St Helens-a deprived community-to give to their friends.

Caroline Flint: As he did during a Westminster Hall debate last week, my hon. Friend lays out the real choices that are being made here about fairness and unfairness. What is happening is unfair and is not right.

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): Talking of hypocrisy, does the right hon. Lady agree with her party's leader, the right hon. Member for Doncaster Central, who said on the "Today" programme in April, "as we look forward" regeneration spending is

as there are "other competing priorities."? Is that not hypocrisy writ large?

Caroline Flint: The constituency of the leader of the Labour party is actually Doncaster North not Doncaster Central.

As I opened the debate, I did not hesitate for a moment to say that reductions and cuts would have had to be made. The question is how much, how deep and how fast. It is not just Labour politicians who are saying that; the chair of the Local Government Association, Baroness Eaton, a Conservative peer said:

I could not have put it better myself.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady give way.

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Caroline Flint: I will give way shortly.

Grahame Lucas, the President of the Society of District Council Treasurers, said that front-loading was happening -not that it was fiction, Mr Secretary of State-and that its consequences would be disastrous. Even the Secretary of State's Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) knows that there is a problem. At County Councils Network conference on 22 November, he told council leaders that front-loading

He asked them to "wait for the settlement." Who knows, perhaps today's debate and the cries from their own people across the country will have an impact. Today, we are trying to tell the Government that they should listen and try to do something to avert the disaster that will happen in a few weeks' time.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I thank my constituency neighbour for giving way to me. May I say gently and in the most friendly way possible, that I served on a metropolitan northern authority for 10 years and the picture was not quite as rosy? Although there might well have been some extra resources, all too often, what came with that were huge burdens that were not fully funded-whether that was free swimming, local bus passes or whatever. Local tax payers, who are some of the poorest tax payers, had to pick up the bill.

Caroline Flint: The hon. Gentleman is indeed a neighbour of mine in Yorkshire. Correct me if I am wrong, but I cannot remember that there were many Tory-controlled councils that did not want free swimming when it was being offered or that did not want a number of other benefits for their communities. However, I would have to say to the hon. Gentleman, in the nicest possible way, that if people thought it was not rosy then, they must now be in despair about what is ahead.

We are hearing from councillors of all parties that if councils are not given enough time to plan which cuts to make, they will be forced into making rushed decisions with no time to plan for the consequences, which could end up costing more than they save.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con) rose -

Mr Jim Cunningham rose-

Caroline Flint: I will give way shortly to hon. Friends and to Government Members. I want to be generous because this is such an important issue.

The Secretary of State-I agree with him on this-wants councils to think how they might transfer assets to the community, which we enabled when we were in government, and involve voluntary groups and share back-room functions, which we also encouraged when we were in government. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the principle, but it cannot be done in a few rushed months: it takes time and planning, which the Government refuse to give to local authorities. As a result, the worry is that councils will simply go for the easiest and quickest cuts instead of thinking about how they save money while minimising service cuts and job losses.

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Henry Smith: The right hon. Lady said that we are apparently yet to see any localism or devolution to local government, but does she concede that greater flexibilities and the ending of the ring-fencing of many budgets will give exactly the flexibilities that many local communities need? It will certainly be welcomed by my local authority, West Sussex county council, which suffered eight years of the lowest possible Government settlements under the previous Government.

Caroline Flint: I recognise the hon. Gentleman's experience in local government; I believe he was leader of West Sussex county council.

The Secretary of State says that local councils have a choice:

Councils should be modern and should embrace flexibility and innovation, but by imposing such huge, unprecedented front-loaded cuts on them he denies them that very choice. How can councils completely rethink everything in a matter of a few weeks?

Mr Cunningham: Does my right hon. Friend think that we have here a re-run of the '80s, when the Conservatives cut the rate support grant and the housing allocation, local authorities were forced to sell old people's homes and there were reductions among teachers and front-line staff. The House should not be filled up with that lot over there-they are using the recession as an excuse to inflict Thatcherite policies. Last week the Prime Minister admitted to being a child of Thatcher. Does not this House recognise what is going on right under its nose?

Caroline Flint: It is actually worse than the '80s, because these cuts are deeper and faster, and they leave local government with very little choice. There are positive aspects to devolving power; we did a lot of it while we were in power. [ Interruption. ] It is true. I know that the Secretary of State likes to issue his diktats from the Department like some Joe Stalin, but rewriting history is a stretch too far.

Hazel Blears: My right hon. Friend is making a characteristically powerful case against the front-loading of these cuts. I ask her, as I hope to ask the Secretary of State, to consider whether, as there is apparently likely to be a £3 billion surplus in national non-domestic rates, it would be a good idea to distribute that sum to smooth out the effects of the cuts next year and the following year. Would that not seem to be an eminently sensible course of action that may well commend itself across the House?

Caroline Flint: I understand that the Secretary of State has had a letter from John Merry on this important issue. What we are asking is pretty reasonable. We are saying: "Have another look. See whether you can stagger these cuts in a better way. See if you can dampen the cuts to tackle inequality, but also look at other opportunities that are available to get this right by minimising the impact on front-line services and the unnecessary loss of jobs." That is what we are talking about: the people who will pay the price in their jobs.

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Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend rightly talks of what we did in government. Does she share my amazement and that of many hon. Members at the joviality of Government Members? In their first few months in office, the Government ignored the impetus that had been created by the Labour Government with Total Place? The Government had to be dragged, screaming, by their advisers to reconsider, and even then they renamed it.

Caroline Flint: There is a rewriting of history with regard to these good ideas. When I picked up one of the Sunday newspapers to read about changes to planning, I recognised a few changes that had been initiated when I was Minister for Housing and Planning and had been carried on by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey). Total Place was a very good idea. It was a system by which different organisations came together in common cause to tackle challenges in the community, and to share their funding and budgets. The scheme has had two names since the coalition Government came to power: place-based budgets and community-based budgets. The fact is, it was our idea. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) will agree that such innovation is all very well, but that it is difficult to imagine the Total Place concept hitting the ground running in the context of the cuts faced not only in local government but in policing and through the reorganisation of primary care trusts.

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): The right hon. Lady is being most generous in giving way. May I clarify her position on cuts? She seems to be saying that her party would cut more slowly than the Government. Does she understand the implications of that? It would mean the Government borrowing more and paying more interest, because they would be borrowing over a longer period. Does she really think that taxpayers would thank a Labour Government for paying back money on their behalf to foreign Governments such as the Chinese Government?

Caroline Flint: The price being paid in this country is that of people being put on the dole and therefore not paying tax. The price will be paid by local economies and private businesses that depend on local government contracts and by the voluntary sector, which depends on local government to fund its services. There are prices to be paid and choices to be made. We would not have chosen to front-load the cuts in such a way as to fundamentally break the fabric of our communities.

Organisations that research this issue have shown that parts of the country, through no fault of their own, depend on public sector jobs to keep their communities afloat. Despite all the warm words in Government statements, the coalition agreement and the comprehensive spending review document about fairness and protecting the most vulnerable communities, there has been little sign in the statements of the Secretary of State, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister of how they will ensure that the cuts do not disproportionately affect our poorest communities. I hope we will hear something in the financial settlement. That is why we are having this debate today. At the moment, I am afraid that Government Front Benchers are not listening.

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John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend appreciate the alarm that the people of Barrow and Furness are experiencing? According to modelling in yesterday's Local Government Chronicle, their community could be among the top three places in the country to experience the deepest cuts, despite its having many of the most deprived areas.

Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend's point about his constituency applies to others. It is clear that some of the most deprived communities in our country face the biggest impact and the brunt of the cuts, not those who are better off. I wish that every area was better off, but it is not like that. That is why we must tackle inequality and be fair. We must be a civilised and decent society, but that is not what is going on.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that it is not only deprived communities that will suffer because of the way in which the cuts are being implemented, but women-and thereby children-because they make up approximately 73% of local authority employees?

Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. About 74% of those who work in local government are women. It is rather ironic that on the day the Fawcett Society is again challenging the coalition Government's Budget in court because of its disproportionate effect on women and children, women are yet again being asked to pay the price. Women who work in local government, often part-time at the lower end of the pay scale, face the complete disruption of their family and working life.

Several hon. Members rose -

Caroline Flint: I have been very generous in taking interventions, and I am conscious of the number of Members who wish to speak in the debate. [Interruption.] I do not think that hon. Members can accuse me of not being generous in giving way. I will take more interventions later, but I should like to make a bit of progress.

Christopher Pincher: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Caroline Flint: The hon. Gentleman heard what I had to say-I am going to make a bit of progress, but I may take more interventions later.

People will pay the price with their jobs. The Secretary of State likes to give the impression that savings can be made without causing job losses, as though simply by freezing recruitment, natural wastage, redeploying people and scrapping or sharing back-room functions, local councils will find the savings they need to make without hitting front-line services. Local councils cannot deliver such savings so quickly on top of the £1 billion of savings they have already made this year without cutting jobs or reducing services. Paul Carter, the Tory Kent council leader, said:

In fact that is two, but I take his point. Up and down the country, local authorities are already cutting vital front-line services and shedding staff.

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Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Caroline Flint: No, I will not give way.

Councils are cutting not just staff in back-room functions but teaching assistants, social workers and street cleaners-hundreds of thousands of people delivering essential front-line services. There will be 140,000 of them this year alone, according to the Local Government Association, which has upped its prediction from 100,000. In Birmingham, 26,000 staff have been warned that they could lose their jobs, and in Bradford the figure is 10,000. They, along with the people who depend on the services they provide, will pay the price for the coalition Government's choices.

It is no good the Government trying to use last week's Office for Budget Responsibility forecast to obscure the heavy job losses that will be inflicted on local government. The OBR forecast shows that Whitehall Departments will lose fewer staff than had been feared, because the cuts were slightly less than had been predicted in the Budget. However, the cuts to local government are deeper and faster than had been expected, and, as a result, the LGA says that more workers, not fewer, will lose their jobs this year-40,000 more of them, all because the Government chose to impose such heavy front-loaded cuts on local councils.

Christopher Pincher: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Caroline Flint: No, I will not.

It is unclear how local councils will meet the costs of laying off so many staff. The LGA believes that redundancy costs alone could be as high as £2 billion, but the Government's capitalisation arrangements, which were set up to help councils with the cost of cutting jobs, come to only £200 million. That could be as little as one tenth of what is needed. If councils are not given more support and more flexibility to cover the costs of redundancy payments, it will simply mean more cuts elsewhere and ever deeper cuts to vital front-line services.

Local councils cannot deliver the savings they need simply by trimming a few salaries at the top, scrapping council newspapers or encouraging councils to dip into their reserves. Local councils have a duty to find the best deal for council tax payers, which includes ensuring that councils' executives are not paid over the odds. Labour introduced more transparency in chief executive pay, and restraint is vital, particularly in the current economic climate. It is absolutely fanciful, however, to suggest that reducing a handful of executive salaries across the country will solve the problem of huge front-loaded cuts, and the Secretary of State knows it.

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Caroline Flint: In a moment.

Nor is encouraging councils to dip into their reserves any sort of solution. As the Secretary of State well knows, most of the money is already earmarked for specific purposes. I had a look at the reserves in Ministers' areas compared with those of our shadow team and found that their areas have £100 million more reserves in their bank accounts than ours. Burnley, one of the
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areas likely to be hit hardest by cuts in funding, could lose anything between 25% and 29% of its funding over the next four years, and it has just £1.1 million in unallocated reserves. Unless the Secretary of State wants to nationalise council reserves and redistribute them to the councils hardest hit by the cuts, this is just another red herring.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Caroline Flint: I will give way shortly-and I will give way to the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) shortly too, because she caught my eye as well.

Let us be in no doubt that cuts of this magnitude and imposed this quickly will hit front-line services. Roads damaged last winter will go unrepaired this year, too; potholes will go unfixed, pavements will go unswept, street lights will be turned off, youth clubs will close, libraries will shut and, at a time when more people than ever need help with social care, fewer will find their local council able to help.

Harriett Baldwin: The right hon. Lady mentioned a handful of council chief executives who make significant salaries. In fact, a total of 129 make more money than the Prime Minister.

Caroline Flint: What I said is on the record. I am not going to defend some of the pay in local government, but the Secretary of State has appointed a new permanent secretary on, I think, £170,000 a year. He had the chance to ensure that he earned less than the Prime Minister, but he refused to do so. To claim that chief executives' pay equates to the level of cuts that local government are facing is to live in fantasy land-it is ridiculous.

The poorest communities will be the hardest hit. The Government have made much of their commitment to fairness. The coalition agreement reads:

Those are fine words, but the Secretary of State's own figures show that the councils worst hit over the four-year settlement include Hastings, Burnley, Blackburn with Darwen, Hull, Barrow-in-Furness and Hartlepool-all in the 10% most deprived councils in the country-along with Liverpool city council, which is the most deprived local authority in England.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is unbelievable and wrong that children and young people in particular are facing enormous cuts? Youth services throughout the country are being destroyed, and youth workers throughout the country are getting their redundancy notices. Young people are only young once and need support and services now-it is no good their having them in the future-and they should not be paying a disproportionate cost in the cuts.

Caroline Flint: I am afraid that the coalition Government clearly do not care. On top of what they are doing to local government, they are scrapping the education maintenance allowance, which is the best chance to get
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young people to stay on in education or training at 16 and possibly go on to university or other further education courses. They have scrapped the future jobs fund and the working neighbourhoods fund, much of which was directed at ensuring that young people did not leave school and enter a period of inactivity, whether out of work or training and education. They simply do not care.

Stephen Mosley: From what the right hon. Lady said, it seems that the more prudent councils have been preparing for this day for a couple of years, but many councils across the country have not been so prudent. Should she not aim her anger at councils that have been wasting money, increasing council tax and providing poor services over the past few years, rather than at Government Front Benchers, who are trying to do something about it?

Caroline Flint: Here we go again-let us bash local government and local councillors up and down the country trying to do their best, and let us tell them it is their fault. I do not think there is a local authority in the country that was preparing for this level of cuts. The suggestion is quite ridiculous.

Gordon Birtwistle (Burnley) (LD): As the MP for Burnley, which has been mentioned on numerous occasions, I would like to advise Members that the Liberal Democrat-controlled council is doing its best under the circumstances. Does the right hon. Lady remember that in the last three years of the Labour Government Burnley received a 0.5% increase in grant from national Government? The Labour Government nailed councils to the wall in their last three years by not financing them properly. It is strange that she is having a go at the coalition Government given that Labour bankrupted the country in the first place.

Caroline Flint: I would rather defend an increase, no matter how small, than defend the indefensible, as is happening here today.

Let us look at the disparities. As I have said, a number of councils, including Burnley, are facing the most devastating cuts. At the same time, a handful of district councils in the south-east, including South Cambridgeshire and West Oxfordshire-two of the least deprived areas in the country-could see not a reduction but an increase of up to 30% in their funding, as a consequence of funding that was previously ring-fenced for deprived authorities being rolled into the overall grant.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has managed to give way. She mentioned Burnley, the neighbouring constituency to my own. Housing market renewal worth £9 million to Burnley and £8 million to Hyndburn has just been cut, and the working neighbourhoods fund, which is worth £2 million, has also been slashed. Burnley borough council has been funded in the past two or three years by enormous sums from the Government, as has Hyndburn, and I do not accept the point made by my colleague, the hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle).

Caroline Flint: It is always helpful to have a wider debate, and I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution.

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Mr Rob Wilson: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Caroline Flint: I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, and I will not do so again.

How is it fair that the communities most reliant on public sector employment will lose the greatest number of jobs? How is it fair that the areas most in need will find their services most cut? How is it fair that the communities least able to shoulder the brunt of cuts to local councils will bear the heaviest burden? Yet that is exactly what will happen, as the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) let slip earlier in the year, when he said:

The same is true of the Government's plans for a council tax freeze. It might sound fair, but it is not, because it gives the most to the wealthier councils with the biggest council tax yield-the councils with the broadest base of middle and high band properties-and the least to poorer councils with more modest properties. This involves money that has been top-sliced from local councils' funding, resulting in a double whammy for our poorest areas.

It is not just people who work in local government who will lose out. Hundreds of thousands of people across the country who work in the private sector-plumbers, builders, electricians, IT companies and office suppliers-depend on local council contracts. Local councils spend nearly £35 billion every year procuring services and supplies from the private sector, with more than £20 billion going to small and medium-sized businesses. Some of those firms rely on public sector contracts for 50% or 60% of their business, and if local council contracts dry up, some of them will have to lose staff and might even go out of business altogether. PricewaterhouseCoopers forecasts that for every job lost in the public sector, another will be lost in the private sector, so cuts in local government funding will hit not just those who work in local government and those who rely on its services, but the wider local economy.

What of the Government's suggestion that if local councils do less, voluntary groups will miraculously emerge and seamlessly fill the gap left by local authorities? The week before last, the Secretary of State warned the House that local councils would "rue the day" they cut funding to voluntary organisations, but what choice will they have? When nearly a third of voluntary organisations rely on funding from local authorities, and local authorities are losing nearly a third of their funding-much of it this year-voluntary groups will lose out. Local councils and voluntary groups are not adversaries-they work together and rely on each other. Voluntary groups reach parts of the community and fulfil certain roles that local councils sometimes cannot, and local councils have the resources and support at their disposal that voluntary groups do not always have. Without each other, they are both weakened.

Christopher Pincher: I am indebted to the right hon. Lady for giving way. It is nice to hear her support for the big society and voluntary groups, but she seems to have rather a selective memory. May I remind her of the BBC report published on 1 March this year, when her party was still in government? It stated that very significant
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cuts in local government would have to be made, whichever party was in power, to deal with the depth and scale of the recession that her Government had created. The right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) also said that there would have to be economies. With friends like those, does she need enemies?

Caroline Flint rose-

Mr Speaker: Order. Before the right hon. Lady responds, I will make two points. First, interventions are becoming rather long and need to get shorter. Secondly, for the good conduct of the debate, I want to touch on an earlier intervention by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd). I did not hear it clearly at the time, but reference was made to the alleged hypocrisy of another Member. Such references must not be made on the Floor of the House. Making a personal accusation of hypocrisy is disorderly. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is a new Member, but I hope that what I have said will be helpful for the House as a whole.

Caroline Flint: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will not hold the hon. Gentleman too harshly to account for what he said in the heat of the debate.

We must recognise that the deficit has to be reduced-and we do. [Interruption.] We have been very clear about that. There are choices to be made, however, about how far and how deep the cuts should be. What does the hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) have to say to Baroness Margaret Eaton, Tory leader of the Local Government Association, who only last week issued a press release on the "unprecedented" levels of the cuts and the impact of front-loading? It is not just Labour people talking about this- [Interruption.] I hear an hon. Gentleman shout "What would you do?" from a sedentary position. We would not front-load the cuts in this way for a start, and we would not have gone as deep.

Mr Watts: Is it not clear that people will judge the Government not on the cuts, but on how they are distributed. So far, what we know is that they will hit the most deprived. Is that not what it is all about?

Caroline Flint: I am afraid that there is another motivation, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the deficit. I think I am right in saying that the Office for Budget Responsibility report suggested that a surplus would start to appear in a few years' time. Given how the coalition Government like to sing from the rafters about OBR reports, it is a shame that they do not think about areas where they could use that information to minimise the damage of the cuts that local authorities face and adopt a much more thoughtful approach to their impact on the ground.

There is no doubt about it-the impact on local communities up and down the country will be harsh and, I think, undeserved. Whatever plans local authorities might like to make-working with the voluntary sector and the private sector and looking at ways to share functions and of delivering services differently are all, I think, subjects worthy of debate-they can do only so much in the time available. That time is simply not enough.

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Several hon. Members rose -

Caroline Flint: I will give way to the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen), but after that I shall take no more interventions. Hansard will show that I have already taken more than my fair share.

Andrew Bridgen: I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way. My local council in North-West Leicestershire is already right-sizing its top management to protect essential front-line services. Is that not the way forward? She will be well aware that almost a third of Government spending is channelled through local government, so no credible deficit reduction plan can leave local government immune. Without a credible plan, and in the absence of her telling us what a Labour Government would cut instead of local government-perhaps defence, health or education-she has no credibility whatever in the debate.

Caroline Flint: I agree with the hon. Gentleman in so far as there has to be a sharing of the reductions across the different sectors of public spending, but I do not agree that the disproportionate expectations of local government are fair. I just do not think they are fair. In a less partisan arena, the hon. Gentleman might agree that even if we were to pursue the level of cuts proposed by the Government, it would be worth thinking about staggering them over the four-year period rather than expecting the largest amounts to be cut in the first year. Local authorities have been set an incredible challenge in that respect. In a more reasoned environment, most sensible people would recognise that fact and say, "Let's do something about it before the financial settlement is announced and try to put right some of the wrongs created by the package following the comprehensive spending review."

In so many ways, the motion says that the Government are not listening. Let me tell the House and the country that Labour is listening and that there is an alternative. The financial settlement is yet to be settled; there is time to put this right. Savings need to be found and, yes, cuts will need to be made in local government-but not like this: not in this way and not in this time scale.

Today, the Government have a choice. They can plough ahead with their plans and impose huge cuts on local councils, forcing them to find savings in the next few weeks-councils will have to decide their budgets by February 2011. They can impose cuts that will unnecessarily cost jobs, undermine the voluntary sector, hit front-line services and create huge uncertainty in the private sector. They can force through cuts that will hit the poorest communities the hardest, or they can choose to listen. They can listen to Members throughout the House-publicly or privately-who I know will take the opportunity here today, and in other forums, to speak about the damage that huge front-loaded cuts will cause. They can listen to the people who work in local government and provide the services on which we all rely, often with very little reward. They can listen to the voluntary sector, and to the small business community.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that any reductions in funding are more evenly spread over four years? Will he introduce more flexible capitalisation arrangements, so that local councils are not forced to make even deeper cuts in services and jobs to meet the cost of
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redundancy payments? Will he introduce damping measures to stop our poorest communities being hit hardest? Those are the three questions that the Secretary of State must answer today.

I commend the motion to the House.

4.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): I am most grateful to the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). I could hear the gentle scribble of history being rewritten. I think that had Winston Smith been part of the process, he would have been down to his second stub of pencil by now. I would happily have walked into Room 101 just to hear the end of it.

We are really very pleased, in a way, that the motion has been tabled. We in the Department are very sensitive people, and we felt that we had done something wrong as far as the right hon. Lady was concerned. She doesn't phone, she rarely writes, she asks few questions, and she seems to be unaware that we have laid statements. We thought somehow that she was not all that interested. So we are very pleased that she is now back in action, and is taking an interest in the Department. Admittedly it seemed a weird time for her to do so, given that the settlement is just a few days away, but then it occurred to me: she has a plan.

It is all about the business of the blank piece of paper. The right hon. Lady is actually going to write something down. She is going to give us some Labour policy. We are going to be told, in this debate- [Interruption.] I am optimistic. We are going to be told what percentage of cuts the right hon. Lady thinks reasonable. The Local Government Association has already given us a percentage. If the right hon. Lady-who spoke for hardly any time-wants to give us a percentage that she considers reasonable for the coming year, I will happily give way to her.

Mr Watts: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Pickles: I will happily give way for a trip down memory lane. What does the hon. Gentleman want to tell us about the 1980s?

Mr Watts: It is the 1960s that I want to talk about. The Secretary of State is trying to take us back to them. Can he explain why he is front-loading the cuts? Everyone knows that he is doing it because a general election is coming. [Hon. Members: "What?"] Well, he knows when the election will come. Can he tell us why he is front-loading the cuts? It is a simple question.

Mr Pickles: The hon. Gentleman may be wondering why he is sitting on that side of the House. We have had a general election. His party lost and we won, which is why we are on this side of the House. As for the front-loading- [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. The Secretary of State is not a notably softly spoken man, but I am having considerable trouble hearing him. He says that he is a gentle and sensitive soul; that is as may be, but I can normally hear him. There is so much noise in the Chamber that I cannot hear him now, and I want him to be heard.

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